20th century Ireland witnessed massive labour unrest.
John Newsinger's book is a sympathetic account of
the first wave of Irish syndicalism that saw the
rise of James Larkin's ITGWU and its eventual defeat
in the Great Lockout of 1913-1914. It then examines
the consequences of that defeat on the subsequent
events until 1922.
Larkin and James Connolly were the two most important
leaders of this movement. Their strategy was syndicalist
in nature. Syndicalism is a socialist current that
seeks to overthrow capitalism by primarily if not
purely industrial organisation and struggle (the
'general strike') and the reorganisation of society
along the lines of industrial unionism; through
the mobilisation of all grades of workers in a single
revolutionary trade union organisation, the "One
Big Union" -the ITGWU in this case. Newsinger
shows how Larkin and the ITGWU were particularly
successful in organising the unskilled workers.
By late 1913, it had 30 000 affiliated members.
Larkin's "exceptional abilities and forceful
personality pushed him to the fore" and
made him the leader. One of his main strengths was
"his ability to articulate, indeed to shout
out, his members' bitterness and anger, their hopes
and longings". Larkin was great as an agitator
but weak as a theoretician; contrary to James Connolly.
Newsinger believes that in historical accounts of
the period Larkin has been overshadowed by Connolly,
and his book seeks to redress the balance.
rise of the ITGWU culminated in the 1913 lock out.
Over 20 000 people were locked out by the big employers
backed by the full resources of state, church and
press. A strike by tramway workers led to solidarity
action amongst many other workers. The fact that
the British TUC bureaucracy did little to help the
Dublin workers and the fierce level of state repression
led to the strike been called off after months of
hard struggle. For Newsinger, the ITGWU had been
broken by the employers and the state. "The
union survived as an organisation, but the movement
of working class revolt had been defeated. The apparently
irresistible tide of Larkinism had been turned back."
was the nature of 'Larkinism'? Some historians point
that 'Larkinism' expressed a growing trade union
consciousness, but not a socialist one. But for
"it was more than routine, everyday, official
trade unionism founded on compromise and collaboration,
accepting employers' prerogatives and the capitalist
system. It was a revolt against the authority of
the employers, a rejection of the place the working
class had been given in society and it contained
within it elements capable of developing into a
coherent challenge to the employing class and the
capitalist system. Certainly, this is what well
informed contemporaries believed."
Larkinism represented is best described as "proto-syndicalism",
something less than social revolutionary but more
than trade union consciousness. It was an attempt
to reshape unions as instrument of class war rather
than compromise. This proto-syndicalism also incorporated
elements of Republicanism, Catholicism and the women's
movement, giving it substantial following amongst
the Dublin workers.
lock out represented the peak of Irish syndicalism.
Following its defeat and the failure of the international
working class to stop the war, Connolly concentrated
on working with Republicans and preparing for insurrection.
He remained a socialist "but a socialist
who had concluded that in the circumstances of the
time, a republican insurrection had become the political
priority". Larkin left for the USA, where
he remained until 1923. The consequence was that
after Connolly's execution leadership of the Irish
labour movement fell into reformist hands. This
had important implications for the second wave of
industrial unrest in 1917-1923. During that period,
a significant number of Soviets were established
in Ireland. By 1922 there were over eighty soviets,
the Limerick Soviet being the most famous one. Did
this amount to a real socialist challenge? "What
is clear with regard to the situation in Ireland
is that at every point where the movement could
have been carried forward, the leadership did their
best to contain it." The difference with
Russia is that the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was trying
to push the struggle forward, to generalise it,
whereas in Ireland in 1917-1921 the reformist leaders
of the labour movement were curbing the struggle.
The potential of the movement for radical change
was thus wasted.
book could have elaborated more on the political
weaknesses of Irish syndicalism. In that tradition,
the political party is the educator and propagandist,
rather than the leader of the working class.
One of the lessons of the 1913 lock out is that
if the 'general strike' raises the question of power,
it does not resolve it. History proved that the
mass strike would not spontaneously transform itself
into a political insurrection. The mass strike happened
in 1913, but did not lead to a mass political insurrection.
The insurrection happened in Easter 1916, but without
broad mass involvement. The merging of the two could
only be organically mediated by a party. 1913 showed
the coming of age of the Irish working class, but
simultaneously showed the weakness of the political
organisation of that class. Newsinger could also
have examined whether or not Larkin's subsequent
adherence to Labour Party reformism related to those
1913 lockout remains the most important labour struggle
in Irish history and one of the most important in
British history. Newsinger does not study these
events within the sole context of the 1912-1921
period in Ireland. For Newsinger, it was much more
than a national phenomenon. It was also a crucial
episode in the history of the British working class
movement. What the book adds to the existing literature
about the subject is its detailed and original analysis
of how Larkin's militant tactics were accompanied
by an ideological offensive through the Irish Worker
newspaper. The author also discusses many controversial
and difficult issues, such as whether or not Connolly
lived as a socialist but died as a nationalist,
or whether the Easter Rising was a serious military
effort or an attempt at "blood sacrifice".
Newsinger's own answers to these questions are very
polemical. For him, the Easter Rising was a "classic
instance of a putsch", and in the circumstances
of April 1916, Connolly "should have opposed
a rising". Even if Newsinger's conclusions
can be disputed, this book will stimulate debate
about that period of Irish labour history.
censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging
current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress
is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and
executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently
the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships. - George Bernard Shaw