From Militant (UK), No. 94, March 1972.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
This year’s Easter celebrations will once again bring to life in Ireland the memories of the Easter Rebellion of 56 years ago. For those people who in Ireland, north and south, today continue the struggle begun by the Easter insurgents, the real lessons of 1916, not those drawn from the potted ‘official’ histories of the southern state, are of fundamental importance.
In numerical terms, the rebellion was small. The initial march into O’Connell St was only just over 1,000 strong. In general, the country outside Dublin remained quiet during the week of fighting. The capture of Ashbourne by Tom Ashe’s men, the Wexford rising, and the taking of Enniscorthy, the mobilisation of 1,000 volunteers led by Liam Mellows in Galway, these were the only significant exceptions to the overall calm.
With such small forces, the rising faced inevitable defeat. Every one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence under stood this. Connolly’s words to William O’Brien, spoken on the morning of the insurrection, show how aware he was of his fate: “We are going out to be slaughtered.” Asked by O’Brien, “Is there no chance of success?”?, Connolly replied, “None whatsoever.”
Yet 1916 is something far more than a brief and bitter confrontation between a handful of ‘patriots’ and the armed might of England. Pearse and Connolly for their part in the rising, stand directly in line with the traditions of revolt laid by the United Irishmen and subsequently built upon by every generation. The volunteers of Easter week und the tiny Citizen Army in 1916 wrote a new chapter in Irish history, turning the page from where the vanquished of previous generations, Robert Emmet, the Young Irelanders, the Fenians and others had left off.
Only a few may have marched on Easter Monday. Yet the actions of these few was enough to kindle the flame of revolt among the mass of the Irish people. In this respect, the heroism and gallantry of those who fought, gallantry which was even praised by the British Officers sent to put the rising down, singles them out as the outstanding figures of their generation.
In particular, the young insurgents of 1916 stood head and shoulders above the rotten leaderships of the Social Democratic parties throughout the world; the people who in the interest of their particular national capitalists, applauded the sending of their supporters to become cannon fodder in the trenches of Europe.
These people, the so-called socialist leaders of the world, who at the Basle Congress of 1912 had promised opposition to any imperialist war, but who, in the event, sprung to the “Defence of the fatherland”, pale in comparison with Connolly, and his comrades, who were prepared to take up arms against “the war of nation against nation in the interest of royal freebooters and cosmopolitan thieves.”
It was in order to off-set the rising tide of support for the war, in particular the threat of conscription in Ireland that motivated Connolly to make this stand. Before the rising, impatient with the leaders of the volunteers, he was even prepared to go it alone with the small force of the Citizen Army, not because there was any possibility of success, but only because such bold action, he believed, could “set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last capitalist bond and debenture is shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”
The battles now being waged on the streets of Northern Ireland, the reawakening of the nationalist consciousness of the people of the south, all this is a continuation of the struggle of 1916. After the Easter Rising, General Maxwell ordered that graves big enough for 100 bodies should be dug for those he intended to execute. General Maxwell has his modern counterpart in General Ford, the man who sent the paratroopers into the Bogside on Bloody Sunday.
The million people who came out on strike in revulsion against the latter atrocity, stand directly in line with those who demonstrated for the release of the prisoners after 1916. The fight for, in Connolly’s words, ‘The reconquest of Ireland’, for an end to military tyranny; for all end to the tyranny of the exploitation of the Irish working class at the hands of foreign capitalists and financiers and their Irish counterparts, has not ended.
For this reason, the real lessons of 1916 must be taken to heart. In particular, the lessons of Connolly, in whose tradition every leader of the Catholic population in the North claims to stand. The motives which drive the residents of the Catholic areas towards the IRA, given the methods of the army, are understandable. But even a cursory comparison of the leaders of both sections of the IRA, as well as the green Tories who claim to head the national movement, is enough to show the depths of the chasm which separates them from both the ideas and the methods of Connolly.
Connolly was not an individual terrorist. He did not organise the planting of bombs, the assassination of soldiers, politicians, or whatever. Had he wanted to do so, he had every opportunity in the period between the 1913 lockout and rising when he had to back him an armed and trained force, the Citizen Army.
As a Marxist, Connolly put his faith in the ability of his class to change society, not a handful of individuals to do it for them. Those people who justify individual terrorism by looking to the traditions set by 1916, have not understood the first thing about that rising.
Although it is true that only a few thousand participated in the rising, it is also true that none of its leaders saw any possibility of victory. The rising had a different purpose. It was an appeal to the people of Ireland and the working class of the world to rise against the bloody slaughter being perpetrated in Europe. Every bullet fired in 1916 was intended as an inspiration to others. Not so with the bullet s and bombs of today. The individual terrorist dose not turn outwards to the masses. Instead he reduces the struggle to a ‘duel in the dark’ between his own secretive organisation and the British Army.
A guerrilla campaign in Northern Ireland is particularly self-destructive in that it worsens sectarianism and thereby weakens the position of the Catholics themselves. The Provisional IRA together with the other Catholic leaders, have not the beginnings or an idea of how to appeal to the Protestant workers.
All that they can think of to overcome sectarianism in their Dail Uladh, is that the Protestants “‘could be adequately satisfied if they formed a large part, possibly a majority, in a truly Ulster regional parliament.” For the Catholics in such a set-up, “they would take comfort in their newly-found strength”. (Republican News, September 11th)
What an abyss lies between this and the position of Connolly! In his Socialism and the Orange Worker, Connolly attacks the northern socialist for not having seriously taken up the question of organising among the Protestants. This would not have been carried out by stressing the comparative strength of their religion in any new set-up, but by pointing to their position as workers and their day- to-day struggle against exploitation, misery and want.
Connolly’s appeal to Protestants was never merely an exposure of the Orange leaders, but was this coupled with a withering attack on all shades of bigotry in the ranks of the Catholics.
This Easter, the AOH, in the name of Connolly amongst others, will celebrate the rising. Quietly forgotten is Connolly’s own description of this organisation. Once described as “more Catholic than the Pope”, the AOH was referred to by Connolly as “the foulest brood that ever came into Ireland.” He went on, “were it not for the Board of Erin (AOH), the Orange society would long have ceased to exist. To brother Devlin (Grand Master AOH) and not brother Carson, is mainly due the progress of the covenanting movement.”
What would Connolly have said about the miserable squeaking’s of An Phoblacht·on the question of the trade unions, when they call for the breaking of all links with foreign unions and for the conducting of branch business in Gaelic, is unimaginable. Suffice to say that in his Yellow unions in Ireland, he describes how such unions, when established, have been “the first to betray the cause of Labour.”
The Citizen Army was built and prepared for 1916, not on the basis of a hand-in-glove relationship with the Green Tories with whom they would share the barricades, but on the basis of a struggle against such people. Connolly would literally turn in his grave to think that people who claim to be his followers today, engage in parleys and behind-the-scene deals with the Tories of Fianna Fail. Never would he have accepted money from a capitalist government on the provision that he would disengage from struggle against that government. Nor would he have rubbed shoulders on Civil Rights platforms with Green Tories and bigots, without at the same time openly and mercilessly criticising them.
The words written by Connolly in Erins Hope, are like a beacon lighting up the mistakes of both sections of the IRA in this respect. “No revolution can safely invite the co-operation of men or classes whose ideals are not theirs and whom, therefore, they may be compelled to fight at some future critical stage of the journey to freedom.” These are exactly the same sentiments as he echoed on the very eve of the rising, when he instructed his men, in the event of victory, to hold onto their guns “because the volunteers may have a different goal.”
1916 holds many important lessons for today. But the most fundamental of all arises from the fact that in the main, the participants in the rising were drawn from the ranks of the working class. This is the proof of the correctness of Connolly’ s famous phrase, “Only the Irish working; class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.” Every other class is bound hand and foot to the purse-strings of English capital. For this reason only the working class can solve the national problem in Ireland. There can only be a free united Ireland if that freedom, that unity, is founded on the basis of a fight against the stranglehold of Rent, Interest and Profit; the tyranny of landlordism and capitalism and for a socialist united Ireland.
The failing of the Easter rising was that it was premature. The Irish rose too early before the same seeds of revolt were sown among the workers of Europe. At the same time, no preparations were made to organise a general strike and to appeal to the soldiers in the British Army, many of whom were Irish in any case.
Nevertheless, those who fought in 1916 set an example for the working-class movement internationally to follow. Even in the present situation in NI, were the Labour leaders to breathe in even one breath of the spirit of 1916 and couple this with a correct application of the ideas of Connolly and of Marxism, a way forward could be provided.
Last updated: 26.7.2012