August 2016        


Hesitant comrades

Seán Byers

Geoffrey Bell, Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement (London: Pluto Press, 2016)

The Decade of Centenaries continues to generate much scholarly interest in the Irish revolutionary period, with established and younger historians making new contributions and revisions to our understanding of the tumult of 1916–1923.
     While these studies tend to focus primarily on the dynamics of the revolution from an Irish perspective, giving some attention to its considerable international dimensions, Geoffrey Bell’s Hesitant Comrades is a ground-breaking survey of the British labour movement, its Irish connections, its complex relationship with British imperialism, and its response to key events of the period.
     Bell is to be commended, firstly, for the painstaking research that has gone into the book. The range of state, trade union and party political archives, party newspapers and private collections consulted by the author is remarkable, a benchmark of sorts for budding labour historians. Consequently, Hesitant Comrades is packed with fascinating anecdotes and quotations relating to the attitudes of individuals and groups spanning the full spectrum of British labour opinion, from the British Labour Party and its wartime leader Arthur Henderson, the Trades Union Congress and its pre-eminent representatives, Sylvia Pankhurst and her radical paper the Workers’ Dreadnought, to the British Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain.
     For example, he has unearthed this from the radical Scottish socialist Arthur McManus, writing in a review of a book on Connolly published eight years after his death:
Consequently, when he, in his dying moments, complains that the “Socialists . . . will all forget that I am an Irishman,” he was speaking at a moment when the Socialist movement had not reached an understanding of the significance of struggling subjected nations. He was speaking at a moment when the leading International Socialists of the various countries could see no difference between Connolly fighting for, and defending, Ireland against Britain, and they themselves entering their several Cabinets to defend and participate in the prosecution of what Connolly termed a “war of freebooters and thieves.” (p. 20).
      And this statement issued by the CPGB executive in November 1920, when the War of Independence was at its height:
A nation is being murdered under our eyes . . . There are Communists who say it is not our concern. This is a Nationalist struggle . . . we are internationalists . . . In such a case as Ireland—the case of a small nation held in forcible suppression—the National struggle and the class struggle are inseparable from one another . . . The Irish workers are suffering . . . and the British workers do nothing ... From the British working class they [the Irish] expected better things. They see every device of imperialist tyranny employed against them with . . . the acquiescence of the British working class (p. 112).
      Bell demonstrates a detailed understanding of the Irish political landscape, the details of which will be familiar to many readers on this side of the Irish Sea. But it is in tracing the “parallel movement of the British working class movement” (p. 30) that the book comes into its own, skilfully navigating the various ideological threads within British labour and the development of its Irish policies during the period in question.
     It is clear that, at crucial junctures during the revolutionary period, the British labour leadership’s rhetorical support for a form of self-rule in Ireland and often fierce criticisms of the British government routinely stopped short of the action necessary to change the course of British and Irish history.
     It should come as no surprise to activists on the Marxist left that prominent individuals within the Labour Party and the TUC were Empire enthusiasts and used the movement’s bureaucratic structures to frame and modify the debate in a way that frustrated the attempts of militant unions to co-ordinate direct action on Ireland. J. H. Thomas, for example, is adjudged to have used his role as general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen and his position on the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC to oppose such action on many occasions, and to have failed to press the issue on others.
     Crucially, however, Bell cautions against unreserved criticism of Thomas and other trade union leaders, noting, for instance, that a motion supporting direct action against the military in Ireland, carried at a TUC special congress in July 1920, was not followed by affiliated unions organising ballots to secure a mandate for such action (p. 84).
     In a departure from the conventional Marxist tendency to blame labour leaders for the movement’s weaknesses and failures, Bell’s central argument goes some way in the opposite direction. “The neglect or discomfort shown in respect of all these matters [relating to Ireland], evidenced in this book, not just by the leadership of the working class but also by those who offered themselves as alternatives, meant that any potential the working class as a whole may have had to intervene decisively into the Irish crisis went uncultivated” (p. 221).
     It is suggested, and indeed demonstrated with expert use of case study evidence, that the militancy of the British working class in the crucial period 1920–21 did not extend to Ireland, and that it did not see the emergence of a bold and radical leadership on which Irish socialists and republicans could depend. The “hesitant comrades” to whom the author refers, therefore, encompass the entire British working-class movement, not merely a small number of pantomime villains.
     Although he could perhaps have done more to tease out the various ways in which right-wing leaders shape and control trade union responses and purposively limit the politicisation of its members, this small caveat does not detract from a convincing thesis and a remarkable contribution to our understanding of the subjects under discussion.
     By 1921, Bell explains, “both the Labour Party and the TUC had conditioned their acceptance of Irish self-determination on protection for minorities in Ireland. By this they meant the Unionist population of north-east Ireland” (p. 94). Thus, when loyalists in the Belfast shipyards carried out a pogrom against Catholic workers and “rotten Prods” (Protestant socialists) in July 1920, the outcome of the TUC’s response, intentional or otherwise, amounted to a betrayal of the Carpenters’ Union and others who sought to oppose the expulsions, not to mention the victims themselves.
     This is one of the more shameful episodes discussed in the book, though it does not necessarily represent any particular malice on the part of any one group or individual but rather the level of apathy, lack of interest and misunderstanding that pervaded the movement at the time.
     Geoffrey Bell has written a book that will be of huge interest and value to students of British and Irish labour, and contemporary activists on the left. It is a shame that in some ways he has been let down by his publisher, whose lax approach to proofreading has allowed a number of basic spelling errors and misprints to slip through. However, this is no reason to avoid reading what is an excellent, arguably definitive study and an invaluable companion to key texts on the Irish revolutionary period.

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