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The revolutionary link

Syndicalism and Nationalism in the Irish Revolution

By D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

Paper delivered at the Labour and Nationalism Conference at Huddersfireld University

5 May 2018

In Ireland’s oppressive capitalist society after 1923, the working class was relegated to rather less than its position in more developed societies. In history departments, it was treated, if treatment could not be avoided, as the victim of excessive abuse by the dominant classes, as in Dublin in 1913. This continued after organized labour began to make attempts to claim its place in the sun. Only Emmet O’Connor’s work on syndicalism in Ireland caused Irish academia to recognise Labour’s role.

Yet this role had been very real in the period of the Irish revolution. Trotsky described the Easter Rising as the result of the young Irish working class linking nationalism and syndicalism in its revolutionary consciousness. In the subsequent years, it remained a presence fighting its corner and erupting periodically to show itself as a real threat to both the bourgeois orders struggling for state power. In its organization it took the form of syndicalism and it was this ideology that mobilized it and then ensured its defeat.

Syndicalism was a revolt within the workers’ movement against the traditional social democratic parties. They had come to see the way forward as being through the parliamentary assemblies of capitalist democracy. They saw their class winning state power only if led by industrial unions attacking capital directly. They were not altogether wrong. Their vision was closer than the social democratic practice to the soviet democracy through which the workers would take state power in Russia. The weakness in this vision was that, in rejecting the social democratic parties, it ignored the need for any politically defined vanguard. The necessarily all-embracing nature of the union could not allow for discussion of any strategy for achieving state power.

Syndicalism can be said to have hit Ireland when James Larkin arrived in Belfast in 1907. He was not aware that he was introducing a new approach to class struggle in keeping with that arising in Europe. It had nothing like the same level of consciousness.  Though syndicalism arose from militant practice rather than vice versa, its European practitioners had developed principles. In Ireland, Larkin and his allies saw themselves still as militant activists within the strategic and organizational norms of the Socialist International. Similarly, in January 1909, when Larkin split from the London-based National Union of Dock Labourers to form the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), it was as much a revolt against bureaucratic leadership as conscious syndicalism or nationalism. Nonetheless, it symbolised Larkin’s commitment to their fusion.

The same year as the founding of the Transport Union, James Connolly published Socialism Made Easy, which gave Irish syndicalism a theoretical base. It was maintained by the return of Connolly from the USA in 1910. Connolly’s experiences with several socialist parties had led him to conclude that the industrial union (in America, the IWW) was the effective instrument for his class to take state power. Unlike his European co-thinkers, he did not deny all value to elections; he reduced them to measures of support for his cause. As for the state, when the time came, the workers’ organised industrial force would break its ‘shell’. In Ireland, the Transport Union was to be the motor for the workers’ seizure of state power.

This last differentiated Connolly and the Irish Larkinites from the Russian Bolsheviks in the years before the First World War. There were differences between the two countries. Geographically, of course, there was that of size. Politically, there were also the differences between Russia as a prison house of nationalities and Ireland as an imprisoned nation and in the position of the majority Church in each state. Nonetheless, socially, both states were predominantly agricultural with partially completed land reforms and run undemocratically. This last gave the two states’ political struggles (including the Irish national struggles) a democratic validity that necessitated their workers’ movements’ involvement in them. As yet, neither Bolsheviks nor Irish Syndicalists expected their class to take state power immediately; they did expect that their actions would assure them a strong position for taking it after any capitalist revolution.

Certainly, in the years between 1910 and 1914 the Irish movement followed the Transport Union in combining its syndicalism with advocating an independent Irish Republic in opposition to the union and the devolutionary assembly that the constitutional nationalists called Home Rule.

They were opposed by the said nationalists, by the Unionists of the north-east and of the colonial bureaucracy. As yet this opposition was small compared to that shown in the workplace by the bosses. In Dublin, the city’s employers countered calls for a general strike by staging a general lockout.

Officially, the bosses won this. Their leader, Murphy, and other large employers kept the Transport Union out of their concerns, scabs were not dismissed wholesale and the document demanding the worker’s renunciation of the union was not formally withdrawn.  Nonetheless, the general workers’ resistance frightened the smaller employers. They had expected a quick victory, not the actual five month struggle. Many of them dropped the document in a drawer, if not a wastebasket. Scabs were sent home or retired voluntarily. The Transport Union remained. In November 1915, Murphy’s attempt to renew the conflict was rejected by his former allies.

The union had lost half its membership but remained to face the challenge of world war. With Larkin absent in America, the Acting General Secretary, Connolly, adapted its strategy to the situation. Unlike most of his comrades elsewhere, he followed the directive of the Socialist International’s 1907 Stuttgart Congress by which the extra pressures brought by the struggle should be used to stimulate to rebellion the workers in the states involved.  In Ireland, the most effective immediate way to do this would be a national rising. At the same time, for Connolly, such a revolt had to have a specific working class content, represented by the economic struggles of the workers, ultimately and most notably the City of Dublin Steampacket Company strike and a programme of demands. This last was accepted formally by the revolutionary nationalists with whom he allied in Easter 1916. The first was sabotaged by the British National Seamen’s Union, weakening the conscious working class element in the rebellion and keeping open Dublin Bay for British troops. In the end Connolly had to choose between fighting probably hopelessly or allowing himself and his allies to be arrested in a fiasco like previous risings in 1848 and 1867. He chose to fight.

As a minority participant, Irish Labour suffered more from the suppression of the Rising than its allies. The organizational combination of its political and industrial functions meant that it lost a number of its leaders. There was a strong anti-Larkinite minority in Congress based on the long-established craft unions and they had reason to feel justified in urging a purely industrial strategy with politics kept constitutional.

They were neutralized by the Party and Congress  Chairman, Thomas Johnson. In his address he presented a perspective that diluted Connolly’s strategy enough to prevent too many of the majority from defecting to the safety of pure and simple trade unionism. Connolly’s interpretation of Stuttgart was ignored. His combination of republicanism and syndicalism was to be loosened. The first duty of labour organisations was not to challenge for state power but to fight limited battles for their members industrially and grow strong enough to take a major role in the political state (and perhaps much later to replace it).  The class’ education would be by practical programmes of reforms. The movement might help the national struggle by mobilizing against obvious attacks on specific civil liberties, but that was all.

Johnson’s strategy preserved the unity of the Irish working class movement. Helped by the wartime and post-war boom, it enabled it to expand industrially between 1917 and 1920. However, this expansion was achieved at an heavy political price. The one view of Connolly and Larkin that he did not change was that of the union as being able to provide adequate political leadership. The idea that the working class had to be led by a party distinct from if based within its industrial organization was not considered.

There was no opposition to Johnson, as yet. His perspective was wholly acceptable to the anti-Larkinite union leaders. Probably they would have followed something like it anyway, but its theoretical endorsement was a bonus for them. The Larkinites’ support needs more explanation. They were somewhat demoralized by the defeats, however short term, of 1913 and 1916. They recognized the need to expand their organisations, feared to split their movement, hoped to win the organized unionist workers of Ulster and believed that increased size and practical programmes could persuade the country to support the workers’ republic.

What they ignored, as Connolly had not was the effect of world war and national insurrection. Revolution was now a potential and became real in 1919 when Dail Eireann’s formation established dual power. Meanwhile, buoyed by the boom, and the safety net provisions introduced by the colonial government, the Labour leaders continued their reformist policies. The Transport Union’s President, Thomas Foran remarked talking of Larkin, ‘Now we do things by negotiations’. This weakened syndicalism’s indispensable militancy, disarming their movement.

Yet it could not kill militancy at the grassroots. This was not confined to the workplace. Although the Labour leadership inspired the general strike against conscription, the many subsequent political stoppages were called under pressure from the rank and file, albeit often inspired by local Transport Union organisers. These disputes included the Limerick Soviet a major manifestation of the  fusion of republicanism and syndicalism), the motor drivers’ strike, the general strike for the release of hunger striking republican prisoners and the railway workers’ strike against the carriage of arms. In turn each of these encouraged working class industrial militancy, except the last which ended with the boom and when the Anglo-Irish War had become too intense. Nonetheless, by the end of 1920, most Irish workers had higher real wages than ever before.

As long as the boom lasted, the bosses were not as determined as those in Dublin in 1913. The large farmers were the most militant. Political defenders of the status quo were also slow to attack. The colonial power feared a link of social and military militancy, though, in the last nine months of war, it asserted itself for the employers. The Church confined itself to Lenten pastorals denouncing Communism. Only the Ulster Unionists acted, using sectarianism to split the local workforce. It was the political revolutionaries of Sinn Fein (though not the IRA, as such) that were most effectively hostile. In 1917, they blocked with the home rulers on Dublin Corporation to prevent Labour holding its vacated seat, they imposed on their republic a very conscious bourgeois programme without any of Connolly’s demands and they organised meetings to explain Connolly’s admittedly vague idea of Celtic socialism as compatible with capitalism. Finally, in 1921, they told Labour that the vote imposed by Britain for its partition assemblies would be only a referendum on the Republic. Labour excluded itself and Sinn Fein declared the vote had returned a second Dail. With the Truce, in July 1921, that Dail supported the bosses‘ counter-attacks. Its most socialistic minister, Constance Markievicz threatened to send the IRA to clear the occupying workers out of Bruree Soviet Creamery. The workers’ leaders began to discipline those of their union officials who seemed to resist too militantly.

The Labour leaders’ weakness was noted by the movement’s far left. However it was divided between the consistent syndicalists, like Sean Dowling the ITGWU and soviet organiser and the founders of the new Communist Party (CPI), like Walter Carpenter. When Sinn Fein split over the Treaty with Britain, watering down the Republic the CPI was itself divided. One group, led by Carpenter, urged it build its industrial base. The other, under Connolly’s son Roderick, demanded uncritical support for the republican anti–treatyites. Roderick won and, in a caricature of his father’s strategy, offered three quarters of his party paper to the dissidents and did not bother drafting a social programme until the Communist International imposed one after civil war had begun. The Party’s doom was sealed when the returning Larkin persuaded the International to replace it with a semi-syndicalist body. By then, however, there was no revolutionary situation.

Without struggle, a movement with an essentially agitational perspective will decline into reformism. So it happened with the Transport Union. It went even further by maintaining its formal commitment to Connolly’s wartime strategy of alliance with republicanism. Yet it interpreted this in a reformist manner; the republican group with which its leaders identified was Fianna Fail the largest capitalist party in the truncated Irish national state. In 1944, the union’s trajectory led it to split the Irish Labour Party to the right, in a Fianna Fail inspired red scare. The next year it followed this by splitting the Irish TUC in the same cause.  A new generation of leaders reunited the two bodies, but the damage had been done, not least to the pretensions of syndicalism.

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