Guilt, sacrifice and purgatory points

published 04 Nov 2015

Guilt is the primary fuel from which left wing parties [1] derive the energy to power their activities. This guilt is much more mundane and immediate than the “middle class” guilt that is often projected onto such groups by their critics. In my experience, it is fairly rare for members of left parties to feel particularly guilty about their own backgrounds. They seldom come from the most privileged social groups. Besides, the activities of political parties are largely made up of routinely tedious tasks which offer little scope for the dramatic acts of self-abasement necessary to salve existentially guilty consciences.

Within the far left parties, guilt arises from the collision of lofty goals and meagre resources. Their only meaningful resource is typically the time and energy that their members volunteer. The members see themselves as participating in an endeavour that is both morally just and of crucial importance in the historical development of society. However, the resources available are often vastly insufficient for making any substantial progress towards those goals.

The problem with socialism is not just that it takes up too many evenings (it also takes up too many weekends) but also that it leaves many of its followers in a persistent state of guilt for failing to live up to the standards of dedication that they aspire to.

Maintaining a functioning administration sufficient to keep a political party functioning in any meaningful sense requires consistent expenditure of significant effort. Treasurers, secretaries and chairpersons of various sorts must devote several hours per week to internal organisational tasks: answering correspondence, taking and circulating minutes, collecting membership dues, informing members of upcoming meetings and coordinating a variety of jobs.

The production and distribution of propaganda (meant in the broadest sense [2]) is another task that must be carried out by any political party worth the name. According to tradition, in order to reach the most important audience niches, far left groups must produce and distribute newspapers, leaflets and magazines, maintain a web-site (and nowadays a social media presence) and organise and advertise public meetings and talks to advocate their goals. As far as I know, every left party in Ireland broadly follows this convention, or at least aspires to.The party must thus coordinate and execute the regular planning, writing, editing, lay-out and design, printing and distribution of a variety of different products and outputs. This media production and distribution function requires great expenditure of effort sustained over the life of the party.

The requirements of the left go beyond those that apply to all political parties. A basic principle that virtually all far left parties hold to, is that the party should participate in the mass movements of workers and the oppressed: in defence of union rights and public services, against-racism, sexism, imperialism and so on. Whenever there is a strike, march, meeting, campaign or other event related to one of these issues, as a matter of principle, the membership will often consider it to be a moral responsibility of the party to participate. Furthermore, these events are the main arena in which the far left parties compete for recruits. Those who are concerned with the party's survival know that they must expend effort within such movements or risk extinction.


Whenever a group establishes a "democratic socialist party", they commit themselves to vast expenditure of future effort, far beyond what they can provide themselves. Democratic and transparent internal structures, communication directly with the masses and participation in mass struggles are moral obligations that they have set themselves, which apply irrespective of their capacity to meet them. Fulfilling these obligations in a meaningful way requires disciplined and sustained expenditure of considerable effort. The coordination, administration, propaganda production and campaigning work needed to meet these standards is beyond what can be realistically sustained by small groups of volunteers, yet the moral pressure of the party's principles demands it. They may also face criticism whenever they are perceived as failing to live up to their principles. Virtually the sole situation in which political parties will acknowledge that their rivals exist is when they are denouncing them for a failure of principle.The more principled a party attempts to be, the greater the baseline requirement for effort. So, for example, a socialist party might believe that women's continuing primary responsibility for childcare means that they are often excluded from political life. For a political group to be anti-sexist in practice, they should therefore ensure that childcare is provided at meetings. Otherwise they are mere hypocrites, perpetuating sexist patterns. A party that follows this logic considerably increases the amount of effort required to organise every party meeting.

In practice people respond to the moral pressures in two ways. Those who identify most closely with the party see the party’s moral obligations as their own. They throw themselves into work, doing whatever needs to be done for the party to survive and thrive and live up to its principles. They often devote the majority of their available time and energy to party work, yet they inevitably come up short of their apsirations for the party, due to manifestly insufficient resources. Another group devotes time and energy intermittently, being driven by enthusiasm to volunteer for more tasks than they can complete and then fading away as the shame of failure mounts. Many boxes of newspapers and leaflets end up hidden under such such members’ beds. Everybody fails to meet their own standards, everybody knows they could have tried harder. Assuaging this accumulated guilt and avoiding future guilt drives members to repeatedly sacrifice their time and energy for the party. Those of us who regularly participated in propaganda distribution for the WSM would sometimes jokingly refer to the purpose as “winning purgatory points”.

When the WSM was freshly established in the early 1990s, Ireland was still in the throes of the economic recession that had generally persisted since the beginning of the 19th century. Most of the membership were either on the dole or were students and devoted almost all of their time and energy to the party. When I joined, in 1998, the economic boom that became known as the Celtic Tiger was in full swing and every single member was in full employment. We had to rely entirely on our free time in the evenings and at weekends. There were between 6 and 10 members actively available to the party at any one time. Our income from membership dues was less than €5000 per annum.

With those resources we produced a bi-annual newspaper, regular leaflets and newsletters, an annual magazine, a web-site, organised semi-regular public meetings and attended virtually every vaguely leftist meeting or protest we knew of. We also maintained a functional internal administration which was capable of supporting our stringent requirements for democracy and transparency in our decision making processes. This required great willingness by members to make sacrifices for the party. Material was photocopied and printed in workplaces, services such as printing, design and layout were begged and borrowed from friends and supporters, late nights and long weekends were voluntarily spent working on documents, handing out papers and travelling on party business. Ultimately members did whatever they could to so that the party would live up to its principles.

The slightly larger Marxist parties use state welfare payments to part-finance a cohort of ‘full-timers’ who take responsibility for much of the administrative and coordination functions of the party. The party will supplement these members’ social welfare payments with perhaps €50 per week, often in return for effective 80 hour working weeks. These positions are, if anything, coveted by party members, a testament to their commitment to the cause. Irrespective of this payment, which barely covers basic subsistence, they are the core of highly committed members who voluntarily devote their lives to the party. In the Marxist parties, the full timers provide a layer of bureaucracy which allows the party to manage the intermittently committed members, whereas the anarchist organisations tend to consist of mostly just the highly committed core members. In any case, all such parties depend for their survival on small groups of highly committed core members who identify strongly with the party and devote whatever time and energy they can to the party.


Upon joining the WSM in early 1998, I threw myself wholeheartedly into party work. I frequently volunteered for tasks and made every effort to complete them to as high a standard as I could. I wrote articles for the paper and magazine, drew up leaflets and posters, pestered friends to provide artwork, spoke at and helped organise public meetings, attended dozens of meetings and volunteered for almost every session where posters were mounted, and leaflets and papers were distributed. After 6 months, I accepted the position of International Secretary, responsible primarily for communication with the parties international allies and supporters, which was urged upon me on the basis that I could read French.

The party also placed other moral obligations on its members. WSM policy specified that each member was expected to be an active member of their workplace trade union. Where there was no union, they should attempt to build one. As a model member, I duly attempted to organise the workers in my company. I worked for an Internet start-up called Nua. Attempting to unionise it was one of the most futile endeavours that I have ever engaged in. The dotcom boom was in full swing and the company was a typical example of a well-funded, fast-growing technology company that didn’t really have a product. Had I been Che Guevara, James Connolly and Joe Hill rolled into one, I still would have had no chance of success. Nevertheless, when the company decided to move premises from their charming city centre location to an unpleasant office block in the suburbs against the stated wishes of all the employees, I seized upon the chance and organised a series of meetings with the workers, attempting to use the grievance to build a sense of common purpose. Eventually my efforts petered out as it became evident that nobody else was willing to enter into conflict with management in any way.

Despite throwing myself into party work, when I think of those years, the abiding memory of a constant low level feeling of guilt. I never managed to exert myself enough to successfully complete the tasks that I volunteered for to my satisfaction. Party conferences included regular sessions at which the members would criticise the party for failing to live up to its principles. This reinforced the sense of collective guilt due to insufficient commitment. However, this memory is balanced with the positive memories of the experiences of working alongside a group of people on a collective project that everybody shares and is committed to. I had been accepted as a trusted, core member of the group and identified closely with it.

By the end of 1999, after a year and a half as a member, I was exhausted, having worked two jobs for most of the year on top of my ever-present party responsibilities. However, for the first time, I felt happy to call myself a real political activist. From then onwards I never felt that I had anything to prove to anybody, I had no anxiety about declaring myself to be an anarchist or political activist or militant. I had done the time.


Over this period, despite our huge investment of time and effort, the WSM had stagnated. I joined alongside three other new members, an event that had caused great optimism in the party. However, two of the new recruits drifted away within a few months and another member soon left due to the acrimonious end of her relationship. The one ray of light occurred when Ethel, a young woman from Cork with a particular interest in labour organising and an impressively capable manner, joined the party. Her recruitment was considered a milestone, as up until that time we only had a single member in Cork, Kevin. Ethel would finally end Kevin’s isolation and the party’s effective confinement to Dublin. It was, however, a short-lived breakthrough. In mid 1999, approximately 6 months after joining, she accepted a job as a trade union official. This contravened party rules – we were ideologically opposed to the ‘rule of the bureaucracy’ over the trade unions and our members were only allowed to accept elected positions. The issue came to light in the course of an especially tortuous 3 day long national meeting in September of 1999. It seemed strange to me that we should forbid members from such jobs. Several of our members, including myself, were working for nakedly capitalist technology multi-nationals at the time. The latter seemed to me to be a much more morally dubious career choice for an anarchist than a job as a trade union officer. Nevertheless, after an acrimonious series of exchanges between her and Andrew, she departed.

In November 1999, I left the country along with my girlfriend, Deirdre, who was also a WSM member. This left the same core of 7 or 8 WSM members who had been there before we joined. They continued to soldier on, dedicating huge effort to sustaining the party and ensuring that it lived up to its principles, despite the almost total absence of encouragement from the universe.

Note 1.: I include anarchist political organisations such as the Workers Solidarity Movement in the category of political parties. Anarchists normally eschew the term ‘party’, preferring to call themselves ‘organisations’, ‘groups’ or some other more general term. They use a definition of ‘party’ which includes participation in elections and, more broadly, a desire to exercise power over society, both of which they oppose. In my opinion, this is a semantically confused definition. I use a definition of politcal party that is "an organisation united on the basis of a common political program". This is, in my opinion, a better definition, as the thing that makes political parties distinct categories of organisation with common characteristics is their common political program, not their activities or participation in elections. While a political party that does not run in elections might seem like a bizarre entity, few would consider the term meaningless.

Note 2.: Propaganda is merely information that is designed to advocate some position.

Comments (5)

Eoghan Ryan

Well, not completely but I am glad that you did mention the following: "However, this memory is balanced with the positive memories of the experiences of working alongside a group of people on a collective project that everybody shares and is committed to". This is how I recall my time in the WSM, although I do seem particularly impervious to guilt.

I do think that the overall sense of guilt (in the WSM at least, I can only comment on this) is overstated.You refer to "Party conferences included regular sessions at which the members would criticise the party for failing to live up to its principles. This reinforced the sense of collective guilt due to insufficient commitment." It would be interesting to analyse the minutes of conferences but my recollection is that criticisms (such as they were) were almost invariably of a constructive nature and, exceptions aside, qualified with the realisation that everyone has a different capacity to contribute.

You finish by noting an almost total absence of encouragement from the universe from the period from November 99 onwards. In terms of absolute numbers involved, you may argue that the anti-corporate globalisation movement of this period does not contradict the above but I would disagree. I recall conversations with many "non-political" people from that time that gave me plenty of encouragement, plus this movement did have a wider cultural impact (we can debate the extent of this) that fed the aspirations of the WSM

chekov's picture

Constructive criticism still normally involves telling those who did the work that they should do more work.

And I'm only talking about the period 1998-1999, before the anti-globalisation movement really emerged. They were lean years with very little in the way of encouragement. My next blog is about the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement.

Eoghan Ryan

I disagree! But will save that argument for another day....


"the positive memories of the experiences of working alongside a group of people on a collective project that everybody shares and is committed to."

This is the entire point. So, you never got the power to dispose of everyone's resources as you would like. The rest of us are happy about that. Enjoy your memories, your activism was futile.

deirdre m

this story is so crazy for so-called free countries, I thought you would find it interesting. also, watch out for those spammy posts that I can see on your homepage: maybe u need a Captcha?