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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland

(Continued)

by Erna Bennett

IX – Social-Democratic Vacillation

In April 1921, the British ruling class finally managed to undermine the wavering resolve of J.H. Thomas and other conservative trade union leaders to regain control of what had been a critical situation.60 That same month, the Dail cabinet met in Dublin and ordered its ministers to take whatever steps were necessary to avert a class war.61

The Dail Minister for Labour, Constance Markievicz, close comrade of Connolly’s for many years and staff officer in the Irish Citizen Army during the 1916 Rising, called on the Dail to investigate farm profits, establish co-operatives and take over some industries “to show the workers that we had their interests at heart”.62 Her call was rejected. Instead, the Dail ordered IRA units forcibly to eject workers from factories they had seized and occupied.

In the midst of this ferment, the leaders of the labour movement pursued a policy, if policy it can be called, of total passivity, in marked contrast to the intense involvement of the movement’s rank and file in the independence struggle. Although “the working class as a whole were in the struggle, and were part of the force that sustained it,” the trade union congress neither “formally, officially or specifically took any cognisance” of this fact.63

Nor were labour leaders prepared to countenance fomenting a violent socio-economic revolution. After the execution of Connolly, his successors chose instead a parliamentary and institutional path and categorically rejected any idea of class war.

Their choice had complex origins. England’s proximity, and its long dominance of Irish politics, favoured the influence of conservative craft unions. Simple opportunism, too, played its part. Ireland’s labour leaders lacked an ideological base. They believed in social reformism and the legitimacy of institutions of the state. They chose not to challenge the power of the ruling class, but preferred compromises that regulated capitalist exploitation within the existing system, though they knew well that this served for nothing but the salvation of bourgeois society itself.

The chosen approach of Connolly’s successors was that of compromise at many levels, claiming to see “both sides of questions”, and attempting to reconcile social elements which by their very nature were irreconcilable. They tried to please revolutionary workers, without at the same time offending Unionist workers in the northeast who were members of counter-revolutionary organisations. They were trapped by their own social democratic choice between militant working-class demands and ruling-class prevarication.

Above all, they were more concerned with the growth and success, pure and simple, of the organisations they led than with the immediate and urgent demands of the Irish revolution. They refused, or failed to see in the struggle around them a contest between classes for political power. In the face of such failings and impossible contradictions, they did nothing.

Their political inertia did not prevent them composing documents and statements of some force and originality. Among these was the first draft of the Democratic Program of the First Dail which was later watered down by conservative and cautious members of the Dail government. But they failed utterly to recognise that revolutionary actions, in that moment of history, were more important than revolutionary words.

They declared their support for the Limerick Soviet in April 1919, but failed to provide its leaders with the solidarity they urgently needed and repeatedly requested. They declared their support, in principle, for factory seizures, but did nothing to help them.

They equivocated for many months on the question of whether or not they should support the munitions transport strike on the railways, which blocked British military supplies but which finally had to be called off for lack of support, in spite of its unique significance for the independence struggle.

A few months before the truce in 1921, the Labour executive published a series of demands to employers in a stirring manifesto entitled The Country in Danger. Encouraged by Griffith, Irish employers called the labour leaders’ bluff, and conceded nothing. The Labour executive was asked what it intended to do about it, but it did nothing. Their fine words lacked actions to match them. “Our responsibility has ceased”, said Thomas Johnson.64

Denied effective collective leadership on the question of the Irish liberation movement, politically conscious workers had no other alternative but to join Sinn Fein and the IRA, the organisations of the revolutionary middle class.

In spite of the organised labour movement’s numerical strength, the working class was a minority class. The working class in all sectors of the economy were less than a quarter of the population.

The working class was also deeply divided, both physically and ideologically. The majority of the working class was to be found in the industrial northeast, and most had been persuaded to oppose the independence struggle. Since industry was concentrated around Belfast and its hinterland, partition would leave the southern 26 counties virtually without industries, with less than ten per cent of its work force active in industry or commerce.

More than a third of the active population was composed of various middle-class groups – professionals of different categories, teachers, civil servants, bank and insurance employees, shopkeepers, and clerks. Peasants and large farmers were by far the largest social class, accounting for 40 per cent of the population. Taking account of the more than 100,000 rural labourers who worked on farms and the more than 10,000 who were unemployed, more than 50 per cent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture. Even in 1926, five years later, the first post-Treaty census in the Irish Free State showed that fully 60 per cent of the population lived outside either towns or villages.

It was a conservative society dominated by small, mainly land-owning peasants and large farmers and shopkeepers, resistant to social change. In spite of its commitment (outside the six counties of the northeast) in the independence struggle, the political weight of the working class was slight. Being deprived of official support by the Labour Party or the Trade Union Congress, both of which had chosen to abstain from that struggle, weakened its impact decisively.

The decision to abstain from the national struggle ended whatever hopes there might have been for the social transformation dreamt of in the early days of the revolution by the landless men of the west and by both rural and urban proletariat. Official Labour’s inaction left the road wide open to the considerably more powerful forces dominated by the conservative leadership of the independence movement. In the war with England, and during the subsequent Treaty negotiations, these latter stood firm on matters of formality and protocol, but shrugged their shoulders when partition opened a rift among the people and disastrously divided the working class.

The Treaty eventually signed by Ireland’s negotiators accepted the exclusion of the northeastern industrial enclave from the economy, with its third of the population, a fifth of the country’s area, 40 per cent of its taxable capacity, and by far the greater part of its industry. It left intact the political and economic power of the Irish bourgeoisie and their middle-class and clerical supporters.

It consolidated the power of the “many people of influence trapped within Sinn Fein who were on their tip-toes to break free”.65 It successfully diverted the revolutionary demand of the common people of Ireland for social transformation into a struggle over what Peadar O’Donnell called a mere change of management, carried to the point of civil war.

Next Section: X – Social Democrats and Revolution
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Notes

  1. Hutt, A. (1941) British Trade Unionism: A Short History. London. Lawrence and Wishart. pp.84-97.
  2. Mitchell. loc.cit. p.141.
  3. idem. pp. 141, 142.
  4. Duffy, L.J. (1924) in Irish Labour Party and TUC 1924 Report. cited by Mitchell, p.114.
  5. Mitchell. loc.cit. p.140.
  6. O’Donnell, Peadar. (1984) Not yet Emmett: A Wreath on the Grave of Sean Murray. Dublin, New Books. p.12.

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