The Necessity of Social Democracy
Organisation: The Workers' Party
Author:Eoghan Harris
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

2nd June 2008

There are a select few documents or speeches that can rip a political party or movement apart. When written they lay bare some underlying problem or prod consciences into action. On the Personality Cult and its Consequences delivered by Kruschev in 1956 is an example. The Wealth of the Nation: The Necessity of Social Democracy, by Eoghan Harris (with considerable assistance from the indefatigable Eamonn Smullen) isn’t .

That is not to say that it didn’t have some impact on the Workers’ Party. It did result in a sort of fractional schism of Workers’ Party members, those centered around Eoghan Harris departing for the ideological wilderness - or the media - dependent upon taste. Nor is it to say that in what it said it was completely wrong. There are some interesting points, some provocative points and indeed some good points. But they’re not necessarily the same points.

Its main import is perhaps to indicate the direction Harris et al would take, their own sense of importance within the party, and indeed the chaos that ensued on an ideological level with the changes within - and eventual dissolution of - the USSR. For some that meant a vindication of non-statist and anti-Stalinist approaches. For others a retreat into orthodoxy of the most predictable (and prolix) sort. Still others tried to carve out a niche between social democracy and the further left. But for Harris (and let us not forget Smullen - for the text contains both the rather gloomy Smullen style added to the near unbelievable chattiness of Harris in full flow) the answer was… Social democracy.

The document is long, and perhaps better analysed at some other point. I’ll be interested in comments, but for a taste of the style of writing and analysis two examples will suffice.

We read in the Smullen penned introduction that:

This pamphlet argues that the word ‘socialism’ is now a brake on progress. It proposes a return to the revolutionary roots of social democracy and a commitment to ‘revolutionary reformism’, defined as reformist struggle conducted with revolutionary zeal for democratic ends - not in parliament only but in all spheres of civil society. … This critique marries Marxist theory to democratic politics and sets out a strategy for struggle within - and behalf of - a democratic pluralist political system where ideas will be the only acceptable currency of change…

Harris later writes that:

Before 1989 socialists always said ‘we’ never ‘I’. This suppression of self, more fitting for Poor Clares than followers of the self-confident Karl Marx, led to a self-satisfied and self-imposed silence in socialist parties with members surrendering themselves to a higher power - with almost sado-masochistic relish in some cases. Silence and suppression of self killed socialism.

I’ve mentioned before that when I first read a version of it in the party journal I thought it hugely unconvincing, both in terms of its analysis and its proscriptions. Problems with Soviet style communism were hardly news in the late 1980s (or the late 1970s or 60s or 50s for that matter). But to argue that a leapfrog to a position near indistinguishable from the Labour Party was the answer seemed… Odd. The party had already come to terms with the market, at least rhetorically. And the Workers’ Party wasn’t suffering any evident decline in support during this period on its then existing platform. If anything, quite the opposite (which made the machinations during 1990/91 as regards the later split near-incomprehensible to many).

Fine to point up problems with previous analyses. But… Their then currency seemed a bit nebulous. And also a bit late in the day others might suggest, with some justification. But that was hardly the point. Here was the grand gesture, the ideological shift, the testament to their aching need to be relevant, not merely to the apparatus (of which they had once been a part) which was already arguably in decline but also to a party which had a new pole evolving in the shape of the elected representatives. Once they had been the only guys on the block. Now there were others with equal or greater power and influence.

It’s never wise to underestimate the need for relevance, in life, in culture and above all in politics. The ‘necessity’ for Social Democracy was a manifestation of just such a personal and political dynamic.

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  • By: Garibaldy Thu, 05 Jun 2008 18:42:36

    Of course mistakes were made, as people will acknowledge. And absolutely the TDs in particular refused to acknowledge party discipline. I would agree with you above that the collapse of the USSR and socialist states created a once in a lifetime crisis that meant that the usual problems that can come with elected representatives were magnified out of all proportion. I seriously doubt that nearly all of them would have decided to go at the same time without it, though there may have been some leakage eventually to the Labour Party, especially if there had been a coalition at some point in the future.
    But it would probably not have wrought the organisational damage, or taken such a toll on numbers. On people like De Rossa, as someone I know put it, how could you think that people who had been in the party since they were children would do what they did.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 05 Jun 2008 19:06:34

    I’d certainly agree with almost all that Colm says (hardly surprising since his position and trajectory through WP and DL pretty much was identical to my own), the predictive powers of POB are fine (although what more left wing group prophesises anything but the worst of their erstwhile comrades – few enough go further left), but sort of beside the point. The problem wasn’t that DL came into existence, but that it came on foot of clear disenchantment with the way the WP was structured – sufficient that almost two in three members were willing to go for a change. People weren’t duped or coerced into that disenchantment. It was very very real as anyone who had been in the party could attest. And the reasons? A secretive centre that thought it had the way the truth and the light when clearly then and now it didn’t, elements of a parliamentary faction who had a (or many) different way truth and a light. Splits within the membership right down to branch level as to what was best. The fall-out from the collapse of ‘existing socialism’. And it’s also important to note that this made the left a bit of a ferment of rapidly developing viewpoints as people tried to come to terms with it. Which probably explains how De Rossa could near simultaneously be a token of the centre (as I saw him act in the mid-1980s in DNE), a euro-communist, be influenced – a bit by EH – and then someone who ultimately went to DL… He wasn’t the only one. But some of us tried to stay as Red/Green, left euro-communists…

    Nor is it possible to argue that the situation the WP found itself in post the split was purely the fault of the split. It didn’t help. But the party still retained a TD, councillors, etc. Indeed on paper it would arguably have been a larger formation across the island than today’s SP.

    And while I entirely agree that the foundering of the WP was dismal, and wish it had been otherwise absolutely everyone involved was to blame and in that sense it was utterly predictable. Indeed, and as a slight counter argument, I’d suggest that while all may indeed be entirely democratic within the WP today, the reality of a much larger much more variegated party with the factions described above within it led to prodigious efforts to maintain control.

    To my mind the Korean thing was a sideshow, although once more I’d agree with Colm. I really really find that hard to tolerate, and since there happen to be two Korea’s – one a fairly typical Asian liberalish democracy – it’s sort of hard to see the defence of national sovereignty as somehow excusing what has happened in the North. That was a disaster for working people – and did no good whatsoever to the WP. Indeed I find it odd that those who in the old days complained strenuously about the ‘old’ militarism, etc, would somehow find no contradiction in aligning with an avowedly militaristic totalitarianism.

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  • By: Garibaldy Thu, 05 Jun 2008 19:45:36

    I am sure the disenchantment was very real, and for the reasons you suggest. I don’t think that the discontent was magicked up from nothing by a few careerists. What I am inclined to think is that people with concerns that could and should have been addressed within the party were lied to, and persuaded to join an organisation by people at the top who had no desire to see through what they were claiming to build. I’ve heard people in the north say it. What WBS says about the need for control within a factionalised situation makes sense, as does the fact that everyone has to share the blame, but I would suggest that some acted much more cynically than others.

    Of course the subsequent travails of the party are not all down to 1992, but the sense of disillusionment and betrayal wrecked a lot of people’s morale, and many never recovered from it. The financial implications were also severe. The worst problem was losing the seat by 50 votes or whatever it was, and with it credibility as a big party, access to significant funding streams and significantly in southern political culture, access to the media. Mistakes have been made since then. But rebuilding goes on too.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 05 Jun 2008 20:42:45

    I don’t think they were lied to, or at least not quite in the way you suggest (though I would agree the situation in the North was near disgraceful). I joined a party – somewhat unwillingly because I didn’t think WP was a busted flush but simply because the status quo was untenable – because I thought it had potential, not that it was in and of itself the answer to my dreams. I knew there were different factions entering that party as there had been previously. I thought, like CB above, that DR had a viewpoint that he obviously moved away from. I thought there were more people in the party on the left than it turned out to be. I was amazed at how few of the membership had a quibble about coalition. And cynicism, surely, there was bags of that going around, but it was everywhere. There was a fair bit of optimism too, at least initially.

    So, if anything I’d look at it as follows. The DL membership was actually broadly speaking less left wing than I’d assumed. Which means that the WP membership pre-1991, and the vast bulk of it at that, were equally less left wing than people thought.

    And that tells me something about the reality as against the perception of political activity. Sure, the WP was very efficient, but that was overstated to a degree, and it was never quite the regimented army of lore. More like people bought into it, accepted much that otherwise they might have disagreed with, and when push came to shove made the break with remarkable ease and lack of soul-searching. Not all by any means, I had quite a lot of sleepless nights over it, but a fair few.

    Gerry O’Quigley (who seems to have stopped writing which is a great shame) has some interesting thoughts on what it was like to be a moderniser over at:

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  • By: Garibaldy Thu, 05 Jun 2008 21:19:12

    I think that it is clear that a lot of people had been allowed to join The WP in the later 1980s and early 1990s who should never have been in it in the first place, who joined it not because they believed in its goals but because it was the biggest party to the left of Labour, and seemed like a good place to progress in. The party itself is at fault for allowing that to happen. Not for exercising too much control, but not enough, for want of a better way of putting it.

    Cheers for the Gerry O’Quigley link, which whatever about the politics of it, is utterly patronising – “less subject to the usual influences of family, jobs and education.” Added to “For a long time I believed that the flaws that could be detected were due to a lack of political development, and to the intellectual poverty of the left in Ireland. In other words, they would disappear given time, especially If I and my like-minded comrades, steeped in Gramsci, Italian communism, western Marxism and the New Left Review, gave them a helping hand.”

    Setting aside the ego and the patronising, a little less than honest in quoting one particular source as objective. I have to say, however, that I find the analysis of why the DL failed not unconvincing, particularly the reluctance of what he calls the notables to get involved in the hard graft of building a party. I think though his approach to those who refused to join Labour with DL is also patronising. They wanted to abandon politics. Well, not really in many cases.

    By the by, It’s amusing to see someone sneer at others about their education and be so utterly poor in spelling, punctuation and grammar.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 05 Jun 2008 21:33:11

    I can’t agree Garibaldy with the idea that people who joined in that period shouldn’t have. I don’t recall entry requirements being significantly less stringent than when I joined in the early 1980s. Indeed I don’t really recall a massive influx during that period at all, and even were there one this was still overseen by precisely the same people who had a strong control of the apparatus before, during and after.

    Are you certain you’re reading the education reference correctly? My sense of it was in a political sense in other words that the semi-conspiratorial approach tended to push out other influences and tended to the self-referential and a limited number of references at that (which I’d argue was borne out by the future ideological development of WP)… but that could be incorrect on my part.

    Incidentally I don’t ref it to say that Gerry viewpoint is beyond criticism. For example I have taken issue previously with the notion that the existence of a certain organisation was a surprise to anyone who cared to look very far. Sure Magill were covering it on a near monthly basis, but he does give a good sense of the factionalising and how there were many strands within the WP, particularly those who sit between say the orthodoxies of head office and the social democrats, and as you can see there would be a difference between his viewpoint and mine and Colms (and I’d also agree with you that there were good reasons for people in DL not to go to Labour in the end). I have another doc for the Left Archive which covers the ground as well in terms of analysis.

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  • By: Garibaldy Thu, 05 Jun 2008 21:44:22

    I understand that the people in charge of recruitment were the same. But as I said earlier, mistakes get made. Perhaps shouldn’t have been allowed to join is the wrong way to put it. More like it should have been made clear what party policy was through a better process of political education, so that there was no mistaking the party for a left social democratic entity. Which is what I fear it had become in some places.

    I’m fairly certain I’m reading the reference correctly. What education means there is, I would say, a degree. The message I think is that the opponents were professional revolutionaries who had not benefited from the civilising influences of what “normal” people had, and so were stuck in the past. In the light of the second statement I quoted, I definitely think that that is what it means. John Lowry ridicules this as the idea that people were waiting for the password in Russian to seize the GPO in POB.

    I didn’t think you were putting it up as a sign of approval, simply to add to the debate.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 05 Jun 2008 22:06:49

    Grand. 🙂 I didn’t exactly think you did think that I thought that, if you know what I mean.

    You could be right though re education and perhaps Gerry might like to qualify that… certainly I wouldn’t have thought that there was any dearth of education at any level or in any form (and I tend – like yourself – to be suspicious of those who see it as only invested in certain forms) inside the party, but I would argue that certain very narrow views and readings did on occasion predominate and perhaps led to too inflexible a position when flexibility was precisely what was needed to engage with and neutralise those who saw it as simply a social democratic formation. That said when one looks at the original document that sparked off this debate something very odd was going on when people like Smullen who did have a better than good handle (albeit his analyses weren’t necessarily bang on) on such matters put forward the chaos of the above proposals in TNSD.

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  • By: Garibaldy Thu, 05 Jun 2008 22:15:32

    Yeah I think the fact that Smullen – who retains the respect of everyone I’ve ever spoken to about him – put this out can only I think be explained in the context of the collapse of the socialist states, and the rapidly shifting ground that you talked about earlier. I think I mentioned this before, but there were those who thought very significant progress towards socialism might be made in their lifetimes, and then saw things shatter. I can only surmise that for a lot of people, that shattered expectation caused them to lose all faith in their previous guiding light.

    As for inflexibility, I’m sure that happened, but sometimes necessary to avoid slipping all moorings.

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  • By: bill Fri, 06 Jun 2008 02:14:48

    Interesting to see the differing views on ‘Group B’ – G you say you support it – in what manner as a revolutionary force within the WP or a fundraising group? I think the underlying real story of DL, for all the talk of coalitions etc, is that they didn’t have a couple of pennies to rub together to fund their organisation so it was really going no where from the get go. You got a fund a party big time in our little Republic so maybe while people were going on about the niceties of DPRNK they should get real. And did the DLers not fell any gratitude towards men that put their lives on the line to fund their political project?

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Fri, 06 Jun 2008 06:41:40

    The Group B issue is problematic. On the one hand we see continual reference to the past and the (in some instances) very real sacrifices made by that entity in order to validate the present. Tricky, not least because retrospectively mapping motivations can be a dubious art, at best. On the other although the form of much of that heritage remained the actuality – a somewhat rhetorically revolutionary party operating on a pragmatic level as a broadly constitutional/reformist party couldn’t really buy into that in say the way PSF has vis their relationship with former PIRA members. The logic of a revolutionary position meant that prisoners etc couldn’t really be seen to have any particular cachet. Certainly all the years I was in the party there was almost next to nothing made of them, and that seems to be even more true today. So, it’s a funny one. The history is a validation and support for where the party finds itself, but you can’t mention the war even though it was the positioning in that war, particularly at the end which was the absolute USP of WP (incidentally, worth noting that in terms of duping etc, the rhetoric used by OSF in the 1970 to ceasefire period and up to the IRSP split might well be considered to be at least somewhat detached from the political project that was being attempted. I don’t think that’s duping, but a lot of those who joined then and left for other formations – and I know them personally – felt it was).

    And that’s why bill, to my mind although your last question might seem on the face of it logical, it had no purchase on the minds of those who had been told time and again that those lives on the line were not a bad thing as such, but really not a necessary or important thing since the campaign was wound down and nothing was said about defensive actions. (incidentally, look at the reprint of the 1970s feud docs where no mention at all is made of actions a certain group took – nothing, nada).

    I’m probably not phrasing this well, so apologies.

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  • By: Garibaldy Fri, 06 Jun 2008 08:21:04


    I’m not sure how you drew that conclusion. I haven’t said anything about that issue, other than I think it was a red herring, used to distract from what was really going on, the abandonment of political principles in pursuit of personal advancement by majority of the TDs. I think in the light of all that has happened since that is undeniably the case, although others on here naturally disagree. I am a member of a political party that seeks to transform society in the interests of working people. I strongly believe, as the party does, that it is only through a disciplined political party engaged in open political work – and not through a movement, or a coalition, or a broad formation or anything else – that the interests of working people can be properly represented, and that ultimately the levers of power can be used to effect that transformation.

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  • By: John O'Neill Fri, 06 Jun 2008 11:11:20

    I agree with Garibaldi it was a red herring and prouncements by DeRossa on the subject were particularly sickening.

    On the membership, I think there was a concerted effort by TD’s in some areas to keep new members away from the Party and some new members joined because of the work done by public representatives and were supporters of individual TDs rather than the Party. I seem to recall a decision in the late 80’s where new members classes was decentralised from the centre to local areas. I doubt if they were given in most areas after that. The Party’s very poor commitment to internal education for new members didn’t help either. Another mistake made was the electorial gains led the organisation to believe that all struggle was through the ballot box. Agitational work at grassroots level in working class areas disappeared and was replaced with the membership being glorified postmen and women for TD’s.

    The other point I wanted to make was further to my last post. I know we all make mistakes, that wasn’t the point I meant to make. The likes of O’Hagan and Garland were telling members that these people couldn’t be ‘trusted’ politically but when members took action to remove them they were berated by the very same people and told to change their decision.

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  • By: Cruibín Sat, 07 Jun 2008 19:26:16

    Technically the title attribution is incorrect as the document was not published formally by the Workers’ Party. Smullen was head of the Industrial Affairst Committee which had its own occasional publication the Wealth of the Nation which he controlled. He published it under that subtitle and it was circulated to selected people, some of whom contribute to this blog, but not all members got it. It was not however and official publication of the party.

    I didn’t get a copy by the way, I was a relative newcomer back then – and I’m still in the WP.

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  • By: The Left Archive: “Making Sense”, the Workers’ Party, 1990 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Mon, 09 Jun 2008 07:37:58

    […] on from the discussions last week here , and with reference to other supporting material […]

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  • By: Billy Gorman Tue, 08 Jul 2008 10:54:29

    Deleted… Sorry Billy, we and you don’t know that so best not to spread it around.

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  • By: The Irish Industrial Revolution by Eoghan Harris - Sun, 01 Nov 2009 18:42:58

    […] Fintan O'Toole to describe Harris approvingly as the only political ideologue in the country). The Left Archive: “The Necessity of Social Democracy” by Eoghan Harris, Workers’ P… __________________ Smell my cheese, you […]

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  • By: Harris: I could have saved The WP « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Sun, 15 Nov 2009 12:54:13

    […] the Labour Party once and for all. Why was this? All because Eoghan’s now hard-to-get The Necessity of Social Democracy (Eoghan mustn’t be a fan of the CLR) was suppressed by the Party, and Eamon Smullen […]

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