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Review: The search for the Socialist Republic

Adrian Grant, Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-36, Four Courts Press, Dublin. E30.

By D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

2 December 2012

This is a valuable addition to the literature of the socialist and republican movements in their most effectively heroic period. It provides a factually coherent account and does not depend too much on secondary sources. Its time frame is justified, though it could have had an epilogue to describe the political fates of those in the overall movement who had survived the Spanish Civil War; the farcical histories of Clann na Poblachta and the forties Labour Party are relevant here. 

There are problems, however. The style makes this book heavier reading than it should be. More basic is that Grant is concerned to present two arguments. One is that Socialist Republicanism began not sometime in the nineteen-twenties, but with Larkin’s founding of a mass union of unskilled workers in January 1909. His second argument is that there was no ideological reason for the failure of Socialist Republicanism: indeed, that it was outside pressures that broke it.

The first argument is accurate; it has been obscured for years by the hostility of later Socialist Republicans to their current’s major initiator, Jim Larkin (not least Peadar O’Donnell’s stupid lie, reported by Grant, P.142). The second argument is neither good logic nor good history. Logically, the fact that Socialist Republicanism’s growth was stunted repeatedly by various organisational factors would seem to reflect the fact that there were some more substantial contradictions in its nature. These are to be found historically. With most accounts of Socialist Republicanism this book shares a common weakness. No attempt is made to define Socialist Republicanism either generally or in its Irish manifestation. The general definition is straightforward: a consistent Socialist is automatically a Republican, and an upholder of a united nation’s rights to self-determination. That a number of social democratic parties have reneged on these duties in order to achieve pragmatically a steadily diminishing set of socialist reforms does not alter this; compromises on these matters can be seen to foreshadow the compromises made since on the matters for which these parties made their earlier surrenders.

Given this fact, Socialist Republicanism in Ireland might seem to have had a bright prospect, perhaps leading to the creation of a far more significant Communist Party. Of course, it could not avoid attacks from outside, quite apart from the bosses: on the one hand, from the inevitable labourites/social democrats, on the other from those with a simple faith in a bourgeois republic. 

What made ensured these handicaps would be effective were the fault lines within the Irish  Socialist and Republican movements. Their basic problem was that they drew their support from different, though overlapping class interests. Republicans sought support among “the men [and a few women] of no property”, but this defined property narrowly as restricted to real estate; tenants were all seen as republican potential, however rich they were or however many they might employ. In the country, this allowed large unpurchased tenants to claim republican status and this would be reflected in battle lines during the wars after 1916. In practice, the Republic virtually established appealed to those who were ready to believe that Ireland’s ills were caused by specifically British capitalism, insofar as class were in any sense a cause, The emergence of the ITGWU introduced a new conscious membership of unskilled workers. Until 1916, it looked as though the new ideology would replace the old. The trouble was that only a minimal form of political organisation (Labour as part of Congress, the propaganda groups) developed from the new radicalism. Although Connolly had advocated such a structure, his death left Labour guided by an unusually raw form of Syndicalism that made that movement doubtful about committing to national politics that might divide it and thereby the readier to accept the constitution of Saorstat Eireann. Among Republicans, the view that had sustained them under the union remained that their movement was “the Republic virtually established”, which meant that outside support might be welcome but never more than support and that ultimately revolution meant the one tenth of work involving the actual military seizure of effective state power rather than the nine tenths of political work needed to make that seizure a possibility. On the one hand, this was a further reason to appeal to the resources of the rich “men of no property”. On the other, it has meant that, while abandoning the primacy of physical force has enabled Republicans to move to the left socially and economically, it has left them as reformist, albeit often enlightened, nationalists,  unable to integrate their new programmatic demands into a revolutionary strategy. When to this is added the somewhat cavalier approach to internationalism by both socialists (against their principles) and republicans (all too true to theirs), it is the survival of the Irish Socialist Republican experiment that seems the conundrum.    

Grant’s argument seems to accept this even while its author denies the fact. Time and time again he shows how reasonable decisions made by participants within the bounds of their ideologies became barriers to the creation of a Socialist Republican movement as a major player on the political scene either as a party or as a united front. For a Syndicalist, it was reasonable to concentrate on building the union and trust to the Republicans to break the connection with Britain. The Republicans had to leave a large chunk of that connection in being, and Labour was faced with a government backed by Britain and dominated by ferociously aggressive native capitalists. Once again the apparatus had to be protected and this meant abandoning completely Socialist Republicanism as more than an aspiration.

Without Labour participation, it is doubtful whether a Socialist project could be revived. From 1924 to 1928, the official Irish Communist leader was Larkin and Larkin was far more concerned with maintaining his union base than in building a party, let alone a Socialist Republican front. Apart from various individuals on the left, the burden of building such a front was laid on a group within the Republican movement and it was a bird that tried to fly on one wing. The movement had lost the civil war. In 1926, it lost many of its more socially conscious leaders to de Valera’s breakaway, which would come to power on quite a clear, if limited programme of democratic demands. Finally there was an amount of ideological pressure (understated by Grant and less than later) from the Catholic Church. Despite these handicaps, the annuities agitation and then the depression revived Socialist Republicanism, only for it to be opposed by the hostile forces that had grown while it was in the doldrums. The Republican movement split in what was, despite the programmatic similarities of the two sides, a practical left-right division. Then the left’s new Republican Congress split as well. Only the Communist Party survived. The Socialist Republican milieu was saved from the reformism of left republicans before and after it by its members either dying bravely in Spain or retiring, like Peadar O’Donnell, from political intervention into liberal Popular Front journalism.

Grant’s main narrative ends by recording that one of the last Communist Party sponsored meetings to try to revive Socialist Republicanism was attended by Cathal Goulding. He would play a role in such a revival a quarter century later. That story has been considered elsewhere. Its inspirers had learnt little from the previous experience. Moving away from physical force and ignored by the Labour Party, the nationalist reformist Republicans had their instincts rationalised by the Communist Party and postponed the aim of a socialist state until after establishing an united Irish capitalist entity. This meant tackling in isolation the outstanding task of national bourgeois revolution, ignored by their Socialist Republican predecessors: Irish unity, while excluding not only armed struggle but the socialist demands that could persuade the Protestant workers that unity would not give them Catholic bosses. At first, they tried to win the Unionist rank and file to work with them by a programme of equal capitalist civil rights, only to alienate that rank and file (too many of whom benefited from the inequality). When they jettisoned the bourgeois programme for what they thought was socialism, they continued to treat the problem within a minimalist partitionist perspective. They avoided appeals to mobilise to raise consciousness on the matter in the twenty-six counties, despite empirical evidence that it could stimulate industrial militancy. Instead they tried to appear as defenders of the Loyalists against the physical force of the Provisionals. The Workers Party today shows the success of this strategy. Yet it is the same policy as that pursued today by the heirs of those Provisionals, albeit from a stronger popular base. Marx wrote that history is repeated the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. He said nothing as to how a third staging is to be described.


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