2. Communism in Ireland

Author: 
Sean Matgamna

Communism in Ireland

What of communism in Ireland? James Connolly, whose whole history suggests that he would have rallied to the Russian Revolution and joined in the work of building the new Communist International, was of course dead 18 months before the Bolshevik Revolution. Jim Larkin, who would join the Communist International, was in America, and in the last part of his stay there, in jail. He would not return to Ireland until 1923.

Connolly had led many of those who would have rallied to the Third International and worked to build an Irish section into an alliance with revolutionary nationalists such as Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse, and, in the outcome, the bourgeois nationalists had gained hegemony in that alliance. From 1911 Connolly had concentrated on building the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Citizen Army, with the result that the Socialist Party of Ireland which he nominally led was more a notion than an organised political force. Some of its members were interned after the 1916 Rising.

The party did not often meet. During the war with the British occupying army, the party had no meaningful existence. It resumed in October 1921, and started to produce its paper, Workers’ Republic.

The SP was reorganised by a group of young people, among them Connolly’s 20-year old son Roddy and his daughter Nora. They applied the conditions laid down for membership of the Communist International and expelled the old leaders, among them William O’Brien, who controlled what was now by far the biggest union in Ireland. They renamed the party “Communist Party of Ireland”, with Roddy Connolly as its secretary.

In the civil war, they acted as a political tail to the Republican side. The CP was still-born.

Larkin formed a breakaway union from the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union — the Workers’ Union of Ireland — and, with Comintern support, organised his own new “Communist Party”, the Irish Workers’ League. This had two main problems. It scarcely existed as an organisation independent of Larkin and the Workers’ Union of Ireland (which affiliated to the Comintern’s trade-union wing, the Profintern). And, from the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, in mid 1924, emergent Stalinism was in control. All sorts of novel notions were introduced, such as “two-class parties”, subordination of communists to bourgeois nationalists, and an enormous lurch towards the notion of peasant parties being central to revolution. Someone commented that it seemed that for the Comintern, the peasants had replaced the workers as the central revolutionary class.

The guiding principle now was that the Communist Parties should embrace the policies, and seek the alliances, that would best serve Russian foreign policy. For Ireland, that mean that its old nationalism should be used to maximum extent against Britain, seen as one of Russia’s main enemies. In Yugoslavia, likewise, Croatian nationalism was fomented and used against the united south-Slav state, which militarily was the strongest state near Russia and was an ally of France, another main foe of the USSR.

The Irish communists were directed towards maximum concentration on “national” issues, and a near-obliteration of the distinction between workers and peasants. Irish Republicans moving into the orbit of communism, people like Paedar O’Donnell, were thrown back into a nationalist, anti-imperialist, populist nationalism.

This meant also that as the 26 Counties state loosened the shackles of the Treaty with Britain, and moved towards the fullest independence possible for a very small and weak state in a capitalist and imperialist world, Ireland’s would-be Marxists did not register the facts and incorporate them into their thinking.

When, in the mid-1930s, Russia and its “communist” political satellites, of which the Irish “communist” movement was part, turned to advocating an alliance of “the democracies”, Britain and France, with the USSR against fascism and Germany, the Republican populist-socialist-Stalinists such as O’Donnell and George Gilmore rectified themselves by going over lock, stock, and barrel to support for Britain and its allies in what looked like looming war with Germany. (The Stalin-Hitler pact introduced an interlude in which the CPs made propaganda for peace on Hitler’s terms).

This unity with the “democratic” imperialists had a debilitating effect on the Communist Party in Ireland. Irish communism was not a force except as a reinforcer and rationaliser of a mystical populist-nationalist revolutionism. The Stalinists developed a strong influence on Republicans in the mid 1930s, as they would again in the 1960s.

For what concerns us, communism in Ireland was not an independent political factor, but Stalinism dressed up as left-wing Republicanism. The Free State authorities in the early 1930s pronounced that Kilrush was “the main centre” of Irish communism, but what they meant was, the centre of Irish populist Republicanism.

In the June 1927 general election, Jim Larkin, standing in the name of the Irish Workers’ League (the official section of the Comintern) won a seat in the Dail, with over 8000 votes in Dublin North, but he was banned as an undischarged bankrupt from taking his seat.

Early in 1930, a new start, now for a decidedly Stalinist party in organisation and ideas (at that point, ultra-left Third Period sectarianism), was begun with a conference in Dublin. “Revolutionary Workers’ Groups” were started, to work towards the launch of a new Communist Party of Ireland. Their manifesto described the Dublin regime as a British puppet government.

The peasant Krestintern was active in Ireland, too — it was involved in a movement of the small farmers in the west of Ireland — as was another Stalinist front, the League Against Imperialism, in which such leading IRA people as Sean MacBride also participated.

The Irish Stalinists began to produce a weekly paper, the Irish Workers’ Voice. They had a sizeable base in Dublin, but little elsewhere. Their sizeable growth would come through the left wing of the Republican movement. They seem to have no influence in Ennis. In so far as people like Paedar O’Donnell could get a hearing there, it was as Republicans.