Ian McKeane reviews Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals 1919-1943 by Emmet O'Connor, UCD Press, ISBN 1 904558 20 8, £18.95, 25 euros pbk
THIS FASCINATING book is the result of research work carried out since 1994 in Moscow State archives and a commission from University College Dublin.
Emmet O'Connor has produced a unique history of the relationship between the left in Ireland and the Comintern which has been lacking so far. Anyone who looks at the relationship between post-1919 Ireland and a European power realises quickly that a history of the left and its relations with international socialism would be a useful tool. This is what O'Connor has provided.
Most of the book is concerned with the period 1919-1933 which is when the Comintern was investing most heavily in Ireland and when the relationship between it and Soviet foreign policy was being established. While writing essentially about Ireland, O'Connor throws welcome light on this issue.
After 1920, it is clear that the Soviets took an interest in Ireland and spent a deal of effort in attempting to construct an Irish communist party. It was felt that the existence of a revolutionary group in the country would provide the sort of people who could be excellent cadres and efforts were made to convince the IRA of the value of international socialism.
The Comintern was essential to the development of a revolutionary socialist party in Ireland after 1920. Only James Connolly's ISRP had achieved a degree of longevity (while Connolly himself was on the case until 1903) in previous years.
This international aspect of the post-war Irish communism was an essential morale booster for activists at the time, given the unpromising social and political environment. Yet it became increasingly obvious that Irish communism was seen by Moscow through the prism of Britain and that British communists saw Ireland as their fief and subordinate to their own programmes.
When Jim Larkin's syndicalist activities are considered and one remembers that the IRA was a politically friable entity in the 1920s and 1930s in any case, the outlook for the Irish Communist Party (CPI) as a potential revolutionary force for political change in the country was grim.
Even though old IRA members were considered to be a good source of potential cadres many of the newer generation were more inclined to the nationalist right. O'Connor could perhaps have discussed this more fully and looked at the role of the Catholic Church in promoting this view.
Where O'Connor is correct is in concluding that in any discussion of the relationship between the CPI and the Comintern or the Soviet Union the difference of scale is essential.
Irish international socialism was very small beer in the general scheme of things but this is not to say that a book as well-researched and well-written as this, is of little use. On the contrary, with its comprehensive list of acronyms, its array of photos from unusual sources and its good bibliography, it is essential reading for anyone attempting to understand the story of the left in Ireland after independence.
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Copyright © 2005 Ian McKeane