Sinn Fein, Socialism and the Nation
From Irish Nation, January 23, 1909.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
In a recent issue of The Peasant, a correspondent, ‘Cairbre,’ in the midst of a very fair and reasonable article on Sinn Fein and Socialism, says: “A rapprochement between Sinn Feinism and Socialism is highly desirable.” To this I desire to say a fervent “Amen,” and to follow up in my prayer with a suggestion which may help in realising such a desirable consummation. Always presupposing that the rapprochement is desired between Sinn Feiners who sympathise with Socialism and not merely with those who see no further than “the Constitution of ’82,” on the one hand, and Socialists who realise that a Socialist movement must rest upon and draw its inspiration from the historical and actual conditions of the country in which it functions and not merely lose themselves in an abstract ‘internationalism’ (which has no relation to the real internationalism of the Socialist movement), on the other.
But, first, it would be as well to state some of the difficulties in the way in order that we may shape our course in order to avoid them.
Sinn Fein has two sides – its economic teaching and its philosophy of self-reliance. With its economic teaching, as expounded by my friend Mr. Arthur Griffith in his adoption of the doctrines of Frederick List, Socialists have no sympathy, as it appeals only to those who measure a nation’s prosperity by the volume of wealth produced in a country, instead of by the distribution of that wealth amongst the inhabitants. According to that definition, Ireland in 1847 was a prosperous country because it exported food, whereas Denmark was comparatively unprosperous because it exported little. But with that part of Sinn Fein which teaches that Ireland must rely upon itself, respect her own traditions, know her own history, preserve her own language and literature without prejudice to, or denial of, the worth in the language or literature of other people, stand erect in her own worth and claim to be appraised for her own intrinsic value, and not as part of the wheels and cogs of the imperial system of another people – with that side of Sinn Fein Socialists may sympathise; and, indeed, as a cold matter of fact, those doctrines were preached in Dublin by the Irish Socialist Republican Party from 1896 onward, before the Sinn Fein movement was founded.
The first side of Sinn Fein necessarily excludes the Socialists; the second does not. The first rests upon a capitalist conception of progress; the second is a gateway by which Ireland may enter into the intellectual domain which Socialism has made its own by its spiritual affinity with all the world-wide forces making for social freedom.
Socialists are also somewhat divided in their ideas as to what is a proper course in a country like Ireland. One set, observing that those who talk loudest about ‘Ireland a Nation’ are often the most merciless grinders of the faces of the poor, fly off to the extreme limit of hostility to Nationalism and, whilst opposed to oppression at all times, are also opposed to national revolt for national independence.
Another, principally recruited amongst the workers in the towns of North-East Ulster have been weaned by Socialist ideas and industrial disputes from the leadership of Tory and Orange landlords and capitalists; but as they are offered practical measures of relief from capitalist oppression by the English Independent Labour Party, and offered nothing but a green flag by Irish Nationalism, they naturally go where they imagine relief will come from. Thus their social discontent is lost to the Irish cause. These men see that the workers shot down last winter in Belfast were not shot down in the interests of the Legislative Union; they were shot down in the interests of Irish capitalists. Hence, when a Sinn Feiner waxes eloquent about restoring the Constitution of ’82, but remains silent about the increasing industrial despotism of the capitalist; when the Sinn Feiner speaks to men who are fighting against low wages and tells them that the Sinn Fein body has promised lots of Irish labour at low wages to any foreign capitalist who wishes to establish in Ireland, what wonder if they come to believe that a change from Toryism to Sinn Feinism would simply be a change from the devil they do know to the devil they do not know!
The other section of Socialists in Ireland are those who inscribe their banners with the watchword ‘Irish Socialist Republic,’ who teach that Socialism will mean in Ireland the common ownership by Irish people of the land and everything else necessary to feed, clothe, house and maintain life in Ireland and that therefore Socialism in its application to Ireland means and requires the fullest trust of the Irish people as the arbiters of their own destinies in conformity with the laws of progress and humanity.
This section of Socialists were so Irish that they organised and led the great anti-Jubilee procession of 1897 in Dublin, which completely destroyed all the carefully-prepared British preparations to represent Irish as loyal; and yet their position was so correct from their standpoint that at the International Congress of 1900 at Paris they were granted, in the name of Ireland, separate representation from England and treated and acted as a separate nation.
Now the problem is to find a basis of union on which all these sections who owe allegiance to one or other conception Socialism may unite. My position is that this union, or rapprochement, cannot be arrived at by discussing our differences. Let us rather find out and unite upon the things upon which we agree. Once we get together, we will find that our differences are not so insuperable as they appear whilst we are separated. What is necessary first is a simple platform around which to gather, with the understanding that as much as possible shall be left to future conditions to dictate and as little as possible settled now by rules or theories. As each section has complete confidence in their own doctrines, let them show their confidence by entering an organisation with those who differ from them in methods, and depend upon the development of events to prove the correctness of their position. Each person to have complete freedom of speech in conformity with the common object; the lecture platform to be common to all, and every lecture to be followed by questions and discussion. With mutual toleration on both sides, the Protestant worker may learn that the co-operation of the Catholic who works, suffers, votes and fights alongside him is more immediately vital to his cause and victory day by day than the co-operation of workers on the other side of the Channel; and that Socialists outside of Ireland are all in favour of that national independence which he rejects for the sake of a few worthless votes.
And the Catholic Sinn Feiners may learn that love of freedom beats strongly in the breasts of Protestant peasants and workmen who, because they have approached it from a different historical standpoint, regard the Nationalist conception with suspicion or even hostility.
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Last updated on 30.7.2007