June 2016        


Ireland’s revolutionary tradition

Graham Harrington

■ Kieran Allen, 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition (London: Pluto Press, 2016).

Kieran Allen’s latest book can be best characterised as a decent but ultimately unfinished engagement with the current centenary celebrations. It is clear from reading it that certain analyses were left out in favour of ensuring that it would hit the bookshops as interest about 1916 was at a high point.
     Allen’s core thesis running throughout the book is the characterisation of 1916 as a revolutionary epoch, which would set the stage for the class and national struggles for the following hundred years, which is of course a fair analysis of the Rising. However, he seems to underestimate the revolutionary position of republicanism, central as it was to the Rising. While outlining the conditions in Ireland before April 1916 he says: “There was no social programme in Fenianism—its focus was purely on the political separation of Ireland and Britain.” This is a very simplistic analysis of the Fenian ideology. Allen completely omits any mention of the Fenian Manifesto of 1867, which made very clear the revolutionary politics of the Fenians:
All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.
     We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.
      This omission amounts to a clear denial of the revolutionary character of republicanism, even before the rising.
     Allen goes on to make similar criticisms of the United Irishmen, stating that references to “the men of no property” were mere rhetorical flushes rather than concrete statements of class allegiance. To an extent this is true; however, what must be kept in mind is the epoch the United Irishmen found themselves in: this was not 1917, it was 1798, and the first Irish republicans stood for the most revolutionary politics that was at that time present, that of revolutionary France.
     This misunderstanding of the revolutionary core at the heart of republicanism runs throughout Allen’s book; indeed it is its main flaw.
     Allen goes on to further outline the economic transformations in Ireland through the Land War, which he shows gave the material basis for Redmondism and its successors. Redmondism, in an alliance with the Catholic Church, acted as a barrier of “moderation” against revolutionary forces. It faced severe challenges, however. The cultural revolution, the rebirth of Irish language, sports and music, was the first of these challenges. Again, however, Allen seems to underestimate their significance. The cultural revival made clear the position of Ireland as a distinct national unit, materially and culturally. Redmondism aimed for a stronger Ireland within the Empire, through home rule, not an independent Ireland.
     The revival led to a significant change in national consciousness, creating a base for the later growth of republicanism as a material ideology, rather than just an idealist fantasy. Acting as a catalyst to this growth was the development of class struggle, coming to a head in the Lockout of 1913 and the outbreak of imperialist war in 1914.
     Allen correctly identifies the challenges these created for Redmondite politics. The arming of Ulster in 1913 and the Curragh Mutiny are unfortunately mentioned only in passing, rather than dealt with as the response of the British state to developments in its first colony, showing clearly the character of imperialism in Ireland. Allen hints at this but does not give it the attention it deserves; as a result the nature of British imperialism is not fully examined, in a book that sets itself the task of analysing a rebellion against British imperialism.
     The purpose seems to be to further denigrate republicanism, seeing it as its own ideology rather than as a dialectical reaction to British imperialism.
     Allen’s analysis is not all bad: he makes interesting points regarding the British ruling class’s disregard for democracy in regard even to its own “democratic” institutions when the Irish problem is brought up.
     The book gives a decent if bog-standard analysis of Easter Week itself and its role in breaking a hole in the wall of empire. Even if nothing new is contained in this section, it makes an attempt to show how the leaders’ politics dealt with far more than simply getting the Brits out, with a special focus on Pearse and Connolly, correctly dealt with as the ideological leaders of the Rising.
     Allen then deals with the post-1916 period, with the growth of republicanism being as much a result of the conscription crisis as it was of the executions of the leaders of Easter Week. The ideological decapitation of the revolutionaries would go on to be significant in the later struggles in the revolutionary period.
     Allen outlines the establishment of soviets, such as in Cos. Monaghan and Limerick, and the role played by workers in stopping the use of the railways by British troops and so on, with the poor leadership ensuring a subordinate role for the working class in the national struggle. As Connolly said, “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland,” which proved prophetic at the time of the counter-revolution of 1922–23, where the ranchers and industrialists backed the treaty with Britain, ensuring the destruction of the revolutionary Irish Republic.
     Allen makes a correct appraisal of the counter-revolutionaries and their class interests and goes on to paint later scandals, such as the Magdalene laundries, and the theocratic nature of the state as an inevitable result of the triumph of these forces. However, his analysis of those who fought for the Republic is less clear. He seems to believe they were just idealists, with the Republic treated as a bizarre piece of rhetoric rather than what it was: a revolutionary state, with a progressive dimension, which was under attack by forces in alliance with the exploiters in society. He even makes a particularly strange sweeping statement on Liam Mellows, hinting that he was more of an idealist fanatic than a revolutionary republican. This again is the core flaw of the book: its misunderstanding of the revolutionary character that is inherent within republicanism.
     The book makes an analysis of the northern entity in much the same way, that it was also the result of the counter-revolutionary forces succeeding, with the “carnival of reaction” being the reality for any progressive forces in the six counties, and sectarianism being the linchpin of the partitionist state, despite the occasional unity, such as the Outdoor Relief Strike. Allen characterises republicanism in this period as being concerned with being the opposition to partition; but republicanism in that period was about far more: it was about opposition to all the creations of the counter-revolution.
     The resulting conflict in the six counties is seen in a very simplistic way. The IRA was the only force that could have made change in the north, but its failure to adopt a solid socialist framework stymied any chance of change and led to a parliamentary settlement in the form of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
     What is not dealt with in the book is the fact that the very reason the IRA became a force for change was historical and contained in its adherence to revolutionary republican positions. Following the mass movement for democracy in the north, and the resulting British repression, many young nationalists turned to self-defence organisations to defend their communities. These organisations would form the nucleus of the Provisionals. The reality was that the politics of republicanism, and indeed socialist republicanism, was more an add-on in this period; the IRA was mainly able to focus this energy among people into an armed campaign because of its militarist organisation. The politics of revolutionary republicanism were not to play the main role.
     As a result, the chance of the struggle in the north moving into a campaign for total national and class liberation was confined to a struggle for a military victory against the British, which would never come. Allen again makes the error of misunderstanding the role of revolutionary republicanism and seeing it as a very narrow force indeed.
     Finally dealt with in the book is the continuing revolt in Irish society, with an overview of the water charges movement. Allen makes the claim that this is the result of a long, hard journey to reclaim the vision of 1916, with the republicanism of the period being left out, allowing class interests to take centre stage. He seems to have missed the republicanism present in the current campaign: it is not a result of the successful removal of the need for republicanism in progressive movements but rather the result of the continuity of revolutionary republicanism, which is an instinctive desire among the Irish working class.
     All in all, this is a decent attempt at tracing our revolutionary history, but Allen’s misunderstanding of the core revolutionary theory in our country, republicanism, and his support for its replacement by clear-cut “neither green nor orange” socialism is ignorant of the role that republicanism, and socialist republicanism, has to play in the emancipation of our class.

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