In the last post I stated the view of the Irish establishment that the 1916 Rising was the foundational act of the formation of the current Irish State. This is not the view of many on the Left:
“The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923. . . . The current Irish state, therefore, has little in common with those who staged an uprising in 1916. . . and has absolutely no intention of cherishing ‘all of the children equally’. A new massive popular uprising will be required to establish even this limited ideal. That should be the real lesson of the centenary.” (Kieran Allen)
There is a historical question whether the revolution that followed the 1916 rising would have occurred without it but that isn’t the real point here. There is a claim that both the Rising and the War of Independence were not responsible (in any way?) for the current Irish state and those involved in 1916 have little in common with the personification of Irish independence today.
Unfortunately for such a claim the personalities who forged the counter-revolution, as it is called, in 1923 and later leaders of the state were prominently involved in the 1916 Rising and in the first post in this series we named some of them – William Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and his successor as Taoiseach Sean Lemass. These are among the foremost founders and architects of the current Irish state and they all fought in 1916.
The claim that there was a counter-revolution in 1923 refers to the acceptance of the Treaty that established the Free State with its oath of allegiance to the King, membership of the Commonwealth, the post of Governor General, retention of the Treaty ports by the British and a deal on partition that quickly preserved it. The Treaty was signed under a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ and was followed by a civil war when the Irish Republican movement split over acceptance of British terms. For anti-Treaty republicans the new state was illegitimate, as therefore were its police, armed forces and political institutions, including the new Dáil.
As we saw in the first post the new Free State Government was a reactionary one dedicated to policies of low taxation, balanced budgets, free trade and an illiberal social policy that included heavy censorship of films and literature and legislation to outlaw divorce. It brutally repressed its anti-Treaty opponents with imprisonment, torture and murder.
Its most prominent architect was William Cosgrave, a supporter of the monarchist Sinn Fein from its foundation. As one historian has put it (John M Regan) “his concept of government prior to independence was essentially theocratic. In suggesting an upper house for the Dáil in 1921, he advocated a ‘theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not’.”
By some contrast the inspiration for the new Free State and pro-Treaty icon was Michael Collins, who another historian (Peter Hart) has described as having “a deep dislike of exploitation and poverty.” “What set Collins apart was his secularism. . . . He was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.”
When the pro-Treaty regime fell to the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail, policies of free trade, acceptance of the post of Governor General and oath of allegiance were rejected; the British left the Treaty ports; an ‘economic war’ with Britain was embarked upon and then resolved; and the new Government introduced a new constitution in 1937, which proclaimed the special position of the Catholic Church, the subordinate role of women in society and a constitutional protection of the prerogatives of private property that stands as a barrier to action by the state to this day. It also brutally repressed its republican opponents. In 1948, under the leadership of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael the Irish State declared itself a Republic. In effect the anti-Treaty side accepted the legitimacy of the new state and of the Michael Collins’ view that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to freedom.
In the aftermath of the civil war between pro and anti-Treaty republicans the latter had dedicated themselves to a ‘second round’ against the traitorous Free State and its illegitimate institutions. Today no one in the spectrum of republicanism holds to such a position: I know of no one, and have never heard anyone, say that a renewed armed struggle should make the existing Irish State its primary target. This is now uncontroversial, reflecting the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the overwhelming number of its citizens.
The Irish state today is a Republic and the anti-Treaty side in its subsequent development, from Fianna Fail in the 1920s to Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s to Provisional Sinn Fein today, has accepted this and sought to become its governing party.
In other words the vast majority of the revolutionary movement of 1919 to 1921 accepted the Treaty, or the counter-revolution as it has been described above, leaving the question – what exactly was the revolution that was reversed or prevented?
An argument exists that the British proxy-war fought by the pro-Treaty forces succeeded in imposing the British terms demanded for the ending of hostilities. What the vastly superior forces of the British could have unleashed in a renewed war was instead leveraged in the Treaty negotiations. This might therefore be characterised as the counter-revolution; except of course that, as we have seen, the new state gradually dispensed with the trappings of Empire and colonial status. It even eventually got a degree of economic separation from the British when it got itself a new currency – the Euro. But perhaps this too can be seen as the continuation under a new guise of the counter-revolution, but if it was it was not part of any counter-revolution in 1923 and linking the Troika to the civil war is a bit of a stretch.
“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.
But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has “unfettered” control of its destinies.
Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.
To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.
Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years — although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering — as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call ‘gombeenism’.
We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.
It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.
It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.
We don’t have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?
We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”
In the last two posts we have seen that the revolutionary generation set out to create a separate Irish state, free from British rule, a nationalist objective that they succeeded in achieving – where then is the counter-revolution? It was from among the survivors of the 1916 Rising that the leadership of the succeeding Irish State arose – so from whom did the counter-revolution arise?
Perhaps it may be claimed that these leaders betrayed their earlier beliefs or at least their earlier declarations of the objectives of the Rising? But in the second post we explained that the 1916 Proclamation made no grander claims to social and economic revolution upon which it might be possible to condemn the current Irish state as a betrayal of. So again, where is the counter-revolution?
Let us take the politics of the revolutionary nationalist movement during its revolutionary period.
In his recent book ‘A Nation and not a Rabble, the Irish Revolution 1916-1923’ the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, hardly one of the pro-imperialist revisionist historians, records the lack of ideology guiding the political struggle during the revolution.
He states “those looking for evidence of broad, sophisticated ideological debates during the decade may be disappointed”- contrast this with the experience of the Russian revolution! “Those who propelled the republican revolution were more focussed on the idea of separation from Britain ‘rather than implementing any concrete political programme.’ He quotes one fellow historian that ‘the new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the “self” that was to exercise self-determination’”, and a second historian noting that “the republican leaders ‘do not appear to have debated what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions’.”
Discussing the many statements given by participants to the Bureau of Military History on their motivation and experience of the struggle, Fearghal McGarry states that “there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularise republicanism.” Ferriter quotes from a prominent republican and chronicler of his experience in the revolution: “as Ernie O’Malley saw it ‘fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice’, his tortured description of politics.”
This does not mean that politics did not exist within the revolutionary movement. The nationalism of Irish republicanism, as to most nationalists everywhere, seemed uncomplicated and simple, self-evident and pure, nevertheless had a definite political content, even if it was unconscious and sublimated other real societal divisions such as class. As de Valera and others insisted – patriotism was to rise above all class interests.
The republican paper Irish Freedom put it succinctly in 1911: “The interests of Ireland as a whole are greater than the interests of any class in Ireland, and so long as labour accepts the nation, Labour must subordinate its class interests to the interests of the nation.”
The republican movement was prepared to eject strikers from their place of work while de Valera would say that he felt “confident that the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests.” Even the radical Constance Markievicz, who became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary government, complained that “the trade unions’ appeal always seems to me to be so very sordid and selfish. Till something suddenly makes them realise the value of self-sacrifice they will never be much use to humanity.” And they were not the only ones to suffer disapproval: Cosgrave complained that those unfortunate enough to end up in the workhouse “are no great acquisition to the community . . . As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.”
Leading republican Austin Stack “warned of the dangers of agrarian agitation subverting patriotic opinion and pointed to the importance of the republican courts in undermining such revolutionary sentiment.” In 1921 the republican Irish Bulletin warned that “the mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom into a class war and there was even a possibility that the IRA, itself largely composed of farmers’ sons, might be affected.” However it went on to state that this “proved wholly groundless” as “agrarian lawlessness was steadily suppressed, cattle-driving and boundary-breaking punished and ruffianly elements brought to book.” (Ferriter)
And all this happened before 1923 when the counter-revolution is supposed to have occurred.
But, it might still be claimed, the Irish State is corrupt and its venality exposed by its loss of sovereignty while under the diktats of the Troika of European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. But when did the Irish revolution ever set itself the tasks of creating conditions that would prevent this? And if it did not, where was the need for any counter-revolution to reverse or prevent a socially revolutionary regime that would have done so?
At the level of the personalities involved – when and how did the leaders who survived the Rising radically change their political views, that made their participation in the Rising revolutionary but later actions counter-revolutionary?
Perhaps it is claimed that the Irish working class took independent action that threatened not only the contemporary political arrangements that involved direct British rule but also the capitalist economic and social structure of society. What about the strikes, occupations and events such as the Limerick Soviet?
But when did such actions have an independent dynamic separate from the national struggle, with its own objective, own separate movement and separate leadership? Not only separate but necessarily counter-posed to the revolutionary nationalist movement (if it were to prevent counter-revolution).
The fear of such a task and appreciation of weakness in even contemplating it has been noted by Ferriter during the Limerick Soviet episode –“ The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress feared that any escalation in support for Limerick ‘would be entirely on their own heads and lack the enthusiastic national support of Sinn Fein” (even though the Limerick action was against the proclamation of the area as a special military area by the British).
With an agricultural population in the last spasms of land agitation; an industrial sector cut off by partition and its working class divided by sectarianism, the larger part of which was politically reactionary and the remainder industrially weak and politically dominated by nationalism and a soft labourism – how could it be otherwise?
As for the revolutionary nationalists, with their difficulty with politics compared to fighting and their opposition to debating “what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions”, how ironic that this lack of politics led them not only to a debate over abstractions when the Treaty was signed – the oath of allegiance and the existence of an established Republic that was being betrayed – but also led them to a vicious civil war over these abstractions.
On only one count is it possible to argue that there was a counter-revolution that betrayed the goals of 1916, even if it was carried out by those who fought in it. And this is the imposition of partition, although this is often the least mentioned and most ignored.
Even a purely nationalist revolution seeks the unity of the country. Indeed intrinsic to nationalism is the indivisibility of the nation. So 1916 opposed partition and promised religious equality in the Republic as the alternative to it. But 1916 could not deliver on its objective and admitted as much. The Rising that might deliver national freedom was circumscribed by its leaders through their recognition that the Rising could not even carry out a strike against partition.
The organisers of the Rising explicitly prohibited fighting in Ulster, instead planning that Volunteers in the province assemble together in Tyrone and march to Connaught to join the rebellion there. Even the foolishness of this ill-considered plan revealed the lack of adequacy to addressing the real task of defeating an imperialist-backed mass unionist opposition to the project of a national democracy.
Objectively the 1916 Rising was unable to strike against the coming of partition, which was imposed not during the retreat of the national revolution but at its height of military struggle. In other words neither 1916 nor the following national revolution could hold out the promise of a defeat of partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that would follow it, which was foretold so acutely by Connolly.
So in what respect was there a counter-revolution when that revolution never actually set itself the task of preventing partition in any objective sense? The revolution could not seriously make the promise of a united nation; that it did not result in one can hardly be put down to the actions of a counter-revolution.
I spoke at a small meeting of socialists in Glasgow just over a week ago and I was asked whether my analysis did not contradict the traditional socialist view that the 1916 Rising was to be defended as a blow against imperialism?
I answered that the Rising was indeed to be defended as a blow against imperialism but that what was important now was to understand its limits, the limits of any politics defined simply as ‘anti-imperialist’ and any nationalism no matter how ‘left-wing’.
So yes, I agreed with Lenin, 1916 was not a putsch and we should not expect to see a “pure” social revolution, but we should understand that 1916 wasn’t a social revolution of any kind. In any case if any socialist could be described as seeking the maximum clarity in the struggle for socialism, the maximum ‘purity’ so to speak, it is Lenin, so not expecting to see a pure revolution and doing absolutely everything you can to get one are not in contradiction.
I was also asked the question whether Connolly was correct to take part in the Rising. I have deliberately avoided this question in my series of posts because I’m not very interested in it. What I did say was that if Connolly was going to take part he should have had his own Proclamation, his and the Citizen Army’s own declaration of what they were fighting for – a ‘Socialist 1916 Proclamation’.
We might then at the very least have avoided reading into the existing one progressive content that isn’t there and we would have had greater grounds for stating that today’s Irish establishment would be put in a position of some embarrassment in the centenary commemoration. I would have liked to have seen an Irish Army officer read a declaration of socialist revolution outside the GPO!
Then also we would have had stronger grounds to say that the promise of the 1916 Rising has been betrayed.
Of course the other signatories would not have signed it. It would have divided the Rising at least politically but then, as we have seen, the republicans divided the revolution to the benefit of certain social classes anyway.
And would Connolly have made the Workers’ Proclamation one of socialist revolution in any case?
What this alternative Proclamation should have said is for socialists the real historical (and contemporary) question not the non-existent promises of a nationalist revolution that socialists are supposed to make good now.
Back to Part 3