From Militant [UK], Issue 152, April 1973.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
“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 will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”
(James Connolly in the Irish Worker)
Easter Week 1916 stands as a landmark in the history of Ireland. The action of a few thousand men in taking to arms against the overwhelming military might of Britain, although at the time isolated and easily crushed, has had a stunning effect on subsequent developments.
Apart from Dublin, only a few areas, such as Galway, where 1,000 men were led by Liam Mellows responded to the call to arms. Those who did fight faced inevitable and bloody defeat. From the British side, no quarter was given. Those areas occupied by the insurgents were saturated by shell and rifle fire. In an orgy of bloodshed following the final surrender, 90 of the leaders were sentenced to be shot by secret courts martial. During the weeks following the rising 14 of these sentences were carried out, the last man executed being James Connolly, shot while strapped to a chair, unable to stand due to bullet wound in the ankle.
Those who signed the 1916 Declaration of Independence saw the rising as a continuation of the tradition of armed struggle laid down by every past generation since the 1798 rebellion. To men like Pearse, MacDonagh and the old Fenian leader, Tom Clarke, it would be better to go down in blood than to allow a generation to go without one attempt to win freedom through armed revolt. Pearse, at his court martial, summed up his attitude: “we seem to have lost, we have not lost. To refuse to fight would have been to lose, to fight is to win!”
But in 1916 the struggle for national independence had assumed an altogether different character from the days of 1798 or from the mainly peasant revolt of the 19th century. A new force had appeared on the scene in Ireland, the Irish working class.
As Connolly constantly explained, only this class could carry on the traditions of the past, only they remained as the “incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom.” Every other class was tied through countless bonds of corruption to the purse strings of English and foreign capital. 1916 reinforced this conclusion. Those who fought were drawn mainly from the ranks of the working class and the most heroic sections of the petty bourgeoisie.
It showed that only the working class, with other middle strata of society in support could, on the one hand fight for national freedom, and on the other fight for the economic freedom and working class internationalism which was the programme of Connolly and the Citizens Army.
However, both within Ireland, and in the international working class organisations the rising attracted little support. To most social democratic leaders in Europe it was a non-event. Almost alone in the workers’ movement Lenin stood out in defence or the rising. Those people who dismissed it as a mere putsch were castigated by Lenin. Today there are a number of so-called Marxists, with a policy which has nothing in common with any of the great teachers of Marxism, who justify their support for the provos’ campaign by pointing to Lenin’s position on 1916.
It is complete nonsense to attempt to compare the two struggles. Any Marxist would defend the Easter rebellion. But Lenin pointed to the negative side of the rising as a well as the positive: “The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured.”
Not only in a European context, the Rising was premature in the context of Ireland itself. In 1916 there was no upsurge of unrest among the mass of the Irish people. In particular among the working class there was no mood of revolt. The attitude of the slum dwellers of Dublin was one of open hostility to the rebellion.
Even after the surrender, while the defeated volunteers were being marched through South Dublin, they were greeted with jeers and pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables by the inhabitants of the slums in that area.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in preparing for the seizure of power in Russia in 1917, paid meticulous attention to the problem of insurrection. To Lenin, insurrection was an art, and could only be successfully attempted under certain conditions. Among these were a willingness to make sacrifices on the part of the working class, an inability on the part of the rulers to find a solution to the crisis in society, support for the working class from the petty bourgeoisie, and the existence of a revolutionary party.
These conditions were absent in Ireland in 1916. The time was not ripe for a mass revolt. From the insurgents, even from Connolly and the Citizen Army, there was no broad appeal to the Irish workers. No call was made for a general strike which could have served to paralyse the country, hinder the movement of troops and bring the working class to their feet.
Nevertheless, Lenin spoke out in defence of the rising. He did this because of the condition which existed in Europe at that time. In 1912 the leaders of the Social Democratic parties in Europe had proclaimed their solidarity in opposition to all imperialist wars. In 1914 when the European carnage was begun these same leaders dropped all pretence of internationalism and joined in the chorus of support for the war.
In 1914 they had the resources to provoke a titanic struggle against the war, but they capitulated without a struggle. In Ireland, without the resources to permit any possibility of success, a group of people were prepared to struggle against oppression and against the war. To Lenin, as to all Marxists, they stand as giants when compared to their critics.
More than any of the other leaders of 1916 Connolly was motivated by a burning hatred of the capitulators abroad who had betrayed their initial opposition to the war, and of those so-called leaders of the national movement, the Redmondites, who were leaning over backwards to ensure support for the British war effort in Ireland.
To Connolly, a rising in Ireland would act as a clarion call to the workers on all sides at that time immersed in the muck and the blood of the trenches. To achieve this Connolly was prepared to rise alone in February 1916. Distrustful of the volunteers, he threatened to take to the streets with only the tiny Citizens Army to back him. Even at Easter he had no illusions in the IRB and the Volunteers.
A week before the rising he had told his men “The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold on to your rifles because the volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty but for economic liberty as well.”
He fought hoping that his sacrifice would arouse the international working class. His mistake was in not understanding, as did Lenin, that a mood of opposition to the war would inevitably grow and preparing for those more favourable conditions.
The Irish working class paid dear for the mistake, for through the death of Connolly they were deprived of a clear leadership during the struggles of the post war period. But Connolly and the participants in the Easter Rebellion have left behind them a tremendous tradition of struggle. Today the Labour Movement, North and South, needs to recapture that tradition in order that the voice of the working class may ring out invincible in the struggle for a Socialist United Ireland.
Last updated: 20.8.2013