July 27, 2015

Seán Murray Biography

Seán Byers, Seán Murray: Marxist-Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican (Irish Academic Press, 2015, 228 pp, €22.45 PB).


The last 20 years has witnessed some remarkable developments in the historiography of the Irish Left. Assisted by greater access to crucial archival collections, there has been a consistent and growing interest in the ideas and experiences of Irish socialist, communist and left-republican organisations. This has resulted in a whole series of significant works by a wide number of scholars, all of which have served to broaden and deepen our knowledge of an Irish political tradition, which, although marginal in terms of number of adherents and supporters, has impacted more substantially on politics and society in both Irish states.

These works have included biographies of giants of the movement such as Jim Larkin and Peadar O’Donnell and a growing number of studies of the organisational politics and ideas of Irish communist and left republican groups. All the more puzzling, therefore, that perhaps the most significant Irish communist of the Comintern era, Seán Murray, should have been largely overlooked, up until now. Prior to the publication of this fine biography by Seán Byers, treatment of Murray had been limited to a few articles and a Masters thesis by Stephen Bowler. A full-length consideration of this fascinating leader was long overdue and it is to Byers credit that he has taken up the challenge.

The book is very well-researched, and is based on a wide range of sources, including both the CI and CPI archives, as well as Murray’s own papers and a broad array of newspapers and other communist and republican publications. It is organised into five chapters, each of which examines a key period in Murray’s political life. There are many recurring, inter-connected themes. For much of the CI era, the main ones were Irish communist relations with republicans; with the CI; and with British communists. These are all explored thoroughly and intelligently by Byers.

Seán Murray was born in Cushendall in 1898. Like many Irish communists, his first political involvement was with the IRA during the period of the Irish revolution. He remained in the organisation during the difficult period of 1920-22, when the northern state consolidated itself in an orgy of sectarian, anti-catholic violence, but finally left to live and work in Glasgow. Here, he became influenced by the socialist activism that he encountered while working as a labourer on the Clyde. Much of the evidence for this period in Murray’s life comes from a brief autobiography that he penned in Moscow in the late 1920s. Due to the brevity of the document, it is frustratingly unclear when Murray became a socialist, how this happened, or if any of his comrades in the Antrim Brigade of the IRA shared these views. But it does seem that Murray’s early republicanism instilled in him a belief that the ranks of the IRA could be a fertile recruiting ground for communism; this would be a defining characteristic of his political approach thereafter.

Murray moved to London in 1924 and became active in the CPGB. It was as a member of that party that he travelled to Moscow in late 1927, to undertake training at the International Lenin School. As Byers points out, this was part of the ‘Bolshevisation’—some might say, Stalinisation—of the Comintern that took place towards the end of the 1920s and which had as its aim the creation of a cadre of communist leaders, who could be trusted with the task of building disciplined and loyal national communist organisations. Murray’s own attachment to the CI and the political leadership it offered was strengthened during this time, but Byers also illuminates some of the difficulties he had in his relations with the CPGB. Murray was walking over well-covered ground here; relations between the first CPI and the British communists had also been poor. British communists routinely failed to appreciate the difficulties their Irish counterparts faced, and were also unwilling to concede full independence of action to them. The specific problem Murray faced while in Moscow was the exclusion of the Irish delegates from discussions on the strategy for building communism in Ireland. It was a situation that the CI was ultimately responsible for creating, but one that would re-occur and would dog Irish-British communist relations in the period ahead

Murray travelled back to Ireland in 1930 and Byers displays with clarity the difficulty the Irish communist leader had in negotiating the vital relationships with the IRA, British communists and the CI. Murray’s main task was to implement the new CI ‘class against class ‘ strategy, which in an Irish context meant a more hostile attitude towards the IRA and a greater determination to unmask its petty-bourgeois character. But this was at a time when the much-larger IRA was more amenable to left-wing ideas than at any other time in its history. The new hard-line was therefore disastrous for the tiny communist movement. Byers argues, plausibly and with evidence, that Murray was concerned at the attempt to create a communist movement that was alienated from the IRA left. He implemented the strategy, but for a limited period only. By 1932, Murray appeared to be moving beyond it, hinting at some degree of support for Fianna Fail’s land reforms and arguing that the communist RWG’s had played down too far the anti-imperialist aspect of their political programme.

Murray’s more nuanced interpretation of class against class differed from that of the CPGB, and was a source of disagreement between the two. However, bigger problems lay ahead. Murray had expressed caution about the re-formation of the CPI in 1933. At a time when virulent catholic reaction stalked the Irish Free State —Murray himself only avoided a serious injury or worse when his thick overcoat absorbed an attempted knife-attack in Dublin—he was of the view that the party should not have the name ‘communist’ in the title. Yet again, this was a view rejected by the CPGB, who saw it as a cowardly retreat. But by the end of 1934, with the new party limited to small groups in Belfast and Dublin and already hanging on for dear life, it was Murray whose counsel appeared to be the wisest. The negative role of the CPGB, and in particular its leader Harry Pollitt, who appeared to nurse an intense dislike of Murray, is sketched out fully by Byers and forms a fascinating backdrop to his discussion on the Republican Congress. It is now clear that the CPGB leader’s failure to pass on vital instructions from the CI to the CPI led to the latter adopting a position of support for the ‘republic’ slogan at Rathmines. This was in contrast to the ‘workers and farmers republic’ position that the CI had suggested and which was much closer to those on the other side of the Rathmines split. Byers concludes that this perhaps did not make a huge difference to the eventual split and demise of the movement. He defends his position and cites a number of other barriers in the way of socialist republican political progress, including the fact that the communists also supported the ‘united front’ organisational form, which was an additional factor in the split, and, more fundamentally, the lack of political space that existed in 1930s Ireland for such a movement. Perhaps. But it is possible to argue that had the communists voted with the ‘workers’ republic’ faction at Rathmines, the size of the majority this would have created might have created more of a dynamic towards achieving unity on the organisational form. And although Fianna Fail and the Ulster Unionists formed a huge obstacle towards any socialist-republican movement in Ireland, I’m not sure, given the many social, economic and political failings of those governments, that there was no possible space for its development.

The involvement of communists in groups like republican congress had been made easier by the CI’s abandonment of ‘class against class’. Catastrophe and the decapitation of the KPD in Germany had of course been the main international factor behind this shift. It led to new directives, which insisted communists build anti-fascist alliances with social democrats and bourgeois democrats alike.  While few communist parties became involved in power-sharing governments with bourgeois parties before WW2—many did afterwards—one country where this did happen was Spain, where the PCE joined the popular front government in the early months of 1936. In July, that government faced a fascist coup and so began the Spanish Civil War. Many Irish communists would fight and die in Spain, and although Murray was not one of them, he did, as Byers stresses, play a central, and often overlooked, role in co-ordinating efforts in Ireland. This included the important task of recruiting and vetting potential recruits to the International Brigades and the harrowing task of informing the families of those volunteers who had been killed. Given the strength of pro-Franco sentiment in the Irish Free State, Murray’s was a brave stance, which, as Byers points out, remains worthy of high praise today. However, Spain, and other events of that time, also throws into sharp relief Murray’s Stalinism. This was evident in the unfortunate slur he delivered against the non-Stalinist socialist militia, POUM, effectively dismissing it as a fascist force. Murray was also fully behind the show trials and purges that took place in the USSR around the same time. Like most Communists, he does not seem to have recognised the dreadful implications these trials and purges contained for the worldwide communist movement. It makes all the more poignant the picture that is included in the book of Murray at Nikolai Bukharin’s former house in Crimea in 1957; 19 years after the Old Bolshevik himself had been executed for a long litany of the most incredulous ‘offences’.

Stalin’s regime was of course unpredictable in its manoeuvres, which made political consistency impossible for most of its global subordinates. This could be seen with the shifts in position during 1939-41 when anti-fascist popular frontism was replaced with a questionable, ‘anti-imperialist’ position following the Nazi-Soviet pact, to be replaced in turn with support for the war against Germany following the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Byers shows how all of this affected the CPI and led to the party folding in the neutral Free State, leaving in its wake a truncated, six-county organisation, the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. Faced with the choice of joining the Labour party in Dublin, or returning home to the north, he chose the latter and became active in the CPNI in Belfast.

For a number of reasons, political, personal and financial, all of which are covered in the book, these were the quietest years of his political career. During the war, the CPNI took an opportunist position of strong support for the British war effort, which had the contradictory effect of allowing it to develop a growing base in the unions whilst diluting its commitment to class politics. Moreover, it appeared at times to move very close to the Ulster Unionist Party, with Billy McCullough’s But Victory Sooner—aptly described by Byers as an ‘apologia for Unionism’—being perhaps the best (or worst) example of this trend. Murray’s politics were of course cut from a different cloth, but he had to take account of the fact that the CPNI was a largely protestant-based party with very little support in the nationalist communities. Moving the party away from its flirtation with unionism, while maintaining and building its support and constructing a new strategy for the future would become the final challenge of his political career.

It was during this period that Murray developed the first detailed Irish communist programme since1933. Memorably described by Mike Milotte as a ‘dual carriageway to socialism’ the programme advocated a series of social-democratic reforms in both Irish states, pending their eventual re-unification. As far as the Northern Ireland state was concerned, these reforms included the abolition of the Special Powers Act; an end to gerrymandering and discrimination; and disbandment of the B Specials. Some of these demands had been made at previous points in communist history. Their re-discovery as part of this new strategy was, as Byers points out, of crucial significance in underpinning Irish communism’s later engagement with 1960s left republicanism. It can certainly be argued that the civil rights strategy of what later became the Official IRA sprung from some of the ground that had been worked by Murray.

Murray himself did not live to see the fruits of his labours, but died of liver failure in 1961, a tragic consequence of his alcoholism. When assessing his legacy, it is clear that he made a huge contribution to the development of socialist thinking and practice in Ireland. He remained at the forefront of communist politics for over 30 years and played a key part in many communist and socialist republican political initiatives during that period. Murray was also a leading activist in both Irish states, which makes him something of a rarity in Irish communist history. As such, he not only influenced the continued development of socialist republicanism in the Irish Free State but also provided crucial intellectual input into the development of a strategy that would eventually shatter the Northern Ireland state–albeit in a way that he certainly did not envisage or plan. The latter is perhaps his most significant legacy of all.

Regards the shortcomings of the book, these are few. I would have liked more quotations from articles and speeches from Murray in his early days; we seemed to pass through the 1920s quickly and didn’t always get a sense of his political ideas or analysis during this important period. The impact of Stalinism/ reformism on his politics, which is clearly evident in Ireland’s Path to Socialism, could possibly have been teased out and discussed more systematically. But these are not major criticisms. They do not detract from what is a well-researched and impressive biography. Seán Murray was one of 20th century Ireland’s most important revolutionary figures. Thanks to this book, we now have a greater understanding not only of his career, but also of the way that the Irish left in general engaged with and tried to influence wider Irish society, north and south, throughout this period.

Charlie McGuire is Senior Lecturer in History at Teeside University and author of Roddy Connolly and the Struggle for Socialism in Ireland (Cork UP, 2008).