Thomas Darragh

Revolutionary Ireland and Communism

Source: The Communist International, No. 11-12, June-July 1920, pp. 2281-2294, (4,901 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

“Thomas Darragh” is believed to be a pseudonym for Roddy Connolly, James Connolly’s son, who was a founder member of the first Communist Party of Ireland. Roddy Connolly and Eamonn MacAlpine (an Irish-American and friend of Larkin) were the two official Irish delegates. Their visit to Russia was financed by Jack White. See Arguments for a Workers’ Republic for details of MacAalpine’s speech.—Note by transcriber.

Ireland is of primary importance to international communism primarily for the following two reasons, viz: 1) its strategic position with regard to England, the seat of British imperialism; 2) the influence of Ireland’s political development on the broad masses of its nationals scattered throughout the British Empire and the United States of America.

For the purpose of this report it is necessary to give a brief survey of the Irish labour and socialist movements, and the personalities who played and are playing a part in their development. The recent history of the Irish labour movement may be said to start from the coming of Jim Larkin to Ireland in 1907. Up to this time very few of the Irish workers were organized in trades unions, and of these about 75 per cent were in Irish branches of English unions. They were mere dues-paying members who exercised little or no effect upon the policy of these unions, whose executive offices were in England.

Larkin, who was identified with the Independent Labour Party of England from its inception, came over as organizer of the English Dockers’ Union, and within a short time of his arrival the first big strike in Ireland took place in Belfast. This strike is noteworthy in as much as, along with the dock and transport workers of the city, the police came out on strike. It was marked by much rioting and military activity. Within a few months of the settlement of the Belfast dispute the dockers in Cork went on strike. As a result of the treatment meted out to the Belfast strikers by the executive of the union in England, and a continuation of the same policy with regard to the Cork workers, Larkin broke away from the English Dockers’ Union and organized the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union on the lines of industrial unionism. After a series of fiercely fought strikes the Transport Workers’ Union got a permanent foothold in the bigger ports and industrial centres. Connolly returned from America in 1910 and immediately went to see Larkin, who was in Mountjoy prison in Dublin. As a result of this meeting Connolly took over the management of the union during Larkin’s imprisonment, and on his release they joined forces. From this onwards they worked together until Larkin went to America to raise funds for the union treasury, which had been completely exhausted by the great Dublin strike of 1913-1914.

Connolly spent his early life in the Social Democratic movement in Britain, particularly in Scotland. He was one of the few intrepid young Marxists who in the early days of the Social Democratic Federation split from the first manifestations of Hyndman’s social-patriotism and reformism to form the Socialist Labour Party, of which he was the first chairman and organizer. Up to the last he was in constant touch with it and his influence is still felt in this organization, which is one of the few fighting socialist bodies in Britain. In 1896 he returned to Ireland and founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party, the first socialist party in Ireland. He was editor of its official organ, The Workers’ Republic, by means of which the revolutionary doctrines of the party began to make themselves felt on the Irish working masses. It is noteworthy to record that alone of all other parties, no matter how extreme in nationalism, the ISRP was the first to openly advocate the establishment of an Irish Republic. The party was small though active, and contested some few municipal elections without success.

In 1902 Connolly went to America to raise funds for the party by a lecture tour. The tour completed he stayed on and was identified with the foundation of the IWW, and was for a time an organizer of the American Socialist Labour Party. In 1908 he founded the Irish Socialist Federation in America and was editor of its official organ, The Harp, which was later transferred to Ireland. In 1910, on his return to Ireland, he published Labour in Irish History, the only Marxian interpretation of the history of the development of the Irish proletariat and peasantry.

From 1910, Larkin and Connolly dominated the Irish labour and socialist situation. Their work consisted in organizing the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, educating the masses in the use of the mass strike and the sympathetic strike, and in the transformation of the Irish Trade Union Congress into an Irish Labour Party. So powerful did the Transport Union become, with its revolutionary cry for the abolition of the wage system, that in 1913 the Irish bourgeoisie and English capitalist interests in Ireland combined to crush it. This resulted in the Dublin strike and lock-out, which lasted for over ten months and was the first great proletarian upheaval in Ireland. The radical section of the British workers rallied to the aid of their Irish comrades, sending money and food into Dublin; but the British labour leaders, true to their position as henchmen of the capitalist class and saboteurs of every revolutionary act of the workers, killed the demand for sympathetic action in Britain, and the Irish workers were forced back to the shops. This proved a pyrrhic victory for the bourgeoisie, the Transport Union emerging from the struggle depleted in membership and in funds, but still with its organization intact, and with a bitterness in the minds of the workers which flared into action in 1916.

The outbreak of the world war found the Transport Union sufficiently recovered to make vigorous protest against the social-traitors of British Labourism, who, rallying to the defence of the British Imperial state, assisted in the already beginning double brutal coercion of Ireland as a small nationality and the Irish workers as a class. Larkin and Connolly held meetings throughout the country, baring the capitalist-imperialist nature of the conflict; urging the workers to use the crisis by every means in their power; ruthlessly criticizing British Labourism; revealing the essentially bourgeois-imperialist content of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had hitherto masqueraded as the party of democratic opposition to British imperialism, and now supported the war, and the equally bourgeois reaction of Sinn Féin, which declared Ireland to be neutral. Realizing that the difficulties of British imperialism must necessarily be the opportunity of the Irish proletariat, they set about the development of the Irish Citizen Army, extending its scope, arming its members and intensifying the military nature of its organization. In order to raise funds Larkin went to America, being exiled immediately the British government found he was out of the country, Connolly taking full charge of both the union and the Citizen Army, and carrying on the work alone. From now until Easter 1916, the Irish Citizen Army dominated Irish Labour politics.

The Irish Citizen Army

The Irish Citizen Army was founded in Cork in 1908. Its purpose was to protect the strikers from the brutality of the police, but beyond this it was little heard of and of no particular importance until the latter end of 1913, when it figured in several riots arising out of the Dublin strike. With the outbreak of the world war serious attention was paid to its organization, military instructors were obtained (the first instructor being Captain White, son of British Field Marshal Sir George White. He was identified with the Dublin strike and subsequently, in 1916, was arrested in South Wales for attempting to bring the miners out on strike to prevent Connolly’s execution) and the systematic arming of its members was begun. Connolly as Commandant surrounded himself with a socialist staff, the chief of whom was Michael Mallon, a silk weaver subsequently executed by the British in 1916. National revolutionary ferment developing rapidly all over the country was met by British military suppression, which resulted in the establishment of military staff co-operation between the Irish Volunteers (the Nationalist Republican armed forces) and the ICA, upon the initiative of the latter, which dominated the alliance until the 1916 rebellion. British activity in suppressing all revolutionary papers resulted in Connolly’s paper, The Workers’ Republic, being published under an armed guard of the Citizen Army, which also provided a guard for Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Transport Union. This condition of affairs lasted for about three months, the last number of The Workers’ Republic being issued two days before the rebellion.

The Army was designed upon a proletarian basis, with the Commandant, staff officers and ordinary officers elected by the soldiers, and in addition, a governing committee consisting of equal representatives of the officers and the men. Its activities were confined to the neighbourhood of Dublin city. It was of first rate efficiency, outmatching in many competitions the rival Irish Volunteers, holding on several occasions demonstrations of actual street fighting, and its well-trained officers, especially the Commandant, lecturing and instructing the Irish Volunteers, particularly in street fighting. The ICA being drawn from the proletariat had within its ranks many men who through economic necessity had served in the British Army.

It was the ICA which set the pace in the months preceding the rebellion, and despite the usual wavering of the middle class leaders of the IV, when faced with the actual crisis the iron determination of the ICA and its leader forced the participation of the IV in the uprising. The immediate causes of the failure of the revolutionary forces was the countermanding at the eleventh hour of the mobilization order of the Irish Republican troops throughout the country by the timid right-wing bourgeois leaders, who had always opposed Connolly and the co-operation of the IV with the ICA. Despite this, 1,000 raw Republican troops defended the captured capital against 47,000 disciplined and modernly equipped British soldiers, a victorious onslaught on Dublin from the north county took place, and there were several attempts at uprisings in the West of Ireland.

In the rising the Citizen Army, as a unit of the Republican forces, attacked and seized Dublin Castle, the executive headquarters of the British government in Ireland, as well as holding several strategic positions throughout the city. Connolly was Commander-in-Chief of all the fighting forces of the Republic during the rising. After the surrender Connolly, who had been severely wounded during the fighting, and Michael Mallon, Chief of Staff of the ICA, were executed along with several of the left-wing nationalist leaders, while the majority of the remainder of the prominent proletarian leaders were killed during or after the fighting. An overwhelmingly greater percentage of the ICA than of the IV participated in the fighting, and as a result during the arrests that followed the ICA was practically destroyed as an organization, while the IV was able to preserve its organization intact throughout the greater portion of the country, where no fighting had occurred.

On its reorganization after the release of all prisoners in December 1917, the ICA retained its proletarian basis, but as the situation was now dominated by the IV and all the leaders of the ICA were killed, it steadily weakened, and is not now an effective influence on Irish political life. It must be remembered that it is not a Communist organization, although it is hostile to the present social democratic tendencies of the Socialist Party of Ireland, having co-operated with it only once, when it forced the holding of a meeting, despite the military, in favour of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution.

The ICA programme is the establishment by force of arms of a Workers’ Republic in Ireland, though the form and structure of such a republic are not consciously understood by the majority of its members.

Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers

In order properly to understand Sinn Féin it is necessary to deal with its political predecessor, the Irish Parliamentary Party. This party dominated Irish national politics for well over 40 years. Its aim was to secure Home Rule for Ireland within the British Empire, by constitutional means. Out of a total of 104 Irish members in the British Parliament the Irish Parliamentary Party numbered about 80, the remainder being mostly Unionists returned from the Protestant constituencies of North-East Ulster, who stand on the anti-Home Rule platform and are a wing of the English Tory Party.

Under the leadership of Parnell the Irish Parliamentary Party pursued a policy of obstruction in the British Parliament, and maintained its independence by refusing to ally itself with any British party, throwing its weight now to this side and now to that. This policy led to its gradually compromising, until finally it became the tail end of the English Liberal Party. Though still protesting its independence in Ireland, this attachment to the Liberal Party caused it to become identified with English Imperial politics, thus relinquishing its so-called democratic opposition to English imperialism. Its final act in this role was its opposition to the Boer War, 1899-1901.

Whilst this party was losing its hold on the national revolutionary mind of the people a new national policy in the form of Sinn Féin made its first appearance. A pamphlet called The Resurrection of Hungary. A Parallel for Ireland began to attract attention. In this work Arthur Griffith, an independent bourgeois journalist, traced Hungary’s fight for political independence against Austria, and advocated the adoption in Ireland of the tactics employed by the Hungarian nationalists. He sketched a programme, subsequently amplified with the attainment of his party to power after 1916, the most salient points being (a) the election of members by the English electoral system pledged to abstention from the British Parliament; (b) the actual setting up of an Irish Parliament or General Council; (c) refusal to pay taxes to the English imperial exchequer; (d) establishment of a policy of protection, especially against England; (e) the encouragement of Irish industries; (f) the building up of an Irish Consular service; (g) and the general encouragement of all Irish national movements, such as the Gaelic League, the organization of the Irish language-revival movement, the Gaelic Athletic Association for the revival of old Irish sports and games, the Irish literary and dramatic renaissance and the Irish Boy Scouts (Fianna), organized in opposition to the English military Baden-Powell Boy Scouts.

Sinn Féin was a party designed to use political and extra-parliamentary action, but did not advocate the use of arms for the accomplishment of its object, nor did it aim at the establishment of an Irish Republic. It remained true to the Hungarian parallel and urged the establishment of an Irish Parliament which should be united to the British Parliament only in the person of a British monarch, who would also be king of Ireland, thus ratifying the decrees of both Parliaments. In fact in the first decade of the twentieth century no party except the Irish Socialist Republican Party openly advocated an Irish Republic.

For many years, even up to the rebellion, despite the waning popularity and political bankruptcy of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Féin made little headway, existing rather as a critic of the Irish Parliamentary Party than as a definite political party. In its economic doctrine it followed the obsolete bourgeois economist Friedrich List, and its pronunciamentos on economic questions were reactionary in the extreme. In 1913 it assumed an attitude of hostility to the Dublin strike.

From the outbreak of the war to the rebellion Sinn Féin assumed a more revolutionary role, being largely influenced by the Irish Volunteer movement, which rather than Sinn Féin itself was the dominant National force in Irish politics. After the rebellion, though Sinn Féin played no actual active part in the struggle, by shedding the more reactionary portions of its doctrines aid harmonizing its programme with the now popular demand for an Irish Republic, it assumed the position of the political leader of the Irish people. It leaped from success to success until in the 1918 parliamentary general elections it swept the country, following which it set up its own Parliament, Dáil éireann, and attempted to form ministries and assume the government of the country. It was immediately declared illegal; since then it functions whenever possible, though most if its members and prominent officials are being continually imprisoned in English jails, from which they escape by hunger-striking, jail deliveries and other means. With the increasing oppression of English militarism Sinn Féin is coming more and more under the dominance of the Irish Volunteers. In the recent elections Sinn Féin captured the majority of the municipalities and rural councils, its nearest competitor being the Irish Labour Party, which co-operates with it in the local government of the country. The whole policy of Sinn Féin is to make British government impossible in Ireland, and at the same time to establish as many of its own institutions as possible, so that it may step in and function as the government of the country.

The Irish Volunteers in form is a purely military organization with a General Staff and officers elected by the rank and file. Its programme originally consisted in the establishment of an Irish Republic by force of arms, and now the Republic has crystallized into the form which is in the process of establishment by the united efforts of themselves and Sinn Féin. Its membership consists mostly of proletarians and the peasantry, though on the average mostly officered by the younger members of the petty bourgeoisie and farmers. The majority of the rank and file look upon the establishment of the Irish Republic as of the first importance, and are inclined to defer the solution of social problems to the successful accomplishment of this aim. The allegiance of the country members to this ideology is being somewhat under-mined by their being now mostly organized in the IT&GWU, the consequent spark of class consciousness derived from this, and the increasing economic difficulties which force them into opposition to the farmer-class members of the IV. On the whole there are but few socialists within their ranks, but many sympathizers and admirers of Connolly and the idea of a Workers’ Republic.

Owing to the constant national revolutionary ferment that dominates the activity of all classes of the population, and the almost universal opposition to England, which throws otherwise antagonistic classes into spasmodic co-operation, it is difficult actually to determine of what classes the various organizations are the Political expression. Roughly speaking Sinn Féin is controlled in the rural districts by the small farmers and petty peasantry or tenant farmers, in the towns by the small shopkeepers and middle men, and in he cities by the smaller manufacturers, merchants and bourgeois intellectuals. There are practically no big landowners or even moderately big capitalists in this movement; this class in Ireland being economically dependent upon English capitalism and having as its Political expression the English Liberal parties. The conglomeration of classes comprising Sinn Féin necessarily causes antagonism to develop within the Party and results, as long as endures the co-operation of these classes and the working masses, necessary to achieve political independence, in its being unable to formulate any definite socio-economic programme. Its aim being political independence, it finds it necessary to draw all classes of the population to it to accomplish this object, and, to preserve the co-operation of the classes, it dare not issue any definite political and economic programme. Instead it has issued a so-called democratic programme, breathing all the false glittering generalities of bourgeois democracy—the will of the sovereign people, the ownership of the land and resources of the country by and in the interests of the whole people, the equality of all citizens, etc., etc.; but it reveals its essential class content by promising international regulation of the conditions under which the working class will live. The ideology of the two allied movements, Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, is similar to that of any small nationality. Finally the hope of Sinn Féin is the development of the already existing antagonism between America and England, and the tendency is to rely more and more on American capitalism and to become subservient to its interests.

The Irish Labour Movement

The Irish labour movement is composed of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, local or national craft unions, and branches of the big English trades unions, such as the National Union of Railwaymen and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. It functions nationally through the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party, and locally through Trades Councils, composed of representatives of the various unions in the district. By far the most powerful body is the IT&GWU, which now numbers 120,000 members. It was originally organized on the lines of industrial unionism, and though small in numbers and restricted to the larger towns, it wielded with tremendous efficiency and success the weapons of the mass and the sympathetic strike, at the same time carrying on an almost incessant revolutionary propaganda campaign. Since the rebellion, with the loss to the union of its two leading figures and the indiscriminate increase of its membership, its revolutionary outlook has deteriorated, until now it has become a federation of unskilled workers with a large sprinkling of craft unions and with bureaucratic and strong centralization tendencies. It is not a craft union, but neither has it kept abreast of the later developments of industrial unionism, consequently tending to become an unwieldy and ineffective weapon for the proletariat either against alien imperialism or native capitalism.

The larger portion of its membership at the present time consists of the poorer peasantry and agricultural labourers, who are not in close sympathy and whose activities are not in co-ordination with those of the industrial proletariat. It should not be forgotten, however, that the organization of the rural proletariat has been a tremendous accomplishment, and has imbued them with a certain amount of class consciousness. On account of the form of the organization and the failure of the IT&GWU sufficiently to educate these rural workers as to their class position, it has been demonstrated that this is not the organization to bridge the gulf between the agricultural and industrial proletariat.

The general condition of Irish life being nationalistically revolutionary, the IT&GWU, in common with the craft unions, has a much stronger fighting spirit than its English prototypes. In alliance with the Nationalists the Irish labour movement defeated conscription in 1918; on May 1, 1919, it stopped industry throughout the greater portion of the country; and only recently, again in alliance with the Nationalists, by a two day general strike it forced the British government to release over 100 political prisoners who were on hunger strike. In the majority of these cases, however, the general sentiment of the people practically forces the labour movement to take action, and the strike is carried out by unionists and non-unionists alike.

It is only comparatively recently that the IT&GWU has entered the political arena as a dominant force, and its successes in the late municipal elections have only strengthened its tendency toward reaction. The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, acting through its local Trades Councils, emerged from the municipal elections as the second party in numerical strength, and of the labour members elected the IT&GWU secured an overwhelming majority. This solidifies the domination of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress by the IT&GWU, which gave to it its present form and programme. Despite the insistence of the Labour Party that this programme was constructed by Connolly and must therefore be revolutionary, it refuses to understand that such a programme was designed for use by the proletariat in a pre-world-revolutionary period.

The attempt of the IT&GWU, under the slogan of the One Big Union, to absorb the craft unions, has led to the development of antagonisms within the Labour Party. The craft unions object to such absorption primarily because of their craft ideology, and also because they claim that the transport union does not represent industrial unionism, but the growth of a federation which is tending to bring the whole labour movement under a bureaucracy. The craft unions in Ireland are small and constantly dwindling. They are of little political importance with the exception of one or two big branches of English unions, the tendency of which is to break away from the parent bodies and form national unions. A large section of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers has already done so recently.

The transport union publishes the only labour paper in Ireland, The Watchword of Labour a weekly with a circulation of about 10,000 and which shares the common fate of all nationalist and rebel papers in Ireland—continual suppression by the government. This paper, while claiming to be the successor of Connolly’s revolutionary Workers’ Republic, in fact constantly emasculates his application of revolutionary Marxism to Ireland in much the same manner as Kautsky emasculates the general principles of Marxism. It voices or represents the views of the dominant section of the IT&GWU, the Irish Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Ireland.

Internationally the Irish labour movement is affiliated to the Yellow International. Cathal O’Shannon, the editor of The Watchword of Labour, executive member of the Irish Labour Party and at present President of the Socialist Party of Ireland; Thomas Johnston, treasurer of the Irish Labour Party; William O’Brien, secretary of the Irish Labour Party, treasurer of the IT&GWU, and one of the biggest forces in the Irish labour movement, and another Irish Labour Party executive member, together with Hughes, assistant secretary of the IT&GWU, who represented the Socialist Party of Ireland, being the delegates from Ireland. O’Shannon and Johnston, who were equipped with supplementary mandates from the SPI, were the only two to reach Berne. They signed the Adler-Longuet resolution and generally adopted the policy of that wing of the conference.

The Socialist Party of Ireland, which was founded in 1896, underwent many changes of programme and name, until now it is a very small and ineffective party with no bearing upon national politics. The same personalities who dominate the Irish Labour Party and the IT&GWU influence and direct its policy and tactics. For one brief spell it was captured by the left wing, which during its brief term of power, against the violent opposition of the rest of the Party, succeeded in introducing a few revolutionary conceptions into its long established programme, ordered the revocation of the affiliation to Berne and secured a majority vote in favour of the Third International, and held a meeting in Dublin on the last anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Before it had time to consolidate its forces it lost power, consequently its orders regarding the internationals were never put into force. It is now a party numbering scarce 150 members in Dublin, about 30 of whom may be considered effective members, and a few hundred members throughout the country, badly organized and having no direct connection with each other or the Dublin headquarters. It is very inactive, has no paper and but a few pamphlets by its own members, none of which deal with the problems facing the Irish proletariat.

A force which will undoubtedly play an important part in the revolutionary development of Ireland is the Co-operative movement led by George Russell (A.E.) There are several well organized branches of this movement, which now form a considerable part of the economy of the country, and may readily be utilized by the proletarian state for the solution of the immediate problems of food distribution, etc. during the first period of the proletarian dictatorship. It is in the co-operative production on the land by the poor peasantry that the Communists will be chiefly interested. This movement, which tends to destroy, even now, the ideology of small private property ownership among the land-hungering poorer peasantry, is of paramount importance to the Communists. For it actively tends to the solution of one of the most important and difficult problems of the proletarian state, by initiating the organization of the poorer peasantry on the basis of large-scale co-operative production, thus mentally harmonizing the two sections of the working class and making certain the unity of the industrial proletariat and peasantry under the dictator-ship of the proletariat.

Ulster, or more properly the north-east corner of Ireland, is the big manufacturing and industrial centre. Industrially it bears a greater resemblance than any other part of the country to the highly industrialized portions of England and Scotland. It is dominated by the only big capitalists in the country, who are closely allied with the British bourgeoisie. Economically the workers are organized in branches of English Trades unions, and politically the vast majority adheres to the Unionist Party, the party of extreme opposition to Sinn Féin and any form of Irish nationalism. One of the main factors, though steadily declining of late years, is its religious antagonism to the rest of the country. In many respects the problems of the Communists are here much easier, it being possible to rally the proletariat to their banner on the straight issue of the capitalist state versus the proletarian state. The lack of any nationalist republican feeling on the part of the majority of the proletariat renders them hostile to the establishment of an Irish bourgeois republic. With the exception of the anti-Nationalist feeling, which is partly the outcome of religious bigotry, Ulster presents a problem similar to that presented by any large industrial centre, and for this reason may become one of the chief centres of the proletarian struggle against an Irish bourgeois state.