Thursday, March 31, 2016

Founding myths (2016)

Book Review from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Who’s Afraid of the Easter Rising? 1916-2016'. By James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney. Zero Books, 2015, £11.99.

Socialists will not like this book, because of its relentless pro-Irish Republican stance.  Those who took part in the  armed uprising in Dublin at Easter in 1916 were, we are told, ‘heroes’ and ‘freedom fighters’ who fought for a ‘noble cause’. Certainly, those prepared to die for their beliefs deserve some respect, but what was the ‘noble’ cause? What was the ‘freedom’ they died for?

The rebels proclaimed an ‘Irish Republic’ from the steps of the GPO. The proclamation was a typical bourgeois-revolutionary text. The freedom and equality it invoked were merely the same as those of the bourgeois-revolutionaries who set up the first French Republic in 1793 – freedom from hereditary and alien rulers and equality before the law and in the marketplace. The aim was set up an independent, capitalist Irish state. It had nothing to do with socialism despite the participation of the one-time revolutionary socialist James Connolly; in fact, in participating in it he could be said to have betrayed the cause of the working class and socialism.

The authors make another extravagant, though less implausible, claim for the uprising: that it was anti-war and anti-imperialist, ‘the first open revolt against Europe’s warlords’, a key event in bringing the First World War to an end. Hardly, as it occurred relatively early on in the war which continued for a further two-and-a-half years. It is true that, later, nationalists seeking independence from the British Empire did look back to it as an anti-imperialist action to emulate. For the participants, though, it was a simple pro-Irish revolt.

In describing it as ‘the founding act of the Irish State', Heartfield and Rooney are going along with the Irish State’s myth of its own origin. A much more historically accurate candidate for this would be the decision of the Sinn Fein MPs elected to the House of Commons in the 1918 UK general election not to take up their seats but to meet on their own in January 1919 as the parliament of an independent state.

In any event, both were insurrectionary acts, and Heartfield and Rooney derive much fun from pointing to the embarrassment of the present ruling class in Ireland who are clearly ashamed of the insurrectionary origin of their state. A large part of the book is taken up with arguing against the views of the ‘revisionist’ school of modern Irish history which says that the uprising  was unnecessary and even harmful as, after the War, Home Rule and eventually an independent Irish state would have come about peacefully, harmful because it enshrined the gun into Irish politics.

We can agree with the revisionist historians that the myth of the Easter Rising needs debunking. The Irish Republican tradition has been harmful and anti-working class but then so has Unionism. However,  those who argue that a peaceful transition to Home Rule and an independent state was likely had it not been for the Easter Rising are assuming that the Unionists in the North would have accepted this without resorting to violence (as they had done before the war, introducing more guns into politics than the Nationalists). After all, Ireland was then of strategic importance to the British Empire, and the established industrial capitalists of the North had a vital economic interest in not being cut off from their fellow British capitalists behind the tariffs walls of an economically backward Irish state.

In any event, irrespective of how it came into being, an independent Irish state was of no interest or benefit to the working class there.

There are a couple of mistakes about names. The Randolph Churchill who played the ‘Orange card’ in 1886 was not a Sir but a Lord (the son of a duke, and Winston’s father). The Con Lyhane mentioned as helping Tom Jackson’s anti-war activity in Leeds is surely Con Lehane; both incidentally founder members of the SPGB who later went off the rails.
Adam Buick

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