Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals 1919–43

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13

Reds and the Green Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals 1919–43 1Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals 1919–43
Emmet O’Connor
(UCD Press, €25)
ISBN 1904558208With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the archives of the Communist International (Comintern), comprising some 55 million pages of documents, long closed to all but a very few trusted scholars, were finally opened to all. They document the interaction between that body and Communist parties throughout the world in the years 1919 to 1943. As such they are indicative of the often inexplicable and tortuous changes in policy in the world Communist movement largely arising from the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy. The Comintern archives provide an important new source for the history of the various manifestations of Communism in Ireland. Among the first to mine this rich seam have been Irish Labour historians and colleagues Emmet O’Connor and Barry McLoughlin. The latter, resident for many years in Vienna, has written and presented a television programme on Patrick Breslin, a Communist and one of several Irish ‘disappeared’ in the Stalin purges in the 1930s. O’Connor, who lectures in history and politics at Magee, has here used the archives to document the Comintern’s close involvement with the Irish Communists in the period. It sets the benchmark pretty high for future work in the field. His very comprehensive account of the interaction of Communists in Ireland, the USSR and Britain is at times difficult to follow, with its bewildering ever-changing array of personalities, movements and twists and turns in policies and ideological interpretations. It throws new and sometimes iconoclastic light on the activities of the leaders of the movement in Ireland. Indeed, after reading O’Connor on ‘Big’ Jim Larkin one is impelled to his statue in O’Connell Street, Dublin, to check if it has feet of clay.
The Bolshevik Revolution was greeted with early enthusiasm in Ireland. O’Connor tells how, following a demonstration of some 10,000 at the Mansion House in Dublin on 4 February 1918, thousands lingered late into the night savouring the atmosphere. This seemed to augur well for the revamped Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI), set up later that month under the triumvirate of William O’Brien, Cathal O’Shannon and Tom Johnson with the support of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) and the Labour press. Yet from this high point it was soon to be brought low by the quarrels between reformists and revolutionaries that perennially bedevilled the Irish Left.
The Third or Communist International convened by the Bolsheviks in March 1919 was designated by Lenin as the general staff of international Communism, with the ultimate intention of becoming a single party for the entire world. In 1920 at its second congress it laid down 21 conditions required for potential affiliates. Often in some countries rival bodies sought recognition from the Comintern, and Ireland would be no exception to this. The SPI claim lay on the table until the reformist leadership of O’Brien and O’Shannon was replaced by the revolutionary faction led by Roddy Connolly, son of the martyred James. The party, which soon took the name Communist Party of Ireland (Section of the Communist International), was to be the first of two Communist Parties of Ireland (CPI). Recognition from Moscow followed in October 1921. O’Connor meticulously relates the history of the CPI and its relations with the Comintern, showing how it depended on Moscow for funding, direction and indeed its very existence. Often this would come through the mediation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). O’Connor also examines the Comintern’s reasons for cooperating with Republicans. It viewed Ireland as the ‘Achilles heel’ of British imperialism and elements on the left of the IRA as potential cadres. The IRA was also keen on obtaining weapons and ideas from Moscow, and indeed signed a secret deal with Comintern agents in 1922. There was a good deal of dual membership of the Communist and left Republican movements. Over the years these nexuses would wax and wane according to the situation in Ireland and the changing needs of the world movement increasingly directed from Moscow.
The period following the Irish Civil War, with Labour and Republicanism both defeated, seemed propitious for forming a Communist movement made up of the best elements of both. The CPI had failed to make satisfactory progress and was eventually wound up in January 1924. Jim Larkin had recently returned from the United States and the Comintern decided to use him to develop the revolutionary movement in Ireland. O’Connor sees this as a major error, given Larkin’s frame of mind at this time. This was a cynically opportunistic Larkin, wounded by his experiences in the Dublin lockout and his treatment in the United States. Although he regarded himself as a Communist, he was not a team player and would brook no opinions other than his own. His capriciousness, ferocious temper and terrible antipathies, especially towards supposed comrades, made him the cause of deep division. His setting up of the Workers’ Union of Ireland brought him into conflict with the ITGWU. His political machine, the Irish Worker League, which temporarily supplanted the CPI, was effectively a ‘one-man band’, which he never really posited as a Moscow-line party.
O’Connor elicits from the Comintern archives evidence that Larkin sought unsuccessfully to establish trading links with the USSR in order to free himself from the need to organise a trade union to further his political work and hoped that this would also avoid his having to follow the ‘Moscow line’. When the Soviets didn’t play ball Larkin became truculent. The archives provide devastating evidence of Moscow’s eventual disillusion with Larkin. The invitation to Irish Communists to study at the International Lenin School in Moscow was an initiative to create Bolshevised cadres who would return to wrest control from Larkin and provide a more pliant movement. Ironically, ‘young’ Jim, Larkin’s son, was one of the cadres, and at the school he had to undergo a process of self-criticism and purge himself of ‘Larkinism’.
While O’Connor has covered the history of the Labour movement in the 1930s in previous works, this time he employs the prism of the Moscow records, through which we see many old themes in a new light: the Red Scare; opposition to the Catholic Church, the Christian Front, and the Blueshirts; relations with Fianna Fáil, the IRA and Saor Éire, the Republican Congress, and the rest of the Labour movement; developments in the North; the Spanish Civil War.
O’Connor chronicles every organisational and ideological twist and turn of Irish Communism. The Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, which had replaced the first CPI, eventually morphed into the second CPI, set up by the Comintern and largely led by former students of the Lenin School, chief of whom was Seán Murray. The party assiduously followed the twists and turns of the Moscow line in the thirties and forties. Thus they moved seamlessly from the left sectarianism of ‘class against class’, by way of ‘Popular Frontism’ following Hitler’s coming to power, to explain the volte face of the Nazi–Soviet pact to many severely confused and traumatised comrades. Then, with the coming of the world conflict, they switched from neutrality and hostility to the ‘War of the Imperialists’ in September 1939 to support for the war after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. That year the party was wound up and Irish Communism was placed under the direction of the CPGB. This was by order of the Comintern, which in 1943 was itself finally tossed into the dustbin of history by Stalin at the request of his then ally the United States.
Peter Collins


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