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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

XXII – Postscript

The story, of course, does not end there. The revolutionary tide of 1913-1921 was halted, certainly, and historical processes were set in motion that still pose a major obstacle to social transformation in Ireland. But although the course of history may be diverted, and even deformed, it cannot be halted. New conditions have been created, within which the struggle for social liberation must continue, and to which it must also adapt.

The struggle itself cannot be averted. It is a consequence of the innate contradictions of a class-divided society in which the interests of the ruling class are preserved by the privileges of both social and national exploitation. But as long as class divisions persist, national and social tensions will also continue to re-awaken class struggles, even when these appear to be dormant.

This said, it must be noted, however, that the carefully maneuvered subversion of the Irish struggle in those revolutionary years by the conservatives at its head was made possible by the desertion of that struggle by she leaders of the labour movement, and was a powerful blow from which the Irish working class has not yet recovered.

Those leaders were social democrats and lacked an ideological base. For this reason, they failed to understand either the social forces or clash of class interests that determined the momentous events of which they were a part. Connolly, by contrast, understood them, and was able to influence their direction by his actions.

He purchased, with his life, a place for the labour movement in the national struggle. With Connolly dead, executed at the hysterical insistence of those representatives of the old order who had every reason to fear him, his successors vacillated, and surrendered the momentum of the popular movement to the sustained class pressure of the right-wing conservatives with whom they thought they could then negotiate as equals.

Their desertion, even betrayal, reveals a great deal about history, and in doing so teaches us the pitfalls facing those seeking to map out the future paths of social change.

In the first place, it is too much to expect that social democrats of the reformist school, such as were James Connolly's successors, can lead movements for revolutionary social change. Their lack of a theoretical understanding of social events, or of an ideology that allows their analysis, predisposes them to opportunism, opportunism which encourages a deep-rooted disinclination to upset institutions of the state, however repressive, on which they depend and of which they seek to be part.

And secondly, the defeat of the Irish national liberation struggle in 1923 serves to underline once more the conclusions drawn by Marx following the defeat of the equally momentous struggle of the Paris Communards. He describes, in the closing pages of his Civil War in France, how the German and French ruling classes, “the conquering and the conquered hosts, fraternised in the common massacre of the proletariat”.122 He says this shows “not, as Bismarck thinks, the final repression of a new society up heaving”, but the crumbling of bourgeois society itself.

“The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable”, says Marx, “is national war. This is now proved to be mere humbug, intended to defer the struggle of classes and to be thrown aside as soon as that class struggle bursts out in civil war. Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform. National governments are as one against the proletariat” and “testify before Paris to the international character of class rule.”123

As we watch the triumphalism of counter-revolutions in every corner of the world, as the gains of peoples’ revolutions are cancelled in the name of a new world order founded on what it is fashionable to call the free interplay of market forces – which simply means the right of the powerful to subjugate the weak – we are aware that we are once more watching a repetition of history.

Inflamed by their past successes in deforming the course of history, our present generation of counter-revolutionaries are now trying to convince themselves that they can reverse it.

And in all the corners of the world where they have installed their “new” social order, ordinary people who formerly may not have given a thought to politics have begun once more to taste class struggle, and, resisting, to demonstrate that history is not reversible.

As for the class struggle, the world’s new masters – as well as a number of latter-day social democrats – would do well to note, as Marx points out, that “the soil out of which it grows is modern society itself. It cannot be stamped out by any amount of carnage. To stamp it out governments would have to stamp out the despotism of capital over labour, the condition of their own parasitical existence.”124

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  1. Marx, K. (1871) loc.cit. p.61.
  2. idem. p.62
  3. idem. p.63.

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