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Maurice Ahearn

Kathleen Ni Houlihan’s Newest Saviour

The New International, June 1936

Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Republic Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For centuries Ireland has suffered the penalty of her status as England’s first colony. Discontent with that high destiny has driven the lower orders to many a stormy revolt. They were defeated not only by the superior military forces of the British Empire; repeatedly the national revolutionary movement has been strangled by the men of property and their ideologues. These gentlemen flourished the sword when gestures cost little. But when revolution became a thing of flesh and blood – a ferocious gang of starvelings infected by “class” ideas of land and bread – the orators composed themselves. “Moral force!” became the battle cry of these hucksters, as ready to barter away the fate of a people as they haggled over trade. History has underscored their treason. When, for instance, the bourgeoisie took to arms against England in the post-1916 period – more correctly, deputized the working class to do the fighting – no thought of class strife was allowed to sully the escutcheon of Erin’s unselfish patriots. Landless men, demanding the break-up of the rich cattle-ranchers” land into small tillage holdings, were forcibly restrained by the same Irish Republican Army that was fighting the British occupation.

Between the storms social quacks spun out elegant schemes as antidotes for unrest. Peasant proprietorship, co-operative creameries, the hand of friendship to foreign investors, home rule, in our own day, social credit. And now, concocted this time in “revolutionary” quarters, the great panacea which is to effect the Poor Old Woman’s final deliverance: the People’s Front.

The People’s Front indeed. Speaking in Irish accents, it is true (did not our communist spokesmen, indignant at the taunt of “foreigners”, offer to match birth certificates with any of their traducers?), but the same People’s Front which leads the masses to such dizzying successes in Jacobin France and which every day threatens to restore “democracy” in Hitler Germany.

The communist party, preceded by the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, was launched here in 1933. Within the limitations imposed by the Stalinist régime, there was a vigorous note in its journal the Irish Worker’ Voice. The Groups were among the 12 Republican and labour organizations outlawed under the Coercion Act of the Cosgrave government in 1931. The Act was the most drastic of a series through which the Cosgrave junta, the ministerial arm of big business and cattle-ranching interests, sought to enforce the Free State constitution since the Treaty of Surrender in 1921. The storm of protest against the brutalities of the Coercion régime swept Cosgrave from office in 1932. Triumphantly exploiting the coercion laws as election ammunition against Cosgrave, the de Valera party assumed control of Leinster House. The coercion law was suspended, Republican prisoners were freed. But within a year the national-reformist de Valera was demonstrating that coercion machinery was an indispensable equipment for any administration, cattle-grazier or small manufacturer, in the Free State.

In these circumstances, however, the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, choked from birth by the madness of the “third period”, were compelled to drag in the wake of de Valera and his party of ambitious petty traders. In the second general election of 1933 they told their followers: “Vote Against Coercion! Vote for a Workers’ Republic!” How? By supporting which party? The communists were unable to put forward a candidate. The answer, of course, was the “lesser evil”. Vote for de Valera, though the double negatives were loaded with the usual face-saving “reservations”.

The inaugural convention of the Communist Party of Ireland was formally convened in 1933. Diligently copying the writings of Lenin in the 1905 period, the newly-appointed beloved leaders of the long-suffering Irish drafted their manifesto. Despite its origin, it was not altogether devoid of Marxian knowledge. From the tragic history of Ireland’s rebellions it deduced the indisputable truth that the bourgeoisie could not complete the democratic revolution. “No other class but the proletariat and no other party but the communist party can bring about the national and social liberation of Ireland,” the thesis maintained. Similarly: “It is just because the chief task of the proletariat is socialism that it is capable of carrying the national fight with England to a finish.” For the Bolshevik, this is the beginning of all wisdom. However, a scrupulous integration of these concepts with the entire manifesto would have removed certain ambiguities. Thus, the terms of the Stalinist theory of “stages”, the static blueprint which must be strictly adhered to in the interests of an orderly development of the revolution, mars that section of the document which holds that

“The Irish working class will carry on the national independence fight to the end, attaching to itself the mass of peasant [?] farmers so as to crush the power of resistance of the English imperialists and overcome the unreliability of the Irish capitalist class.”

And then:

“The Irish proletariat will bring about a socialist revolution, attaching to itself the masses of semi-proletarians in the population, so as to break the power of resistance of the capitalists and render harmless the unreliability of the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie.”

Despite the shortcomings of this document and the politics derived from it, the earlier mistakes of the Irish communists (they had at first been serenely indifferent to any experiment with the national question), appeared as the most innocent misformulations in comparison with the fervent patriotism of the Seventh World Congress. But in 1934 the People’s Front was still only a dream. The communist party, as impotent as other sections of the International, needed allies.

Their opportunity came in 1934. Revolt from the ranks was brewing in the Irish Republican Army, the national-revolutionary organization that had led the military fight against the British occupation and subsequently against the Free State Treaty forces. The conservative wing in the leadership of this force was soaked in the ideas of the petty-bourgeois who would win the country, behind the back of society. Since England (i.e., the Irish Free State) would surrender by force alone, they argued, they must concentrate on armed uprising in the convenient future. To the demand from the ranks that the Army take action on social issues, allying itself with the struggle of the slum-dweller in the town and the landless man in the country, the military chieftains had one reply: “No politics! Let’s gain national freedom first!” (A sophistry we shall encounter later.)

At the 1934 convention of the Army Peadar O’Donnell, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan, all outstanding veterans of the Anglo-Irish wars, sponsored a motion calling on the IRA to organize a Republican Congress. The Congress should invite representatives from labour and republican bodies and formulate a program which would link working class struggle with anti-imperialist activity. The motion won the support of the majority of the delegates, but was over-ruled by the bureaucrats of the Army Council. Thereupon Gilmore, O’Donnell and Ryan resigned. They were supported by Michael Price, who had unsuccessfully championed a motion that the IRA should not disband until the Workers’ Republic, the only guarantee of national independence, should be achieved.

Meeting at Athlone, the insurgents issued the call for the Republican Congress. They declared:

“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.’ This teaching of Connolly represents the deepest instinct of the oppressed Irish nation.”

Republican Congress, a lively journal which interpreted these ideas, described itself as “the organ of the united committees of workers and small farmers, working for the united front against Fascism and for the Irish Workers’ Republic.”

The congress convened in Rathmines in the summer of 1934. And here the communist party made its weighty contribution. Two resolutions, the subject of a long and acrimonious debate, were presented at the Congress. Whereas, in the Athlone call the Congress organizers were guided by the thesis that the “Republic will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots capitalism on its way” – at the Rathmines convention an alternative resolution was presented by that section of the leadership which maintained most fraternal relations with the Stalinists. They held that

“The Republican Congress is the leading formation of republican forces struggling for complete national independence ...

“The Republican Congress declares the dominating political task to be the authoritative re-declaration of the Irish Republic.”

Thus, in spite of qualifying clauses which paid appropriate tribute to the necessity of anti-capitalist struggle, the call for the Workers’ Republic as a slogan of action through which alone national freedom could he won, was abandoned.

For their unseemly haste the advocates of the Workers’ Republic were soundly berated in the columns of the communist Workers’ Voice. But they were guilty of other crimes. They had the temerity to suggest that none of the parties at present constituted was capable of leading the people to freedom. They did not except the communist party from this charge and urged that the Congress carry on as a Workers’ Revolutionary Party.

The Voice was outraged. In an arrogant editorial it declared that correct leadership for the people was vested in itself alone. Moreover, they insisted that the Workers’ Republicans did not understand “the stage” of the movement. History must not he hurried, the stages must not be confused! Had not Stalin, the great strategist of victories which hog-tied China’s millions to the bloc of four classes, assuring the working class thereby their place before Chiang Kai-Shek’s firing squads – had not Joseph the Great made the blueprint of national revolution?

So they argued. And at the Rathmines Congress by a demagogic reference to the “national independence” resolution as the “united front”, they did their share towards the bewilderment of the delegates. As if any revolutionary party was forbidden from using the technique of the united front! What Seán Murray and his friends of the Workers’ Voice do not understand, of course, is that the united front is not an evangelical exhortation. It is a strategical weapon – with its uses strictly defined – in the class war.

“In its present stage, said Murray, “it would be disastrous to abandon the struggle for a free united Republic.” Not that the Workers’ Republicans had any intention of so “abandoning” the struggle. But, argued Murray, the mass of the rural population would back the fight for independence. “But not all the classes who support national independence will go so resolutely forward for the establishment of the Workers’ Republic.” (Our emphasis – M.A.)
Precisely! But did our Stalinist deputy draw the logical conclusions from this truth? Did he suggest that “those classes who support national independence” but who will not “go resolutely forward to the Workers’ Republic” might knife all Republicans at the crucial moment? And did he indicate that the masses, by sedulously avoiding (at Murray’s command) any attempt to interlock the national with the working class struggle for power were themselves preparing their own disaster? He did not. Instead he retarded a movement that was approaching a class solution of the national struggle. By endorsing the “democratic” resolution, he presented the bourgeoisie with an insurance policy against the calamity of the Workers’ Republic.

It is significant that the delegates from Belfast – proletarian representatives from the most industrialized section of Ireland – were most “confused” over this issue. They wanted the Workers’ Republic as a call to action. They were peremptorily commanded to march backwards. Ninety-nine stood for the so-called “United Front for the Republic”; eighty-four were against.

These promising pupils of the Great Disciple have pored over the correct excerpts from the writings of Lenin of 1905. They have parroted each phrase of Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, like dutiful schoolboys they have incorporated paragraphs of this classic – correct in its day and age – into their “communist” manifesto. They know the Lenin of the Stalinist scrapbooks. But of the living Lenin, of the Lenin who unceremoniously scrapped his 1905 thesis (under protest from the oldest of “old Bolsheviks”) when he saw that the Russian proletariat must “leap over” the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the dictatorship of the proletariat, these pedants know nothing. “No reservations on the national struggle,” they say, as if Lenin had never written into the basic theses of the Communist International that the communists, while supporting national-revolutionary struggle, had definite reservations towards it.

So Stalinist influence won the day, inspired not by the stand of the industrial contingents from Belfast but catering to the sentiment of parish-hall politics. Subsequently the Republican Congress, its line now straightened by the cautious theoreticians, purged from its masthead all evidence of any reckless haste towards the Workers’ Republic. Henceforth the journal was the “organ of the united front of republican and working class forces, against imperialism and for the Irish Republic.”

The communists, of course, quote most volubly from the writings of James Connolly, Ireland’s greatest revolutionist. Yet, had they absorbed the core of Connolly’s ideas, they would find that he too was guilty of “skipping stages”. Far back in 1916 he wrote in Erin’s Hope, the End and the Means:

“The Irish working class must emancipate itself, and in emancipating itself it must, perforce, free its country.”

The attainment of national independence, therefore, is incidental to the struggle for socialism. “No revolutionist,” Connolly added, “can safely invite the co-operation of men or classes whose ideals are not theirs and who, therefore, they may he compelled to fight at some future critical stage on the journey to freedom. To this category belong every section of the propertied class, and every individual of those classes who believes in the righteousness of his class position.”

We do not, by this quotation, accuse the Stalinists and their sympathizers of presenting delegates’ credentials to the shareholders of Guinness’ Brewery or Harland and Wolff. What they did, however, was soften the struggle, to fall back on the tawdry bourgeois shibboleth, invoked so monotonously whenever the lower classes tamper with the question of social freedom: “Ignore this talk of a Workers’ Republic. Let’s unite and get national freedom first.”

But Stalinist opportunism was still to bear its finest fruits. Like all sections of the Third International during the Abyssinian crisis, the Kremlin’s office boys here dutifully supported the League of Nations, “and the British Empire,” and screamed for sanctions against the aggressor Mussolini. Only, mind you, because they were “for” Ethiopian independence. The stock resolutions swearing fidelity to the League were as popular here as elsewhere. With this ironic difference: The British Empire, passionately proclaiming its love of the oppressed in all empires but its own, found recruiting sergeants, with the help of Stalinist agents, in the very nation which to England has been a testing ground for every form of imperialist brutality.

Taking its cue from the Workers’ Voice, the Republican Congress paper declared editorially: “We definitely, support Mr de Valera’s stand on sanctions.” (The Free State Minister had sided with England on this question.)

A paper that revives the war-cry of “defence of small nations” to justify its support of the British Empire (pardon – the League of Nations!) in Ireland deserves to die. It has. Republican Congress has folded up. The promised monthly substitute never appeared and never will. But by a happy coincidence, virtually while Republican Congress was being waked, certain ladies and gentlemen – artists, doctors, poets and others of the liberal professions, bestirred themselves. They also developed a sudden interest in “freedom”. For the organized dissemination of their illusions they found a hospitable host The Irish People.

The People was to be, so its anonymous editor declared in the first number, “a broad organ affording expression to the various progressive cultural and social movements”. Such an enlightened editorship was not to be spurned and the progressives rushed into print. The People enjoys an impressive panel of contributors. Are they all committed to the republicanism of the Congress journal? Hardly. But, between educational discussions on Dublin’s slum problem (written by a doctor, of course) and terse reports of anti-imperialist gatherings, the valiant liberals cry lustily: Art Does Not Get a Chance in Ireland (by Sean Keating, RHA); It was the Revolution of 1848 that Inspired Ibsen’s First Play; Starving in a Garret is Immoral, says Harry Kernoff, as he Surveys the Root-causes of the lack of Artistic Appreciation. Sam Butler, Iconoclast, Shook Victorianism Till the Stuffing Came Out, Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington declares. A sociological tit-bit: Thirty Thousand Families Starve in One Room; “and this”, add the godly editors, “in Christian Dublin.”

But let us not think that prudent sociologists are not represented. Cautiously they feed spoonfuls of economic pap into the liberal kittens, so engagingly that Rathmines and Trinity College would never object. In a recent number Captain Denis Ireland regales us with a choice theoretical morsel. Marx, Lenin and the Marxists, is the subject of the ambitious Captain’s essay. He makes several reassuring discoveries: “The seat of government was removed from Leningrad back again to Moscow, thus ending the policy of Westernisation initiated by Peter the Great. Old Russia, in belief, formally declared itself to be what in effect she had never ceased to be, a semi-Asiatic state – a fact often conveniently forgotten by Western European socialists and communists.” Communism was “practical politics in Russia,” the Captain discovers. Because of Soviets, the dictatorship of the proletariat, Marxian theory interpreted by Lenin and Trotsky? Not on your life! “Because ... the seeds of communism had always existed in the psyche of the Russian peoples.” And similarly: “Fascism became practical politics in modern Italy.” Not, mind you, because capitalism was in collapse or because there was no centralized communist force able to raise authoritatively the question of state power and its importance in the transition to socialism. Not at all! Fascism became “practical politics in modern Italy for the simple reason that the germ of Fascism has lain hidden in the soil and atmosphere of the Italian peninsula ever since the foundation of imperial Rome.”

“Such are the facts forgotten,” says the stern pedagogue, “by the James Maxtons and Oswald Moseleys of the West, and all those who seek to implant alien ideas in an alien soil” (A dig for you Mr Murray!) In a concluding plea for “realism” the Irish People’s political contributor observes:

“When the long promised World Revolution failed to materialize no one abandoned the fallacies involved in its expectation more cheerfully than Lenin ...”

No comment from the editors, some of whom at least have participated in working class movements. This is a discussion organ, you see!

The journal’s title, The Irish People, harks back to the Irish People of the Fenian days in the Sixties. Here the comparison ends: The Fenian organ of 1867 was a mouthpiece of a revolutionary nationalist bourgeoisie. “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity,” it thundered. “England’s enemy is Ireland’s friend.” And however circumscribed were the politics of the Fenians, their slogans and activity were at least invested with a certain revolutionary significance. It is precisely this revolutionary aspect of Fenianism and of the Irish People of 1867 that is forgotten by the Irish People of 1936. Hints of this were already apparent in the Republican Congress. England’s difficulty, according to many carefully-timed “letters to the editor”, must not be Ireland’s opportunity. So much was not said in as many words in the editorial columns. But the meaning of ingenious arguments that stressed the dangers of the “England’s difficulty” slogan was there for all to see.

The communist party, the Workers’ Voice, may disavow all responsibility for any statement in the Irish People. But, leaving aside the question of astute and indirect control (one of Stalinism’s most profound contributions to the modern political strategy), one may ask: What are the Workers’ Voice and the communist party doing for the education of the latest litter of liberals? Nothing – no education is needed because the liberals are striking (in all innocence, in the dark, perhaps), at the Comintern line. The proof is implicit in the new realism of the Stalintern. For “broad, people’s fronts”; for non-sectarian support from university dons, parsons and priests; for attractive programs that will interest gentlemen of substance; for good democracies (such as the British Empire) against evil Fascist aggressors; for unity at any price.

The function of the Irish People, regardless of the intentions of some of its contributors, is to spread this “popular” platform, which means to take the sting out of republican activity, to forget that “the republic will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots capitalism on its way”.

Match communist propaganda with some of the later writings of men like Peadar O’Donnell and you see the similarity. The communists, who applauded the Left wing Republicans when they broke with the IRA in 1934, who bitterly stigmatised (and how justly!) the conservative militarism of the Twomey-McBride faction in the Army Council, have taken the sour note from their discussions. Instead of encouraging a resolute fight against the policies championed by Twomey and his associates – policies which brook not even the mildest association with working class struggle – the communists now are all sweetness and light. Gone are the fierce castigations. Instead we have sniveling pleas that “the breach must be healed”. Not the separation of the revolutionary from the conservative but the fusion of both into an evanescent “unity”. And Peadar O’Donnell, discussing the situation in a recent number of the English periodical Left Review, points to the dismemberment of the Republican movement, attributing to Maurice Twomey much of the blame therefor. He indicts Twomey’s hostility to day-to-day struggle for the social interests of the nationalist populace. What is his conclusion? That Twomey must he driven completely from all influence in political councils in Ireland? Far from it! “We must rescue Twomey from this isolationist policy,” O’Donnell says.

Among the founders of the Republican Congress movement, among some of those who contribute now to the Irish People, are men and women who have participated courageously in the struggle for freedom. But courage alone is not the exclusive attribute of the revolutionist. That quality must serve a clear and unwavering programme. In Ireland it means that “the working class must free itself, and perforce must free the nation” (Connolly). That slogan can be as powerful a call to action today as it was in 1896. And to the experience of the struggle in Ireland there must be wedded a clear understanding of international experience – of the bloc of four classes in China, of the reasons for the surrender to Hitler, of the liberalistic orgies of the Seventh World Congress. Above all the intelligent worker-Republican must know that the root of all this is the stifling theory of “socialism in one country”,

Let Ireland’s fighters not be deceived by their Stalinist “educators” in Ireland. Stalin is already committed to the peaceful co-existence of the Soviet and capitalist systems. (When some of the founders of the Congress were fighting in the IRA against the British connection in ’20 and ’21, Lenin was insisting that “one or the other system must perish”.) Revolution may rudely upset the nicely-calculated trade relations between the Soviet Union and the capitalist world.

Russia must be assured of a calm and peaceful international world in which “socialism in one country” grows painlessly, hot-house fashion. Revolutionary activity in Ireland, especially when it is directed against “good democracies” like the British Empire, may, think the Stalinists, adversely affect the progress of the latest sausage factory in the Uzbeks. Revolution is not popular either in the Kremlin or among its obedient office assistants in Dublin. Sooner or later the followers of the Republican Congress (already in the bag for the Stalinist People’s Front) will discover this for themselves.


Maurice Ahearn
Dublin, April 1936


Historical Note from Workers’ Republic Website

We’re assuming that “Maurice Ahearn” is a pseudonym; of whom we don’t know. He could well be Tom O’Flaherty who returned to Ireland from the United States in 1934 and died of tuberculosis in May 1936.

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