J. T. Murphy

Ireland and the International Working Class

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. IV, March 1923, No. 3
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Co., Ltd., London
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


A NEW stage has been reached in the struggle for Irish independence. Fourteen months after the Sein Fein forces were split by the treaty with Great Britain, after months of bitter civil war that have thrown into sharp relief the alignment of the political forces of Ireland, there arises a popular demand for peace. It is a moment when popular sentiment tends to obliterate from the public gaze those deep moving currents which sooner or later force themselves to the top. Decisions are being taken now which are all important. Upon them will depend the recurrence of confusion or the clearing of the path to victory.

The working-class movement of Britain deems itself a looker-on more or less unconcerned as to what these decisions may be. Its leaders have allied themselves to Mr. Bonar Law, the leader of British imperialism, through Mr. R. MacDonald, who has called for the blessing of the Almighty on the Free State. How entirely the fate of the British working class is bound up with the fate of Ireland, and other of the subject nations of the empire, seems to be little dreamed of or considered, either by the leaders or the workers themselves. Nevertheless, the decisions now being taken are fateful, and no time could be more opportune than the present to take the measure of our experience and of the tasks to be accomplished in relation to the Irish struggle for independence.

It has been the lot of the majority of those who have participated in or supported this struggle to gather their inspiration from an intense spirit of nationalism. Even the best of the revolutionary leaders of the Irish workers, who hated the ruling class with unsurpassable bitterness, and declared that Ireland could never be free until she had a workers’ republic, saw their problem mainly as an Irish problem and not as an international problem of the working class of the world.

Probably James Connolly was nearer to grasping the latter point of view than any other leader Ireland has produced. He, at least, made clear the part of the Irish working class in the struggle for national freedom, pointed to the workers’ republic as the goal, and fought and died to give the national impulse an orientation in that direction.

Time and again the question has been raised as to why Connolly, the international socialist, led the workers of Dublin into the forefront of the Irish revolt of 1916. Some thought he had become thereby a nationalist of the deepest dye, and others that his burning hatred of the ruling class had flamed up into despair and enthralled him in a passionate desire to “wreck the great guilty temple” and find rest. But Connolly was too cool and calculating for that. He led the revolt for definite purposes, not the least of which was to demonstrate that an international socialist could and must participate in the struggles of peoples held down by imperialism.

Whether he clearly perceived all the implications of his actions we do not know. One thing is certain; his action in leading the working-class forces of Dublin to the forefront of the national struggle stamped on the pages of history, for all to see, the part which the working class of Ireland must play if ever the goal of a workers’ republic is to be attained.

This one outstanding lesson of the revolt passed by almost forgotten or unobserved by friend and foe alike. Discussion centred around the apparent contradiction between Connolly’s international socialism and his association with the nationalist movement. Described as the first revolutionary socialist martyr of Ireland, his work appeared to be complete in paving the way to the saturation of the nationalist movement with socialist aspirations and ideas. That his martyrdom has done this none will deny. But this limited conception of the service he rendered only reveals the theoretical immaturity of socialism at the time, an immaturity which is still evident to-day.

It is thought by some who have an intense class hatred that international socialism ought not to worry itself about struggles for national independence. “What does it matter,” they ask, “even if Ireland gets a republic? Free State or republic, the workers will still be at the bottom.” By some this is used to intensify their class propaganda, by others to avoid responsibility and struggle. But in almost all cases the national struggle is viewed out of relation to the struggle of the workers against world imperialism. The cry for self-determination of small nations is generally declared as an absolute right, except by British Labour, which inscribes on its banner an additional qualification: “—outside the British Empire.” Revolutionary “extremists” and moderate labourists alike have been bound to a narrow nationalist theoretical equipment, which has warped their actions and misdirected their energies. Labour in England has been and is as imperialistic as its masters, whilst the revolutionary movement is only slowly emerging from a narrow sectarianism almost equally baneful. Until these confused and inadequate conceptions are cleared from the minds of the workers, the path to liberation can only remain tortuous and full of the tragedy of misunderstanding.

The contradictions inherent in any one of the theories indicated above are made so vividly clear by the actualities of to-day, that one feels compelled to bow one’s head in shame on realising that responsible leaders of Labour hang on to these outworn theories and make them the basis of their actions. Let us examine them briefly, one by one. The cry of “Self-determination of small nationalities” was made a slogan of the war and taken up by the Labour movement. That it was a distinct appeal to nationalist idealism none can deny. That it was meant in practice to be qualified by an unwritten proviso is equally clear from experience. This proviso reads “on condition that it does not interfere with the operations of the imperialist policy of the Great Powers.” How it could be otherwise passes comprehension; imperialism signifies that capitalism has shattered the limitations of nationalism and is driving the dominant Powers towards the conquest of the whole world. To attempt to revert to a national economy is to intensify the problems of capitalism rather than to solve them. It is for this reason that imperialism keeps its colonies in thrall and subjects the “free small nations” to its domination.

There is not a socialist who can deny that the material conditions of the world are ripe for a world economy. It is because the imperialists realise this, too, that they all strive for world power; but because of their narrow foundations, rooted in the nationalism of an epoch that cannot return, and in an economy which bids them expand as a condition of existence, they cannot create that which the life of the world demands. Self-determination of any nation can therefore never be a reality of any nation within capitalism.

As an absolute demand and conception it is doomed to a similar fate in relation to the working class. Because imperialism cannot solve the world-problem and create a single world-economy, the task falls upon the international working class, as the one social force capable of eliminating the class divisions in society and dealing with the world-economy free from the private vested interests which choke the pathway to a solution under capitalism. It is a task which involves the fate of humanity, and the workers cannot escape it. If therefore the central task is a world-task, national independence as an absolute right falls to the ground, whether viewed from an imperialist point of view or from a working-class point of view.

This conclusion does not justify the claims of the internationalists who decry the nationalist struggle of subject nations. It neither justifies the British Labour movement in limiting the demand for national independence to self-government within the Empire, nor does it give grounds for ignoring the struggle for national independence as a factor in the war for the conquest of capitalism. The struggle for national independence is more than a pious aspiration on the part of the peoples subject to an imperial power. To the working masses of these countries it is a passionate appeal to be free from the shackles of an internal and external enemy, which weighs even more heavily upon them than upon the workers of the imperialist countries. Nay, more; who can deny that even the workers of these countries, of Britain more than any country in the world, have had the rough edges of their every-day struggle softened at the expense of the workers of the colonial countries? Fighting their master class means to the latter not only fighting their masters’ State, but also the super-State power of the imperialists. Is it necessary to refer to imperialist interventions in Russia and in Hungary in order to question whether British imperialism would not intervene if the workers of Ireland took the reins of power from the hands of the Free State to-day?

It is this fundamental difference between the relations of imperialism and the international working class towards the subject nationalities that makes their war for national independence one with the war to defeat imperialism. Imperialism holds the subject nations for exploitation and retains a subordinate national exploiting class dominating the workers. The working class goes to the roots of the struggle and harnesses the workers of all lands to push over the imperialists and the national exploiters, as a means towards solving the problems of economic life and the cultural requirements of the masses of all lands.

The internationalists of the “pure” class war will agree, but fail to see the dialectic process whereby the end is achieved. They classify the imperialists with the national exploiters. That both are exploiters is true. But that their interests always coincide is untrue, or there would be no reason for national revolts of a bourgeois character. From time to time they contradict each other and fight. When thieves fall out there is a chance for the workers to advance. If they do not, the shackles are fastened tighter by the subsequent agreement among the exploiters, who are certainly not out to end their own system. If the workers are to advance, what other course lies open to them except the struggle against the imperialist power—a struggle which opens the path to victory over their own bourgeoisie.

It is only in this way that the problem of class domination in the nation can be solved. If we face it as a national issue only, and make no effort to take the leadership out of bourgeois hands—suppose by some stretch of the imagination that the imperialists could be defeated. What would we have done but laid the foundations for the development of a new capitalist imperialism? The only alternatives to an active striving for leadership in the national struggles are an adaptation to capitalism and the demands of imperialism, the arm-chair philosophy of a looker-on, or agitation for ultimate issues without a single contribution to the forces that are driving towards the goal.

The central problem of the working-class movement of the world, we repeat, is the defeat of imperialism; and upon this victory depends the liberation of the subject peoples of the earth. These national problems find no solution through a nationalistic approach to the problem. Ireland’s problem is not simply an Irish problem or an English problem. It is more. It is a problem of the international working-class movement, and until the working class of this country and Ireland face it as such, we shall wallow in a mass of confusion, be the victims of the clap-trap of the capitalist Press, and be held up to derision throughout the world.

No phase of British history is so appalling to contemplate on the basis of the considerations we have put forward as the later period of the struggle for Irish independence. The long years of struggle against English domination found no echoing thrill in the hearts of the British workers and their leaders. They saw it only as a nuisance when it broke forth into open struggle, and either ignored it entirely at other times, or viewed it at the best through the spectacles of British Liberalism. British Labour protested against “atrocities,” but never against the domination of British imperialism in Ireland, even at the worst moments of intervention. Nor did their protests amount to anything more than paper protests and resolutions. Munitions, troops, equipment went as usual. Not once did British Labour hold up a single waggon of munitions or prevent the transport of a single soldier, whilst the common imperialist enemy delivered blow on blow. When Mr. Lloyd George held the weapon of greater war at the heads of the Irish leaders, Labour made a united front with the imperialist Government against the revolting Irish nationalists. It only required the hypocritical benediction on the resulting Free State Government and the moral castigation of the Irish republicans to complete the ignominy of it all. It is time indeed for a transvaluation of our values and a fresh acquaintance with the fundamental issues that are at stake.

Throughout the seven hundred years of Britain’s political domination over Ireland not a century has passed without an uprising and a forcible effort to throw off the invader. Time and again the Irish have been crushed, only to see succeeding generations renew the efforts of their fathers. Within the period of struggle the elements which waged the fight have undergone a transformation true to the capitalist era they were entering. From a fight to revert back to a social system of preceding generations, back to the clan and the commune, it became a fight in which the forces were divided into the social classes of capitalism. The capitalist class of Ireland proved no different to the capitalist of any other country, and used the sufferings of the workers and peasants as the means to liberate themselves from the inconvenience of external domination. Always they drew from the poorer strata of the population to fight their battles, but there were few who were themselves prepared to bear the brunt of these fights for freedom. The masses went into revolt. The exploiters reaped the goods.

Throughout the whole period of their rule the British Government has never been uncertain as to what it wanted or as to which path to pursue. The policy of divide and conquer has never been more efficiently applied. From the days when it brought thousands of Protestant workers into Northern Ireland, fanned the flames of religious hatred and created an Ulster problem, to the days of recent history when it left a hole in the boundary clauses of the recent treaty and prepared the way for re-invasion through Ulster, its policy has been a masterly application of the principle of division and a guarantee against a united Ireland.

When the British ruling classes fettered Irish industry for generations, prevented the growth of an Irish merchant fleet, and placed Irish commerce at a disadvantage, they created situations which rallied the industrial workers to their employers. But in settlement they always settled with the employers and left the workers to make the best of it. When they created a land hunger, and compelled the transformation of rich cultivatible soil to pasture land for cattle rearing, and depopulated the country, they passed their Land Acts to ease the problems of the large farmers, and left the poor agrarian population in starvation. A short-sighted policy for an industrialised country to pursue with an agrarian neighbour, but never an uncertain one.

The ground for revolt has thus always been fertile, whilst the means of division rooted in the class divisions of the Irish nation were ever open to pave the way to Irish defeat. No one saw this more clearly than James Connolly, and no one did more to clarify the minds of the masses on this issue. Each succeeding revolt, rooted deep in the sufferings of the workers of town and country, had produced a further stride towards a socialist programme. But Connolly went much further, by his act of 1916. He placed the working class of Ireland at the head of the nationalist movement, which rose mainly amid the agrarian elements of the nation. Had his successors realised the significance of Connolly’s action and measured up its implications, the history of the last few years in Ireland and England would have had to be written differently. If ever there was an historical illumination of the rôle of the industrial workers in the Irish struggle, it was certainly in this bold leadership of the citizen army at the head of the national struggle. It is the high-water mark in the history of the working class of Ireland, a portent of what has yet to be fulfilled more definitely and thoroughly, ere the Irish workers’ republic can become a reality.

What then shall we say of the succeeding days between 1916 and 1923? Although it has been repeated until it has become axiomatic in the ranks of Irish Labour that “The progress of the fight towards national liberty of any subject nation must perforce keep pace with the progress of the struggle for liberty of the most subject class in the nation” can we say that these succeeding years have shown an appreciation either of this teaching or of the act of Connolly? Let the successor of Connolly speak for himself as leading custodian of the policy of Labour, and when reading remember the remarkable rally to Sein Fein, the split on the signing of the treaty, and the subsequent civil war. “Now by our own act we of the Labour Movement have kept out of the political arena all through. Right up to the General Election we were content to leave the control of affairs in the hands of the party and the movement that the country trusted implicitly. We did that. We submerged ourselves. We declined to use the situation for party purposes. We joined with the rest of the country and gave our support to the party that had set out to get national freedom. We did everything that we possibly could to strengthen their hands and to assist them in the task they were engaged in.” (Voice of Labour, September 23, 1922.)

Here is no struggle for leadership, but “We submerged ourselves.” Here is no recognition of the working class of Ireland as the custodian of Irish freedom, but the relegation of Ireland’s fate into the hands of the bourgeoisie of Ireland, who had no intention of submerging themselves. And yet in the same speech he declares “I had the suspicion that Ireland would not be different from other countries and that the Labour movement of Ireland would have to put up the same fight as in other countries.” Yet “We submerged ourselves.” The only possible justification there could ever be for the Irish workers to participate in the struggle was to use the differences between the bourgeois elements of Ireland and the British imperialists as a means to defeat both and to make Ireland theirs. Until then they are Irishmen without a country, fodder for class exploitation.

The relegation of the Irish workers to this subordinate rôle means the perpetuation of their slavery indefinitely. In a country which is preponderatingly agricultural the proletariat cannot relegate the hegemony to the farmer class, except at the price of its own failure to emerge from its existing conditions. A farmer class is never historically the pioneer of socialisation, which is the only possible means of working-class emancipation. Without the socialisation of land there can never be a real solution to the problem of the poor peasantry and agricultural labourers, or a general introduction of up-to-date methods of agriculture. These things can only come through the advancement of industry and its application to agriculture. But the conditions for socialisation are already ripe in industry, and the proletariat are compelled to take it up as an issue or pass into social decay. To take its proper rôle in Ireland as the leader in social progress it must perforce face the issue of the struggle against imperialism. In doing so Irish Labour will be placing itself in direct line with the interests of the working class of the world, and will have a basis for appeals for aid that is sounder and stronger than the political abstraction called self-determination.

The failure of Irish Labour to play its historic rôle during these years has driven it into the hands of its enemies. Objectively the interests of the workers are against the Free State Government. Every effort they make to improve the lot of the worker brings them up against the forces of the State. Nevertheless the policy of submergence is continued to the extent of denouncing the forces which have taken up the fight that they themselves have failed to prosecute, until it would seem that there is neither an appreciation of the rôle they ought to play or of the forces operating in their favour. First they appeared neutral in the struggle between the republicans and the Free State, and then allied themselves to the Free State. Right thoroughly we understand what would have happened had there come into being a republican bourgeois Government. The workers would still have been subject, but only because of the policy that has been pursued by Labour. That is why the hour of negotiation proved to be the hour of the great betrayal of the working class. Not because it was wrong to arrive at a compromise with British imperialism. Had the workers of Ireland been at the helm in the then existing international circumstances they also would have had to compromise. It is as true to-day as in the days of Mitchell that Ireland will never be free whilst the British Empire endures. But the failure of the working class of Ireland to take the lead left the capitalist class of Ireland free to make the compromise which left the workers where they were before—slaves still to be liberated. The new triple alliance on the pages of history looks well thus: Irish Labour, Irish Free State, British imperialism—versus the interests of the workers and the republican army.

If there was any doubt about the rôle of the Free State then Lord Birkenhead, who helped to make it, can make things clear. Speaking in the House of Lords in March, 1922, he said:—

Does the noble lord really imagine that if someone had presented Queen Elizabeth with this alternative . . . If they said to her . . . “Would you rather send lord Essex and British troops to put down the turbulent population of the south of Ireland, or would you rather deal with a man who is prepared, with Irish troops, to do it for you, who is prepared to acknowledge allegiance to yourself and who will relieve you of further anxiety and responsibility in the matter . . .” that she would have hesitated? That is the line of political development which I observe with great pleasure, and it is being followed at this particular moment.

However much we may criticise the republican forces, the fact remains that the direction of their activity is correct. It is directed against imperialism, and commands the support of the workers of Ireland and of the International so long as it keeps that direction. The failure of Irish Labour to take the lead in this republican struggle will place Labour in exactly the same position as to-day if the republicans are victorious and carry through a bourgeois programme. And the refusal to fight in any case seals the fate of Irish Labour as a body of workers who made a virtue of slavery.

Thus Ireland’s tragic hours reveal again and again how deeply its liberation tasks are entwined with the fundamental task of the international working class. Upon the men and women without property in Ireland devolves the task: to create a workers’ party out of her rich supplies of revolutionary workers and fighters, a party that will lead the workers and peasants of Ireland towards the workers’ republic through revolutionary struggle. This does not mean that it is the task of the Irish workers to rise arms in hand and seize power to-day or to-morrow. But it means that the whole character and direction of their activities must be towards that end.

The obligations upon the working class of Britain are equally clear. Its interests are diametrically opposed to British imperialism and so is the issue of Irish freedom from British domination. Freedom for Ireland should be stamped upon the banner of every party claiming to pursue the interests of the workers. The Irish question is an English question, but just as the Irish working class are faced with the task of assuming the lead in the task of liberation for Ireland, so it is the working class of Britain who are primarily interested in their fate. The struggle of the Irish nation is a contribution to the war against the imperialists who hold the British workers in thrall. The fate of Ireland and the fate of the British working class are tied together with the bonds of life and death. Neither can emerge from slavery whilst imperialism endures. The cry of “Freedom for Ireland,” and for other subject peoples, thus proves to be not the echo of Liberal imperialism, but a rallying slogan of the international working class, drawing the victims of world imperialism into common struggle against the common enemy.