The workers movement: revolution and reform
As capitalism expanded in the 19th century so also did the workers movement, and at the beginning of the 20th century a mass international movement, the Second International, linked workers movements in many of the European powers. That international movement began to diverge, with leading figures arguing for reformism – that is, that the power of the workers movement could successfully transform capitalism into socialism – with a minority opposing this policy and arguing for the revolutionary transformation of society.
The debate echoed through the Irish movement with a pro-union tendency in sections of the labour movement, a reformist wing that tried to step back from politics and a revolutionary wing aiming for a workers’ republic.
The debate was resolved with the collapse of the international and with the majority of national sections supporting their own capitalist class and the slaughter of the First World War. The Irish rising of 1916 was both a nationalist rising and a blow against imperialist war by revolutionary socialists led by James Connolly.
In the aftermath of the rising reformism came to the fore and labour voluntarily took a back seat in the evolution of the national resistance.
The working class were a minority in a population of small farmers and landless labourers. This numerical weakness can be compensated for by the concentration of labour in large manufacturing, as happened in Russia, but in Ireland the major industries were concentrated in the North. They were linked to the British market and unionist employers, who used sectarian division to maintain a tight hold on the workers. In response a unionist labour stratum developed in the North that saw working class progress as linked to the British presence and expressed through municipal reform. Some of these actively supported unionist reaction. Others tried to avoid suppression by avoiding any public position.
Hiding did not save the reformists. The victory of the unionist oppression of labour did not reach fruition until the1920 pogrom against nationalists and socialists in the Belfast shipyard, openly organised by unionist leader Carson, but the sectarian grip in the years before the pogrom was an enormous counterweight to the possibility of a socialist party.
The leadership of the workers movement moved towards Dublin and towards the transport and general unions as the next most concentrated source of labour power. However, the union movement remained weak; slow to organise politically, reluctant to include broader social forces such as farm labourers, ignoring a radical feminist movement that was supported by the Citizen Army and by radical republicans, protective of differentiation between skilled and unskilled labour, holding to links with the British union bureaucracy and to a definition of worker's unity that attempted to avoid conflict with unionism.
James Connolly fought desperately to establish a political organisation of the workers. He launched the Irish Socialist Republican Party, supported the "One Big Union" theory, built a socialist press, launched the Labour Party, and formed a workers' army, the Irish Citizen Army.
In all these enterprises he was fighting against the current. The 1913 lockout by Dublin employers, led by Irish Parliamentary Party MP William Martin Murphy, ended in defeat and union membership fell in the aftermath, although class antagonism grew greatly and the employers did not again attempt to eliminate trade unionism. Connolly entered the Easter Rising commanding only a few hundred ICA fighters and was executed in the aftermath.
That was far from the end of the working class. The 1917 Russian Revolution saw wide solidarity in Ireland. The period following 1916 saw a growth in trade unionism, labour party membership and in working class combativity. General strikes were held in support of political prisoners, against conscription and a strike by railwaymen refused transport to troops. Local action saw seizure of enterprises and the declaration of soviets. In the case of Limerick, the entire city was declared a soviet. The fallout of war saw the birth of the USSR and abortive revolutions in Germany and other parts of Europe. Even the conservative British TUC managed the 1926 general strike before rapidly retreating. However, the dominant response of the fragments of the second international was towards reformism
This was the case with the majority of the Irish Labour leadership. They avoided radicalism, any formal links with feminism and failed to organise landless labourers, controlling a movement through advancing the pallid politics of the union bosses. In the aftermath of 1916, the union leadership passed a spineless resolution commemorating all the dead rather than a direct support for the insurrection. They later called an unsuccessful anti-militarism strike in 1922 in an attempt to force the anti-treaty republicans to concede.
Spontaneous movements generally do not succeed. Despite the undoubted combativity of many workers, in the absence of Connolly an already conservative and reformist leadership had already avoided expanding Labour into wider social movements. Heavily influenced by the British movement and trying to avoid the maelstrom of political forces around it, it sought to blend into the background.
Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the decision not to contest the 1918 election – this an election where women over thirty and working-class men had their first opportunity to vote. The party stood in the 1922 election and won over 21% of the vote. This shows that Labour had the capacity to exercise a great deal of power and could have mobilised a working-class current. However, by 1922 the party was standing as a pro-treaty party and was settling into an ongoing role as valet to the bourgeois parties, serving as ballast in coalition governments.
Much is made of the First Dáil programme, drafted by Labour party leader Thomas Johnson and amended by Sinn Fein. In fact, this was another turn of the screw, encouraging a workers vote for Sinn Fein and assuring them that they did not need an independent programme.
Supporters of the programme focus on phrases within the programme: "the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland."
And: "..all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare".
In fact, the declaration was much less radical than the programme of the United Irishmen of 1798 and was quickly forgotten. It is clung to today by left republicans, but who believes that the Ireland of vulture capitalism and housing famine cherishes all of its children equally?
There was one further opportunity for the working class. Against a background of general radicalism the Communist Party of Ireland was formed in 1933. By then the revolutionary tide had turned. In the USSR most of the Bolshevik leadership had been purged by Stalin and his doctrine of "socialism in one country" forced communist parties towards a role as instruments of Soviet foreign policy. The Irish party was to become notorious as one of the unquestioning "Tankie" parties, fervently supporting Stalin.
In the North, labour and trade union organisations had to contend with the direct physical threat of loyalism. Political meetings were broken up by loyalist mobs. Socialists were intimidated in the workplace. Serious attempts were made to organise a loyalist trade union movement and loyalist labour organisations. ICTU was not recognised by the local administration because of its all-Ireland structure.
However, the seeds of defeat lay within the labour organisations themselves. The British Labour Party, whose members were generally supportive of Irish independence and who wanted to avoid a sectarian quagmire, banned organisation in the Northern statelet. The local activists copied their Southern counterparts in attempting neutrality on the national question. However, in a reactionary settlement where there were constant demands for expressions of loyalty, this proved impossible. The labour movement moved steadily to the right, with one figure, Harry Midgley, becoming a minister in the unionist government.
The Northern Ireland Labour Party eventually collapsed as the civil rights movement was formed, having split earlier because some members supported evangelical Protestant objections to public parks opening on a Sunday. The Second World War saw the Irish Communist Party riven by the same tensions, with the Northern section splitting to offer fulsome support for the British War effort following the Fascist invasion of the USSR.
The weakness of the workers movement saw the carnival of reaction foreseen by Connolly. The North evolved as a one-party state, with sectarianism and unionism dominating political life. In the South education, health and social services were handed over to the Churches and the dominant Catholic Church led a confessional state from which both workers and intellectuals fled in a constant wave of migration.