100 years since the Easter Rising

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The Irish Citizens Army was formed by James Larkin and James Connolly during and after the 1913 Dublin Labour War – its members fought in the 1916 Rising and Connolly was executed after its defeat
The Irish Citizens Army was formed by James Larkin and James Connolly during and after the 1913 Dublin Labour War – its members fought in the 1916 Rising and Connolly was executed after its defeat

This Easter is the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin of 1916..

In Britain’s first, and indeed its last, imperialist dominion the flag of nationalist insurgency was raised and heroically fought for five days in that April week, followed by the bloody retribution of British imperialism.

The background to the uprising lay in the tortured and tortuous relationship between British imperialism and Ireland, a relationship of domination and subjugation that intensified with the invasion of Ireland by the army of Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

The brutality of Cromwell’s subjugation, with the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, is still an issue to this very day, so deeply is it burnt into the memory of the population of Ireland. From the very beginning of the bourgeois revolution in Britain (the first in the world) Ireland played an important role as its first imperial colony.

Behind the brutality lay the intense revolutionary nature of the English bourgeoisie determined that Ireland should be a place of exploitation, whose security was vital to the strategic interests of a future imperial power reliant on its navy.

The historian Christopher Hill also identified the opposition amongst the Levellers to the invasion of Ireland. Even in Cromwell’s army opposition to invasion led to outright conflict within Leveller-influenced regiments.

A mutiny in London was followed by mutinies in four more regiments which turned into a full-scale Leveller revolt which was swiftly put down and its leaders shot. The invasion of Ireland so soon after the English bourgeois revolution was vital to Cromwell to shore up the revolution, to prevent any risk of the Irish revolutionary nationalists linking up with radical elements such as the Levellers in England and threatening the bourgeois revolution.

These forces had to be offered payment in terms of land and property expropriated from the conquered Irish. (See Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman)

From this time, Irish development, economically and politically, was dominated by British capitalism.

Ruling by edicts issued in London and enforced by military garrisons, the English bourgeoisie deliberately stunted the growth of any indigenous capitalist class within Ireland that could become a competitor. In the 18th century, Penal Laws were introduced that legally transferred all property belonging to the Catholic majority into English and Protestant hands. In addition these laws forbade education and any advancement in government to the Catholics.

Even the Protestant bourgeoisie that had managed to emerge from the shadow of English domination writhed under the constraints placed upon them. This led in 1782 to the formation of the Protestant Volunteers to be ‘used to defend the commercial interests of the ruling Protestant Ascendancy class as it was known, against the effects of English discrimination against Irish economic life as a whole, that of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.’ (Tim Pat Coogan, 1916: The Easter Uprising)

The prospect of unity between these different interests leading to a more powerful Ireland that could compete with the interests of British capitalism led to the acceptance by Britain of the Volunteers’ demand for a separate Parliament in Dublin.

This short-lived Parliament naturally pledged its complete allegiance and loyalty to the Crown; what it did not do was address any of the grievances of the Catholic majority. Their cause was taken up by the nationalist movement, the United Irishmen, led by Wolf Tone whose charter called for breaking ‘the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils’.

With Britain in conflict with France and goaded by the authorities, the United Irishmen rose up in 1798, a rebellion that was swiftly and brutally crushed and this uprising was the excuse for the British government to end the Irish Parliament and proclaim in 1800 the Act of Union: all power was returned to Westminster with the intention that never again would Ireland be allowed to become powerful enough to cause problems for British imperialism.

The situation that existed in the mid-17th Century, when an English revolutionary bourgeoisie under Cromwell invaded Ireland to consolidate its revolution and as a prelude to the imperialist conquest of vast areas of the world, was very different to the situation that existed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Now, British imperialism was in decline with cracks appearing in what was once the undisputed ‘workshop of the world’. Imperialist rivals like Germany were making serious inroads on British supremacy and the role of British imperialism in Ireland was transformed into an attempt to shore up a collapsing system against the main threat of a revolutionary unity between the Irish and British working class.

The British capitalist class clearly recognised the danger represented by the whole development of the working class throughout the 19th century from revolutionary Chartism to the explosive growth of the new trade unionism and the undoubted sympathy these movements expressed for the plight of the Irish people who faced eviction and high rents from their absentee British landlords and the constant threat of famine.

British imperialism had as allies in Ireland the Protestant bourgeoisie which was concentrated in the north of the country around the shipbuilding industry in Belfast. This Protestant bourgeoisie, faced with the strength of the industrialised Protestant working class highly organised in trade unions, had thrown their lot in with the capitalist class of Britain and were the staunchest supporters of the Union.

They provided the so-called ‘Orange card’, very closely associated with the aristocratic section of the British ruling class and quite prepared to take up arms against any attempt by a British government to introduce ‘Home Rule’.

Having deliberately stunted the growth of an Irish capitalist class and petty bourgeois for centuries – it was no accident that the French Revolution inspired not the Catholic middle class but men like Wolf Tone who was a middle class Presbyterian – it now became necessary for British imperialism to do all it could to create a conservative middle class in Ireland to act as a bulwark to the landless masses and the emerging working class.

With little industry, the land question was of enormous importance in Ireland. The wholesale eviction of tenants from their land created a rebellious peasantry who organised in the Land League in 1879. In order to head off this movement, the British government embarked on a series of reforms designed to take the land issue off the agenda.

These schemes, which culminated in the Wyndham Act of 1903, involved government loans for peasants to buy land thus reducing the power of the Anglo-Unionist landlord against whom the ‘boycott’ campaigns had been waged, whilst simultaneously bolstering the emergence of a relatively prosperous Catholic middle class.

This was to be a conservative force that would stand with imperialism against the landless poor and the emerging working class. An upturn in world trade at the end of the 19th century with increased prices for agricultural produce also assisted in the very late development of this petty bourgeois class.

This stunted petty bourgeois class would be incapable of leading a consistent struggle against imperialism. The only class which could was the working class. The class struggle was to break out in Ireland in a dramatic way just prior to the start of World War I in the form of the Dublin lockout. By 1913, the year of the lockout, Dublin had experienced a rapid growth in trade unionism thanks to the newly formed Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU).

The ITGWU had been founded by James Larkin, an ex-Liverpool docker who had originally moved to the Belfast docks in 1907 where he became an organiser for the Dock Labourers Union before falling foul of the trade union bureaucracy. Larkin was a revolutionary syndicalist who quickly built up the ITGWU, recruiting and organising unskilled workers to the extent that Dublin became a union city.

Working alongside Larkin was James Connolly who had travelled from Scotland to Ireland in May 1896 to organise a workers’ party in Ireland. Connolly, who had spent time in America working with the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary syndicalist organisation better known as the ‘Wobblies’, was already a highly developed workers’ leader who had received his political training in the British working class movement.

In this period, a wave of strikes hit the city leaving the employers terrified at what they saw as a revolutionary upsurge amongst the organised working class

One leading employer in Dublin, a Catholic called William Murphy, was determined to break the trade union.

Any worker employed by Murphy found to have joined the ITGWU was immediately sacked. This lockout spread rapidly throughout the city and the police were drafted into the struggle to smash the union, with Larkin and the leadership of the ITGWU arrested and police brutality used against strikers and locked-out workers.

Solidarity action with the locked-out Dublin workers quickly spread to England with miners and railway workers coming out on strike in support of Larkin and the ITGWU. £50,000 of food was sent by British workers to prevent the strikers being starved back and the ITGWU being destroyed.

Faced with this mass action and calls for a general strike to free Larkin, the Liberal government of Asquith was forced to release Larkin and the other leaders. It was at this point that the trade union bureaucracy swung into action to save the neck of the capitalist class. The leadership of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called a special conference in December 1913. At this special conference the full weight of the bureaucracy was brought to bear to ensure that support for the Dublin workers was called off.

The treachery of the British TUC along with that of the Irish trade union bureaucracy ensured the defeat of the Dublin workers and anticipated the treachery it would carry out the next year in its support for the imperialist slaughter of WWI. To their eternal credit both Larkin and Connolly spoke out courageously against the imperialist war.

In Ireland, Larkin left for America while Connolly carried on with the ITGWU and the Citizen Army he had formed to defend strikers and which was based in the ITGWU’s headquarters in Dublin. Both would play an important role in the Rising of 1916.

The background to the Easter Rising was an undeveloped, stunted bourgeois class, incapable of leading a national struggle against British domination and forced to take on the working class before that struggle even broke out so tied was it to British imperialism.

The actual call to insurrection was issued in 1916 by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), or Fenian Movement as it was known, founded in 1858 on the simple platform of ‘Irish Independence’. These nationalists were very much in the tradition of Wolf Tone and his belief that the time to strike for independence was when Britain was engaged in a foreign war.

One of the sparks that convinced these and other nationalists that home rule would not be achieved constitutionally and peacefully was the events known as the Curragh mutiny. This resulted from a rumour that the British government was intent on using troops to prevent Orangemen from carrying out military training in preparation for a rebellion of their own should the Home Rule Bill be passed by Parliament.

The Orange Ulster Volunteers had already landed 35,000 rifles in open defiance of a government ban and the army had merely kept a benevolent eye on proceedings. Now the officer in command of troops based at the Curragh indicated that they would refuse to move out to enforce any Home Rule Bill.

In response to the creation of the Ulster Volunteers, the nationalist movement had created the Irish Volunteers and the IRB set about securing the leadership of this organisation and preparing for insurrection. The main leader of the IRB in the Volunteers was Padraig Pearse, a middle class nationalist described as the ‘embodiment of Celtic idealism’.

Pearse was the leader of the IRB military council that would later become the Provisional Revolutionary Government. James Connolly would join this and be in charge of the military organisation during the uprising. The plan for the uprising was quite straightforward; the Volunteers would seize strategic buildings in Dublin along with roads and railways to prevent troop movements.

The Provisional Government would be declared and it was anticipated that ten thousand odd Volunteers would rally to it. For armaments they relied on German guns arriving and it was even hoped that a German submarine in Dublin Bay would provide assistance. The uprising would also be triggered if the English attempted to introduce conscription, if Germany invaded Ireland.

The question of the war had split the Volunteer movement with a large section favouring the war and the proposition that home rule be put on hold until it had ended. Consequently these plans were kept secret from many leading members of the organisation by the IRB.

These plans were to go seriously awry. The planned landing of German arms did not happen. A German boat landed Roger Casement (who had been conducting negotiations for arms with the Germans) and he was apprehended by the British authorities.

The fact that a German landing had taken place would automatically set off British repression. Despite the lack of arms, the landing of some weapons by the Germans meant that war with the British was inevitable: the uprising would have to go ahead.

This feeling was not shared by others in the leadership of the Volunteers and orders and counter-orders were sent calling for the uprising to go ahead for the Bank Holiday Monday and others cancelling it.

In this state of confusion, it was clear to the leadership that a military victory by the small, badly armed Volunteers could not succeed militarily but it was hoped that, by the leaders making ‘the ultimate sacrifice’, as Pearse put it, they could rally the nationalist population to the cause of rebellion.

In Liberty Hall, headquarters of the ITGWU and the Citizen Army, Connolly briefed his men saying: ‘The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold on to your rifles, because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not out only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well. So hold on to your rifles!’

Connolly, the revolutionary socialist, truly appreciated the situation including the opposition that the working class would face from bourgeois nationalism in the event of a successful uprising. At midday amongst the Bank Holiday crowds of Dublin, Pearse and Connolly marched their men through the streets across O’Connell Street (then called Sackville St) and into the General Post Office.

This was to be the headquarters of the rebellion. They met no resistance. The British army command had convinced itself that an uprising was not on and most British officers were enjoying the holiday at the races. Outside the Post Office, Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Easter Rising in the name of the provisional Government of the Irish Republic.

Other strategic buildings were taken over but the forces of the rising were small in number. The following day, Tuesday 25th April, was comparatively quiet. British troops had been sent to Dublin and surrounded the city, artillery was also brought up. Connolly in particular had always believed that the British would not use artillery in Dublin because of the destruction it would bring to buildings owned by capitalists. He underestimated the determination of the ruling class to destroy revolution.

It was on the Wednesday that the British army launched their onslaught on the positions held by the rebellion. Artillery was used to flatten any building in their way.

Little distinction, if any, was made between civilian and rebel; anyone in the city not in British army uniform was deemed a rebel.

On Thursday 27th, a new military commander was put in charge of the British operation with only one instruction from the Asquith government – to put down the uprising as quickly as possible with no restraint on the methods used. By Friday the Post Office was in a state of collapse and the insurgents forced to leave, making a heroic last stand against 5,000 troops in King’s Street.

It was near this location that it later emerged that a number of civilians had been murdered by British troops acting on the orders of an officer who was eventually court-martialled for this act. Connolly was seriously wounded and on Saturday 29th it was Pearse who formally surrendered to the British.

The following day, the survivors of the uprising were marched through the streets of Dublin. The leaders of the rising were subjected to British justice at its finest. They were tried in secret by military courts, sentenced to death and the sentences carried out again in secret. News of their execution was only released after the event. The wounded Connolly was strapped to a chair in order that he could face the firing squad.

It was these secret trials and executions that transformed the situation. The revulsion engendered by the trials and executions of brave men fighting for liberty swung public opinion to such an extent that Asquith was forced to halt them. Mensheviks and revisionists of all stripes rushed forward in the aftermath of the failed uprising to condemn it as a hopeless adventure, doomed to failure.

Lenin answered such critics in his reply to an article by Karl Radek (a future leader of the Bolshevik party) in which Radek denounced it as a ‘putsch’. ‘The term ‘putsch’, in the scientific sense of the word, may be employed only when the attempt at Insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators, or stupid maniacs, and has roused no sympathy among the masses … Whoever calls such an uprising [as the Easter Rebellion] a putsch is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire who is hopelessly incapable of picturing to himself a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty-bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without the movement of non-class-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against the oppression of the landlords, the church, the monarchy, the foreign nations, etc. – to imagine this means repudiating social revolution.

‘Only those who imagine that in one place an army will line up and say “we are for socialism” and in another place another army will say “we are for imperialism” and that this will be the social revolution, only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic opinion could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a putsch.

‘Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is . . . The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord without reverses and defeats.’ (Collected Works, Vol. XIX, English edition. p. 299 ff.)

Trotsky was equally scathing of those who dismissed the uprising, in an article written in July 1916 entitled Lessons of the Events in Dublin, he wrote: ‘In a pathetic and shameful article, Plekhanov recently pointed to the “harmful” character of the Irish uprising for the cause of freedom, rejoicing that the Irish nation “to their credit” had realised this and not supported the revolutionary madmen.

‘Only complete patriotic softening of all the joints could lead anyone to interpret the situation as if the Irish peasants had declined to participate in the revolution from the standpoint of the international situation, thus saving the “honour” of Ireland. In actual fact, they were led only by the obtuse egoism of the farmer and complete indifference to everything beyond the bounds of their plots of land.

‘It was precisely because of this and only this that they supplied the London government with such a quick victory over the heroic defenders of the Dublin barricades. The undoubted personal courage, representing the hopes and methods of the past, is over. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning.

Already into this uprising – under an archaic banner – it has injected its class resentment against militarism and imperialism.

‘That resentment from now on will not subside. On the contrary, it will find an echo throughout Great Britain. Scottish soldiers smashed the Dublin barricades. But in Scotland itself coal-miners are rallying round the red flag, raised by Maclean and his friends. Those very workers, who at the moment the Hendersons are trying to chain to the bloody chariot of imperialism, will revenge themselves against the hangman Lloyd George.’

It is in the spirit of Lenin and Trotsky that we salute the heroic struggle of the Easter Rising. The Easter Rising was the anticipation of the Russian Revolution that took place just over a year later, and whose centenary will be celebrated all over the world in October 2017.