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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

XXI – Dependence and Collaborationism

In Ireland, then, on either side of the artificial frontier created by the compromise by which the national liberation struggle was betrayed, divergent political, social, and economic processes were set in motion and contrasting patterns fixed, as James Connolly had predicted.

Both in the six northeastern counties and in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State these processes, diverse though they were, led to the emergence of authoritarian forms of state. This parallels the experiences in Europe and elsewhere in countries which share Ireland’s peripheral relationship to world capitalism. It is useful to summarise Irish events in the light of this experience.

Apart from the northeastern industrial enclave around Belfast, Ireland’s economy was, thanks to a long colonial inheritance, markedly under-developed and Irish society was in transition between old, near-feudal and modern forms. As such, it was marked by fairly complex and shifting class relationships.

In the countryside, the lower social strata were made up of small farmers, peasant proprietors and, in some cases, a relatively small rural proletariat. Wealthy rural classes, large farmers and ranchers, were few in numbers but the land in their possession accounted for a very large part of the country’s total surface. A large, and heterogeneous, class of petty traders, grocers and money-lending gombeen publicans serviced these diverse strata. The whole community was powerfully dominated by the influence and authority of the church.

In the towns, with the exception of Dublin and Cork, urban society did not greatly differ from rural. In these two cities a large urban proletariat existed. It was mostly unskilled and co-existed with large numbers of unemployed and lumpen-proletariat, often merging indistinctly with these groups. In Dublin there was also a large middle class, made up not only of traders and shopkeepers as in the countryside, but also of large numbers of minor bank and government officials.

It was against such a background that the revolutionary struggle had slowly gathered force over a period of years, matured, and then merged with the older struggle for national independence. It reached an almost victorious climax, but was overcome by counter-revolutionary middleclass elements.

The lack of an industrial base, the great numerical and political preponderance of a debt-ridden peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie, the relative numerical weakness of the bourgeoisie, the blemished political role of the large landowners, all these circumstances favoured the search for and consolidation of middle-class power.

And it was among elements of the middle class that the British were able to identify – and subsequently manipulate – collaborationist counter-revolutionary leaders.

Their task was made easy by the refusal of the labour movement’s leaders to participate unequivocally in the national liberation struggle. This forced workers into revolutionary organisations the leadership of which was in middle-class hands. With few exceptions, most of these latter measured the success of the national struggle, either knowingly or unconsciously, in terms of the extent to which Ireland’s foreign masters could be replaced by Irish ones.

As we have seen, many were far from revolutionary and were ready to close deals of convenience with the British if the latter could help them hold off the danger of “bolshevism” and keep the Irish lower orders in their place.

It was relatively easy for the British to single out and assist the Irish nationalist elements who they felt would be accommodating to colonial interests and would collaborate with them in arriving at an independence settlement “based on the exclusion of the masses from effective control of the society”.120

Kalecki, in the classical study on intermediate regimes to which we ha ve already referred, notes some characteristics of alliances of the sort that ruled Ireland after the Civil War: “the lower middle class and rich peasantry are unlikely to assume the role of the ruling class. Whenever social upheavals did enable representatives of these classes to rise to power they invariably served the interests of big business, often allied with the remnants of the feudal system”.121

In the story of the counter-revolutionary middle class which ruled the Irish Free State’s 26 counties for the first decade of its existence, we observe a similar pattern. Society, in transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist forms, saw much social mobility, especially upward mobility of those classes and groups most closely associated with the state machine. Some of these were to form the nucleus of an indigenous bourgeoisie which would eventually, in due course, consolidate an economic base.

But it was a commercial, more than an industrial bourgeoisie which, with other capitalist elements, moved into power in 1932 behind de Valera and Fianna Fail, a party reconstituted out of the right wing of the old republican anti-Treaty forces.

What did it matter if, for a year or so, it had to share this power with the Labour Party? The latter was too irresolute and too small to present any danger, and state power remained firmly in the hands of the urban elites who, from 1932 on, replaced the post-civil war middle-class, petty-bourgeois and big farmer alliance. It was still a small capitalist economy, tinged with authoritarian and quasi-fascist inclinations. However, these failed to assume the fully-fledged organisational forms they did in Europe for a number of reasons.

In the first place, the scattered surviving nuclei of the defeated revolution which continued to exist in the country, gathered in the IRA and other republican or working-class organisations, made a firm stand against emergent fascist tendencies, preventing their development.

Secondly, the authoritarian nature of the church-state alliance was to prove adequate to block any serious bid for power by a left that was weak and fragmented, and the state sponsorship of fascism that developed in other countries was not necessary in the 26 counties of Ireland.

By contrast, however, in the northeast, where the bourgeoisie held undisputed state power but were haunted by a siege mentality, born in part during the years of nationalist revolutionary fervour, they were able and disposed to create and nurture counter-revolutionary organisations. Here, quasi-fascist organisations appeared, and came to play a decisive role in directing certain events.

Finally, the small-capitalist economy that eventually emerged in the 26 counties presented no serious challenge to the mature capitalist economy of Britain, which continued to dominate that of Ireland to an extent that became most visible during the period of the “economic war” over the issue of the non-payment to Britain of land annuities - but that is another story.

Ireland’s economy remained dependent on the British. At no time have Ireland's ruling classes fundamentally questioned that relationship for all the smoke and thunder generated in debates on the country’s “constitutional” relations and its formal independence. The ruling class of lreland, in other words, having secured the counter-revolution, chose to play a collaborationist role vis-a-vis Britain and British economic power in Ireland – as the British had planned and foreseen.

Next Section: XXII – Postscript
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  1. Thomas. C.Y. (1984) The Rise of the Authoritarian State in Peripheral Societies. New York, Monthly Review Press. pp.40, 41 and 43
  2. Kalecki, loc.cit. p.30.

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