A review of John Newsinger, Rebel City (Merlin Press, 2004), £14.95
Many cities in the developing world had become gigantic slums with a huge informal proletariat, argued Mike Davis in a recent influential article, ‘Planet of the Slums’, in New Left Review. He suggested that their social base laid the basis for political formations often influenced by Islam or Christian Pentecostalism. Undoubtedly, religious-based networks which offer social support play a huge role. However, the central issue is politics, not sociology. The comparison which Mike drew with 19th century Dublin—a city that suffered from de-industrialisation rather than industrialisation— bears this out.
At one time the second largest city of the British Empire, Dublin at the end of the 19th century was a city of slums. The employers’ spokesperson Arnold Wright noted that if you ascended Nelson’s pillar in the centre you could count the factories on the fingers of one hand. The Dublin working class were concentrated in transport, ferrying out agricultural produce to the metropolis. The majority of workers were employed as casual labourers, fearful that the huge pools of poverty created many rivals for their jobs.
Yet this city became the focal point of an intense class struggle led by Marxists like James Connolly and Jim Larkin. True, they were not ‘pure’ Marxists, with Connolly occasionally swerving into a ‘romantic Fenianism’ and Larkin surging towards great feats of rhetoric that combined an appeal to Jesus Christ with demands for class solidarity. But, boy, did they bring about a real political movement of their class.
Between 1911 and 1913 the most militant form of class war was fought in the city. The story of those struggles is told in a succinct, sharp fashion in John Newsinger’s excellent Rebel City. Newsinger quotes Lord Askwith, the government’s chief conciliator, to sum up the situation: ‘While the disputes in the ports and inland cities of great Britain had been chiefly based on economic causes, the serious riots in Dublin, although founded on poverty, low wages and bad conditions, included a determination to establish…“one big union” and put into practice the doctrines of syndicalism. The influences [for] the overthrow of capitalism and revolution against existing authorities were all present.’
For once this upper class spokesperson was correct. The industrial weakness of workers was compensated by an intense militancy that was informed by anti-capitalist politics. The ‘solidarity strike’ lay at the heart of the strategy of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. As Connolly put it, ‘No consideration of any contract with a section of the capitalist class absolved any section of us from taking instant action to protect other sections when said sections were in danger from the capitalist enemy.’
This anti-capitalist message was promoted on a weekly basis by the Irish Worker, a newspaper with a mass sale of 18,000 a week. The paper targeted scabs by name, roared and jeered at the employers, and educated vast numbers of workers on the tradition of class struggle and opposition to this system. Faced with a brutal police force, workers formed their own Irish Citizen Army—drilled, got hold of guns, and fought.
This amazing tradition is often honoured in a nostalgic sort of way but then undermined. There is, firstly, sometimes a generalised pessimism that casual workers in the informal economy cannot be organised. One sometimes gets the impression that if workers do not have stable jobs and come from tight knit mining communities, they cannot organise mass revolutionary unions. Yet in working class history there has always been an important dialectic between communities of politicised militants and the development of strategies to overcome the ‘objective’ difficulties thrown up by the system.
The tradition of Larkinism—as militant syndicalism came to be known—is also dismissed by Irish union leaders today. They claim that Larkin had to use ‘brawn’ while their modern strategy of social partnership uses ‘brains’. A recent biography of Larkin by one of Ireland’s foremost labour historians, Emmet O’Connor, goes even further and denounces Larkin as an ‘inferior trade unionist’. O’Connor’s method—a common one with modern academics—is to pick out random quotations to debunk labour heroes of the past. Fortunately, Newsinger’s book puts paid to this nonsense. Even though Larkinism was eventually defeated in the great lockout of 1913, he shows how it took the full weight of the British state, a united employers’ front and the Catholic church to crush it.
Yet if Newsinger is strong in his defence of Larkinism, he is weak on the connection between this militant syndicalist tradition and the fight against empire. The main reason is that he adopts an uncritical position on the arguments raised by the playwright Sean O’Casey. O’Casey was originally an active member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but when the republicans regarded the class war of 1913 as a mere ‘sectional struggle’ and refused to back the workers, he broke with them.
Trotsky once argued that the Irish working class vacillated between republicanism and syndicalism. If this was true of the class as a whole, the contradictions were more acute in the head of O’Casey. The former ‘Irish Irelander’ swung over to rhetorical denunciations of the ‘foolishness’ of workers who joined the republicans. All connections with republicans were seen as a source of contamination and so Connolly’s involvement in the 1916 rising could only mean that ‘the high creed of Irish Nationalism became his daily rosary’.
There is little doubt that Connolly’s involvement in the 1916 rising was surrounded with all sorts of problems: he issued no independent socialist propaganda; his political moorings were unhinged by the betrayals of the wider socialist movement during the First World War; he adopted a purely military concept of revolution. But while modern Marxists are right to be critical, it would be wrong to pose a variation of syndicalism as the alternative to republicanism.
The real problem with the period is that no force emerged which was capable of overcoming the two dialectical opposites. Instead of simply denouncing those who wanted to fight the empire, socialists needed a strategy to work with them— while politically challenging every compromise their leaders made with the wider system. The failure to do precisely this meant that the same workers who embraced syndicalism on a mass scale in 1913 slid over to republicanism a decade later.
Newsinger’s account of these great battles is informed by a real engagement with the Marxist tradition—but he does not always draw the right conclusions.