Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Five

The Easter Rising

The years preceding the First World War witnessed a period of bitter class struggle in Ireland, with stormy strikes and lock-outs being fought out against the background of the national struggle for the liberation of Ireland from English rule. By 1914, Ireland stood on the brink of civil war. Unfortunately, the strike movement in Ireland was rudely cut across by the outbreak of the war between Britain and Germany. Yet on the other hand the outbreak of the First World War brought all the contradictions arising from the national question to boiling point.

In the First World War, Connolly pursued a consistently internationalist line. Although he had no direct contact with Lenin, the two men instinctively adopted the same position from the outbreak of hostilities. Meanwhile the leadership of most of the European labour movement took a chauvinist position, that is to say, despite all their espoused opposition to war before it began, once it was underway they supported ‘their own' ruling class. Larkin, like Connolly, took the opposite starting point, that is they supported the interests of the international working class: "I have been accused of being pro-German, but I am not for the Kaiser any more than I am for George Wettin of England. I am for the working classes of every country. The English working class is as dear to me as that of my own country or any other, but the government of England is the vilest thing on the face of the earth." (Emmett Larkin, op. cit., p. 172.)

In August 1914, despite all the resolutions passed by the congresses of the Socialist International, every one of the leaderships of the Social Democratic Parties betrayed the cause of socialist internationalism and voted for the War. The only honourable exceptions were the Russians, the Serbs - and the Irish. Right from the start, Connolly adopted an unswerving internationalist stance. Commenting on the betrayal of the leaders of the Socialist International, he wrote in Forward (15 August, 1914):

"What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future?"

In answer to the kind of pacifism that was the hallmark of Labour Lefts such as Ramsay MacDonald (at that time on the left of the British labour movement) and the leaders of the ILP, he wrote:

"A great continental uprising of the working class would stop the war; a universal protest at public meetings would not save a single life from being wantonly slaughtered."

These lines show that James Connolly was a genuine proletarian and revolutionary who dedicated all his life to the cause of the working class and socialism. Connolly was not just a socialist, not just a revolutionary: he was an internationalist to the marrow of his bones. The programme of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, written by Connolly, was not a nationalist but a socialist programme based upon:

"Establishment of AN IRISH SOCIALIST REPUBLIC based on the public ownership by the Irish people of the land, and instruments of production, distribution and exchange. Agriculture to be administered as a public function, under boards of management elected by the agricultural population and responsible to them and to the nation at large. All other forms of labour necessary to the well-being of the community to be conducted on the same principles."

The uncompromising socialism of the ISRP went hand in hand with revolutionary proletarian internationalism. Larkin explained: "my object was to see a deadlock arrived at, hoping that the workers would revolt in several countries." (ibid. pp. 173-4.) Connolly wrote and spoke on the same lines. It was the elementary duty of the Irish working class to take advantage of the situation to wage a revolutionary struggle against British imperialism, on the assumption that "England's need is Ireland's opportunity". Unfortunately, the Irish workers were exhausted by the exertions of the class battles before the war, and the revolutionary wave would only begin in 1917. In the first years of the war, the workers' movement was silent.

The problem was that from the start of the War, Connolly was virtually isolated. Internationally, he had no contact. Outside of Ireland, the Labour Movement seemed to be as silent as the grave. True, there were symptoms of a revival in Britain, with the Glasgow rent strike of 1915 and the rise of the rank-and-file shop stewards movement. But Connolly feared that the workers of Britain would move too late, and that Ireland could not wait. Matters came to a head over the question of military conscription.

The idea of an uprising had clearly been taking shape in Connolly's mind. The threat that Britain would introduce conscription into Ireland was the main issue that concentrated the mind, not only of Connolly, but also of the petit bourgeois nationalists of the Irish Volunteers. Connolly therefore pressed them to enter a militant alliance with Labour for an armed uprising against British imperialism. In the event, the leaders of the Volunteers withdrew at the last movement, leaving the Rising in the lurch.

Nationalists betray

For generations the Irish nationalists have assiduously built up a mythology around the Easter Rising. However what is never truthfully explained by them is the class forces that were involved. The role of the Citizens' Army has never been fairly portrayed in any of their histories. Nor is the fact that the middle class nationalists betrayed the Easter rising. In reality the driving force for the uprising was the Irish working class, fighting not just for Irish independence, but for the Irish Workers' Republic. The units of the Citizens' Army were the hard core of the uprising. And at its head stood that great leader and martyr of the working class, James Connolly.

Lenin explained that in a united front the correct tactic is to "march separately and strike together." Although they collaborated in the Rising, there was always a conflict between the workers of the Citizens' Army and the middle class nationalists of the Irish Volunteers. Connolly's identification with the 1916 Rising was a clear-cut recognition of the connection and the links between the national struggle and the class struggle. Connolly identified himself completely with the Rising. He led the rising in Dublin city. But he had to accept as allies the Irish Volunteers, led by Eoin MacNeil who was a died-in-the-wool reactionary nationalist. As a revolutionary and internationalist, Connolly was naturally in favour of fighting against the British rule in Ireland. But he warned the Irish workers a thousand times not to be fooled by the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists and their demagogy about "freeing Ireland" under capitalist rule.

The spark that ignited the revolt was the plan to introduce military conscription in Ireland - to force the youth of Ireland to act as cannon fodder for their imperial masters. Yet the right wing Irish nationalists actually supported British imperialism, acting as its recruiting sergeants in the War. Connolly savaged them for sending the flower of Ireland's youth to die for imperialism in the trenches. With scathing wit he wrote:

"Full steam ahead, John Redmond said, that everything was well chum,
Home Rule will come, when we are dead and buried out in Belgium."

Even the supposedly progressive wing of the Nationalists sabotaged the movement by countermanding the order to mobilise on the eve of the uprising. Only 1,500 members of the Dublin Volunteers and ICA answered the call to rise. The nationalists had already split between the Redmondites - the Parliamentary Irish Group - who backed the War, and the left wing. However, on the eve of the Rising, the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin MacNeil publicly instructed all members to refuse to come out. The Irish bosses were unanimous in denouncing the Rising. Arthur Griffith described it as "lunacy". As so many times before and since, the nationalist bourgeoisie betrayed the cause of Ireland.

From a military point of view the Rising was doomed in advance - although if the Volunteers had not stabbed it in the back, the Uprising could have had far greater success. It was virtually confined to Dublin, where only about a thousand fighters took part in it. Liam Mellows led a similar number of insurgents in Galway, and there was a smaller movement in Wexford, but elsewhere the country was peaceful. The conditions for the Rising were frankly unfavourable. Although there were strikes in Ireland right up to the outbreak of the Rising, the movement was in a downswing. The Irish working class had been exhausted and weakened by the exertions of the lockout, and they remained essentially passive during the Rising.

The British forces waged a ferocious counteroffensive to crush the Rising. They used artillery to batter the GPO (the rebel centre) into submission. By Thursday night, after four days of heroic resistance against the most frightful odds, the rebels were compelled to sign an unconditional surrender. The British imperialists immediately showed their real face when they executed Connolly and the other leaders of the Rising in cold blood.

It is necessary to draw a sober-minded balance sheet of 1916. Was Connolly right to move when he did? The question is a difficult one. To some extent, the hand of the rebels was forced by events, by the introduction of conscription. There were rumours that the British authorities were planning to arrest the leading Irish revolutionaries.

Connolly seems to have decided to throw everything into the balance. He drew the conclusion that it was better to strike first. He aimed to strike a blow that would break the ice and show the way, even at the cost of his own life. To fight and lose was preferable than to accept and capitulate without a struggle. When Connolly left the HQ of the ITGWU that fateful morning, he whispered to his comrade William O'Brien: "We are going out to be slaughtered." O' Brien asked: "Is there no chance of success?" Connolly replied: "None whatever". Connolly knew that the rising was doomed. His aim was to leave behind a tradition of revolutionary struggle upon which the new generation could build.

Connolly was undoubtedly a giant. His actions were those of a genuine revolutionary, unlike the craven conduct of the Labour leaders who backed the imperialist slaughter - with the enthusiastic support of the Irish bourgeois nationalists. Yet he also made some mistakes. There is no point in denying it, although some people wish to make Connolly into a saint, while simultaneously ditching or distorting his ideas. There were serious weaknesses in the Rising itself. No attempt was made to call a general strike. This would have had to have been prepared in advance. On Monday 24, 1916, the Dublin trams were still running, and most people went about their business. No appeal was made to the British soldiers.

Thousand to one odds

The behaviour of the nationalist leaders came as no surprise to Connolly, who always approached the national liberation struggle from a class point of view. He never had any trust in the bourgeois and petit bourgeois tendencies in Republicanism, and tirelessly worked to build an independent movement of the working class as the only guarantee for the re conquest of Ireland. Since his death there have been many attempts to erase his real identity as a revolutionary socialist and present him as just one more nationalist. This is utterly false. One week before the Rising he warned the Citizens Army: "The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well."

Although the Rising itself ended in failure, it left behind a tradition of struggle that had far-reaching consequences. It was this that Connolly probably had in mind. In particular the savagery of the British army, which shot all the leaders of the Rising in cold blood after a farcical drumhead "trial", caused a wave of revulsion throughout all Ireland. James Connolly, who was badly wounded and unable to stand, was shot strapped to a chair. But the British had miscalculated. The gunshots that ended the life of this great leader of the working class aroused a new generation of fighters eager to revenge Ireland's wrongs.

Some sorry ex-Marxists criticised the Easter Rising from a right wing standpoint, such as Plekhanov. In an article in Nashe Slovo dated 4 July 1916, Trotsky denounced Plekhanov's remarks about the Rising as "wretched and shameful" and added: "the experience of the Irish national uprising is over [....] the historical role of the Irish proletariat is just beginning."

The Easter Rising was like a tocsin bell, the echoes of which rang throughout Europe. After two years of imperialist slaughter, at last the ice was broken! A courageous word had been spoken, and could be heard above the din of the bombs and cannon-fire. Lenin received the news of the uprising enthusiastically. This was understandable, given his position. The War posed tremendous difficulties for the Marxist internationalists. Lenin was isolated with a small group of supporters. On all sides there was capitulation and betrayal. The class struggle was temporarily in abeyance. The Labour leaders were participating in coalition governments with the social-patriots. The events in Dublin completely cut across this. That is why Lenin was so enthusiastic about the uprising. But he also pointed out:

"The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats."

There is a myth that Lenin and Trotsky did not support the Rising. These lines can hopefully nail this lie. They analysed the rising and criticized it from certain angles, but denounced all those in the international labour movement who sought to condemn this heroic episode.

The tragedy of the Easter Rising was that it occurred too soon. One year later the world was shaken by the October Revolution in Russia. Had the Rising occurred a couple of years later, it would not have been isolated. It would have had powerful reserves in the shape of the mass revolutionary movement that swept through Europe after the October Revolution in 1917. But how could Connolly have known this? He could not, and even if he had, revolutionary events cannot simply be made to fit into a neat timetable.

Betrayal of the bourgeoisie

The leading role in the Easter Rising was played by Connolly and the Citizens Army. For that reason their losses were proportionately greater. The brutal execution of Connolly in particular dealt the revolutionary movement a fatal blow. Clifford King correctly points out that "the proletariat of Dublin and the country people and peasants in the rest of the country, who warmed to the Easter leaders after they were dead, were for far too long, and for unworthy reasons, to go on being denied effective political leadership." (Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, p. 36.)

Despite the fact that they played the leading role in the Rising, the history books have systematically played down the role of Connolly and the workers' Citizens' Army in 1916 and exaggerated the role of the petty bourgeois Irish volunteers and Sinn Fein. This is a travesty of the facts. Sinn Fein was an anti-socialist and anti-working class organization. In early 1918, Larkin wrote about their American organization thus:

"The Sinn Fein movement here is anti-labor and as for the Socialists they think they are anti-Christs. They have tried to impress the American public that the Revolution was a Catholic revolution, in fact they have done the cause the most incalculable harm. They are the most violent American jingoes, always boasting how loyal they are too and how many Irish have fought and died for this free Republic. Moroyah! They make me sick to the soul. They held a meeting in Chicago sometime back and spent 2,600 dollars on the meeting, 1,700 dollars to erect a special star spangled flag, electrically arrayed which flashed all through the meeting. They are in a word super-fine patriots and the most consummate tricksters of politicians. This applies to all of them without exception and the crowd that have lately come over are no better." (Emmett Larkin, op. cit., p. 199.)

The Irish working class could and should have played a leading role in the national liberation struggle. This is the only way that the struggle can succeed. After 1916, the trade unions had been disorganized, but when the leaders returned from internment camps, they soon recovered. Emmet Larkin writes:

"After their release from a British internment camp in the fall of 1916, Foran and O'Brien applied themselves to their broken machine, the Transport Union. In a little over a year they had increased the membership from 5,000 to 14,000 and the branches from 10 to 40. During 1918 the growth of the Union was phenomenal, mainly because of general wage demand movement throughout Britain and Ireland. By the end of the year the membership numbered nearly 68,000 in 210 branches, and the treasury boasted a credit balance of some £19,000. When Larkin returned in April 1923, the Union totalled 100,000 members in 350 branches with a balance of £140,000." (Emmett Larkin, op. cit., p. 236).

The principal weakness of the Labour movement was its leadership. James Connolly was always a consistent revolutionary Marxist. He devoted a great deal of time to theory as shown by his marvelous writings. But the truth is that the other leaders of the ITGWU had no interest in theory and little understanding of socialism. They were mainly "practicos" for whom the trade unions were vehicles for obtaining wage increases and better conditions, not the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. William O'Brien was typical of this type. A solid trade unionist, he had been close to Connolly, but he understood nothing of Connolly's ideas. As long as Connolly was alive, people like O'Brien were content to follow him and accept his line, although in their hearts they had grave doubts. R.M. Fox recalled that "even in Connolly's time, there was strong opposition to the Citizens' Army using the hall [Liberty Hall] and to the association of the Army with Union activities." (R.M. Fox, History of the Citizens' Army, p. 189.)

After Connolly's untimely death, the reformist tendencies that had always been present came to the fore. O'Brien and the other leaders, who had never been comfortable with Connolly's revolutionary line, began to distance themselves from it. They effectively renounced any independent role for Labour in the national liberation struggle, and thus handed all the initiative over to Sinn Fein and the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists. When Frank Robbins, an ICA and ITGWU militant who had participated in the Easter Rising and suffered imprisonment and exile in America, returned to Ireland, he was shocked by the change. He detected "a new atmosphere, a new outlook, entirely different from that which had been moulded by Connolly and Mallin." He thought the new recruits to the ICA "seemed to lack the spirit, the understanding and the discipline which were so characteristic of the earlier period."

Robbins complained that the "close co-operation between the Irish Transport Union and the Citizens' Army seemed to have disappeared completely. Relations had indeed deteriorated to such a degree that it would not be an exaggeration to say that but for stalwarts such as I have named, an openly hostile situation would have been inevitable." (Quoted by W.K. Anderson in James Connolly and the Irish Left, p. 139.)

Class Independence

Larkin was very worried about the fact that after Connolly's death the Irish Labour leaders were handing over control to the Nationalists and protested about it in an angry letter to Thomas Foran, the General President of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in the summer of 1918: "What are O' Brien and the rest doing in allowing the Griffith gang to monopolize all the credit for the efforts? I wish O' Brien and the others would declare themselves. Are they all turned Sinn Fein?" (Emmett Larkin, op cit., p. 200.) At the end of 1918 he wrote again, urging that Irish Labour must retain its class independence:

"Don't be led astray by the ephemeral political movements of a moment. Our work is fundamental. Not only do we want an independent Ireland, but we demand a free Ireland of free men and women. I realize the tortuous path you and your colleagues must walk. Certain forces in Eire seem to have exploited the struggle for their own ends. Don't be in any way deterred: hew straight to the line, let the chips fall where they may. Be assured we are on the side that must ultimately prevail. Leaders, moryah! And parties raise up and pass away in a night but men live forever and principles are permanent." (ibid.)

However, by removing himself to the USA, Larkin had lost the chance he might have had to change the position. With Connolly gone, there was no leader with sufficient authority to put the Irish workers' movement on the right road. The workers' movement could and should have played a decisive role in the struggle but was paralysed at every decisive turn by the lack of leadership.

Frank Robbins noted bitterly:

"The failure of the Citizens' Army to play a worthwhile role in the fight against the British forces during the period of 1918-21 was due in the main to our failure to throw up leaders with dynamic vision of Connolly and Mallin. This failure was indeed a costly one for those of us who accepted the socialist principles of the workers' republic preached by James Connolly, for it meant that we missed a unique opportunity to play our part in the struggle for Irish Freedom and in the subsequent shaping of a free Ireland." (Quoted by W.K. Anderson in James Connolly and the Irish Left, p. 141.)

Frank Robbins was, however, mistaken in thinking that the movement can "throw up" such a leadership. It must be built and prepared in advance, as for example, the Russian Bolshevik Party was built and prepared over a period of decades before 1917. Connolly did not build a revolutionary Marxist party - a cadre party armed with theory - which would have carried on his work after his death. Ultimately this was his biggest mistake, and one that had the most tragic consequences.

True, Connolly had created the Irish Labour Party, with a solid base in the trade unions and the working class. But it was not a cadre party and had no serious grounding in Marxist theory. This was its Achilles' heel. In effect, it was the workers of the Irish Citizens Army who had led the Easter Rising, not the petit bourgeois Volunteers. In fact, Sinn Fein played NO role in the uprising, while the Irish bourgeois nationalists openly betrayed it. Yet, when Connolly was removed from the picture, it was the bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalists who took advantage of the situation to seize control of the movement.

The leaders of the Irish Labour Party, lacking Connolly's grounding in Marxism, proved to be hopelessly inadequate to the tasks posed by history. Instead of maintaining Connolly's fight for an independent class policy, they tail ended the nationalists, scandalously standing down in their favour in the general election after the War. In the same way that the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht later beheaded the German revolution, so the killing of Connolly removed any chance of the Irish working class leading the revolutionary movement against British imperialism. This was a heavy price to pay!