Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin labour movement

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin labour movement
John Newsinger
(Merlin Press, £14.95)
ISBN 085036518X

 

70_small_1247579115Early twentieth-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 1913–14. It then examines the consequences of that defeat for the subsequent events until 1922.
James Larkin and James Connolly were the two most important leaders of this labour 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 Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in this case. Newsinger shows how Larkin and the ITGWU were particularly successful in organising the unskilled workers. By late 1913 the union 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, in contrast 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.
The rise of the ITGWU culminated in the 1913 lockout. 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 sympathetic action by many other workers. The British Trade Union Congress bureaucracy did little to help the Dublin workers, and the fierce level of state repression brought the strike to an end 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.’
What was the nature of ‘Larkinism’? Some historians consider that ‘Larkinism’ expressed a growing trade union consciousness, but not a socialist one. But for Newsinger,

‘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.’

What Larkinism represented is best described as ‘proto-syndicalism’, something less than social revolutionism but more than trade union consciousness. It was an attempt to reshape unions as instruments of class war rather than compromise. This proto-syndicalism also incorporated elements of republicanism, Catholicism and the women’s movement, giving it a substantial following among Dublin workers.
The lockout represented the peak of Irish syndicalism. Following its defeat and the failure of the international working class to stop the Great 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 1917–23. During that period, over 80 ‘soviets’ were established in Ireland, the Limerick Soviet being the most famous. 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 1917–21 the reformist leaders of the labour movement were curbing the struggle. The potential of the movement for radical change was thus wasted.
The book could have elaborated 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 lockout is that while 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 insurrection happened at Easter 1916, but without broad mass involvement. The merging of the two could only be organically mediated by a party. While 1913 showed the coming of age of the Irish working class, it simultaneously demonstrated the weakness of its political organisation. Newsinger could also have examined whether or not Larkin’s subsequent adherence to Labour Party reformism was related to those events.

 

The 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 1912–22 period in Ireland. In his view 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.
Liam Ó Ruairc

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