Of Soviets and Triple Power
Edited version of the speech given by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght at the launch of the fourth edition of his pamphlet, The Story of the Limerick Soviet, in the Mechanics' Institute, Hartstonge Street, Limerick, on 17 April 2009.
It is a privilege for me to be here to launch this edition of my pamphlet.
Indeed, I feel over-privileged in doing so. I think I recognise a number of faces of those whom I know to have bought the third edition of this work. To these I say: if you are planning to buy the new version, I must warn you that the text is exactly the same as that in the previous one. The changes for the better are your Mayor, His worship John Gilligan's fine introduction, a message of greetings from the London association of Trades Councils, and the fact that there are fewer pictures of me. Having said that, if you think that that is worth six Euros: please do buy, and do so early and often.
As to the subject matter, I expect most of you know the basic story; if you don't, then your need to buy is qualitatively greater. At all events, I will not repeat the narrative now. However, I will emphasize some points that have been raised in gatherings where the Limerick Soviet has been mentioned.
The first of these is the fact that, as my fellow labour historian, Emmett O'Connor has mentioned, it would not have happened in that way had there not been a revolutionary national democratic struggle developing. There might still have been a soviet, the workers might still have taken control of Limerick for an indefinite period because of some other reason. The actual event was caused by the colonial state's vicious wartime legislation and its enforcement on the Irish people. Bertie Byrne's fatally failed escape attempt sped the order that provoked the workers. That he was both a union activist and a leading Irish Volunteer and that he was found guilty of possessing a pistol the same day as the First Dail assembled and the Third Tipperary Brigade raised the level of the armed struggle at Soloheadbeg was more than a coincidence. It was the expression of the possibility that the fight to overthrow British rule in Ireland could grow into the struggle to achieve the Workers' Republic and hence the world socialist society. Why matters did not develop in this way is explained in this pamphlet.
It should be added that it was this intermingling of the socialist and the national democratic in the causes of the Limerick Soviet that caused the major problem for Jim Kemmy in his approach to the subject. Of course, Kemmy was one of Limerick's greatest mayors, an honest man committed to his vision of Workers' Control and, most relevantly to this occasion, one of the pioneers the rediscovery of Limerick's soviet after half a century of its exclusion from history. However, it must be said that his hostility to the Irish national struggle and his acceptance of Labour's policy of keeping it at arms length after 1916 contradicted his commitment to the Soviet and made it impossible for him to acknowledge that it was betrayed by the Labour leaders in order to maintain that strategy. I speak as one who has read four of Jim's articles on the Soviet and listened to two of his talks on the subject.
A second point was raised last year at a meeting I had been addressing in Birmingham. I was asked why the Limerick Soviet had not suffered the fate of the Paris Commune nearly fifty years previously. There were obvious replies to this; the Commune's rule lasted ten weeks to the Soviet's two and Limerick was not as central to either the United Kingdom or, even, the Irish state power as was Paris to that of France. Perhaps more importantly, the balance of class forces in Ireland differed from those in France. In both cases the nation was oppressed by an occupying power. However, in France, the Prussian-German monarchy did not claim to incorporate the whole country into itself, whereas, in Ireland, the British state was fighting to keep Ireland within the United Kingdom. The French bourgeoisie was able to obtain from the foreign occupiers a peace agreement of the kind that was, in 1919 Ireland, more than two and an half years away. Accordingly, despite its hostility to working class militancy, the Irish employer class was happy enough to leave the burden of suppressing the soviet to the occupying power, and moved to act only when the Labour leadership made it clear that it would not extend the strike through the nation. The French capitalist government had been both willing and able to smash the Commune with complete brutality, while the Germans enjoyed the spectacle.
However, the Commune and the Soviet did resemble each other in two ways. Firstly, each existed in a situation of what might be termed treble or triple power: where state power is claimed by three class forces: the occupiers, the national bourgeoisie and the workers, without either group being able to defeat its revivals and exercise that power by itself. It is a situation more complicated than that of the dual power that exists more often in social revolutionary situations, most notably in Russia in 1917, because of the intervention of the external power as a contender. A classic expression of this phenomenon occurred in China during the second World War, when the Communists under Mao Tsetung contested both with the Japanese occupiers and the bourgeois Nationalists with whom they were formally allied, but, despite the urgings of Mao's international leader, Joseph Stalin, maintaining their own state power separate from their allies. As with dual power, such situations arise from weakness on the part of the working class contenders. In Russia, dual power arose only because the leaders of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets were prepared to allow a bourgeois Provisional Government to establish itself. In China, the Communists were still suffering from a violent suppression as the result of a similar collaboration with the Nationalists. In Ireland, the Labour leaders were happy to leave the national struggle to the nationalists lest the political issues that it raised divided their own movement; once the Republic was a fait accompli, they could seek state power. They did not anticipate that Sinn Fein's republic would not be achieved ninety years later.
The second point of resemblance between commune and soviet concerns a matter that I have not heard raised in discussion on the latter, possibly because the audiences involved took it as read. This is that neither was led by a revolutionary socialist organisation united behind and acting on a revolutionary programme. The commune was headed by a widely disparate collection of groups, with their centre of political gravity in an implicit perspective of instant political revolution unsupported by planned control of the economy. The soviet did not even have such political representation. This left it all too vulnerable to argument of Labour's national leadership which did have a real and clear, although, as has been said, flawed strategy.
A final point to be mentioned is one that is often raised where the Limerick Soviet is discussed. There is usually somebody present who will ask: 'Was it really a soviet?' This question is prompted by several considerations. There is, for example, a reluctance to accept that holy Ireland, and, in particular, holy Limerick could have produced such a thing. This is compounded by the long-term example of the Soviet Union after Lenin, where Soviets came to mean assemblies of placemen (and a few token placewomen) rubber-stamping the decrees of the omnipotent leader.
In fact, not only did both the Irish Times and the Trades Council Chairman, Sean Cronin agree, if from different perspectives, that the Limerick Soviet was indeed a soviet, but they were correct. This is not just because the literal translation of the word is 'council', though, a few years later, the leaders of the Irish labour movement did try to cash in on the fact by changing the name of various trades councils to 'workers' councils' and declaring them soviets automatically. In practice, what distinguishes a soviet from a trades council or a workers' council per se is its political role. A soviet exercises, or, at least, seeks to organise the political/civil society of its area. It is the expression of local class power. A collection of them exercising state power constitute a Soviet Congress. The governing body of the dictatorship of the proletariat and its allies - or the workers' republic, just as parliament expresses the state power of the bourgeoisie and its associates. Of course, since Russia, in acknowledgement of the fact of the usurpation of all power from the soviets to a single party, the later workers' states have tended to ignore the dimension of soviet authority in their constitutions, which is reason for terming them deformed, as the Soviet Union became degenerated. Nonetheless, soviets, democratically organised are necessary to workers' power, how they exercise this will depend on circumstance, just as parliamentary power has varied from rotten boroughs through property franchises to full adult suffrage and from multiple to double to single assemblies. Today, this example is more relevant than ever. Even when the third edition of this pamphlet was being launched, there were signs that parliamentary democracy was in trouble in its very heartlands.
The neo-liberal economic policies of the last thirty years were imposed by governments elected by minorities of their countries' electorates. In 2003, widespread opposition to the imperialist invasion of Iraq was ignored quite cynically by the governments preparing the invasion; even the formally neutral Republic of Ireland has been involved in aiding the torture of prisoners of that war. Now the boom that cushioned these policies in the eyes of the electorate has ended and, in the twenty-six county state, the choice of restoring it is between Tweedledum and Tweedledee; in the six counties, no immediate choice is offered, at all. Proposals are being made for piecemeal parliamentary reform to conceal the fact that parliament itself can be, and is being manipulated by the rich and powerful Soviets are on the agenda again, not far up on it, as yet, but likely to be further up when the fifth edition of this pamphlet is launched. It is as well to start considering this fact now. If not, we can be sure that there are individuals in the capitalist woodwork who will use disenchantment with parliamentary democracy to end it in a manner directly opposed to the interests of the workers and oppressed.
Immediately, there are other initiatives.
Any political order geared to ending oppression and exploitation will have
to be established under the leadership of such a vanguard socialist organisation
as I have shown was not present in Ireland at the Limerick Soviet's time.
Naturally, as a member of the Socialist Democracy, I would maintain that
that organisation is the nucleus of such a body and I would urge you, if
not to join us, than to learn more about us from our website.
I would say, too, that more general education is needed and would suggest
that, as one part of this process, the Limerick Soviet Commemoration Committee
should affiliate to the Labour History Society. I am sure I do not
have to urge you to participate in agitations to advance the interests
of the workers and the oppressed, whether that be opposing rendition flights
or striking against welfare cuts and downsizing of workforces. The
claims of the neo-liberals that to their policies, 'there is no alternative'
is being shown to be, more than ever, a claim of utter despair. Happily,
there is an alternative and Limerick's soviet pointed the way to it.