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Seán Murray: Marxist-Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican by Graham Harrington

Seán Byers’ book caught my eye in Eason in Cork City. It was quite appropriate that a book dealing with the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland would be selling in one of the city’s main bookshops as not too long ago, 2 Maoist bookstores were burned down in the city for selling seditious literature. This ossification within Irish society’s view of Communism further illustrates the challenges the book’s subject and his party faced.

Murray was born in the Glens of Antrim, into a rural Catholic background. Joining Sinn Féin in 1917, Murray would have a life-long dalliance with Irish republicanism, with a tenure in the IRA spanning the War for Independence and the Civil War. Embracing James Connolly’s maxim “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour”, Murray joined the Communist Party of Great Britain while in London in 1924. For recognition of his talents, he was selected to attend the International Lenin School for intense study. The resulting “Bolshevisation” would lead to Murray’s life-long affinity with the Soviet Union.

Murray and his newly-found Revolutionary Workers Party (later Groups) faced severe problems in Ireland. The Catholic Church was in firm control of the state and society. It had no tolerance for atheist Communism. Murray and his comrades faced heckling, abuse, intimidation and violence. Its paper was refused publication in several instances. Murray himself was stabbed at a demonstration. In 1933, Murray formed the new Communist Party of Ireland. In March 1933, Connolly House, its headquarters, was besieged and burned down, Murray and others narrowly avoiding serious injury or worse.

The Comintern had a tight reign on the CPs of Europe, Ireland included, and expected them to obey their diktats on strategy. The Comintern had little sympathy for Murray’s protestations that the party in Ireland needed to draw back on its anti-Catholicism or risk scaring off more potential recruits. The Comintern also feared, as part of its “class against class” position, that the Irish party was getting too close to the “petit-bourgeois” IRA.

Murray was an ardent Bolshevik and needed Moscow for financial support and ideological legitimacy. However, he was pragmatic and used his own wit to deal with some matters. For instance, Byers writes on p.70: “There was indeed a vast gulf between Comintern policy which ruled out cooperation with social democrats and other reformists, and CPI practice.” The COMINTERN used the CPGB to try to reign in the Irish party and in a few instances, put Murray’s leadership under scrutiny and considered changing the role for someone less inclined to pursue an independent line. Thankfully for Murray’s leadership, Moscow acquiesced on some issues and trusted him as the most capable to lead the party.

Murray, a former IRA man and Connollyite himself, believed that, despite certain disagreements, the IRA would play a key role in the Irish anti-imperialist movement. Murray had a great friendship with socialist republicans such as Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan. With them, he played a key role in the Republican Congress. The Congress would ultimately fail but Murray’s ambition for republicans and communists working together would never wane. In some instances, the IRA would provide stewards for some CPI rallies at Murray’s behest in recognition as a republican stalwart.

The CPI was an internationalist party and provided the bulk of volunteers to fight with Republican Spain against Franco’s fascists. Here, Murray played a key role. He was responsible for the organising of recruits and the unenviable position of informing the families of the deceased. The CPI went up against the Irish Christian Front and Blueshirts at home and regularly disrupted meetings of both along with republicans. This clearly did not help their standing in the eyes of the church.

The outbreak of World War was quite obviously hugely significant to the Irish party. A debate on the party’s position on southern neutrality while the north was fighting the war led to an impasse between northern and southern comrades. The party decided to break, the south dissolving its branches while the northern party continued its activities. Murray moved to Belfast but found organising the CPNI a different kettle of fish to his former activities. Murray would no longer be General Secretary and it would be a while until his talents would be suitably recognised and he was brought on to the executive. Murray became editor of the party’s war-time bulletin Unity. The CPNI supported the British war effort and for this was rewarded with Stormont’s ambivalence to its activities, allowing it to recruit, at its height, 1,000 members.

The party in the north had a huge base among the unionist working-class and this showed in its attitude towards republicanism. The party feared losing its Protestant members and was reluctant to be seen as supportive of the IRA. There was also an attitude whereby the party saw itself more as being a section of the CPGB which caused problems for Murray in his disagreements with that party. The end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War led to a Red Scare which would damage the party, especially as it was beginning to organize again in the south with the development of the Irish Workers’ League and later the Irish Workers’ Party.

Murray strived for party unity and was a key player in bringing Irish trade unionist congresses to amalgamate, to foster a more favourable climate for re-unification of the Irish parties, a case study of how partition had complicated the development of Irish communism. Murray especially, as one himself, believed in the northern party taking an active role in fighting for equal rights for northern Catholics. His 6 point demands would later from 6 of the 7 points of the future Civil Rights Movement. Murray authored “The Irish Path to Socialism” in 1960 which advocated, perhaps naively, the establishment of 2 left-wing governments on the island as the path to re-unification. At the same time, the IWP published its manifesto “Ireland Her Own” which was remarkably similar to the northern manifesto. Both were Connollyite in their approach and repudiated the orthodox “stageist” model to socialism, highlighting further Murray’s skill in analysing the concrete conditions available to revolutionaries.

Seán Murray died in 1961, as a result of life-long alcohol abuse. Murray was certainly highly intelligent and many of his analyses would come true later on or provide inspiration for later individuals. His position on what was needed for the republican movement to become relevant for the working-class would later be taken up by leading republicans such as Tomás Mac Giolla several years after Murray’s death. His position on the economic results of Capitalism for the Irish nation would turn out to be astutely foreseen. His demands for northern Catholics would be almost copied by the Civil Rights Movement, again several years after his death. His ambition for a united Irish Communist party and agitation for that would eventually come a reality in 1970 after several years of estrangement.

Byers’ book is not the first to deal with Irish Communism, but is arguably the most important, as we now have a full historiography of the Irish party. Byers skillfully deals with his fellow academics’ books and offers succinct and constructive criticisms of them. His impeccable use of sources offers further reading material and are often as insightful as the book itself, especially in his reliance on primary-source information such as interviews with contemporaries and Special Branch reports. His book fills in many gaps in the history of Irish Communism and, while not trying to be a full analysis of the Communist Party of Ireland, offers a benchmark for any future historian dedicated to telling the full story of the party which it so deserves.