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  • Published in History

Sean Ledwith recalls the greatest of early 20th century working class rebellions and considers its legacy

James Larkin

At 9:40am on 26 August 1913, 200 Dublin trams screeched to an unscheduled halt and the passengers were ordered off by the crew.

The drivers and conductors were all members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. They informed the passengers that the disruption marked the start of strike action against the owner of the company, William Martin Murphy.

They were not to know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the biggest and most significant industrial dispute in the British Isles in the pre-World War One era. Within a matter of days the dispute escalated into an uncompromising battle between capital and labour that involved 20,000 workers and their 80,000 dependents.

Murphy retaliated by locking out workers from his numerous industrial and commercial concerns in the city. The Great Lockout, as it became known, was a pivotal class struggle that would be monitored closely across Europe and Russia by a whole generation of revolutionaries, including Lenin and Trotsky, and would have grave ramifications that affected the trajectory of the left in Ireland.

The struggle remains significant for the modern left, not least because it was spearheaded by two avowed and dynamic revolutionary socialists: James Larkin and James Connolly. We can learn a great deal from their successes and failures.

The Great Unrest

The Lockout was part of a Europe-wide mounting wave of class struggle. Ireland was politically unified with Britain at the time and would also be affected by what became known as the Great Unrest. Trotsky described this era as:

‘a deep molecular process of an essentially revolutionary character in the working class. At the centre of these processes were mighty conflicts between labour and capital. 1911 to 1913 were years of unparalleled class battles by miners, railwaymen and other transport workers. During those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.'

In 1910, 300 000 Welsh miners went on strike. The following year there were gunboats on the Mersey to intimidate striking seamen. Two strikers were shot dead in Liverpool city centre when a demonstration of 80, 000 dockers and their supporters were attacked by troops.

This industrial turbulence was in a political context of the insurgent suffragette movement, the republican struggle for Irish independence and the growing popularity of left politics that had led to the formation of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1906.

Rising syndicalism

A significant amount of the political momentum for these struggles had come from the ideology of syndicalism, of which both Larkin and Connolly were adherents. The core of this influential view on the European left was that established socialist parties, such as the French Socialist Party and the German SPD, had shown themselves to be so wedded to parliamentary structures that they were incapable of initiating authentic challenges to the capitalist class.

The only alternative, according to the syndicalists, was for trade unions to merge their strength into massive labour organisations that could bypass bourgeois politics and establish workers' control by direct confrontation with the capitalist class.

The lockout would highlight the impact of syndicalism but also its limitations. Connolly outlined the theory:

‘Therefore political power must, for the working classes, come straight out of the Industrial battlefield as the expression of the organised economic force of Labour; else it cannot come at all. With Labour properly organised upon the Industrial and political field, each extension of the principle of public ownership brings us nearer to the re-conquest of Ireland by its people.’

Connolly and Larkin: ‘the torch and the lighthouse’

Connolly and Larkin had demonstrated the militant potential of this strategy through their work throughout Ireland in the years leading up to the Lockout. Particularly impressive were the campaigns carried by the two men in Belfast which made significant inroads in helping to overcome the sectarian divide there between Catholic and Protestant workers.

By 1913, Connolly and Larkin had built up the ITGWU from 4000 just two years previously to a membership of 10,000. Vigorous campaigning based around sympathy strikes, direct action and a weekly newspaper had turned Dublin into one of the best organised cities in the European labour movement.

The two men made a formidable fighting combination, nicknamed ‘the torch and the lighthouse’, due to their contrasting styles: Larkin, the fiery orator who could inspire huge crowds, and Connolly the self-educated polymath who wrote pioneering works of marxist theory.

Their combined impact was even more impressive in light of the intense social deprivation that had led some labour leaders to dismiss the potential for union organisation in Dublin. The bulk of the unskilled working population lived in overcrowded tenements rife with disease and malnutrition. The death rate was as bad as Calcutta and over 20 000 families lived in one-room dwellings. During the lockout, one of these four-storey buildings collapsed, killing six people.

Taking on Larkinism

On the other side of the barricades, the Dublin bosses were led by an equally class-conscious and implacable leadership. William Martin Murphy was the Rupert Murdoch of his day. He was the multi-millionaire owner of the Dublin tramway, Clery’s department store and a number of daily newspapers that he used relentlessly as propaganda against the ITGWU.

By August 1913, Murphy had decided the time had come to take on the rising brand of Irish syndicalism that had become known as ‘Larkinism’:

'We certainly shall prevent any man in our service using threats and intimidation against any other man to force him to join the association. We have given authority to the manager to summarily dismiss any man who is guilty of that conduct, and he can go to Mr. Larkin for his pay.'

On 19 August, he fired all the union members at his Irish Independent newspaper and two days later did the same to 100 members at the tram company. The 700 drivers and conductors who walked off the trams on 26 August were retaliating for these provocations and displaying their solidarity with fellow ITGWU workers.

Bloody Sunday’

Murphy had acted with the assurance that the British imperial state in Ireland would back him and, shortly afterwards, Larkin and Connolly were rounded up and charged with sedition. The courts had bailed Larkin on condition he play no further part in the dispute. With spectacular disdain for bourgeois legality, Larkin disguised himself as a wealthy patron of one of Dublin’s top hotels and strolled up to its restaurant that had access to a balcony overlooking the city’s main thoroughfare.

From there he flung off his disguise and addressed the stunned passers-by below. His flaming rhetoric rapidly drew a large crowd of supporters that escalated into running battles between police and strikers across the city centre.

‘Bloody Sunday’, as this event became known, left two strikers dead and the city in a state of near-insurrection. The uncompromising state response gave other bosses the confidence to follow Murphy’s lead and on 3 September the Employers Federation declared a general lockout at 400 firms that left 20,000 workers on the streets who had refused to take a pledge of non-union membership.

Lenin noted these tumultuous developments with admiration:

'The Irish proletariat, awakening to class-consciousness, is pressing the Irish bourgeois scoundrels engaged in celebrating their “national” victory. It has found a talented leader in the person of Comrade Larkin, Secretary of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union. Larkin is a remarkable speaker, a man of seething Irish energy, who has performed miracles among the unskilled workers’

Solidarity across the sea

As principled internationalists, Larkin and Connolly understood the response of the British working class was crucial to the success of the dispute. For the opening phase of the lockout their faith in the reaction of workers across the Irish Sea was to be fully vindicated.

Liverpool dockers took unofficial action and refused to handle Dublin cargo. They were promptly sacked, leading to 10 000 railwaymen coming out in support. The solidarity of British workers expressed itself most directly in a number of food ships paid for by the TUC to sustain the families the Dublin bosses were trying to starve into submission.

Larkin and Connolly threw themselves into an exhaustive campaign of rallies across the British Isles, including one in Manchester where Connolly spoke to an enthusiastic audience of 20,000.

Fatally, the support from the British union bureaucracy did not match that of its rank and file. JH Thomas, leader of the railwaymen’s union, ordered his members who had taken sympathy action back to work. The TUC offered to mediate between Larkin and Murphy but repeatedly refused to call out British workers on official action.

Even without decisive support from outside Dublin, Connolly remained a creative and indefatigable activist. In the face of state violence, he created a militarised workers’ defence force, the Irish Citizen Army, which protected strikers and confronted the growing army of scabs imported from Britain.

To sustain publicity for the lockout, Connolly organised electoral opposition to the Liberal government in London in three by-elections. Embarrassing defeats for government candidates were attributed to the vigorous intervention of pro-union activists. When the Catholic Church denounced the food kitchens provided by the ITGWU, Connolly told the thousands of families to turn up at churches instead demanding to be fed. The clerical condemnation was rapidly withdrawn.

Defeat

Connolly’s tactical creativity could only stave off defeat for so long. In December 1913, the TUC definitively voted against official sympathy strike action and the inevitable drift back to work began. The ITGWU fighting fund was exhausted. The rail union began to ship scabs across the Irish Sea and on January 14th 1914, the ITGWU instructed its members to return to work.

Larkin was so physically and politically shattered by the adverse turn of events that his union colleagues dispatched him to the US to recover. He did not return to Ireland for almost ten years. Connolly was not psychologically crushed but he recognised the denouement as a blow to the whole of the working class in the British Isles. He correctly identified a key reason for the defeat:

‘Sufficient to say that the working class unity of the first days of the Dublin fight was sacrificed in the interests of sectional officialism. The officials failed to grasp the opportunity offered to them to make a permanent reality of the union of working class forces brought into being by the spectacle of rebellion, martyrdom and misery exhibited by the workers of Dublin. But sectionalism, intrigues and old-time jealousies damned us in the hour of victory’

The other factor that Connolly did not recognise, however, was the limitation of syndicalism. This strategy was constrained by the uneven consciousness of the working class and was left helpless once it became apparent that the union bureaucracy would be an active obstacle to action.

Revolutionaries elsewhere, above all Lenin and Trotsky, developed the model of a revolutionary party as the most effective instrument for the conquest of state power.

Legacy

The true nature of that defeat would only become apparent three years later. The crushing defeat of the Irish working class meant that it would only take a subsidiary role in the national liberation struggle against British occupation that erupted in 1916. Connolly's Citizen Army participated in the Easter Rising but with significantly depleted resources.

Connolly's subsequent execution robbed the Irish left of its greatest thinker and organiser. After the Rising, bourgeois republicanism would come to dominate the anti-colonial struggle, ultimately leading to the acceptance of partition and the creation of the Southern Irish neo-colony that still exists. Dublin's ruling class today has warily agreed to authorise a series of commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Great Lockout.

The irony, of course, is that the Southern Irish government is currently presiding over an EU-directed E3 billion worth of public sector cuts that would doubtless be approved of William Martin Murphy. The hypocritical official ceremonies will be focused around the imposing statue of Larkin that dominates Dublin's O' Connell Street. On the side of that statue is one of Larkin's declarations that speaks as directly to us as it did to the heroic strikers of 1913:

'The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.'
Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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