Larkin’s road to revolution

The Lockout saw Irish employers attempt to use Larkinite tactics against the unions by challenging them with a united front, writes Emmet O’Connor


The 1913 Lockout has served the labour movement well as a foundation myth. For decades, it was the only bit of labour history that featured in a public history dominated by nationalism and unionism.

Moreover, it’s an event in which Labour were the good guys and the bosses were the bad guys. The risen people came out of the slums to challenge poverty and plutocracy, and militant trade unionism won a moral victory. But is that what it was about?

To understand the Lockout, one has to understand Larkinism, and why the employers were so hostile to it. Before coming to Ireland in 1907, Jim Larkin was a union organiser in England and Scotland. Yet we don’t speak of Larkinism in England and Scotland. Larkin became an “ism” in Ireland because what he stood for had a strategic relevance for labour, and because Irish employers were so hostile to it.

Employers coined the term “Larkinism” to distinguish Larkin’s methods from what they called “bona fide” trade unionism. By Larkinism they meant the unionisation of unskilled workers, militancy, the influence of professional agitators, and the sympathetic strike. They accepted craft unions. The craftsman was presumed to be responsible and respectable.

But they said it was dangerous to put a weapon like trade unionism in the hands of the unskilled. Moreover, they argued, the economy couldn’t afford it; economic development depended on a ready supply of cheap labour. Above all, they hated full-time agitators and the sympathetic strike.

The Dublin Lockout was the culmination of escalating employer militancy which saw the formation of employers’ federations throughout Ireland, and a series of generalised confrontations, in Belfast in 1907, in Cork in 1909, in Wexford and on the railway in 1911, and in Galway and Sligo in 1913.

In the public memory, Larkinism is usually equated with Big Jim. There was certainly a personality cult, and Jim would promote it shamelessly. There was too a method, involving tactics of sympathetic action, a strategy of industrial unionism, a politics of socialist republicanism, a morality of class solidarity, and an ambition to bring “culture” to workers and class to “culture”.

What gave these a broad relevance was that they answered the two great questions facing trade unionists: how to build a bargaining power in an economy where craft unions were too weak to be a leading sector, and where seven out of every nine employees were unskilled and easily replaced, and whether to stick with the big battalions of British Labour or build an Irish labour movement?

Sympathetic action and industrial unionism seemed effective answers to the first question. The second question was more thorny. De-industrialisation and population decline in the 19th century had led many Irish unions to believe they had no future except as branches of British unions. By 1900, Ireland had about one million employees and 70,000 trade unionists, of whom three-quarters were in British societies.

An increasing number of activists felt that the British would never commit the resources necessary to tackle Irish employer militancy, but it is doubtful if anyone other than Larkin could have realised a credible Irish labour movement.

Nor is it likely that Larkinism would have become so influential without the growth of unrest internationally. In the early 20th century almost every industrialised country was rocked by events unsettling to the bien pensants who imagined their world to be the pinnacle of civilisation.

Increasingly, strikes became generalised, violent and involved confrontation with police or troops. There were general strikes in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Sweden between 1902 and 1904; major strikes in German and Russian textile factories in 1903; and attempted revolutions in Russia and cities of Russian Poland, protests in Austria which compelled the introduction of universal suffrage, and serious unrest in Hungary in 1905. Romania was convulsed by a peasant revolt in 1907, leading to the deaths of more than 10,000 people.

In Belfast that year, police mutinied and fraternised with striking dockers, panicking the government into rushing 6,000 troops into the city. Some 30,000 people joined demonstrations which turned into an anti-clerical revolt in Barcelona in 1909. In 1910, trade unionists dynamited the offices of the Los Angeles Times and disturbances in Portugal led to the abolition of the monarchy.

The years 1911-14 saw a peak of industrial conflict in Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands, Russia and Spain, major strikes of Italian and French railwaymen, a massacre of miners in Siberia’s Lena goldfields in 1912, and a virtual general strike in St Petersburg in July 1914.

This new militancy involved a revolt within the left as well as from the left: a revolt which came to be associated with syndicalism. Syndicalism developed in the 1880s from the conviction that socialist parties were failing to destroy capitalism because they had become hidebound by theory, corrupted by power, dominated by déclassé elites, and detached from the daily life of the masses.

What was needed was a form of struggle at the point of production, where the worker was most powerful and most class conscious.

This struggle should be waged through militancy, sympathetic action, and general strikes, and by unions organising everyone – skilled and unskilled – in the one industry and building One Big Union (OBU), which would take on an economic, social and cultural agenda and become the embryo of a society run by workers rather than for them.

While syndicalism had its theorists, its broad appeal lay in the fact that its emphasis was less on theory than on values, mentalities, tactics and strategies. These could be selected à la carte, and grafted on to trade unionism as required.

Larkin never had time for theory and his ideas evolved with practice. Disputes with his general secretary in Liverpool led him to break with the National Union of Dock Labourers – known ironically as “the Irish union” in Britain – and found the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) in 1909.

Formerly opposed to the introduction of nationalism into labour, he now argued that only Irish unions could solve the problems of Irish workers. It was Larkin, not the less popular James Connolly, who made republicanism a force in the labour movement.

In 1910 he attended the founding conference of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League at Manchester, and told the conference that the ITGWU was an industrial union. In 1912, he called on the Irish Trades Union Congress to become an OBU.

Employers, William Martin Murphy in particular, watched these developments with alarm. Murphy compared Larkin with Emile Pataud, the syndicalist leader of French electricians who was famous for spectacular strikes, and was determined to drive him out of Dublin if he got the chance. Business, he said, could not survive the “system known as ‘syndicalism’ or sympathetic strikes”.

Essentially, 1913 was about sympathetic action. It was a sympathetic Lockout to get rid of sympathetic action. Larkin’s response was a campaign for sympathetic action. The slums had nothing to do with it, to begin with at least. Though when the propaganda war began in September, Larkin made sure the slums were in the picture.

These are more awkward issues than the slums, but they are more pertinent, to 1913 as well as to 2013.