I put the following up on Cedar Lounge Revolution yesterday, having read the new book by Scott Millar and Brian Hanley on the history of The Workers’ Party.
And so the wait is over. Having got my copy, I’ve finished the book within 24 hours, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The book is extremely easy to read, and time flies by. Given the anticipation surrounding the book, and the amount of discussions we’ve had at CLR about it already, I had expected to write a long review of it (one of several that will appear here I’m sure), but to be honest I don’t really feel the need. That’s not at all to say that I agree with everything the book says. Far from it. So instead, I’ll just give a few thoughts on the book itself, and what it can tell us about the nature of Irish politics, past and present.
The book is extremely well-researched, and includes huge amounts of new detail on some of the major events in Irish history, and the history of the Irish left, in recent decades (I’ve already noted one of these issues, namely Fianna Fáil’s desire to split the IRA in 1969). The authors deserve a huge amount of credit for the research that has gone into this book, and for the attempt to provide a comprehensive account. At 600 pages, it’s massive, but you can see where sections have been edited from longer accounts, so there must also have been a lot left out. It is a strenuous attempt to tell the story as the authors see it of the political and organisational development of The Workers’ Party fully and impartially. The fact that the authors were granted access to Workers’ Party internal documents has made that job a great deal easier, and the authors have certainly taken full advantage of that opportunity. It is certainly not a hatchet job, nor does it sneer at the aims of the people involved the way much writing on the history of socialist republicanism tends to do. Every one interested in Irish politics or the left should read this book.
It seems to me that the bits that add the most to our understanding of modern Irish society, and the history of The Workers’ Party, deal with the political development of the Party as the Republican Movement undertook the process of transforming itself into a revolutionary party from the early 1970s. There is some really good information on the challenges faced by those driving this change, and the bases on which the successes that were achieved were built. I’m thinking especially of the sections on the PAYE protests and the success with which the authors communicate the dedication, effort, vision and sense of purpose that animated the transformation from Republican Movement to Workers’ Party. The feeling that there was an opportunity for changing the nature of Irish politics (in the south at least) and creating a serious party of the working class emanates from the page. If the book brings out some of the verve and positive aspects of being a member of The Workers’ Party, it also demonstrates the risks and dangers too, especially in the north. I suspect that the fact that the 1983 election produced gun attacks on Workers’ Party members’ homes in Belfast will come as a shock to some CLR readers. And yet that was the reality of trying to sustain socialist politics in a sectarian society with different sets of authoritarian sectarian terrorists. People ought certainly to bear that and similar events in mind when they are reading the other parts of this book. The attitude of The Workers’ Party to the northern state is something that can still raise a great deal of debate. It seems to me that many people outside The WP – especially those who have grown in the changed circumstances since 1994 – find it hard to fathom – why did The WP talk to loyalists, why was it so strong in its opposition to violence, how could it support the police, deeply-flawed as it was, etc. Page 311 of this book quotes from a debate in Mornington in 1975 that seems to me to capture the essence of thinking in the North. Three of the four pragmatic considerations listed there shaped policy in a society where workers were being killed for their religion:
(b) To save as many lives as possible (c) To save our personnel and the movement (d) To ensure the continuity of our political line
In terms of Irish politics and society more generally, the book makes clear the extent to which the working class and the poor were ignored, and were voiceless in Irish politics and society. The corrupt and venal nature of the Irish political elite, and the other institutions of society -especially the media and the church heirarchy – also comes across strongly. The book details – albeit without explicitly saying that this is what it is doing – the ways in which many of the scandals that engulfed the south’s ruling elites in the 1990s were brought to light by The Workers’ Party in the Irish People, in the Dáil and elsewhere, sometimes years before the compliant media finally chose to publish the truth. The extent to which the revolutionary socialist vision of The Workers’ Party terrified the establishment also comes across clearly in the book, whether it was the Catholic priests in rural Northern Ireland promoting the Provisionals, or Haughey meeting people from RTÉ on how to handle the “nest of sticky vipers”, or conservative trade union leaders seeking to deprive WP members of the chance to stand for election by refusing leaves of absence, or Fianna Fáil setting up a group tasked with rebuffing The WP threat. It’s clear that the pillars of Irish society since independence – in other words those responsible for the poverty, conservatism, and reactionary nature of a state and society that could not sustain its own population – rightly recognised that the success of The Workers’ Party would mean an end to Ireland as it existed; and that they mobilised their resources against it.
To go back to the book itself then. I have to say I was surprised at times at how little analysis there actually is. I suspect this is due to issues of space, but as I noted above the reader is left to make connections for themselves that might be obvious to people very familiar with this period, but not to everyone. Writing this type of book, where so much depends on anonymous sources, presents major challenges for any author. We need only look at the controversy over Peter Hart’s account of the Kilmichael ambush to see the potential pitfalls. In essence, a book like this involves the authors choosing to provide one or more of competing versions of the same story. In a book that is a narrative such as this one, that can be a problem, because quite often one version is given without much acknowledgement that there are others.
To those of us who are or have been members of The Workers’ Party, we will be able to place the names of those quoted in this book on the spectrum of the various splits, and judge the quotes accordingly. While a person’s politics is sometimes related, this is far from being always the case. And the consequence is that we are often presented with a version drawn from one side or the other, but presented in a straightforward manner. For example, it will be obvious to the likes of me that such and such a person is part of a group of people who decided in the late 1990s to reject the political development of the previous 20 years and who failed in an attempt to take over the Party, and that therefore anything they say about The Workers’ Party and its attitude to policing is deeply coloured by their hatred for the Party leadership; but without the affiliations of interviewees being given, it is not obvious to the average reader. I would have liked the authors to have at least commented on these difficulties somewhere and how they selected what to believe, or given the political affiliation of the named people quoted not only at the time, but subsequently. It is also often unclear when someone is described in the source notes at the end whether someone labelled a WP member is so now, or was at the period under discussion. I assume it’s the latter, but I’m not sure. The book is somewhat different to what I had expected. I had expected there would have been more explanation of people as to why they stayed or went at any given time. Again, I assume this is due to reasons of space and perhaps style. There is a wealth of fascinating material about the differences of opinion within the Republican Movement and Workers’ Party at various stages, and in these accounts, the authors do use their interviews to great effect.
For me, the book offers one overriding lesson. It shows that the only way the working class in Ireland has ever had an effective voice is when there has been a committed, disciplined and organised political party dedicated to the working class above all. As we know before the rise of The Workers’ Party, and since its collapse, the bourgeoisie in Ireland have run the state completely in their own interests, unchallenged. They have got rich on the backs of the workers. The book demonstrates how it was only a Workers’ Party active at the community, political, and social levels that was capable of threatening the consensus that shaped the state, and to which we have returned. Swingeing cuts, workers ripped-off to subsidise the rich, the failure of capitalism to provide sustainable economic growth and employment. Sectarian division allowing reaction to flourish. These were the consequences of an island without class politics. And these are the conditions we face now. The need for a militant party of the working class has never been stronger. The responsibility on those of us on the left to build it has never been greater.