Lenin on Ireland

On Easter Monday in 1916, 1200 members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized the General Post Office and other sites in Dublin in the hopes of sparking a general uprising.

The British crushed the rebellion. Nevertheless, it send a shiver of fear through the ruling classes of Europe who were in bloody midcourse of W.W.I. W.W.I was supported by most labor and socialist leaders and the Easter rebellion was a warning signal that the class-struggle would soon confront the imperialist warmakers and their socialist collaborators.

During W.W.I, the class-struggle left-wing of the socialist movement was debating issues of national self-determination. The issues raised by the Eastern rebellion became part of this debate. There were broadly speaking 3 positions within this left-wing grouping. One position as put forward by the Polish revolutionary Karl Radek maintained that "the right of self-determination...is a petty-bourgeois formula that has nothing in common with Marxism." At the other pole was the position held by Lenin who argued that socialism was inconceivable "without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe." Trotsky held a position somewhere in the center between Radek and Lenin, stating that "the historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland."

I will present some significant sections of articles by Trotsky ("Lessons of the Events in Dublin") and Lenin ("The Irish Rebellion of 1916") and conclude with my own views on the debate.


The historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland. Insofar as the Irish movements in the last century were popular in character, they always drew their strength from the social antagonism between the rightless and starving pauper-farmers and their all-powerful British landlords. But whereas for the latter Ireland was merely an object of exploitation by agrarian plundering, for British imperialism it was a necessary guarantee of domination of the seas...

It was Gladstone who first set the military and imperial interests of Britain quite clearly higher than the interests of the Anglo-Irish landlords, and inaugurated a broad scheme of agrarian legislation whereby the landlords' estates were transformed, through the instrumentality of the state, to the farmers of Ireland--with of course generous compensation to the landlords. Anyhow, after the land reforms of 1881-1903 the farmers were transformed into conservative petty proprietors, whose attention the green flag of nationalism could no longer distract from their small holdings...

The experiment of an Irish national rebellion, in which Casement [a nationalist leader, LP] represented, with undoubted personal courage, the outworn hopes and methods of the past, is over and done with. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning.


On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled "Their Song is Over" and signed with the initials K.R. [Karl Radek]. It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing more nor less than a "putsch", for, as the author argued, "the Irish question was an agrarian one", the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a "purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing..."

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie WITHOUT ALL ITS PREJUDICES [italics in original], without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.--to imagine all this is to REPUDIATE SOCIAL REVOLUTION. So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism", and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism", and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a "putsch".


While there's much more I have to learn about the history of class relations in Ireland, I tend at this point to agree with Lenin's approach to the 1916 rebellion. Trotsky's approach, while not as schematically sectarian as Radek's, bends too much in that direction. It represents what one might call a "workerist" approach, one that Trotsky broke with in latter years.

For Lenin, the class-struggle never appears in its pure form where an undifferentiated mass of workers stands opposed to an undifferentiated mass of the bourgeoisie. Mass struggles against capitalist oppression have always involved all sorts of petty-bourgeois prejudices, reactionary fantasies and weaknesses and errors. It was Lenin's gift to be able to approach such mass struggles dialectically and see the objectively anticapitalist character that defined them. As Lenin put it in the same article, it rests upon the "class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat" to express the objectively anticapitalist character of the "variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented" mass movement and unite and direct it toward capturing power.

It seems that Lenin's approach to Ireland would also serve to help us to understand much of the mass movement in the United States since the 1960's. Phenomena such as black and latino nationalism, feminism, gay liberation, etc. are not pure expressions of proletarian militancy. They incorporate all sorts of reactionary fantasies, weaknesses and errors, but those in the US left, who like Radek, stand on the sidelines and cluck their tongues at these inchoate movements, are also missing the essential point. The Marxist movement does not set the terms of the class-struggle. It must participate wholeheartedly and unselfishly. That is the way capitalism will be eventually defeated.