Monday, 3 October 2016

John Newsinger on the Easter Rising and the Left

The Easter Rising and the Left
From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #59 (Autumn 2016)

The commemoration/celebration of the 1916 Easter Rising by the Left earlier this year was very much a one dimensional affair that transformed a complex historical episode into myth. The Rising was turned into an altogether unproblematic event that was celebrated as if was a product of contemporary left concerns and contexts rather than of the concerns and contexts of the time. The participants got similar treatment, being abstracted from their historical setting, and instead re-imagined as if they were the product of contemporary cultural and political circumstances.

One would, for example, be hard-pressed to realise from the commemorative literature produced by the Left that for the Easter rebels their alliance with Imperial Germany was a central concern. When the Proclamation of the Republic referred to the rebels’ ‘gallant allies in Europe’, it was not referring to the anti-war and anti-Imperialist Left, but to the German Kaiser, his government and army. This was not British propaganda.

Even James Connolly argued in his Workers’ Republic newspaper that the German Empire was progressive and that a German victory in the war was to be welcomed. His paper, on one occasion, actually described the Kaiser as being sympathetic to the ‘radical left’. Now Connolly’s position was certainly preferable to a pro-British stance, but what is clear is that he did not, as is often argued, hold to a Leninist position of opposition to both sides in the Imperialist War.

More important, however, was the fact that the rebel leadership was well aware that it did not have the weapons, fighters or popular support for a rising to have any realistic prospect of military success without German support, and were actually counting on the landing of German troops who would fight alongside them.

The German High Command took the view, almost certainly correctly, that even if German troops were landed, the adventure was still doomed, and consequently declined to sacrifice any of its forces. They were prepared to provide weapons, however, although even this miscarried. What is clear though is that the Rising was conceived as being carried out in alliance with Imperial Germany, something that does not fit in with contemporary Left sympathies and so it has been at best played down and at worst altogether ignored.

Another absence from much of the Left celebration is any awareness of the fact that for the overwhelming majority of the rebels, Catholicism was an integral part of their national identity. They were not secularists in the modern sense of the word. Instead, their republicanism actually had a strong confessional dimension. This cannot be seriously disputed and so the whole question was ignored, an embarrassment to be avoided.

Once again, even James Connolly, a man who for many years had not been a practicing Catholic, when he was facing execution was reconciled to the Church and as a dying wish asked his Protestant wife to convert to Catholicism. His Citizen Army second in command, Michael Mallin, another victim of the British firing squads, as his dying wish, urged that his son should become a priest and his daughter a nun. Mallin did not go to his death with any defiant declaration of socialism, but with the wish that Ireland should keep faith with the Church, ‘she must not forget she is Catholic’. Even Constance Markiewicz, the Protestant Citizen Army officer, converted to Catholicism while she was in prison. This was all just too far away from contemporary expectations to be included in celebratory accounts.

Now there is, of course, nothing unusual in national liberation movements having a confessional dimension and support for national liberation struggles is certainly not conditional on secularism, atheism, socialism or whatever, but surely the historic reality needs to be acknowledged rather than ignored or even suppressed. Instead, this overwhelming cultural phenomenon has been marginalised while there have instead even been attempts to endow the Rising with an LGTB dimension. This does a huge disservice to the very people who are being commemorated, not taking them as they were, but re-imagining them to serve contemporary concerns.

The crucial question, however, is whether or not the Rising was a putsch, a doomed attempt by a handful of rebels without any significant popular support. What is remarkable is that the question even has to be asked. Any comparable attempt carried out anywhere else in the world would without any doubt be acknowledged as a putsch, but the Easter Rising is exempted from all the rules that seem to apply elsewhere. Lenin is often called in to assist in this task with his famous statement that anyone who considered the Rising a putsch was ‘either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon’.

To be fair, Lenin did not, at the time he wrote this, know the facts and was primarily concerned with arguing more generally for support for national liberation struggles, but even so he prefaced his conclusion with a definition of a putsch as an attempt at insurrection involving ‘nothing but a circle of conspirators’ and as having ‘caused no sympathy among the masses’. There have, of course, been quite heroic attempts to argue that the Rising did have popular support, but these fly in the face of the overwhelming body of evidence. More important though, any serious examination of the forces the rebels were able to deploy shows beyond any doubt that they were doomed, that they were not a serious threat to the British at all.

It is worth turning to Lenin once again. In his Letter to Comrades, he described military conspiracy as ‘Blanquism if it is not organised by a party of a definite class…its organisers have not analysed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular. If the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people as proved by objective facts…’ There is more, but none of it lends comfort to the contention that the Easter Rising was, in classic Marxist terms, anything other than a putsch.
Let us rehearse the preparations for the Rising. It was the work of the military council of a 2,000 strong secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Not only that but the military council kept their plans secret from the official leadership of the organisation because there were leading members, including the president of the organisation, opposed to a Rising unless there was a real prospect of success. The military council’s chosen instrument was the 15,000 strong Irish Volunteers whose official leadership and most of whose members were similarly opposed to a Rising with no chance of success.

Instead, the military council intended to precipitate the Volunteers into insurrection by means of a document they had had forged that purported to show that the British planned an imminent crackdown, not just on the Volunteers but on the Home Rule party as well. Apparently, even the Archbishop of Dublin was facing arrest. This was clearly the work of a ‘circle of conspirators’, to quote Lenin once again, indeed it is hard to envisage a better example of a ‘circle of conspirators’ at work. And, it has to be said, they were incompetent conspirators at that, brave certainly but nevertheless incompetent. Of course, such a judgement is likely to provoke outrage, but the record speaks for itself. In the words of one participant, a certain Michael Collins, the Rising was ‘bungled terribly, costing many a good life’. Such a method of proceeding would in any other circumstances be regarded as a positive recipe for disaster and so it proved to be.

In the event, the military council was only able to lead 700 Volunteers and 120 Citizen Army men and women into action. The Rising came as a complete shock to both the British authorities and to the people of Dublin.
There were no demonstrations or strikes in support of the Rising, something that Lenin regarded as absolutely essential. The Rising did not have the support of any working class organisation, something that would normally call such an adventure into question for the Left. Indeed it never even had the support of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, the union that Connolly led. He was the only member of its fourteen man executive to take part in the Rising. In effect, he handed control of the Citizen Army over to the IRB military council, to the ‘circle of conspirators’, which he had actually joined early in 1916.

Why then has the Left embraced the Easter Rising in the uncritical way that it has? Certainly there is the desire to demonstrate support for the Irish struggle for Independence, but that is not all. Without any doubt, another important reason is the participation of James Connolly. He was a veteran socialist with years of experience of the class struggle in Scotland, Ireland and the United States, someone who had endured immense hardship in the fight for socialism and who had never faltered. And, moreover, he was a self-educated working class man who, despite poverty, and hard manual labour, had nevertheless turned himself into an exceptional propagandist for the socialist cause and had written the path-breaking Marxist account of Irish history, Labour in Irish History. Connolly once joked that he had, in fact, been to University, but only carrying in cement. Surely his participation is guarantee that the Rising was not a putsch? After all, in Labour in Irish History, he had, in the words of Desmond Ryan, another participant in the Rising, written ‘one of the most damaging criticisms of mere insurrectionism imaginable’.

By 1916, however, Connolly had despaired of any international working class revolt against the war and had come to believe that Irish national identity itself was in danger as the Irish people rallied to the British war effort. The key article laying bare his thinking was ‘The Ties That Bind’ that appeared in the Workers’ Republic on5 February 1916. Here, he lamented the national apostasy (his words) of the Irish working class: ‘It is with shame and sorrow we say it, but the evil influence upon large sections of the Irish Working Class of the bribes and promises of the enemy cannot be denied…For the sake of a few paltry shillings per week thousands of Irish workers have sold their country in the hour of their country’s greatest need and hope’. Only the ‘Militant Labour Leaders of Ireland had not apostatised’ and, he went on, ‘the same cannot be said of the working class as a whole’.

Indeed, the degradation (his word) of the whole Irish people was ‘so deep and humiliating that no agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect…Without the slightest trace of irreverence but in all due humility and awe we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said: “Without the shedding of Blood, there is no Redemption”’. Quite understandably this particular statement does not figure that much in the commemorative accounts coming from the Left, but this was the politics that informed his participation in the Rising.

The tragedy is, of course, that the subsequent executions, cheered in the Commons by Labour MPs,  saw the death of one of the best socialist fighters Britain and Ireland have ever seen, removed from the board, so to speak, before the anti-war movement began to come alive in both Germany and Russia, before the international class struggle began to revive. How, one wonders, would Connolly have responded to the February and October 1917 Revolutions in Russia, if there has been no Easter Rising? It is certain that he would have been inspired, full of hope and expectations for the struggles ahead. He was to be sorely missed in the years to come.

John Newsinger

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