Socialism in Ireland
From The Harp, March, 1908 and Forward, August 16, 1913, respectively.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
We find that amongst a large section of the Irish in this country (the U.S.A.) and Irish Socialists here are included, it is tacitly assumed that Socialism cannot take root in Ireland, that the Home Rule press, the supposed conservative habits of thought of the people and, above all, the hostility of the clergy, make it impossible for Socialist thought to make headway amongst the Irish working class. This assumption is, of course, not to be reasoned with – you cannot reason with a thing that ignores facts – but is only to be combatted with a quiet presentation of facts to prove that which is assumed as impossible of existence, is already existent, and not only existent, but lusty, aggressive and powerful. The influence of the Home Rule Press is in reality nil amongst the intelligent working-class of Ireland: the conservative habits of thought supposed to be characteristically Irish are in reality the reflex of agricultural conditions in Ireland, as elsewhere, and do not prevail where the Irish worker lives and suffers in the industrial environment of a city and the hostility of the clergy has worn off its own edge by too frequent and indiscriminate use.
The Irish Socialist Republican Party – founded in May 1896, in Dublin, and now represented by the Socialist Party of Ireland – has had to suffer under the boycott of the entire Irish press, with the single honourable exception of the United Irishman, in the early days of that journal (now rechristened, Sinn Fein).
Of the weekly newspapers was this more particularly true, and it is from the weekly Irish newspapers that the Irish in America and the agricultural Irish, derived and derive their impressions of political life in Ireland. Yet, despite this attempt to destroy the influence of this working-class party and to circumscribe the scope of its activities, it has to its record and to its honour, the credit of having initiated and carried to a successful conclusion – unaided – the most striking protest against British tyranny in Ireland in this generation, viz., the Anti-Jubilee Protest of Dublin in 1897, of having been the moving spirit in rendering nugatory the visit of the late Queen Victoria on a recruiting mission to Dublin during the Boer War (a fact recorded by the French newspapers of the time, which spoke of the Socialist Republicans as the only centre from which the British authorities expected trouble) of having originated and popularised an anti-enlisting crusade at a time when even some well-intentioned ‘physical-force men’ favoured the idea of Irish youths entering the British army, “in order to learn the use of the rifle” – one of the most disastrous ideas ever current in Ireland; of having emphasised the fact that there have ever been two currents in modern Irish history, viz., the revolutionary and the compromising or constitutional, and that their ideas can no more mix or their ideals be compounded, than may blend oil and water, and finally, of having conducted the first political campaigns of the Irish working-class on the basis of revolutionary Socialism.
Let those who tell us that the Irish will never respond to the call of Socialism remember that five years ago the candidate of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, in contests against the nominees of the Home Rule and Unionist Parties, polled a vote which represented a third of the total electorate; let them remember this, and then, thinking of the frantic joy of the Socialist Parties of America when they succeed in polling the necessary three or five per cent to get on the official ballot let them stop trying to discourage the Irish in America by their foolish declarations that Socialism will never take root amongst the Irish.
Socialism in Ireland is now a force, influencing alike the political, economic and literary thought of the island.
It is interesting to observe how Ireland has been and is being made the scene of many radical experiments in legislation which, in any other country, would be only looked for as the result of a great Socialist upheaval.
The Land Acts or rather the Purchase Clauses of the Land Acts upon which so many of our doctrinaires waste so much good ink in reckless denunciations are, despite their many drawbacks, an assertion of the right of the original community not only to establish new property relations to suit new ideas, but also to establish tribunals by means of which the working of these relations may be supervised and controlled.
Of course it is not the Land Nationalisation many of us would like to see, but it is nevertheless the germ out of which a socialisation of the land may ultimately develop. In Ireland the propaganda of Land Nationalisation was doomed to sterility in the past by virtue of the fact that the most earnestly radical and truly revolutionary people in the country, and hence the people most sincerely democratic, looked upon the government as a foreign government and, therefore, upon the proposal to nationlise the land as a proposal to hand over the soil of their country to a foreign government and thus to increase the powers of that government over the economic as well as over the political life of the Irish.
In their phraseology, Land Nationalisation meant making the land the property of the government, and they would inquire:
“What government? The English Government! We have no other government here. Oh, no! It is too much power that government has already.”
Hence, not even Michael Davitt could popularise Land Nationalisation in Ireland in his day. The political groundwork was wanting, the necessary basis of a government directly under the control of the people concerned. With the Nationalist masses the same difficulty was encountered in the propagation of Socialism, until the uncompromising attitude of the Dublin Socialists on the national question made it clear that Socialism meant on the political side of Ireland an absolute revolutionary change which would make the people of Ireland complete rulers of their own country, as the economic change would thus logically make them owners of the country they would politically rule.
In other words, the Socialists of Ireland had to recognise that the world for the workers can only be realised by the people of each country seizing upon their own country and wresting it by one means or another from the hands of the present rulers or proprietors and restoring it with all its powers and potentialities to the people who inhabit it and labour upon it.
With the advent of self-government in any shape in Ireland, the question of the ownership and administration of the soil can, and will, be approached in a new spirit.
One change I foresee, and hope for, exists already in embryo in the labourers’ cottages Acts. Under these Acts, the local authority has the power to acquire land and build cottages for the labourers. These latter become the tenants of the local authority.
Now, I foresee that there may be a change in the spirit of future Land Acts, and that the local County Councils may be authorised to acquire the lands now being purchased by the farmer, and that the purchase price being paid by the present tenants may be changed into a rent payable to the democratically elected County Councils.
If this were done and a reduction in the yearly payment, coupled with a guarantee of fixity of tenancy and right to a selling interest in the farm (goodwill) given to the farmers in return for their surrender of their future rights of ownership, it is quite conceivable that such a change might be effected without any more opposition than would be offered to any other legislative change.
But the result of this change would be that the local County Councils would become the owners of the soil under the national government, that all questions affecting the administration of the soil would be as keenly under the supervision of the democracy immediately interested as questions affecting the occupancy of labourers’ cottages are now, and that thus the gradual democratisation of the agriculture interests would become the vital question in rural politics, as the spread of the same political principle and method of administration would similarly affect industrial interests in urban and national politics.
The squabbles over the occupancy of a labourer’s cottage which, at present, make such piquant reading in our Irish newspapers have a sordid side, but this that I have glanced at shows that they have a practical, illuminating side also.
When the principal deliberations of an Urban or County Council perforce turn on the question of the administration of the farms and other lands of the County, as the deliberations of Boards of Guardians now turn upon the occupancy of labourers’ cottages, we will begin to have a vivid understanding of the Marxian phrase about “the government of men being replaced by the administration of things.”
The Land Acts dispossessed the landlords and thus ended the economic influence upon which their political power is based. Hence, outside of North-East Ulster, the landed aristocracy have ceased to be a power in politics. An agricultural labourer would have a greater chance to be elected than a landlord in the south-west or east of Ireland would have by his former tenants.
The genius of peasant proprietorship is essentially individualistic, and therefore exercises a disintegrating influence upon the political strength and influence of the peasant proprietor. The Land Acts, therefore, have, despite their faults, destroyed the slavery of the Irish tenantry, taken from agricultural questions their exclusive power over Irish affairs, and opened a way for the fundamental reorganisation of the social life of the community.
Then, two years ago, another Royal Commission investigating the question of Irish railways, reported in favour of Nationalisation. With the coming of self-government the almost unanimous expression of approval with which this was received in Ireland is likely to take concrete form in an legislative enactment.
And now another Commission reports, likewise, in favour of a State Medical Service. And this, also, is received with a chorus of approval.
Said I not that although the Irish have little regard for Socialist theories they have a strong bias in favour of action on lines that are in essence lines of Socialist activity?
Side by side with all this development of mere Government Socialism, those who know Ireland best know that there is also developing that strong and active spirit of industrial rebellion, that aggressive challenging of the rights and powers of the master class that is absolutely necessary to prevent such governmentalism degenerating into despotic paternalism.
I do not believe it to be possible to prevent a continual extension of the powers of government, even if it were desirable, but I look to the cultivation of the rebel spirit to secure that that extension of the functions of government shall connote a conquest of powers by the working-class instead of an invasion of our rights by the master class.
It is because of that defiant, rebel spirit in Ireland today, ever keeping step with, indeed outmarching, the trend of legislative experimenting with social problems that we Irish Socialists feel at last that we are leaving the stage of theorising and are seeing our principles becoming the faith that moves our class to action.
It is an inspiration to know the working-class of Ireland in their times of conflict. To see that class resolute, erect, defiant, day by day battling with its Nationalist masters, and in starvation and suffering winning its way to victory, which, at the same time as it closes in grappling with the Irish exploiter, it holds itself uncompromisingly aloof from and hostile to its British rulers and their Irish allies. To know that class is to love it.
And I pity those in whom the narrow prejudices of a colony are still, after 300 years of plantation, too strong to permit them to identify themselves with such a nation.
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Last updated on 8.8.2003