One hundred years ago a momentous class struggle came to a head in colonised Ireland: the Dublin Lockout. This struggle not only pitted the working class against the capitalist exploiters and the repression of the capitalist state. It also pitted the vast masses of unskilled, and hitherto unorganised, workers against the bought-off aristocracy of labour which had hitherto jealously guarded the trade union movement as its own exclusive fiefdom.
In the years preceding the First World War, the crisis of the capitalist system, which shortly was to drive workers to die like flies in the trenches, first of all triggered proletarian revolt against the poverty and worsening exploitation that they endured. This heightened class struggle, widespread across Britain, took a particularly acute form in Ireland, where to the yoke of wage slavery was added the yoke of national oppression.
When James Larkin set about the task of unionising the vast mass of unskilled workers who constituted 75% of the Dublin workforce, he rapidly found himself in conflict not only with the employers but also with his own union. Larkin was viewed with instinctive suspicion by the traditional leadership of the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), who were wary in equal measure of his industrial militancy and of his republicanism.
With one in five Dublin workers unemployed and poverty widespread, the employers had grown accustomed to sweating the workforce with impunity whilst the established unions stuck to defending the interests of the better-off, skilled workers whom they represented, with the centre of gravity in the industrialised north-east. In Dublin, with one in five workers unemployed and pay-rates barely half those in London, poverty was endemic. One in three families lived in one room in squalid multi-occupancy tenement, conditions which favoured the spread of disease and sent folk early to their graves.
Embarrassed by Larkin’s embrace of the sympathy strike as an instrument of proletarian solidarity, by his readiness to break unjust laws and by his frank recognition of the need to overthrow capitalism, the NUDL washed their hands of him in 1908. Undeterred, Larkin went on to establish the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), setting himself the task of mobilising Dublin’s unskilled and un-unionised labour, assisted in this work from 1911 by James Connolly. By that time the union had signed up 4,000 members; by 1913 the membership had risen to 10,000, making it Ireland’s biggest union.
Capitalism declares class war
This fast-growing mass movement of unskilled workers, workers whose class interests had previously been championed by nobody but who had now found their voice, instilled terror in the hearts of the exploiters. For their salvation, the exploiters looked to their own tawdry champion, one William Martin Murphy. Murphy was a capitalist with many irons in the fire: he controlled three newspapers, owned a prestigious hotel and a department store and held shares in a steamboat enterprise. Most famously, though, he was the chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company, some of whose employees had the temerity to join the ITGWU.
It seems that Murphy had no problem with the kind of union which had kicked Larkin out, unions which he termed “respectable”. Indeed, in 1884 he had helped fund the creation of Dublin Trades Council! But the ITGWU was the wrong kind of union, the kind of union that dug deeper into the working class, far beyond the privileged layer curdling at the surface.
Revolt from this quarter came as a surprise and an affront to Murphy. He was used to imposing harsh labour discipline unchallenged, keeping tabs on everything through company spies and forcing employees to work anything up to seventeen hour shifts. After all, there were plenty more unemployed workers to call on if people disliked his terms.
He responded to the challenge from the ITGWU in July, calling a council of class war. He convened a meeting of three hundred employers, who agreed to band together to stop unionisation. Backed up by his fellow parasites, Murphy threw down a challenge: all his tram workers must give up the notion of joining Larkin’s union or face the sack. True to his word, on 15 August Murphy summarily sacked forty workers who he thought might be union members, then over the next week sacked another 300.
On 26 August Larkin pulled the tram workers out on strike. When Murphy responded by locking them out, Larkin tapped into the solidarity of his own class, pulling out on sympathy strike not only workers employed in Murphy’s other enterprises but also workers employed by firms owned by Murphy’s co-conspirators in the employers’ federation. When the federation in turn responded by locking out every member of the ITGWU regardless of who they worked for, everything hung on the ability of the bosses to draft in strike-breakers under the direct protection of the state.
The capitalist state laid bare
For the thousands of workers rapidly drawn into this battle (20,000 workers plus 80,000 dependants by the end of September), this proved to be a priceless political education. Behind the individual employer stood the capitalist class, and behind the capitalist class stood the capitalist state. The role of the police as the bludgeon to which capitalism resorts when economic blackmail fails to keep workers quiescent could not have been more plainly expressed. Writing in August 1913, V.I. Lenin noted that in Dublin “the class struggle, which permeates the whole life of capitalist society everywhere, has become accentuated to the point of class war. The police have positively gone wild; drunken policemen assault peaceful workers, break into houses, torment the aged, women and children. Hundreds of workers (over 400) have been injured and two killed -such are the casualties of this war. All prominent workers’ leaders have been arrested. People are thrown into prison for making the most peaceful speeches. The city is like an armed camp.” (V.I. Lenin, Class War in Dublin, 29 August 1913)
At the end of August the police baton-charged a meeting Larkin was addressing in O’Connell Street (then known as Sackville Street) and arrested him. Pitched battles ensued, resulting in the deaths of James Nolan and John Byrne, with hundreds more injured. On 4 September 50,000 mourners followed James Nolan’s funeral cortege.
Another worker, Alice Brady, was shot dead by a scab on her way home with a food parcel from the union office. Finally, after Michael Byrne, an ITGWU rep from Kingstown, died after police torture, Larkin and Connolly formed a workers’ militia, the Irish Citizen Army, to defend workers’ demonstrations.
When Larkin was gaoled on a sedition charge, he succeeded in turning his own trial into an exposure of his own accusers, as Lenin goes on to recount. “At the trial Larkin became the accuser and, in effect, put Murphy in the dock. By cross-questioning witnesses Larkin proved that Murphy had had long conversations with the Lord-Lieutenant on the eve of his, Larkin’s, arrest. Larkin declared the police to be in Murphy’s pay, and no one dared gainsay him.”
How Dublin workers fought back
On the principle that sometimes the sincerest compliments arrive in the form of passionate denunciations by our enemies, it is worth quoting some of the outraged invective levelled at Larkin’s head by the Spectator magazine in September 1913. (‘Larkinism: The renewed activity of Mr. James Larkin in Dublin’) More than anything what is getting under the author’s skin was the truly heroic character of the resistance put up by the Dublin proletariat in 1913, which the author felt compelled to express in terms of personal vilification of Larkin himself.
“He has a contempt for the old methods of trade unionism, as he indeed made clear by his recent speech at Manchester. His ideal is to gather together the hitherto unorganized labourers below the ranks of the skilled workers, and to win improved conditions of employment for them by terrorizing employers. His weapon is the sympathetic strike, and be is able to put that into operation by the control he exercises over the transport services. The moment a dispute arises with any firm, the transport workers refuse to handle the goods of that firm, with the result that the firm is brought to its knees, not by the action of its own employees, but by the action of an outside force controlled by Mr. James Larkin… Larkinism is a force which operates not by fair bargaining but by sheer terrorism. It is perfectly justifiable for any single workman, or group of workmen, to say, “We will refuse to work for such and such an employer unless he pays such and such wages .” It is not justifiable to organize a system under which persons not in the least concerned in the quarrel, and who have no means of judging its merits, boycott any employer who happens to be at variance with his own workpeople. Such a method of industrial warfare is a social danger…”
In horror, the Spectator went on to quote some alleged words of Larkin’s at a meeting in Manchester, when he told his English comrades, ” You have murderers of the type of Murphy. The Englishman is in the same position as we are in Ireland. He is densely ignorant and he will not be taught or led. He allows a few chaps who call themselves respectable trade unionists to cajole him at the dictates of the employing class. Our whole trade union movement is absolutely rotten. If we were the men we think we are, the employing class would be wiped out in an hour, and we should become the employing class.”
How social democracy betrayed the struggle
Early in 1914, the long and unequal struggle concluded in defeat, despite the enormous courage and fighting spirit of the Dublin proletariat. In the end, what robbed the Dublin working class of victory in their titanic struggle were two things: the overwhelming repressive force applied by the state, and the treachery of the TUC and the labour aristocrat union leaders whose consistent refusal to bring other workers out on strike in solidarity sold the Dublin workers down the river.
When Larkin toured the north of England calling for sympathy action he everywhere won warm approbation from workers. But the TUC leadership, steeped in the same opportunism which in a few months would see social democracy acting as a recruiting officer for imperialist war, did not lift a finger to call workers out in solidarity with their Irish comrades. Support from that quarter was limited to lip service, supplemented by token contribution to a hardship fund.
Reformism or Revolution?
Needless to say, the Spectator wept copious crocodile tears over the sufferings workers were undergoing during the lockout, which of course it blamed on the strike, noting in a revealing aside the high esteem in which social democracy was held by a farsighted bourgeois. In the event of a general strike, he warned, “the result would be the starvation of large masses of the industrial population. This fact is properly appreciated by all the more thoughtful Socialists, and it is interesting to see that at the recent German Socialist Congress many speakers denounced as a ridiculous fantasy the idea that the condition of the working population could be improved by a general strike.”
Whilst the “more thoughtful Socialists” marched workers off, away from the struggle against capitalism and towards the sound of the guns, Lenin immediately recognised the revolutionary seed contained in the Dublin struggle, concluding that ” The masses of the British workers are slowly but surely taking a new path – they are abandoning the defence of the petty privileges of the labour aristocracy for their own great heroic struggle for a new system of society. And once on this path the British proletariat, with their energy and organisation, will bring socialism about more quickly and securely than anywhere else.”
Two world wars later, workers are again confronted with the urgent necessity of breaking with social democracy and shouldering ” their own great heroic struggle for a new system of society”.