One Woman’s Irish Revolution: Reading the Bolshevik Revolution in a British Jail

By Lauren Arrington

From her prison cell in Holloway Jail, in the borough of Islington, north London, the Irish revolutionary, Constance Markievicz read Maxim Litvinov’s pamphlet The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning. This was not a secret undertaking. Throughout three of Markievicz’s five periods of imprisonment, incurred during the 1916 Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921), and the Irish Civil War of 1922, she was allowed access to an extraordinary range of books and newspapers that helped her to shape Irish Republican political thought.

While her correspondence and her visits were carefully monitored, Markievicz’s reading habits were not considered dangerous, to the extent that in Cork Jail, where she was imprisoned in spring 1919, she was permitted copies of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought, which would be adopted by the Communist Party of Britain as its weekly organ the following year. Markievicz’s visitors, such as Nora Connolly (the daughter of James Connolly, a signatory of the Proclamation of the Republic and executed for his role in the Easter Rising), were permitted to bring her reading material, and she was allowed to receive books through the post. There are at least two reasons for this extraordinary permissiveness: Markievicz’s sex and her aristocratic social class.

Litvinov’s pamphlet was one of the most important books that Markievicz read during her incarcerations, and the texts had lasting effects on her political policy. The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning was published by the proto-communist British Socialist Party, whose newspaper, The Call, Markievicz was also allowed to read in prison. Litvinov had been deported to London after going on the run after Bloody Sunday, 1905. He shared a house with Joseph Stalin before being appointed Soviet representative in Britain after the October Revolution. At that point, he was arrested by the British government, released through a hostage exchange in return for the repatriation of a British spy, and on his release had his tract published by the British socialists.

In a section of the pamphlet, “Their Immediate Measures,” Litvinov described the Bolsheviks’ transfer of “all lands hitherto in possession of private landlords, of the Imperial family, of the Church, etc., with the exception of the small peasant and Cossack, to the peasantry at large, to be administered and distributed for use by peasant committees acting in conjunction with local Soviets.”[1] The goal of the redistribution was to prevent war-profiteering and other capitalist impulses.

This echoed James Connolly’s The Re-Conquest of Ireland (1915) in which Connolly revisited his discussion of cooperation in Labour in Irish History.  Connolly maintained that George Russell’s cooperative system was a model for Irish industry, since it cut out “the gombeen men, middlemen and dealers of one kind or another in the small country towns, [who] sucked the life-blood of the agricultural population around them [….] They were ever the local wirepulers, and, as such, posed as the representatives of the political thought of Ireland.”[2]  As a close friend of Connolly and an officer in the Irish Citizen Army, of which he was the head, Markievicz believed that she was responsible for realizing Connolly’s vision of an Irish Republic in post-Rising Ireland. Litvinov’s discussion of Bolshevik land policy gave Markievicz a model for applying Connolly’s principles to the contemporary.

Markievicz enjoyed a short period of release in spring 1919, soon after her reading of Litvinov’s pamphlet.  She took her seat as an elected member of the revolutionary Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, which was established as a counter to the British parliament after Sinn Féin’s victories in the 1918 General Election.  From prison, Markievicz had stood—and won—a seat for Dublin’s St Patrick’s ward, making her the first woman elected to Westminster. She had important allies in the Dáil, including Alexander McCabe and Laurence Ginnell; the three worked together to develop a radical land policy. Their first object was the redistribution of land and ranches that had been vacated by British and Anglo-Irish landholders. The radicalism of their motion is underscored by the immediate silencing of debate on the issue and the delegation of the matter to a committee from which Markievicz was excluded. 

The question did not disappear. In the political shake-up of 1922, after the hotly debated Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Dáil, Markievicz and Dáithí Ceannt, who maintained the Republican position of dissenting from the treaty, pressed for the redistribution of all land “evacuated by enemy forces,” except land that was being used as a training ground for the Irish Republican Army. They recommended that the land “be divided into economic holdings, and distributed among landless men, preference being given to members of the I.R.A.” Outside the Dáil, where she could speak more freely, Markievicz referred to this reorganization as the creation of “modern soviets.” This is more than the vague expression of Bolshevism as an ideal for Irish Republicanism; Markievicz is applying Litvinov’s discussion of the preferential treatment of Cossacks in her advocacy of preferential treatment of IRA volunteers.

The land issue is one example of how Litvinov’s pamphlet relates to Markievicz’s revolutionary aims; it also influenced Markievicz’s ideas about revolutionary methods.

In his background to October 1917, Litvinov argued that the “first revolution” of 1905 had failed because of a lack of agreement among the revolutionary leadership, leading to the Menshevik/Bolshevik split. The educational program enacted by the Bolsheviks before the First World War had made February 1917 possible, but the attempted revolution had not been a complete success due to the leadership’s absence:

It must again be borne in mind that at the time there were practically no Bolshevik leaders in Russia […] This explains the singular circumstance that though the revolution was made by the working class and the soldier-peasants, and though the actual power was concentrated in their hands, the Soviet allowed the exercise of that power to pass into the hands of the propertied classes, as represented by the Provisional Government.[3]

Lenin’s return from abroad was necessary for the consolidation of the revolutionary program. Even so, on his repatriation, his program for a “Socialist State” in which the “proletarian classes would alone exercise authority” was too radical even for most of his friends. Litvinov wrote, “Lenin was compelled to drop it for a time, expecting that life would in due course prove a more convincing teacher than himself.”[4]

Litvinov’s comments on the importance of a present and visible leadership inspired Markievicz’s commitment to Eamon de Valera’s leadership in Ireland, even when their ideas about specific policies—such as equal rights for women or land nationalization—radically diverge. Lenin’s temporary compromise, as described by Litvinov, may have provided Markievicz with a precedent when it came to her support for Fianna Fáil in 1927, shortly before her death. 

In Radicals and the Republic, Richard English described Markievicz’s politics as “confused,” but her prison reading suggests otherwise.[5] In jail, Markievicz used the few privileges accorded to her sex to access a diverse corpus of reading material on historical and contemporary revolutions. Her prison library illustrates the depth of her political thought and the principles underlying her political aims.

Lauren Arrington is Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. She is the author of Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz, which was published this year. You can contact her at L.Arrington@liverpool.ac.uk or tweet her @ArringtonLauren.

Title image: Markievicz in uniform holding a gun, circa 1915.

Endnotes:

[1] Maxim Litvinov, The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning (London: British Socialist Party, n.d. [1919]), 27.

[2] James Connolly, Labour in Ireland: Labour in Irish History, The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: Maunsel and Roberts, 1922), 316.

[3] Litvinov, Bolshevik Revolution, 19.

[4] Litvinov, Bolshevik Revolution, 21.

[5] Richard English, Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State 1925-1937 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 37-38.

For further reading:

Lauren Arrington, Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

James Connolly, Labour in Ireland: Labour in Irish History, The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: Maunsel and Roberts, 1922).  https://archive.org/details/cu31924002283319

Maxim Litvinov, The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning (London: British Socialist Party, 1919).  https://archive.org/details/TheBolshevikRevolutionItsRiseAndMeaning

Richard English, Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State, 1925-1937 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

Charlie McGuire, Roddy Connolly and the struggle for socialism in Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 2007).

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