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Greaves the historian (2)

Mary Cullen, Research Associate at the Centre for Gender and Women's studies TCD, evaluates Desmond Greaves' contribution as a labour historian. Mary Cullen's lecture was delivered at the 2005 Desmond Greaves Summer School, Saturday 27 August 2005.

Mary Cullen

DESMOND GREAVES (1913-1988) was born in Birkenhead into a family of Northern Ireland Protestant background. As well as being a historian, he was a political activist with a life-long commitment to socialism and communism and also to Irish unity and independence. He wrote within a broadly Marxist perspective and this paper looks at his analysis of the relationship between socialism and nationalism in Ireland during the first decades of the twentieth century in three books published over twenty-one years: The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961); Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (1971); and The Irish Transport and General Workers' Union: The Formative Years 1909-1923 (1982).

Marxist history is based on elements in the writings of Marx and Engels and how these were understood and developed by followers. There is general agreement that Marx's thought is not easily understood, that it has apparent internal contradictions and is open to differing interpretations, one of the major disputed areas being Marx's position on the role of free will versus economic determinism in human actions.

Greaves studied history and became a historian in the context of its impact in mid-twentieth century Britain. In Britain, Marxist-influenced history had developed not as a rigid economic determinism but as an important approach both in itself and in interaction with others. A recent study sees the main British developments as an emphasis on theory, on history centred on the modes of production in a society and on history focused on particular details of class struggle. All these are present in Greaves' work.

In the three books mentioned Greaves' central focus is on the Irish labour movement from the last years of the nineteenth century up to 1923 and its interaction with both socialism and the politics of Irish nationalism during that period. His overall argument is that the politicised socialist-nationalist section of labour provided essential support and manpower to the separatist nationalists, the republicans, both before and after 1916; that the republican leadership did not understand that the driving force behind Ireland's subordination to Britain was the economic interests of the British bourgeoisie, that this subordination would continue in a bourgeois-dominated Irish state; and that real independence and democracy for all the people of Ireland required a socialist republic, or at the least an acceptance of labour as a participant in decision-making plus a serious accommodation of labour interests; and that, because the republicans did not understand this, when it came to opposition to the Treaty they lost the vital support of labour and a bourgeois state was established.

Greaves applies a Marxist class analysis to Irish society; the bourgeoisie who controlled the means and fruits of production, the big business, commercial, industrial and financial interests; the working class, wage earners in towns and agricultural labourers and small farmers in rural areas whose objectives ranged from pressing for legislation to limit the power of landlords and bourgeoisie to taking over control of the means of production themselves; in between these two the petit bourgeoisie, neither capitalists nor manual workers, an intermediate stratum comprising the large majority of population - hardly a class, without cohesive economic strength, and relying on the consent of the first two classes who were organised around shared interests.

Greaves spells out the composition of the petit bourgeoisie in Sean O'Casey: Politics and Art (1979) as including small and medium farmers (whose economic interests might align some with ranchers and cattle dealers and others with agricultural workers), shopkeepers and merchants (who similarly might have disparate economic allegiances); self-employed artisans, small manufacturers, school teachers, lawyers, curates and parish priests, clerks and accountants, nurses and doctors.

In terms of this analysis he argues that the United Kingdom government operated in the interests of the dominant British bourgeoisie. It had relied on the 'garrison' landlord system to control Ireland's economy in these interests but the success of the Land League campaign from 1879 had forced it accept both Home Rule and the decline of landlord power and to seek a substitute in alliance with the Irish bourgeoisie.

The nationalist population in Ireland included members of all three classes: the nationalist bourgeoisie who wanted a degree of national political independence which would give them more control over their economic interests but would not entail social revolution; its interests were represented by the Irish Parliamentary Party and Home Rule; the nationalist section of the organised working classes in the trade union movement, with the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) to the fore, interacting with international socialism and pro both national and socialist revolution resulting in a workers' republic; thirdly the largest group, the petit bourgeoisie, who wanted more or less complete independence, but had no agreed policy as to what form of government they wanted for that independent state. These were broad categories and within them Greaves sees varying degrees of awareness and aims.

Within the labour movement itself he identifies three broad currents of opinion: the unionist that saw the UK as one country with one labour movement; one section of nationalists that supported the Irish Parliamentary Party and saw an independent labour movement in Ireland as a threat to its influence; and another nationalist section that favoured a separate labour movement in a separate Ireland.

From about 1890 trade unionism in Ireland grew rapidly, in line with and interacting with developments in the industrial states of Europe and the USA. Ideas, organisation and tactics were all involved. They included the amalgamation of skilled and unskilled workers, industrial unionism, i.e the organisation of all workers in a particular industry, and ultimately one big all-inclusive union; tactics included boycotting and blacking target goods or services, the sympathetic strike of one union in support of another, the general strike and its ultimate form of syndicalism, a general strike aimed at the overthrow of the political system; all these went side by side with growing political awareness and involvement with socialism. For their part Irish socialists were interested in the potential of trade unionism and ideas of national and international combination and co-operation of the working class. James Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in1896.

Within nationalist trade unionism, the ITGWU, from its foundation in 1909 by James Larkin, was a central player in these developments and in the move to separate Irish unions in place of the English-based amalgamated unions. Its programme included an eight-hour working day, provision of work for all unemployed, pensions at sixty years of age, compulsory arbitration courts, full adult suffrage, and nationalisation of transport, plus the elimination of poverty.

Over the next decades the ITGWU constantly expanded in its membership and range of workers, dominating and politicising the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC), founded in 1894 and at first largely apolitical, numerically and in leadership, and allying with the separatist nationalists both before and after 1916.

In the years up to 1916 James Connolly is a major focus in Greaves' analysis. He sees Connolly as a thinker who could analyse the politics of unfolding events and adjust his own policies accordingly; who could deal with the complexities of working for reform within a system while also aiming to subvert and replace it, and not necessarily by violent revolution or social upheaval. The history of socialism internationally shows a similar pattern of constant response, adaptation and adoption of new tactics.

Greaves argues that from the beginning Connolly saw socialism and nationalism as necessarily linked, with socialism foremost; and he never deviated from that basic position. The Irish question was essentially economic, but the economic struggle had to function nationally before it could do so internationally. He first saw the nationalist and socialist revolutions as identical, then as two aspects of one process and finally as two stages of one democratic reorganisation of society.

As Home Rule became an imminent probability with the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill in 1912 he believed the limited national independence it would bring would mean continued British rule of Ireland through 'her capitalists ... landlords ... financiers ... the whole array of commercial and financial institutions ... planted in this country'.

At the same time he prepared for action within a Home Rule Ireland. He moved from the view that trade unions should first build an industrial republic within the political state and then replace it, to the idea of a political party representing labour interests. With Larkin he founded the Irish Labour Party in 1912 and from 1918 to 1930 there was a unified Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress.

When partition became an issue he feared it would add to the confusion of ideas and divide and destroy the labour movement. When World War 1 broke out in 1914 initially he shared socialist optimism that working-class soldiers would refuse to fight each other and the war would lead to the overthrow of European capitalism. Then, as the dependence of both the government and employers on the workers swung the economic balance in the latter's favour, his optimism was replaced by fear that the war would undermine the Irish labour movement's support for revolution. He became convinced a rising was essential before all was lost. He saw 1916 in two stages, first national and second socialist, and his tactics differed from those of the IRB in that he wanted to rally people openly for revolution.

After 1916 many prominent ITGWU members were executed or imprisoned, but Greaves stresses that an effective new leadership emerged from the rank and file. As both the labour and the national movements continued to grow, Greaves identifies three mass organisations within Irish nationalism between 1916 and 1921, the expanding Sinn Féin Party, the Volunteers and the trade unions. There was much class overlap, with the working class providing rank and file membership across the board while the leadership of the first two were drawn from the petty bourgeoisie. From this time Greaves sees the failure of this petty bourgeois leadership to grasp the integral link between national and economic revolution leading to ultimate failure.

At the National Convention of the reorganised Sinn Féin in April 1917 a policy of political and executive independence was adopted, though the lack of consensus as to what kind of state led to de Valera's formula of an Independent Irish Republic, to be followed by a referendum to choose its form of government. The new Sinn Féin executive included republican and Griffith supporters, the latter generally bourgeois in their politics in Greaves' analysis, but not workers and small farmers. The Volunteers were also re-organised, and de Valera became president of both.

The labour movement continued its growth in numbers and political consciousness as well as support for the republican cause. The 1917 October revolution in Russia attracted much sympathy in Ireland and Greaves regrets that this coming into government of the working class for the first time since the French Revolution did not result in the Irish national movement incorporating labour objectives.

On the national front itself, the one-day strike organised by the ITUC was a decisive factor in the defeat of the government plan to introduce conscription in Ireland. In spite of these developments the same class-related differences in policy were in play at and after the December 1918 general election. At first labour decided to contest the election on a policy of abstention from Westminster, with the proviso that it could change the policy if circumstances altered. Sinn Féin demanded an unconditional commitment or it would oppose labour candidates, and labour decided not to stand.

As a result when the first Dáil Éireann met in 1919 it was dominated by the petit bourgeoisie. It adopted a Declaration of Independence and recognised labour interests by adopting a Democratic Programme based on a draft by the labour Leader Tom Johnson. Though some of the more radical clauses were omitted before its adoption, the programme declared the right of the Irish people to ownership of the soil, resources, wealth and wealth-producing processes of the country and that the right to private property was subordinate to public right and welfare. It remained to be seen what priority the republicans would give to the Programme and the policies it contained.

The growth in strength and politicisation of trade unionism continued. During the War of Independence there was a number take-overs of businesses by workers, especially the famous Limerick Soviet of 14-24 April 1919 which controlled the running of the city after a general strike. Greaves notes that the British establishment recognised this strength and politicisation and feared a union as they saw it of a Bolshevik-influenced Irish trade unionism and the Fenian element of Sinn Féin, but the Dáil failed to see the possibility and the opportunity it offered.

After the truce in July 1921 Sinn Féin did not involve labour in the negotiations began which led to the signing of the Heads of a Treaty on 6 December. Greaves sees the British government as the prime mover in dictating the terms of the Treaty and adamant that British bourgeois and imperialist interests demanded that there be no Irish republic. He sees this government and these interests again as the driving force behind the divisions within Sinn Féin on the Treaty and in the subsequent Civil War, urging the Irish towards civil war, and undermining all attempts at compromise.

Regarding these attempts, Greaves sees republicans making the mistake of aiming at compromise with their opponents, i.e. those in Sinn Féin who accepted the Treaty, rather than with their friends by openly adopting a social programme that would attract labour support. For example, when Harry Boland, in a political speech in Roscommon, spoke of solving problems of land settlement, housing and unemployment, the Labour Party responded by publishing a programme which included guaranteed employment at a living wage, reduced taxes on food and tobacco, compulsory tillage on 25 per cent of agricultural land, the nationalisation of canals and railways, a national banking system to help industry, and state support for the widows and orphans of Anglo-Irish. But the republicans did not adopt it or a similar programme and lost the 1922 Treaty election.

Greaves studies Liam Mellows as an example of a growing awareness among some republicans of the mutual dependence of national and economic freedom, though an awareness that came too late. Mellows had met Connolly in 1916 and each had impressed the other. He took part in the occupation of the Four Courts in 1922 and was imprisoned in April 1922. Between then until his death at the age of thirty in December when he, Rory O'Connor, Richard Barrett and Joseph McKelvey were shot by the Free State government in reprisal for the assassination of the TD Sean Hales, his letters to colleagues outside explained his thinking.

The Democratic Programme adopted by the Dáil in 1919 'should be translated into something definite...[this is] essential if the great body of workers are to be kept on the side of Independence'. As it was already part of republican policy this did not need a change of outlook nor a revolutionary programme. It should be spelt out and he suggested a programme published in a recent issue of the Workers' Republic, the paper of the newly-formed Communist Party of Ireland. This called for the control of industry, transport, and the banks by the state for the benefit of workers and farmers, and for the land of absentee aristocracy to be seized and divided among those who will work it for nation's good; among landless workers, small farmers.

Mellows added that anything that would 'prevent Irish labour becoming imperialist and "respectable"' would help the Republic to win the votes of workers. He also wrote that the new Free State served British imperial interests and that whoever controlled 'the wealth of a country and the processes by which wealth is attained' also controlled its government. Greaves comments that Mellows had not reached Connolly's grasp of the need for the working class to lead political change and not simply participate in it, but did foreshadow later developments in republicanism in the 1930s.

Greaves' research is impressive and bears out his own dictum that 'fact and date remain the spine and belly of history'. Although he claimed that oral sources were superior to written, something that remains to be proved, in practice he appears to have subjected both to similar scrutiny. He was painstaking in checking, verifying and assessing the merits of conflicting accounts in all sources.

He is open to criticism on some points. His judgements regarding those he disagrees with, including Lloyd George and the British establishment, can be cursory and dismissive, and expressed in language more suited to a rallying speech than historical assessment. More disturbing is his decision to exclude the location of some of the sources for his Liam Mellows book, saying that the academics could do their own work. This contradicts the essential nature of historical enquiry, and, indeed, appears at odds with how he himself engages with sources. As discussed further below, history writing is a social activity where historians build on the work of their predecessors, and on that of each other. Giving full information on sources allows others to check that the source exists, that it has been accurately and honestly used, and to agree with or take issue with the writer's interpretation.

However, the aim here is not a comprehensive assessment of Greaves' work, which I do not feel competent to undertake, but to consider the potential of some aspects of his Marxist analysis.

First, there is the issue of bias versus objectivity and the historian. To a society or group, history is the equivalent of personal memory to the individual. Knowing how we got to where we are now is the necessary basis for deciding where we go next; without this knowledge there is little chance that we can make useful decisions for the future.

Historians are the workers at the coal face in the construction of this group memory. They see their task as examining the surviving, largely written, evidence of the past, selecting and recording the significant facts, identifying patterns of continuity and change, and interpreting them for the present. Like the scientist, the historian creates what appears to him or her the most plausible theory or hypothesis to explain the connections between the range of facts and events studied. This hypothesis is then open to development, modification, challenge or rejection as more sources become available, or existing sources are used differently or other explanations are put forward.

All stages inevitably involve the historian's own values and biases whether these are explicit or implicit, and whether the historian is aware of them or not. They are there in the question or hunch that initiates the process, in the sources the historian chosen, in the selection of what is significant, in the patterns detected and in the interpretation offered. Historians' own values and biases, like those of the people they study, have been formed in the political, social and economic conditions of their time and place in history. To follow E.H.Carr, history comprises two dialogues, one between the historian and the sources and another between the present and the past.

This process is obscured by the usual convention within which historians write in the third person as if an objective and impartial outside intelligence, and without declaring their own bias. Where, as in the case of Greaves, the historian and the reader are aware of the former's value system or politics, both are alerted to exercise their critical faculties. The historian has a better chance of being objective and impartial in the interaction with sources and the reader is brought into more productive dialogue with the historian. Both are important in deepening our understanding of the past. History does not belong to the academic historians alone.

Further, it seems clear that most important new directions and developments in the writing of history are initiated by political perspectives that challenge existing establishment versions of the past, rather than by objective, value-free speculation. When we say that history is written by the victors we recognise the history taught throughout the educational system in a society will tend to reflect the value-system of the dominant establishment. Marxist history, labour history, black history, women's history, ethnic history, each originating in dissenting politics, have all asked new questions, have re-interpreted sources already drawn on, found or used sources hitherto neglected, and given rise to constructive dialogue both with establishment history and with each other as well.

Class analysis as applied by Greaves opens useful lines of enquiry about the relationship between economics and politics in Irish history in the period studied and also for today. He does not make a simplistic one-to-one equation between class and political thought, but aims to tease out his protagonists' degrees of awareness of how economic relationships operate, at the same allowing for the complexities and constraints of conflicting commitments.

This approach appears to be close to Marx's view on the relationship between free will versus determinism as Joseph Ferraro sees it is his book on Freedom and Determination in History According to Marx and Engels. Capitalism as a system aimed at increasing production and profit will pursue profit to the exclusion of other considerations, such as the different uses to which increased production can be put, unless either capitalists themselves or the proletariat fully understand how the system operates and intervene to stop or alter it.

Greaves' identification of republican/petit bourgeois objectives as a independent state free from outside domination, but without agreement as to the form of government that state would have, points to the need for deeper examination of the concepts of nationalism and republicanism, what exactly each meant to activists at the time, and what each means today. New levels of migration are creating multi-ethnic populations that raise new questions about the nature and relevance of the nation state and nationalism.

Regarding republicanism, in the context of increasing alienation and feelings of powerlessness among citizens of representative parliamentary democracies, it appears significant that recent decades have seen a widespread revival of interest in the history and content of republican thought, with a strong focus on republican citizenship. Irish contributions to this revival include Iseult Honohan's work on civic republicanism and The Republic, the journal of the Ireland Institute.

From its origins in the Greek city states citizenship was as much an integral component of republicanism as was a state free from external domination. Republican citizenship, which demands active involvement in decision-making and a commitment to the common good as well as to individual interest, adds a wider and constructive dimension to the more limited concept of republicanism generally current in Ireland.

Then there is the importance of history from below. Historians tend to see patterns of change and continuity as brought about largely by 'leaders' and people in positions of public power; and to see the rank and file, the 'ordinary' people, always as followers and never as initiators. Since most written sources are left behind by the leaders, their actions and ideas are the ones usually available to historians. When sources for groups or individuals distant from the location of public power and prestige are available they often show a political thinking more radical and forward-looking than that of their social superiors. Example include the debates in the New Model Army during the English Civil War in the 1640s and the political thinking of the Defenders in late eighteenth-century Ireland as shown in Jim Smyth's book, The Men of No Property.

Greaves' study of the ITGWU and the Irish labour movement reveals a political awareness and radical thinking that has yet to be fully recognised, assessed and incorporated in the history of the period and in the recent growing interest in the history of political thought in Ireland.

Finally, as an example of engagement between different political perspectives, the Marxist concept of class has given feminist historians a valuable tool for analysis of gender relationships. In using it feminists have demonstrated a gender-blindness in the original class analysis. Where Marxist theory sees the bourgeoisie as the class that controls the means of production and their fruits, feminist historians point out that bourgeois women did not share the control, and that this gender difference was a main factor in giving rise to feminist movements throughout the Western world during the nineteenth century.

In the case of Ireland from around 1860 feminists campaigned to change the laws to give married women control over their own property, to admit women to the universities and professions, and to win the vote and eligibility for election to representative legislative bodies. In a return critque, Marxist and socialist feminists have argued that some feminist thinking and history suffers from class-blindness. Such exchanges demonstrate that historical argument is not necessarily a contest of right versus wrong, nor an undermining of an entire line of thought by identifying a weak link in a chain of reasoning, but show how value-systems, when they engage with the evidence and argue with each other, can push forward the boundaries of historical knowledge.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2005-10-13 16:32:59.
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