Socialist Classics: Robert Tressell, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

In Issue 30 (December 2007) Henry Gibson celebrated the most influential novel the socialist movement has ever inspired.

A plaque above a betting shop in Dublin’s Wexford Street testifies to an Irish socialist who has made a powerful mark on left-wing consciousness but is hardly honoured in his own country. This was the birthplace in 1870 of Robert Noonan, who wrote the most widely read and influential novel the socialist movement has ever inspired. Written under a pen name borrowed from one of the tools of his trade as a painter and decorator, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists wasn’t published until 1914, three years after his death, and even then in a severely cut and distorted version, the full text not being published for another forty years. But all along it has been bought by millions, read by even more, and cherished as a book that encap­sulates the socialist vision.

Tressell explains in his preface that

my intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working-class life… to show the conditions resulting from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely—Socialism. …not a treatise or essay, but a novel. My main object was to write a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally.

The novel does present an interesting story, a collection of them, and succeeds from the literary point of view. The narrative is heavily written by today’s standards, more Hugo than Kafka. Dickens’s none-too-subtle approach to naming characters is employed, with capitalists glorifying in names like Sweater, Grinder, and the decorating firm of Smeeriton & Leavit. The political arguments often lead to simple but very funny exchanges—like the painter who rises to a point of order, only to be trumped by another saying: “And I rise to order a pint” (Chapter 25).

The tragic side of working-class existence is also there in abundance. The reality of trying to survive and feed a family when the work dries up is portrayed in unsparing detail. The middle-class prejudice that workers could easily get by if they weren’t so profligate is forensically refuted as a couple go through their debts, expenses and income item by item and conclude that only the pawnshop will see them through to next week. The death of an old worker because the boss wouldn’t employ another man to hold his ladder on a dangerous job hits home, as does the ensuing cover-up.

Many of the incidents will seem remote to us today, if only in their form. But few of us wouldn’t fit the description of workers with no love for their work, in the morning wishing it was dinner time, and at dinner time wishing it was Saturday: “So they went on, day after day, year after year, wishing their time was over” (Chapter 7). The book’s description of the long working day—getting home with only time for a quick meal before going to bed so as to get up early next morning to set out again—became outdated, but the Celtic Tiger has brought it back into fashion.

Friedrich Engels once wrote that “the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists” (letter to Minna Kautsky, 26 November 1885). So far, so Tressell (although he would have had no way of reading Engels’s opinion). But, he goes on, a novel should do all this “without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved”. All things being equal, you would agree: novels that preach at the reader, that never raise a question but to blurt out the answer, tend to be tiresome, ineffectual and just bad literature. But The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists shows that sometimes—just sometimes—it ain’t necessarily so.

It has a lot to do with the fact that the novel wears its socialism on its sleeve, shamelessly proclaims it: this is not an author trying to surreptitiously smuggle a little bit of politics into his hard-hitting Channel 4 drama because he believes that the mass media is the real arena of struggle now. The first chapter introduces us to Frank Owen, “generally regarded as a bit of a crank” because he’s always banging on about the robbery of the workers rather than the weekend sport. The narrator regularly addresses the reader directly with his own views. Whole chapters are actual lectures on socialist politics, and could even be published separately as propaganda pamphlets. But they are situated well within the context of credible political discussions, described and told as episodes of the story. Socialism is a fully integrated character in the plot, you could say, and its appearances seem no less legitimate than any other character.

Some of the socialist lessons Owen gives do get a bit school­masterly. But his “Great Money Trick” (Chapter 21) is a classic. Owen represents the capitalist class, and employs three of his workmates cutting up bread into small pieces. Having produced the required three pieces each, he takes them all, pays the workers one piece each, and even after consuming two himself, is left with a healthy surplus. Having eaten their piece, the workers have to come back and repeat the process. Before long, the capitalist is piling up wealth and the workers are in the same position as ever—until he decides to lay them off, of course. The Great Money Trick gets to the heart of capitalist exploitation in a way many socialist arguments don’t: it isn’t about how many bits of bread we’re allowed, but the fact that any bread is stolen from us at all.

If exposing and ending that trick is socialism, the novel goes out of its way to point out what isn’t socialism. Noonan was active in the English socialist movement in the heyday of ‘gas and water socialism’ which boasted of bringing public services into municipal ownership, but he unmasks it as basically another capitalist dodge. The local businessmen, in their capacity as councillors, sell them­selves land at a knockdown price to set up an electricity company. When it fails, they get the council to buy it back from them at a handsome profit to themselves. “Well, ’ere’s success to Socialism,” toasts one of their number, aware of the likely public reaction when the truth comes out: “they’ll say that if that’s Socialism they don’t want no more of it” (Chapter 30).

A socialist character gives the workers a real solution: “you must fill the House of Commons with Revolutionary Socialists” who would pass legislation to bring the means of production into public ownership (Chapter 45). There is no plan against the likelihood that the former owners would go outside the law to resist this change: perhaps the presumption is that a socialist electoral landslide would convince them that their cause was lost. But even so, the advent of socialism is portrayed as a top-down process—laws transfer owner­ship from the few to the many—rather than a fundamental rev­olution from below in social and economic relations.

That is intimately related to the fact that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is pervaded by a sense of pessimism about the ability of workers to change things. The world is full of philanthropists with no arse in their trousers, working selflessly to keep a class of rich idlers in luxury, because “the majority are mostly fools”, as Owen says (Chapter 15). And he goes further (Chapter 2):

there sprung up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against the majority of his fellow workers.
They were the enemy. Those who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to the existing state of things, but defended it, and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion to alter it.
They were the real oppressors… He hated and despised them… They were the people who were really responsible for the contin­uance of the present system.

When a workmate is laid off, he refuses to feel sorry for a man who supports the system that impoverishes him (Chapter 6): “It’s wrong to feel sorry for such people; they deserve to suffer.”

“Were they all hopelessly stupid?” he asks himself (Chapter 1), but another possibility suggests itself: “Or was he mad himself?” Doubts of his own sanity torment Owen from time to time, com­pounded by evidence of what seems to be tuberculosis. He even hatches a well-thought-out plan to kill himself, his wife and their son to spare them the suffering that the system has in store for them.

All this could easily make the book into a prop for left-wing elitism, the idea that the working class is too thick to achieve anything, too absorbed in football and soap operas to comprehend their position, and so wiser, nobler minds have to improve things without or against them. It has rarely been claimed as such a prop, though. This is partly because a traditional enough story of working men in Edwardian England holds little appeal for elitists. But apart from that, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists ultimately transcends the pessimism in it.

To return to Engels, he once criticised a writer in whose novel “the working class figures as a passive mass, unable to help itself” (letter to Margaret Harkness, April 1888). On the other hand, he went on, “how do I know whether you have not had very good reasons for contenting yourself, for once, with a picture of the passive side of working class life, reserving the active side for another work?” Robert Noonan’s early death in a workhouse leaves us no way of knowing how he may have portrayed the working class in other works, and it is unfair to take the one novel he managed to write as his definitive last word on the subject.

And that novel was written at a time that would test the faith of many socialists. Economic depression put a big dent in working-class militancy in England. The pensions and rudimentary social insurance that would soon constitute a proto-welfare state hadn’t kicked in yet, leaving no safety net for workers, and an incentive not to challenge things. Noonan told it as he saw it, and the picture he saw was a fairly gloomy one. While Owen is active in the painters’ union, he sees no connection between trade unionism and socialism. Soon after the book was finished, the ‘great unrest’ unleashed a strike wave across Britain and Ireland, and brought home to many that workplace struggle was an integral part of the fight for socialism. Had Noonan lived to experience that—or better still, the revolutionary possibilities that followed the first world war—The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could have told a different story.

But there are aspects of Owen’s difficulties that are almost universal. Here is a socialist trying his hardest to convince his fellow workers of the need for socialism but making little headway, one of “a few self-sacrificing enthusiasts, battling against the opposition of those they sought to benefit” (Chapter 40). Who among us has not “listened with contempt and anger” to workers spouting reactionary prejudices (Chapter 34)? All socialists have to bang their heads against “the great barriers and ramparts of invincible ignorance, apathy and self-contempt, which will have to be broken down before the system of society of which they are the defences can be swept away” (Chapter 40).

Usually after one of these arguments Owen would wander off by himself, with his head throbbing and a feeling of unutterable depression and misery at his heart, weighed down by a growing conviction of the hopelessness of everything, of the folly of expecting that his fellow workmen would ever be willing to try to understand for themselves the causes that produced their sufferings. …they did not want to know!

(Chapter 48)

We’ve all been there. Socialists whose faith in the working class is a blind one will dismiss the problem and carry on smiling with the un­convincing compulsory happiness of a holiday camp employee. But anyone who puts their socialism to the test with working-class people will recognise the frustration when something you know yourself to be obvious and simple just doesn’t get through. If you’re any good, you overcome the doubts and depressions, but there’s something wrong with a socialist who never has them. While Owen’s methods sometimes leave a lot to be desired, his stubborn determination against such odds makes him a comrade to us all.

Fiction is the ideal medium for exploring such personal dilemmas that socialists face. Owen’s pessimism more than likely reflects that of the author, but Tressell’s novel has the merit of going beyond that pessimism. Some of his workmates start lending an ear to Owen’s arguments, a socialist propaganda van comes to town, and a couple of the workers become socialists themselves. The firmest of them, Barrington, comes across an ex-socialist who has turned coat and become a paid orator for the Liberal Party, citing the ignorance of the workers as his excuse. Initially Barrington is de­moralised by this, but seeing a group of children staring at Christmas presents they can’t afford renews his socialist faith: “he flushed with shame because he had momentarily faltered in his devotion to the noblest cause that any man could be privileged to fight for” (Chapter 53). The novel concludes that “the glorious fabric of the Co-operative Commonwealth” was coming into view, “the rays of the risen sun of Socialism”. The Ragged Trousered Philan­thropists has awakened, maintained and renewed that hope in generations, and continues to do so in the 21st century.

The Hidden Connolly 28

A speech and an article by James Connolly were published in Issue 28 (June 2007) for the first time since his execution, illustrations of his militant trade unionism.

Timber Trade Lock-Out and the Railway Strike

Great Mass Meeting1

[The Irish Worker, September 27 1911]

[…]Mr James Connolly, Organising Secretary, Irish Transport Workers’ Union, Belfast, said—I am glad to see such a large meeting gathered here today. As you know, I come from the Black North (laughter and applause), and in the course of this fight and the fight that immediately preceded it I have been doing all I could to enrol the men of the North, irrespective of party or religion or race, in one great army of labour. Now, in the North I have been told, and especially in Belfast, that this fight was being carried on by a Fenian Lodge. I come down to Dublin and I hear that the fight is being carried on by imported English agitators (laughter). The difficulty is to know which of the statements is right—perhaps the imported agitators have joined the Fenian Lodge. If they have, it must make a good fusion. Now, I am going to say a few words relative to the cause of the present dispute, and in dealing with it I am going to refresh your memory and the memory of others on some facts of Irish History—the more we know of it, the better we can fight. The more we know how our fathers fought and endured, the more it will be possible for us to fight and to suffer and to endure also. Through the fight today I find one recurrent note in the newspapers. It is that the demand of the railway men that they shall not be required to handle goods contaminated by blackleg labour is absolutely new—in a word, that it is revolutionary to a degree that was never dreamt of before. Now, in the first place, I am going to point out to you that that demand is reasonable, and, what is more, it is of the last consequence to the working classes. Not only in this country but in all countries, history has been marked by certain well-developed stages. It has come to be recognised that what was an injury to one was an injury to all. Until that one idea entered into the minds of men, there was no place for human progress. We were savages—each man fighting his own battle; but when that idea came into men’s minds they formed the clan, and from that developed to the nation. We of the working class have had our individual period, when the employer could do with us as he liked, when he took us on or dismissed us, and robbed us at his will. Some of us have been in the clan stage. We have our little unions, and there are yet some who can’t see outside the fences of their own little union. But we are developing on to something broader, and we have come to realise that while the interest of the individual and the little union is great, the interest of the working class is greater still, and today that is where we stand. The railway men see that what injures the transport workers injures them, and the transport workers see that when the railway men are in dispute, what injures them injures the transport workers also. We are thus all together, and we stand or fall together; and we feel that if our class loses, the loss is not to the working masses but to the whole of Ireland. Let us recall the struggle of the tenant farmers, and take as my witness the Freeman’s Journal or the Independent or so-called Nationalist newspapers in Ireland. At one time or another they backed up the tenant farmers in doing what the railway workers are doing today. Do you remember what gave that magnificent word “boycott” to the English language? As we have enriched the English nation, we have also enriched the English language. Michael Davitt (applause) and men like him had told them that when one tenant farmer was struck, that blow went home to every man in Ireland; and when a landgrabber, or a “scab” in trades­men’s language, took the place of a tenant farmer, the whole of the tenants struck against him. Those newspapers which today have such short memories had declared that the man who took a farm from which another was evicted was not only a traitor to his class, but a traitor to the whole of Ireland. Irish patriotism came to be synonymous with the interest of the tenant farmers, and consequently all Ireland was turned against the scab—the butcher nor the grocer would not supply him, the doctor would not visit him, nor the schoolmaster teach his children, and even the clergy would not favour him. But today, up in James’s St, they had a clergyman telling the railway men to go back to work. It was hard to say whether he spoke as a clergyman or a shareholder. When it was driven home to the conscience of the people that the man who took a farm from which another was evicted was doing an injury to all, how could these men have the hardihood to tell us that the demand of the railway men was an unheard-of demand? For years and years the Freeman’s Journal and all the politicians had advised the tenant farmers to do what the railway men were beginning to do now. It is a good thing to imitate your superiors—all these men say they are your superiors (laughter). They are the upper classes (laughter). Well, we will imitate them, and as they required security and economic independence for tenant farmers, we will see to it that we get it also for the working classes (cheers). No matter how the present dispute goes, it is not the end. It is in fact only the beginning. We are resolved that from that vantage point the working class is going to advance steadily—we are going to advance, bit by bit, inch by inch, until we plant the flag of labour on the fortress of the enemy (cheers). And when that is done we will solve not only this little problem, but Ireland, from Cape Clear to Malin Head, will be for the benefit of the working classes (applause). […]2

Belfast Mill Strike

[The Irish Worker, October 28 1911]

Readers of The Irish Worker will, we believe, be interested to learn of the mill workers’ strike in Belfast. It may at once be said that the conduct and termination of the strike was a most striking exemplific­ation of the superiority of the new conceptions of industrial union­ism over the old theories and methods. Measured in terms of wages there was nothing gained; measured in terms of industrial self-respect and decreased industrial slavery the gain has been immense. Employers and workers alike have gained a valuable lesson in the power of organisation and the uplifting force of the new ideas.

Your Ulster correspondent has already told how the strike started.3 The Ulster linen manufacturers had agreed to curtail the output 10 per cent. In conformity with the letter of this agreement the mills were put upon short time; in direct violation of the spirit of agreement with his fellows every individual manufacturer pro­ceeded to speed up his machinery in order to get as much out of the short time as out of the full time. They wanted to curtail the output alright, but it was the output of wages. In addition to this the opportunity was taken to give notice of the enforcement of new rules, which for cold-blooded tyranny and scientific slave-driving could not be surpassed outside the domain of a convict prison.

Fines were inflicted for laughing, for whispering, or humming a song, or fixing the hair of the head, and instant [dismissal]4 was the penalty for daring to bring a pennyworth of sweets, darning or knitting needles, into the mill. The whole [atmosphere of the]4 mill was an atmosphere of slavery. The workers were harassed by petty bosses, mulcted in fines for the most trivial offences, and robbed and cheated in the most deliberate and systematic manner. If a spinner, whose weekly wages averaged 11s 3d, lost a day’s work, stayed out a day, she was fined 2s 7d—a sum out of all proportion to her daily earnings. The same was true of the half-timers and the doffers—little children.5 The godly employers of Belfast cheated those little ones in the same barefaced manner, waxing rich out of their pilferings from the helpless girls.

Well, at last they struck. The spinners marched out and all the others in their department followed suit. There were over 1,100 women and girls out. At their own request we organised them. No other trade unionist looked near them, helped them, or encouraged them. The employers threatened a lock-out if they did not return. They defied them, and they locked them out. But on the day the lock-out was to commence our friend, Mary Galway, of the textile operatives society, accompanied by Mr Greig, of the National Amalgamated Union of Labour, appeared at the factory gates and advised them to return to work, Miss Galway announcing that she would not pay strike pay to the few members of her own society who were among the strikers. The latter scorned to crawl back at Miss Galway’s bidding, and when Mr Connolly appeared on the scene, flocked, cheering, around him. From that time the whole conduct of the struggle was in our hands. The newspapers tried their hardest by lying misrepresentations and boycotting to distort public opinion and alienate public sympathy. But the girls fought heroic­ally. We held a meeting in St Mary’s Hall, and packed it with 3,000 girls and women. They were packed from floor to ceiling, sitting in the aisles, squatting on the floor between the platform and the seats, 3,000 cheering, singing, enthusiastic females, and not a hat amongst them. The following resolution was passed unanimously:—

Resolved:—That this mass meeting of millworkers welcome the establishment in this city of a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and that we pledge it our undivided and unfailing support, and that we condemn as a disgrace to our civilisation the conditions sought to be imposed upon us by the millowners, and heartily endorse the strike in the mills, and recommend the strikers to the sympathy and support of the Belfast public.

We held processions through the streets, and at various meetings the strikers were addressed by Mrs Johnson (who has worked herself nearly to death in the struggle), Mr Flanagan,6 Mr D R Campbell, President of the Trades Council, and Mr Connolly. Over £87 was collected in the streets, and strike pay to the extent of 2s only was paid to over 1,100 women.

We knew when the strike started that it was a particularly bad time to ask for higher wages, but we calculated that if we had the leading and instructing of the strikers for a week or two we could teach them how to evade the tyranny of the rules and oppressive conditions generally inside the mills. Having acquired that ascend­ancy by earning the confidence of the strikers, we told them to go back to work, and to systematically break every absurd and harsh rule. Mr Connolly said, “If a girl is checked for singing, let the whole room start singing at once; if you are checked for laughing, let you all laugh; and if anyone is dismissed, all put on your shawls and come out in a body. And when you are returning do not return as you usually do, but gather in a body outside the gate and march in singing and cheering.”

The idea caught on and was taken up with enthusiasm at Mile Water, York Road mill. Mr Flanagan advised the girls to “go in singing, and if the boss did not like it, then come out singing at once.” They went in singing and cheering for Connolly and Flanagan. The manager was furious, and singling out one particularly active girl, sent her down to the gate-house. When she was missed, the workers, who were just about to start [work again, immediately stopped, put on]7 their shawls, and demanded her re-instatement. She had gone home, and the manager had to send home for her, ask her to come back, and bring her into the room before anyone would do a stroke of work. Her appearance was greeted with cheers and choruses of strike songs improvised for the occasion. At York Street the girls did not return till dinner-time, then, congregating outside, they formed up and marched in cheering and singing.

Inside they have acted upon the advice given. As a result the whole atmosphere of the mill is changed. The slave-driving is checked, laughter and songs and pleasant chat can be heard, and the work is in nowise interfered with. In York Street also an attempt was made at victimisation, but it was met by the same solid front on the part of the workers. No such complete unanimity was ever known in the mills of Belfast before.

Had the advice of Miss Galway and Mr Greig been taken in the previous week the strikers would have gone back broken-hearted and dispirited. The employers would have treated them as a lot of senseless, irresponsible females who could be trampled on at will. But taking our advice, they grew into a solid, compact body, animated by one spirit, and standing unitedly together.

No such inspiring, cheering spectacle has been seen in Belfast as the sight of these girls and women marching in, more defiant, radiant, and hopeful than when they came out. We believe that out of such material, leavened by the spirit of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, we will be able to create a movement that will soon absorb the best and most of the Belfast mill workers.

SÉAMUS

Notes

  1. A rail strike throughout Ireland and Britain began on 16 August. The disruption to the timber trade led employers to lock out their workers. Although the rail strike was settled in August with substantial wage increases, the timber lockout continued. At this meeting in central Dublin on 23 September, Connolly was preceded by Thomas Murphy, president of the Dublin Trades Council, and J E Williams, general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants.
  2. Other speakers from the ASRS and the ITGWU followed, including Jim Larkin. Despite further strike action later that month by Irish railworkers, the timber workers had to give in early the next month.
  3. The ‘Ulster Notes’ in the previous two issues of The Irish Worker had reported on the strike.
  4. The newspaper is damaged here.
  5. A doffer’s job was to ‘doff’ or tie up spindles of linen thread. Half-timers were children between 12 and 14 years of age who worked half of each week in the mills.
  6. Marie Johnson became secretary of the ITGWU’s textile workers’ section, and James Flanagan was central in establishing the union in Belfast.
  7. The newspaper is damaged here.

History lessons

Noel McDermott reviewed a set of essays on labour history in Issue 27 (March 2007).

Politics and the Irish Working Class, 1830-1945, edited by Fintan Lane and Dónal Ó Drisceoil (Palgrave)

This is a solid collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, and there can be few with an interest in labour history who wouldn’t profit from reading it. The shame is that its scandalously prohibitive price-tag will keep it away from too many bookshelves. Many of the fourteen authors perform the basic but necessary task of recounting a neglected chapter in our history. Dónal Ó Drisceoil, for instance, penetrates official censorship to tell the remarkable story of militant union struggles during the second world war.

It isn’t just an academic interest that the research presented here can fuel. Catherine Hirst’s ‘Politics, Sectarianism and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Belfast’ documents how deeply rooted unionism was in the Protestant workers of Ireland’s first industrial city, as was the nationalist reaction to it in Catholic workers. Reading it underlines that it will take more than a few strikes to dispel such division, that it will have to be tackled head on by socialists. It also shows that expressions of social frustration among Protestant workers that fail to break through the limits of loyalist communitar­ianism are far from a recent phenomenon.

Henry Patterson tries his best to rehabilitate William Walker, the unionist Labour politician best known for crossing swords with Connolly in 1911. Walker opposed Irish independence because it would create a conservative agrarian-dominated political system: “not a bad prediction of the history of the independent Irish state!” according to Patterson. But this is trying to have it both ways. Unionism cuts the industrial, mainly Protestant north off from the not-so-industrial, not-so-Protestant south—and then condemns the south for being predominatly agricultural and Catholic! Patterson’s discussion of the 1905 Belfast by-election, where Walker pledged to support anti-Catholic discrimination, neglects to mention his notorious claim that “true Protestantism is synonymous with Labour”. Far from being “his one serious compromise with Protes­tant sectarianism”, this outright sectarianism was only the nadir of a long career spent trying to harness labour politics to unionism.

Conor Kostick’s essay recapitulates the arguments of his Revolution in Ireland on the war of independence period: “it is not always appreciated that Ireland had over a hundred ‘soviets’ in those five years, that is, workplace takeovers, usually in pursuit of economic grievances, but nonetheless raised to a higher level of significance by the workers’ self-conscious emulation of their Russian counterparts”. Certainly such struggles of the working class get only a walk-on part in Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, where the railworkers’ boycott of British munitions serves primarily as a mechanism for the hero to join the IRA. Portraying workers’ struggles in their own right could have shown that, not alone did the odd IRA volunteer hold socialist ideas, but that many workers were putting such ideas into practice.

Kostick’s insistence on their importance is timely, therefore, but he insists on counterposing them to the military struggle against British rule. There were only 3,000 in the IRA, he writes, with limited arms, and “In so far as the core administration of the colony was rocked, it was by the intervention of the working class.” But the two aspects of the struggle complemented each other. Keeping soldiers off the trains could keep whole regions of the country out of their grasp, but only if their barracks were burnt down and their motor patrols ambushed. A viewpoint more suited to later phases of republican campaigning is being superimposed here on a period where it just doesn’t fit.

(The editors have unfortunately allowed two lazy footnotes by Kostick to slip through what is otherwise a scrupulously docu­mented collection. As a source for some interesting quotations, he gives only “In William O’Brien Papers”. Those papers are so copious that this is like quoting a needle and referencing a haystack.)

Helga Woggon examines the intriguing subject of how Connolly was interpreted in the years immediately following his execution. Much nonsense was written about him then (and since, says you…), but Woggon always starts from what was wrong in these interpre­tations rather than what was right. Many writers honestly tried to understand Connolly’s work and were prepared to question prevailing orthodoxies with it. The fact that they often mixed his socialism together with Catholicism and bald nationalism is actually testimony to how his socialism had entered popular consciousness. Contemporary socialists were more right to try and engage with this muddle than Woggon is in condemning it. She describes right-wing Irish Americans refusing to touch Connolly, but not the left-wing Irish Americans they were reacting to. She mentions “the mind-confusing euphoria” of the times, but her account is all mind-confusion and no euphoria. (Her failure to deal with Lambert McKenna’s 1920 pamphlet The Social Teachings of James Connolly—since reprinted—is a glaring omission.)

The unavailability of Connolly’s writings, then and now, is rightly held up as a barrier to interpretation. But it should be pointed out that valiant efforts were made in those years, with pamphlets being published and individual articles appearing in labour papers—a tradition Red Banner has continued to its credit. (As time goes by, SIPTU’s Connolly collected works project seems more and more like God: many believe in its eventual coming, even though there is no material evidence for its existence.)

The editors’ introduction strikes a dull note in claiming that attempts in the 1930s to link the struggles of workers and small farmers “were doomed from the outset”, and a couple of the essays start out from the same position. If this were true, it would mean that the socialism of that period is null and void: there is no way the small working class of Ireland’s cities could have got anywhere without bringing the rural poor on side. The evidence presented could as easily support the conclusion that the attempt was made in a mistaken way, with socialists failing to properly differentiate them­selves from republicanism (or even Fianna Fáil) and the urban labour movement refusing to make the effort.

Fearghal McGarry’s ‘Radical Politics in Interwar Ireland’, for example, writes history from a ‘Woe to the vanquished’ standpoint. Because the workers’ republic didn’t arise and Fianna Fáil did, the failure of one is explained by the success of the other. On this reading, labour history is a waste of time because, so far, we don’t have any absolute victories to our name. Instead we have fights that sometimes achieved partial victories and sometimes left us in a better position to move on, and a lot of heroic defeats.

But those socialists in the Irish working class who have tried to fight can only be truly understood, even in their failures, when we have a fundamental sympathy with their visions and dilemmas. As Connolly wrote of their like in Labour in Irish History, “the very qualities which endeared the Irish worker to the earnest rebel against capitalist iniquity estranged him from the affection of those whose social position enabled them to become the historians of his movements”. In this way our past can point to our future. In the words of a Belfast socialist in 1830, quoted here by Vincent Geoghegan, “not only does the thirst of knowledge increase with its acquisition, but men are incited to improve their condition by it”.

Easter 1916: A left-wing rising?

On the ninetieth anniversary of the Easter rising, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh questioned some of the political assumptions made about it (Issue 26, November 2006).

No beauty was born at Easter 2006, terrible or otherwise. The hullabaloo over whether and how to commemorate the 1916 rising blew over far quicker than it blew up. The military parade down O’Connell Street was an example of what capitalist states are always at: establishing and underlining their legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. The procession of tanks, missile launchers and the rest should have proven to all and sundry that here was an army that does indeed follow in the footsteps of those who fought in Easter week—against the rebels.

Only three months later, ‘Sommefest’ made a joke into a mockery. Here was no remembrance of thousands of working people driven by a lethal cocktail of poverty and lies to kill and be killed in the name of empires, but a celebration of sacrifice for a noble cause. So those who fought against the British empire were right… and those who fought for the British empire were right as well! Like a patronising principal on school sports day, official Ireland tells us that, when it comes to 1916, everyone’s a winner.

As for the sworn enemies of official Ireland, the prevailing view on the left is that the men and women of Easter week would not be happy with the society we have today, that the Ireland they were fighting for bears little resemblance to the Ireland we live in. Supporters of the Rossport Five can be heard saying that those who proclaimed that Ireland belonged to her people would be against Shell’s dangerous exploitation of our natural resources. Anti-war activists say that those who fought for Irish sovereignty would not allow the US to use Shannon airport to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan. And no teachers’ conference would be complete without a re­sounding claim that the children of the nation are being cherished most unequally in crowded prefab classrooms.

According to this argument, the rising was in favour of social and economic equality, and to some extent against capitalism—certainly against key aspects of capitalist society. James Connolly’s prominence in the rising has led some to go further. In their pioneering James Connolly and the United States Carl Reeve and Ann Barton Reeve claim that the Easter proclamation “contained Connolly’s socialist approach”. Roger Faligot’s fine James Connolly et le mouvement révolutionnaire irlandais—ignored because the Irish left will only speak the Queen’s English—characterises the proclamation as “implicitement socialiste”. “Although the Proclamation did not mention socialism by name,” writes Ruth Dudley Edwards in James Connolly (one of the decent books she wrote before going off the rails), “it contained a declaration of the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland which could be construed as socialist if subsequent interpreters of it so wished.”

The initial problem here is an overestimation of Connolly’s role in the rising. Those of us who come at 1916 from the left inevitably see it through the prism of Connolly’s actions, but that perspective needs to be corrected if we are to understand it properly. Tom Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada and the offensivist faction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were actively working for an insurrection as soon as the world war broke out in 1914. They brought in others, like Pádraig Pearse, as they went along. Connolly was also anxious for an uprising during the war, but his efforts only ran parallel to the IRB’s at best, and most of the time had no connection whatsoever with them. His writings in the latter half of 1915 reveal his desperate belief that a blow must be struck against Britain, but also that he was well out of the loop in terms of who in the Irish Volunteers was and wasn’t of a similar mind.

Only in late January 1916, three months beforehand, was Connolly brought in to the preparation of the rising. This could only mean that his contribution would mean carrying out plans that were already drawn up for the most part, rather than drawing up plans himself. This much is clear even if we look at the military side of things.

Connolly’s writings on the subject return repeatedly to the concept of barricading narrow streets so as to ambush enemy forces at close quarters. The ideal part of Dublin for this kind of fighting—as can still be seen today—is west of Stephen’s Green and out into the Liberties. It was a working-class district, home to many Citizen Army members and a source of support for them. The only rebel outpost here in Easter week—Jacob’s factory on Aungier Street—was wisely avoided by the British, and the streets surrounding it proved so dangerous to them later in the war of independence that they were nicknamed ‘the Dardanelles’.

In 1916, however, the Citizen Army were on the other side of the College of Surgeons, trenching and holding Stephen’s Green. It is assumed that the intention, if the Volunteers had fully mobilised, was to take over buildings overlooking it like the Shelbourne Hotel, but even in that case, a wide open space like the Green was more of a nuisance to defend than a military asset to attack from. Although Connolly was in charge of military operations during Easter week, he was working to a plan drawn up by Joseph Plunkett before he joined the insurrectionists. This plan leant heavily away from Connolly’s conceptions and towards the concept of holding prominent landmarks more with an eye to propaganda than military value. Connolly accepted it, but in early 1916, the fact that there was a credible plan for a rising at all was enough for him. Things like the widespread loopholing of buildings and construction of barricades show his influence on the fighting, but he was implementing a general strategy not of his own making.

But what of his influence on the politics of the rising? Again, the political direction was more or less decided upon before Connolly came on board. In the months up until then, the heart of the difference between himself and his opponents is not the political programme of an insurrection against British rule, but whether to have an insurrection in the first place. His argument is not that he wants a left-wing rising while others want a right-wing rising, but that he is determined to have a rising while others are hedging their bets about it. What convinced Connolly to throw in his lot with the IRB insurrectionists in January 1916 was an understanding that they were as serious as he was about rising up against the British empire —not a political agreement with them on social issues.

Is the Easter proclamation not a radical document, though? Two phrases from it stand out in this context. Firstly, “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and in­defeasible”, and secondly, “The Republic guarantees civil and relig­ious liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.

Firstly, saying that Ireland belongs to the Irish is not the same as making its resources the common property of the people collectively. It means that the Irish people have the right to run their own country, to elect a national government accountable to themselves without outside interference, just like any other country. The rising intended to abolish British rule in Ireland, not private property. As to the second phrase, the world is full of governments, provisional and otherwise, that guarantee equal rights and opportunities and even establish equality authorities to enforce them. But this becomes an equal right to inequality unless the economic foundations of privilege and poverty are removed. Governments that promise to do their best for everyone (and is there any government that doesn’t?) cannot actually deliver without breaking with an economic system based on the many working to enrich the few, and nothing like such a break is envisaged in the 1916 proclamation.

But even to read this last section of the proclamation as a reference to class divisions is mistaken. This phrase is immediately preceded by “The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman”, and goes on to pro­claim that the nation’s children will be cherished equally “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”. This paragraph is not directed to the poor, and certainly not to children, but to northern Protestants. Cleverly turning the old Orange slogan of “civil and religious liberty” against unionism, the proclamation promises to treat Protestants just as well as Catholics. The pledge is not to end social or economic division, but religious, sectarian division.

Could a more left-wing interpretation of the proclamation not be made, however, especially if Connolly was responsible for parts of it? Not necessarily, given that Connolly had decided to make do for the time being with an uprising for national liberation only, rather than one that would bring liberation for the working class also. But anyway, there is no actual evidence that Connolly wrote any of the proclamation. In fact, he is the one signatory we can be sure didn’t write it. Christopher Brady, the man in charge of printing it, had printed The Workers’ Republic, and so was very familiar with Connolly’s handwriting. In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, he says that when Thomas McDonagh gave him the manu­script of the proclamation, he didn’t recognise the handwriting, but “It certainly was not Connolly’s as I was familiar with his scrawl”.

His handing over the manuscript lends weight to the opinion that it was McDonagh who drafted the proclamation. Traditionally it has been ascribed to Pearse, and he probably had a big part in putting it together. It would be surprising if Connolly didn’t contribute something to it, but the same could be said of any of the signatories. As writers, most of them (including Connolly) had featured in the pages of The Irish Review between 1911 and 1914, all of them in favour of national independence and sympathetic to the struggles of the working class. Nothing in the proclamation is so left-wing that any one of them couldn’t have written it.

Pádraig Pearse, to take the most prominent example, had publicly taken positions well to the left of what the proclamation declared. The Christmas before, in ‘Peace and the Gael’, he had condemned “the exploitation of the English masses by cruel plutocrats”, hoping that “the war kindles in the slow breasts of English toilers a wrath like the wrath of the French in 1789”—a hope Connolly had more or less given up on. Only a month before the rising, Pearse’s remarks in The Sovereign People on the ownership of Ireland’s resources are far clearer than the proclamation: “the nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all the men and women of the nation but to all the natural possessions of the nation, the nation’s soil and all its resources, all wealth and all wealth-producing resources within the nation”, and this sovereignty was “absolute”. Ireland could well decide to abolish private property of land or means of transport. “A nation may go further and determine that all sources of wealth whatsoever are the property of the nation, that each individual shall give his service for the nation’s good, and shall be adequately provided for by the nation, and that all surplus wealth shall go to the national treasury to be expended on national purposes, rather than be accumulated by private persons.” This isn’t full-blooded socialism, but the generalities of the Easter proclam­ation pale beside it.

The 1916 proclamation is not Connolly’s proclamation. It isn’t even Pearse’s proclamation: if it was, a lot more of it would have been in Irish than the bare “Poblacht na hÉireann” signature tune at the top. It was a proclamation agreed upon by seven people coming from quite different standpoints. As anyone who ever wrote a campaign leaflet knows, this inevitably means compromise, con­sensus, saying things in a roundabout way or leaving them unsaid. What the seven had agreed upon was an uprising in favour of replacing British rule with an independent Irish republic. That fairly big proposition was the one essential they were all for, and the proclamation puts that into words.

Of course, Connolly’s politics for over twenty years had gone a long way beyond that objective. Samuel Levenson is one of his least political biographers, but perhaps because of that, he did turn up some valuable insights. “It does not even promise the ten-hour day, old-age pensions, or the end of child labour”, he writes of the proclamation in James Connolly: A Biography. “The municipal socialism advocated by the Fabians was radical in comparison to these vague words about the ‘ownership of Ireland’.” The specific measures Levenson mentions were all but achieved by then anyway, and his eclectic conclusion that the proclamation “gives colour to the argument that Connolly renounced socialism” is a mistaken infer­ence from the mistaken assumption that the proclamation represents Connolly’s point of view. But there is some substance to his argument.

The rising Robert Emmet organised in Dublin in 1803 also had its proclamation, but its opening paragraphs nationalised church property and declared all transfer of property null and void for the time being. Connolly praised this in Labour in Irish History as proof “that Emmet believed that the ‘national will’ was superior to property rights and could abolish them at will; and also that he realised that the producing classes could not be expected to rally to the revolution unless given to understand that it meant their freedom from social as well as political bondage”. This exaggerates Emmet’s left-wing credentials, but does give point to the fact that the 1916 proclamation left every bit of property in Ireland untouched, giving the non-owning, producing classes very little to understand.

But whatever about the evidence of the proclamation and the rising itself, there is a general feeling that those who rose in 1916 were generally progressive people, tending to the left. The men and women of Easter week would oppose the war in Iraq, surely? Well, Connolly would have, definitely. It’s probably a safe bet that the other signatories would too—although at least some of them would have first asked if Ireland could get any benefit from supporting it. After all, Pearse and Plunkett openly discussed in the GPO the possibility of inviting a member of the German royal family to be crown prince of an independent Ireland—a deviation, to say the least, from the republicanism of the proclamation. Taking the rebels as a whole, though, it is clear that some of them would gladly support terrible things. In the civil war and after, some of them were personally responsible as army officers or government ministers for cruel, repressive and barbaric acts that compete with the horrors of Guantánamo Bay.

None of this means that the Easter rising or its proclamation should be dismissed as worthless, only that the rising should be seen as it actually was. It was an insurrection fought to put an end to British imperialism in Ireland. And as such, it should be a source of immense pride and a cause for celebration for Irish socialists. Hundreds of men and women fought bravely, many giving their lives, to replace an unjust and undemocratic system with one intended to fulfil the basic conditions of political democracy. It was a blow struck against a brutal world war, against the vicious plan to partition Ireland, and one of the earliest nails in the coffin of the British empire. For the fighters of the Citizen Army, it was hoped to be a jumping-off point towards something better, a republic run by their own class.

Revolt against national oppression is something socialists should welcome and encourage without hesitation. People in Palestine or Chechnya or the Basque country struggling to win their own peoples the right to run their own country deserve our full support. We can and should offer criticisms of the way they may choose to do it, but we can’t and shouldn’t refuse to stand with them. And it is only right that those striking for national freedom today should draw inspiration from Easter 1916 as they themselves declare the sovereign and indefeasible right to the unfettered control of their destinies.

As well as being a classic affirmation of the right to national self-determination, the Easter proclamation does have other aspects to celebrate. Its anti-sectarianism is absolute and unqualified, refusing to slip into a Catholic mould of Irish nationalism, even by implic­ation. It insists that sectarian tensions have been stoked by imperialism, a useful corrective to the current insulting consensus that abusing Catholics is only a natural expression of Protestant identity.

And the proclamation would deserve a place in any anthology charting the progress of women in Ireland towards liberation. At a time when the mother of parliaments was solemnly debating whether women could be trusted with the vote, and what age and property restrictions should be placed on it, the rebels of 1916 cut through it all with the commitment that Ireland’s independent government would be “elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”. This is all the more remarkable for being the only clear and definite policy commitment in the proclamation.

So is it a problem that various campaigns quote Easter 1916 more or less inaccurately in support of their cause? No and yes. Whatever about the context of the proclamation, cherishing children equally is a basic prerequisite of a truly civilised society, and the fact that capitalism fails to do so is a strong argument against it. When a racist referendum was unleashed two years ago, quoting those words from the proclamation helped a lot of people see the injustice that was afoot. If it helps to fight against child poverty or education­al inequality, it would be churlish to carp at it. It’s certainly less harmful than the tourist guides telling foreigners that the wear and tear on the GPO pillars is really bullet holes from 1916.

Where it can get problematic is when people try to recruit the rising as a basis for socialist argument. The proclamation just cannot bear such an interpretation, and leaning on such a weak reed makes dangerous presumptions of ignorance on the part of those we are talking to. Trying to mine socialism out of the seam of republicanism hasn’t worked, and not for the want of trying. Socialism has to draw upon all struggles against oppression, but it has to recognise what they are and what they aren’t, and to organise on its own terms for a wider and deeper struggle. Looking for socialism in the Easter rising will leave us empty-handed both ways, with neither socialism or a proper understanding of the rising itself. We should celebrate Easter 1916 by trying to go beyond it, working for a revolution that will achieve its noble objectives and far more besides.

Palestine: Two elections and a funeral

In July 2006 (Issue 25) Colm Breathnach assessed how the struggle against the occupation stood.

On Saturday 19 May, the whole Aman family left their home and went for a drive through Gaza City in their newly purchased car. Unbeknownst to them, at the same time Mohammed Dahduh, a member of the military wing of the Islamic Jihad organisation, was also driving through Gaza City. Unbeknownst to any of them, an Israeli Air Force jet tasked with the extra-judicial murder (“targeted assassination” to those who like their language filleted) of Dahduh was on its way towards the skies above Gaza. At approximately 6 pm, the jet fired its missiles and killed Dahduh. The ‘target’ had been ‘taken out’ in a clean calculated strike. Well, not quite. You see, as one would expect on a busy road in a crowded city, Dahduh’s car was not the only one in the vicinity. Next to him were the Aman family, proudly packed into their new car. Muhand, aged seven, died instantly, as did his mother, Naima, aged 27, and his grand­mother Hanan, 46. His sister Mariya, aged three, was seriously injured, as was his uncle Nahed, aged 33. Both face lifelong paralysis.

So three entirely innocent, non-combatant, civilian victims were blown to kingdom come, yet no state threatened to boycott Israel until they renounced terrorism. The US and the EU did not impose sanctions on this state that sponsors terror and murders civilians on a regular basis. Nobody urged the international community to bring to justice the terrorist who flew the plane, or the bigger terrorist who ordered the action. Nobody threatened Israel with punitive action for sponsoring terror. I am sure that there were no diplomats or international politicians at the funeral of these innocents, and that their burial did not feature on Fox News or CNN.

I am equally sure of the waves of despair and rage that swept through the crowd at their funeral. Despair at their total abandon­ment by the world and rage at those who kill, maim, rob and bully them every day. Only in understanding that rage and despair can we understand the crisis of Palestine today. Because what drives their continual defiance and their refusal to meekly accept their fate is that endless everyday oppression. One day a family blown to pieces in their car… another day a schoolgirl shot through the head… the next day a house razed to the ground… a farmer’s fields confiscated… a village surrounded by impassable roadblocks… So what is sur­prising is not that so many Palestinians voted for Hamas, but that there were even more Palestinians who did not! It is in the context of looming outrage at the occupation that we must view everything that happens in Israel and Palestine. Like a radioactive dump it contaminates everything around it, and nothing escapes its toxic embrace.

Elections are isolated snapshots, indicating the mood of people on a given day within all the constraints of bourgeois democracy (or in Israel, military-colonial democracy, if such an oxymoron makes any sense). We get a feel for the cleavages that animate politics in a society, a sense of the immediate socio-political situation, though not a detailed picture of a socio-economic system. In essence, we often catch a glimpse of the popular mood and the balance of class forces. So in looking at the recent elections in Israel and Palestine, we can only try to read these glimpses of the respective societies and the current relationship between them.

There is no mystery to the Hamas victory. It’s the occupation, stupid! Those who were seen as the best and most consistent fighters against the occupation were rewarded. Those who provided the best protection against the destruction of the social infrastructure, those who provided the schools and the health clinics, who looked after the prisoners’ families, who fed the destitute, were rewarded. A movement that the greatest enemies of the Palestinian people sitting in the imperial capitals of Washington and London classified as terrorist, thereby boosting its standing immeasurably. It mattered little to many Palestinians whether this organisation was partially funded by the execrable Saudi regime or advocated reactionary policies regarding individual freedom and women’s rights or had organised suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, because all these factors faded into the background when weighed against the on­going horror of the occupation.

And what was the alternative? A Fatah party whose hold over the Palestinian Authority had been characterised by widespread corruption and inefficiency. A party whose old leader, who for all his flaws had still symbolised their hard-won recognition as a nation, was now dead. A disunited movement riven by factional struggles whose most promising and admired new leader, Marwan Barghouti, was languishing in an Israeli jail. When we consider these factors, what is surprising is not that Hamas won the election, but that they did not do better.

What many commentators failed to notice is that, although Hamas won a majority of seats in the 132-member Legislative Council, it did not win a majority of the popular vote. Hamas received 44.4 per cent of the vote, while their rivals Fatah received 41.4 per cent. When you add the votes of the other secular parties, the total secular vote comes to 53.6 per cent in total. Even if one was to accept that all Hamas voters are fundamentalist—patently false to even the most superficial observer—a clear majority of Palestinians, despite all the provocation and oppression, are unwilling to vote for the Islamicists.

In fact, a more detailed look at the voting patterns also reveals a more complicated political tapestry. Half the seats in the Legislative Council, that is 66 seats, were filled by a countrywide vote for single party or alliance lists, while the other half were elected from sixteen electoral districts. In the national contest Fatah and Hamas were almost equal, with Fatah at 28 seats and Hamas at 29, and the remaining nine seats won by smaller secular parties. Yet in the electoral district contest Hamas was far ahead of Fatah, with 74 seats to 45 (the remaining four district seats being won by independents). This seems to indicate that, on an ideological level, the secular parties still hold the allegiance of a clear majority and Fatah and Hamas are neck and neck, but that when it came to a competition between local candidates, Hamas’s record of work and resistance on the ground swept all before it. In other words, for the mass of impoverished and oppressed Palestinians, it was this record that encouraged them to vote for Hamas, not its political programme.

The spatial pattern of the Fatah versus Hamas contest, as shown in the electoral district results, is also significant. While Hamas did well in places where one would expect them to—Gaza, Hebron, Nablus etc.—Fatah’s patchy showing was somewhat unpredictable. It’s quite obvious that the large Christian community in Bethlehem accounts for Fatah’s dominance there (and for a reasonable showing by the left nationalists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), but what accounts for Fatah’s success in Jenin, Qualqilya and Rafah? These are places whose populations have felt the brunt of the brute force of the occupation and where military resistance has been strong. Perhaps the answer lies in that fact: where Fatah has been led by militants rather than corrupt yes-men, or where Fatah in the guise of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have led the fight against the occupation, they have held their own against the Hamas tide.

And what of the Palestinian left? The secular parties won a total of nine seats, but two of these were won by the Third Way list led by Hanan Ashrawi, representing the liberal intelligentsia. Undoubtedly, the left’s disunity contributed to their poor showing and to the widely-held view that Hamas offered the only worthwhile alter­native to Fatah’s corrupt and ineffective rule. Despite the efforts of some groups, especially the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, three separate left lists contested the election, all standing on programmes that were fairly similar: national unity, anti-corruption, more democracy and attention to social and economic issues. Of these, the PFLP did best, gaining 4.2 per cent of the vote and three seats, reflecting deeper roots in certain urban areas and a record of struggle that is widely respected. The Alternative List of the DFLP, People’s Party (former communist party) and left independents gained 2.9 per cent and two seats, and the Indepen­dent Palestine list of Dr Mustapha Barghouti also won two seats with 2.4 per cent of the vote. Barghouti, a former communist leader who had built up a network of supporters in community organis­ations and NGOs, had done well in the presidential election against Abbas in January, but now his support was swept away by Hamas.

It is easy to castigate the Palestinian left from the safety of our un-bulldozed homes for not being pure enough or for not demanding socialism now (ending the occupation would be a good start, thank you very much!) but Palestinian observers have commented on the fact that the disunity of the left rendered them impotent, crushed between the rock of Fatah and the hard place of Hamas. A stronger united left openly advocating a class perspective could have won support from many disillusioned voters, but it is easy to be prescriptive from afar. How to build left unity, how to resist the occupiers, how to fight for both national liberation and socialism while trying to stay alive is a challenge even some of the great revolutionary experts of London, Dublin etc. might find it difficult to rise to.

This analysis of the voting patterns does reveal the relative strength of the various political factions, but in some ways the whole electoral process was a just a sideshow—though a very democratic sideshow, given that it was possibly the freest and fairest election ever held in any state in the Middle East. The fact is that it was an election to a parliament presiding over a phantom state. There is no Palestine, outside of the fervent wishes of the struggling people: there is only Occupied Palestine. The Israeli military and their settler auxiliaries control every inch of Occupied Palestine, including border-choked, sky-blasted, sea-jammed Gaza. Regardless of who is ‘in power’, the Israeli state is the only real power, and the most important question is how can this occupation be overthrown.

One way it won’t be overthrown is by some benign act of emancipation by the new Israeli government. Olmert and his ‘Likud Lite’ of Kadima, backed by his supine Labour allies, have set out their stall clearly from the start: unilaterally drawing the final boundaries of the Israeli state to include all of the major settlement blocks, the Jordan valley and Jerusalem, with the full backing of the empire, never known to fail its Spartan bridgehead. In other words, an extended apartheid state surrounding the three bantustans of Gaza and the northern and southern West Bank. In this, Olmert has the crucial support of the security apparatus. This is not to argue that we should dismiss the Israeli working class as just so many colonials that deserve to pack their bags and head for… where? A small ray of hope was the fact that social issues played a greater role in this election than in previous campaigns, but this is only a tiny premonition of what might be rather than what is.

So the dream of a secular democratic state stretching from the Jordan to the Mediterranean seems more remote than ever. Yet it is at the lowest points in a struggle that we sometimes see the first signs of hope. In the village of Bi’lin, one of the settlements worst affected by Israel’s apartheid wall, a constant struggle has been waged by Palestinian farmers and workers to hold on to their land. Week in, week out, there are demonstrations, sit-ins, direct actions and the inevitably violent response by the occupying army. Yet the resistance in Bi’lin, and many other Palestinian towns and villages along the route of the wall, continues unabated, resistance supported by the presence of international and Israeli activists. Despite the international boycott of the Hamas government, the looming danger of a Palestinian civil war and the juggernaut of a unilateral Israeli-imposed ‘settlement’, maybe, just maybe, the future starts at Bi’lin.