Socialism does not spread by itself because of its own inner beauty, or logic, or consistency. It spreads when there is something in it that makes it a response to the needs of the hour.”  Jack Carney on James Larkin

History seldom repeats itself, but it often rhymes.  The victories, defeats, mistakes, and discoveries which distil into the history of the British workers’ movement present socialists not only with an inspirational tradition to follow and an unbroken thread to hold fast; it presents the weaponry to be used in the battles of the day.

In this new age of austerity the most commonly heard call back to history; the slogans which adorn leaflets and decorate speeches, refer us to the depression of the 1930’s. The Wall Street Crash, the soup kitchens, the Orwellian descriptions of destitution; each offers us a rhetorical reference point, a way to make known the wild fluctuations of the markets and the excesses of the moneyed class.

Yet, the Devil’s Decade of the 1930’s was not only a time of great poverty. It was an era which witnessed the Battle of Cable Street, the Teamsters general strike in Minneapolis and revolution in Barcelona; socialists fighting fascists from the streets of London to the trenches of  the Aragon front. In Britain we are yet to see an emergence of a mass movement of the working class anywhere near this scale.

Despite national strikes, protests and marches; grassroots activism remains sporadic, the trade union leadership remains unwilling or unable to fight, and mainstream parties continue to freeze the working class out of the political process. The austerity offensive of the Coalition continues and we on the political left remain in retreat.

Marxists are dialecticians, and perhaps without the belief that every situation contains within it it’s opposite, it would be difficult to maintain a sunny and sanguine attitude when facing this situation. Yet, if we look further into our history we will see echoes of what is possible today.

The years preceding the First World War were a time of upheaval, militant struggle and civil unrest as the organisations of the working class grew, began to understand their power and clashed with the state. However, the greatest struggle of the age, a fight which resonates for us exactly 100 years later, took place not in mainland Britain, but in the city of Dublin.

In those pre-war years Ireland was neither Free State nor divided Republic. It remained wedded to the Imperial Crown via act of union; legislation enforced by the British army.

In 1913 the Dublin Lockout would erupt into the bitterest struggle between the classes in the whole of Irish trade union history. It was a battle which pulled into its maw not only the organised workers and organised bosses of the city, but also wider British union movement.

In Britain the ‘New Unionism’ of the 19th centuries latter years had launched an era of mass union membership, collaborative strike action and the slow emergence of a new workers’ party in the form of the 1900 Labour representation committee. The picture was very different in Ireland where outside of the ship building industries of Belfast the official movement was largely confined to the craft or specialist industries. In Dublin the problem was especially acute, it held the inglorious accolades of being the most impoverished, yet the least organised of Irish, or indeed British, cities.

History is not written by great men, yet on occasion small numbers of people with ideas suited to their time and the skills necessary to make them reality can change everything. In Dublin it was the men and women of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by ‘Big Jim’ Larkin and James Connolly whose actions shout out to us today in guidance.

The ITGWU was more than a craft union, or even a mass trade union. It was established in the syndicalist socialist tradition of the International Workers’ of the World (IWW) in the United States; the ‘One Big Union’ for which both Connolly and Larkin would organise during their times in America. From the beginning the ITGWU set out not only to organise in the work places, but to see every battle as part of a broader fight to empower the working class and transform society.

The founder of the union, ‘Big Jim’ Larkin, was a remarkably gifted organiser. As historian Padraig Yeates would later note, this was an age of great orators and Larkin stood alongside the greatest. Born in Liverpool in 1876, Larkin found himself thrust into union activism during his time as a dock worker. While his first political experience was within the Liverpool branch of the Independent Labour Party his real socialist education was on the street corners where he honed his oratory; a fusion of raw class anger and catholic rhetoric. Not a theoretician, Larkin’s skill was to avoid abstract speeches and to instead link his rhetoric to the reality of working class conditions. As Jack Carney, who saw Larkin in full flight inBelfast, said:

What impressed me most about Larkin was his ability to translate the feelings of his audience into sympathetic speech. One felt that through some mysterious means, he had investigated your personal position and was taking the opportunity to say for you what you could not say yourself. His language was not the language of tears, but the language of hope. More than any other man Jim Larkin taught me that Socialism does not spread by itself because of its own inner beauty, or logic, or consistency. It spreads when there is something in it that makes it a response to the needs of the hour.”

As Belfast Docker Joseph Cooper would later remark, “half a dozen words from Jim Larkin and you were all together.”

After sacrificing a job as a dock foreman to lead a strike Larkin was employed as a union organiser for the British based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) across Northern England and Scotland. In 1907 he travelled to Ireland to unionise the Belfast docks; at that time the largest shipbuilders in the world. Throughout his time in the NUDL Larkin found his politics and his methods of sympathetic strike action and the ‘blacking’ of goods at odds with the union’s leadership, who not only wished to contain his militancy, but constantly sought to negotiate and compromise with employers over the heads of striking workers.

Belfast 1907: Developing Larkinism

Larkin ‘s first major strike action was the 1907 Belfast Dockers strike, which remains a vital lesson for socialists today, not only for the methods Larkin adopted, but for his success in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers across the sectarian divide. The strike began with 500 Dockers demanding a wage claim, yet the movement spread so that 1000 carters and 100 coalmen were drawn into the dispute.

In an effort to undermine and break the strike the employers turned to scab labour, using a fleet of traction engines to deliver goods from the docks which the strikers refused to touch. In response Larkin deployed ‘flying pickets’ to block and disrupt the convoys. The pickets were hugely effective, but after the content of one convoy was dumped into the Connswater River, the Royal Irish Constabulary were deployed to escort the engines and protect the scabs.

As on the mainland the police were traditionally used across Ireland to break strikes and enforce the will of the employers. While British troops, headquartered in Dublin Castle, were the most visible expression of British imperial power, it was the police rather than the soldiers, who were most detested by the Irish working class. Throughout this period it became increasingly common for young unemployed Irish workers to turn to the army as a job of last resort, a guaranteed source of pay which could be sent home. Even James Connolly had taken this path in his youth, deserting from the British army just before being posted to India. The Police however were a different matter, as it was perceived that they played a more class consciousness role in attacking disputes and brutalising tenements and slums in Irish cities.

Such hostility to the police makes it even more miraculous that Jim Larkin successfully made a class appeal to the RIC. The running battles between flying pickets and police escorts were obviously dangerous for both sides, and it was with no small sense of audacity that Larkin pointed out that the RIC were being asked to work for 18 hours a day without an extra penny in pay.

The appeal fell on fertile ground when RIC constable William Barrett refused to sit next to a scab driver while on escort duty. Protests following Barrett’s resulting suspension escalated when constables presented an ultimatum to the Belfast police chiefs. Faced with an official act of mutiny the authorities immediately sought to suspend the militants, but their attempts only succeeded in provoking a strike meeting of the entire Belfast force.

Faced with a breakdown of control, martial law was declared as 6000 troops were deployed across strategic areas of the city. As a police strike loomed nine battleships anchored offBelfast, a threatening precursor to the British ruling class’s reaction to a police strike inLiverpoolsix years later. Four days before the strike was due to begin the authorities acted. 200 constables were transferred to remote country areas in the South and West where they could not come onto contact with class conscious workers, while six of the leaders, including Barret, were dismissed from the RIC.

The following day Barrett and his colleagues would be applauded by 5,000 people, mainly striking workers, at a mass rally. However, the authorities had regained control of the force and were free to go on the offensive, by launching a campaign to break the bonds of solidarity between the strikers.

Soldiers were stationed in Catholic areas of West Belfast with the aim of provoking tensions, causing clashes between the Catholics and the soldiers.  This enabled the capitalists to portray the strike as a ‘Catholic riot’. In other words the state was attempting to split a united working class movement by creating sectarian divisions. Larkin pointed this out, highlighting the fact that the troops were concentrated in Catholic areas, whereas the strike there were supposed to be controlling was taking place in an entirely different area!

After riots did occur on theCatholic Falls Roadarea in August the strike committee quickly intervened. They stated:

Not as Catholics or Protestants, As Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers, stand together and don’t be misled by the employer’s game of dividing Catholic and Protestant.”

This response highlighted the class aspects of the dispute, rather than the sectarian ones. By this time sectarian divisions had not become as decisive as they later would be and the momentum was with the united mass workers’ movements. As an example of this, on the 12th July 1907 the Independent Orange Order parade passed a resolution supporting Larkin, a Catholic, and the strikers, as well as organising a collection.

This reveals a central lesson for Marxists. If class and social issues are used as the basis for demands and campaigns, these unifying factors will overcome divisive and sectarian issues.

In August the carters and coalmen ceased their action, having won wage increases. The Dockers stayed out as long as they could, but returned to work in early November having been partially defeated.

Later in the month, the carter, crane operators and coalmen struck, claiming that the bosses were not adhering to the agreed settlement. Alarmed at the course of developments, the British Trade Union leadership intervened without Larkin’s knowledge by discussing with the employers and persuaded the strikers to return to work. This was led by NUDL leader James Sexton. Sexton had seen Larkin as a threat to his authority since his days on the Liverpool docks and the two men, one representing the union’s bureaucracy and one the rank and file members, were to maintain a rivalry which played out on picket lines, in union conference and in the court house.

It probably says enough about the political evolution of Sexton and his allies during his time as a union leader that he ended up being awarded a knighthood for his ‘services’ to labour. However, even he had to admit that Larkin “did so rouse the public opinion of Ireland that matters were much easier for those who took up the conflict.” Sexton also claimed that:  “Only a man of outstanding force of character could bring the police out on strike in Belfast and so cement the religious factions of Shankhill and Falls Road that they joined in one harmonious procession, with bonfires blazing all over the city.”

Forming the ITGWU

The workers o fBelfast were quick to learn the lessons of the 1907 dispute and the following year Larkin and his supporters broke away from the NUDL and established the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Larkin rejected the old approach of union leaders to never stray from easily defined and defended, trades and turned his attention to the mass ofIreland’s unskilled labourers. To ‘Big Jim’ a strike was never simply a dispute for higher pay or conditions, but a front in a wider battle to change society and liftIreland’s working class from the brutal conditions it had been pushed to.

An inverted, and therefore left, Red Hand of Ulster was adopted as the union’s logo, a permanent reminder of the Belfast dispute; however, by 1913 Larkin had turned his attention to the rest ofIreland, and travelled to Dublin.

The creation of the ITGWU immediately placed Larkin in open confrontation with Sexton and the NUDL. While Sexton sought to use every avenue, from the union bureaucracy to the judiciary, to stop the growth of this new, militant union, its rise was mercurial. By 1911 the I.T.G.W.U had gained control of Dublin Trades Council, had been admitted into the Irish Trade Union Congress and had attracted over 18,000 members. The union also launched the Irish Women Workers’Union, led by Larkin’s sister Delia, to organise the thousands of women workers in the textile industries and at factories such as Jacobs.

In keeping with his aim of building a union which fought for more than just improvements in workplace conditions Larkin founded the Irish Worker, a newspaper which achieved circulation of over 94,000 by late 1911, a feat unmatched in working class journalism. The union established its headquarters at Liberty Hall, which would later serve as a fortress during the lockout of 1913 and the 1916 Easter Rising. Indeed it would be from the basement of Liberty Hall that the 1916 Proclamation of Irish Independent was written and where the soldiers of the Irish Citizen Army began their ill-fated march on the General Post Office.

The ITGWU also brought a town house with gardens on the outskirts of Dublin, which members could use as a retreat, and a place of relaxation and study. As ITGWU founding member Sean O’Casey said of Larkin, “here was a man who would put a flower in a vase on the table as well as a loaf on a plate.”

The growth of the ITGWU was noticed far beyondIreland’s shores. From his exile in Switzerland Vladimir Lenin followed event closely, writing:

“The Irish proletariat that is awakening to class consciousness had found a talented leader in the person of comrade Larkin, the Secretary of the Irish Transport Workers Union. Possessing remarkable oratorical talent, a man of seething Irish energy, Larkin has performed miracles among the unskilled.”

Dublin Divided: The Lockout of 1913

The methods of sympathetic strike action and the raw rhetoric of unity which defined Larkinism launched a new era of emerging unity and militancy for the Dublin working class. In response capitalism needed its own champion and the employers found one in William Martin Murphy; financier, newspaper proprietor and public transport tycoon, who would lead the city’s employers in a bid to smash the ITGWU. History is never only about great men, heroes or villains, but about social forces. While the struggle between Dublin’s classes would have continued in some fashion without either of them, Larkin and Murphy became the personification of those forces. Larkin used socialism to unite the working class and under the banner of ‘An Injury to one is the Concern of All’, an echo of the I.W.W’s slogan, he fashioned the sympathetic strike into a new weapon to broaden disputes. Similarly Murphy, all of whose enterprises were non-unionised, was alarmed by Larkin’s efforts to recruit despatch workers at his Irish Independent Newspaper and strove to broaden his dispute across the employer class.

In the years prior to World War One unemployment was increasing across Ireland; reaching 8% by 1910. By August 1913 Murphy decided that the time was right to act. After ordering all employees in the despatch department of the Irish Independent who had joined a union to leave, he then dismissed all those who disobeyed his order. It was later revealed that Murphy has been assured that key sections of the capitalist state were ready to help in the fight against ‘Larkinism,’ including the Royal Irish Constabulary, and if needed the British Army. However, these were not the only parts of the state the bosses were preparing to use. As with numerous other disputes on both sides of theIrish Sea, the courts became involved.

Larkin and four other union leaders were arrested and charged with a string of offences, including ‘seditious libel’ and ‘inciting murder.’ They appeared before a magistrate who, while releasing them on bail pending trial, banned a meeting which Larkin had organised for August 31st. It later transpired that the magistrate was a substantial shareholder in Murphy’s Tramway business.

As Lenin would later acknowledge, Larkin fought with incredible energy and heroism. He organised solidarity strikes, tirelessly raised money, both in Ireland and inBritain, and helped hold the strike together in the face of violent attacks by the police.

In just one of these attacks hundreds of union members were injured, scores taken to hospital and several arrested. Thirty policemen were hospitalised. Two workers died as a result of beatings and a young girl was shot dead by an armed strike breaker on one of the trams.

 Larkin did not lead this battle alone, he was joined by James Connolly, who had returned from years of socialist organising in American and had been appointed the union’s Belfast organiser in 1911. While the relationship between these two famous workers leaders was at times difficult, by 1913 Connolly was Larkin’s key lieutenant within the union. Both were gifted organisers and orators in their own right and Connolly is seen as providing the theoretical Marxist insight to direct the ferocious energy of Larkin. As a partnership they were, as Jack Murphy would later describe them, ‘the tornado and the light house.

 

On the eve of the Lockout James Connolly penned the union’s declaration of war against the combined forces of Murphy and his class. In the August 30 editorial of the Irish Worker Connolly wrote:

Perhaps before this issue of The Irish Worker is in the hands of its readers the issues now at stake in Dublin will be brought to a final determination.  …

 The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union found that before its advent the working class of Dublin had been taught by all the educational agencies of the country, by all the social influences of their masters, that this world was created for the special benefit of the various sections of the master class, that kings and lords and capitalists were of value; that even flunkeys, toadies, lickspittle and poodle dogs had an honoured place in the scheme of the universe, but that there was neither honour, credit, nor consideration to the man or woman who toils to maintain them all. Against all this the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union has taught that they who toil are the only ones that do matter, that all others are but beggars upon the bounty of those who work with hand or brain, and that this superiority of social value can at any time be realised, be translated into actual fact, by the combination of the labouring class.

  It is then upon this working class so enslaved, this working class so led and so enriched with moral purposes and high aims that the employers propose to make general war. Shall we shrink from it; cower before their onset? A thousand times no! Shall we crawl back into our slums, abase our hearts, bow our knees, and crawl once more to lick the hand that would smite us? Shall we, who have been carving out for our children a brighter future, a cleaner city, a freer life, consent to betray them instead into the grasp of the blood-suckers from whom we have dreamt of escaping? No, no, and yet again no!

 Let them declare their lock-out; it will only hasten the day when the working class will lock-out the capitalist class for good and all. If for taking the side of the Tram men we are threatened with suffering, why we have suffered before. But let them understand well that once they start that ball rolling no capitalist power on earth can prevent it continuing to roll, that every day will add to the impetus it will give to the working class purpose, to the thousands it will bring to the working class ranks and every added suffering inflicted upon the workers will be a fresh obstacle in the way of moderation when the day of final settlement arrives.

 Yes, indeed, if it is going to be a wedding, let it be a wedding; and if it is going to be a wake, let it be a wake: we are ready for either.” (Full text)

 

Both Larkin and Connolly were imprisoned following violent clashes between police and pickets. With these two leaders out of the way other employers started to join in the attempt to break the union. At first George Jacob closed his biscuit factory and the Dublin Coal Merchants Association locked out all their delivery men. They were followed by around 400 other employers who, on 3rd September decided, at a meeting chaired by Murphy, not to employ any members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. They decided three days later to impose a non-union contract on all their employees.

By the end of September 1913, with over 400 employers united behind Murphy, around 20,000 workmen had been forced out of their jobs. With their families, an estimated 100,000 people, a third of Dublin’s population, were deprived of their right to earn a living.

The strikers had strong support from ordinary trade unionists across the movement, in both the UKand in Ireland. Support was particularly strong amongst the major industrial cities inBritain, with unofficial solidarity strikes breaking out amongst Dockers and Railway workers.

Dublin Betrayed: The Role of the Trade Union Leadership

Yet despite this support, it was the leadership of Britain’s TUC who were to deny Larkin and the Dublin workers their victory. While the union leaders were prepared to send money and food to Dublin in solidarity, they were not prepared to take further action as they saw the rise of solidarity action as a threat, fearing contagion and the spread of militancy from over the Irish Sea. As Larkin had experienced in Liverpool decades before, the trade union leaders sought to not only contain military, but to defend their own positions from their own British Larkins.

Jim Larkin (Left) James Connolly (Centre) in Manchester during the Fiery Cross tour

To put pressure on the union leadership Larkin launched his ‘Fiery Cross’ crusade, with mass meetings acrossBritain. Larkin and Connolly spoke alongside supporters in mass public rallies in Londonand union meetings in Manchester, Liverpool,Cardiff and Sheffield. Amongst the rank and file the tour was a resounding success, with thousands of pounds raised and new waves of un-official sympathetic action inspired.

 

The pressure on the TUC leaders culminated in the calling of a special conference in December 1914. This was in itself no small achievement for a similar conference would not be called again until 1984 and the great Miners’ strike.

Larkin found that the conference was not used by the TUC to draw together rank and file members to discuss solidarity action with Dublin. Rather it was packed with full time union organisers and supporters of the leadership, including members of the Fabian society. While Larkin and Connolly anticipated betrayal they were surprised that the attack against them was led by Ben Tillett, the dock workers leader who not only had proven himself a militant leader of ‘new unionism’ in 1899, but had spoken alongside Larkin on podium’s during the Fiery Cross tour.  Behind his own fiery rhetoric Tillett had been bluffing; he was not prepared to go further than hollow words for the cause of Dublinand his motion, denouncing Larkin for his attacks on the union leadership, made public a slow and tragic, degeneration from Tillett the militant, to Tillett the bureaucrat. Further motions followed making it clear that the ITGWU would receive no support from the British TUC.Dublin would fight alone.

That the TUC leaders would sell out the Dublin workers was not a surprise. In his union’s newspaper the Irish Worker Larkin had turned his rhetoric against those in the movement, and in the Labour Party leadership, who had been prepared to compromise and surrender to Murphy from the start. Indeed Arthur Henderson, a leading figure and former leader of Labour, had arrived in Dublin to organise just that during Larkin’s Fiery Cross tour.

It is often claimed, not least by supporters of Ben Tillett, that the venom of Larkin’s rhetoric directed against the trade union and Labour party leadership was the reason for their failure to support Dublin. Larkin wrote that Labour leaders Ramsey McDonald and Phillip Snowdon were “serpents” who should not be allowed to “raise their foul heads and spit their poison any longer.” Of the trade union leaders Larkin argued:

These men who wore tall hats and frock coats in London and bowler hats when among the boys were getting too big. They should be weary of a man whom the capitalists pat on the back. They should also be suspicious of men who dined and wined with those who caused the Dublin troubles.”

There is no doubt that his words, delivered from podiums or penned in articles, were vicious. However, they were also proven entirely correct. Just as Larkin had warned, the leadership did try and settle the dispute over the workers’ heads. In fact history has proven Jim Larkin’s words to be a far greater warning, for it would be those same trade union leaders who would betray the British working class during the General Strike of 1926 and it was those same Labour Party leaders who, decades later, would commit even greater treachery in 1930 by forming a National Government with the Tories.

Lockout: Defeat Or Defensive Victory?

Without wider support theDublin workers could not fight on indefinitely. By February 1914 the Lockout was over. James Connolly summed up the balance sheet:

“The battle was a drawn battle. The employers, despite their Napoleonic plan of campaign, and their more than Napoleonic ruthlessness and unscrupulous use of foul means, were unable to carry out their business without men and women who remained loyal to the union. The workers were unable to force the employers to a formal recognition of the union, and to give preference to organised labour.”

This is the traditional view point of the Lockout. Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin workers, while heroic, did not defeat Murphy. The strikers who could return to work did so, but many hundreds were victimised as employers took the pick of those they would allow to return. While the end of the Lockout was a bitter experience for the working class, it would be a mistake to view the result as a total defeat. Murphy had repeatedly avowed not only to defeat the strikers, but to smash the union and to destroy Larkinism. As leader of the employers Murphy rejected conciliation efforts by both the British government and the trade union leadership, so focused was he on total victory. Yet, in this aim he was unsuccessful. Larkin, Connolly and the other union militants remained active, and more importantly the union continued. The white flag never flew above Liberty Hall.

The Dublin employers may have perceived the rise of Larkinism and the organisation of the unskilled as a threat which they were forced to counter; however, in truth Murphy’s Lockout was an offensive action. Larkin and the ITGWU were not fighting for a rise in pay, for improved conditions, or for official union recognition. In truth they were fighting a defensive action against employers set to destroy them. In all defensive battles, be they between nations or classes, simply surviving the attack can be a victory. If the nation remains unconquered, unoccupied and succeeds in repelling the invaders it would be seen as a victory. Similarly for the ITGWU to remain active, with many smaller employers actually granting official recognition during the struggle, must be seen as a victory in the long term. The employers would never mount such an offensive against the union’s existence again.

In 1915 James Connolly, then acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, gave a speech to the Irish Trade Union Congress. He declared:

You will remember how four hundred employers banded themselves together to destroy us, and pledged their sacred word of honour that they would wipe that union off the map; that when the fight was over no man or woman affiliated to us, or friendly to us, would ever be employed in Dublin. … Well, did the unholy conspiracy against Labour achieve its object? Was the union crushed? Did our flag come down? Let me tell you our position today, and tell it by an illustration.

 

  • Stevedores Association: One penny per ton increase on all tonnage rules.
  • Deep Sea Boats: One shilling per day on all day wage men.
  • Casual Cross Channel Boats: One shilling per day.
  • Constant Cross Channel Boats: Eightpence per day.
  • Dublin and General Company’s employees: Four shillings.
  • Dublin dockyard labourers: Three shillings per week.
  • Ross and Walpole: Two shillings per week
  • General carriers’ men: Two shillings per week granted direct to men after receipt of letter from the Union.”

Full text

Connolly fought on, determined to show that the ITGWU was continuing the struggle; yet today history lets us look back at the events which followed 1913 with a broader perspective. Despite the continued fights and victories described by Connolly the years immediately following the Lockout did appear to be marked by a lull of working class militancy as a labour movement which had been in the ascendancy recovered from 1913.

The following year Jim Larkin travelled toAmericaleaving Connolly in charge of the union. While Larkin’s trip was ostensibly to raise funds, and recover from mental and physical exhaustion. Big Jim had hardly touched US soil when he became active in the I.W.W. He would play a leading role in labour disputes across the United States, from New York to Chicago,Colorado and briefly Alaska. He would become a fervent anti-war campaigner and a passionate supporter of the Russian Revolution, before being imprisoned in 1920 during the ‘Red Scare.’ He would not return to Dublin until 1923.

InIrelandthe outbreak of the First World War and the resulting collapse of the Second International cut across the recovery of the labour movement. The carnage of the trenches was enough to disorientate even a great a Marxist as James Connolly. While, like Larkin, Connolly turned his attention to anti-war campaigning, his increasing ties with Republican nationalists would lead him to play a leading role in the Easter Rising of 1916.

In response to police brutality during the Lockout Connolly and ITGWU member Captain Jack White had formed the ‘Irish Citizen Army’. It was the first class conscious, Marxist-led workers’ militia in Europe and in 1916 Connolly would lead the CA, who wore the ITGWU Red Hand in their caps, in their storming of the General Post Office. Following their defeat and the suppression of the uprising Connolly shared the fate of his co-conspiritors. He was held in kilmainham jail and following a hastily convened military court, he was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad. The working class lost one of their greatest champions and Connolly the union man passed into Connolly the myth.

The death of Connolly, the military defeat of the Citizen Army, the absence of Jim Larkin and the decline of worker’s militancy during the war years left a bleak picture for the Irish working class. Yet the war would bring in its wake a revival of the class struggle and a resurgence of the ITGWU across the country, the likes of which would have been the stuff of nightmares for William Martin Murphy. In 1919 a Soviet would even be declared in the city of Limerick, such was the international impact of the Russian Revolution.

The Political Battlefield

Both Larkin and Connolly were heavily influenced by syndicalist ideas, indeed both were active in the IWW during their times in theUnited States. However, in a break from the ideas of Industrial Unionism, Connolly began to argue for the trade unions to involve themselves as a political force. In 1912 Connolly proposed the creation of an Irish Labour party to the TUC a motion seconded by Larkin. Connolly stood as a Labour candidate in the dock ward of Belfast in 1913, gaining 905 votes against the 1523 votes the Unionist candidate received.

In America Larkin would also connect his work with the IWW to the need for political representation, and was associated with the founding members of the American Communist Party. Upon his return to Ireland in 1923 Larkin would stand in election himself, initially under the Communist banner, and was finally elected as a TD for in 1943.

 Lockout and Larkinism Today

From the role of the trade union leadership to the task of linking industrial battles to the need for political representation, there are many lessons for 21st century socialists to take from the battles of the ITGWU.

While slowly rising, union membership in Britain remains historically low compared to the high marks of the 1970’s or 1980’s. Today over six million comprise the official union movement, still making it the largest mass organisation in Britain, yet it is largely confined to specific industries or the austerity embattled public sector.

Marxists understand that the reason the working class are the sole force in society able to bring about revolutionary change is due to their economic position and the potential power that brings. As long as this remains true the task of the socialist will always be to organise the workers at their strongest point, meaning that the union movement will always be the very core of any force which is able to change society. Therefore in the face of a conservative leadership, the task before the union movement is to make itself relevant to the mass of unorganised workers.

Edwardian Dublin and 21st century Britain are not the same place, yet the principles of turning towards unorganised workers without a traditional industrial base, through the promotion class unity and a fight for something more than just workplace improvement, resonates more than ever.

Take for example the role of the RMT union. In Britain today it is rivalled only by the PCS for its militancy and ability to both organise and win. Politically it stands above all other unions, having committed to solving the crisis in working class political representation. Since 2010 the union has backed the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), a small but important step down the road of building a new mass party for working people.

However, the RMT remains committed specifically to the transport sector. What if it were to emulate the example of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union? What if it were to make the turn Larkin and Connolly took in 1908 and open it’s doors to a general membership who are looking for a militant union to lead them?

What if such a union were to begin to compete for members with the likes of UNITE and UNISON in areas where they are complacent? What if such competition were to help push these Labour Party linked unions to the left, or at least put their leaders under pressure? What if the joining of a trade union was to become a political question? A member could join a union which is committed to socialist principles, which sees every battle as part of a wider struggle to transform society. Such a union would help transform the wider movement and hasten the development of a new political force which, to paraphrase Connolly, would echo the wider industrial battles.

It is the methods, the principles and the passionate vision which must become the legacy of Larkin, Connolly and the members of the ITGWU. Their fight one hundred years ago is one of the greatest chapters of our movement’s history. This year we must not only remember them, we must emulate them.

                                                                               

This article was written by Ben Norman and John Pickett and is an amended extract from John’s forthcoming pamphlet on the lessons of this era for building TUSC.

Read more about the ideas of Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the events of the Dublin Lockout here:

The real ideas of James Connolly: http://www.socialismtoday.org/100/connolly.html

Connolly Archive: http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/

Dublin Lockout: Interviews with Padraig Yeates: http://libcom.org/history/dublin-lockout-1913-interview-padraig-yeates