Dublin 1916 and the 'blood sacrifice'
Philip Ferguson gives his view on some common criticisms of James Connolly
In the early 1900s the national question affected every movement for social change in Ireland. For the labour movement, particularly those who sought to lead it in a revolutionary direction, the national question posed the greatest challenge. If the goal of the working class, in the view of the revolutionaries, was a social revolution and the establishment of a workers' republic, how should the political question of British rule in Ireland be approached?
Was the road forward for the workers in Ireland, a colonial possession of an imperial power, the same as that in Britain? What was the relationship between economic and political issues? Was the job of revolutionaries simply to provide an analysis of capitalism and/or counsel workers to be more militant in struggling for better wages and conditions? Was a working class-based or, at least, working class-led, revolution possible? Given the weakness of the working class - due to the historical underdevelopment of capitalism in Ireland and the sectarian divisions which stemmed from this underdevelopment - were there other social forces which could be drawn to the workers' side in a struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society?
The response of Irish revolutionary socialists at the time, above all James Connolly, has been a point of debate ever since. In particular, the rise of historical revisionism has led to the resurrection of the theme that Connolly abandoned socialism and became primarily a radical nationalist in the last year or two of his life, the period between the outbreak of World War I and the Easter rising. In essence, the critique of Connolly is based on the revisionists' hostility to Irish republicanism and their sympathetic attitude to the 'modernising' mission of British imperialism.
On the left, revisionism is based on a failure to understand Connolly's project as a coherent, consistent and revolutionary whole.1 We are supposed to believe that Connolly - who was nothing if not hard and practical - was so unhinged by the capitulation of the European socialist parties to their own bourgeoisies in World War I that he decided to join them and capitulate to a variant of Irish bourgeois nationalism. Their general failure to understand the centrality of the national question to social revolution in oppressed nations, and their profound lack of sympathy with revolutionary projects, especially in Ireland, coupled with failures of scholarship - in the form of factual errors and invented quotes - leaves the 'left' and 'right' revisionists' reading of the course followed by Connolly and his comrades fundamentally flawed.
Connolly and revisionists
The idea of Connolly abandoning socialism can be traced back to Sean O'Casey. Before he became a famous playwright O'Casey was a railway worker and a member of the army council of the early Irish Citizen Army. He left following an unsuccessful attempt to force Constance Markievicz out of the workers' army and, under the pen-name of P O'Cathasaigh, wrote a history of the ICA, in which he alleged Connolly forsook socialism for nationalism.2 This idea is repeated in JD Clarkson's Labour and nationalism in Ireland and Sean O'Faolain's petty and vindictive biography of Markievicz.3 In more recent times it has become an article of faith among leftwing revisionists, including those who consider themselves Marxists. In fact their hostility to all forms of Irish nationalism has led this particular 'Marxist' school to abandon also Marx, Engels and Lenin's views on Ireland.4
O'Casey's view never gained much currency until the renewal of armed conflict in Ireland at the start of the 1970s. Even then, a revisionist assault on Connolly took some time. This is partly because Connolly's own writings and his labour movement activities show him as a practical and down-to-earth figure, less vulnerable to attack than the nationalist hero Pearse, sections of whose writings, particularly his earlier work, were full of easily-ridiculed nationalist romanticism. It was far easier to present Pearse as a dreamer, away with the Celtic mists and mythologised happy clan life of the Gael, and out of touch with the real Ireland and real Irish people of his time.
With today's liberal middle class in the south having favoured some degree of social reform and having felt that the system had failed not only themselves but also the poor, they were also less inclined to assault Connolly in the way they were Pearse. Since the southern state had for decades wrapped itself in a particularly reactionary catholicism and (falsely) claimed to be following Pearse in this, the rejection of the social and political power of the church by southern liberals was, not altogether unsurprisingly, therefore accompanied by a rejection of Pearse, now seen as a catholic reactionary rather than the advanced social thinker that he actually was.
Ironically, it was as the republican movement - particularly Irish Republican Army activists in prison5 - began to study Connolly more seriously and this became reflected, on paper for some years, in the Sinn Féin programme, that the liberal middle class began to abandon their sympathy for him. It could also be argued that the assault on nationalism and on Pearse was essential for preparing the ground for the assault on Connolly. After all, if all Irish nationalism was reactionary and if Pearse was a reactionary fanatic, Connolly's involvement with such people and his participation in the Easter rising would discredit him at least by implication of the company he chose. With such doubts cast upon Connolly, the ground was ripe for a full-scale revisionist rewriting.
Austen Morgan's 'Marxist' political biography sees Connolly as abandoning socialism after World War I broke out. Although he views Irish nationalism as marring Connolly's politics at different times throughout the socialist leader's life, he argues that the defeat of the workers in the Dublin lock-out of 1913 and the collapse of the Second International in 1914 led to the collapse of Connolly's socialism.
When the cause of class appeared to be hopeless, Connolly retreated into the cause of nation and became a leading figure of the republican-nationalist milieu. It was as a nationalist rather than a socialist that Connolly participated in 1916, in Morgan's view. Moreover, had Connolly survived, "it would have been as a senior officer of the IRA, into which the ICA had dissolved itself, and a potential leader of Sinn Féin".6 Along with Connolly's activities, various of his articles are cited as proof of the contention that he abandoned socialism for nationalism. Morgan also dismisses the 1916 rising as "a putsch".7
This characterisation was also made at the time by elements of the socialist movement in Europe. One Marxist who had a different view was Lenin, who attacked opposition to self-determination as a form of opportunism. In his article on the 1916 rebellion, he wrote: "Whoever calls such an uprising a 'putsch' is either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of picturing a social revolution as a living thing."8 Morgan has obviously read this article, since he quotes from it to falsely claim that in it the "Irish Citizen Army was dismissed as 'backward workers" with "their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors"9 .
In fact, Lenin never mentioned the ICA anywhere in his article. What he did say, in the two paragraphs following the sentence of his I quoted above, is:
"For to imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against landlord, church, monarchical, national and other oppression - to imagine that means repudiating social revolution. Very likely one army will line up in one place and say, 'We are for socialism', while another will do so in another place and say, 'We are for imperialism', and that will be the social revolution! Only from such a ridiculously pedantic angle could one label the Irish rebellion a 'putsch'.
"Whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution really is."10
The reason for the distortion by Morgan is clear: Lenin is attacking - in fact ridiculing - the very position which Morgan articulates seven decades later. Morgan goes on to claim that "Marx and Engels had not even theorised an Irish national revolution"; that Lenin's comments on the rising "cannot be taken as an endorsement of a putative socialist theory of the Irish revolution"; and that nothing much can be inferred in relation to Ireland from any of Lenin's writings on the national question.11
Morgan also alleges: "Much has been made of the Leninist position on the national question, though the specificity of Ireland as a colonial part of the leading metropolitan power in Europe during the first world war is rarely recognised, and Lenin never seriously dealt with the problem of strategy for socialists in 'oppressed nations'."12 Here we have a whole set of Morgan's factual errors.
In contrast to Morgan's claims about Lenin's lack of theory on the national question in its various forms, Lenin regarded Russia as an imperialist power and "a prison house of nations". Ireland therefore was not alone in being a colonial part of a metropolitan, or imperialist, power. Most of the peoples of the Russian empire were in the same position! The Bolsheviks were vitally concerned about this question and championed the right of subject nations to self-determination against the Russian empire. Lenin polemicised on this issue against fellow revolutionaries such as Luxemburg and against those whom he regarded as opportunists and centrists within the Second International.
After the revolution, self-determination was one of the main questions which concerned the Communist International, as shown by both the records of its congresses and its attempts to organise around the issue. In fact so concerned were Lenin and the Bolsheviks about this, and especially about chauvinism on the part of leftists in countries such as Britain, that when the Communist International drew up its rules of membership it included the following:
"A particularly marked and clear attitude on the question of the colonies and oppressed nations is necessary on the part of the Communist Parties of those countries where bourgeoisies are in possession of colonies and oppress other nations. Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International has the obligation of exposing the dodges of its 'own' imperialists in the colonies, of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies, of cultivating in the hearts of the workers in their own country a truly fraternal relationship to the working population in the colonies and to the oppressed nations, and of carrying out systematic propaganda among their own country's troops against any oppressors of colonial peoples."13
Morgan, however, leaves the impression that Marx, Engels and Lenin had little to say on these subjects and that nothing much can be inferred from what they did say. In fact, they condemn the view now put forward by Morgan and by the left economists who make up the major section of the British and Irish far left today.
In an attempt to undermine Connolly's revolutionary Marxist status, FA D'Arcy draws the following distinction between Lenin and Connolly: "Lenin consistently called on socialists and workers to turn the imperialist war on all sides into a civil war, whereas it is beyond question that Connolly sincerely and insistently called for a German triumph. Connolly's prescription did not consider the likely fate of the Irish socialist and labour movement in the event of an imperial German invasion and victory."14
Lenin, however, did not see Connolly's position as at all inconsistent with his own and fully supported the Easter rising.15 Moreover, Lenin's position of revolutionary defeatism meant that he regarded a Russian defeat at the hands of Germany as preferable to a Russian triumph.16 Most importantly, Connolly was attempting to do just what Lenin most favoured: turning the imperialist war into a war on one's own imperialist government. The imperialist government which ruled Ireland was the British government, not the German government, so it was against Britain that Connolly directed his fire, both figuratively and literally. The ILP(I) appeal, for instance, clearly favours the defeat of Britain.17
Marxists in Britain, such as the Socialist Labour Party (of which Connolly had been the most important founder) and Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers' Socialist Federation - both strong supporters of the Easter rising and Irish freedom - also preferred a British defeat, since this was seen as opening up greater possibilities for revolutionary advance than a British triumph.18 By exactly the same token and for exactly the same reasons, Marxists in Germany - such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg - favoured the defeat of their own ruling class.
Morgan goes to the extreme of claiming that Connolly "became a Germanophile, and collaborated with a wartime imperialist state"19 - rather like saying that Churchill became a Stalinist for collaborating with the Soviet Union during World War II or that Lenin was a "Germanophile" for making use of a German sealed train to return to Russia in early 1917. In fact, like Lenin, Connolly recognised that it is good tactics for revolutionaries to take advantage of inter-imperialist conflicts and get arms and any other support they can from the enemy of the imperialist power against which they are trying to organise their revolution.20
Morgan's alternative course to Connolly's supposed abandonment of socialism for nationalism is that he "should have maintained his original course after August 1914, involvement in the ILP(I), ITGWU and Labour Party being touchstones of an independent proletarian position".21 Yet Connolly had already discovered the futility of economism. For instance, he described the view that Belfast workers could be influenced by the same approach as workers in Britain, as "a doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity".22 Belfast was "the happy hunting ground of the slave-driver and the home of the least rebellious slaves in the industrial world" - the protestant workers being "slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own".23
There was no way around this problem, certainly not by pretending there was no national question. Moreover, ignoring the national question for fear of alienating unionist workers would have meant alienating the nationalists who were the majority of the population in Ireland. The problem has been summarised by Emil Strauss, who notes: "Belfast's shipyards and textile mills were integral parts of the British industrial system ..." This privileged position would be lost in an independent Ireland. It was simply a hard fact of history that "the interests of Belfast were diametrically opposed to those of Dublin and Cork. Within the social framework of the time there was no escape from this dilemma."24
Connolly understood that the dilemma could not be escaped from, and could only be dealt with by pursuit of the national question - that is, by uniting workers around the goal of taking the lead of the struggle for national liberation. Moreover, in this he prefigured the positions of the Third International in relation to the role of revolutionary workers' vanguards in the oppressed nations.25
Connolly and 'blood sacrifice'
A crucial element of the revisionist approach to 1916 has been the idea that the rebels were fixated upon a 'blood sacrifice'. They are said to have been determined to shed their blood for Ireland, seeing this as a redeeming of the country's honour. In the case of Pearse, redemption through the shedding of blood is often said to have outweighed any political consideration. The 'blood sacrifice' is also taken as a catholic ritual, in which the Easter rising acted the part of Calvary and the leaders that of Christ.26 This is used to further the argument that irrationalism is at the heart of Irish resistance to British rule. Foster, for instance, sees the IRB's decision, when World War I broke out, to prepare for a rising as "a reaction almost Pavlovian in its dogmatism",27 while the 1916 leaders "relied on an emotional and exalted Anglophobia".28 But the rising was based on fundamentally rational premises, as is clear from an investigation of the rebels' actual course of action, particularly Connolly's.
On November 4 1915 Pearse gave a public talk reviewing the different political tendencies at the time of the rather farcical attempt at rebellion in 1848. Connolly described it as a "brilliant lecture"29 and effectively used Pearse's arguments against Irish Volunteers' leader Eoin MacNeill - and, by extension, the republican militants clinging to their alliance with him. As Pearse had in the lecture, Connolly drew the conclusion from 1848 that "The British government would not wait until the plans of the revolutionists were ready. It has not held Ireland down for 700 years by any such foolish waiting. It struck in its own time, and its blow paralysed the people."30
In a blow at both MacNeill and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Connolly went on to criticise those who talked of "premature insurrection" and provoking the government, arguing: "Revolutionists who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived, and they have every shoe-string in its place, and every man has got his gun, and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionists nor disarrange their plans - such revolutionists only exist in two places - the comic opera stage, and the stage of Irish national politics. We prefer the comic opera brand. It at least serves its purpose."31 Early in the new year, he declared: "While the war lasts and Ireland still is a subject nation we shall continue to urge her to fight for her freedom ... the time for Ireland's battle is now, the place for Ireland's battle is here."32
Firstly, then, Connolly was not committed to a grand sacrifice. In the same article in which he referred to Ireland's battle being "here" and "now", for instance, he made clear that if Britain was not at war an attempt at armed revolution would be suicidal madness. Before the revisionist floodtide made fashionable and dominant the view that the 1916 rising was a grisly blood sacrifice, JJ Lee, for example, accepted that neither Connolly nor the IRB militants had intended to throw away their lives in some exalted and bloody martyrdom. The 1916 leaders, he noted, "accepted the possibility of a blood sacrifice, but only as a contingency plan, not as the main objective of all the preparations of the five preceding years."33
Had the 20,000 rifles and accompanying ammunition on the Aud not been captured off the Kerry coast on the eve of the rising, "a protracted struggle might have ensued, with the possibility of increasing public support as fighting progressed".34 Furthermore the odds at Easter 1916, while certainly not ideal, "were incomparably the best likely to occur for a very long time by IRB criteria".35
Some accounts note the way in which the 1916 rebels went behind MacNeill's back and/or repeat his argument that a rising was morally unjustified unless it was defensive and/or had a reasonable chance of success. This argument was, in effect, answered by Connolly as above. Lee has argued along similar lines, asking: "If MacNeill deemed the circumstances of 1916 hopeless he was in effect saying that a rising would never be justified, so what was the point of acquiring arms in the first instance? And as the government would presumably choose to disarm the Volunteers when it considered the circumstances most propitious, the prospect of resistance would presumably be even less promising than a surprise Volunteer initiative."36
Moreover, new evidence suggests that MacNeill knew and had agreed to the rising, while disdaining to take part himself. In the 1940s and 1950s, witness testimonies were taken of people who had participated in the rising or had been observers of the events of that Easter week. The testimonies were sealed for decades and not finally opened to the public until 2002. So far, the only book which has been published based on these accounts is Annie Ryan's Witnesses.37 Several witness statements which appear in her book indicate that MacNeill had been informed of the intentions for a rising, and agreed to it, although he subsequently prevaricated and had to be visited and staunched up several times. In the end, he got cold feet and issued the countermanding orders that appeared in the press on Easter Sunday. The rebels had little choice but to go ahead or end up ridiculed and discredited and, quite possibly, in British custody.
Thus, as Lee notes, the decision to go ahead with the rising "was partly a defensive one prompted by the belief that Dublin Castle was about to arrest the leaders, as it had swooped on the Fenians in 1865".38 Only at this stage "did the issue of a blood sacrifice arise. The leaders accepted the challenge, but they did not welcome it".39
Secondly, this view tallies with Markievicz's own account, which appears to have been ignored in all the historiography dealing with the rising. In an article several months before her own death, Markievicz stated Connolly "wanted to fight with a chance of winning, of course, but he was ready to go out and fight and die, as Robert Emmet died, as he believed that Ireland's only hope of ultimate freedom lay in keeping the tradition of fighting alive by raising the flag of revolt each time England was in difficulties".40
Four years earlier, at the end of the civil war, she had also dealt with the events of Easter Sunday, writing scathingly of MacNeill: "All the weary years of preparation, all the fevered months of organisation, enlisting and drilling were made to no avail by the stroke of a pen from a weakling." The alternative was to go ahead with as little hope of success as Emmet. "Postponement," she noted, was impossible. With a traitor alive, who had intimate knowledge of them and their intentions, they knew that at any moment he might carry his betrayal further and give all the information he had to the enemy. His friend and adviser in treachery was under arrest by the Volunteers; he could not be held for long, and was a menace either way."41
A month later, Markievicz wrote again of the time "when professor Eoin MacNeill and Mr B Hobson had treacherously acted a coward's part, secretly through the IRB, and publicly through the daily papers ..." Connolly, she said, knew MacNeill's action had taken away any chance of success "or even of holding out for long enough to create that public opinion that might have saved his life and the lives of the other leaders.
"Postponement of the rising had by now become quite impossible - too many people had begun to smell a rat. Therefore this 'call off' had created a situation out of which there were only two ways: the one way was to abandon all thoughts of a rising; the other was to go on with it, though, for the leaders, it was going out to certain death."42