Comrade O'Trotsky? Trotsky's Attempt To Get An Irish Visa

Author: 
S M

Leon Trotsky was deported from the USSR at the beginning of 1929, to the Turkish island of Prinkipo, near Istanbul.

Prinkipo was the "Isle of Princes", where the many defeated brothers of whomever had made himself ruling Sultan in the old Ottoman Empire — which had no orderly rule of succession — were imprisoned or strangled.

Trotsky wanted to move west, for preference to France, or Germany, or even Britain. No one would have him.

Reactionaries raged and jeered at him. Winston Churchill, then a public admirer of Mussolini for having killed Bolshevism in Italy, wrote a vicious polemic denouncing Trotsky, "the sack of venom washed up on the Bosphorus". Trotsky ruefully wrote of "the planet without a visa".

According to papers in the Irish Records Office, in 1930 Trotsky tried to get refugee status in Ireland.

Ireland's leading trade unionist — Alderman William O'Brien, the general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union — sought asylum for Trotsky, and discussed it with William T Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State (i.e. the leading minister of the Irish government).

Cosgrave had led the straightforwardly bourgeois faction of Sinn Fein to victory in the 1922-23 Civil War with the Republicans who refused to accept that Britain could compel Ireland to remain in the British Empire. His handwritten account of the discussion with O'Brien about Trotsky (which I take from the Irish Times) nicely catches the attitudes of the European bourgeoisie, big and little, and even when they had something of a revolutionary past, towards Trotsky and Stalin...

Cosgrave noted: "Told him [O'Brien] I could see no reason why Trolsky should be considered by us. Russian bonds had been practically confiscated. He said there was to be consideration of them. I said it was not by Trotsky, whose policy was the reverse.

I asked his nationality. Reply Jew. They were against religion (he said that was modified). I said not by Trotsky.

He said he had hoped there would be an asylum here as in England for all. I agreed thaf under normal conditions, which we had not here, that would be alright. But we had no touch with this man or his Government, nor did they interest themselves in us in his 'day'.

He said there had been IRA contact. I replied that if so it was [un]authorised and would not be approved if it were considered. It was like the policy in the North. That many things were done without authority.

He asked were we approached against Trotsky. I said no, not as far as I knew; that undesirable aliens could come in but the British reserve the right to refuse them.

I said if he wished I'd talk to Fitzgerald Kenney. He said no. If I were against it that finished it".

Trotsky got no Irish passport.

Tne odd thing about this episode is who William O'Brien was. He was the leader of the recently spawned bureaucracy in the Irish trade union movement.

The mass Irish trade union movement had taken shape after 1907, led by the revolutionary socialist Jim Larkin, who was to be a member of the Communist International throughout the 1920s. In 1930 O'Brien was Larkin's most bitter enemy, and the bogeyman of the militants in the movement.

Larkin had gone to the US in 1914, and didn't get back until 1923, after a spell in Sing Sing jail. Meanwhile Jarnes Connolly, acting general secretary of the ITOWU in Larkin's absence, had led the union militia, the Irish citizen Army, into the 1916 insurrection, and had been shot by the British.

The union had expanded out from Dublin, greatly increased its membership and, under the leadereship of O'Brien (who may have seen himself as James Connolly's political heir) quickly became bureaucratised. When Larkin came back to Ireland, he led a breakaway from the William O'Brien-led ITGWU, the Workers Union of Ireland.

O'Brien's sympathy for Trotsky's plight was probably rooted in the days when the names "Lenin and Trotsky" meant the Russian Workers' Revolution,and excited great enthusiasm amongst socialists everywhere, including in Ireland. The fact that Larkin was in the Stalinist political waveband might also have had something to do with O'Brien's efforts to get Trotsky an Irish visa in 1930.

(There is an interesting record of Larkin's views in the form of a late-1930s letter to Trotsky from ther Irish-Anerican novelist James T. Farrell, who had had discussions with Larkin in Dublin.)

[From Socialist Organiser, 1990.]