League for a Workers’ Vanguard / Workers’ League – 1969 to c.1978 Commentary from The Irish Left Open History Project
6th January 2010
The League for a Workers’ Vanguard was formed in Belfast in 1969, later infiltrating the League for a Workers’ Republic and leading a breakaway group.
Dermot Whelan has the League for a Workers’ Vanguard as established in 1970 (see below). According to Paula Howard in Fortnight (22 February 1974), however, the group began publishing Vanguard: Journal of the League for a Workers’ Vanguard some time in 1969.
- Youth Bulletin, June 1971
- Youth Bulletin, August 1972
- Youth Bulletin, September 1972
- Workers’ League, Newsheet, 3 July 1976
There is a copy of the first issue of Vanguard in the Linen Hall library, Belfast, and although it is undated, it references an Ulster Loyalist Association rally at which William Craig asked ‘what sort of absurdity is this peace line when the forces of law and order cannot go into certain places.’Vanguard gives the date of the rally – 27 September – but not the year. However, these words were spoken by Craig at a rally outside City Hall, Belfast on Saturday, 27 September 1969.
The address for the editor of Vanguard was given as 2 Josephine Street, Belfast. In 1971, the address was given as 35 Howard Street, Belfast.
The League for a Workers’ Vanguard was pro-Healyite and apparently little more than a Socialist Labour League (SLL) front. The SLL had branches in Derry, Belfast and Dublin.
John Throne of Militant talks about meeting an SLL member in Derry in the late 1960s, while another source says that SLL activist George Craig was in Harland and Wolff in the 1960s. However, the League for a Workers’ Vanguard was the first real attempt by the SLL to organise an independent organisation in Ireland.
According to Dermot Whelan in his pamphlet, The Socialist Labour League and Irish Marxism:
In 1969 the League for a Workers’ Republic wrote to the International Committee [of the Fourth International], asking for a discussion, which resulted in Cliff Slaughter ‘s visit to Ireland in October of that year. To this meeting were invited the SLL’s branches in Ireland and the League for a Workers’ Republic, who had by this time built up a strong youth movement in Dublin, as well as a basis of support around certain layers in the Irish Labour Party…
The most significant thing about Slaughter’s meeting was that, for the first time, the SLL proposed the setting up of an Irish section of the International Committee. The real reason for this change of position became clear only three years later. It was not motivated by a desire to build an independent, healthy movement of the Fourth International at all. What it wanted was a factional ally, an extra vote, who could be used against the French in the internal struggle in the Executive of the International Committee…
Although the SLL acceded to the LWR’s request for a period of further study before agreeing to join the International Committee, they immediately organised a secret faction in early 1970, composed of students, who split from the LWR, before discussion had concluded, in May 1970…
The immediate task of the Irish section was, for G. Healy, the building of a strong youth movement. This is, of course, a key to the building of the Bolshevik Party itself. Healy, however, saw it as a substitute for the party. This is why in early 1970 he issued an ultimatum to Jack Vance, George Craig and Freddie Campbell, the Belfast Protestant militants who led the section, that, unless a big youth movement was built quickly, he, Healy, would split with them…
Such activities manifested in the organisation of dances, film series, meetings and sport, drew in large forces around the Irish Young Socialists [the League for a Workers’ Vanguard youth section], first in the North in late 1970, and then, in the South, in early and middle 1971, from whom a nucleus of important cadres were won. This was done at the expense a) of the adult movement, whose paper ‘Vanguard’ was dropped, and where the production of a theoretical magazine was continually put off, because the Irish Young Socialists’ work absorbed all its time, and b) the Irish Young Socialist itself, where political education was confined to a few classes and a series of public lectures given by Healy in late 1970 and 1971.
Whelan also writes that the entire SLL leadership in Belfast left the organisation in early 1971, in disillusionment, and that the leader of the Irish Young Socialists at the time was a man called David Fry.
From 1970 to 1972, the Irish Young Socialists published Youth Bulletin, which in 1972 was incorporated into Workers’ Struggle.
In 1972, with the split in the International Committee of the Fourth International, the League for a Workers’ Vanguard changed its name to Workers’ League.
Towards the end of 1974 the Workers League began publication of Marxist Journal: Theoretical Paper of the Workers’ League. There are two copies of the journal in the National Library of Ireland: Vol.1 No.2, February 1975 (4B 1762), and Vol.1 No.4, October 1975 (1K 1376). Initially, Marxist Journal was intended as a bi-monthly publication, but in October it went monthly.
There were three contact addresses listed:
- Workers’ League, c/o Bulletin Publications, 55 Lower O’Connell Street, Dublin
- W. White, 47 Leenan Gardens, Derry
- F. Quigley, 3A Thornhill Court, Twinbrook, Belfast
The main address for correspondence was the Dublin address.
Marxist Journal argued that theory is not an abstraction, but a necessary tool in the fight against capitalism. The bourgeois is constantly bombarding the working classes with its ideological falsities – indeed, it is one of the ways it keeps a hold over the working classes – and as such it is not enough to do something to combat the bourgeois, to go on marches or strike or protest, one also has to think with clarity and precision as well. And this clarity and precision can be provided only by Marxist theory – correct Marxist theory – for if it is not correct the conclusions will be false, and bourgeois ideology will be left unopposed in its task of infecting and docilizing the working class.
This leaves Marxist revolutionaries – proper Marxist revolutionaries – with three fronts to fight:
- Against the concrete forces of Capitalism
- Against bourgeois ideology
- Against false Marxism (revisionism)
False Marxism is proliferated not only by the Stalinist Communist parties, but also by Trotskyist groups who are not members of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). The following quote is from the February 1975 editorial of Marxist Journal:
Today, the struggle for Marxist theory can be fought not as an abstraction, but as the necessary ideological training, which alone will equip workers to fight back against capitalism, and to win.
This struggle for theory can only take place inside the context of the concrete struggle to win those forces who are being pushed forward by the crisis, and who are breaking from the policies of class collaboration and reformism.
Capitalism rules primarily by transmitting its bourgeois and reactionary ideology into the working class. Those who refuse to struggle for Marxist theory, in opposition to the prevailing bourgeois consciousness in society and in the working class, end up on the same side as imperialism, in opposition to the working class.
In Britain in the struggle to free the Shrewsbury building pickets jailed by the Tories under an obscure law, the Stalinists and the Revisionist IS [International Socialists] and IMG [International Marxist Group] the Wigan to London march supported by the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. They have betrayed their anti-Marxism in practice and have lined up with the reformist bureaucracy against the workers.”
In terms of one particular aspect of Irish Marxism – its republican strand – the editorial had this to say:
The revisionists who suggest that it is possible to reconcile Marxism and Republicanism play a most dangerous role. The lessons of the betrayals of the Officials and Provisionals prove that there can be no compromise between Republicanism and Marxism… The struggle for the materialist world outlook by this magazine, is the only way to ensure the victory of the working class. It is essential that this journal becomes the rallying centre for those forces who are now breaking from republicanism, and for those workers who are prepared to fight to prevent the working class being made into slaves.”
The October 1975 edition of Marxist Journal saw the Workers’ League continue to engage with theory as a method of defeating capitalism and countering false consciousness. In a catechism of Marxist thought entitled Science and Materialism Part 1: Fundamentals of Materialism, the group asked ‘Is Marxism compatible with the results of modern nuclear physics?’ Having asked the question, the group provided the following answer:
Modern nuclear theories are a rich confirmation of Marxism, not simply because atoms and particles exist and can be irrefutably proved to exist, but because Marxism insisted that these fundamental building blocks of matter, could not be hard little brilliant balls, but must interact and be transformed into the other in a constant process of change. Nuclear physics has shown that these particles in each family can be represented as different states of the same particle and that the difference in these particles is relative. The particles in these difference familiars interact between themselves according to laws which physics is beginning to unravel. The exact form these laws take is not predetermined by a Marxist scheme but these laws enrich our materialist conception of the world and thereby Marxism and revolutionary science.”
The October 1975 edition also carried a statement by the Central Committee of the Workers League, entitled Withdraw the Troops! Form Workers’ Defence Guards! Build the Revolutionary Party in Ireland and Britain. It argued that British imperialism, the British army, and Loyalist organisations, were working in tandem to create a civil war in Ulster.
Through a series of sectarian assassinations and provocations it intends to inflame the situation to a point where pogroms and armed attacks are carried out on Catholic working class areas culminating eventually in a Loyalist regime which will impose fascist-type rule on all sections of the working class.
The statement goes on to place Ulster, and the events in Ulster, within the context of events in British capitalism, ‘as it reels under the twin blows of the world economic crisis and the movement of the working class.’
The statement said that the events in Ulster were being used by British capitalism to smash the power of the British working class. This is a crucial point in the Workers’ League’s approach to Ireland, which saw Ireland, more times than not, in terms of its effect on Britain. In June 1974 the Central Committee issued a statement which summed up this analysis.
History has shown that when the British ruling class has been pushed back in Ireland and Britain it has turned to the Protestant bourgeoisie and has prepared to use its ideology and its hold on the working class and backward workers as a battering ram to break all opposition in both countries. Craig, Paisley and West would not stop in the North nor with an assault on Catholic workers alone. Their purpose is to smash the entire working class in both Ireland and Britain. The Convention is a total farce and is only a curtain for a projected loyalist take-over.
The Central Committee rejected Republicanism and Loyalism, adding that:
the only ally of the Catholic worker is the Protestant worker. Similarly, the only ally of the Irish worker is the British worker. In the North, the South and in Britain the strength of the working class and its refusal to accept the effects of the crisis is the dominant factor. What the bourgeoisie fear above all else is the prospect of this great strength being welded together and united around a socialist programme. As they work desperately to maintain the divisions,they are helped by all the reformist, republican, Stalinist and revisionist leaderships in the working class. Only the Workers’ League and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party can offer a programme which cuts through religious and national divisions and unite workers along class lines.
Having rejected Republicanism as bourgeois and revisionist, the Central Committee then went on to argue the following:
In the struggle for unity between all workers in Ireland, particularly between workers in the North and the South, it is essential that a firm stand be taken against partition. The border was introduced to divide the working class, and to head off developments towards socialist revolution that were taking place in 1918-1921. In closing ranks to defend their rights Irish workers must do away with the border. The struggle to defend living standards and democratic rights can only be achieved by throwing off the yoke of imperialism and setting up an independent workers and small farmers government based on nationalised industry and a planned economy… fight fascism and repression. Build a workers’ militia now, based on class organisations like trade unions and tenant associations, to protect housing estates, factories and workers going to and from work. [We demand] the immediate withdrawal of the British army and the disbandment of the R.U.C., “C” Specials and U.D.R. Proscribe all Loyalist and fascist factions within the unions.
Finally, having gained independence, smashed the border and Loyalism, the R.U.C. and the British army in Ulster, and by having done so, somehow rejected Republicanism, Ireland’s future would be secured by the formation of a workers and small farmers government as part of a United Socialist States of Europe.
According to Wikipedia , the Workers’ League was ‘moribund’ by 1978.
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By: Jim Monaghan Wed, 06 Jan 2010 11:15:02
David Fry was a Trinity College student in 1971, family lived in Terenure. He died of MS obviously a tragedy.When I met him prior to the split in the LWR he was active in Trinitys Socialist Society.
The group was formed by original SLL people in the North and a split from the LWR. Craig was an official later with the ATGWU according to a friend of mine.
The LWR splitters were Demot Whelan who ended up in SF, Ken Quinn later an official with the Workers Union, myself and 2 others.
It was a total irrelevance to politics in Ireland, a cul de sac. To give an example at the same period the Socialist Labour Alliance was where the left was in the Labour Party. Browne and Merrigan were the leaders. There was a great ferment and huge debates. One debate which saw the LWR pitted against those who would form the Revolutionary Marxist Group was a proposal to rename the SLA, a Socialist Republican Alliance. An echo of where to put the national struggle.Real debates on real issues.
The LWV later Workers League had nothing to say or add to this debate. We were too busy selling out of date issues of Workers Press from Britain and persuading young people to go to the SLLs Summer camp.At one camp time and effort was spent persuading young peopel from Crumlin to get rid of their long hair as it was studenty. These were our real workers.
I asked Healy where he saw the Republican movement and his answer was a vulgar reference to a body part. Later Fry refused to sell me a subscription to the paper because I gave a positive analysis of the Republican movement.
I subsequently joined the Officials who whatever ther faults and even their trajectory lived in the real world.
I would say that their analysis of the National Struggle and Republicanism was fairly crude. See a pamphlet by Jack Gale on it.
Miliatnt had has a similar approach to the national struggle but they at least are fairly civilised.
The SLL in Britain attracted a lot of intellectuals like Peter Fryer as well as say like the Redgraves( I had used a word for them but I am told they are litigious).Generally they turned over members very quickly. They used socials to attract people around them. There is a legend, maybe true that Lennon and the Quarrymen played at an SLL function.
There were earlier SLL supporters in Ireland.Brian Behan although based in Britain had a few friends in Dublin who were in the SLL and who followed him out.Lysaght knew their names.
The SLL and allies had a messianic attitude to marxism.They were the one true church others were revisionist etc. In fact they would say that the existence of other tendencies ( mostly described as Pabloites, after a former Secretary of the Fourth International) were puppets of either the CIA or KGB to mislead workers away from the true party/religion.This messianic attitude probably paralleled Catholicism with its one true faith.There is a dedication in the ABC of Communism by Bukharin and Peobachensky with a similar theme.The idea that any tendency with a straight face can claim an unbroken apostolic succession from Marx, Lenin, Trotsky (or Mao) is a joke.There is always something we can learn from each other and anyone who thinks a revolution will be lead by an organic growth from any existing group are for the birds.
I have to say there are many things in my life where I cringe with embarrassment at what I said or did( mainly about rudeness and rubbing people up the wrong way) but none so bad as the waste of time and effort I put into the SLL.
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By: Conor McCabe Wed, 06 Jan 2010 17:58:12
Thanks for the information Jim, very helpful.
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By: Alan MacSimoin Wed, 06 Jan 2010 18:55:27
There may have been an attempt to get the WL going again in 1982. When the Peoples March for Decent Jobs (a Cork to Dublin protest) arrived at the Clondalkin Paper Mills occupation, I’m fairly sure I remember a poster advertising a Workers League public meeting in Clondalkin village.
And last year I spotted a little poster advertising a British WRP meeting in the YMCA on Dublin’s Aungier Street. I guess nobody showed up as nothing further was heard of them. Sensible Dubs!
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By: Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen (und nicht so radikalen) Linken « Entdinglichung Mon, 11 Jan 2010 13:04:53
[…] Irish Woman’s Right to Choose Group: Abortion A choice for Irish Women (1981) * League for a Workers’ Vanguard / Workers’ League – 1969 to c.1978 (1969-1978) * […]
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By: Left Archive: Revolution, Republicanism and Religion: An examination of the republic response to clerical attacks. Workers League c. late 1970s « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Sun, 15 Aug 2010 23:21:05
[…] Workers League has been dealt with in a posting here in the Irish Online Left HIstory project. Suffice it to say that it originated in the Trotskyist ‘League for a Workers […]
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By: Shoshana34V285.Soup.io Thu, 10 Aug 2017 07:22:59
Irish Left Open History Project: League for a Workers’ Vanguard / Workers’ League – 1969 to c.1978 | The Cedar Lounge Revolution
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By: Jim Monaghan Thu, 26 Jul 2018 13:24:56
Dermot Whelan in his pamphlet, The Socialist Labour League and Irish Marxism, https://www.scribd.com/document/14168708/WRPIrish6 Link up above does not work.
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