Why has leftist discourse been marginalised in Ireland?
Complacent hegemony of State ‘inheritors’ has stifled potential of brief Limerick Soviet
In response to martial law on Limerick by British forces, 15,000 workers went on strike, and set up a strike committee, or “Soviet”, to take control of the city and guarantee the supply of food and utilities.
On the first day of January 1919, the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg wrote: “Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all.” It is not surprising she thought the New Jerusalem was at hand.
In Germany the previous year, revolutionary workers and soldiers had helped end the war, and had set up Soviet organisations all over Germany. In Russia, the Soviets were consolidating, and in Hungary, Bela Kun was about to declare the Hungarian Soviet Republic. But just a fortnight after writing those words, she would be shot in the head and her body thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr canal, as White Terror succeeded Red Terror. In Ireland, these cataclysmic European events found a distant echo, when on April 14th, 1919, the Limerick Soviet was established.
In response to the imposition of martial law on Limerick by British forces, 15,000 workers went on strike, and set up a strike committee, or “Soviet”, to take control of the city and guarantee the supply of food and utilities. Famously, they even printed their own currency. The Limerick Soviet came to an end peacefully on April 27th but, as Paddy Smyth wrote in these pages last January, “These events have always had a special place in the narrative of the Irish left.” Why? And what does it tell us about the state of the left in Ireland today?
I recently had a conversation with an Englishman who has been living in Ireland for a couple of years. He remarked that the thing that now surprises him most about Ireland is how right-wing it is. I felt vaguely affronted, but in my heart of hearts, I knew exactly what he meant.
In most European countries, a certain leftist culture is the norm for many men and women of our generation, education and experience. From Islington to the Parisian Latin Quarter, from the Amsterdam “Grachtengordel” to Barcelona’s Gracia, there is a common language of the left. But it’s not a lingua franca spoken in Ireland, apart from a few small linguistic ghettos. How to explain the marginality of the leftist discourse here? Certainly, during the Rising and after, there was a strong left-wing element, with people such as James Connolly and Liam Mellowes, but conveniently, by the end of the Civil War, many had been killed or exiled. And the class which then came to power now seems quite unique in European terms, in managing to impose a hegemony which has lasted almost a century.
Unlike the elite in other countries, they did not invent new industrial processes or new ways of amassing capital. What they did inherit was the Irish State
I like to call them The Inheritors. Unlike the elite in other countries, they did not invent new industrial processes or new ways of amassing capital. Nor, unlike some their British counterparts, did they, on the whole, inherit huge chunks of real estate. What they did inherit was the Irish State. They have filled the upper echelons of those essentially non-productive professions: the Civil Service, the legal and medical professions, the diplomatic corps, the Catholic Church, and to some extent, politics. As it didn’t produce anything, preserving the inheritance and passing it on was the main activity, which explains the preoccupation with property, expressed these days in the notion of the “constitutional” rights of the private landlord.
There was little entrepreneurial spirit, and few ruling elites can have produced so little in the cultural sphere. Perhaps this was due to the vicious double bind of Irish emigration. Often, the best and the brightest who didn’t inherit, and who might have formed an opposition, emigrated, so that The Inheritors could inherit undisturbed. And the more undisturbed their rule was, the more incentive for people to emigrate.
Apart from its mediocrity, what sets our elite apart is its dazzling sense of entitlement and its puzzling complacency
Apart from its mediocrity, what sets our elite apart is its dazzling sense of entitlement and its puzzling complacency. The only plausible explanation is that this class has never faced an existential crisis. That is to say, unlike the ruling classes in other countries, it has never been the victim of a Red Terror. No matter how arrogant the French elite may be, they have a collective memory of waking up to find a guillotine, or at the very least, a gilet jaune, standing at the end of the bed. This forces them to at least acknowledge the existence of an alternative narrative.
The iconic importance of the Limerick Soviet for the left in Ireland is partly due to the way it provides the sensation of being part of a wider European story. But above all, it legitimises the dream of an alternative reality for Ireland in the 20th century. So why did it not consolidate and spread through the country? Undoubtedly, the reluctance of the national union leadership to expand the strike, despite widespread support, was a factor. But many would claim that there is also the matter of priority being given to the national struggle over the social one, as expressed in Éamon de Valera’s oft-quoted dictum: “Labour must wait”, with the implication that by waiting, labour was digging its own grave. And a hundred years after the end of the Limerick Soviet, in the era of austerity and deregulation, labour is still waiting.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and commentator