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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

VII – Why did Revolution fail?

We must ask how it was that a revolution that had transformed the entire working population of Ireland (with the now familiar exception of the Belfast industrial enclave in the north-east) into unrelenting combatants could have been so fragile that it so easily discarded both its social program and even some conservative objectives of its less revolutionary elements to the point of precipitating a civil war.

The modern observer, with all the advantages of half a century of hindsight, may well understand that the independence movement shed its social program in 1920 and 1921 in exactly the same way that earlier struggles – the campaign for catholic “emancipation”, the Tithe Wars, the Repeal Campaign, and the Land Wars – shed theirs, and for the same reasons.

In line with general historical experience, all were taken over and then diverted from their original revolutionary aims by a middle class prepared to flirt with the power of popular forces to assist it in its own bid for power, only to nip the excessive zeal of their erstwhile allies in the bud when they showed signs of wanting to go “too far” beyond middle class aims.

The outcome of a revolution, as Lenin puts it, “depends on whether the working class will play the role of auxiliary to the bourgeoisie ... or the part of leader of the people’s revolution”.54 In retrospect the issue is clear, but to those caught up in day to day struggles, the pace of events often blurs their underlying causes and relationships.

To sit down and think becomes an impermissible luxury. Events are subject to unforeseen and rapid changes, and class relationships are not always clear. Apart from Connolly, no other Irish political leader ever consistently sought to analyse class relationships and their role in the processes of national liberation and social transformation with which the Irish working class was grappling, and he had been shot, his enemies encouraged by the insistent clamour of the church and the press lords for his blood.

The Irish independence struggle had little if any of the great mass of experience that later national liberations in this century have been able to draw upon. “It is a crucially important proposition”, Baran noted when commenting on the Cuban revolution in 1960, “that every new arrival in the socialist camp finds the going easier than the country which preceded it”.55 “The misfortune of the Irish”, said Lenin of the 1916 Rising, “is that they rose prematurely.”56 In 1921, the Irish struggle was anticipating a movement that would assume world-wide dimensions only years later, and those who were part of it had to work out the strategy of national liberation and map their post-liberation path on their own.

Nor is it enough to say that the labour leadership should not have stood aside from the struggle for national self-determination. Certainly, the fact that they did so determined its failure. But it was only afterwards that it became evident – both to those who participated in it and those who did not – that as long as the ruling class or their middle-class representatives dominated that struggle, victory could only mean “self-determination of the ruling class”. The working and labouring classes after such a victory, as Rosa Luxemburg reminds us, are “left in a subordinate position as before.”57 In Ireland, it was the national self-determination of the ruling class, not that of the working class, that won out.

The question is: why did the leaders of the organised working-class movement stand aside in the independence struggle? And, more importantly, why were they not prevented from doing so by the movement’s rank and file?

Next Section: VIII – Revolution in Europe
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  1. Lenin, V.I. (1905, 1946) In the preface to “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” in Selected Works (12 volume edition) 3, p.41.
  2. Baran, Paul A. (1969) The Longer View. New York. Monthly Review Press. p.409.
  3. Lenin, V.I. (1916) “The Discussion on Self-Determination” summed up in Selected Works 5, 301-306. Lawrence and Wishart. 1944.
  4. Davis, H.B. (1976) in Introduction to The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg. New York, Monthly Review Press. p.15.

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