The Coffee Circle Papers: Contents, Foreword and Paper 1
Papers and responses from the series of political forums organised during 1998 by Democratic Left
|Mary Maher, Proinsias De Rossa|
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution
10th December 2012
“ Many thanks to Catherine Murphy TD for donating this document to the Left Archive. Due to its length it will be posted up in individual sections over the next twelve months.
This document is unusual in respect of the Irish left in that it sought to challenge fairly directly the assumptions held by a political formation. That formation, Democratic Left, less than a decade old had recently left government after Fianna Fáil had won the 1997 General Election. It had also shed two seats from its complement of six Tds. As the Foreword, written by Prionsias De Rossa notes:
In late 1997, a number of DL members came together to organise a series of ‘Coffee Circles’. These were informal gatherings, held first in Bewley’s Oriental Café… in March 1998 when Bewley’s closed for refurbishment, we moved around the corner to Mao’s Café and, in the Summer, the last two Coffee Circle’s were held in the Dock Offices… in the heart of the International Financial Services Centre.
The idea was to provide a comfortable, congenial setting for discussing uncomfortable, contentious issues. Issues and problems that socialists everywhere, not just in Dublin (sic), were grappling with and seeking to resolve. They included some very fundamental issues for socialists facing into the 21st century. Like what relevance the concept of socialism has nowadays; what power the Left exerted, even in government to really change capitalism and the way it works; what links we have with other socialists, in other parts of the world and what help we can give each other. Also: what common interests do we have with other progressive movements and organisations in Ireland and elsewhere - the environmental lobby and the women’s movement, for example.
He also notes:
And if there were to be a ‘historic compromise’ between nationalism and unionism, involving the British and the Irish governments, would this fundamentally alter the face of Irish politics - and what would be the implications for all of us in Ireland.
Interestingly he notes the background to the discussions, and how there were both positive and negative attitudes to the experience of government before then shifting gears somewhat and admitting that while there was the intention to continue the discussions after they ended in July 1998 ‘a few other developments intervened’.
This he says was due to ‘Most of the ‘Coffee Circle’ organisers [being] involved, directly or indirectly, in the discussions about the need for a new political formation on the Left - discussions with the Labour Party and discussions within Democratic Left itself. So publication was delayed until early 1999.’
And by the time the discussions were published Democratic Left was no more and de Rossa was president of the Labour Party. In that respect this and the accompanying documents are somewhat suspended in time with many of the suggestions applicable only to a smaller left of Labour political formation.
The first section, entitled Crunch Time for Socialist Politics, has the unwieldy subheading: Some clarity on Fundamentals: Our Values, Visions and Ethical Foundations, What Democratic Socialism Means Today, The Market: Malleable Monster or Uncontrollable Menace? There is a synopsis of a paper addressing the above by David Jacobson, a Lecturer in Economics in Dublin City University. There’s also a response by Feargus O’Raghaillaigh, a Financial Journalist and a Summary of discussion by Mary Maher, Journalist and NUJ member.
These submissions are quite lengthy, but it is worth noting that Jacobson takes a strongly democratic socialist line wherein he seeks to position his analysis leftwards of social democracy and rightwards of ‘Soviet-type’ economies which he posits were ‘arguably state capitalist systems’. And he argues quite strenuously that ‘what is generally taken as a social democratic [socio-economic] system is one in which there are no qualitative differences to liberal democracy. It is the question of degree of ‘correction’ by the state. In social democracy there is likely to be higher taxation of the wealthy, more redistribution, more public health services, higher unemployment benefit. There is little evidence of fundamental difference at the level of governance of markets or of individual firms’. He counterposes this with ‘Democratic socialism… [which] would see markets themselves subjugated to the interests of society’. He continues ‘If there is a qualitative difference between social democracy and democratic socialism, it is in the willingness to determine where and when such ‘free’ markets are not appropriate, where it is in the social interest for them to be controlled’. But most importantly he argues presciently that:
Unless there is evidence of a transformation of the Labour Party from social democratic to democratic socialist, there is, if anything, all the more reason today for the continued pursuit of socialist ends by an independent political party. If it is not Democratic Left, it is quite likely that some other party will fill the gap.
The response by Feargus O’Raghaillaigh is of interest in that he positions himself as a ‘communist’ and is somewhat scathing of both the terms ‘democratic socialist’ and the use of the word ‘socialist’ in this context. That said on a functional level he admits that:
I would stress that I do not believe my position is one that requires me to maintain my purity and distance from practical politics. I do believe in an agenda that has central to it getting back into government - if, realistically this is within a coalition framework or context. But more than that, I believe that the agenda for coalition needs to be coherent and implementation of a programme will take time. This I would stress is not the same as saying the agenda and its pursuit is ‘long-term’. My own view of coalition, given my little experience eof it, is that it is a framework for political progress, and also one that calls for calculation.
And he continues:
In all of this am I having my cake and eating it, calling myself communist but being a carpet-bagging compromiser? I do not think so because in the end, my project remains the delimiting and ending of private property, capital.
Mary Maher’s piece although considerably shorter is also of interest. In it she records the response from the audience to the papers where a very broad range of opinions are expressed.”
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By: Loveyou longtime Mon, 10 Dec 2012 10:11:34
Haven’t read ‘the papers’ and won’t be doing so. Look at the cover and title, what can be said but what complete and utter wankers
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By: Marxman Mon, 10 Dec 2012 19:16:07
In reply to Loveyou longtime.
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By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 10 Dec 2012 19:38:09
In reply to Marxman.
I share your scepticism, but what strikes me is that for all the questioning (which is good and any political formation if its worth anything should always be questioning) the flight from theory (and I’m dubious about too much theory, but more dubious about little or none) into, at best – at very best – policy, is very marked.
But policy isn’t enough. It’s amazing to me how a party that had at least a large part of its heritage, at least for many ofthose involved, in activism in the streets and workplaces and what have you, could move so far away from that.
In that respect it’s actually worth reading as an indication of how those who saw themselves as to the left of social democracy fell into much the same trap as social democrats during that period.
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By: Gavin Mendel-Gleason Wed, 12 Dec 2012 14:48:14
Personally, I think it’s well worth a read. The democratic road to socialism always has to contend with the problem of what to do as opposition and how long to remain there. Remaining too long in opposition irritates a public who want to see at least some reform, whereas joining into an unprincipled coalition can equally well cause the deterioration of trust in the political project.
The second piece by Fergus O’Raghallaigh outlines his belief in the formation of a the working class as a conscious and political force while at the same time defending coalition. Unfortunately he doesn’t describe in any detail what concessions communists should be willing to make in order to enter into coalition, what types of reform might not lead to a cul-de-sac and which types of reform are likely to lead us closer to a society in which the means of production are administrated cooperatively in the general interests.
All of these questions really need to be taken up clearly by those who want to see some democratic road to socialism. I think the failure to treat these questions seriously has been at least part of the cause of the failure of democratic approaches.
Now it’s quite in vogue on the left to be opposed to all non-revolutionary, ameliorative or palliative approaches. Allende is used quite frequently as an example of the impossibility of going to far down the democratic road as it will supposedly lead to inevitable coup attempts. Perhaps that’s true, but if you’re too weak to stop a coup with a democratic majority looking for socialism, how are you going to attempt an insurrection? It seems to me like a ludicrous diversion from the scale of the problem set before us. Namely that as Fergus points out in this piece we have a super-structural system which is designed to suit the bourgeoisie. Also as he points out we still have room for manuoever.
I think it’s extraordinarily dangerous to dismiss the descent of Dem Left into the political degenerate form it manifests itself as in the Labour party as merely a product of “complete and utter wankers”. I think the problem of this type of political degeneration is a lot more complicated than that, and if we don’t understand it, we’re liable to reproduce it.
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By: D_D Wed, 12 Dec 2012 18:11:07
In relation to Allende, it was not so much the presence in parliament as the failure to arm and prepare the organsed workers and the trust (literally, cf. the quotes at the time) in the army to support the democratic govermment. An insurrection organised from a similar weakness would probably produce a similar result.
In relation to what is in vogue, it is only a small loqacious minority on the left, and even the far left, who always oppose “all non-revolutionary, ameliorative or palliative approaches” to the final and guiding aim of a revolutionary social transformation and the transitory struggle for reforms along the way. It is the lopping off of the final aim that sends the trajectory not merely from Democratic Left to lamp carrying for the Troika, a small historical pocket, but from the great Second International to PASOK via voting credits for the Great War.
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By: WorldbyStorm Wed, 12 Dec 2012 19:20:24
In reply to Gavin Mendel-Gleason.
That’s a very thoughtful response and I have to agree with much of it, particularly your points re the lack of clarity on what can/should/should not be compromised. I’d also agree that the trajectory of those who were WP and went over to DL and then onto the LP is one that should be studied in some depth, if only not to make the same mistake again.
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By: The Weekly Archive Worker: Das Verhältnis von Verwaltungsbeschwerde und Verwaltungsklage « Entdinglichung Thu, 13 Dec 2012 08:45:07
[…] * Foreword and Paper One: Crunch Time for Socialist Politics – The Coffee Circle Papers – Papers a… […]
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By: Left Archive: Democratic Left Coffee Circle Document, Section Six – Whither Irish Politics After the Referendum [on the GFA/BA], 1998 | The Cedar Lounge Revolution Mon, 11 Mar 2013 07:30:42
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