This is part one of a planned five- or six-part series of short essays examining the role Ireland played in the worldwide revolutionary upheaval that followed World War One and the Russian Revolution, and in turn the role this global context played in shaping Irish history in these crucial years.
In 1887 the socialist writer Friedrich Engels predicted that within a few decades there would break out
a world war of never before seen intensity […] eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Thirty Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce […]crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up…
In 1914 the great empires of Europe went to war and fulfilled this prophecy down to the letter. The First World War of 1914-1918 plunged humanity into horror, but it was followed by a World Revolution that promised a better future for all. The war was confined mostly to Europe and parts of Africa, but the revolution swept across every continent. “Crowns rolled in the gutter” and republics were declared, empires crumbled, new states fought for independence, women won the right to vote in many countries, and workers’ organisation and militancy rose to awesome heights.
The two partitioned Irish states of today were two of the many children of this post-war World Revolution. The winning of freedom from British rule is an example of the achievements of the revolution; the fact that the island is partitioned is an example of its limits.
In peacetime the workers of Europe had toiled to make a few bankers and bosses richer at their expense. Now in wartime working-class men made up the bulk of those who rotted in muddy, louse-infested trenches, died under explosive shells, sank to their deaths trapped in the metal hulls of battleships and marched defenceless into machine-gun fire – all for the benefit of the same peacetime bosses, who were fighting for resources, markets and political power. By 1917 many millions had been killed and many more wounded or mentally scarred by trench warfare. The demands of the war took bread from the mouths of those left at home.
In February of that year the workers and peasants of Russia overthrew their Emperor. But the Russian people soon realized that the new government was no better able to deal with their basic needs – it was a “liberal democracy” just like those “liberal democracies” of Western Europe and America, warmongering empires run by and for the wealthy. The workers, peasants and soldiers trusted instead to their own truly democratic organisations, councils elected straight from the workplace, village or regiment. These were called Soviets.
In October the Bolsheviks, a party of revolutionary socialists, led the people in a new revolution. They called for industry to be run democratically by the workers themselves, without any boss creaming off the profits; for land to be owned by the peasants who worked on it, not by useless obsolete aristocrats; for an end to the war; for all oppressed ethnic and national groups to be free to decide their own fate.
For the Bolsheviks, the most important aim of the Russian Revolution was to spark off revolutions in the more industrialised and advanced countries of Europe. These countries could then help Russia to develop socialism. They predicted that without this outside help the Russian Revolution could not be completed.
The Irish socialist James Connolly had gone to his death in 1916 with the same hope: that by taking part in the Easter Rising the workers of Dublin might inspire the peoples of Europe to rise up and end the slaughter. But the Easter insurrection was tragically premature. Thousands of armed rebels took over major buildings in Dublin, but the people as a whole didn’t join or actively support them. Over a week of bloody fighting, the British Army shot and bombarded the rebels into surrender.
Just a year later, the “grave-like stillness” in Europe was shattered by the Russian Revolution. Then the world revolution was in the balance. In Ireland, Connolly’s dream of freedom from British imperialism and from Irish bosses was in sight.
When most Irish history books today tell the story of Ireland’s Revolution – the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War – there is almost never any acknowledgment that the Irish Revolution was just one episode in the World Revolution that followed the World War. The global context is lost, and with it, an understanding of the real dynamic and meaning of events.
The southern Irish state since its foundation has been beset by massive problems – partition, poverty, emigration, the enormous power of the Catholic Church, and a dysfunctional economy. The only period of prosperity we have ever enjoyed, the Celtic Tiger of the late 1990s and 2000s, was based on a fake property bubble. Now mountains of debt sit on the shoulders of working people in Ireland and there is no end in sight to cutbacks, new taxes and attacks on wages and conditions.
Almost a century ago southern Ireland won freedom from British rule; in a hundred years the Irish capitalist class has had more than a fair chance to prove its worth and to develop the economy and society. But this class has only proved its incompetence and depravity. The greatest symbol of this depravity is how it leaned on the Catholic Church as a prop for its power and ignored the sexual abuse of children and the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries. Unable to develop the economy and with an affinity for cons and shysterism, the Irish ruling class jumped more enthusiastically than any other on the bandwagon of the financial bubble economy of the ‘90s and ‘00s.
Knowing only two tricks in international relations – rolling over and begging – the Irish ruling class happily made their country take on over 40% of the cost of Europe’s bailout when the crisis hit. The politicians owned and funded by the Irish boss class fawn and drool over the visits of US presidents and celebrate like victorious kings whenever a scrap of investment from the table of the multinational corporations lands in Ireland. They seem to think that asking super-rich corporations like Apple, Google and Facebook to pay more than a pittance in tax would be the height of arrogance.
If James Connolly could see Ireland today, he would have an explanation at hand for our historic problems. Our revolution was never completed; soundly beating the British Empire, the Irish people stopped short at the throats of the Irish capitalist class, who have done us no favours in return.
Leaning on a medieval institution, unable to develop the economy except by cons, occupying a position in world politics comparable to the little pointy-eared creature that sits cackling and screeching in the shadow of Jabba the Hutt, the Irish capitalist class has even less to offer the people of Ireland than the parasite boss classes of more developed countries. Oppressed not only by capitalist exploitation but by imperialist domination, sectarian division and a historically weak capitalist class, the Irish people face multiple challenges as we begin the 21st century. It is vital that we understand these challenges.
Ireland is in a decade of hundred-year milestones. The years 1913, 1916, 1921 and others will be endlessly debated and written about. But if we really want to understand these momentous events that defined the world we live in today the standard nationalist, unionist and liberal narratives will give us at best a partial insight and at worst a complete distortion.
This document is intended to tell the story of the Irish Revolution as an episode in the World Revolution that began in Russia in 1917. We will revisit events that have been tragically forgotten. Few now appreciate that for a short but momentous time Belfast and Limerick stood alongside Petrograd, Berlin, Glasgow, Seattle and others as cities ruled by the power of organised workers. Few know that the future leaders of “holy Catholic” Ireland once stood on the brink of forming an alternative “League of Nations” with the “godless” Soviet Union. Members of the SIPTU trade union today should know that in the few short years that their predecessor the ITGWU grew from 5,000 to over 100,000 members, it was a boldly pro-Bolshevik, militant, socialist organisation.
These facts and many more like them weigh heavily against the Neil Jordan school of history, which imagines the fight against British imperialism as a conspiracy by guerrillas and assassins and wise and less wise statesmen. This kind of “history” is not confined to films, however, but saturates what is taught in schools and seeps heavily through most mainstream historical writing.
We will fundamentally change this story by re-inserting three major characters that have been left out by most: the global context, which people living at the time were unable to ignore; the ideas of revolutionary socialism, which were spreading unstoppably throughout the world, not least through Ireland; and lastly the great majority of the participants in the revolution, who did so not as riflemen in the hills but as trade union militants.
We will examine firstly the connections between Ireland and the World Revolution visible in the trade union movements, north and south. Then we will look at the attempts to build dedicated socialist revolutionary parties in Ireland in these years. Last of all we will look at the strong connections that existed between the republican revolutionary movement and the Russian Revolution.