Apr 07 2016

THE CENTENARY OF THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916

As part of our celebration the 1916 Easter Rising, we are posting two new articles.  The first is by Allan Armstrong (RCN), and addresses Lenin’s response to in his Irish Rebellion of 1916 (which is also posted). The second comes from the latest issue of Socialist Democracy (Ireland) and looks at the situation in Ireland today, 100 years after the Rising.

 

1. LENIN AND THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916

The Dublin GPO during the 1916 Rising, painted by Robert Ballagh

 

In the midst of the First World War, following the Dublin 1916 Easter Rising, Lenin returned to the issue of national self-determination. He had already addressed this at the beginning of the year in The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. Immediately before the Rising, he had also gone on to write The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up.

The initial context for these writings was the debates amongst the anti-First World War revolutionary social democratic Zimmerwald Left. After the ignominious collapse of the Second International at the outbreak of the war, this grouping represented the first faltering steps in the creation of new International. The participants were passionate in their opposition to the war, its imperial backers and most of all to those Social Democrats who had either sided with their state, or confined their opposition to ineffective moralistic pacifism.

Nevertheless, the Polish and Dutch representatives of the Zimmerwald Left opposed socialist support for national self-determination in Europe. They drew a political divide between those states now firmly on the capitalist road, and those colonies and semi-colonies, particularly in Africa and the East, which had hardly begun their new historical journey. They claimed that on the first side of this divide lay the nations where support for national self-determination was no longer legitimate; whilst on the second side were those where national self-determination was still justified.

Lenin, in countering their arguments, highlighted the role of imperialism “from the Spanish-American imperialist war {of 1898} to the European imperialist war” {from 1914}. “The system now is a handful of imperialist ‘Great’ Powers each oppressing other nations”. And these included nations within those states, e.g. Poland, Finland and Ukraine within the Tsarist Empire; and Ireland within the UK. Lenin argued that, “If we do not want to betray socialism, we must support every revolt against our chief enemy, the bourgeoisie of the big states, provided it is not the revolt of a reactionary class”.

The brutality of the First World War and the ongoing annexations of the contested territories within Europe had already begun to shift Lenin’s immediate pre-war arguments, when addressing the issue of national self-determination. Then, closely following Karl Kautsky, Lenin had placed his arguments strongly in favour of national assimilation, particularly with regard to language. Like Kautsky, he made unwarranted assumptions about the ‘voluntary’ nature of assimilation and language shift in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries.

Lenin had argued that, “If asked what nationality he belongs to, the worker must answer: I am a Social Democrat”. However, to this response another question immediately rises – “Yes, but in what language?” James Connolly had already pointed out that, “It is well to remember that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of the altruistic motives, or because of a love of brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit. From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea” (The Language Movement, 1898).

Despite Lenin’s new emphasis in his early 1916 articles on the effects of imperial annexations, his arguments come over initially as quite laboured, and with a relatively narrow polemical focus. However, following the Easter Rising, Lenin returned to The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up and wrote a supplementary chapter 10. The Irish Rebellion of 1916. Inspired by the events, which had just taken place in Dublin, this chapter is full of life. It also shows Lenin’s indignation at those socialists who could not see the Irish Rebellion’s wider significance – and they are still amongst us today!

Lenin’s response to the Rising’s military defeat was not to dismiss it, but to point out that, “It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat had time to mature.” The Easter Rising was the most significant rebellion against the First World War, until the Russian Revolution broke out less than a year later.

Indeed, the Easter Rising heralded the International Revolutionary Wave, which lasted from 1916-21 (with what turned out to be a last gasp in Germany in 1923). During this period, Ireland’s democratic revolution became intertwined with the revolutionary socialist challenge to the new domestic Irish capitalist ruling class-in-the-making and to the imperialist world order. It inspired republican socialists like John Maclean in Scotland and the anti-colonial movements in India. Maclean further developed Connolly’s ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’. This renewed the challenge to the British Left’s long-established ‘British road to socialism’. Henry Hyndman’s SDF and the ILP had pursued that updated version of the liberal Victorian ‘British road to progress’ providing leadership to the world.

The post-1921 ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’ threw the International Revolutionary Wave challenge back into narrow national confines. In Ireland this took the form of Partition and the suppression of the First Republic. In ‘Britain’ a ‘British road to socialism’ was never dislodged from the ILP. Furthermore, it went on to take a new form in the new CPGB. Here it became subordinated to a political preference for another unionist state, the USSR. This was now given the privileged position of being furthest along ‘the road to progress’ and leading the rest of the world.

Any re-examination of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave today though highlights the path we need to return to – an ever-widening democratic revolution as part of a new International Revolutionary Wave. And Lenin was quite right in seeing the Dublin Rising as one important trigger for such events. It is in this spirit that Lenin’s The Irish Rebellion of 1916 is being posted.

31.3.16

LENIN – THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916

(from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/x01.htm)

Our theses were written before the outbreak of this rebellion, which must be the touchstone of our theoretical views.

The views of the opponents of self-determination lead to the conclusion that the vitality of small nations oppressed by imperialism has already been sapped, that they cannot play any role against imperialism, that support of their purely national aspirations will lead to nothing, etc. The imperialist war of 1914–16 has provided facts which refute such conclusions.

The war proved to be an epoch of crisis for the West-European nations, and for imperialism as a whole. Every crisis discards the conventionalities, tears away the outer wrappings, sweeps away the obsolete and reveals the underlying springs and forces. What has it revealed from the standpoint of the movement of oppressed nations! In the colonies there have been a number of attempts at rebellion, which the oppressor nations, naturally did all they could to hide by means of a military censorship. Nevertheless, it is known that in Singapore the British brutally suppressed a mutiny among their Indian troops; that there were attempts at rebellion in French Annam (see Nashe Slovo) and in the German Cameroons; that in Europe, on the one hand, there was a rebellion in Ireland, which the “freedom-loving” English, who did not dare to extend conscription to Ireland, suppressed by executions, and, on the other, the Austrian Government passed the death sentence on the deputies of the Czech Diet “for treason”, and shot whole Czech regiments for the same “crime”.

This list is, of course, far from complete. Nevertheless, it proves that, owing to the crisis of imperialism, the flames of national revolt have flared up both in the colonies and in Europe, and that national sympathies and antipathies have manifested themselves in spite of the Draconian threats and measures of repression. All this before the crisis of imperialism hit its peak; the power of the imperialist bourgeoisie was yet to be undermined (this may he brought about by a war of “attrition” but has not yet happened) and the proletarian movements in the imperialist countries were still very feeble. What will happen when the war has caused complete exhaustion, or when, in one state at least, the power of the bourgeoisie has been shaken under the blows of proletarian struggle, as that of tsarism in 1905?

On May 9, 1916, there appeared in Berner Tagwacht the organ of the Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled “Their Song Is Over” and signed with the initials K. R. It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing more nor less than a “putsch”, for, as the author argued, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing”.

It is not surprising that this monstrously doctrinaire and pedantic assessment coincided with that of a Russian national-liberal Cadet, Mr. A. Kulisher (Rech No. 102, April 15, 1916), who also labeled the rebellion “the Dublin putsch”.

It is to be hoped that, in accordance with the adage, “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, many comrades, who were not aware of the morass they were sinking into by repudiating “self-determination” and by treating the national movements of small nations with disdain, will have their eyes opened by the “accidental” coincidence of opinion held by a Social-Democrat and a representative of the imperialist bourgeoisie!!

The term “putsch”, in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a mass Irish National Congress in America Vorworts, March 20, 1916) which called for Irish independence; it also manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a “putsch” is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will he a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest and imbued with the most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the hack of tsarism and paving the way for democracy; for this reason the class-conscious workers led it.

The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will he able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for difficult reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately “purge” itself of petty-bourgeois slag.

Social-Democracy, we read in the Polish theses (I, 4), “must utilise the struggle of the young colonial bourgeoisie against European imperialism in order to sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe”. (Authors’ italics.)

Is it not clear that it is least of all permissible to contrast Europe to the colonies in this respect? The struggle of the oppressed nations in Europe, a struggle capable of going all the way to insurrection and street fighting, capable of breaking down the iron discipline of the army and martial law, will “sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe” to an infinitely greater degree than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony. 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.

The French chauvinist press recently reported the publication in Belgium of the eightieth issue of an illegal journal, Free Belgium. Of course, the chauvinist press of France very often lies, but this piece of news seems to be true. Whereas chauvinist and Kautskyite German Social-Democracy has failed to establish a free press for itself during the two years of war, and has meekly borne the yoke of military censorship (only the Left Radical elements, to their credit be it said, have published pamphlets and manifestos, in spite of the censorship)—an oppressed civilised nation has reacted to a military oppression unparalleled in ferocity by establishing an organ of revolutionary protest! The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene.

The general staffs in the current war are doing their utmost to utilise any national and revolutionary movement in the enemy camp: the Germans utilise the Irish rebellion, the French—the Czech movement, etc. They are acting quite correctly from their own point of view. A serious war would not be treated seriously if advantage were not taken of the enemy’s slightest weakness and if every opportunity that presented itself were not seized upon, the more, so since it is impossible to know beforehand at what moment, where, and with what force some powder magazine will “explode”. We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat’s great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilise every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify and extend the crisis. If we were, on the one hand, to repeat in a thousand keys the declaration that we are “opposed” to all national oppression and, on the other, to describe the heroic revolt of the most mobile and enlightened section of certain classes in an oppressed nation against its oppressors as a “putsch”, we should be sinking to the same level of stupidity as the Kautskyites.

It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various sources of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord, without reverses and defeats. On the other hand, the very fact that revolts do break out at different times, in different places, and are of different kinds, guarantees wide scope and depth to the general movement; but it is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare for the general onslaught, just as certain strikes, demonstrations, local and national, mutinies in the army, outbreaks among the peasantry, etc., prepared the way for the general onslaught in 1905.

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2. PAINTING THE PILLAR BOXES GREEN – THE IRISH COUNTER-REVOLUTION IN 2016

Old British postbox bearing the Crown repainted green

Words can’t describe the dreadful shambles of the 1916 centenary commemorations. At the heart of each new farce is the assertion of cultural and political relativism. The Citizen Army revolutionaries are the same as the constitutional nationalist Redmond who denounced them, as the British troops who shelled them, as the UVF sectarians who armed against an Irish democracy.

The Irish capitalist class presents this cultural stew because they are overcome with embarrassment and revulsion, forced to commemorate something they despise. They would much rather be drinking tea with the British royal family or selling off housing stock to vulture capitalists.

Because, after all, the main thing about the rebellion was that it was defeated. It sparked off broader struggles in Ireland that were eventually defeated. Those in charge of the centenary are not the inheritors of the revolution, but its gravediggers.

One outcome of the counterrevolution is that many of those claiming to be the opponents of the governing parties today have great trouble in applying the revolutionary message of 1916 today.

The rebels rose against imperialism, yet today imperialism is so deeply entrenched that it is invisible. The Troika carries out regular inspections. The ECB and IMF issue warnings and instructions. In the midst of a housing famine NAMA sells of resources at knockdown prices to vulture capitalists – a grotesque 21st century version of the absentee landlord.

Yet in the 2016 elections the platforms of all the candidates were based on the assumption that any alliance that could command a Dail majority would be free to direct the Irish economy – just as the Greek government was allowed to control their economy!

Sinn Fein tries to claim ownership of the Rising while claiming that the Somme has the same significance in Irish history and voting funds for imperialist triumphalism by unionism in the North. There they tell us that local autonomy will eventually lead to prosperity and a dying away of sectarianism – yet the recent “Fresh Start” programme involved the British briefly suspending Stormont to impose full-blooded austerity, while the political agreement builds sectarianism into every aspect of civic society.

The task of socialists today is not to squabble and claim the mantle of 1916. The task today is to face up to the Irish counterrevolution in 2016.

A new revolutionary movement would recognize that change is a thousand times more likely to come from occupying the GPO than occupying the Dail, and turn away from mindless reformism and electoralism towards the direct organization of the working class. An independent working class party must be built if the reconquest of Ireland – the socialist republic – is to be achieved.

March 2016

“We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.”

 James Connolly

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This was first posted at:-

http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/Bulletins/Easter19162016SpecialBulletinMarch2016TheIrishCounterRevolutionIn2016.html

 

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also see:-

1. The Easter Rising and the Soviet Union: An Untold Chapter in Ireland’s Great Rebellion by Brendan McGeever at:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2016/03/28/the-easter-rising-and-the-soviet-union-an-untold-chapter-in-irelands-great-rebellion/

2. A Centenary of the Zimmerwald Manifesto by Chris Ford at:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2015/09/21/centenary-of-the-zimmerwald-manifesto/

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