Correspondence: Reply to Philip Ferguson on socialism and republicanism
by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.
5 January 2008
Dear Philip Ferguson
I was glad to read your last statement in the discussion on socialism and republicanism. I accept that you ‘don’t believe republicanism can (spontaneously or otherwise) develop the programme and organisation necessary to lead and win the struggle for national liberation (let alone socialism) in Ireland.’ I agree, too, that you did state your view, albeit briefly, in your early contributions. At the same time, two problems remain. I have to ask the question how I came to misunderstand your position. This is the more important in that I am not the only one to do so. Secondly, there are assertions in your latest work which need to be challenged. To take the last first. You suggest, at the very end, that ‘we may be entering a new era in which national liberation movements are over and conscious revolutionary socialist parties alone can lead the struggle for national liberation, doing so within the context of fighting for socialism. In this case [you add], Connolly’s specific strategy is a historical debate with little relevance to today, except insofar as it shows the need to take a creative approach to other radicalising forces and draw them around the revolutionary movement.’ I would suggest that Connolly’s specific strategy has more contemporary relevance than that of showing the need for a creative approach.
For a start, as the revisionists know, history is politics by other means. Our disagreement with them lies in the fact that the half-truths they peddle cause even greater confusion, historical and political, than the half truths of the nationalist tradition that they claim to refute. This is merely part of the bigger picture. It is not accidental that revisionism has thrived over the last quarter-century of capitalist offensive. More, a major factor fuelling both, in Ireland, at least, has been the theoretical weakness of post-Connolly left-wing writing. There are signs that the present era is ending; it has been extended beyond the usual boomtime period, by the implosion of the Soviet Union. If there is to be a successful counter-attack, the left has to clarify its position more than it has before, even on matters that might seem abstruse. It must be said that such matters do not include that of Connolly’s wartime strategy. Your posing it as simply one of ‘the need to take a creative approach to other radicalising forces’ is inadequate for two reasons. Firstly, most people on the left agree on that need; the big point of disagreement has tended to be centred on the question: whether the claim for full national self-determination is indeed a left wing cause. In this matter, Connolly’s position, as against that of, for example, Thomas Johnson, deserves clarification, if only for educative purposes. This brings us to the second point. Connolly’s actual strategy was considerably more detailed, if ultimately less successful than that of uniting radicalising forces. As I have mentioned, in his articles on Revolutionary Warfare, he was opposed to too broad-based an insurrectionary organisation or to limiting the struggle to the capital city. The two went together; the working class organisation had to be the dominant partner, a role impossible for a Citizen Army limited to Dublin.
If there is a chance that a conscious revolutionary socialist party is to take the lead in the coming upturn, this is one of the things it has to understand. Do not write republicanism out of the picture. The Peace Process settlement is full of flaws. If it has suborned the leadership of the largest republican body, the movement has seen it happen before; it was in a far worse case sixty years ago when another of its renegades, turned twenty-six county Minister for Justice, could announce the I.R.A.’s death, yet it arose again within ten years. When the present live-in between Paisley and McGuinness ends (and its economic underpinning seems all too shaky), there is as yet only the narrowest theoretical base for a revolutionary socialist party that can save the national question from a revived republican movement, let alone any actual party of that nature. A few months ago, I attended a meeting given by one of the more able post-revisionist historians, who is writing a book to rehabilitate the 1950s border campaign. I made myself quite unpopular by remarking that all his evidence as to the care that was taken preparing it merely showed more clearly that its basic militarism made it impossible for it to succeed. This is where your presentation of your case tends to be unhelpful. It is also where some of your readers have been led to doubt your commitment to the need for a party. The paragraph which you begin ‘the biggest problem in Ireland was its lack’ is the only gesture you make towards recognising that need in contributions amounting to nineteen pages, and it is in the shorter of them. The long one details the convergence of the line of the more militant republicans to that of Connolly and concentrates on the Citizen Army as central to his plan. There is much in this that is correct, but the effect is to skew the overall picture of the period in the direction of traditional republicanism.
Your statement in your reply to me, that Connolly was ‘the chief political architect of the Rising’ confuses matters further; the rebellion was a small shack compared to the mansion he had drafted. Indeed, it tends to demote Connolly’s stature. To repeat myself, Connolly planned a nationwide rebellion. This meant a bigger organisation than the Citizen Army. As he knew well enough, this organisation’s ‘coherent political and organisational nature’ was as much the product of its smallness as of its collective consciousness. It included some of the most conscious working class figures of the time, but also some who were less conscious, in some ways less politically or socially conscious than workers outside its ranks. Had it tried to ‘take the political lead’ in a nationwide rebellion involving perhaps one hundred times its numbers of armed Volunteers it would have been isolated and probably split. You mention and quote Constance Markievicz at length in your second article, implying that she was Connolly’s closest collaborator from August 1914 onwards. In fact she was only one of a group of commandants subordinate not only to Connolly but to Michael Mallin, the army’s Chief of Staff. Mallin’s consciousness would seem to correspond to Yeats’ jaundiced description of Markievicz’: ‘ignorant good will’. The army did not have any political commissar to raise its general political level; you joined, often, because you were part of a an inchoate working class political vanguard but you did not become a more effective political part of that vanguard by being in it. Connolly recognised this and accepted it. His syndicalism dictated that the movement should be headed by the I.T.G.W.U. for the secretaryship of which he had to fight more determinedly than he did for the army command. In doing so, he made the precise point that he would ensure a better relationship with the republicans than could his rival P.T.Daly. Later, he would show his priorities when he extended the union to Co.Kerry, whilst refusing to introduce the army there. He recognised that the union could not initiate a national revolutionary struggle, particularly when it was still recovering from the double blow of the 1913 lockout and the declaration of war, so he acted to raise militancy - political and industrial - through his papers and provoke the British into attacking.
The dock strike that began in October 1915 encouraged him to believe that militancy was reviving and he increased the force of his propaganda. When the strike collapsed at the beginning of April, the die had been cast. Lenin might have retreated, but then Lenin could have relied on his genuinely ‘coherent and organisational’ party; he would not have agreed a secret, purely military alliance with the I.R.B, as Connolly did, in the first place. We know that from a similar event in Petrograd: the ‘July Days’ before the October Revolution of 1917.Were the republicans converging towards Labour in social and economic thinking as well as revolutionary commitment? Certainly they were, but it is not clear whether they could have gone much further. You suggest, at the end of your long contribution that the post-Rising republicans ‘had a much more socially conservative leadership than in the period of Pearse and Clarke’. This is debatable, to say the least. Certainly, Griffith and MacNeill (but not Hobson) played leading roles as they had not during the Rising, and the movement’s president, de Valera was the one commandant to have refused to admit women into his command. Yet the difference was not that great. Griffith and two other members of his original Sinn Fein were nominated to a five person civil body to administer supplies during the intended national insurrection; William O’Brien and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington were its progressive minority. Pearse’s last order cleared MacNeill of any blame for the Rising’s failure, enabling him to take a major position in post-Rising Sinn Fein. The signatories of the proclamation had included one objector (probably MacDermot, but possibly Plunkett) to its insistence on equal rights for women, an issue that would be non-contentious among the subsequent revolutionary leaders. An examination of the class base of Irish revolutionary nationalism will explain its limitations. It drew its support from the ‘Men of no Property’, who defined themselves rather more broadly than the proletariat proper; the property they lacked was land and housing. A small businessman, living and working in rented accommodation, but employing wage labour was as much a Man of no Property as the worker he employed. This common definition arose from Irish economic underdevelopment and stagnation. It allowed a cross class interest opposing the national bourgeois Home Rulers programmatically on the valid grounds that Home Rule kept Ireland subordinate to Britain on foreign affairs, defence and, above all on the tariffs that the Men of no Property believed (unlike Connolly) to be necessary to build the economy, and lift them into the propertied class.
Without a revolutionary socialist party, republicanism stuck with this minimum programme, though, as successive branches achieved state power, they found it either inadequate or impossible to fulfil without going beyond the boundaries that they had been educated to accept. Today, the movement has accepted belatedly the nostra of socialist reforms, but is showing itself unwilling to fight for them politically as it tried to fight partition militarily. Even after the Rising, there were influential voices for extending republican perspectives, George Russell (A.E.) had been even more outspoken than Pearse in his support for the workers in 1913, and the utopian reformist socialism expressed in his book, National Being, was acknowledged by the 1916 veteran, Richard Mulcahy as the major social influence on the movement at this time. Of course, Mulcahy joined and Russell supported the brutally capitalist Treatyite government of Saorstate Eireann. Its financial policy was dictated by 1916 fighter Ernest Blythe who had written in Irish Freedom advocating a Co-operative Commonwealth and had been considered for a post as organiser of the I.T.G.W.U. An actual official of the union was another veteran, Joseph McGrath, who became the Treatyites’ Minister for Labour, the last to hold such a position for over forty years, and later the anti-union organiser of the Shannon scheme and eventually head of the Irish Sweepstakes. On the Anti-Treaty side was Sean MacEntee, an old comrade of Connolly in the Socialist Party of Ireland and in the G.P.O., who would become a major red-baiter in the forties and fifties. Constance Markievicz, whom you quote so liberally, would not fall so far, but she was on the Sinn Fein Ard Comharle eighteen months after the Rising and would serve as a benevolent but capitalist Minister for Labour. On all these the pressure of the world economy was too great. Without a revolutionary socialist party to reinforce and help develop their vague socialist inclinations such instincts could not serve to resist the material weight of capitalism. Most probably, had Pearse and Clarke survived in the same circumstances, they would have succumbed too. To assume that they were somehow immune to the pressures and that their ideals were betrayed by inferior republicans is to accept precisely the illusions which give excuse for revisionism. There are two minor points. In your last contribution, you are correct to attack the two dangers of liquidationism and sectarianism. I trust that you do not mean to ascribe either to the Socialist Democracy. Moreover, my name is spelt with an ‘e’, not an ‘o’.
With my best wishes for you in what I think is our common struggle.