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William Morgan

The Struggle for Ireland

The New International, April 1939

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


Bombs are exploding again in Ireland and England. Under the very nose of the Home Office in London, under monument of English kings in Belfast, beneath prisons walls where thousands of Irish patriots have served time, and under customs houses along the Ulster border, loud and sudden blasts usher in the twenty-third anniversary of Easter Week. And no mere memorial, these explosions. They serve to remind the world of the fight for national independence by a people who have relentlessly ought for seven hundred years against the most powerful and most ruthless oppressor of all colonial peoples – the ruling class of the British Empire.

Easter Week! The very words are magic to all Irish patriots and revolutionists. And yet, to some they are without meaning, while others who lack a clear understanding of this event – which is to Ireland what the Paris Commune is to France – the heroic and historic attempt of the Irish people to free themselves from the bloody and desperate grip of Great Britain is considered either a wild adventure of poets and dreamers or a “putsch” undertaken by idealistic nationalists. It was neither. One need only examine a few of the hundreds of available documents plus the published opinions of both Lenin and Connolly to realize that Easter Week was a manifestation of the serious crisis of imperialism, a crisis which in 1917-1918 led to the collapse of several imperialist states and to the Russian Revolution.

Perhaps it is because Ireland, despite its revolutionary significance in the international scene, has not greatly figured in the historic drama of Marxism, that little attention is given to its present possibility as a force in the struggle against imperialism. The decline of the revolutionary labor movement in Ireland and the rise of isolated acts of violence against the Crown are important factors which must be carefully investigated and understood by all revolutionary socialists. Ireland with its complicated conditions and special difficulties must be examined by any who wish to further the interests of colonial peoples as against the powerful and crafty might of Great Britain.

The British ruling class for centuries managed to keep not only the outside world but also England ignorant of conditions in Ireland and thus was able to isolate the Irish fighters for freedom. It is for this reason that the writings of James Connolly must be unearthed to shed light on the fact that in Ireland there lived and struggled a Marxist who takes his place beside the honored pioneers of socialism. Connolly was a Marxist who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries in the labor movement of the British Isles, and he not only understood but gave his life in a vigorous attempt to carry out the basic theories of Marx and Lenin. His contributions to the working class of Ireland include not only the Marxist analysis of the history of labor in Ireland, Labor in Irish History, and his keenly critical articles in the Irish Worker – the official organ of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union – but also the tremendous lessons of the Dublin strike of 1913 and rebellion which he organized and directed. His death remains a symbol of the effectiveness of his courageous and brilliant leadership. Propped up in a wheel-chair (his wounds would not permit him to stand) he was shot by order of a frenzied and terrified capitalism.

Connolly’s ideas and the 1916 Rebellion can only be grasped in the light of Irish history, and it is important to read what Marx and Engels and Lenin had to say concerning the nature of conditions there in relation to the inter-national situation. These leaders of the world revolutionary movements of their time each saw what Connolly so naturally and quickly understood. They were Connolly’s guides and they confirm the correctness of his tactics and approach.

Engels visited Ireland in 1855 and again in 1869. His description of Ireland on his first visit is classic. “Gendarmes, priests, lawyers, officials, landlords, in numbers to gladden the eyes, the complete absence of any industry, so that it would be difficult to understand how all these parasites live, were it not for the corresponding contrast of the peasants’ poverty.” He noted the fine ruins, dating from the Fifth and Sixth century right up to the 19th century, the most ancient ones, churches and castles, the most modern ruins – peasants’ huts. Traces of the awful famine of ’46 were still seen in the deserted villages which stood alongside the beautiful parks of the landlords. As a result of famine, emigration, evictions and executions, Ireland was a desert. “The country has been completely ruined,” he wrote to Marx, “by the English wars of conquest from 1100 to 1850. (In fact the wars and martial law have lasted for all that time.)” Even the native Irish landlords, he noted, in their fine parks are living in decay and semi-poverty, in eternal fear of the Encumbered Estates Courts and the auctioneer’s hammer.

In his first work, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1848, he described the condition of the Irish peasantry on the eve of the famine. The overdivision of the land, the consequent soaring rents, double, treble, quadruple those paid in England, all for the benefit of the landlord, an army of agricultural proletarians, 75,000 more in Ireland than in England, although more than twice as much land is cultivated there than in England. From Spring until the harvest the wife and children roam the roads while the husband seeks in vain for work in England ....

Engels immediately saw through the myth of English “democracy” – English “freedom”.

In 1846 the industrial middle class of England forced the aristocracy to repeal the Corn Laws and establish Free Trade. They at once turned to Ireland and there demonstrated that they had assumed not only the role of the former exploiters but had improved on the methods. Ireland was reduced to a poverty which is beyond description. The enforced famine reduced the population from 8,222,664 to less than three million inside of five years! Marx gives us a true and horrible picture of this wholesale depopulation of a country.

The Irish tenant farmers before 1846 provided the bulk of the wheat consumed in England, being protected against competition by the general tariff system then in force which went mostly to native landlords. This came to an end with the Corn Laws. The peasant’s wretched tenant-farm could not compete with the great feudal estates of Europe or the young and strong capitalist farming of the United States. The native landlords, almost identically with the English landlords, stopped tilling and turned the land into pasturage. The evicting of tenants began.

Marx in an article written in 1855 for the Neue Oder Zeitung described this terrible scourge which cleared Ireland of its peasantry more effectively and quickly than the famine and the plague. “This revolution consists in the Irish agrarian system yielding to the English, the system of small tenantry is being replaced by big tenantry – just as the old landlords are being replaced by new capitalists. The chief stages making way for this change are – the famine of 1847 which killed about one million Irish, the emigration to America and Australia, which has already torn an-other million souls out of Ireland and which continues to uproot fresh millions; the unsuccessful revolt of 1847 ... the Act of Parliament which condemned to auction the property of the indebted Irish nobility ...”

This revolution, Marx considered, reached its climax in the ’60s when Ireland was finally converted into “England’s largest pasture”. In the first volume of Capital he gives a detailed analysis of the years 1861-1865, which gave rise to the economic basis of Fenianism, a mass movement with an agrarian socialist tendency directed against the monopoly of the land by the landlords. And for Marx and Engels the Irish question was the agrarian question, the exploitation of the peasant masses by a foreign landlord-capitalist oligarchy. They followed the question very closely and anxiously watched for developments which, in every case, they had predicted. Marx had pointed out early in the ’50’s, in the German and American press, that the process by which the landlord raised the rent whenever the tenant improved the property actually amounted to the tenant paying the landlord interest on his, the tenant’s own money. They concluded that only the expropriation of the landlords by the nationalization of the land, could solve the agrarian question. The program for the Irish revolution, Marx considered, should contain three simple points – self-government and independence from England, an agrarian revolution, protective taxes to help build up again the industries destroyed by the English.

Connolly, a few days before the uprising of 1916, is reported to have said that the socialists would not understand his motives. He knew only too well the attitude of the Second International on the question of colonial revolts. The social democrats were not concerned with struggles of the small nations and the colonial slaves of the mother countries. They argued that the proletariat was disinterested in the fate of nationalities as such. The proletariat was international they said, and the revolution would solve all questions of national minorities, oppressed nationalities, etc. Against this view Lenin argued with all his ability. He pointed out that this kind of internationalism was a sham and that the question of oppressed nationalities was a class question. And in his arguments Lenin referred particularly to the example of Ireland. Although much had changed in Ireland since the death of Marx, Lenin was able to analyse the changes and the quick developments which had given rise to new conditions and new class currents. The sudden growth of the Irish working class and its independent class action in the great strike of 1913 in Dublin, the “Home Rule” bosses like Murphy, Sinn Féiners like Griffiths, the representatives of the capitalists and the priests, formed a common front with the British Home Office and its armed police against the Dublin workers.

This strike was the beginning of proletarian Ireland, and the lessons of the strike will never be forgotten by Irish workers. It was here that Connolly resolved to organize the rebellion for national independence. Here all revolutionists saw plainly the line-up of forces. The Irish bourgeoisie now were satisfied to rule with the aid and blessings of England, with their own priests, with their own police and with the British navy not far away. Home Rule became a farce in the face of the changed situation. Independence was the only answer to the demands of the trade unions for decent wages. And independence could be won only by a full realization of the exact meaning of the terror and organized violence used by Murphy to smash the strike. The strike became a minor revolution in many aspects – armed conflict between workers and police, barricades in the workers’ districts, occupation by union men of strategic locations with-in the city, arrival of armed forces to assist the local police and the hired strike-breakers and clear, defined lines of combat with all the trade unions and workers and their wives and children on the one side, and the united armed forces of the State on the other. And when the strike was smashed, Connolly knew that only the immediate organization of armed companies of workers by the unions, only preparations for another attempt – larger in scope and bolder – would lift the workers from the demoralization and increased poverty which followed the defeat of the strike. Almost at once Connolly and Captain White set about to organize the Irish Citizen Army.

Connolly as a revolutionary fighter against imperialist war was greatly disappointed in the Second International. He felt as though all connections, slim as they were, with the outside world were broken when it voted to support the war. Added to this was the treachery of the Irish bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Nationalists. When, during the World War, the headquarters of the Transport Workers Union – Liberty Hall – in Dublin was decorated with a huge banner which read, “We serve neither King nor Kaiser!”, the Home Rulers, Redmond and his wing of the IRA were busy giving full support to England, including as many recruits as they could muster, for the slaughter to make the world safe for democracy. Connolly, as if in answer to this betrayal of Ireland’s cause, wrote in The Workers’ Republic studies of risings and street fighting in Moscow in 1905, Paris in 1830 and in 1848, the rising in the Tyrol in 1905, and guerilla warfare in India, revolutionary struggles in Mexico and similar events. Once at a meeting of officers of the Irish Volunteer Army he was asked how he happened to know so much about military tactics and he replied, “You forget that revolution is my business.” He preached open revolutionary defeatism. He looked forward to the pending struggle not merely as an Irish affair: “Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture are shriveled up on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”

Easter Week was crushed. The betrayal of the bourgeois leadership and the failure of many to comprehend the bold step taken by Connolly; the separation of the rural areas from the city, the failure of the British workers to respond, especially the cynical opposition of the British Labour Party leadership which voted for resolutions of solidarity but confined their activity to mere voting, all added to the weight and might of the Army of Occupation.

And there followed the policy of building Ulster, in the North, to compete with Ireland and to divide the nation. England has built Ulster into an industrial fortress to offset the agrarian South. Today England is attempting to bring about complete separation and division.

Divide and rule is an old, old policy. Ulster stands in the path of national independence, and until this question is settled once and for all, England still rules. England does business with Ulster to the detriment of Dublin. And Roosevelt has signed a separate trade treaty with Ulster. But never before has the unity of the people been stronger. It requires the full attention of an Army of Occupation numbering more than 65,000 soldiers and police to keep order in Belfast and Londonderry. In the public streets crowds gathered to burn in public bonfires thousands of Britain’s “Conscription Books” while collections are taken for the IRB.

The IRB is an outgrowth of dissatisfaction with de Valera. The Irish Republican Army has given birth to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. This new organization refuses to accept the leadership of men who have betrayed their cause. They are assuming full responsibility for the present wave of bombings. While the Stalinists are denouncing them as agents of Hitler, blood-brothers of fascists, the Irish Republicans go about their business. The re-enactment of DORA – the old Defense of the Realm Act under which men are arrested for what they might be thinking – does not cause a moment’s hesitation. While the Stalinists are busy trying to recruit for the defense of British “democracy” and heaping slander and abuse on all who cannot quite grasp the point – especially in Ireland – the revolutionists are preparing for the next battle with capitalism.

While fully understanding that without the combined forces of the Irish working class and the English workers and the revolutionary forces in the colonies, national independence cannot be won completely, we cannot simply dismiss the current bombings as useless or reactionary. They are not mere isolated acts of violence committed by distraught and frustrated individuals. They are, on the contrary, carefully planned and carried out according to an organized plan devised by revolutionists who themselves admit that bombs are merely the first step in the renewal of the struggle. These men know and are planning for the necessary steps to unite the forces of opposition. The bombs are serving to draw attention to the Army of Occupation now in Ireland and the return of the suppression which preceded the last war. Revolutionists everywhere must rally to the support of the movement to wrest freedom and independence from the “greatest landlord in Europe” and thus by striking a blow at the heart of the largest imperialist power in the world, release the forces of revolution in every colonial country before the war engulfs all humanity in a fight to destroy itself for the profits and power of capitalism.

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Last updated on 14.5.2004