Left Archive: Foreword and Paper One: Crunch Time for Socialist Politics – The Coffee Circle Papers – Papers and responses from the series of political forums organised during 1998 by Democratic Left December 10, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democratic Left, Irish Left Online Document Archive.
To download the above document please click on the following link:Introd and Paper 1
Many thanks to Catherine Murphy TD for donating this document to the Left Archive. Due to its length it will be posted up in individual sections over the next twelve months.
This document is unusual in respect of the Irish left in that it sought to challenge fairly directly the assumptions held by a political formation. That formation, Democratic Left, less than a decade old had recently left government after Fianna Fáil had won the 1997 General Election. It had also shed two seats from its complement of six TDs. As the Foreword, written by Prionsias De Rossa notes:
In late 1997, a number of DL members came together to organise a series of ‘Coffee Circles’. These were informal gatherings, held first in Bewley’s Oriental Café… in March 1998 when Bewley’s closed for refurbishment, we moved around the corner to Mao’s Café and, in the Summer, the last two Coffee Circle’s were held in the Dock Offices… in the heart of the International Financial Services Centre.
The idea was to provide a comfortable, congenial setting for discussing uncomfortable, contentious issues. Issues and problems that socialists everywhere, not just in Dublin (sic), were grappling with and seeking to resolve. They included some very fundamental issues for socialists facing into the 21st century. Like what relevance the concept of socialism has nowadays; what power the Left exerted, even in government to really change capitalism and the way it works; what links we have with other socialists, in other parts of the world and what help we can give each other. Also: what common interests do we have with other progressive movements and organisations in Ireland and elsewhere – the environmental lobby and the women’s movement, for example.
He also notes:
And if there were to be a ‘historic compromise’ between nationalism and unionism, involving the British and the Irish governments, would this fundamentally alter the face of Irish politics – and what would be the implications for all of us in Ireland.
Interestingly he notes the background to the discussions, and how there were both positive and negative attitudes to the experience of government before then shifting gears somewhat and admitting that while there was the intention to continue the discussions after they ended in July 1998 ‘a few other developments intervened’.
This he says was due to ‘Most of the ‘Coffee Circle’ organisers [being] involved, directly or indirectly, in the discussions about the need for a new political formation on the Left – discussions with the Labour Party and discussions within Democratic Left itself. So publication was delayed until early 1999.’
And by the time the discussions were published Democratic Left was no more and de Rossa was president of the Labour Party.
In that respect this and the accompanying documents are somewhat suspended in time with many of the suggestions applicable only to a smaller left of Labour political formation.
The first section, entitled Crunch Time for Socialist Politics, has the unwieldy subheading: Some clarity on Fundamentals: Our Values, Visions and Ethical Foundations, What Democratic Socialism Means Today, The Market: Malleable Monster or Uncontrollable Menace? There is a synopsis of a paper addressing the above by David Jacobson, a Lecturer in Economics in Dublin City University. There’s also a response by Feargus O’Raghaillaigh, a Financial Journalist and a Summary of discussion by Mary Maher, Journalist and NUJ member.
These submissions are quite lengthy, but it is worth noting that Jacobson takes a strongly democratic socialist line wherein he seeks to position his analysis leftwards of social democracy and rightwards of ‘Soviet-type’ economies which he posits were ‘arguably state capitalist systems’. And he argues quite strenuously that ‘what is generally taken as a social democratic [socio-economic] system is one in which there are no qualitative differences to liberal democracy. It is the question of degree of ‘correction’ by the state. In social democracy there is likely to be higher taxation of the wealthy, more redistribution, more public health services, higher unemployment benefit. There is little evidence of fundamental difference at the level of governance of markets or of individual firms’. He counterposes this with ‘Democratic socialism… [which] would see markets themselves subjugated to the interests of society’. He continues ‘If there is a qualitative difference between social democracy and democratic socialism, it is in the willingness to determine where and when such ‘free’ markets are not appropriate, where it is in the social interest for them to be controlled’. But most importantly he argues presciently that:
Unless there is evidence of a transformation of the Labour Party from social democratic to democratic socialist, there is, if anything, all the more reason today for the continued pursuit of socialist ends by an independent political party. If it is not Democratic Left, it is quite likely that some other party will fill the gap.
The response by Feargus O’Raghaillaigh is of interest in that he positions himself as a ‘communist’ and is somewhat scathing of both the terms ‘democratic socialist’ and the use of the word ‘socialist’ in this context. That said on a functional level he admits that:
I would stress that I do not believe my position is one that requires me to maintain my purity and distance from practical politics. I do believe in an agenda that has central to it getting back into government – if, realistically this is within a coalition framework or context. But more than that, I believe that the agenda for coalition needs to be coherent and implementation of a programme will take time. This I would stress is not the same as saying the agenda and its pursuit is ‘long-term’. My own view of coalition, given my little experience eof it, is that it is a framework for political progress, and also one that calls for calculation.
And he continues:
In all of this am I having my cake and eating it, calling myself communist but being a carpet-bagging compromiser? I do not think so because in the end, my project remains the delimiting and ending of private property, capital.
Mary Maher’s piece although considerably shorter is also of interest. In it she records the response from the audience to the papers where a very broad range of opinions are expressed.