The Communist Party of Ireland
A Critical History, Part 1 by DR O'Connor Lysaght, 1976

In considering any sort of historical analysis of Irish Stalinism two things must be made clear. Firstly, to give an accurate account of what really happened, an ex-Stalinite is needed, since at least half the real history of the Party is never exposed to the light. All that can be presented is a certain list of published facts, most recently the official History of the CPI. However, the real ore of information is to be quarried with greater difficulty.

Secondly, although the full history of the CPI is unknown the need for it is not altogether pressing. What it will do can be learnt from the histories of foreign Stalinite parties (most particularly the CPGB). Its only major points of difference with these is that it is the only Communist Party in western Europe to have been liquidated one and a half times and that, until this year, it has been slavishly subordinated not just to the Kremlin but even more to the Communist Party of the neighbouring island. The latter is revealed nakedly by the fact that the only semi-reputable Irish Stalinite theoretician – C Desmond Greaves – is a member of the CPGB and that even his work fits into an overall pattern designed by the British Stalinite TA Jackson.

Having said this, the statement must be qualified further. The Stalinism of the CPI cannot be denied. However, its expression thereof is distinguished in two ways. Firstly, its philistinism is linked closely not only to the British connection but to the fact that is has rarely been challenged by any grouping with a superior grasp of the application of Marxist theory. (Irish Trotskyism has been, until recently, itself a weak and somewhat philistine growth). Accordingly, the CPI has been able to approach matters in a cooler fashion than its comrades abroad; to treat issues in a manner which is not only non-theoretical but also, because of this, formally non-sectarian. It is unlikely this will last.

More likely to survive is the CPI's tendency to rightism. Even in its own third period it was less obviously sectarian than its fraternal groups. This was, partly, because it did not have the opportunities for such incompetence such as, for example the KPD enjoyed – if that's the word. Partly, this was connected with its philistinism. But above all. it was handicapped by the fact of an unfinished and, for much of the time only potential, national democratic bourgeois revolution. Of course it cannot be ruled out entirely that, for example, once the current struggle of the IRA were well and truly smashed, then the CPI would stop calling for a Bill of Rights for northern Ireland and, instead, demand that soviets be initiated. However, this may be doubted; ultra-leftism is a disease of youth, not senility.

The Communist Party of Ireland that was for years the best known was the first – that of 1921-24. Having said that, it must be added that its development is still too little understood. The original CPI was a tiny centrist organisation probably slightly larger than some contemporary Irish far left groupings, but not qualitatively so. Its utter failure to achieve a major dominance in the irish working class movement was the product of a whole series of misconceptions, several of which might have been opposed by a study of What Is To Be Done?

The consciousness of the first CPI was, in fact, rooted in tailism. Those of its members who had been prominent in the Irish Labour Party and the TUC before its formation had been enthusiastic supporters of the political strategy that it pursued during the war of independence, 'Labour Must Wait' with its corollary: 'First the Republic; then the Workers' Republic'. In particular, Walter Carpenter, who was to be in turn General Secretary of the new party and editor-manager of its paper, Workers' Republic, gave enthusiastic support for the two manifestations of the Labour leaders' political timidity. One the question of the Party's abstentionism in the 1918 General Election, he declared – 'He for one did believe that the working classes of Ireland were educated enough to justify the Executive in running candidates' – Irish Labour Party and TUC Report of 24th Annual Meeting, Waterford, 1918, 'Report of Special Dublin Meeting', p 108.

The next year he defended in a similar manner the Executive's handling of the Limerick General Strike – 'There is no use in condemning the National Executive because they did not call a general strike. When the day came that they were class conscious and educated the workers would not want leaders – they would go out themselves' – Irish Labour Party and TUC Report of 25th Annual Meeting, Drogheda, 1919, p 80.

To get the full significance of the last statement, it should be remembered that the Irish Trade Union Congress had already organised a successful general strike against conscription, had organised a nationwide withdrawal of labour for May Day 1919 and was to organise two more such withdrawals in the next three years. In each case, the strikes were enforced throughout most of the island apart from the eastern and (usually though not always) central Ulster. Thus Carpenter's speeches expressed very well how worship of spontaneity degenerates into the practice of tail-ending the actions of the masses and, even worse, of the bureaucrats who mislead the masses. The attitude guiding Carpenter was to guide the original CPI throughout its existence.

But when he made his interventions, Carpenter was not yet in the Communist Party of Ireland. He was a prominent figure of its immediate precursor, the Socialist Party of Ireland. This could trace an erratic history back to Connolly's Irish Socialist Republican Party. During Connolly's last years it had not existed practically except (as the Independent Labour Party of Ireland) in Belfast. It was reconstituted after his death, in 1917. The SPI was, in the syndicalist fashion expounded by Connolly in the second part of Socialism Made Easy, a propaganda group, in support of the main working-class (trade union) movement. As such a body, it did useful work (it claimed, for example, to have helped stimulate the 1920 land struggle by publishing Lenin's speeches on The Land Revolution in Russia) but it was allowed by the leaders little independent life outside Belfast where the ITGWU was weak.

The Belfast branch showed signs of being a viable base on which a true Communist Party could be built. There, after the 1919 engineering strike Seán O'Hagan (John Hedley) of the British Socialist Labour Party and Simon Greenspon, local Branch Secretary of the ETU, held meetings to educate the workers about the Communist International. However, in june 1919, they were arrested for sedition and though O'Hagan was released, finally, in April 1920, he left Belfast for Munster where he organised soviets. All immediate prospects for a Communist Party Branch in Belfast were destroyed shortly afterwards by two years of pogrom (1920-22). As a matter of fact, the first Communist Party of Ireland never established itself in the city.

So the struggle out of which the CPI was finally to develop was centred around the narrow question of organisation. Could the SPI break from propagandism? The Communist International made its view on the need to do so. As early as 1919, O'Brien applied on behalf of his Party for application to it. He was not successful; the Third International was not interested at this time in propagandist appendages of industrial unions but in organisations which had, at least, a perspective for revolutionary action on their own initiative. Furthermore, it made a criticism of the actual strategy being followed by the Party but this was neutralised by being based, partly, on obviously incorrect data. As it was, in the Dublin Branch of the Socialist Party of Ireland there developed a tendency around Carpenter, Roderick Connolly (son of James) and Seán McLoughlin which had as its aim the policy of changing the permanent propagandist perspective into one more acceptable to the International.

In September 1921, this tendency was victorious. It made immediate moves to re-establish the old Connolly newspaper The Workers' Republic as the Party organ. Since 1903 the Irish socialist press had been dominated by the unions. It denounced the Labour Party and Trade Union Congress as being 'reformist'. As leaders of the latter organisation O'Brien and O'Shannon were expelled in October. In the same month, the SPI re-applied (successfully) for affiliation to the Comintern, changing its name to the 'Communist Party of Ireland'. Its two branches in Cork and Sligo (it had had a Newbridge branch but this no longer existed) backed the Dublin leadership.

But if the organisational perspective had changed, the political one had not. The party did not make, nor does it seem to have been encouraged by the Comintern to make, any reassessment of the general policy that it had pursued behind the Labour Party during the previous five years. In effect it implied that it could undo Labour with the same analysis. The only immediate differences were (1) that it put a 'scientific' gloss on its strategy by basing itself on Carpenter's spontaneism and (2) that it was as yet approximately 1/6,000th the size of the Labour Party, since this was, currently, simply the political form of the trade union movement.

This was summarised in the Workers' Republic of 8 October, 1921: 'Why hoist the Red Flag, now that the Green White and Orange is about to float triumphantly over the castle?' To this query it could only reply in the words of James Connolly that the social system and not the flag that covered it was decisive. Seven weeks later, the Workers' Republic (26 November, 1921) published Roddy Connolly's perspectives document: 'The Growth of Our Party', which had been endorsed by the National Committee. This important document sums up the preconceptions of the CPI in its early days. It includes a quotation from Zinoviev:

'In general, the international working class is without doubt at present experiencing a pause between two revolutionary waves'.

It continues:

'The mass risings have come to an end for the moment. In most countries the proletariat is on the defensive. It is but a pause before greater conflicts; a rest before greater efforts at liberation. But [again quoting Zinoviev] "the revolution is not over. We are not very far distant from the period in which new conflicts which will shake Europe and the whole world in a much greater degree than the sum total of all previous struggles"'.

'Undoubtedly', it continues, 'the Irish masses are influenced in the same manner but as well, they are at present pausing and resting in their struggles from more particular causes. The masses are not in motion just now – they are apathetic. Their apathy is in the nature of a holiday – a recreation – a relapse into quietude from the experience of the terror. This relaxing of energies by the most politically active section of the workers is reflected in the defeats so easily suffered by large sections of the best organised workers in the industrial field. Despite the unemployment – which is not growing too rapidly in Ireland – the workers are not yet too badly hit to revolt from this apathy. The condition of the masses finds expression in the attitude of the large political parties – they are sitting on the fence, watching developments!

'Such being the case, we do not expect the growth of our party to be any way rapid as yet. We are many months from being anything approaching a mass party. There have always been very few active socialists in Ireland. But now there are more than ever before. Practically all trustworthy active spirits are in the Party now.

'Our duty, therefore, is not to strain after a large increase in membership which will not come, but to conserve the membership we have. We must educate them, drill them, teach them to seize and exploit the opportunities for increasing our membership, and extending our influence when some coming crisis – political or industrial – sets up a ferment among the masses – sets them moving in new directions.

'The time is for a fierce internal struggle in the Party itself against all the tendencies which militate against the growth, virility and effectiveness of the Party as a Communist Party. We must carry on an agitation in the Party organ against "Leftism" and "Centrism" against all the little and big ideas, the spread of which prevents the proper understanding of communism and of the tactics of the party by our members. We must expose the leaders (so-called) of the groups or elements afflicted with those maladies, we must destroy their influence. In the fierce struggle of accomplishing this, we will mould all these groups and elements into one united party .... We must ... enforce a stern discipline on all of the Party'.

From this, it is clear that the new Communist Party was full of political illusions. In the first place, it accepted, along with the majority of the Irish Labour Movement, that the national struggle was at an end, disregarding both the partition question and the readiness and willingness or otherwise of the petty-bourgeois (now bourgeois) Sinn Féin to oppose British imperialism. Secondly (and here it was backward compared to such Labour fakirs as Thomas Foran), it accepted schematically the perspective set by Zinoviev which dictated a pause of months, if not years, in the struggles of the working class throughout the world. In fact, in Britain, the bosses' offensive was now in its second year and had won a major victory that April against the Triple Alliance on Black Friday. On the other hand, the Irish employers (outside the North East) were only in the early stages of their attack; there had, as yet, been no working class defeats equivalent to the April one; there had been a month of soviets in August-September 1921 and there was a major rail dispute pending while Connolly was writing his document – with local disputes continuing. His two political misconceptions were based on organisational problems; despite its breach with O'Brien, the CPI was still only able to carry out propagandist tasks, with, perhaps, forty, trained members. This did not mean that it could not be a party; the circumstances were, if not revolutionary, then, certainly, inter-revolutionary (ie between revolutionary situations). However, Connolly could see all his party's weakness and this led him to assume, subjectively, that it had time for study and education secluded from outside struggles. Besides these mistakes one might mention the formalism of Connolly's whole approach, his static conception of group discipline and his idea that training would occur in isolation from the struggle. However, and although they were related to the other errors, these did not have a direct relevance to the Party's strategy.

What this was to mean, in practice, was a continuation of the Labour Party attitude that the Party leadership had accepted: the Irish working class could not be expected to carry on the industrial fight while the national struggle was still in force. Accordingly, the struggle had to be ended in 'full national independence' (whatever that was) before the industrial struggle could begin properly. In fact, eventually the Party had to take up the industrial strategy without 'full national independence' being achieved and on far less advantageous terms than it might have done originally.

But for the first 15-16 months of its life, the CPI did little work in the industrial or economic sphere, expect for periodic attempts to build an unemployed movement. One such ended after the newly-established movement's occupation of the Rotunda concert rooms in Dublin in January 1922, and event now celebrated in irish working class mythology but disliked as being adventurist by the Communist leaders at the time; its leader, the author Liam O'Flaherty, was disciplined for his part in it. Of course, the many spontaneous industrial fights of the period encouraged interest in Communism in such hotbeds of militancy as Mallow and Tipperary town, but in these cases activism encouraged communism, not vice versa.

This was despite the fact that Connolly's perspective was shattered within a month of publication. The Articles of Agreement for a Treaty with Britain caused the National Executive of the CPI to publish in the Workers' Republic of 17 December 1921, a manifesto which switched the Party decisively from tail-ending Labour to tail-ending the anti-Treatyites.

'WORKERS OF IRELAND! No state within the British Empire is free. Every state and every part of the British Empire is subject to the greed and rapacity of the financiers of London: is controlled by the political overlords who dance at their tune, to the puppets who act in their name. The Free State that is proposed for Ireland will benefit in no way the immense majority of the people of Ireland; in absolutely no way the Irish workers.


'This so-called Free State will bring neither freedom nor peace. Instead civil was and social hell will be loosed if it is accepted.

'THE EMPIRE IS ROCKING! It is being broken and crushed in India, destroyed in Egypt and will soon be torn asunder by proletarian uprising in England itself. Above all, the hostile attitude of America threatens to seal its doom. Faced with the greatest crisis in its history it foregoes its claim to rule unchallenged in Ireland, thereby affects a compromise with the weaker spirits among the Republicans, and immediately strengthens its position in the coming inevitable conflict with America.

'Into this war Ireland will be drawn as a pawn fighting for England's domination of the world'.

Obviously, somewhere in the middle of all of this there is a serious argument struggling to get out. At a later stage, indeed, it poses the question of Workers' Republic but in a manner that merely confuses the issue:

'Those who have accepted this compromise have become AFRAID OF A REPUBLIC. They fear that the people, glorifying in political freedom, may demand social freedom. They fear that the Irish Republic would be transformed into a Workers' Republic. They prefer to be a dominion of the British Empire and have the help, if their own forces are insufficient or unwilling, of the blood-thirsty English capitalist state to suppress any uprising of the Irish working class against the misery and poverty it will suffer from under an Irish Free State'.

And the only other two mentions of the concept of the Workers' Republic are in slogans calling for a Federation of Workers' Republics. Apart from these three remarks, the Manifesto is simply a souped-up version of the internationalism of such anti-Treaty speeches as those of Mary MacSwiney and Cathal Brugha. It is not a consistent working class analysis.

Even on the national question its is inadequate. Though it denounces the British Empire and British naval bases, it nowhere mentions what was to be the more lasting expression and means of British domination: partition.

But worse was to come. In the next issue of the Workers' Republic (24 December) the third leader published a truly astonishing offer for a paper that claimed to be the mouthpiece of the irish revolutionary vanguard:

'If the Republican Party or any of its members think we do not support their cause in a strong enough manner or along the best lines, we are positive that our National Executive need not be asked twice to give a great portion of our paper, aye six pages of our eight, ten out of our twelve in the near future, for the sole and unhampered use by the Republican Party or its supporters. As long as they require our services we are at their disposal in this crisis – they may have our six pages unconditional and absolutely without expense to themselves'.

Their reasons for this were given in the Workers' Republic of 28 January, 1922; 'The field is not yet cleared for the unbought and unterrified Irish Proletariat. The national issue still obscures the class issue. The Republican Party may be the greatest obstacle in clearing it for the direct fight for power for the workers, or it may be the greatest force for clearing away the latest remaining obstruction – the Labour Party'.

And next week:

'Our class fight is beclouded and obscured by a fight of native imperialism against foresight Imperialism, and of native petty-capitalism against both'.

This tailism not only confused the Republicans whom the CPI might have expected to win, it distracted the Party from attending consistently to the current industrial disputes – let alone relating them to the political struggle. Yet, at this time, the industrial war had returned to the heights of the previous summer. Workers seized the railways and flour mills in Co. Cork. Disputes were continuing in the Munster dairying industry. To his credit, Walter Carpenter saw this and drew the correct conclusions at the Labour Party election conference in February:
'Those who worked for a Workers' Republic were the men who seized the mills, the creameries and the railways. Russia did not bring the Workers' Republic into operation by going to parliament (a voice "It did"). No, but through direct action by Lenin and Trotsky.' Report of the 28th Annual Meeting, Irish LP and TUC, 'Report of Special Dublin Conference', p 73.

The Workers' Republic ignored Carpenter stating (25 February, 1922) merely: 'Not whether the Labour Party contest the elections or not, but how it contests them should have [been] the point of debate'.

When the IRA Executive was established in March, the same paper announced:

'16 men once redeemed Ireland from the shame of perpetuating Imperialism – British Imperialism – by their action in 1916. The 16 men of the IRA Executive will redeem the people of Ireland to-day from the slavery and degradation that faces them in the 'Free' State. The only hope to-day of the Irish people, of the revolutionary workers is the IRA Executive. Let them carry out the true traditions, policy and programme of their great predecessors, Connolly and Pearse. Only along the path these martyrs tread is true freedom to be found.

'These 16 men include no politicians of 'constitutional' Republican school; they are realists; they are the politicians of the new, the revolutionary school. Their programme is not yet completed; even when it is we will not judge them by it, for it will merely echo the loose 'democratic' aspirations that still fetter the average Irish mind – we will judge them and their organisation by their acts and deeds'.

After this is it something of a relief to find that six weeks later the CPI is still in separate organisational existence and actually giving a fair summary of the future Maoite 'Strategy of the four class bloc':

'The position of Connolly was to support any other class in its fight so long as it was crippling the enemy of the working class, English Imperialism. But in doing so, he was materially helping the interests of his only class. By using the revolutionary nationalist movement (in which several classes participated) to throw off the burden of English Imperialism, Connolly was assisting and making ready the working class to overthrow any Irish or home oppressors who might arise. So Connolly said, "Put your class first and all the time; collaborate with the sections of any other class who will aid us along the road to working class freedom"'

Workers' Republic
, 13 May, 1922.

Inevitably such attitudes found themselves expressed in a vacuum: the CPI was without a programme: even a programme for a bloc with the Republican militants. Instead, it proclaimed:

'Suppose the elections come, what is our programme? It is simply and briefly this: SUPPORT THE REPUBLICAN PARTY TO OVERTHROW THE TREATYITES AND REPUDIATE THE TREATY. And this is absolutely in accord with the programme of the Communist International and with all its tactics'.

Workers' Republic, 1 April, 1922.

This policy was not helped by the Comintern which at this critical period tended to ignore the CPI at first, but later, on the eve of the Civil War declared:



'The attitude of the proletarian majority of the Irish Republican Army is a proof that the Irish Communist Party, notwithstanding its short existence, is on the right path and represents the will of the Irish working class. The clearer and more determined it pursues this path, the sooner will the English and Irish capitalists understand that the large majority of the irish people, the workers, (sic) are not inclined to have filched from them the fruits of a long and self sacrificing struggle for the semblance of independence which is being offered to them.

'The English capitalist class is fully aware of this, and at a moment when it sees that the irish workers refuse to be swindled on this question but demand from England a real free state, it will again land its troops in Ireland and is ready to renew the war rather than grant an independence which would interfere with its plans of exploitation.'

Workers' Republic, 1 July, 1922.

Of course, this statement did not help the CPI clarify its position to improve it. However, it is not quite the unequivocal formulation of the two-stage concept of revolutions that it appears at first sight or that the Stalinites have taken it to be. It is, in fact, a statement made 'To the Workers of Great Britain and Ireland', and the Communist Party of the former was 50 to 100 times las large as that of the latter. Its main aim was, then, to give encouragement to the CPGB to organise against the treaty settlement, that opposition, which, indeed, Lenin is on record as having advocated even while that settlement was still being discussed.

Certainly, whatever the causes, national or international, it is shortly after this time that the CPI began to develop two new features. It proclaimed a Young Communist League of Ireland, and it presented a long overdue economic programme, albeit for a Government of the 'Republic'. While it is not a set of Transitional Demands (and, after all, such a complete set has yet to be issued anywhere) it is still, perhaps, the highest programmatic point of the Irish Communist Parties.

The programme is:

'1) Ownership and control of all heavy industries by the state for the benefit of the people;

2) Complete ownership of the transport system by the state, railways, canals, shipping, etc.;

3) State ownership of all the banks;

4) Confiscation of the large ranches and estates without compensation to the landed aristocracy, and the distribution of the land among the landless farmers and agricultural labourers. Election of joint councils representative of these two classes to distribute and manage the land. Abolition of all forms of tenure and indebtedness either to private owners or to the state. Cancellation of all debts and mortgages;

5) Establishment of an all-round eight hour working day;

6) Control of workshop conditions to be vested in a joint council representing the workers, trade unions concerned, and the state;

7) Municipalisation of all public services, transport, light, heat, water, etc., and free use by the workers;

8) Compulsory rationing of all available housing accommodation and the abolition of rents;

9) Full maintenance for the unemployed at the full trade union rates until useful work at trade union rates can be provided;

10) Universal arming of all workers in town and country to defend their rights.'

Workers' Republic, 12 August, 1922

This was a programme. But there was no organisation that anyone could expect to implement it on pain of exposure. For want of such a programme the anti-Treatyites had been driven from their state in Munster and were now holding out in Connacht, where a bleated agrarian populism was helping their cause. The CPI's programmatic triumph was achieved only after the forces to which it appealed had been rendered incompetent to act upon it.

All in all, it is not surprising that in its report to the Executive Committee of the Comintern, the Executive Committee of the CPI had to report, after one year of revolutionary upsurges, both political and social:

'The Party has not expanded its membership during the year though its influence has grown exceedingly'.

Workers' Republic, 30 December, 1922.

Roddy Connolly reacted to this by producing new a perspectives document "Past and Future Policy'. About the immediate background to this there is some doubt. There is reason to believe that Connolly was acting as a front man for an alarmed Central Committee of the Communist International. Certainly, his colleague George McClay (who, as George Pollack was later to be President of the Federation of Rural Workers) was to remark of Connolly's document that 'Comrade Connolly, during the discussions, expressed entirely different views from those now put forward from him' Workers' Republic, 10 February, 1923. Certainly too, in the previous issue of the paper Connolly boasted to Peadar O'Donnell who had criticised his document from a left Republican viewpoint, 'I abide my time – the highest organ of world revolution thinks as I do'. And, indeed, he was seen to be justified with the publication of the Comintern's 'Advice' to the CPI at the end of February. However, by this time, and perhaps because of his proposals, Connolly had lost his position on the Central Executive Committee (Workers' Republic, 3 February, 1922). In April, his position as a Party member seems to have been in doubt (Workers' Republic, 6 January, 1923).

What was the document, and the proposals therein that caused both the eclipse of Connolly and, backed by the Comintern's intervention, a change in Party line? It was summarised in Connolly's words:

'In a moment then we arrive at this conclusion; last year it was necessary to support the Republicans more completely than the Labour Party; this year it may be necessary to reverse the process, or to modify our support to either party in certain conditions'.

Workers' Republic, 6 January, 1923.

In other words, Connolly was urging a somewhat opportunist abandonment of the forces of the Second Dáil and a discovery of the industrial struggle. The discussion that followed his article in the pages of the Workers' Republic reveals the crudity of the CPI members' methodology. Against Connolly were O'Donnell (of course) and McClay, the latter's contribution being summarised in his statement; 'our advice to those who are working for the emancipation of the Irish workers is: FIGHT ON' (Workers' Republic, op.cit.). With Connolly was R. Gibson of Cork who wrote: 'I think it would be much better to pursue an independent policy and have less to do with the national struggle, make a greater effort to increase the membership of the Party and attract the masses to us'. (Workers' Republic, 3 February, 1923. Under it an editorial note praised this letter as being 'exceedingly good, it sums up the situation and shows our need in very acute form'). Connolly himself, in his reply to O'Donnell exposed a real tailist retreat towards Social Democracy when he remarked that, 'The only thing that will make much difference to the Republicans is a victory of the Labour Party in England, which would bring pressure to bear on the Free State to modify its terms' (Workers' Republic, op.cit.).

The Comintern's advice was less extreme. However, it was recognisably posed towards Connolly's position. Most significant, on account of what it did not mention; the Civil War, it took the form of seven points, three being on the subject of industrial and local social struggles; three on organisation and one on the need for a programme. This clarified and ended the political debate – though not the debate on Roddy Connolly's role in the organisation.
The new course set by the Comintern had immediate benefits for the CP. At its January conference there had been 23 members present (22 from Dublin and 1 from Carlow). At a special conference held just under three months later in April, it reported that Party membership had trebled in the inter-Congress period (including a 75 per cent increase in Dublin). The Party still had its two branches in Dublin and Cork, its original branch in Sligo seems to have been a Civil War casualty, but now, for the first time, its formal organisation crossed the border; it announced a branch at Newry.

However, the CPI soon ran into two problems. In the first place, it moved at once far too quickly and not quickly enough away from its past. In June it advertised its long postponed Provisional Programme which stated in relation to the national struggle that:

'The rigorous prosecution of the class war is the only solution to the two outstanding Irish political problems'

Workers' Republic, 9 June, 1923.

While it treated the national question in essentially economist terms – not unlike the SWM or present-day Gardiner Place Sinn Féin – its organisational approach to it remained tailist. In its Provisional Programme it put forward the demand for a "United Front of the Irish workers, small tenant farmers and agricultural labourers', though this was to be achieved by legal action, albeit in 'revolutionary fashion'. The trouble was that the circumstances of the time of a revolution defeated in a Civil War, did not allow for much more dynamic forms of legal political action than defensive ones. When the General Election occurred at the end of August, the Party's policy was, as it described after the event 'to support the Republicans and all Labour candidates in order to make possible a coalition of the forces against the Free State' Workers' Republic, 15 September, 1923. What this meant in practice was establishing a minimum 'Election Programme for Workers' (Workers' Republic, 7 July, 1923) and endorsing as 'Communist' the two Sinn Féin candidates – Padraic MacGamha in Carlow-Kilkenny and Peadar O'Donnell in Co. Donegal – who accepted it. O'Donnell was actually elected but on an abstentionist basis and, in any case, was in internee. When he escaped finally, there was no onus on him to act according to his programme, as the CPI had disappeared.

For the new policies of the CPI could not provide an adequate protection against the second problem that new befell it. This was Big Jim Larkin who returned from America at the beginning of May, 1923. Instead of joining the CPI he established his own paper, the Irish Worker and built around it, from September, a loose part-political, part-friendly body called the Irish Worker League. The Comintern's part in this is uncertain. It would be incorrect to anticipate at this period, while Zinoviev was still in charge, the full excesses of the Stalin-Bukharin regimes with the resultant liquidation of national sections, probably its role was negative rather than positive. Nevertheless in Russia, Lenin was dying and the anti-Trotsky campaign had already begun. The Comintern did not give its affiliate the public backing it should have expected; nor does it seem to have put pressure on Larkin (who after all, had, for a brief period in the USA, taken a recognisable Bolshevik line) to accept the Party's discipline. Probably in was influenced by the political fact that, in the past, Larkin had taken a more correct line than his current rivals (he had advocated fighting the election in 1918 and made a much more independent working class stand against the Treaty). Probably too, it felt that the full affiliate of 100 members or less was not really viable (500 had applied to join Larkin's body at its inaugural meeting). But it was probably revealing a certain opportunist bias influenced by Larkin's standing amongst irish working class revolutionaries.

At all events, in the circumstances of a militant class offensive by the employers, general political demoralisation after the Civil War and the name of Larkin and his revived Irish Worker, the CPI was faced with an unequal struggle. The Irish Worker League demanded less of people than the Party; Larkin's fight with the ITGWU bureaucracy seemed more relevant to the workers, particularly in Dublin, than the Workers' Republic's criticisms of O'Brien and Co. After all, Larkin could and did split the union; the CPI couldn't.

So, in November, the Workers' Republic seemed to have closed down. The Party itself seems to have survived into the Spring of 1924. But without a paper it was doomed. From the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in June 1924, the Irish Worker League was that body's official section in Ireland.

The centrism of the first Communist Party of Ireland does not have to be stressed. It can be said, however, that it was, at least, the centrism of a body that was trying to act according to a revolutionary schema. After all, Connolly and his comrades did join the Executive IRA voluntarily to help defend it militarily against the Saorstát.

The trouble was that the revolutionary character of this approach was pragmatic rather than dialectical. The young Party was never able to assert the distinct contribution a Marxist body should have made to Irish revolutionary theory. Instead, it tended to take its politics from its larger allies: first the IRA, and then Larkin. Although it disappeared after only three years in being these negative tendencies were to be continued more definitely by its successors.

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