The Socialist Workers Movement: A Trotskyist Analysis
Date:October 1992
Organisation: Irish Workers' Group [1976]
Publication: Class Struggle
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Subjects: Socialist Workers' Movement

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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

10th October 2011

This is a very readable addition to the Archive from the Irish Workers Group (which later became Workers Power - for more on the IWG see here ), and many thanks to Budapestkick who donated it and who has written the following overview of it.

The IWG has been examined elsewhere in the Irish Left Open History project , though it would be interesting to hear from anyone who has had contact with them. Someone who would have been active in Militant in the 80s and 90s described them as being, of the smaller Trotskyists groups who haunted the public meetings of Militant, SWP, WP etc. (the IBT and Socialist Democracy being our modern day equivalents), the best in terms of coherent arguments, generally good positions (except - in their view - on the national question) and consistency.

That they would produce a polemic like this is not surprising. The obvious tactic for a grouping as small as the IWG would be to target a larger organisation in order to win members and build a base of organisers through small numbers of recruits f, and the pamphlet mentions that they produced similar material to this directed at the WP, Militant and Labour. Of course, the fact that the IWG were a SWM split is obviously a factor, and important to bear in mind reading this.

The document includes a brief history on the origins of the far left in Ireland, which will be of interest to many here. Of particular interest is the suggestion that the Trench - Armstrong Trotskyist group were calling for a civil rights campaign in the north as early as 1944. If true, I think this predates Greaves by quite a bit.

The best section of the pamphlet by far is the dissection of the State capitalism theory and the often unusual positions it led the SWP to take, best summed up by the newspaper headline on p.46.

Elsewhere, the IWGers go into, often overwhelmingly intricate, criticisms of the SWP in relation to electoral calls, choice issues etc. The section on the SLP is quite interesting though. Is the claim that the SWM left with only 20 members an exaggeration or something close to the truth?

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 11 Oct 2011 17:39:25

    In reply to Alan MacSimoin.

    What comes around… 🙂

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  • By: Mark P Tue, 11 Oct 2011 17:52:11

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    It’s in the Marxist Internet Archive here:

    A version which also includes the introduction is in the Committee for a Workers International archival site here:

    I know that you have a preference for scanned print editions, however, and I do have a print copy but not a scanner. I can arrange to get you it as soon as I get around to digging up a bunch of other stuff I was going to submit for the left archive.

    I also have a copy of the SWP’s “An Open Letter to Members of the Socialist Party”, a four page reply to the pamphlet which they distributed at the Socialist Party’s conference in late 1999 or early 2000. That reply was of some interest to me at the time because I had just joined the Socialist Party, having been a member of a Socialist Worker Student Society. The conference was in Athlone and two or three prominent members of the Dublin SWP came down to distribute their document at it. I remember poking a little fun at them because I’d always been led to believe that there was an Athlone branch of the SWP.

    In general, that conference gave me a quite unrealistic understanding of the level of excitement to expect at political conferences. It was the first one I’d ever been to and my main memories of it include the SWP intervention (the chair of one of the sessions announced that they were outside and encouraged everyone to go and get a copy of their letter) and an ongoing rather vitriolic argument which had nothing to do with the SWP but which did involve a bunch of long standing Socialist Party members standing at the back of the hall shouting “You’re a Stalinist!” at Dermot Connolly, the then National Secretary of the Socialist Party, as he was trying to make a speech.

    Anyway, Peter Hadden’s pamphlet is very good and made quite a strong impression on me at the time, but it’s also rather marooned in time. It’s an excellent critique of the SWP as they were in the 1990s, and it’s still useful on some particular political issues, but its main argument is simply out of date. When you read it today, most of it seems to be about some other organisation called the SWP which can’t possibly be related to the group of the same name you see around today. This goes back to the point I made earlier about the SWP not being very keen on documenting or archiving their own past. There’s a good reason for that – they have gone through a quite bewildering series of changes and “turns” with no explanation or even acknowledgement of the shifts and the documents of yesterday often argue exactly the opposition of their current line. A pamphlet which criticises the more revolutionary than thou stance of the SWP in the 1990s simply has no purchase on the “flexible” SWP of today.

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  • By: Mark P Tue, 11 Oct 2011 18:19:50

    In reply to Alan MacSimoin.

    The SWP’s old documents and leaflets are a rich source of hostages to fortune.

    There is for instance the letter they sent to the Socialist Party, reproduced in the pamphlet discussed in the comments above, which, amongst other things, criticised the SP’s approach to electoral work and announced that revolutionaries only stand in elections to make “revolutionary propaganda”.

    Then there is the “Open Letter to Members of the Socialist Party”, also mentioned above which contains the following remarks, highly entertaining for anyone familiar with the SWP’s development since:

    “This leads to a dual approach. The internal party sectarians are told that revolution is the goal – but the electorate are given a softer version of politics to garner votes. The costs of this ‘don’t mention revolution in front of the children’ approach are already becoming apparent.”[…] “If your focus is electoralism, you will duck the harder arguments and move to a soft focus”.

    The same document pours scorn on the Socialist Party for, according to the SWP, considering forming a broad party with “independents, sections of the old Worker’s Party and others who stood to their right”.

    Then there’s the “Open Letter to Socialists” issued in the name of Richard Boyd Barrett a few years later, and again targeted at the Socialist Party, which makes some considerable play of the centrality of at the least an “explicit, minimal, socialist programme” to any left wing alliance.

    It really isn’t any wonder that they don’t keep archives of this stuff. Having no memory of what they were saying last week makes it easier to argue whatever is convenient this week without the irritation of having to explain why you are contradicting yourself.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 11 Oct 2011 19:22:15

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    Excellent, that all sounds great.

    On the point about exciting conferences / ars fheiseanna, true, you arrived for one, I left the WP after one. Never saw the like again. Which us probably as well.

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  • By: Mark P Tue, 11 Oct 2011 21:31:00

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    Strangely enough the bitterest conference I was ever at was also mostly quite well mannered. It was the split conference of the English Socialist Alliance in, I think, December 2001. That had a walkout and a split, but there was an element of almost ritual to it, because what was going to happen had largely been made clear in advance.

    The British SWP, then at perhaps their biggest, had telegraphed that they were going to vote through a new constitution for the alliance and the British Socialist Party, then at probably their smallest in organisational terms, had telegraphed that they were going to leave if that happened. So there was remarkably little in the way of roaring and shouting.

    The entire experience did leave me with a permanent scepticism towards the sort of views you sometimes see put forward by well meaning independent leftists who think that “left unity” has some kind of magic effect independent of the wider context and wider involvement however.

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  • By: Mark P Tue, 11 Oct 2011 21:45:23

    In reply to D_D.


    The episode mystifies me not because the SWM had an orientation to the IRSP when the IRSP was being set up. The SWM/P for most of the period of troubles had varying and shifting degrees of left republicanism in their own politics, and within that context such an orientation is at least understandable, even if it seems strange to anyone only familiar with the more recent and much less left republican politics of the SWP.

    It mystifies because as far as I can tell, it was perfectly clear that despite some very half-hearted denials the IRSM had a dual political/military strategy from very early on. Much of the rhetoric right from the start was about the “war” and “armed struggle”, and the INLA was shooting people by early 1975. It took a few more months for some within the IRSP to realise that the party was going to be a glorified support group for the armed wing, but that’s a slightly different issue. Whatever else you can say about the SWM/P’s politics, and I’ve been known to be less than polite on the subject, they never gave the outsider the slightest indication that they were looking to get directly involved with assassination, bombings, etc.

    So what mystifies me is not there being an orientation, but an actual intention to join up. Did the SWM actually believe the very flimsy official denials from Costello that the IRSP had an armed wing?

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  • By: neilcaff Tue, 11 Oct 2011 22:08:57

    In reply to Mark P.

    “The conference was in Athlone and two or three prominent members of the Dublin SWP came down to distribute their document at it.”

    I was at that conference as well! It really was quite rowdy wasn’t it? The only conference that’s topped it was the National Shop Stewards Network conference to debate the setting up of an anti cuts body.

    I remember a fantastic line from the SWP letter saying something to the effect that the SP didn’t want an electoral agreement with the SWP because Peter Hadden wanted to remain the Pope of Marxism! Knockabout stuff.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 11 Oct 2011 22:54:56

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    I don’t actually believe in left unity, perhaps for the reasons you articulate, although, that said, it’s a bit like perfection, not necessarily the worst thing in the world to try to achieve as long as one recognises that not achieving it isn’t the worst thing in the world either…

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 11 Oct 2011 22:56:51

    In reply to Mark P.

    I would say one thing though. I knew Tony Gregory fairly well and I was always unable to quite understand his dislike for the IRSP as it became which was combined with an huge admiration for Costello. It didn’t quite compute for me. Granted he only was on board for a year, but the latter dynamic would have made one think he’d stay longer.

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  • By: Mark P Tue, 11 Oct 2011 23:10:45

    In reply to Mark P.


    I wouldn’t have thought that Gregory would necessarily have a problem with there being an armed wing, given that he’d been in the Officials where there was one already?


    Yes, there’s a surprising amount of personal stuff in their reply, which isn’t normally their style.

    Peter Hadden’s alleged desire to be “the Pope of a small sect” was put forward as the Socialist Party’s base motive and he was also described as someone who “has been singularly unsuccessful at building a socialist organisation in Belfast”. And there’s another bit where he’s described as “summoning all his stern orthodoxy”, which always made me laugh because I could sort of imagine him picking up the phone and ordering some stern orthodoxy.

    It also had a pop at Tom, who wrote the introduction, for being a former Spart, with the implication that his Spartacist training was a malign influence on all around him.

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  • By: Michael Carley Wed, 12 Oct 2011 08:24:45

    @Mark P: Tom (Crean) used to get far worse abuse from the Sparts for having left them than he did from the SWP for having been in them.

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  • By: D_D Wed, 12 Oct 2011 15:04:04

    In reply to Alan MacSimoin.

    “Another memory from the past… In 1973 or ’74 the SWM paper ‘The Worker’ criticised Official Sinn Fein for using the slogan ‘people before profit’.”

    Love it!

    Don’t remember that one, but I do remember a general opposition to the use of “people”, a la the CP, rather than “workers”. I still see something in that. But terminology does change or at least bend over time.

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  • By: Joe Wed, 12 Oct 2011 15:12:56

    In reply to Michael Carley.

    That wasn’t Tom Crean, antarctic explorer but was it, by any chance, Tom Crean now ex-SIPTU official and great singer (sings with Jimmy Kelly)? That singing Tom Crean always struck me as more of an ex-CPI type.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 12 Oct 2011 15:49:11

    In reply to Joe.

    No, that wouldn’t be either of those Tom Creans. Tom who founded the Spartacists in Ireland and then later was a prominent figure in the Socialist Party might well be known to a number of people here through the Labour History Society. He’s now back in America.

    Yes, I’m familiar with the Sparts nearly pathological hatred of ex-members who join other left wing groups. There have been a few former Sparts in the Irish Socialist Party over the years and they were similarly aggressive towards more than just Tom, although as their founder he held a special place in their hearts.

    I mentioned the SWP having a pop at him for being an ex-Spart because that kind of personalised crap isn’t normally their style at all.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 12 Oct 2011 15:52:54

    In reply to D_D.

    I’ve never liked the slogan “people before profit”, mostly because I associated it with flakey liberals in the anti-globalisation movement. I was actually surprised to see in some old OSF election literature that they were using it long before.

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  • By: ejh Wed, 12 Oct 2011 16:29:18

    In reply to Mark P.

    The SWP’s old documents and leaflets are a rich source of hostages to fortune.

    But not just theirs, I think.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 12 Oct 2011 16:59:12

    In reply to Mark P.

    You are right.

    Pretty much every political organisation gets predictions and perspectives amusingly wrong for instance, although that isn’t really what I was talking about above. And pretty much every organisation changes its mind about what it is arguing for from time to time, and that is what I’m talking about above.

    But what makes the SWP unusual (not unique) is that it very rarely says that it has changed what it is arguing for, even less often explains why it has changed what it is arguing for and, in part because it doesn’t keep any record of what it used to say, it often gives the impression that it doesn’t actually know that it has changed what it is arguing for.

    When it comes to electoral tactics in Ireland, the SWP has at various times called for a vote for just about every combination of Labour, the Officials, the Provisionals, Socialist Labour, the Communist Party, “left candidates” and “socialist candidates”. At other times it has not called for a vote for just about every combination of them. It used to oppose revolutionaries standing in elections. Then it used to say that revolutionaries only stand in elections to make revolutionary propaganda. Then it started looking for alliances with other forces while insisting on a socialist programme. Then it started looking for alliances with other forces while opposing having a socialist programme. And never once, to my knowledge, has it even mentioned its previous points of view, let along explained the change.

    There’s flexibility and then there’s incoherence. There is no other force on the Irish left which has espoused or abandoned that sort of bewildering range of approaches to elections. Or even close to it. Different left groups are not simply interchangeable and do have their own peculiarities. A willful lack of interest in its own past is one of the Irish SWP’s.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 12 Oct 2011 17:28:31

    In reply to Mark P.

    Oh, and given the carefully assembled archives in the Socialist Party office, it would probably be fair to say that a slightly pedantic interest in the minutiae of our own past is one of ours.

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  • By: Michael Carley Wed, 12 Oct 2011 19:09:15

    @Mark P: Tom was accused of being in league with Loyalist death squads because of meetings we (the SP) organized with SF, PUP (I think), and our own speakers. That kind of thing goes beyond mere abuse.

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  • By: Left Archive: The British Left and The Irish War – Workers Power [UK], 1983 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Mon, 09 Jan 2012 08:54:41

    […] is an interesting document not least because it dovetails with the Irish Workers Group analysis of the Socialist Workers Movement which was posted up last year. And like that analysis it is highly critical of the SWP. Like many […]

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