Delegated to the “New World”

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1999), Volume 7

Peadar O'Donnell (middle) with the Irish delegation at the Congress of Peasants' International (Krestintern), Berlin, March 1930.

Peadar O’Donnell (middle) with the Irish delegation at the Congress of Peasants’ International (Krestintern), Berlin, March 1930.

Sean Murray, seventh Comintern Congress, 1935. (RTsKhIDNI)

Sean Murray, seventh Comintern Congress, 1935. (RTsKhIDNI)

Throughout its history the Irish communist movement had extensive links and relations with Soviet Russia. In the 1920s and 1930s the main point of contact was the Communist International (Comintern) based in Moscow. During the interwar period Irish communists like Roddy Connolly, Jim Larkin snr, Jack Carney and Sean Murray attended many international conferences in the Soviet capital, including those of the Comintern and the Profintern (the communist international trade union organisation). But little was known in detail about links between Irish communists and Moscow until the Russian archives were opened up in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet communist system in 1991-1992. Of particular importance are the records of the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents on Contemporary History (RTsKhIDNI is the Russian acronym) —the main Moscow archive on the history of the Soviet communist party and of the international communist movement. In this archive are sources on Irish participation in the Comintern’s International Lenin School (ILS)—Moscow’s foremost academy for the training of foreign revolutionaries.

The Comintern and Irish Communism

Between 1927 and 1935 twenty Irish students enrolled at the ILS. Many more places were open to Irish students but the allowance paid to families left behind in Ireland did not compensate for loss of earnings while attending lengthy courses in Moscow. Some of those nominated for the ILS never made it to Moscow because they were refused passports on the advice of the Special Branch.
The background to Irish participation in the ILS was the vicissitudes of the Irish communist movement in the 1920s. The first Irish section of the Comintern was the Communist Party of Ireland, founded by Roddy Connolly (son of James) in 1921. But when ‘Big Jim’ Larkin returned from America in 1923 the Comintern abolished the CPI. It was replaced by Larkin’s Irish Workers’ League—the Comintern’s Irish section between 1923 and 1929. The strategists in Moscow believed they could build a mass party in Ireland based on the popularity of Larkin, the hero of the 1913 Dublin lockout and co-founder of the American Communist Party. Larkin, however, pursued his own goals, expecting the Comintern to support him unconditionally in the struggle to build a Workers’ Union of Ireland, which was locked in vicious competition and controversy with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Irish Labour Party. Larkin gradually lost interest in the Muscovite connection as it became clear that meaningful assistance was not going to be forthcoming from that quarter, neither in relation to financing the Larkinite Irish Worker nor in overcoming resistance from communists in Britain to Larkin’s strategy of removing British-based trade unions from the Irish Free State.
By 1928 the Comintern had written off Larkin as a ‘first’ generation communist leader, one of those independent-minded syndicalists whose Weltanschauung had been formed during the pre-1914 era. Neither was Larkin considered malleable enough to adapt to the ultra-left political turn of the Comintern at the end of the 1920s (the so-called ‘Third Period’ in Comintern history of 1928-1934). The Irish enrolment at the Lenin School was, therefore, part of a programme for the indoctrination of a ‘second’ generation of Communist leaders who would unquestionably follow the Moscow ‘line’.

At the Lenin School

The largest Irish contingent at the ILS (six) was that of the ‘long course’ which ran from 1927 to 1930. This group included Jim Larkin jnr, Pat Breslin, and two activists of Dublin Trades Council, the carpenters Bill Denn and Charlie Ashmore. Disciplinary conditions for this first Irish intake were fairly relaxed in comparison to the strict rules of konspiratsiya enforced from the early 1930s. Instruction in philosophy, political economy, Leninism and the history of the international labour movement was initially carried out in a liberal atmosphere.

Ulista Vorovskogo 25A today-home of the International Lenin School, 1926-38. (McLoughlin)

Ulista Vorovskogo 25A today-home of the International Lenin School, 1926-38. (McLoughlin)

Pat Breslin, Lenin School student, 1928-the sole Irish ILS trainee to remain on in Moscow (as a translator), he was arrested in 1940 as ‘a suspicious foreigner' and died in a labour camp. (RTsKhIDNI)

Pat Breslin, Lenin School student, 1928-the sole Irish ILS trainee to remain on in Moscow (as a translator), he was arrested in 1940 as ‘a suspicious foreigner’ and died in a labour camp. (RTsKhIDNI)

Students were expected to study on their own, visiting libraries outside the school. Consultations were offered on a tutorial basis and the written essays of the students were discussed in each circle of the English-speaking sector of the ILS.
In the early years of the Lenin School students were allowed to choose the nature of their summer praktika. Sean Murray (appointed General Secretary of the [second] Communist Party of Ireland launched in 1933) and Larkin, along with some British, Canadian and Indian colleagues spent the summer of 1929 exploring the wastes of distant Daghestan, where they were shocked by the deeply conservative attitude to women in this traditional Muslim society.
On their return to Moscow the ILS students became embroiled in Soviet internal politics, in Stalin’s campaign against his erstwhile colleague in the Politburo, Nicolai Bukharin. There was a chistka (cleansing, purge) at the ILS. School work was suspended for weeks and the autobiographies of individual students were minutely scrutinised in open party assemblies. Larkin jnr distanced himself from the past policies of his father. Breslin was condemned for an ‘incorrect’ assessment of the 1916 Rebellion. Trainees sent by Larkin snr’s IWL were groomed to declare their adherence to the new Comintern assessment of the Irish Question. There were also various manoeuvres designed to facilitate the re-inauguration of Irish communism under a new leadership. For example, as part of a campaign to circumvent Larkin snr’s leadership of Irish communism Larkin jnr was removed as political shop-steward within the English-speaking sector of the ILS (sector D). Bill Denn came under suspicion because he had an inscribed gold watch presented by Dublin Trades Council colleagues to mark his departure for Moscow and the ‘Lenin University’. His ILS teachers were not amused by this ‘violation of security arrangements’. Breslin came under fire because of his rejection during a philosophy session of dialectical materialism and his adherence to Far Eastern religions. Despite his protestations of continuing allegiance to communist politics he was expelled from the course. However, Breslin was soon offered a post as translator in the school. His deviancy was obviously not considered as serious as Trotskyism or Bukharinism.
As well as political conflicts there were other student problems and gripes. At a time of strict food rationing (which lasted until 1935) the canteen fare was meagre. Letters home could only be sent via a secret mail box and pseudonyms had to be used in all correspondence. In the hardening political atmosphere of Soviet Russia in the early 1930s making acquaintances outside the school was discouraged, especially with other foreigners or with Russian women. Summer praktika were now highly-supervised mass excursions.
A recurring source of dissatisfaction in the student body was the scholastic nature of the courses and the lack of reference to the actual conditions or politics of Ireland and Britain. Many Russian-born teachers were badly informed about foreign affairs and were rarely fluent in the language of instruction. Students from English-speaking countries were consistently accused of harbouring ‘petty-bourgeois, individualistic traits. Students from Austria or Germany, for example, who had grown up within a Marxist counter-culture in Vienna or Berlin were, perhaps, more acclimatised to strict party discipline. Unlike the Irish and British students they also tended to be better versed in the twists and turns of Comintern tactics.

Liam McGregor, Val Moraghan and William Morrison-the last Irish students at the Lenin School, 1935-37. (RTsKhIDNI)

Liam McGregor, Val Moraghan and William Morrison-the last Irish students at the Lenin School, 1935-37. (RTsKhIDNI)

Delegated to the New World 6

Delegated to the New World 7

But members of illegal, underground communist parties suffered one grave disadvantage—they were at the mercy and whims of the Soviet authorities and many of their number suffered imprisonment and death at the hands of the secret police (NKVD). The holder of a passport issued in Dublin or London was relatively immune in this respect.

Yet more purges

A further thoroughgoing purge of student biographies took place in 1933. The hunt for ‘spies’ and ‘deviationists’ intensified in December 1934 following the assassination of Kirov, the Leningrad party leader. Resolutions supporting the summary mass-shootings of oppositionists in the aftermath of Kirov’s murder were passed by each sector of the ILS. However, in Sector E, where the British, Irish and Australian students were now concentrated, Jim Prendergast from Dublin voted against such resolutions with the argument that the arrested Russians were entitled to a public trial. Prendergast was reprimanded for keeping late hours and for insisting on his right to a personal opinion. As was customary in cases where an oral act of contrition at a party meeting was not considered sufficiently self-abasing, Prendergast had a written one dictated to him. Transgressions such as those by Prendergast had also to be explained politically. In this case by the argument that Prendergast’s behaviour was the result of the remnants of ‘an alien ideology’ transplanted from Ireland.

End of the Lenin School

During 1935 the Comintern decided to isolate students from illegal parties from those from western, democratic states. The western communist parties were informed that their ILS sectors were to be abolished and party schools were to be set up in the home country. At a discussion on the ILS at the seventh congress of the Comintern in July-August 1935 Pat Devine of the Irish party stated that many of the ILS graduates had dropped out of communist activities after returning home. (Less than half the graduate total from Ireland remained active communists for very long after their return). Devine also expressed dissatisfaction with the school’s harsh characterisation of those recently repatriated (e.g. Prendergast) and held the Russian conception of unquestioning party loyalty to be exaggerated.
The last Irish graduates of the Lenin School (Liam McGregor, Val Moraghan, William Morrison) completed their courses in January 1937. McGregor, considered good leadership material by his teachers in Moscow, was killed serving in the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (as were many other leading cadres of the CPI). Moraghan was an active communist in Belfast for decades afterwards, as was another ILS graduate Betty Sinclair—well-known for her involvement in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the 1960s and 1970s. Both were imprisoned by the Stormont government during World War II.
Two of the most prominent leaders of the post-1933 CPI—Jim Larkin jnr and Sean Murray—were, as we have seen, also ILS graduates. Larkin later joined the Irish Labour Party, following the dissolution of the southern branch of the CPI in 1941 (trying to balance republican support for Irish neutrality with communist support for Soviet Russia in the war against Germany proved too much for the party). Another communist ‘infiltrator’ of the Labour Party was Jim Prendergast, ex-organiser of the CPI in Dublin. Both men came to devote their energies to trade union affairs, in Prendergast’s case as an official of the National Union of Railwaymen in Britain. As for ‘Young Jim’ Larkin, he became, arguably, Ireland’s most intelligent labour strategist, the lost leader of the Irish working class, who died prematurely in 1969.
Pat Breslin was the sole Irish ILS trainee to remain in the ‘New World’, working in Moscow as a translator and journalist with the Moscow Daily News. Arrested as ‘a suspicious foreigner’ in 1940 and sentenced to a term in the camps which he did not survive, Breslin symbolised the essence of what Soviet rule meant for people who thought for themselves and did not hide it. However, his political self-confidence (in very difficult circumstances), based to a great extent on knowledge of, and identification with, Ireland’s revolutionary struggles, seems to have been an attribute of all the Irish Lenin School students.

Barry McLoughlin works as free-lance historical researcher in Vienna.

Further reading:

E. Larkin, James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, 1897-1947 (London 1965).

M. Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland: the pursuit of the Workers Republic since 1916 (Dublin 1984).

E. O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland 1824-1960 (Dublin 1992).

M. O’Riordan, Connolly Column (Dublin 1979).

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