Workers Unite, the Power of a United Working Class
The following speech was delivered by Comrade Gerry Grainger at the Workers’ Party commemoration in Belfast on 1st April 2018.
Oration by Comrade Gerry Grainger, Chair of Belfast Region, Secretary of International Affairs Department, member of Central Executive Committee of the Workers’ Party
Each Easter the Workers Party assembles to commemorate an important event in our history, to remember our comrades whose many sacrifices built and preserved our revolutionary party, to learn the lessons of history and to chart the future direction of our struggle.
In 2018, as in 1916, the events confronting the working class in Ireland do not stand in isolation from the rest of the world. The early years of the twentieth century witnessed deep changes in the development of human society. The Western hemisphere, the continent of Africa, the Indian sub-continent and large parts of Asia had been colonised by Europeans.
Underlying this development was an economic process which witnessed a transformation from agrarian-based societies to a global economy.
In the 1870s, Britain was the dominant capitalist economy on the world stage. By 1913 she had been overtaken by the USA and Germany.
When Connolly returned to Europe from America it was once again a Europe with revolution in the air. In 1910 there were strikes by British workers – cotton workers, boiler makers and Welsh miners. In July and August 1911 there were huge strikes of dockers, carters and seamen and a four-day railway strike that paralysed most of industrial England. The economic decline of the UK; the growing inequality; the steady fall in the real value of wages; the growth of trade unionism and militant political ideas were significant factors in these developments.
In Germany, from 1910 onwards, the discussion on the concept of the mass strike and revolution re-emerged under the pressure of rising unemployment and falling wages.
In 1911 a wave of student strikes shook Russia. On 4 April 1912 soldiers had opened fire on workers in Siberia killing 270 and injuring 250 more. Despite government repression there were more than 3,000 strikes in Russia in 1912 with more than one million workers on strike. By 1913 there were 2 million workers on strike. In 1914 there were further strikes, mass demonstrations, lock-outs and mass dismissals. These actions were interrupted by a general mobilisation declared on 17 July 1914 and on 19 July Germany declared war on Russia.
Labour organisation in Ireland at the time generally reflected the state of Irish industry, a commercial, distributive and shipping centre, based on servicing, processing and transporting agricultural commodities rather than a developed industrial base. In the six north-eastern counties there had been a process of industrialisation from the 1820s, a process reinforced by the mechanisation of the linen industry and the related manufacture of textile machinery and the development of iron and steel shipbuilding and marine engineering. Unlike Dublin, Belfast was a product of the industrial revolution.
James Connolly moved to Belfast in 1911 with his family, taking up residence, not far from here, at Glenalina Terrace. His successful work with the female mill-workers and the strike which had raised their consciousness and organisational capability was a testament to his tenacity and ability as an organiser.
In Dublin thousands of families lived in impoverished conditions. Dublin was a slum city, a metropolis of squalid poverty and wretchedness with the worst urban mortality rate in the British Isles. Twenty five per cent of Dublin families lived in one-room tenements occupied by more than four people, homeless children begged in the streets. When the High Sheriff of Dublin ran for election for the increasingly nationalist Dublin Corporation Connolly said: “Scully is running in the interests of the United Irish League and high rents, slum tenements, rotten staircases, stinking yards, high death rates, low wages, Corporation jobbery, and margarine wrapped in butter-paper.”
Catholic nationalism, both through its bishops and politicians, had set its face against secular social welfare reform. Despite the challenging conditions which they faced, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, through vigorous political and union organisation, conducted a powerful campaign of industrial agitation and strikes.
In August 1913, the employers, led by William Martin Murphy, decided to crush the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Murphy told workers from his newspaper company that they must resign from the union or be sacked. Workers were also asked to sign a written assurance that they would not strike. When the union responded, Murphy locked out all employees of the despatch department who were union members. When 700 tram workers walked off their trams, the Employers Federation locked out their employees. By 22nd September 2013, some 25,000 Dublin workers were affected and around 27 unions were locked out. In an open act of class war the employers’ organisations were attempting the total destruction of the trade union movement. A warrant was issued for Larkin’s arrest on a charge of “seditious conspiracy” and he was subsequently arrested and dragged from the balcony of the Imperial Hotel where he was attempting to address a meeting on O’Connell Street which was then attacked mercilessly and indiscriminately by police.
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, a passionate advocate of women’s suffrage, wrote: “The general lock-out had developed into a mass resistance to the employers’ onslaught on trade unionism and personal liberty and throughout the world Dublin and Liberty hall had become the symbol and the standard bearer of trade unionism in a battle for its very existence.”
Connolly too was arrested and imprisoned. While Pearse, Plunkett, MacDonagh and others spoke out in favour of the workers, the activities of Connolly and Larkin and the resistance of the workers incurred the anger of the capitalist class, both unionist and nationalist. Arthur Griffith, representing Sinn Fein, launched a vituperative attack on Connolly, Larkin and the Irish labour movement even going so far as to comment that he would like to see the workers bayoneted.
Although the lock out was ultimately lost, as Connolly wrote “the working class has lost none of its aggressiveness, none of its confidence, none of its hope in the ultimate triumph …” In March 1914 Larkin and Connolly reconstituted the Irish Citizen Army and the new constitution declared “That the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland”.
The Socialist Party of Ireland, of which Connolly was national organiser, stated in its Manifesto: “The Socialist Party of Ireland seeks to organise the workers of this country, irrespective of creed or race, into one great Party of Labour. It believes that the dependence of the working class upon the owners of capitalist property, and the desire of these capitalists and landowners to keep the vast mass of the people so subject and dependent, is the great and abiding cause of all our modern social and political evils – of nearly all modern crime, mental degradation, religious strife, and political tyranny. Recognising this, it counsels the Irish working class to follow the example of the workers in every civilised country in the world, whether subject or free, and organise itself industrially and politically with the end in view of gaining control and mastery of the entire resources of the country. Such is our aim: such is Socialism.”
The same Manifesto declared – “We live in times of political change, and even of political revolution. More and more civic and national responsibility is destined to be thrust upon, or won by, the people of Ireland. Old political organisations will die out and new ones must arise to take their place; old party rallying cries and watchwords are destined to become obsolete and meaningless, and the fires of old feuds and hatreds will pale and expire before the newer conceptions born of a consciousness of our common destiny. In this great awakening of Erin, Labour, if guided by the lamp of Socialist teaching, may set its feet firmly and triumphantly upon the path that leads to its full emancipation. But if Labour does not rise to the occasion, and allows itself to be swallowed up in and identified with new political alignments, scattering and dissipating its forces instead of concentrating them upon Socialist lines, then indeed will our last state be worse than our first.”
In 1914 more than 200,000 Irishmen marched off to fight for the British Empire in the great imperialist war. They went to war expecting to achieve contradictory things. The Irish nationalists had been told by their leader, John Redmond, that if they fought for the British Empire, they would secure their own parliament for Ireland within the British Empire, Home Rule. The Irish unionists had been told by their leader, Edward Carson, that if they fought for the British Empire, then they would be saved from Home Rule, and would continue to be part of the British state. The First World War divided the working class across Europe; the betrayal by many social democrats, who abandoned the principle of proletarian internationalism, helped imperialism successfully exploit nationalism to mobilise workers to kill each other in the interests of monopoly capitalism.
Lenin saw this, as did Connolly. Lenin, Connolly, John McClean in Scotland and Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany were among those who spoke out against the war.
Connolly, disgusted by the betrayal by the Second International, wrote:
“What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future? Were they all as sound and fury signifying nothing?” (Forward, 15 August 1914) Connolly served neither King nor Kaiser but the Irish working class.
The First World War was not about the freedom of small nations, the defence of European civilisation or protecting democracy. The First World War was the inevitable outcome of the political, social and economic forces produced by capitalism in the previous decades: it was, first and foremost, about imperialist powers seeking to seize control of the world’s markets, natural resources and productive capacity. In The War and Russian Social-Democracy published in November 1914 Lenin stated:
“The European War, which the governments and the bourgeois parties of all countries have been preparing for decades, has broken out. The growth of armaments, the extreme intensification of the struggle for markets in the latest – the imperialist – stage of capitalist development in the advanced countries, and the dynastic interests of the more backward East-European monarchies were inevitably bound to bring about this war, and have done so.
It was against this backdrop that the Easter Rising took place. For Connolly it was a step towards “the final dethronement of the vulture class that rule and rob the world”. When it was condemned by many social democrats as a “putsch” Lenin attacked that condemnation as “monstrously doctrinaire and pedantic”, stating that: “The struggle of the oppressed nations of Europe, a struggle capable of going to the length of insurrection and street fighting, of breaking down the iron discipline in the army and martial law, will sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe … The misfortune of the Irish is they have risen prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat have not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats.”
James Connolly stood with the working class. He recognised that there was only one alternative: Socialism. He wrote: “Scientific Socialism is based upon the truth incorporated in this proposition of Karl Marx, that, “the economic dependence of the workers on the monopolists of the means of production is the foundation of slavery in all its forms, the cause of nearly all social misery, modern crime, mental degradation and political dependence.”
Marx and Engels pointed out the driving force of modern history is the struggle between classes and the conflict of their interests. It is our task to make clear to workers that the crisis is systemic, that it did not arise by mismanagement or accident and we must strive to raise class consciousness and to place the people’s struggles manifestly and openly in the arena of class struggle.
We must assert without equivocation that the interests of the capitalist class and the working class are mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable. It is the task of workers in the class struggle to bring about the transition from capitalism to socialism and in order to do this the working class must take power into its hands.
Political struggle is impossible without an ideological struggle. Building a socialist society means abolishing private ownership of the means of production and the exploiter class. A socialist society is built on workers’ power and the construction of a socialist society necessarily involves a revolutionary transformation in which there is a transition of state power from the capitalist class to the workers.
The Workers’ Party is committed to the primacy of a secular, socialist society based on principles of equality and justice. Our ideology is founded on the politics of class. We subscribe to the creation of a working class, united and indivisible, which has sufficient power and political class consciousness to transform the society in which we live. In order to transform society it is necessary to have an understanding of the world. Every step or action that encourages, incites or promotes division on grounds of religion, gender or race is an obstacle to building a united working class and a gain for the politics of division.
In Northern Ireland we stand resolutely against sectarianism and for a Bill of Rights, rights which must also address the demands of women and, in particular, family planning and reproductive rights and the right of women to full and equal participation in political decision-making and public life. It must address the rights of workers and encompass core trade union rights. Workers must have the right to organise, to freely establish their own governance and rules of procedure, to freely organise their administration, activities and programmes of work, to organise in workplaces and engage in collective bargaining on behalf of trade union members, to strike in defence of their own interests and in solidarity with other workers.
As in Connolly’s time, we must be alert to the dangers from reformism and opportunism. The ambition of the social democrats, even those more radical elements which have emerged in several countries in response to the crisis, is at best to stabilise and to manage the crisis. The seduction of nationalism and its poisonous, divisive false flags and messages remain an ever present danger. It is in the interests of the working-class to oppose nationalism and espouse instead the concept of socialist internationalism, the class solidarity of the working people of all nations and peoples in the struggle against the rule of capital. Across this island today there are many who will shed crocodile tears for nationalism’s emblematic fourth “green field” but who are content to disregard the suffering of the people and who are implacably opposed to Connolly’s vision of a Workers’ Republic. Connolly saw though those people.
Writing in “Workers’ Republic” in 1990 Connolly said: “Ireland without her people is nothing to me, and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland’, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation wrought upon the people of Ireland, aye, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is, in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements which he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’.
When Socialism is realised every child in our Irish soil will by the mere fact of its existence be an heir to, and partner in, all the country produces; will have the same right to an assured existence as the citizen has today to his citizenship – in fact that will then be the right of citizenship, the right to live in the country, and the right to enjoy those fruits of labour the country will yield to its children.”
In May 1914 Lenin wrote: “The class-conscious workers fight hard against every kind of nationalism, both the crude, violent, Black-Hundred nationalism, and that most refined nationalism which preaches the equality of nations together with … the splitting up of the workers’ cause, the workers’ organisations and the working-class movement according to nationality.”
Capitalism, the cause of our political, social and economic ills, the source of unremitting exploitation and oppression, cannot be reformed out of existence. It must be abolished and replaced. We believe in revolutionary socialism – a system of workers’ power, where workers and oppressed peoples own and control everything, where the wealth of society is used for the benefit of the many, not the profit of the few.
Just as our comrades discovered over 100 years ago, we are entering into a period of both increasing class tension, and increasing possibility.
It is not enough to remember the past and it is impossible to recreate it. If we wish to construct a Workers’ Republic then we must actively work to build the Party on a clear and unequivocal class analysis and based on a coherent ideological socialist programme. As Connolly realised, there are no shortcuts, there is no mystical Aladdin’s lamp, there are no nescafé solutions. The realisation of our political objectives requires finance, organisation and hard work. That is the hard graft of a revolutionary party committed to fulfil the historic mission of our class.
In 2018 the people are faced again with poverty, unemployment, homelessness, precarious work, attacks on social spending in health, education and welfare, gross inequalities of wealth and income and assaults on women’s and workers’ rights. The struggle against sectarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia, the struggle for civil rights in which our Party has been so closely involved, including the demand for a democratic, secular, socialist society built on the concept of citizenship and a Bill of Rights, remain a constant focus for our Party.
Lenin defined imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism and identified its characteristics. He saw that that war is an inevitable and pre-eminent characteristic of contemporary capitalism. The increased aggressiveness of imperialism poses a real and urgent threat to the interests of all humanity. There has been an immense increase in the militarization of capitalist society since the Second World War. The prospect of war, the threat to Irish neutrality, the attempts to rehabilitate Redmond and Redmondism, the attempts by media and government to draw us closer to NATO and a European army, the Irish government’s supine response to the British government’s expulsion of Russian diplomats, and its efforts to mimic and accommodate imperialist interests, including the imperialist designs of the US and the European Union, are a stark reminder of the past and the threats we face under current conditions.
But each day we must start out hopeful, confident in our cause, strengthened and emboldened by the ideas of Marx, Lenin and Connolly. Let us conclude with the words of Connolly: “the working class has lost none of its aggressiveness, none of its confidence, none of its hope in the ultimate triumph …”
A socialist future will be ours.