Socialist Classics: William Morris, ‘News from Nowhere’

In Issue 51 (March 2013) Henry Gibson examined a book that pictures a vision of socialist society and how to get there.

William Morris retains his fascination as one of the most remarkable and diversely talented people who have shaped, and been shaped by, the movement for socialism. The glimpse of a socialist society he gave us dates from 1890, but the century and more that have elapsed between him and ourselves has done little to diminish the inspiring power of that vision.

News from Nowhere sprang in large part from his dissatisfaction with the way socialism was commonly being envisaged at the time. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had been published in the US three years earlier and taken a grip on the public imagination. Its protagonist wakes up in the year 2000 in a world of planned equality where the irrationalities of capitalism are no more. Morris was all but horrified, however, at its depiction of a society that differed from contemporary capitalism primarily in being run more efficiently. Human beings in this utopia were cogs in a huge machine, albeit cogs with a fairer standard of living, with no say in running things until their retirement. What’s more, Bellamy presented this society as emerging peacefully as a natural development of capital­ism’s own tendencies. In 1889 Fabian Essays in Socialism appeared in Britain, outlining the Fabian Society’s conception of socialism as a reformed version of capitalism, to be gradually introduced by sympathetic liberal politicians. This prospect of a state administered by enlightened planners, with the idea of a liberated human existence conspicuous by its absence, severely rubbed Morris up the wrong way, and he said as much around the time he was beginning his book.

Alongside these, Morris faced tension among his own comrades. He was a prominent member of the Socialist League, an openly revolutionary organisation formed five years earlier. In the meantime it had rejected on principle standing in parliamentary elections—a position Morris wholeheartedly endorsed—and then gone on to embrace anarchism more and more openly—a position Morris didn’t share. News from Nowhere was serialised in The Commonweal, the League’s paper which Morris edited, but by the time its final chapter appeared, he had been replaced by an explicitly anarchist editor. The book’s opening sentence has its events following from a discussion “Up at the League” on a post-revolutionary society, and week by week it portrayed a socialism which went against the grain of the new orthodoxy prevailing in the League. Subtitling his story ‘An Epoch of Rest’, Morris was imagining a time beyond the storm and stress of party divisions, focussing on what should be the end goal of it all. Its protagonist feels that his experiences “should be told to our comrades” as well as the general public.

The introductory chapter is conventionally told, but the narrator then shifts to the first person “since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world does”. Morris hardly bothers to hide the fact that the protagonist is himself: his name is William, and he happens to be 56 years old, as Morris was in 1890. So this new world is not presented to us objectively to be accepted as a finished article, but revealed bit by bit through Morris’s eyes, with all his incomprehension, questions, and reservations.

There are certainly things to doubt and question in what Morris puts before us. The educational system of this society, for instance, is not to have one, to just leave children and adults to acquire whatever learning they may happen to pick up along the way. The rustic paradise of it all sometimes suggests a 1950s Hollywood movie where the happy folk of Ye Olde England merrily ply their trades in the forest as a lute sounds in the background. You could certainly imagine a baffled Danny Kaye making a fool of himself as Morris’s hero does when he tries to offer strange old things called money in return for goods received, or when he fails to understand that people in their forties now look younger than people in their twenties did when harassed by the worries of capitalist society. The Commonweal’s readership would certainly have appreciated the running anti-parliamentary gag about the Palace of Westminster having been converted into a place for storing dung.

Sometimes in News from Nowhere, though, the most radical changes have the most practical feel. With no private property to own or covet, crime has become largely a thing of the past, and civilised living is taken for granted, as Hammond—a character whose main function is to explain the new society—describes:

We have been living for a hundred and fifty years, at least, more or less in our present manner, and a tradition or habit of life has been growing on us; and that habit has become a habit of acting on the whole for the best. It is easy for us to live without robbing each other. It would be possible for us to contend with and rob each other, but it would be harder for us than refraining from strife and robbery.

This habit is occasionally broken, of course, either through a break­down in an individual’s mental health—“in which case he must be restrained until his illness or madness is cured”—or a freak rush of blood to the head. Either way, such instances are treated as “the errors of friends, not the habitual actions of persons driven into enmity against society”. The most notorious case mentioned in the book is someone who accidentally killed a man in a jealous fight over a woman they both loved. The fact that it is such a cause of comment underlines its rarity, and the remorse he has to live with is considered worse than any punishment would be.

So Morris doesn’t claim that the revolution will abolish un­requited love, but he does show it having established relationships between the sexes which are based on free will and equality. Partner­ships are formed, broken and reformed casually enough, as people desire themselves: “families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases”. There is no need for courts to sanction or dissolve such relations, and importantly, “there is no code of public opinion which takes the place of such courts, and which might be as tyrannical and unreasonable as they were”. People still hold opinions, right or wrong, on the affairs of others, but there is no unbending standard of moral rectitude imposed on them.

Unfortunately, News from Nowhere doesn’t anticipate an end to the sexual division of labour. Domestic work and child rearing still fall to the lot of women, albeit free from economic degradation. The visitor is asked: “don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a clever woman to manage a house skilfully, and to do it so that all the house-mates about her look pleased, and are grateful to her?” The idea that women be freed of the burden of parenting is described as a “strange piece of baseless folly”, and instead woman is “respected as a child-bearer and rearer of children”. It is good to hear that such important work is recognised as such, but there is nothing approaching an explanation of why it should still be woman’s work. Could men not be equally willing and able to run a house, equally willing and able to bring up children if not actually give birth to them? Could this society not be making provision for such work to be done more collectively, as and when women and men wanted that? While ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to the liberation of women, Morris failed to go all the way with it, and as a result this is one aspect of his book which has dated very badly.

On the other hand, the actual portrayal of female characters does go beyond this. They are not in fact contented housewives or mothers, but quite emancipated women, and they exercise an attraction for the central character which he isn’t shy about expressing. Morris must have thought likewise: living in a less than happy marriage himself, his longing for someone like Ellen, the free spirit in love with life and nature who appears in the latter half of the book, is evident.

Love of nature shines through the whole of News from Nowhere, “love of the very skin and surface of the earth… a nature bettered and not worsened by contact with mankind”. The visitor is constantly shocked to see that districts he knew as polluted slums are now clean and pleasant places for people to live. London has shrunk, and people now live in smaller communities. Following the revolution people flocked from the cities to populate the countryside, “so that the difference between town and country grew less and less” with the “world of the country vivified by the thought and briskness of town-bred folk”. This rational relationship of humanity to the rest of the natural world reverses the old way of seeing things, and again it is a woman who points it out:

Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature’, as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another. It was natural to people thinking in this way that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was some­thing outside them.

The key to the whole transformation is work, which is of course the key to human life at any time or place. As Hammond explains, socialism couldn’t exist without radically reshaping human labour:

What is the object of Revolution? Surely to make people happy. Revolution having brought its foredoomed change about, how can you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in except by making people happy?… And happiness without happy daily work is impossible.

Work has become pleasurable, something people enjoy doing and take pride in. Artistic creation has become the norm: “the production of what used to be called art… has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces”. There is no pretence that such a state of affairs came about overnight, but now it is established, there is no contradiction between the satisfaction of need and the need for satisfaction: “as we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them”, says Hammond, even sacrificing technical efficiency whenever it robs work of its joy. The basic principle, he explains, is “the freedom for every man to do what he can do best, joined to the knowledge of what productions of labour we really wanted”.

This is expanded upon in two passages that Morris added to News from Nowhere between its serialisation in The Commonweal and its publication as a book in 1891. One deals with the impression that work in this society is “a mere part of a summer holiday” by showing a gang repairing a road. While this is difficult and necessary work, they deprive fulfilment from it, with the physical exertion making a welcome change to the more sedentary occupations they would engage in at other times. A new chapter focusses on “The Obstinate Refusers”, a group of artists, led by a sculptress, who prefer to renovate an old house than to go haymaking with everyone else. There is something of a general bemusement at their desire to do their own thing, but nothing like hostility, suggesting that individual inspiration has a secure place in a society of mutual solidarity. The secret of it all, Morris’s character concludes, is that people “had at last learned to accept life itself as a pleasure, and the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, and the preparation for them, as work fit for the best of the race”.

The administration of this society is not a matter for a specialised class: “the whole people is our parliament” is how Hammond puts it. He explains that each local community has regular meetings where anyone can propose to do something new or different. If they get some support, the proposal is put off to the next meeting while people discuss arguments for and against. At that meeting a vote is taken.

If the division is a close one, the question is again put off for further discussion; if the division is a wide one, the minority are asked if they will yield to the more general opinion, which they often, nay, most commonly do. If they refuse, the question is debated a third time, when, if the minority has not perceptibly grown, they always give way; though I believe there is some half-forgotten rule by which they might still carry it on further; but I say, what always happens is that they are convinced, not perhaps that their view is the wrong one, but that they cannot persuade or force the community to adopt it.

If the vote is still close, the rule is that “the question must lapse, and the majority, if so narrow, has to submit to sitting down under the status quo”, although in practice, the minority usually yields by this point.

This amounts to democracy in practice. In individual affairs people can do as they wish, and in social affairs “the majority must have their way” at the end of the day. This ran directly counter to an individualist type of anarchism then becoming stronger in the Socialist League, which maintained that no one could ever submit to the will of another without being a slave. Morris’s character puts this point of view to Hammond, “that every man should be quite in­dependent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”, but the very notion only causes them both to burst out laughing. Hammond states that the only alternative to consensus-based majority rule would be some kind of a privileged class making decisions and having them enforced, whereas no one “needs an elaborate system of government, with its army, navy and police, to force him to give way to the will of the majority of his equals”.

Morris challenges his anarchist colleagues in “How The Change Came”, a chapter twice as long as any other in the book. The over­throw of the old system is related here by Hammond, who is another alter ego of the author’s: “in truth his face… seemed strangely familiar to me; as if I had seen it before—in a looking-glass it might be”. The revolutionary narrative Morris puts in his mouth is no sudden thunderclap brought about by the bombs and bullets of underground agitators, but a process of political change working itself upwards in plain sight, emerging historically out of the ruins of the society it brought down, with the revolution located over sixty years after News from Nowhere appeared.

The idea of a society of freedom and equality had emerged in the nineteenth century, but the power of the ruling class was so great “that some of those more enlightened men who were then called Socialists… shrunk from what seemed to them the barren task of preaching the realisation of a happy dream… had no faith in it”. So they believed “in their impatience and despair” that the system could be modified by something “which was known at the time as State Socialism” so that the working class “might have their slavery some­what ameliorated”. Some improvements were brought about, but “that instinct which produced the passion for freedom and equality” persisted among the workers, and remained unsatisfied.

The trade union movement had often fallen victim to corrupt leaders, we are told, but did succeed in winning improvements from employers and the state, and expanding the organisation of the workers. An economic crisis led to it demanding workers’ control over the economy, which was met by military repression. The response was a general strike, the workers boycotting the capitalist class while busily arranging distribution of goods for themselves.

now that the times called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot; and a new network of work­men’s associations grew up very speedily, whose avowed single object was the tiding over of the ship of the community into a simple condition of Communism; and as they practically undertook also the management of the ordinary labour-war, they soon became the mouthpiece and intermediary of the whole of the working classes…

Arresting their leaders proved pointless, “For they depended not on a carefully arranged centre… but on a huge mass of people in thorough sympathy with the movement”. All the while, the ideas and activity of socialists had been making themselves felt throughout the working class. Although most of the rank and file soldiers came over to the workers’ side, unofficial capitalist militias fought on, and capitalism was only beaten after a couple of years of bitter civil war. The workers were victorious because “the very conflict itself… developed the necessary talent amongst them”, experience which proved invaluable in laying the foundations of the new society.

Morris wrote when the world had little experience of actual workers’ revolution, beyond the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the outline he sketches coincides to such an extent with revolutionary situations since. The general strike, the spread of grassroots workers’ councils, the dis­semination of socialist ideas among the working class, the army splitting along class lines, the tough challenges of definitive class struggle themselves equipping people to take over society: it comes close to a checklist of how revolutions happen, of what factors need to be present for them to win.

It wasn’t long after the final chapter appeared in The Commonweal that Morris left the Socialist League, having concluded that it had outlived its usefulness in spreading sane socialist politics. The main thing was to convince people on the ground that socialism was necessary and possible, he wrote in his parting shot: “When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice.” In News from Nowhere Hammond looks back to Morris’s time, which is still very much our own time too: “knowledge, discontent, treachery, dis­appointment, ruin, misery, despair—those who worked for the change because they could see further than other people went through all these phases of suffering”. William wakes up in the end, of course, but far from cursing it all as only an idle dream, he wants others to see it so that it can become a vision. He remembers Ellen’s last look and the message it conveyed:

Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.

Fifty shades of red

In December 2012, Red Banner marked its fiftieth issue.

This is the fiftieth issue of Red Banner, an event which should be marked, even if only in passing. This magazine has certainly earned the right to give itself a pat on the back. Publishing fifty consecutive issues of an independent socialist magazine over fifteen years is some­thing to be proud of. Hitting the big five-o is all the more impressive given that the feat has been achieved without the things usually considered essential to success in the field: money, an organisation, a party line. Red Banner has succeeded on nothing more than an un­selfish commitment to discuss and spread socialist ideas freely, and the fact that enough people have been interested enough in that proposition to keep reading and writing and selling it.

Having said that, nothing could be further from our mind than to ignore the things we haven’t succeeded in doing. There remain many questions of vital importance to socialist activity that this magazine has not discussed as much as they deserve. Others have been discussed, but fitfully and with less consideration than they merit. The truth that we have also focussed on areas that suffer from a serious lack of analysis on the left cannot obscure these failings. Red Banner has never claimed to be the last word in socialist discussion, and never will, but it does stand open as a genuine forum for socialists with something to say. That openness has remedied some of our short­comings over the years, and remains key in doing so in future.

Introspection has never been our style, however. Rather than talk about what the magazine has done and has yet to do, we prefer to address it in practice. Work is already underway on issue 51, with more to follow, and we need our readers to play their part as always. We thank all those who have helped Red Banner get this far against the odds, in sincere acknowledgement that their contribution has been crucial at all times. We make bold to presume on their continued support, and that yet others will lend a hand too as we move on.

The necessity for socialist ideas to grow more powerful and popular is one that won’t need explaining to our readers. They will be all too well aware that the left is currently far from equal to the task of facing down a vicious system in crisis. Those who entertain illusions to the contrary can find plenty of other means to feed them. Red Banner’s role in building an alternative is a small one, but necessary and worthwhile. The need for the ideas of socialism to guide the practical struggles of working people against capitalism has rarely been greater.

Drawing on our history

Noel McDermott reviewed a book on Irish Worker cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh in Issue 49 (September 2012).

James Curry, Artist of the Revolution: The cartoons of Ernest Kavanagh (1884-1916) (Mercier)

The rise of Irish labour that took place a century ago cannot be understood without its cultural aspect. As Seán O’Casey famously put it, the point was not just to put a loaf on the table but a flower in the vase, to win a life that would be beautiful as well as tolerable. The young Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union fostered the arts as well as improving working conditions, never seeing any contra­diction between the two. When its phenomenal paper The Irish Worker gave expression to the strivings of workers for emancipation, it did so in pictures as well as words. Most of its cartoons came from the pen of Ernest Kavanagh, who finally gets his historical due in James Curry’s evocative book.

A mass of biographical fact is unfortunately crammed into one footnote, and it might have been helpful to remark that the Dublin street where Kavanagh was born is now called Hogan Place. He was born there in 1884, the son of an 1860s Fenian. The 1901 census shows him as an “Artist (Unemployed)” living off the South Circular Road (neither the first or last). The Christian Brothers who educated him would hardly have approved, but they would have been happy to know that he was a clerk for a carrier’s firm come the next census. When the ITGWU began to operate the new National Insurance system in 1912, he started to work for them. Someone in Liberty Hall soon discovered his flair for drawing (possibly Delia Larkin, it seems), and he started contributing cartoons to The Irish Worker that year.

That wasn’t his only outlet, however. A cartoon from Irish Freedom in 1912 shows that his father’s Fenianism had left its mark. Some of his best work was for The Irish Citizen, a paper demanding the right to vote for women. The often noted coming together of labour, national and women’s movements in the period is echoed in the spread of Kavanagh’s cartoons.

One suffragette cartoon excoriates nationalist leader John Redmond, who wanted an Irish parliament but wouldn’t let Irish­women vote for it. It caused outrage in the Redmondite press and was reprinted as a postcard. A 1913 cartoon of William Martin Murphy as a vulture looking down on a workers’ corpse was cited by Murphy’s lawyer at an official inquiry as evidence of The Irish Worker’s persecution of him.

Curry emphasises that “Kavanagh’s work was character­ised by an anger and indignation which set him apart from his fellow artists” (p 49). His was no good-natured ribbing, all in jest, good clean fun capable of being laughed off by its targets, but a hot hatred of the powers that be and the in­justices they presided over. It is made clear here that his vitriolic portrayals of the police predate 1913, and so weren’t just a reaction to their brutality in the lockout. He shared the contempt of the movement in general for its enemies. In a letter to The Irish Worker he wrote that “the man who would ‘assist the police’ in Ireland would be capable of any crime in the calendar” (p 120).

But is it art? Are the cartoons any good as cartoons? The truth is they’re not bad at all. The caricatures of public figures do actually resemble them, and recognising the object of ridicule is arguably the most important point in a satirical cartoon. But the standard does vary, and never reaches the real heights of artistic ability. This may well have something to do with the compulsion to be creative to a deadline, reacting immediately to events or editorial demands. He did drawings that weren’t political too, but we can’t compare them because they were seized in an army raid on the family home in 1916.

The author apologises just a little too much for Kavanagh’s ability, with a strange argument (p 28, 50-1):

the lack of technical sophistication in ‘E.K.’s cartoons should not be viewed negatively. If Kavanagh had produced more carefully drawn and ‘sophisticated’ cartoons they would have looked out of place in The Irish Worker, which essentially specialised in convey­ing messages of blunt immediacy.… While it is true his work possesses more historical importance than artistic merit, his talent is unquestionable. Kavanagh may not have been as technically accomplished or politically incisive as other more celebrated cartoonists from his era, yet his illustrations could nearly always be relied upon to serve their purpose and provoke a reaction.

However, Larkinism rightly held that nothing was too good for the working class, and would never have placed artistic and political value in opposition to each other. Better drawn cartoons would have made their point stronger, then and now.

Comparisons with contemporary left cartooning make the argument clearer still. It is acknowledged here, as it was at the time, that Will Dyson’s Daily Herald cartoons were better both artistically and politically. The same goes internationally, if you look at the cartoons of Der wahre Jacob in Germany or The Masses in the US during the same period. This book reproduces a cartoon from a non-political magazine whose take on police brutality in the Dublin lockout is both better drawn and more starkly expressed than Kavanagh’s. In fact one of Kavanagh’s best pieces—a pair of degenerate specimens of manhood saying women are too inferior to have the vote—works because subtlety trumps immediacy, the slight delay in getting the joke making its point more effectively.

The case of his sister Maeve Cavanagh, whose poetry often appeared in The Irish Worker, sometimes accompanying his cartoons, is similar. Friendly critics quoted here make no literary claims for her doggerel, stressing instead its ability to stir readers to action. We will have to take their word for it, because the examples of her work given here are hardly worth a second glance. Her biggest claim to fame is James Connolly’s admiration, but the poetic faculty was never one of his numerous talents. Even from a utilitarian point of view, the verses of Andrew P Wilson worked better with Kavanagh’s cartoons, as in these lines beneath an asinine judge: “If the rich rob the poor, / It’s quite (L)awful, I’m sure, / But it’s Ass Law as pure / As can be” (p 64).

A mystery surrounds two cartoons here (p 98-101) which first appeared in a posthumous collection. In them Kavanagh portrays Bulmer Hobson, prominent in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, as a tinpot rebel within the law, holding back those who want to take the fight to the British empire. Curry estimates that one “was most likely drawn at some stage during the opening months of 1916”, and the other one is so similar that it must be of the same provenance.

However, Hobson is shown with a copy of Irish Freedom, a paper suppressed in December 1914, with Hobson forced out of it earlier that year. The ridicule of Hobson would complement the attacks Connolly was making on the conservative wing of the Volunteer leadership in late 1915 until he discovered and joined the militant IRB faction preparing a rebellion in spite of them. That would suggest that the cartoons were done for The Workers’ Republic. That paper didn’t go in for cartoons, however: perhaps its printing press wasn’t suitable, or perhaps Connolly just didn’t think as much of Ernest’s cartoons as he did of Maeve’s poems. (The evidence for Connolly calling him “the artist of the revolution” (p 51) is unconvincing.)

Kavanagh never joined the Citizen Army or the Volunteers. An article after his death put this down to an “inherent antipathy to discipline” (p 31), but that’s artists for you. However, he must have felt the call of duty on the second day of the Easter rising and went to Liberty Hall to offer his services. There were no rebels there by then, but a British sniper shot him dead on the steps of the building. Not satisfied with that, the authorities covered up the killing and even tried to hint that republican forces had been responsible.

A friend remembered him in terms which give an idea of the humanity that spurred him on (p 29):

Poor E.K., an artist of promise whose art was ever at the service of his class and country without thought of reward… The poverty and wretchedness of the Dublin workers weighed heavily upon his heart, enshrouding him in pessimism when it did not half madden him. I have seen the blood surge in a crimson wave over his usually pale face at the sight of a shivering half-starved child whilst his hand went to his pocket for his last few coppers.

It seems curious, even disturbing, that little trace of his work lived after him, even a photograph by the looks of it. But a poem of his sister’s (from 1919, by which time her poetry was showing some promise) addresses the point well (p 122-3):

Each cause you served to victory surges onward,
What if their annals keep no niche for you,
Will e’er your soul from its great quest look backward,
Wistful that men withheld your little due?

Nay, you would smile your quiet smile, as ever,
Thinking of names the world remembered not;
They who had borne the torch where light was never—
With those, ’twere more than fame to be forgot.

In the same year’s ‘James Connolly’ she made a similar point: “contemptuous of fame / His very name he left the world to ask.” Those who freely contribute their talents to the cause are of course far more worthy of memory than those forever trying to pre-book a plot for themselves in posterity. Artist of the Revolution does a fine job of remembering the life and work of a man we should know of. He pictured the injustices our class faced and their struggles against them, and that gallery has still too many blank walls.

Our friends in the north

In Issue 48 (June 2012) Maeve Connaughton looked at the state of unionism in the midst of many of its anniversaries.

The urban geography of Belfast has long presented the outsider with a bewildering patchwork of cheek-by-jowl contradictions, inexplicable outside of the sectarian conflict which has defined the city as much as Venice is defined by its canals. While the violent outpouring of that conflict has lessened of late, the lines of division remain clear on the ground. The aftermath has brought a fresh innovation to Belfast, however, as areas of the city designate themselves as ‘quarters’ of one sort or another, with a breezy disregard for the laws of conventional mathematics insisting that quarters are limited to four.

One such is the ‘Titanic Quarter’, spearheading the bright tourist future of the city through the faded glories of its industrial past, and simultaneously hoping to mimic the notorious dockland speculation of other cities. Belfast’s historic contribution to shipbuilding is impressive, without a doubt, but cannot escape its contribution to bigotry. The shipyards in which marvels of human ingenuity were produced also saw callous, devious, vicious means contrived to systematically exclude workers of one religious persuasion from the work. It could be history’s revenge that all of this is commemorated, not by the many ships which majestically ploughed the seas, but by the one which failed with tragic consequences.

But Protestant Ulster has more to celebrate than the centenary of a sinking ship. 1912 saw the more successful launch of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant to resist the introduction of Home Rule to Ireland. Thousands of Ulstermen signed up to oppose a law being constitutionally enacted by the United Kingdom parliament, and soon backed up their opposition with the Ulster Volunteer Force and well-laid plans for a provisional government to deny London’s right to rule their province.

It isn’t just in unionist mythology that this period features as Ulster’s finest hour. To many others it proves—along with other phases of unionism before and since—that the north’s Protestants are a people who will stand for what they believe in, and are entitled to get it. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” is a pithy and belligerent way of putting it, but the principle has widespread acceptance. It is now generally believed that we are dealing with a community, or a tradition, or a people, or even a nation, who have every right to maintain their own identity up to and including a state separate from the rest of this island. The political expression of this is given equal validity with Irish nationalism, just as legitimate (or illegitimate, according to taste) and as worthy of vindication.

The problems with this analysis start coming thick and fast as soon as you take the rare step of asking what exactly this identity is based on, what it is that separates those in question from other inhabitants of Ulster and Ireland. The claim of British nationality has never been entertained by anyone in Britain itself, much as unionists want them to. Protestant Belfast does have a true right to boast of two sporting geniuses in George Best and Alex Higgins, but both discovered on moving to Manchester that no one regarded them as anything but Irish, and that Britain’s Irish community took them to its heart especially. (Indeed, whether the consequent elements of identity crisis contributed to the well-documented squandering of their talents is a fair question.) Even the legal formalities of British imperialism, never known to understate their claims, have never attempted the sleight of hand which drains the Straits of Moyle to subsume north-eastern Ireland into Britain.

An Ulster identity, perhaps? The first snag is that about a third of Ulster isn’t included, those counties which found themselves west or south of the border imposed in 1921. And even in the other six, plenty of Ulster attributes are firmly excluded from unionist self-definition: the province’s history of particularly stubborn resistance to English monarchs, for instance, or its attachment to a vociferous brand of football and hurling. Only some of Ulster’s traditions and people are allowed in. And that goes to the heart of why Ulster unionism or the north’s Protestants cannot with justice be seen as a community with rights to a separate political existence. Unionism is based on denying democratic rights rather than upholding them, trying to maintain a superiority over others rather than establishing equality with them.

For that reason it constitutes a very different kettle of fish to Irish nationalism. While nationalist ideology has always been used to justify certain varieties of oppression, the essential content of nationalism as a political movement has been a striving to weaken and break the grip of British imperialism on Ireland. Within Irish nationalism, sectarian­ism is far more the exception than the rule in a philosophy which espouses (often in a naive way) a common future for all the country’s inhabitants. On the other hand, sectarianism is concreted right into the foundations of unionism, as it asserts exclusive rights for one section of the country’s population at the expense of the rest.

There is no comparison between a movement broadly aiming to overthrow oppression and one clearly aiming to perpetuate it. The corresponding political instincts are evident in their international sympathies. Republicanism always identified with the struggle against apartheid, but loyalism had more than a soft spot for those upholding it. Palestinian flags are often in evidence on the Falls Road, while the odd Israeli flag puts in an appearance on the Shankill.

Unionist claims to be motivated by injustice in the southern state display a brass neck riveted on as securely as anything that ever came out of Harland and Wolff’s. To begin with, it is a bit rich for people to complain of that state’s Catholic preponderance after they helped deprive it of a substantial non-Catholic population. The privileged position of the Catholic church in the 26 counties repressed and brutalised working people from a Catholic background more than the state’s Protestant population, who had the compensation of being economically better off on average. Even at its exclusionary worst, discrimination faced by southern Protestants was never in the same league as the Orange state’s systematic mistreatment of northern Catholics.

Another important difference is that, while it has of course sought inspiration and assistance from abroad, the movement for Irish in­dependence has stood on its own two feet, basing itself on a popular desire to move away from British control. Unionism, however, has never achieved anything by its own efforts. The resistance that got underway a century ago was spectacularly successful, partitioning the country and carving out a state of its own—but it would never have got anywhere without the active support of a huge swathe of the British establishment, from a Tory party inciting rebellion against the constitution to army officers mutinying rather than bring illegal loyalists to book.

The same reality features in every chapter of unionist success. The defeat of Home Rule in the 1880s relied on British Tory solidarity. The years of unionist state discrimination in the north needed the studied acquiescence of British governments. The last great unionist victory, the Ulster Workers Council strike that brought down power sharing in 1974, depended on a crucial part of the British army top brass letting it be known that they would refuse to move against it. It is increasingly clear that loyalist murder campaigns against Catholics right up to the 1990s rested on intelligence and weaponry channelled through the British state. Unionism has succeeded when it has served as a prop for British imperialism, but when left to its own devices has proved to be a paper tiger. It brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets and into the voting booths in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, but that came to nothing when Britain faced it down.

What concerns socialists most of all is unionist ideology within the working class. How far can a unionist consciousness co-exist with a class consciousness? Can a specifically working-class unionism help to develop class politics in the north?

Unionism encourages Protestant workers to identify with one community, to see Catholic workers as belonging to another community, and to work at keeping that community down. It puts social and economic problems down to that ‘other side’ getting more than it should. This whole approach can have nothing in common with a politics that identifies workers of all backgrounds as a class with a united interest as against the capitalist class.

Working-class unionism has a long tradition, often of the forelock-tugging variety, Orange workers submissively following their ‘natural betters’. But the Ulster Workers Council heralded a brand of loyalism that wore a plebeian heart on its sleeve, whose paramilitary links have often alienated it from respectable unionism (though not always, and the two repeatedly shade into each other). By the 1990s parties explicitly espousing a working-class unionism emerged.

This politics has never succeeded in getting that far off the ground, though. Its organisations have proved to be chronically fissiparous, the splits often taking murderous forms. The veneer of honest politics peels away very easily, allowing the same old sideburns and sunglasses to peep through. Even at their most articulate, when policy papers take precedence over sectarian venom, they rarely reach higher than resentment at the subordinate position allotted to the lower orders in the unionist scheme of things. The best answer they come up with for the deprivation faced by Protestant workers is to divert resources from Catholic workers.

Working-class unionism bangs up against a contradiction at its root: you cannot address problems facing the working class with an ideology that preaches suspicion of workers on the other side of town. A worker who curses the bosses is good, but will get nowhere while simultaneously cursing workers of a different religion, race, gender or whatever. The Protestant working class can be attracted either to its class or to its community, or it can hover between them as a politically inert element.

The existence of unionism in the Protestant working class has a material basis. This has sometimes been presented in terms of privileges enjoyed by Protestant workers, but that is to put it too strongly. Any look at the history of the north will show that Protestant workers were never in a position to click their fingers and be granted a soft job in the shipyards. If they were, they would never have endured living and working conditions considerably worse than those of British workers—however much they may have wanted to be British. Whatever else Protestant workers have been, a privileged caste is not it.

It is more a case of differential disadvantage. By more or less any yardstick you care to mention, workers in the north suffered, but Protestant workers suffered that bit less, were cushioned by a small but real extent from the very worst of it. Compared to what they could have enjoyed as part of a united and militant working class it was nothing, of course, but twopence ha’penny looking down on twopence can be a significant difference, one that people will fight their fellow workers for. “Here, the Orange working class are slaves in spirit”, wrote Connolly, “because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own.”

But isn’t all that just history by now, with civil rights and fair employment legislation evening out the chronic discrimination once visited upon Catholics? This is a crucial question because, if there is no difference to defend, unionism no longer has a material base in the working class. The division would be a remembrance of things past, a hangover likely to be dissipated by reality, leaving at most a harmless rivalry such as exists between Cork and Kerry people. Without some real differentiation in power, sectarianism would just be a nasty habit floating in the ether.

The statistics show that discrimination against Catholics is nothing as great as it used to be, but that it still exists. December’s Northern Ireland Labour Force Survey gave an unemployment rate of 6 per cent for the north’s Protestants, and 9 per cent for Catholics. So if the boss is looking to make someone redundant next week, coming from a Catholic background makes you one a half times as likely, on average, to be the one for the chop. For the Protestant worker statistically more likely to dodge the bullet for now, that can be reason enough to stick with the unionist tradition.

There is nothing unique in this, because the working class is bedevilled everywhere by such divisions. Just as the civil rights movement in the north only cleared away the most blatant oppression faced by Catholics, ameliorating it without removing it, similar move­ments have done the same for women, black people, and others. The persistence of differential disadvantage has meant that divisive ideologies like racism and sexism have persisted too within the working class, posing a real dilemma for socialists.

Long and painful years of struggle and argument have taught that workers’ unity can only be achieved on the basis of the rights of the most oppressed workers. No one on the left now disagrees that we have to stand with women workers against the specific oppression they face, not with sexist male workers. At least in theory, the left supports black workers and opposes racist prejudices among white workers. Anything less is fake unity, built on sand and set to collapse the next time the tide of division washes in.

A worker who looks down on his black neighbour or resents the fact that a female bus driver drives him to work is not the stuff of which revolutions are made, and no more is a Protestant worker who regards Catholic workers with suspicion or fear. Workers’ unity is not just an external face shown to other classes, but an internal solidarity among workers themselves, standing shoulder to shoulder un­reservedly, without wanting to erect barriers against each other. A Protestant worker who has a problem living amidst a majority of workers from a Catholic background has a problem with the unity of the working class.

Working-class politics in the north has to recognise the reality of the specific oppression of Catholic workers, present as well as past, and accept the demand for equality even when it goes as far as an end to partition, the pinnacle of that oppression incarnated in state form. “Therefore, we declare to the Orange workers of Belfast that we stand for the right of the people in Ireland to rule as well as to own Ireland, and cannot conceive of a separation of the two ideas”, as Connolly put it.

But plenty of people do indeed try to separate the two ideas, to unite workers across the divide on an economic basis while leaving the big political issue to one side. This approach is not devoid of results, because the north has an impressive record of strikes and campaigns over ‘bread and butter issues’, with recent public sector strikes proving that it hasn’t gone away. These strikes have inevitably brought workers from both traditions together on the picket line.

But economic, trade union unity only ever goes so far—and the nature of northern society means that it doesn’t even go as far as usual here. The ongoing legacy of discrimination means that some work­forces have been overwhelmingly Protestant, with union activity following to a large extent. A segregated education system is mirrored by teachers organising in separate unions. In Belfast, workers collecting Protestant bins join one union while those collecting Catholic bins join another. And in the north the big issues—the parts that conventional trade unionism doesn’t reach—pop up in a quicker and more pervasive way than usual. The simplest local issue can soon throw up the old sectarianism that has set the parameters of northern politics. Trying to paper over these cracks will always end in tears sooner or later.

Does this mean ignoring the objections of Protestant workers to a united Ireland? It means addressing these objections, doing everything possible to overcome them, but at the end of the day not allowing them to veto progress towards achieving an all-Ireland workers’ republic. On 23 April 1918 a general strike across Ireland helped to ward off the British government’s threat to conscript Irish people to fight its war. It was clear early on, however, that Protestant work­places in the north east would refuse to take part in the strike. (They also worked through the British general strike in 1926, but that’s another story.) Rather than allowing a minority to stymie the action, the Irish workers’ movement wisely decided to press on with the vast majority to strike as effectively as possible.

The idea of northern Protestants accepting majority will on the island—“coercing Ulster”, to translate the concept into unionist terminology—often fills people with horror. If we were talking about forcing them to submit to a Catholic state where their rights would be trampled upon, that horror would be well founded, but not when a democratic republic is being proposed, and least of all a socialist one. It should be remembered that every democratic advance in the north for generations has ignored the objections of the unionist community: fairer elections, fairer housing, fairer employment, abolishing the B Specials, reforming the UDR and RUC, and more besides. The advance of equal rights has ridden roughshod over the venerated traditions of unionist Ulster, and rightly so, just as it had to ride roughshod over the venerated traditions of southern states of the USA.

Allowing a unionist veto would have perpetuated sectarianism. Allowing one on the existence of partition does the same. Once the claim is accepted that the north’s Protestants are entitled to self-determination, then even if a majority in the six counties voted for a united Ireland, unionism would have a right to claim three or four counties for another state of its own. After all, shifting the goalposts, gerrymandering the boundaries, was precisely how such a state was established and maintained all along. In such a scenario, well-meaning talk of respecting the island’s distinct traditions could end up laying the ground for something that doesn’t bear thinking about.

It would be foolish to somehow present Protestant workers with a demand that they sign up to the 32-county workers’ republic here and now. Political developments for twenty years have resulted in the notorious ‘national question’ being pushed on to the back burner, by all sides. Socialists have no choice but to take the workers’ movement from its actual starting point, which at present tacitly lets the sleeping dog of partition lie. That question does influence everyday politics, though, and will at some stage demand an answer. We would do well to have an answer worked out, rather than sitting on the fence until the sleepy dog jumps up and bites us.

Socialism in Ireland cannot sit cross-legged waiting for unionist workers to agree, but it has to work hard to win over as many of them as humanly possible. This means refusing to situate the socialist project within a nationalist or Catholic or even republican camp, even by implication, but as a distinct movement to bring Ireland into the hands of its working people. That is a project which has as much to offer a northern worker raised Protestant as a southern worker raised Catholic, and there is no good reason why socialists shouldn’t come out and say so to them.

At various points in history that argument has appealed to the best of the Protestant working class in the north, and there are some reasons to believe that such a possibility can arise again. The all-class unionist alliance has never been as monolithic as it would like, with fissures repeatedly appearing from time to time. Many of the old certainties it built upon have crumbled since the 1960s, leaving behind anyone longing for the old days of Orange domination. It’s not impossible that unionism could recreate itself for the modern age, of course, especially if the north’s Catholics decide to join them rather than beat them. But the attempt to square so may circles could as easily raise a storm beyond its control, not for the first time.

And there is the overarching fact of economic crisis so deep that it shows all the signs of a prolonged period of instability where former rules don’t necessarily apply. Protestant workers in the north may prefer to retreat into the old unionist tradition, but it has less and less to offer. Some may become open to the idea of creating a different type of society in solidarity with their fellow workers north and south. In common with every other challenge the left faces, much depends on how ready, willing and able we are to go beyond a mere partial break with the status quo to place such an option on the table.