The historic and contemporary significance of the 1916 Easter Rising

Dublin’s GPO after the Rising

By Stephen Bell

In 1916 the Easter Rising represented the resumption of the struggle for Irish freedom. The decision in 1914 of the Irish National Volunteers and the Irish Parliamentary Party to support the British government in the inter-imperialist war effectively subsumed the national movement. By 1916 hopes for an early victory by either side in the war had disappeared. It was time to reclaim hope for Ireland at home, from its slaughter overseas.

Isolated though they appeared, the most advanced forces of Republicanism and the workers’ movement understood that the war temporarily weakened the British government’s grip on Ireland. The Rising was an attempt to secure the military and political foundation for an independent Irish state. It was completely serious in intent and execution, and its subsequent failure could not be determined beforehand.

In defending the Rising, Lenin wrote:

“It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various sources of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord, without reverses and defeats. On the other hand, the very fact that revolts do break out at different times, in different places, and are of different kinds, guarantees wide scope and depth to the general movement; but it is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders…”[1]

Written in July 1916, Lenin could not know that the Rising was only “premature” by a few months, for in February 1917 the Russian Revolution began. But Lenin fully grasped how significant this action was in Europe as demonstrating the vulnerability of the British Empire.

“A blow delivered against the power of the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal force delivered in Asia or Africa.”[2]

Lenin was following the classical Marxist estimate of the significance of Irish freedom, as established by Marx and Engels:

“If England is the BULWARK of landlordism and European capitalism, the only point where official England can be struck a great blow is Ireland. … The moment the forced union between the two countries ends, a social revolution will immediately break out in Ireland, though in outmoded forms… Any people that oppresses another people forges its own chains.”[3]

By 1916, landlordism, particularly absentee landlordism, was far less significant in Irish society than in 1870 when Marx wrote the above. The Land League campaigns had won rent reductions. This hadn’t benefitted landless labourers, but it had aided small farms. Land Acts, culminating in the Wyndham Act of 1903, saw a modernisation of property relations in farming. 11 million acres of land were sold to farmers, with the British government subsidising the departing landlords. The Rising, and the revolution from 1918–1922, assumed a form Marx couldn’t have foreseen.

But the logic behind the timing of the Rising had been anticipated by both a classical and a contemporary Marxist:

“Without war or the threat of war from without, an Irish rebellion has not the slightest chance…”[4]

The huge power of the British Empire was not to be lightly assessed by Irish revolutionaries. But its vulnerability must not be ignored.

“We shall continue in season and out of season, to teach that the ‘far flung battle line’ of England is weakest at the point nearest its heart, that Ireland is in that position of tactical advantage, that a defeat of England in India, Egypt, the Balkans or Flanders would not be so dangerous to the British Empire as any conflict of armed forces in Ireland, that the time for Ireland’s battle is NOW, the place for Ireland’s battle is HERE. That a strong man may deal blows with his fists against a host of surrounding forces, and conquer, but will succumb if a child sticks a pin in his heart.

“But the moment peace is once admitted by the British Government as being a subject ripe for discussion, that moment our policy will be for peace and in direct opposition to all talk or preparation for armed revolution. We will be no party to leading out Irish patriots to meet the might of an England at peace.”[5]

At the heart of the Rising was an alliance between the forces of revolutionary nationalism, and those of revolutionary Marxism. The common command of the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army was a practical expression of common aims, to use “England’s difficulty” to achieve independence and the Republic.

The social basis of the Volunteers was the more varied including intellectuals, professionals, farmers, rural labourers, and urban workers. They were united by their interest in the free development of Ireland, and their preparedness to risk all for that. The social basis of the Irish Citizen Army lay in the extraordinary working class struggles in urban Ireland, particularly Dublin 1913. Led by Connolly, Larkin and Markievicz, a fusion had been made between a section of Irish workers and Marxist politics which opposed Ireland’s national oppression and the exploitation of its working class. According to Connolly, the Irish working class had become “the incorruptible inheritors of Irish freedom”.

Although the Irish Volunteers were around 11,000 strong, only about 1,150 took part in the rising. The more passive section of the leadership under Eoin MacNeill countermanded the mobilisation orders, cutting off vital support for the Rising. The Irish Citizen Army was even smaller: only 152 members took part in the Rising. There were around 90 women on the barricades.

Yet the Rising was maintained against the British Army for six days, from Easter Monday, 24th April 1916. This is a tribute not just to the military skills and bravery of the insurgents. The morale of fighters is crucial in war. By the manner in which they carried the battle, organised the surrender, and held themselves through the subsequent executions, it is obvious that this was an army whose morale was of the highest order.

The source of this can be seen in the political aims of the Proclamation of the Republic. The document bears the imprint of both the long tradition of revolutionary nationalism, and the more recent tradition of socialism in Ireland.

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”. This statement of the sovereignty of Ireland’s people over the land, from sod to sky, is in sharp counter-position to the efforts being made by the Tories, Liberals, and Unionists to split the nation by allowing part of Ulster to be separated from any devolved parliament. A position being unwisely tolerated by the Redmonites on the assumption of post-war concessions from British imperialism.

“…And we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.” The combatants’ inspiration also lay in the generations of past fighters, and in anticipation of a nation reborn in their struggle.

“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The contribution of the socialist and feminist element of recent Irish history is forcibly expressed. It is a command to Irish women as much as Irish men. It guarantees their equality in its foundation and functioning. The remarkable statements of religious and civic equality are in contrast to the institutionalised discrimination imposed by the occupying power, and sustained by reactionary forces that benefitted from such discrimination. Without a trace of bitterness or recrimination, the Republic will embrace the whole of the island’s people, “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.

The Proclamation does “place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God”, but the content, and élan, of the document removes any doubt that whatever the citizen’s faith or conviction their rights are assured.

The Proclamation demonstrates that the Rising was extremely advanced in political conception. The revolutionary nationalist/Marxist bloc created a more coherent aim than comparable contemporary risings against imperialism. In Iran from 1905-1911, and in China in 1911, we see extraordinary actions by revolutionary nationalist forces which seriously shook imperialism. But in neither case did the working class participate in an autonomous manner.

The Iranian rising was led by nationalists in alliance with religious leaders. General strikes were held in Teheran and elsewhere, but the only independent socialist party in this period appears to be confined to the minority Azerbaijani community. The revolutionary forces, despite a civil war and two variations of a National Assembly, failed in attempting to establish a democratic regime with a constitutional monarchy. Ultimately, imperialist forces from Britain and Czarist Russia secured the country again for the absolutist Shah. It took the powerful development of a mass working class organisation, under the Tudeh Party leadership, to create the basis for a new revolutionary wave after the imperialist occupation in 1941. Ervand Abrahamian’s book “Iran Between Two Revolutions” provides a brilliant account.

In China the 1911 rising was led by bourgeois nationalist and democratic forces, whose leading political forces were Sun Yat-Sen and the Tung Meng Hui (China Revolutionary League). The revolutionary wave was armed and succeeded in bringing down the Ching dynasty. But the dominant bourgeois forces included those aligned to sections of the old regime, and different imperialist powers. The peasant and working class forces had no independent political force to counter balance this. As a consequence Sun Yat-Sen only held the Presidency for a few days, before counter-revolutionary forces won out.

“Before the May 4th Movement of 1919 (which occurred after the first imperialist world war of 1914 and the Russian October Revolution of 1917) the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie (through the intellectuals) were the political leaders of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Chinese proletariat had not yet appeared on the political scene as an awakened and independent class force, but participated in the revolution only as a follower of the petty bourgeoisie. Such was the case with the proletariat at the time of the Revolution of 1911.”[6]

So the Easter Rising was the first example of a new type of revolution in oppressed nations – an alliance between the advanced nationalist forces and socialist forces, or in class terms between the petty bourgeois masses and the working class. This was an anticipation not just of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but also most of the major revolutions since then.

Despite its defeat, it is evident that the Rising renewed the determination of the Irish people to secure their freedom. The first opportunity that the masses of Irish people had to express this determination was in the General Election of December 1918. Sinn Féin secured 73 of the 105 Parliamentary seats in Ireland. In January 1920, the municipal elections were equally convincing. Sinn Féin won 550 seats; the pro-independence Irish Labour Party won 395, the Unionists 238 and the Redmonite Nationalists 108.

The wisdom of the Rising leaders was clear to all once the British government refused to respect the wishes of the Irish electorate. It refused to recognise Dáil Éireann convened as the Irish parliament in January 1919. It commenced armed repression and prepared legislation for the partition of Ireland, hoping to retain overall control.

The rejection of Ireland’s decision led to the revolutionary war of independence. The Irish people stood up for their freedom, and fought the occupying power to a standstill.

The establishment of a new Irish state, mutilated by partition, represented the end point of this period of struggle. Having experienced uninterrupted warfare from 1914–1922 it is likely that exhaustion played a part in the victory of the pro-Treaty forces.

The war of independence drew in all the forces of Ireland, bourgeois, petty bourgeois and working class. But the working class had been divided by loyalist sectarian campaigns and intimidation in the North. It had also lost its finest leaders in the executions after the Rising. The Irish Labour Party did not have a comparable leadership, and had stood down in the Parliamentary elections to allow Sinn Féin a clear run on behalf of all the revolutionary nationalist forces.

Connolly’s execution is particularly significant. Of all the Marxists to have operated in the British state since the time of Marx and Engels, Connolly remains the most influential and profound. Perhaps only John MacLean and Sylvia Pankhurst can be spoken of in comparable terms. But neither of these achieved the national and international standing of the key political and military leader of the Easter Rising.

However one understands the Treaty, its opponents did not know how to restore a social alliance which could continue the struggle for complete Irish freedom. Partition of Ireland unleashed, as Connolly predicted, “a carnival of reaction” in the new Irish state, and in the British state in six county Ulster.

In the South, the concentration on nation building was given a more religious expression than in the Proclamation, with the Catholic Church being given undue weight. Neither the Pro-Treaty forces, nor De Valera’s “anti-Treaty” party differed greatly on this. The promotion of the Irish economy was important, but badly hampered by being cut off from the industrial centres in the North of the country. Equally the establishment of formal independence was marred by partition. Neither the pro- or anti-Treaty parties in the Dáil showed any initiative in securing the reunification of Ireland.

In the North, the Parliament at Stormont was based on the political monopoly of Unionism. At a meeting of the Sinn Féin delegation and guests after the re-opening of Stormont under the Good Friday Agreement, Martin McGuinness told those present that the only piece of Nationalist originated legislation passed by Stormont between 1922 and its dissolution in 1972 was the Protection of Wild Birds Act. Such monopoly power was aligned to a complete ascendency in social terms on issues of employment, housing, welfare services, education and the general allocation of public resources.

The settlement after 1922 clearly did not meet the “sovereign and indefeasible” rights of the Irish people. It had been imposed upon the Irish nation under Lloyd George’s threat of “immediate and terrible war”. After the Dáil had carried the Treaty, the subsequent General Election was held to the Free State legislature. Even then, Winston Churchill, combining belligerence with racism, warned that if a republican majority was returned “the resources of civilisation are by no means exhausted”.

The pro-Treaty forces were composed of those, like Arthur Griffiths, who were prepared to accept remaining part of the British Empire, and those like Michael Collins, who regarded the Treaty as a staging point to a later independence and unification of the country. This “tactical” unity to secure the Treaty demonstrates that in reality there was a majority in favour of completing the journey to Irish freedom begun in 1916. Collins and allies could have demonstrated this, had they established a “tactical” agreement with the anti-Treaty forces.

In her book, “Unmanageable Revolutionaries”, Margaret Ward makes a strong argument that a majority of Irish women were against the Treaty. The six women deputies to the Dáil were unanimous in their opposition, led by Markievicz and Mary MacSwiney. Cumann na mBan, the women’s organisation auxiliary to the Irish Republican Army, voted against the Treaty by a large majority. Mary MacSwiney told the Dáil:

“You men that talk need not talk to us about war. It is the women who suffer, it is the women who suffer the most of the hardships that war brings. You can go out in the excitement of the fight and it brings its own honour and its own glory. We have to sit at home and work in more humble ways, we have to endure the agony, the sunshines, the torture of misery and the privations which war brings, the horror of nightly visitations to our houses and their consequences. It is easier for you than it is for us, but you will not find in Ireland a woman who has suffered who today will talk as the soldiers here today have of talked, and I ask the Minister of Defence, if that is the type of soldier he has, in heaven’s name send the women as your officers next time.”[7]

The significance of the Easter Rising is then also that it reminds us that the national revolution is still incomplete in Ireland today. The “national question” is an essential part of Irish contemporary politics, and will remain so until Ireland is unified and free from the ability of the British government to direct the lives of part of the island’s inhabitants. 1916 is a signpost to Ireland’s future, as much as its past.

Certainly the left in Britain did not understand this at the time, and nor does much of it now. Geoffrey Bell’s excellent new book, “Hesitant Comrades” gives a full account of British left responses to 1916. He highlights J.H.Thomas, Labour MP and General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, who:

“…wrote in May 1916 of the ‘sorrow and amazement’ with which Labour’s leaders reacted to the Rising. He also maintained, ‘There was no Labour leader in this country who did not deplore the recent rebellion in Ireland’.”[8]

Bell goes on to cite George Lansbury, and Bruce Glasier for the Independent Labour Party who condemned it from a pacifist perspective. Further to the left, the British Socialist Party paper recognised that it was an “effort of the Irish people to throw off the alien yoke”, but that it was “foolish”. Sylvia Pankhurst’s “Women’s Dreadnought” was the most sympathetic, whilst still characterising the Rising as “reckless” but “undoubtedly motivated by high ideals”.

The Rising, as a new type of revolution, was a test for all the socialist trends in Britain. Those most compromised in their relations with British imperialism were most hostile to the Rising. Those who were most supportive of Ireland’s struggle for freedom had to come to terms with their limited experience of anti-colonial struggles, and learn from the Irish revolutionaries.

Even in Russia, where there existed the most advanced Marxist movement in the world, prominent leaders failed to grasp what happened. Trotsky wrote:

“The historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland”. Whilst acknowledging the “heroic defenders of the Dublin barricades”, he insists that the “experiment of an Irish national rebellion” is “over and done with. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning.”[9]

Radek wrote:

“This movement, called ‘Sinn Féin’, was a purely urban petty bourgeois movement, and although it caused considerable commotion, it had little social backing. When its hopes for German assistance led it to revolt, this amounted only to a putsch that the British government easily disposed of.”[10]

These estimates were refuted by Lenin:

“The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a mass Irish National Congress in America… which called for Irish independence; it also manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a “putsch” is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.”[11]

“Doctrinaire” responses to Ireland existed aplenty. At its most informed end, it premised opposition to the Rising on Marx’s analysis of the role of the land question:

“In Ireland, the land question has, so far, been the exclusive form of the social question; it is a question of existence, a question of life or death for the immense majority of the Irish people; at the same time, it is inseparable from the national question; because of this, destruction of the English landed aristocracy is an infinitely easier question in Ireland than in England itself – quite apart from the more passionate and more revolutionary character of the Irish than the English.”[12]

With that small “so far” Marx demonstrates his non-doctrinaire method, allowing for the possibility of change, even in such an apparently absolutely established phenomenon as the domination of the land question in Irish politics. But if the land question was solved, this was merely one form of the “social question”. The destruction of the link between the land question and the national question certainly was not the latter’s resolution.

Trotsky, Radek and lesser lights assumed that if the land question had been resolved by the generalisation of capitalist farming then the national question disappeared, leaving a ‘pure’ struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. But the motive force of the national question was that all areas of Irish national life were inhibited by the oppressor nation – economic, political, cultural and social.

In 1916, Ireland’s economy still fulfilled the role of farm to Britain, with an important workshop in the North. It was entirely governed from London. Its indigenous culture had been repressed and neglected for centuries. Many of its people had been forced to emigrate by poverty – Ireland had a smaller population than at the time of the 1841 census, before the great starvation of 1845–48.

A contemporary and concrete analysis was essential if Marxism was to mean anything in analysing 1916 and Ireland in general. Classical Marxism had provided a legacy on the significance of Irish freedom for the British working class. Marx continued:

“England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English PROLETARIANS and Irish PROLETARIANS. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his STANDARD OF LIFE. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. … The Irishman PAYS HIM BACK WITH INTEREST IN HIS OWN MONEY. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

…It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a QUESTION OF ABSTRACT JUSTICE OR HUMANITARIAN SENTIMENT but THE FIRST CONDITION OF THEIR OWN SOCIAL EMANCIPATION.”[13]

The division within the working class in Britain certainly coloured the politics of the socialist movement. The refusal, or failure, to confront prejudice amongst workers was overlaid with anti-Catholic prejudice amongst the socialists – viewing Irish society as “less developed” (i.e. reactionary and backward). Equally, British imperialism was at the apogee of its strength at the start of the 20th century. Its ideological hegemony in Britain being expressed by the fact that the most influential party created from the workers’ movement was a “Labour” party, rather than a “Socialist” party as was the case in the rest of Europe.

Marx’s assertion that the “national emancipation” (not even “socialist”!) of Ireland was the “first condition” of the British working class’s emancipation must then have seemed utterly incomprehensible to most British socialists. From the vantage point of 2016, it is clear that the failure of the British working class to support Irish freedom, and the freedom of those throughout the world oppressed by British imperialism, blocked any major socialist movement in Britain during the 20th Century.

In form, at least, the international socialist movement, prior to the catastrophe of 1914, had an appreciation of the significance of the struggle against national oppression as part of the long struggle for socialism. Referring to the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International in 1907, Connolly wrote:

“At Stuttgart, Comrade Bebel declared that one consequence of the growth of Socialism would be a renascence of national culture and sympathies in countries now politically suppressed, and he welcomed such a renascence on the ground that the civilisation of the future would be all the richer from the presence of so many distinctive forms of intellectual growth arising from different racial and national developments.

“Such, in brief, is the real position of International Socialism towards subject nations. It is a concept based on the belief that civilisation needs free nations just as the nations need free individual citizens, that the internationalism of the future will be based upon the free federation of free peoples, and cannot be realised through the subjugation of the smaller by the larger political unit.”[14]

The failure to achieve the programme of the Proclamation has impacted upon all areas of Irish society. In the case of economic development, the unevenness between the two states in Ireland is a product of partition. There is no ‘natural’ cause for the historic and contemporary disparities between North and South. But separate governance inevitably creates contradictory policies which remove the natural synergy of the national economy.

All the following figures are taken from Michael Burke’s valuable pamphlet “The Economic Case for Irish Unity”. In 1921, GDP per capita in what is now the Republic of Ireland was 45% of what is now Northern Ireland. The latter had a figure broadly comparable to the UK average as a whole. The disparity between South and North was a result of the concentration of industry around Belfast. In 2012, GDP per capita in the Republic of Ireland had become higher than that of the UK, whilst that of Northern Ireland had declined to 80% of the UK average.

However these figures may be qualified, it is evident that even a partial and mutilated independence has allowed the Republic of Ireland to grow faster than Britain. Equally, the initial “protection” that imperialism provided for the six county state, and especially for the loyalist community, has long since disappeared with the decline of British imperialism’s world power.

Political inertia, in the form of continued opposition to Irish reunification, has held back the development of the Irish nation, on both sides of the border. How artificial this is was demonstrated by Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, in her speech on “Anglo-Irish Relations” to British parliamentarians on 24th February 2016. She explained that in 1997, prior to the Peace Process, the land border with the least cross-border trade in the EU was between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The Peace Process has modestly begun to repair this since 1998. But only the reunification of Ireland, under independent and single governance, can provide the rising living standards that all on the island of Ireland need. The Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Report on the All-Ireland Economy was published in January 2016. It found that unification would create:

“a long term improvement of GDP per capita in the North of 4 to 7.5 per cent, while the South would see a boost of 0.7 to 1.2 per cent. … Three unification scenarios were presented, with the most successful estimating a €35.6 bn boost to All-Island GDP in the first eight years of unification.”[15]

This 35.6 billion Euros equates to approximately 6000 Euros for every person in Ireland. Resolving the national question in its simple political form has tremendous potential for Irish economic progress. As the economic relations are the foundation of society, we can assume a wide variety of cultural and social benefits for a united Ireland arising therefrom.

In 2016 then Ireland’s reunification and independence remains the key issue for contemporary politics. Marxists and socialists need to support those campaigning for such a goal. Today, it is Sinn Féin that is the only credible party working on both sides of the border displaying the determination and imagination necessary to achieve this. It aims to play a pivotal role in the struggle for the New Republic. Its whole programme is for a 32-county Socialist Republic, independent and outside of NATO.

It has a considerable political weight in both states, with 4 MEPS, 4 MPs, 23 TDs, 28 MLAs, plus numerous councillors in both states. Amongst its leaders and activists are people who have engaged in almost every known form of struggle and tactic in pursuit of Irish freedom.

How does it understand the relationship between the national and social questions? Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin, wrote:

“You cannot be a socialist and not be a republican. Socialists will want an independent republic because it is a good thing in itself as an advance from today’s situation and because it is an essential step towards socialism. This will only be achieved, however, if the struggle is led by the most radical social groups and in particular by the working class – without whom it cannot succeed in developing the conditions for the establishment of a democratic and socialist state.

Such a struggle for national independence needs to encompass all the social elements in the nation which are oppressed or held back by imperialism. Independence struggles which are led by the conservative or middle classes, as in Ireland in 1921, tend to compromise with imperialism because their leading sections benefit from such a compromise. That is why those on the left in Ireland who regard themselves as socialists and as representing the working class should be the most uncompromising republicans.”[16]

Understanding the relationship between national freedom and the socialist struggle remains central. Socialists who believe that the national question is a diversion from socialism, or that the national question has been resolved in Ireland, should consider the example of the Official IRA and the Workers Party. This was a movement which successively abandoned national goals in order to effectively promote socialist ones, including through becoming a “Leninist Party”. It was led by people of great conviction, with many devoted and selfless militants. But in reality it was becoming assimilated into the structures of the Orange state and Irish Republic – counter-posing these to the national struggle. Its collapse, and absorption into the Labour Party in the republic, should give pause to any socialist who believes they have “gone beyond” nationalism. Brian Hanley and Scott Millar’s comprehensive study “The Lost Revolution” provides a very readable history of this collapse. Ireland’s national reunification has to be resolved in practice, not in theory, nor just in the minds of activists.

There are many socialists in Ireland who remain wary of Sinn Féin. To them a revolutionary nationalist organisation does not seem an adequate vehicle for socialists. Whilst avoiding the collapse of the Officials, these other trends have yet to demonstrate that they can build an all-Ireland party. The danger they face is becoming partitionist socialists, without tactics or perspectives for reunifying Ireland.

The recent electoral progress of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (AAA/PBP) poses as many questions as answers. What guarantee is there that this bloc will not fall apart in a similar manner to its predecessor in the Dáil? If it starts to address the national question will its different tendencies split?

Kieran Allen is one of the leading figures in this trend. His recent book “1916 – Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition” is a very serious, well written and interesting. But its weaknesses highlight how insufficient the claims of this trend are, in comparison to Sinn Féin. He writes:

“If the Irish revolutionary tradition offered a critique of the current order, it also contained its own ambiguities. It was a mixed tradition that blended elements of militant republicanism and socialism. The twinning of the cultural nationalist, Pearse, with the revolutionary socialist, Connolly, produced that mixture. Connolly’s own politics, which sometimes looked for a revolutionary dynamic within republicanism, also helped to cement together the two traditions. Yet there is a fundamental paradox at the heart of modern Irish republicanism. It presents itself as the most determined and disciplined force, capable of destroying partition and imperialist control. Yet in almost every generation, its leaders shift from fighting the system to joining it. There is a pattern whereby the most enthusiastic advocates of armed struggle become the most ardent supporters of compromise.”[17]

With this he comes very close to writing republicanism out of Ireland’s revolutionary tradition. Firstly, there are different traditions within republicanism and nationalism, representing the different impact of various classes in Ireland. The Second Congress of the Communist International clarified the approach to take by drawing a distinction between reformist and revolutionary nationalism. Allen doesn’t take this as relevant, yet it is crucial. To characterise Pearse simply as a “cultural nationalist” is an obviously inaccurate assessment of a revolutionary who was executed for military action in pursuit of the political goal of independence.

Equally, Connolly’s search for “a revolutionary dynamic within republicanism” was entirely legitimate and effective. From the United Irishmen, through Young Ireland, the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood there is a genuine revolutionary tradition which requires very little looking to discover. It is quite in order for Marxists to examine the effectiveness or consistency of these fighters, which Connolly certainly did. But to gloss over their revolutionary character is fundamentally wrong.

The suggestion that republican leaders sell out because of their republicanism is equally an affront to the large number who didn’t, and haven’t. It would be just as misleading to suggest that socialists outside of republicanism have sold out because they campaign for wage rises whilst the country is occupied and divided.

Allen continues on the weakness of republicanism:

“The movement is rooted in nationalist politics and has an instrumental attitude to social struggles where involvement in fights for workers’ rights or resistance to austerity appears to bring the nation forward, republicans will enthusiastically back it. But, equally, when it is believed that US intervention in the peace process or participation in a neoliberal Northern executive moves that nation forward, excuses will be made for these paths. These contradictory impulses mean that republicanism can be a vehicle for articulating a desire for a better Ireland but it lacks the political capacity to actually bring that desire to fruition.”[18]

It is a strange exaggeration to condemn as “an instrumental attitude” in Republicans supporting struggles which “bring the nation forward”. Surely there is no basis for criticism in their support? Allen may be trying to argue that Republicanism doesn’t have a consistent methodology in the manner of Marxism. But it doesn’t need one, it just requires an understanding that to raise the confidence of the people in their struggles is part of the process of national liberation.

Having dismissed the obviously good, Allen goes on to conjure up the bad. Republican support for US government involvement in the Peace Process is entirely justifiable, if it advances that process. It is notable that Allen doesn’t raise, question or criticise Connolly for seeking the aid of German imperialism in arming the 1916 rising. That was a stance which has a pedigree in republicanism going back to Wolf Tone involving the French bourgeois government in support for the United Irishmen uprising in 1798.

And again, the issue of Sinn Féin’s involvement in the Stormont government has to be concretely appraised. It is ridiculous to characterise this as “neo-liberal” when the Assembly doesn’t even have control of its own funding. Sinn Féin recognises that the Good Friday Agreement, and subsequent negotiated agreements, has created a unique situation where progress towards unification requires involvement in many limited political structures. But concrete tactics are the only serious ones. At the risk of collapsing the Assembly, Sinn Féin took a hard position on protecting the most socially vulnerable, securing additional funding for the poorest people in the six counties. It achieved this and more in the “Fresh Start” agreement. This is no more of a concession to imperialism than a union winning a wage rise for part of the workforce is. Allen’s problem with republicanism leads him towards some dangerously sectarian conclusions.

In this centenary year there are exciting developments in Irish politics. In the North the Orange bloc has been successively fragmented, the Ascendency destroyed forever in the struggles since the 1960s. In the South the most recent general election saw the bourgeois parties reduced to a minority of the electorate for the first time ever. Socialists in Britain must continue to demand that the British government delivers on its commitment under the Peace Process, and promote the reunification on Ireland.

Inside Ireland, regroupment and change appear to be the order of the day. Socialists inside and outside of Sinn Féin need to achieve effective and active co-operation in pursuit of the national goals, and against austerity. If the movement is able to take its inspiration from the women and men of 1916 then Ireland’s future progress will be secured.

[1] “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed up” CW Vol 22, page 358 (Emphasis as in the original)

[2] Ibid, page 357

[3] Marx “The General Council to the Federal Council of Romance Switzerland” CW Vol 21 pages 87-89 (Emphasis as in the original)

[4] Engels to Bernstein 26 June 1882 CW Vol 46 Page 287

[5] Connolly “What is our Programme?” January 22 1916, CW Vol 2 page 139 (Emphasis as in the original)

[6] Mao Tse-Tung “On New Democracy”, Selected Works Vol 2, page 348

[7] Ward “Unmanageable Revolutionaries”, page 167

[8] Bell “Hesitant Comrades”, page 11

[9] Trotsky “Lessons of the Events in Dublin” – in “Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International”, John Riddell (ed) pages 372-3

[10] Radek, “The Song is Played Out”, ibid, page 375 (Emphasis as in the original)

[11] Lenin “The Discussion on Self Determination summed up”, CW Vol 22, page 355 (Emphasis as in the original)

[12] Marx to Sigfrid Mayer and August Vogt 9 April 1870 CW Vol 43 page 474 (Emphasis as in the original)

[13] Marx ibid CW Vol 43 pages 474-5 (Emphasis as in the original)

[14] Connolly “Ireland, Karl Marx and William Walker” in “The Connolly-Walker Controversy” page 12

[15] Page 48

[16] Adams “The Politics of Irish Freedom” page 132

[17] Allen “1916” Pages 194-5

[18] Allen, ibid page 195