February 2016        


Seán Murray’s life, seen from Britain

Nick Wright

Seán Byers, Seán Murray: Marxist-Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015)

Seán Byers’ biography is remarkable not just for its account of the singular nature of Seán Murray’s role in Irish politics but for its focus on the specifically Irish conditions which shaped his revolutionary politics. In this it contrasts most sharply with Mike Milotte’s book, which negates its scholarship with a hopelessly undialectical attempt to fit Irish reality into a schema drawn from the convergence of conventional bourgeois and Trotskyite conceptions which place Moscow as the critical factor in shaping events.
     Seán Murray was Ireland’s foremost professional revolutionary. Hailing from the strongly Republican Glens of Antrim in this traditionally Unionist county, he was active the IRA’s Antrim Brigade in the Irish War of Independence, was an exceptional student at the Comintern’s Lenin school, became a pivotal figure in the republican, labour and communist movements, was active in the 1932 Outdoor Relief strike and the thwarted Republican Congress, and was general secretary of the Irish party from its effective foundation to 1941.
     Barred from the North of Ireland, of necessity he became a central figure in Dublin with important connections outside Ireland, with strong links with British communists, central to mobilising the Irish contingent of the International Brigades in Spain and connected politically and personally with the main personalities of the Irish revolutionary movement.
     Seán Byers argues that Murray was able, in exceptionally straitened circumstances, to provide effective leadership of the Irish party in conditions which did not always fit well with the theoretical postulates and practical directions of the Comintern.
     Byers’ book deserves a more detailed consideration than is possible here, but both British and Irish readers will understand why it is important to consider the notion—exemplified by Emmet O’Connor’s account—that the impact of the Comintern on Irish communist organisation was fundamental and largely positive, and that while the Irish party endured a complex and difficult relationship with the international communist hierarchy, like its British counterpart, it remained an integral part of that international movement necessarily subject to the democratic centralism of the Comintern. Seán Murray was the Irish figure most intimately and loyally involved with the international leadership.
     It is undoubtedly true that the “class against class” interlude—which was grounded in the chauvinism, class collaboration and bloody counter-revolutionary betrayals of social democracy and conditioned by the failure of a generalised European revolutionary tide—erected some barriers to the alliance of communists and republicans. But the characterisation here of this period as a “narrowly sectarian and self defeating tactic” is misplaced. This was the era in which national sections of the Comintern made the transition to well-organised parties with deep roots in the working class and a strong emphasis on political education, factory organisation, centralised and disciplined leadership and a strong internationalism. It was the essential preparation for the battles that lay ahead.
     Despite the severe practical, ideological and political constraints, the party, small and persecuted as it was, became even more deeply embedded in working-class politics both sides of the border and played a critical anti fascist role.
     We are not spared the dreary parade of bourgeois and ultra-left pieties about the Moscow Trials, the defence of the Spanish Republic, the counter-revolutionary role of Trotsky and his followers. The idea that, in a situation in which only the Soviet Union had stood with Republican Spain, when the bourgeois powers, Britain foremost, were promoting a Nazi-Soviet conflict, that it was possible for any Comintern affiliate to detach itself from solidarity with the Soviet Union was and is a fantasy.
     Stalin’s tactic, faced with the unwillingness of the bourgeois powers to make a stand against Hitler, to buy time and territory with the non-aggression treaty with Germany, inevitably confused some; but throughout the Phoney War period it was their shared anti-imperialism which enabled British and Irish communists alike to see the working through of inter-imperialist contradictions, make the connection between anti-fascism and opposition to the war, and sharpen the campaign for immediate working-class interests.
     Byers observes that in late 1939 the Belfast group organised a rally to oppose Northern Ireland’s involvement in the British war effort, initiated, it said, primarily “for the fruits of Empire.”Thus Belfast communists went to jail for possessing illegal copies of the party’s Red Hand, which had been banned, alongside the CPGB’s Daily Worker and Claud Cockburn’s The Week.
     Inevitably, during the Phoney War interlude the political and economic integration of the North with Britain presented special difficulties for the Belfast comrades, although, deeply embedded in the industrial working class, they were able to strengthen their trade union influence.
     The 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union changed the nature of the war. To the same extent as in Britain, class contradictions in the North were subordinated to the war effort, production greatly expanded, and wages rose. A measure of worker participation emerged with the establishment of factory joint production committees. Thus began a period of organisational growth for the Northern communists, while in Dublin independent activity was suspended.
     The reformist illusions that arose in the post-war period inevitably challenged the CPGB’s bedrock anti-imperialism. In 1957 delegates to the party’s 25th congress finally repudiated—by 298 to 210 votes—the formulation embedded in The British Road to Socialism that relations between Britain and its colonies could be cast as a “fraternal association.” A vindication of Seán Murray’s politics.
     During the 1920s the CPGB developed the thesis that colonial independence was necessary for the struggle for socialism and that the victory of socialism in Britain was inherently tied to the victory of national independence in the colonies. As this 1924 resolution on colonial independence stated:
In our struggle with British Imperialism therefore, apart from the immediate tasks of organising the workers for revolutionary struggle in Britain, it is of the utmost importance that our struggle should be linked up with that of the workers in these Colonies and Crown Dominions. The extent to which those nations held in subjection by Great Britain struggle for autonomy and separation, to that extent is the hegemony of Imperialism rendered more precarious. We have a duty to assist directly and indirectly in the struggles of the workers in the Colonies and Crown Dominions. The continued enslavement of the Colonial people makes our own freedom in this country absolutely impossible, hence it is necessary in the interests of our own struggle here that assistance should be rendered to the workers in the Colonies. Every act of repression should be exposed, continuous agitation conducted to secure for the workers of these Colonies the same rights as have been won for the workers here and a propaganda must be carried on with a view to educating the masses in this country to oppose relentlessly the military oppression of these people.

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