The following piece first appeared on the Substack Creeve Rua and is syndicated with the permission of the author.
This article establishes the timeline in which the Irish Left, epitomised by The Workers’ Party (or the Stickies, for short), abandoned the traditional principles of republicanism and class in favour of managerial liberalism.
Primarily focusing on the ideological rhetoric over the 1970s to the year 1990, I wish to highlight how a movement can be usurped by leading administrative figures, from radical dissident politics to the epitome of mainstream discourse. In this sense, radical parties must be understood as fertile ground for furthering the social and economic establishment’s programme, if used correctly.
For Ireland in particular, the engagement of the Leftist vanguard with the cultural revolution of the late 20th Century, as well as the current ruling neoliberal consensus, must be understood correctly. The Left was not always aligned with the Liberal establishment, but mutated into its current state through a decades long process of ideological engineering.
This is not to suggest an apologetic for the former Irish Left, far from it. The point is to demonstrate the complex relationship between established financial and political elites with their masses of ghouls on the dissident extremes. It is just as insightful to study the ideology of the rearguard henchmen of an entrenched superstructure as it is their own official rhetoric. Perhaps it is more important, at least in understanding what their on the ground programme is.
So, in starting off, The Workers’ Party’ was a party that grew out of Official Sinn Féin in and around 1975. They would quickly become the most influential hard-left political party in the country. Led by the Industrial Department of Eoghan Harris and Eamonn Smullen, they engaged in an ideological transformation. The party was founded on militant republicanism and socialism. This article is about how that changed.
‘State ownership was rejected in Public Service and the Profit Makers (1975) and Public Servants for the Public Sector (1976) in favour of the idea of independent commercial state companies like Aer Lingus and Bord na Mona.’
Blueprints for the Irish Technostructure (1975-1978)
—‘The Public Sector and the Profit Makers’ (1975)
The first shades of a shift from leftist orthodoxy by the Officials occur in the document ‘The Public Sector and the Profit Makers’ (1975). There, Eamon Smullen (it appears) lays out a turn away from protectionism and nationalism in the Irish left, and a qualified embrace of technocratic globalisation. He provides a cultural critique of economic nationalism: ‘Sinn Fein believes it is sterile and reactionary to seek Tariff Protection’ and that ‘the Treaty of Rome is not wrong because it exposes a dying breed of Irish gombeens, who are now howling for Protection.’
For Smullen, ‘scientific socialism’ as he calls it cannot be achieved by the rural and Catholic communities of the West because they lack the industrial spirit needed for revolution. The revolutionary constituency is in ‘State Managers who aggressively expand their companies’ instead of the localised socialists of the Provos’
Following on from this,
‘Ultra left groups who become hysterical about bureaucrats also play into the hands of the private sector. The facts of life are that “local democracy” in Ireland has always meant the rule of the local gombeens.’
At a time when the vast majority of the Irish left opposed the EEC and foreign finance infiltrating the country (and with the rise of agrarian radicalism, like Lia Fáil), Smullen was demonstrating his brand of socialism had a pronounced appreciation for technocratic elitism. The Officials stood instead for a liberation of manager professionals, even if that meant supporting foreign companies.
The core of this managerial revolution was ideologically systematised for the Stickie movement writ large with its central encyclical, ‘The Irish Industrial Revolution’ (1978). Bequeathed to the Party rank and file by the Industrial Department, in it Eoghan Harris and his lackeys embark on a full-throttled siege against the ideological foundations of Gaelic Republicanism.
Where the ‘green official history of modern Ireland’ – from men like Griffith – claimed ‘evil British laws’ retarded Ireland’s social and political prosperity, the document instead names the ‘Irish National Bourgeoise’ as the culprit. Giving a pseudo-historical picture of Ireland over the past four centuries, Harris prefigures his later Ulster Unionism by ‘destroying the myth’ that ‘Catholics were equally oppressed by the Penal Laws’ . Griffith’s ‘populist’ account was wrong, free trade was actually the path to liberation for the managerial class.
Throughout the 169 page pamphlet Harris continually reiterates the metaphysical chasm between the new Managerial Ireland and the Provo’s’ idealised conception: ‘It is not a populist plan for a return to a TÍr na nÓg village society, peopled by casual handymen and weatherproof farm labourers. It is not a plan of any kind of Éire Nua with its seedy echoes of an old and unlamented Ireland.’ . He goes so far as to argue that Provisional Sinn Féin’s ‘small is beautiful’ vision of a federal Ireland – influenced by Desmond Fennell and EF Scheumacher – is actually the emergence of Blueshirt ideology:
‘These theories of localism, regionalism and ‘small manism’ are the contemporary expression of the old corporate state idea that was strongly supported by the Blueshirts. Its intellectual underpinnings derive from the perversion of Papal encyclicals and the distortion known as the principle of subsidiary.’
Instead, our managerial future will birth a hybrid Ireland. In outlining its emergence, Harris applies his infamous accelerationist-novelty-take that the post-TK Whitaker free trade regime, relying on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and American Capital cannibalising the Irish economy, has sown the seeds for ‘scientific socialism’.
The process of Ireland’s entry into the ‘world capitalist network’ has ‘objectively resulted in increasing the numerical strength of the Irish working class.’ How this is the case is largely unclear, but the cultural impacts are striking: the new Ireland will bring women and the elderly into the working class and lead to new forms of social control, such as contraception:
‘The other (longer term) possibility for them is to cut down the birthrate by pushing contraception, (since they cannot acceptably come out in favour of a reduction in the marriage rate!). Thus we see the prominent “Labour” minister Cruise O’Brien and Fine Gael’s Garret Fitzgerald making strident calls for contraception.’
While a throwaway passage, it’s worth noting this critique. Harris is criticizing the Liberal establishment for their support of contraception in order to reduce the Irish birthrate — and yet, SFWP – Harris’ Party – were avid supporters of contraception, divorce and abortion legalisation. It makes one wonder, as in much of radical critique in general, where the line between analytically reporting elite policy and actually admiring it begins.
Concluding the polemic, Harris (with clear collaboration from others) lays out his vision for a state-planned bureaucracy of managers. Most of the policies outlined here resemble a type of perestroika state-management of major industries like oil, fisheries and minerals. Prefiguring some of the technocratic bugman critiques of today, he attacks the Irish dairy and meat industry, as well as suggesting further state collaboration with multinational tech companies. Interestingly, several years later Harris would concede the state-led industrial goals were really secondary to the primary theme of attacking Irish patriotism:
‘The point of the Irish Industrial Revolution, the first class-based critique of Irish history since James Connolly’s “Labour in Irish History”, was not so much to set out a policy of industrialisation as to make a complete critique of Irish nationalism with the object of cutting the ground from under the Provos and the parties of the national bourgeoisie who all shared the same green spectacles.’
At this point, in 1978, I believe it is instructive to remind ourselves of what the core policies of Sinn Féin — The Workers’ Party still are: Socialism and (small r) republicanism. They have dropped protectionism and nationalism in favour of globalisation. Next, class-based socialism would come under scrutiny.
The revolt against Gaelic Capitalism (1978-1983)
‘While [Smullen] stressed that Sinn Féin wanted ‘state companies in place of the Tony O’Reillys’, in the interim ‘productive multinationals’ were preferable to ‘protected Irish sweat-shops’, because in the long term the working class would ‘rid themselves of both’. In this view, industrialization ‘foreign and Irish… strengthened the working class’ as it helped create ‘its own gravediggers’.’ (Brian Hanley,)
—‘Tony O’Reilly’s Last Game: A Case History of Irish Capitalism’ (1979)
Following from the realisation that accelerating the decline of the old ‘irish national bourgeoisie’ was in the interest of the workers, SFWP published the document ‘Tony O’Reilly’s Last Game: A Case History of Irish Capitalism’ (1979). It sets out the business career of billionaire Tony O’Reilly, in an overwrought mock-sport cast style, and how his corporate raid against one of Ireland’s oldest companies, Gouldings, is indicative of Irish domestic capitalism.
According to Smullen, O’Reilly’s encouragement of foreign American capital coming in and squeezing out Irish firms was simply the industrial process at work. While acknowledging this policy’s brutality for the Irish worker in the short run, 365 Goulding’s workers lost their jobs after O’Reilly bought up stocks in the company (according to the document it seems), Smullen argues that in the long run this new form of ruthlessness toward the old Irish bourgeoisie will lead to proletarianisation, and should be supported. He relishes in how the ‘fat and inefficient blubber’ which ‘slumbered peacefully under protection’ was to be ‘torn apart’ by American finance like the Williams group and Fitzwilton . While thankful of the accelerating effect of O’Reilly’s American business dealings, Smullen remarks against his ethnic favouritism:
‘He has formed an “Ireland Fund” in America, styled on the lines of the Jewish Fund with which US Jews swamp Israel with money as a means of appeasing their Zionist consciences.’ —‘Land for the People’ (1979)
With the axis of evil being clearly defined as native Irish capital – particularly in its old protectionist mode – a more concrete direction was advocated for liberating the Irish worker into modern industrial globalisation. In ‘Land for the People’ (1979), a paper which isn’t readily available online, the party argued for land redistribution and restructuring of the rural country. The furthering of the managerial agenda of SFWP would require a total turning away from the rural life of parish and family, the traditional ‘muintir’ or ‘tuath’:
‘The point of Land for the People was not so much to set out a sensible leasing policy (not nationalisation) as to strip away the sentimental veils which allowed the rural bourgeoisie to dominate Political life with reactionary values.’ (The Necessity for Social Democracy)
Harris would later say ‘protectionism and “Buy Irish” campaigns’ were the targets of such critique. As with the IIR earlier in its antipathy for agriculture, one is perhaps reminded here of the economic assault on small Irish businesses in the current years. For SFWP-style socialism to prevail, the Irish worker must be urban and disconnected from native Irish industry.
—‘Come on the Taxpayers!’ (1979)
With this new geographical formulation of the Irish workers came an economic shift too, in ‘Come on the Taxpayers!’ (1979). There, SFWP directed the Irish left toward new middle class tax-payers, particularly urban professionals, as opposed to poorer farmers. Those who paid PAYE taxes were considered more revolutionary, as much of the farming sector, even poorer workers, were petit-bourgeois — not beholden to the State and public sector.
‘The identification of PAYE workers as the core constituency for a new political campaign was pushed vigorously by the Industrial Department; Fergus Whelan recalls that “at one stage we even made the decision to stop saying the worker class, instead referring to the PAYE sector”’ (Hanley, pg499)
Harris later looked back fondly on this moment as a crucial crossing of the rubicon for the party on economic matters:
‘Come on the Taxpayers’ (1978) had ‘political point[s]’ that ‘took priority over socialist economic dogmas’. It was not ‘to build city and class consciousness’ but ‘to challenge the dominant ideology that farmers were “the backbones of the country”’
Moving into the early 1980s, the party began to controversially apply their established principles of anti-nationalism and middle-class socialism. Firstly, they were the only party on the Irish left which aggressively opposed the 1981 Hunger Strike. Similarly, through the Ned Stapleton Cumann in RTÉ, Harris and co. meticulously enforced the Section 31 broadcasting rule which banned Provisional Sinn Féin from the public airways. After a brief stint with 3 TDs in coalition with Charlie Haughey’s Fianna Fáil government, The Party officially abandoned their republican past by becoming simply ‘The Workers’ Party’ in 1982. From here on out they campaigned for abortion, divorce and other liberal social issues, vaguely retaining a type of Soviet-friendly socialism.
By the mid-1980s The Workers’ Party were no longer republican (even in name), nationalist or working-class based. The question then naturally arose: how were they still different from managerial liberalism?
Neoliberal Ireland is born (1983-1990)
With the tensions of balance between the new post-Marxist left’s focus on cultural consumerism and the old Guard’s state-socialist economics bubbling under this surface, a compromise was required. Henry Patterson, beloved historian of Eoghan Harris, wrote ‘The State of Marxism in Ireland’ (1983) diagnosing this crisis plaguing the Irish left. He sensed the need for a reevaluation of hardline Marxist economics. In his essay, Patterson insists the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘Marxist’ still apply for the time being, but orthodox ‘economism’ which sidesteps the new liberal cultural battles – and at worst tolerates reactionary values – must be done away with. Patterson’s main goal is ‘the destruction of the influence of a reactionary ideology [republicanism] on the labour movement.’. For too long ‘”orthodox” Marxism has not been challenged’, instead, ‘Orthodoxy has meant contaminating Marxism with nationalism.’. It becomes clear Leftism needs to be diversified.
Turning to the successes of ‘neo-Gramscians’ on the continent, the Irish left must learn to focus its assault on the social mores of Nation, Family and Church. Patterson positively, though not uncritically, quotes the CPI (Communist Party of Italy):
‘”We need a different concept of socialism, for so long as it is conceived only in terms of socialisation of the means of production it has very little to offer to satisfy the demands of the “new movements” (feminism, gays, enviromentalists, CND etc.)”’ (5)
In particular, Gramsci informs the Irish left as to how ‘reserves’ of power are used by the bourgeoisie to prevent labour movements from seizing power. A typical example ‘is the authoritarian aspects of Irish political culture noted by political scientists, which have their roots in the structures of familial and sexual relations, and in the deep interwoveness of state and Church in broad areas of social life particularly education, welfare and the family.’ The spectre of the Irish national bourgeoisie use these conservative values to keep down the worker, and only once they are destroyed can ‘scientific socialism’ be achieved. From here, the ideological trajectory of future Left movements become clear: focus on tackling the heartland and traditional values of the nation, and after that get to class concerns.
Patterson helpfully lays out the plan: ‘the attainment of sexual equality, the destruction of clientalism, and the elimination of nationalist influences in the Republic’s politics must become integral aspects of the struggle for socialism.’ (7). Adding to this, the tendency to have a ‘dismissive reaction’ to the womens’ movement ‘must be resisted.’ (7). Perhaps sensing some of the criticism which was inevitably going to be levied his way from the older guard of TWP for his apparent abandonment of class altogether, Patterson urged that socialism was still integral to Gramscian ‘praxis’:
‘However, these democratic struggles, no matter how popular, do not, as the neo-Gramscians argue, displace the struggle for socialism which has its roots in economic class struggle. The attainment of their objectives is a condition of the class differentiation which must take place before the struggle for socialism becomes possible.’
Bearing in mind this ‘trust me bro’ addendum, it’s worth seeing what direction The Workers’ Party ended up going. With the Workers’ Party now thoroughly abandoning its ‘Sinn Féin’ past, embracing an anti-national, progressive form of (non-economistic) socialism, it was due to time to abandon the workers altogether.
Moving closer to the slick 90s of U2, Charlton’s soccer team and the Celtic Tiger, new Ireland needed a New Left. The official inauguration of this was in Proinsias De Rossa TD’s 1989 ‘Presidential Address’.
Shocking much of the old guard of the party, De Rossa announced a turn away from socialist economics altogether — and toward Blairite market reforms.
De Ross starts the speech making clear his intentions: ‘This year I want to challenge some “sacred cows”…raise some questions and offer some answers.’. He idolises a future 90s where The Worker’s Party will ‘start to campaign for new technology’ which would ‘provide meaningful employment’ as well ‘give women their proper place in society as equals’ — which supposedly means achieving abortion and divorce legalisation as well as the mass wagie-ism of domestic housewives . After mildly paying homage to the critique of the established parties in Ireland and their mismanagement of the economy De Rossa engages in a bit of vintage Leftist Unionism, at this point a stalwart principle of The Workers’ Party (though perhaps not in quite such explicit terms):
‘“The Provos can never win. Their power to inflict is not as great as the Protestant people’s power to endure and despite all Provo provocation there has been no Protestant murder campaign on the scale of the Provos genocidal war. The Protestants of the North have won the moral war, they are winning the propaganda war, and if they hold their hand and refuse to retaliate they will win the physical war as well.”
While those sympathetic to aspects of the Republican struggle had long been erased from the Stickie movement (erased perhaps being a polite phrasing of the fate that reached Seamus Costello among others), having the president of the party officially aligning the party with Unionism – and accusing the Provos of initiating genocide – was a striking acceleration of rhetoric. Particularly striking when one is reminded of the fact the Workers’ Party grew out of the Officials – a militant republican organisation.
Regardless, what really insured the infamy of the speech was the the outright abandonment of socialist economics:
‘We stand for enterprise, energy and experimentation in the South. We want a society that goes out to work and that brings home the bacon.
Socialism as we see it, is not anti-market, anti-enterprise and anti-individual. Socialism will stimulate effort, enthusiasm and enterprise in all levels of our society. Work will be well rewarded and the lazy penalised – and that means dole spongers as well as tax-dodgers, short-day shirkers as well as bosses.’ (23)
While this general outlook may seem quite moderate, for the president of a party which had direct alliances with North Korea, the Soviet Union and China – over their apparent agreement over state-socialism – aligning with ‘market enterprise’ was a shock for many. For the new Irish Left, there was no room for such statism, the radical break had been made. De Rossa closes the speech noting this historical turning:
‘All too often socialists are accused of being against enterprise and innovation, against sturdy individualism, against risk taking and competition, getting on in the world by your own individual efforts, and in general suffering from begrudgery.
I think it is fair to say that the old left in Ireland suffered from some of these symptoms, and if so it is a flu that this party does not want to catch.’ (21)
The emphasis on individualism is what I find most interesting. In the age of the consumerist 90s, with all the optimisim of the Celtic Tiger and the End of History rushing through Ireland, the New Left had to stake its claim in the utopian vision of the future. Who else could better fulfil the aspirations of a consumerist managerial class?
—‘The Necessity of Social Democracy’ (1990)
‘It is now the time for individuals.’ (2)
This brings us to Harris’ magnum opus, ‘The Necessity of Social Democracy’ (1990). Here, writing like a millenarian preacher for the coming Neoliberal world order, Harris declares that socialist economics, nationalism and all forms of collectivism are dead. The individual self has triumphed over the community, and the decades long battle of The Workers’ Party, for scientific managerialism and liberalocracy, has come to fruition. The Old Left — the Provisionals, the Soviet Union, etc — that was economistic (meaning state-socialist), nationalist and conservative has been defeated by the managerial revolution. The New Left, which stands for the self above all else, is born.
Harris opens off the work asking the question ‘Is socialism dead?’ (2). With 1989 marking the beginning of the decline of communism (accelerated by the Fall of the Berlin Wall) virtually all Left movements were forced to confront this existential question. For Harris, the answer is a resounding “Yes” – ‘Socialist economics are dead. Socialism without democracy is dead. Socialism without the person, the self is dead. Poor Clare socialism is dead.’ (4). He argues that the Soviet Union and other socialist states have resoundingly failed because they blocked ‘the cornerstones of civil society’ like ‘Consumer choice’ which is triumphed in the West (3). The perennial error of socialism – like ‘that dirty word “Republican”’ – was its disregard for the self-interested individual, apparently the heart of civilisation (3):
‘Socialism said that politics was about the collective, about society, about the proletariat, about any number greater than one. And in 1989 the people of Europe, for the second time in two hundred years, told us that was not so, and that politics is always about the person.
The individual person is the whole point of history.’ (8)
Celebrating the central principle of Classical Liberalism, Harris ties the West’s victory against collectivism to its liberation of a financial elite, unbeholden to the constraints of a closed state. In Ireland, the newly made elites are the key to Liberal revolution. Reiterting the party’s abandonment of the Irish yeomanry, Harris states ‘that entrepreneurs are as necessary as dockers or dentists. No, let’s be straight about it. Entrepreneurs are more necessary.’ (5) and, about their core electorate, that ‘They admire people like Smurfit, Goodman, Tony O’Reilly. Only Trots think otherwise.’ (6). For a party which had published pamphlets solely devoted to attacking Tony O’Reilly, to now publish pamphlets lavishing him with praise, Harris was intentionally rustling feathers. Provoking further, he surveys the output of The Workers’ Party’s catalog, explaining each pamphlet as a step further in his neoliberal direction. At one point claiming he, a former Stalinist, ‘never believed in state-ownership of industry’ (6).
In my view, while there was definite ideological deception in the parties’ on-the-ground activism and in the economic plans laid out in the parties’ documents (think the state-planning section of The Irish Industrial Revolution), Harris has an argument for his ideological consistency.
From the earliest documents published by the Industrial Department, The Workers’ Party marked a shift from the traditional collectivism of the left (nationalism, socialism, etc) toward a type of managerial revolution. Harris understands this within the context of Marxism, arguing that his embrace of entrepenurial capitalism is consistent with dialectical materialism, because ‘The historic goal’ of Marxism is ‘Freedom of the person in a civil society’ (14). When one embraces Gramscian hegemony as a method of understanding power in bourgeois society, how can liberal individualism be achieved if the State continues to restrain the economic freedom of the new financial classes? Especially if they’re more socially liberal than the reactionary masses.
Apparently liberal self-expression was always core to Marxism. In fact, the ‘3 principles of Marxism’ can be reduced to:
‘1. Universal Suffrage.’
‘2. An Open Society.’
‘3. Freedom of Religion.’
Of course all three of these principles can be translated into Harris’ new formulation of Workers’ Party ideology as Blairite social democracy. The first principle, ‘Universal Suffrage’, refers to feminism, abortion, LGBTQIA+ and the general liberal-consumerist equalising of masses into a culture of nothingness. The second, the much-beloved ‘Open Society’, refers to the end of nation-states and sovereignty. The third, ‘Freedom of Religion’, can essentially be boiled down to suppression of Catholicism and other socially conservative views – as in Section 31, RTÉ’s principle of blocking Catholics in the North from the public square (a policy which Harris tirelessly defended of course).
After praising Gorbachev and the ‘professional communicator’ Peter Mandelson, Harris comes to the end of his polemic, announcing ‘the transformation of communism to the self-governing civil society’ had been achieved (12). With the subsequent collapse of the Worker’s Party into what would become Democratic Left, led by Harris’ protégé, Prionsias De Rossa, the 15 year plus struggle had come to an end. Harris, Smuulen and co. planted the seeds that took a movement steeped in Republicanism and State-socialism – Official Sinn Féin – and created a Unionist and market-friendly neoliberal party, Democratic Left.
While Harris would later go on to be strategic advisor for successful neoliberals like Mary Robinson and John Bruton, as well communication advisor for Ahmed Chalabi (the post-American-invasion Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq) his legacy in transforming the Irish Left is in many ways his life achievement.
Overall, this article set out to develop the ideological timeline of The Workers’ Party to their eventual by-product of ‘Democratic Left’. It is a story of how the most prominent Irish Left party went about abandoning class, nation and eventually radicalism of any kind in favour of Liberal managerialism. I hope I have demonstrated how a radical, vanguard party can be taken and yielded into fulfilling the interests of the entrenched establishment. For this I allege no official collusion or conspiracy, nor do I defend the previous vanguard, but I urge the reader to make a mental note of how radical ideology is used to reshape society in the interests of the Elite.
- Hanley, Brian and Scott Millar. 2009. The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party. New York;Dublin, Ireland;: Penguin Ireland.
All Workers’ Party pamphlets:
1975 – The Public Sector and the Profit Makers
1978 – The Irish Industrial Revolution
1979 – Tony O’Reilly’s Last Game: A Case History of Irish Capitalism
1979 – Land for the People
1979 – Come on the Taxpayers!
1983 – The State of Marxism in Ireland
1989 – Presidential Address by Proinsias De Rossa TD, Workers’ Party Annual Delegate Conference,
1990 – The Necessity of Social Democracy