The New Evangel
The Economic Basis of Politics
The Stomach, not the Brain
Workers’ Republic, 12 August 1899
Nothing more strikingly illustrates the crude and unscientific theories of the ordinary middle class politician than the desperate attempts at present being made to build up a great political party in Ireland on the lines of the late Home Rule movement. Apparently all sections of the Home Rule party are possessed with the belief that great political movements can be constructed at will, and that an effective, aggressive political force may have its origin, not deep down in the daily life of the people, but in the brains of some half dozen gentlemen in parliament. Viewed from this standpoint the toiling multitudes are mere automata, and the really effective national force is to be found in the men whom the Home Rule press and orators point out to the multitude as leaders. The truth that the political movements of a country spring from the pulsations of its economic life; that all political parties are the instruments of a class, and are great and powerful only in the proportion in which the development of the struggle for existence forces their particular class interest upon the majority of the nation as a dominant factor in their daily life – all this seems to a quite unheard of philosophy amongst capitalist politicians.
Yet a slight survey of the history of the world in general, or of Ireland in particular, could not fail to bring the truth of this eminently Socialist doctrine home to the mind of the thoughtful student of events. The great political organisations which have successfully revolutionised the systems of governments under which they lived, have had their origin, not in the brains of mighty leaders, but in the daily and hourly needs of the multitude, and have acquired force and power only in so far as those needs became sharp and pressing enough to goad that sluggard multitude to action. When at such a crisis there arose a man lucky enough, or astute enough, to make himself the mouthpiece of the discontented multitude; to coin its inarticulate groanings into political phraseology, and give its hunger-inspired desire for change in intelligent formulation, then such a man became a ‘great leader’, and the organisation following the course he advocated the leading political force. To the minds of the superficial middle class thinkers – always ready to believe that the world turned around their heroes and successful persons as upon its axis – the leaders had created the movement which they led; to the mind of the scientific Socialist the leaders and the movements were both the product of the quickening of intellect caused by social conditions adversely affecting the life of the people at large.
Examine the great revolutionary movements of history and you find that in all cases they sprang from unsatisfactory social conditions, and had their origin in a desire for material well being. In other words, the seat of progress and source of revolution is not in the brain, but in the stomach. The fact that this truth has hitherto been obscured, or even denied; that the pioneers of progress uniformly clothed their political demands in the most idealistic language and the most flowery phraseology; or that they constantly appealed for the support of ‘all unselfish and generous souls’, rather than to commonplace interests, only proves that we are all too prone to hide even from ourselves the real nature of our impelling desires, and, even when most stubbornly following our grossest instincts, to throw around our actions all the glamour of ‘spiritual cravings’, or ‘patriotic hopes’.
The power and unconquerable optimism of the socialist party is due to their recognition of this materialist basis of history, this economic basis of polities. Knowing that their ultimate ideal and immediate demands are in a line with the progress of the human race towards prosperity, and that every scheme for better social conditions at all likely to effect its purpose must be of the nature of a step in their direction, Socialists cannot lose courage, because even in the midst of temporary defeat they know that the needs of the workers, who are in the majority, will eventually impel them into line with the Social-Revolutionary forces. From this fact our Irish politicians – and revolutionists – may gain, not comfort, perhaps, but wisdom. The history of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Irish Volunteers, the risings of 1798, 1848, and the Irish Land League, all bear out our argument upon the economic basis of great political movements.
The American Revolution was a revolt against the action of England in throttling the infant industries of America, and came to a head with a tax upon tea – all ‘base’ material reasons; the French Revolution was the revolt of an oppressed and famished people against outworn, medieval landlordism (feudalism) and the vexatious taxes upon industry imposed by a corrupt Court; the Irish Volunteer movement was, in its anti-English aspect, a revolt of the Irish manufacturing class against the restrictions put upon their trade by England, – “Free Trade, or else” was the motto they hung up on their cannon, and when that one point was gained all the ‘patriotic enthusiasm’ of the leaders vanished; Grattan termed the Volunteers, upon whose backs he had climbed to political eminence, ‘an armed rabble’, and the whole movement collapsed as suddenly as it had arisen – the economic basis being gone the patriotism was no longer evident. 1798 was an abortive Irish edition of the French Revolution – despite the lying twaddle of the present day about the society of United Irishmen being a ‘Union of All Classes’, there is not in history any record of a movement, except the Paris Commune, in which the classes and the masses were so sharply divided; 1848 found its inspiration in the promptings of famine – and its failure in the total incapacity of the doctrinaire Young Irelanders to understand the difference between revolutionary action and ‘heroic’ posings; the Land League found its inspiration in a partial failure of the crops, and in the newly developed competition of America – and the collapse of the Land League came with reduced rents and partial prosperity.
In every case the social condition of the mass of the people was the determining factor in political activity. Where the mass of the people find existing conditions intolerable, and imagine they see a way out, there will be a great political movement; where the social conditions are not so abnormally acute no amount of political oratory, nor yet co-operation of leaders, can produce a movement.
The great Labour uprising at the Irish Local Government elections of 1898 sprang up spontaneously without a leader, and despite the political parties; when the men who supported it have realised the futility of trying to effect any great improvement in their condition by the action of local bodies, they will seek for a political party which can express their class interests upon national basis – and seeking it find the Socialist Party, ready and equipped for the task. By our action to-day we are preparing the ground for more aggressive revolutionary action when the working class of Ireland at last recognise in our principles the embodiment of their hopes; firmly grounded upon our knowledge of the economic basis of all political action, we confidently await the day when the ever-increasing pressure of capitalist society shall bring the workers into our ranks and the destinies of the nation into our hands.
Last updated on 29.7.2007