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Speech given during the the Limerick Soviet centennial

The Limerick Soviet - 100 Years After

By D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

20 April 2019

As with the centennials for the Rising, three years ago, it is good to remember that Limerick’s celebrations include an educational side. A major part of the suppression of the consciousness of the Irish working people in the years after the Treaty was the attempt by their native rulers to suppress the memory of their struggles to get beyond political self-determination to control their daily living conditions. This was resisted by a few, among them notably Jim Kemmy, Mayor of the city that had staged the Limerick Soviet. He publicised it as being,  of these struggles, the most important in its time span and in its part in its  resonance with the struggles of the participants’ comrades across the world.

It is worth considering in more detail its context . Firstly, there is the question: was it a real soviet? Since there is some fog surrounding this it is well to establish the nature of such a body. The word is, of course, Russian; it means, literally, ‘Council’. Since 1905, it has been the international description of a council of a certain type, an organised body of exploited and oppressed classes. The Limerick city council cannot be a soviet; the Limerick Trades Council could be, and was. It is so, no longer. A Soviet has, at least, to claim political power over its area: class democracy as against all-inclusive, and capitalist democracy. For two weeks in 1919, the Limerick Trades Council exercised such power before surrendering it. For these two weeks (and for two days the next year as part of a national general strike), it acted as a genuine soviet.

It is instructive to compare it with the great strike that preceded it  by some months. In Belfast, the engineering workers allied to their comrades in Britain had struck work for a 44 hour week. Their stoppage lasted three weeks, longer than that of their comrades. They were able to cut off the city’s electricity supplies. Yet they never claimed  local sovereignty. The Corporation functioned although in a limited capacity. When the word soviet was mentioned, it was  disclaimed by the strike leaders. Indeed, there was collusion between some of those leaders and the colonial state. The strike remained a strike, important and impressive but without immediate revolutionary potential. Accordingly, the question can be moved to how Limerick went so far and how its soviet failed to survive. The occasion is well known. The causes need more explanation.

The first factor is the Russian Revolution. Had the Russian Soviets not taken state power there can be little doubt that Limerick’s reaction to the killing of Bertie Byrne would have been less thorough. A series of strikes perhaps, but not any seizure of municipal power and certainly not anything under the name of ‘Soviet’. This is not just a matter of names. The Russian achievement had changed the relationship of forces throughout the world, not least by changing consciousness among both workers and their bosses. To take the latter first, their worst nightmares had become reality. The Russian workers were building their state as the base from which to advance to the international classless stateless society, ending the exploitation of  person by person. On the one hand the bosses feared ending the benefits of human exploitation, on the other, they had conditioned themselves to believe that any attempt to end them must fail catastrophically. Accordingly, throughout the world, they set about trying to strangle the Russian Revolution and its potential. Fourteen capitalist states allied to crush Soviet Russia. In the Baltic countries, now called Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, units of that German Army disarmed elsewhere by the victors in the recent World War, had their arms reinforced by those victors to play their role in crushing Soviet power. On the other side of the class divide, the working people were stimulated to follow Russia’s example. The problem was that, as would become clear, much of the support was expressed by reformists, who had no intention of copying the Russian example. This would be a factor in ending Limerick’s own Soviet. It should be mentioned, too, that no country had an organisation able to mobilise and preserve the enthusiasm of  the many who were encouraged immediately by the revolution in Russia. Nonetheless, this confident newly organised international working class determined to establish its situation above what it had been before the World War.

The second factor was the national question. This had handicapped revolutionary consciousness from developing among the Belfast’s unionist engineering workers who saw their strength as rooted in the colonial state. It had a different effect among Irish nationalists, a majority of whom supported breaking the connection with Britain at any cost. Byrne’s imprisonment provided a catalyst for labour and national struggles to synthesise.

Synthesis was possible because of the balance of forces among the  anti-imperialists. The Anglo-Irish War is said to have begun with the Soloheadbeg ambush on the previous 21st January, yet for the first year, military activity was minimal. In 1919, Co.Limerick saw only three military actions (Byrne’s rescue, isolated shots during the Soviet and Knocklong) compared to 43 over the next year. The republican leadership was more concerned in trying to bring pressure on Britain internationally, until its rejection by the peace congress, the banning of Dail Eireann and an ineptly named Better Government of Ireland Bill more restrictive than the 1914 Home Rule Act killed such hopes.  Meanwhile, most attention was on the workers’ struggles. It was not until the end of 1920, that the fight against British imperialism became definitely a fight between capitalist interests.

That it would become so defined was due mainly to the policy pursued by the leadership of the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress (then one body). Its Treasurer and leading theoretician, Thomas Johnson was of the school that tended to pacifism for his class, whilst accepting the physical force of its enemies. He recognised that the struggle against Britain was likely to be fought in arms and he preferred to let the Dail and the Volunteers build their state machine to fight it, ignoring the probability that it would be used against the working people. In some ways at the time of the Limerick Soviet, the workers’ republic was more developed than the capitalist one and, though weaker in the decisive military factor, it had nucleus in the Citizen Army. Nonetheless, Johnson maintained that it could take power only when it had organised all, or nearly all Ireland’s workers in its affiliates, and most of the smaller farmers in co-operatives. His view reflected that of most union officials, whose militancy had been reduced by the danger to their organisations in the Dublin Lockout and the Easter Rising and who were not encouraged to recognise the longer term possibilities these gave for taking power. One reason for Limerick’s radicalism was that the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union had organised there only after lockout and rising as these possibilities were becoming obvious. The officials of the British-based unions (notably the National Union of Railwaymen) were even less militant. The Irish could plea that too definite support for separation from Britain would split the labour movement. The British leaders were merely sclerotic. All agreed that the national question should be left to the nationalists until rank and file pressure to the contrary on specific limited issues became too much for them. By not uniting to win state power, they let that power be seized by the bosses who would use it to pick off their workers group by group.

It would be wrong not to mention a major aspect of this great event that remains unduly shadowy, While the British occupiers themselves primed the fuse for the stoppage in imposing  the pass order, the flame was lit by the workers of the Condensed Milk Company Factory who voted  for the Trades Council to initiate a full-scale general strike on the issue. Most of these workers were women, yet in the history of the Soviet, the only woman named as yet is the American journalist, Ruth Russell. It would be not only useful but just to discover the name of one, hopefully more of the women activists who helped start this great fight. One of them must have a descendant whose silence has lasted too long.
This century old struggle is relevant today.  The Irish national question is diminished quantitatively; it is still there, most obviously in the border. The Belfast Agreement has made it less acute but is unraveling and the prospects of an hard Brexit involve a new border crisis. It is necessary for working people to organise to provide a viable alternative to the physical force dissidents who are trying to apply their own prescriptions. There are signs that a nucleus of such an organisation is developing, but it is coming slowly. Economically, there is an healthy, if belated, recognition  that austerity is unnecessary and new demands for better living conditions. Nonetheless, the inclusive organisation of workers that existed in 1919 is a century older and less militant, while the militant Socialist organisations of the kind that should have provided revolutionary leadership to it are small and divided. It is likely that a Workers’ Republic will have to be built from base upwards. It can be said only that this has to be done. If not, it is certain that future Irish working class generations will be lucky to suffer no more than the partitioned capitalist theocracies that were allowed to result from the struggle which the Limerick Soviet was a major incident.

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