Rayner O’Connor Lysaght (Socialist Democracy-Ireland) has written a pamphlet entitled From the GPO to the Winter Palace, outlining the period between the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and the 1917 October Revolution in Petrograd. As part of our 1916 Rising centenary postings, Rayner’s talk given to the Irish Labour History Conference in Dublin on Saturday, October 22nd. is given below.
FROM THE GPO TO THE WINTER PALACE
Comrades, Friends, I will begin by making a brief comment on the centennial year that is now more than three quarters complete. Like most of you, I approached it with foreboding, which seemed justified with the twenty-six county Government’s notorious video last year, no more than to be expected from that gang, of course. Happily, in general, matters have improved considerably, mainly, it would seem, because the said Government has taken a back seat to let the people run things.
Of course, the 1966 commemoration was organised, in part, as the prologue for Eamon de Valera’s campaign for re-election to Aras an Uachtaran. Accordingly, RTE (Irish state television) was mandated to keep it narrowed to one of pure nationalism (whatever that was) and to suppress the subversive views of James Connolly. Such a directive may have gone forth this year, but they could not poison enthusiasm for the event that ensured formal political freedom for some three quarters of the Irish nation.
It had many aspects. One that has been welcomed is the discussion as to the relevance today of the programme hinted in the Proclamation of the Republic to Ireland. This is less than is claimed, in that such discussion has been continuing, at least on the left, since the failure of Operation Harvest (the IRA’s Border Campaign) in the sixties, and has tended to produce more heat than light. Yet it is better that the matter be discussed than that it be not.
At the same time, there have been coming to light questions significant only as part of overall issues. Connolly was not killed sitting in a chair but (more horribly) standing up gripping its back. Of more general import, it is established, now that the document denounced as a forgery by Rising sceptics, which contained Dublin Castle plans for general internment of republicans, was a copy of an authentic memorandum. It might be added, too, that Sean O’Casey’s report of the insurgents firing on the looters must be challenged.
There are still mysteries. Did Pearse or Clarke present the Proclamation? Did Connolly wear his Citizen Army Commandant’s uniform before the green flag was raised above Liberty Hall? However, it looks as if the important question as to what occurred at Connolly’s meeting with the IRB Military Council in July 1916 must remain one for deductive rather than inductive analysis.
What is more pleasant to record is that the discussions on the Rising have exposed the utter bankruptcy of those who would decry it. Despite having, on paper, considerable intellectual power they have been unable to turn their assertions into analyses. There is no question of them being intimidated by Trumpite/UKIP style mobs, though, no doubt, some would like to flatter themselves that they were. In fact, they have been defeated by the weight of evidence against them. They may yet try to get the verdict overturned on a technicality, but such an attempt seems unlikely to succeed.
What is being made is an initiative to reconcile feelings on both sides. The open Anglo-Irish struggle, that the Rising began, is to be regarded as one on which there were not only faults on both sides (as, of course, there were) but one in which the sum of these faults cancel out each other totally. This may be good maths: it is bad history. It is seen in Joe Duffy’s harrowing account of the child victims of the Rising. It is seen more crudely in the memorial wall erected with the names of all fallen participants on both sides.
As to the first, one has to scrabble to find that most Rising victims died from British actions, either indirectly or by actual murder. The second example needs more investigation. It is, after all, a pioneering move. Is there any other country which commemorates those who took arms against it on the same memorial that commemorates those who fought in its defence? Britain and Germany have many memorials of World War I, yet none of them would be expected to give space to combatants of the other side, as would be possible between twinned towns. This would be more justifiable than in Ireland, since the rights and wrongs of the two sides in the greater struggle are more evenly balanced. Today, of course, the far more genuine political difference of World War II make that initiative impossible. In any case, it is even less likely after Brexit. As it is, it remains a puzzle to unravel whether it is such a good idea to commemorate as equals Tom Clarke and the British officer who kicked away his stick or Tomas MacCurtain and Detective-Inspector Swanzy. More generally and decisively, this approach suppresses the causes for the fighting, that one state was the oppressor and its opponents were demanding the right not to be oppressed.
There is a weakness in the defences of the Rising and that is that they have tended to be more insular than those of 1966. Then, at least, Roger Casement provided data for an internationalist view. Today, the self-questioning of republicanism produces just solidarity with oppressed peoples.
A result of this is that there has been no investigation of the struggles of such peoples, let alone any serious comparison of their struggles with those of the Irish. The nearest serious attempt to do this is still Connolly’s articles on Revolutionary Warfare, which give some basic warnings as to what not to do, but little detail on the overall socio-political necessities for a successful revolution.
This pamphlet cannot fill the gap, but it is an attempt to provide a comparative study of the two revolutions begun within the restricted time frame of the First World War, that of Ireland being contrasted with that of Russia. Up to now, the general impression given most people has been that the war caused these risings by concidence in two countries, with obvious major differences in size, ethnic homogeneity, church-state relations and international status.
Yet these differences count for less than the resemblances in the socio-economic relationships affecting the two countries. Though Russia was an empire, it was a semi-colony of French imperialism, just as Ireland was a British colony. Neither could be said to be run democratically. Within the two territories, the question of rural landlordism was being settled in a manner calculated to disturb as few landlords as possible. Both countries were pre-eminently agricultural with enclaves of highly developed mass industry. The form of the latter was the base for the decisive contrast in the fortunes of the workers in the two revolutions. In Russia, the dominant Orthodox Church was recognised, particularly by the workers as being an arm of the state that maintained their oppression. In Ireland, the church of the majority kept much of the popularity given it, despite itself because of its persecution by the colonial power. At the same time, in the industrial areas, the majority, not least the workers, were of ‘the Protestant persuasion’ and saw the colonial power as the defender of their interests against the Catholics. This division weakened the potential for their class to develop its consciousness beyond industrial unionism. In the less developed areas, Ireland’s workers’ consciousness grew further but more slowly. They could not go beyond syndicalism, the idea that their salvation lay with mass unions of inevitably heterodox political supporters without guidance from any single political cadre. The Russians were able to produce such a homogeneous leadership.
This overview has stimulated some bizarre misunderstandings. In Birmingham, over three years ago, I gave my analysis unchanged, but in two separate papers. I was complimented on the second one by one who had attended both, but who thought that the first had portrayed the Rising as a socialist revolt, rather than the nationalist one he heard described in the later presentation.
I have been unable to find the word or the punctuation, let alone any formulation that gave him the idea that I had changed my analysis. For the record here, I maintain the thesis of both: that the Easter Rising was a revolt on behalf of an oppressed nation for freedom from foreign oppression and that, as such revolts tend to do, it contained the potential for a Rising for working class power as the spark that might begin the struggle for world socialism.
Having said that, an individual, whom I had thought politically far closer to me than the person in Birmingham, attacked my position for stating that a nationalist Rising would lead to socialism. Not only did he not distinguish between Risings of oppressed or oppressor nations, but he also ascribed to me the view that any such insurgency would lead to the happy ending.
Again, in case anyone makes the same mistake, I repeat that the revolt of an oppressed nation can lead (as has been shown to be possible internationally since 1916), under certain conditions to the working people of that country taking state power. One such condition is the homogeneous working class party, and it is this that was lacking in Ireland, but existing in Russia.
It is precisely this combination of syndicalism and revolutionary nationalism that is pinpointed in the pamphlet’s treatment of James Connolly. There can be no doubt that nearly every biography has made a complete mess of his last months during the first World war. The outstanding exception is Desmond Greaves. Sadly, for reasons unnecessary to mention, his presentation of his data was only partial, allowing subsequent Connolly biographers to dismiss or just ignore it. That is no excuse for ignoring it here.
The traditional picture of Connolly’s strategy (the Ptolemaic view, as being comparable to the idea that the sun goes round the earth) has been that of a man whose left hand did not know what his right hand was doing. On the one hand, he was trying to organise a national Rising, on the other, he was doing trade union business.
The picture given thereby is of one who would develop like so many Irish trade union leaders into seeing his task as one of organising the workers simply to get benefits from a permanent Fianna Fail Government (and justifying his actions with quotes from – Connolly). Events might have forced him that way, but in 1916 it was not inevitable.
The fact is that the Ptolemaic accounts of Connolly’s last months fail to explain too much. The last paragraph of the Socialist International’s Stuttgart Resolution on War to which he adhered far better than the majority of his socialist contempories tends to be ignored. His background in the IWW is unrelated, as is his insistence in taking Larkin’s position as Acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, and his reversal of Larkin’s practice of concentrating on the Citizen Army at the expense of his union duties. I remember hearing recently a talk on the ICA in which the speaker admitted frankly that he could not understand why Connolly had raised the green flag above Liberty Hall when he did; surely it could have given away the game to the colonial power? Certainly, if Connolly’s strategy had been the purely military one of his fellow signatories, the flag raising would have been folly; as a provocation to Dublin Castle to attack the Transport Union and strengthen the working class component of the insurrection it is defensible.
Sadly its effect was delayed until after the fighting had begun, when the British Army bombarded Liberty Hall believing it to be the nerve centre of the revolt, which too many ITGWU members recognised as having been started by their Acting General Secretary.
Most importantly, among the biographical suppressions there is one that was total before Greaves. and has been at least partial since his work. The City of Dublin Steam Packet Company strike was not only the major stoppage of Dublin’s general workers between Lockout and Rising, but it involved two important events peculiar to itself (1).
One of these was the failure of Martin Murphy to revive his strategy of the general lockout. More significant is Connolly’s handling of it. Purely as strike leader, he was not impressive. He had the dispute continue until a fortnight before the Rising on the plea that to accept arbitration would betray agreements with the bosses of the port’s other shipping companies. Finally he accepted arbitration, which gained his demands. This account ignores the fact that throughout the stoppage, Connolly was plotting revolution. A continuing strike on Dublin and Kingstown docklands during the Rising would have caused a clash between union and British Army, radicalising the former, and strengthening the working class composition of the insurgents.
That Connolly was accurate in his judgement of the strike’s possibilities will be revealed in this afternoon’s paper. Hugo McGuinness’ ‘Streetfighting Men’, presented by Joe Mooney, will tell of the popular and successful communal resistance of the people of East Wall against the British Army, a resistance neglected by most Rising historians. It should be added that while this resistance prevented British disembarkment in Dublin port, it was organised communally in a homogenous nationalist area rather than by the organised labour movement. Such success was less possible in Kingstown. With its partly Unionist population, the British Army could land there. Had it been blocked, the counter-revolution would have had to advance miles across hostile country.
Though a closer failure than the standard account would imply, this failure helped ensure not only that the Rising would be defeated but that the reaction to its suppression would remain socially limited. With Connolly dead, there was no serious resistance to the idea that the world war be opposed on pacifist rather than revolutionary lines or that the labour movement be organised vocationally as a means to its mass political assertion. At the grassroots, there were attempts to take local militant initiatives, with third state power bases against those of the colonial and national capitalist states. There was no force to coordinate them and they were contained relatively easily by Labour’s national leadership.
The struggle for state power was left to the bourgeoisie grouped in Sinn Fein. It acted to copper fasten its scheme for an Irish capitalist order. On the one hand, it claimed to accept Connolly’s social and economic vision. On the other hand, it diluted it as in George Russell’s The National Being and later Eoin MacNeill’s interpretation of Celtic ‘Socialism’. At the founding Convention of the reorganised Sinn Fein in 1917, it dropped the 1916 Proclamation’s claim for state ownership of all property and committed itself to precise capitalist economic and social demands.
This was not negated by Labour leader’s Thomas Johnson’s draft Democratic Programme for the first Dail, let alone by the version that that Dail passed. That this has been neglected is because the labour leaders accepted it. After the Treaty was signed, their party sought a constitutional role in the divided country, only to find that uncompleted national business that it had avoided remained strong enough to consign it to third, if not fourth party status for nearly all its career.
I will end with a dual exercise in alternative history. Suppose Connolly’s strategy for the Rising had been fulfilled ? Suppose the October Revolution had been aborted or just defeated ?
In the first case, it is arguable that the workers’ political leadership necessary to success would have assured a workers’ republic. Probably there would have been a civil war (not two of them, as in Ireland), but there would have been a good chance that the class struggle would have spread abroad to Britain and elsewhere making more likely a transfer to world socialism.
In Russia, on the other hand, a Bolshevik failure (another near possibility) would have ensured reaction perhaps internationally. The parallels exist in and out of reality.
(1) This has also been a subject of a pamphlet, written by Rayner O’Connor Lysaght, entitled Connolly’s Big Strike,The Dublin Steam Packet Company Dispute. Along with From the GPO to the Winter Palace, this pamphlet can be obtained from Word Power Books in Edinburgh (http://www.word-power.co.uk/).
This article was first posted at:- http://socialistdemocracy.org/RecentArticles/RecentDROConnorLysaghtOnFromTheGPOToTheWinterPalace.html
Other articles on the Emancipation & Liberation blog, written by Rayner O’Connor Lysaght:_