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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

X – Social Democrats and Revolution

While these events were unfolding in Ireland, the Bolshevik revolution, for all the fear it had sown among the ruling classes of Europe, was far from secured and its future far from certain. It held out great hopes to the Irish labouring classes caught up in the independence struggle, but the Irish were not in a position to draw much guidance from it.

Ireland had long been separated from Europe by the physical barrier of England and ever since the Act of Union, which had put an end to the dangerous liaison between the United Irishmen and revolutionary France, had sought also to prevent cultural contacts. But the bonds that had joined the French and Irish revolutionary movements in the late 1700s, and the French and Fenians in the mid-1800s, were only episodes, and left very little of lasting effect.

Among the Irish leaders, only Connolly had sought to enrich Irish political thought from European and Marxist sources. With the death of Connolly, all that remained of these revolutionary associations faded into history and survived only as nostalgic memories to nourish romantic currents of nationalism. The great tides of social unrest that had given great force to a rich and powerful socialist tradition in Europe passed Ireland by.

Instead, Irish political development was influenced by conservative and fragmenting forces drawing inspiration from English society and English labour relationships. A recent observer has noted that “one of the obvious weaknesses. of Irish intellectual life” – and, it is to be added, political life – “in much of the period has been the absence of a coherent, scientific study of society, of the kind that in many European countries has its roots in a socialist concern to comprehend the ills of a manifestly unjust social order”.66

Revolutionary ideas in Ireland were conceived, instead, in terms of a romantic tradition of martyrdom, based on local, even parochial, experience. Without other, more stable reference points, the Irish working class, even the more revolutionary sections of the working class, and certainly the revolutionary middle class were relatively easy prey for the pseudo-revolutionary talk of those leaders of the independence struggle who were profoundly opposed to the social transformation the masses desired, and for which they believed themselves to be fighting.

In the Irish revolution then, “as in all revolutions”, according to Marx, “there intrude, at the side of its true agents, men of a different stamp; some of them survivors and devotees of past revolutions [such as de Valera, for example. EB] without insight into the present movement, but preserving popular influence by their known honesty and courage, or by sheer force of tradition; others [like Griffith. EB] who by dint of repeating year after year the same set of stereotyped declamations against the government of the day, have sneaked into the reputation of revolutionists”.67

The Irish working class – the poor and dispossessed masses upon whom every class but their own had grown rich and upon whose sacrifices had climbed to power – robbed of Connolly, led by his successors who were prophets of compromise rather than revolution, isolated not fortuitously but by British diligence from fertile currents of revolutionary thought, even their own – had little hope of effectively challenging the conservative leadership of the national independence struggle.

As for the Labour leaders themselves, with an organised movement at their command that had seen an astonishing growth during the revolutionary years – the Transport and General Workers’ Union alone had a membership peak of more than 130,000 – they were the conscious inheritors and spokesmen of English craft union and anti-Marxist traditions, opposed to class war, and certainly no “true agents” of revolution. They, too, were “men of a different stamp” than their own rank and file. Many who now remember them have described them as honest and sincere men, but honesty and sincerity are, self-evidently, not enough.

Another honest and sincere man, Otto Bauer, leader of the Austrian Social Democrats in the 1920s, when church and bourgeoisie sought to overthrow the Social Democratic government with the help of armed counter-revolutionaries, “shrank from struggle” against them.68 He was, comments another observer, a man of “sterling integrity; yet ... in every moment of decision, was incapable of action”.69

But his incapacity to take action in front of emergent fascism did not stop him, however, taking energetic action to oppose Austrian support for the workers’ revolution in Hungary; “he stumped the country in 1919 to prevent the workers from following the lead of Bela Kun”,70 just as Thomas Johnson toured Ireland in 1920 and 1921 canvassing British peace proposals. If there was to be bloodshed, Bauer argued, then we are not the guilty ones. But “did Bauer truly grasp the magnitude of the fascist end game? Was he fully aware of the personal guilt which would multiply with every step backward in the face of the fascist onslaught?”71

Some years later, after the adoption of the Linz program of 1926, the Austrian Social Democrats under Bauer again found themselves in a situation not unlike that of the Irish Labour leaders during the early revolutionary years of the independence struggle; they, too, were anxious “to present a peaceful image” and were “reluctant to put up an armed resistance” to the armed forces that confronted them.

Inevitably, in the face of the mounting armed provocation against popular organisations, they “forfeited the credibility of their will to resist”,72 and found themselves increasingly isolated from their militant rank and file. These, seriously weakened by their leaders’ compromising policies, were forced to fight without them. In a like manner, Thomas Johnson and company left their own rank and file to fight without them during the critical years of the Irish independence struggle. Such was the consequence of their choice of the social democratic, class collaborationist road.

Next Section: XI – Middle Classes and Revolution
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  1. Brown, T. (1981) Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-79. Glasgow, Fontana. p.105.
  2. Marx, K. (1871, 1941) The Civil War in France. London, Lawrence and Wishart. p.49. Peadar 0’DonnelI, also, had his own vivid way of describing the former of these categories of leaders, calling them “the clinkers of the movement of yesterday”.
  3. Duczynska, I. (1978) Workers in Arms: The Austrian Schutzbund and the Civil War of 1934. New York, Monthly Review Press. p.67
  4. Abendroth, W. (1972) A Short History of the European Working Class. New York. Monthly Review Press. p.99.
  5. Gedye, G.E.R. Fallen Bastions. London, GolIancz. p.55. See also Duczynska. loc.cit. pp.38-42.
  6. Duczynska, pp. 67, 68.
  7. idem. pp.69, 77.

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