December 2012        

Books

Irish socialist republicanism, 1909–1936


Adrian Grant, Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909–36 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012; ISBN 978-1-84682-361-9; €50).
      This book is based on a PhD thesis for the University of Ulster supervised by the eminent Labour historian Emmet O’Connor. It is scholarly and well researched. It is only in this generation that the history of the labour and left movements has received the attention it deserves, and now an additional resource is available for further study.

      Desmond Greaves’s Life and Times of James Connolly (strangely missing from this book’s bibliography) and Emmet Larkin’s James Larkin opened the way not only to reclaiming our heroes but to placing them within the context that shaped their times. Further recent work, with the contribution of the Irish Labour History Society, continues in this vein.
      The book’s title dates socialist republicanism to the foundation of the ITGWU by Jim Larkin in 1909. “The formation was a separatist act in itself and was the basis for the socialist republicanism that emerged in the following decades.” It fully documents the dual aim of Larkin in not alone carving out a role for independent Irish trade unions relevant to Irish conditions but in planning the strategy they should use in achieving the Republic. Here we see the political Larkin as distinct from the reductionist portrait of him as just a Labour leader and even more so the caricature of him as a “rabble-rouser.”
      Larkin’s career was of course different when he came back from imprisonment in the United States, and he lacked the theoretical ability to sustain a unifying role, either on the left or in trade union affairs. As expected from the man, however, a fascinating career.
      Until this resurgence of labour history the poplar discourse was that it was the nationalist movement and the separatist revival that were the main elements that shaped Ireland in the revolutionary period. But the first concepts of organised socialist republicanism lay in the formation of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, founded in 1895 and moulded intellectually by Connolly.
      From the defeat of the bitter class-against-class lock-out of 1913, socialist republicanism after 1916 ensured that a crucial role was played by labour in the War of Independence. This book is invaluable in tracing this narrative from the general strike against conscription in 1918, the strikes against carrying British munitions and for the release of prisoners, the organising of farm labourers, and the creation of the soviets. The Red Flag flew bravely on these occasion, and the ITGWU grew to 120,000. With history repeating itself as farce, the labour leadership and trade union careerists tried to dampen the revolutionary fervour and depoliticise these struggles.
      The role of the first Communist Party of Ireland from 1921 in analysing the Treaty from a class viewpoint, preparing a social programme on which to galvanise popular support for the anti-treaty forces, and joining in the armed defence of the Republic, is recorded here. All this complements Charlie McGuire’s research in his biographies of Roddy Connolly and Seán McLaughlin as well as his published lecture on the ninetieth anniversary of the CPI.
      Of prime interest will be the account of the attempt to revive socialist republicanism in the 1930s, culminating in the Republican Congress of 1934. The tragic split at its first convention is often attributed to disagreement over one word—whether to aim for a “republic” or a “workers’ republic” —but in fact it was over theoretical assessments. It still has a resonance today, despite the fact that all the left seemingly stands for a socialist Ireland. However, the central dispute was in fact whether to have the Republican Congress organised as a united-front alliance or as a new political party.
      The role of the CPI and how it vetoed this decision at the convention in Rathmines was crucial and controversial. It was so because, apart from the young CPI trying to grapple with the complicated and fluid changes in the 1930s—a first Fianna Fáil government, a wavering IRA, the rise of fascism in the form of the Blueshirts, etc.—the influence of the Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain had a hand in their decision.
      Grant does justice to the facts, but a retrospective Marxist assessment by the CPI is long overdue. Both Peadar O’Donnell and George Gilmore justified their historic stand, even in written works up to the 1970s, so perhaps a future issue of Socialist Voice will return to the subject.
      In closing his book at 1936, after the best remnants of the Republican Congress, the left republicans and the communists went to fight in Spain, Grant writes that socialist republicanism “finally breathed its last breath in the late 1930s.” But did it? The late 60s saw a republican moment add a social and cultural agenda to its separatist aims and seeking allies in the left and working-class movement.
      It is the role of historians to record facts, and it is the role of social and political activists to make history. Today again many people from a physical-force tradition are examining the changing role of imperialism and its relationship with Ireland, north and south. Again, as in the past, they will find common cause with the Marxist left. This book will help that process by recording the past, warts and all.
      While there were mistakes, people like Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan and Seán Murray acted as they did in conditions not chosen by themselves but always with the interests of the Irish working class dictating their life’s work.
      The book is expensive at €50; but suggest it as a Christmas present, or failing that get it from your local library. On sale in Connolly Books.
[TR]

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