Coherent strategy

Did James Connolly lead the Citizen Army into the dead end of nationalism? Did Ken Loach accurately reflect Irish history in The wind that shakes the barley? Philip Ferguson responds to Jim Creegan

I must say I am really quite baffled by Jim Creegan?s article, ?Ken Loach?s use of Irish history? (Weekly Worker April 19).

Jim admits that division over the treaty did reflect class divisions in Ireland, yet criticises Loach for exaggerating the degree to which anti-treaty forces were consciously taking up a socialist programme. Jim says things like ?There is little evidence to suggest that the spontaneous feelings of the anti-treaty forces ever rose to the level of a conscious political programme.? This is true, but when in the film does Loach ever suggest that it did? This seems like quite an unfair criticism.

Loach takes one small geographical area, part of rural west Cork and a small town, and looks at an IRA unit there. His film accurately reflects the kind of people who joined the IRA, especially in such areas of Ireland, how the war developed and class politics were reflected, often in a spontaneous and confused way. There is actually nothing in the film that is unrealistic politically.

For instance, during the debates in the D?il itself, one of the most prominent TDs, a former founder and leader of the Citizen Army, attacked the treaty, saying that it was designed to halt the forward march of the working class in Ireland and Britain. She criticised it as being a betrayal of Egypt and India, because the British troops being released from Ireland could be sent to those countries to help suppress their struggles for independence. Does Jim seriously imagine that those kind of arguments were not reflected anywhere, in the whole of island, at the level of the rank-and-file of the IRA?

Does Jim seriously believe that the words the film puts into the mouth of the character who is a Connollyite and former ICA member are unrealistic?

An unfair criticism

At no time does Loach ?misportray the past by imputing to the anti-treaty IRA an explicit socialist position?. Loach does not even actually deal with ?the anti-treaty IRA? - he deals with one very small group of people in it and the most he ever imputes to them is some gut class instincts.

Jim also mentions the incident in the republican court and says: ?The sympathies of most IRA members are on the woman?s side.? Actually, I thought the IRA members were fairly evenly split. This was realistic, because the IRA itself contained a range of activists, including working class militants (which Jim seems unaware of). If Loach had presented all the IRA members as being in favour of the court ruling, Jim might have a point.

In fact, the republican courts became a focus of class conflict during the war for independence. The courts made both progressive and reactionary rulings, depending on the social and political make-up of the judges, the local IRA and Sinn F?in and the general level of class conflict and class consciousness in the local area. There was a great deal of variation and Loach reflects this in his film - he could not deal with a load of different areas, so he deals with the differences within this one part of Cork.

Furthermore, at no time does Loach suggest the anti-treaty forces have any such thing as ?a conscious political programme?. Indeed, one of the things the film made clear was that they did not have such a programme - instead some of them had some gut class feelings, a smattering of Connolly quotes and a lot of confusion. That is a very accurate portrait.

Connolly?s strategy

Jim also uses his critique of Loach?s film to criticise Connolly?s strategy. For instance, he argues that Connolly transformed the Citizen Army into ?a purely nationalist fighting force? (he also tends to conflate terms like ?nationalist? and ?republican?). He should also avoid using someone like Roy Foster as any kind of authority in terms of a critique of Connolly and the republican and socialist forces of the time.

Connolly, in fact, never liquidated the ICA. He specifically said they should hold on to their guns, as they made need them later on to fight some of the people they were allied with for the 1916 rising. Connolly also made clear that the ICA would cooperate only with a ?forward movement? and, the moment the republicans stopped going forward, the ICA would step out of the alliance with them.

It is also important to look at exactly who Connolly was allied with, because the waters on this have been substantially muddied by the pro-imperialist Irish revisionist historians, a number of whom present themselves as ?leftwing?. For instance, Austen Morgan in his hatchet job (?political biography?) on Connolly writes of him making an alliance with a group of conspirators masquerading as the national bourgeoisie. In fact, the people Connolly allied with were no such thing. They were revolutionary nationalists, in the sense that Lenin used the term. The republican leaders that Connolly allied with for the rising were all figures who had supported the workers in Dublin the 1913-14 lockout. Pearse?s most mature work, The sovereign people, is certainly not the work of anyone who identifies with the national bourgeoisie! Of course, the revisionists almost totally avoid Pearse?s mature political works, just like they avoid the republican paper, Irish Freedom, because such an examination reveals how progressive the republicans that Connolly allied with were.

Connolly?s republican allies, moreover, were more hostile to the Irish Parliamentary Party than they were to the unionists, as anyone who reads Irish Freedom will discover quite quickly. Far from adopting the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie, these republicans were out to smash the Irish bourgeois nationalists and the 1916 rising was as much a blow against them as against British rule.

Jim also seems unaware that Connolly actually had a thoroughly coherent strategy in the period leading up to the rising. Connolly?s conscious strategy was to bring all the most radical forces in Ireland together around the lynchpin of the radical wing of the labour movement. He brought the most leftwing women?s rights campaigners into the ICA, as well as the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and the Women Workers Union. He consciously set out to split the left republicans from the vacillating elements like O?Neill and Hobson in the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. Connolly knew that, while the ICA was much smaller, its more coherent political and organisational nature could allow it to take the political lead. It should be no surprise, then, that Pearse referred to Connolly as the leader and guiding brain of the rising.

The alliance that Connolly made in reality easily fell within the kind of ?tactical alliance and military cooperation? that Jim recognises as legitimate for revolutionaries. It is unclear why Jim thinks Connolly went further and liquidated the working class and socialist element. Moreover, Connolly?s alliance was with leftward-moving republicans who had shown themselves supportive of workers? struggles - that was the case with every single one of the co-signers of the Easter Proclamation - not with some entrenched bourgeois-nationalist movement or some Irish version of Chiang Kai-shek.

The biggest problem in Ireland was the lack of a revolutionary party. If there is a criticism to be made of Connolly, it is of the way his Marxism was intertwined with syndicalism and how this obstructed his understanding of the need for a revolutionary party. However, even this needs to be contextualised, because Connolly did make several attempts, going back to the 1890s, to build some form of vanguard party. The lack of a party meant that after the executions of Connolly and Mallin, his followers either drifted into economism - which involved bread and butter stuff at the workplace level and tail-ending Sinn F?in politically - or actively dissolved themselves into Sinn F?in and the IRA and becoming hostage to the less radical post-1916 republican leadership.

I attended The wind that shakes the barley with several co-workers and some foreign students. It had a very positive effect on all of them. For myself, I was somewhat disappointed. I thought the political points were made in a rather stilted way. Primarily, I thought it would have been better if he had set the film in Dublin or else somewhere like Limerick, one of the larger sites of the soviets that emerged during the war for independence and, even more so, during the civil war. That would have allowed the political points to emerge more naturally.

Unfortunately, Loach is fairly restricted by budget considerations. If he had had the kind of budget Warren Beatty had to play around with for Reds, he could have based it in Dublin and we could have been given an idea of the two general strikes which took place during the war - both of which were related to the republican cause and struggle. Or he could have based it in Limerick and we could have seen the strike that broke out there and led to a brief soviet, and the role that worker-activists, including those who were also members of the IRA, played in it.

During the war for independence there was a great deal of overlap between the republican movement, the organised labour movement and the advanced workers. Many advanced workers, including union militants, were members of the IRA. Thus the kind of arguments reflected in the Loach film were inevitable. This also means that, whatever other failings the film might have, Loach is certainly innocent of any misuse of Irish history.