Socialist Classics: William Morris, ‘Art and Socialism’

In December 2008 (Issue 34) Henry Gibson looked at a little-known work arguing that capitalism must be overthrown to build a creative society.

This pamphlet, published in 1884 and based on a lecture given that year, is rarely cited as required reading for revolutionaries. Indeed, its author frequently features in left-wing discourse more as a convenient proof that yes, socialists are very much in favour of culture and all that kind of stuff. Nodding in the direction of such an outstanding artist as William Morris is a lazy way of discharging our artistic obligations, if we feel we have any. Taking seriously what he actually had to say on the matter is rare enough.

Morris condemns the exclusion of the working class from the joys of art: “the greater part of the people have no share in Art—which as things now are must be kept in the hands of a few rich or well-to-do people”. There is nothing particularly unusual about this claim, and its result is usually no more than advocating increased public funding for galleries. But the argument moves on to a generalised critique of capitalism’s degradation of art:

All this I say is the result of the system that has trampled down Art, and exalted Commerce into a sacred religion… The poet, the artist, the man of science, is it not true that in their fresh and glorious days, when they are in the heyday of their faith and enthusiasm, they are thwarted at every turn by Commercial war, with its sneering question “Will it pay?”

The other side of this coin—and far more common in our own day—is the way capitalists sometimes patronise (in every sense of the word) the arts, with sponsorship of an exhibition or an award providing a quite cost-effective way of forging (again, in every sense of the word) a cuddly corporate image. In either case, the result is the same: free artistic enquiry and expression gets subordinated to the priorities of capital.

But what takes Morris beyond this partial criticism is an under­standing that art is not just poems, painting and pottery. Art is by right a natural element of human life and labour, and the fact that this natural element is suppressed by capitalism is the heart of the problem:

the cause of this famine of Art is that whilst people work throughout the civilized world as laboriously as ever they did, they have lost—in losing an Art which was done by and for the people—the natural solace of that labour; a solace which they once had, and always should have, the opportunity of express­ing their own thoughts to their fellows by means of that very labour… the world’s work, almost all of it—the work some share of which should have been the helpful companion of every man —has become even such a burden, which every man, if he could, would shake off.

A frightening amount of the work performed under capitalism is entirely pointless, producing “embarrassing or superfluous” luxury commodities. This branch of production has ballooned out of all proportion since Morris spoke, giving his comments a remarkably contemporary feel. The mechanisms needed to sell all this have expanded too: “the very capitalists know well that there is no genuine healthy demand for them, and they are compelled to foist them off on the public by stirring up a strange feverish desire for petty excitement, the outward token of which is known by the conventional name of fashion”.

Useless work cannot be other than frustrating and alienating work, a torture to mind and body. Morris’s simple claim is that “It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.” Reasonable and all as this claim is, “if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed… it is a direct challenge to the death to the present system of labour”.

The fascinating aspect of the argument here is the way Morris reverses the usual order of things. In his day and our own, socialists advocated and advocate an end to the capitalist system, after which a life of fulfilling labour would be introduced. But Morris raises the demand for fulfilling labour as an argument against capitalism in the here and now, rather than as a distant post-revolutionary prospect. It is not just an anticipated result of capitalism’s overthrow, but a battering ram to be used in its overthrow. Employing “the true doctrine that labour should be a real tangible blessing in itself” as a weapon against capitalism was something Marx had done years before, but that had been lost even to his followers.

The post-capitalist future Morris envisages also goes against the grain of much socialist thinking. “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making”, he says in restating his claim, “or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.” This is a socialism not oriented to production but to the liberation of labour. How many tons of pig iron are produced in the workers’ republic is not as important as how and why it is produced. If something cannot be produced in a manner worthy of true human dignity, it is better left unproduced.

Worthwhile work means nothing without worthwhile leisure. Morris argues

first that all men must work for some portion of the day, and secondly that they have a positive right to claim a respite from that work: the leisure they have a right to claim must be ample enough to allow them full rest of mind and body: a man must have time for serious individual thought, for imagination—for dreaming even—or the race of men will inevitably worsen. Even of the honourable and fitting work of which I have been speaking, which is a whole heaven asunder from the forced work of the Capitalist system, a man must not be asked to give more than his fair share…

For Morris, the defining characteristic of socialism is not any specific political or economic set-up, but the development of a rounded way of life, work and pleasure for all.

The pamphlet openly advocates revolution to achieve such a society, and masterfully answers the objection that revolution may be all very well in tyrannical dictatorships, but not where constitut­ional rights have been won:

To say the governing classes in England are not afraid of free­dom of speech, therefore let us abstain from speaking freely, is a strange paradox to me. Let us on the contrary press in through the breach which valiant men have made for us: if we hang back we make their labours, their sufferings, their deaths of no account.

Morris’s audience is not a working-class one: he addresses himself explicitly to “we of the middle classes, we the capitalists and their hangers-on”. This leads to an embarrassingly patronising moment where he advocates shared meals between masters and servants: “what an education it would be for the less refined members of a household to meet on common easy terms the more refined once a day, at least”.

But there is no political concession to the middle classes: what he recommends to sincere people of his own background is “renounc­ing our class… throw in your lot with that of the wage-slave… hope for the day when you will be compelled to be free!” The fighting movements of the working class are where the hope lies: “Chartism and Trades Unionism and Socialism… germs of the change which must be”. It is a change which necessitates the complete overthrow of capitalism, to create a free and artistic society from the word go: “the beginnings of Social Revolution must be the foundations of the re-building of the Art of the People, that is to say of the Pleasure of Life”.

Lisbon: Between two referendums

In Issue 33, in September 2008, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh drew lessons from the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty for the re-run of the referendum.

The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty on 12 June should have raised a smile on the dourest of left-wing faces. The all but unanimous cacophony of the political establishment was struck dumb by the result, with their counterparts on the continent precipitated into an official flap: not a bad day’s work. But it soon became clear that we are going to have to do it all over again. All that talk about the democratic will of the people is basically window dressing for the rulers of the European Union: they will pretend not to hear our answer, and instead ask us the question again when we look more like agreeing with them. Lisbon has been floored but not knocked out, and it will soon be ‘Seconds out, round two’.

There is absolutely no room for opponents of the treaty to be complacent. It will be harder for the government to win a repeat referendum than it was with Nice II in 2002: they have far fewer abstainers to win over, for a start. But it is far from impossible for them to convert just 3 or 4 per cent from No to Yes. And a lot of the No vote was pretty soft, based on misunderstanding or unease rather than a committed rejection of the treaty itself, people who were lost by the Yes side rather than won by the No side.

This is down in part to many anti-Lisbon campaigners putting their case on the weakest basis of all: ignorance. ‘Would you sign a document that you haven’t read or understood?’ they asked. Judging by the votes in favour of EU treaties from 1972 to 2002, the answer is a clear yes. Don’t all of us sign mortgage agreements we’re not qualified to understand, click to agree with software licences we haven’t so much as glanced at, trust the judgement of others who we believe know what they are talking about? The general idea that you should reject something just because you don’t understand it is ultimately a reactionary one. If that idea was widespread, how would socialists ever convince people to revolutionise the world from top to bottom and rebuild society in ways which are necess­arily imprecise at the moment? ‘If you don’t know, vote No’ is not the kind of argument that will sustain a determined opposition to a more effective Yes campaign.

A surprising number of left-wing activists were prepared to accept any No vote, regardless of where it came from on the political spectrum. Just because there is a referendum on, that doesn’t absolve socialists of the duty to point out certain things. When people were saying how terrible it would be if our abortion laws were liberalised, we had to reiterate that women in Ireland should be entitled to fully control their own fertility. When people were saying that an increase in our corporation tax would bring the sky down upon us, we had to reiterate that decent social provision is impossible while capitalists contribute a fraction of what workers do. Instead, too much of the left smiled and nodded for the duration, or even hoped that the right would bring in the votes that we couldn’t.

The strangest alliance of left and right emerged on the issue of Ireland’s commissioner. Dublin governments losing the right to inflict tulips like Charlie McCreevy, Pádraig Flynn or Peter Suther­land on the unsuspecting peoples of Europe wouldn’t deprive any socialist of a night’s sleep, you would think. But one left-wing No leaflet claimed that having an Irish commissioner was “important for a small country”, with another calling it “vital”. What got lost was the undemocratic reality of the European Commission, an extremely powerful body within the EU made up of people who are never subject to anything remotely resembling popular election. There was a time when the left campaigned against this scandalous lack of accountability, but much of it has now retreated to painting members of the Commission as essential champions of the Irish people’s rights.

It does make a real difference whether Lisbon was rejected from the left or from the right, because politics moves on after the votes are counted. Put at its simplest, a left-wing rejection creates a polit­ical momentum to make Ireland a better place, while a right-wing rejection creates a momentum to make it a worse place. For instance, if issues like abortion and taxation were significant com­ponents of the No vote, protocols and declarations confirming the status quo could tip the scales towards acceptance of the treaty next year. That would not only leave us with the Lisbon framework in place, but with the lack of abortion rights in Ireland copperfastened along with our regressive taxation system: Irish society would have shifted rightwards.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that a fair chunk of No voters were concerned about such issues. More worryingly, although there was little explicitly racist campaigning in this referendum, many No voters favour further discrimination against people from other countries—although this should surprise no one but those delib­erately shutting their eyes to the inconvenient truth that racism is a real presence at all levels of Irish society. On the other hand, few people specified such reasons as actually motivating them to vote against the treaty, so the vote of 12 June was not a clear right-wing vote.

But neither was it a clear left-wing vote. In recent EU referen­dums the left has begun to articulate specific arguments of its own around issues like the privatisation of services and the rights of trade unionists. Such arguments were central in beating the EU Con­stitution in France in 2005, for instance. But the evidence shows that no more than a negligible minority in Ireland in 2008 rejected Lisbon for such reasons. The biggest single reason causing people to vote No was the militarism of the EU. This is an issue that the left rightly pushed as well, of course, but it is a traditional foundation of No votes from 1972 on, not something that the left itself brought to the table.

And we can’t resort to the old ploy of blaming the media here. In reality, socialists got a pretty fair crack of the whip in referendum coverage, or at least socialists who are regularly active rather than just popping up when a referendum is on the horizon. Some gave themselves little distinctive to say because they were reluctant to explicitly differentiate themselves from right-wing No campaigners. The emergence of Libertas and its ability to push a right-wing agenda with no members but plenty of money and influence is a worrying development, but so is the number of left-wingers who pretended they didn’t exist, or in practice shielded them from criticism by others on the left.

One of the factors preventing the left from bringing much to the table was its own lack of understanding of EU politics. Although the EU plays a major role in how our lives are run, socialists in Ireland have a nasty habit of paying no heed to it until approximately six to eight weeks before a referendum, with curious results. So one leaflet informed voters that Lisbon “would ban any restriction on the movement of capital across borders… would ban state aid to public services under certain conditions… would give constitutional support to NATO”—blissfully unaware that existing EU treaties have done all this for years. Another group said that “EU law would have primacy over the law of member-states”, that “Neo-liberalism would become EU economic policy”, that Lisbon “commits Ireland to supporting Euratom”—but again, all of this is in force already, whether Lisbon gets ratified or not.

If we want to appeal to the intelligence of our class, we have a duty to respect that intelligence by getting our facts right and telling the truth. But in the EU context there was a further problem with this approach. If we want a Europe that puts the interests of working people first, we will obviously have to defeat the Lisbon Treaty—but we will have to defeat an awful lot of other treaties besides: Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht and more. Just voting down Lisbon and stopping there would leave 90 per cent of the EU’s militaristic undemocratic neo-liberalism fully intact. Beating Lisbon only helps us if it becomes the first step in a wider struggle.

Lisbon or no Lisbon, the EU denies us the democratic powers needed to fundamentally improve society. Lisbon or no Lisbon, the EU prevents us from doing anything that distorts the free market. Lisbon or no Lisbon, the EU forces us to support a foreign policy based on forcibly imposing that market internationally. But to defend and improve the lives of workers, we will have no choice but to take the powers we need, to distort and ultimately discard the free market, and to assault the priorities of capital on an international scale. Achieving radical social change will prove impossible without tearing up the rules and regulations of the EU, and the taboo against anything that might jeopardise EU membership needs challenging. A workers’ Europe would replace the European Union, not reform it.

This doesn’t mean replicating one approach evident in the refer­endum, of saying Lisbon is bad (without bothering to explain why it is bad) and revolution would be good. Between now and Lisbon II, socialists should be informing themselves about the EU and the way it rules us, so that we can equip ourselves to explain as clearly and unambiguously as possible why it has to be opposed. We should be pointing out in practice just how the EU stops us from controlling rising prices, supporting threatened jobs, subsidising necessary services, and a lot more besides. Then we could link opposition to Lisbon with the basic social problems faced by workers every day. Such an opposition would be so powerful that any talk of referen­dum re-runs would be a joke. A treaty rejected on such a basis would stay rejected, and a movement built on such a basis could not just temporarily halt the juggernaut of the bosses’ Europe, but start to shift the whole direction of European politics.

Poetry of our own

Joe Conroy welcomed a poetry collection in Issue 32 (June 2008).

Kevin Higgins, Time Gentlemen, Please (Salmon Poetry)

The least controversial definition of poetry is ‘writing that doesn’t go all the way to the right-hand side of the page’—which, given the parlous state of the rainforests, demands a greater justification for publishing it. But this book would pass any such test without breaking sweat, containing a substantial range of poems that bring a smile to the lips and a spark to the imagination. Readers of this magazine will know of Kevin Higgins in poetry and in prose, and his second collection confirms him as a poet the left should be listening to.

Often he deals with the usual material of poets always and everywhere: love requited and unrequited, the successes and failures of human relationships, nature, death and the rest. Anyone who avoided these would be no poet at all, and these eternal themes are treated here with an originality born of having lived and considered experiences, an originality that evokes recognition.

It is an unusual but quite refreshing thing to note about a poet of the left, but in his first collection The Boy With No Face (also published by Salmon, in 2005) Higgins actually succeeded better with such ‘non-political’ poetry than with the ‘political’. (Those quotation marks are there to signify the fluid and ultimately invisible boundary between the two, but you know what I mean.) Here, however, no such dissonance can be heard, and his political poems break higher ground. It’s not just that he avoids the pitfalls of versified sloganeering—although that is still something to be grateful for in itself—but that he doesn’t become any less poetic for being political.

Poetry dealing with the milestones and millstones of your life is nothing new, but it is rare to read poems that openly deal with the specifics of a socialist’s life. All of us go through more or less the same kind of things, but you go through them a bit differently if you’ve been determined since your youth to turn the world upside down. ‘My Militant Tendency’ (p 33) talks of being a teenager, but not by the commonplace reference points of songs on the radio or fashions followed:

It’s nineteen eighty two and I know everything.…
I’d rather be putting some fascist through
a glass door arseways, but being fifteen,
have to mow the lawn first.…
Instead of masturbation, I find socialism.
While others dream of businessmen bleeding
in basements, I promise to abolish double chemistry class
the minute I become Commissar.

Likewise, in ‘To Curran’s Hotel’ (p 34) the demolition of a local pub brings to mind left-wing meetings attended there rather than pints sunk and girls scored there. While other poems testify to someone who is no stranger to the usual ups and downs of personal life too, the particular swings and arrows of a life lived on the left are as fit a subject for poetry as anyone else’s.

A tense and awkward father-son relationship is painfully familiar, but ‘Dad’ (p 42) tells of one with politics added to the mix. Son tells father that all his ideas are wrong, to which father replies that if son had his way, Moors murderers would be let free to promote their memoirs. But in the end the son all but thanks his father for deciding to “allow me / to keep contradicting myself / until I find out what it is / I’m trying to say”.

A poet reacting to a historically meaningful site has been done many times before, but ‘St Petersburg Scenes’ (p 31) comes at it from the left:

_____________________a man, whose
role in his own Bolshevik fairytale
has long since earned him a place
on the FBI’s least wanted… gazes
meaningfully into the past.

This kind of self-deprecation in the presence of world-historic significance is rare but essential for any sane socialist, the injunction from the Parisian barricades to take the revolution seriously but not take ourselves too seriously.

Sometimes a poem here hits a nail on the head of the left’s faults. In ‘The Annual Air Show Protest’ (p 62) Higgins affirms that he would sooner campaign for Paris Hilton on a unicycle than fall in with the dreams of hoary nostalgic Stalinists. The influence of George Orwell is obvious in ‘From Grosvenor Square to Here’ (p 59):

Sentences that run on and on,
like a hacking cough. Exclamation
marks which can be seen coming
a mile off, as you load them onto
your machine gun tongue and fire!
You’ve hawked that suitcase
full of broken old slogans all the way…
if rigormortis could talk
this is how it would sound.

A wise man once said that someone who is seen on every picket is no good on any picket, because he’s only there for the sake of picketing. ‘The Cause’ (p 52) paints a cautionary picture of someone starched into the role of a professional protestor, going through the motions without feeling a thing:

Each morning he decides
what he’s against today,
puts on that screaming red beret
and goes; is years past the point
where the campaigner became
the mad fucker with the sign

But where do you go if you don’t go down these roads? ‘Death of a Revolutionary’ (p 39) describes a socialist leader carrying his “plastic bag / still packed with propaganda, / but the world going the other way”. While there was a time when “My every thought [was] part / of your master-plan”, the poet sits and concludes that “I do not say, as you did: / ‘We have kept the faith.’” Is this a rejection of a specific type of socialism, or of the whole idea of it? When you listen to The Who’s classic ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, you ask yourself whether this embittered look back in anger at 1968 and all that is a denial of revolution or a call for a better one. As the sublime Keith Moon drumming duels with the intelligent synthesiser, you draw your own conclusion, whatever Pete Townshend intended not­withstanding. It is only right that poetry throws up tough questions without easy answers, the ambiguity forcing you to think for yourself—and the poet’s own reading is not the only one possible.

Higgins’s criticisms of the left pave the way towards its renewal, not its repudiation, impetus for creating a left that is honest and liberating. Other poems show how little time he has for those who go over to the dark side. If there are fifty ways to leave your lover, there are many more ways to leave socialism. ‘Betrayals’ (p 50) tells witheringly of someone who takes refuge in a detoxed lifestyle when the workers refuse to play the progressive role allotted to them. ‘Page From The Diary Of An Officially Approved Person’ (p 57) is the story of a bought-and-paid-for poverty industrialist whose “new blonde hair / and state-sponsored smile are twin planks / in the Government’s anti-poverty strategy”. A revolutionary swaps his principles for a suburban marriage, a career in management and an early death in ‘Ending Up’ (p 53-4):

Catastrophe comes in many guises
and not always with the strident voice
of a doomed member of the Baader-Meinhof.
It also arrives, more quietly,
on the Essex side of the M25.

‘The Candidate’ (p 58) saw only the choice of “making up worlds that will never be… or grow up to be / Junior Minister for Counter-Terrorism”. He chooses the latter, and dreams of persecuting those who didn’t.

‘Firewood’ (p 61) is a good example of poetry reaching the parts that prose cannot. Eyewitness accounts of the genocide in Darfur are interspersed with glib comments from the wings (the left wing, unfortunately) like “It’s problematic to describe this as genocide. / The solution is not military intervention.” The common response to such horrors calls out for something or someone to go in and do some­thing. While the US Marines are unlikely to improve anything they touch, the simple humanitarian instinct is ultimately far more worth­while than the unfeeling rehearsal of pat slogans from a safe distance. To express the contradictions, doubts and tensions involved here is difficult, but this poem does a good job of it.

‘Careful Driver’ (p 84) provides the one line that exhibits a plain lack of imagination: “a bad week in Bognor Regis”. Now, I’ve never been to Bognor Regis, but I’ve a feeling that Kevin Higgins hasn’t either. To employ that much-maligned English seaside resort to conjure up humdrum mundanity smacks of the tired clichés of 1970s comedy with all its frilly shirt fronts and inaccurate Frank Spencer impersonations. But the fact that this slip stands alone among seventy-odd poems underlines that here is a poet who sands and polishes his words, who probably has a load more not yet finished enough to earn the light of day.

There are a couple of poems here just for us. The images and references will go over their heads in Poetry Ireland, but us socialists can catch them if we keep our eyes open. ‘The Interruption’ (p 16) stands in a long line of poems inspired by works of art, but the picture brought to life here (without being mentioned) is Boardman Robinson’s 1918 cartoon where a dinner party of capitalists is interrupted by the hand of Bolshevik revolution.

In ‘Kronstadt, Winter Song’ (p 32) “ghost insurgents / wander the white, / chasing remembered sparks / of Aurora”. This image of Aurora works (as all the best literary critics say) on several levels. The aurora borealis is a fantastic natural light show, of course, and Aurora was the goddess of the dawn. But a socialist reader may remember that it was the ship Aurora that launched the attack on the Winter Palace in 1917. The Kronstadters longed again for the spectacular dawn, but it was a spectacular dawn of real workers’ revolution.

The left should hurry to welcome this collection. Here is poetry that we can identify with, that tells of our hopes and fears and doubts and questions, that puts our lives on the map too. The fact that one of our own can tell such stories in a way that is so powerful and satisfying is something to be proud of. Anyone who responds to good poetry will find in Time Gentlemen, Please a collection to read and enjoy, but socialists especially can learn more from it of what we are and what we need to become.

The Hidden Connolly 31

In March 2008, Issue 31 presented an original chapter from The Re-Conquest of Ireland by James Connolly never published since his death.

Labour and the Re-Conquest of Ireland

[The Irish Worker, June 15 1912]

How often have we seen a hard-working woman, after struggling to rear a family for the nation, suddenly plunged into destitution and misery through the death of the husband as a result of an accident at work? Her very fidelity as a wife and mother had unfitted her for the industrial struggle in which she was compelled to take part upon her widowhood, and thus capitalist society punished her for her virtues —rewarding her lifelong absorption in family cares by condemning her to the workhouse in old age or to sweated toil at starvation wages. It is to be hoped that the Labour Party2 will establish for the Irish Nation a higher conception of its duty to its wounded soldiers of industry, and to the mothers of their families. This would be in accordance with the working class definition of patriotism, or in accordance with patriotism from the working class standpoint—the conservation of all the forces and powers of the nation for the good of each of its members, and the care of each for the welfare of each.

A soldier wounded upon the field of battle, if permanently maimed as a result, is thenceforth considered as a proper charge upon the care of the State; capitalist society pensions him and to some degree honours him, but a worker maimed upon the industrial battlefield has to fight for every farthing of compensation, and finds all the machinery of the law and all the administrators thereof out of sympathy with his claims and imbued with the spirit of his enemies. Yet who has in reason the greater claims upon justice? The soldier engaged in the work of destruction, propping up by force the rule of the few over the many, or the worker engaged in the work necessary for the well-being, aye, for the very existence of the human race? If it can be proven that a worker knew a place to be dangerous before venturing to work in it the fact destroys his claim for compensation, but if a soldier knowingly ventures into danger the fact of such knowledge increases his chance of a pension.

Such anomalies are the outcome of a social system based upon profit, regarding the domination of the few as more worthy of its solicitude than the lives and happiness of the toiling many. To such a society the soldier is ever more worthy of honour than the worker, the destroyer of human life more than the sustainer thereof. For the worker has not surrendered his right to think as has the soldier, and the right to think, when exercised by the men and women who toil and moil, is a dangerous right to those who live upon the toil of others. Hence this discrimination against the worker, a discrim­ination that ought to be remembered when the hosts of Labour gather to battle for the political and social control of the nation. And when summing up the relative importance of Labour and Militarism in order to estimate their claims upon society, the workers of Ireland will do well to remember and weigh carefully the following passages from the pen of Robert Holmes, the brother-in-law of Robert Emmet, and a patriot and reformer worthy of the association the latter name calls up to our mind:—

The standing army is an evil, rather endured by the body politic than a part of it. The mere soldier is not a citizen. The citizen and the mere soldier are as distinct as free agency and necessity—as liberty and slavery. The citizen is entered into society the better to attain the dignity of his nature. The mere soldier is one who has surrendered himself, as far as man can surrender himself, to the disposal of another. He is almost as passive as the sword with which he fights. He is the wretched instrument of that bloody ambition which desolates the earth. He is bought and sold like the beasts of the field. As a bloodhound he is let loose upon the peaceable and industrious inhabitants of the plains to savage and destroy. What are the standing armies of the fairest and most civilised portions of the earth—of Europe: the seed of a mild and benevolent religion, of science, and the arts? What are they but dreadful diseases of the body politic, growing out of the ignor­ance and untoward circumstances of past times, which princes know too well how to convert to the aggrandisement of their power, and the glorification of their lusts? What are they but enormous and expensive machines of destruction, moved and directed by all the malignant and all the petty passions of the human heart—by the pride, the revenge, the ambitions of kings and of ministers—by the jealousies and intrigues of panders and of whores? What are they but destroying hurri­canes which sweep away, at once, the fruits and cultivation of the soul—the product and the means of industry—the monu­ments of literature and the arts—the works of ages—in the tempest of an hour?

This is a voice from the past speaking in words that burn, so intensely do they apply to the problems and passions of today.

It would not be wise to turn from our too brief inspection of industrial and municipal conditions in the North-East of Ireland (for the conditions of Belfast are but an epitome of all of the North-East corner) without glancing briefly, from the working class standpoint, at the causes responsible for the nurture and progress of that religious bigotry which has earned for this corner its unenviable notoriety among the more enlightened peoples of this world. The subject is not a pleasant one to anyone concerned, but no good purpose could be served by seeking to ignore it as, in fact, it will not and cannot be ignored.

In a former chapter we have pointed out that the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland was followed by a ruthless proscription of the Catholic native population; elsewhere we have also shown that the necessary and inevitable result of proscription was that all the purely industrial pursuits fell into the hands of the Protestant population.3 A noteworthy instance of this was that of the woollen industry in Dublin, which was almost exclusively in the hands of the Huguenot refugees from France, a colony of whom inhabited the district now known as the Coombe, and were vested with certain peculiar liberties to encourage their growth and settlement.

In the North, where Protestant soldiers had actually occupied the lands, and the native Catholic population were restricted to the mountain districts, there arose a situation peculiarly fitted to serve the interests of an unscrupulous master class. After the country had subsided into the pursuit of the occupations of peace and it was realised that the war was, indeed, over,4 the soldiers who had served in the rank and file of the Protestant armies found themselves in the position of a landless, subject class, and the entire ownership of the lands for which they had fought in the hands of London companies, scheming lawyers, adventurers, and all the ragtag and bobtail of the hangers-on of a corrupt court and aristocracy. These soldiers had fought for Protestant liberty, and saw that, as a reward for their fighting, the lands they had conquered at the expense of their bloody toil were made the subject of the intrigues and speculations of a worthless clique who had ventured neither life nor limb, as, for instance, in the quarrel between King William on behalf of his mistress Elizabeth Villiers and the Irish Parliament on behalf of some of its more influential members over 95,000 acres of Irish ground taken from its Catholic owners. When the Protestant soldier would have grumbled, and perhaps carried his grumbling into active rebellion against being thus defrauded of all the economic results of his campaigning by the new landowning aristocracy, [the aristocrat] found in the presence of the Catholic upon the hills a useful restraint upon these movements of his Protestant tenancy. With a perfectly devilish malevolence the aristocrat played the adherents of the one religion off against the other. To the Protestant restless under the domination of the Protestant landowner he represented that the real enemy was the Pope of Rome, whose slavish and bigoted wor­shippers were planning to murder them all, and were endeavouring to get back their lands by offering to pay a higher rent than the Protestant tenants, and to the Catholic tenantry he represented that the Protestants wished to drive them out of the country, but that he favoured them, and would even give them some of the farms then occupied by Protestants if they could pay a little more rent than those discontented Protestants were willing to pay.

That some of the Catholics should jump at such a chance was but natural, and that their action should play directly into the hands of the aristocracy by seeming to confirm to the Protestant farmer all the dark tales their agents had whispered into his ear was also natural and inevitable. One other factor also operated disastrously to the cause of religious toleration in the North—this was the restrictions placed by the English Government upon Irish manufacturers. In 1698, or only eight years after the Battle of the Boyne, the English merchants petitioned King William to restrict or suppress the woollen manufacture in Ireland. As we have already pointed out the proscription of the Catholics had placed industrial pursuits, as apart from agricultural, exclusively in the hands of Protestants, therefore the suppression asked for was aimed at the property of Protestants. King William granted the request of the English merchants, and proceeded to suppress the woollen industry in Ireland, and thus re­paid Irish Protestants for their support at Derry and the Boyne by crushing their industry and confiscating their property. This threw numbers of Protestants back upon the land for a living, and thus intensified the struggle for existence, and also intensified the competition between Catholics and Protestants for the tenancy of farms. The promised aid to the linen industry, which did not compete with English capitalists, did not materialise quick enough to furnish employment for those thrown out of the woollen trade. Thus in Ulster there was precipitated a war for the right to live upon the land—a war which the aristocracy carefully manipulated into a religious feud. But despite the religious, or rather sectarian, battle cries raised, the dominating feature was the desire for a foothold upon the soil. The Protestant had expelled the Catholic by force; the Protestant aristocrat had dispossessed the Protestant worker by fraud; the English Protestant had suppressed the industries of the Irish Protestants, and as a result Protestant and Catholic Irish battled in desperation with one another for the right to live upon the land, and vied with each other in offering larger and larger tributes to the aristocratic monopolists of the soil.

As one result of this fiendish manipulation by the master class, it is estimated that no less than 7,000 Catholics were expelled from the County Armagh about the year 1796 by bands of infuriated Protestants, who immediately installed themselves as tenants upon the farms from which they had driven off their rivals. These outrages were perpetrated by an illegal association known as the Peep o’ Day Boys, the precursor of the Orange Society; but despite the lawless nature of the association, despite the fact that its crimes were often committed in broad daylight, and that a full account of the outrages was given in the Irish Parliament by Mr Grattan and others, nothing was done by Parliament to check the progress of its marauding. The Irish Parliament was, like the English Parliament of its day, a Parliament of landowners and their creatures, and the circumstances of the competition for land disguising itself as a religious feud suited those gentry too well to be interfered with.

What happened in the case of the land was also reproduced in the industrial [field]. As the linen industry developed in the North it was monopolised by the Protestants. But the fact that the Catholic farmers were also flax growers, and their wives and daughters spinners, as long as the old spinning wheel was sufficient for the needs of the market, helped to give them a slender opening into that industry when the mill and steam power began to replace the family spinning wheel.

Hence every mill that was opened saw a fresh development of the struggle for a living. The employers, being Protestants, were called upon to employ none but Protestants; but the Catholic flax growers demanded a place for their women who had lost their occupation at home. The mill owner strove to please both—the Protestants because he was a Protestant; the Catholics because he saw that their presence would produce division and hence strife amongst his workers. The Protestant workers imagined they were fighting the Catholics as Catholics; the Catholics on their side imagined they were fighting against Protestants as such. Only the more enlightened of both sects realised that each side was in reality fighting for a chance to earn a living—fighting for jobs.

As Belfast grew to be the linen centre of Ulster the struggle was perpetuated in Belfast, the employers skilfully playing the one section off against the other. It has not been and never was possible to entirely exclude the Catholic worker from industrial pursuits for the reason named; what was possible and actually accomplished for a long time was to reserve the opportunity to learn all the better-paid trades to the Protestant. This served to increase the contempt of the Protestant for the Catholic, who he or she generally saw was poorer or shabbier dressed, or serving in a meaner capacity, and did not stop to consider the reasons for such poverty or lack of technical skill. And it also served to embitter the Catholics, who thus saw themselves unjustly discriminated against. This held good for the shipyards and practically all forms of skilled employment. The gradual breaking down of this artificial barrier, not yet quite completed, and the entrance of the Catholic worker into the better class of industrial pursuits (into the factory and into skilled trades) came partly as a result of the formidable growth of their own number, but more generally as a result of the greater spread of enlightenment amongst the Protestant toilers, bringing the diffusion of democratic ideas and the consequent belief that such exclusion was not playing the game of life as fair as it should be played.

Out of this study of the growth and nurture of religious bigotry in the North of Ireland one fact emerges clear and unmistakable, and that is that the chief, one might almost be tempted to say the only force making for the perpetuation of this curse has been the struggle for existence caused by the capitalist ownership of land and machinery. The essential, underlying fact was the economic struggle; the great mass of the workers, reduced to the position of landless serfs, struggling amongst themselves for the favour of the class who owned their means of life, and that struggle artfully given the odour of a religious feud by that class who controlled the land and opportunities to labour struggled for; and, finally, the battle cries evolved during this economic-religious struggle brought on to the political field to serve the interests of that dominant class and aid them to avert the dangers which the growth of a national soul and a collective conscience will infallibly entail to all these who thrive upon the unpaid labour of others.

To sum up: It is due to the capitalist-landlord system that we have seen in the North of Ireland Catholic worker pitted against Protestant worker, blatant demagogues preaching hatred in the name of a religion of love, and Christian men and women murder­ing their neighbours for the “love of God”. Is there anywhere an enlightened worker who will not give of his or her best to remove this foul stain from our midst, and hasten the day when that soil, so long stained by the crimes or follies of our harassed ancestors, will be owned and worked as the common heritage of the descendants of native and settler, Catholic and Protestant alike?

James Connolly, Belfast


  1. Article IV in this series appeared in the June 8 Irish Worker, and the following week article V was published. When Connolly published The Re-Conquest of Ireland as a pamphlet in 1915, those two articles, both dealing with conditions in Belfast, were amalgamated in Chapter III. The present article, while numbered V, is a separate piece. It was the last article in the Irish Worker series, but did not feature in the pamphlet.
  2. The Irish Trades Union Congress decided a month earlier to promote the independent political representation of the working class, but the Labour Party didn’t take shape for many years.
  3. The second article in ‘Labour and the Re-Conquest of Ireland’ in the May 11 Irish Worker (Chapter I of The Re-Conquest of Ireland) describes the Cromwellian dispossession.
  4. The Williamite war of 1689-91.

Palestine: One state or two?

In December 2007 (Issue 30) Tara O’Sullivan addressed a central point of the fight for Palestinian freedom.

This year has seen some impressive demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinian people, in the form of protests around the world against “40 years of occupation”. The Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is meant, of course, but it has been objected that this passes over the original dispossession of the Palestinians that marked the establishment of Israel in 1948. This is not merely a historical question, of course, but a deeper political one: what exactly are we opposing, and what exactly are we proposing as a solution?

Dominant opinion among Palestine solidarity activists favours a ‘two state’ solution, a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. As British anti-war campaigner George Galloway has put it (Guardian, 31 August 2006), “A comprehensive settlement now would of course look much like it has for decades: Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in 1967; respect for the legal rights of Palestinian refugees to return; the emergence of a real Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.” This is also the position of the Palestine Liberation Organisation since 1988, and UN resolutions have backed a similar approach in the past.

The first thing to recognise is that this is not actually a ‘two state’ solution at all. An equal, roughly 50/50 split of disputed territory is not being proposed, but an arrangement that gives three quarters to the Israelis and one quarter to the Palestinians. At best, it is a ‘one and one-third of a state’ solution. And the bit being left to the Palestinians is the poorest, least productive bit, the territories Israel didn’t bother stealing for two decades. For all the formal inter­national guarantees, such a truncated Palestinian statelet would likely find its freedom just as constricted by its Israeli neighbour as the Palestinians are today.

The ‘two state’ solution assumes that the problem to be solved is how to give the Palestinians some kind of a state. But that’s only half the picture: just as important as establishing a Palestinian state is removing the Israeli state. The very existence of a state constituted on sectarianism, giving rights only to one community and denying rights to another, is the heart of the problem. Reining such a state in slightly does next to nothing against its ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians, its continual belligerence towards neighbouring peoples, or its position as a prop for imperialist policy in the middle east.

Of course, calling for an end to the state of Israel leaves you open to the charge of trampling over the rights of the Israelis. While the accusation is false in itself, in can be fairly applied to some opponents of Israel. The Iranian president Ahmedinejad, for instance, who calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, holds comp­etitions for anti-semitic cartoons, and hosts conferences to promote holocaust denial. It is not uncommon to see placards on pro-Palestine demonstrations that place an equals sign between a star of David and a swastika, equating Judaism with Nazism. The fact that the same Jewish symbol appears on the Israeli flag is no excuse: if opponents of the Turkish state’s treatment of Kurds were to equate the Islamic crescent with the swastika, they would be rightly accused of Islamophobia. Within Palestine itself, the idea of a secular state of equal Jews and Arabs has lost ground to the idea of driving the Jews into the sea. One factor motivating supporters of the two state solution is a desire to distance themselves from the taint of anti-semitism.

There has been a Jewish community in Palestine as far as can be remembered, and it has every right to be there. The same goes for those who managed to escape there from the horrors of the Nazi holocaust—and socialists should be the last people to not welcome refugees. The Israelis can claim to fulfil most of the conventional criteria for nationhood, including language, thanks to the un­precedented revival of Hebrew. But there is no way they can exercise self-determination without oppressing the Palestinians. Any Israeli state, whatever borders it drew around itself, involves dispossessing Palestinians and denying their basic democratic rights.

A society that would contain all the cultures that inhabit Palestine is needed, a democratic Palestine that would tolerate no privilege for Arab or Jew. It would speak Hebrew as well as Arabic, and would go out of its way to protect and foster its cultural diversity. It would treat all Jews with equal respect regardless of doctrinal or ethnic differences (something Israel has never done), it would keep Islam, Judaism and Christianity in the private sphere with no state patronage, and would also be a home to people who fit into neither of these boxes. A united Palestine can be a secular, democratic and equal Palestine.

Many accept this, but support the two state solution as an interim measure rather than a “comprehensive settlement”, a staging post on the road to full Palestinian freedom. More than anywhere, this should cause alarm bells to ring in Ireland, where people reluctantly accepted a temporary two state solution for the sake of peace, and are still stuck in it 85 years on. Temporary two state solutions have a nasty habit of becoming permanent two state messes. Far from acting as stepping stones to full freedom, the new states tend to become further obstacles in the way. A state, with all its coercive forces, bureaucracies and elites, develops interests of its own and a powerful self-preservation instinct, which presents those looking to finish the job with yet another enemy to overcome.

A healthy opposition to irredentism also informs some supporters of two states. It is impossible, they say, to delve back into history and avenge all the sins of our fathers against each other. Of course it is—although turning the clock back to before 1948 seems reasonable enough compared to Israelis who base their territorial claims on the Old Testament! But it is precisely present injustices, rather than historical ones, that demand full Palestinian liberation. Basic needs for water, housing and work cannot be met in a confined Palestinian statelet with poor resources and infrastructure, not to mention a predatory enemy breathing down its neck.

Getting Israel out of Gaza and the West Bank seems to many an achievable objective, certainly more likely to come about than the overthrow of a state as powerful as Israel is. But twenty years after the mainstream of the Palestinian resistance settled for that objective, it seems no nearer realisation. The effort necessary to achieve it would be immense, and not that less immense than the effort necessary to liberate Palestine altogether.

Israel is a very strong and powerful state, armed to the teeth with powerful allies, and getting rid of it will probably require a revolutionary upsurge across the middle east, and possibly war as destructive as any that Israel has waged since its foundation. Given this, no one could blame Palestinians for accepting whatever com­promises are imposed upon them along the way to their freedom.

But we should be fighting those who impose such compromises on them. It is understandable that people with a gun to their head give way, but our job is surely to take that gun away from their head, and hopefully out of the gunman’s hands altogether. The acceptance of their pre-1967 situation is a consequence of the isolation and weakness of the Palestinian people. The responsibility we have is to redouble our solidarity with them, in order to end that isolation and weakness, and allow the Palestinians to pursue their liberation to the full.

Capital gains

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh reviewed a book on Marx’s masterpiece in Issue 28 (June 2007).

Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. (Atlantic)

One episode of Steptoe and Son pits the two protagonists on opposite sides of an election campaign. During a heated argument, Harold contributes the following to his father’s political education:

You ignorant little sod! Karl Marx wrote a book called Das Kapital. That’s the greatest book ever written, that. Here you are, here it is. You want to read this, mate. It’s all in here. Ah, he knew what he was talking about. This is the bible of socialism!

Albert, of course, is having none of it, and dismisses him with characteristic contempt.

The tragedy is that, while most Marxists pay lip service to Harold’s opinion, in their heart of hearts they go along with Albert. The number of them who actually feel any inclination to read Capital is truly minuscule. It is understandable that people new to Marxism would put it off—although a surprising number are interested in tackling it—but people who have been knocking about for decades calling themselves Marxists without ever getting up to think about reading Marx’s central work? There is something a bit fraudulent about that, like a priest who never read the Bible. There are third-level graduates among them who, by definition, were prepared to wade through acres of dry academic tomes when a degree lay at the end of them, but won’t trouble themselves to attempt Capital. In fact, it gets worse, with the very idea of reading it often put forward as the height of absurdity, as if being ignorant of the workings of a system puts you in a better position to overthrow it.

One peculiarity of the book, reflected in the name of this short study of it, is that its title is almost always rendered as Das Kapital, although various English translations of it have been available since 1888. We don’t insist on referring to other Marxist works, or works of literature in general, in the language they were written in, so why is Capital different? The effect is to further alienate people from the book, to project it as an impenetrable, unfathomable enigma. This obviously suits the class whose downfall it was intended to hasten, but what are socialists doing playing the same game?

Francis Wheen’s 1997 biography of Marx won widespread acclaim. The welcome for his general enthusiasm about Marx blinded many to his frequent straightforward failures to understand his work, and a similar mixture is evident here. Once again, the journalist gets the better of the historian too often: for instance, when he characterises Marx’s work with Engels as “Marx with his wealth of knowledge, Engels with his knowledge of wealth” (p 16). Besides patronising Engels, who could teach him a thing or two hundred, Wheen is too eager to let a supposedly witty bon mot get in the way of an accurate description.

Marx never expected conventional economists to get his point, and soon after finishing Book One, he told Engels that it contained plenty of “traps for those fellows which will provoke them into an untimely display of their idiocy” (p 111). Probably the most common trap is the idea that Marx forecast increasingly lower wages for workers as capitalism progressed. Wheen is perceptive enough to read Capital properly and grasp Marx’s point that workers would get relatively worse off, with a smaller share of the total wealth.

But he does walk into other traps. Marx noted a tendency for general profit rates to fall—while also noting certain actions by capitalists which acted against that tendency. According to Wheen, “it looks as if he is rewording his proposition so as to be right either way” (p 67). A few minutes’ thought clears this one up. Most of those who read Wheen’s book will hold it in front of them with their hands. If they remove their hands, it will fall into their lap or on to the floor. Gravity exerts a constant downward pressure on that book, even though very few readers will give in to that pressure. But because the tendency is usually counteracted, does that mean gravity doesn’t exist?

He takes another pratfall in questioning Marx’s insistence that a commodity’s value depends on the labour needed to produce it. How come, then, he asks, people will pay astronomical prices for a fancy diamond ring or a superior vintage claret? For a start, a rare diamond takes more labour to mine, and a vintage wine takes more labour to cultivate and store. But Wheen is simply mistaking value and price. When supply outstrips demand, then a commodity’s price is brought down below its value; and when supply can’t keep up with demand, its price rises above its value. The price of commod­ities which are scarce by their very nature can go exceptionally above their value, far more so than ordinary commodities.

This book rightly recognises the artistic merit of Capital, a work of literature in its own right. However, it takes that too far, focussing on the form of Marx’s argument to the detriment of its content. Wheen wants to understand Capital as a picaresque Gothic novel because he can’t fully understand it as a work of economic theory. After misunderstanding the difference between use-value and exchange-value, he attributes his own confusion to Marx (p 42): “we are in fact reading a shaggy-dog story… How else could he do justice to the mysterious and often topsy-turvy logic of capitalism?” Where he fails to follow the logic, he resorts to claiming that there can be no logic, celebrating that in an almost postmodern way. He quotes Marx’s criticism of economists who “conceal under a parade of literary-historical erudition, or by an admixture of extraneous material, their feeling of scientific impotence and the eerie conscious­ness of having to teach others what they themselves felt to be a truly strange subject” (p 74), blissfully unaware that this does well as a description of Wheen’s own method on occasion. De te fabula narratur, as Marx quotes Horace in his preface: the joke’s on you!

The complaint is made that “Nowhere in Das Kapital does Marx explain why or how—still less when—the system will ultimately destroy itself” (p 68). In truth, it explains at great length why and how the very workings of capitalism regularly lead to crises which require ever more drastic measures to overcome them. But as for the system destroying itself, if Marx was ever under the illusion that it would, he wouldn’t have spent his life trying to get the working class to do the job. Book One’s climactic conclusion that the expropriation of the expropriators would sound the system’s death knell is too matter-of-fact for Wheen—but for someone trying to write the book’s biography, this displays serious ignorance of the conditions under which it was written. It was published legally in Germany, where a rigorous censorship prevailed. A book openly preaching red revolution would never have got through, and Marx was forced to drop hints and make allusions to the political action needed to do capitalism in. Wheen constructs a laboured interpretation of the chapter Marx placed after the “expropriators are expropriated” climax—but it crumbles somewhat when you realise that the chapter was more than likely put there to distract the censor from the big finish.

Marx was working on economic studies for twenty years, on and off, before Book One of Capital saw the light of day in 1867. His involvement in the International Working Men’s Association from 1864 on had provided “a new distraction”, we are told (p 33). This spectacularly misses the point that Marx’s renewed political activism was precisely the impetus that brought his work to a conclusion. The re-emergence of the workers’ movement after years of stagnation gave him a new reason to provide that movement with a theoretical weapon. Capital Book One is a product of the International, just like another of his masterpieces, The Civil War in France. Marx’s most fruitful theoretical periods coincide with or feed off his most politically active periods—a confirmation, if one were needed, that Marxist theory and practice reinforce and complement each other rather than being in any kind of conflict.

Attempts are often made to separate them, however. Wheen quotes articles from the Financial Times and the like, recognising that, with capitalism as prone to crisis as ever, there might just be something to Marx’s theories. The excitement over such acknowledgment should give way to the fact that such eulogies are invariably idle attempts to divorce Marx’s analysis from its revo­lution­ary implications. This book recounts the way that reformist politic­ians from Eduard Bernstein to Harold Wilson have had to dismiss and discredit Marx’s economics to pursue their political project. If we only see capitalism as a system that doesn’t pay us enough wages, then reformism is there to fill that gap. But if, with Marx, we see it as a system based entirely on robbing our unpaid labour, then a movement to increase the rations of the wage slave will leave us unimpressed. No one can logically accept Marx’s dis­covery of surplus value and its extraction and not be a revolutionary socialist.

A guide to Capital that helped readers get into it could well be helpful, but this isn’t it. Wheen undoubtedly has an enthusiasm for some of Marx’s ideas and communicates this to the reader, but he doesn’t understand the theory well enough to explain it. For better or worse, there is no substitute for opening Capital itself and having a go. It’s far from an easy book, but farther still from the nightmare portrayed by its enemies and some of its supposed friends. It’s not a bad idea to start with Value, Price and Profit, a pamphlet where Marx introduces some of the concepts that Capital expands on. But any intelligent socialist can understand Capital and profit from it greatly. “I assume, of course,” wrote Marx in the preface, “a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself.” The question is: Did he assume too much?

Socialist Classics: Peter Kropotkin, ‘The Conquest of Bread’

Maeve Connaughton examined a great contribution to socialist thought in Issue 29 (September 2007).

There was a time when the anarchist and the Marxist branches of the socialist family got along. They disagreed, and sometimes fought like cat and dog, but they spoke to each other without imagining themselves to be mortal enemies. This is evident in the work of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose writings were read, quoted and even published by Marxists and socialists of all persuasions. Many factors contributed to bring that honeymoon to an end, not least the way Kropotkin lost the plot in 1914 and supported the world war. But if a serious and committed appeal for a socialist society is something worth reading and using, then Kropotkin’s work hasn’t lost its value to any shade of revolutionary socialist.

The Conquest of Bread was published in 1892, based on articles written a few years earlier. Its intention is largely to demonstrate the utter practicality of a society based on working to satisfy social needs rather than profit. Detailed calculations go to show that 150 working days of five hours each would be enough to feed, house and clothe everyone well—even without freeing anyone from the useless and wasteful labour that makes up much of capitalist production. Thanks to the intervening growth both of technology and of wasteful work, that figure could probably be drastically reduced today. The other half of the year, Kropotkin says, could be used to satisfy the varied desires of each individual, desires which would develop immensely in such circumstances.

An eternal objection to socialism—‘Who’s going to do the dirty work?’—he answers by rightly saying that mines and factories can easily be made into healthy and pleasant places to work. Beyond that, “work will really become a pleasure, a relaxation… The repugnant or unhealthy task will disappear”. This looks more like wishing the question away than answering it. However much we automate things, some repugnant tasks will remain in any society. The only thing we could do is for everyone to take a turn at doing them, or at least trade them off so that someone who can’t stomach one dirty job swaps with someone who isn’t repulsed by it. When such work becomes a duty that all of us have to take on from time to time, any sense of degradation would disappear from it—but it would still be something we wouldn’t look forward to.

Kropotkin’s attitude to domestic work is similar. Let us firstly note how advanced he was on the liberation of women:

Emancipating woman does not mean opening the doors of the university, the bar and the parliament to her… Emancipating woman means liberating her from the stupefying work of the kitchen and the laundry… a revolution which intoxicated itself with the most beautiful words of Liberty, Equality and Solidarity while maintaining slavery at home would not be the revolution.

But his solution lies mainly in the then recent innovations of washing machines and dishwashers: “The machine takes care of three quarters of the household duties.” The question that leaps to mind (especially to female minds) is: What about the other quarter? Rearing children is least amenable to automation, and Kropotkin nowhere questions the assumption that this is basically women’s work. Even when housework is mechanised, it ameliorates the problem rather than solving it. Today’s women can be grateful that they can push buttons instead of banging clothes against rocks at a stream, but it still usually falls to them to push those buttons and organise that work. A revolution in personal and domestic attitudes is as necessary as one in technology.

The book insists that the communist society it envisages is not such a leap of faith, because aspects of it are visible even in today’s society. People given free access to libraries generally borrow and return books without feeling a compulsion to steal every book for themselves, and people happily stroll in the local park without trying to fence it off for their exclusive use. We do this, not out of fear of police and judges, but out of respect for ordinary civilised behaviour: “We can already glimpse a world where the individual, ceasing to be bound by laws, will have only social habits—resulting from the need of each one of us to seek the support, the co-operation, the sympathy of his neighbours.”

Such a society Kropotkin calls “anarchist communism, commun­ism without government… a society that recognises the full and entire liberty of the individual, that admits no authority, and uses no compulsion”. But as we have just seen, the habit of mutuality would bind people together. The pressure of ‘public opinion’ would bear upon anyone who tried to take advantage of others, maintaining what Kropotkin doesn’t mind calling “a certain moral level in society”. Is this not a restriction on “the full and entire liberty of the individual”, an example of “compulsion” if not “authority”? The desire to fit in can be as powerful as any law, and even worse, laying down what you should be doing rather than what you shouldn’t.

Kropotkin gives an example of a group of people voluntarily en­gaged in a common enterprise, where one decides to start swinging the lead. Rather than impose fines or create penal structures, they will just tell him: “My friend, we would love to work with you; but as you are often absent from your post or do your task negligently, we must part company. Go and look for other comrades who will put up with your indifference!” This is not coercion, but absolutely reasonable conduct necessary for any group of people to work collectively. Whether it constitutes pressure, compulsion, authority or all three is a philosophical question, but it doesn’t seem wise to adopt a philosophical stance that rules it out in advance.

A free society, writes Kropotkin, would have to be based on “the formation of free groups and the free federation of groups”. It would be radically decentralised: at one point, he goes as far as saying that “Every township will answer for itself” vital questions of production and consumption. Each local community would do things in common with other communities, but voluntarily. You can go on a train journey from one end of Europe to another, he says, because the different railway companies in each country have come to agreements of their own accord: “there is no European central government of railways!… Everything is done by agreement.”

But this fails to address the previously existing inequalities that a new society would inherit. To stick with Kropotkin’s example, a free group in Dublin would find a host of rail connections open to it; a group in Claremorris couldn’t get a train to Galway without federating with Athlone; and groups in Donegal couldn’t catch a train anywhere. Even if groups outside Dublin managed to build railways, they would be forced to hitch themselves on to the pattern already established: with the best will in the world, those who have would still dictate to those who have not. To create a rail network that served everyone equally would mean moving beyond the local stage.

And the far more terrible global inequalities would mean moving further still. People in countries and regions under­developed by capitalism would not be left with the resources to bring their living standards up on their own. Resources would have to be redistributed. There’s no problem if the regions which have them are prepared to share them—but if not, they can’t be allowed to perpetuate the injustices of capitalism, and some mechanism would be needed to reverse those injustices in spite of them. It isn’t good enough to complacently say with Kropotkin “that the inequality which will still really exist between Paris and the village is such that it will diminish with every day”.

In fact, he sets out to prove that Paris and the surrounding area, organised as an anarchist commune, could be self-sufficient. If rural France doesn’t follow their lead, “Let the countryside try on its own! Then the large towns will get along without the countryside.” In instances like these, Kropotkin’s vision is more one of parochialism than of solidarity. Local communes fend for themselves, maybe coming to agreements now and again with the outside world, but holding on tight to whatever advantages they have. The idea of socialism traversing regional and national boundaries, building a world of diverse cultures, tastes and interactions, is quite a distance away from this.

What Kropotkin calls “collectivist” socialists come in for a lot of criticism. They wish to maintain the division of labour, he writes: “if you made the heads of pins before the Revolution, you will still make them after the Revolution”. Well, this would have to be the case initially: pins have to be made by people with the experience and knowledge to make them, otherwise pins will be blunt or broken. Others would be shown how to make them and would then do their fair share of pin making, and former pin makers would move towards other work—but the division of labour can only be overcome in reality when people acquire the capacity to do various types of work, and that may take a while for a generation brought up to do the opposite.

Kropotkin oppose the use of wages in a socialist society, even in the form of ‘labour notes’ which record the amount of work you’ve done and accordingly the amount of goods you’re entitled to. How can you abolish private property in the means of production on the one hand, but have a system of privatised consumption on the other?

a society cannot organise itself on two absolutely opposed prin­ciples, two principles that contradict one another continually. And the nation or commune which bestowed such an organ­isation on itself would be forced either to return to private property or to immediately transform itself into a communist society.

This is quite true, but it doesn’t prove his point. Until a socialist society produced an abundance for everyone, a certain amount of goods would have to be allocated to each; and until working for its own sake became a universal custom, work would have to be rewarded materially. Distributing according to work done is the fairest way anyone has yet come up with, and in itself would be a great advance on capitalism’s unequal distribution. But even this does indeed contradict the basic communist principle of ‘To each according to their needs’. This is why it can only be a transitional device, a bridge used by a society that wants to “transform itself into a communist society” and put that principle into practice.

While clear and insistent on the practicalities of organising society to fulfil people’s needs, Kropotkin falls down on the practicalities of getting there. A new society can’t wait for a new race of people free from all the bad habits engendered by a bad world. It would have to work with the world as it finds it and accomplish the change accordingly, taking as long as it takes and pausing at all the halfway houses necessary.

The clear and present danger, though, is that a bridge can be crossed in either direction. History has shown how yesterday’s rebels can become tomorrow’s conservatives, how halfway houses can become final destinations, how our last state can end up being worse than our first. In such a situation, we would need Kropotkin’s impatience with interim makeshift measures, and his determined faith in popular initiative revolutionising human relations al­together:

A revolution is more than the destruction of a regime. It is the awakening of human intelligence, the inventive spirit multiplied ten, a hundred times… It is a revolution in people’s minds more than in their institutions. …the bold initiative of each and all, their initiative become herculean by the awakening of their genius.

Gama, racism and class struggle

Issue 27 (March 2007) opened with Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh drawing lessons from the strike of workers in Gama.

Mick Barry, We are Workers not Slaves: The Story of the GAMA Struggle (Socialist Party)

This pamphlet’s claim that the Gama workers in 2005 wrote “one of the proudest chapters in Irish labour history” (p 3) contains not an ounce of exaggeration. The way they stood up to a powerful multi­national and its friends in high places should teach a lesson to a labour movement that has literally lost the plot. With a legal frame­work biased against them and a union leadership sitting on its hands, they fought the way Irish workers used to fight.

The support they received from Irish socialists is testimony to the need to return to the way unions were originally built up. The accounts here of throwing leaflets over fences, trying to overcome language difficulties, working outside official structures describe methods that, while desperately unfashionable to today’s unions, will be needed in unionising the growing unorganised sectors of the economy. They also show sustained patient work without immed­iate gains—where others would have given up and fluttered along to some other more promising campaign—paying off in the end.

The Gama workers were SIPTU members, but saw nothing in return for the subs deducted from their pay packets. In fact, their nominal presence on SIPTU membership rolls gave Gama a veneer of respectability. At the union meeting where they were first signed up, SIPTU even allowed the company to provide the translator. This kind of thing was no accident but, as Barry points out, a logical outcome of “Social partnership and the social partnership mindset” (p 9).

The company paid its Turkish workers €2.20 an hour (as against a national minimum of €7 and an industry minimum of €12.96), spiriting the rest into dodgy bank accounts under its own control. The strike put an end to this, and won back some of the stolen pay. This Labour Court award, says the pamphlet, “represented only a fraction of the monies due to the men” (p 49), and the company was later granted further lucrative state contracts. So why the claim that the workers “secured a smashing victory” (p 55)? The wonderful achievements of the Gama workers are impressive enough in their reality: trying to paint a partial victory as an outright knockout only gilds the lily.

The author presents the Gama strike as if it were business as usual in the class struggle, a straightforward clash between employ­ers and employees, albeit on a grander scale than usual (p 39):

GAMA was merely a particularly ruthless example of the world­wide tendency of bosses to maximise profit at workers’ expense. The only difference between GAMA and most governments and key corporations in the world today is (in some cases) one of degree.

But there was another factor ever-present in this story, another aspect of the class struggle that doesn’t appear in every other fight: racism. Unlike Irish workers, the Gama workers were not free to move to other employers. They were working under permits granted to Gama, with no right to work for anyone else. Their right to live in Ireland lasted only as long as they were employed by that company. The problems this places before any attempt by such workers to improve their conditions cannot be overstated, and this makes their position qualitatively worse than that of Irish workers.

It is not that Barry fails to recognise the problem (p 6, 28)—

The work permits policy of the Irish state was to greatly facilitate GAMA in their plans to super-exploit the men.… A decision to take industrial action is a very serious decision for any worker at any time. How much more so when you are a stranger in a strange land working for a powerful and vicious employer who controls your work permit?

But he never draws the obvious conclusion, one of the biggest lessons of Gama: that the work permit system should be abolished. If work permits exist at all (and they shouldn’t) they should give a worker permission to work in Ireland for whoever they choose. But nowhere in the 64 pages of the pamphlet is this simple lesson drawn. All kinds of laudable demands are made, from Polish-speaking union officials up to socialist revolution, but the abolition of the permit system is forgotten about.

The author advocates that immigrant workers should be recruited into active trade unions and paid the full rate for the job. They should of course, but the added component of racism means that this traditional response is inadequate on its own. Where racism, and especially state racism in the form of discriminatory laws, is used to exacerbate the exploitation of some workers, then we need to specifically oppose that racism. To overlook that is to miss what was new in the Gama struggle, the fresh lesson it held for working-class activists.

The only other section of the working class in a worse legal situation than the bonded labourers on work permits are asylum seekers—the only workers who are legally banned from working. As well as encouraging racist prejudice, this means that when asylum seekers do work, they do so with no rights or protections. Alongside the permit system, this creates a reserve army of cheap super-exploited labour which can be used to undermine the position of all workers. But again, you will search this pamphlet in vain for the obvious demand that asylum seekers have the right to work. Pat Rabbitte’s sickening anti-immigration remarks are deplored, but nowhere countered with the basic demand for an end to deportation and immigration control.

Now, the author may well agree with such demands. If he does, the question is: why does he keep that to himself? It is not good enough for socialists to espouse correct theoretical positions in the safety of their own branch meetings, if they don’t come out and argue for them in front of the working class.

Photographs of the 2005 May Day march in Dublin illustrate what is rightly characterised as “a de facto support rally” for the Gama workers (p 44), whose presence made it the biggest and best for years. Clear-cut demands that oppose racism and serve the interest of all workers were made on that march: an end to the permit system, to deportations, and to the ban on asylum seekers working. But it was anti-racist activists, immigrant workers and asylum seekers themselves who handed out those leaflets, rather than socialist groups as such. The traditional left prefers to force issues like these into a conventional economistic mould, leaving it to others to fight the anti-racist battles that are now an inseparable part of class struggle in Ireland.

The union leaders who let down the Gama workers have got no better in the meantime. Their main contribution to the debate is to raise a panic about “displacement”—which is only a polite way of saying ‘foreigners are coming here to take our jobs’. With the spectacular exception of Irish Ferries, workers from other countries are generally taking up jobs that Irish workers now find too badly-paid or unpleasant. If anything, there is far too little displacement going on, with hundreds of immigrant workers stuck in dead-end jobs and denied a fair crack of the whip at better work. As the Irish Examiner reported on 23 January, “immigrants are earning one-third less per hour than Irish people”.

The union leaders’ hype about displacement is at best an accommodation to racism, and at worst a respectable cover for racist prejudice. Anyone under any illusions on that score needs only look at where it has led: to the leaders of the Labour Party and the country’s biggest union calling for the work permit system to be extended to EU citizens. In what seems a choreographed move, just days before the government moved to exclude Romanian and Bulgarian workers last October, SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor ‘called upon’ them to do so, actively advocating racial discrimination against workers from other countries, condemning them to the same treatment the Gama workers got.

This is usually dressed up, of course, in patronising talk about protecting helpless immigrant workers, bearing the white man’s burden. The partnership agreement Towards 2016 (why didn’t they go the whole hog and call it To Infinity and Beyond?) was supposed to deal with such exploitation. It announces firstly that “The employ­ment permits system has an important contribution to make in the protection of individual workers’ rights and supporting employment standards.” That’s right: the ICTU put their name to a deal proclaiming that the permit system protects and supports workers!

After this, it’s no surprise that the measures proposed are worthless. Workers will soon be allowed hold on to the permit themselves—but this had already been proposed in a government bill published before the partnership negotiations. Although it has been trumpeted as a major concession, giving a prisoner a copy of his sentence is no consolation. Towards 2016 promises “adequate safeguards”—and thinks it perfectly adequate not to specify what they might be. In cases of “unfair treatment”, workers on permits will be allowed to transfer to another employer. This still restricts them to one named employer rather than giving them a free choice, and “unfair treatment”, while it presumably covers a scandal as big as Gama, does nothing about the unspectacular intimidation that immigrant workers face daily without getting into the papers. In January, the permit system was ‘reformed’—not to allow workers free movement, but to make it even more difficult for them to enter.

That IBEC, the government and the ICTU agreed to do nothing for workers on permits should come as no surprise. What does surprise is the response of the campaign against the partnership agreement. It seems that none of its leaflets or statements high­lighted this betrayal of immigrant workers or instanced it as a reason to vote No. Of course, not everything can fit on a leaflet, and you have to concentrate on the most important points. But this should be one of the most important points. The fact that a section of our class is forced to work under feudal and racist conditions is more important than, say, the sell-off of Great Southern Hotels, and should have a more urgent call on our solidarity.

The reference in the deal’s title to the Easter rising centenary may confirm the suspicion that nothing short of insurrection in the GPO can free us from social partnership now. But we could do worse than look at the nearest case to us of partnership being broken. In Britain in the 1970s, a Labour government signed a ‘Social Contract’ with unions and employers to restrain strikes while inflation, unemployment and cutbacks proceeded apace. It collapsed spectacularly in the 1978-9 ‘winter of discontent’, but the first breach came in 1976 when a group of mainly Asian women workers in Grunwick photo laboratories fought a long, hard and bitter battle. Those overlooked, pitied or patronised by the labour movement ended up showing it how to fight.

We could well find a similar story ourselves. Gama workers from Turkey proved more militant, more determined, more in­spiring than any group of Irish workers since the Dunnes strikers took a courageous lonely stand against apartheid. Their experience of political upheaval at home contrasted with the bland and peaceful political climate Irish workers have settled into. Like workers from Nigeria or Poland, they carry fighting traditions that the Irish labour movement has let slip into disuse. Freer from the mental restraints born of a generation of partnership, they can play a forward role here such as Irish workers have previously played in the British or American movements. The shot in the arm they provide can enrich and strengthen the working class of Ireland.

So Rabbitte and O’Connor couldn’t be more wrong: we need more immigration, not less. And socialists have to understand that explicitly fighting for the rights of workers from other countries cannot be an added bonus any more, but must be a priority inte­grated into the very forefront of our work.

The Hidden Connolly 26

Issue 26 in November 2006 contained another article by James Connolly unavailable since his execution, in which he called for less philosophising and more fighting.

Harp Strings

[The Harp, May 1909]


Man of Ireland, heir of sorrow:
Wronged, insulted, scorned, opprest,
Wilt thou never see the morrow
When thy weary heart may rest.
Lift thine eyes, thou outraged creature,
Nay, look up! for Man thou art;
Man in form, in frame and feature,
Why not act Man’s Godlike part?

Round about the nations waking,
Every bond that bound them burst,
At the crystal fountain slaking
With parched lips, their fevered thirst.
Ignorance, the demon, fleeing,
Leaves unlocked the fount they sip,
Wilt thou not, thou wretched being,
Stoop and cool thy burning lip.

How applicable are these words of Denis Florence McCarthy to the Irish workers of America! As a fighter in the struggles of Labor on the economic field the Irish worker has had no superiors and few equals, but when it came to applying the lessons of class antagonism learned there to the field of political action, the Irish worker has not by any means kept abreast of his reputation.

He has not only failed to “act Man’s Godlike part”, but he has often been the mainstay of the system which in our day may be fittingly characterised as a forcing house for the crimes against God and Man in which the Evil One is supposed to delight.

Perhaps the reason is that in the Socialist movement, especially on the political platform, there has been far too much theorising, too much of a tendency to speculate, too great a fondness for philosoph­ical disquisitions, and hence too great a proneness to forget that in the last analysis the whole concern of Socialism in the immediate present is with the workshop, and the struggles of the men and women therein.

I am wearied unto death listening to Socialist speeches and reading Socialist literature about materialism, and philosophy, and ethics, and sex, and embryology, and monogamy, and physiology, and monism, and platonism, and determinism from men to whom the more immediately important question of unionism is a sealed book.

And I suppose most other Irish workers got tired before I did. Unionism, the organisation of labor in the workshop, the robbery of labor here and now, and not the question of what influence the social organism of the future will have upon the minds, morals or theology of the race of the future are what the Irish worker is interested in. And I am inclined to think that in that respect he is not so different after all from the workmen of other races.

I am inclined to believe that when the working class really takes hold of the Socialist movement as a weapon in their industrial warfare, and ceases to regard it as a mere propaganda of idealism, they will make short work of the philosophers.

That will be a great day for Socialism, and a cold day for the theorists.

That is one reason I have always favored Industrial Unionism: I believe it will bring the Irish into the Socialist movement through the only gateway the Socialist philosophers have left unencumbered by their speculations, and the only gateway by which a political party of the working class can make its demands effective.

No study of philosophy will ever bring the Irish workers into the Socialist movement; when they come they will come as an incident of the struggle for better conditions, and therefore the closer the politics of Socialism is bound up with the daily struggles of labor for bread and butter the more Irish will be found in our movement. If I would give a slogan to the Socialist movement today it would be “Less philosophising, and more fighting.”

Apropos of the above I wish to quote a few striking passages from Wilshire’s Magazine for May. A writer, C E Jerome Beyer, writing on ‘Socialism and Catholicism’, points out the growth of Socialism in Chicago amongst Catholics as a result of discontent born of hunger. He says:—

The members of the hierarchy who are bending their efforts toward the suppression of Socialism have come into direct personal contact with it. Let that never be doubted for one moment. And they have come into contact with it within the confines of their own parishes. It is this silent, this un­expressed, this indeterminate Socialism, bred of the discontent of the laity, which is meeting with the strenuous opposition of those high in authority.
And this Socialism which the priesthood, not as a whole, but in individual cases, is so strenuously opposing is that un­sentimental Socialism, which will at the last furnish the great driving power of the Socialist movement. It is the Socialism of hunger.
This subterranean Socialism may know nothing of Marx, as yet. It may be merely a half-hearted groping in the dark. But it is there; and it is one of the most tremendously significant things in the history of the Socialist movement.
And another thing must not be forgotten. That is, that there are members of the Catholic hierarchy who are able to weigh this movement at its full value, to determine its relation to the Church, to say how far it is economic and how far it is religious. These men have refrained from pounding their heads against a stone wall, or throwing themselves under the Juggernaut.
Here are a few of the beginnings. In St Cecelia’s parish school there are 805 school children. The population of the ward in which the parish is located may be gauged from that figure. In this parish, and the ward, while industrial, is almost wholly Catholic, there were polled at the last election 205 Socialist votes, and in that election the Socialist vote in Chicago was the smallest it has been in the last eight years.
The Socialist vote in the City of Chicago invariably exceeds the party membership by from three to ten to one. I venture the assertion, after more than one hundred conversations with Catholics who should know what they are talking about, that two thirds of this vote which does not come from the party membership is a Catholic vote.
This Socialism inside the Catholic church is not irreligious. In fact, it is profoundly religious. Some of the best men with whom I have spoken who declared they voted the Socialist ticket have been Catholics of the best type and deeply religious men.

The Harp is not a Catholic paper; it is an Irish paper and makes its appeal to Irishmen and women as such, and not on the grounds of religion, but as so many of our race are Catholics, we are naturally interested in such a statement as we have just quoted. It confirms our own position that at home or abroad the Irish Catholic, although he would die for a principle, would not live for it alone. He requires a more immediate, vital interest to sustain continued activity.

That to move him to action we need not so much a philosophy of the continued upward procession of the human race as the necessity for a combat to continue an unbroken procession of regular dinners.

When a man is hungry the most beautiful picture of human society in the future fades into unattractiveness compared with a beef stew around the corner.

Hence the coldness of the Irish in America (who are essentially of the class that often hungers) towards the Socialist movement compared with their enthusiasm in trade unionism.

And hence the failure that will attend every effort to keep them out of the Socialist Party once that party is realised to be on the political field the defender of their immediate material interests, as the union is on the economic.

The great strike of the French Postal and Telegraph Employees of Paris has shown the world the power of Labor when properly organised, has shown that an industrial union can of itself bring a modern capitalist government to surrender without firing a shot or building a barricade. It has answered the question so often put by the timid and doubter—Can the working class emancipate itself?—and answered it in the affirmative.

What wonder that the capitalists of the world tremble? Their mechanical majorities in the Chamber could vote down the demands of the Socialist members, but they could not set the wheels of industry going, deliver letters, nor send telegrams.

In the words of an eloquent article in The Flame, of Broken Hill, Australia,

This Unionism of ours is a Unionism that will march, unlike the Cons­titution of Carlyle’s French Revolution that would not march.1 Ours is a Unionism—New, but the embodiment of the best of the Old, and Newer yet to be—marching for the Cause that has come down the ages like a great river widening to the sea—marching forward valiantly, hopefully, power­fully to justice and freedom and peace and culture and love and honor. Our Unionism has marched, is marching, and will march.
The marching army of the peoples has tramped down through blood and fire. It has tramped down the mighty past through slavedom and serf­dom into wagedom; through peasants’ risings, Feudalism, anti-landlordism, Chartism; through Cromwellian and American Wars of Independence, through French Revolution, Irish Insurrection, English-speaking agitation and tumult; through universal disturbance and turmoil.
All the social revolts and the revolutions of the working class have been forerunners of the modern Labor movement: only there is this difference, that the movement of the dis­inherited for justice has today taken on a more scientific aspect and knows with exactitude what it needs and deserves and how to accomplish its purposes. To this position has brought the persistent striving for that righteousness which will truly exalt the nations.

“Thim’s my sintimimts!”

Talking about that Australian paper reminds me of another thing. The early issues of The Harp had a few articles giving an account of the situation in India and speaking approvingly of the Coming Revolt in India against the British Empire.2 Recently when lecturing in Brooklyn I had in my audience a gentleman who told us that he was an Englishman, a tory, a landowner, and an English Churchman, and he endeavored to represent British Rule in India as a most beneficent affair. It was to me most interesting to listen to this member of an aristocratic ruling class conscientiously laboring to justify his class rule.

But I remembered that if he had had me to deal with in Ireland a hundred years ago he would not have argued with me except through the medium of a pitch-cap or the triangle, and if we had confronted each other in India today his reasoning would have been equally eloquent, and I would have remained behind prison bars to note its fine points.

In The Flame of March 6, I find the following testimony to the holy, “civilising” influences of the British in India which will perhaps serve to make my readers share my feelings towards that “abomination of desolation,” the British Empire.

The British Army in India recruit women for the purpose of harlotry with an almost brutal disregard for even the God of Appearance. On June 17th 1886, Sir F (now Lord) Roberts3 issued his “circular memorandum” addressed to general officers commanding divisions and districts. In it he says—
“In the regimental bazaars it is necessary to have a sufficient number of women; to take care that they are sufficiently attractive, and to provide them with proper houses.”
In furtherance of these instructions, the officers commanding the Connaught Rangers at Jullunder wrote to the assistant quartermaster as follows:
“The cantonment magistrate has already on more than one occasion been requested to obtain a number of younger and more attractive women, but with little or no success. He will be again appealed to. The Major-General commanding should invoke the aid of the local government by instructing the canton­ment magistrates, whom they appoint, that they give all possible aid to commanding officers in procuring a sufficient number of young, attractive, and healthy women.”
Just imagine a magistrate acting as a procurer, at the instigation of commanders of our glorious ‘harmy’!

Let the readers of The Harp remember that the women who are thus demanded for the purpose of gratifying the lusts of the English soldiers are procured by seizing any decent, attractive native woman the cantonment magistrate thinks suitable for the purpose, and carrying them by force to the bazaar where they are kept until they grow old or diseased. Then they are thrown out to rot in the jungle.

When the British were introducing the opium trade into India they sent commissioners into the territory they thought suited for the cultivation of the poppy, and summoning all the ryots (peasant farmers) before them, these said commissioners compelled each to set aside as much of his land as the commissioners wanted for the culture of this accursed drug.

When the natives would not buy nor use the opium, the government spent a vast sum of money in giving it away free in order to cultivate among them a liking for it. The drug has ruined millions, body and soul, but it has brought a great revenue to the British Government, therefore “Rule Britannia.”

The Universe is about tired of this British Empire, and I for one hope that the natives of India will, ere long, drive it from their shores into the sea.

There was a time when Irishmen also would have made the attempt, but the weakening effects of the capitalist system upon the mind and morals of our once gallant race has done its work, and today the thought of Irish leaders (?) seems to fluctuate between the abortion of the “Constitution of ’82”, and that abortion of an abortion, Home Rule.4

The magnificent ideal of our forefathers, an Irish Republic, One and Indivisible, has today no resting place except in the heart of the unconquered Irish Working Class. But there it is safe and secure.

To conclude. Did you ever note the ignorance of the educated classes? Here is an instance of it. I quote from the Argonaut the following on ‘The Red Flag’, the Socialist hymn written by my old comrade, Jim Connell.

George Bernard Shaw recently aired his disregard for a new Socialist marching song, called ‘The Red Flag’. “That ignoble air will be the death of Socialism in England, if it is not sternly suppressed,” he said. “The composer, whoever he may be (and I don’t care if he is my best friend), can republish it as ‘The Funeral March of a Fried Eel’ if he likes, but let him take it out of our already sufficiently obstructed path—a tune so abject and depressing, so mean and commonplace, that the human spirit broke before three bars of it had blighted the welkin.” Unfortunately for Mr Shaw, the tune is from Mozart’s first mass, and is known and sung all over Germany under the name ‘O Tannenbaum’. It seems to be neither ignoble or depressing.

Unfortunately for the writer of that paragraph the tune is an old Irish Jacobite tune, called ‘The White Cockade’, was written and sung before Mozart was born, and its appearance in German as ‘O Tannenbaum’ is no doubt due to Mozart hearing it from some of the many Irish exiles of his time.

The author of ‘The Red Flag’ is a Tipperaryman by birth,5 and it is safe to say he heard the tune at many an Irish fireside before ever he heard of Mozart.

Thomas Davis wrote a fine song to the same tune, and it has always been a favorite in Ireland since its composition.

Talking about songs, does any of my readers know that the famous Southern hymn, ‘Maryland’, is also written to an old Irish air?

Faith, we are a fine body of men and women.



  1. Thomas Carlyle, in his history of the French revolution, expands on the theme of the constitution not marching: that France’s constitution proved unable to face the questions the revolution posed.
  2. Connolly’s ‘The Coming Revolt in India: Its political and social causes’ appeared in the first issues of The Harp, January and February 1908. It is reprinted in Selected Political Writings (London 1973), p 230-40.
  3. Roberts was commander-in-chief of the British army in India from 1885‑93, and held the same post in Ireland from 1895-9.
  4. In 1782, the British government conceded a fairly broad range of powers to the Irish parliament in domestic affairs. Restoring that situation was the official policy of Sinn Féin at this time. The various Home Rule Bills envisaged even less power for an Irish parliament.
  5. Connell was actually from Meath. While he wrote ‘The Red Flag’ to the tune of ‘The White Cockade’, it is sung to ‘O Tannenbaum’.

Socialist Classics: Alexandra Kollontai, ‘The Workers’ Opposition’

In Issue 25 (July 2006) Joe Conroy examined a work that tried to stop the Russian revolution going off the rails.

By early 1921 military resistance to the Russian revolution was coming to an end. The foreign armies sent in to bring back the Tsarist dictatorship in alliance with domestic counter-revolutionaries were beaten. The cost to the Russian working class in terms of death and economic devastation had been huge, and the ending of the war gave them a chance to face the political legacy it had left. Many workers felt that the ideals that had originally inspired their revolution were being pushed aside as bureaucrats got their hands on political power and economic privilege. Thousands of rank-and-file workers joined the Workers’ Opposition, a group within the Communist Party articulating their protest.

Alexandra Kollontai had over twenty years’ experience in the socialist movement, and had played an important role in the 1917 revolution. She came on to the Bolshevik party’s central committee, and was briefly commissar for social welfare in the revolutionary government. The role of women in the revolution and the opportunities it provided for their liberation was her central concern, and since 1919 she had headed the women’s department of the Communist Party. She joined the Workers’ Opposition in late 1920 and, for the Communist Party congress of March 1921, wrote a pamphlet explaining its point of view.

The main thrust of the Opposition’s case was that economic decision-making had been taken away from the workers and their organisations and given to bureaucrats outside the working class. “The basis of the controversy is, therefore, this”, writes Kollontai: “shall we achieve communism through the workers or over their heads, by the hands of Soviet officials?” (Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, London 1977, p 174.) Or, more bluntly still (p 189): “Is it to be bureaucracy or self-activity of the masses?”

She recognises the desperately unfavourable situation the Russian workers were in, trying to recover from military attack and economic collapse, all the while being only a small minority of the country’s population. She accepts that the services of middle-class specialists were needed to help, especially in military matters, but the problem was that they were dominating in the all-important area of economic production—the basic area that the revolution was supposed to transform under the direction of the working class. The belief “that it is possible to bring about communism by bureaucratic means” was growing (p 166), with problems solved “not by means of an open exchange of opinions or by the immediate efforts of all concerned, but by means of formal decisions handed down from the central institutions” (p 191-2). This needed to be turned around (p 187-8):

it is impossible to decree communism. It can be created only in the process of practical research, through mistakes perhaps, but only by the creative powers of the working class itself.… All else is goose-stepping that shows distrust towards the creative abilities of the workers, distrust which is not compatible with the professed ideals of our party, whose very strength depends on the perennial creative spirit of the proletariat.

The reply, of course, was that it just wasn’t practical to depend on the creative spirit of the proletariat: visionary dreaming about free workers co-operatively producing in a communist utopia wouldn’t put bread on the table in the dire circumstances Russia faced. But Kollontai countered that, precisely because the circum­stances were so bad, radical solutions were needed. Instead of a short-term drive to increase production at whatever cost to the workers, trust in the capabilities of the working class, faith that their efforts could move mountains (p 185, 192):

New possibilities are open for a working class that has been freed from the yoke of capital, to have its own say in finding new incentives to labour and the creation of new forms of production which will have had no precedent in human history.… Miracles of enthusiasm in stimulating the productive forces and alleviating working conditions can only be performed by the active initiative of the interested workers themselves, provided it is not restricted and repressed at every step by a hierarchy of ‘permissions’ and ‘decrees’.

The tragedy was that many workers had such initiative, according to Kollontai, but were held back. She gives an example of a group of workers who decide to build a nursery, and get together all the necessary materials and labour, only to be refused permission by the officials. Unsurprisingly, they draw the conclusion that acting for themselves is a waste of time.

Kollontai’s observations here are relevant to the situation today in some Latin American countries, where groups of workers have established ‘factories without bosses’ in place of the failures of capitalist production. They are showing unprecedented initiative and creativity, rewriting the books on what can and can’t be done in production. But they will face, or already are facing obstacles from governments not of their own making. To survive, workers’ control has to spread throughout the economy and up to the heights of political power. Rebelling against “the yoke of capital” has shown in germ the potential of the working class: overthrowing that yoke altogether can liberate it fully.

Kollontai demanded “a clear-cut, uncompromising policy, a rapid, forced advance towards communism” (p 166). Such a demand had little reality in the Russia of 1921, however. Her insistence on a socialist society emerging from the activity of the working class—that “The building of communism belongs to the workers” (p 199)—was absolutely right. But precisely for that reason, the policy didn’t fit, because the Russian working class had all but ceased to exist. Many had been killed in the war, others had abandoned the factories to go home to their villages, some had entered the state/party bureaucracy. If only the working class could build communism, then communism couldn’t be built, not then and there. In Europe the working class was strong, and large parts of it on the side of socialism: as part of a general revolutionary upsurge, Russia could be a weak link in a socialist chain, but on its own it was going nowhere.

The working class that took power in 1917 had virtually disappeared, realising Kollontai’s fear of a workers’ dictatorship “without the foundation of the dictatorship” (p 172). For a period, the state was run on behalf of the workers rather than directly by them, but those in power separated more and more from the working class, with “ever-growing inequality between the privileged groups of the population in Soviet Russia and the rank-and-file workers” (p 170). This grew into a split between two different classes: those who worked in the economy, and those who controlled the economy. Kollontai noticed the emergence of this division: “we are the toiling people, they are the Soviet officials” (p 190). This was the framework in which the workers’ revolution gave way to a society where the workers were again exploited by those who held the wealth and power.

For all its reliance on the workers’ creativity, Kollontai’s pamphlet addresses itself to the Communist Party rather than the rank and file of the working class. If the party only sorted itself out, all would be well (p 192): “As soon as the party—not in theory but in practice—recognises the self-activity of the masses as the basis of our state, the Soviet institutions will again automatically become living institutions, destined to carry out the communist project.” While Lenin had bitterly criticised the Workers’ Opposition, she entertained the hope that he would see the light: “Ilyich will be with us yet” (p 200). Win or lose the debate, she wrote, the Opposition would never leave the party. So, while the Communist Party was effectively becoming the political instrument of the rising class of bureaucrats, the group that embodied the raw revolt of workers against them ruled out in advance any idea of organising independently of them.

The party’s congress showed very clearly that Ilyich would not be with them. Although Lenin admitted the existence of bureaucratic excesses and promised to do something about them, he sunk pretty low to trash the Workers’ Opposition. He opened the congress with an announcement that “the luxury of discussions and disputes within our Party” had to come to an end. Upon seeing a delegate talking with Kollontai in between sessions, he said to him: “What, are you still speaking to this individual?” Referring to The Workers’ Opposition, he told the congress: “People writing pamphlets like these should be exposed and eliminated.” According to his speech, the Opposition managed the feat of being simultaneously petty-bourgeois, anarchist, syndicalist, and a deviation linked to the counter-revolution. He concluded in George W Bush style: “the Workers’ Opposition is either for the party or against it, and if it continues as it is doing it must be expelled”.

Other leaders took their cue from him, heaping irrelevant allegations on top of personal abuse. The 5 per cent vote that the Workers’ Opposition got reflects more on how little the delegates represented the working class than on the undoubted weaknesses of the Opposition’s case. On the last day of the congress, the leadership brought in an emergency resolution banning them and any other groups within the party, and giving the central committee power to expel members. The Workers’ Opposition argued against it in vain.

Kollontai was sacked from her job as director of the women’s department, but the Workers’ Opposition didn’t go away. The 1922 party congress returned to the attack, with Lenin himself demanding Kollontai’s expulsion. While the delegates balked at going that far, the Opposition had effectively made its last stand. Kollontai accepted a job in the diplomatic service and dropped out of oppo­sitional activity. Leon Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and others who had piled abuse on her and the Workers’ Opposition eventually found themselves in opposition against Stalin. While many of the original oppositionists bravely fought and died challenging Stalinism, Kollontai refused to take any further part.

Her pamphlet had accepted that the full application of democratic principles was hardly possible when the revolution was threatened with military defeat, but attacked those “who attempt to evolve into principles the temporary deviations from the spirit of the communist programme that were forced upon the party by the prolonged civil war, and hold to them as if they were the essence of our political line of action” (p 200). Just such an attempt did take hold, and is with us still: most organisations that claim to uphold the legacy of the Russian revolution are run on the lines introduced in the Russian Communist Party in 1921. Kollontai’s demands for democracy in the organising of socialist activity may be the most pertinent part of her pamphlet for modern readers.

“The initiative of party members themselves is restricted”, she writes (p 191).

Every independent attempt, every new thought that passes through the censorship of our centre, is considered as ‘heresy’, as a violation of party discipline, as an attempt to infringe on the prerogatives of the centre, which must ‘foresee’ everything and ‘decree’ everything and anything. If anything is not decreed one must wait, for the time will come when the centre at its leisure will decree. Only then, and within sharply restricted limits, will one be allowed to express one’s ‘initiative’.

The only remedy was “going back to democracy, freedom of opinion and criticism within the party” (p 172). People should be elected by the members to all party positions, not appointed by the leadership. Issues should be put to the rank and file for discussion first, and only after that should the leaders give their views. Groups within the party should be allowed to argue and organise openly against leadership policy, with party funds paying to publish their literature. All members should be entitled to attend meetings of the leadership.

Such proposals would give a seizure to those who lead today’s left-wing groups. The Russian Communist leaders of 1921 swore blind that restrictions on dissenting members were a purely temporary departure from the party’s traditions, that expulsions ordered by the central committee would be unforgivable if it wasn’t for the crisis that prevailed. But for the most part, those who claim to follow them in our own day cling to that 1921 regime for dear life. The result is a smattering of left-wing groups largely composed of people unable or unwilling to think for themselves without a party line for a safety blanket. As Kollontai puts it (p 192, 199):

Fear of criticism and of freedom of thought, by combining together with bureaucracy, often produce ridiculous results. There can be no self-activity without freedom of thought and opinion, for self-activity manifests itself not only in initiative, action and work, but in independent thought as well. We give no freedom to class activity, we are afraid of criticism, we have ceased to rely on the masses: hence we have bureaucracy with us.… Wherever there is criticism, analysis, wherever thought moves and works, there is life, progress, advancement forward towards the future. There is nothing more frightful and harmful than sterility of thought and routine.

Much in The Workers’ Opposition is unrealistic, a lot of its hopes we can see in hindsight to be vain, and its effort to get the revolution back on the rails was unsuccessful. But Connolly says somewhere that generations and individuals are judged not by what they achieve, but by what they dare to try and achieve. By that yardstick, Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition deserve our admiration.