Reasons to be bitter

William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago

The Communist Party of Great Britain emerged from its founding congress of July 31-August 1 1920 with huge political challenges to confront. Few were more important than the urgent need for practical solidarity with the people of Ireland.

The British state was engaged in a ruthless colonial war against the Irish. The republic proclaimed by the 1916 Easter Rising had been drowned in blood by the British army. Yet the Irish people were not cowed. In subsequent elections they produced landslide victories for Sinn Féin, the champion of Irish independence.

In 1919 Sinn Féin MPs established the Dáil Éireann in Dublin - an Irish parliament - and once again declared an Irish Republic. The British swiftly branded the Dáil an illegal assembly and issued arrest warrants to hoover up its members. The liberation force answered with preparations for a guerrilla war. The Irish Republican Army was formed from the ranks of Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizens Army - Ireland’s ‘Red Army’.

It seized weapons bound for the British army and was supplied by sympathisers in the USA. Britain poured thousands of troops into Ireland, including the notorious terror force known as the Black and Tans. In retaliation to IRA ambushes, the British burnt villages, farms, factories and committed numerous atrocities against defenceless people.

In Belfast, the unionists called for a “holy war” against Catholics - 5,000 were driven out of their jobs in the shipyards, and tens of thousands were forced to abandon their homes.

Elsewhere, militancy grew. Plants were taken over and run under workers’ control. Dockers refused to unload munitions for British troops, and railworkers folded their arms when instructed to start trains boarded by the Black and Tans. A three-day general strike secured the release of political prisoners, who had been on hunger strike. The fragility of British rule was palpable.

The absence of one key actor, however, was a crippling weakness. The lack of concrete support from the British working class movement sapped the energy of the heroic, but isolated struggle. With it, the British state might have faced total defeat in Ireland.

The following statement from the CPGB’s executive committee is sobering in the brutally candid way it lambasts the failure of the workers’ movement in Britain to provide concrete solidarity to the Irish - “we have betrayed them; and they despise us for it”, the statement concludes.

William Sarsfield

Communists and Ireland

The Communist

November 25 1920

The news that comes daily from Ireland is in itself a summons to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The recurrent series of assassinations and ‘reprisals’ is the most dramatic feature of the struggle. But of even deeper consequence is the slow strangling of the economic life of the Irish people. The closing of the railways, the destruction of crops and creameries are having - and are designed to have - the same effect upon Ireland as the wartime blockade upon central Europe.

Step by step, the economic life of the country is being destroyed. Between September 1919 and September 1920, 90 villages and country towns were shot up, and in many cases completely wrecked. Between June 1920 and October 1920 30 creameries were destroyed. Over large areas rickyards have been set on fire by the forces of the crown. The destruction of the hay makes the winter feeding of cattle impossible. Even rich rural areas are threatened with starvation.

A nation is being murdered under our eyes - not in Armenia, but within a hundred miles of our own shores - not by Turks or Kurds or Bashi-Bazouks,1 but by British men, carrying out the orders of a British government.

There are communists who say, ‘This is true. But it is not our concern. This is a nationalist struggle. And we are not nationalists. We are internationalists. This is a race struggle. Our job is the class struggle.’

That is a hasty and a short-sighted judgement. In such a case as Ireland’s - the case of a small nation held in forcible suppression by a great imperialist state - the national struggle and the class struggle are inseparable from one another. The struggle against imperialism for national independence is a necessary phase of the struggle against capitalism for the workers’ independence.

Right through its history the domination of England over Ireland has been economic as well as political. It has been an exploitation as well as an oppression; and against that double tyranny the Irish have carried on a double war - for political and economic freedom - “for our lands and our liberties”, as James Fintan Lalor phrased it.2

James Connolly was shot (a wounded prisoner, carried to the place of execution because his legs were shattered) as an Irish rebel. He gave his life for the freeing of Ireland. But he gave it too for the freeing of the working class. And the Irish republican movement today is the same movement for which he died.

Connolly himself had grasped very firmly the essential fact of the oneness of the two movements. It is the theme of half his writings. “In the evolution of civilisation,” he wrote, “the progress of the fight for national liberty of any subject nation must perforce keep pace with the progress of the struggle for liberty of the most subject class in that nation.” And again: “The Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”

That is as true today as when Connolly wrote it. The republican movement is essentially a working class movement. There are, it is true, middle class men as well as bourgeois by the chance of birth. But they do not mould it. They are being moulded by it. The strength and vigour and inspiration of the movement lies in the workers and the workers’ organisations.

Its ideals go far beyond mere political independence. Even those who are not communists or socialists of any kind have some vision that their job is not merely the ousting of the English government, but the overthrow of the English system - which is the capitalist system. And the workers themselves see in the establishment of the Irish republic the first step - the necessary first step - to the establishment of the Irish workers’ republic.

The republican movement is a workers’ movement and it is the Irish workers upon whom the chief brunt of the Greenwood terror3 is falling. The big majority of the men and women killed have been workers. The dwelling houses burnt have been workers’ houses. It is the workers who go in want because of the burning of creameries and factories and crops. It is the Irish railwaymen who are being dismissed in hundreds because they refuse to transport the troops and the Black and Tans, who are terrorising their countrymen and devastating their country.

The Irish workers are suffering - grimly resolved to stay it out until the finish. And the British do nothing. Is it strange that the Irish speak of us bitterly, as men betrayed by someone on whom they should have been able to count?

They look for nothing from the Tories. They look for nothing from the Liberals. For they know the history of their own country, and they know that Liberal governments have been as prolific as the Tories in the matter of coercion bills. They remember ‘Buckshot Forster’.4 They have not forgotten that Mr Asquith’s government, in the year of the rising, shot 14 prisoners, arrested 3,226 men, deported 1,949 and suppressed 13 newspapers. They count Mr Lloyd George and Sir Hamar Greenwood very typical Liberals.

But from the British working class they had expected better things. They have heard talk from us of international solidarity. In practice they see British troops - the sons, many of them, of trade unionists - shooting Irish workers. They see Ireland coerced with munitions made and transported by British trade union labour. They see Irish railwaymen dismissed, and not a murmur from Unity House. They see every foul device of imperialist tyranny employed against them, with at any rate the passive acquiescence of the British working class.

They are bitter; they have good reason to be bitter. They have not counted on our assistance. They will not ask for it. They will carry on the struggle themselves, whatever the cost and whatever the issue. But they know that we have betrayed them; and they despise us for it. They talk of us with contemptuous pity. And we deserve that they should do so. For we have betrayed them, and in doing so we are betraying the working class movement

For us, if we were to connive at these things, to claim for our motto, ‘Workers of the world, unite’, would be merely to add hypocrisy to treachery. Not only the Irish, but the working class all the world over is looking to us. We are being weighed in the Irish balance, and if we are found wanting, not all the enunciations of orthodox formulae, not all the protestations of the purity of our communist faith will save us from contemptuous dismissal as faithful, though sometimes talkative, servants of the British imperial oligarchy.

Executive Committee

Communist Party of Great Britain

  1. The Bashi-Bazouks were irregular soldiers of the Ottoman army, raised in times of war. The translation of the phrase will give readers a notion of their barbaric methods - “one whose head is turned”, “damaged head”, “crazy-head”, “leaderless” or “disorderly”. The army chiefly recruited Albanians and Circassians as Bashi-bazouks, but recruits came from all ethnic groups of the Ottoman empire. They had a reputation for bravery, but also for their lack of discipline, which often took the form of looting and preying on civilian populations.↩︎

  2. James Fintan Lalor (March 10 1807-December 27 1849) was an Irish revolutionary and journalist. He played a leading role in the Irish Confederation (Young Ireland) and played an active part in both the rebellion in July 1848 and the attempted rising in September of that same year.↩︎

  3. Thomas Hamar Greenwood (February 7 1870-September 10 1948) served as the last chief secretary for Ireland between 1920 and 1922. His name is inextricably joined to the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries - two barbarous paramilitary forces unleashed on the Irish people during the war of independence. After the burning of the centre of the city of Cork by British auxiliary forces in December 1920, Greenwood blamed the “Sinn Féin rebels” and the people of Cork for burning their own city.↩︎

  4. William Edward Forster (July 11 1818-April 5 1886) was an English industrialist and leading Liberal Party member. His rabid insistence on lethal force to be deployed against the Land League - which aimed to abolish landlordism in Ireland - earned him the nickname, ‘Buckshot Forster’.↩︎