|Authors:||Colm Breathnach, Fearghal Ross|
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Guest post from Colm Breathnach of the Irish Socialist Network on a document he co-wrote while in the Workers’ Party.
Even before the upheaval in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the stalinist system, the debate about the role and nature of the Workers Party had begun to open up. This was precipitated mainly by the expansion of the party in the south during the 1980s, as it gained the characteristics of a small mass party of the left with significant electoral representations and strong roots in working class communities. It is difficult to characterise the party at this stage as it was something of a unique hybrid of radical socialist, stalinist and social democratic ideas and trends. As the 90s began the party entered a period of uncertainty: the 1990 exit of the neo-con Eoghan Harris and his followers, who had a advocated a sharp turn to the right, cleared the decks for a struggle between what might best be characterised as the parliamentarians versus the traditionalists. This division was not as clear cut as the subsequent split would indicate: the crystallisation into two mutually exclusive factions only really took place at the end of 1991 and many members did not fit neatly into either category.
After the 1990 Ardfheis a commission was set up to devise a new constitution for the party. The present document was drawn up by a small group of members who advocated a position to the left of either of the two main leadership factions. As far as I remember I wrote the basic text which was then discussed and changed somewhat by the other signatories. The document was supposed to be just a preliminary document but we never produced the extended version. Some of us were also active in producing a publication called Socialist Digest [I have a copy of Socialist Digest which I’ll post in the Left Archive soon - wbs], which was really just a reprint of articles from various foreign left wing journals, which broadly advocated an anti-social democratic/anti-stalinist radical socialist position. SD was circulated internally within the WP. I can’t recall how many issues were published but it did not suceed in its aim of influencing the emerging debate within the party.
While many of the suggestions in the document seem fairly tame today, they were calling for a fairly radical turn from general party practice at the time. The emphasis on grassroots campaigning in opposition to the increasing electoralist/clientalist direction of the WP and the advocacy of a more participatory internal structure challenged both the parliamentarian and traditionalist view of where the party should be heading, though neither leadership factions were necessarily explicit in their visions of the future of the party. Although the positions advocated were to the left of both main camps, it certainly is clear to any one reading it today that it was not influenced by trotskyist politics, altough that was the label attached to us by the traditionalist wing.
In the rapid slide to a split this more radical position could not take root and it was swamped in the fierce factional battle that ensued. Indicative of this was the immediate post-split postitions of those who signed the document: two remained with the WP, four joined DL and two dropped out of party politics. John O Neill and I, following different trajectories, subsequently became founding members of the Irish Socialist Network in 2001, as did other former members of the WP who had not been involved in producing this document. Personally, my political position has evolved a good deal since 1990/91 and I would now consider myself a revolutionary democratic socialist/libertarian marxist, so the document does not reflect my current views, though some of the points made stand the test of time.