Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State 1925-1937 Richard English (Clarendon Press, £35)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

(3:1) Reviewed by Emmet O’ConnorIn February 1925, the Communist International activated two ‘front’ organisations in Ireland, International Class War Prisoners’ Aid and Workers’ International Relief. Their function was to channel welfare to dependants of IRA prisoners and victims of the near famine conditions then afflicting small-holders in the West. Their aim was to draw republicans to communism. Months later, Peadar O’Donnell and others began a push to the left from within the IRA. O’Donnell was not alone in concluding that unless republicans applied economics to nationalism, they would wither in their sterile anti-Treatyism. Fianna Fáil was founded on the same rationale. After 1926, defections to de Valera’s heresy led the IRA quietly to approve contacts with communists. These two tendencies, communists seeking to absorb the IRA, and left-wing republicans seeking to change and revitalise it through socialism, formed complimentary sides of the movement known as socialist republicanism.
It is impossible to determine the movement’s real potential. What we can say is that it opened possibilities for a new kind of campaigning politics, and had a remarkable record of agitation with such diverse groups as farmers on land annuities, out-door relief workers in Belfast, miners in Castlecomer, and building workers in Dublin. Certainly, it could have secured a small, but significant electoral base. But left republican ambitions were wider than that. Their goal was to persuade all separatists that a truly sovereign Irish state had to be socialist. In March 1934, despairing of the IRA’s tunnel vision nationalism, they broke away to prepare for a Republican Congress. On 28-29 September, representatives of Congress support groups, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party (Northern Ireland), and fourteen trade unions and trades councils assembled in Rathmines Town Hall—and promptly split over strategy. The minority wanted to declare outright for a ‘Workers’ Republic’ and, in effect, turn the Congress into a political party; the majority voted to pursue a ‘united front’ approach. Stricken in organisation, the socialist republican nexus expired with a last hurrah on the battlefields of Spain.
The imagination of these years is attracting increasing attention from historians, especially post-graduates, and they will find English’s book an invaluable source. His focus is the ideology of left republicans and he argues for the incoherence of their thesis that the national and social struggles were essentially one. The long introduction, ‘Nationalism and the class question 1916-25’, is the most scholarly and convincing attack on left republican pretensions yet published. In a ruthless critique, English demonstrates that republicanism was always ambiguous on the social question, reluctant to engage with class agitation, and had a tactical rather than principled attitude to radical movements. One could make a case for the socialist nature of the republican project only through a selective reading of Tone, Lalor, Pearse, etc. and a misreading of social unrest from 1917 to 1923.
Based on a comprehensive range of sources, including many private papers and interviews, the remainder of the book is a useful recovery of contemporary mentalities. As an assessment of the movement, it is less satisfactory. English’s general argument is that the intellectual incoherence of socialist republicanism explains its failure. This is an attractive hypothesis for intellectuals, and popular with revisionist historians. But is it really plausible? If intellectual coherence was the criterion of political success, the world would today be ruled by the ultra left. How do we explain the momentum of the movement up to 1934, and, as English makes clear, did it not split on strategy, not ideology?
There are problems too with English’s method. His interrogation of an articulate few is not supplemented with an adequate study of organisational politics, and he succumbs to the temptation of over-reliance on his trove of private papers and personal recollections. Shifts in rank-and-file attitudes are stated rather than explored. Even the composition of the fateful Rathmines conference is not described in full, and the picture presented of socialist republican support is incomplete. In the main, English treats the movement as if it were the IRA left. He acknowledges that the Communist Party ‘should be read as part of the wider…movement (p.178), but says virtually nothing on communist courtship of republicans from 1925 to 1933, or why socialist republicanism appealed to communists in Ireland, Britain, and Moscow, as well as trade unionists and socialists. Moreover, no politics can be judged fairly without taking account of its performance. English notes a few campaigns where necessary, but massively understates the agitational work of what was the most successful revolutionary movement in independent Ireland. It is difficult to excuse the author of conscious selectivity, for he is relentlessly negative about his subject and dismisses its achievements wherever he is obliged to record them.
A secondary argument in the book is that socialist republicanism ‘draw[s] attention to the crucial relationship between nationalism and economics in Ireland during this period’ (p.vi). The point is made tentatively, and never driven into the primary argument with effect; which is not surprising, as it surely subverts it. If English is right in saying that the national and social struggles were not two sides of the one coin, there was a connection, as there is in any economic colony. Socialist republicans had a better grasp of this ‘crucial’ reality than the Labour Party.
Reading this book is like listening to a skilled barrister building a case for the prosecution. It is well researched for that purpose, rich in its exploration of mentalities, and often amusing for its pedantic vituperation. It is also uniformly hostile and omits or debases anything that might redound to the credit of the accused. Verdict? I prefer historians to lawyers.


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