Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3
The Irish Revolution
HOW was it that the Irish Revolution, begun by a leadership that included James Connolly, resulted in a repressive right-wing government, arguably more so than the Ulster Unionists, that used British arms to crush the republican movement and successfully broke the second wave of Irish syndicalism? As Kevin O’Higgins famously remarked, the Irish revolutionaries were the most conservative of revolutionaries. This is the key question that confronts students of the period, and both the books under review must be judged, at least in part, by the extent to which they contribute to an answer.
In his new history of the War of Independence, Michael Hopkinson decisively cuts through the romantic mythology that still surrounds the 1916 Easter Rising. The rebels had ‘a hopelessly confused plan’, they made the mistake of occupying ‘prominent buildings, and at that not the most appropriate ones’, and they failed ‘to block the communication route for British reinforcements’. They positively invited disaster. The ‘slipshod planning’ that he quite rightly castigates was, however, only the half of it. They mounted a military challenge to the British Empire without any popular support for the enterprise. The Easter Rising was a classic putsch, and Lenin’s later defence of it was seriously misconceived. A more instructive exercise for those still enamoured of 1916 is to compare Connolly’s military writings with Trotsky’s account of the 1905 Revolution and the Moscow insurrection. Connolly does not come out of it at all well.
The Easter Rising was, despite the heroism of the participants, a military fiasco. Politically, however, it dealt the Home Rule party a tremendous blow and brought together all of its nationalist enemies, both republican and non-republican, into the Sinn Féin alliance. Re-formed in 1917 Sinn Féin was an unstable amalgam only held together by hostility to the Home Rulers and later by British intransigence. As Hopkinson observes, missing from the equation was revolutionary socialism, which never recovered from the loss of Connolly and was overwhelmed by the Sinn Féin tide.
As Hopkinson makes clear, the Irish Revolution ‘was not to be concerned with the redistribution of wealth’. Both Sinn Féin and the IRA were dominated ‘by the small farmer class and by artisans and traders’ with the working class, both rural and urban, ‘largely unrepresented in the Dáil’. Irish Labour’s decision to abstain in the 1918 general election was an historic mistake, one that it is hard to believe that Connolly, whatever his weaknesses as a military thinker, would have made. One consequence of this was that the Sinn Féin and IRA leaderships were able successfully to contain the stirrings of social revolution that manifested themselves during the conflict. Instead, Michael Collins and his comrades ‘hit upon … a mixture of guerrilla warfare and passive resistance with a high priority given to intelligence and propaganda and the sidelining of progressive social ideas’.
Hopkinson goes on to provide a detailed account of the war. He brings out the divisions within the revolutionary leadership with both Arthur Griffith and Eamon de Valera preferring passive resistance and diplomacy to Michael Collins’ guerrilla campaign. They were, however, all agreed on keeping the mass of the people out of the struggle. Indeed, one thing that Hopkinson brings out is the extent to which the shooting war was in practice the work of a few thousand men, operating by and large in Dublin and Munster. Arguably, he does not give enough attention to the widespread passive resistance, but what is particularly striking is the extent to which the great majority of the population, although voting for Sinn Féin and supporting the IRA, remained onlookers. There was no serious attempt to involve the mass of the people in the struggle through strikes, demonstrations, street clashes; indeed every effort was made to avoid such developments. There is no doubt that this was a political decision motivated by the fear that popular involvement would have radicalised the struggle, and this had to be avoided at all costs. There was no revolutionary left that could have challenged this. The men leading the labour movement were concerned with building a strong trade union movement, not with changing society.
Hopkinson is particularly scathing in respect of British government policy, but from a practical rather than anti-imperialist perspective. Instead of offering further concessions after 1918, Lloyd George’s Coalition attempted to impose Home Rule by force. It seems clear that if the British had offered the Free State settlement in 1918 or 1919, then the Sinn Féin alliance would have broken up then rather than in 1921, before the guerrilla war had even begun. Lloyd George, a prisoner of the Conservatives who dominated the Coalition government, did not, however, have the room to manoeuvre. Instead, he followed the Conservative lead until it was clear that coercion had failed, and only then were further concessions, enough to split Sinn Féin, forthcoming. Lloyd George was as much a party to the British policy of assassinations and reprisals as the most die-hard Conservatives. Even more damaging in Hopkinson’s account was his appeasement of the Ulster Unionists and acquiescence in the violence and brutalities that accompanied the establishment of the Northern Ireland state.
Hopkinson has written an interesting study that well repays reading, but in the end it is too much of a military history. What is missing is any exploration of the social dimension of the conflict, any political critique of the forces involved and any discussion of the War in the context of British Imperial history. Nevertheless, it is an essential book for anyone concerned with the fate of the Irish Revolution.
What of Joost Augusteijn’s collection? It has contributions from both the older and newer historians of the Irish Revolution ranging from veterans like Charles Townshend, Arthur Mitchell and Margaret Ward to younger iconoclasts like Peter Hart and Augusteijn himself. Supposedly it is an introduction to the cutting edge of contemporary historical research, but interestingly enough it is the contributions made by the veterans that have most substance. Peter Hart might well proclaim in his contribution that the Irish Revolution ‘needs to be reconceptualised and to have all the myriad assumptions underlying its standard narratives interrogated’, but in practice he seems content to place his research findings in an interpretative framework that derives in good part from a Unionist history published as long ago as 1923, W.A. Phillips, The Revolution in Ireland 1906–1923. There are important differences, of course, but the very interesting detail of Hart’s research is compromised by his particular counter-revolutionary stance. Even worse is Joost Augusteijn’s embarrassing encounter with post-modernism. The Irish, we are told, had a ‘perception’ that the British had raped and pillaged Ireland in the past and would do so again if given the chance. Consequently, what the British actually did was ‘irrelevant’. He goes on: ‘It is clear from the above that the rejection of the British right to rule Ireland was primarily built on a negative image of the British.’ Duh! This is so much nonsense, and although it is too much to expect an editor to reject his own contribution, on this occasion he should have. Somewhat surprisingly, Richard English’s contribution is not much better. Much more substantial are the contributions by Townsend, Mitchell, Ward and Hopkinson, but they have all published at greater length elsewhere. One depressing feature of the collection is the lack of a chapter on the Irish working class, which I would have thought inconceivable since the publication of Emmet O’Connor’s Syndicalism in Ireland 1917–1923 and Conor Kostik’s Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1917–1922, but obviously not. Overall the book has the appearance of a failed provocation, and is likely to sink without trace.
Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011