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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

VIII – Revolution in Europe

It would be as unjust as it would be misleading to try to answer such questions without first attempting to relate Irish events in 1918-1923 to their broader, international context. The Bolsheviks had successfully assumed power in Russia only a few years earlier.

“Great masses of shabby soldiers, grimy workmen, peasants – poor men, bent and scarred in the brute struggle for existence” had unceremoniously ousted from power the cultured and polished men of government who had promised them everythinf and done nothing, and proceeded “to construct the Socialist order”.58

Naval blockades and a concerted campaign of military interventions from Brest-Litovsk to Vladivostok, aimed at the overthrow of the new Soviet state, absorbed the energies of a score of outraged capitalist governments.

Europe was emerging from a war that had shaken the old order to its foundations and toppled empires. Socialist risings, hoped for by the Bolsheviks, swept the defeated countries of central Europe, but were ruthlessly crushed, one by one. In Britain, the ruling class emerged from the war victorious but profoundly shaken and in mortal fear of revolution, which it managed finally to stave off only in April 1921.

Only then did it find its way clear in Ireland to proceed, firstly, to the task of de-fusing the liberation movement that threatened its hold on the country. To do so, it used the device of partition that it was to use in many future post-colonial struggles. Only then, having successfully restored their confidence, its ministers proceeded to dictate peace terms to Irish leaders who were as fearful of social revolution as themselves.

The social unrest that swept Ireland like a fever during the years of the independence struggle was thus only part of a broad insurgence that stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals and beyond. Griffith’s fierce repression of “social extremists” within the independence movement reflected the same firm resolve to defend the institutions of capitalism as consumed the ruling class in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Griffith and his middle-class colleagues felt more in common with the English government’s Treaty negotiators who sought to humiliate them than with any of the radicals in their own movement. That, more than anything else, is the reason they capitulated so readily to partition in 1922 – a proposal already willingly embraced by Eoin MacNeill when it was first aired in pre-war 1914.

Partition, said Connolly prophetically in 1914, would create “a new line of cleavage” and “destroy the Labour movement by disrupting it”. It would “make divisions more intense and confusion of ideas and parties more confounded”.59 No wonder, then, that the conservative, middle-class leadership of Sinn Fein so contentedly embraced it.

Next Section: IX – Social-Democratic Vacillation
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  1. Reed, J. (1961) Ten Days that shook the World. London. Lawrence and Wishart. pp. 99, 105.
  2. Connolly, J. (1914, 1948) in Forward, 21 March 1914. in Socialism and Nationalism. Dublin. Three Candles. p.109.

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