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Chris Harman

Irish Problems

(Winter 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.23, Winter 1965, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

James Larkin
Emmet Larkin
Routledge, 50s.

The Irish Question
Nicholas Mansergh
Allen & Unwin, 42s.

James Larkin founded and led Ireland’s largest union, was active in the IWW, was involved in the formation of the American Communist Party (to the extent of being imprisoned for his activities) and was a member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern. Any biography of him could hardly fail to be of interest and Emmet Larkin’s is no exception. It traces in detail Larkin’s career of agitation and organisation. The forms this took give an insight not only into Larkin’s own extraordinary personality, but also into the texture of the Labour movement itself in a certain stage in its development. Larkin was that rare, and, for us today, virtually inconceivable figure – the revolutionary trade-union leader. On the one hand he was committed – and increasingly so as time passed–to a world revolutionary perspective and to agitation on behalf of this, on the other to building up a union which was as hierarchically organised as any other, and in which the ability to distribute welfare benefits was to become as important as the ability to run strikes. There is a contradiction here which although temporarily masked in many unions during periods of rapid growth – when even the most conservative of union bureaucrats welcome the sort of agitational flair and organisational drive that only the politically committed possess – must, given the political stability of capitalism, reveal itself. In Larkin’s case it did, both in the lack of cohesion between some of his ideas and in the development of the union itself. Eventually the secondary leaders were to come to see Larkin’s uncompromising class warfare as a menace to their sort of trade unionism, and force him out of office. This book is useful because it gives the material which enables one to begin to understand the ambiguities of Larkin’s position and of the position of any Marxist active in trade unionism as such. But it does not provide this understanding itself.

The Irish Question is a series of essays on the political and social background of the Irish revolution. Few of them even begin to penetrate beneath the superficial aspects of the subject matter. The discussion on the Marxist view of the Irish question is particularly disappointing. Only the essay on Ulster is really worth reading, and even this does little more than present in a coherent and readable form facts that are already known.

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Last updated: 8.10.2007