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Steadfast Comrade

Brian Kenny

Sean Murray: Marxist Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican, by Sean Byers, Irish Academic Press, 250 pp, €22.45, ISBN: 978-0716532972

A small farm in rural Antrim is not the first place you would look to for the birthplace of a man who would become a key figure in the Communist Party in Ireland. Sean Murray was born in 1898 in Cushendall and over a forty-year period he devoted all of his adult life to the development of the party in his home country, a party which Sean Byers claims has “influenced the trajectory of the labour and republican movement and left a significant imprint on Irish cultural and intellectual life”.

Byers, in his detailed and impressively researched biography, charts Murray’s involvement from his early years, when his IRA activism in the North led to him moving to Britain and joining the Communist Party of Great Britain ( CPGB). That combination of nationalism and communism, reflected in the book’s sub-title, was to be the “twin-track” approach which Murray tried to combine during his long involvement in left-wing and communist activity. It was to challenge and bedevil his political career until his death in 1962.

Byers’s account of Murray’s early years in the communist movement are particularly interesting. Through his involvement in the CPGB Murray was sent to the International Lenin school in Moscow in 1927. The school was set up to educate foreign activists and “Young Jim” Larkin was another of its prominent students. The students were schooled in political economy, labour history and Marxism. Seventy-two hour weeks were the norm and Murray and “Young Jim” were required to produce a hundred-page Marxist pamphlet on conditions in Ireland. This was then translated into Russian and seven thousand copies produced. Not the kind of print run Murray and Larkin would have been used to at home.

The Lenin school saw Murray, Larkin and other students involved in rows, grillings and disputes, but Murray also found time to marry a local woman, giving us a rare glimpse into his personal life, which he kept private. For reasons which were unclear Murray’s wife could not accompany him back home and his love life had to be sacrificed for the cause.

The 1930s was a decade of left-wing activism, both in Ireland and internationally . Murray returned to Ireland as a paid organiser and with the task of setting up a communist party. Under the auspices of the “mothership” of the CPGB his efforts ran quickly into disputes involving his party’s ‑ then dramatically called the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP) ‑ relations with left republicans and what was known in Ireland as Larkinism. These disputes surfaced regularly in Murray’s work. He regularly argued for the building of relationships with like-minded groups, but he and Moscow, also argued for the primacy of the party, no matter how small.

Byers, in his introduction, suggests that the value of a political biography lies in its ability to address wider social, economic and political questions. In this he succeeds only sporadically. His impressive forensic research on Murray’s life leads him to focus on the minutiae of his internal struggles, with the big picture sometimes getting lost. For example, while all this internecine warfare was going on in the early 1930s the party was pitifully small: at one time it had just fifty members in the North and seventy-eight in the South.

By 1933 Murray had been instructed to set up a new Communist Party of Ireland, which he did with some reluctance. Forty-five delegates attended the inaugural meeting in June 1933, held under the cover of a total abstinence association, and debated Irelands Path to Freedom, their new manifesto, drawn up by Murray. The manifesto declared that the fight for communism would grow out of the national struggle. That same month Murray got seventy-five votes in a municipal election. By 1934 the party was close to collapse.

Party history during this period is almost a classic example of the lives of extreme left-wing formations. Bursts of enthusiasm and achievement – support in the North for the outdoor relief dispute of 1932, some successes in industrial disputes in the North, a brave commitment by party members to the Spanish Civil War – combined with seemingly endless rows and internal disputes – the establishment and collapse of the Republican Congress in 1934 and constant tensions between Murray and “head office” over the direction of the party in Ireland and any links with republicanism.

By 1939 Murray was off the Comintern payroll, had been removed as editor of the party paper and was reportedly drinking heavily. But he continued his involvement as the party struggled to develop a coherent response to the momentous events unfolding across Europe. The party developed various obscure positions until the German invasion of Russia forced it to support the Allied war effort. Despite these wranglings, the 1940s was in one respect a high point of communist activity in the country with the Northern Ireland section reaching a thousand members in 1943. In Mike Millote’s Communism in Modern Ireland, the author suggests that during the war communism in the North was almost seen as respectable.

By the end of the war the party in the South had been dissolved and members encouraged to join the Labour Party. A separate Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI) was set up and remained independent until a united party was created in 1970. After the war and until his death in 1962 Murray lived in the North and continued an active involvement. By 1950 he was back as a national organiser and struggled against the “red scare” which swept through the South at that time. This and the almost inevitable internal difficulties led to a decline in activity and membership. In 1948 a new southern section called the Irish Workers’ League (IWL) was established but the combined membership North and South of the border was tiny, sometimes dropping to less than a hundred committed individuals.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 Murray remained wedded to the cause, visiting Russia, where at an international conference he affirmed his loyalty to the Soviet Union. Through the 1950s the two parties, if they can be called that, gradually moved toward a united position. Before he died Murray was instrumental in drafting a new policy document for the CPNI, “The Irish Way to Socialism”. It was published in 1962, a year after his death, and was complemented by a sister policy document from the South, “Ireland her Own”. It took a further eight years before a united Communist Party of Ireland was established.

For a small and relatively inconsequential party the communist movement has attracted a fair level of attention. Milotte’s seminal Communism in Modern Ireland has been followed by Matt Treacy’s The Communist Party of Ireland1921-2011. The various writings of Emmet O’Connor cover some of the same ground and now there is the full biography of one of the party’s leading members. Sean Byers is to be commended for his detailed research and forensic analysis. His work is not for the faint-hearted, however, and it is tough work to follow the tortuous journey of the left and try to keep up with all the acronyms – RWP. RWG, IWL, CPI, CPNI, IWP and so on.

The detailed review of Murray’s life could profitably have been complemented with more about where the CPI fitted into Irish political life. The Labour Party and its role figures only occasionally. In this respect Byers does not succeed, as he set out to do, in placing Murray’s life in a broader political context. In many respect the book mirrors the approach of its subjects – introspective, focusing on the internal and failing to stand back and see the overall impact.

In his epilogue, Byers outlines Murray’s achievements, and while he is often critical and highlights his subject’s somewhat excessive loyalty to Russia and the party, it is not surprising that his overall assessment is positive. In support he quotes Peadar O’Donnell, who described Murray as the “greatest achievement of the Republican Left … he was Connolly fully matured”.

Byers notes that in the final years of his life Murray reiterated his commitment “to the goal of a thirty-two county Irish socialist republic”. What he actually achieved to further that ambition is not spelt out. Among Murray’s achievements Byers recites his posthumous influence across the republican and labour movement, including the Irish Workers’ Group and what he calls the “influential” Cork Workers Club. And therein lies the fault in Byers’s analysis and the movement he describes in such detail. Apart from the fact that ninety-nine per cent of workers have never heard of such groups, that introspective approach suggests that what really matters is getting the party line right and working out the correct position on the issues of the day.

So, despite all of Murray’s efforts – all the meetings, the papers, the struggles and debates – one can’t help wondering did it ever amount to the proverbial hill of beans ?

1/9/2015
Brian Kenny's latest book is, The Peoples Republic: Labour and the Left in Dublin South Central'

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