The usable past of left republicanism

Far from pursuing a coherent strategy, writes Jim Creegan, James Connolly ended up believing that perhaps other forces could act in the workers' place

Philip Ferguson ('Coherent strategy', May 24) criticises my article, 'Ken Loach's use of Irish history'(April 19) on two main grounds:

l that I am unfair in imputing to Loach, in The wind that shakes the barley, a false equation between socialism and the anti-treaty IRA during the civil war of 1922-23; and

l that I am also off the mark in tracing this equation - which has permeated the thinking of the Irish left for many decades - to the earlier decision of James Connolly to join the Easter rising of 1916 on republican, as opposed to revolutionary socialist, terms.

Let me answer each of these arguments.

Loach's line-up

Comrade Ferguson argues that Loach's film does not deal with the IRA as a whole, but only with a detachment in a west Cork village. He then goes on to say that the disputes Loach depicts were not untypical. But if what we are being shown was widespread, then Ferguson would have to agree that Loach is using his fictional rebel band to depict at least some important aspects of a bigger story - that of the tan war and the split over the treaty. Who, after all, would be interested in making, or seeing, a film that treats events of merely local significance?

Nor are the characters' views quite as confused or spontaneous as Ferguson imagines. All the shouting and commotion of the fighting scenes can at first obscure the film's underlying didacticism. This becomes more apparent upon multiple viewings (in my case, four), as the characters divide neatly into two factions: on the one hand, those who support the treaty and are willing to live with the existing class order, and, on the other, those who oppose both the treaty and the social set-up.

The 'social question' is first introduced into the film (artificially, I might add) through the importation from Dublin of Dan, a railwayman and disciple of Connolly. The main character, Damien, befriends Dan in prison, where together they recite from memory a famous passage from Connolly to the effect that hoisting the green flag over Dublin Castle would avail nothing if England still ruled the country through her landlords, capitalists and bankers. Later, when Damien is about to carry out a difficult order to pull the trigger on a local informer of long and close acquaintance, he says, in a line remarkable for its non-spontaneity: "I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it."

When the argument over repayment of the moneylender is joined in the republican court, it is Dan and Damien who take the lead in supporting the female judge's pronouncement in favour of the debtor, and Damien's commandant brother, Teddy, who condemns the court's verdict as impractical and intervenes to prevent the loan shark's arrest. In the subsequent debate over the treaty the line-up is almost exactly the same. Teddy is in favour; Damien and Dan, joined by the female judge and others, are against - in part for explicitly class and socialist reasons. And if all this is not plain enough, Loach has the anti-treaty faction put its socialist politics into a leaflet (which Ferguson ignores in his response) calling for the nationalisation of the country's wealth. The parish priest supports the treaty and denounces the leaflet.

After mass, in a juxtaposition of unmistakable intent, Damien, the anti-treaty brother, and Teddy, the pro-treaty brother, square off over the leaflet's contents. Teddy upbraids Damien for arguing with the priest, and then calls the leaflet's economic prescriptions "radical shite" which would have met with the disapproval of their father, a small landowner. In response, Damien recalls how their father cruelly sacked a farmhand who was in ill health. All of this, in my view, not only amounts to equating opposition to the treaty with socialism, but drives the point home with a hammer. Comrade Ferguson should see this movie again!

Connolly's course

More important is Ferguson's argument concerning Connolly's motives in 1916. In my article I infer from the fact that the only programmatic document issued by the rebels of Easter week, the Proclamation of the Irish republic, calls for an independent, democratic Ireland and nothing more and, from Connolly's signature on this document as a member of the republic's provisional government, that he had for the time being put aside his long-cherished goal of an independent socialist republic.

Comrade Ferguson disagrees. He says Connolly's participation was nothing more than a temporary tactical alliance which was part of a coherent strategy aimed at uniting the most leftwing forces in the country around the "linchpin of the radical wing of the labour movement". He further asserts that Connolly thought the "coherent political and organisational nature" of the Irish Citizen Army would allow it to take the political lead despite its small size in comparison to the nationalists of the Irish Volunteers (the ICA contributed 152 men of the rising's 1,600 participants). What does the historical evidence suggest?

The difficulty with the historical record - and one reason Connolly's intentions have been such a matter of dispute - is that there exists no single document or speech in which his strategy is laid out. Various historians have tried to piece his motives together from a number of writings and contemporary accounts, which are often contradictory. Thus, for example, Ferguson cites as proof of Connolly's intention to maintain political independence a speech he gave to the ICA before the rising, in which he advised them in the unlikely event of a victory to hold on to their guns and said they were out for economic as well as political liberty. This speech, however, seems to be contradicted by one he gave a few weeks later, on the eve of the rising. In it "he told them [the ICA] that there no longer existed a Citizen Army and a Volunteer force. There was now only the Irish Republican Army." (CD Greaves The life and times of James Connolly New York 1971).

Of the many interpretations of this crucial turn in Connolly's life and Irish history, The politics of James Connolly by Kieran Allen (London 1990) is the one that most persuades me (unlike Roy Foster's Modern Ireland, whose rightwing 'revisionist' views I do not share despite some useful facts and citations it contains, a couple of which I reproduced). Allen sees Connolly as a man whose world had collapsed around him with the outbreak of the war in 1914. The parties of the Second International, to which he had adhered, had succumbed to the patriotic fever that accompanied the declaration of the war. The Irish working class proved particularly susceptible to this delirium; the initial recruiting drive for the British army had a more enthusiastic response in Ireland than in England.

Moreover, home rule, which before 1914 Connolly believed to be inevitable and which he thought would open up greater parliamentary opportunities for a labour party, had been stymied by the Ulster Volunteers in the north, backed to the hilt by the Tories. The Liberals, who had introduced the Home Rule Bill in the Commons, were now beginning to retreat, and talked of exempting the six northern counties from the jurisdiction of a home-rule assembly. This meant partition, which Connolly thought would unleash a "carnival of reaction".

In the face of these multiple disappointments, Connolly - before anything else a revolutionary - became increasingly convinced of the necessity of an insurrection, which he began to advocate in public with growing urgency. Without such an act of defiance, Connolly feared that Ireland's centuries-long resistance to British rule would be relegated to sentimental legend, like the Jacobite tradition in Scotland. It was above all necessary - for the working class and for Ireland, whose interests Connolly saw as complementary - to raise the standard of revolt, even if it was done by a small minority with no chance of success. Only in this way could the memory and possibility of revolution be kept alive for a country then supine beneath the imperial sceptre.

I have come across no evidence to support Ferguson's claim that Connolly attempted to rally the country's most radical elements around the left wing of the labour movement. His articles in Workers Republic decried the corruption of the working class and despaired of the possibility of mass action. In the run-up to Easter week, Connolly appeared to contemplate two possible courses. Sometimes he seemed prepared to embark on an insurrectionary path with the minuscule forces of the ICA alone. At other times he seemed inclined to cultivate the only group besides the ICA that was beginning to think in terms of armed resistance - the Irish Republican Brotherhood. This is the organisation with which Connolly ultimately cast his lot. Who were they, and on what terms did Connolly join forces with them?


Comrade Ferguson criticises my alleged tendency to conflate nationalism and republicanism. I plead not guilty. I did not intend the term 'nationalism' (lower-case 'n') to denote the politics of the Irish National Party (or Parliamentary Party), led by John Redmond. This group, which enjoyed the support of the Irish bourgeoisie and probably most catholics at the beginning of the war, advocated a purely electoral strategy for achieving home rule, and supported the British war effort.

The IRB were indeed nationalists of a more radical stripe, but nationalists nonetheless. They were not merely for home rule, but an independent republic; many of them also stood in the conspiratorial traditions of physical-force Fenianism, which favoured military rather than electoral means. Moreover, they denounced the Parliamentary Party's collaboration with the Liberals and the British state in a war waged on behalf of Ireland's colonial rulers.

From the start of the war, the IRB attempted to wrest from Redmond's control a section of the Irish Volunteers, an armed nationalist body formed in 1913 to counter the growing threat to home rule from Ulster. This breakaway from the main body of Volunteers, led by the IRB, provided most of the foot soldiers for the Easter rising.

But the IRB could not go forward with its plans without first excluding from its counsels two more moderate leaders, Bulmer Hobson and Eoin MacNeill, who were not fully prepared to break with the home-rulers and viewed armed action as folly. Connolly, as Ferguson points out, encouraged this split, and so went into Easter week in the company of the most radical of the radical nationalists.

Pearse's republicanism

Ferguson is justified in regarding Pearse as the most leftwing leader of the republican camp. He did, unlike the IRB as a whole, express public sympathy for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union during the great lockout of 1913-14, when 25,000 Dublin workers, led by Larkin and Connolly, unsuccessfully fought one of the greatest union-busting offensives in European history. Pearse did, in fact, share Connolly's utter contempt for Redmond and the Parliamentary Party. And, in preparation for the rising, he attempted to codify republican social doctrine in several pamphlets, most notably The sovereign people.

Like Pearse's poems, The sovereign people contains paeans to the "great, splendid, faithful common people", whom he calls the repositories of the "spiritual tradition of nationality". Pearse also writes that private property should not be allowed to stand in the way of the nation's advance, and that it should be within the nation's power, if it so decides, to nationalise the land and all other means of production.

Although similar passages can be found in the writings of many nationalist and bourgeois politicians (like Abraham Lincoln, for instance), it would be facile to dismiss these sentiments as mere posturing or opportunism. Pearse was by all accounts a man of intense conviction, far above populist demagogy. He had also lived through stormy times in Dublin. He had come to hold Connolly in genuine regard and was influenced to an extent by his ideas.

But Pearse's plebeian sympathies existed within a firmly nationalist framework. If, for Connolly, the road to national emancipation led through the conquest of power by the working class, which could alone utilise the country's wealth for the benefit of all its people, the working class was for Pearse no more than an important sector of the nation - a nation which transcended class, and whose prerogative it was to decide what each class was entitled to, and under what social and economic arrangements the country would live.

Pearse, in short, espoused a left form of national corporatism. While Pearse deplored the extreme social inequality in the Ireland of his day and favoured a more equitable distribution of wealth, he categorically rejected the notion of class struggle as the motor of progress. But the nation is never above class, and the premise that it is has ever been one of the bourgeoisie's principal ideological weapons. Whoever gives credence to this notion, even though s/he may not be bourgeois, and may dislike the actually existing bourgeoisie, is still imprisoned in its ideology.

Pearse could perhaps have been won to the camp of a socialist working class that was leading the independence struggle. But there could be no strategy for rallying Ireland's most radical forces around the left wing of the workers' movement without the programmatic independence of the working class. And it was this condition that Connolly did not meet, as he marched into the GPO on that fateful April morning. In return for the IRB's agreement to go ahead with an insurrection, Connolly had obviously consented - whether implicitly or explicitly no-one is sure, since his final agreement with the IRB was hammered out in secret meetings of which there are no minutes - to set aside his objective of a workers' republic.

This decision was fraught with consequences. It is one major reason why Ireland entered the independence struggle less than three years later without a distinct proletarian pole, let alone proletarian leadership. It also explains in part why the workers and poor farmers who bore the brunt of the fight could not articulate their opposition in clear class terms when a thoroughly bourgeois 26-county government was foisted upon them in 1921-23. It is also why Connolly is as much remembered in Ireland today as a founder of the clerical-reactionary state that emerged from the struggle as he is for being the outstanding revolutionary workers' leader that he was.

Ferguson correctly points out that the ICA did not merge organisationally with nationalist forces immediately after 1916. But it failed to act as an independent factor in the following years because, according to Kieran Allen, "it suffered from some of the shortcomings inherent in Connolly's politics - in particular an inability to see republicanism as the ideology of a different class" (The politics of James Connolly London 1990, pp167-68). The ICA's organisational liquidation came in 1922, when it passed a resolution pledging support to De Valera, and placed itself under the command of the Dublin republican brigade during the civil war.

Connolly joined the Easter rising on the IRB's terms, not they on his. From this fact some, like Austen Morgan, have concluded that he abandoned the socialist goal to which his whole life had been devoted, and became a revolutionary nationalist. This is almost inconceivable. Rather, Connolly's decision had its roots in his earlier theorisation of an identity between class and national struggle.

Socialist substitute

Ferguson also notes that Connolly's syndicalism prevented him from attempting to build a revolutionary party. This is true, and one consequence of his syndicalism was a disconnect in his mind between the economic and political struggle. He was one of a long line of revolutionary socialists who, out of a desperation born of the weakness of the working class and its lack of immediate prospects, became persuaded that perhaps other forces, obeying some sort of transcendent historical logic or objective process, could act in the workers' place as the agency for socialism.

The ensuing years have seen many self-proclaimed Marxists - in circumstances far less desperate and for motives far less honourable - take a similar tack. Over time, those whose politics continue to be based on historic errors fashion a usable past to justify the errors and deny their adverse - sometimes ruinous - consequences.

Irish left or socialist republicanism, with its confused mélange of nationalist and socialist ideas, is one such ideology. In its service, Ken Loach portrays a marriage of class and self-determination struggles that never took place, and Philip Ferguson credits Connolly with a coherent strategy he never possessed.