Marxism and the Irish National Question
Paper Delivered at Echoes of Revolution Conference, University of East Anglia
18 February 2018
Marxists oppose nationalism as tending to divide the international working class whilst uniting the workers of a country with their exploiters. This basic approach was that of Marx and Engels. Nonetheless, they came to support Irish independence from Britain.
Initially, they had considered Irish progress to be ensured best within a single state of these islands. For them, the Irish workers needed Britain’s industrialised working class to win state power.
This seemed justified in that Irish conditions were unfitted for economic growth in the nineteenth century. The country lacked the iron and coal needed to build industry. This was less true of the north-east which was closer to British mineral sources than any other part of Ireland, but, there, industrial capital had a further productive force in the sectarian division of its workers. Equally, the land system handicapped agricultural growth. Nationalist politicians tried to improve matters by founding banks and projecting railways. Such initiatives were pointless without products to sell or the prospect of such. The banks exported capital to venues with promise of greater dividends; the railways transported people and cattle to boats to leave the country. Despite many white papers and blue books, the colonial regime would not intervene to limit property rights
Inevitably, the situation produced nationalist movements. For most of the century, the bourgeoisie supplied reformist versions. Before 1850 there were the O’Connellites, prepared to use radical, mass tactics but shrinking from the possibility of revolution. Marx and Engels saw this and rejected Irish nationalism accordingly.
Their minds were changed in the 1860s by the rise of the Fenians, a revolutionary nationalist mass movement. Their First International committed itself to the cause of Irish freedom. In 1867, Marx wrote Engels stating that what Ireland needed was legislative independence, land reform and tariffs to protect its industries, though after this Ireland might federate with Britain on an equal basis. Whether Irish capitalism could deliver this was not questioned by him. Neither he nor Engels anticipated an Irish working class revolution. Their aims were to clear the ground for such a rising of the workers in these islands.
The First International supported the Fenians, won three of their leaders, and got branches set up in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. The Catholic priesthood, citing the Paris Commune, and the Orange Lodges killed these. Most rank and file Fenians chose dynamite against dialectic.
Individual members of the old International remained. They could do little until Marxism revived in Britain. Then, in January 1886 William Morris’ Socialist League formed a group in Dublin. It began a period of conflicting British based Marxist propaganda groups usually lapsing into socialist societies, but doing considerable constructive work, helping start the new British general workers’ unions, organising the unemployed and agitating for better housing. Their weakness was that they were hostile to Marx’s prescription. They recognised the national bourgeois demand for Home Rule as likely to produce a state dominated by business, large farmers and the Catholic Church but they presented no alternative.
Nor could they have found allies among the Protestant and unionist workers of Ulster. Most of these were not just opposed to any form of Irish self-determination; their opposition was based on a very real position of privilege (‘ascendancy’) rather than on objection to the genuinely pre-capitalist aspects of the culture of Ireland ‘s Catholic majority. The Union existed to keep that majority down. To disturb it for some will-o’-wisp idea of equal prosperity was absurd. Sectarian division encouraged the development of Belfast industry. This fertilised class consciousness up to a point; the city trades council nominated the first formally independent labour parliamentary candidate in 1885. Yet it could not produce a mass consciousness beyond that. Most enlightened Belfast workers remained Labourist, and even they were in a minority among their colleagues.
By 1896, lrish labour political formations consisted of a number of mainly British based skilled workers’ union affiliated to the Irish TUC, a number of struggling general workers’ unions, and some Marxists in Dublin who were members of the city’s slightly larger labourite group. From this last there appeared a clearer Marxist identity.
James Connolly came from Edinburgh to organise the Dublin Socialist Society and began a career that would provide a more thorough and realistic application of the Marxist method to Ireland than has been achieved before or since. He saw that the simple equation of developed British capitalism having more potential for workers’ republic than Ireland was erroneous, that an Irish republic was both possible and a possible pacesetter for a British workers’ state. He turned the society into an Irish Socialist Republican Party, centring in its perspective Marx’ prescription for full and democratic Irish independence but adding a programme for it that went further than Marx had done in its interventionism. Transport nationalisation (already demanded by bourgeois nationalists) was there, but so was the nationalisation of finance institutions, the promise to ‘extend the principle of public ownership to all the necessities of life.’ (At the same time, Connolly would always criticize the use of tariffs to develop capitalist industry.) The farmers were promised depots to supply them with the necessary machinery. (The continuing land hunger was ignored by Connolly’s urban party.) Education was to be free and non-sectarian. The party had some successful interventions in agitating against Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations and to commemorate the ’98 Rising. It produced an irregular paper, The Workers’ Republic.
The party grew slowly and then began to stagnate. It had no industrial base. The skilled workers’ unions were organized in the Irish TUC under very moderate leaders whose most radical perspective was bounded within the call for Irish Home Rule. Some general workers were organised but their unions were struggling against the bosses’ counteroffensive. The party had members in Belfast, but they did not recognise the sectarian divisions that handicapped the development there of class consciousness. Above all, the Home Rulers, divided after the fall of their leader, Parnell, reunited on a radical programme. The party split and Connolly emigrated to America in 1903.
A Marxist party continued without him. It made little headway, but events began to allow it to develop. The victorious British Liberals offered Home Rule and the Home Rulers felt able to be less radical. What was more, Jim Larkin founded an Irish-based organisation of general workers, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. In 1910, Connolly returned to a more promising situation than the one he had left.
He brought to it his earlier perspective with two significant changes. Firstly, the beginning of successful organisation of Irish general workers reinforced his experience with Marxist parties in these islands and in the USA, as well as with Industrial Workers of the World in the latter state to convince him that such a party could and should be treated only as a propaganda group while the union would be the actual motor of class struggle. This refusal to build a proper cadre helped ensure that his views would be iconised rather than analysed or understood, let alone followed. This affected his second new insight. More than any other Irish socialist, he recognized the ascendancy consciousness of the majority of Ulster unionist workers.
When the World War began in 1914, Connolly aimed to follow the resolution on war of the Socialist International’s Stuttgart Congress (1907), and to separate Ireland from Britain thereby whilst ensuring the working class movement a strong position in the new state. He became acting general-secretary of the Transport Union to ally it with any republican rebellion, encouraged working class militancy in areas of strategic importance and asserted socialist demands. Only treachery by the British Seamen’s Union leader and by the Republicans’ Volunteer force Commander limited the Easter Rising.
As Connolly feared, the revolt bewildered leading socialists outside Ireland. In Switzerland, Lenin had been developing Marx’ concept of national struggle to allow for socialists to support the revolt of oppressed nations against their oppressors. He supported the Rising, though he did not commit himself to anticipating the colonial war that it sparked. Trotsky was more traditional, doubting the Rising’s stimulus to national struggle rather than to proletarian revolution throughout these islands. Radek dismissed the whole thing as a putsch. Of their German co-thinkers, there is little republished save Karl Liebnecht’s erroneous dismissal of the republican Roger Casement as an ‘English traitor.’
The Volunteers were the majority among the insurgents, but the crushing of the Rising bore relatively more on Labour. The Transport Union’s place with the struggle got its President and other officers imprisoned, Connolly himself executed, and its headquarters wrecked. Other unions suffered, too. The president and vice president of the Dublin Trade Union Council were both killed. Demoralised Labour leaders sought salvation and found it in the President of Party and Congress.
Thomas Johnson accepted basic Marxist economics; his career proved that the successful use of dialectics depends on the user. To a certain extent he harked back to the pre-Connolly Marxists in his suspicion of the cause of independence. This was reinforced by his stay in Belfast where he learnt, but did not understand the Unionist hostility to that cause. He did not go all the way and oppose self-determination, but, in his presidential address to the Party & Congress Annual Meeting in August 1916, he proposed a significant retreat from Connolly’s position. Labour would not oppose any struggle for self determination, it would ally with republicans to mobilise its members when the colonial power breached democratic norms, but it would not join any united front for Irish independence. Rather it would build its strength through economic struggles, would recruit the unionist workers and be posed to take power constitutionally when the republicans had won an independent Irish state.
This strategy was followed by the Labour Party and TUC from 1916 without any formal renunciation of Connolly’s perspective. Marxists far less compromising than Johnson accepted it. They could see that Labour’s numerical weakness had failed it in the Rising and concentrated on reinforcing its growth with propaganda. Until after the October revolution, nobody challenged Connolly’s view of the union as class leader nor considered that they might ‘break the shell of the political state’ (his words) very soon. As it was, when there was a major threat to democratic norms by the colonial power over and above its military struggle, the leaders did act to oppose it industrially. By 1920 membership of Labour’s affiliated bodies had increased fivefold. The problem was that, supported now by Lenin, Trotsky and Radek, the republicans were building an alternative capitalist state and did not scruple to assert their role of state builders against Labour’s class organisation. Moreover, too many members of its affiliates looked to the new state rather than to the future one promised their class.
From 1920 these weaknesses
became clear. The Ulster bosses staged successful anti-Labour pogroms.
The military struggle escalated handicapping class struggle. Above all,
the post-war boom that had smoothed Labour’s path ended in November having
enabled most Irish workers to win their highest real wages yet. On the
ceasefire in the war in July 1921, the bosses were ready to counter-attack
and the republican leaders were on their side. However, outside Ulster,
the workers were as strong as they had ever been. The Marxists formed a
Communist Party about fifty strong, while the mainstream Labour leaders
led defensive battles. Then Articles of Agreement for a Treaty with Britain
were signed, the Communists opposed this while the reformists declared
that it was time to concentrate on the industrial struggle, meaning one
fought in the parliamentary chamber (James Connolly’s ’shadow fight’).
Headed by Connolly’s son, Roddy, the Communist Party tried to emulate his father’s strategy. He ignored the facts that the workers’ movement was stronger, people more war weary than in 1916, and few were able to see how the republic would ensure better living conditions than the treaty’s ‘saorstat’. Such strategic changes as he made were for the worse. The party paper offered three quarters of its space to the Anti-Treaty Republicans but did not offer them a social or economic programme until after the treaty supporters had opened a civil war. Such tailending benefitted neither Communists nor the Anti-Treaty cause. Eventually, young Connolly was sidelined and the party began to recruit only to be defeated by a general post-war reaction, political and social, and by the return of Larkin who persuaded the Comintern that it was useless.
Since then, self- proclaimed Irish Marxists have been a minority, barely tolerated and occasionally persecuted. It looked like a number might form a mass movement in Belfast during the second World War when it seemed as if the identity of interests between Soviet Russia and Britain (and Unionism) might help create a strong Communist Party. Cold War followed hot war and the prospect disappeared. Today, there are seven members of declared Marxist parties in Dail Eireann, as well as a number of independents who would follow Marx’ analysis. There is also an avowed Marxist in the Northern Irish Assembly.
Nonetheless, they are divided and the pragmatic
Sinn Fein is larger than all of them. The situation is as good as it has been, but it is just a start.