Workers Hammer No. 235
Spartacist League Dayschool
The 1916 Easter Rising and the British workers movement
The article below is based on a presentation by comrade Eibhlin McDonald at a 23 April public meeting of the Spartacist League.
One hundred years ago tomorrow, the Easter Rising broke out in Dublin. The armed insurrection against British rule was organised by some 1000-1500 militant nationalists, the Volunteers, together with the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). The leadership included James Connolly, a revolutionary socialist. Yet this was a nationalist uprising for an independent Ireland, despite the participation of Connolly and his ICA, a workers militia that had been formed during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when the city’s employers tried to smash the trade unions.
It began when the rebels seized a number of positions across Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic from the General Post Office. But the majority of the Volunteers were demobilised by the nationalist leaders on the eve of the Rising, leaving the Dublin rebels isolated. Moreover, the arms and ammunition from Germany that were expected by the insurgents did not arrive. A few days before the Rising, Roger Casement, who had been in Germany trying to organise support for an Irish insurrection, was arrested after landing in Ireland on a German submarine.
The British ruling class responded with ferocity to this armed uprising, especially as it came in the midst of World War I, when all of the subject peoples in the British Empire — which in 1916 included India and much of Africa — were expected to be loyal, indeed to fight and die for the “Mother country”.
With overwhelming military force, the British shelled Dublin, destroying much of the city centre. The rebels were forced to surrender after five days. At first, the Rising did not have much popular support, but there was mass public outrage when the leaders were court-martialled and sentenced to death. Fourteen were shot, including Connolly who was executed tied to a chair because he had been wounded in battle and was unable to stand.
The British imperialists launched wave after wave of repression in the years to follow. But even in defeat, the Easter Rising marked the beginning of the end of British rule in Ireland. They were forced to grant independence in 1921-22, but these masters of divide-and-rule engineered the partition of Ireland by inflaming tensions between Protestants and Catholics. The partition was the result of a defeat of the working class in struggle and was accompanied by bloody pogroms against Catholics, as we shall see.
We Marxists honour the Easter Rising as a just struggle for independence of Ireland from British colonial rule. But we are politically opposed to the programme and ideology of nationalism, which lines up the working class behind its “own” capitalist rulers. Unlike nationalists, we’re certainly not advocates of the doomed but heroic “blood sacrifice”. But once the Rising happened, revolutionaries were duty bound to defend it, in contrast to those on the left who regard the capitalist state as inviolable and disavow any attempt to overthrow it.
Karl Marx on Ireland
For British revolutionaries, the question of Ireland, Britain’s oldest colony, has long been a test of their commitment to the overthrow of their “own” capitalist ruling class. Karl Marx insisted: “It is in the direct and absolute interests of the English working class to get rid of their present connexion with Ireland.... The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland” (Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869). The crucial importance of internationalist unity between workers in Ireland and Britain becomes obvious from studying the history of working-class struggles. Any revolutionary perspective requires resolute opposition to the politics of the Labour leaders — the left as well as the right wing — as we shall see.
Following on from Marx, Lenin formulated a general policy on the attitude of the revolutionary party to national oppression in the epoch of imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism that developed towards the end of the 19th century. With the advent of imperialism, Lenin stressed, the division of nations into oppressor and oppressed was accentuated. Correspondingly, the tasks of revolutionaries in each country are different: the proletariat of the oppressor nation, as Lenin put it, “must demand freedom of political separation for the colonies and nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation. Otherwise the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words”. He insisted that British socialists who do not demand freedom to separate for the colonies and for Ireland “act as chauvinists and lackeys of bloodstained and filthy imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie” (“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, 1916). Socialists of the oppressed nations, on the other hand, must fight for the fullest unity of the workers of the oppressed nation with those of the oppressor nation.
The attitude of socialists in Britain towards the Easter Rising flowed from their attitude to World War I. The outbreak of the first inter-imperialist war saw the collapse of the Second International into mutually hostile camps as most parties supported their “own” capitalist rulers. On 4 August 1914, the parliamentary fraction of the German Social Democratic Party, the largest section of the international, voted in favour of war credits. The British Labour Party and trade union leaders, for their part, supported Britain and declared an end to working-class struggle for the duration of the war. The Bolsheviks insisted that revolutionaries must stand for the defeat, above all, of their own bourgeois state. For Lenin, the task of socialists was to seek to turn the imperialist war into a civil war, that is, into proletarian revolution. Further, Lenin saw that the Second International had been destroyed, and that a new revolutionary international must be built through a complete break with the opportunists and social chauvinists.
For Lenin, the attitude of revolutionaries to the Easter Rising was a measure of their commitment to the right of self-determination, and to proletarian internationalism. He argued against other revolutionaries, including Trotsky, who trenchantly opposed the social chauvinists but were dismissive of the Rising. Trotsky claimed that the Irish peasantry, whose struggle for land had been the motor force for previous national revolts, had been pacified by land reform, and thus he argued that the “historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland” (“Lessons of the events in Dublin”, Nashe Slovo, 4 July 1916).
Lenin countered that revolutionaries must take advantage of every outbreak of struggle against imperialism. A national revolt in Europe could be the spark for broader revolutionary struggle, Lenin argued. Indeed, “a blow delivered against the power of the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal force delivered in Asia or in Africa”. “It is the misfortune of the Irish”, Lenin wrote, “that they rose prematurely before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature” (“The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up”, 1916).
The Labour Party had passed umpteen “anti-war” resolutions — right up to a few days before the war broke out. For example, on 1 August 1914, prominent British Labour Party leaders signed a resolution calling for demonstrations against war and proclaiming: “Down with class rule” and “Down with war”. Among its signatories was one Arthur Henderson.
Three days later, Henderson signed a document issued by the trade union leaders, calling for support to Britain against Germany, on the grounds that Britain’s imperialist rival was “seeking to become the dominant power in Europe, with the Kaiser the dictator over all”. The Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) declared an end to working-class struggle for the duration of the war. In May 1915 Arthur Henderson, then leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, became a member of the wartime coalition government. He was a member of the cabinet when the 1916 Easter Rising broke out.
Henderson was accused of having led the cheering in Parliament when news of the executions of the leaders of the Rising was received. Henderson denied it, but said he would not “violate Ministerial confidences” in order to reveal what he had said about the executions. It hardly matters whether he cheered or not. He was in the cabinet that ordered the repression in Ireland.
The Dublin Lockout of 1913
Another Labour MP and leader of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), JH Thomas, has been aptly described as a “fervid imperialist” in relation to Ireland. Thomas’s hostility to James Connolly was already evident during the Dublin Lockout of 1913. The capitalists of Dublin came together and locked out their workers in opposition to the efforts of Jim Larkin and Connolly to unionise the workforce. Larkin, aided by Connolly, led the workers of Dublin in some five months of bitter class war, in a seminal battle for the trade union movement in Ireland and in Britain.
At a time when the trade unions consisted overwhelmingly of skilled craft workers, Larkin and Connolly worked wonders on both sides of the Irish Sea by organising the unskilled workers into the unions. In Belfast, this meant recruiting Catholic workers as well as Protestants, and also women textile workers into the unions. In Britain, drawing the huge layer of unskilled workers into the unions injected tremendous vitality into the trade union movement and contributed to a wave of class struggle known as the Great Unrest during the period 1910-1914.
During the Lockout, Connolly and Larkin appealed for support from the British trade unions. The working class had tremendous sympathy with the Dublin workers. But the solidarity that was sorely needed was sabotaged by the TUC and Labour leaders, including the left-talking dockers’ leader, Ben Tillett. The British dockers and railway workers were key to defeating the Dublin bosses: had they blockaded goods destined for Dublin by boat and train they would have shut down the city. At one stage, two train drivers in South Wales, who were members of ASLEF rail union, were sacked for refusing to carry goods destined for Dublin. Some 30,000 railway workers went on strike in their support. NUR leader Thomas was instrumental in smashing the strike, getting his members back to work and actually ordering them to replace the two victimised ASLEF members, whom he described as “a disgrace” to trade unionism. Jim Larkin caustically described Thomas as “a double-eyed traitor to his class”.
It comes as no surprise then that Thomas condemned the Easter Rising and declared that “there was no Labour leader in this country who did not deplore the recent rebellion in Ireland”. Labour “left” MP George Lansbury published the most popular anti-war newspaper in England. But as a pacifist, Lansbury condemned the Easter Rising, saying: “No lover of peace can do anything but deplore the outbreak in Dublin” (quoted in Geoffrey Bell, Hesitant Comrades, 2016).
As I mentioned, the executions of the leaders of the Rising caused outrage in Ireland. Even among those in Britain who condemned the Rising, some thought the executions were a step too far. But Will Thorne, a London Labour MP, demanded in Parliament to know when Roger Casement would be tried, pointing out that he was “the forerunner of this movement” ie of the rebels who led the Rising (quoted in Hesitant Comrades). Casement was a courageous figure: from an Irish Protestant background, he grew up believing the Empire was bringing progress to Africa. But he was disgusted by the atrocities perpetrated on the native peoples at the behest of the imperialists in the Belgian Congo (and in the Putumayo region of Peru) and became an opponent of British imperialist rule, including in his native Ireland.
At the time of his arrest for attempting to secure German military aid for the Easter Rising, Casement had much popular sympathy. Faced with growing demands for clemency in his case, the British authorities released excerpts from what they claimed were Casement’s diaries indicating he was homosexual. The British kept the diaries secret for decades after his death, giving rise to much doubt about their authenticity. When Casement was charged with high treason, and the public were being fed lurid allegations of his homosexuality, many of his liberal friends, including the novelist Joseph Conrad, shamefully refused to petition for clemency. He was hanged in London’s Pentonville prison in August 1916.
On the question of obtaining German arms
From the point of view of the working class, obtaining military support, including from an imperialist power, is not a problem in and of itself — if it is for a just war. It would have been a different matter had the Irish nationalists placed their forces under the command of the German military, which they did not. However, nationalists frequently do place themselves under the military command of an imperialist power, becoming their proxies in unjust wars. For example, today in Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish nationalists are the “boots on the ground” for the US imperialists. We have no side in Syria’s squalid civil war between the Assad military and the rebel forces dominated by different Islamists. But we do have a side against the US and other imperialist powers. And while we are implacable opponents of everything ISIS stands for, we take a military side with ISIS when it aims its fire against the imperialist armed forces and their proxies in the region, including the Kurdish nationalist forces.
The British left and the Easter Rising
Among the opponents of the war and of social chauvinism in the British Labour movement, a prominent voice was that of Sylvia Pankhurst, at the time a leader in the struggle for women’s suffrage. Pankhurst said there is only “one reply to the Irish Rebellion and that is the demand that Ireland should be allowed to govern itself ”. Pankhurst had few illusions in parliamentary reform — the struggle for votes for women met with violent resistance from the British state and suffrage was grudgingly granted only after the Russian October Revolution of 1917. Pankhurst, to her credit, had clearly taken the side of the working class by supporting Larkin and Connolly in the Dublin Lockout. She broke from her bourgeois-feminist family and went on to become a socialist and later, briefly, a communist.
The British Socialist Party had been formed in 1912 as a fusion of HM Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation with other socialists. The BSP underwent a split during the war, at its Easter 1916 conference, when the left wing took over and adopted an anti-war position. The split led to the departure of Hyndman, an anti-Jewish bigot and all-round social chauvinist. The BSP’s newspaper, the Call (4 May 1916), described the Easter Rising as “this latest phase of the war for liberation” and had no hesitation “in fixing full responsibility for the antecedents of the affair on the shoulders of successive British governments”.
Perhaps the most surprising response to the Easter Rising and the executions came from the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). The SLP, based primarily in Scotland, had been formed on the model of the party of the same name in the US founded by Daniel DeLeon. Connolly was a former leader of the Scottish party. At the time of the Easter Rising, the SLP in Scotland was facing severe state repression for its role in organising militant strikes in strategic munitions industries in Glasgow, in the midst of war. The SLP’s main leaders — including Arthur MacManus, John Muir, Thomas Clark — had been arrested. John Maclean, who was a leader of the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) but not a member of the SLP, was also arrested and imprisoned.
However, state repression alone doesn’t explain why the SLP’s monthly newspaper, the Socialist, said next to nothing on the Easter Rising, or on the execution of Connolly, their former comrade. Moreover it didn’t carry an obituary for Connolly until three years after his death, and during that time the paper carried very little coverage of Ireland. While the SLP led valiant strikes and the party press opposed the war, they maintained a strict separation between their political line on the war and their trade union activity. In an extreme example, when John Muir was in court for his role in organising the munitions strikes, he cravenly swore that the strike was purely over economic issues and that he was for the war and war production. This shameful performance contrasts with John Maclean who used his trial as an opportunity to indict the capitalist system and the war.
Muir should have been expelled for dragging the SLP’s record on the war through the mud, but the SLP kept him in their ranks. Had they fought for their anti-war line in the CWC, it would have split the leadership. Undoubtedly, had the SLP defended the Easter Rising and opposed Connolly’s execution, it would also have required combating anti-Catholic prejudices among Protestant workers in Glasgow, which had its own version of the Catholic-Protestant division that was prevalent in Belfast. Even such momentous trade union struggle as that which was waged on the Clyde during World War I could not, in and of itself, overcome the divisions that existed, and thus could not arrive at the level of consciousness needed to overthrow the capitalist ruling class through socialist revolution. That requires a different kind of party.
Among the avowedly revolutionary parties of the time, Lenin’s party was unique. By 1912 the Bolsheviks had carried out a complete break with the opportunists in Russia. As early as 1902 in his pamphlet What is to be done? Lenin insisted that the revolutionary should aspire not to be “the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects” in order to “clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat”. Above all, Lenin insisted on the party’s responsibility to bring the working class to revolutionary consciousness. The principles and programme that Lenin hammered out for the Bolsheviks, which he then generalised following the collapse of the Second International into social chauvinism in 1914, were central to the forging of the party into the instrument that would lead the proletariat to victory in the 1917 October Revolution.
From the Easter Rising to Partition
The years after Connolly’s execution saw a resurgence of anti-British sentiment in Ireland, led by Sinn Fein. There was also a renewed wave of working-class struggles that continued through the war of independence of 1919-21. In the South, for example, as well as the Limerick Soviet, in which striking workers took over and ran the city, there were land seizures and workers protests. In 1919, Belfast saw a tremendous strike throughout the city. The majority of the strikers were Protestant, and the head of the strike committee, Charles MacKay, was a socialist of Catholic origin. The strike provided an opening for the sectarian divide to be transcended and could have given a tremendous impetus to the struggle for an Irish workers republic. But the Protestant bosses in Belfast played on Protestant fears that they would become an oppressed minority in an independent Ireland ruled by the Sinn Fein nationalists. Meanwhile the British Lord Lieutenant in Dublin released some of the Sinn Fein leaders who had been imprisoned, calculating that their Irish nationalism would incite Protestant workers’ hostility towards their Catholic counterparts and undermine proletarian unity.
Not long after the defeat of the Belfast strikes, in the summer of 1920 a wave of bloody attacks swept through the shipyards and spread to other workplaces, targeting mainly Catholics. Some 10,000 Catholic men and 1000 Catholic women were driven out of their jobs. Many Catholic homes and shops were burned in “five weeks of ruthless persecution by boycott, fire, plunder and assault” in a wave of terror that was compared to the pogroms against Jews in tsarist Russia (quoted in Hesitant Comrades). Several hundred of the expelled workers were members of the carpenters union.
At the same time, 1920 was also the year of the “Hands off Russia” campaign, in which workers in Britain mobilised in the thousands and forced the British government to stop shipments of arms to capitalist armies fighting against Soviet Russia. Among others, the carpenters union had also passed “Hands Off Ireland” motions. In Belfast, carpenters union members went on strike when a group of Protestant shipyard workers produced revolvers declaring they would drive out every Sinn Feiner — meaning every Catholic, every trade union militant and socialist — from their jobs. Only 600 out of 2000 obeyed the strike call. But the Loyalist scabs were expelled from the union. The carpenters union leaders appealed for other unions to prevent goods and raw materials from going into Belfast, arguing that the trade union movement had a role to play in ending the sectarian strife — by standing up for its own principles.
The anti-Catholic pogroms in Belfast paved the way for Partition, a major defeat for the perspective of a workers republic. In opposition to Irish independence, the British backed the Ulster Loyalists and engineered the setting up of the Orange statelet in the North, a police state which institutionalised discrimination against the Catholic minority. Independence in the South led to the creation of a repressive Catholic state which was rooted in the oppression of women. The poisonous legacy of Partition was to create an oppressed Catholic minority in the North, interpenetrated with a distinct Protestant community, which in turn harbours legitimate fears that they would become an oppressed minority in a Catholic-dominated united Ireland.
The only just resolution to these national antagonisms lies in the overthrow of capitalism on both islands. Our perspective is for an Irish workers republic within a voluntary federation of workers republics in these Isles. It is important to know that the situation that emerged from Partition was not the only possible outcome. Above all it was a result of defeats and betrayals of workers in struggle. And it is rich in lessons for the many struggles that we will face in the course of building a revolutionary party.