Communist Party of Ireland
A Critical History, Part 2 by DR O'Connor Lysaght, 1976
reason the Comintern may have had for allowing the Communist Party
of Ireland to liquidate into Larkin's Irish Worker League,
the result was to force Irish Communism back organisationally three
years. Although Larkin was certainly superior to O'Brien politically,
his conception of organisation was no different. Under O'Brien,
the Socialist Party of Ireland had been a propagandist appendage
of the ITGWU. Larkin's IWL had the same relationship to the Workers'
Union of Ireland. In 1925, even the Irish Worker, the
very paper around which the League was formally built ceased publication
for nearly two years. Without it the IWL's propagandist function
fell to zero. No attempt was made to raise working-class consciousness.
No programme was developed. Even in elections, Larkin ran as a
Left Independent – 'Friend of the Poor', calling on the electors
to trust him and those who were pledged to give their personal
support to him. The Irish Worker League remained throughout
its life a personal Fief for one man.
The Workers' Party of Ireland
In 1926 an attempt was made to re-assert Bolshevism in Ireland. In the Spring,
Roddy Connolly, his sister Nora, McClay and Labour veterans who had not been
in the original CPI such as PT Daly came together to form a new Workers'
Party of Ireland and to seek affiliation to the Comintern. Walter Carpenter
had died in 1925, but his son Walter the younger became president of a Youth
section. Another member was Tom Lyng, a veteran of Connolly's IRSP. From
May, the WPI published its paper (duplicated) the Irish Hammer and Plough which
made the following policy statement, in its first issue (22 May 1926):
policy of the paper will be to carry the works of James Connolly
whose writings and work, during his lifetime clearly show that
he stood for the setting up in Ireland of a definite WORKERS'
STATE. Connolly clearly understood that a Republic in Ireland
must either be a capitalist state or a workers' state. It cannot
be both. It must be controlled by the workers and crush the exploiters
or else it will be controlled by the exploiters and crush the
workers. That is the teaching of James Connolly and is the foundation
on which the work of the Workers' Party of Ireland shall be carried
on in all aspects of its activities, including the publishing
of IRISH HAMMER AND PLOUGH.'
Party of Ireland made progress during the months of May and June.
As with its predecessors it worked within the current Irish National
Unemployed Movement. Branches were established at Delvin, Co.
Westmeath, and Killeshandra, Co. Cavan – both areas
of contemporary social unrest.
In politics as its paper's first editorial revealed it expounded clearer
and better analyses than any of the Communist Parties of Ireland. In June,
the Party published its 'Objects and Aims':
establishment of a WORKERS' REPUBLIC OR IRELAND, free and independent
of any foreign Imperialist power and freely associated in a world
Federation of Workers' Republics, in which all power, legislative,
executive, administrative and judicial shall be solely exercised
by the workers and working-farmers' Councils. All land shall
be the property of the Irish Workers' State for the purpose of
more equitable re-distribution among the working occupiers and
landless men in the best interests of the National Economy. All
forests, mineral deposits and other natural sources of wealth
and power shall be publicly owned and exploited by the Workers'
State. Railways, roads, waterways, shipping, all forms of transport,
all heavy industries, and all banks and other financial institutions
shall be nationalised. Small scale industry shall remain private
property pending its gradual organisation on co-operative lines.
The Workers' State shall maintain a monopoly of foreign trade
and in all articles of prime necessity. The entire economic life
of the country shall be organised and controlled by a National
Economic Council in the general interests of all Irish workers
Irish Hammer and Plough, 21 June 1926.
This is not
better than the CPI's Social Programme for Republicans.
Indeed it looked towards the maximalism of Seán Murray's Irish
Case for Communism in the next decade. However this programme was particularly
limited by the circumstances, both international and national, and this seems
to have played a role in shortening the life of its party.
In the first place, the Comintern with which the WPI naturally and publicly
sought to align itself was in a major right-wing deviation. Stalin and Bukharin
were combining to oppose the Left Opposition of Trotsky and Zinoviev. The
policy of the majority was 'Socialism in One Country' to be secured through
organising the largest foreign organisations that might be friendly to the
USSR. This meant necessarily downgrading the affiliates of the Comintern.
It did not mean creating new vanguard groups like the WPI when sympathy for
the USSR was expressed by Larkin's IWL and even by members of the new constitutional
Republican Party, Fianna Fáil.
On top of this the objective internal circumstances of the Irish situation
provided further limits to the prospects for a Communist Party. The struggles
of the workers and the Republicans had only recently been defeated. The latter
were being won to Fianna Fáil which represented at once a moral weakening
and a limited intellectual advance on the Civil War politics. The workers
had retreated into a defensive economism. Belfast was still closed to Bolshevism
if not to Social Democracy. A new Party needed immediate victories if it
was to justify itself to the rightist Comintern. But those victories could,
in 1926, only be small ones.
A certain political capitulation was made by the WPI in its analysis of the
left-wing bureaucrat leading the British NUM – AJ Cook and of de Valera
and Fianna Fáil. Of the latter's founding conference the Irish
Hammer and Plough commented (22 May 1926):
Valera) will be on both sides, on neither sides, and between
two stools he will . . . That is until he becomes a real Realist
and recognises only a WORKERS' REPUBLIC IS THE SOLUTION TO THE
In the next
issue, however, it was less hopeful for Fianna Fáil:
working men and women who fought for Ireland are sick of the
antics of both O'Higgins and DeValera'.
And in the Irish
Hammer and Plough of 19 June a certain synthesis of the
two positions was made by Roddy Connolly:
man must be on one side or the other: De Valera with his Citizens'
State will fall between two stools: he must decide between the
exploiters of industry for private profits and the exploited
wage earners: he must come out on the side of the revolution
and of the workers or he must be considered against us: against
the poor: betraying Tone, Connolly and Mellows and the workers'.
De Valera did
not find it necessary to notice these criticisms. Despite its
branches in Counties Cavan and Westmeath, the Workers' Party
did not win the mass support that would have given it an argument
to justify its existence on the Communist International. Worst
of all, Larkin moved to denounce it. This attack (answered in Irish
Hammer and Plough, 7 August 1926) was typically workerist
(he denounced the Party for having 'bourgeois' members) but it
would have been a major argument against the WPI in the eyes
of Bukharin and Stalin. The Irish Hammer and Plough is
last known to have appeared on 16 October. There is no further
record of its party's survival beyond that date. Participation
in it was RJ Connolly's last Bolshevik-style action. The next
year he joined the Labour Party where he has remained to this
day. The veteran PT Daly also returned to the Labour Party
despite great fury from both William O'Brien and from Larkin.
The others returned to the IWL. They included a young man named
So, with the blessing of the Communist International, Larkin's Irish
Worker League was the sole interventionist expression of world Communism
in Ireland until the end of the 1920s. This was not due only to Moscow pressure
(or lack of it). Because of the historical underdevelopment of the Irish
working class it has generally been over-sensitive to Larkin-style personalia;
this sensitivity was magnified in the late Twenties on account of the defeats
of the earlier part of the decade.
With any Bolshevik form of opposition to him liquidated, Larkin achieved
a couple of triumphs both within Ireland and via-à-vis the International.
In the election of September 1927, his League fielded three candidates. It
used a certain confusion over names to defeat the three Labour TDs in the
greater Dublin region (one of these being the party leader, Thomas Johnson)
and to get Larkin elected for the North City constituency though as an undischarged
bankrupt he was unable to take his seat. The same year, he went to Moscow
and formally affiliated his Workers' Union of Ireland to the Red International
of Trade Unions.
But this was to be his last visit to Russia. While there, he refused to give
his support either to the right centre majority block of Bukharin and Stalin
or to the expelled Left Opposition, regarding the current disputes as being
purely internal. At the same time, he backed a new switch in British Communist
policy away from alliance with the Labour and Trade Union left fakirs and
spoke of Stalin in glowing terms. None the less, politically, in his failure
to organise a proper even bureaucratic centralist party and in his connected
lukewarmness on religion, he was on the right and the Comintern (or rather
its Stalinite leadership, no Congress agreed to this) was on the eve of a
swing to the ultra-left. Perhaps more important, from Stalin's point of view
was the fact that Larkin was his own man and might be able and prepared to
oppose the Moscow line if he disagreed with it. To get rid of Larkin would
mean eliminating a potential Irish centre for criticism within itself that
the Third International was not to know until the invasion of Czechoslovakia
Revolutionary Workers Groups
The International had allowed Larkin to contribute to wrecking the Irish
Communist movement without comment. Now it prepared, using the same, essentially
organisational, methods, to bypass Larkin and rebuild Irish Communism in
its own, Stalinite image. Larkin's son James, Young Jim, with other including
the current General Secretary of the Irish Worker League, Seán
Murray, a Republican from Co. Antrim, were invited to Moscow to be educated
at Lenin College – an institution that was now Stalinised. Thus Murray
began a career of more than thirty years as probably Ireland's leading Stalinite.
In Ireland, young Jim Larkin, Seán Nolan and others began to organise
to break with the IWL. Since there was no Congress of the Comintern between
1928 and 1935, their work was to produce a fait accomplit for that organisation.
From 1929, various Irish Workers' Press Groups began to be established to
build a new working class newspaper, around which a new Communist Party could
expand. These groups met in conference in early 1930 and prepared a preparatory
Committee for a Revolutionary Workers Party in Ireland. In April there appeared
the first number of this Committee's paper The Workers Voice and
in October, young Jim Larkin was elected to the reconstituted Dublin Corporation
where for one month in 1933 he would be the only open Communist Councillor
it has ever had. His father was already renouncing his Communist past.
The Communist Party of Ireland shows a measure of shrewdness both politically
and organisationally when it emphasises 1933 – the founding only of
the second CPI – as the date from which progress has been made. Not
only was there greater continuity between the second and third Communist
Parties, than between the first and the second, but it was recognisably a
Stalinite continuity. But there is more than this. The 1930s were a period
of genuine activism, and, indeed, heroism in Irish Stalinite history. It
was under the Stalinite leadership that the Catholic and Protestant unemployed
of Belfast fought the police. It was the Stalinite Irish-American, James
Gralton, who was deported from Co. Leitrim for his work in organising the
small farmers. The Stalinites played a big role in helping to organise the
miners of Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny and the textile workers of Rathmines,
in leading the striking Dublin tramwaymen in 1935, in opposing Fascism in
Ireland and Spain. From 1931 they upheld the celebration of May Day – Trotskyism
has not such a record and is accordingly in an immediately difficult position
via-à-vis its Stalinite opponents. It has to recognise its weakness
the better to capitalise on the fact that, in most of the above mentioned
cases, the Stalinites were handicapped by their politics from leading the
struggle to success. (The Castlecomer struggle is perhaps an exception since
the struggle for union recognition required personal and moral, as much as
political qualities; even so, it was a long-drawn out dispute which might
have benefited from the leadership of a Farrell Dobbs). In short, the problems
posed by the 1930s are specific examples of aspects of our paramount task:
that of getting the Irish left to think rather than feel and re-act.
The Revolutionary Workers Groups into which the Workers Press Groups were
transformed under the aegis of the preparatory Committee for a Revolutionary
Workers Party lasted as such for three years before being transformed into
the second Communist Party of Ireland. This was not simply because of the
need to avoid repeating the experiences of 1922 to 1926. As early as January
1931, there was more than one group in Dublin as well as groups in Belfast
(the Belfast Communist Group), Castlecomer and Longford. Nearly two years
later, there were 400 at a meeting that called for the immediate establishment
of a Communist Party, even after which the delegates had to wait another
six months. Besides this, a Revolutionary Workers Party seems to have been
in existence in Dublin for some eight months before the first (1931) Conference
mentioned, judging by references in the Workers' Voice. It seems
that part of the reason for the caution shown by Nolan, and, after their
return from Moscow in 1931, by Larkin and Seán Murray, was the political
motive of (Stalinite) orthodoxy; neither they nor the Kremlin were prepared
to risk an independent Irish revolutionary force. When the new Communist
Party was founded finally it was at a Conference of only 50 delegates, and
even then its foundation was followed by expulsions. That this was a possibility
was reflected in the early issues of the Workers' Voice. It serialised
Reed's 10 Days that Shook the World without excising its references
to the now exiled Trotsky. Even less orthodox was the line on Liebknecht
and Luxemburg whose denunciation by Stalin was now beginning. As late as
28 January 1933, the Irish Workers' Voice could run an article entitled
'The Heroism of Rosa and Karl'. Earlier, Betty Sinclair was, on her own account
first attracted to Stalinism by a lecture on those two whom Stalinites in
other countries were ignoring. Perhaps most significant of all was the silence
of the Revolutionary Workers Groups on the current dogma of the Comintern
via-à-vis Social Democracy. The term for this – Social Fascism – was
only used once in the Irish Workers' Voice of 3 March 1934 (ie when
the line was about to be changed anyway), and then only defensively, (literally:
the Comintern 'was right to call [the Social Democrats] Social Fascists').
This laxity was partly due to the traditional fact henceforward to be an
obvious aspect of Irish Stalinism: its already mentioned use of non-sectarian
formulae – or, just, form – to cover an essentially philistine
approach to most matters. However, in Stalinism's third period, the non-sectarianism
was emphasised beyond and future CPI party practice to answer Irish Stalinism's
need to accumulate primitively as large as possible number of cadres. A more
dogmatic line would probably have alienated potential recruits. The same
strategy was to be used in the early days of the Connolly Youth Movement.
But if the propaganda of the Groups was moderate, their practical policy
was as far to the left as Irish Stalinism has ever been. The Manifesto of
their Preparatory Committee called for a Workers Republic. Relationships
with the Republican Movement, which was currently moving leftwards at the
head of the anti-annuity and unemployed movements, were generally bad. (This
was not altogether the RWG's fault; the Republican orthodoxy, even at that
time of Socialist Republicanism, was full of petty bourgeois illusions. However,
the Groups might have been more tactful in their handling of those). Though
the Groups supported the Republican Front, Saor Éire, and spearheaded
the fight against the Coercion Acts passed to crush them and it, they did
little to build it. The Labour Party and Fianna Fáil were, of course,
totally beyond the pale at this time even if the former was not 'Social Fascist'.
In the general elections of February-March 1932, Fianna Fáil defeated
Cumann na nGaedhael, took office and suspended many of the oppressive measures
that its desperate predecessors had used against the left during their last
months. Among the beneficiaries were the Groups and their paper, the Workers'
Voice. However, its analysis of the change went no further than this:
a lot has happened. Prior to February the 16th, we had a Cosgrave-DeValera
front against the workers and working farmers. To-day we have
a DeValera-Cosgrave front. This is about the extent of the change'.
Workers' Voice, 9 April 1932.
the next week, there was an article celebrating Mellows and the
appeal was made:
all the fighting forces in the working class and independence
movements get together on this issue and rouse the Irish Workers
and peasant farmers to united action.'
And in June,
the Dublin RWG went to Bodenstown, but those were the only gestures
made to the Republican Movement, which was allowed to lapse into
a dangerous and blind euphoria after the Fianna Fáil victory.
Though the Workers Groups did now make national demands, they
did so as if they were the immediate rival of the IRA at the
time. United Front propaganda which might have then had an effect
was not proposed.
The other aspect of the Third Period Stalinism of the RWGs is to be seen
in the Workers' Voice treatment of Connolly. In both Easter 1930
and 1931, it published articles on Connolly that explained his Marxism but
ignored completely his development of the national struggle towards achieving
the social revolution. In these articles, Connolly's presence in the GPO
does not appear; for them, it would seem, his death in 1916 could quite as
easily have been caused by a heart attack as by a British firing-squad.
The Third Period of Stalinism of the Revolutionary Workers Groups was summarised
in Seán Murray's pamphlet, The Irish Case for Communism,
published in March 1933. That this is, in fact, 3rd period Stalinism will
be shown. However, its hysteria is reduced by the already mentioned tradition
of formal non-sectarianism. This enabled many Trotskyists when the pamphlet
was re-discovered in the late '60s to ascribe to its very Stalinite author
a position of Trotskyism. The specific cause for their illusion was that
this pamphlet did give, in opposition to the, since then, prevalent, Stalinite,
two or more stages theory of Irish revolution, a one stage perspective thereof
which was based on a quite accurate economic analysis. British imperialism
and Irish capitalism were recognised in it as interdependent; more: 'Irish
capitalism is the social basis for British imperialism within the country'.
However, the events of the past five years help to clarify the deficiencies
of this pamphlet and reveal more clearly the fact that its politics were
ultra-left Stalinite rather than Marxist. For example the one-stage perspective
is stated too dogmatically and uncompromisingly. The cause of the national
revolution in Ireland is seen as so interdependent with the struggle for
social revolution in Britain that the struggle for social revolutions in
Ireland becomes indistinguishable from the struggle across the water. This
is certainly an optimistic perspective. However, it was not a realistic one
at a time when the Fianna Fáil victory had initiated a serious anti-imperialist
struggle with a Britain where the working-class had suffered an almost equally
Even less is to be said for the programme with which Murray ends his pamphlet.
Here is not a set of transitional demands, but, rather, an early version
of Stalinite Maximalism as later revealed in Ireland and Britain. A wide
range of industry, transport and banking is scheduled for nationalisation
but the issue of workers' control is not mentioned. Furthermore, although
the programme is strictly non-denominational and has very specific proposals
for the abolition of parliament and the bourgeois legal system, the question
of how to achieve this: how to physically smash the state of which parliament
and the law courts are simply subordinate institutions, is not considered.
The arming of the workers on which alone must depend any move to replace
bourgeois state institutions by those of the proletariat is never mentioned.
Most amazing of all is the complete absence of any programmatic approach
to the major economic problem of the time: unemployment.
That this programme was in fact merely a maximum one was shown by the fact
that, while Murray was having his pamphlet published, the RWG was presenting
a much less ambitious set of nine demands as propaganda during the Saorstát
General Election of January 1933. In this programme, nationalisation is never
mentioned, there are several proposals for 'soaking the rich', for disbanding
the CID and the growing Army Comrades Association (the future Blueshirts),
for opposing the treaty and for improving social welfare (particularly for
the unemployed). The most extreme proposal is one for confiscation of the
property and imprisonment of those who assist the imperialist enemy. But
its sum total amounts to no more than an extreme and logical set of Republican
demands. It is the minimum programme to which Murray was to produce the maximum.
The question of transition: of linking the immediate needs programmatically
to their only solution is not considered. This division of programmes (at
a time when Third Period Stalinism had yet to expose itself by its German
defeat) anticipated the more thoroughgoing organisational opportunism of
Irish Stalinism in its policies of 'United' and 'Popular' Fronts.
Even before the division between minimum and maximum programmes had yet to
take full organisational form, the phenomenon was clear in that field of
work from which the CPI gained its greatest share of credit. This was the
National Unemployed Workers Movement and, of course, most particularly in
Right from the beginning, the Irish Stalinite movement had an advantage that
its Centrist predecessors had never possessed: it had a base in Ireland's
largest industrial centre. In Belfast the smashing of working class organisations
in the pogroms of 1920-22 did not enable the Orange industrialists to restore
their economy to health. Their fathers and grandfathers had done a thorough
job in integrating their market with that of Britain. Now that Britain was
suffering depression its outpost could not develop even the independence
shown by the economy of Saorstát Éireann. By 1930 Northern
Ireland had the highest rate of unemployment of the three states of the British
Isles, and it grew worse when Harland and Wolff's East Yard closed down.
Orangeism was failing to justify itself to its own workers. In 1925, the
Northern Ireland Labour Party fought and won three seats in Belfast. It could
probably have won more seats in 1929 had the Craigavon Government not abolished
proportional representation. Both Catholic and Protestant workers were faced
with a government that was able only to hold onto state power nut could show
them no economic justification for it doing so. The Labour Party insisted
on adhering to the parliamentary road that Unionism had proved itself well
able to divert. Meanwhile the world slump added new problems to workers of
both religions. This gave an obvious opportunity to the Belfast Communist
In May 1930, the Workers Voice (31 May 1930) proclaimed the programmatic
basis for a new Irish National Unemployed Movement. The Unemployed Workers
Charter included eight points: abolition of the system of task work; unemployment
and non-receipt of benefit to be the only qualification necessary to obtain
relief, every unemployed worker married or single, over 18 years to receive
it; rates of relief to be 18/- [€1.83] per week for those over 18, 10/-
[€0.63] per week for adult dependent and 5/- [€0.31] per week for
dependent child; and relief to be administered by Joint Committees of representatives
of Unemployed Bodies and Poor Law Board; a 7 hour day with trade union rates
for Poor Law Board employees; abolition of separation of man and wife inmates
in the workhouse and 50% reduction in the salaries of Poor Law Board officials
now earning over £400 [€500] per annum. This moderate minimum
programme was soon forgotten. An Irish National Unemployed Movement did exist
and did useful local work but it soon broke up into local appendages of the
RWGs. The fact was that there were differences in the Poor Law practice north
and south of the border. In the Saorstát, payment of relief was often
in kind and work was dispensed under a system of patronage. These facts were
reflected in a specific programme for Dublin unemployed (Workers' Voice,
7 May 1932). At the same time, while the 26 County workers had gained a limited
victory by replacing the conservative Cosgrave by the populist de Valera,
the 6 County unemployed had no such hope. The Craigavon Government maintained
its iron control, followed completely by the British National Government's
reduction in the dole and gave police support to Orange counter-demonstrations
against the Communists. Yet these last could not, for once, counteract the
objective facts. The Mayday Demonstration in Belfast in 1932 was twice as
big as that in Dublin.
In the Workers' Voice of 23 July 1932, Thomas Geehan, a leading
Belfast Communist, explained how he saw the way forward. He urged a:
Front (which) must be organised by the rank and file workers
themselves and the struggle for the abolition of the means test,
for adequate relief for all unemployed workers, and against any
further wage cuts must be carried through by the rank and file
of the Trade Unions, Labour Parties, the unemployed and those
in receipt of outdoor relief.
'Steps should be taken immediately by the Rank and File Committees in the
unions, the Unemployed Workers Committees, and the Revolutionary Workers
Groups to organise a meeting of all militant workers. From this meeting a
representative committee should be formed that could map out the launching
of a wide-spread campaign against the Government and the whole Northern capitalist
Two days later,
just such a Committee – the Belfast Relied Workers' Committee – was
formed. On 18 August it held a conference at which 5,000 attended.
It demanded on pain of a strike of relief workers five concessions:
the abolition of task work; an increase in relief to pay one
man 15/3d [€0.99] per week, his wife 8/- [€0.51] per
week and 1/- [€0.06] per week for each child, all relief
work to be paid in cash, street improvements and other schemes
to be paid at trade union rates; adequate outdoor allowance to
all single men and women who are unemployed and not in receipt
of unemployment benefit. It will be noticed that this was far
less than the original demands of the Unemployed Workers' Charter.
It is understandable that it should be so; the original eight
points were unsuccessful minimum demands; since they had been
formulated for two years, the situation of the unemployed had
deteriorated. The minimum demands of 1932 were far less ambitious
claims than those of 1930. The Communists had no immediate recommendations
to develop the consciousness of the mass of the workers so that
they would recognise the need for Socialism. In these circumstances,
as will be shown, what was actually achieved in 1932 was, again,
no more than that what was demanded.
However, the Belfast Corporation was not prepared to grant any concessions
without a confrontation. In September, it continued to provoke the workers.
It cut the wages of its engineering employees by 10% and removed cuts from
its higher paid officials while maintaining those on its lower paid ones.
The unemployed were ignored. On 30 September, the 20,000 workers on relief
went on strike.
This might not have been so significant had it not been so widespread. Protestants
as well as Catholics had suffered from the closing of the shipyards. In desperation
they closed ranks on a class basis. The timber-workers struck in sympathy.
Marches in sympathy came from Coleraine and Derry to Belfast. Alarmed, the
Government tried to split the strikers by an offer of increased rates to
married relief workers; but this was rejected on a motion of Geehan, the
Chairman of the Relief Workers' Committee. On 5 October, unemployed demonstrators
clashed with the RUC. They were sent in a second time and backed by British
troops. The result was Bloody Sunday – 11 October 1932. Two workers
were killed and barricades rose in defiance on Shankill and the Falls.
The Government now made concessions on some of the Strikers' demands. Allowances
were increased for families (though, not in all cases to the level demanded),
single men in lodgings were given relief and the rate of relief was fixed
as uniform (though still subject to the Means Test) for all Belfast. In addition,
relief would continue indefinitely rather than ending after six months. Geehan
accepted this as a magnificent victory. Certainly, the strike had gained
concessions from a regime that had managed very successfully up to then without
making such things. Nonetheless the victory was a tactical one.
The Belfast Communist Group knew this; it knew the limited gains that had
been won so hardily and at such a cost in endurance, courage and lives would
have to be defended as long as capitalism lasted. To underline this, one
strike leader, Arthur Griffin, was now arrested and got three months in jail.
(He dies later from his treatment there). The Group's reaction was not political
but organisational. A Conference of Rank and File workers was called for
19 November. Murray emphasised the need to unite employed and unemployed
workers and criticised, correctly enough, the Belfast Trades Council for
trying to sabotage such unity as existed. On 5 November, the Irish Workers'
Voice appealed to the workers of Belfast:
not now disband from your organisation. Remember that in the
future you must be prepared at any time to take militant action
on the offensive or the defensive, to gain more concessions and
to defend what you have gained in whatever struggle you may take
With such a
perspective – not even, immediately mentioning the remaining,
and unconceded, demands of the Relief Workers' Committee – it
is not surprising that the Rank and File Conference came to nothing.
However, the Communist leader, Archie Magill, estimated that
sixty had been recruited to Communism as a result of the strike.
In January 1933 Geehan beat Murtagh Morgan of the NILP into third
place in the contest for the Court Ward councillorship on Belfast
Corporation. The Dublin unemployed won 25% increases in relief,
in cash, and relief payment to single people, all not doubt helped
by the Saorstát Government's fear of a possible repetition
of the Belfast confrontation. Above all, stimulated by these
triumphs, an Irish Unemployed Workers' Movement was formed. It
had a seven point programme: a national relief scale (though
slightly less than the new Belfast rate); trade union rates of
pay for relief work; all relief to be paid through dispensaries;
housing to be built at economic rates and no eviction of unemployed
workers. Yet, again, this minimum was not taken seriously by
the Communists themselves. Geehan's campaign for Belfast Corporation
included such unlisted (tho', no doubt, beneficial and popular)
demands as cheap coal and light for the unemployed, special work
schemes for destitute persons and abolition of the Means Test.
Later, in September 1933, the Belfast unemployed made the call
for improved winter relief. And in March 1934, new demands were
given the unemployed movement to fit in closer to the British
struggle against the National Government's Unemployed Bill. What
is more, with this political confusion, it is not really surprising
to find that a permanent demand of Belfast Unemployed agitation
after 1932 was simply that the October agreement should be implemented.
As early as January 1933, the Irish Workers' Voice (11
January) was reporting:
by day, the terms upon which the strike of the outdoor relief
workers was settled are being systematically smashed'.
It can be said
that the Stalinite leaders of the Belfast unemployed operated
by the letter if not actually the spirit of the Revisionist Bernstein's
view that 'the Programme is nothing, the Movement is everything'.
This is not to say that greater programmatic clarity on the part
of the Communists would have necessarily made the qualitative
difference between success and failure for the working class
struggle for state power. Opposing the workers in Northern Ireland
was an extremely sophisticated ruling class which had great experience
in exploiting with the maximum effect, all differences amongst
The task of this group does not seem to have been made easier by the 'Catholic
Nationalism' that our two Nation friends can now identify in the CPI. In
fact the only example of this that they have produced has been a remark made
by Larkin at a meeting in Dublin in solidarity with the relief strikers.
Here, he stated objectively enough, that the relief workers were 'in revolt
against the British Empire and all it stood for'. Certainly, non-sectarian
working-class unity was frail enough despite the barricades but to attribute
the breakage to one speech is merely to admit that this unity was doomed
anyway. In any case, in the Irish Workers' Voice of 17 December
1932, Geehan listed three handicaps to advancing the struggle: namely the
Red Scare, the use of economic means (paying married but not single people)
to divide the unemployed and the Labour fakirs' plans to establish their
own purely parliamentary movement of the unemployed. Of course, he may have
been blinded by 'Catholic Nationalism'. Nonetheless, it is significant that,
at this time, he does not put too high a premium on Orangeism.
Even so, and inevitably, the Unionists did beat the Orange drum. It is this
period (1932-35) to which belong such great quoted remarks of Unionist bigotry
as Craigavon's 'Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people' and Brooke's
(later Brookeborough's), 'I have not one Catholic about my place'. Finally,
in 1935, after the final closure of Workman, Clark and Co., and as the CPI
continued to gain recruits, the Daily Worker was beginning to the
sold around the shipyards, the demonstrations for winter relief had begun
to reach 1932 proportions, the Orange mobs were given a blank cheque for
Yet, even this was not as successful as that of the 1920s. Geehan had to
leave his house. He was still able to organise squatters successfully in
the Belfast suburb of Glenard. His party opened a bookshop within four months
of the pogrom and it remained open. An attempt by the Northern Irish government
to attack openly the 1932 rates of relief was defeated. The CPI survived
in Belfast to become the CPNI.
However, it is true that, if not in 1935, then in 1936 (after a final struggle
to defeat a new reduction in unemployed rates) there is a change in the Communist
Party's emphasis and that the unemployed movement became less important to
it than it was up to that date. In his report to the Belfast Branch for the
latter year, the Secretary, William McCullough, reported:
Party had achieved successes in the struggle for the unity of
the working-class movement. The Socialist Party had entered into
a united front during the municipal elections, the position had
improved in the trade unions and they had been able to do considerable
work in the fight'.
The Worker, 6 February 1937.
of unemployment, here! Nor is it because the rate of unemployment
in Northern Ireland had fallen drastically. (It had not). The
reason was to be found in the most recent switch in the strategy
of the Comintern and of its Irish section.
The United Front
The Revolutionary Workers' Groups were fused into the second Communist Party
of Ireland in June 1933. Already the Communist International was making moves
to modify its Third Period sectarianism in the light of the Nazi takeover
in Germany. However, it had to do this as far as possible without admitting
that the line that had contributed to the Nazi seizure of power had been
incorrect. As far as Stalin was concerned this operation was executed successfully
enough, although in practice it meant liquidating two of the three German
Communist leaders whom the Comintern had complimented on their handling of
the pre-1933 situation. (The third, Ernst Thaelman, was saved from his friends
only by being in the hands of his Nazi enemy). Politically, what the change
meant was that the Communist Parties all over the world began to forget about
the horrors of 'Social Fascism' and began, instead, to flirt with its exponents
in the name of the 'United Front'.
As far as Ireland has been concerned a United Front as understood and defended
by Lenin and Trotsky has not been a realistic strategy since perhaps the
1920s. For its original exponents a United Front meant the participation
of a mass Communist Party in an alliance with one or more other parties of
the working-class so that it could expand its political influence and establish
its hegemony over the working-class as a whole to lead it to take state power.
Trotsky made this very clear when he wrote (almost as if mentioning Ireland
by name) in his Thesis 'On the United Front.'
cases where the Communist Party still remains an organisation
of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its
conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive
practical and organisational significance. In such conditions,
mass actions remain under the leadership of the of organisations
which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to
play the decisive role.'
The First Five Years of the Communist International,
Volume 2, New Park Publications, London 1953, p.92.
in the Manifesto for his Fourth International – The
Death Agony of Capitalism, the United Front is not mentioned.
None of the FI's affiliates were large enough for it to be relevant – though
they could use and have used certain of its techniques for their
In Ireland (and indeed in Britain) the organisation of the Communist Party
obviously did not yet reach United Frontist possibilities. The Communist
Party might, as Lenin advocated for the british, apply for affiliation to
the Labour Party; or as Trotsky was to direct, it might enter the Labour
Party clandestinely. It might make a similar entry move into the Republican
Movement. It might try out alliances for action with elements in one or the
other. Its decision would depend on the objective circumstances of the class
struggle and its subjective effect on the large working-class and anti-imperialist
organisations. At all times, it would maintain its distinct organisation
around its programme. Even if an Irish Communist Party did become strong
enough to demand a United Front (presumably, with the Labour Party) it would,
as of now, have to face up to the fact that the majority of the irish working-class
supports parties that are not even subjectively working-class (i.e. Fianna
Fáil, Fine Gael, and the various Loyalist groups).
In 1933, as to-day, Irish Communism had a long way to go before it had to
face this problem. Insofar as it considered it, its reaction was highly schematic.
As has been shown, it had no concept of transitional demands. Its programmatic
view was expressed in the good old Social-Democratic 'mini-maxi' dialectic.
Even during the Third Period, it recognised the bourgeois democratic struggle
(after two years ignoring it) only by producing a minimum election programme
as the means of showing that it was more Republican (in the full sense) than
the Republicans. During their last 18 months (apart from Murray's pamphlet)
the Revolutionary Workers Groups propagandised programmatically as superior
Socialist Republicans rather than as Communists.
The change in Irish Stalinism that occurred in 1933 (and was roughly co-existent
with the organisational creation of the CPI) was organisational rather than
political. Insofar as a programmatic change was made it was a blunting of
potential. In the CPI's Manifesto (entitled, significantly, Ireland's
Path to Freedom) there was no programme whether Transitional, Maximum
or Minimum. This Manifesto was to continue as the chief Party statement throughout
the life of the second Communist Party of Ireland.
The other significant aspect of Ireland's Path to Freedom was the
strategy that was expressed in it. After the vagueness of the Third Period
and Murray's attempt to write internationalism into his pamphlet by his perspective
of interlocking British and irish revolutions, the Manifesto returns to the
two stage prospect, 'First the Republic, then the Workers Republic':
the head of the peasants for an Independent Ireland, at the head
of all the toilers of the exploited for a Workers and Farmers
Irish Republic, for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat – such
is the historic task given to the irish working-class by the
whole of the present alignment of class forces in Ireland and
the position of the Irish national independence movement as an
integral part of the international revolution'.
Ireland's Path to Freedom, 1933, p.11.
was to be developed over the next period. Its most definite development
had already been started. As early as March, the Belfast Communist
Group was calling for a United Front of Belfast working-class
organisations for five limited aims: opposition to proposals
to tax co-operative societies; removal of the Special Powers
Act; the assistance of the (currently striking) railwaymen; and
the prevention of war. The front had a meeting at which the future
Labour (and eventually, Unionist) MP, HC Midgeley allowed himself
to be elected as its Chairman (probably because he was impressed
by Geehan's relative success at the polls). He took care never
to call meetings of it and it had disappeared by the end of the
year. Further United Front calls came to nothing.
For Party strategy in the Saorstát, the prevailing Stalinite orthodoxy
allied to the two-stage strategy was given extra encouragement by the growth
of Irish Fascism. In March 1933 members of the Fascist (Free State) Army
Comrades Association had been in a mob that burnt the intended HQ of the
CPI. The Association's successor, the National Guard, seemed to take over
Cumann na nGael, the only openly pro-imperialist opposition party in August
1933. This is not the place for a full analysis of the Blueshirts. It is,
however, enough to say that while there can be no doubt of their Fascism,
it can now be seen that, in Saorstát Éireann in the 1930s,
the objective circumstances for a Fascist seizure of power existed perhaps
less there than elsewhere in Western Europe. The petty bourgeois, the historic
staple of successful Fascism movements was not demoralised but growing in
strength and anticipating further growth. Without its help, the Blueshirt
organisation of the large farmers' sons and lumpenproletarians had no real
hope of taking power. Fine Gael was able to shed its Fascist elements more
easily than any such body elsewhere in Western Europe could have done at the
time. None of this means, of course, that the CPI and its allies were wrong
to oppose the Blueshirts by every means in their power. However, it does
shed a light on the objective value of the means they used.
This was, in common with the rest of the Comintern, first the United Front,
then the Popular Front. The first began doubtfully. Midgeley flirted with
it. Irish Labour ignored it. (Unlike in Belfast the CPI did badly in the
Dublin municipal elections of 1933, both Larkin and his father losing their
There remained another possibility for an alliance. In its two-stage perspective,
the CPI had emphasised its role as leader 'of the peasants for an Independent
Ireland'. From this standpoint, it was a logical step to seek to expand its
United Front strategy to take in the Republican Movement. In fact, what it
was to produce was a reformed embryo of the future Popular Front, but this
concept would be carried to even greater extremes than elsewhere.
At first, the appeal of the Republicans developed quietly. On the one hand,
the CPI did merely what the Revolutionary Groups could have done profitably
before. It gave genuine if critical support for Republican candidates in
the Northern Irish General election of 1933, for example. The trouble was
that this action was based on a totally misleading perspective. By this time,
there was, in fact no possibility of the Republicans as a whole blocing with
the CPI. The movement's course was rightwards. Frank Ryan was removed from the
Editorship of An Phoblacht and the Communist Party literature sellers
were attacked at Bodenstown – an event foreshadowing the hooligan attack
of 1934. Still the CPI flew its United Front kites. On 9 December, the Irish
Workers' Voice headed an article 'On to the Republic through the Workers'
Struggle'. On 13 January 1934 it revived an old Third Period shibboleth – the
United Front from the bottom; but this was to be on purely democratic – 'Anti-Fascist'
demands. On 10 February it reported the founding of a 'Labour League Against
Fascism'. A month later it revived (albeit, of course, with far fewer forces)
the calls of the irish Labour Party in the War of Independence: for a Mayday
general strike against Fascism. It gained its bonus in April – in the
shape of the Socialist Republicans' Athlone Manifesto calling for a vaguely
described National Republican Congress. The CPI's main criticism of it was
that it was not explicit enough on the need to struggle against Fascism.
However, after a year of agitation the numbers of those wishing to fight
Fascism under Communist leadership had now swollen. But even this limited
achievement was neutralised further by that leadership's handicap of it.
The United Front idea had been based on a confused analysis both of the concept
and the said front and of the current Irish situation. Now the illusions
were compounded. Instead of working to recruit the dissident Social Republicans, the
CPI opposed determinedly Michael Price's desire to establish a revolutionary
party. It backed, instead, the establishment of what would be in practice
its own party front without any alliance with Labour or the Republican organisations.
Murray justified this at the famous Rathmines Conference:
is possible to win the support of the great mass of the rural
population to the Republican fight. But not all the classes who
support national independence (sic) will go so resolutely forward
for the establishment of the Workers' Republic. The two classes – the
workers and toiling farmers – will get acquainted with
the fight with the common enemy, imperialism. This will ensure
that they will not free the country to hand it to the capitalists,
but that they great support of the farming masses will be one
for the Workers' Republic . . .
'We would be definitely clear on this point – we cannot rid ourselves
of capitalist oppression until we destroy the power of British imperialism'.
Irish Workers Voice, 6 October 1934.
This very clear
two stage perspective was backed by Frank Ryan, George Gilmore,
Peadar O'Donnell (who asked 'what stage of the struggle were
they at?' – IWV, ibid) and by John Breen of the
Labour League Against Fascism and a future Labour and anti-Communist
Lord Mayor of Dublin, who declared that 'two separate revolutions'
had occurred in Russia in 1917. A narrow majority sided with
them. Price and the majority of what [had] been since April a
second Irish Citizen Army broke with their former comrades and
entered the Labour Party. The CPI had to continue as the centre
of a conglomerate of itself and its front organisations, the
Congress organisation proper, headed by O'Donnell, Gilmore and
Ryan as well as Murtagh Morgan's tiny breakaway Northern Ireland
Socialist Party, and several rank and file Labour supporters
headed by the indefatigable Roddy Connolly. Connolly had bloced
with Price at Rathmines – on centering the new body's strategy
around the demand for a Workers' Republic, rather than (in line
with the stages dogma) a republic pure and simple. However, unlike
Price he considered that this should be the demand for a front
not a party, so he stayed in the Congress. The rump Congress
was in fact a pointless body as shown by the fact that O'Donnell
has never got beyond fellow-travelling, Gilmore has never really
got as far as O'Donnell in this and Ryan only entered the Comintern
in a Fascist prison cell in Spain. Of course, and inevitably,
many of the rank and file moved into the CPI but they would have
probably done that anyway without the two stage mumbo-jumbo.
As it was, it was to be through the original Congress – both
its dissidents (Price) and its loyal members (Coulter) that the
Trotskyism was to get a base in Ireland. So the CPI's idea of
a United Front produced its own Nemesis.
Of course, this is not to say that the Congress and the CPI did not do some
basic, useful work as during the Dublin Tram Strike of 1935, but here again
they worked with the IRA majority. The point is that the Republican Congress per
se was not simply unnecessary but a luxury in the actual conditions
of the struggle at the time. For example, it had a weekly paper which acted
as a rival to the Irish Workers' Voice, which itself couldn't afford
this. On the other hand, co-operation between the CPI and Connolly and Morgan
and their followers could have been achieved anyway. This was admitted by
the Central Committee in July 1935, when it stated: 'the work of the Party
in the struggle against repression remains backward' (Irish Workers'
Voice, 6 July 1935). However, its solution was to carry the front idea
The Popular Front and the Spanish Civil
In June 1935, the Seventh Congress of the Comintern which included an Irish
delegation, gave formal approval to just such a strategy. In place of 'United
Fronts', there were proclaimed 'People's Fronts' of the workers and formally
petty bourgeois (really bourgeois) 'anti-Fascist' parties such as the French
Radicals and the British Liberals, with the purpose of fighting elections. As
with the 'United Fronts' this strategy had been festering for some time in
France. In Ireland – always open to pressure towards the right – a
sign had been the publication in the Irish Workers' Voice of 22
December 1934 of an article by Cahir Healy, Nationalist MP and friend of
Sir Edward Mosley. In this he criticised Britain for failing to operate the
Treaty of 1921!
In Ireland, the Popular Front does not seem to have caused any further approaches
to Healy. What it did initiate was a period of several months in which the
Republican Congress wooed Fianna Fáil. Several joint 'republican'
(i.e. Fianna Fáil) – Labour (WUI and Republican Congress) meetings
were held in Dublin ('Republican Labour' was of course the irish term for
Popular Front as Republican Congress meant United Front). Dan Breen and others
signed a manifesto for such a movement. In the end, however, the Fianna Fáil
leadership did not need or want a Popular Front. It invoked Party discipline:
a few held out and were expelled. They didn't enter even the Republican Congress.
More significant in the long term was the effect of Popular Frontism on the
CPI's relations with the Labour Parties. As late as September 1935, Midgeley
was still attacking the idea of a front with the CPI. However, the latter
was not prepared to give up anything except its programme. More important,
perhaps, was the fact that Midgeley had lost a lot of support by keeping
silent over the 1935 pogrom. When he announced a list of minimum demands,
McCullough declared that he agrees with it, 'in so far as it is in the interests
of the working-class' (Irish Workers' Voice, 18 January 1936), and
he invited the NILP to send a delegate to a meeting to achieve unity against
Unionism. In April, an electoral front was agreed for the Belfast municipal
election. Its candidates were defeated. What is more important is that it
is from this time that the mass organisation of the Belfast workers, particularly
the unemployed, began to lose its importance in CPI propaganda. After the
Unemployed Workers' Movement's defeat of the attempt to reduce relief in
April 1936, only one unemployed demonstration is mentioned (briefly) the
following November and as has been remarked, McCullough's own report of February
1937, confirms this impression, despite the continuing high rate of unemployment
in Northern Ireland and of Belfast alone. On the other hand, of course, the
Popular Front was nothing if not a Parliamentary strategy, Midgeley was primarily
a parliamentarian and proud of it and the CPI had accepted his programme in
principle. The circumstantial evidence is quite strong.
In the Saorstát, the CPI went even further in seeking to conciliate
Labour – and with even less success. No 'United' or 'Popular Font'
strategy was agreed with the larger party. Instead, after hearing of the
defeats of the 'United Front' candidates in Belfast, the CPI withdrew its
own candidates – Murray and Larkin – from the Dublin municipal
elections lest they split the Labour-Republican vote. Admittedly, this may
have permitted them to publish an unusually radical election programme (including
municipalisation of the tramway and gas companies), and Gilmore and Ryan
went forward under it for the Republican Congress. However they and the Labour
Party were defeated utterly. Murray's reaction was to urge the WUI candidates
(including the elder Larkin) to find a common unity with Labour in the future.
As usual, the terms for this remained vague.
The uneven political development of the CPI and its fronts north and south
of the border was maximised by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Here,
for Stalinism, the issue is clear. Not alone was the liberty of the Spanish
people at stake, so, too, was its hardly worked out strategy. The Popular
Front now faced International Fascism in military struggle. In Spain itself,
this gave an extra impetus to Stalinite opposition to attempts to make the
Republic a Workers' Republic. On the international scale it meant that the
affiliates of the Comintern should give first priority to pressurising the
governments of their countries into supporting the Spanish Republic against
In Ireland, in particular, this task was made more difficult for two reasons.
One was the small size of the CPI. The other was that the Catholic Church
showed a unanimity that it had not displayed since the Civil War in giving
its backing to Franco and his irish supporters – the Christian Front.
In these circumstances, the Irish Labour Party, which had for some years
tried to steer a middle course between verbal radicalism (a new commitment
to the Workers' Republic) and clerical disapproval thereof, surrendered completely
to the latter. Not all its deputies followed the example of Limerick's Michael
Keyes who spoke at Christian Front meetings. However, Keyes never expected
to answer for it. Matters were different in the Republican Movement, even
in its most right wing party, Cumann na Phoblacht. There, Dr Joseph Brennan
found that his leadership of the Front cost him the seat on its National
Directorate. Indeed, all Irish Republicanism supported the Spanish Republic – even
those like Fr Michael O'Flanagan, who had been confused on the Ethiopian
issue. Perhaps the most concrete achievement of the Republican-Communist
alliance was the brief reunification of the 'Republican' wing of the republican
Congress, under Frank Ryan, with its 'Workers' Republic' minority under Kit
Conway to supply and man [an] Irish force to join the International Brigade.
In these circumstances, the Labour Party (then including that future, well-known,
non-sectarian, Conor Cruise O'Brien) tail-ended the clergy even to the right,
not only of the militant Republicans – but of the determinedly non-interventionist
Fianna Fáil. This stand was criticised correctly enough by the CPI.
In Northern Ireland, however, matters were different. The NILP gave its backing
to the Spanish Republic and criticised its 26 County comrades for not doing
so. Midgeley produced a pamphlet (Spain – The Press, The Public
and the Truth) on the strength of which he was later to provide a measure
of left cover for the Unionist Government. The CPI hailed it as 'brilliant'
and forgot the many criticisms it had made of Midgeley and his Party on their
omissions nearer home.
Under pressure, the Communist Party not only tail-ended Midgeley, it bent
politically under the clerical attack. In its last issue of 1936, its cyclostyled
weekly, The Worker (the Irish Workers' Voice had had to
liquidate after being sued successfully for libel by a parish priest) quoted
a Protestant clergyman:
Communistic theory is far nearer to the Christian ideal than
that of the Rationalistic philosophy'
Worker, 26 December 1936.
No such allowances
were made for Trotsky or the Moscow trial defendants whom the
Party now noticed and denounced.
Three months later Popular Frontism reached its climax, when the Worker became
a monthly to make way for a new Popular Front weekly called the Irish Democrat.
This only lasted to the end of 1937 partly due to a boycott. After a year
of quiescence the CPI resumed weekly publication of the (duplicated) Irish
Workers' Weekly in 1939.
Meanwhile, Gilmore and Ryan ran for the Dáil in the general election
of 1937 as 'Republican-Labour' candidates. They lost their deposits. Ryan
returned to Spain where he was captured by the reactionaries. The Irish Republicans
that he had led had already returned to Ireland after the intervention as
creditable as any in Irish military history and a good deal more justifiable
than most. The Republican Congress was not reconstructed, and the 'popular'
or 'Republican-Labour Front' remained a pious aspiration.
In political terms, then, the period of the popular Fronts was, in Ireland,
even more disastrous than that of the 'United Front' that preceded it. The
Republican Congress neutralised the potential of many Socialist-Republican revolutionaries.
The awful verdict on 'Republican-Labour co-operation' must be that it helped
destroy them politically if not physically.
Objective factors were against the CPI of course. From January 1935 there
was a spell of relative prosperity in the 26 Counties that lasted until after
the London Agreements of 1938. The opportunism of the Irish Labour Party
though more blatant, was more successful than that of the Stalinites; most
people in the areas where the CPI was strong tended to look to the Workers'
Republic rather than the Republic. And, in any case, the Republic was merely
(as, of course, it could only be) a tighter version of what Fianna Fáil
seemed to be providing. In fact under the London Agreements of 1938 it did
indeed provide more than the CPI, amongst others, had expected. Not only
did it end the Economic war of 1938 and keep the Annuities in Ireland but
it maintained its 'dictionary republican' constitution and removed Britain's
Irish navy bases. Its triumph here cut the ground from under both Republic
and Workers' Republicans for the next five years. A year later, Franco triumphed finally
Liquidation – Again
There were more opportunities for the CPI in Belfast. From 1937, many of
its members found jobs (and a political base) in Short Brothers' Aircraft
factory. In the 26 Counties unemployment rose again in 1939. The unity of
the country was still not achieved. On this last, it appears that the Popular
Frontist attitude was continuing, from the following quotation by Seán
see the intensification of national effort to undo Irish Partition.
A movement of a widespread character is now under way in the
Northern area and among the Irish population in Britain having
as its object the re-uniting
of the severed area of the North-East with the rest of the country. This
movement has the full support of the Fianna Fáil Government and
of de Valera himself. 'The Coming Struggle on Irish Partition'.
and Views, 28 January 1939.
reveals an entirely un-Communist (but wholly Stalinite) approach
to the national bourgeoisie. (Perhaps, again,
over-reacting to de Valera's unexpected success in London). This mistake
was revealed when
World War began and de Valera, though not taking an openly Redmonite position,
refused to break a neutrality that was very benevolent towards Britain
even for the sake of national unity – let alone Socialism. For the
next six years anyone who had taken seriously deValera's advocacy of 'the
of the severed area of the North-East with the rest of the country' was
likely to find himself in the Curragh, if not in the Death Cell.
For the first years of the war the USSR was neutral, albeit, with
a bias towards Germany. The affiliates of the Comintern were directed
to wage war against the war in their own countries. In neutral Ireland,
the CPI was able
for once to approach the position of James Connolly although under
a more confused political form (Popular Front) rather than its own.
In May 1940, it declared:
Communist Party calls
on the workers and all
who are imbued with
the protection of the nation from the horrors of war and who seek
its independence and unity, to unite around a peoples' movement for
the following aims:
'1/ No support for British imperialism in its war with Germany.
No countenance to any invasion from whatever quarter!
'2/ The preservation of the neutrality of the 26 Counties and its
extension to the whole of Ireland.
'3/ The complete independence of Ireland, the withdrawal of British
armed forces from the North and the withdrawal of the 6 Counties
from the war. . . For the freedom and unity of the country. For
the Workers' and Farmers'
Republic; for control by the workers of the factories and enterprises
of the nation in the interests of those who toil'.
the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Ireland, 29 May 1940.
is the statement of a confused and isolated Party drawing on
its none too full reserve
of theory and experience
and getting mixed
up. Even so, its confusion is superior theoretically to its clarity.
Although its vagueness had political possibilities that were
dangerous for the Fianna Fáil Government, the CPI was not a threat to it like the
larger and armed IRA. A few Stalinite militants, notably Neill Goold, went
to the Curragh under the Offences Against the State Act, but for their work
in trying to revive the unemployed movement – not for militant nationalism.
In Northern Ireland, where the Party's stand at this time hurt the war effort,
the Government was more hostile. William McCullough and Betty Sinclair received
jail sentences for 'sedition'. Nonetheless, the Stalinites in Northern Ireland
grew in strength with the expansion of industry and the decline in unemployment.
In 'Éire' unemployment declined only because emigration increased
(including emigration to Belfast). The CPI, there, declined too.
Then, on 22 June 1941, Germany invaded Russia. For the Comintern,
the imperialist war automatically became a struggle between Fascism and Democracy – a
larger version as that of Spain. This meant that the second Communist Party
of Ireland, like its foreign comrades renounced formally all thoughts of
revolution and pinned its hopes on the Red Army. This cause it to suffer
a final, and decisive, split along the lines of the border. In Comintern
theory there is no reason why its branches in 'Éire' should not change
their line along with the rest of the world Stalinite movement, agitate for
unilateral surrender of naval bases to Britain, etc. After all, in far-more-oppressed
India, the Stalinites did follow such a policy. In Ireland. they might have
used the alliance as the price for Irish unity – an idea that Britain
had considered. In practice, such a course could only have been carried through
by an organisation which could draw on reserves of strength in the country
to be favoured. Support for Britain in 'Éire' meant support for the
oppressor not only of Ireland but of India and black Africa. Such a policy
would be too unpopular even for the Party that had defied the hierarchy over
Spain. It would alienate too many potential and actual cadres and those who
would replace them would be doubtful entities, qualitatively and quantitatively.
To call too loud even for support for the ally of the Soviet Union would
probably have a diminishing return in terms of support for the USSR in 'Éire'.
Of course, none of this applied to Northern Ireland where there were already
big pickings among the workers and where such pickings were even more likely
among unionist workers on a pro-British basis.
On 10 July 1941, the National Committee of the CPI presented
to a general meeting of the Dublin Branch the following resolution:
Branch meeting, after hearing a report on the situation
in the country and
the position in the
labour movement, endorses
the decision of the National Committee to suspend independent
activity and to apply the forces of the
branch to working in the labour and trade union organisations
in order to carry forward the fight against the heavy attacks
now being launched against the workers.
'In welcoming this step of the party leadership, the branch
members shall continue to give the support and active co-operation in the publication and
sale of the Workers' Weekly and will co-operate in every way to support any
efforts that are made to widen its scope and extend its influence.
'The extension and sale of socialist literature will equally
have the continue assistance of all comrades who have so energetically carried on this work.
'While suspending the branch as a political unit from the
10th July, 1941, the continuation of the existing sales
and literature organisation, which
at present exists, shall be retained.
'Finally, having acted as an organised force in the past,
the members will in the new situation adhere to the principles of
working in a conscious way and in an organised manner to
infuse the working class movement with socialist ideas
motion was passed
by the meeting. There
followed a dispute about its interpretation, with Larkin
too tight a discipline on the entrists
and Nolan leading the hardliners. In December, all entered
the Labour Party, but Larkin, like his father, did not
follow the discipline of his old comrades. Murray (who
had moved to Belfast) and the Party's 6 Counties branches remained
as, in fact, though not immediately in form, what would
be more than twenty-eight years the Communist Party of Northern
besides – and
(dare we say it) somewhat more constructive than – the MacNamaras!
actions in the Republican Congress have encouraged Irish Stalinites to explain
it as a simple case of ultra-leftism. Since he had by then been seven years
in the Labour Party, this is untenable. More accurately, it can be seen as
the act of one whose entire early political life had been spent in revolutionary
and pre-revolutionary situations and who was unable to adjust himself to
the post-1923 change in a proper way.
to Irish Communism