In 1992, the Workers’ Party published a pamphlet: “Patterns of Betrayal: the flight from Socialism”1. The pamphlet details the events leading up to the split in the Workers’ Party, including several primary source documents.
The contemporary Left in Ireland is incredibly fragmentary. As we can see from other countries in Europe which have strong left parties, the primary determining factor is continuity of a prior strong left party generally coming from the communist tradition 2.
For this reason the decline in the Workers’ Party was a fairly momentus change in the ecology of the left in Ireland. It should be clear at this stage that despite the beliefs in some quarters that this would open the way to a healthier and broader left, the actual outcome was a very weak and dispersed left.
There is currently some talk circulating about refoundation of a left party in Ireland. It is impossible to take make a serious attempt at refoundation without fully understanding the DemLeft split. One need not be a supporter of the Workers’ Party to recognise that these problems can afflict any large left wing party and need to be carefully dealt with.
As with any crisis a precise beginning is impossible to determine, however the realisation that major changes were in the pipes came when De Rossa gave his 1989 Ard Fheis speech 3.
We must look ‘in-side’ as well
By looking inside I mean looking inside the house of socialism. It is a house build in many styles by different countries, it is a house of many mansions.
Recently I visited one of those ‘mansions’. The 18th Congress of the P.C.I. in Rome – a party with 1 1/2 million members, and support from almost 10 million Italians.
They are seeking in their own way to plot a new course for Italian society.
Whereas elsewhere in the speech, De Rossa makes reference to socialism, here, he is making reference to a political shift in the PCI (Italian Communist Party) which began in 1988, when Achille Occhetto became party leader. This political shift was known as the Svolta della Bolognina (the Bolognese Turn). Achille Occhetto would, later that same year with the fall of the Berlin Wall, claim that communist experience was over. Shortly afterwords the PCI was dissolved and a new party PDS (Partito Democratico della Sinistra or Democratic Party of the Left).
The parallels of the tale of The Democratic Left’s trajectory and this shift in the PCI are striking. De Rossa, and those around him attempted to dissolve and refound the Workers’ Party. De Rossa’s group included Des Geraghty, Eamonn Gilmore, John McManus, Pat Rabbitte and others. This group essentially came to be the leadership of the Labour party.
Expelling the Party
The decision to have a special Ard Fheis to reconstitute the Party has been represented by some critics as a panic measure by a parliamentary cabal who would be better off in the Labour Party or even the Progressive Democrats.
In retrospect this preface to the motion to reconstitute the party is quite ironic. De Rossa seeks to assuage fears by painting these claims of a rightward drift as ridiculous. Similar charges were made in a counter-argument to the proposal which were circulated by Sean Garland and John Lowry:
The De Rossa group have put forwards what on the surface appear to be good reasons for their actions.
What they fail to mention are the real reasons
1. Their aim to create a Social Democratic Parliamentary Party
2. To defect or merge with Labour Party.
3. To break with the Party in Northern Ireland which they see as an albatross around their electoral necks.
One Workers’ Party member mentioned to me in passing that they thought these claims were somewhat unrealistic at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, all of the charges appear amazingly prescient. Garland and Lowry were correct, that the ostensibly sensible re-evaluation of strategy and orientation was really just a pretext for liquidation.
The De Rossa group met over a period of time and planned the formation of their attempted transformation of the party which would include forcing all members to reapply for party membership. This would give them broad powers to expell large swaths of the party and to remove the “old guard”.
The pamphlet also states that they leaked information to the press to frame the debate as between a rigid old guard and a reform minded new and vital current. It’s also ironic that complains of “kitchen cabinets” where back-room arrangements are made to ensure the party direction amongst informal groups and a lack of serious democracy in the party was charged by the defectors. A strange charge indeed for a group that would later slowly close all avenues to democracy in the Labour party once they gained control.
The motion was not passed by the membership however, but it only failed by a very small margin, after which a split was assured.
The split involved the TDs walking away from the party to reform a new party, the Democratic Left. There were many sordid details in the split. Charges of money being stripped from bank accounts. Charges of secret bank accounts being held. Charges of the use of media contacts to smear the party.
In the end the outcome of the split was as it often is the party splits, each split gets only a fraction of the members, and many simply leave.
This was never as much of a problem for the Democratic Left. They had already diverted money to the formation of infrastructure for local constituency groups. They did not need a big party, as they could put together a very technocratic party whose constituency would be an assemblage of special interests in the hopes of having a constellation of demographic groups which would allow them to win elections.
Mass parties are of little use to “realists” whose main objective is to get elected. They simply end up creating a ball-and-chain which ties the representative to a demographic which is quite far from the electorate. A technocratic machine which can assemble votes is all that is required, if one has no real transformative politics.
The points in the conclusion of the pamphlet are also of interest. They mention some of the ideological positions which were used in the split:
The choice of sticks which the liquidators, especially the party’s six former TDs, picked to unsuccessfully beat the party to death with was ironic, but also very clever. The rejection of violence and militarism as means to an end, which had been rightly inculcated in the membership by the party for decades, was suddenly turned against those in the party who would not desert the red flag of clear, positive socialism for the white flag of political surrender.
Ironic indeed, and while the split may not have beaten the party to death, it certainly did put it on life-support.
The pamphlet also mentions De Rossa’s party leadership:
De Rossa took on the task of advancing the party with apparent great energy, but with little skill or political sensitivity plus a deviousness coupled with an impatience – encourage by those opportunistic TDs and some of the others who left – that would ultimately prove destructive. The facts are that the party began to falter internally and disastrously from the first year after De Rossa became party president in 1988.
The question of whether his leadership is skilful or not really calls to question what the intention of his leadership was. If it was to create a more electable party and remove any of the old guard either by completely changing the character of the party or splitting, it was arguably successful. However, the charge of impatience rings true. There was a significant impatience which was demonstrated by the almost euphoric high that came of such a large increase in success in electoralism. Despite obtaining good success, there was a feeling of a need for immediate changes to ensure further successes with very little attention paid to the manner in which this was done, or how the movement as a whole would fare.
The Structural Dimension
Whatever one thinks about the historic Workers’ Party, the problems which developed there in are of vital concern to any socialists which wish to engage at some level in parliamentary politics. There are a host of factors which can lead to problems.
Now, it would be unwise to attribute all of these problems to ones that could be solved directly by the Workers’ Party had they taken a different approach. The international dimension here is very important. 1989 was the announcement of the fall of the Berlin wall, and 1991 was the collapse of the Soviet Union. These dates correspond closely with the liquidation of the PCI, the split in the Workers Party, as well as splits and liquidations of numerous communist parties in the west.
Further there are allegations that leading members of the split had for some time maintained contact with US Embassy personell in Dublin and Belfast. The US state department has for a long time had a consistent strategy of attempting to woo important individuals in parties and social movements in order to make them more compliant and a careful eye has always to be kept out for this. These attempts to woo can involve trips to meet other activists elsewhere (often who have themselves been wooed) or simply galas and dinner parties.
Despite these international factors, there were more easily controllable factors which were allowed to get out of hand. Some of these involved too great a trust placed in certain people, inexperience with electoralism, the significant ties that the De Rossa group had with the media and a lack of attention to the structural pressures exerted on politicians.
In particular, there were very small subscriptions paid by members of the De Rossa cabal. This lead to an instance in which the TDs had significant financial resources at their disposal to create the kernel of a new organisation in advance of precipitating the split. Their own constituency organisations had been developed and they no longer needed the party which had gotten them elected.
The party by having 7 members in the Dail qualifies for group status, and the party, through the party president, is then entitled to approximately £8,500 per month. It is surely only logical and fair that this money shoudl be used to pay wages and help to clear off the debt which was incurred in getting TDs elected in the first place.
Let us put on record the contribution of TDs to the party centre. From his election as TD Tomas MacGiolla paid in to the party his full Dail monthly salary from which he received a weekly wage. Recently this changed and Tomas MacGiolla now makes a contribution of £250 per month.
P De Rossa makes a contribution of £250 per month which repays a loan he took out for the party some years ago, since his election as TD he has made a contribution of £50 a month. He has since being elected MEP transfered considerable money to the party centre from Europe, details of this were given to CEC meeting in August 1991.
Of the remaining TDs despite making promises to Sean Garland some years ago to make regular contributions to the centre it was not until late last year that Deputies Byrne and Rabbitte made a commitment to contribute a monthly sum of £75 each to the centre, that is £15.30 per week, less than the attendance allowance for one day. Deputy Sherlock has made a once-off yearly contribution of £600 which is £11.54 per week. Deputies McCartan and Gilmore despite making promises have not contributed anything to date.
Having been in an anarchist party in which significant contributions were a condition of party membership, this situation looks shockingly mismanaged.
The significant payment which TDs receive from the state gives them resources to develop individual constituent clinics. Indeed, it can be easy for TDs to claim that this is necessary for their re-election. However, this deprives the party of funds and enables the TDs to easily split from the party.
A better approach would be to do as many socialist parties do and pay out a standard industrial wage to the TDs from the party. This should be used to fund party clinics which help the party to develop a real collective contribution to improving the conditions of people in the various constituencies.
Of course there are technical difficulties with this since parties are not allowed to receive more than a certain contribution of funds from a single person. However, there are technical ways to deal with this problem pragmatically and parties like the Socialist Party (CWI) and Sinn Féin should be looked at carefully for examples.
If TDs run initially on a programme which demonstrates a party direction, rather than a patronage political approach then there does not have to be a contradiction between who should the TD should enjoy responsibility to, the constituents or the party. If the party runs the clinics with employees and volunteers of the party membership then some of these tensions can be eliminated.
This technique of running party clinics has been used by the KPÖ (Austrian Communist Party) in Graz to good effect 4, building a party which manages 20% of the vote.
This again is related to a lack of patience that was beginning to take hold in the party. There is a need to build a real idea of a party programme rather than simply have people elect a personable politician who promises them that pot-holes will be filled. If the effect of electoral politics is to mean anything, it must mean standing on a socialist platform with ameliorative reforms in the here and now which improve peoples lives by virtue of a collective and cooperative enterprise to do so. No individual politician no matter how well intentioned can change the structural dimension of the problems in Ireland. Indeed it will be hard enough to do so even with a majority in the Dáil.
Eurocommunism and Social Democracy
The pamphlet points to drift by the politicians towards social democracy. Clearly the idea of social democracy used here-in is not talking about the social democracy of Lenin, who himself identified as a Kautskyite (at least until 1914), the social democracy of Luxemburg or the social democracy of Kautsky, who never renounced the aim of socialism.
The term here is used to denote a rightward shift, abandoning socialism for mere market reforms. Essentially this means accepting the domination of capital over the entire productive sphere and all of the organisation of labour. The name comes from the namesake of the various social democratic parties of Europe, who have all decided to throw in the socialist towel and indeed stepped further than that into being accomplices to neo-liberalism. A look at the second international affiliates is a sorry list indeed: including the former Tunisian president (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) and former Egyptian president (Hosni Mubarak) and a current partner in the Colombian coalition (Colombian Liberal Party). It is in fact a completely unprincipled alliance largely structured around US hegemony.
There is also a sense (especially in the anglophone sphere) in which Eurocommunism is used in the same way. This dates back to the liquidationist Eurocommunist tendency which acted out a similar parallel evolution to those described in the PCI and WP in the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain). In the UK the liquidation ended in the reconstitution of some quite useless think tanks that drifted even further right over time. Everywhere that this liquidationist trend has taken hold, the left has been seriously wounded.
Yet there were also Eurocommunists of a very different bent. Those who rejected the liquidationist tendency in the PCI for instance, attempted to go on and form Refoundazione (which unfortunately had a collapse event later, but that is another story) but also many theorists who built up a body of eurocommunist thought including Gramsci, Poulantzas, Arghiri Emmanuel and others.
The orientation that they describe shares a number of core propositions with original social democracy (rather than the degenerate form of the Labour party). It sees the democratic road to reforms as fruitful while not losing sight of the end goal of socialism. While it rejects revolutionism a voluntarist and hyperactive approach to demanding immediate revolution, it does not reject revolution.
Instead it looks to a long and patient programme, of a long march through the institutions, building up productive alliances of working class institutions, of slowly winning the population over to support for socialism. In the event that ruptural conjunctures do occur, it is this strength of institutional bonds and the share aim that will allow success.
The Workers’ Party, come out of a republican tradition but adopted a largely Marxist outlook which was essentially eurocommunist. It had more than its share of problems coming from either of those two traditions, however it also shared many features with communist parties which are currently doing quite well such as the PCP, PCE, SYNASPISMOS and others. Whether or not they see themselves as being in the same tradition for historical reasons, there is a kinship of both strategy and aim. The fact that these currents are doing quite well elsewhere should make us ponder our own current situation.
We have a task ahead of us of trying to reconstitute a movement which is currently virtually non-existent in Ireland. We will have to take very careful analysis of both our past, and the past and present of those around us to find out our options for moving forward. This pamphlet is definitely worth a read for those who are seeking to do this.