Class and Nation in Early 20th Century Ireland

By C.Desmond Greaves

(Editorial note: This article was originally published under the title ‘Class and Nation in Ireland’ as a chapter in a book of articles on the anti-fascist popular fronts of the 1930s edited by Jim Fyrth,  Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1985  (ISBN 0 85315 642 5). The qualification ‘In early 20th century Ireland’ has been added to the title by the editor of the article for this Greaves archival web-site, Anthony Coughlan, as being more helpful for today’s readers, as Greaves’s account covers only the early decades of the 20th century.  Some minor formal errors in the original published text have also been corrected.)

A three hundred page book, emerging like a butterfly from the chryaslis of a college thesis, has recently presented the Trotskyist interpretation of the history of the Communist movement in Ireland. Its author is Mr Mike Milotte.1

Eight times in all, feints and flourishes apart, he tilts at the windmill of what he calls the Comintern’s ‘stages strategy’ which he claims ‘artifically separated the national struggle from the struggle for socialism’ and was derived from the needs of Soviet foreign policy. He presents the matter in the form of a question:

Was it the case that the struggle for socialism could not commence in earnest until the country had been united and its  independence secured? … Or was it the case that national unity and independence could only be secured through the triumph of the working class and socialism, and the spreading of the revolution to Britain, Europe and beyond?

He thinks the Irish Communist movement answers the first question in the affirmative most of the time (an oversimplification as we shall see) and calls this support for the ‘stages strategy’.  At the same time he puts his finger on an issue that has exercised the Irish labour movement over several generations. If national independence cannot be achieved until after capitalists have been overthrown, leaving aside all socialist foreign missions, then they cannot logically be enlisted in the national struggle. The slogan is, so to speak, class against class. On the other hand if national indepedence takes precedence they can be logically so enlisted. The slogan is people’s front.

The issue arose in the debates of the First Intertnational. Some of the English had objected to Irish sections on English soil. In May 1872 Engels, who had sympathised with the Fenians, stated what has ususally been recognised as the classical position of Marxism:

“In a case like that of the Irish true internationalism must necessarily be based on a distinct national organisation,  and they were under the necessity to state in the preamble to their rules that their first and most pressing duty as Irishmen was to establish their own national independence.”2

This view was not universal among Irish socialists. According to Jim Connell, who wrote the words of the socialist anthem the ‘Red Flag’, there was a strong Bakuninist tendencyin Dublin in the stormy 1870s. Socialism was not on the agenda in Ireland and the small groups who held meetings and study circles flirted with various international fashions, from ‘progressism’ to the British ILP. Classical Marxism re-appeared briefly during the industrial upheavals of 1989-90, when former Land Leaguers like Pete Curran joined with Engels’s correspondent J.A.Poole and others to hold the first May Day meeting in Phoenix Park, and tried to join in one grand alliance the emergent labour movement, Fenianism and the now dethroned Parnell. But the economic prosperity that had prompted the wages movement collapsed quickly and the movement fell apart. The socialists were sects again. 

That Connolly, when he retured to Dublin in 1896, brought  back the classical principle is clear. He wrote of the party he founded that its members were: 

“a few workingmen whom the writer had succeeded in interesting in the proposition that the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, the socialist and the national, were not antagonistic but complementary, and the Irish socialist was in reality the best patriot, but in order to convince the Irish people of that fact he must learn to look inward upon Ireland for his justification and rest his arguments on the facts of Irish history, and be a champion against the subjection of Ireland and all it implies.

In 1902, however, the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) became heavily influenced by the teachings of Daniel De Leon, in reaction against English and French opportunism.  Connolly fought the 1903 municipal elections on a platform of pure socialism. He did not raise the demand of national independence. He did not even propose a programme of reforms.  His vote slumped. There were disputes in his party, and he left for America, there to unlearn quite rapidly the De Leonism he had temporarily embraced.

He remained in the USA seven years. Largely as a result of Larkin’s industrial activities, the socialist sects that survived Connolly’s departure were brought together again in September 1909, and Connolly was induced to return as organiser of the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI). A year later he became Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union  (ITGWU) and in 1914 its acting General Secretary. He was no longer able to devote much  attention to the SPI.

But his demand for a national orientation in the Irish Labour Movement emerged  clearly in his famous polemic with William Walker.  At the 1911 Galway meeting of the  Irish TUC  the proposal to establish an Irish Labour Party fell victim to Walker’s amendment  that the ITUC affiliate to the British  Labour Party.  This clearly implied acceptance of the principle that the Irish workers would have socialism (if this is what the Brtish Labour Party stood  for) when  the British wanted it. In the discussion that followed Connolly wrote:     

“The Socialist Party of Ireland  considers itself the only international party in Ireland, since its conception of internationalism is that of a free federation of free peoples, whereas that of the Belfast branches of the ILP seems scarcely distinguishable from imperialism, the merging of subject peoples in the political system of their conquerors.”   

Walker was of course accommodating himself to the prejudices of Belfast Orangeism. Ulster Protestantism was being groomed for an ugly counter-revolutionary role.

In passing it may be worth remarking that it has become fashionable among young academics to blame Marx for not recognising the principle  of Ulster exceptionalism. The answer is of course that in Marx’s last years the Land League had united practically the entire adult tenantry of Ireland,  and those who care to look up old newspapers will find many reports of anti-landlord demonstrations by Ulster Protestant farmers in what is now the six county area.  The alliance of Catholics and Dissenters, so important in the 1790s, was  not so quickly broken up as has been claimed, and when  Marx died there were few Orange halls not in need of a lick of paint.  The great investment in Orangeism  followed Randolph Churchill’s decision to play it as a card against Gladstone’s Home Rule. One recalls Thyssen’s investment in Nazism. And indeed every twelfth of July, Belfast had a Nuremberg rally.

A distinct Irish Labour Party was established at the 1912 Clonmel meeting of the Irish TUC on Connolly’s motion. By then Home Rule was expected. Connolly’s Reconquest of Ireland was written with a view to stating  a labour  platform in the coming federal parliament.  At the same time he had little confidence in the bourgeois leaders of the Irish parliamentary party if their class interests were threatened. He had already shown in Labour in Irish History how frequently the bourgeoisie had raised the banner  of Irish independence only to betray it.  When betrayal came again in the form of acceptance of the principle of partition he made his prophecy:

“Such a scheme as that agreed to by Devlin and Redmond, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it endured.

Connolly did not therefore reject all consensus between the workers and the national bourgeoisie.   But he recognised that their class interests made them dubious partners. On the other hand petty bourgeois groups, language, sports and cultural organisations, supported  the workers in the long hard-fought lock-out of 1913-14.  But  he made no test even of this. When at the outbreak of the  First World War the bourgeoisie went over shamelessly and almost unanimously to the side of British imperialism, Connolly co-operated in the Irish Neutrality League with Arthur Griffith, one of the most resolute critics of Larkin and the ITGWU.

Indeed he did not exclude the possibility that sections of the bourgeoisie might in certain circumstances adopt a position of support for a native government in which the working class enjoyed a high degree of hegemony. In an important article published  in the Workers’ Republic of 15 January 1916 – several  days before he sealed the final alliance with the republicans – he wrote of ‘the first days of feedom’ in which ‘all factories and workshops owned by people who do not yield allegiance to the Irish government immediately on its proclamation  should at once be confiscated.’ Whether this was  practical  politics or not is not the point. Connolly clearly  implied the possibility of bourgeois compliance.  As for                                                                                                                                   the duration of the ‘first days of freedom’ obviously this would depend on the relation of class forces.

The insurrection of workers and petit-bourgeois in 1916 was defeated and Connolly was executed. Classical Marxism went into abeyance for five years. When the Irish TUC met at Sligo in August 1916, there was no protest at Connolly’s execution, no demand for the release of prisoners, or even for compensation for workers whose homes had been wrecked by the military. Opposition to the war was replaced by neutrality.  This neutrality reappeared in 1918 when Labour offered no candidates rather than decide whether to participate in or abstain from the Westminster Parliament.  The result was that Labour had no representation in the revolutionary assembly (Dáil Eireann) that was set up in January 1919.

The origin of this neutrality was the desire to preserve unity with the North.  Connolly had asked ‘why sacrifice all Ireland for a part of Belfast?’ His successors did not heed him.  From the time the counter-revolutionary base was established in North-East Ulster, the Protestant working class had been made accomplices in the oppression of the Catholics.  They thereby forfeited all capacity for independent political action. But what about the unity of all Irish workers on a class basis? The Northerners would sacrifice it instantly for the sake of their tacit accord with the Unionists.  If they wanted unity the Southerners must sacrifice their position in the national movement. And this they did.

It is my opinion that Connolly would not have accepted this.  The alternative was to take part in the national revolution as principals, and work from that position to the reunification of the working class. As things were, Dáil Eireann showed not the slightest interest in the Belfast engineers’ strike of January 1919, and the Northern unions rejected the offer of financial support from the Irish TUC. As the national movement advanced its influence was increasingly felt in the North.  In the local elections of 1920, the Belfast Unionists held 37 seats, Labour won thirteen and the combined Nationalists ten.  In the famous speech at Finaghy field in which Carson heralded the  savage pogroms of July 1920 that initiated the counter-revolutionary offensive, he pointed to the danger of the ‘the combination of the republican position with the Labour question’, and acted to prevent it.  Labour, not represented in the Dáil, took no part in the Anglo-Irish negotiations of 1921.  It took no stand on the resulting settlement, and when the entire national movement split down the middle and the stage was set for disastrous civil war, it professed neutrality, thus in effect siding with the stronger party, the Provisional Government established by Britain.

The fortunes of Labour were directed by able, honest and dedicated men. But they reacted to the national movement rather than attempting to lead it. There was much revolutionary talk but little revolutionary strategy.  They had no conception of striving for working class hegemony within a movement united against imperialism and thereby nurturing the forces that would ultimately make for socialism.  They anticipated that some time the national struggle would be over and then they could throw themselves into what they considered the normal class struggle. Mr Milotte’s distinction between a supposed stages strategy and a pure class approach is thus not valid. They are the two sides of one coin.

The Socialist Party of Ireland was reconstituted in 1917, but could make little progress in the disturbed state of the country. During the Anglo-Irish negotiations a left-wing led by Roderick, son of James Connolly, secured control, changed the name to Communist Party of Ireland and applied for affiliation to the Comintern, which was accepted. The party recognized the primacy of the national question, denounced the treaty settlement, and took part in the civil war in the Dublin area on the side of the Republicans against the Provisional Government.  It faded out in the era of bitterness and disillusionment that is so graphically depicted in O’Casey’s three Dublin plays.

For a time the Comintern reognised Larkin’s Irish Worker League, though it never prospered. When Seamus McGowan, Sean Nolan and others attempted to establish a second Communist Party the Comintern instructed them to dissolve the organisation. Larkin could win a Dáil election on his personal charisma, but he was incapable of building an organisation. He could not delegate. The modern period opened on 2 March 1930, when there was held in Dublin a conference of delegates from Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (RWG). It was agreed to prepare for the re-establishment of a Communist Party of Ireland. While the conference was sitting a congress of small farmers was in session at Galway. Fraternal messages were interchanged. On 5 April the weekly Workers’ Voice began publication.

By 1930 the shape of modern Ireland was discernible. The revolutionary era was now a memory. The partition régime, though detested, had stabilized. The treaty had been followed by a savage onslaught on working class conditions. Trade union membership had fallen away. The strongest union, the ITGWU, which had 100, 000 members in 1922, had only 15,000 in 1929. The jails were crammed with Republican prisoners, though this in itself was a sign that the IRA, though defeated in the civil war, was still a power in the land.  Sinn Fein persisted with its policy of abstention from parliament. But in 1927 De Valera took Fianna Fáil, a breakaway from Sinn Fein, into Leinster House, and for the first time the successors to the Provisional Government had reason to fear for their majority. By 1930 there was an increasing realisation that the new Ireland had come to stay. The fight for freedom must be continued under new conditions. At the same time the working class, on the defensive for seven years, despite rapidly mounting unemployment, began to think of advance.

That readjustment was so slow is easily understood.  The generation active in 1930 had lived through what Frank Gallagher called the ‘four glorious years’.  They remembered the mass demonstrations carrying red flags and singing the ‘Red Flag’, control of the people while British soldiers looked on helpless, the peoples’ courts that handled cases while the crown courts stood empty, the guerilla activities of the active service units, the land seizures and so-called Soviets. With such intense national experience just behind them the Irish people must necessarily take years to adjust to politics that were so radically transformed and begin to react once more to international influences. It would be fair to say therefore that the development of Comintern strategy had less relevance to Ireland than to most countries.  The Irish situation was largely clarified by the end of 1934, and the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern set a welcome seal on a position for the most part already arrived at.

In 1928 the Comintern abandoned its earlier tactic of seeking a united front with the Labour and Socialist International. The new slogan was class against class, which was vague enough to guarantee misunderstanding and demand constant exegesis. The issue was sharpened at the Tenth Plenum of the Comintern Executive Committee held in July 1929. It was then stated that ‘The ECCI imposes on all sections … the obligation to intensify the fight against Social Democracy which is the chief support of capitalism.’ This was of course not class against class in the common or ordinary meaning of the words, but Communists against the alleged main prop of capitalism.  Degras cites a Pravda article of the period which wrote that social democracy was ‘already a component part of the fascist system.’3   It is hard at this distance in time to resurrect the expectations and preoccupations that gave currency to this opinion. On the whole the leaders of international communism at this time were young. Perhaps they had not yet noted how seldom does any intention take shape as it was conceived.

Parallel with the denunciation of social democrats for holding back the workers from revolution, there was condemnation of the ‘national-reformist’ bourgeoisie for preventing the victory of national liberation in the colonial world. The remedy was to develop the ‘united front from below’ – to seek unity with members while attacking their leaders.

The first editorial of the Worker’s Voice bore the headline, ‘Our policy: class against class.’ The object was

“the establishment of an Irish Workers’ Republic, through which all power will be in the hands of the working class, and which will socialise all means of wealth production for the benefit of the producers, and guarantee to working farmers the use of such land as they can work without the exploitation of others.

It might be objected that even allowing the sharing of power with sections of the farmers, as the interchange of greetings implied, there was work for a generation here. The answer is of course that these were not experienced draughtsmen and none of their early statements should be subjected to legalistic scrutiny.

The Workers’ Voice also declared for ‘complete independence from British and any other imperialist robber state, and the unity of Ireland under workers’ rule’. There was to be an election for the new Dublin City Council, and the Workers’ Voice declared, ‘We are against all of them, Cumann na nGaedheal, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party.’

The Workers’ Voice of 19 July 1930 wrote:

“The Irish bourgeoisie are no longer “oppressed” by British imperialism, but are ruling Ireland, North and South, in alliance with British capitalism. They have abandoned the struggle for a Republic … Not a single move can now be made for independence without a struggle to overthrow the Irish capitalist class… This means that the old slogans of ‘Ireland against England’,  ‘Independence’, ‘Republic’ must now be replaced by the slogan of class against class.

The Labour Party was characterised on 6 September:

“The role of the Irish Labour Party conforms to the same role as the British Labour Party and social democracy throughout Europe, as being one of active agents of capitalism in carrying out the policy of capitalism under a cloud of democratic phrases, and, at the same time, using all the oppressive machinery of the state to break the resistance of the workers against the capitalist offensive.

Two points should be noted. No distinction is made between the two forms of British influence. In the Six Counties it consisted of overall state control. In the Twenty-Six there was an independent state available for a government that wished to use it. Second, the British and Irish Labour parties are placed on a par, though one was in government and the other was not. But as Marx observed of the workers who supported the Gotha programme, which declared all their opponents ‘one reactionary mass’, they acted not on what the programme meant, but on what they thought it meant. Statements of the 1930s cannot be judged by the standards of the present day.

What would be described today as a crude and sectish approach was not without appeal to workers impatient of the long retreat before reaction. The Revolutionary Workers Groups were involved in important industrial actions. Most spectacular of all was the Belfast unemployed struggle of October 1932 in which for the first time since 1907, there was fraternisation between Catholic and Protestant workers and a joint struggle for an increase in outdoor relief rates.

The world economic crisis had ended emigration. In 1932 there was a net reflux into Ireland for the first time in living memory. There was no export of discontent. Terrified of a repetition of the revolutionary upsurge of 1918-21 the Cosgrave government redoubled its repression. The jails, full enough already, had more crammed into them. Organisations were banned wholesale, including the RWG. But in the election of January 1932, Fianna Fáil won a majority and formed a government with Labour support on a programme of empty the jails, abolish the oath of allegiance to the king of England, and withhold the land annuities (repayments of land purchase mortgages advanced by British governments to Irish farmers).

When De Valera enacted this last measure and placed tariffs on British imports while subsidising Irish exports, the British response was to clap a 20 per cent tariff on Irish goods imported into Britain. The ‘economic war’ began. It was the fraternal work of J.H.Thomas. It injured most the big agricultural interests behind Cumann na nGaedheal.  Within months these were trumpeting the virtues of remaining in the British Empire. When Hitler came to power in February 1933, they learnt to strut around in blue shirts and give the Nazi salute. They evoked so strong  an antagonism, and so effective an opposition among the rank and file of the IRA, that De Valera brought back the coercive legislation of his predecessors to curb them, and at the same time put a rein on the left.

But where did these events leave the strategy of class against class?  The Irish bourgeoisie had been revealed not as one class but as two. One section was embroiled with British imperialism. The other was stabbing it in the back. Clearly the previous analyses had been too simple.  This was represented to the Comintern by Sean Murray.

De Valera went to the country again in January 1933. He wanted endorsement for his policies, and to free himself from dependence on the Labour Party.  The RWG issued a statement on the election that owed precious little to the politics of class against class.  The issues before the Irish people were:

“Irish independence versus the British Empire;

For or against the British Government’s coercion of the Irish people;

For or against the payment of £5,000,000 in annual tribute to Britain;
For or against the Cosgrave agents of British imperialism in Ireland.

This was in effect advice to vote Fianna Fáil. And there can be no doubt whatsoever that it was absolutely correct. Classical Marxism had triumphed over the doctrinaire. The Revolutionary Workers’ Groups were amalgamated into the Communist Party of Ireland in June 1933. Already, under the influence of the Nazi victory in Germany, there were those in the Comintern who were seeking policies to meet the new danger. The Comintern was consulted over the manifesto of the new party, and advised an uncompromising national stand.The manifesto was entitled Ireland’s Path to Freedom.  Introducing it, Sean Murray, who became General Secretary, spoke of  ‘breaking the imperialist rule and uniting the revolutionary forces as a first step on the road to social emancipation’, and emphasized:

“The national struggle is the prime question with which we are faced in Ireland. It is necessary, therefore, that we understand the stage we have reached in the struggle. If the Irish capitalists had done what they should the national question would be solved.

The gravamen of his argument was that now that it was clear that the bourgeoisie had betrayed the nation, it was necessary to persuade the working class to save it.  But he recognised the need for allies. The big farmers had come out openly on the side of the imperialists, but no movement for national or social liberation could be successful if it did not take account of the reserves of the revolution in the countryside. He expressed confidence that unlike Sinn Fein and other groups with sectarian anti-working class attitudes, the Communists could bring together workers from Waterford and Shankill who could meet on no other basis.

The changes resulting from the ousting of the comprador bourgeoisie by the industrialising, affected the republican movement. The leadership was divided, but the majority were prepared to give Fianna Fail a chance. That De Valera was prepared to tolerate harassment of the Communists which placed them in a position not far removed from semi-legality, the worst persecutors being the adherents of the blueshirts he claimed to be fighting, did not alarm them. There were many Communists in the IRA and these were faced with a choice of which organization to adhere to. On the other hand there was a minority that wished to undertake a public agitation distinctly more radical than that of De Valera.  A number of these launched a republican political organization called Saor Eire which included workers and small farmers. It failed, the CPI believed, because of the dead hand of the urban middle class.

Following a split in the Army Council that led to their resignation, Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan and George Gilmore called a preliminary conference at Athlone, with the object of launching a political republican movement. O’Donnell was close to Sean Murray and there is no reason to doubt that he was consulted at an early stage.  The Athlone manifesto called for the building of a mass movement for the purpose of making ‘the Republic a main issue dominating the whole political field’ and indicated its expected component parts:

‘1. Industrial workers who are being dragged into degrading working conditions to found a factory system at a time when the experiences of Europe and America are there to warn us of the horrors ahead.

2. In the Gaeltacht areas which must be in close support of the Irish working class … the Gaeltacht youth must get help to tumble its walls and get free access to the broad ranches. 9

3. Small farmers and petty traders are strongly represented in Republican organisations and here is urgent work, for this section of the nation can only free itself as the ally of the working class.’

This manifesto was a plea for the restoration of the grand alliance of 1919, which had been allowed to drift into capitalist control thanks to the unwillingness of the Labour leaders to identify themselves with the Republic. 

There were theoretical unclarities. Occasionally the cart was out before the horse:

‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots capitalism on its way.’

This was presumably not intended to imply that it was possible to introduce socialism in a country still under foreign domination. It probably meant that the struggle for national independence should be waged without undue concern for capitalist interests. Arthur Griffith had made a fetish of these and had thereby handed over the greater part of the republican movement to the bourgeoisie at a time when they had no organised party of their own. Twenty years is a short time and the experience of the ‘four glorious years’ would be present to the minds of all but the youngest.

The CPI, while commenting on certain confusions in the manifesto’s presentation, gave full support and plunged into the campaign that followed. Groups were established all over Ireland. The demands of the wage-earners were joined to those of the land-hungry small farmers and rural labourers. A network of tenant leagues demanded improved housing in Dublin, Cork and Waterford. The growing wages movement was supported.  In Belfast a movement of the unemployed was set in train and attracted a number of Protestants. Two ‘James Connolly Workers’ Republican Clubs’ were established in traditionally Unionist areas. Between April and September 1934 it seemed there was a ‘little 1919’.

But there were differences. State power was in the hands of a native government which claimed to be republican, and not as in 1919 in the hands of palpable aliens whom it was patriotic to defy. And the majority of the IRA leaders, to their own consciences upright patriotic men, were in the grip of an ideology.  They despised and feared politics. Fianna Fáil appeared to be saying the right things, if what they said mattered at all. They were not even prepared to offer an independent challenge to the pro-British blueshirts, even though the government was fighting them through legislation identical to that which had imprisoned themselves. There was a fear that ‘politics’ (which meant the politics of the left) would endanger the integrity of the military movement.

Their right-wing stance was shown in June 1934, at the annual commemoration of Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown. A number of Protestant Republican Congress supporters carried a banner inscribed ‘Shankill Road Belfast Branch. Break the connection with Capitalism.’ This was an outrageously leftist slogan for the time. But had the IRA leaders some tiny place in their hearts for all Irish people, they would have rejoiced at the fact that Belfast Protestants were rejoining the nation, and allowed them to say what they liked as long as they were doing it.  What happened was that the IRA attacked the Belfast contingent, and then went home to deplore partition. As an illustration of the danger of incorrect theoretical formulations, it may be remarked that the Shankill slogan corresponded exactly to the Athlone proposal to ‘uproot capitalism on the way’.  The Belfast contingent wanted a united Republic and thought this was the way to get it.

These contretemps notwithstanding, the Republican Congress which met in Rathmines, Dublin, on 28 and 29 September 1934 was well attended.  There were 186 delegates from workers’ organisations and Congress branches. Fourteen trade unions and trades councils were represented, along with delegates from the Labour Defence League, Labour against Fascism, the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, Tenant Leagues, Communist Party, Northern Ireland Socialist Party and Republican Socialist Party. Delegates came from Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Waterford, Galway and Kilkenny.

But there were differences over tactics which were natural enough on the circumstances. A programme like that of the Republican Congress required governmental implementation.  If you thought bourgeois nationalism an extinct volcano, then you must form a new party and try to replace Fianna Fáil. If you felt there might still be a few rumbles in the old crater you might think a sufficiently vigorous agitation might suffice to start a fresh eruption. Roddy Connolly, Michael Price and others wanted the new party.  Sean Murray, Peadar O’Donnell and their supporters favoured the agitation. On balance they would seem to have been right.

A more serious difference arose on the question of strategy. Roddy Connolly defined the Congress objective as a ‘Workers’ Republic’. This was taken to mean socialism as the next step. Peadar O’Donnell thought such a strategy would limit the appeal and exclude important allied strata. He wanted ‘the Republic’, the road of 1919 traversed again without the accompanying errors. This was to attempt to recreate the exuberant optimism of the ‘four glorious years’. Sean Murray wanted neither to return to the past nor forge too rapidly into the future. He asked simply for ‘an Irish republic’, which would seem to have been the wisest thing. Murray and O’Donnell won the day by a small majority but the leftists refused to co-operate and the Republican Congress never accomplished either purpose.

It was a year after these events in Ireland that the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern was held in Moscow and the class against class slogan was discarded. The aim became the broad united front against fascism and war.  There was thus retrospective endorsement of the people’s front that had been attempted in Ireland. In his speech to the Congress, Sean Murray admitted an earlier lack of clarity in handling the national question. In the beginning the Irish Communists had thought De Valera part of the camp of imperialism. Now they saw the national bourgeoisie as vacillators, and their own task as preventing the vacillation.10  This analysis had clear implications for the two trends at Rathmines.  If it had been available would it have made any difference? It might, but it is one of the tribulations of small nations not to have much say in the timing of world events. The Moscow Congress nevertheless endorsed the position taken by James Connolly and reaffirmed classical Marxism in Ireland.

The Seventh World Congress coincided with anti-Catholic pogroms that were the worst Belfast had seen since 1922.  The Unionists were determined to break decisively the fragile unity that had been achieved as a result of the unemployed struggles of 1932. The atmosphere was not conducive to the building of broad unity, though unquestionably the effort was made to hold together the tacit alliance of advanced trade unionists and nationalists. In the South reactionary forces attacked democracy under the cloak of religion, especially after the fascist conquest of Spain in the guise of a civil war.

The position of the CPI was extremely difficult. A special tribute should be paid to the heroic work of Sean Murray, whose vision was largely responsible for the formation of the James Connolly Battalion of the International Brigade which acquitted itself so nobly on the battle field.  It included Belfast Protestants as well as Southern Catholics, and members of both communities lost their lives. Some of the most prominent of the younger leaders never came back, and one can still mourn the loss of men like William MacGregor and Charles Donnelly. The Connolly Battalion is perhaps the best reply to those who are anxious to belittle the work of the CPI during the 1930s.


1. Mike Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, Dublin 1984. As a corrective see Sean Nolan (ed.), The Communist Party of Ireland, Outline History, Dublin, not dated

2. K.Marx and F.Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, London 1978

3. Degras, The Communist International, 1919-43, London 1971, Vol.3, p.36

4. To modern readers there seems an air of unreality about many of the debates in the Comintern. When some time in the late 1960s I reminded R.P.Dutt of the decolonisation debate at the Sixth World Congress of 1928, he started to laugh.

5. J.H.Thomas was the railwaymen’s leader who called off sympathetic action by his members in support of the locked-out Dublin workers in 1913, making their defeat inevitable. He subsequently participated in the Tory-dominated ‘National Government’ of 1931 and was later disgraced for leaking budget secrets.

6. The ‘Blueshirts’ were traditional reactionary ‘strong arm’ brigades consisting of the sons of the more prosperous farmers, and these played a considerable part in the crushing of the resistance of the agricultural labourers following the establishment of the Free State in 1922.

7. It must have been in the late 1930s while I was staying at the home of Sean Murray in Belfast that he described a meeting of the Anglo-American committee of the Comintern at which the Chairman, Harry Pollitt, reminded him of Comintern policy when he proposed a softer policy towards Fianna Fáil.

8. Sean Murray told me that at one point he suggested making reference to high-spots of ‘loyalist’ tradition in order to reach out towards the Orangemen. One of the Soviet members replied, ‘No nation can tolerate a Vendée.’ (Vendée was the centre of revolt against revolutionary governments in France 1793-1800.)

9. Gaeltacht areas: areas where Irish is the predominant language.

10. I remember asking Sean Murray in July 1939 to state succinctly CPI policy towards the De Valera government. He replied, ‘We support it.’