Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement – Short Version

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01/05/2016 by socialistfight

By Geoffrey Bell (Pluto Press, Feb 2016, 273pp, £17) Review by Gerry Downing


According to Charles Diamond, owner/editor of the Catholic Herald : “J. R. CIynes was ‘one of the rottenest Labour oracles on the subject of Ireland … a man out to pose as a “statesman” and to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, all the time keeping an eye on a job, the future and a salary, the miserable dodger’”

Geoff Bell has done the whole British Labour and socialist movement and the Irish republican socialist and labour movement a great service by producing this meticulously researched and laboriously compiled work. He examines in great detail the relationship between all sections of the British labour movement and Ireland and also examines the Irish labour movement and its relationship to the anti-imperialist struggle from 1916 to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921. And it is a sorry tale of gross class treachery to the cause of the British, Irish and International working class in the service of the British Empire with just a few exceptions; Sylvia Pankhurst of Workers’ Dreadnought fame in her communist phase and the young Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) when it responded to the sharp chidings of the Comintern and one leading member, T.A. Jackson, whose book Ireland Her Own is a classic defence of the revolution in Ireland with all the economic and social factors fully understood. Other individuals also deserve praise at least for their humanitarian opposition to Lloyd George’s reign of terror by the Black and Tans from early 1920 to July 1921. Alongside these must be placed vanguard sections of the British working class who demonstrated their potential to lead the whole class on occasions on the Irish question and Irish working class and revolutionary nationalists when a strong anti-imperialist leadership who followed the leadership of James Connolly and the revolutionary Comintern emerged. We will examine Bell’s own political outlook also.

But the majority of the Labour movement bureaucratic leaders, to a greater or lesser degree, defended the interests of the British Empire and its right to exploit Ireland taking into account the constraints placed upon them by their own base of support in the working class and its degree of radicalisation. Bell details how these conditions were modified and reinforced in resolutions and statements of labour movement conferences, congresses and leadership statements as the British working class itself radicalised, particularly in the years 1920-21.

Bell examines the Labour party and its leading influences. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) leader and first Labour party leader, the pacifist Keir Hardie had upset Henderson and Snowden by his unequivocal support for Larkin and the Dublin Lockout (he also lent James Connolly £50 to re-launch the Workers Republic [originally launched by Connolly in 1898] in 1913) but following his death in 1915 subsequent leaders were condemnatory of 1916 and following. The other major influence in Labour was the Fabians, Sidney and Beatrix Webb and George Bernard Shaw, himself an Irishman. These were super-patriots of the British Empire and the leading ideological influence, although they lacked the organisational strength of the ILP. Their journal, The New Statesman, founded in 1913, is the best indication of the politics of this group. Bell tells us they referred to the 1916 Uprising as, ‘the miserable and abortive Sinn Féin Rebellion’ displaying their ignorance (Sinn Féin had nothing to do with the Rising, in fact they opposed it) and their chauvinism. They did oppose the execution of Roger Casement and conscription in Ireland but ‘Ireland can have Home Rule if she likes, but Ulster must be excluded’ with a call that such a solution be imposed ‘with or without Irish consent’ (p120).

James Connolly’s closest comrades on the left in Britain was surely the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland and The Socialist, the paper that Connolly himself had founded in 1901 and passed on to George Yates to edit when he departed for America in September 1903. There was no obituary for Connolly on his execution in the paper he himself had founded. For three years it had no coverage of substance on Ireland when that obituary finally appeared. The reason is clear, Bell tells us, ‘taking a stand on the Rising would always have been difficult in Glasgow which had seen much inter-worker religious sectarian strife in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’. We reject Bell’s excuse, ‘Quite simply, for what it considered socialist reasons, it could not support it or Connolly’s involvement’ … so ‘it preferred to say nothing’. Sheer political cowardice and capitulation to pro-imperialist prejudices (NOT ‘inter-worker religious sectarian strife’ or ‘socialist reasons’) was the explanation (pp. 19-21).

How fared the new CPGB and its immediate predecessor organisations? Following the stern words from Karl Radek at the Second Congress of the Comintern in July 1920 telling them that Ireland and not Russia had to be their priority Bell can quote the brave words by the new CPGB in The Communist of 25 November 1920:

 ‘A nation is being murdered under out eyes… the National struggle and the class struggle are inseparable from one another … not only the Irish but the working class all over the world is looking to us… if we are found wanting, not all the enunciations of orthodox formulae… will save us from contemptuous dismissal as faithful, although talkative, servants of the British Imperial oligarchy’ (p. 114).

But they did little to escape the ‘contemptuous dismissal’ according to Bell, citing the lack of the word ‘Ireland’ in the index of James Klugmann’s first volume of the ‘official’ History of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the lack of discussion on Ireland in the founding conference of the CPGB on 31 July 1920, which did find time to discuss the massacre of Jewish communists by Poland, Romania and Hungary and the prohibition of alcohol .


Belfast Confetti

The starkest example of Labour movement treachery is the events around the terrible pogrom against nationalist workers in Belfast in July 1920. On p. 85 et seq. Using the murderous missiles known as Belfast confetti, metal disks, nuts, bolts, large rivets etc. from the shipyards fascist gangs drove out 10,000 nationalist workers from the Belfast shipyards and 1,000 nationalist women from their workplaces. Equal targets were the ‘Rotten Prods’ who were union shop stewards and officials who defended their organisations. 53 people were killed as a result. Well over 100 died in Belfast in 1921 and 1922 as a consequence.

The Carpenters Union fought back valiantly but the TUC sold it out. On 12 September Harland and Wolff responding to the Carpenters Union made no reply to their very reasonable demands ending discrimination on political or religious grounds but proposed a further meeting with all the unions involved and the Vigilance Committee; the Loyalist thugs who were still driving out the nationalist workers had been given official recognition by the management, in effect. The union responded by calling a strike on 18 September.

Only 600 of the 2,000 union members responded to the strike call; correctly the union promptly expelled the 1,400 scabs. Only 4 branches of the union are recorded as opposing the expulsions. 45 branches passed resolutions of support. The British working class, at least those organised in that union, had not been found wanting in class solidarity with their victimised Belfast comrades, rejecting all ‘loyalty to Empire’ propaganda pleading of the mass media in those revolutionary years. (pp. 88-89).

On 21 September the TUC appointed three union leaders to go to Belfast ‘with plenary powers’. These were J. Hill of the Boilermakers, A.A Purcell of the Furniture Trades and A. Pugh of the Iron and Steel Confederation. They had gone to ensure the reemployment of the expelled workers but ‘we came to the conclusion there was one problem that had to be overcome in view of the general situation’ which was not the reemployment of those forced from their workplace, but ‘the dispute which existed between the executive of the woodworkers (Carpenters Union) and their people in Belfast’ Pugh explained later. These absolute treacherous scoundrels had stabbed the victims in the back and begun championing the cause of their oppressors. The TUC gratefully accepted their report.

A strike against the Black and Tans took place in January 1921 400 miners at Giffnock colliery near Glasgow staged a 24-hour strike ‘as a protest against the [British] terrorism in Ireland and to demand the withdrawal of all British forces used against the Irish people’. In April I920 the Liverpool branch of the Irish Self-determination League (ISDL) organised a very successful unofficial dock strike in their port against the imprisonment of Irish political prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. But the TUC continued to refuse any support to these unofficial actions. And when official actions were threatened they moved swiftly to isolate and defeat them. Apart from the Belfast dispute, there was the threatened strike by the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) over the murder of three train crew, two of whom were its members, by the Black and Tans in Mallow, Co. Cork on 31 January 1921. ASLEF immediately demanded an inquiry and, with obvious serious intent, threatened a national strike if it was not held. At this stage of the struggle direct industrial action against the British Army was seriously proposed in many unions with widespread support. The Daily Herald, edited by George Lansbury, Bell tells us, hoped it would be the start of more general action: ‘If ASLEF can protect its members by a strike threat, British Labour can save Ireland by the same weapon. Only the threat must not be a bluff. One society has shown the way. It is for Labour as a whole to follow.’ On 17 February G.D.H. Cole, writing in the ILP newspaper Labour Leader, correctly blamed the leadership, ‘the apathy of the working class movement is a disgrace’ and hoped that the ASLEF dispute would rectify the situation, ‘the locomotive engineers have shown what they can do – if they will’ (pp. 143-144)

But J. H Thomas rode to the rescue of the Empire as usual. The NUR, whose members were also attacked in Mallow, passed a motion on 11 February referring the matter to the ‘Parliamentary arena’, i.e. the right wing Labour traitors had the ball in their court, The Times reported with relief. So the Executive of the Labour party called for an enquiry on 15 February and so did the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC on the 16th but no mention was made of a strike; both wings of the Labour movement had disowned ASLEF’s strike call. Will Thorn MP (Casement’s hound), James Sexton and J.R Clynes opposed the strike, the latter opining that, ‘bad as the situation is in Ireland, public opinion is not prepared for a settlement of Irish troubles by means of a strike’. He thereby implicitly acknowledged that a settlement by mass strike action was possible and this was a live issue amongst British workers and, because this would be a defeat for the British Empire, he would do everything in his power to prevent it. So the labour movement leaders moved with great speed to isolate ASLEF who were forced to withdraw the strike threat on 17 February.

If the sympathy of the British working class was so strong from mid-1920 to mid-1921 why did it die then? On 15 April 1921 the Empire loyalist Thomas delivered another blow at the British and international working class. The owners of the newly re-privatised mine proposed massive wage cuts and the miners’ executive called for a strike of the Triple Alliance, miners, railway workers and transport workers that had been in existence since 1915. They called the strike, the government declared a state of emergency and moved troops for confrontation and the leaders of the Triple Alliance called off the strike. That date goes down in history as Black Friday. So it was that Thomas and the right wing Labour traitors now moved on to deal with the next, and perhaps greater problem for the British ruling class, Ireland.

Special Conferences and Congresses

The Special Party Congress of the TUC in July 1920 was called to discuss direct action by the trade unions against the British military in Ireland. In May 400 NUR members in Dublin refused to unload what they thought were munitions for the British Army. NUR leader J. H. Thomas was on the ball in defence of the Empire as usual. He instructed his men to return to work in order ‘to give the labour movement the opportunity of acting on their behalf’. Outrageously Bell opines that, ‘Thomas’s return to characteristic caution was understandable’ because ‘the railway workers action did have far reaching implications for the British and Irish trade union movement’.

By the time the Parliamentary Committee met on 16 June NUR members in Dublin had been sacked for ‘blacking’ British munitions. Thomas told the meeting, he was ‘being pressed by other trade unions to assist its Irish members’ (which obviously he was very reluctant to do). The Parliamentary Committee called a Special Congress ‘to discuss the application of direct action to Ireland’. Just one month before Labour Party had passed a motion in favour of unqualified self-determination for Ireland, against the wishes of the leadership. J. H. Thomas, of course, spoken against at the party conference. But now his union, the NUR, moved the major resolution at the TUC’s Special Congress. The TUC leadership panicked because a strong motion from the Miners Union was tabled at the Conference so the TUC leadership elicited what was in effect a wrecking motion from the NUR. Both motions passed but the ambiguity between the two allowed Thomas and his ilk to play on that and pretend that only the NUR motion was important.

Bell concludes that:

 Thomas could also be criticised for declining to press the resolution on direct action passed by the Special Congress. However, in this he was not alone. The resolution had called for unions to organise ballots in order to carry out this action. There is no record of any of affiliated unions doing so. This unanimity suggests it would be wrong to see the reason for the unwillingness of the TUC to act on Ireland residing in the figure of J. H. Thomas or the Parliamentary Committee in general.

No, on the contrary it would be absolutely correct ‘to see the reason for the unwillingness of the TUC to act on Ireland residing in the figure of J. H. Thomas or the Parliamentary Committee in general’ because they were the leadership when there was a clear wish for action and, led by Thomas, they sabotaged it. It was a heinous act of class treachery.

Just a month before, in June 1920 the Labour party Conference resolved on ‘British military withdrawal’ from Ireland and ‘absolute and free self-determination’. The leaders immediately set about subverting and reversing this decision and they succeeded in the Special Conference of December called to discuss unemployment and Ireland, but basically to overturn the June Congress resolution. An Empire loyal resolution was drafted by the NEC, who decided in advance that no amendment to it would be allowed. Labour Leader subsequently criticised the conference for being an ‘almost entirely a platform affair’, but with no counter position permitted the resolution was overwhelming carried. So confronted with a Congress decision that went against their wishes, they called a special conference with only their motion allowed and all rights of amendment abolished to serve the cause of the Empire. Similarly, with the 1921 Conference, ten local Labour party motions were ignored and the Special Conference motion was the only one allowed. And we all think Blair was the worst and most undemocratic Labour leader!

Finally how does Bell deals with the question posed in the title of his work, Hesitant Comrades. Who were these hesitant comrades, whom must we essentially blame for the failure to support the struggle in Ireland in her hour of need, the leadership of the British working class or the class itself? As Marxists, we will always blame the leadership but Bell reaches the opposite conclusion in his Conclusion.  Of course with the Truce in July and the Treaty in December 1921 it was clear that the Sinn Féin leaders themselves were willing to compromise on Britain’s terms. They was no longer an inspiring fight against British imperialism to inspire the British working class to fight themselves against that same enemy. There was no ‘new and more powerful leadership’ for them to rally to; the new CPGB was too small and too politically confused to provide that. If no ‘new and more powerful leadership’ emerges when the working class are ready to fight they MUST fall back into despair and disillusion. They cannot possibly lead themselves as every Marxist understands. There was none apparent in Britain in the crucial period correctly identified by Bell above, from mid-1920 to mid-1921, as we have seen from our analysis of the best of them, provided by Bell himself.  ▲

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