Marxism and Labour in Ireland

Finn Geaney, Militant, Feb. 1979

In the period since the defeat of the Coalition Government in 1977, the ranks of the Irish Labour Party have been loudly calling for socialist policies. Resolutions demanding the nationalisation of the banks and the finance houses, sections of the building industry and of all land zoned for housing have been carried at National and Regional conferences. A leftward shift is now again becoming dominant. But another factor is also entering the situation. The direction in which the Party is moving is not just a re-run of the 'Sixties.

The banner of Marxism is now being increasingly raised. The Marxist tradition within the Irish Labour Movement was pushed to the side. Not only during the years of Coalition, but almost from the time of James Connolly's execution in 1916. The thread of history cut then is now being re-tied.

James Connolly, one of the founders of the Irish Labour Party, accepted the ideas of Marx on economics and history. Before him, William Thompson, an Irish economist, in 1826 put forward the idea that the subjection of labour to capital was the cause of all social misery. Forty years before Mar published Das Kapital, Thompson suggested that profit is the unpaid labour of the workers. Connolly described Thompson as 'the first Irish socialist, a forerunner of Marx.'

Those who argue that Marxism is alien to the Irish labour movement have little knowledge of Labour history, and little understanding of the role of Marxism in uniting oppressed peoples in various parts of the world. In a different context the 1798 movement of the United Irishmen brought together the oppressed sections of Catholics and Protestants in a common cause against landlordism and British rule. Revolutionary developments in France at that time knitted with this movement and gave the struggle in Ireland an international dimension. Today, that role of uniting across national boundaries the labour movements of the various countries is fulfilled by socialism and Marxism. This has been the case for a hundred years.

James Connolly

Many of the leaders of the Labour Party say that Marxism is obsolete and that the class struggle is no more. But a glance at the rising unemployment figures, the looming economic recession and the luxurious spending by the rich shows that, not only is the class struggle still with us, but that it is reaching an intensity unequalled since before the war. It is not Marxists who are in conflict with the traditions of Irish Labour. Rather it is those who imagine themselves to be the modern apologists for the Irish Labour Party, who are trying to excise form the labour movement all that is revolutionary and substitute for it some kind of moderate criticism of capitalist society.


Proposals at the 1935 and 1936 conferences of the Irish Labour Party called for 'the public ownership by the people of all the essential sources of wealth'. Several conferences since have demanded nationalisation of finance and sections of industry. The draft programme for the first Dail in 1919, submitted by the Labour leaders O'Brien and O'Shannon, demanded that the Government encourage the formation of trade unions, 'with a view to the control and administration of the industries by the workers engaged in those industries.' Public ownership and control of the country's productive wealth has long been the central demand of the Irish Labour movement. Those, like O'Mahoney, who now argue that such a demand is against the constitution of the Labour Party, would be better employed in the office of a company lawyer than as a Labour strategist. The Irish Socialist Republican Party, founded by James Connolly in 1896, had in its programme that, 'the private ownership by a class of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange…is the fundamental basis of all oppression, national, political and social'. Later in 1915, he called for a 'system of society in which the workshops, factories, docks, railways and shipyards, etc. shall be owned by the nation, but administered by the industrial unions.'

Land League

These demands for state ownership did not alone come from Connolly. Michael Davitt, leader of the Land League, campaigned for 'an extension of state and municipal control and ownership of such monopolies as can be managed by public bodies.' At its height, in 1880, the Land League had a membership of about half a million, with branches in the North and in the South of the country. Liam Mellows, a key figure in the struggle against British Imperialism, also took his place behind the socialists. In 1922, in 'Under the Republic' he wrote: 'all industry will e controlled by the state…All transport…will be operated by the state…all banks will be operated by the state…the lands of eh aristocracy will be seized and divided.'

Socialist demands were always close to the heart of the best leaders of the various Irish struggles. Socialist organisations had existed in Dublin, Belfast and Cork for about as long as they had in Britain. Jim Connell, who wrote 'the Red Flag', was a member of the socialist movement in Dublin in the 1870s. Marx was also close to the Irish struggle and devoted a section of his Das Kapital to the campaign of the bakers in Dublin, Cork and Limerick for a normal working day. Engels travelled extensively in Ireland with both making considerable efforts in the International Workingmen's' Association to winning support for the Irish workers and peasants.

First International

Under the guidance of Marx this First International supported the widespread campaign for the release of Fenian prisoners in the 1860's and 1870's and generally supported the struggle of the Fenians against British rule and landlordism. But while defending Fenianism as 'a socialistic tendency…and a lower orders movement', he was very critical of the military campaign in Britain - such as the bombing in Clerkwell - and described it as 'aimless propaganda through action'. The Fenian leaders Stephens and O'Donnovan Rossa were members of the International that existed in Dublin, Belfast and Cork in 1864.

The founders of the Irish Labour movement had an internationalist outlook. Connolly worked for the socialist movement in Britain and America. So too did Larkin. Even before the Labour organisations took on flesh the leaders of the working class strove to unite workers across national boundaries. Fergus O'Connor, a Corkman, was one of the leaders of the Chartists in Britain in 1848. Chartism was a mass revolutionary movement of British workers, described by Lenin as the 'first broad, truly mass and politically organised proletarian revolutionary movement.'

O'Connor had earlier campaigned for trade unions factory legislation in Ireland and Britain. Michael Davitt also campaigned throughout Britain in the early years of the century for the programme of the newly formed British Labour Party and for a labour victory in the general election of 1906.

Lenin and Trotsky

Lenin, one of the great founders of Marxism, also gave a lot of importance to Ireland. He defended Connolly and the other leaders of the 1916 Rising against their critics in the leadership of the second international of workers' parties. But, like Marx, he also viewed the Irish struggle in the context of the struggles of the world Labour movement, and described the Easter Rising as 'premature'. Lenin also publicised the 1913 Dublin lockout and paid tribute to James Larkin, the Labour leader. Trotsky, too, who along with Lenin led the Russian Revolution of 1917, raised the question of the struggles in Ireland in the international labour movement.

Russian Revolution

The Irish Labour movement was inspired by the events in Russia in 1917. The National Executive of the Irish Labour Party in 1917 greeted the victory of Lenin and the Bolsheviks with the words, 'the Irish workers welcome the establishment of the Soviet Republic'. The War of Independence against Britain had a social as well as a political character. Land and factories were seized. A soviet was set up in Limerick in 1919 lasted ten days. 15,000 workers came out on strike, led by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council. The strike committee regulated the opening of shops, produced its own money and publicised lists of prices. The money issued by the Soviet was backed by the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress. In Belfast the same engineering workers led a marathon battle for a shorter working week, again under the red flag of revolution. The strike committee had control of the dock area for the duration of the strike. Soviet type systems were set up also during disputes in Cork, Tipperary, Clare and Leitrim.

The origins of the Irish Labour movement lie in the various struggles of the oppressed sections of society to take political and economic control from the capitalists and landlords, native and foreign. Socialism and Marxism make up an inherent part of that tradition. Today's development in the ranks of the Labour Party and trade Unions are picking up the strands of that tradition.

Finn Geaney

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