Why Lenin got Ireland wrong, part 2

Submitted by Matthew on 8 December, 2009 - 12:23 Author: Sean Matgamna

For decades Lenin’s small body of work on Ireland, filtered through a number of Stalinist pamphlets purporting to expound the ideas of “Marx, Engels and Lenin” on Ireland, has helped shape socialists’ views. In this, the second article in a series, Sean Matgamna argues that this “Marxist dogmatism” has meant, in fact, giving up on any serious attempt at Marxist analysis of Ireland.

Click here for part 1 of the article.
The attempt… to ‘fix’ for all time the point of view Marx held in a different epoch was an attempt to use the letter of Marxism against the spirit of Marxism.

Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination

After his two short pieces on the 1913 strike, Lenin’s comments on the Home Rule crisis of 1914 are his only other writings that can be construed as dealing concretely with Ireland, as distinct from using the relationship of “Ireland” to Britain, the British Empire, and the national question in general as an example of known value in a discussion of other questions.

These writings on the Home Rule crisis have had a great influence on Irish political life. “Communists” — that is, Stalinists dressed up as left-wing Catholic nationalists, working through various segments of the Republican movement — have had more influence on Irish politics, over more than 60 years, than their numbers would suggest, and more than the mass Irish identification of “communism” with the Devil would seem to allow.

Part of the reason for this is that the writings of Marx and Engels on Ireland and the record of their activity on Ireland’s behalf recommended “communism” to free-minded and perplexed Republicans; so did the record of the Communist International during Ireland’s war with Britain [1919-21]; so did Lenin’s theoretical work in defence of the right to self-determination for oppressed nations, which frequently cited Ireland’s right to self-determination as a basic model. And the casual journalism of Lenin — primarily the two articles on the Home Rule crisis — seemed to give secular reasons for lining up “communism” with “Republicanism” on its own nationalist terms. Lenin’s distant and essentially ignorant comments on Ireland’s Orange-Unionist minority seemed even to license Catholic chauvinism, if it were decently disguised as anti-imperialism. The Orange Unionists could, in Lenin as in the least enlightened old-style Catholic nationalist, be seen as the bad people of Ireland, deserving as little respect and consideration for their concerns and for what they were as Russia’s anti-Semitic pogromists with whom Lenin had identified them.

“Interpreted” to fit the politics of the Stalinist movement, Lenin’s passing comments have helped tie generations of Irish Marxists, and the successive waves of Republicans influenced by them, to an attitude towards the minority that was — though disguised as “anti-imperialism” and opposition to Protestant sectarianism — little better than the worst Orange attitude to the Catholics — the same attitude as that of the once very powerful Catholic “Orange Order”, the Ancient Order of Hibernians which had mobilised Catholic sectarianism against Larkin in 1913.

The Stalinists, and the “left” populist Republicans whom they influenced and, often, shaped, fell into a sort of hybrid Stalino-Hibernianism in which the casual words of Lenin in workaday articles were used against the key teachings on national and communal conflicts that Lenin had expounded in all his serious, scientific writings and embodied in the policies of the Bolshevik Party and of the revolutionary state established by the October revolution.

Lenin, the great and sincere enemy of all national narrowness and all chauvinism, thus had a malign effect on Irish working-class politics, contributing no small measure of poison to the bloodstream of modern Irish political life.

There is savage irony in this as in so much of the posthumous fate of Lenin’s teachings. Fundamental to what happened in 1914 was the existence of a compact, geographically concentrated, Irish minority, the Protestants of Ulster. The failure then of the two segments of the Irish people to establish viable democratic relations between themselves dominates Irish politics to this day. Both sides in Ireland were deflected from seeking such a democratic intra-Irish solution, and, in fact, demoralised, by alliances with British parties — the nationalists with the Liberals and the Orange with the Tories — and by the expectation that the strength of their British allies would win them an imposed solution.

Of all commentators, Lenin could be expected to anatomise the conflict within Ireland, between the peoples of Ireland. Lenin’s writings on issues of national liberation in the Tsarist empire and eastern Europe are remarkable for their sensitivity and for the precision with which he separates the entangled and confused issues. He is for national self-determination, that is, “consistent democracy” for peoples who lack national independence and want it. Marxists, he insists, must regulate their attitudes according to the democratic national aspirations of the people living in any particular area, not according to existing state boundaries. But he is no champion of nationalism of any sort. He quarrels with Rosa Luxemburg because she wanted the Russians to refuse to support Poland’s right to self-determination; he never tried to argue that Luxemburg and the Polish Marxists should themselves advocate Polish independence.

In eastern Europe and the Tsarist empire he deals with the complex interlacings in an intricate mosaic of peoples, nations and fragments of peoples and nations. He knows perfectly well that the oppressed of today can become the oppressors of tomorrow, and that within areas claimed by the oppressed there are often pockets of people for whom the oppressed are, immediately or potentially, oppressors. He called for “a struggle against the privileges and violence of the oppressing nation and no toleration of the striving for privilege on the part of the oppressed nation”; in a 1913 resolution the Bolshevik central committee made concrete proposals:

“In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making and strife, it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government… the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority. This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.”

Because of his background and his concern with the complexities of national and communal conflict in Russia and Eastern Europe, Lenin of all people should have understood the division in Ireland and pointed — as he did in all such matters when he focussed on them — to the need for a democratic solution. He did not. There is not a hint of it in what he wrote. He did not concern himself with relations within Ireland. He saw the mass popular Unionist movement, if he registered its real size and scope at all, as an appendage of “the landlords”.

What Lenin wrote seems, measured against the facts of the case, to contradict the entire spirit of his theoretical work on the national question and the policies he advocated on national and communal conflicts in Russia. To understand why, we must look closely at what he wrote.

Remember that Lenin in 1914 could not have dreamed that Irish communists would be influenced and guided by his casual pieces. He wrote them without the chance to study Irish conditions, or from so general, distant and “abstract” a point of view that parts of reality decisive for intra-Irish working-class politics were simply faded out of his picture. He wrote not to guide Irish socialists but to explain surprising and perplexing events to Russian workers in Russian terms. Even so, he got much of it wrong, and the blind spots are surprising given his basic teachings on the national question and the policy he followed in Russia.


In March and April 1914 Lenin wrote two articles on the Home Rule crisis — “The British Liberals and Ireland” and “Constitutional Crisis in Britain” — both, it seems, for the legal press in Russia. The first thing that strikes you about these articles is that they contradict things he had said in the 1913 pieces. The contradictions — assuming the translations are reliable — are flat, stark, black-on-white. Where he had talked about the Tories as the party of the British “bourgeois” opponents of Home Rule, he now puts it all down to the landlords. Where in 1913 he wrote: “The Irish nationalists (i.e. the Irish bourgeoisie) are the victors… buying up the land from the landlords…” he now writes as if this is against the will of the landlords and their party.

What — leaving Lenin aside for the moment — is happening in the “United Kingdom”? The Tory Party and the Northern Ireland Protestants are in open revolt, and building towards a triumphal ascendancy over the Liberal government, which will soon capitulate to them, betraying its nationalist Irish allies. Deprived of the Lords veto over House of Commons legislation, and with a solid Liberal/Home Rule majority in the Commons, the Tory Party and the Northern Ireland Unionists are openly preparing to launch an armed revolt by Protestant Ulster if the Liberal government insists on putting “Ulster” under a Dublin Catholic-majority government. They prepare an Ulster provisional government. They organise a powerful Protestant-Unionist militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force. With negligible exceptions all of Protestant Ulster, including the big majority of Ireland’s industrial workers, are behind this threatened rebellion against Irish Catholic majority rule.

The “constitutional crisis” is this series of events, and the threat of civil war and defiance of Parliament expressed by the Tory leader Bonar Law in the well-known words: “There are things stronger than Parliamentary majorities.”

In the first article, March 1914, following Karl Marx, Lenin begins his comments on the crisis by summarising the history of Britain’s long ill-treatment of the Irish people — massacre, starvation, forced emigration, and depopulation. To Russian workers — who must, the Bolshevik party repeatedly tells them, break down the walls of the “prison house of nations” and free the captive peoples — he cites Ireland as an instructive example of what the landlords and Liberal bourgeoisie of a ‘dominant’ nation will do. Britain built its early capitalist prosperity on robbing Ireland. Lenin makes a broad crude summing-up of this history — Britain flourished; Ireland remained an “undeveloped, half-wild, purely agrarian country.” And already here Lenin has lost his way.

This summary obscures a key fact for the crisis at hand: not all Ireland remained “undeveloped”. It is industrial Ireland that is now at the heart of resistance to all-Irish Home Rule, having abandoned the Unionists of the rest of Ireland to their fate. The radical economic distinction between industrial Ulster and agrarian Catholic Ireland underpins and gives much of its substance to the conflict of identities felt by the people of Ireland.

Significantly, Lenin is vague on detail. He even gets the date of the formation of the Fenians wrong, putting 1861 for 1858. He comments on the slowness of the Liberal reforms that began in 1868 and remain unfinished 50 years later. This is a point for Russia: don’t rely on liberal reforms.

Lenin now tells Russian workers of Karl Marx’s ideas on Ireland and of his support for the Fenians, citing his letter of 2 November 1867 when he declared for Home Rule. “I have done my best to bring about this demonstration of the English workers in favour of Fenianism… I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. Now I think it inevitable, although after the separation there may come federation.” Home Rule, agrarian reform, tariffs, and afterwards, maybe, federation between Britain and Ireland — that was Karl Marx’s programme for Ireland, Lenin explains. The British workers could never be free so long as they helped “or even” allowed their rulers to keep another nation in slavery.

When Lenin wrote this he was fighting against those liberals in Russia who advocated piecemeal reform of Tsarism. He was advocating a radical bourgeois revolution like that of France in 1789-93. [He will not come out for workers’ power in Russia until April 1917.]

For his Russian working-class audience, who know the Bolshevik case against Russian Liberalism, Lenin focuses on the failure of the British workers to organise independently of the Liberals as the explanation of the slow progress of the programme — Home Rule, agrarian reform, tariffs to allow Irish industry to develop — which Karl Marx had thought objectively necessary for Ireland. The Liberals have dragged out the business of Home Rule and agrarian reform for over half a century. Only in the 20th century has the farmer begun to turn into a free owner of land. But, says Lenin, “the Liberals” have saddled him with the system of buying out the landlords at a “fair” price “as a reward for having plundered him for centuries and reduced him to permanent starvation”. Lenin does not comment here on the bourgeois character of this land reform, creating many small landlords, or counterpose to it the socialist alternative of land nationalisation, though elsewhere he does, in passing.

More to the point here is that Lenin — whose whole article depends on the false idea that the Tories and the landlords resist Home Rule for purely old-style landlord reasons — attributes the land reform which he criticises to the Liberals, whereas the major land purchase initiative was organised by a Tory government, at the behest of the landlords, in 1903. While the Liberals initiated the first limited land purchases, the wholesale buying-out — “Wyndham Act” — after 1903 was a Tory measure.

Reporting that now a new Home Rule Bill is being considered, Lenin describes the opposition to it like this. “In Ireland there is a northern province called Ulster which is inhabited partly by people of English stock, Protestants as distinct from the Catholic Irishmen.” Led by “that Black Hundred landlord” Carson, the British Conservatives have “raised a frightful howl” against Home Rule because it means “they say, subjecting Ulstermen to alien people of alien faith. Lord Carson has threatened rebellion and has organised armed Black Hundred gangs for the purpose.” The Black Hundreds were Russia’s proto-fascist, pogrom-making, anti-semitic gangs, which were often organised by the police and had one of the Tsar’s family as their official patron.

What does Lenin think will happen? “This is an empty threat of course. There can be no question of a rebellion by a handful of hooligans”. In Russia certainly there could be no question of a rebellion by a handful of Black Hundred hooligans against the government which sponsored them.


On the level of facts, big and small, Lenin is badly ill-informed. Carson was a lawyer for landlords, but not a big landlord; and he was not a lord but a ‘sir.’ Is Lenin not aware of the scope and size of the Protestant-Irish movement against the British Liberal government? The description of Carson as “a Black Hundred landlord” is usually taken, not unreasonably, as a characterisation of the whole Unionist movement. This celebrated designation of the mass UVF, which involved large numbers of the Irish proletariat and had the backing of perhaps the majority of the industrial working class, as “Black Hundreds”, is a rendering of it into Russian terms that seriously distorts Irish reality.

Protestant bigotry, the age-old chauvinism of a self-designated master people, the Scots-Irish, against the “inferior” Irish Catholics — that was part of it, as was pogromist communal violence. In the Home Rule crisis, however, those “Scots-Irish” were the minority, threatened with inclusion against their will in a state to be ruled by those whom they considered aliens and whose “priest-ridden” oppression they feared. There were at least a million of them in north-east Ulster, the compact majority there. To identify this entire social movement — which included the big majority of Ireland’s sizeable industrial proletariat — with sectarian bigotry or with the bigoted hooligans who were part of it, by cramming it into inappropriate and false Russian analogies, is to so falsify reality that it makes what follows impossible to explain. When the Liberal government eventually backs down, Lenin will be unable to comprehend why, or what class forces were involved.

In 1913 Lenin had written that “national oppression and Catholic reaction have turned the [Irish] proletarians… into paupers, the peasants into… ignorant and dull slaves of the priesthood…” Might not a minority have reason to fear the rule of such a majority? No, says Lenin in 1914.

There “could [not] be any question of an Irish parliament, whose power is determined by British law, ‘oppressing’ the Protestants.” Why not? Britain will not allow it! Their ultimate guarantee lies not in Ireland but in the British parliament, in the very limits of the Home Rule on offer to Ireland. What would Lenin have said had he lived to comment on the Free State which, within three years of independence, in 1925, suppressed the civil right of the minorities to divorce?

Just as in the 1913 article Lenin shrugs off mass Catholic-Irish nationalism, because Home Rule will dissipate it — has, he seems to say, casting its shadow ahead, effectively dissolved it — here he shrugs off the mass north-east Ulster opposition to Home Rule. He reports it falsely; he minimises it; he dismisses it on the grounds that it is archaic, anachronistic, senseless. He sees it as a mere reflection of the British struggle. Even if Home Rule means, as he wrote in 1913, Irish bourgeois rule “together with their priests”, he — without referring back to what he wrote in 1913 — reassures his Russian readers that their power will be “determined” and limited by British law.

One gets the feeling here, on the very eve of the great descent into European barbarism that began in August 1914, that Lenin is rejecting out of hand the very idea that it is possible for a society to regress, to experience the sort of fall from civilised liberal bourgeois (19th century British!) standards which capitalist, priest and peasant rule in the South would actually bring about — just as Orange rule in the Northern Ireland state would force half a million Catholics into second-class citizenship for fifty years and more. Did Lenin know about the terrible role of the priests in the later stages of the 1913 strike? [see Socialist Organiser no.535, 23 September 1992].

But what is the Home Rule crisis about? Lenin presents the issue simply as one of the “Black Hundred” landlords trying to frighten the Liberals. But why, given that, as he notes elsewhere, the landlords are being bought out? Why do they object? From where does the force of their resistance , and its mass working-class base, derive? It is not clear; he does not try to explain it. But in the back of Lenin’s mind may be Marx’s scenario about Irish self-government leading to an agrarian revolution, which of course the landlords would fear. And the Liberals? They “are quaking, bowing to the Black Hundreds, making concessions to them, offering to take a referendum in Ulster and to postpone the application of the referendum to Ulster for six years!” But why is Ulster the focus of the resistance by “the landlords” of all Ireland? These are the questions that erode Lenin’s scenario; and he does not ask them.

Since it is admitted that the Northern Ireland Protestants are people different from the rest of the Irish, how considering his usual approach to such questions, can Lenin’s dismissal of their concerns as mere “hooliganism”, and his implied wish for the Liberals to deal more harshly and effectively with them, possibly square with his commitment to consistent democracy? It does not. He simply does not address this question.

He is focusing on the dynamics of the party struggle — on Liberal weakness and surrender. He sees the “Orange card” as it has been played since Randolph Churchill played it in 1886, as an argument against Home Rule for any part of Ireland; and that is all he sees. His lack of detailed knowledge about the Irish labour movement — seemingly not knowing about the Irish unions’ decision to set up a Labour Party, for example — or about Tory and landlord responsibility for the great acceleration after 1903 in divesting the landlords of ownership, indicates that he might even not know about the Unionist split whereby the compact body of Ulster Unionists abandoned the thinly-spread Unionists of the rest of Ireland. When everything is said, the article represents a retreat from the consistent democracy which Lenin normally advocated in such matters when he knew what the issues were.

The Liberals and Black Hundreds haggle, Lenin says, while the Irish are made to wait: “After all, one must not offend the landlords!” Yet it is not only or mainly a matter of landlords, neither in Ireland, where the core of effective rebellion is industrial Ireland, nor in Britain. The Tory party is no longer the landlords’ party Lenin here says it is. It is the central party of the bourgeoisie and of the long-bourgeoisified landlords.

It may be that this was something left out as a confusing detraction from the sharp clear pictures that best served Lenin’s purposes in Russia, as something Lenin did not need to deal with. But the “clarity” of the illustration for Russian politics confuses the picture of Ireland. It makes Lenin’s picture of Ireland poisonous as a guide for Irish socialists or republicans.

Lenin studied the writings of Marx and Engels. He had not long before written a review of their collected letters when they were published in Germany. He treated what they wrote with the respect due to them (as, from us now to Lenin himself). Where he departed from them — because conditions have changed: rejecting the idea of a peaceful revolution in Britain, which Marx had believed possible in his day, for example — he noted it. Here he ignores what Engels had written in a letter 20 years before:

“The Tories are no longer the mere tail of the big landowners as they were until 1850; … the big bourgeoisie… all went over to the Tory camp between 1855 and 1870… Since Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1886 the last remnants also of the Whigs and the old Liberals (bourgeois and intellectuals) have gone over to the Tory camp…” (Letter to Bebel, 5 July 1892).

What does Lenin suggest that the Liberals should do instead of haggling with the “Black Hundreds”? The Liberals should “appeal to the people of Britain, to the proletariat.” If they did, “Carson’s Black Hundred gangs would melt away immediately and disappear. The peaceful and full achievement of freedom by Ireland would be guaranteed.” But the Liberal bourgeoisie will not turn for aid to the proletariat against the landlords. In Britain the Liberals “are lackeys of the moneybags, capable only of cringing to the Carsons.” In fact all Lenin’s calculations here are implausible, premised as they are on the radically false notion that it is all a matter of landlord reactionaries against the people and against “Ireland”, and not what it was, a Tory alliance with an important part of the living people of Ireland. All his comments are comments on a different situation. His solutions are solutions for a different situation.

Though in Lenin’s works there is simply no comment at all on the 1909-11 political crisis in Britain, this important event shaped and conditioned the “constitutional crisis” over Home Rule. The Home Rule crisis developed in the way it did, at the time it did, because of the struggle by the Liberal House of Commons majority in 1909-11 against the Lords — which had the backing of the Tories — to win sole rule by the House of Commons. Even though it was a blatant and clear-cut question of democracy, and had no nationalist complications involving England’s old enemy, Ireland, the Liberal majority had been destroyed in the General Elections of 1910. The Irish Home Rule party now had the power to dictate the agenda of the minority Liberal government,. That was what ignited the Home Rule crisis. The Tory demand in 1914 was for no Home Rule without a general election; their aim was to bring down the government.

Revolutionaries, in contrast with the Liberals, would have done things differently in the crisis of 1909-11, aiming for a thoroughgoing cleansing of Britain from the pseudo-feudal lumber of monarchy and Lords, but on the issue on which they fought — the sovereign rule of the elected parliamentary chamber — the Liberals did not surrender to the reactionaries and anti-democrats. They fought them and they defeated them. For the Tories, the Home Rule crisis was the second round of the contest. If the Liberals behaved differently in the second round, it can not be explained just by their nature as Liberals.

The most indicative thing about Lenin’s article is what shapes it: it is always concerned to damn the Russian liberals by showing up the Liberals in Britain. The comments about the slowness of Liberal reform and Liberal submission to the landlords conveys a message to the Russian reader about Russia, not directly about Britain or Ireland. The result is that Lenin imposes Russian patterns which do not fit the Irish-British events on which he hangs his “lessons” for Russia.

That, in my opinion, is why this March 1914 article is so seriously inaccurate. Much of the inaccuracy in Lenin’s picture derives directly from his drive to assimilate British-Irish reality to Russian conditions and to use it to teach lessons about Russian politics.

Though he mentions the agrarian reform, Lenin proceeds as if 1914 Ireland were the same landlords’ paradise it was when Marx was writing. As we have seen, Lenin does not discuss, nor even explicitly register, the fact that though most Irish landlords opposed Home Rule, the strong base of opposition was industrial north-east Ulster — and had been since the first Home Rule Bill thirty years earlier.

While falsely and self-contradictorily depicting the Liberals as bourgeois and the Tory-Unionists as landlords, Lenin simply ignores the Irish industrial bourgeoisie — though it was precisely industrial Ireland, including its working class, that opposed Home Rule, seeing Catholic-majority Ireland as agrarian, priest-ridden, and hopelessly infested with corrupt politicians.

I repeat, you cannot make sense of this inaccuracy — by one who normally was so sharp and penetrating — without understanding that this is not really an article about Ireland. Lenin is writing not only for but also heavily about Russia. Lenin does not set himself to examine Irish reality in a scientific, historical, factual spirit: he constructs and writes a parable for Russia, about Russian liberalism, based on a very superficial reading of current events, culled from newspaper reports, grafted on to Karl Marx’s analysis of a very different Ireland. He is not writing seriously about Irish reality, and not at all to guide Irish socialists.

He writes, ostensibly to explain the Home Rule crisis, about an Ireland in which the Dublin strike is grinding to a halt, after the workers have been starved, beaten, abused and subjected to sectarian witch-hunting by the Irish nationalist bourgeoisie — of whom Murphy was one of the most enlightened, in political terms — and the Catholic church, but without reference to his own description of Home Rule as the rule of the Catholic bourgeois and the priests, and without reference even to the experience of the strike with rampant Catholic sectarianism. This actual Ireland does not enter Lenin’s picture. His picture of the nature of Liberals in general and Russian liberals in particular has enough truth in it to serve his purpose and justify his comments, but he uses it falsely as a central explanation for the whole series of events.

In Lenin, the British and Irish actors are everywhere stamped with the values and dressed up in the garb of those he thinks of as their Russian equivalents — cowardly Liberals, reactionary landlords, Black Hundreds. Those who try to follow “Lenin” in understanding Ireland are really imposing Russian patterns on it. In the ’20s, and for decades after, the Stalinists would take Lenin’s comments, with their massive element of reading Russia onto Ireland, and, by way of the populist left Republicans, make this essentially fantastic misreading a factor in Irish politics and in the Catholic “Republican” mythology that helped shape events in the North after 1969.

Karl Marx once wrote that the historical past lies like a nightmare on the brains of the living. In Lenin’s writings on Ireland Russia lies like a dark distorting shadow, and circumstances would ensure that the shadow then cast was projected down the decades.


The second article, “Constitutional Crisis in Britain”, was written a month later (23 April, 1914). Lenin begins by summarising the article above, which was, he says, concerned with “the policy of the British Liberals, who allowed themselves to be scared by the Conservatives.” In a month, events “have transformed that particular conflict [between the Liberals and the Conservatives] over the question of Home Rule for Ireland into a general constitutional crisis in Britain.” In fact, the previous article had presented it as rather more than a party conflict.

The Conservatives threatened a “Protestant rebellion in Ulster”. At the Curragh, “Generals and other British army officers mutinied”, saying they would resign rather than fight Protestant Ulster. “The Liberal government was absolutely stunned by the ‘revolt of the landlords’ [my emphasis] who are at the head of the army.

“The Liberals are accustomed to console themselves with constitutional illusions and phrases about the rule of law, and close their eyes to the real relation of forces, to the class struggle. And this real relation of forces has been and remains such that, owing to the cowardice of the bourgeoisie, a number of pre-bourgeois [Lenin’s emphasis], medieval institutions and privileges of Messrs. the landlords have been preserved in Britain.” In fact, of course, the British Liberals, far from closing their eyes to the class struggle, conduct the class struggle of the bourgeoisie against the workers. Large numbers of British workers, and not only the far left, would be very surprised at the notion that the Liberals — who, after the fashion in those days, often used troops against workers — “closed their eyes” to the class struggle.

Evidently Lenin here too has Russian Liberals in mind, and a Russian notion of “the (landlord) Establishment” and the opposition to it. For the actual British conditions his description is radically misleading; but, once again, it is not to British workers that Lenin addresses himself. Understand that, and everything falls into place.

What should the Liberals have done? “To suppress the revolt of the aristocratic officers the Liberals should have appealed to the people, to the mass, to the proletariat.” But Liberals feared them more than anything. Instead, Lenin says, of rousing the people in order (so Lenin implies but does not say) to complete the bourgeois revolution and cleanse the state of archaic landlord influences; instead of that, the government gave written assurances to mutinous officers that they would not be used “against Unionists”. “The Liberals yielded to the landlords, who had torn up the constitution.”

Lenin summarises Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald “that very moderate MP”. “These people were always ready to howl against strikers; but when it was a matter of Ulster they refused to fulfil their duty because the Irish Home Rule Bill affected their class prejudices and interests.” Lenin adds his own elucidation to MacDonald’s words: “The landlords in Ireland are British, and Home Rule for Ireland would mean Home Rule for the Irish bourgeoisie and peasants, which would threaten to curtail somewhat the voracious appetites of the noble lords.”

This is a basic explanation of what is happening and why — but, yet again, Lenin writes as if the landlords are not being voluntarily bought out (at the suggestion of a representative gathering of landlords and tenants’ leaders), as if the mass opposition to Home Rule in industrial north-east Ireland does not exist, and as if an Irish bourgeoisie does not exist throughout the island, the people whom he wrote about in 1913, committed to bourgeois law and order and landlord property rights. Lenin continues his summary of Ramsay MacDonald’s speech: “These people thought only of fighting the workers, but when it was a matter of compelling the rich and the property-owners [my emphasis] to respect the law they refused to do their duty.”

Lenin now summarises the lesson of “the landlords’ revolt against the British Parliament”, assimilating a factually false account of what happened and why to basic Marxist ideas about the state and class struggle. Deservedly much quoted because it encapsulates an understanding of class society and class struggle in general, this has nevertheless little to do with understanding Ireland.

March 31 was the day the “noble landlords of Britain smashed the British constitution and British law to bits and gave an excellent lesson in class struggle.” British workers would learn the lesson and “quickly shake off their philistine faith in the scrap of paper called the British law and constitution which the British aristocrats [my emphasis] have torn up before the eyes of the whole people. These aristocrats behaved like revolutionaries of the right and thereby shattered all conventions, all veneers, that prevented the people from seeing the unpleasant but undoubtedly real class struggle… Everybody saw that the conspiracy to break the will of Parliament had been prepared long ago. Real class rule lay and still lies outside [Lenin’s emphasis] Parliament.”

Indeed, but not with the landlords, who are anyway, in Britain, closely entangled with the industrial bourgeoisie. The problem with taking these words as a true account of what has just happened in Ireland is that Lenin’s picture of the crisis as a class struggle of bourgeois Liberals against landlord Tories is simply wrong. It is nearer the truth to say that it was the north-east Ulster “men of no property” who tore up the constitution. If they were dupes of their leaders, they were duped into fighting not for landlord concerns but for interests which they saw as their own, which were necessarily antagonistic to the rest of the Irish.

Hunting liberals, desiring to show up liberals in general — he will bring in Germany and Russia in the next paragraph — Lenin now presents a fantastic picture of Britain in 1914, wildly extrapolating and exaggerating from the very limited Curragh Mutiny. “The above-mentioned medieval institution [i.e. the army officer caste] which for long had been inactive (or rather seemed to be inactive), quickly came into action and proved to be stronger [Lenin’s emphasis] than Parliament. And Britain’s petty bourgeois Liberals, with their speeches about reforms and the might of Parliament that lull the workers, proved in fact to be frauds, straw men put up to bamboozle the people. They were quickly shut up by the aristocracy, the men in power.”

What determined what the government did, in fact, was the realisation that, if they did not back down, they would have to use large-scale force in north-east Ulster, and to repress there, at the cost perhaps of major civil war, the principle of self-determination which was being granted to the rest of Ireland, and the fact the British MPs in the House of Commons were split down the middle on the issue. They were in what they saw as an untenable position.

Lenin now gets to what is plainly for him the main interest in the subject: the German and Russian liberals have written books for decades praising British and French liberalism as the ideal to strive for and preaching truth and justice, “above classes.” Remember that at that time it was central to the propaganda of the Bolsheviks — who still saw the coming Russian revolution as a bourgeois revolution — to fight against “liberal” compromises and reforms of Tsarism on the Prussian model. In fact, Lenin insists, British law and social peace were “the result of the slavery of the British proletarians between the 1850s and 1900s”. But now the workers are awakening. “The constitutional crisis of 1914 will be an important stage in the history of that awakening.”


These two groups of articles on Bloody Sunday [Workers’ Liberty 22] and on the Home Rule crisis constitute the nearest Lenin ever came to dealing with concrete internal Irish affairs. As I’ve already said, for the rest, Ireland is a cipher, a ‘given’ in discussions on self-determination or on agriculture.

Lenin’s basic politics on Ireland he took from Marx and Kautsky: he never made any analysis of Ireland; his most concrete writings deal with facets of Irish reality, with aspects — not rounded accounts — of events. He does not even correlate the facets he sketches in the different articles — for example, his comments on the Home Rule bourgeoisie and the priests in the 1913 articles, with the Protestant revolt in the north. Inter-Irish relations are not the facet that interests him — the sins of liberalism in general and in particular of Russian liberals are what concern him, with British/Irish affairs as “illustrations.” Faced with the Home Rule crisis, and the startling depth and suddenness of that crisis — everyone from James Connolly through Patrick Pearse to Ramsay McDonald had thought all-Ireland Home Rule a certainty — Lenin reverted from the more concrete sketch of features of Ireland which he drew in 1913 to the “Ireland” he found in Marx. He would also have been influenced by the politics which Marx, who died in 1883, emphasised as the way forward for the English workers, a resumption of the Chartist struggle for democracy. Marx’s ideas on Ireland were one facet of those politics.

For Lenin’s purposes, taking Ireland as a ready-made “illustration” was perfectly legitimate. He had established his basic view of Russian liberalism by concrete analysis of Russian history and conditions, not by analogy with the British Liberals in 1914. The education of the Russian labour movement in a proper distrust and contempt for the Russian liberals — that was Lenin’s central, and proper, concern. He was writing hurried journalism, not scientific analysis.

Writing in 1932 about how Lenin could have failed — as he did fail — to understand the struggle of Rosa Luxemburg against Karl Kautsky and the tokenistic “orthodox” Marxists of the German Social Democracy, Trotsky explained it in terms of Lenin’s almost blinkered concentration on Russian affairs. “Lenin did not participate in the fight and did not support Rosa Luxemburg up to 1914. Passionately absorbed in Russian affairs, he preserved extreme caution in international matters” (“Hands off Rosa Luxemburg”, Writings 1932, p.133).

Another possible explanation, or part of it, for the running together of Russia and Ireland in these writings of Lenin may be his desire to say as much as possible, even obliquely, about Russia despite the pressure of Tsarist censorship. The exigencies of legality would exert a powerful distorting pressure in the direction of constructing Aesopian parables about Russia in guise of international commentary.

The fault for the subsequent malign effects of these workaday commentaries from afar lies not with Lenin, who in 1914 could have had no inkling that Irish revolutionaries would be taught to look to his didactic “Russian” articles for analysis of Irish reality, but with the later canonisation of such fleeting journalism by Lenin’s epigones into something it was not, could not be, and was not intended by Lenin to be: a balanced, comprehensive, fully informed, scientific, rounded account of “Ireland.” Lenin’s articles were not that even for the particular events he covers.

His comments on ‘1913’ were very far from being either an adequate account of the Dublin labour war as a whole, or “Leninist.” So too with his handling of “Ulster.” In both cases he never returned to make fuller and rounded assessments. He treated ‘Ireland’ essentially as a mere aspect of the British constitutional crisis; he ignored his own comments in 1913 on the priests and the Irish bourgeoisie, which would have shed some light on the intra-Irish aspect of the crisis he looks at in outline.

The proof and measure of the journalistic self-limits Lenin confined himself to here is seen unmistakeably in his failure to make any overall balance sheet in the light of Karl Marx’s expectation that Home Rule would trigger revolt against the landlords which would spread and trigger a cleansing democratic movement in Britain. If Lenin had seen his articles as “scientific” and programmatic, he would surely have worked through these issues.

Contrast the way that Lenin works through Karl Marx’s ideas in his discussion with Rosa Luxemburg on self-determination, measuring, comparing, drawing a balance sheet, pointedly not considering the question closed by Marx’s comments from decades before in support of the Polish national struggle. In that discussion too his prime concern was Russia; but in these pieces he dealt with 'theory'; in the articles considered above, he produced mere journalistic commentary worked up into 'parables' to illustrate Russian questions.

If you read Lenin's texts in a "Leninist" way, critically measuring them against reality, there is no mystery. Leave aside the received wisdom of the left, including the "Trotskyist" left - which is in fact heavily under the sway of Stalinism and populist-republicanism on the question - and it is perfectly plain what Lenin is doing and why.

Click here for part 1 of the article.

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