The Reds and the Green

Emmet O’Connor

The Irish fight for freedom inspired revolutionaries around the world. Yet the Comintern founded in 1919 struggled to build a lasting socialist presence in independent Ireland’s politics.

Roddy Connolly (center right) with Vladimir Lenin at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, Petrograd, July 1920. Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
David Broder

Despite its small size, Ireland has long played an important role in the Marxist imaginary. Karl Marx stressed the importance of the Irish question to the British labor movement, Vladimir Lenin took the Easter Rising of 1916 as a sign of the growing revolt against the imperialist powers, and Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would have cause to term the fighters for Irish independence as the “Green Bolsheviks.”

At the same time, Ireland’s official Communist Party was relatively eclipsed in the period following independence from the United Kingdom. While the small forces rallying behind the CPI formed in 1921 could draw inspiration from the Bolshevik example — and indeed faced bitter anticommunism from the Church — it never became a mass party in the manner of its continental counterparts.

Emmet O’Connor, Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Humanities at Ulster University, is author of Reds and the Green, a study on the interactions between Ireland, the Communist International, and the Soviet state from 1919 to 1943. He spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about Irish Bolshevism and the ties between the country’s republican movement and the promise of world revolution.

David Broder

You describe an enthusiastic response to the Russian Revolution in Ireland, including a meeting of ten thousand people at Mansion House on February 4, 1918 and practical solidarity like Dublin dockers refusing to handle military supplies directed against the nascent Soviet state. Among which circles did the Revolution have a positive effect — and on what basis?

Emmet O’Connor

Ireland started to take an interest in Russia after the February Revolution. Interest grew with the October Revolution, and was very broad-based. With their opposition to the world war and support for national self-determination, the Bolsheviks seemed to chime with Sinn Féin’s own policies.

Up to 1920-21, the Labour Party treated Bolshevism as synonymous with workers’ power and remained more influenced by syndicalism, but there were also attempts to apply forms of workers’ control through what were called “soviets” (councils). There were about one hundred soviets between 1918 and 1923. Some, like that in Limerick in 1919, were elaborate.

The Limerick soviet involved control of the city by the trades council for two weeks and printed its own money. Other so-called soviets were brief factory occupations for wage increases or against wage cuts. Solidarity with Russia also shaped the Labour Party’s foreign policy in 1918-1920, i.e. its policy towards the international organizations of the socialist movement. Up to mid-1920 it tried to pursue a policy of friendship towards both the Socialist and Communist Internationals.

David Broder

It’s often striking to note the place of the struggle in Ireland for the international left and anticolonial movements. Lenin especially cited the Easter Rising in 1916 as a sign of an international revolutionary process, and Gramsci called Sinn Féin the “Green Bolsheviks,” even if other figures in Moscow like Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin raised doubt over its significance. What was Ireland’s importance to the Comintern strategy, upon its creation in 1919?

Emmet O’Connor

In 1919 the Third International made a few generic gestures regarding Ireland. Comintern policy began to acquire a more specific form at the second World Congress in 1920. The initial concern was to get a communist party up and running. Then the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) hoped that the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) would influence the national revolution.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 led to civil war between nationalists willing to accept the Free State as a dominion of the British Empire and those who wanted to fight on for a republic. The Free Staters tended to be the propertied elements and socially conservative. After the Civil War and what amounted to a counterrevolution, the Comintern became less optimistic about the prospects for the CPI but still hoped for an influential party, however small. It believed that Ireland could be a thorn in the side of the British Empire and an inspiration to revolutionary forces in the Global South and the English-speaking world, where Marxism was relatively weak.

Roddy Connolly (the founding leader of the CPI) and Jim Larkin played this card too, and constantly reminded the ECCI that while Ireland was small and peripheral, the Irish race (a word commonly used at the time) had an extensive diaspora.

David Broder

You mention both Seán Beaumont and Roddy Connolly heading to Moscow to attempt to discuss military matters with such figures as Lenin and Mátyas Rakósi. What kind of military aid did they expect to receive (and was actually procured) from Comintern or Soviet sources, and how seriously were these requests taken?

Emmet O’Connor

Seán Beaumont was in a small and secretive organization called the Communist Groups, as well being as a judge in the Sinn Féin courts, i.e. the Republic’s alternative to the British legal system during the War of Independence. But the Communist Groups were just one of four Irish factions competing for Comintern recognition, and Beaumont got nowhere with the ECCI. The Russians were keen on a treaty with the Irish Republic in 1920, but President Éamon de Valera hesitated, apprehensive about the impact on the bigger prize of winning recognition from the United States.

When de Valera finally decided to send an envoy to Moscow, the Soviets had gone cold on the idea, for fear of jeopardizing trade negotiations with Britain. Despite a British intelligence campaign to tar Sinn Féin with Bolshevism, he sent Pat McCartan to assess the value of a propaganda office in Russia, conclude trade and recognition treaties, and do a secret deal on rifles and munitions. McCartan arrived in Moscow in February 1921. Roddy Connolly took him to the Comintern’s overcrowded Hotel Lux. McCartan was willing to share a room with his compatriot, but protested when Connolly’s bed was taken by a Welsh miner.

McCartan knew too that being put up in the Lux, rather than one of the Narkomindel [Foreign Ministry] hotels, meant the Russians were denying him diplomatic status. The Soviet foreign minister Georgy Chicherin received him promptly, but refused to entertain the sale of rifles or ammunition to the IRA. An Anglo-Soviet trade deal was about to be concluded between London and Moscow. Though assured by a contact in Narkomindel that an arms deal could be arranged without Chicherin’s knowledge, McCartan left empty-handed in June.

McCartan also told de Valera that Communist Party control made independent propaganda work in Russia impossible. The closest the IRA got to an arms deal was during the Civil War. On instructions from Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, Connolly met the IRA chief of staff, who agreed to the establishment of a new republican party with a socialist program in return for weapons.

The paper trail is not complete, but I reckon the ECCI approved the deal but Narkomindel chickened out. The CPGB and Borodin’s secretary, J.T. Murphy, continued to work for a deal, with an article in the Communist and visits to Ireland, which suggests Comintern approval. Then in December 1922, the ECCI told Murphy that his correspondence on Ireland had ‘for some reason or other never arrived in Moscow. That closed the project.

It was an early example of the contradiction between the goals of the Comintern (the subversion of capitalist states to promote global revolution), and those of Narkomindel (trade and other ties with foreign powers in the interests of the Soviet state). In conflicts between the two, Narkomindel always prevailed.

David Broder

Roddy Connolly, son of James, founded the first Communist Party in Ireland, and it soon took a strong stance against the Treaty with Britain, which among other things involved the maintenance of the monarchy and the partition of the North. How far was the CPI’s policy directed by the Comintern, and what role did this latter have in shaping its organization?

Emmet O’Connor

Roddy always claimed to be his father’s son, but I think he was less of a republican and wanted a more class-oriented strategy for the CPI. The Comintern told him to give a higher priority to anti-imperialism at the second World Congress. The first CPI (1921-24) followed Comintern policy, but the ECCI, and Irish comrades, found Roddy too headstrong and inclined to pursue his own way of doing things.

Liam O’Flaherty provides an insight into this in his novel The Informer. Most people think The Informer is about the IRA, but it’s about “The Revolutionary Organization,” which is clearly the CPI, and “the International,” which is obviously the Comintern. O’Flaherty was a CPI member and caricatures Roddy as Commandant Dan Gallagher. Roddy represented the CPI at World Congresses and the ECCI also tried to supervise the CPI through the CPGB and special emissaries like Borodin.

When Big Jim Larkin returned to Ireland from America in 1923, the ECCI wanted him to take over from Roddy. It seemed a good idea. Larkin had been prominent in the American party, and was a powerful agitator and head of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Unfortunately, he was not a well man in the 1920s and was afflicted with paranoia and jealousy. He insisted the Comintern dissolve the CPI in favor of his own Irish Worker League (1924-1932), and then used the League as his personal soapbox.

In 1927 the ECCI decided to invite cadres from the Irish Worker League to the Lenin School in Moscow. The plan was that they would return home and build a Bolshevized party, with or without Larkin. This party project was applied in Dublin in 1929, developed in the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (1930-33), and completed with the foundation of the second CPI (1933-1941).

David Broder

You mention that at times the relations between the Irish communists and the Comintern were handled through structures also covering Britain, notably through the French communist André Marty. Why would Irish communists accept this? And to what extent was Irish participation in the Comintern more than just a matter of “ties to Moscow,” also involving the International’s other parties?

Emmet O’Connor

James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party (1896-1903) had been represented at the Paris Congress of the Second International in 1900. The Irish Labour Party (founded 1912) established contact with what remained of that International in 1918 and sent delegates to the first postwar international socialist conference in Bern, Switzerland in 1919. In keeping with syndicalist thinking, the Labour Party was in effect the party of its affiliated unions, and it contained a sizable pro-Bolshevik element.

As the socialist movement divided between the Socialist and Communist internationals in the wake of World War I the Labour leadership decided that affiliation to either was not worth the internal trouble it might cause. Then the major industrial defeats in the slump of 1921-23 gutted Labour radicalism and it retreated from even the mildest internationalism until it ultimately affiliated to the Socialist International in 1967.

In 1926 the Comintern created eleven regional secretariats to handle its seventy or so affiliated parties and Ireland was grouped under the Anglo-American Secretariat, which covered the English-speaking countries. The Irish had no problem with that. But Roddy Connolly and Larkin did object to supervision by the CPGB. The weakness of the CPI in 1934 finally compelled it to accept regular British monitoring.

The Comintern was always trying to make itself better informed on Ireland (and everywhere else). From 1922 the ECCI tried to keep an eye on its Irish affiliates through special envoys. These were usually Scots. Moscow presumably thought the Irish would find it easier being dictated to by Scotsmen, and that reflected the knowledge of and sensitivity about Ireland in the Comintern. The idea that Irish communism underperformed because of Moscow’s ignorance of Ireland is mistaken. But apart from 1922 and 1934-1941, the Scots emissaries did not represent the CPGB.

Irish-Comintern links were largely about “ties to Moscow,” but not just the Comintern. The Profintern (or Red International of Labour Unions) and various fronts were active in Ireland in the 1920s, including Workers’ International Relief, International Class War Prisoners’ Aid, and the League Against Imperialism. (Unfortunately, the one international front that neglected Ireland was the Sportintern).

Larkin had links with the CPUSA, and these were strengthened by the second CPI. In 1932 the Comintern instructed the CPUSA to begin propaganda work among Irish-Americans to help the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups. Marty was appointed to supervise Ireland after the seventh World Congress in 1935. Despite his reputation for being a hard man, he handled the CPI very gently.

David Broder

Perhaps the Comintern’s golden age was the popular front period of the 1930s, where the Communist Parties were everywhere a key force in the fight against fascism. But what importance did such a strategy have in Ireland, given the seeming weakness of parties or movements actively aligned to the Hitler-Mussolini bloc? How did this affect its attitude toward the “economic war” with Britain or the putative use of Ireland in aid of the British war effort?

Emmet O’Connor

The 1930s were difficult but heroic times for Irish communists. The Catholic Church had said little on communism in the 1920s. The Vatican regarded the suppression of the Russian Orthodox Church as an opportunity and hoped the Kremlin would allow Rome to evangelize in Russia. But when Stalin ended toleration of Catholicism in 1929, the clergy mobilized against communism. In Ireland, communism was thus driven into “semi-illegality” until the 1960s.

The Revolutionary Workers’ Groups welcomed the election of Fianna Fáil to national government in 1932 and hailed the “economic war” with Britain (1932-38) as anti-imperialist. The “war” started when Fianna Fáil stopped paying land annuities to the British government. The annuities were payments for mortgages from Britain in the early 1900s to enable tenant farmers to buy out their holdings.

London retaliated with levies on Irish imports. The “war” hit cattle farmers and other exporters badly, and the right responded with the Blueshirts, modelled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts. The Blueshirts mushroomed to sixty thousand members in 1933, before fading rapidly when the government clamped down on paramilitary displays.

However, on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War the Catholic Church whipped up fierce support for Franco, and Blueshirt elements sent a seven-hundred-strong battalion to fight in Spain. Meanwhile, the popular front was probably bad for very small Comintern affiliates like the CPI as it entailed less support from the center to the periphery. But the CPI welcomed it as it thought it would make it easier for the party to form united fronts with left republicans, trade unions, and the Labour Party.

Only the Republican Congress, a socialist breakaway from the IRA in 1934, responded positively, at least until the eruption of the Spanish Civil War. Ireland was obsessed with Spain between July 1936 and July 1937. Spain gave the CPI a purpose in leading opposition to Franco. With the Republican Congress it recruited for the Connolly Column, the name which has become a blanket term for all 240 or so Irish who fought for the Spanish Republic. A limited popular front atmosphere emerged in Dublin as middle-class liberals created Left Book Clubs and the New Theatre Group to stage agit-prop drama. Republicans were particularly keen on links with the Basques in 1936-37.

In the North of Ireland, the Catholic Church was weaker and the climate was more tolerant. Unlike the Irish Labour Party and the Irish Trades Union Congress, the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Socialist Party were openly anti-Franco. In comparison with other European Communist parties, the CPI’s Dublin branch failed to pick up much support from the popular front. Its Belfast branch fared better.

By 1938 the CPGB was very unhappy with the CPI’s performance and Harry Pollitt wanted it dissolved. But the Comintern was growing concerned about an Anglo-German alliance against Soviet Russia and reckoned the CPI had a value as a critic of British foreign policy. This value intensified between September 1939 and June 1941, when the CPI championed Irish neutrality in the “imperialist” world war.

All changed when Germany invaded Soviet Russia. The CPGB decided that support for the war could not be reconciled with the near-universal backing for neutrality and persuaded the CPI to dissolve in Éire. The Belfast branch continued and flourished as the Red Army enjoyed growing popularity in the United Kingdom.

David Broder

With its small numbers, was Irish communism more a “specter” warned against by conservative-Catholic forces than a real factor in the nation’s political life?

Emmet O’Connor

In public perception, anticommunism in Ireland was uniquely relentless, all-pervasive, and groundless before the liberalization of social values in the 1960s. What little has been written on the subject has focused largely on the “red scares” of the early 1930s and the onset of the Cold War. Neglect of other periods is presumed to reflect the absence of anything for anticommunists to protest against.

Yet the communists or the Comintern were of remarkable significance in certain phases. The British intelligence campaign to depict the Irish independence struggle as “Bolshevist” was not without some basis in fact. Socialist republicanism during the Free State era was driven by the interaction of the IRA and the Comintern. The Workers’ Union of Ireland, the second largest Irish general trade union up to 1990, was founded by the Larkins in 1924 as a communist union and was the biggest Anglophone affiliate of the Profintern up to 1929.

The wartime CP in Northern Ireland acquired some lasting positions of influence in Belfast trade unionism and a role in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the 1960s. Communists also made a major contribution to historiography through T.A. Jackson and C. Desmond Greaves, the twin pillars of the Connolly school of history, which in turn hegemonized Irish radical historiography up to the 1970s. Nonetheless, it is only in relation to the Connolly Column that communists have received anything approaching due recognition from professional historians or in the public memory.

That said, the only time when the communists might have established an effective party with elected public representation was in the 1920s. Between 1930 and 1970, the Catholic Church and conservative elements used communism as a specter, notoriously so during the Cold War. Ireland was hysterically anticommunist in the 1950s. When the Northern Troubles turned horrifically violent after 1971, the red scare was replaced with a “green scare” and the hysteria was instead directed against the Provisionals.

The opening of the Comintern archives in Moscow changed completely our understanding of communism in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s. The files show too how important the communists were to socialist republicanism. Between 1920 and 1940, they prompted the radicalization of republicanism at almost every step.

In size, organizational difficulties, and political context, the Irish sections were characteristic of Comintern affiliates on the colonial fringe. On the other hand, certain factors made them more mainstream in what was a Eurocentric ECCI. They spoke English, had good lines of communication with Moscow, and were relevant to politics in the United States, Britain, and the British Empire.

Ultimately, the Ireland-Russia relations visible in this relationship confirm something that Irish historians have been very slow to acknowledge: that because of its geopolitical context, the English language, and chronic emigration, since the late eighteenth century Ireland has been one of the most globalized countries in the world. Also for that reason, Ireland offers a fine example for studies of relations between center and periphery in Comintern history.