Radical politics in modern Ireland: the Irish Socialist Republican Party, 1896–1904

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Radical politics in modern Ireland the Irish Socialist Republican Party, 1896–1904 1Radical politics in modern Ireland: the Irish Socialist Republican Party, 1896–1904
David Lynch
(Irish Academic Press, €39.50)
ISBN 0716533561Written by a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), this book belongs to a sub-genre of labour history that sees history-writing as instrumental and is at pains to draw lessons regarding present-day socialist politics and the difficulties of party-building in particular. In the past, this type of agitating historiography was associated primarily with the orthodox communist movement (and mostly with writers from outside the country), but in recent years Irish SWP historians have begun to make an impact. Examples of their work include Kieran Allen’s The politics of James Connolly (1990) and his Fianna Fáil and Irish labour (1997), as well as Conor Kostick’s Revolution in Ireland: popular militancy, 1917 to 1923 (1996). Political argument often takes precedence over detailed historical description in such studies; the tone can be a mite didactic, and (if one knows the politics of the party) the questions and conclusions somewhat predictable. Likewise, however, they can be refreshingly comparative in approach—relentlessly internationalist—and incorporate a healthy leavening of analysis, an especially meritorious attribute when interrogating, as this book does, the politics and political actions of the young James Connolly and his closest collaborators.
Connolly is easily one of the most written-about figures from early twentieth-century Ireland. Songs, poems and a myriad of political and biographical studies have ensured his place in popular consciousness. Unfortunately, the socialist martyr of 1916 is regularly treated in a semi-hagiographic fashion as if he was always an important public figure, and his comrades, particularly those from the early years, typically come across as ciphers. The Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), likewise, is commonly dismissed with the hackneyed detraction that it had more letters in its name than members, a misrepresentation that has stymied research into the organisation and its political thought. Moreover, the views of its members have rarely been given much credence if they ran contrary to those of Connolly. In truth, a dedicated study of the ISRP was long overdue, and David Lynch has made a significant contribution to the study of Irish working-class political history with this book, which examines the party as an organisation and in terms of its path-breaking politics. Crucially, Lynch recognises Connolly’s importance as a thinker and activist but does not allow him to elbow other key activists from the story.
The ISRP survived scarcely nine years, never had even 100 members and, despite organising successful street demonstrations and participating in local elections, failed to engage the interest of the working class in any meaningful or sustained manner. It did not manage to loosen the grip of labour-nationalism on Dublin workers and, although there were party members on Dublin Trades’ Council, its impact on the trade union movement was negligible. However, the ISRP still constitutes a seminal moment in the history of working-class politics because the ideas of socialist republicanism, pioneered by this small organisation, marked a clear disjunction with its socialist antecedents and have remained hugely influential on the Irish left ever since. Prior to 1896 most Irish socialists paid little heed to the national question, and more than a few argued against an independent Ireland, which they predicted would be a reactionary construct ruled by the priest, publican and farmer, and stony soil for socialist ideas. Socialist internationalism was often interpreted as entirely inimical to Irish nationalism; the problems of colonialism were ignored, or, in the case of the Independent Labour Party, home rule was supported but seen as the business of the Irish Parliamentary Party rather than the socialist movement. The ISRP, on the contrary, argued that imperialism should be opposed actively by socialists and developed a set of beliefs that positioned the party firmly within the independence movement. Arguing for a socialist republic, the ISRP damned the union with Britain, declaring that the ‘subjection of one nation to another’ could only ‘serve the interests of the exploiting classes of both nations’, while simultaneously offering a socialist critique of the home rule and republican movements.
Lynch provides a solid explication of the ideas of socialist republicanism, though his understanding of the ISRP’s interaction with republicans is open to question. It is certainly true, as Lynch suggests, that Connolly and the ISRP felt a greater affinity with republicans than with constitutional nationalists, but it does not necessarily follow that this weakened their socialism or involved a concession to bourgeois nationalism. The ISRP did not aim to merely influence the anti-colonial project, it sought to transform it into a socialist movement. Yes, serious tactical and strategic mistakes were made, and Lynch is good at pointing these out, but it is equally true that the party never seriously wavered from its socialist objectives.
Why did the ISRP fail as an organisation? Lynch highlights many internal weaknesses in terms of policy and organisational behaviour, and it is clear that the objective conditions in the country were not favourable. Connolly’s excessive ‘bossism’ certainly complicated matters, though Lynch, quoting Kieran Allen, believes that this description is ‘extremely non-political’ and it is suggested sympathetically that the professional ‘full-timer’ as a rule is demanding of the other members. As Lynch remarks, ‘Connolly’s world was one of sacrifice and commitment: he gave them himself and expected every other member to do likewise’ (pp 131–2). The actions of other leading figures, such as Edward Stewart, also undermined the group, and minor internal disputes were allowed to escalate into major conflicts. For Lynch, a committed Leninist, one of the ISRP’s greatest organisational weaknesses was its failure to adopt the ‘democratic centralism’ model employed by the Russian Bolshevik party, which means that ‘when a decision is taken, the organisation moves forward as one to implement the decision’ (p. 148). He contends that this ability was ‘completely lacking’ in the ISRP, which required a Bolshevik-style centralised structure if it was ever to make real progress. There is, of course, something faintly ahistorical about such an argument and it is less than convincing when one remembers the failures of the various Irish communist parties from the 1920s onwards.
The book contains a number of irritating errors that should have been caught by the publisher. Pádraig Yeates has his name repeatedly misspelled; Emmet O’Connor’s survey of Irish labour history was not published in Cork; Fred Ryan, and certainly not ‘Frank’, wrote The laying of the foundations (p. 129); William McLoughlin won 314 votes, not ‘seats’ (p. 85); and so on. It is unfortunate, also, that a wider range of primary and secondary sources was not consulted, as this would have added to the weight of an exceptionally competent book. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Lynch’s analysis, there is no doubt that this lucid and engaging study should be read by all those seriously interested in the political history of the Irish working class. It is a book containing many stimulating and sharp insights, and one hopes that Irish Academic Press is considering a paperback edition to improve its availability.
Fintan Lane


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