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Date: Sun, 14 Apr 1996 00:47:48 GMT
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From: Brian Hauk <>
Subject: Lessons Of The 1916 Easter Rebellion In Ireland

Lessons Of The 1916 Easter Rebellion In Ireland

Militant, Vol.20 no.22, 22 April 1966

The following are excerpts from an article by Russian revolutionary leader V. I. Lenin on the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916, which we are publishing on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the revolt.

On Easter Monday, 1916, in the middle of World War I, some 1,200 members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized the General Post Office and several other sites in Dublin. They were led by Patrick Pearse, a leader of the Irish Volunteers and of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and by James Connolly, a revolutionary socialist and workers' leader who founded the Citizen Army.

Under conditions of deepening opposition to British colonial rule and to the imperialist war, the rebels had counted on setting off a national revolt. While uprisings did erupt elsewhere in Ireland, the hoped-for general insurrection did not transpire. After five days of bitter fighting, the survivors surrendered to overwhelming British force on Saturday.

In the course of the fighting, British artillery leveled a large part of Dublin. Pearse, Connolly, and 13 other Irish leaders were sentenced to death and shot.

Although the Easter Rebellion was crushed, it inspired a rising tide of struggle in Ireland. Sinn Fein, the nationalist political party, grew rapidly in the wake of the revolt. In 1919 the Volunteers (now incorporating the Citizen Army) adopted the name Irish Republican Army. A civil war developed.

In 1921 London, unable to crush this nationalist revolt by force, reached agreement with bourgeois leaders of the Irish nationalist movement to partition Ireland. Eamon De Valera, a surviving veteran of the Easter Rebellion, later became president of the formally independent Irish Free State. The island's six northern counties, however, remained under British colonial rule. The IRA and Sinn Fein opposed the partition and continued the fight for an independent, united Ireland.

The Easter Rebellion was the first major outbreak of revolt by the oppressed and exploited in Europe since the beginning of World War I. The Irish rebels' stand, We serve neither king nor kaiser, but Ireland, was in stark contrast to the treacherous conduct of the majority of European labor and Socialist leaders, who told the toilers to put aside their fight for justice and a decent life for the good of their own government's war efforts.

At the time of the Easter Rebellion, the minority left wing in the international Socialist movement—those who opposed calling a truce with the exploiters in the class struggle and supporting the imperialist rulers in the war—was debating what policy to adopt toward the fight by oppressed nations for the right to self-determination. How to evaluate the Easter Rebellion became part of that discussion.

The article by Lenin that appears below is one section from The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up, a polemic with supporters of Polish revolutionist Rosa Luxemburg. It was first published in October 1916 and can be found in Lenin's Collected Works, volume 22. This section focuses on an article by Polish revolutionist Karl Radek (K.R.). In general agreement with Rosa Luxemburg, Radek held that the right of self determination... is a petty-bourgeois formula that has nothing in common with Marxism.

The item by Lenin, titled The Irish Rebellion of 1916, appears in its entirety in the Marxist magazine New International no. 1 along with an article by Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky titled Lessons of the events in Dublin.

The Irish Rebellion of 1916

By V. I. Lenin

The views of the opponents of self-determination lead to the conclusion that the vitality of small nations oppressed by imperialism has already been sapped, that they cannot play any role against imperialism, that support of their purely national aspirations will lead to nothing, etc. The imperialist war of 1914–16 has provided facts which refute such conclusions.

The war proved to be an epoch of crisis for the West-European nations, and for imperialism as a whole. Every crisis discards the conventionalities, tears away the outer wrappings, sweeps away the obsolete and reveals the underlying springs and forces. What has it revealed from the standpoint of the movement of oppressed nations? In the colonies there have been a number of attempts at rebellion, which the oppressor nations naturally did all they could to hide by means of a military censorship.

Nevertheless, it is known that in Singapore the British brutally suppressed a mutiny among their Indian troops; that there were attempts at rebellion in French Annam [Vietnam] and in the German Cameroons; that in Europe, on the one hand, there was a rebellion in Ireland, which the freedom-loving English, who did not dare to extend conscription to Ireland, suppressed by executions, and, on the other, the Austrian Government passed the death sentence on the deputies of the Czech Diet for treason, and shot whole Czech regiments for the same crime.

This list is, of course, far from complete. Nevertheless, it proves that, owing to the crisis of imperialism, the flames of national revolt have flared up both in the colonies and in Europe, and that national sympathies and antipathies have manifested themselves in spite of the draconian threats and measures of repression.

All this before the crisis of imperialism hit its peak; the power of the imperialist bourgeoisie was yet to be undermined (this may be brought about by a war of attrition but has not yet happened) and the proletarian movements in the imperialist countries were still very feeble. What will happen when the war has caused complete exhaustion, or when, in one state at least, the power of the bourgeoisie has been shaken under the blows of proletarian struggle, as that of tsarism in 1905?

A ‘putsch’ or national rebellion?

On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the Zimmerwald group (1), including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled Their Song Is Over and signed with the initials K.R. 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....

The term putsch, in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses.

The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a mass Irish National Congress in America (Vorwarts, March 20, 1916) which called for Irish independence; it also manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc.

Whoever calls such a rebellion a putsch is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

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 with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semiproletarian 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.

Whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is....

The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors.

But objectively they will attack capital, and the class- conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately purge itself of petty bourgeois slag.

Social-Democracy, we read in the Polish theses, must utilize the struggle of the young colonial bourgeoisie against European imperialism in order to sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe.

Is it not clear that it is least of all permissible to contrast Europe to the colonies in this respect? The struggle of the oppressed nations in Europe, a struggle capable of going all the way to insurrection and street fighting, capable of breaking down the iron discipline of the army and martial law, will sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe to an infinitely greater degree than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony.

A blow delivered against the power of the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal force delivered in Asia or in Africa.

1. Zimmerwald, Switzerland, was the location of a September 1915 international conference of Socialists who opposed voting for war credits for their governments. The Zimmerwald group refers to supporters of this international current. Lenin led a left wing at that conference, and his supporters were known as the Zimmerwald Left.