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Correspondence: By way of Ken Loach: socialism, republicanism and Connolly

D.R.O’Connor Lysaght replies to Jim Creegan and Philip Ferguson

21 September 2007

The recent polemic between Jim Creegan and Philip Ferguson has raised issues of which the burial has been delayed too long. This tardiness is mainly due to the obstinacy of previous generations on each side of the two protagonists, an obstinacy that has benefited only their common enemies. For Jim Creegan pays lip service to the progressive content of the Irish Republican struggle, but sees any socialist alliance with it as no more than ‘tactical’. Philip Ferguson tends to accept the struggle, and, more importantly, the revolutionary nationalists who wage it, as leading naturally to the achievement of socialism. Each stance is too absolute to allow for another possibility. Yet that alternative explains what actually happened.

Certainly, it is arguable that that Ken Loach’s film., ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’, gives an oversimplified view of that Anglo-Irish War and the Thermidorian counter-revolution that followed the signing of Articles of Agreement with Britain.  On that subject, the present writer is unable to make a definite pronouncement. He believes that for unavoidable personal reasons he is the only person on the Irish left not to have seen the work.  Nonetheless, he has spoken with those who have done so and has read accounts of the plot. This is undoubtedly over-simplified, though not as crude as it might have been. For example, it was shocking to read in Socialist Resistance (December, 2006), that Paul Laverty, the scriptwriter, ascribed the failure of the official leadership of the Irish Labour movement to its reluctance to ‘encourage anything that would split the nationalist vote.’ In the present day and age, this writer had thought that it was generally known that the said leaders were more afraid of holding back the expansion of their organisation by undue nationalism than of splitting the nationalists. After all, they saw themselves as socialists, rather than nationalists; their organisational ideology forced them to counter pose the two fights.

Despite that, it does appear that Loach’s film, an admitted fiction, is more accurate than Neal Jordan’s formally factual Michael Collins, which has supplied Irish historic revisionism with at least one more myth. By having the Croke Park massacre of Bloody Sunday perpetrated by a machine gun, it allows many popularisers of the creed the excuse to denounce the sequence on the pretence that the killings never happened. Leach seems to get the spirit of the struggle, and, if he over-simplifies, he does not commit open distortions.

In any case, some over-simplification is probably inevitable in the medium. From this writer’s ignorant position, he would suggest that to have portrayed the full complexities of the post-Treaty situation, the screenplay should have introduced three extra characters:

I. A senior republican leader, perhaps a local deputy, who would support Teddy in opposing moves to broaden the social dimension of the struggle, and who would oppose the Treaty from a purely political standpoint, lest his old comrades in the Pro-Treaty camp are alienated irrevocably, up to the point at which they alienate themselves.

2. A Republican Militant, apparently as socially conscious as Dan or Damien, but seeing in the seizure of estates merely an opportunity for the settlement of nationalist refugees from pogromite Belfast, ignoring the needs of local land-hungry small farmers. (This sort of thing did happen, not in west Cork, but in Cos. Mayo and Tipperary.)

3. An old comrade of Dan, perhaps in the Citizen Army with him but critical, if supportive of the national struggle until the Treaty, when he urges support for Labour’s electoral plans against both wings of the divided national movement and becomes more and more hostile to the embattled AntiTreatyites (‘destroying the productive potential of the state’) and eventually refusing to support any appeal for clemency for Damien.

In addition, Dan might be shown cursing the Labour leadership for its post-Treaty stance and questioning de Valera’s pure-and-simple political opposition to the Treaty.

All these may be in the script; this writer has not heard of them. In any case, Ken Loach was not presenting a manifesto but directing a film, and one for which he could expect a bigger audience outside Ireland, such as had to get a general, not too detailed, picture.

It remains true that this overall picture is accurate enough. As Marx remarked, (from a letter quoted approvingly by Lenin), ‘Fenianism is characterised by a socialistic tendency (in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation of the soil) and by being a lower orders movement’ 

Loach was not wrong to show this continuing more than fifty years after Marx’s letter. Jim Creegan quotes Roy Foster to the effect that Volunteer units opposed working class initiatives. Though the two examples mentioned occurred in Cos. Clare and Meath, strongholds of the Pro-Treaty Volunteers, there is at least one other example that supports his case; in Mallow, in February 1922, Liam Lynch ordered troops under his command to clear flour mills occupied by the workers. Even here, however, Lynch was acting with permission of the reformist leadership of the workers’ own organisation, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and overruling his subordinate commandant in the area, the Anti-Treaty deputy, Sean Moylan. It is notable, too, that as the Treaty split widened subsequently in the months before open civil war,  the Anti-Treatyites grew more radical, unlike their opponents. The problem was that this was a movement mainly of the rank and file, albeit one supported by some commandants; the leadership, de Valera and Lynch, remained determinedly focussed on the narrow political issues, primarily the Treaty; they hoped to maintain republican unity by avoiding a social critique. Labour talked to the Anti- Treaty Volunteers, but only to try to persuade them to give up their arms. The tiny new Communist Party ignored the social issues and urged them to stage a putsch.

Time and again the ‘socialistic tendency’ in Irish Republicanism has come to the surface only to be used as an excuse to abandon its revolutionary perspective. It was so in the New Departure of 1879, among those who voted for the Treaty (The most socially conscious speech in the debate thereon was made by a Treatyite.), in the emergence in turn of Fianna Fail, Clann na Poblachta, Official Sinn Fein and, now, of Provisional Sinn Fein. Why this should be so lies in the fact that Irish Republicanism’s revolutionary content lies precisely in its long term alienation from the Irish state, colonial and semi-colonial, and in its claim to be a state ‘virtually established’ entitled and able to wage successful armed struggle against the usurping authorities. Once it recognises the need to win effective popular support, the revolutionary illusion fades.

A tendency is not a programme or a strategy. For one to fertilise social revolution, it has to be encouraged by a socialist organisation outside the Republican Movement Philip Ferguson seems not to understand this, but it was recognised by Marx and Engels, by Lenin and Trotsky and by James Connolly.

The last eighteen months of Connolly’s life during the First World War tend to get overshadowed by his actions on Easter Monday, and this is reinforced by some, not all, of his articles in his paper The Workers’ Republic. An overview of all his actions and writings in this period gives a rather different picture, and one in keeping with the theorist that he was, rather than with the desperado portrayed by both Creegan and Ferguson. Both agree that he was a Syndicalist, but they do not ask how an Irish Syndicalist would have approached the problem posed by the outbreak of the First World War.

Basically, Connolly reacted to it as a consistent supporter of the left current of the Socialist
International. Unlike those Labour leaders who survived him, he upheld the policy laid down by
that International’s 1907 Stuttgart Congress and reaffirmed at the subsequent Congresses at
Copenhagen and Basle. The relevant passage reads:

‘Should war break out nonetheless, it is the workers’ duty to intervene in order to bring it promptly to an end, and with all their strength to make use of the economic and political crisis 
created by the war to stir up the deepest strata of the people and precipitate the fall of capitalist

What has confused analysts of his strategy, helped in this by such as Sean O’Casey in his Story of the Citizen Army and Drums Under the Windows, is that Connolly recognised that such a task had to involve an Irish revolt for national independence and that, indeed, such a revolt was the most likely revolutionary initiative to occur in the United Kingdom. He did not ignore other possibilities; in the Summer of 1915, he had hopes of the workers of south Wales, but these were dashed when, after the pacifist Keir Hardie died, the Merthyr miners voted to return to parliament a rabid social chauvinist. However, even during this interlude, he remained committed to a perspective of an initially nationalist-inspired rising in Ireland.

This did not mean that he saw the driving force of such a rebellion as the Citizen Army, let alone that he planned to liquidate that body into the Irish Volunteers. Certainly, his writings on Revolutionary Warfare end in a call to readers to join the Army or the Volunteers, and when organising the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in Kerry he took pains to reassure the Volunteer command there that he would not organise his force there as well. The explanation for this is that he saw the army as the military cutting edge of a far greater movement. Indeed, it is clear that his strategic plan did not involve anything like the form of the Easter Rising. The Revolutionary Warfare series includes precise warnings against concentrating such warfare in one city, or in relying on classes other than the workers’ own. Yet, under his command, the army’s numbers shrank, and though probably circumstances made this inevitable, he did little to try to stem the demobilisation. In fact, he seems to have left most of the running to Michael Mallin, his Chief of Staff (a post unknown to his predecessors, White and Larkin).

The question then is what was his actual revolutionary organisation. Certainly, and despite the assertions of C. Desmond Greaves, he was not moving towards the Bolshevik form; if anything, he was moving away from it. His experience in America had led him to identify the exclusive homogeneous political vanguard party with Daniel de Leon’s manipulative sectarianism. There is no evidence that he knew how Lenin was organising in Russia; probably, if he did, he would have dismissed him as he dismissed the American. Since the end of the 1900s, he had seen the party as a purely propaganda body. With the war, he abandoned the Irish organisation of this altogether. It is uncertain whether he attended the conference at which, in March 1915, the Independent Labour Party of Ireland resumed its own title of the Socialist Party of Ireland. It is definite that he never bothered with it again, leaving it to lie in a coma until February 1917.

A more appealing claimant to the role of revolutionary class organiser was, of course, the Irish Trade Union Congress which combined in itself the political role of Irish labour Party. Connolly’s syndicalism was never narrow enough to exclude political initiatives, even of an electoral nature, and it was the Congress-Party and its local affiliates the Trade Councils that he saw as the organiser. However, he recognised that such bodies were too heterogeneous to agree to a revolutionary strategy without leadership from a vanguard organisation. Such was his confidence in Congress that he seconded the motion that postponed its Annual Meeting for one year, lest it be dominated by supporters of the British war effort. Insofar as his thinking on the matter paralleled Lenin’s, he saw the T.U.C. as a potential Congress of Soviets, rather than a politically defined leadership.

He seems to have seen such a leadership in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Quite apart from his syndicalist assumptions he had a good reason for doing so. The said union had shown itself to be the Irish working class’ most militant body apart from the Citizen Army, and, unlike the army, it was several times larger and organised outside Dublin.

Accordingly, Connolly fought with the union’s secretary, Jim Larkin, to take the acting-secretary job while Larkin was in the U.S.A. Having got the position, he worked hard to give his charge a proper and democratic organisation, to resist the erosion of membership caused by demoralisation after the Dublin lockout of 1913, magnified by the world war.  The union expanded into Kerry.

His problem was inevitable given his aims. Though, as a whole, it was far more militant than the Party, it was still a heterogeneous body established to serve primarily the economic interests of those employed in the jobs it covered. These included many who did not accept his aim of revolution on the national issue; many feared (fairly enough) that such a move would destroy a union already weakened by lock out and war.

He had to win his union to a conscious revolutionary position. If he had had with him a group of professional revolutionaries who understood and agreed with his strategy, he could have worked with them to win support. In practice, his closest political confidant seems to have been William O’Brien, who was in neither the Citizen Army, nor, then, the union. His position might be compared to that of Lenin had he been dependant only on Zinoviev.

He had to rely on manipulation. He maintained the Citizen Army, tried to organise broad fronts against the war and published sedition in The Irish Worker and then in the Worker’s Republic. In particular, many of these articles went beyond what Lenin might have written. This can be explained by their author’s isolation nationally and internationally, in the Labour movement and out of it, by the fact that he was inciting rebellion and, strategically, that he was provoking the colonial authorities to attack his union headquarters, the most certain way he knew of raising the workers to act in such a revolt.

For over a year, he saw only false beginnings. The Neutrality League disappeared and the militant Welsh miners voted for imperialist war. Then, from the end of October, matters began to change. The government was talking of conscription. Chauvinist workers in Liverpool agitated successfully for the government to stop emigration to the U.S.A. At the same time, the Dublin dockworkers’ militancy began to revive. Those employed by the City of Dublin Steamship Company began a strike that promised to block the port of Dublin to all traffic, including any military reinforcements to the British garrison. Such biographers of Connolly as Sam Levenson and Kieran Allen have noted that the industrial action was kept separate from Connolly’s revolutionary plans; the two were not separate in his mind. His seditious propaganda became more strident

Meanwhile, of course, the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood had been preparing its own revolt.  To prevent a premature initiative, it co-opted Connolly, on the promise of a larger nationwide military mobilisation than the Citizen Army could provide. Now he had to rely on the Dockers’ militancy bringing their comrades along into making the military struggle one for the mass of the workers.

At the beginning of April 1914 this hope was removed. The extreme chauvinist Secretary of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, James Havelock Wilson, was able to present his members with an increase in wages on the understanding that they would work all boats including those blacked by the Dublin strikers. These were offered terms by their bosses. The possibility of revolutionary activism had been undermined. Connolly agreed to talks, ended the strike, and relied on the possibility of nationwide armed struggle. As is generally known, he was disappointed here, as well.

The question remains; why did Connolly participate in an armed revolt that broke his own rules (as well as those set by Marxism generally) in several respects? Basically, by 24 April, he had no choice, if he wanted to maintain his credibility and that of his teachings. He had been the most strident in preaching revolution. If he stood aside now, he would be bracketed with those whom he had criticised as deserters in Labour in Irish History: the Volunteers of 1782, Simms in ‘98 and

Smith O’Brien in 1848.  Moreover, although he told O’Brien as the Citizen Army left Liberty Hall for the G.P.O.; ‘We are going out to get killed,’ this was merely the most probable of several scenarios. Germany might yet win the war; it was pressing France hard at Verdun to open the road to Paris. The insurgents could have fought their way out of Dublin to begin guerrilla war in the country, an option discussed by their leaders up until their decision to surrender. It was just possible, too, that the British might not execute anybody; South Africa had survived a revolt far more threatening to its minority state with only one execution, of a two-timing civil servant

None of this happened and Connolly died, leaving a Labour movement more demoralised than after the lockout It was rallied by the President of Congress (Connolly had been only a member of the Executive.). Thomas Johnson was a competent organiser and theoretician of the reformist wing of international socialism. At the long delayed Annual Meeting of his organisation, he offered it a strategy far more appealing to its affiliates than Connolly’s scheme for leadership in the national revolution. Johnson persuaded them to keep that revolution at arms length while the republicans fought, to concentrate on the economic front where Labour was likely to be least divided and to educate their membership through ‘practical programmes’ for such time as the Republic was one and Labour could take its place therein.

There was no dissent. Save when in action, the all-inclusive nature of Syndicalist organisation makes it more rather than less susceptible to calls for the need for unity at any price. The President of Connolly’s union, Thomas Foran, who had declared his pride at his union’s having hosted the Citizen Army, would be trying to evict it from its headquarters within a year. William O’Brien tried to keep a seat for himself as Connolly’s heir in the leadership of the reviving Republican Movement that would take the name Sinn Fein. His Labour comrades forced him to resign and he gave his subsequent life to Connolly’s union which he raised to new heights and reduced to new lows. Though general strikes were held in support of individual claims for civil rights during the post-1916 struggle, all, save the Anti-conscription stoppage of 1918, came as a result of pressure from below. Eamon de Valera has been accused of telling Labour ‘to wait’ until the Republic was achieved; he did not, and it is doubtful whether he wanted it to do so rather than act in a front under his control. The truth is that Labour wanted to wait; it thought it was being very clever, in the end, the republic was not achieved, the Republican Movement split and the Labour Party became a third force in twenty-six county politics after the two heirs of those who had won what little freedom there was. The Anti-Treatyites were able to execute a caricature of Connolly’s Socialist Republican vision effective enough to marginalise those who claimed, albeit with less and less conviction, to be his purely socialist heirs.

Connolly himself became an icon. Although he was more celebrated in death than in life, his distinctive vision was misinterpreted all too easily. His name became a justification for widely contrasting policies, from his successors in his union’s leadership invoking it to win recruits for a strategy very different to his own to Republicans displaying his picture as the token socialist among the signatories of the Easter Rising Proclamation. understanding him, and, more importantly, his final failure, has become a dialogue of the deaf.

Ken Loach’s film seems to clarify one part of Connolly’s argument and the part more useful to its audience. For the other part, it will be of use if it causes people to question not just as to how the Irish revolution developed, but as to why it had to develop that way. Jim Creegan and Philip Ferguson are doing just this: it is to be hoped that neither will stick in one or other of the argumental ruts dug by the half truths of Connolly’s rival bands of followers.



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