Itís not just a question of bad people selling out the working class in Northern Ireland
Interview with Irish Socialist Network member Colm Breathnach - By Laura Duffy of fourthwrite magazine
When did the Irish Socialist Network form?
In the late 1980ís/early 1990ís there was a small group within the Workers Party, which was for all its faults a mass party at least in the South at the time, moving towards a more radical socialist position. Unfortunately the split in the movement in 1992 came too early and the radical left went in different directions, either into Democratic Left or Workers Party, or as individuals to somewhere else. We all then, at one stage or another left the organisations we had been in, either the WP or the Democratic Left, especially when that party went into government. Our origins are in the death throes of the WP and a few years later we wanted to get re-involved in the radical left but didnít see any of the existing organisations as being a suitable home for us. We decided to set up the Irish Socialist Network in 2001.
Does the Irish Socialist Network see itself developing into a political party?
No and we are very clear about this at the outset. We are a political grouping and we share a number of principles and visions in common but we do not see ourselves as a party, particularly the view which is common on the left, of a vanguard party or a party that will lead the working class. We see ourselves as playing a role with other groups in building a mass party, a radical party of the working class. We reject the idea that you can have a small elite group which will lead the working class to socialism.
So often in the past left-wing parties in Ireland have drifted off into parliamentary reformism, - what can be done by Irish Socialist Network to prevent that?
We had the actual experience of being in a party, the Workerís Party in the 1980ís, which was in theory, a radical socialist party, and went down the road where first of all, parliamentary politics began to dominate and in the end became the only aim that it held. I think one of the things that people on the left often get wrong is that they see the drift into reformism in terms of individual corruption and in general I donít think thatís the process. I think that when people get locked into electoral politics, parliamentary politics, they are drawn in by the institutions and the drift is gradual and often almost unnoticeable and unintentional. So itís not just a question of bad people selling out on the working class, it can happen to anyone and to any organisation. Our view would be that you can engage in electoral activity but it is only a subordinate part of the activities of a radical organisation and that the main part is campaigning and empowering working people themselves. I think we arenít necessarily wiser than anyone else, but we have a contribution to make in avoiding that sort of drift again if we are successful in building a party of the radical left.
Does the Irish Socialist Network take a view of the current partnership arrangement in the 26 counties?
Yes we do and we are absolutely opposed to it. Itís a way of co-opting people into the system and itís a way of undermining class struggle. It seldom delivers what it claims in return for this class peace as it rarely offers real material gains for ordinary people. In fact the opposite is true as in the last decade inequality has risen substantially and there has been no effective change in the fundamental class structure. So itís a way by which the people who rule and the people with the economic and political power lock the general population into the system. A part of that is the trade union bureaucracy who are very compliant because it suits them in terms of their own material interests and it gives them a quiet life without any of the strife of strikes and class struggle. We think itís a major job of the left to build opposition to the partnership process amongst ordinary trade unionists, which is something we have not done and is a big failure on the part of the radical left.
What is Irish Socialist Networkís view of the Good Friday Agreement and of the Northern situation in general?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because we are currently in the process of trying to develop a position or positions. We obviously come from the Workers Party tradition and in many ways we have rejected some of the distortions of that tradition particularly in terms of Northern Ireland, where it went from what I would have considered a fairly good position of advocating socialist and working class politics and then drifted slowly but surely towards what was essentially a unionist position. We would see the faults of that now and we reject that drift towards unionism. We have decided to develop a proper Marxist position on the North where we need to study it in detail and as a start to that process a delegation from the ISN visited Belfast recently. We met with various organisations who are active in working class communities to discuss issues such as the GFA and the overall question of partition and its relationship with the development of socialism in Ireland. The ISN is a small organisation but our internal structure is completely democratic and therefore when we decide on policies we do it by active discussion and debate. We are involved in debate in relation to the North and the GFA where we can see that the left has been too uncritical of the Agreement. There are strong criticisms to be made about it, in particular about how it has strengthened sectarianism and yet at the same time we are reluctant to take an oppositional position without having looked at it in full.
What is your view of the New World Order and how do we combat US imperialism?
This is the key question of today for progressive movements throughout the world. The section of the elite who are now in charge of the USA see an opportunity to bring about complete global dominance. They started that process with the attack on Afghanistan when the 9-11 attacks gave them the opportunity to fulfil the wish list of the American elite - extending their dominance, destroying civil liberties and crushing any hope of progressive movements within the USA itself. Obviously the alternative to that is building a counter force which will, by necessity, be made up of diverse movements and organisations who will not only oppose US imperialism but put forward the possibility of developing an alternative world system and alternative systems within their own countries. I think that process is starting to happen. In Europe there have been developments among the far left, who traditionally spent more time fighting each other and pointing out the flaws within each others programmes, but are now beginning to cooperate at a much greater level and are moving towards building mass parties. I think the recent election results in Scotland, where the Scottish Socialist Party made some major advances on a platform which basically put forward the immediate interests of working class people and linked it to the long-term goal of an independent socialist Scotland. We are nowhere near that position in Ireland, we have to begin to engage with each other and ordinary working people and try to build a mass movement that reflects all the different strands of the radical left as the first step to building an alternative society.
What else would you and/or Irish Socialist Network like to tell our readers?
I think a great failure on the part of radical leftism is the failure to connect with, to listen to and be involved with the day to day struggle of working people. Some radical leftists have tended to be very elitist, they believe they have all the answers and that its just a matter of educating the masses and then they will follow them. We donít see politics as working like that and we believe in the empowerment of working people. We certainly advocate in a non dogmatic way the use of a Marxist analysis which we see as an important tool in developing that struggle. We think it is of primary importance for people, for leftists to engage in basic struggles of ordinary people and that is the first step in developing a mass socialist movement. We believe that the manner in which we are developing our position in relation to the North and the way we should develop positions on whatever issues come up is based on that view. The left have got to dump their elitism, they have got to dump their sectarianism in the political sense of that word and I am very hopeful that we will see progress on the left in both the North and the South which will open up huge possibilities.
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