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Irish Stalinism

The Ideology of the Workers’ Party

D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

6 January 2019

Recently, on the Cedar Lounge Revolution website there occurred a debate which members of the Workers’ Party used to publicise their party’s line. What they revealed was very impressive but also depressing, not least because they believe in it.

It combines a dogmatic (the WP would claim, dialectical) world view that presents Stalin’s Soviet Union as the model for the socialist society with an attractive pragmatic approach to day to day problems within Irish capitalism:

The Workers’ Party’s immediate prognosis is that we’re a very small party with little in the way of public representatives. This is to be expected for any project that starts small. For projects to start big is tricky in Ireland. Even the SocDems went from 3 to 2 TDs, and what they’re trying to sell is close to Labour Party mark 2.
Projects which have success generally take about 15 years to find their feet, and many do not. The keys to success are being able to build an organisation that can function to carry out the tasks necessary to make contact with the working class and help to find interventions that are relevant to the conditions that they are feeling.
And to build that organisation, you have to have cadre. ………. If you don’t have them, you’re going nowhere.
The point of elections then for us in the medium term is two fold. It helps to put us into constant contact with people so that we can understand where they are, and they can come to know us. The second is to help train our cadre on carrying out this task as we grow.
We’ve been growing quite rapidly over the last year. The appetite for a radical socialist party that is also concerned with getting stuck in with bread and butter issues is only increasing.
We could of course through (sic) in the towel if we thought one of the other projects was sufficient, or could eventually be turned round, but we don’t, and the people who join us generally do not either.
The Trotskyist parties are bigger, so we tend to get people who are either more interested in foreign policy, more interested in technical policy, more interested in the republican tradition or more interested in historical materialism. Indeed many of the things that you find seriously distasteful are of zero negative impact on our recruitment as the youth simply do not share your cold-war anti-communist attitudes.
I wish we could offer people a realistic prospect of 30 councillors tomorrow, but we can’t. We’ll have to settle for trying to lay the basis for a party which can have serious influence in the unions, activity in the communities and can eventually be seen as a viable organ of the working class…
All very reasonable, in fact mostly truistic. Moreover, the WP does claim to have produced fully costed policies on a number of issues, most notably on housing. Here its line cannot possibly be worse than the chameleon-like successive proposals of the present twenty-six county Government.

Any reservations as to the above prospectus are to be centred on two aspects. There is the fifteen year time table, setting a period in which anything can happen. Within one year (1990-1) the Workers Party moved from being on the fringe of mass organization, with more Dail seats than its predecessor, Sinn Fein had enjoyed since 1927, to being, once more, a struggling sect. Whether its current leadership can provide for this is an open question.

More disturbing is the question of that leadership’s overall perspective. Reading the list of subjects on which the party is attracting recruits, and comparing them to its spokespersons’ statements on aspects of these matters, it seems that they have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing, save what they have read from various apologiae for the Stalinised soviet regime and its satellites.

The party is recruiting cadres with interests in foreign policy, technical policy, the republican tradition and historical materialism, in that order. In at least three of these spheres, the spokespersons’ stated analyses make it doubtful whether these recruits are likely to benefit from their membership. On foreign policy, they will be told that any outside criticism of the SU is merely the product of ‘cold war anti-Communist attitudes’, or, where this cannot cover the truth, as in the purges, that it was but the result of paranoia based on reality, as if that excused it. Other facts will be suppressed as far as possible, notably that victories for proletarian revolutions occurred despite the guidelines set by the Kremlin or that that body had its own (often cruder) propaganda initiatives. On republicanism, it is difficult to see what they are likely to learn that is not derogatory of the oppressed country nationalism that has been central to Irish republicanism, apart, that is, from the alleged need for Irexit. On historical materialism, it is necessary only to look at the WP spokespersons’ defence of their illusion that Socialism existed in one country.

A short comment is insufficient to carry a full argument but I  think the idea of the USSR as state capitalist post 1929, seems to stretch the meaning of capitalism well past the breaking point. It was a system which made use of comprehensive planning, had no capitalists, in which money didn’t function as a circulating capital, in which both money expansion and prices were set by fiat under planning constraints, and in which there were no cyclic crises of overproduction.
This analysis to describe socialism fails on several levels. Firstly, there is the confusion of identifying a society with its economic basis, the economic determinism denounced by Engels in Anti-Duehring and in his letters to the prospective revisionists collected in his How People Make History. This determinism fails to account for the fact that to keep the economic system going in a single country it is necessary to impose a strict discipline that will tend to strangle its technical development and to suppress any effective desire for socialistic reform. Then there is the list of the said economy’s qualities that are said to make it, and its society genuinely socialist. Comprehensive planning of a command economy left the absent capitalists replaced as expropriators of surplus value by bureaucrats. Their confiscations were less than those of the capitalists in their states, but they were still enough to whet their appetite for capitalist status. Unlike their subjects, they were able to fulfill their aspirations. ‘No crises of overproduction’, no, plenty of underproduction or shortages. Commodity production was never eliminated completely after Russia’s 1919-21 war communism period ended; there was always a certain market economy for agricultural goods. Above all, however much the workers’ states tried to run their economies without market conditions, they were as much part of the international market as any global corporation. Their only escape from this would have been autarchy, but, though better able to practice this than Ireland in the thirties, they could not diminish it completely.

The spokespersons for the Workers’ Party do not present any ideas as to how these problems can be resolved, with the exception of how a command economy can deal with shortages. Unsurprisingly this is taken from the old east German state, the German Democratic Republic (DDR).

Fullbrook has a book on the “Participatory Dictatorship” in the DDR which looks at this question in some detail. Suffice it to say the mechanism of transmission is no mystery. The apparatus to assess sentiment was extremely well developed, and encompassed not just a very extensive complaint system, but the Stasi itself was constantly centrally reporting discontent so as to stave off the possibility of something like ’53.
 The Coffee crisis episode is an excellent window into how this took place. Indeed now available internal Stasi documents demonstrate the extent to which they state security apparatus was terrified that people were unsatisfied by their coffee. They actually changed foreign policy and foreign development as a response to this in order to ensure adequate coffee supplies.
We can perhaps contrast this with the results of sentiment in a democracy such as the US, where statistical data demonstrates that individual sentiment of voters has no statistically significant impact on policy, regardless of how many people enjoy it.
So it would seem that socialism ‘actually achieved’ will depend on the state police to prevent active dissidence not only by stick or truncheon but by carrot as well.  It provokes the question, what were the functions of the soviets and east German Reichstag? Moreover, if the process was so effective, how come the Wall fell?  In fact, the answer to the second question is simple. We are not told how ‘foreign policy and foreign development’ were changed to supply coffee. Were not these changes subject to the international market, that is world capitalism (coffee was not a staple crop in east Germany)? Were they for better or for worse?  What is certain is that the citizens of the state were not asked as to the choice. Equally certainly, they were considered as individual consumers; the only collectivism in the transmission process was at the top. Socialism, how are ye?

The Workers’ Party is a socialist party with an admirable ethic of activism, tied to a perspective that is unlikely to achieve its overall aims as stated above. This is because they are unsatisfactory in themselves.  It may claim that this is the result of capitalist propaganda, but it is unlikely to win mass support if these aims are presented honestly. More importantly, those whom it claims to target for membership may well decide that the party’s vision, while superior to that of existing imperialism is not sufficiently so to justify the struggle for it. Happily, there are other alternatives.

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