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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

XVII – Defeat

One more opportunity was still to come, in 1931, when a change of government brought de Valera back to power and crisis set authority teetering, providing a new chance for the defeated masses to rally.

In the early 1930s, unemployment reached 138,000. But such bare statistics conceal a state of universal and unrelieved rural and urban poverty and under-employment, which continued to fester. The large farmers and the more prosperous of the urban middle classes survived by eating into savings, as the decline in savings account deposits from 1930-1935 testify. But for small farmers who had no savings, the situation was disastrous, and was seriously aggravated by the more than 50 per cent drop in cattle prices over the same period.

In the towns, the IRA, though still a major rallying-point in the countryside where it enjoyed wide support, failed to respond to the challenge of the bitter social crisis that struck the urban working class. IRA leaders were deeply divided between traditionalist and conservative nationalists on the one hand and socialist radicals on the other. Each group reacted, often empirically, in its own way to the social discontent with which the country was seething.

A long internal struggle between the socialists and traditionalists was inconclusive. In the end, the IRA failed to answer to the needs of a desperate population. Peadar O’Donnell later reported on this failure, saying:

“Fenian Ireland, the Ireland of the poor came to the very doorstep of a struggle for power twice in ten years; in 1922, and 1931. In each case, it failed to achieve a leadership to correspond to its needs and was driven back in confusion.”104

And so the revolutionary wave of those crisis years was turned back and broken. The change of government brought nothing to the masses of the people. The dispossessed and the poor once again, as always, bore the burden, as they would continue to do, as long as power was in the hands of whatever class at that moment of history served the interests of the bourgeoisie – as always has happened in the wake of revolutions in which working-class forces concede leadership to others.

Writing the 1891 introduction to Karl Marx’s Civil War In France, Engels comments how in 1848 the French working class provided the force by which the bourgeoisie assumed state power. Then, “as soon as the bourgeois republicans in control felt the ground under their feet a little firmer, their first aim was to disarm the workers. This was carried into effect by driving them into the revolt of June 1848 by direct breach of faith [and] by open defiance”, providing a pretext for the bloodbath which followed.105

History repeats itself. Adolphe Thiers, head of the government that surrendered to Bismarck in 1871, chose to direct his fury on the armed defenders of the Paris Commune rather than on the Prussian Army which stood at the gates of Paris. Thiers, the representative of merchants, bankers and landowners, felt “that the supremacy of the propertied classes was in constant danger so long as the workers of Paris had arms in their hands,”106 and Bismarck demanded the “pacification” of the city.

Bismarck gave Thiers the troops he needed to overcome the Commune, which was then ruthlessly crushed, as Marx notes, “under the patronage of the foreign invader”107 , just as Britain provided Griffith with the troops he needed to overthrow the remnants of the Irish revolution.

Next Section: XVIII – An Under-developed Economy
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  1. O’Donnell, Peadar. There will be Another Day. p.132.
  2. Engels, F (1891) Introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France. London. Lawrence and Wishart. p.9.
  3. Engels. loc.cit. p.12.
  4. Marx, K. (1871) The Civil War in France. London. Lawrence and Wishart. p.61.

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