Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Seven

The Russian revolution and Ireland

The Russian working class - as Trotsky had predicted in 1904 - came to power before the workers of Western Europe. The reader may wonder why several references and comparisons to the Russian revolution are included here. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, whether one is an admirer of the October revolution or an opponent, it is impossible to deny the impact that the Russian revolution had on world history and on the development of the workers' movement internationally. Although there are many differences between Russia in 1917 and Ireland at the time (let alone today) there are also important parallels.

The "progressive" and "liberal" bourgeoisie had proved themselves incapable time and again of carrying out the tasks of the national democratic revolution. Like their counterparts in Russia the Irish Bourgeois nationalists were tied to the imperialist powers by a thousand and one ties. In October 1917 in the place of the bourgeoisie who had proven themselves incapable of conducting a struggle against landlordism and imperialism, the Russian working class carried out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and immediately set about nationalizing industry and passing over to the tasks of the socialist revolution. The bourgeoisie played an openly counterrevolutionary role, but was defeated by the workers in alliance with the poor peasants. The Bolsheviks then made a revolutionary appeal to the workers of the world to follow their example. Lenin knew very well that without the victory of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, especially Germany, the revolution could not survive isolated, especially in a backward country like Russia. What happened subsequently showed that this was absolutely correct. The setting up of the Third (Communist) International, the world party of socialist revolution, was the concrete manifestation of this perspective. The Russian revolution is rich in lessons for the workers' movement everywhere. It had an effect in Ireland too.

Under the impact of the Russian Revolution, there was an attempt by William O'Brien and Cathal Shannon to revive the Socialist Party of James Connolly in February 1917. Unfortunately, after the death of Connolly the leadership demonstrated no real understanding of the tasks of the revolution and were hopelessly out of their depth. By 1921 most of the old leaders had left or had been expelled from the SPI. The S.P.I. paper, The Workers Republic, reported: "At the weekly meeting, on October 14, 1921, of the S.P.I. the following resolution was passed:

"In accordance with our policy, and with our decision to adhere to the communist international, we hereby take the preliminary steps to observe the second condition of affiliation to the C.I. and expel the following members:

"Cathal O'Shannon, William O'Brien, on the grounds of reformism, consecutive non-attendance at the Party, and consistent attempts to render futile all attempts to build up a Communist party in Ireland"

The secretary of the newly formed Communist Party of Ireland was Roddy Connolly, James Connolly's son. Immediately the Communist Party of Ireland was faced in late 1921 with the national question in all its force. It took a principled position. When the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty became known, the Communist Party of Ireland opposed them and its position was set forth in a Manifesto.

The revolutionary traditions of 1916 were still fresh in the minds of the Irish working class. By contrast, the Nationalist Republicans argued that Labour must wait. To accommodate this, those who tried to revive the ideas of Connolly were expelled from the main Labour party. The formation of an independent Communist Party in Ireland had the enthusiastic support of Lenin who correctly insisted on support to the Republican side during the Irish Civil war against the Free State. The Party did its duty in supporting the young Soviet Republic.

The Communist Party of Ireland stood for the establishment of a Workers' Republic. It led unemployed agitations and the seizing of the Rodunta building in Dublin. The Red flag was hoisted. However, in a matter of days the I.R.A. police were used to clear the building and again made it safe for the private owner. The remarks of C.D. Greaves in his book Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, describe the situation at the time:

"On 14th December (1921) the Dáil assembled. In this predominantly petit-bourgeois gathering was concentrated the power of decision making of the whole nation. Outside, the Chambers of Commerce passed their resolutions. Country merchants, cattle dealers, manufacturers, great and small, took up from their natural superiors, agrarian and financial, the cry for order and for peace which alone could assure it.

"Also outside the Labour movement. It gave no lead. Out of over a thousand branches and councils, only 6 even passed a resolution. The Voice of Labour‚ treated the issue as irrelevant. Only on the extreme left were warning voices heard. The Communist Party of Ireland described the treaty as a shameful betrayal. In fact, it was the first party in Ireland to condemn it:

"Larkin wired in similar terms from his American prison. These voices were lost in the general clamour. As the delegates took their seats both Republican police and Black and Tans were arresting the Wexford farm workers on strike for Union recognition."

Dissention and splits

However, the CPI remained very small. It had maybe twenty or so active members. Moreover, it was riven with internal dissention and splits. The political level of the membership was low and they therefore looked to Moscow for a lead. This was what later undermined the party and reduced it to sterility.

In the early years of the Communist International, Lenin explained to the non-Russian Communist Parties the need to face to the masses and win them over from reformism. Most of the young and inexperienced Communists were tainted by ultra-leftism. They did not understand Lenin's position on the United Front, or his insistence on the need to penetrate the mass organizations.

The small Irish Communist Party failed either to penetrate the ranks of the Labour Party or the Republicans. Roddy Connolly advocated a turn to the Republican movement - which was a correct idea. But it was opposed by another faction that considered this tactic pointless and instead said the Party should devote its resources to direct action and political education. This doomed the CPI to sterility.

Finally, the Comintern dissolved the CPI at the insistence of Larkin, who refused to have anything to do with it. However, Larkin's attitude to the CPI seems to have been dictated by personal considerations. Larkin was elected to the International Executive of the CI in 1924 and this appears to have gone a bit to his head. Despite his undoubted personal courage and dedication to the movement, he was no theoretician and lacked Connolly's breadth of vision. In the end, he was only a class-conscious worker militant. As R.M. Fox noted:

"At no time in his life did Larkin advance any sharply defined view of the Labour struggle. He was always a field worker not a staff man, and he accepted the vague socialist ideas of a future harmonious society which young men of that time could hear from many Labour platforms. Sometimes he was inclined to speak with contempt of abstract theories as Long haired men and short haired women who wanted to demonstrate their own cleverness instead of joining the fight to end intolerable evils." (R.M. Fox , Jim Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, p. 23.)

Surely Connolly would never have expressed himself in such terms. But contempt for theory was a hallmark of the tendency we know as Zinovievism, which acted as a stepping-stone along a path that led away from Leninism and towards Stalinism. The last thing that is required in a Stalinist party or international is people who can think for themselves.

The Communist International (CI) recognized Larkin's Irish Workers' League as its Irish section. Larkin led the party down a disastrous path, Against Lenin's explicit advice against splitting the trade unions, he set about building a "Red union" - the Workers' Union of Ireland (WUI) in an attempt to undermine and destroy the old ITWU. This shows that Larkin was more a syndicalist than a Communist. His dictatorial and capricious conduct inevitably led to a split. In 1926 a number of well-known CP leaders, including Roddy Connolly, set up the Workers' Party. However, after a promising start, the new party received a shattering blow when the Comintern refused to allow it to join and demanded that it disband.

At the Ninth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the CI, Larkin was directed to work in the existing mass trade unions in order to defeat the reformist leadership. But he was incapable of doing this. The Stalinist bureaucrats who were now in control in Moscow decided that he was useless for their purposes and demoted him. They concluded that the best way to build the Communist tendency in Ireland was to work in the Republican movement. For the wrong reasons they had come to a correct conclusion.

However, at this time the Russian Stalinists embarked upon an ultra-left binge, making a 180 degree turn. The policies of the so-called Third Period stated that all parties except the Communist Parties were objectively counterrevolutionary and "fascist". In Ireland that meant that the CP must denounce the Republicans and demand that their members leave the IRA and join the CP. The hysterical attacks of the CP alienated many rank and file Republicans. Instead of winning over the Republicans the tactics of the Stalinists only served to isolate the CP still further. This was at a time when a left wing was beginning to crystallize inside the Republican movement.

Left and Right Republicanism

It is a law that a mass petty bourgeois nationalist movement at a certain stage will tend to split on class lines. There has always been a left and right wing tendency in the Irish Republican movement, from its inception right down to the present day. The split of Sinn Fein in 1926 led to a separation between the openly bourgeois wing of De Valera (Fianna Fail) and the hard core of "physical force" Republicans, many of whom had left wing and socialist leanings, and were influenced by the tradition of Connolly and Mellows (socialist republicanism). There was a loose alliance of militant Republicans, left Socialists and Communists.

The IRA in practice had a more left wing policy than the Labour Party at this time. However, it threw away the possibilities by refusing to stand for election in the Dail. Independence on a capitalist basis had solved nothing for Ireland. Unemployment was a growing problem, made worse by the fact that in the years of the Great depression after 1929, high unemployment in Britain made it impossible to find work through emigration across the Irish Sea. Under these circumstances, the IRA was recruiting at a fast rate and the circulation of An Poblacht (The Republic) was soaring.

All those on the Republican side gave their allegiance to the First Dail, which was elected by all the people of Ireland, whilst the Free State Dail represented less than half of the electorate of the South. This is the answer to those who believe that the people of Ireland voted for the Free State as opposed to a Republic. The Free State wanted to provoke a Civil War to crush the Republican movement. The Government therefore passed legislation for summary executions and other official reprisals.

These official reprisals included the killing of the IRA commanders for each of the four provinces of the north, Joe Mc Kelvey, Rory O Connor, Dick Barret and Liam Mellows. James Connolly was Liam Mellows' mentor, and this brave republican saw national liberation in terms of economic as well as political terms. Indeed, it was important for the bourgeoisie of the Free State to eliminate all those who had a Marxist awareness.

Peadar O'Donnell, who advocated a socialist society, attempted to set up soviets in the area under his command area in Donegal. The landlords were evicted and the land handed over to the peasants and the employers forced to become workers in their own factories. Naturally, Peadar, was on the reprisals list. He was known and respected not only in Ireland, but also by the socialist community worldwide.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s a left wing emerged in the IRA led by O'Donnell, Frank Ryan, George Gimore and Michael Price, who tried to defend Connolly's idea of a Workers' Republic. In the class battles of the 1930s, the left wing of the Republican movement tried to represent the interests of the working class, the unemployed and the poor farmers. In the 1930s there was a Communist wing in the IRA. The left-right split in the Republican movement was illustrated with brutal clarity in the Spanish Civil War when Eoin O'Duffy, formerly the IRA's liason officer for the Six Counties, organized the pro-fascist blue shirts who fought on the side of General Franco in Spain.

A Republican Congress preparatory Conference held in Athlone in April 1931, issued a Manifesto which proclaimed:

"We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way. ‘We cannot conceive of a free Ireland with a subject working class: We cannot conceive of a subject Ireland with a free working class.' This teaching of Connolly represents the deepest instincts of the oppressed Irish nation." (Quoted by W.K. Anderson, James Connolly and the Irish Left, p. 134.)

The Athlone Manifesto urged that "A Congress of Republican opinion must be assembled to make the Republic a main issue dominating the whole political field and to outline what are the forms of activity that move to its support." (ibid.)

The IRA set up a left wing party under the name of Saor Eire and at its first congress In 1931 it described itself as "an Organization of Workers and Working Farmers" with socialist goals. In October 1931 Saor Eire was denounced by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland as "frankly communistic in its aims". The Bishops went on to say that Saor Eire and the IRA, "whether separate or in alliance", were "sinful and irreligious" and that "no Catholic can lawfully be a member of them." (Quoted by W.K. Anderson, James Connolly and the Irish Left, p. 133.) One day later the IRA, Saor Eire and ten other radical Republican organizations were declared illegal under a Constitution (Declaration of Unlawful Associations) Order.

All the conditions were maturing for an upsurge of the class struggle in Ireland, but the class divisions in Irish society were obscured and complicated by the national question. The IRA's nationalism prevented it from developing a worked out revolutionary programme and policy. At the first Republican Congress, in September 1934, Roddy Connolly, with the backing of his sister Nora and other delegates, proposed that "this Congress definitely declare that an Irish Workers' Republic be its slogan of action." The United Front resolution was passed by 99 votes to 84. But there was a major split over the direction of the Republican movement. It has persisted ever since. At bottom it is a split along class lines.

Republicanism and Stalinism

There was every possibility of winning over the revolutionary elements in the Republican movement to Communism. The IRA was originally born out of a combination of the ICA on the one hand and the Irish Volunteers on the other. Thus, a class cleavage was present in its ranks from the very beginning. The Marxist element (republican socialism) always remained as a strand. That is why in some areas during the war of independence, the IRA took the land from the big landowners and in other areas formed soviets of agricultural workers. In other words, the Republican movement divided on class lines between the supporters of the working class on the one hand, and the bourgeoisie and private property on the other. The latter element within the IRA took the side of the employers and the landowners.

The contradiction already surfaced in 1923. Many members of the IRA supported Roddy Connolly, and others O Brien, and still others opposed socialism altogether. Moreover the problems of 1923 were related to the international perspective. The most revolutionary elements naturally sympathized with the Russian Revolution. James Larkin was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International at the Fifth congress in 1924, the year Lenin died. Having a good instinct for tactics, he intervened in the tenth session to support the proposal of the British Party to attempt to form a united front with the Labour Party (a position that Lenin had advocated). But before long the weak Irish Communist Party succumbed to Stalinism, with fatal results.

Had the Communist International remained firm on the positions of Lenin and Trotsky, the victory of the world revolution would have been ensured. Unfortunately, the Comintern's formative years coincided with the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia, which had a disastrous effect on the Communist Parties of the entire world. The Stalinist bureaucracy, having acquired control in the Soviet Union developed a very conservative outlook. The theory that socialism can be built in one country-an abomination from the standpoint of Marx and Lenin-really reflected the mentality of the bureaucracy which had had enough of the storm and stress of revolution and sought to get on with the task of "building socialism in Russia". That is to say, they wanted to protect and expand their privileges and not "waste" the resources of the country in pursuing world revolution. On the other hand they feared that revolution in other countries could develop on healthy lines and pose a threat to their own domination in Russia, and therefore, at a certain stage, sought actively to prevent revolution elsewhere.

Theory of "two stages"

Instead of pursuing a revolutionary policy based on class independence, as Lenin had always advocated, they proposed an alliance of the Communist Parties with the "national progressive bourgeoisie" (and if there was not one easily at hand, they were quite prepared to invent it) to carry through the democratic revolution, and afterwards, later on, in the far distant future, when the country had developed a fully fledged capitalist economy, fight for socialism. This policy represented a complete break with Leninism and a return to the old discredited position of Menshevism - the theory of the "two stages".

Larkin, unlike Connolly, was no theoretician. He lacked a deep grounding in the ideas and methods of Marxism. In the struggle between Stalin and the Left Opposition he was out of his depth. When asked by Bukharin if he would like to speak in the debate, he declined, saying that "the issue was one between the men and women of Russia, and that it would be an impertinence (!) on his part to speak." (Emmett Larkin, op. cit., p. 262.)

Despite his sterling features, Larkin was not fitted to build a serious Communist Party in Ireland. Although the Irish Communists were heroic people who fought against the fascist Blueshirts both in Ireland and in Spain, under the baleful influence of Stalinism, the Party was unable to penetrate the masses and remained a sect. Milotte notes that the "Communist Party's twists and turns in the 1937-9 period had a devastating effect on party organization - which virtually disintegrated." (ibid., p. 135.), and he adds that "Party activities now consisted almost entirely of discussing what others were doing." (ibid.)

Later on, when the CP collapsed into the Officials, they combined reformist opportunism with some correct ideas. In the main their criticism of the armed struggle was from a pacifist and opportunist standpoint. At least partly as a result some of the most militant youth were repelled and moved over to the breakaway Provisional IRA, with disastrous consequences.

A pernicious role has been played by reformism and Stalinism in Ireland. But now, with the collapse of the USSR, Stalinism is in decline everywhere. The best elements who previously looked to Moscow or Beijing are rethinking their positions and looking for a genuine revolutionary tendency.