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Revolutionary Year

Matthew Kovac

1916 in Global Context: An Anti-Imperial Moment, ed by Enrico Dal Lago, Róisín Healy and Gearóid Barry, Routledge, 232 pp, £115, ISBN: 978-1138749993

Historians will mark 2016 as a breaking point – the year of Brexit and Trump, lacking the romanticism or revolutionary fervour of an 1848 or 1968, but nonetheless one more moment when Yeats’s fabled centre could not hold. The events of that year have ushered in a period of heightened political and economic uncertainty: open talk of an Irish “hard border”, growing separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, the rise of far-right governments in Poland and Austria as well as an increasingly militant global left ready to forcibly confront fascism. Against this backdrop of seething populist agitation, the arrival of 1916 in Global Context: An Anti-Imperial Moment, edited by NUI Galway’s Enrico Dal Lago, Róisín Healy, and Gearóid Barry, is particularly well-timed.

In this slim anthology, Dal Lago, Healy, and Barry ably take up the dual challenge laid down by the late Keith Jeffery with his pathbreaking 1916: A Global History: to internationalise the study of the Easter Rising, so often treated as a purely domestic affair – as, indeed, the British state insisted it was; and to restore 1916, long neglected in favour of Bolshevik 1917, to its proper place as the revolutionary hinge of twentieth century politics. Jeffery’s work itself arrived just a tad too early, in 2015, to fully appreciate the resonance of the centenary, but that is hardly the case here. Dr Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now” is on full display in each of the volume’s fifteen short chapters, linking the battlefields and boardrooms of 1916 to ongoing debates around counter-terrorism, border security, and racial profiling.

Both of these challenges are well-met, although the editors achieve more success on the first question. This is global history at its best. Nearly every chapter demonstrates in clear, accessible language how the Easter Rising influenced – and was influenced by – events as far afield as Quebec, Turkestan, India, and South Africa. Some connections are shockingly overt: Andrew Newby brings attention to Nordic sailors fighting in the GPO who, when pressed for their motivations, replied: “Finland, a small country, Russia eat her up. Sweden, another small country, Russia eat her up. Russia with the British, therefore, we against.” Other links, while less direct, are just as fascinating: Danielle Ross convincingly argues that Central Asian newspapers’ coverage of the Easter Rising, ranging from disapproving to supportive, presaged their reactions to a home-grown rebellion later that summer. Meanwhile, David Brundage shows how US domestic politics became a proxy battlefield for moderates and radicals within Irish and Indian nationalist circles in 1910s New York.

Even those contributions that fit less easily into this Irish-centred framework are compelling in their own right. Cecelia Hartsell’s chapter, which positions the Great Migration of Black Americans northward as a political response to segregation and white racist terrorism in the “revolutionary climate of 1916”, complicates the usual picture of the migration as a purely economic affair. Her insistence that migrants were political actors, voting with their feet and organising support networks for new arrivals, is well-taken. While Hartsell draws intriguing parallels with Irish migration politics – especially during the Famine – and quotes WEB DuBois to great effect on the oppressive poverty linking the Irish and black freedom struggles, this discussion is far too brief. Similarly, the political “inspiration” that internal refugees gained from their encounters with anti-colonial Caribbean immigrants in Northern cities is regrettably allowed no more than a sentence.

Jonathan Hyslop is more successful in linking the Easter rebellion to the South African Rand Uprising in his standout chapter on the violent 1922 miners’ strike. Highlighting the presence of the so-called Irish Brigade or Sinn Féin Commando among the working class rebels, Hyslop convincingly argues for the contemporaneity of the two risings as “urban armed insurrections against British imperial authority” with strong leftist pluralities. More broadly, his contention that the First World War’s militarisation of progressive nationalist movements has been understudied is undeniable. His chapter, which notes the role of veterans in the worker commandos, is a critical step toward decentring the proto-fascist Freikorps and squadristi that usually dominate discussions of wartime radicalisation and brutalisation.

Another outstanding selection comes from Erin O’Halloran, who discusses British counter-intelligence activity in the Middle East and South Asia. Perhaps the most immediately relevant of the contributions, her work draws a bright line from British agents’ reliance on “rumours, hunches, and assumptions ... to replicate what they imagined to be the ‘intuitive knowledge’ of the Oriental” to the similarly stereotype-based and counterproductive security procedures in place in the West today. Taking as her starting point the “Silk Letters” plot of 1916, Halloran shows how these mystical exercises in intelligence-gathering led the British to see conspiracies everywhere, conflating Arab, Indian, and pan-Islamic movements and undercutting their own colonial agenda. With the United States government continually expanding its list of War on Terror enemies – including groups in Yemen and Somalia that did not even exist in 2001 – the parallels speak for themselves.

If the editors achieve a resounding success in globalising the Rising, their second challenge – re-situating 1916 as a global revolutionary “tipping point” – is more of an uphill battle. It is not simply a matter of decentring 1917 in a Soviet-centric historiography, but also in the popular imagination, where the age of revolution is indelibly stamped with the hammer and sickle. Never mind that, as Danielle Ross shows us in her chapter, Russia’s infamous February Revolution was actually preceded by rebellions in its Central Asian territories in summer 1916, when Muslim villagers revolted against the tsar’s conscription policies.

Despite the ubiquity of such examples, however, few of the contributors directly challenge 1917’s primacy as the “year of revolution”. For this reason, Michael Provence’s chapter on the Great War in the Middle East is crucial, bringing the crises facing British imperialism in 1916 into sharp relief: “The Anglo-French withdrawal from Gallipoli in January 1916, the Easter Rising in Ireland, and General Townsend’s surrender at Kut in the same week nearly brought the British Empire to its knees.” While one might quibble with this phrasing, his assessment is remarkably convincing, centring 1916 as a cloudy and tumultuous year in its own right rather than the inevitable “darkness before the dawn” preceding the arrival of US forces in 1917 and ultimate victory. Unfortunately, his analysis is hampered by brevity and a lack of primary sources, with only thirteen citations in nearly as many pages. While a successful “overview”, as intended, his argument fails to deliver the coup de grace.

Even with these limitations, this anthology remains a vital counterpoint to a raft of recent centenary-minded publications, including David Stevenson’s new 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution. More jarring are this volume’s problems with representation: the virtual absence of African, Asian, and Latin American contributors in a work of global history is particularly grating. Given that the publication grew out of a conference at NUI Galway in June 2016, with many participants visiting from nearby institutions, responsibility does not lie entirely with the editors. And yet, given the sharp disparities in institutional support for scholars and postgraduate students around the world, conference organisers and editors must take a more proactive approach in ensuring the inclusion of voices that might otherwise go unheard.

1916 in Global Context offers a compelling transnational history of the Rising and does much to decentre Eastern Europe as the locus of revolution, even if some of its arguments require further elaboration. But it also makes clear the need for contributors no less global than the history they seek to write.

1/4/2018

Matthew Kovac is a master’s student in modern European history at the University of Oxford, Keble College. His research focuses on Irish veteran reintegration and paramilitary violence in the wake of the First World War. Follow his work @MatthewKovac.

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