Jim Larkin: Labor Prophet

Irish labor leader Jim Larkin’s combination of Christian faith and socialist zeal electrified the working class — and threatened to tear down the established order.

Illustration by Gabe Schneider

In Europe, Ireland is an exception. A colony surrounded by the world’s foremost colonial powers, its culture has long been distinct from its neighbors. This was just as much the case when it came to Irish socialism as for any other pursuit. While European contemporaries were committed to secular approaches by the turn of the twentieth century, religion continued to play a defining role in shaping socialism in Ireland.

Catholicism, the majority faith, had long been subject to repression under British colonial rule, and it was never viewed in the same way that it had been in France or Spain. The church had, in James Connolly’s words, “denounced every Irish revolutionary movement in its day of activity,” but it had also been wily enough that it had “allowed its priests to deliver speeches in eulogy  . . . of those movements a generation afterwards.” For all but a handful of radicals, it was considered a source of resistance to British domination.

This led to a fascinating dynamic during Ireland’s revolutionary period, when the interaction between the faith and the cause produced a litany of stories. Some are well known, such as the deathbed conversion of Connolly himself, once the most vocal and articulate critic of the Catholic Church among Irish revolutionaries. Others are less so. Take, for instance, the story of Michael Mallin, second-in-command of the socialist Irish Citizen Army, who, while awaiting execution for his role in the Easter Rising, left instructions that his infant son was to join the priesthood.

Then there is the intriguing religious footnote to the lives of Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, fellow Easter Rising veterans and founders of the Irish Women Workers’ Union. Both Lynn and Molony were lesbians who lived with same-sex partners for decades in an era when homosexuality was illegal. One might have expected them to take a hard line against the church. Instead, they adopted Saint Brigid as a patron and helped to establish her feast day as an occasion to celebrate Irish women in labor and republican struggles.

Undoubtedly, however, there is one figure in Irish history who represents this confluence of Christianity and socialism better than anyone else: Jim Larkin. Born in 1874, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants James Larkin and Mary Ann McNulty, the young Jim grew up in a Liverpool that was riven by sectarianism. His native Toxteth was an Irish Catholic slum surrounded by a larger Irish Protestant slum. The trade unionist Fred Bower, Larkin’s friend and comrade in later life, would remember Jim as a leader of the Catholic youth gangs who engaged in bitter scraps with their Protestant rivals.

Larkin attended his local Catholic school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It was a fairly brief education — he became a “half-timer,” splitting his studies with work, at the age of seven — but his religious education was influential nonetheless. Many years later, in a courtroom in New York, he would give this evocative account:

I went to school for three-and-a-quarter years. It was a poverty-stricken school, and I was taught the truth of eternal justice. I was taught the brotherhood of man was a true and living thing, and the fear of God was a thing that ought to cover all my days and also control my actions.

And then I had occasion to go out into the world and found out there was no fatherhood of God, and there was no brotherhood of man, but every man in society was compelled to be like a wolf or a hyena, trying to tear down the other man that he might gain an advantage either by the other man’s suffering or the other man’s sorrow.

By the time Larkin ventured out into that world, he had a strong sense of ethics. He was barely a teenager when his father died, and when Larkin was offered an apprenticeship as an engineer, it seemed that a relatively lucrative life was laid out in front of him. But his principles almost immediately proved an obstacle to advancement — when his objection to gambling led him to refuse to participate in a betting pool with his coworkers on the Grand National horse race, the young apprentice was promptly sacked. It was the last time that he ventured into the world of skilled labor.

Instead, Jim Larkin settled into the beating heart of Liverpool: its docks. He worked first as a seaman before making his living as a docker. Within a few years, he had gotten a job as a foreman dockporter, and, once again, his ethical commitments were clear. “He did not gamble or drink,” according to Larkin’s biographer, Emmet O’Connor. “Unlike most foremen, he refused to pay his men in the pub. He never took bribes, which were a major grievance with dockers, and he cut pilferage on the ships he handled to a minimum.” This engendered a respect among his fellow dockers and soon convinced the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) that Larkin was a natur-al leader.

A Sacred Cause

Larkin’s Irish Catholicism, filtered through his family’s anti-imperialist politics, was the bedrock for these ethics, but it was far from the only influence. In 1903, Larkin married Elizabeth Brown, the daughter of a lay Baptist preacher. And his own early forays into socialist politics were shaped by a British socialist tradition that owed much to Protestant ideas. While the Clarion newspaper, which first converted Larkin to socialism, was edited by an atheist, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in which he became active had Christian roots. Its founder, Keir Hardie, once remarked that he “learned his socialism from the New Testament” and that socialism was merely “the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system.”

Larkin had earlier been introduced to the secular and intellectual elements of the British left in the Social Democratic Federation but had found them lacking. Instead he threw his lot in with the eclectic spirituality of the ILPers, whose tradition had been shaped by a myriad of Christian socialist organizations from Hardie’s Evangelical Union to the Labour Church, the Guild of St Matthew, and the Christian Socialist League. The fight against capitalism was, for Hardie and Larkin alike, “a sacred cause.” Seen in this light, Larkin’s opposition to alcohol and gambling was not merely Victorian rectitude. It was born of outrage against practices that diminished human dignity by exploiting the misery of working-class life for the profit of a venal elite.

These multidenominational influences served Jim Larkin well during his first major industrial battle, the 1907 Belfast dock strike. By now a seasoned organizer with the dockers’ union, the NUDL, Larkin had also been inspired by the work of two other Christian socialists: Ben Tillett and Tom Mann. Tillett and Mann were prominent figures in the British labor scene, leaders of both the seminal 1889 London dock strike and the movement for the eight-hour workday. They were also advocates of a new form of labor militancy: new unionism. While the traditional guild unions had organized only skilled workers and only on the basis of their trades, new unionism advocated organizing all workers — skilled and unskilled — on an industrial basis. This, it was argued, would provide greater leverage to improve conditions for the entire working class.

For Larkin, this industrial unionism brought together an effective means of labor militancy with a moral crusade. While guild unionism might have fought for a portion of the class and been effective in winning wage increases for tradesmen, Larkin was convinced that the primary aim of the movement should be to lift the social floor and improve conditions for the class as a whole. He saw poverty as the primary ill of the age, and a union movement that excluded the unskilled laborer would never effectively challenge the squalor that prevailed in slums across Britain and Ireland. He sided with the most revolutionary wing of industrial unionism, the syndicalists, whose desire to make the world anew in the form of a cooperative commonwealth most closely resembled his Christian millenarianism.

In Belfast, Larkin broke the NUDL’s model by organizing industrially, signing carters up for membership alongside dockers. Within weeks of arriving in the city, he had recruited thousands of new members to the union, and when the employers responded by locking out his members, the laborers were joined in sympathetic action by sailors, coal heavers, transport workers, and more. The employers had long combined under the Shipping Federation, which operate a scab navy to break strikes and drag down pay and conditions on the docks. Here at last was a union movement that met them on their own terms — uniting a working class that had been cynically divided on sectarian terms by its employers.

Larkin was variously assailed by those same employers. One week, unionist businessmen would dub him a Fenian. The next, he would be denounced as an Orangeman by the nationalist press. But to little avail. Just over a century earlier, radical republicans in the Society of United Irishmen had aimed to unite “Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter” in the fight for liberation. Where their noble aspirations had run aground, Larkin and the NUDL largely succeeded. By July 1907, a demonstration of more than one hundred thousand marched down the Falls and Shankill roads in Belfast in support of the striking workers. It is hard to think of a moment of greater class unity across sectarian divides in Irish history.

Holy War in Dublin

In the end, the strike was unwound by the NUDL leadership workplace by workplace, in direct opposition to Larkin’s industrial tactics. This betrayal, however, only strengthened Larkin’s resolve. He soon sought to organize “One Big Union” in Ireland that could put his syndicalist methods into practice. The degree to which that was influenced by Larkin’s Christian socialism was summed up by the writer Seán O’Casey. “In a room in a tenement in Townsend Street, with a candle in a bottle for a torch, and a billycan of tea, with a few buns for a banquet, the church militant here on earth, called the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union [ITGWU], was founded.” The Church Militant, in Catholic theology, are the faithful who battle sin on earth while the Church Penitent languish in Purgatory and the Church Triumphant rest in heaven. Larkin set about that battle with great relish.

“I have a divine mission,” he would say, “to make men and women discontented, and no one can stop me carrying on the work for which I was born.” His new ITGWU immediately set about stirring up that discontent, with a wave of strikes beginning in Cork in 1909 and spreading to Wexford, Galway, Limerick, and eventually Dublin itself. Along the way, the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) was founded by Larkin’s sister, Delia, and won a landmark battle in the Jacob’s biscuit factory. In 1911, Larkin would launch the Irish Worker, a newspaper that quickly accrued a readership of more than twenty thousand per week. Its opening editorial made direct reference to the Book of Psalms:

The Irish Worker will be a lamp to guide your feet in the dark hours of the impending struggle; a well of truth reflecting the purity of your motives, and a weekly banquet from which you will rise strengthened in purpose to emulate the deeds of your forefathers, who died in dungeon and on scaffold in the hopes of a glorious resurrection for our beloved country.

But if Larkin could deploy scripture to his ends, the employers were more than capable of responding in kind — setting the scene for a class conflict that increasingly took the form of a holy war. “The evil is spreading,” the bishop of Derry would say of Larkin’s incipient ITGWU. “Every year it is adding new recruits to this professedly anti-Christian body; the false flag of ‘a heaven below’ is being waved before our Irish people by the paid agents of Socialism.” But it wasn’t so much a heaven Larkin promised as a release from hell.

In the backdrop to the 1913 Lockout were the slums of Dublin. In 1911, a government survey revealed that twenty thousand families — up to eighty thousand people — were crammed into single-room tenements. A housing committee report found that more than 830 people lived in just fifteen houses on Henrietta Street. The death rate in Dublin was almost 50 percent higher than in London at the time, with deaths from tuberculosis outstripping anything seen in England or Scotland. The infant mortality rate was 142 per 1,000, the highest in Europe. It is little surprise that a Catholic hierarchy that saw socialism as the real “evil” soon found itself out of step.

The lockout began in the summer of 1913. William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company as well as Clerys department store, the Imperial Hotel, the Irish Independent, and numerous other interests, organized a meeting of employers that July. There, fearing a repeat of strikes elsewhere in the country that had won wage increases in excess of 20 percent for workers, they determined to fire anyone who was a member of the ITGWU. Murphy began himself by firing first forty, then three hundred, suspected trade unionists. Larkin responded by calling a strike. Within weeks, four hundred employers faced off against twenty thousand workers in the greatest industrial battle Ireland has ever seen.

The employers’ leader, Murphy, also owned the main organ of the church hierarchy, the Irish Catholic, which dutifully distributed an epistle on behalf of the employers. “While there is yet time,” it encouraged, workers should “break loose from the Socialist and consequently demoniacal influences which are dragging them into perdition and ruin.” In the weeks that followed, the paper’s line became increasingly unhinged, issuing editorials under the title “Socialism and Satanism” that attacked Larkin directly. “If any corroborative evidence is needed,” it said, “to prove that Socialism is essentially Satanic in its nature, origin and purposes, it is abundantly supplied out of the lips of the chief promoter of the unrest and misery now existing in our capital.”

But the city’s workers were keenly aware that the unrest and misery were not caused by the labor movement. This sentiment was clarified further at the end of August 1913. Larkin, defying a king’s proclamation not to speak in support of striking workers in the city center, appeared on the balcony of Murphy’s Imperial Hotel in disguise to speak to an assembled crowd. The Dublin Metropolitan Police responded with violence. As riots spread across the city throughout the day — with the police ransacking tenements in Dublin’s slums — two workers, John Byrne and James Nolan, were beaten to death with truncheons. A sixteen-year-old IWWU member, Alice Brady, was accidentally shot by a demonstrator and later died from her injuries. These three became the martyrs of Ireland’s first Bloody Sunday.

The ITGWU responded by creating a workers’ defense militia, the Irish Citizen Army, which chose as its symbol the starry plough. It was a reference to the Book of Isaiah, when God instructed his followers to beat their swords into ploughshares so that they might work the land. Here, nearly two thousand years later, those faithful workers were turning their ploughshares back into swords to fulfill Isaiah’s injunction to “remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor.” Soon afterward, the ITGWU opened a soup kitchen in the basement of its new headquarters in Liberty Hall.

Catholic conservatives continued their efforts to undermine the strike, with one priest even going so far as to organize a scab union. A scab newspaper, the Liberator, was also published with the aim of winning over “devout” workers to the employers’ cause. “The Devil it was who sent Larkin to Ireland,” it proclaimed, “that our people might be led away from honour, from self-respect, from obedience to God’s commands, and stray into the trap set by the Devil’s Missioner — the Socialist.” But at the Askwith Inquiry, established by the government in an attempt to resolve the dispute, Jim Larkin was more than capable of meeting these accusations on their own terms:

Twenty-one thousand families living in the dirty slums of Dublin, five persons in each room . . . . They are taken from their mothers’ breasts at an early age and are used up as material is used up in a fire. These are some of the conditions that obtain in this Catholic City of Dublin, the most church-going city, I believe, in the world.

The workers are determined that this state of affairs must cease. Christ will not be crucified any longer in Dublin by these men. I, and those who think with me, want to show the employers that the workers will have to get the same opportunity at enjoying a civilised life as they themselves have . . . . I am engaged in a holy work.

Missionary for Socialism

Unfortunately for Larkin and the workers of Dublin, the crucifixions were to go on. His “fiery cross” speaking tour in Britain — designed to win support and spread the strike by sympathetic action across the Irish Sea — gathered huge crowds but spooked Trades Union Congress (TUC) leaders. Larkin’s declaration that he was “out for revolution, or nothing,” and his decision to side with the left-wing critics of the TUC in the Daily Herald Leagues, led to a sharp turn against the Dublin Lockout among British union leaders. Eventually, the strikers of Dublin were starved back to work.

This failure wasn’t helped by some of Larkin’s own eccentricities. At one rally during his tour, Larkin caused chaos by refusing to share a stage with socialist activist Ernest Marklew on the basis that he was divorced, an episode that revealed the darker side of his Catholic convictions. This was to become particularly ironic later in Larkin’s life, when he separated from his wife, Elizabeth.

After the defeat in Dublin, Larkin traveled to the United States, where his crusade would continue. He spoke to crowds of thousands at Madison Square Garden, denouncing World War I, and organized rallies to fund arms for the Irish republican movement in the wake of the Easter Rising. He also became a founding father of American communism, playing a key role in the left wing of the Socialist Party of America and its split in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.

But Larkin also made telling contributions to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose leader, “Big Bill” Haywood, had visited Dublin during the lockout and was a close friend. Larkin helped the IWW to organize Irish American miners in Butte, Montana, going to war with the anti-union Catholic conservatives in the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). In time, Larkin displaced the AOH with an Irish socialist organization named in memory of James Connolly, which came to convene the city’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations and helped the IWW to break through among the workers.

Larkin’s skill as an orator meant that he was chosen from among the ranks of the IWW to give an oration at the funeral of Joe Hill, the great Wobbly songwriter. Once again, he reached for the righteous indignation of scripture:

They lied in their verdict, and they knew they lied, but a victim had to be found and so the itinerant IWW propagandist and poet, Joseph Hillstrom, one of the Ishmaelites of the industrial world, was to hand and they shot him to death because he was a rebel, one of the disinherited, because he was the voice of the inarticulate downtrodden; they crucified him on their cross of gold, spilled his blood on the altar of their God: profit.

Because he cried out in the market place, on the highways and in the dark places where the children of men gathered together, because he said the truth that would make men free, for such a crime they crucified the Man of Galilee, for such a crime they crucified John Ball, Parsons, and a million unnamed, aye and for such a crime they will crucify millions unborn, if we cry not halt.

Larkin was imprisoned in Sing Sing during the first Red Scare and, upon his release, returned to Dublin in 1923. Ireland had changed substantially in the previous decade. He soon found that a new leadership in the ITGWU was reluctant to relinquish the union to its predecessor. There followed a disastrous split — during which Larkin would be expelled and create a new union, the Workers’ Union of Ireland — that would scar the Irish labor movement for decades. Jim Larkin could never be said to be free of cardinal sins, not least pride.

However, he was also possessed of immense virtues. He believed deeply in justice — which the Book of Wisdom tells us is perpetual and immortal — and fought for it throughout his life, regardless of the consequences, displaying no little fortitude. He used his immense intelligence and creativity to bless the working class and damn its enemies. And for that, he became one of its most beloved sons. His funeral in 1947, overseen by the Catholic archbishop John Charles McQuaid, brought thousands to the streets of Dublin.

The depth of Larkin’s convictions was often mocked by his enemies. Lord George Askwith, after his inquiry had failed to resolve the Dublin Lockout, would remember the words spoken to him by one of the city’s businessmen. “I don’t know how you can talk to that fellow Larkin,” he said. “You can’t argue with the prophet Isaiah.” But in an era of torpor, when even the most convinced Marxists must doubt that they will see an end to capitalism, Jim Larkin’s example shines bright. Not for voluntaristic reasons — in fact, quite the opposite. He knew that workers alone were the motor force of history, but he also saw that it was the role of missionaries for socialism to inspire them forward.

Jim Larkin understood the alienation of living a life that was beyond your control, dominated by an economic system that seemed to grind your aspirations in its gears. He loved humanity and was profoundly committed to the struggle against anything that would diminish it. He knew that the slums and sweatshops of Dublin and the world had both masters and profiteers, men of flesh and bone who lived lives of luxury facilitated by the crimes they committed against the working class. He realized that part of our covenant in the socialist movement was to deliver the justice we could here on earth, regardless of what one might believe came next.

When Jim Larkin thundered that “the hunger that we have awakened shall not be satisfied by bread alone,” he was recognizing a truth that atheistic socialists have often overlooked. The struggle against capitalism is an immense undertaking, one that requires sacrifice long before it produces material gains. If we cannot convince our people that our movement represents a higher purpose, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden, the prospects for success are slim. And if we cannot affirm with confidence the ethical proclamation that our vision of the world — the universal fellowship — is better and more worthy than the predation and exploitation proposed by our opponents, we stand little chance of rallying any movement at all.

“There is no antagonism between the Cross and socialism!” Larkin once told a meeting in New York. “A man can pray to Jesus the Carpenter and be a better socialist for it. Rightly understood, there is no conflict between the vision of Marx and the vision of Christ. I stand by the Cross, and I stand by Karl Marx. Both Capital and the Bible are to me holy books.” There can be few people who understood their meaning better than Jim Larkin.