The Hidden Connolly 39

More articles by James Connolly were published for the first time since his execution in Issue 39 (March 2010).

Home Thrusts

[The Workers’ Republic, August 5 1899]

Wicklow and the Mansion House.1

Who can do full justice to them?

The hillsiders and the firesiders, the physical force men and the Home Rulers, the Separatists and the Parnellites, all eagerly climbing in each other’s hair, denouncing each other as tricksters, and making the world merry over the spectacle of Irishmen fighting about monu­ments to the dead—

Whilst the living are starving and perishing around them.

Let us take them in their order.

I had an idea Wicklow would afford good sport, and I was not disappointed. When you see it announced that a meeting is to be addressed by men holding the most diverse opinions on the subject of the meeting, and that those men are to speak from the same platform, you may reasonably expect curious development.

At Wicklow I got full value for my money.

When a Home Ruler talks about the “Freedom of Ireland”, he means a parliament in Dublin under the gracious protection of the British Army.

When a hillsider talks about the “Freedom of Ireland”, he means, or ought to mean, that form of national independence which can only be realised by expelling the British Army.

At Wicklow they were both on the platform, taking turn about at the spouting.

Here is a brief resume of the speeches—no parody either, though it reads like one.

Mr William Field MP said:—

England is now surrounded by enemies on all sides—Germany, France, Russia, all waiting the opportunity for a blow, and the time is fast approaching when she will have to battle for her very existence, and how much better it would be for her to give us our right, and have us as her friend and ally, instead of her enemy.

That is to say that if England gives Ireland Home Rule, we will supply her with an army to defend her stolen possessions abroad, and help her to keep down and rob all her subject populations.

A true friend of liberty is Mr Field.

Then Mr T Byrne of Blackrock, the next speaker, said he believed in the weapons of Billy Byrne and was prepared to adopt them “at 48 hours notice”.

This helped to take the taste of Mr Field’s speech out of our mouths, and we breathed again.

Though personally, I would have liked to hear the speaker explain the meaning of the “48 hours notice” clause, and would 47½ hours not do in an emergency?

Mr Walsh, of Arklow, was the next speaker. He said:—

Since 1798 every generation of Irishmen has planted a milestone on the road to Irish freedom. It is our turn now to plant the second last milestone, and let us plant it on an eminence, so that if we are not permitted to plant the last, we may at least see it afar off—not merely a milestone, but a great monument of free­dom, erected by the genius and intellect of the Irish people, a restored parliament in College Green.

Then Mr C G Doran, of Queenstown, “tuk the flure” and said:—

The man who tells you that a parliament in College Green means the realisation of Ireland’s struggle for freedom is a disgrace to the cause of Irish nationality.

It was like the variety “turns” in a Music Hall; each succeeding speaker scoffed at the ideas of his predecessor, and the audience went away declaring it was as good as a pantomime.

A mace, presented to the Corporation by some English king, was carried in procession around the town; one of the county ’98 clubs bore a banner with the inscription, “Who fears to speak of ’98? Restore us our Native Parliament”, its bearers being apparently blissfully unconscious of the fact that the ’98 insurrection was directed against the “Native Parliament”; and in order to demon­strate to all and sundry that it is unwise to take life too seriously, or to think middle class public men ever mean what they say in public,

Alderman Russell of the Temperance Association and Alderman Hussey of the publicans’ association (Licensed Vintners) spent the day driving around together on a side car.

The Lord Mayor got into a fight with Mr Doran; the one cheered for Parnell, the other for Wolfe Tone, and the audience cheered them both, with the same impartiality and much the same spirit as animates a crowd of urchins at a dog fight.

And this is what is called “honouring the dead”.

It served to make me more and more convinced that in the un­compromising spirit, the rigid intolerance, and stern exclusiveness shown by the Socialist Republican party are to be found the only true methods whereby an effective revolutionary movement may be built up.

Unquestionably, were we to soften down our programme, or hide our purpose under a cloud of misty phrases, we could also get big gatherings, as at Wicklow.

But then we would be as contemptible for any effective purpose as was the Wicklow gathering.

A big gathering, attracted by a cheap railway fare, a good day, and bands and banners, but united in no one purpose or wish, except—

A wild, burning, maddening, insatiable, consuming, all-devouring, absorbing, scorching, overwhelming, excruciating, exhil­arating, renovating, never abating hope—that the pubs would open.

What could they do for Ireland?

Not one of the speakers, except Mr Doran, seemed to have any idea that there was anything the matter with the social system, or that the social arrangements of Ireland nationally free might be exhibited as being on a higher plane of perfection than the social system of Ireland nationally enslaved.

Yet, it is in the revolt of the workers against the degradation caused by the present social system will be found the needed force to carry the national hopes of Ireland to a successful realisation.

In hatred of the present, not in raising monuments to the past, is to be found the key-note of success.

The men who alternately reviled and cringed to each other at the Mansion House are also worthy samples of the movements they represent, mere political back numbers, as useful for present day purposes as a Queen Anne gun before a Nordenfeldt.

When the working class of Ireland begins to manifest a desire for real freedom, and a determination to possess it, then you will see “Unity”, for you will see all those warring kites and crows flocking together for mutual support against that danger.

From Alderman Meade, Parnellite and member of the Privy Council in control of the Police who keep down the people, down to the wirepullers on the ’98 Executive, there is not a man of who it may not be safely predicted that in the next revolutionary outburst in Europe—now only a matter of a few years—they will be found side by side with the British Imperial government, supporting the powers of oppression, and attacking the revolutionary party.

They are doing it now. Read their papers—their advanced papers, mar dhea—and you will see they are doing it now; in every reference to European politics they champion the cause of militarism and class oppression, preparing the Irish people for the dirty work they purpose in the future.

But the working class of Ireland are no longer the gullible people they were; we are no more inclined to risk making ourselves food for powder, inmates for prison cell, or milch cows for politicians, simply in order to transform Ireland into a pocket edition of capitalist nations like England or America.

We mean to be free, and in every friend of freedom we recognise a brother, wherever be his birthplace; in every enemy of freedom we also recognise our enemy, though he were as Irish as our hills.

The whole of Ireland for the people of Ireland—their public property, to be owned and operated as a national heritage, by the labour of free men in a free country:

That is our ideal, and when you ask us what are our methods, we reply:

“Those which lie nearest our hands.”

We do not call for a “United Nation”. No nation can be united whilst capitalism and landlordism exists. The system divides society into two warring sections—the robbers and the robbed, the idlers and the workers, the rich and the poor, the men of property and the men of no property.

Like Wolfe Tone and Mitchel before us, we appeal to “that large and respectable class of the community, the men of no property”.

Let them rally to the Socialist Republican banner, the banner of true freedom, and so rallying, remember that

Those who wait for justice, never gain it,
That the multitudes are most sublime
When, rising armed, they combat to obtain it


Wolfe Tone and his “Admirers”?

[The Workers’ Republic, August 5 1899]

The wordy warfare at present being waged between the partisans of a monument to Wolfe Tone and the partisans of what, we think, the former are justified in considering the rival monument to Charles Stewart Parnell is an interesting exemplification of one of the most persistent and fatal characteristics of the Irish people, viz., their tendency to worship the glories of the past, whilst remaining in­different to every practical proposal for remedying the evils of the present.

Such an attitude—of fierce excitement over monuments to DEAD heroes—is the attitude peculiar to all political parties when they have reached the stage of political bankruptcy, as the worship of past glories is the inevitable accompaniment of the decline of a nation. It is because the men who so loudly proclaim their adhesion to the faith of Wolfe Tone are so hopelessly incapable of appreciating the originality of his genius and the broadness of his outlook that the advanced Nationalist movement has been narrowed down from the revolutionary promise of its inception to the limits of a squalid squabble over precedence in collecting the coppers of a nation of slaves, in order to erect a monument to the memory of a free man. These, it may be, seem harsh words, but will the reader pause to consider the real inner meaning of the fracas at the Mansion House the other day between the supporters of the two rival monument schemes. To us it seems as if both sides were so little convinced of the strength of their cause, or of the place of their idols in the affections of the Irish people, that they felt assured that any other similar project would effectually ruin the chances of their success; if this is not the reason for all the acrimony displayed, it must be that both sides, feeling themselves to be out of touch with the thought and feeling of the present, were zealously striving to focus attention on the past—in order to galvanise into fresh life their decaying organisations. Certain it is that no political party having a potency of power in the national life of today, no political party having an answer to the deeply pressing problems of the present, and no political or revolutionary organisation having the slightest hope of success, requires the adventitious aid of post-mortem hero worship to smooth its path to popularity, and when any political party is seen raising a furore over the dead, whilst remaining dumb on the wrongs of the living, it may be taken for granted that such party contains no germ of new revolutionary vigour—and is painfully conscious of the fact. Every really great movement in history has arisen spontaneously in response to the needs of the time; the move­ment of the United Irishmen in 1798 arose in response to the demand of the people for a political and social order more suited to the needs of industry than the corrupt and antiquated despotisms of Europe would permit of. Such revolutionary movements heeded but little the “glorious memories of the past,” but they unweariedly insisted on the necessity of a change for the sake of the present: in fact a comprehensive study of the voluminous literature issued by the United Irishmen will scarcely reveal one instance of those appeals to tradition, or to the memory of “patriotic predecessors,” so common at the present day in circles priding themselves on “following in the footsteps of Tone and the United Irishmen.” On this point we may safely challenge contradiction: strange as it may seem to those who know nothing of ’98 except the record of its battles, the revolutionists of that day were so intensely wedded to the idea that only from a just resentment at their own wrongs could the people be induced to move that even references to the past glories of Ireland before the Norman invasion were never indulged in by their pamphleteers and pressmen; they turned the attention of the people, not to the “glorious past,” but to the shameful and hateful present, to the pregnant and fateful future.

We are told to imitate Wolfe Tone, but the greatness of Wolfe Tone lay in the fact that he imitated nobody. The needs of his time called for a man able to shake from off his mind the intellectual fetters of the past, and to unite in his own person the hopes of the new revolutionary faith and the ancient aspirations of an oppressed people; as the occasion creates the hero, so the Spirit of the Age found Wolfe Tone, and out of the seemingly unpromising material of a briefless barrister created the organising brain of an almost successful revolution, the astute diplomat, the fearless soldier, and the unconquered martyr.

A monument to such a man can only be erected by a free people. The attempt of a body which has publicly repudiated one half of his principles to pose as the inheritors of his cause is as insulting to his memory as to the intelligence of the Irish people. The man who held out the right hand of friendship to the revolutionists of Europe is not honoured, but insulted, when his name is invoked by men who, in press and on platform, are continually prating of the armed help of the despots of Europe as one hope of Ireland.

Let Ireland seek help where Wolfe Tone found it, viz., in the ranks of the democracy in revolt; wherever the Socialist banner flies, there gather the true friends of freedom; there let us take our stand, and there let us prepare to raise the only worthy monument to the pioneers of freedom—the realisation of that freedom for which they fought.


  1. The month before, a demonstration took place in Wicklow to lay the foundation stone for a monument to the local United Irishman Billy Byrne, and a meeting was held in Dublin’s Mansion House to launch the building of a monument to Parnell. The latter was opposed by others wanting a monument to Wolfe Tone.

Poetry, politics and the left

Galway poet Kevin Higgins was interviewed in Issue 38 (December 2009).

Much of your poetry deals with overtly political subject matter, so you obviously don’t subscribe to the view that ‘poetry and politics don’t mix’. Does that view persist, or is there a level of openness to political poetry in Ireland today?

I think there is no small amount of confusion on this issue. It would be fair to say that most poets, most readers of contemporary poetry, and the majority of those who attend readings have a vague idea that the role of poetry is to question and oppose things as they are, rather than to support the status quo. In the majority of cases, this tends to amount to little more than the requisite poem or two about Palestine or the Iraq war in collections that are mostly made up of what has been un­charitably called the poetry of personal anecdote. This is a huge generalisation, of course, and as with any such generalisation, is more than a little unfair to many. There are a minority of recently emerged poets for whom poetry and radical left wing politics of one variety or another are inseparable. In a word, yes, there is openness to political poetry in Ireland today. Whatever you have to say on whatever subject, as long as it’s well said, people will listen, and the poems will make their way out into the world and find a readership.

So if poetry is open to politics, is politics open to poetry? Do you think there is a recognition among left-wing activists that poetry has a meaningful role to play in the socialist project?

If by left-wing activists you mean those who are involved in organi­s­ations proposing a transform­ation more radical than installing Éamon Gilmore as Tánaiste or Mary Lou McDonald as Junior Minister for Nothing-in-Particular, I’d have to say that the answer would be more No than Yes. Certainly there are those active on the left who have a real appreciation of poetry and the arts in general, and some recog­nition of the role that poetry can play in sharpening one’s under­standing of the world as it is now, has been and will come to be. But these tend to be people who are either on their way out of active involvement, certainly in terms of being members of organised groups and parties, or are in some sense dissidents within these parties.

The organised far left is, as I have learned from bitter experience, still pretty much addicted to the idea that poetry is only of use when it has an obvious and immediate propaganda value in the campaign of the moment. They view with suspicion people who think for themselves and also tend to see activities such as writing poetry as a diversion from the ‘struggle’. I would have been pretty bad on these issues myself back in my workerist days, so I do cut them some slack. But my work teaching poetry workshops and creative writing classes has really brought home to me that any attempt to force on a poet an agenda with which he or she isn’t imaginatively engaged does more than diminish the poetry. In the end it destroys it. The only real role the organised far left seems to see for poetry is the usual one or two suspects reading a poem at the end of the demo type of thing. Culture isn’t a peripheral thing: it is central. And anyone who wants to control the arts for narrow political ends would do very bad things indeed if they ever came to power.

Surely there will always be some kind of tension between political activists trying to offer straightforward answers to political issues on the one hand, and poets trying to explore ambiguities in life’s nooks and crannies on the other? Is it not necessary—or even creative—for those imperatives to clash from time to time?

I agree that such a clash could potentially be very creative. There will be tensions between those primarily involved in writing political statements and those involved in writing poems. They are very different activities. Writing a political manifesto or a leaflet necessarily moves one in the direction of simplifying the issues rather than going into the complexities. Also, a leaflet is not the opinion of one person but of a group, and would obviously be very different to, say, a poem or short story, which if it is to be any good must necessarily be the independent creation of one person’s imagination. But that’s not the issue here. The real problem is that most of the organised far left groups run their internal affairs in a very cultish way—small groups of people endlessly engaged in convincing themselves that they are absolutely right and everyone else absolutely wrong—with the result that many of their members, and I’d say their entire leaderships, have no use for anything that doesn’t further the building of the party. For them culture is not a separate zone in which what you describe as “life’s nooks and crannies” can be creatively explored, ambiguities and all. For them culture has no role at all other than to confirm the points of view they already hold dear. It is a given that when there is an immediate public issue on which a leaflet or press release needs to be written or a speech has to be made, straightforwardness is to be favoured every time over ambiguity. But a society without the ability to question and criticise itself, which is precisely what the best poems and plays and films do, is a profoundly dysfunctional society. And even small left wing groups are their own kind of society.

So is the problem here not so much that the left suffers from bad cultural politics, but that it suffers from bad politics, full stop?

I think that the bad cultural politics is important, because it gives us a taste of the type of regime the organised far left would impose were it to come to power. For example, I doubt we’d be having this conversation in such a public and open way if the people in question were ensconced in government buildings. The way the organised far left deals with internal issues is cavalier in the extreme. They don’t even abide by their own stated rules half the time, and there is a huge amount of cynicism in the way that people are dealt with: again and again, people who have given these organisations decades of their lives are just tossed aside. The internal regimes of the far left organisations are inherently undemocratic, hence the constant splits and denunciations of former members. I’ve even heard of people being expelled by text message! I’ve known too many cases involving too many people over far too long a period of time to believe that this is anything other than a systematic failure, rather than the result of the shortcomings of this or that individual or group of individuals. This next statement will no doubt cause steam to start emerging from some comrades’ ears, but it seems to me obvious that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party are infinitely more democratic organisations than any of those on the organised far left. They can tolerate internal dissent in a way that the far left cannot, and that is a great strength.

The cultural issue leads straight to the democracy issue, which in turn leads right to the disaster that was the aftermath of the Russian revolution. What Russia proved is that, without the active particip­ation of the majority of the people in the decision-making processes, socialism cannot work. If you’re going to abolish the market, which at least tells you something about what people want, albeit in a very distorted and anarchic way, you must allow people the freedom to tell you what they want and how they want it. Otherwise socialist planning is entirely impractical.

I know I’m not the first to say this, but it is obvious now that the beliefs (1) that socialism is in some sense historically inevitable, (2) that it will solve all of the world’s problems, and (3) that it can only be brought about by a tightly organised group which does not tolerate public dissent from the party line, will always lead to disaster and probably to the restoration of capitalism as happened in Russia and eastern Europe. After all, if you believe you have all the answers to the world’s problems and can create a heaven on earth, then it is possible to justify any number of lies, any number of purges of deviant petit-bourgeois elements to achieve such an end. Trotsky and Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg and Co. did not have at their disposal the information we now do. They did not know that the limits placed on internal dissent and free expression generally in what was a time of civil war in Russia, far from being a bulwark against the restoration of capitalism, would turn out to be the first step in the long journey back towards capitalism. And I’ve no doubt that Marx would run screaming in the opposite direction from most of those who today claim to be his followers. Saying this sort of thing causes me something close to physical pain. I don’t want it to be true. Over a period of many years I have tried every other way of looking at it. But I can no longer avoid the obvious which has stared me in the face every day for at least the past five or six years.

Some people reading comments like this from you, and even some of your poetry, will conclude that here is a disillusioned former socialist who has turned renegade. You obviously reject the organised far left as it is currently—but are you rejecting revolutionary socialism as a political philosophy too?

I know there are many who’ll react to what I’m saying in the way you describe. In the past, I would have taken that line myself. Now I tend to view that as one of the ways the far left dodges valid questions: instead of bothering to come up with a proper answer, they attack the questioner. To put it at its bluntest: even if I am now in the pay of Dick Cheney and the Israelis and Galway Chamber of Commerce, that doesn’t absolve them from having to answer the points I’m making. The organised far left are meant to be the vanguard of the international working class, the most advanced and forward-looking people in the world. So come on, boys and girls, step up to the plate and demolish my argument.

I am in favour of all of the things that revolutionary socialists pretend to be in favour of. Refusing to stay quiet about flagrant hypocrisy on the left certainly has nothing at all to do with “rejecting revolutionary socialism”. What I really think is that if there is to be any hope at all of a better and workable and democratic version of socialism, then the far left needs to undergo a complete reformation, and to this end its nose has to be rubbed in all its worst mistakes. A society in which all the vast resources of the planet were under the democratic control of the man and woman in the street would be infinitely better than what we have now. The fear, the insecurity which is affecting almost everyone you meet at the moment is truly awful. A truly democratic socialist plan implemented on a global scale would have to be better than this. However, no one, and I include myself in that, will be convinced to support, or even to tolerate, a system in which there is a one party dictatorship and the whole country is run like a big fat FÁS scheme gone mad. We will not go gently into that good night, because that would be much worse than what we have—yes, worse than NAMA and Brian Cowen. But saying no to all the prospective Dear Leaders doesn’t in my mind amount to “rejecting revolutionary socialism”.

If we can focus on a specific example, ‘Firewood’, a poem in your last collection. Some people believe you were advocating military intervention in Darfur under cover of the UN, or at least tacitly supporting the idea. Where do you stand on that issue?

I don’t think that people who read this poem as me “advocating military intervention” really understand what poems are and how they are born. For a while I had been of the view that sections of the left had been accommodating themselves to Islam in a way that is not at all socialist. Obviously, one has to oppose any type of religious discrimination against any group, and I always will, but the use of the slogan “We are all Hezbollah now!” during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006 was not good. Sections of the left seemed all too willing to act like cheerleaders for what remains an Islamic funda­mentalist group—with no offence at all intended to actual cheer­leaders, most of whom have never committed such serious political mistakes. Anyway, when I read the article which contained the fatal few words “It’s problematic to describe this as genocide” something snapped in me, which is the way a poem is usually born. I saw that article as amounting to a kind of apology for the Sudanese govern­ment and the Janjaweed. The glibness of the language seemed to indicate a wish that the difficult issue of what has been happening in Darfur would go away so that the writer could go back to his preferred subject: George W Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the situation in the Sudan is horribly complicated, with Muslims massacring other Muslims and so on, and that there are no easy solutions, but the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed are clearly the bad guys, and this article was trying to muddy the waters. When you come across a phrase as glib as “It’s problematic to describe this as genocide”, dodgy politics is never far behind. To me, this was a section of the organised far left just shrugging its shoulders about a conflict that had seen the government-sponsored murder of tens of thousands and the dis­placement of many hundreds of thousands.

I have no answers in relation to Darfur: the poem is not about that. I don’t think a UN-sponsored invasion would make things better, but I would not actively oppose such action if I thought it was the least worst option. I understand the left’s desire to maintain its independent political position on these issues and to offer its own uniquely socialist answer, which obviously has no role for the UN or liberal interventionism of the type that took place in Kosovo. However, I have no time at all for the meaningless sloganeering that often goes on in these situations: the appeals to the phantom armies of the Bosnian and Rwandan working classes which were the response of some left groups to those situations. If you have no real answer, then far better to admit that rather than trying to bullshit your way to a unified theory of everything. The writer of that article had nothing to say about Darfur, and he missed an excellent opportunity to say it. Every possible pressure should be put on the Sudanese government in relation to what it’s been doing in Darfur. And the effect of that article, if it had any effect at all, would have been to take the pressure off. It amounted to scabbing on the people of Darfur in their hour of great need: that’s what provoked the poem.

The rapid move from economic boom to bust has shaken a lot of certainties in Irish society, and opened up space for questioning and for potential alternatives. What role do you see for writers and artists in that process?

Last year I used a few pages from The Great Gatsby, the scene in which the narrator describes the night he first went to one of Gatsby’s lavish gatherings at his mansion, as the basis for a writing exercise. Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy the day that course began. I always give the historical context when I’m intro­ducing a piece of writing to students, and mostly it seems to float over their heads. This time when I said that what was being described in this book, the jazz age of the 1920s, was an era very similar to the one which had just died a very sudden death here in Ireland, for the first time since I started teaching writing, I got a real sense that what was happening outside—in what Marxists like to call ‘the real world’—was in the room with us and influencing how we talked, not just about the literature of the past, but also the stories and poems the students were writing themselves. That is a big change and will I’m sure in the long run, or perhaps even in the short run, change Irish writing. My own guess would be that there’ll be a lot of novels taking to task the Celtic Tiger era in the next couple of years. Now it’s over, the boom era is somehow more digestible.

Also, though, there may be less outlets for new writers. Certainly publishers will take less risks and the arts sector in general will have less funding. I think that if the grassroots literary events which have grown so dramatically in the past few years all manage to keep going, and the signs are that they will, then they’ll become forums where the tangible discontent and anger that’s out there about what has happened and is going to happen will be given literary expression. This will especially be the case if we don’t see emigration starting up again in a serious way, as it did during the 1980s. Either way, things will not be as they have been. There was a brashness about the Irish literary scene before last year which fed into some of the writing, an idea that crisis was something you only saw on Reeling in The Years, that had nothing to do with where we thought we were. I think there will likely, as time goes on, be new literary magazines which reflect the turn world events have taken. This happened during the 1930s when magazines such as The Partisan Review became very important. There is a crying need for new literary magazines run by younger writers with a fresh way of looking at things. No one will, nor should, listen to the rants and gibes of cranky old literary gents who’ve never got over the fact that Neil Jordan and Paul Durcan are more successful than they are. But I would be most interested to read the reflections and rants of writers in their twenties, the new generation who will eventually put me in the old peoples’ home.

In terms of what role writers should play, I don’t think a writer can be judged by the number of demos he or she goes on or the number of angry letters he or she writes to The Irish Times. These things may make the person in question an excellent activist, but tell us very little about their writing. The writers I am always interested in are those who see everything in the world as their subject, and ruthlessly write the truth as they see it, come what may. Far better to do this than become a yes man or woman for this or that popular front.

State capitalism rides again!

Joe Conroy asked in Issue 37 (September 2009) how socialists should respond to the increasing economic role of the state.

It’s not that long ago that you’d have to consult the back-page wish-lists of far left newspapers to meet the demand ‘Nationalise the banks’ (exclamation mark optional). But these days, you can’t move for would-be nationalisers. It is now the official policy of the ICTU and the Labour Party that the state should take over the banking system, and plenty of mainstream economic commentators agree, many of them far from being left-wing. And this is not just theoretical: governments from Washington DC to London to Dublin have become the proud owners of banks and other concerns. State intervention in the economy is back with a vengeance, front and centre on the agenda of conventional politics.

All this has brought a wry smile to socialist faces. The staunch defenders of free enterprise, who never missed a chance to condemn the paralysing hand of government in the economy, are all of a sudden falling over each other to call on the state to bail them out. Those who hailed the market as a god-given mechanism for cutting out the dead wood and ensuring the survival of the fittest now beg the state to step in and prevent the economic system taking its natural course. And officially we’re now supposed to own some of the same banks that charged us for the privilege of giving them our money. Until very recently, you couldn’t have made it up.

But do we have anything to rejoice about in all this? Has capitalism been forced to abolish its own laws? Has the superior logic of socialism imposed itself on the economy? Does this sharply increased role of the state constitute a move towards socialist trans­formation, a step in the right direction?

The idea that socialism is about taking state ownership of the economy is widespread but false. For a start, the ultimate goal of socialism is a world without states, where human beings freely associate with each other without the need of any external agency of coercion to keep us in line. A political movement aiming at getting rid of the state could hardly have the object of making the state master of economic activity.

But if a stateless society is the final destination, does state take­over of means of production not feature somewhere along the way? It does, but the $64,000 question is: What state? Or whose state?

Marx and Engels did state clearly in the Communist Manifesto that a socialist revolution would have to “centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state”, but made it just as clear what this state would be: “the proletariat organised as ruling class”. This isn’t a case of the capitalist state nationalising companies. Instead it envisages the working class establishing organs to take and hold political power, and these organs moving to take economic power too.

Much of the misunderstanding is rooted in a stereotyped conception of what capitalism is. It is generally seen as a system of privately-owned companies competing against each other and selling their products through markets. While this undoubtedly corresponds to a considerable amount of capitalist activity, it is not the only type, and neither is it the system’s defining characteristic. The basis of capitalism is the exploitation of people who don’t own means of production by those who do, extracting surplus value beyond the wage allowed to workers. Such capitalist ownership and exploitation can be individual and private, but it can just as well be collective and statified. The subordination of the worker’s life-activity to the dictates of capital remains fundamentally the same.

Far from contradicting each other, privately-owned capital and state-sponsored capital complement each other. Capitalism has ever and always utilised the state to forcibly create the conditions it needs to prosper. Where private capital has proved unable to develop especially the transport and communications infrastructure it needed, the state has shouldered the burden for it. This all reinforces the socialist contention that the state is no neutral arbiter standing above classes but—as the Communist Manifesto puts it—“a committee that manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeois class”, even occasionally pursuing that class’s common interest in opposition to individual sectors of it.

The best socialist thinkers were unambiguous that there was nothing socialist about nationalisation. Engels noted in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that

a certain spurious socialism has made its appearance—here and there even degenerating into a kind of flunkeyism—which declares that all taking over by the state, even the Bismarckian kind, is in itself socialistic. If, however, the taking over of the tobacco trade by the state was socialistic, Napoleon and Metternich would rank among the founders of socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, constructed its own main railway lines; if Bismarck, without any economic compulsion, took over the main railway lines in Prussia, simply in order to be better able to organise and use them for war… such actions were in no sense socialist measures, whether direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious. Otherwise, the royal maritime company, the royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailors in the army, would be socialist institutions…

In ‘State Monopoly versus Socialism’, a chapter of his pamphlet The New Evangel, Connolly observed growing demands for nationalis­ation, but was adamant that

to call such demands ‘Socialistic’ is in the highest degree mis­leading. Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism, it is only State Capitalism.…
Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism—if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are all State officials—but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials of labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.…
It will thus be seen that an immense gulf separates the ‘nationalising’ proposals of the middle class from the ‘social­ising’ demands of the revolutionary working class. The first proposes to endow a Class State—repository of the political power of the Capitalist Class—with certain powers and func­tions to be administered in the common interest of the possess­ing class; the second proposes to subvert the Class State and replace it with the Socialist State, representing organised society —the Socialist Republic. To the cry of the middle-class reform­ers, ‘Make this, or that, the property of the government,’ we reply, ‘Yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.’

The early Communist International held to a similar position. Speaking at its 1922 congress, Trotsky dealt with those who claimed that property was being progressively socialised under capitalism:

To this we Marxists replied that so long as political power remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie this socialization was not socialization at all and that it would not lead to socialism but only to state capitalism. To put it differently, the ownership of various factories, railways and so on by diverse capitalists would be superseded by an ownership of the totality of enter­prises, railways and so on by the very same bourgeois firm, called the state. In the same measure as the bourgeoisie retains political power, it will, as a whole, continue to exploit the proletariat through the medium of state capitalism, just as an individual bourgeois exploits, by means of private ownership, “his own” workers. The term “state capitalism” was thus put forward, or at all events, employed polemically by revolutionary Marxists against the reformists, for the purpose of explaining and proving that genuine socialization begins only after the conquest of power by the working class.

State capitalism grew immensely through the twentieth century. The world wars saw states taking over the direction of whole economies, laying down what was to be produced, when, how and by whom. Gaps in post-war economies were filled by nationalising energy generation, transport and other strategic sectors. In extreme cases, this general tendency went as far as turning whole societies state capitalist—in Russia, eastern Europe, China, Cuba and else­where—even installing a whole new state capitalist class sometimes.

Ironically in view of his stubborn refusal to apply the concept to Stalin’s Russia, Trotsky’s comments envisage a “bourgeois firm, called the state” exploiting the whole working class. Marx foresaw the theoretical possibility in Capital when describing capital’s tendency towards centralisation: “In a given society this limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.”

The reality of workers’ exploitation in Stalinist societies escapes explanation unless the capitalist dynamic underlying their econ­omies is understood. Claiming them as socialist societies leaves us supporting that exploitation; defending them as some kind of halfway house between capitalism and socialism leaves us essen­tially making excuses for it. The nature of such societies is not an un­important historical matter, but a vital issue for today. People have a right to know what socialism is and what socialism isn’t, and unless they hear unequivocally that it has as little in common with state capitalist dictatorship as it has with Western private capitalism, who can blame them for turning elsewhere?

So nationalisation is not something to be supported on principle by socialists. The current wave of bank nationalisations, for instance, is something we should oppose. It would be better to let the banks and their rich clients stew in their own juice than to nationalise their debts and force working-class taxpayers to pull the irons out of the fire for them. When governments pay top dollar to their friends to make the rest of us pay for the error of their ways, nationalisation is clearly serving the interests of the capitalist class.

Surely nationalised companies like CIÉ or the ESB should be defended against privatisation, though? They should, but we need to be clear what exactly we are defending and why. The mere fact of state ownership in itself isn’t worth defending. But privatisation in­variably means an attack on the conditions of workers in a company and on the services it provides, and that is something to oppose all the way. Defending the current structures of a state company—with a slogan along the lines of ‘Hands Off CIÉ’, for example—ignores the miserable realities of life for workers employed there or dependent on its services. The only viable stance is to oppose any attempt to worsen the situation of workers while putting forward a radically different way of running things.

There is sometimes an actual contradiction between defending the interests of the working class and defending a nationalised company. Some state companies are turned into unashamedly commercial enterprises without being privatised. Even before it was sold off, Aer Lingus was virtually indistinguishable from most private airlines as far as its workers were concerned. The process which brought that about was accepted by many trade unionists in the vain hope that it might stave off privatisation, but in fact it only paved the way for it. Because nationalisation as such was seen as something to be defended rather than the concrete position of workers, unions who thought they were keeping the butcher at bay ended up helping to fatten the company up for him.

The traditional left-wing solution of calling for something to be nationalised ‘under workers’ control’ is inadequate. It reproduces the top-down takeover of an enterprise by the state while holding out the illusion that somehow workers will be in the driving seat rather than the capitalist class who own that state. Consciously or unconsciously, it confuses the issue: capitalist state control is the opposite of workers’ control, not its companion. While it isn’t possible to create islands of socialism in a capitalist ocean, a co-operative run by workers that demands resources from the state with no strings attached is far better than a nationalised corporation with workers on the board of management.

The ‘free market’ phase of capitalism held ideological sway for a generation and more, but that period is now coming to an end. More and more, the system is turning towards state capitalism to see it through the present crisis. This makes it even more important for socialists to clearly articulate their attitude to it. Our job is not to replace private employers with a state employer, but to replace the rule of capital—private or state—with the rule of the working class, laying the foundations for a society of free associated labour. As capitalism gets more brutal in its attacks on workers, they need to look, not to the state, but to their own latent power to collectively take charge of society and rebuild it from the ground up.

South Africa: A revolution betrayed

Tara O’Sullivan reviewed a study of life after apartheid in Issue 36 (June 2009).

Ed Walsh, South Africa: The new apartheid (Irish Socialist Network)

When South Africa’s first democratic election took place in 1994, the sheer size of the new electorate created huge logistical problems at polling stations. A black woman in one of the queues was asked by a television journalist how long she had been waiting to vote. “Three hundred years”, she replied. The end of apartheid, the abolition of a political tyranny based on the most brutal and naked racism, still stands forth as one of the great human achievements of recent history. But the economic situation of most black South Africans has actually worsened in the intervening years: unemployment has doubled, as has the number surviving on a dollar a day. This tragic downside of the new South Africa is expertly detailed in this well-produced new pamphlet.

By the late 1980s white capital in South Africa and its inter­national allies were realising that apartheid’s days were numbered, but as one corporate bigwig quoted here put it, “We dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bath-water of apartheid.” They exerted immense pressure to ensure that any post-apartheid society wouldn’t stray from the capitalist straight-and-narrow. The usual ideological and financial pressure was reinforced by the state-backed military squads of Inkatha, raising the spectre of a civil war such as was visited on other southern African countries after independence. All this meant that even if the African National Congress were minded to rock the economic boat, they would do so at a terrifying cost.

To this external coercion, Walsh adds an internal factor usually given little attention, what he calls “The inadequacy of democratic practice within the ANC”. Working underground led to decisions being made by leaders in secret, but the same pattern prevailed even in democratic conditions. The story is told here of a leader of the South African Communist Party who expressed quite mild criticisms of the ANC, with whom his party is allied. A frenzied reaction from the ANC leadership led to a craven apology and a public recantation of his errors, the whole affair having a whiff of 1930s Moscow about it. Such an authoritarian political culture means that those articulat­ing the interests of working people against economic and political elites usually got a very muted hearing within the organisation.

The ANC’s object was never just winning the right to vote for all: it “promised to deliver both political and economic liberation”. While its Freedom Charter was long on general aspirations and short on specific measures, it did commit to nationalising mines, banks and big monopolies. Taken along with affirmations that economic power too had to be transferred to the people, this “could provide a bridge between political and economic liberation”, the author argues. But at the same time, there was always a “calculated ambiguity” to the Freedom Charter, a social vision which “was often too vague” and a constant tendency “to dilute social and economic demands to the lowest common denominator”.

This has a familiar ring to it: a cross-class movement for political freedom that promises to do right by the workers if they loyally fall in behind the leadership. History (not least Irish history) provides countless examples of such a strategy leaving the working class stuck on the bottom rung. Whenever the working class just takes its place in a movement claiming to represent the mutual interest of all classes, patriotically postponing its own demands for the common good, it ends up getting shafted. Only if it organises for its own interests, at the same time as it fights against oppression shoulder to shoulder with others, does it have a chance of avoiding that fate.

The nationalisation proposed by the Freedom Charter was never an attack on capitalism as such, but on sections of the capitalist class which had traditionally propped up apartheid. True, it could have become a bridge to somewhere else, but different classes always envisage different destinations for the journey. If the one thing everyone is agreed on is crossing the bridge, how can socialists turn things leftwards after that? Only by proclaiming the need for that turn early and often, and mobilising workers for it. Otherwise things will invariably go with the flow of the established order.

The specific changes being implemented are important, but so is the question of who implements them: which class is in the driving seat? Workers consciously and collectively directing events could have resisted attempts to maintain capitalist privilege intact. But a programme based on others granting reforms to workers from on high could readily follow the early 1990s trend of social democratic and Communist parties across the world and suddenly discover its left-wing promises to be unrealistic.

South Africa’s main trade union federation and Communist Party remain in alliance with the ANC, hoping to shift its policies to the left. But the events of the past fifteen years pose them a powerful dilemma:

can the ANC-led alliance change direction? And if it cannot, can a new movement take up the banner of radical economic trans­formation?… They will have to consider whether the symbiotic relationship between leading ANC cadres and a new black bourgeoisie—which they have themselves noted—makes a parting of the ways of the sections of the Alliance inevitable.… The evidence appears strongly in favour of those who argue that the ANC is irreformable and that left-wing forces in South Africa will have to build a new movement.

Indeed it does, and the author presents that evidence very strongly. But what he fails to do is push for a conviction. Instead, he is like a lawyer who shows the jury incontestable proof but then goes no further than observing that the accused appears to be guilty, sits down and rests his case without calling on them to put him away. Should socialists cut loose from the ANC? He concludes that “that argument may continue”, without telling us where he stands himself. It’s a fair guess that his sympathies lie with those looking to break to the left, but he would have stimulated the debate further by coming off the fence.

Possibly the most valuable chapter of the pamphlet, however, relates a successful example of opposition to the ANC in govern­ment. Over five million South Africans are living with HIV and AIDS, an oppressed group in their own right dealing with a life-and-death crisis. The official response has been notorious, with former president Thabo Mbeki letting on that anti-retroviral drugs were no use because HIV didn’t lead to AIDS at all, and a health minister even prescribing a garlic and beetroot cure! It is shown clearly here that this was no oddball quirkiness, but a deliberate policy to avoid confronting the multinational pharmaceutical companies and their expensive stronghold on the necessary treatment. A grassroots movement took on the government and global capital, and forced them to belatedly reverse their position and make cheaper drugs available. Such an approach, fighting outside the ANC and even in spite of it, holds the key to winning economic freedom.

Potentially, the South African working class is very well positioned, and its recent political traditions are exceptionally strong. The resistance of the 1980s which proved to be apartheid’s last stand was powered in part by the growth of an inspiring and combative black workers’ movement, some of whom advocated an independent strategy: “There were often fierce debates within the emerging labour movement between ‘Charterist’ trade unionists who were partisans of the ANC and ‘workerist’ militants who tended to give more stress to specifically working-class demands.” We could have done with hearing a little more of those debates and the inspiring struggles that gave rise to them, of the strikes taking place in today’s South Africa (despite repression reminiscent of the bad old days) and of the left that has stayed outside of the ANC consensus. April’s election showed how strong the ANC’s hege­mony remains, but Jacob Zuma’s promise of change could be writing cheques that he can’t cash, raising expectations that may provide openings for South African socialists.

But there is no doubt that this pamphlet is an excellent starting point in understanding the stark reality faced by working people in South Africa today. It quotes a speech by Nelson Mandela to trade unionists in 1993, speculating whether it represented genuine personal unease or an attempt to head off left-wing discontent at the pass—but whatever his motivation, it would be hard to put the question any clearer than Prisoner 46664 did then:

How many times has a labour movement supported a liberation movement, only to find itself betrayed on the day of liberation? There are many examples of this in Africa. If the ANC does not deliver the goods you must do to it what you did to the apartheid regime.