Century of Endeavour

Additional Related Papers (post-millennium)

The Republican Congress: the View from Moscow

(c)Emmett O'Connor, 2007

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

This paper was delivered at the Desmond Greaves Summer School, in the ATGWU Hall, Abbey Street, Dublin, on August 25, 2007.

In March 1934 Peadar O'Donnell, George Gilmore, and Frank Ryan withdrew from the IRA general army convention and called for a congress of progressives to develop a new socialist republican politics. After hectic and highly promising preparations, the congress drew a grand coalition of delegates from north and south, from New York and India, from labour, unemployed, trade union, town tenants', anti-war, republican, and communist organizations to meet in Rathmines Town Hall in September. Immediately, it was crippled by a split on strategy. Was the Republican Congress doomed by the contradictions between republicanism and socialism?

The archives of the Communist International (or Comintern) in Moscow tell a different story. They show too that the traditional interpretation of socialist republicanism during the Free State era as the product of an internal re-evaluation of policy within the IRA is only half the story. The other half is international communism. The Comintern was instrumental in the making of socialist republicanism. It would be equally crucial to the outcome at Rathmines.

Founding the Republican Congress

The Republican Congress was the culmination of a drift to the left in the IRA that had been underway since the Civil War. This shift was not surprising: turning to 'the men of no property' has often been the fallback position of republicans after military failure or the loss of middle class support. What was unusual was the level of internationalism in republican thinking. They turned to communism, despite the weakness of the communists in Ireland. This was partly because the Labour Party supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty until it changed with the tide in 1932, and many republicans despised the party for betraying them - as they saw it - in 1922. But it was due also to the fact that the Bolsheviks were, apparently, the experts in revolution.

Furthermore, communism at this time wasn't simply the communists in Ireland. When Lenin created the Comintern in 1919, he was determined that it would not be a talking shop like the Socialist International. Instead it was to be the general staff of the global revolution. The intention was that communists would be a world party, directed from Moscow by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). So when people thought of communism, they saw a powerful international movement. And they saw Russia as a country striding towards progress while capitalism plunged deeper into crisis.

Up to 1929, the ECCI had chronic problems with its efforts to build a party in Ireland. Making Big Jim Larkin the leader of Irish communism in 1924 turned out to be a colossal blunder as he proved to be impossible to collaborate with. From 1925 the ECCI tried to work around Larkin by creating Irish sections of communist fronts: notably International Class War Prisoners' Aid, Workers' International Relief, the League Against Imperialism, Friends of Soviet Russia, and the the Labour Defence League. Subsequent fronts included the Irish Working Farmers' Committee, and the Labour League Against Fascism. Republicans would provide most of the cadres for all of these organizations.

In 1931, the IRA left made its first attempt to turn the IRA into a socialist movt, with the launch of Saor Eire. The IRA approved the plan, but when Saor Eire was suppressed by the Cumann na nGaedheal govt, it was allowed to wither. In 1933, Peadar O'Donnell put a motion to the IRA army convention for a congress of progressives. When this was rejected, O'Donnell tried again in 1934. This time the motion was lost by just one vote, but the left decided to go ahead alone. In April, the left assembled at Athlone and issued a call for a Republican Congress.

On paper there was little difference between the right and left of the IRA at this time, so why didn't the left continue to fight within the IRA? It is likely that a crucial factor was the army council's position on communism.

During the 1920s the Catholic church said very little on communism. But in late 1929, Stalin imposed severe limits on the toleration of religion in Russia. Pope Pius XI retaliated in 1930, by virtually excommunicating communists, and the Catholic press and the hierarchy in Ireland became openly hostile to any sympathy with communism or Russia.

This was bad timing for Moscow's Irish policy. The ECCI had had to wait until Larkin broke with the CI in 1929 before sending a commission to Ireland to re-build a cp. As membership of the communist organization - the RWGs - increased, so too did clerical reaction. IRA-communist relations remained friendly and An Phoblacht opposed church policy until 1933, when an intense anti-communist campaign caused the IRA to decide that the communists were more trouble than they were worth. From February 1933 onwards, the army council attempted to neutralise communist influences within the IRA. When the RWG proceeded to form the second CPI in June 1933, and the Daily Express alleged that 20% of CPI members were IRA volunteers, the army council formally condemned communism for its 'denial of God and active hostility to religion'. The IRA leadership did not see this as a shift to the right. An Phoblacht subsequently devoted more attention to the social question and made a stronger appeal to the Labour movement. But it was the communists that the IRA left wanted to work with.

Communist policy

At this time Comintern policy was governed by the theory of the 'third period' and the slogan 'class against class'. In 1926, Nikolai Bukharin, then leader of the Comintern, had argued that the Bolshevik revolution had led to a period of advance for socialism. Then, from 1921, a second period, one of stabilization, had evolved, in which the right had checked the advance of the left. During this second period, it made sense for the communists to work with others on the left. Now, the capitalist world was entering a third period, of a profits squeeze, intensified class conflict, and greater threat of war. Capitalists would turn increasingly to fascism to crush the left, and as the social democrats were basically pro-capitalist, they should be unmasked as 'social fascists'. The Comintern also used this theory to demand more intense 'Bolshevization' of communist parties, ie to bring them more under ECCI control.

This had 2 consequences for Ireland:
1) from 1929, Irish policy was made in Moscow, by the Anglo-American Secretariat (AAS) or the ECCI. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was influential too, because it was usually British comrades in the AAS who dealt with Ireland, and also because London was usually a link in the communications chain with Ireland and the British were often asked for information on Ireland.
2) this policy of 'class against class' entailed priority for the class struggle over the national q, and no collaboration with the non-communist left. Instead, in certain circumstances, the communists advocated 'united fronts from below'. That meant working with the rank and file of other groups, while at the same time criticising the leadership of these groups.

Acting as a counterweight to these two factors, were two others:
1) In practice, the IRA was too valuable to the communists to be attacked openly. Thus, in private the communists opposed Saor Eire, fearing that it would become a rival to the proposed communist party. In public, they ignored it.
2) Sean Murray's leadership of Irish communism from 1931 to 1941.

Murray was an old IRA man from the Glens of Antrim, and very close, personally and politically, to Peadar O'Donnell. After the election of FF to power in 1932, Murray travelled to Moscow and asked that the RWG be allowed to give a higher priority to the national question. The ECCI agreed, provided that the RWG continued to adhere to 'class against class' and the 'united front from below' tactic.

This remained the position on the foundation of the RC. There is nothing in the Comintern archives to suggest any communist collusion in the split in the IRA. Only a week beforehand, the central cte of the CPI conducted a lengthy review of policy. The theses of the 3rd period were endorsed. Murray questioned the wisdom of CI policy on the Nazis, but nothing was said about republicanism other than a discussion on ways of defending communists within the IRA.

After RC supporters held their first meeting at Athlone on 7-8 April 1934, the Workers' Voice (CPI organ) responded warily.

The Communist Party will play its utmost part in the building of this united front movt. But it warns against any attempt to form a new political party. A political party is the leadership of a class. There can be only one correct leadership and policy for the working class - the revolutionary Marxism of the CI and the CP.

In reality, it was not just a question of whether the RC would become a united front or a pol party. The CPI was also bothered about how to reconcile its united front from below tactic with the RC's united front. It tried to tackle this problem by proposing fronts around immediate issues like anti-fascism and ignoring the big issue of the national question, and also by counterposing anti-fascism slogans to the republicans' anti-imperialism slogans.

Adding to the CPI's difficulty, Murray was fundraising in America between late March and July. His deputy, Brian O'Neill, may have been less confident about challenging the CI line.

The line changed on 1 Sept, when the Workers' Voice called for an anti-imperialist united front and supported the RC bureau's insistence that its focal point would be the republic. Who changed the line is unclear, but it's inconceivable that it was not authorized at the highest level, and the change was in keeping with ECCI thinking. The CI had been rattled by events in Germany. It had expected that Hitler's suppression of labour would provoke a workers' revolt, which would get rid of the Nazis, discredit the Social Democrats, and sweep the communists to power. Since February the French communists had been edging towards collaboration with the socialists and the ECCI was silently tolerating this drift from class against class to united frontism.

In September the RC was preparing for its foundation conference in Rathmines on 29-30 of the month, and the ECCI's main concern for the CPI was how it would deal with the conference.


Formerly, communication between Ireland and Moscow went through couriers, but in Feb 1934 the CPGB acquired a radio transmitter, and the radio was used also for messages to Ireland. The only man with access to the secret radio codes was the CPGB gen sec, Harry Pollitt, which enhanced his ability to manage both the British and Irish parties. Although Sean Murray was a party man, totally loyal to Moscow, both London and Moscow were worried that he would get too close to his old IRA comrades and the communists would end up joining the repub movt rather than vice versa. They may have been suspicious too of Murray's friendship with O'Donnell, who was distrusted in Moscow as too independent minded.

Probably in early Sept, the CPGB asked the CPI how it would handle the Rathmines conference, which it described a 'most dangerous situation'. Dublin responded on 18 Sept. London composed a letter the next day and it is likely that Willie Gallacher took it to Ireland immediately. The letter complained that because the CPI's response was late and vague on tactics to be applied at Rathmines, 'We cannot work out the details of what our fraction should do at the Congress'. The letter offered general advice, but essentially it said: do as you think best, but whatever you do, back a united front and oppose a new political party.

A day or so later, the politsecretariat, the highest policy making organ within the ECCI, radioed Pollitt with detailed instructions for the CPI. The party was to issue a manifesto on the basis of which it was to 'fight for the leadership of the Congress'. While supporting a united front against 'hunger, fascism, and war', it was 'bring forward the main slogan 'Workers' and Farmers' Republic' against the republican slogan of 'Irish Republic'. On 24 Sept, Pollitt radioed his contact in Moscow, Bob McIlhone: 'Gallacher already been Ireland before receiving your wire. Our comrades were in bad position. We gave directives in general same as what sent by PC [politcommission or political secretariat of the ECCI]'.

Of course this was untrue. The CPGB had given a different line to the CPI. Why did Pollitt not explain this? Was he too embarrassed to admit his mistake, or too lazy to rectify it? Or was it that he had an awkward relationship with O'Donnell and didn't have much confidence in Murray? It wouldn't be the only time that Pollitt interpreted the radio signals to suit himself. Whatever the reason, it would have major consequences for Murray, and, arguably for the RC.

Adding to the confusion, the Congress organizing bureau had divided on strategy. Michael Price, with the backing of a majority of the bureau, proposed that the conference endorse a new party, and a workers' republic. O'Donnell drafted a minority resolution calling for the continuation of a united front, committed to 'a republic'. Both sides complained of foul play. O'Donnell described what he saw as last minute proposals from Price as an ambush and a 'weird stunt', although the Republican Congress had appeared to back a new party as early as 16 June, and the communists had long been worried about this possibility. The Price faction blamed 'Moscow' for turning O'Donnell against a party. Nora Connolly alleged that Willie Gallacher had persuaded him to back the communist line after an all-night argument, unknown to Murray.

At the conference itself, the O'Donnell faction called for 'a republic'. The Michael Price faction called for a 'workers' republic'. At this point the communists should have called for a workers' and farmers' republic. But they didn't. They backed O'Donnell, and the united front motion was passed by 99-84 votes.

The consequences

The AAS was appalled at Murray's stand at Rathmines, and it drafted a blistering directive to the CPI.

The CPI delegation to the Congress not only failed to put forward our Communist programmatic slogan, but became the tail end of O'Donnell and Co, thus objectively placing ourselves in a position in which we were supporting a policy of revolutionary national republicanism as against a so-called proletarian republicanism…and by this the CPI created a situation which may lead to a split between the rev republicans and left trade unionists... thus defeating the purpose of the congress... the CPI, ignoring the telegram directives from the secretariat... failed to maintain its Communist identity.

The CPI was charged with building unity with the Price faction around the correct slogan and 'sharply criticising' O'Donnell's position. However, Price and Nora Connolly had withdrawn from the Congress, taking over half the membership with them. Their faction soon disintegrated. O'Donnell and the rest limped on, and the CPI continued to work with them because there was no one else to work with.

Murray's prestige was broken. In November, Pat Devine was seconded to Dublin from the CPGB as a full-time 'instructor', and the fostering role of the CPGB over the CPI was re-established. On the ground, not much changed. The ECCI could not find a suitable replacement for Murray and he continued as general secretary until 1941.

At the 7th World Congress of the Communist International (WCCI) in Moscow in 1935, Murray took the blame for the debacle at Rathmines, telling the AAS that the CPI 'has to bear a very heavy responsibility' for the split in the Congress and had made 'a very serious error of principle' in supporting O'Donnell's slogan. There is no evidence as to whether he made any protests about being misled by Pollitt, but there are 2 explanations as to why he might have taken the blame.

First, it was the Bolshevik thing to do. Communists could speak freely in policy making commissions, but discipline and loyalty were expected beyond that. Failures were always attributed to mistakes in policy application by the party. A good Bolshevik did not question the Comintern line or the wisdom of its analysis. Nor did he criticise other parties or make excuses. And Murray knew that London and Moscow had doubts about his continued leadership of the Irish party. Secondly, Murray wanted the AAS to approve continued collaboration with the Congress. He and Devine submitted 'Proposals for the application of the united front in Ireland', intended to 'end the confusion around the fundamental slogan' and take a 'definite' stand for 'complete unity and independence and a workers' and farmers' republic'.

Murray told the AAS: "The [Republican] Congress movt has enabled us to have a very valuable ally in the struggle against fascism and against the church, and for the development of a mass movt... a broad united front of the working class has, in my opinion, no possibility, and would be just an ideal."

He knew from experience that it would be easier to get Moscow to cut some slack in the line if he gave his total support to its basic principles.

The AAS more or less agreed, which is not surprising. The 7th WCCI had replaced 'class against class' with the popular front policy, and the communists were supposed to form united fronts with almost everyone to the left of Adolf Hitler. The ECCI directed that the RC was to be encouraged to seek readmission to the IRA and united fronts were to be offered to labour and republican groups.


Were the communists really to blame for the split at Rathmines? Nora Connolly thought so, but her interpretation is disputed by O'Donnell. However, even if O'Donnell was not turned by Willie Gallacher on the eve of the conference, one could argue that his support for a united front and opposition to forming a party was shaped by his sympathy for the CPI.

What is clear is that there was a fatal contradiction between republicans and communists during the Comintern era. This was not ideological. The Comintern was crucial to the making of socialist republicanism during the FS. The idea that the ideology re-emerged from the re-discovery of James Connolly's ideas within the IRA ignores the role of the Comintern in persuading republicans that a social revolution was coming, and in introducing them to revolutionary socialist orgs. Equally, the idea that the RC failed because of the difficulty of reconciling socialism and republicanism is unfounded. If some of our Marxist historians have had difficulties with republicans, the communists were quite happy to work with them, before and after Rathmines. The problems that republicans presented to Moscow were to do with control and tactics. The communists would have had the same sort of problems in dealing with any political movement outside the Comintern.

The key contradiction was that Moscow wanted to collaborate with republicans in the short term, with a view to splitting the IRA in the long term. It wanted to encourage socialist republicanism, and then subsume it into communism.

Finally, there are those who see the period between Saor Eire and the Republican Congress as the moment of opportunity for radicalism during the Free State. It was the high point of radical activity, but the window of opportunity had closed. The immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when the defeated foot-soldiers of the IRA and the trade unions were looking for hope and fresh thinking, before the rise of Fianna Fail and the mobilization of the Catholic church against communism, that would have been the best time to unite the labour and republican movements.

Edited for screen by Roy Johnston (15/09/07)

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