Stalinism and the IRA
By John O'Mahony
The IRA's "Border Campaign"- of guerrilla attacks from the south on Northern Ireland state targets - was called off in March 1962. It seemed to many, including such academic experts on guerrilla movements as Bowyer Bell, that Ireland's strange and archaic militarist Republicanism had finally shrivelled into nothingness. What place could there be for it in prosperous "modern" Western Europe? Or in the comparative prosperity of the Six Counties?
The conventional wisdom was that the welfare state had reconciled Northern Catholics to partition, or at any rate drained much of the life from their opposition to it. Though they were victims of job and housing discrimination, and local government vote-cheating, they did benefit in equal measure with the Protestants from the National Health Service, the social benefits, and the educational possibilities introduced by the British Labour government after 1945. No such amenities were available in the South, nor anything like them. The "second class citizens" in the working-class ghettoes of the North were on average a great deal better off than working-class full citizens in the Free State/Republic. Those Six Counties Catholics who were not reconciled could be coerced, and were.
The 1956-62 campaign had established that Catholic nationalist zealots from the South would never "liberate" a "British-occupied Ireland" where the Protestant- Unionist two-thirds of the people, the main "British occupying force", were implacably hostile to them and determined to oppose what they wanted; and the other third were at best only passively sympathetic to them.
To revive after 1962, Catholic Republicanism would have to make the Northern Ireland minority the fulcrum of its efforts to move the status quo. Passive support for militarist champions would have to change into a widespread mass revolt. To set the Northern Catholics in motion against the Six Counties state would take something other than appeals for a united Ireland - a ground-level campaign for their betterment, for Catholic-Protestant equality within the Six Counties and against second-class citizenship. The IRA which had crashed to virtual nothingness at the end of the Border campaign had been incapable of that. The survivors would have to be taught a new approach. Left-wing populist Republicanism, buried since the 1930s, would have to reappear - and play the role of incubator for a rebirth of old-style militarist Republicanism in the early Provisional IRA. Those who, in the main unwittingly, prepared the rebirth of militarist Republicanism, called themselves "socialists" or "Republican socialists". In fact they were Stalinists of varying hues, or the pupils and tools of Stalinists. The story of Republicanism in the seeding decade of the 1960s is a tragedy of confused identities, masked actors, and actors who don't know who or what they are, blundering around a darkened stage - a story in which goals and objectives turn into their opposites, in which those who set out to turn Republicanism to the left and towards politics triggered the Provos' long war.
The Republicanism whose devotees mounted the "Border Campaign" of 1956-62 was an archaic revolutionary sect. The emergence of that archaic militarist Republicanism in the late 1930s was a direct result of the success of De Valera's "reform Republicanism" on the one side, and the utter failure of Stalinist-influenced left-wing Republicanism on the other (the Republican Congress of 1934). That failure was, it has been argued in part 2 of this article, fundamentally the responsibility of Stalinism.
But more. The entire history of Republicanism since the civil war of 1922-3 is impossible to grasp apart from Stalinism. We have touched on this question in part 2. We must now examine in some considerable detail the symbiosis of Stalinised Communism and post-civil-war Republicanism. Against everything that follows, the question can reasonably be raised: even without the work of the Stalinists, would not Republicanism have survived, sustained by the official ideology of the 26 Counties state and a big "unredeemed" Catholic nationalist population in the Six Counties? Most likely. In historic fact, however, Stalinism has intertwined and cross-bred with Republicanism since the 1920s. In the 1960s, it played maybe the decisive role in sustaining it ideologically and preparing its revival. The reader must judge on the historical facts.
To tell the story, we must start with the beginnings of Communism in Ireland, before Stalinism.
Of course, the Communist International supported the Irish in their war of independence against Britain (January 1919 to July 1921). The very important "Theses on the National and Colonial Question" of the Communist International's Second Congress (July-August 1920) were understood to apply to Ireland.
"The Communist International should collaborate provisionally with the revolutionary movement of the colonies and backward countries, and even form an alliance with it, but it must not amalgamate with it; it must unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is only in an embryonic stage".
The Theses restated the doctrine propounded by Karl Marx in 1850 for communist work with the revolutionary nationalists and democrats of that time. The communists, keeping their political and organisational independence, would ally with such people for common goals, "marching separately and striking together". Retrospectively, this was broad endorsement of what James Connolly had done in 1916, if not of the way it was done1.
The Communist Party of Ireland was born twinned to the national question in a way that prefigured what Stalinism would do to it. At the start it was mistaken one-sidedness; soon, it would be a matter of cynical manipulation in the interests of the Stalinist Russian ruling class.
The CPI chose to ally with the revolutionary nationalists in the civil war which started a few months after the party was founded, and not with the labour movement, which opposed the drift to civil war with a one-day general strike. Because of its size, the CP was a mere tail of the more militant revolutionary nationalists. It could not hope to lead the revolutionary nationalist movement, and therefore it was led along after it. It is possible to think, as the writer does, that this approach was broadly correct, its shortcomings inevitable in the circumstances, and yet see it in the light of later events as a prefiguration or indication of a propensity that would cause great damage in the future.
The first Communist Party of Ireland was formed out of the Socialist Party of Ireland in September 1921, and formally declared and named the following month. The War of Independence had ended in a truce that July. British forces were still occupying Ireland. In December 1921 and early January 1922, Sinn Fein, and with it Dail Eireann, would split into supporters and opponents of the Treaty with Britain - "Free Staters" and "Republicans". In its aspects which split Sinn Fein, the Treaty had been dictated by Britain, using the threat of "immediate and terrible war".
Britain also used trickery, assuring the Nationalist Irish negotiators that partition would only be for a short period. Yet the question of partition played very little part in the Dail's impassioned debates. Nobody felt they could do much about it, for now. The questions of Ireland continuing allegiance to the British monarchy, and Britain continuing to have military bases in Ireland, were more overtly central.
Five months later, Michael Collins, acting on a British ultimatum to disarm the anti-Treaty Republicans, launched open civil war. Symbolically, he borrowed British field guns to fire on the Republican headquarters in Dublin. The civil war was soon over in Dublin, but it would continue in the south and west for a year. It was a savage war by the Irish possessing classes, using a Free State army many of whose soldiers were mercenary former British army men, to assert their "law and order" and consolidate their state. The Free Staters were, and were seen as, enforcers of the British diktat they had reluctantly accepted.
The SPI, part of which reorganised itself as the CPI in late 1921, was a feeble, almost moribund, little organisation. When the leaders of the SPI, Cathal O'Shannon and William O'Brien (who was also the acting leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union), were expelled in the course of the birth of the CPI, it was for "non-attendance"… The CPI would be weak like its parent group.
A "Bolshevik group" had existed for some time within the SPI. It was led by Paddy Stephenson, Sean MacLoughlin, James Connolly's son Roddy, and a returned Irish-American, Eamonn McAlpine. These were mainly young people. MacLoughlin had been with James Connolly in the GPO, the insurgent HQ, during the 1916 Rising, and had been promoted to Commandant during the fighting. He was then 15 years old. Roddy Connolly was about the same age. They were rooted personally in the national liberation movement. Two other members of the CPI executive committee had been out in Easter Week, Sean McGowan and J J O'Leary. Though believing in James Connolly's dictum that the true measure of national freedom was the fate of the "lower" classes, the first CPI leaders tended to see the main task of Irish communists as the emancipation of Ireland from Britain.
Both Roddy Connolly and Eamonn McAlpine attended the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in July 1920. Connolly was a member of the commission on the National and Colonial Question.
When the CPI emerged from the SPI more than a year later, it immediately took up a position on the far-Republican wing of the nationalist movement organised in Sinn Fein. In London, the Irish delegates led by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were locked in negotiations which ended with them reluctantly accepting that there could not be a fully independent Ireland, or an Irish Republic, and that there would be partition (temporarily, they believed). They had no authority to accept such terms. They came back to Dublin to fight for their acceptance by the Dail. Even before they came back, the CPI paper, the Workers' Republic, was preaching civil war against compromise (see The CPI calls for Civil War, 1921).
When civil war broke out in late June, some of the CPI leaders, including Roddy Connolly, placed themselves at the disposal of the Republican leadership. After the Republican headquarters at the Four Courts fell to the Free State, early in July, the Republicans soon withdrew from Dublin. The CPI now urged an end to fighting. They issued a manifesto, written by Sean MacLoughlin, urging the Republicans to adopt a radical social policy as a means to rouse support against the Free State.
The Executive Committee of the Communist International had issued a message to the CPI (published in Workers' Republic, 1 July 1922, see The Comintern on the Treaty). It was a workaday document, focused on immediate concerns, the first of which was the resistance to the Free State's compromise with the British Empire. Even so, it is a notably one-sided, even politically crass, document.
There was already, here, an "infection" from Republican mysticism, or at any rate a parallel to it. "It is only after the establishment of real independence that the class struggle will be able to develop untrammelled by any national question". What did "real" independence mean? A greater emancipation for small nations than that given by political independence alone could be won only through international socialist class struggle, not prior to it. The Comintern statement also ignored the fact that the question of Irish independence sharply divided the working class, and that only with a democratic program broader than independence, to address that division, could united workers' struggle develop.
The CPI was appealing to Republicans to adopt a social program which would rally people to "the Republic". For them, this meant an appeal to fight for a different Republic, a Workers' Republic. It was propaganda for communism. So had been James Connolly's much-quoted formulation: "The cause of Ireland is the cause of labour; the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland". Connolly attempted to fuse the national struggle with the working-class interest, and to define the nationalist dimension by the interests of the working class.
But this approach was a two-edged sword. It needed only a certain shift in perspective to convert it from an attempt to enlist a certain sort of nationalist for the cause of working-class socialism, into its opposite - co-option of working-class and broader social concerns as sources of nourishment for nationalism and nationalist projects. With that shift, the working-class interests are no longer paramount. They are subordinate to the national question. This is populism. It is a confusion that recurs again and again in Irish politics, down to this century's end.
Having issued their manifesto, Sean MacLoughlin and Roddy Connolly travelled south to Republican-held territory in Cork to try to persuade the Republican military leader Liam Lynch to adopt their program. Lynch, a 30 year old small-town shop assistant, refused, telling them he was a soldier and not a politician. Symbolically, the CPI emissary Sean MacLoughlin stayed with Lynch, rejoined the IRA, and was immediately restored to the rank of commandant.
In the writer's opinion, the CPI and the Comintern were right to side with the revolutionary nationalists once the lines were drawn - but, as we have seen, the CPI's stance went much further than that.
The civil war would end in May 1923, after Liam Lynch was killed on the Knockmealdown mountains. However, one prominent Republican, Liam Mellows, who had been captured after the Four Courts fell, picked up the ideas in MacLoughlin's CPI manifesto. He incorporated them in letters on strategy and tactics smuggled out of Mountjoy Jail, which were captured and published in the Irish Independent in September 1922. Mellows gave the ideas a Republican-populist twist. The point of the social policy was to win support for the nationalist revolutionaries, not, as with James Connolly and the CPI even in its nationalist one-sidedness, to win the Workers' Republic. "The unemployment question is acute. Starvation is facing thousands of people. The official labour movement has deserted the people for the fleshpots of Empire. The Free State government's attitude towards striking postal workers makes clear what its attitude towards workers generally will be. The situation created by all these must be utilised for the Republic..."
Halfway through the year of civil war, there was a strong recoil within the CPI against the national-liberationist, anti-imperialist one-sidedness that had so far characterised the party. The first CPI congress was held in Dublin on 20 January 1923. There were 23 people at the Congress, 22 of them from Dublin, though the party could claim a few loose affiliates outside the city. Roddy Connolly failed even to get re-elected to the Executive Committee. The party now turned strongly to the working-class movement. In the War of Independence and the civil war there had been an eruption of small-scale labour militancy and the declaration of soviets by isolated strike committees in perhaps 40 separate cases. What the young CPI might have achieved had it been allowed to learn, think, and develop, helped by the Communist International, cannot be known. The CPI was killed off by the Comintern, which in late 1923 told it to dissolve and its members to join a new organisation, the Irish Workers' League, set up by Jim Larkin. The difficulty was that the IWL never really existed!
Jim Larkin, the founder of the modern Irish labour movement, had been released from prison in the USA in 1923, and returned to Ireland after nine years' absence. He had participated in the US communist movement, and still had great authority and popularity with the Dublin workers. When, in circumstances which are outside our concern here, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union split in 1924, two thirds of its members in Dublin (16,000) followed Larkin in founding the Workers' Union of Ireland. Larkin was a great charismatic rouser and leader of workers, but he was erratic, disorganised and incapable of accepting constraint.
The Irish Workers' League never had much existence outside of Larkin. It had no membership structure, dues or branches. It was a name, an occasional electoral identity, and a sub-section of the Workers' Union of Ireland, which was affiliated to the Profintern, the communist International of labour unions.
That it made sense to the Communist International to try to group the forces of Irish communism around Larkin is understandable. A great deal might have been done. Larkin and his son, "Young Jim", repeatedly got large votes in Dublin. In 1927, Larkin was elected to the Dail, though he was then disqualified as an undischarged bankrupt. 500 attended the meeting to launch the Irish Workers' League. When Lenin died in January 1924, Larkin led 6,000 workers through the streets of Dublin in a procession of mourning. The tragedy was that Larkin could not organise, nor educate, the people who would have followed him much further. The Communist Party of Great Britain tried to help organise the IWL, sending over an experienced party leader, Bob Stewart, but with little result.
Those who had organised the CPI set up a successor to that organisation, the Workers' Party of Ireland, in 1926, believing nothing could be done with the IWL. They published a paper called Hammer and Plough, then later The Workers' Republic. The prominent veteran socialist Republicans Maud Gonne and Charlotte Despard were on the WPI executive. When the Comintern told the WPI to dissolve and "join" the IWL, some of the leaders, Roddy Connolly for example, once more accepted Comintern discipline and did as they were told. Most of the members refused, and maintained the WPI for two or three years.
That in broad outline is the story of Irish communism in the 1920s. We will now explore the politics of it, in connection with the changes in Ireland and in the Comintern in that period.
The Free State consolidated itself, and so did the Northern sub-state. A functioning parliamentary democracy survived the civil war. In 1927, De Valera would lead the major Republican forces into the Dail, against whose majority vote they had been in revolt, thus massively strengthening the bourgeois-democratic system. After March 1932, the bourgeois democracy would survive the installation of the losers of the civil war as the government, and the consequent dislocations of the quasi-militarised Blueshirt opposition and the Economic War with Britain.
More. De Valera would expand the independence of the 26 Counties until it was true for him to claim in 1937 that the Free State was a Republic in external association with the British Empire or Commonwealth. In 1938 De Valera negotiated the removal of the three remaining British naval bases, thus creating the possibility of a fully independent, neutral, foreign policy in World War 2.
Even from the early days of the Free State, those who had accepted Michael Collins' view that the Treaty gave them "the freedom to win freedom" had worked at expanding that freedom. The Statute of Westminster in 1931, giving effective independence to all the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Free State), was in some part the result of their work at successive Imperial Conferences. The "national revolutionary" movement discerned in the Comintern's 1920 resolution, and by James Connolly, gave way to successful national reformism.
The great failure of the "national reformists" was that they neither ended partition, nor rationalised it by the transfer of the extensive Catholic-nationalist majority border areas to the Free State. They abandoned the democratic principle of the right of the Catholics not to be held against their will, perhaps because they saw the Catholics in the Six Counties' border areas as a future argument for Irish unity. In 1925, Professor Eoin MacNeill - he who had been responsible for the collapse of the plan for a national rising in 1916, and the consequent isolation of Dublin - took on behalf of the Free State government a cash payment from Britain as compensation for accepting partition, and came back to Ireland boasting that he had got "a good price".
Communist policy had to take these developments into account. It also had to take account of the fact that partition left most of the industrial proletariat of Ireland in the Northern state, and that the proletariat in most of the 26 Counties was in a situation not unlike that described for Ennis in part 2 of this article.
Partition was radically different from the Catholic-nationalist depiction of it as a matter of "British-occupied Ireland" that came, through Stalinist influence, to dominate most of the left both within Ireland and outside it. The Six Counties entity was, of course, a British imperialist imposition. The Catholics were the majority in nearly half the land area of the sub-state. Ultimately the Six Counties is an unviable unit.
Nonetheless, the internal Irish root of partition was the existence of a minority, distinct from the rest of the Irish, who demanded separation from the Irish majority and unity with the UK. To Catholic chauvinists these were "bad", "traitorous", "quisling" Irish, or "colons" (300 or 400 years after their community had settled in Ireland!), but this view was neither true to reality nor compatible with the democratic principle on which Catholic-nationalist Ireland itself had claimed and won separation from Britain.
In the Ireland that emerged in the mid 1920s, the Ulster Protestant-unionists had self-determination. The 26 Counties population had something very close to it. The only part that could meaningfully be called "occupied Ireland" was the borderland Catholic-majority areas of the Six Counties (Fermanagh, Tyrone, South Armagh, Derry City) - and these were "occupied" by the Protestant-unionist Irish sub-state.
The rights of the Six Counties' Catholic second-class citizens, and of southern Protestants and other non-Catholics - these were properly matters of concern for democrats and socialists. But to make "Irish unity" a central, even all-shaping, concern - that did not necessarily follow. The idea of conquering Northern Ireland, and forcing the compact Protestant-unionist population of north-east Ulster into a united Ireland, was repugnant both to democracy and to Wolfe Tone republicanism. If a unitary Ireland could be achieved at all now, it could not be done by force, and in any case should not be done by force. A federal Ireland, or maybe a more equitable partition, in which the Catholic majority areas were allowed to choose the Six or the 26 Counties states, were the only possibilities.
Though the attitudes to the North of post-civil-war Republicans, both reformists (De Valera) and revolutionaries, were subsumed into their general anti-Britishness and "anti-imperialism", they all rejected the idea of force against the Northern Protestants. They knew it could not achieve its goal.
The precondition for serious socialist and revolutionary politics in Ireland was a rational response to these two realities: the evolution of the Free State into real independence, and the fact that the opposition to an island-wide state came from the majority in the Six Counties state - Irish people who had been willing in 1914 to fight against the British government rather than accept Irish unity.
The pre-1914 nationalist and unionist Irish bourgeois politicians had prepared the way for the brutal and poisonous partition of 1921-2 by their long decades of indifference to finding a properly democratic constitutional settlement in Ireland. It fell to the left to find one in the messy aftermath of Ireland's "bourgeois revolution". Divisions on the "constitutional question" had led to murderous and long-term division in the Irish working class. As a condition of political life, the Irish working class needed its own "constitutional proposals", a mutually-agreed Protestant-Catholic working class idea of how they could live together without the oppression which the Six Counties Catholics felt and the Six Counties Protestants feared from a united Ireland.
The tendency of both the early communists and the left Republicans was to blur the issue of conflicting national identities and postulate future Irish unity as unity of the common people in a Republic as radically different from the official Republic of 1919-22 as it was from British monarchism - the Workers' Republic. But it was not and could not be an answer. France and Walloon Belgium will not necessarily unite as one state immediately after both become socialist.
There was a powerful communist literature on this question, and clear-cut model proposals - "wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc." (as a Bolshevik resolution of 1913 put it). There had even been some talk among Republicans in the early 1920s, including Eamonn de Valera, about "federalism". One of the leading publicists of Sinn Fein, Aodh de Blacan, talked about "cantonisation" as a possible solution in a book published in late 1921 between the truce and the Treaty.
It would seem that only the chauvinist mystics and obscurantists of the different nationalisms could object to some such arrangement of Irish affairs. Not so.
The Comintern's Fourth Congress, at the end of 1922, was the last Congress led by Lenin and Trotsky. The Fifth Congress, in June-July 1924, was, arguably, the last gathering that deserves to be called a congress. The Sixth and Seventh Congresses (1928 and 1935) were rigidly-controlled Stalinist charades.
The Lenin-Trotsky Comintern, whose day-to-day leadership was in the hands of Grigorii Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin, made mistakes. They were honestly discussed and corrected. The Comintern after the Fourth Congress differed in two respects. Its mistakes, most importantly the catastrophic bungling of the possible German revolution in October 1923, were not admitted, not discussed, and not honestly corrected. And it came to be dominated by, and used to serve, the interests of the party bureaucracy in the USSR, which by 1921 or 1922 had fused with the state bureaucracy and increasingly served its own interests. The Comintern was being taken over by a solidifying new ruling class in the USSR.
By late 1922 the Comintern executive had (privately) come to criticise the one-sidedness of the CPI on the national liberation question. But by the Fifth Congress, 18 months later, the new Stalinist approach to the national question was being openly codified - it meant using national questions to serve USSR interests, or to supplement weak communist organisations, and using them inorganically and artificially, irrespective of their proper weight and importance for working-class communists in a given situation.
It was no longer the old Comintern. Lenin had died in January 1924. Sections of the Russian party bureaucracy had fused with the state bureaucracy and seized political power. The Stalinist doctrine that "socialism in one country" could be built in backward Russia would not be promulgated by Stalin until October 1924, but its elements had gone like a prefiguring shadow before it. The idea which would henceforth dominate the USSR's foreign policy was that there would be no new working-class revolutions for a long time, perhaps decades, and consequently that the role of the foreign Communist Parties was to work in their own countries at whatever would help the USSR survive. The Comintern and its parties would increasingly be pliant, paid-for tools for manipulating workers in the perceived interests of Russian policy.
As Trotsky explained it, looking back from 1928, the core of it was a loss of confidence in the working class of the West - and also in the Communist Parties. Needing international frontier guards for the USSR, the troika at the head of the USSR and the Comintern, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin, looked for ways of supplementing or bypassing the CPs. They sought bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, nationalist and peasant allies, and subordinated working-class interests to those allies, that is, ultimately, to the Stalinist estimates of the needs of USSR foreign policy. A new, degenerate, period of the Communist International was inaugurated, the incubation period for the later cynical and open use of the Comintern as a mere department of the Stalinist state.
The Communist Party of China entered the bourgeois-nationalist Guo Min Dang army/party of Chiang Kai Shek, acted as a brake on the militant Chinese workers, and ultimately paid for it with their lives and the lives of many thousands of Chinese workers. It was a caricature re-enactment of the mistakes of James Connolly in 1916, but with much less excuse.
In Britain, the Comintern looked to the leaders of the TUC, and kept the young CPGB's politics subordinate to them even during the General Strike of May 1926, which those trade union leaders were misleading and betraying. In October 1923, the Comintern founded a "peasant International", the Krestintern. What concerns us here is what this approach meant on the national question. The Fifth Congress adopted a report by one of the Comintern's leading officials, Manuilsky. It claimed to be continuing the approach codified at the Second Congress. In fact it was radically different. Wherein lay the difference? In the fact that for the Second Congress the national question was an aspect of the proletarian revolutionary movement, and in 1924 and after it became a substitute for it, a "stage" separate from it and counterposed to it. The new emphasis on national issues was part of a search for alternatives to the Communist Parties. National questions were used manipulatively and cynically with an eye on Russian foreign policy and on disrupting such states as Yugoslavia in Russia's interest, irrespective of the effect on working-class politics. In the Comintern's efforts to supplement the CPs with peasant parties and nationalist movements, the CPs became promoters of nationalism instead of working-class advocates of international unity of the proletariat across the national divides on the basis of a common fight for consistent democracy and freedom for all peoples.
For authentic communists, promotion of democratic national rights was a means of mending national divisions in the working class, developing the democratic content of revolutionary nationalism to socialist conclusions, and ultimately dispelling nationalism by satisfying its legitimate democratic demands. For the Stalinists, promotion of selected local nationalisms became a tool for use in the national interests of Russia.
There had been serious errors in the heroic years of the Comintern. So-called "national Bolshevism" had briefly been attempted in Germany, with the CP trying to co-opt German nationalists angry against the Treaty of Versailles into their camp. That was an aberration. From 1924 on, such things would increasingly become the norm.
The clearest example of the Comintern's trend on the national question in the mid-1920s known to the writer, and therefore the best way to show the pressures and demands on the Irish CPers from the end of the civil war, was in the Balkans.
In 1910 the Balkan socialists had begun to promulgate the idea of a democratic Balkan federation as the answer to the vast mosaic of national, religious and dynastic conflicts in the region. At the end of World War 1 Yugoslavia was formed, to combine Serbia, which had been on the side of the victors, with Croatia, Slovenia and Dalmatia, which had been part of the defeated Austro-Hungarian state. Kosova, "old Serbia", had been annexed by Serbia in 1913, and was given back to Serbia after the war. Serbia was also given most of Macedonia, from defeated Bulgaria. Apart from those areas, this was in the main a voluntary union. There had for many years been a movement for a South-Slav federation within the Austro-Hungarian empire, notably from the Croats.
However, conflict within the new state erupted from the beginning, between Serbian "centralists" and "federalists" such as the Croatian Peasant Party. The centralists prevailed because many of the federalists chose to boycott the Belgrade assembly (though they were not trying to secede from Yugoslavia) and also, perhaps more decisively, because the centralists had an established state machine and army.
The Balkan Communist Parties, organised in the Balkan Communist Federation, called for a socialist federation of the Balkans. Advocating socialism and federalism, and national autonomy for the component peoples of Yugoslavia, the main CPY leaders thought that Yugoslavia represented progress in itself and also could be a step towards Balkan federation. The Bulgarian regime of Alexander Stambulisky's Peasant Party (1919-23) favoured Yugoslav-Bulgarian federation.
From the Comintern's Fifth Congress onwards, irresistible pressure was brought to bear on the Yugoslav CP not to champion federalism and autonomy for the peoples in the Yugoslav state, but instead to be the best Croat and other nationalists - working for the breakup of the Yugoslav state, whose rulers were very hostile to the USSR and had close links with France. All notions of changing Yugoslavia into a democratic federation were stigmatised as "reformism" and "Austro-Marxism".
The leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stephan Radic, had attended the Fifth Congress. His attendance was considered immensely important - an increase in the Yugoslav forces that might "defend the USSR". Zinoviev, the president of the Communist International, and Bukharin, obligingly developed populist ideas about a "new" socialist peasantry.
Radic went back to Yugoslavia, and in 1925 joined the government! But there were other Croat nationalists - the future Ustashe. These were national and religious chauvinists. They were possessed by a murderous "race hatred" of Serbs, and during World War 2 they would, as Nazi stooges, massacre hundreds of thousands of them. Until the mid-1930s the CP would collaborate with them - even when the Ustashe was in the pay of Mussolini, who desired the breakup of Yugoslavia because he coveted Dalmatia - and the Comintern's press would boost them as revolutionary Croatian patriots. This would change only when the turn to Popular Fronts, that is, to the period after 1934-5 when the Comintern accepted and championed the territorial integrity of the existing potentially anti-German states, among them Yugoslavia (and the British and French empires).
Similar policies were pursued in Macedonia. Missionaries of the Bulgarian church had stamped a Bulgarian national identity on the Macedonian peasants. The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO) had been formed in 1895 to organise guerrilla raids against the Turkish rulers of Macedonia, which it did with the approval and tacit support of the government of Bulgaria (independent from Turkey since 1878). Bulgaria won Macedonia in the First Balkan War of 1912, and then lost most of it to Serbia and Greece in the Second War in 1913. In the First World War, IMRO worked with the Bulgarian occupying army in Macedonia and parts of Serbia, allied with the Germans, and was responsible for atrocities against Serbs and Greeks. In the 1920s it worked with those in Bulgaria who desired Balkan union but under explicit and rampant Bulgarian supremacy. It helped overthrow the Stambulisky Peasant Party regime in June 1923. IMRO was now a paid tool of both Bulgarian governments and of Mussolini.
Working-class politics would normally have led the Bulgarian CP to try to win and re-educate IMRO militants. It would certainly not have led them to adopt IMRO's politics, but that is what the CP did. A policy of advocating "Macedonian unity and independence" was imposed on the Greek Communist Party, even though virtually the entire population of Greek Macedonia and Thrace, the areas affected, was Greek2.
As with the IRA, the CP did help crystallise a "left" (less chauvinist, perhaps) wing within the IMRO, less chauvinist perhaps. The point is that these were fundamentally the politics of manipulation and bribery for Russian state advantage. The Stalinists' evocations of Lenin's ideas on national rights were arbitrary and false ideologising. Italy pursued similar politics, for Italian state advantage, and more successfully on that level, though not mainly through a party of "its own" such as the purged and Stalinised CPs were for Russia.
What was the impact of these "5th Congress" politics in Ireland? The Communist International made no objective "theoretical" analysis of "the Irish question" after Dublin got Dominion status and Belfast, Home Rule.
Even before Stalinism, there had been little real discussion. Apart from the debate at the Second Congress in 1920, when the Anglo-Irish war was raging, there were two articles in the Communist International magazine, by "Thomas Daragh", who was Roddy Connolly, 20 or 21 years old at the time. The articles adequately retold the old story of the Irish struggle for independence and the labour movement's recent role in it, but that was all. Thus there was very little obstacle of previously-established Marxist culture to the noxious effects of the Comintern's turn.
The post-Lenin turn of the Comintern on the national question - using it to the state advantage of the USSR, and here in particular against the UK - ruled out a working-class approach. The nationalist discontent in Ireland, and the existence of a revolutionary Republican movement, were Russian foreign-policy resources to be exploited.
The CPI had begun to correct its mistaken one-sidedness in 1923, but Larkin and the IWL, who now had the Comintern's support, were already "soft" on the nationalists, and in full accord with the demands of the Comintern line after the Fifth Congress. Larkin's pre-1914 paper, The Irish Worker had had much in it of the loose, sloppy, sentimental, conventional Irish nationalist culture cultivated by the Home Rule party, a political culture that the harder-headed Connolly had bitterly despised, calling it "sunburstery" (after the sunburst flags, supposedly from ancient Ireland, that the Home Rulers often carried).
In July 1927, shortly after de Valera's new reform-Republican party, Fianna Fail, had won 44 seats in a general election to the Free Staters' 47, the important government minister Kevin O'Higgins was assassinated. Severe government repression followed, suppressing civil liberties. What did Larkin and the IWL do? Defying a ban on meetings, Larkin addressed a large meeting near the Workers' Union of Ireland headquarters. He moved this resolution: "That this mass meeting of citizens, union officers and union men and women, holding diverse political views [call on] the leader of the second largest party elected to the Dail [to summon a meeting] of representative men and women of all parties opposed to the government [to organise a conference] and draw up a programme with a view to meeting the tyrannical measures of government, and to find a common denominator in defence of the lives, liberties and rights of the common people."
De Valera responded with a statement. "Following on a request sent me from a mass meeting of workers held in the city last night", he was calling a meeting of opposition political parties and trade unions. Only Larkin and De Valera attended. After a ten minute chat, they went about their own political affairs.
That appeal for a cross-class joint program with bourgeois nationalism was representative of Larkin's approach - and it fitted perfectly with the Comintern's conceptions. Larkin had another political trait: implacable hostility (which was returned, with interest) to the rest of the labour movement, Irish Transport and General Workers' Union and Labour Party alike. This gave his political tailending of the "revolutionary nationalists" a caricature quality.
At the beginning, the WPI attempted to analyse Irish national reality as it was evolving. Roddy Connolly now put the emphasis on class, reiterating James Connolly's approach to the national question: only on the basis of the workers' struggle for emancipation could the fight for national freedom be carried to a successful end. De Valera, said Connolly, represented the "national bourgeoisie". This posing of the question was still within the nationalist framework, but it was a left twist to it. It was far to the left of both Larkin and the Comintern.
But the WPI soon struck their tentatively independent political flag in deference to the Comintern. Even those who continued the WPI in defiance of Comintern instructions became defenders and propagandists of the Comintern's political line. In the 1927 general election the WPI called for unity "among all progressive parties", and "unity of the left-wing forces", " to fight the common enemy" and defeat the Free Staters. For the WPI, the "left-wing forces" included Fianna Fail, the rump Sinn Fein (from which the IRA had separated in November 1925, and De Valera in March 1926), and the Labour Party. Larkin excluded the Labour Party.
When, in October 1926, the Comintern told the WPI to disband and "join" the IWL, it also called on the IWL to reorganise. For what political purpose? To "carry on the revolutionary struggle for national independence of the Irish people, to complete... separation from the Empire... [by establishing] a united front with the nationalist organisations which have not abandoned and betrayed the cause of independence". Trying to win Comintern favour, the WPI paper defined De Valera and Fianna Fail as "national revolutionary forces still carrying on the struggle against British imperialism... They are the standard-bearers of the national revolutionary struggle and must be supported". Their election would be "one more step towards the Irish workers' republic". The WPI's advocacy of a Labour-Fianna Fail coalition put them politically to the right of the Labour leaders!
All of this lacked any critical assessment of the "national question" at this point, and any all-island - or even Free State - working-class perspective. The WPI, too, declined. In 1928 the Comintern endorsed Larkin's position: no support to or collaboration with the Labour Party -work with the nationalists.
We will now examine the development of left-wing Republicanism to the point where a "national Communist Party" - not so called - emerged out of the IRA. The "second" Sinn Fein, from 1917 to 1921-2, was a great coalition of separatist Catholic Ireland. Intellectually it hegemonised southern Irish labour too, which played an important collective part in the fight with Britain, including strikes and even a general strike. Though there was more than one reason for it, the Labour Party gave Sinn Fein a clear field for the December 1918 general election. This meant that within the portmanteau Sinn Fein there were people of left-wing views and working-class political sympathies. They were against imperialism and colonialism not only in Ireland, but all over the globe.
In the Dail Eireann debate on the Treaty, Liam Mellows had made an appeal to the deputies not to betray India, Egypt and the other victims of British colonialism by opting for "the fleshpots of Empire" as a 'White Dominion'.
Later, jailed and shortly to be shot (in December 1922) by the Free Staters, he echoed the manifesto of the CPI in his own Fenian terms. Republicans, he said, following Wolfe Tone a century and a quarter earlier, are "back to the men of no property".
Those who were determined to continue the fight for the Republic could not but be aware of the Irish social forces against them. In the "split", they had seen the "stake in the country people" rally around the Free Stater wing of Sinn Fein and put their stamp on it. The big farmers, the cattle ranchers, the Church, the Chambers of Commerce (which had rushed to condemn the 1916 Rising), and all those they could influence, stood in behind the Treaty and the Free State's war with the irreconcilables of the IRA. From their own point of view, the IRA now approached James Connolly's idea that national freedom is measured by the fate of the working class. Only by going socially deeper could they go forward in national independence beyond the Free State compromise which the "stake in the country people" had accepted.
A hostile, but perceptive and knowledgeable, analyst of the evolution of the Republican movement, James Hogan, wrote this: "External ideas impinging on the mentality of a party in a revolutionary mood but without any philosophy of its own will produce surprising growth in a very short time. It is not possible to isolate a thing so contagious as a revolution in ideas within geographical or national boundaries"3.
In November 1925 the IRA formally separated from Sinn Fein. It was, of course, not an army so much as an armed party. The defection of De Valera's forces from "revolutionary nationalism" to national reformism and parliamentarism further perplexed the IRA.
The search for answers to such questions as who, in social terms, "signed" the Treaty, and which classes betrayed the Republic of 1916-22, led the IRA towards "Communist" ideas. After 1926-7, the IRA travelled towards the Comintern - only it was now the Stalintern. Some Republicans, including David Fitzpatrick and George Gilmore, went for military training to the USSR. In 1925, when there were near-famine conditions in the west of Ireland, left Republicans, such as Maud Gonne, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Charlotte Despard and Paedar O'Donnell, were part of a Comintern auxiliary organisation, an Irish section of the "Workers' International Relief", which organised aid. Other Comintern auxiliaries involved the IRA in their work. Sean MacBride, a central IRA leader and Maud Gonne's son, was secretary of the Irish section of the "League against Imperialism" from 1926, and around 1930 the IRA affiliated to it. In 1930 an Irish section of the Krestintern, the Comintern's peasant international, was set up with Paedar O'Donnell as secretary.
In autumn 1927, David Fitzpatrick, from the IRA headquarters staff, was in Moscow for a congress of the Friends of Soviet Russia, and appointed to the presidium. He told the congress: "When we return to our country, it will be our task to convince our fellow-workers that their hope, their salvation, is bound up with Soviet Russia".
The tragedy was that the USSR and Comintern to which they were drawn were anything but healthy. Later in 1927 a 10 person delegation of IRA headquarters staff and IWL people went to Moscow to attend the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution - exactly as the revolutionary communists led by Trotsky were being expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The IRA expressed their politics of opposition to Irish capitalism in terms of anti-imperialism: "Undo the Conquest". Here they followed James Connolly: the Norman-English conquest signified the imposition of alien class patterns and a ruling class on a supposedly clan-communistic primordial Gaelic society.
But the degree to which the IRA party-army was "communist", or prepared to tolerate "communism" in its leaders, is startling. The explanation lies in the parallelism between many of their own ideas, from nationalist and republican stock and their experience of the Irish national revolution and civil war, and the version of "communism" which they now took on board. There was also much sympathy for the Russian Revolution among Irish workers and Republicans who had in deference to Connolly's memory taken a sympathetic attitude, at least, towards socialism. They were alienated from and contemptuous of the bourgeois-democratic parliamentary system. In a confused way, the IRA in early 1922, during the stand-off with the supporters of the Treaty which led to the civil war, had seemed to want a military dictatorship - after the model, ironically, of Oliver Cromwell's dealing with compromising, hesitating and corrupt parliamentarians during the English Revolution of the 1640s.
O'Donnell wrote in An Phoblacht on 5 May 1928: "Parliaments are for museums. They will here and forever betray revolution. The thing to work towards today is a national executive of peasant Ireland and town workers organised industrially to seize back the soil and to secure workers' control of industries and services within the co-operative commonwealth". This is characteristic of both their boldness and their confusion. Workers and farmers are identified; parliamentary democracy is identified with bourgeois rule in a way that is at least open to the anti-democratic conclusions common to the militarist elitism of the IRA party-army and to their Stalinist mentors. The "executive" of the working people of Ireland could be elected by soviets, or something like that - but everything is blurred here, and in a world where Italian fascism had dressed itself ideologically in gutted syndicalist theories of "corporatism" and Stalinist Russia had turned the forms of soviets into their opposites.
An Phoblacht, 1928: "I believe our movement for freedom must be based on the peasant farmers and the town workers, and that we must openly declare ourselves for a government based on this section of the nation".
Again (O'Donnell, An Phoblacht 19 April 1930): "There is no longer any possibility of the separatist movement being merely an attack on the military occupation of the country. It must be the mobilisation of the working classes for a transfer of power to the workers... There is no political party in Ireland today standing for anything more than an extension of freedom just to those limits where a native bourgeoisie will be rid of Britain and free to exploit the working class and working farmers in Ireland".
O'Donnell, An Phoblacht, 7 February 1931: "Beat the landlord out of life, beat the capitalist out of industry, smash the state machine, arm the workers. Vest in them, in alliance with the working farmers, all the power over production..." And: "The priest who comes out with the bosses against us will get his good share of the missiles we throw; just leave those issues to the crowd, keep out of the sacristies [i.e. leave the Church as such alone]; keep busy in the struggle and relate our enemies, lay and clerical, to the interests they serve, not the things they say".
An Phoblacht, 14 July 1932: "The state as we know it is the organisation of coercive weapons for upholding the exploiting order... The parliamentary machine, once constituted, becomes the instrument, willing or unwilling, of the exploiting class".
In January 1933, nearly a year after De Valera's reform Republicans came to power, an all-Ireland delegate gathering of the army-party (an "Army Convention") adopted an address to the Irish people:
"We are in favour of shutting out British goods, but we do not believe that this should result in the enrichment of an exploiting manufacturing class. We believe the reorganisation of Irish life demands the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange in a state based on the needs of the mass of the people". This was their comment on and alternative to De Valera's nationalist policy of building up Irish capitalist manufacturing behind high tariff walls.
That these were revolutionary socialists can scarcely be disputed. That this organisation could have been the basis for the development of a sizeable communist movement and provided it with a tempered cadre was at least a serious possibility.
Yet in its vagueness and unclarity on the distinction between workers and farmers, in its catch-all idea of "the people", and in its nationalism, the IRA resembled the populist Russian Social Revolutionaries more than the Bolsheviks or the parties of the early Comintern.
The IRA differed from out-and-out, or, where such as O'Donnell were concerned, from "out", Communists in their professed Catholicism and in their definition of their socialism in national and not international terms (though they did of course express concern that other nations should do for their people what they advocated for Ireland).
In international politics the IRA were uncritical, even adulatory, of the USSR. They, not the official Stalinists, controlled the Irish "Friends of Soviet Russia". Nor was their "national-socialism" or "national-communism" out of step with the Stalinists.
The IRA which, between 1927 or earlier and 1933, underwent the political evolution discernible in the quotations above, did not engage in conventional politics. It was on principle against both the Belfast parliament and the Dail as usurping bodies; and it was inclined to be against parliaments as such. Nonetheless, as it turned, under Comintern influence, towards social agitation, the need for a more conventional political wing manifested itself.
In terms of social agitation, the first turn was towards the small farmers of the west. As we have seen, the Comintern's peasant auxiliary, known anagrammatically as the Krestintern, was part of the turn in search of supplements for the worker Communist Parties in their role as foreign-policy and diplomatic makeweights for the USSR. An Irish section of the Krestintern, the "Peasant Committees", or "Working Farmer Committees", was established by the IRA leaders in early 1930.
There was much small-farmer militancy and resentment at the annuities paid to former landlords under the terms of the Land Acts of the British administration from the early 20th and late 19th century; and organising the poor peasants of the west would have been an auxiliary concern of any serious revolutionary working-class movement. It was the chosen chief focus of the IRA "communists". A provisional organising committee was set up in January 1930, with O'Donnell as Secretary. Its stated goal was an independent Irish Republic "with power resting on the working farmers and town workers" (An Phoblacht, 8 February 1930). The Irish Working Farmers' Committee movement was formally inaugurated at a conference in Galway, on 5 April 1930, which passed this resolution:
"The Irish Working Farmers' Congress declares the exaction of annuities, which are landlordism under another name, to be as objectionable as were the old rents, and warns the political parties that the working farmers are not interested in the legal quibbles nor slushy talk about moral obligations in this matter; these charges are an injustice and should end... This Congress instructs the National Committee to proceed with the organisation of the working farmers of Ireland on the basis of our platform by forming committees of action in the villages and townlands which will conduct the everyday struggle of the working farmers, expose and prevent imperialist terrorism, organise meetings, demonstrations, etc., to explain our programme and methods of struggle".
In 1931, Matt Kent, an old Republican and a small farmer in County Wexford, was one of many who refused to pay, insisting that British land bondholders had no title to tribute from such as himself. In 1932, in Kinnity, in Offaly, a landless man named Pat Craven was to be evicted from a lodge he had occupied for 13 years. When bailiffs and police arrived, 35 men armed with sticks were in occupation to prevent the eviction. On the door they had pinned the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from 1916, and a handwritten notice: "... No tribute to Britain! Down with the landlords new and old! Down with the Land Commission! The land for the people! No rent from the small farmers! Down with the robber banking system. Workers and working farmers unite!"
Such struggles were the business of communists; but they were limited in scope and implications. A bourgeois land redistribution had taken place. By 1932, 65% of the land of the 26 Counties was in holdings of less than 100 acres. The IRA's policy here was for the seizure of some large and middle-sized farms and their redistribution. This - in place of the reorganisation of the large farms under social ownership and workers' control - was in fact regressive. The whole policy amounted to playing with the embers of an Irish agrarian revolution that had essentially won its way, or picking over the bones of the bourgeois revolution already achieved.
The Galway congress, presided over by a Clare republican, Sean Hayes, adopted a resolution welcoming the formation of a "Revolutionary Workers' Party", the early name of a new Stalinist movement set up by returning pupils from the "Lenin School" in Moscow, with the help of the CPGB - "so that the common purpose [of workers all over Ireland] may make the town workers and the working farmers brothers in the common fight to achieve a free Irish Republic and a workers' state" (An Phoblacht, 5 April 1930).
O'Donnell gave these greetings to the Dublin workers: the aim of revolutionary Republicans, he said, must be "to set up and defend the Irish Workers' Republic, with power resting, as a Peasant Conference in Galway declared, in councils of the working farmers and working class" (An Phoblacht, 12 May 1930). The politics and the orientation are clear. But the possibilities for those committees were restricted. In July 1931, the IRA, itself a cadre army-party, finally set up a preparatory committee for a new political party, Saor Eire (Free Ireland). What followed was to test the seriousness and moral courage of the IRA leaders, and ultimately prepare the split that came with the Republican Congress in March 1934.
On 26-27 September 1931 a national congress of 150 delegates in Dublin launched Saor Eire. Saor Eire's objective was declared to be a Workers' and Farmers' Republic. It was "for the overthrow in Ireland of British imperialism and Irish capitalism". It offered "to achieve a revolutionary leadership for [sic] the working classes and working farmers... [and] to organise and consolidate the Republic of Ireland on the basis of the possession and administration by the workers and working farmers of the land, instruments of production, distribution and exchange" (An Phoblacht, 10 October 1931). The congress sent greetings to the USSR.
Looking back on the events of the previous 15 years that had brought such change to the island, Saor Eire argued that the War of Independence of 1919-21 had aimed at "separation from England as a means towards building up a native Irish capitalist economy and a policy representing the Irish middle classes". Dail Eireann in 1919, and the IRA as its agent, had represented the Irish capitalists, holding "the people" back from, for example, land seizures in the west. The Treaty, and the civil war to enforce it, were the Irish bourgeoisie consolidating its power. (This was James Connolly's idea that the Republic would be real only if it put the lowest class in power. But Connolly was putting forward a line of march in a future revolution; here, Saor Eire were poking in the embers after the bourgeoisie had consolidated power, still defining revolution by the goal of "the Republic").
Nor did Saor Eire entirely spare the Catholic Church. "It should be put on record that the Irish hierarchy played a part of special viciousness" (An Phoblacht, 3 October 1931). Eighteen months earlier, O'Donnell had said that next time, "We will not be making the revolution as Catholics under the bishops, but as workers under working-class leadership" (An Phoblacht, 1 February 1930).
Saor Eire seems to have effectively subsumed most of the broader political aspects of the peasant committees. Its platform was drafted by David Fitzpatrick, a fully convinced Stalinist with international Stalinist links, who was also Saor Eire's secretary.
O'Donnell toured the country for Saor Eire with Saklatvala, the former Labour-Communist MP for Battersea, and Sean Murray, who would be secretary of a new Communist Party of Ireland formed in 1933. There were large Saor Eire meetings all over the 26 Counties, prefiguring the response to the Republican Congress in 1934. A contemporary (Hogan) wrote that Saor Eire "spread like wildfire". Its skeleton structure was provided by the IRA and the Stalinists, now called the Revolutionary Workers' Groups.
But the Bishops declared war on the new attempt by the IRA to move into more active politics, denouncing Saor Eire as "communistic". And in October 1931 the government banned a whole galaxy of organisations, from Saor Eire through the Friends of Soviet Russia to the Revolutionary Workers' Groups. Some IRA leaders rushed to prostrate themselves spiritually before the bishops. In first place was Sean MacBride, who had worked with the League Against Imperialism since 1926, and whose comrade and mother, Maud Gonne, had been on the executive of the Workers' Party of Ireland. The Church's assault, the government ban, and jailings of Republicans, ended the Saor Eire episode.
The regime of the Free State victors now had only months to run. When Fianna Fail came to power, in February 1932, it would reshape everything. Fianna Fail took up the land agitation of the Working Farmers' Committee. In 1932 it stopped the payment of the land annuities to Britain (though they were still collected by the Irish state). Britain, which in 1931 had finally abandoned free trade, retaliated by slapping a ruinous tariff of 20% on all Irish imports. It hit Irish beef particularly. The Economic War began. The IRA-Stalinist groups set up "Boycott Britain" committees, and tried to stop the import of Bass beer and British coal ("Burn everything English but their coal!"). The Free Staters organised a mass quasi-fascist party. The fight against "Blueshirt" fascism dominated Republican and left politics. The revolutionary Republicans gravitated to Fianna Fail.
Yet the IRA that had struggled to clarify itself politically, that is, essentially, to make itself politically a movement able to define and fight for the social goals which the millenarian-tinged word "Republic" had meant or half-meant for many of those who had fought for it in 1919-23 - that organisation still existed. When Fianna Fail came to power, that would for some underline the necessity for a radical departure, and for others act like a magnet drawing them to the right. This IRA had some road to run yet before it broke up. It would continue to run in tandem with its political alter-ego: the Stalinist movement.
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