Sinn Féin And Socialism
The Harp, April 1908.
Republished in James Connolly: Selected Political Writings, (ed. Owen Dudley Edwards & Bernard Ransom), New York 1974.
Transcription & HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
That is a good name for the new Irish movement of which we hear so much nowadays. Sinn Féin, or in English, Ourselves.
It is a good name and a good motto. The first essential for the success of any party, or of any movement, is that it should believe it carries within its own bosom all the material requisite to achieve its destiny. The moment any organization ceases to believe in the sufficiency of its own powers, the moment its membership begin to put their trust in powers not their own, in that moment that party or that organization enters on its decline.
It has been so with Ireland, it is so with the non-Socialist Working Class.
For over a hundred years Ireland has looked outside her own shores for the means of her redemption. For over a hundred years Ireland through her ‘constitutional agitators’ has centered her hopes upon the possibility of melting the heart or appealing to the sense of justice of her oppressors. In vain! England – the British Empire, was and is the bourgeoisie personified, the incarnate beast of capitalist property, and her heart was as tender as that of the tiger when he feels his victim helpless in his claws; her sense of justice was as acute as that of the same beast of prey when his jaws are wet with the warm blood of the feast.
For over a hundred years the majority of the Irish people begged for justice, and when ever and anon the hot blood of the best of her children would rise in rebellion at this mendicant posture Ireland turned her face from them and asked the enemy to forgive them.
When her rebel sons and daughters were dead, hunted, imprisoned, hanged or exiled she would weep for them, pray for them, sigh for them, cry for them, and when they were long enough out of the way, erect monuments to them.
But as long as they were virile, active and aggressive, Ireland regarded them only as disturbers who gave the country a bad name.
Not that Ireland was or is alone in that respect. To be execrated when living and deified when dead has been the experience of all champions of Freedom in all the countries and ages of the earth.
This attitude, whether it is exhibited by an oppressed nation or by an oppressed class, is the direct outcome of that frame of mind in either which teaches them to look outside their own ranks for the impulse towards emancipation.
To believe that someone else than the slave is going to free the slave makes the slave impatient and intolerant of every effort at self-liberation on the part of his fellow bondsmen.
Now the course of action implied in the name Sinn Féin, is the reverse of all that. It teaches the Irish people to rely upon themselves, and upon themselves alone, and teaches them also that dependence upon forces outside themselves is emasculating in its tendency, and has been, and will ever be disastrous in its results.
So far, so good. That is a part of Sinn Féinism I am most heartily in agreement with, and indeed with the spirit of Sinn Féin every thinking Irishman who knows anything about the history of his country must concur.
Even on the question of the Irish language, Gaelic, a question on which most Socialists are prone to stumble, I am heartily in accord. I do believe in the necessity, and indeed in the inevitability, of a universal language, but I do not believe it will be brought about, or even hastened, by smaller races or nations consenting to the extinction of their language. Such a course of action, or rather of slavish inaction, would not hasten the day of a universal language, but would rather lead to the intensification of the struggle for mastery between the languages of the greater powers.
On the other hand a large number of small communities speaking different tongues, are more likely to agree upon a common language as a common means of communication than a small number of great empires, each jealous of its own power and seeking its own supremacy.
I have heard some doctrinaire Socialists arguing that Socialists should not sympathize with oppressed nationalities, or with nationalities resisting conquest. They argue that the sooner these nationalities are suppressed the better, as it will be easier to conquer political power in a few big empires than in a number of small states. This is the language argument over again.
It is fallacious in both cases. It is even more fallacious in the case of nationalities than in the case of languages, because the emancipation of the Working Class will function more through the economic power than through the political state. The first act of the workers will be through their economic organizations seizing the organized industries; the last act the conquest of political power.
In this the working class will, as they needs must, follow in the lines traversed by the capitalist revolutions of Cromwellian England, of Colonial and Revolutionary America, of Republican France, in each of whom the capitalist class had developed their economic power before they raised the banner of political revolt.
The Working Class in their turn must perfect their economic organizations, and when such organizations are in a position to control, seize and operate the industries they will find their political power equal to the task.
But the preparatory work of the revolutionary campaign must lie in the daily and hourly struggles in the workshop, the daily and hourly perfectioning of the industrial organization.
And these two factors for Freedom take no heed to political frontiers, nor to the demarcations of political states. They march side by side with the capitalist; where capitalism brings its machinery it brings the rebels against itself, and all its governments and all its armies can establish no frontier the revolutionary idea cannot pass.
Let the great truth be firmly fixed in your mind that the struggle for the conquest of the political state of the capitalist is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is being fought out, and will be fought out, on the industrial field.
Because of this and other reasons the doctrinaire Socialists are wrong in this as in the rest of their arguments. It is not necessary that Irish Socialists should hostilise those who are working for the Gaelic language, nor whoop it up for territorial aggrandizement of any nation. Therefore in this we can wish the Sinn Féiners, good luck.
Besides, it is well to remember that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favor of that of an oppressor do so, not because of altruistic motives, or because of a love of the brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit.
From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea.
This was amply evidenced in Ireland by the attitude of the Irish people towards their language.
For six hundred years the English strove to suppress that mark of the distinct character of the Gael – their language, and failed. But in one generation the politicians did what England had failed to do.
The great Daniel O’Connell, the so-called liberator, conducted his meetings entirely in English. When addressing meetings in Connaught where in his time everybody spoke Gaelic, and over 75 per cent of the people nothing else but Gaelic, O’Connell spoke exclusively in English. He thus conveyed to the simple people the impression that Gaelic was something to be ashamed of – something fit only for ignorant people. He pursued the same course all over Ireland.
As a result of this and similar actions the simple people turned their backs upon their own language, and began to ape ‘the gentry’. It was the beginning of the reign of the toady, and the crawler, the seáinín and the slave.
The agitator for revenue came into power in the land.
It is not ancient history, but the history of yesterday that old Irish men and women would speak Irish to each other in the presence of their children, but if they caught son or daughter using the language the unfortunate child would receive a cuff on the ear accompanied with the adjuration:
“Speak English, you rascal; speak English like a gintleman!”
It is freely stated in Ireland that when the Protestant evangelizers, soupers they call them at home, issued tracts and Bibles in Irish in order to help the work of proselytizing, the Catholic priesthood took advantage of the incident to warn their flocks against reading all literature in Gaelic. Thus still further discrediting the language.
I can not conceive of a Socialist hesitating in his choice between a policy resulting in such self-abasement, and a policy of defiant self-reliance, and confident trust in a people’s own power of self-emancipation by a people.
But it is in many of the arguments used by the Sinn Féin speakers that the possibility, nay, the certainty of friction between the Irish Socialist and the adherents of Sinn Féin is likely to arise. Some of the arguments are as ridiculous as the principle itself is reasonable.
Thus the Sinn Féin body of the Argentine Republic, as recorded in the Gaelic American, states that Sinn Féin demands freedom for Ireland on the basis of the Act of Renunciation in 1782. This is absurd. The act by which the English Parliament renounced the right to make laws binding on Ireland left untouched the power of oppression, political and economic.
The fight which ended with the Act of Union in i8oo was not a fight for freedom, it was a fight to decide whether the English governing classes or the Irish governing classes should have the biggest share of the plunder of the Irish worker. Whichever side won made no difference to the worker; he was skinned, anyway.
As a cold matter of fact all talk about the “restoration of our native Parliament” is misreading history. Ireland never had an Irish Parliament – a Parliament representative of the Irish people. The assembly called by the name of an Irish Parliament was in reality as alien to the Irish people as the Council of the Governor-General of India is alien to the Indian people. And some of the laws passed by our so-called native Parliament against the poor Irish peasantry were absolutely revolting in their ferocity and class vindictiveness.
Irish workers will not enthuse worth a cent over a proposal to re-introduce the status of 1782. To paraphrase Fintan Lalor, and I would recommend all thinking Irish workers, men and women, to read Fintan Lalor’s masterly argument upon this subject, (price five cents, from the Harp office). “This is not 1782, this is 1908,” and every political or social movement which hopes for success must express itself in terms of present conditions, or on the lines of future developments.
Of a like character are the arguments based upon the achievement of Hungary. As we all know the methods adopted by Hungary to reconquer its Parliament from Austria are the trite illustrations of the Sinn Féin orators. In fact during the early stages of the movement in Ireland before the felicitous name of Sinn Féin was coined the ideas as promulgated got the name of ‘the Hungary system’.
I remember one critic declaring that “the Hungary system was only fit for hungry men.”
When we remember that Hungary is one of the European countries sending the greatest stream of emigrants annually to America, that the overwhelming majority of the producing classes in Hungary are denied the right to vote by the possessing classes who dominate their Parliament, that the misery of the town and country workers is so great that the country is in a chronic state of rebellion and unrest, and that the military and armed police are more often employed to suppress peaceable demonstrations in Hungary than they are in Ireland we are inclined to wonder if our Sinn Féin orators know these things, or are they only presuming upon the ignorance of the Irish Workers.
Let them advocate their proposals upon the inherent merits of those proposals and they will avoid much criticism; otherwise they will provoke it.
Sinn Féin. Ourselves. I wonder how long it will be until the Working Class realize the full significance of that principle! How long it will be until the Workers realize that the Socialist movement is a movement of the Working Class, and how long until the Socialists realize that the place of every other class in the movement is and must be a subordinate one.
How long it will be until the Socialists realize the folly and inconsistency of preaching to the Workers that the emancipation of the Working Class must be the act of the workers themselves, and yet presenting to those workers the sight of every important position in the party occupied by men not of the Working Class.
We will get the Workers to have trust in their own power to achieve their own emancipation when we demonstrate our belief that there is no task incidental to that end that a worker can not accomplish; when we train the workers to look inward upon their own class for everything required, to have confidence in the ability of their own class to fill every position in the revolutionary army; when, in short, we of the Socialist Working Class take to heart the full meaning of the term Sinn Féin, Ourselves, and apply it to the work of Industrial Reconstruction, the era of the strutters and poseurs will end and we will realize at last what was meant by Marx when he spoke of the revolt of those who
Have Nothing to Lose but their Chains.
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Last updated on 11.8.2003