In 1924 James Larkin agreed with British and Soviet communists to undertake the leadership of communism in Ireland. The triangular relationship soon became poisoned with dissension, insubordination and deceit. Not only did Larkin refuse to form a communist party, he went to great lengths to ensure that no one else did either. By 1925 British communists, contrary to Moscow’s directives, were attempting to work in Ireland independently of Larkin, and by 1927 Moscow too was plotting to clip his wings.
Larkin’s communist career is treated in some detail in two publications. Emmet Larkin’s biography offers the kindest interpetation, taking his subject’s politics at face value, and concluding that Ireland, and the weak and divided condition of its labour movement after 1923, were simply too hostile an environment for communism. Mike Milotte’s Communism in modern Ireland deals more directly with organisational politics and cites repeated examples of Larkin’s failure. Both studies are based on sources available in the west, which offer a superficial picture of events, and the story still holds obvious puzzles. Why did Larkin accept the leadership of the communist movement and then deliberately prevent its development? Why did Moscow tolerate his leadership for so long? Did Larkin have a political strategy, or were his political thinking and actions purely impulsive and reactive? And how do we explain his eccentric behaviour during these years, when he seemed to quarrel with everyone?
With the liberalisation of access to the former Central Party Archive of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the Institute for Marxism-Leninism, Moscow, now the Russian Centre for the Conservation and Study of Documents of Modern History (Rossijskij Tsentr Khraneniya i Izutshenija Dokumentov Novejshej Istorij, cited as R.Ts.Kh.I.D.N.I. throughout this article), it is possible to answer these questions.