29th October 2009
The Irish Workers Group (IWG) was formed sometime around the end of 1975 following a series of expulsions that year from the Socialist Workers Movement (SWM). In 1977 the IWG produced Class Struggle, a theoretical journal of which twenty issues were produced over the next ten years.
In the first issue of Class Struggle (June 1977), the IWG said that there were two issues which led its current members to break from the SWM
- The North
It claimed that the SWM ‘held positions which effectively reduced the national question to a subordinate role in the programme and strategy for the Irish working class socialist revolution [and reduced] the emancipation of women from both exploitation and oppression to a side issue better left to pressure groups and liberals.’ (p.5)
The group ‘argued for the centrality of the national question and for systematic propaganda, agitation and intervention, in particular the building of united fronts within the anti-unionist population. In this context we saw and still see the importance of raising particular demands on the SDLP as a means of drawing larger sections of anti-unionist workers into the struggle and breaking the hold of the SDLP.’ (p.5)
With regard to women, ‘the left opposition not only won the membership of the SWM to see the strategic necessity of the demands for contraception and abortion on demand but fought for them to be taken up within the Irish working class – as an aspect of this we called for the building of a mass working class women’s movement as a strategic imperative for the group and for the class.’ (p.5)
The struggle against British rule in the North was a struggle against imperialism, and as such deserving of support from socialist groups. This did not mean that the IWG supported the Provisional IRA as such, and certainly not Provisional Sinn Féin – however, while it was able to criticize ‘the petty-bourgeois nature of the Provos’ and their ‘mealy-mouthed catholic nationalist rhetoric’, at the same time, and in the same opinion piece, it voiced support for the Provisional IRA hunger strikers in Portlaoise Jail who were ‘anti-imperialist political prisoners, members of an organisation which has never baulked at the use of violence in furthering the struggle.’ (p.2) It saw the volunteers as anti-imperialist fighters, while the organisation to which those fighters swore allegiance was petty-bourgeois.
The IWG believed in an anti-imperialist united front, and laid out what it considered as the revolutionary perspective inherent to any such front:
- Drawing the anti-unionist working class as a class to the forefront of the struggle in the North
- The development of an anti-unionist armed front of workers, socialists and republicans
- Mobilization for a general strike
- The emergence of soviets
- The demand for a workers’ republic
According to the IWG the united front was a tactic, ‘adopted by revolutionary Marxists when:
(i) objectively the most pressing needs of the masses can only be defended by united mass action, and
(ii) subjectively, the masses remain under the leadership, programmes, organisation and methods of forces which are not revolutionary forces and are obstacles to both the defense of immediate interests and to the long-term needs and development of the struggle for a workers’ republic.’
Furthermore, the united front was ‘a method by which both aims – uniting the masses on the most important issues facing them, and exposing the false solutions of non-Marxists – can be achieved under the leadership of revolutionary Marxists and their programme.’
Under such an analysis, it was imperative for revolutionary Marxists to oppose those false Marxists who were impediments to revolution. A read through the pages of Class Struggle gives one the impression that the entire Irish left – with the notable exception of the IWG and Provisional IRA rank-and-file members – were false Marxists or reformists, and as such had to be challenged lest they lead the masses astray.
It had small branches in Derry, Galway and Dublin, and members included Andy Johnston, Eddie McWilliams, Jim Larragy, Siobhán Molloy, Brian Parsons and Matt Doherty. In 1977 it alligned itself to the Socialist Labour Party, but the relationship did not last long.
Class Struggle continued to be published until the 1990s.
In 1987 the IWG re-launched Class Struggle as ‘a fighting paper’, with an expanded analysis of its members’ expulsions from the SWM, The article is reproduced in full below.
The main points of the 1987 expulsion article were:
- The SWM believed that the Soviet Union was State Capitalist, not a degenerated Workers’ State
- There was a failure within the SWM to link economic class struggle with political class struggle
- The SWM failed to oppose the sending in of troops in 1969.
- The SWM failed to recognize the importance of the national question for the working class as a whole.
- It failed to link the women’s movement to the issue of class struggle, preferring to leave women’s rights to cross-class organisations
- The 1974 revolution in Portugal showed up the SWM’s lack of commitment to Lenin and Trotsky’s internationalist method.
An alternative view of the expulsions, one from inside the SWM, is available via the John Goodwillie deposit in the Irish Labour History Society Museum, Beggars Bush, Dublin, and the document is also reproduced below in full as a counter to the IWG analysis (1977 and 1987).
Along with Class Struggle, the IWG also published, or had a hand in publishing the following: Workers Power/Irish Workers Group, The Degenerated Revolution: The origins and nature of the Stalinist states (Dublin, 1982) Andy Johnston, James Larragy, Edward McWilliams, Connolly: a Marxist analysis (Dublin, 1990)
For many years the address of the Irish Workers Group was: 12 Langrishe Place, Dublin 1.
Irish Workers Group: Where We Come From (From Class Struggle, No.1, Oct 1987, p.2)
Only through a political struggle which began more than a decade ago has the IWG arrived at this new stage of producing a fighting paper. That struggle began inside the Socialist Workers Movement in 1975, from which the founders of the IWG were expelled. The issues at stake between the IWG and the SWM then remain at the heart of the problems now facing any group committed to building a revolutionary socialist party in Ireland.
The SWM had been built among left-wing activists who split from the Labour Party in disillusion in 1971. They were won to the politics of the International Socialists, a ex-Trotskyist current which had grown strongly in Britain. This economistic current had a sectarian attitude to Labour parties and a belief that spontaneous economic struggles of workers would of themselves lead to socialist revolution. This reduced the party to a role of trailing behind workers’ struggles.
They were generally opposed to British rule in the Six Counties but had failed to oppose the sending in of troops in 1969!
In relation to the world situation they argued, conveniently, that the USSR did not have to be defended in any way among workers because this, the first Workers’ State had supposedly become a new form of capitalism. This ‘theory’ had emerged in response to the pressure on the working class of Cold War anti-communism in the west. It was just such political adaptations to alien pressures, among socialists who still believed in revolution, that placed them, in Trotsky’s words, ‘in the middle of the road’, as centrists wavering between reform and revolution.
Taking up these ideas the SWM in Ireland developed a strong commitment to the rank and file wage struggles of workers. They argued in relation to the north that the working class would ultimately solve the national question by ending capitalism.
But events soon proved the SWM’s practical politics to be very threadbare indeed. The sharp new recession from 1973 onwards, with mass redundancies, inflation raging at 25% and the establishment of no-strike national wage agreements, made it increasingly useless to simply cheerlead the wage struggles of strong trade union sections. Tactics for the class as a whole needed to be fought for which would link economic struggle for workers’ power in society, but SWM rejected this, the very method which has been fundamental to Leninism and Trotskyism in this century.
Nor did SWM recognize the concrete importance of the national struggle for the working class as a whole. The stalemate in the north after 1972 and the deepening reaction throughout the country posed the need for worked-out united front tactics among socialists and workers towards the parties that dominated nationalist workers.
In the same period a women’s movement began to demand the right to contraception and sexual independence. SWM left these questions to the cross-class feminist alliance, preferring to deal with the “class issues” of economic struggles. (When they did later get involved it was without a coherent strategy or tactics to link the issue to the class struggle.)
The 1974 revolution in Portugal raised serious questions in the SWM about internationalism. They declared themselves opposed to attempts to build a new World Party of Socialist Revolution until after mass national parties had first been built in several countries. In this they were diametrically opposed to both Trotsky and Lenin’s internationalist method.
Those in the SWM who later formed the IWG were expelled in 1975 for systematically raising these criticisms internally. What was at stake was how workers’ struggles around immediate issues are to be connected to the fight for political power; what concrete tactics socialists must use to actually bring the working class to the lead of the national struggle; how women’s liberation is to be fought for; and how socialists must combine the building of an International with the building of revolutionary socialist mass parties in each country.
The political struggle against the kind of centrist politics seen in the SWM was continued and broadened with the launching of the IWG theoretical journal Class Struggle in 1977. Twenty issues were published over the next decade, but this was only one aspect of our work in Ireland and internationally.
The IWG was active among shop stewards and anti-repression groups in that period and played a major role in pushing to the left the new Socialist Labour Party. The IWG was expelled from the SLP for pressing the issues of support for the H-Block prisoners and for refusing to hide the support for abortion rights which the SLP conference had adopted democratically in 1978 thanks to IWG’s struggle in it.
The IWG continued open political work in the H-Block campaign and in many lesser but important struggles wherever our small resources could be deployed in intervene with our politics among workers, women, anti-imperialists and students.
A major emphasis was put upon analysis and critique of existing ideas, theories and traditions in the Irish working class and revolutionary nationalist movements. This resulted in the series of eight in-depth features on the Connolly tradition published in Class Struggle nos.13 to 20.
Through that long and slow period of development the IWG has succeeded in staking out the political basis, for addressing the tasks facing socialists in Ireland.
It was a struggle which put first the key questions of programme as the precondition for beginning to build the fighting party of socialist revolution so desperately needed by the working class and oppressed today.
It would have been easier but in the long run worthless to have mimicked the recruitment opportunism of the ‘far left’ groups such as SWM and Militant Tendency, Peoples Democracy and League for a Workers Republic whose methods have ultimately meant political decay for them rather than programmatic advance. Despite the scores of new members won by Militant and SWM, they have lost as many again, like revolving doors, but have registered no real advance in their politics towards a genuine revolutionary Marxist alternative to Labourism, Stalinism or Irish Republicanism.
The IWG has consciously carried out its work from the very start in international collaboration with Workers Power in Britain in the knowledge that only an attempt to develop our politics in this way could overcome the political distortions of separate national groups. For us the building of a new Leninist and Trotskyist International in the present period has always been a goal of our struggle.
Towards this end, we have now linked together several groups across the continent, with sympathizers in two other continents, into a new Leninist and Trotskyist grouping – the Movement for a Revolutionary Communist International. It is but the first step along a road on which we fight to regroup in a new International the tens of thousands of revolutionaries internationally who, though politically organised are trapped in the confusions of centrist politics.
It has been in this international framework that many of the major gains of our political programme have been worked out and fought for. These include major statements on the Stalinist states, post-war Trotskyism, the reformist parties, Poland, South Africa, Gorbachev, elections, united fronts, etc.
Together these form a powerful armory for our international movement. They are a firm foundation for taking the next steps in building the nucleus of a new International and simultaneously building its sections in each country and in Ireland.
This we fight to do by recruiting to our politics from among the most advanced militants, among trade unionists and unemployed, women activists, youth, fighters against imperialism, and fighters against lesbian and gay oppression.
The IWG argues for joint action on concrete issues, among activists of all political tendencies who are prepared to struggle together with us. We simultaneously fight for the most open, frank and democratic debate on the political issues that divide the left and which are key to revolutionary re-groupment in the period ahead.
On this open and honest basis we appeal to all who sympathize with our objectives to contact us, discuss with us, work with us, and if persuaded by our politics join us. Take up the fight to build a party that can lead to success the struggles of workers and the oppressed against capitalism and imperialism, against all kinds of oppression – national, sexual, racial – and against the Stalinist bureaucracy which oppresses the workers of the so-called communist countries where capitalism has been abolished but where workers’ democracy is denied.
The Split (Irish Labour History Archive, John Goodwillie Papers, 92/2/36. N.D. but c.1977)
Eddie McWilliams and Andy Johnston were admitted into the SWM as candidate members by the National Committee on 13 January 1974. Both were then lecturing in Stanmills College of Education, Belfast. Andy Johnston was a former member of Sinn Féin (Officials). He has said that he was influenced by Eddie McWilliams to join the SWM.
Eddie McWilliams had a long political background, most recently in the International Socialists (Great Britain), where he belonged to the ‘Left’ groupings. The most recent of such groupings was the Left Faction, which has just been called to disband by the Central Committee [ed. Note: this occurred in 1977].
At the last conference of I.S. ‘the Left Faction called for a programme for building a more independent rank and file movement, for abstention on the Common Market, for a working class cost of living index with £1 increases for one per cent rise in the cost of living, against women’s work concentrating on women’s issues, for more commitment to the Irish Question and the Troops Out Movement’ (report of fraternal delegate, conference document, ‘Thirty theses and other slanders – a reply’, internal bulletin 26, pt,2), the two say: “I.S. Left Faction: comrade McWilliams was a member of this faction. He still shares a great deal of their political objections to I.S.”
The two were present at the SWM National Conference on 2/3 February 1974, where they exhibited sectarian opposition to Duncan Hallas, fraternal delegate from I.S. Nevertheless they were admitted as full members by the National Committee on 24 March, after they had assured BT [Brian Trench], delegated to interview them, that they had no fundamental differences with the SWM. Despite this assurance, Eddie McWilliams said at the meeting in Galway to hear his defense on 18 October 1975 that they had difference from the moment they [entered], and that at the time they entered they wanted to change the organisation. However at the National Conference on 25 October he said that they had no fixed ideas on joining the organisation.
From their subsequent behavior, it seems that they had very fixed ideas. They began to show difference on the question of the united front at the National Committee on 26 May 1974 (two months after joining), when Andy Johnston said the SDLP should be considered in the context of united front tactics. Siobhán Molloy proposed the putting of demands on the SDLP at the National Committee of 21 July 1974, and a special meeting was called for September. Despite sharp arguments at the meeting, their resolution to the November 1974 conference concentrated on the South. Their emphasis on the united front has been based on a belief in the imminence of civil war, which the majority does not share. It further under-estimated completely the importance of building the SWM as an independent organisation.
Eddie McWilliams contributed an article ‘National question and SWM – need for a programme’ to Internal Bulletin No.16 (produced probably in June 1974, i.e. three months after joining) proposing the drawing up of a programme. The majority position of the organisation had always been that, because of the unity of theory and practice, a correct programme could not be written except by assessing further practical experience in the working class movement, and that the way towards a programme lay in the production of policy documents such as Industry and the Trade Unions (1973), The Working Class and the National Question (1974) and simultaneous involvement in the working class movement. The programme was raised again at the November 1974 conference, and again at the May 1975 conference.
already at this stage, hints of a faction were seen: this article includes the wording: “We believe that the disaster of our strategy on the national question and the N.C’s complacency…” etc, a similar use of the word “we” and a similar use of “our” to denote an argument against the majority.
Eddie McWilliams produced a document for the educational conference on 15/16 June 1974 (Marx & Engels on the National question) which appeared to take a line closer to the RMG [Revolutionary Marxist Group] than the SWM: ‘In the epoch of imperialism only a national revolution which takes up the tasks of the social revolution can release the hold of Britain over Ireland… It is within the national struggle that the working class must achieve leadership.’ The SWM position is: ‘we take the struggle for the emancipation of the working class as our starting point. In that struggle the working class will have to solve the national question… Only when the questions of national unity and independence are posed as class questions can the working class be united, and Irish capitalism be overthrown along with the forces of capitalism.’ (The Working Class and the National Question).
Under the influence of Eddie McWilliams and Andy Johnston, Siobhán Molloy (candidate member June 1974, full member July 1974), Brian Parsons (candidate member September 1974, returned to England December 1974), and Jim Larragy (candidate member January 1975, full member February 1975) were recruited; these people showed by the way they spoke that they had been recruited to factional politics and not to the SWM’s politics.
The argument for a sliding scale of wages (£1 for one per cent with involvement of working class women in drawing up a cost of living index) was first put forward by Eddie McWilliams at the National Conference on 21 July 1974, again at the National Conference of November 1974, again at the National Conference of May 1975.
Breaches of democratic centralism began at the Belfast weekend school in July 1974 when the three people then involved put forward their own views on the national question and on abortion, attacking the SWM in front of a non-member. In October 1974 Eddie McWilliams produced a Derry bulletin which departed from SWM policy on several points: as a result he was forbidden to issue further public statements without clearing them with the standing committee: he submitted no statements, although several were promised, e.g. on shirt industry, milk strike. A joint leaflet with the IRSP on Molins was not submitted before or after publication. The non-existent Derry “branch” was not frozen: it was simply asked to adhere to SWM policies.
In a document in Internal Bulletin no.22, Eddie McWilliams proposed that we ‘adopt the task of building a new international with urgency.’ The organization’s view has been that a new international cannot be build in the absence of mass working-class parties.
These points of difference show consistent opposition to the majority, fundamental position of the SWM. There is no question, therefore, of a fight between two small factions. The opposition group have tried to change the fundamental policies on which the SWM was founded. That was their right, of course, but they never accepted defeat and worked as loyal members of the organisation.
The common thread to most of these issues is that the opposition group’s positions hark back to the sectarian dogmatic traditions of orthodox Trotskyism (RMG, LWR, WL, etc) which the SWM was set up to oppose. They do not go the whole way to orthodox Trotskyism, but in the range of their opposition to the SWM and in their style of arguing they place themselves outside the SWM’s line of approach, which is to recognize the inheritance of the Trotskyist tradition – specifically the orientation towards building within the working class, the internationalism, the anti-Stalinism, to reject the six Fourth Internationals which have in part broken with this, and instead to learn from the changes which have taken place in capitalism and the real activities of the working class.
Eddie McWilliams and Siobhán Molloy were suspended from the SWM in June 1975 for:
‘Consistently advocating a line different in principle from SWM.’ In their defense (internal bulletin 26, part two) they admitted they differed on ‘issues as diverse as the programme, the Northern state and strategy, women, leftism, Economism, the United Front, small factions, students, etc.’ It is clear that there was little on which they agreed with the SWM’s politics.
‘Continual disruption of conferences and NC meetings through insistence on bringing forward their proposals time and time again, thus preventing the organisation learning from its own experience.’ It was not simply a matter of long speeches, interruptions, incomprehensible articles in the Internal Bulletin. It was also a question of paralyzing the SWM, so that we could not have a reasoned discussion of future strategy, and we would hesitate to recruit workers to such an organisation. The methods of carefully-picked quotations and harsh polemics came from orthodox Trotskyism. On some questions, the difference between them and us was one of timing. We all agree that issues like abortion, small farmers, students are important. They insisted that we discuss them immediately and raise them immediately in the trade union movement. We say, first build a rank and file movement in which they can be raised, and let’s discuss how to build it. They said it is urgent to build a united front; we said it is impossible to build a united front until mass organisations are willing to join.
‘Breaches of democratic centralism, i.e. bringing their political differences outside the organisation.’ In addition to the incidents already mentioned, there were a number of other reports which led to this conclusion and which are familiar to those who took part in the discussions. One additional point: Eddie McWilliams said that he had ‘stated to the IRSP we did not believe I.S. is other than formally democratic centralist’ (June NC minutes in Internal Bulletin, no.24). The SWM has not adopted this position. Public criticism of fraternal organisations could only be on the basis of agreed positions.
At the suspension National Committee, a letter was read from the I.S. fraternal delegates to the previous conference advocating breaking with the opposition group. Like all advice from fraternal organisations, the National Committee was free to accept or reject it. The SWM has likewise expressed views to fraternal organisations (I.S. and P.R.P.) which they are free to accept or reject.
As there were no procedures laid down dealing with the rights of suspended members, the National Committee in July 1975 gave the suspended members the right to send documents [of up to] 2000 words for the internal bulletin, the right […damaged text…] if branches wished to hear them, and the right to […damaged text…] conference. Neither suspended member sent a document of this type, but Eddie McWilliams wrote jointly with Andy Johnston (who was still a member) a 16,000 word document. Only the Dublin and Galway branches invited the suspended members to speak; Eddie McWilliams addressed the Galway branch but was unable to speak to the Dublin branch.
The National Committee called a national conference at the first available opportunity after all members had returned after the summer. Under the constitution the expulsions had to be resolved at the first conference held. Supporters of the suspended members circulated a petition calling for a special conference to discuss the expulsions. They claimed that nine signatures had been obtained. However, this did not amount to a third of the members as are necessary to call a special conference. The petition was never handed in. In discussion at the September national committee, it became clear that they were not asking for a special conference in addition to the already summoned national conference, but they wanted a national conference with a different agenda. There could be no question of allowing a minority of the members to dictate the agenda of a national conference.
Andy Johnston was excluded from the suspension resolution on the grounds that there was a conflict between […damaged text…] the opposition group and his […damaged text…] large part of which was much […damaged text…] He was asked in the Thirty […damaged text…] increasingly over the next few months.
He took on Eddie McWilliams’ role as principal spokesman for the opposition group and its politics, and on the question of Portugal (which had not previously been raised by the opposition group) he took a line close to a section of the Trotskyist movement, involving a united front with the Socialist Party. At the day-school on Portugal in Waterford, in front of a non-member, he made a bitter attack on the SWM’s position and brought up the question of what Eddie McWilliams had said in Derry about I.S. – something which should have stayed within the organisation.
The National committee on 25 October passed a resolution expelling Eddie McWilliams, rejecting his political perspective and warning of ‘immediate disciplinary action’ for ‘any members maintaining an oppositional group on the basis of the same, or similar, political perspective and causing similar disruption.’ Andy Johnston, Jim Larragy and Bernard Maguire walked out of the conference, Andy Johnston making it clear that they were resigning. Siobhán Molloy had sent a letter of resignation which was accepted the following day.
From Irish Workers Group members
The overview of the Irish Workers’ Group from the Irish Left Open History Project (available here) received a number of corrections and comments from former members when it was originally published. These are reproduced in part here (the original and complete comments can be read on the Irish Left Review website).