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Trotsky, Service, O'Broin: from the sublime  to the ?

An Investigation by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

7 July 2010

This is not a review of either book to be discussed here. Robert Service’s Trotsky, a Biography, has been reviewed very adequately by David North on this website and by Paul Leblanc on that of International Viewpoint. Eoin O’Broin’s Sinn Fein and the Politics of Left Republicanism has not been examined so thoroughly, but reviews of it have been published that are competent enough for this writer not to have been tempted to add to their number. 

What caused him to look more deeply into these works was a review by O’Broin of Service’s book published in the Irish Times Weekend Review on 14 November 2009. In his summary of the biography at the end of an article that displays its author’s own ignorance of Russian history, he declares that:

”If Trotsky: A Biography is judged against the author’s own intentions - to debunk the myth of Trotsky and challenge his reading of the Russian revolution - then it is a success. However, in his drive to revise Trotsky, Service loses sight of one of the most important functions of biography, to bring the reader close to the human being and human experience that constitutes the subject’s life.”

This judgement is intriguing. How could Service have managed to debunk Trotsky successfully without bringing the reader close to his subject and to the experience that constituted his subject’s life ?  Furthermore, how could O’Broin find that he did so?  Could it be that Service’s political analysis outclassed his grasp of psychology ?  Or did O’Broin not have a clue ?  In fact, did O’Broin’s review enhance his position as Chairperson of Dublin Sinn Fein and member of that party’s Ard Comharle? Did it reflect Sinn Fein’s current ideology?  This writer felt it his duty to discover the answer by reading his book and that of Service. 

It has been noted from the dustjacket that Robert Service is “a visiting fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.’ As has been noted generally, this places him politically with the triumphant right wingers of the last thirty years. The Institution was founded by the American conservative Republican Party politician Herbert Hoover, whose presidency saw the beginning of the last Great Depression which had been  brought about by the Laissez Faire economics that he had practiced. Though Trotsky was invited to testify before the notorious U.S. Congress’ House of Un-American Activities Committee it is almost impossible to imagine him getting such an invitation to address the Hoover Institution. That Service is a visiting fellow means that he is seen less as an academic than as a conscious dedicated defender for the status quo.

This is not all bad. Works by such people can help, however inadvertently, to keep socialists on their toes, even though this positive quality tends to be more than counterbalanced by their effect as misleaders of the inexperienced and unwary.  Service’s fellow thinkers would put this book in the top echelon of such works; in February, it caused him to be awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for non-fiction, a trophy commemorating a notable Tory politician and literary figure whose promise was always greater than its fulfilment. Despite this, and any other prizes this book may bring its author, it is not so very wonderful. Nonetheless it does have some utility, if not in challenging existing assumptions among Trotsky’s heirs, than, ironically, in the early chapters debunking the claims of his opponents. Despite himself, Service publishes evidence that shows that his subject’s career, and particularly his disagreements with Lenin, were, indeed what he said they were. He did not oppose Lenin on land reform, nor on the national question. The disagreement was solely on the nature of the effective socialist party. Was it to be open to all workers or only to serious activists ?  Trotsky took the former line against Lenin while opposing those who agreed with him on that matter on just about everything else. This made him neither a Leninist- Bolshevik nor one of the opposing Mensheviks. Since the division amongst Russian Marxists centred on the organisational question this left him in a political limbo: not Bolshevik, but, despite Stalin later, not a Menshevik either. 

That Service can report so accurately is due partly to the academic rigour for which his admirers praise him but also to the overall weakness of the approach within which he applies this rigour. As befits a visiting fellow of the Hoover Institution, he considers that socialism is impossible, or is, at its most feasible, just another form of tyranny. Humanity was indeed born into two categories, with one fated to be dominated by the other. The best for which it can hope is that it be made as easy as possible for the most able among the dominated to ascend to join the dominators and to see that these execute their powers as benevolently as is compatible with their continuing exercise, in line with what is more or less the practice in the north Atlantic states. Accordingly, Trotsky’s vision, summarised fairly enough by Service as one “of a future world where each man and woman would have the opportunity for self-fulfilment in service of the collective good” (P.3), can be no more than a mirage of which the pursuit can lead only to disaster. In particular, and Service repeats the suggestion three times in this book, October 1917 was a terrible mistake. Since the Bolsheviks were mistaken, it follows that differences between them were of less importance than the scholastic debates of the middle ages. The Trotsky-Stalin power struggle was about as politically sophisticated as the feuds in an episode of The Sopranos or a sequence of The Godfather. Indeed, Stalin’s crimes can claim to be mitigated somewhat by the fact that socialism in a single country did provide the excuse for building the industrialised economy that has provided the economic base for the liberal democracy of Vladimir Putin. Trotsky was defeated because he “lacked Stalin’s cunning; he lacked the talent to manage his own talent” (P.228). He “never succeeded in balancing [his talents] with a sound political talent in factional strife.” (P.266)  Nor does Service consider that he had the guts to pre-empt Stalin by making as determined a bid for state power as did his rival. The objective conditions for his defeat are of little importance; his political stances, window dressing.

It is not obviously easy to refute these statements. Certainly, few of Trotsky’s inheritors could or would disagree that Trotsky was not in Stalin’s class as a political infighter. (Indeed, if Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, is to be believed, her husband was Stalin’s inferior in this sphere.) The question is whether there was not more to Stalin’s victory than his ability as a wheeler dealer.

Firstly, it should be said that, even on the raw evidence, Service overstates his case. On the personal level, he exaggerates Trotsky’s undoubted reserve to portray an essentially unlikeable narcissist capable of relating to people only on the political level. That highly intelligent women such as Alexandra Bronstein, and Natalya Sedova could love him all their lives is not, in itself, a refutation; such relationships can be varieties of beauty and beast

More significant is the fact that Service resorts to crude misstatements, some of which are so obvious as to lead to the conclusion that the author’s subconsciousness is rebelling against his will. This is the case with his handling of Trotsky’s early relationship with Karl Radek, which he describes as one in which the parties “were almost friends, insofar as either man had any” (P.145)  Yet even he had to admit implicitly that this was grossly inaccurate, rather than ignore such close friends of his subject as Adolf Ioffe and Christian Rakovski. Nonetheless, he writes off other figures whose friendship was even less dependent on their political agreement. By the end of the thirties, for example, Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer were hardly still Trotsky’s “ardent French followers” (P.436); they had broken from organised Trotskyism in 1930. Nonetheless they remained friends. Service’ error in presenting the relationship between political commitment and personal affection may be part of his overall inability to understand the revolutionary socialist milieu for which, clearly, he has no sympathy. It helps explain how O’Broin can recognise his failure “to produce a more profound understanding of the life of this important historical figure.” 

Service tries to make his point by more subtle cheating. He has been praised justly for his thorough research among his primary sources. However, quite often he resorts to secondary ones to make his decisive point. On page 92, he claims that Trotsky exaggerated his role in the 1905 St Petersburg Soviet, yet his source is not contemporary documents but his contemporary Trotsky biographer, Thatcher. On pages 283 and 462 he asserts that Trotsky lied about the 1920 Kronstadt revolt; his source is Getzler’s 1983 study, Kronstadt, and he quotes it out of context. It is significant, too, that in his account of the dual power period that led up to October, he relies heavily on the account of the Menshevik Sukhanov, ignoring Trotsky’s own account almost entirely, even to refute it.

Above all, there is, what O’Broin misses completely, a clash between the personality described and his political actions. Service’s Trotsky is a gifted writer and orator and an efficient administrator, but also not just arrogant, but practically a narcissist who held back from taking the ultimate responsibility of assuming state power after Lenin’s early death and was defeated accordingly by one who was prepared to take this step. Yet this political dilettante did not surrender to Stalin, as did so many of his allies faced by the administrative requirements needed to build the Soviet Union, but maintained a resistance to Stalin that involved his exile and eventual death and the death of many of his closest friends and relatives. Was this simply pique?  Or could it have been that the political differences rubbished by Service (and implicitly by O’Broin) were taken seriously by Trotsky, his comrades and his opponents?

Certainly, it was not just contempt and under-estimation of Stalin that kept Trotsky in opposition to him. Although they had clashed frequently before Stalin formed his secret faction with Zinoviev and Kamenev, they had found, too, that they could agree, notably in the matter of special emergency labour armies and on the strategy of immediate revolutionary war in Poland. Both agreed on the Marxist approach to the national question, though they disagreed on its practical application. As late as 1929, Trotsky was prepared to ally with Stalin against Bukharin and the right wing, on condition that open discussion be restored within the party. By then, Stalin did not need his support and, even had he done so, had too much baggage to allow him to accept Trotsky’s terms

In fact Trotsky was fighting a defensive war. It was Stalin who attacked him by allying with Zinoviev and Kamenev, in the name of opposing the strategy of Permanent Revolution with the same schematic interpretation of Lenin’s Two Tactics that had nearly aborted the October Revolution in March 1917. Then he turned against Zinoviev and Kamenev in the name of the German revisionist concept of socialism in a single country. With Lenin dead, it was left to Trotsky to defend Marxist norms, not just scholastically but as inductively proven successes.

This does not justify his position to Service:

“Trotsky’s strategy for communist advance… had little to offer for the avoidance of an oppressive regime. His ideas and practices laid several foundation stones for the erection of the Stalinist political, economic, social and even cultural edifice. Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin shared more than they disagreed about. As for the charge that Stalin was an arch-bureaucrat, this was rich coming from an accuser who had delighted in unchecked administrative authority in the years of his pomp.

Even Trotsky’s claim that Stalin was uninterested in aiding foreign communist seizures of power fails to withstand scrutiny. Moreover, if communism had been victorious in Germany, France or  Spain in the inter-war years, its banner-holders would have been unlikely to have retained their  power. And if ever Trotsky had been the permanent leader instead of Stalin, the risks of a bloodbath in Europe would have been drastically increased. Trotsky.........had sealed himself  inside preconceptions that stopped him from understanding the dynamics of contemporary geopolitics..............Whoever governed the U.S.S.R. effectively stood in need of deeply authoritarian methods to conserve communist power.’ (P.3)

“Lenin and Trotsky were diagnosing ailments of the communist order without having a serious cure.  This was a state which could not depend on the political loyalty or professional conscientiousness of its own officials. It lacked mechanisms of control such as inter-party competition, an autonomous judiciary, a critical press and an electorate which could throw out the scoundrels. The U.S.S.R. could not function without supervisory agencies: ‘bureaucratism’ was written into its genetic structure.” 

Trotsky passed over other flaws in the Soviet state order without comment. He ignored phenomena such as clentilism in party and government. He did not refer to localism. He had nothing to say about corruption and fraud. He avoided the atmosphere of distrust and apathy engendered by dictatorship, terror and legal nihilism. Trotsky never tried to fix a serious boundary between desirable centralism and undesirable centralist authority. He rejected morality as a subject for proper debate....."

“It is true that he proposed freer modes of discussion in the party. He also demanded the restoration of the elective principle for party posts and urged that the workers - the ‘proletariat’ - should be invited to express their opinion on current debates on policy. But his ideas do not point to anything like a stable “communism with a human face”. He remained proud of the Soviet dictatorship, eagerly defending its ideological intolerance and extra-judicial repression.’ (P.352) 
By 1937, however, he had modified this position: 
“Although he was not promising democracy he entertained at least the possibility of restoring the freedom of soviet parties.”  Presumably he had the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries in mind even if he did not like to name them; and in any event he was not intending to legalise the Kadets. Right to the end of his life Trotsky did not trust the people with unconstrained rights to form or vote for whatever parties they might want.” (PP. 457-8)
In any case:
 “[Trotsky] had not invented objectives like electoral freedom, the struggle with bureaucratism or Soviet democracy; he shared them with every other communist theoretician including even Stalin.’(P.459) 
This is an interesting mixture of accusations. Significantly, Service does little to provide the necessary analysis to support them. Nonetheless, it is well that they be examined here. The first two are the most substantial. Trotsky’s “ideas and practices” could, indeed be said to have laid some “foundation stones for the erection of the Stalinist political, economic, social and even cultural edifice.” It should be said that foundations do not make a house.  In any case, these ideas and practices were those of a team, and that, indeed, it is, to use Service’ own phrase, “a bit rich” to ascribe them to Trotsky whom he goes out of his way consistently to slam as being utterly derivative in his thinking. In conditions of a pioneering exploit, such as a seizure of state power by the exploited class, mistakes were inevitable. Moreover the ideas and practices concerned were developed in the specific material condition of civil war; Stalin built upon them when soviet power (or, at least, and more accurately, the power of Stalin’s party) was well established.  As for the charge that Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin “shared more” than that on which they disagreed, this is true quantitatively; however, the formula ignores the fact that, as with all splits between orthodox and heretic, the fact of the difference is greater than its apparent size. After all, Kautsky, Ledebur and Otto Bauer all claimed to be Marxists and could claim, accordingly, to have more in common with the Bolsheviks than that on which they opposed them.

The least convincing group of arguments is the international one. For Service to accuse Trotsky of being incapable of understanding “the dynamics of contemporary geopolitics” is, most favourably, for the pot to accuse the kettle of blackness. No doubt, Stalin wanted world revolution subjectively, but the dogma of the stages and socialist society as a possibility in a single country were handicaps to this aim. Furthermore, after the second World War when the revolution could overcome these fetters, the new workers’ states developed either as rivals to the soviet state or as its satellites. It is difficult to see the strategy of Permanent Revolution having such results. That proletarian revolution in inter-war France, Germany or Spain was unlikely to have been sustained is hypothetical; what is certain is that, in each country, the possibility of the Communists taking state power at all was thwarted by the Comintern line. Finally, the suggestion that Permanent Revolution was likely to have endangered the Soviet Union ignores two facts: that even without such a strategy being practiced by the Comintern, the Soviet state was a pariah and that, thanks in a major part to Trotsky, the imperialist powers had learnt that it could not be overthrown easily by military action.

The charges (half of all of them) concerning Trotsky’s opposition to bureaucracy appear more credible, but are, ultimately as hypothetical as the international ones. They are variations on the charge that, had Stalin been defeated, Trotsky would been as oppressive. The answer to this is the answer to the equivalent: had Stalin been defeated he could have understood and exposed Fascism as clearly as Trotsky. From his record, it is clear he could not have done so. He might have created a bigger Fourth International and attacked the victorious Trotsky for his repressive government: his calls for “electoral freedom, the struggle against bureaucratism and soviet democracy” would have had greater sincerity than when he was in a position to implement them. Nonetheless, with the stages/uni-country socialism strategy as his old man of the sea it is safe to say that his alternative would have ended either like one of the minor claimants to Fourth International status or merging into social democracy.

It is true that, within the isolated Soviet Union, Trotsky would not have had the incentive to introduce “inter-party competition, an autonomous judiciary, a free press and an electorate which could throw out the scoundrels.” This does not negate the value of his discovery of the need for “the freedom of socialist parties.” It is a fact that the immediate aftermath of revolutions, most notably those of Britain and of France, that paved the way for greater human liberty, involved a curtailment of the liberties that they were necessary to ensure. None of this means that Trotsky would have framed and murdered millions of his fellow countrymen; Stalin’s subtlety in personal manipulation was balanced against a crudely schematic (and essentially undialectical) approach to strategy, whereas Trotsky’s weaknesses diminished proportionately as the perspective he considered broadened. His “unchecked administrative authority” was exercised in conditions of outright civil war on a scale comparable to a combination of English Civil War and French Revolutionary struggle. Above all, he had a means that might avoid too harsh a dictatorship. For him and Lenin, the international aspect of Permanent Revolution, the promotion of workers’ revolutions in countries across the world was not just the only way to advance socialist society, but was a means of helping civilise the Bolsheviks. Lenin saw the backwardness of Russia as a major obstacle in its socialist development. Trotsky saw Russia’s combined and uneven development as making revolution easy but socialism impossible without social revolutions in countries where conditions made revolution more difficult.

Service does not accept this. For him, the evil of Stalinism was the only possible result of the workers’ seizure of state power. He can be said to have “sealed himself inside preconceptions” of the international application of the peaceful, constitutional achievement of political, judicial and literary freedom listed above. He seems to have believed that there was a real possibility that Tsarism could have adapted itself to these after the British manner.

"Trotsky’s parents were a couple who could have contributed to the creation of a very different Russia from the one which emerged from the carnage of world war revolutions and civil war.....They belonged to the widening stratum of the emperor’s subjects who stood for enlightenment, material progress and promotion through merit."(PP.19-19)  Sadly, for Service, their son’s generation “gave little credit to the emperor and his government for the economic and social changes in the country. They saw the Imperial political order as a break on desirable progress.”(P.40)  Later, after Bloody Sunday in St Petersburg, the Tsar “recognised the power of popular outrage.” (P.88)  His counter-revolutionary prime minister, Stolypin is described only as having “presided over significant agrarian reforms” (P.114). Service is even kinder to the Provisional Government, though his list of reforms tends to show its futility. At no time does he consider the possibility that the ultimate choice facing Russia was one between far left and far right, with the constitutionalist centre being squeezed without an adequate base on which to rely. In a debate with the more pro-Trotsky Hitchens, he declared that, just as it was difficult for Stalin to establish a left-wing dictatorship, so, too, it would have been difficult to establish a right wing one in Russia. Yet Stalin did establish such a dictatorship and relied on many traditional right wing prejudices to achieve this. Other than as an unpopular cover for Anglo-French imperialism, the chances of any liberal democracy being maintained in Russia were shown starkly in Kolchak’s dismissal of the rump constitutional assembly at Samara. They were shown, too in the fate of other liberal democratic attempts in the countries bordering the west of the Soviet Union. Had Kolchak or Denikin been able to go beyond purely military methods, had they been Wrangels, willing to guarantee some agrarian reforms, they could have overthrown the Bolsheviks and maintained an extreme Bonapartism with a firm peasant base, but almost certainly more of a threat to world peace.

Placing himself within liberal democratic limits enables Service to ignore swathes of Trotsky’s politics. Terrorism and Communism is mentioned, but Thermofax is not. His advocacy of an United States of Europe is mentioned but not investigated, even to caricature it (though that would be easy compared to other aspects of Trotsky’s strategy). Though the founding conference of the Fourth International is described with all the new body’s weaknesses, The Transitional Programme is simply ignored, as is the whole concept of transitional demands. Similarly Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalin’s approach to Fascism are summarised in two sentences, leaving the uninformed reader to guess at Trotsky’s precise reasons for opposing popular fronts. Such a reader would be tempted to conclude, too, that Their Morals and Ours (given here the perhaps more originally accurate title Their Morality and Ours) was central to the Schachtman-Burnham split two years after it was published.

Above all, dismissing revolutionary theory allows Service to dismiss Permanent Revolution. His chapter on Trotsky’s Alma-Ata exile does not mention the fact that it was then that the banished leader wrote the pamphlet on the strategy that has become the second part of the work of which Results and Prospects has become the first.  Earlier, Parvus’ original concept is mentioned, but not its own inspiration, the newly elected Australian Labour government (the first such government in the world). Lenin’s Two Tactics are summarised without their insistence on the necessity for European revolution if socialism is to be achieved. Naturally, Service does not consider how Stalin’s and Kamenev’s transformation of a strategic orientation that left open the possibility of growth from bourgeois to proletarian revolution into the rigorous stages strategy imperilled the prospects of October. Indeed, he does not mention how they revived their stagest interpretation against Trotsky. He declares that Stalin and his allies “could give chapter and verse” (P.392), to show Lenin’s opposition to Permanent Revolution but not that Lenin’s only substantial arguments against it were two articles, one against an article by the Menshevik Martov claiming to interpret it and the second against an article by Trotsky, incorporated into later editions of Results and Prospects, but not in the original, which, as Trotsky maintained, it is probable that Lenin never read. These omissions enable Service to declare that the Shanghai massacre of 1927 proved Stalin and Bukharin’s commitment to world revolution, whereas it showed their commitment to sticking to the schematic bourgeois revolutionary stage even unto death (Not their deaths, but those of their comrades). The total result of all this is rather like a biography of Isaac Newton that debunks the idea that he could ever have been in an orchard but presumes thereby that, in itself, this disproves the theory of gravitation.

All in all, Service does not provide a serious challenge to Trotsky’s theories. Trotskyists have nothing to fear but the hype itself. 

So why does O’Broin consider that Service has succeeded in his "stated intentions"? The reasons may become clear in considering his own book. "Sinn Fein and the Politics of Left Republicanism" is a smaller book than Service’s and, in its lack of pretension, a more honest one. For his historical background to 1970, he makes no pretence about depending almost entirely on secondary sources 

He declares himself simply ‘a political activist’ committed to "the ending of partition, the withdrawal of the British state from the north of Ireland and the building of a political system in which all the people who inhabit the island of Ireland are sovereign’. (P.1) He opposes "structural inequalities - along lines of class, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, to name a few."(P.2)

So is his admiration for Service just the product of an amateur historian and political scientist who has written a book that enables him to make a nice little earner reviewing works he can’t understand?  There is a bit more to it than that. He claims to be trying to apply a "materialist approach, focussing on the specific historical context in which left republicanism develops and evolves. How did the past and readings of the past shape left republicans’ conceptions of themselves? How did left republicans develop their own ideological, organisational and strategic repertoire? What happened when these repertoires came up against the political or economic forces of the day?  How did left republicans respond, adapt and develop in repsonse to the strategies of their opponents ?"(P.15)

This is an ambitious task O’Broin sets himself. It cannot be said that he accomplishes it. For a start,  he never explains what he means by "left republicanism", failing the more completely in that he is inclined to use the term indiscriminately with republicanism pure and simple. He refuses to identify it with socialism because “socialist republicanism" is too restrictive to capture the broader historical reality of left-wing republicanism in 20th century Ireland, particularly when socialism is used in its more traditional Marxian form “By using the term “left republicanism” therefore, I want to…. broaden the term to include left republicans concerned less with a traditional economistic socialistic politics than with a politics informed by the radicalism of the New Left, anti-imperialism, feminism and other popular movements." (PP.2-3) This enables him to include as "left republicans", not only Connolly and the Republican Congress but the early Fianna Fail and Clann na Poblachta. Thus "left republicanism" as a term connotes all those republican activists, intellectuals and organisations who during the course of the twentieth century attempted, with varying degrees of success and failure, to integrate a left wing politics in the most plural sense of the term with traditional republican demands for full national independence and popular political sovereignty. " (P.3)

From this, it would seem that O’Broin considers that, apart from the Unionists (and their two-nationist allies), "we are all republicans now", only some are left republicans, though here he leaves an obvious, and unexplained, omission in the organised form of the Labour Party. The suspicion must be that, unlike other categories of his subject, Labour is simply too big to be swallowed by Sinn Fein. In addition, while "full national independence" is very much a traditional republican demand, O’Broin’s movement’s commitment to "popular political sovereignty" has not been consistent. Indeed, although he is quick to deny McGarry’s description of republicanism as being characterised by "abstention from participation in electoral politics, refusal to acknowledge the reality of Protestant support for the Union and commitment to the use of physical force".(p8) his own narrative tends to confirm this description and, indeed to show those characteristics as been the source of republicanism’s continuing revolutionary tradition, while the left republican innovations tend to weaken and eventually destroy altogether that tradition among those who try to introduce them. 

That he does not mention at all the flickering tradition of right republicanism, most visible in the republican War News of 1940-1, when it looked as if the world would go Fascist is understandable; in Ireland, nationalism is still the nationalism of the oppressed, and therefore inherently left-wing and the most consistent mass Fascist movements,from Blueshirts to Ailtiri na hAiseirighe have sprung from the Treatyite tradition. For all that, there is a lacuna in Irish republicanism that handicaps its leftwards development which O’Broin does not, or, perhaps cannot, explain.
His weakness is shown most in two spheres. Despite his stated desire to "apply a more materialist approach" to the history of republicanism, he applies such an approach only at one point (and then 
inadequately) to the basic question: who were/are the republicans? For him republicanism is a super-class force that can influence anyone (and, as O’Broin seems to accept) influences practically all too few. Yet it had and has still has material bases the character of which has affected the tradition’s successes and its more frequent failures. 

Historically, it began as the political theory of "Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter". In more detail these comprised Irish Anglican Whigs like Tone seeking to broaden their field of opportunities by breaking out of their interest’s ascendency that kept it subordinate to Britian, in alliance with Presbyterians and Catholics who had obvious reasons for breaking that ascendency and in practice particularly the Catholic peasantry who were revolting against the dominant and overwhelmingly Protestant landlords. O’Connell managed to destroy its base by pressurising the Tory government (not, as O’Broin claims, his allies, the Whigs; they were in opposition) into legislating for Catholic and Dissenter emancipation.

O’Connell’s achievement and the establishment of a bourgeois franchise in the subsequent Great Reform Bill, established a firm basis for Irish Capitalist nationalism. Any major republican bourgeoisie (never that numerous, anyway) was dwarfed by an interest that wanted its own parliament and control over its country’s government, but was not prepared to go to any lengths beyond constitutional ones to obtain these. Even the desire for protection of native industries declined with the collapse of such industries in the struggle with the more competitive British coal-powered ones and the contracting of the home market due to the famine.

The torch of republicanism and economic self-sufficiency was taken by the petit bourgeoisie. O’Broin does not list Todd Andrews’ Dublin Made Me in his extensive bibliography, but it would have paid him to dip into its early chapters for their very clear analysis of the concept of the source of continuing republican strength, "the men of no property." 

Firstly, the gender phrase reflects the reality; in Victorian and early twentieth century Ireland it was practically inevitable that the movement would be overwhelmingly masculine. In the 1860s, there was at the high point of the Fenian agitation an Irish Republican Sisterhood, but, with defeat, it disappeared. The Ladies Land League could not survive the nationalists’ control of the land agitation and their swing to the right after the Kilmainham Treaty.  Inghinnidhe na hEireann and Cumann na mBan were kept in check as support groups for the male organisations. The IRB admitted only two women in its history, The IRA none, before 1970.

The term "no property" in the description of the Republican interest is more misleading. It misled Connolly, who identified it with the absolute propertilessness of the proletariat as an whole. In fact, it covered a broader and less homogenous section of the Irish population. Despite being declassed. republicanism remained a bourgeois ideology, geared to the building of native capitalist prosperity. The men of no property included small capitalists who might employ workers but who did not own their premises. This placed republicans in an intermediate position between the nationalist bourgeoisie (and the unionist bourgeoisie above it) and the unskilled workers, the mass of whom began to be consistently organised only after 1907 and who had, until then, no structure within which their consciousness of their class for itself could develop.

Ideally, the industrially organised skilled workers of Belfast might have given their republican brothers leadership into recognising a common class interest. However, their superior trade union organisation had survived by adapting itself to the sectarianism that the northern industrialists had brought in from the countryside to serve as a productive force in what was otherwise a fragile economy. ’Broin is wrong to blame the unions for creating this sectarianism (P.61); it was there before them; quite simply they underestimated it and worked within the environment it maintained.)

For most of Ireland, a de-industrialised economy denied socialism any secure base. The First International’s Irish branches were suppressed. Subsequent initiatives were even less successful until Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party, maintained it for seven years and left offspring that would produce eventually the Communist Party of Ireland. In this environment, working class initiartives came from the skilled workers. Those would have been open to socialist appeals but for too many of them their consciousness was linked through republicanism to that of the smaller employers and these were ready enough to give tentative support to constitutional nationalism and, then, after 1900, to Sinn Fein.

The rise of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (I.T.G.W.U.), an Irish syndicalist body under conscious socialist leadership, changed the balance of forces until 1916. O’Broin does not really examine  how it lost the initiative. On the one hand, the intensified national struggle after the Easter Rising set the labour leaders a major problem. Suffering still from the after-effects of the Dublin Rising, the I.T.G.W.U., had its headquarters bombed, its Acting General Secretary executed and its President interned. Fearing for his organisation, he was ready, with more moderate union leaders to follow the lead of Thomas Johnson, the current Congress leader and, with Connolly dead, its most prominent theoretician, and act to keep from too obvious a commitment to the national struggle, save when the British committed obvious breaches of democratic rights. On the other hand, the republicans united politically under the name and programme of Sinn Fein, but acknowledged the utopian socialism of their supporter, the co-operatives organiser, George Russell, in his book National Being which suggested that the capitalist classes would surrender their positions voluntarily. Furthermore, Sinn Fein employed Johnson to draft a programme for the first Dail which bore, even as revised by the party, a remarkable resemblance to the 1916 proclamation and to Connolly’s previous proposals for a programme for a possible labour-republican united front. This allowed Costance Markievicz later, in the treaty debate to describe the proclaimed republic as identical to the workers’ republic, yet even before that it was clear that it was no such thing. The falling prices of the posr-1920’s slump inspired the bosses not to hand their concerns over to the workers but to attack wages. Moreover, when the workers tried to take the factories themselves, Monister for labour Markievicz acted not to support them but merely to moderate the employers demands and threaten the workplace occupiers with eviction by the I.R.A.

Was Markievicz less of a Left Republican, then? On the contrary, like that of Mellows her career is all too typical of the kind. O’Broin criticises Mellows for trying to add socialist programmatic aims to the basic republican programme, yet that is the nature of left republicans. Republicanism itself is the revolutionary wing of Irish nationalism sharing its overall aim of Ireland independent and united. This basic democratic programme leaves open the question of the class nature of the independent united Irish state, though, given its composition, there is an understandable tendency for it to organise itself as an inter-class alliance such as would be likely to change little socially from what pertained under the colonial order. The problem is that from the articles of agreement for a treaty were ratified in 1922, republicanism as such has yet to achieve its basic aim of Irish freedom and unity, while it has never being able to broaden its support to the extent that existed immediately before that date. From this follows the movements attempts to expand its base by making demands, beyond its programme, usually leftwards, though occasionally, as in 1940, from the right.

O’Broin would dispute this. For him, at least until the modern Sinn Fein came to its senses and took up socialist demands, the great left republican was Connolly. Unfortunately, O’Broin has decided that "the best place to start" (and end) in reading Connolly “is with Connolly’s own two-volume Collected Works, published by New Books”. These include less than half the writings and give an incomplete picture of the theory. Connolly was a leftist, indeed a socialist, and, in the broad sense, a republican, but he was not a left republican as such.

He was a proletarian internationalist who recognised that the victory of revolutionary nationalism in Ireland and other oppressed nations was a necessary part of the worldwide struggle for socialism. Left republicanism is like republicanism generally in that it sympathises with the oppressed throughout the world. Certainly the right republicans, from the exiled John Mitchel, through Arthur Griffith to the more naive believers in England’s difficulty C1940 would disagree; they are a minority within the overall movement. The trouble is that even left republicans cannot place their "political system within which all the people who inhabit the island of Ireland are sovereign" within any international perspective.

For all his insistence on the need for such a perspective, O’Broin is no exception. Indeed, in his historical narrative, his internationalism diminishes significantly (P.41)  Stephens’ and Devoy’ s memberships of the First International are mentioned cursorily, though in a fair analysis of Fenian strengths and defects.  After that, there is, understandably, no mention of the fact that Connolly was upholding  the decisions of the Second International’s Stuttgart and Basle Congresses in preparing and executing an Irish rebellion during the first World War. The fact that the Communist Party’s social and economic programme for the Republic was inspired by an impatient Comintern after its Irish section had wasted its time calling for an anti-Treatyite putsch is suppressed. The Comintern’s subsequent popular front strategy is not mentioned as the force splitting the Republican Congress.

In this it becomes clear why O’Broin thinks that Service has mad his case. He does not need the biography to disagree with Trotsky.  His vision is one of socialism in a single country, with socialism being defined (after Stalin) as "economistic". (P.3)  Having defined revolution in militarist terms, his politics remain reformist nationalist, seeing a Stalinite strategy as the way forward.

Certain practical results flow from this. O’Broin remains at heart a revolutionary nationalist, albeit in "left" clothing. As he knows, this has never been good enough for two reasons. Firstly, for years, a large chunk of what passes for the Irish left has been using. internationalism as a cover for an actual adaptation to imperialism. The numbers therein include many former republicans, most vividly the Workers’ Party. As it becomes clearer that O’Broin’s stated "political system" will not be maintainable by Sinn Fein Amhan, this tendency will increase. Without a serious international revolutionary strategy, there is a real probability that in a decade O'Broin himself will be wrapped in the bourgeois flag of the European Union. 

Secondly, an international revolutionary strategy will be necessary anyway if O’Broin’s political system is achieved and is to be maintained for any serious period. Like it or not, Ireland will be Britain’s, indeed Europe’s,  Cuba, fulfilling the fears of British Conservatives in the early seventies.  For the achievement to survive, it will have to imitate the Cuba of that time, though on a more scientific basis: not Tricontinental like the Cubans’ Congress system, but fully International.

Without such a perspective, it is possible to foresee the immediate political fate of the new left republicans. Abandoning the armed struggle gave Sinn Fein new electoral strength in the republic, but this seems to have reached a ceiling. The party’s role as majority nationalist party in Northern Ireland is not helping it expand. Where will it go? Last week (13/05), Fine Gael reversed its policy of fifty years and denounced the new European budgetary regulations. This may be a first step towards an excuse for an 1948 inter-party compromise that will bring Sinn Fein in from the cold on the promise of realistic reform..  It is certainly true that the alternative will be long and difficult. All the same it is more certain of success.  As the Green Party is seeing today, when one sells one’s soul for half the desired loaf, one tends to end up with a quarter or less.

That was, after all, what happened in Soviet Russia, though Robert Service is never likely to admit it. 


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