Lenin & Trotsky on the Irish Easter rebellion

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Wed Apr 5 14:41:30 MDT 1995

Louis Proyect:

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

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

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.

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