Revolutionary Lives: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (part one)

Joe Conroy began a look at Lenin’s life and work in Issue 6 (March 2000).

November 1918: Lenin is engaged in a fierce polemic with an opponent. He tears his antagonist’s arguments to pieces, shreds the pieces some more, and heaps contempt on his foe. The archetypal Lenin, some would say, and not without reason: the dogged polemicist refusing to yield an inch. And yet, in the midst of all the flying accusations, Lenin points out that his anger isn’t caused by someone daring to disagree with his own answer to the question of the day. On the contrary: “Perhaps my answer is wrong”, he says. “Nothing would have been more welcome to us than a Marxist criticism of our analysis by an outsider.”1

This is precisely what Lenin has not got. Attacks upon him and his ideas have come in abundance. But there have been all too few attempts to judge him by the standards he himself set, to soberly examine how far his ideas can help in the liberation of the working class. The towering figure of twentieth-century socialism needs above all to be critically reviewed if his work is to play a part in the twenty first century.

On 10 April 1870—22 April by the western calendar—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Simbirsk in central Russia. He was the son of a schools inspector, and his upbringing was comfortable and apolitical. Politics forced itself upon his mind at the age of seventeen, however, when his older brother was executed for attempting to assassinate the Tsar. Later that year he took part in a student protest and was expelled from university.

It was still a few years before he got involved in the Russian socialist movement. When he did, he wasn’t long in earning himself a prominent place in the Marxist propaganda and agitation groups of St Petersburg. That wasn’t all he earned: he was sentenced to a year in prison in 1895, followed by deportation to Siberia. In 1900 he moved abroad, joining many other socialists forced to work beyond the clutches of the repressive Tsarist empire. Here he began using the pen name by which history knows him: Lenin.

Establishing a party

The most pressing task facing Russian socialists at the start of the twentieth century was uniting their scattered individual groups into a unified organisation. Some—nicknamed the ‘economists’—believed that this could best be achieved by limiting the role of socialists to practical support for the economic struggles of the working class. Lenin fought the idea tooth and nail.

The working class had a duty, he wrote, to fight against all oppression, not just their own.

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuinely political conscious­ness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases, without exception, of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected. Moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic [i.e., socialist], and not from any other point of view.…
The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be a trade-union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to respond to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression…2

The socialist party Lenin envisaged would consist not so much of workers, but “first and foremost and mainly of people who make revolu­tionary activity their profession”.3 In the conditions of Tsarist Russia, an open party of workers was obviously not on: it would have to be a secret underground organisation of revolutionary intellectuals. But Lenin resorted to some strange theoretical propositions in support of this idea.

“The history of all countries”, he wrote, “shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union conscious­ness”. Socialism, on the other hand, was a theory elaborated by intellectuals from the propertied classes. The working class couldn’t come to socialism under its own steam or through its own struggles: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without”. No good could come if the workers were left to their own devices, because “the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads precisely to its subordination to bourgeois ideology”, and the job of socialists was therefore “to combat spontaneity”.4

History, however, is full of examples of workers becoming socialist with little or no input from middle-class socialists, and even taking power on the odd occasion. It is true that most of the great socialist theorists up till now have been intellectuals from middle-class origins, but all of them, including Marx and Engels, learnt their socialism from the movements of the working class. And all of them realised that their theories could only have any effect if they guided the struggles of workers, rather than combating them.

Of course Lenin was arguing against people, middle-class socialist intellectuals, who saw their role as praising the efforts of the working class instead of helping them with their own understanding of socialist theory. He obviously exaggerated in his polemic with them. He later argued that “the Economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and that is what I did.”5

But if the metaphor has any meaning, it should be to remind us that a stick breaks when it is bent beyond a certain point. There is nothing wrong with putting heavy emphasis on the main task at hand. If Lenin had said that the spontaneous movements of the working class weren’t enough, and that socialist intellectuals should stop admiring the workers and get down to spreading their socialist ideas amongst them, then no one could argue. But opposing a wrong theory with another wrong theory didn’t help Lenin’s attempts to put together a coherent socialist party to fight against all oppression. If someone believes that 2+2=3, telling them that 2+2=5 isn’t correcting them, it’s adding another error to theirs.


At the beginning of 1905 the Tsarist edifice began to crack. The regime was engulfed by revolution as workers and the oppressed attacked, by demonstration, strike, and uprising. Lenin was able to return to Russia, but all talk of the impossibility of working-class socialism had to go out the window. “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic”, he wrote,6 and later recalled how the workers “became Social-Democratic as if by the wave of a hand”.7

His earlier arguments came back to haunt him as many of his comrades in the Bolshevik party insisted on maintaining a tightly knit organisation of professional revolutionaries, wary of the untamed actions of the workers. He was forced to retreat from some of his earlier positions—while never explicitly saying as much—as he called for the party to open itself up to the masses of workers who were revolutionised by the events of 1905. The freedoms won in the revolution meant that the party could be organised on a democratic basis, from the grassroots up instead of from the leadership down, with every right for members to disagree. It should be run on the principle “unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism”, he wrote; “the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticize”.8

The Russian working class faced not just an ordinary capitalist government, but a dictatorship that suppressed the most basic of demo­cratic rights and presided over an economy that was still largely feudal. The revolution’s job, according to Lenin, was to overthrow this dictator­ship, but not the capitalist system. The changes to be won “do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule”, he wrote, claiming that “Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution now taking place”. The working class was not big enough or class-conscious enough in Russia to carry out a socialist revolution.9

Lenin was not advising the workers to follow in the train of the capitalists: they were so weak and cowardly that the workers would have to fight for democracy without them and even against them, and do so in their own interest: “We cannot get out of the bourgeois-democratic boundaries of the Russian revolution, but we can vastly extend these boundaries, and within these boundaries we can and must fight for the interests of the proletariat, for its immediate needs and for conditions that will make it possible to prepare its forces for the future complete victory.”10 He saw Russia’s democratic revolution sparking off socialist revolution in Europe, which the Russian workers would then join; and he built no brick wall between the two revolutions: “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.”11

But despite Lenin’s insistence on working-class independence, and his hope of moving as quickly as possible from one revolution to the other, he clearly saw two distinct and separate revolutions ahead: first overthrow Tsarism, and then overthrow capitalism. His scenario supposed that the Russian working class would go to the trouble of winning political power and then refuse to use that power to fight against their subjection to the capitalists. If the capitalists tried to sabotage this revolution by closing down factories and locking out workers, would the workers in the revolu­tionary government not be forced to take those factories over, to sub­ordinate the capitalist economy to the interests of the working people—and thereby undermine the foundations of capitalism? In practice the revolution would have to burst the banks of capitalism, to combine its ‘bourgeois-democratic’ work with socialist work. Socialists arguing for democracy first, socialism second would end up with neither; they would have to fight for both at the same time.

Squabbling in exile

The 1905 revolution eventually went down to defeat, and by the end of 1907 Lenin was once more forced out of Russia. Not for the first time, defeated revolutionaries faced a period of crisis and dissension. “Life in exile and squabbling are inseparable”, Lenin wrote.12

One section of the socialists wanted to abandon underground work and restrict themselves to legal activity. This would mean an end to the socialist party, as Lenin argued, because socialism tailored to fit what Tsarism allowed would be no socialism at all. On the other hand, some argued that socialists should abandon legal activity altogether, taking no part in elections or the trade unions. This, as Lenin pointed out, would isolate socialists from the mass of the working class, giving up valuable platforms for socialist ideas. Even in Russia’s undemocratic excuse for a parliament the Bolsheviks put their handful of deputies to good use, although they were, to use Lenin’s phrase, “not a general staff… but rather a unit of trumpeters”.13

But Lenin’s method of putting these arguments generated more heat than light. His polemics in this period consist for the most part of an accumulation of accusations, of varying degrees of accuracy, liberally garnished with insults and name-calling. Those who went too far to the left were lumped together with those on the right under Lenin’s sledge­hammer, and those who tried for a rapprochement amongst socialists came off worst of all. The broad democracy that had blossomed in the party was cast aside as Lenin insisted on laying down a party line and making it prevail, by means of expulsion if necessary. While Lenin’s position was right against his opponents, his approach meant that his internal victories were Pyrrhic ones, leaving little of the vibrant Bolshevik party of 1905 standing.

War and renewal

The outbreak of world war in 1914 came as little surprise to Lenin, but he was taken aback by the betrayal of the socialist movement. In country after country labour parties and unions conveniently forgot their speeches about peace and international brotherhood, and mobilised workers to take part in a war to see which group of empires would exploit the world most. Lenin was one of the quickest off the mark organising opposition to the war both in Russia and internationally. He called on socialists to break with the traitors in the labour movement, and turn the war into a chance for revolution.

His break with the reformists was more than just an organisational one. The depth of their treachery led him to rethink and renew his socialism. Until now his understanding of Marxist philosophy went no further than a stubborn but rigid defence of orthodoxy; now he went back to the roots of Marxist dialectics, replacing the old fatalism with a new, dynamic view of the world. He unearthed the original Marxist teaching on the state in place of the distorted version then prevailing. He studied the new developments in the capitalist economy and their political implications.

Not least of these was the increased importance of the national question, and the duty of socialists to uphold nations’ right to indepen­dence. This gave the revolution a wider sweep than before:

The socialist revolution is not a single act, it is not a battle on one front, but a whole epoch of acute class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., on all questions of economics and politics, battles that can only end in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, over­shadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the prole­tariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.14

So the revolution would be more complex and layered than previously imagined. It wouldn’t be that “one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism’, and another somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution!”

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.… The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be any­thing other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements.

Many of these elements would bring confused views with them, but their struggles would nevertheless attack capitalism. The job of socialists was “to unite and direct” the discordant upsurge, not to belittle it.15

Lenin also tried to come to grips with the basis of reformism. How come the leaders of labour parties and trade unions believed in receiving reforms from the capitalist system instead of overthrowing it? How come so many workers supported them? It arose, he concluded, from the super­profits available in modern capitalism: “The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists… makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie”.16 The upper layer of the working class, the labour aristocracy, was bought off.

Obviously, capitalists with higher profits can afford to concede higher wages to their workers, and this may well lead workers to support them. But why should this only apply to the better-off section of the working class, and not the class as a whole? And there are countless cases of better-paid workers opposing capitalism, even when their wages are paid out of imperialist profits. Lenin’s understanding of reformism was weak, which is hardly surprising when reformism—and indeed reforms—were all but non-existent in Russia.

part two


  1. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918).
  2. What is to be Done? (1902) chapters III, I.
  3. Ibid, chapter IV.
  4. Ibid, chapters II, III.
  5. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey 1990) p 63.
  6. ‘The Reorganisation of the Party’ (23 November 1905).
  7. ‘Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution’ (24 September 1908).
  8. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (London 1986) p 269.
  9. Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) chapters 6, 2.
  10. Ibid, chapter 6.
  11. ‘Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement’ (1 September 1905).
  12. Letter to Maxim Gorky, 11 April 1910.
  13. ‘Two Letters’ (13 November 1908).
  14. ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ (April 1916).
  15. ‘The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up’ (October 1916).
  16. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) chapter X.

Revolutionary Lives: John Maclean

Issue 5 (November 1999) featured a discussion of the great Scottish socialist by Maeve Connaughton.

John Maclean was born on 24 August 1879 in Pollokshaws, not far from Glasgow. His father, a potter, died less than nine years later, leaving his mother to struggle at a variety of jobs in order to rear four children. Thanks to her sacrifices John was able to stay on at school, and eventually train as a teacher.

His involvement with the socialist movement began in late 1902 or early 1903 when he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), being already a convinced Marxist. He soon became a central figure in Glasgow socialism, throwing himself into speaking at street meetings and writing for the left-wing press. He also began a class in Marxist economics which drew large numbers of workers, and socialist education remained a con­stant concern for Maclean. The capitalists had colleges and universities to turn out the type of human being their system required; the working class, he said,  needed “such education as will make revolutionists”.

Marxism was never a matter of repeating formulas, as far as Maclean was concerned, but of engaging with and understanding the world: “Marxians do not fall back upon what Marx said here or there, but apply his principles to each set of circumstances as it arises. ‘Thus spake Marx’ is not the Marxian but the anti-Marxian method.” Not that Marx’s words were unimportant, as he stressed at the end of one particular talk:

I want you to go home and read the works of Karl Marx. If you read one or two good books they will do more good for your head and heart than a library of rubbish. What we want in this country today is an edu­cated working class. The millennium, if it is to come, must come from an educated working class. Today you can be swayed by speeches and pamphlets. But the person who has studied Marx and applied him to literature, to life in all its phases, can see things as they really are.

Theory, though, had to develop in close connection with practice: “Fighting leads to new facts, thus to our new theory and thence to revolution.”

Maclean shared many of the shortcomings of the contemporary socialist movement, however. He tended to downplay strikes, seeing them as justi­fied defensive actions but with no part to play in achieving socialism. This changed after he visited Belfast at Jim Larkin’s invitation in 1907. The strikes there were a radical movement of unskilled workers, a far cry from the staid trade unionism of skilled tradesmen that he was used to in Glas­gow. When the British version of Larkinism spread a few years later in the ‘great unrest’ that preceded the world war, Maclean was fully involved.

One of the biggest faults of the socialism of this period, internationally as well as in Britain, was its misunderstanding of the state, a misunder­standing that Maclean too was guilty of. He accused those who said social­ism would come about by direct seizure of workplaces of denying “the naturalness of the state”; the state’s responsibilities had progressively ex­panded, and the job of socialists was “to carry forward this growth of the duties of the state until the social revolution has been accomplished”. He claimed that “the various states were the supreme representatives of associ­ated mankind.… these states must be captured by the workers.” There is nothing in the least natural about the existence of parliaments, police, prisons and the rest, of course; but it wasn’t until the Russian revolution that Maclean—and others—would grasp that such states had to be got rid of, not taken over.

Waging the class war

When war broke out in 1914, Maclean and his family were on holiday in the Highlands: his initial response was to write anti-war graffiti on any available wall. Back in Glasgow he began regular meetings in the city centre, arguing that the war was a crime born of capitalism’s desire for profit, and that British workers should stand together with German work­ers instead of going out to kill them. Many other socialists went to ground and retreated from their regular round of meetings, but Maclean always managed to draw a crowd and get a hearing.

Such a stand was not only extremely brave at the start of the war, but also extremely rare. Like most of its counterparts in Europe the leadership of the British Socialist Party (the BSP, as the SDF had become in 1911) capitulated, arguing that the war effort should be supported to defeat the evil of German militarism. “Our first business is to hate the British capital­ist system”, replied Maclean. Amidst all the patriotic slaughter, he wrote, “it is our business as socialists to develop ‘class patriotism’, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism”. The real enemies of German militarism were the German socialists, and the defence of capital­ist profit should be left to the capitalist class themselves.

The class war at home broke out in earnest in 1915. Attempts to raise rents in Glasgow led to a rent strike across the city; when munitions work­ers threatened to strike in support, the government restricted all rents to pre-war levels. In the munitions factories themselves workers faced a con­certed attack: unskilled workers were introduced, workers faced the pros­pect of conscription, and it was made illegal to strike or even to move to another factory. As government, employers and even union officials lined up in the attempt to smash militant trade unionism in Glasgow, the rank and file organised independently, and the Clyde Workers’ Committee was born.

In this situation revolutionary socialism got a ready audience, and Maclean steadily pushed the revolt of the Clydeside workers. The fight, he argued, should broaden out to involve all sections of the working class, and should take on the wider issues: opposition to the war, and to capitalism itself. “The only war that is worth waging is the Class War,” he wrote, “the workers against the world exploiters, until we have obtained industrial freedom.”

The authorities were not about to let such activity go unchecked. At the end of 1915 Maclean received five days’ imprisonment for making state­ments likely to prejudice recruiting, and was sacked from his job. He was arrested again the following February as the government moved to break the Clyde Workers’ Committee. This time the courts were not so lenient, and he was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. In prison he wasn’t allowed to read, write, or associate with others, and the harsh criminal reg­ime began to affect his health.

But the stand of Convict 2652 was drawing international attention. In Zürich Lenin instanced Maclean as a representative of the trend that had remained loyal to socialism. In June 1917 the first All-Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, following the overthrow of Tsarism, sent greetings and solidarity to the political prisoner. In Britain a working-class campaign for Maclean’s release was gathering momentum. When the prime minister Lloyd George visited Glasgow to receive the freedom of the city, he was met by huge crowds, not to welcome him but to demand free­dom for John Maclean. The government backed down and let him go after serving just over a year.

He took up where he left off, never neglecting the task of socialist edu­cation: over 500 Glasgow workers enrolled for the classes he organised. The October revolution in Russia vindicated the revolutionary opponents of the war, and recognised Maclean’s own contribution. He was elected among the honorary presidents of the Congress of Soviets, and appointed consul for Soviet Russia in Glasgow. The important thing now was to emulate the Russian revolution in Britain—not to wait, like some social­ists, for capitalism to ‘inevitably’ fall apart: he insisted that “if capitalism is to be ‘sent west’ it will only be the result of the delivery of the greatest knock-out blow ever given, and that this blow must be given by a united, revolutionary working class”.

Maclean’s activity was again interrupted in April 1918 when he was arrested on a charge of sedition. He turned his trial the following month into a propaganda platform. When informed of his right to object to any of the respectable Glaswegians on the jury, he replied: “I object to the whole of them!” In his speech from the dock he proclaimed that no government would prevent him speaking and protesting. “I am not here, then, as the accused: I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.” In conclusion he threw down the gauntlet:

I am a Socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my con­duct.… I have nothing to retract. I have nothing to be ashamed of. …my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and only they, can bring about the time when the whole world will be one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.

The jury didn’t even bother to retire before finding Maclean guilty on all counts, and the judge condemned him to five years’ penal servitude. As he was led away to the cells Maclean turned to his comrades in the public gallery and shouted: “Keep it going, boys! Keep it going!”

They did keep it going: demonstrations in Glasgow demanded Maclean’s release, and he was nominated as a candidate in the forth­coming general election. He refused to take prison food and was force-fed by the authorities. Following the end of the war the government found, for the second time, that he was more dangerous in prison than out, and rel­eased him in December. His ill-health left him unable to play a big part in his election campaign, but what campaigning he did focussed not on catching votes but on the class struggles that would follow the war. 7,000 voters agreed with him.

The Irish situation

At the same election Ireland voted for independence, and John Maclean supported the demand wholeheartedly. On a visit to Dublin in July 1919, however, he showed his ignorance. He was not the first or last British soc­ialist who needed putting right when he referred to Britain as ‘the main­land’. While correctly pointing out that “Irish Labour would not be free under a Sinn Fein Republic, but only under a Socialist, Workers’ Repub­lic”, at this stage he saw the fight for Irish independence as subordinate to the struggles of British workers—soldiers included: “I urged that Ireland alone could never gain her freedom, that her Republic depended on the re­volt and success of British Labour, and that therefore the Irish workers ought not to antagonise the soldiers of occupation in Ireland, but should try to win them over to the Irish point of view”.

He later came to understand that a defeat for the British in Ireland would mean “the beginning of the end of the British empire… British lab­our will consequently have an easier task in seizing political power”. He saw the Irish working class overtaking the British: indeed, he was unfortu­nately optimistic in his hope that they would “before the republic has really been started convert it into a socialist republic”.

Overcoming its apathy as regards British rule in Ireland was therefore paramount for the British working class. “This is more important than pro­testing against higher rents or the high cost of living. It is acquiescing and participating in the murder of a race rightly protesting its own right to rule itself.” Socialists who failed to recognise this much were no revolutionaries as far as Maclean was concerned:

The Irish situation, obviously, is the most revolutionary that has ever arisen in British history, but unfortunately lads who fancy themselves the only revolutionaries are too stupid or too obsessed with some little crotchet to see with sufficient clarity the tight corner the Irish are plac­ing Britain in.
The Irish Sinn Feiners, who make no profession of Socialism or Communism, and who are at best non-Socialists, are doing more to help Russia and the Revolution than all we professed Marxian Bolshe­viks in Britain…

He called for a general strike to force a British withdrawal from Ireland.

Marxism in Britain

In the aftermath of the war British socialists were busy trying to bring the various groups on the left together into a united revolutionary party able to organise for socialist revolution. But the process was flawed from the beg­inning. As in much of Europe, revolutionaries were in too much of a hurry to separate themselves, and were inspired more by the Russian example than by the workers’ movement in their own country.

With his Marxist training, his stand against the war, and his opposition to reformism, no one was better qualified than John Maclean to play a leading role in a revolutionary party in Britain. Instead an assortment of recent converts and simple fly-by-nights came to assume leadership posi­tions. Maclean insisted that the best help British workers could give the Russian revolution was to develop a revolution of their own. The BSP lead­ership wanted a single-issue Hands Off Russia campaign, with Maclean abandoning all his other agitation to be the campaign’s paid full-timer. In­stead of winning unity on an honest theoretical and practical basis, the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was, to a large extent, characterised by organisational manoeuvre and liberal use of Russian subsidies. Maclean was effectively expelled from the BSP in 1920, and thus excluded from the Communist Party being formed.

Maclean was determined to put together a revolutionary organisation with its roots in the British working class, not an outfit operating on a Russian franchise. “We stand for the Marxian method applied to British conditions. The less Russians interfere in the internal affairs of other coun­tries at this juncture, the better for the cause of Revolution in those coun­tries.” For all his admiration for the Bolsheviks, he recognised that the tactics that proved successful in Russia couldn’t just be transferred to diff­erent situations: “I am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow. The Communist Party has sold itself to Moscow, with disastrous results both to Russia and the British Revolutionary Movement.” Instead of getting to grips with the situation in Britain, “the Socialists are discussing whether Lenin can wink as well with the right eye as the left eye”.

A Scottish workers’ republic

Maclean gathered a small group of socialists who brought out a paper and engaged on a tireless round of campaigning, drawing hundreds of workers to their meetings. They called for a separate Scottish communist party to be formed, to fight for an independent Scottish workers’ republic.

Firstly, Maclean argued, breaking up the British empire could only help socialism: “Scottish separation is part of the process of England’s imperial disintegration and is a help towards the ultimate triumph of the workers of the world.” An independent Scotland would frustrate the war plans of the English ruling class. Secondly, he claimed that Scottish workers were more socialist than English workers: “The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland than in England.” Thirdly, the demand for a Scottish republic could help in “utilising our latent Highland and Scottish sentiments and traditions” in the cause of socialism: “The Communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis.” And fourthly, “an entente between the Celts of Scotland and the Celts of Ireland” would be established, and Irish workers in Scotland would rally to the Scottish workers’ republic.

Maclean wildly overestimated the sense of Celtic solidarity between Irish and Scottish workers, and was to complain a couple of years later that Glasgow’s Irish community voted against him en masse. While Maclean’s work for socialism in the Highlands was outstanding, the clans’ common ownership of land was barely even a memory by this stage. While Clyde­side workers had indeed scaled heights of militancy during and after the war, any idea that Scotland as a whole was more ripe for revolution than the rest of Britain was untrue. Separation from England would, of course, have helped break up the British empire—but Scottish workers showed no inclination to go any further than home rule within Britain. Although it should have gone without saying that all socialists should uphold Scot­land’s right to separate from England if it so desired, Maclean was mis­taken to put separation forward as his central demand.

Espousing a Scottish road to socialism was a completely new departure for Maclean. Until now he had always insisted on the working class fight­ing together in an all-British context. Before the war he had gone so far as to describe the proposal for a Scottish parliament as “a retrograde step”. And even now, while advocating a separate organisation for Scottish soc­ialists, he still advocated a single organisation for all of Britain’s trade unionists.

The change in direction was undoubtedly influenced by Ireland. Maclean’s solidarity with the fight for Irish independence led him to attempt a Scottish imitation. His call for a Scottish communist party explic­itly cited the Irish precedent: “We in Scotland must not let ourselves play second fiddle to any organisation with headquarters in London, no more than we would ask Dublin to bend to the will of London.” The Scot­tish situation was very different from the Irish, however: any disadvantages that Scotland suffered within Britain paled beside the British imperial opp­ression of Ireland.

The main motivation for Maclean’s new policy must have been an attempt to break new ground after being pushed out of the embryonic CPGB. He quoted “The corruption of the London communists” as one just­ification for a separate Scottish party. His new-found, albeit deeply-felt, support for a Scottish socialist republic has to be seen in this context. Est­ablishing Scotland as a new theatre for revolutionary practice (an idea that other Scottish socialists were considering) would allow him to take part in establishing a real socialist party—revolutionary and in full sympathy with the Bolsheviks, but free of the sectarianism and Russophilia of the CPGB.

Maclean’s shift was never a retreat to Caledonian parochialism, how­ever, but an attempt to find a new path towards the internationalist vision he still remained loyal to:

When all empires are broken up and the workers by political control start to make land and wealth-producing property common property, when of the wealth produced all get sufficient to give them life abun­dantly with leisure and pleasure and education added thereunto, then all the independent workers’ republics will come together into one great League or Parliament of Communist Peoples, as a stage towards the time in the future when inter-marriage will wipe out all national differ­ences and the world will become one.

Bolshevik, communist, revolutionary, Marxist

Maclean and his supporters were to the fore in organising Glasgow’s un­employed—work which again attracted the authorities’ attention in April 1921 when Maclean was arrested for inciting sedition. At his trial the following month he denied that the revolution he called for meant uncon­trolled bloodshed. When the prosecutor asked him what exactly he did mean by revolution, Maclean held out one hand above the other, saying that they represented the two classes in society. Then he turned them around so that the lower hand was now on top. That, he said, was revolu­tion. He was sentenced to another three months in prison.

He was only out a couple of months before he was arrested again, for telling the unemployed to take food rather than starve. While in jail he stood as a revolutionary candidate in a local election, and easily beat the Labour candidate into third place. At his trial he was once again sent to prison, this time for twelve months. Yet again he was nominated for elec­tion while a prisoner, and doubled his vote. In the 1922 parliamentary election he stood, according to his election address, “as a Bolshevik, alias a Communist, alias a Revolutionist, alias a Marxian”. The 4,000 votes he got were obviously not due to watering down his politics!

In February 1923 Maclean formed the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, an organisation which made up for its smallness by its activism. But at this stage his personal situation was desperate. Since being dismissed as a teacher he had lived on whatever was collected at his meetings, but now most of his listeners were unemployed and had nothing to give. He was subsisting on a diet of porridge, and the fact that he had spent half of the last seven years in prison had taken a terrible toll on his health.

That winter he stood in the general election, calling on the working class to end capitalist robbery by a revolution that would transfer the means of production to the community. But he didn’t live until polling day: he had to be carried from an election platform, and on 30 November 1923 John Maclean died of double pneumonia aged only 44. Three days later 10,000 people attended his funeral, remembering a life that was dedicated to the freedom of the working class in Scotland, in Britain, in all the world.

The Communist Manifesto: Birthday honours

On its 150th anniversary, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the Communist Manifesto in Issue 3 (November 1998).

The Communist Manifesto is 150 years old already, but the celebrations have been nothing to write home about. Magazines and papers, television and radio programmes have been beating the bushes all year for anyone who’ll answer to the name of communist and subjecting them to the full rigours of whatever facile question comes into their researchers’ heads, before presenting their own ignorance as the last word on the subject. If this is the Manifesto’s birth­day party, Harold Pinter could have thrown a better one. This article is for everyone who has found themselves rolling their eyes at what’s passed for serious consideration of the Communist Manifesto.

Everyone knows the first sentence, if they know no more: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” But most people have been so bewitched by the metaphor that they’ve missed the point. Read on another few lines and you’ll see that communism itself isn’t the spectre, but the myths and legends about the communist bogeyman coming to gobble up every good bourgeois in his bed. The whole point of the Manifesto is to set the actual principles of communism against “the fairy tale of the spectre of communism”.

“To this end communists of the various nationalities have assembled in London and drawn up the following manifesto”—only they were more or less all Germans, only two of them did the business in the end, and not in London. The conference of the Communist League, an organisation of emigrant German craftsmen, appointed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write them a manifesto. This point is important politically (and not just historically) because this was the manifesto of an organisation, not the personal opinion of Marx and Engels—who weren’t even identified as the authors for some years. So it may well be that they had to express themselves in a way that would be acceptable to the League, rather than just as they liked, although they were just after winning the League to their way of thinking.

Engels had a bash, coming up with a kind of communist catechism, “in which there will at least be nothing contrary to our views”, he told Marx. But he felt the question-and-answer format wouldn’t do, and hit upon the idea of a manifesto in narrative form. Marx wrote the final text in early 1848 on the basis of Engels’s draft—which goes a long way to explain why the Manifesto is Marx’s most concise and direct piece of writing, free of the tendency to explore every nook and cranny that characterises most of his work, for good and ill.

This is where we get down to business: “The history of every society until now is the history of class struggles.” Engels was right to point out later that this doesn’t go for hunter-gatherer societies, but the proposition that since then the motor of history has been the “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open struggle” between oppressing and oppressed classes is a defining moment. Marx never claimed to have discovered the class struggle (explicitly denied it, in fact), but to trace its development and harness it as the means of achieving the liberation of the working class set Marxism apart, and still sets it apart, from most other versions of socialism knocking about.

Class division gets starker in capitalist society: “The whole society splits more and more into two great opposing camps, into two great classes standing directly against each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.” Before the sociolo­gists get out of their tree and hurl textbooks on stratification theory at us, it should be noted that nowhere is it claimed that this class division is finished, that every mother’s son can fit unproblematically into a box marked Capitalist or a box marked Worker. It expressly describes this division as a tendency, that “more and more” people are being forced into one of the two classes, down the Property in the Means of Production to Declare channel or the Nothing but my Labour Power to Declare channel. Capitalism will always throw up in-between groups, but Bourgeoisie versus Proletariat is the way things are headed.

“The modern state power is only a committee that manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Now there’s a sentence calculated to de­value your politics degree: surely that’s a bit over-simplified, reductionist, verging on conspiracy theory? But have another look at it: if it manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, then obviously different factions with divergent interests exist within the capitalist class, so divergent that they have to delegate a committee to look after the really important things they all agree on. The Manifesto (never mind the rest of Marx’s or Engels’s writings) presents a more sophisticated picture of the capitalist state than you’d think.

If there’s anyone left out there who still thinks that Marx’s writings on alienation were just a folly of youthful idealism that he grew out of, the Mani­festo should make them think again: “The work of the proletarians has, through the spread of machinery and the division of labour, lost all autono­mous character and with it all charm for the worker. He becomes a mere accessory of the machine, which calls for only the simplest, most monotonous, easiest to learn knack from him.”

As a result of this, “The cost of the worker therefore shrinks almost to nothing but the means of existence required for his maintenance and for the propagation of his race”, and so, “The average price of labour is the minimum wage.” Wrong: as Marx later pointed out, the ability to work is different from other commodities in that it happens to be embodied in a human being. Con­sequently, the amount needed to produce this commodity is flexible and depends on historical, social factors—on the going rate of civilisation, if you like. Where workers have managed to win a certain standard of living, the expectation of maintaining this standard (and even improving it a bit) enters into the determination of the value of their labour power. The economic and political struggle of the working class can pull against the capitalists’ struggle to push wages down.

“Differences of sex and age no longer have any social validity for the working class.” But of course (and this goes for national, racial and other prejudices too) just because something has become worthless doesn’t stop people futilely trying to spend it. And the Manifesto is far from painting a rosy picture of the onward-ever-onward march of the proletariat into the revolutionary sunset: “This organisation of the proletarians as a class, and consequently as a political party, is burst apart at every turn by the competi­tion amongst the workers themselves.”

The Manifesto rightly states that “the proletariat is the only really revolu­tionary class”, but is too one-sided in characterising some of the others. Small farmers, artisans, the lower middle classes are all of them “not revolutionary, but conservative. What’s more, they are reactionary, they try to turn back the wheel of history.” On the off-chance that they do behave in a revolutionary way, it’s only “in view of their impending crossing over to the proletariat” anyway.

This encourages a sort of ‘ourselves alone’ approach, the kind of dismissal of every other class as reactionary that Marx and Engels had to fight against in later years: the workers can just go their own way, and if the others want to join the back of the queue, they know where to find us; if not, sure it’s their own loss. But there are virtually no situations where the working class can’t use allies, and some situations where we can’t begin to manage without them. We have to actively go out and win these other oppressed classes, to rally them behind our banner, not sit back waiting indefinitely for every one of them to become proletarians anyway.

The bourgeoisie itself has created the working class, and here comes another of those classic images the Manifesto is full of: “It produces above all its own gravediggers. Its downfall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” This is hopefully no more than a rhetorical flourish on Marx’s part because, while you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see the inevitability of capitalism collapsing, there’s nothing inevitable about the workers emerging victorious from the ruins. World war, fascism, barba­rism— “the common downfall of the battling classes” is how the Manifesto puts it—awaits if our class doesn’t shape itself to build socialism instead.

Which is where section II of the Manifesto comes in, asking where the com­munists stand in regard to the working class as a whole. The initial answer is worth repeating in full:

The communists aren’t a separate party as against the other workers’ parties.
They have no interests apart from the interests of the whole proletariat.
They set up no separate interests by which they seek to mould the pro­letarian movement.
The communists differ from the rest of the proletarian parties only in as much as, on the one hand, in the various national struggles of the prole­tarians they emphasise and bring to bear the common interests— independently of nationality—of the whole proletariat and, on the other hand, in the various stages of development that the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie pass through they always advocate the interests of the entire movement.
The communists are therefore practically the most resolute part, always driving further forward, of the workers’ parties of all countries; they have theoretically the advantage over the great mass of the proletariat of the insight into the conditions, the course and the general results of the proletarian movement.

Firstly, why is the class-conscious section of the working class referred to as “communists”? Engels later explained that “we could not have called it a Socialist Manifesto”. 150 years ago socialists were those who advocated social reform with the support of middle-class philanthropists; those in the working-class movement who called for the workers to free themselves through social revolution were known as communists. And so, “there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.” Since then, Stalinism has gone and ruined the word communism on us, and socialism is a much less problematic term, especially now that the labour parties only use it when they lose the run of themselves. But, with a small c and a clear health warning, communism is a grand revo­lutionary name for a grand revolutionary thing, and we shouldn’t go throwing it out altogether.

Secondly, if communists aren’t a separate party, what exactly was this here Communist League up to then? And what was it doing publishing a Manifesto of the Communist Party? The answer requires a look at how politi­cal language has changed. In the mid-nineteenth century the word “party” had a much wider meaning. The ‘Repeal party’ referred to the movement for the repeal of the union with Britain, not just Daniel O’Connell’s clique; the ‘Chartist party’ in Britain meant the movement to enact the People’s Charter, rather than a particular association; the ‘democratic party’ in Europe was those who wanted democracy, instead of any individual organisation. If you read this sentence as meaning that socialists are part of the workers’ move­ment rather than a movement of their own, it makes perfect sense. Whether the work of socialists requires separate organisation at all times is a question the Manifesto doesn’t attempt to answer.

Thirdly, how many Marxist organisations of the past 150 years can you recognise in the above quotation? On one side, the humility of the Manifesto, modestly pointing out that us communists aren’t all that different from most people after all. On the other, those who define themselves by what separates them from the working class rather than what unites them, who judge the success of a strike by the number of members they’ve recruited, who always manage to conclude that what’s best for them happens to be best for the working class. Wherever these latter get their inspiration from, it isn’t the Communist Manifesto.

In attacking the capitalists’ hypocritical defence of the family, the Mani­festo refers to the “absence of family amongst the proletarians”. In 1848 this was fair enough: capitalism was young and was dragging in anyone and everyone to turn a profit for it, tearing family ties to shreds in the process. It was only later in the century that it began to see the family as a handy institu­tion for rearing the next generation of workers and privatising domestic labour. This is one of the rare occasions on which the Manifesto mistakenly takes a short-term trend for a permanent feature of capitalism.

The communists were accused of wanting to nationalise women. The alle­gation is now more curious than anything else, but the answer shows that sexual politics is nothing new to Marxism:

The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production should be worked in common, and naturally can’t think other than that the fate of being in common lies in store for the wives as well.
Little does he know that it is a question of abolishing the position of wives as mere instruments of production.

“The national separations and antagonisms of the peoples are disappear­ing more and more already with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the corre­sponding conditions of life.” Yes and no: the world market and trade has increased national antagonism, by systematically underdeveloping large regions of the world. But at the same time it has created the foundations for a global community, the potential for a united human race. But like most of capitalism’s possibilities, the capitalist system will have to be abolished inter­nationally before it can be realised.

The first step in socialist revolution is “the elevation of the proletariat to ruling class, the winning of the battle for democracy”. Democracy is here equated with the victory of the working class: socialist revolution is the beginning of democracy. (The standard English translation is unclear here: “to win the battle of democracy”. But “die Erkämpfung der Demokratie” clearly means winning democracy in a battle. Samuel Moore’s translation, edited by Engels, improves upon the original here and there, but sometimes confuses matters. Worst of all, how did Engels allow “proletarians” to be turned into “working men”? This article uses the original text of the Manifesto.)

“If the proletariat in struggle against the bourgeoisie necessarily unites as a class, through a revolution makes itself the ruling class and as ruling class forcibly abolishes the old relations of production, it then abolishes with these relations of production the conditions of existence of class antagonisms, of classes in general, and with that its own rule as a class.” The workers’ use of state power is a minimal one: the only reason they assume political domina­tion as a class is to put an end to political domination and to classes.

The Manifesto outlines ten immediate measures such a revolution would take. Despite Marx and Engels stressing how provisional they were, depend­ent on a particular time and place, too much attention has been focussed on them. Many commentators are surprised at how moderate they are—but, the same as anyone else, the working class will have to walk before we can run, and the important thing is to get things underway; building a socialist society will be a continuous job, constantly outstripping itself.

The big mistake is measure number three: “Abolition of inheritance”—a step guaranteed to drive the small farmers of Europe into the arms of reaction. Engels’s draft called for the restriction of inheritance rather than its abolition, and even for the right of children born outside marriage to inherit. When the Communist League drew up a list of demands on the outbreak of revolution in Germany a month or two later, Engels’s approach prevailed. And in later decades Marx found himself arguing that the workers’ state wouldn’t take land from small farmers’ children.

The third section is notable for being a fine example of Marx keeping his satiric powers under control. Too often he would fill pages with minute critique of whatever counterfeit version of socialism he was faced with, ten times more than it deserved. That he succeeded in keeping it snappy here is probably a tribute to the influence of Engels’s draft. And he had so much to play with—it seems every world-reformer going back then called themselves a socialist.

The section on petty-bourgeois socialism interestingly sees its origin in the way that “a new petty bourgeoisie has been formed, that hovers between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and is continually formed anew as a supple­mentary part of bourgeois society”. So the tendency of capitalist society to split up into a capitalist class and a working class is modified by another ten­dency, to create a new middle class. But this tendency is a subordinate one, and these petty bourgeois are constantly pushed up or (more usually) down into one of the two great camps.

For all its criticism of the various socialist schools, the Manifesto does give credit where it’s due. The “critical-utopian” socialists, for example, “assail all the principles of existing society. They have therefore provided extremely valuable material for the enlightenment of the workers.” Their problem is that “they see no capacity for historical activity on the part of the proletariat itself, no political movement of its own”; all they see in the workers is “the most suffering class”.

Section IV, like section III, deals with parties that have ceased to exist, but tactics that can still be applied. Socialist activity is summed up in one of those sentences that a century and a half hasn’t bettered: “They fight for the attain­ment of the immediate present aims and interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they stand at the same time for the future of the movement.”

The allies of the communists in various countries are then outlined. Where there are working-class parties, the position is as already stated in section II. But elsewhere communists critically support social democrats, radicals, agrarian revolutionaries—“every revolutionary movement against the existing historical and political situation”, but always “bring to the fore the property question, however developed or undeveloped a form it may have assumed, as the basic question of the movement”. Socialists take an unapologetic part in a united front, but without putting the class struggle on the long finger.

Understandably the Manifesto goes into more detail when it comes to Germany. Here the communists fight alongside the capitalists against the aris­tocrats, whenever the capitalists seriously want to fight. “But they don’t forget for a moment to carve out amongst the workers the clearest possible consciousness of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, so that the German workers can at once turn the historical and political con­ditions which the bourgeoisie must bring about with its rule into so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, so that as soon as the reactionary classes in Germany fall the struggle against the bourgeoisie itself begins.” Germany was on the eve of a bourgeois revolution but, because the German working class was more developed than the English or French working classes were during their bourgeois revolutions, this “can therefore be merely the curtain-raiser to a proletarian revolution”. The concept of permanent revolution is not a more recent bit added on to Marxism: here it is right in the heart of the Communist Manifesto itself.

The communists “openly declare that their aims can only be achieved by the forcible overthrow of every social order that has existed until now”. When Engels’s draft asked if private property could be abolished peacefully, it answered: “It would be desirable if this could happen, and the communists would certainly be the last to oppose it.” But given that the capitalists were already forcibly holding down the workers’ movement, this hardly seemed likely. “If the oppressed proletariat is thereby finally driven to revolution, then we communists will defend the cause of the proletarians with deeds just as we now defend it with words.” Marx’s final version is more up-front, not bother­ing with the outside chance that the capitalists might come quietly. And this is the better approach, because it wasn’t a question of crystal ball-gazing about what might and mightn’t happen, but of preparing the workers for what will most probably be necessary.

Proletarians of all countries, unite!” This isn’t just a big finish. It is worth taking to heart that the last word of the Manifesto is a call for workers’ unity. After all is said and done, the most important thing is not for socialists to get themselves organised and clear—important as that is. The most impor­tant thing is for workers everywhere to stand together, because the united working class is the force that can end all the oppression that haunts us today and replace it with “an association in which the free development of each forms the conditions for the free development of all”. The reason we need to discuss, criticise, celebrate the Communist Manifesto—and above all read the thing, again and again—is that it puts our class in a better position to reach that goal.

Goodnight, and good luck

Red Banner bade farewell in March 2016 with the following, opening Issue 63.

Hopefully we will be able to continue walking the paths of the wind, because history continues beyond us, and when it says goodbye, it is saying: see you later.

—Eduardo Galeano, 2010

This will be the last issue of Red Banner. Our website will continue a shadowy existence as a very gradually expanding archive of our 63 issues, but no more issues of the magazine itself will be published.

Why? Well, why not? Too often, left-wing activity goes on by the force of inertia. Things are done because the routine of doing them has grown up, much like putting your bins out regularly. Stopping to ask why exactly they should be continued would be a worthwhile exercise. Red Banner has been published for nineteen years, not because it was easy or habitual, but because it was necessary, because it had a role to play in the spread and development of socialist ideas.

It isn’t that such work is no longer needed: it very much is. Nor is it that we have lost interest in it: we very much haven’t. But the very nature of that work demands renewal. New people with new voices and approaches have to come through to bring it forward. Notching up decades of uninterrupted occupancy is an unhealthy practice for socialists, forging leaders who hold position more through squatters’ rights than ability, and intellectuals whose work proves that you can sleep till noon if you get the reputation of an early riser. We have never made a secret of the fact that this magazine wanted to break through the more sterile encrustations of thought and activity which have formed over the left. We also wanted to bow out long before we could ever be accused of forming another one.

It is time for others to step forward. We are not handing over the baton to anyone, of course. Firstly, there is no baton, no single tradition of socialist thought to be bequeathed, but a broad and potentially vibrant body of revolutionary insight to be continuously worked on and applied. Secondly, no one ever appointed us guardians of any flame: we only did what we thought was needed as best we could, albeit in a way which many others welcomed and supported. Thirdly, we have no heirs to nominate nor any right to lay down who should take the next steps and how, a question which life itself will decide.

Has the work proved difficult, and have we other things in life to attend to? Of course, and this has naturally played a role in calling time on the magazine. But the same could have been said at many points over the years. Our motivation in departing the stage now is a conviction that it’s time to give others a chance. We also want to leave before our readers tire of us, while they still want a little more. Perhaps the looming prospect of reaching the round figure of twenty years caused us to revolt against such neat periodisation. After all, too long a sacrifice makes you quote clichéd lines from Yeats.

When Red Banner struggled towards the light in 1997, the expensively moisturised face of Bertie Ahern was settling into power in Dublin, while the shiny rule of one Tony Blair was being newly bestowed upon the north. It is a cause of some satisfaction to us to have outlived them as they have passed into deserved ignominy, along with their chosen successors and the horses they rode into town on. As the specious prosperity they presided over collapsed into economic chaos, we are proud of having offered engaging socialist analysis of our times, of having presented the heritage of socialist thought to a new generation, of having provided a forum for socialists willing and able to discuss our problems frankly. It’s almost enough to make us forget all the things we failed to do or failed to do well enough, but we are confident that others will do the job better.

Over the years we have accumulated debts of gratitude heavy enough to break any bank. It remains a cause of wonder that so many people with so many other things to do were ready to write for us, with no prospect of reward beyond a free copy of the magazine. The people who repeatedly put hands in far from bulging pockets to buy and subscribe to it gave us the material support and solidarity without which we would have got nowhere very fast. We suspect they knew all along that this debt would never be repaid and wrote it off immediate­ly, and all we can offer them now is our heartfelt comradely thanks.

This is only one chapter closing: the story will go on, taking whatever forms are necessary in the struggle. It is a chapter we think people will draw upon in future, even as a mark to equal and surpass. As for ourselves, we’re going nowhere. We have every intention of doing whatever further service we can to the cause of socialist revolution in thought and deed. Like the man said, our last word will always and ever be: the emancipation of the working class!

Gluaiseacht na saoirse

Phléigh Sinéad Nic Íomhair cás na dteifeach ag bogadh chun na hEorpa, agus doicheall an chórais rompu , in Eagrán 62 (Nollaig 2015) .

Caidé a thug an nath “géarchéim na dteifeach” chuig barr achan mheán cumarsáide an samhradh seo a chuaigh thart? Bhí na milliúin teifeach ar domhan, cinnte, ach ní nuaíocht ar bith é sin. Is é an rud úr a tharlaigh i mbliana nach raibh na teifigh seo sásta fanacht ciúin san áit a raibh siad go mbeadh lucht na cumhachta ullamh rud inteacht a dhéanamh ar a son. Ina ionad sin, rug siad greim ar a gcinniúint féin. D’fhág siad na campaí ina ndiaidh, agus thug siad fá réiteach a fháil ar a gcruachás. Bhog siad go dtí áit a dtiocfadh leofa saol níos fearr a fháil, agus ba sin an ghéarchéim nach raibh an córas in ann aici.

Thógfadh sé do chroí a bheith ag amharc ar na scórtha teifeach ag leagan na gclaíocha a sheas sa bhealach orthu, ag rith fríd na teorainneacha a tarraingíodh lena gcoinneáil amach, agus gan neart ar bith ag saighdiúirí is gardaí air. Ba chuma caidé a rinne na húdaráis le bac a chur rompu, d’éirigh le daoine é a shárú. Ní ábhar trua a bhí sna daoine seo a thuilleadh, íospartaigh ag fulaingt, ach daoine a bhí ag iarraidh a bhfuascailt féin a bhaint amach, cibé rialacha a bhí le briseadh acu. Gluaiseacht saoirse a bhí ann.

Cad chuige a bhfuil an oiread sin teifeach ann? Mar go bhfuil an córas caipitleach ag milleadh an domhain ar a dhícheall. Brabach is bun agus barr leis mar chóras, agus le blianta beaga ní thig leis an méid céanna brabaigh a bhaint. Go deimhin, is fadhb é sin a bhuaileann an córas céanna go rialta, agus fiú nuair atá airgead millteanach á charnú aige, ní bhíonn sé ach ag cothú trioblóide dó féin san am le teacht.

Le fada an lá, tá an chogaíocht ar na freagraí is fearr leis an chóras seo ar a chuid géarchéimeanna féin. Nuair nach bhfuil an oiread céanna creiche le fáil ag na gadaithe, titeann siad amach fán dóigh is ceart í a roinnt eatarthu. Tugann na stáit is cumhachtaí iarraidh fá thíortha eile a thabhairt fána smacht, go díreach nó go neamh­dhíreach. Ma thagann sin salach ar chumhacht eile, is é an claíomh—nó na buamaí ollscriosta, ba chirte a rá—a shocraíonn an t‑aighneas. Ar ndóiche, aon phobal nach bhfuil sásta luí fá thiarnas ollchumhachta, bíonn lámh láidir an impiriúlachais ann i dtólamh agus fonn uirthi iad a chur fá chois.

Le deireanas tá saint an chórais ag gabháil thar fóir. Tá acmhainní nádúrtha an domhain á n‑ídiú aige, agus na rudaí a choinníonn an córas ag imeacht ag gabháil i laghad. Dá bharr sin, is géire fós an iomaíocht ar son an mhéid atá fágtha. Déanann seo díobháil as cuimse don domhan féin, ag cur na haeráide as a riocht agus ag milleadh na dtimpeallachtaí a mbraitheann muid orthu le bheith beo.

Cúlú eacnamaíochta, cogaíocht, géarchéim timpeallachta: is tubaist ceann ar bith acu seo ina aonar, ach nuair a chuirtear le chéile iad, tá an saol ina dhiabhal. Fágtar daoine gan dóchas, gan dadaidh i ndán daofa, agus ní hionadh go ndéanann siad a ndícheall bogadh chuig áit inteacht eile ina mbeidh seans níos fearr acu, b’fhéidir. Tá an cine daonna á dhéanamh seo chomh fada is atá an cine daonna ann. Is cuid dár ndúchas é, agus níl fál go haer a thig le rialtas ar bith a thógáil a stopfas é.

Is cruthúnas beo ar anchás na ndaoine seo go raibh na mílte acu ullamh a ghabháil sa tseans ar bhádaí beaga contúirteacha plódaithe trasna na Meánmhara le héalú uaidh. Fuair corradh le trí mhíle acu fód a mbáis sa mhuir chéanna anuraidh, ar mhacasamhail na linne seo de longa báis an ghorta mhóir s’againne. Ní thugann duine ar bith fá aistear den chineál sin ar mhaithe le spraoi.

Agus ba leor imirce seo an tsamhraidh leis an Eoraip a chur bun os cionn ar fad. Tionóladh cruinnithe éigeandála ar mhuin a chéile le gabháil i ngleic leis an fhadhb uafásach seo—agus níorbh í staid na ndaoine seo an fhadhb, ach a mhéid a bhí siad ag cur isteach ar fheidhmiú an chórais. Neartaíodh teorainneacha agus lucht a bhfaire, na milliúin á gcaitheamh le Dún na hEorpa a chosaint ar na sluaite isteach. Nach trua nach ngníomhóidís chomh gasta céanna fán athrú aeráide, fán bhochtanas, nó ceann ar bith eile de na fíorfhadhbanna atá ag crá an domhain?

Chuir siad an milleán ar na gáinneálaithe. Is cinnte gur suarach é a gceird, ag teacht i dtír ar dhaoine dealbha, ag baint airgid díofa le iad a thabhairt ar aistear contúirteach, gan a bheith cinnte go mbainfear an ceann scríbe amach ar scor ar bith. Ach is iad stáit na hEorpa na cairde is fearr atá ag an lucht gáinneála. Murach na coscanna a chuireann stáit leis an imirce, ní bheadh gnó ar bith ag na gáinneálaithe, agus achan uair a dhaingníonn siad a gcuid teorainneacha, méadaítear ar an airgead fola a bhaineann siad as daoine san fhaopach.

Is é an fhírinne nach mallacht ach beannacht don Eoraip í an imirce. Ní gá d’Éireannaigh ach amharc ar ár dtaithí féin anseo. Caidé an córas iompair a bheadh le fáil sa Bhreatain murach imircigh ó Éirinn a thóg bóithre agus tolláin daofa? Tá fíor-dhrochdhóigh ar chóras leighis na hÉireann, ach thitfeadh sé as a chéile roimh mhaidin gan na dochtúirí is banaltraí as tíortha eile atá ag obair ann. Ní easpa spáis ach easpa daoine atá ag cur ar an Eoraip, agus an daonra s’againn féin fós dhá mhilliún faoi bhun an daonra roimh an ghorta mór.

Ní ualach ar thír iad lucht inimirce, cé go ndéantar ualach díofa nuair a cheiltear comhchearta orthu. Má chuirtear cosc orthu a bheith ag obair, má choinnítear i gcampaí nó ionaid ar leith iad, is doiligh daofa aon pháirt a ghlacadh i saol na tíre. Ach má ligtear daofa obair a dhéanamh, ar an pháidhe agus na coinníollacha céanna le achan duine eile, thig leo comaoin a chur ar an tír, cuidiú le seirbhísí  agus earraí riachtanacha a chur ar fáil. Agus is feabhas ar thír ar bith dathanna úra a chur lena tuar ceatha, cultúir nua a chuireann le héagsúlacht an tsaoil. In Éirinn, tá monaplacht an Bhéarla briste ag teangacha eile, rud a thugann áiméar níos fearr don Ghaeilge féin.

Tuigeann caipitlithe na hEorpa go mbeidh an imirce de dhíth orthu féin, nó beidh ganntanas oibrithe orthu roimh i bhfad eile. Cad chuige a ndoicheall, mar sin? Teastaíonn na hoibrithe uathu, ach teastaíonn uathu srian a chur leo agus lena gcearta, beagán a ligean isteach ó uair go chéile agus iad ar chearta níos lú ná daoine eile. Ansin thig leo úsáid a bhaint astu mar fhoireann oibre ar pháidhe níos measa agus coinníollacha níos measa, le méadú ar a mbrabach agus ding a chur san aicme oibre. Má sheasann siad air gur fadhb atá sna hinimircigh seo, baol dár sibhialtacht, b’fhéidir go scoiltfidh siad a thuilleadh fós muid. Is é an seanchleas céanna ó impireacht na Róimhe anall é: roinnt agus rialú.

Is cuid den iarracht seo polasaí na hEorpa maidir le cuótaí teifeach a leagan síos. Ba cheart go mbeadh cead ag daoine a ghabháil chuig cibé tír is mian leofa, agus go mbeadh achan tír sásta fáiltiú rompu. Ba ghránna an dóigh a raibh airí Éireannacha ag diúltú glacadh le daoine go mb’éigean daofa, agus ansin féin ní raibh san fhigiúr a luaigh siad ach sprioc fhadtréimhseach a dtiocfadh leis a bheith fíor nó bréagach i gcionn na mblianta fada. An méid sin féin, bhí brú de dhíth lena bhaint astu, ó phobal ar mó go mór a mbá le teifigh ná a bhí ag rialtas a bhfuil dualgas ón dlí idirnáisiúnta air tearmann a thabhairt daofa.

Lena chois sin, ní mar theifigh a ligfear isteach iad ach mar dhídeanaithe. Beidh cosc orthu a bheith ag obair nó ag staidéar, ach cead acu iarratas a dhéanamh fanacht in Éirinn. Córas claon a thabharfas breith ar an iarratas sin, córas a dhiúltaíonn os cionn 90% de na hiarratais mar atá. Idir an dá linn, is é an “soláthar díreach” atá i ndán daofa, beatha gan dóchas in ionaid gan mhaith.

Tá an córas dídine sin in ainm is aithint idir teifeach polaitíochta agus imirceach eacnamaíochta. Le fírinne, is déistineach an deighilt bhréige é. Cá bhfuil an líne le tarraingt idir polaitíocht agus eacnamaíocht? Nuair nach mbíonn saol ceart le fáil ag daoine ina dtír féin, meascán de theip pholaitiúil agus eacnamaíochta is cúis leis i gcónaí. Ba cheart go mbeadh bealach amach ag daoine ón bhochtanas, ón chos ar bolg, nó ón dá rud le chéile.

Ar ndóiche, níl inimircigh de dhíth ó chiníochas na hÉireann, nó tá sé sásta fuath a léiriú do phobal dúchasach fosta: an lucht siúil. Níl sé i bhfad ó fuair deichniúr acu bás i gCarraig Mhaighin a bhuíochas ar dhrochstaid na n‑áiteanna cónaithe a gcaithfidh siad cur suas leofa. Nuair a rinneadh iarracht malairt áit chónaithe a chur ar fáil do dhaoine a tháinig slán ón dóiteán, chuir pobal socraithe an cheantair a gcuid carranna mar bhac rompu. In áit iad a ghabháil agus a gcarranna a tharraingt ar shiúl, tugadh cuireadh daofa an scéal a phlé leis an chomhairle condae, agus labhair an Taoiseach féin leofa. Fuair siad a mhian ar deireadh nuair a lonnaíodh na daoine ar iar-dhumpa gan córas ceart séarachais. Níl ann ach giota eile den leatrom atá á imirt ar an lucht siúil in Éirinn leis na blianta.

Nuair atá deireadh ráite, nach eachtrannaigh muid uilig? Má théann muid siar, gheobhaidh achan duine againn Lochlannach nó Normannach nó Cromaileach inteacht ar ár sinsir. Fonn gabhála a thug iad siúd go hÉirinn, ach níl d’fhonn ar inimiricigh an lae inniu ach maireachtáil anseo mar chomharsana. Tá dualgas orainn a chinntiú go dtiocfaidh leofa sin a dhéanamh, agus na cearta céanna acu is atá ag achan duine eile. Má dhéanann muid sin, is láidre a bheas muid le chéile agus is fearrde a bheas muid in ann cearta eile fós a bhaint amach dúinn uilig, agus aghaidh a thabhairt ar an fhíor­namhaid: an aicme brabúsóirí a mhillfeas ár ndomhan an fad a fhágtar i gceannas air iad.