The Hidden Connolly 19

More writings of James Connolly, unavailable for over a century, appeared in Issue 19 in July 2004.

Landlordism in Towns

[The Workers’ Republic, November 18 1899]

In an early issue of the Workers’ Republic we pointed out that the Corporation of Dublin had it in its power to sensibly mitigate the sufferings of the industrial population in the City by a wise and intelligent application of its many powers as a public board. Among the various directions we enumerated as immediately practical outlets for corporate enterprise, there were two allied measures which, were they applied, might do much to at once relieve the most odious and directly pressing evils arising from the congested state of our cities. Those two measures were:—

  • Taxation of unlet houses,


  • Erection at public expense of Artisans’ Dwellings, to be let at a rent covering cost of construction and maintenance alone.1

The wisdom of the proposal to increase the funds and utilise the borrowing powers of the Corporation in this manner cannot be questioned. The housing accommodation of the Dublin workers is a disgrace to the City; high rents and vile sanitary arrangements are the rule, and no one in the Corporation seems to possess courage enough to avow the truth, or to face the storm of obloquy which would be directed upon the head of the councillor who would take the opportunity to expose on the floor of the City Hall the manner in which the interests of house landlords are protected, and the spirit of sanitative legislation set at naught.

The so-called philanthropic companies which profess to cater to the needs of the workers by providing cottages, etc., in reality charge higher rents than do most individual house owners elsewhere. We all remember how the owners of the Coombe area property attempted to raise the rents on their cottages, because they were compelled to undertake the construction of some necessary drainage, which they culpably neglected to supply when their property was being built. Now the Dublin and Suburban Artisans’ Dwellings Company have in like manner initiated an attempt to raise the rents on their Cork Street buildings by another sixpence a week, in spite of the fact that the property has lately been allowed to get into a most dilapidated condition—roofs leaking, footpaths all broken up, roadways full of holes and pitfalls, and lamps never lit in the darkest nights of the year.

We are glad to record that this attempt at extortion is being met by the tenants in a most spirited fashion, and that it is likely to prove successful. Councillor Cox has also stood by the tenants in this matter, and has used his position on the Corporation to stop the rebate of taxes which this company usually obtains on the score of its philanthropic character.

This action of our friend, Councillor Cox, shows how much influence for good can be exerted by our representatives when imbued with the proper spirit. What a Socialist Republican could do in the way of remedying grievances, and pushing forward measures for the benefit of the workers, can be easily surmised by those who have observed the keen grasp of public questions which at all times distinguishes the Socialist above his fellows.

But, lacking the measures spoken of at the beginning of this article, all other measures must be only of a partially remedial character. Each proposal bears the stamp of a truly practical measure; each can stand the test of rigid economic analysis, and may be put into operation whenever the working class democracy are enlightened enough to demand it.

The taxation of unlet houses would compel the owners of property to accept rents much lower than they now demand, in order to avoid the disagreeable necessity of paying taxes upon unremunerative property. But the erection of houses to be let at cost of construction and maintenance would place in competition with the speculative house landlord, dwellings which, not needing to yield a dividend, could easily beat down his rents to a point more within the compass of the working man’s purse. One point more needs to be noted. It is that a large proportion of the houses in Dublin are owned by persons too poor to keep them in a habitable state. When this is the case such houses should be taken over by the Corporation and made habitable at public expense, or where this would be too costly, razed to the ground. The owners could be compensated according to the condition of their property when taken out of their hands.

It must be remembered, however, that all those measures are merely tentative. Our cities can never be made really habitable or worthy of an enlightened people while the habitations of its citizens remain the property of private individuals. To permanently remedy the evils of city life the citizens must own their city.

Home Thrusts

[The Workers’ Republic, December 9 1899]

A Close Season.

During the Boer war the English Jingo press will observe a close season for the sport of making game of the German Emperor.

He is a great man, is the Kaiser. When Dr Jameson raided the Transvaal, and Kruger defeated his little game, the Kaiser sent a telegram of congratulation to Paul.2 Then all the Jingo press of England went for the “mad Emperor,” and called him all the pet (?) names they could think of.

There was peace at that time. But now there is war, and as the mad Emperor, if he chose to take a hand in the game, could successfully humiliate the British Lion, that animal is now down kissing the ground at his feet, and all the Jingo crowd who a few months ago were howling for his blood are now prowling around on the hunt for his photograph.

His photograph. Yes, for he wouldn’t condescend to gratify them with a look at his imperial person.

Now observe, ye workers, that this crowd of swashbucklers are our masters. And if you have any contempt for the crowd who spit upon a man one day, and crawl for a smile from him the next, what sort of feeling must you have for yourselves, who are lorded over by such a pitiful crew?

And don’t make the mistake of lauding the Kaiser, either, as our so-called nationalist journals do.

He has always proven himself to be a most determined enemy of the working class, and longs for the day when he may drown in blood their hopes for freedom.

He, only the other day, introduced to his Parliament a bill which would have made it a penal offence to ask a workman to go on strike, had it not been defeated by the determined opposition of the Social Democrats.

He is continually rallying all the conservative classes in Germany against the demands of the workers, and striving by his speeches to his soldiery to familiarise them with the idea of firing upon their own countrymen.

He is your enemy, as the English governing class is your enemy, as the Irish propertied class is your enemy, as all the classes who live upon your labour in all the nations of the world are your enemy.

And the same law of self-preservation which makes the propertied classes stand together throughout the world, ought also to make you realise the necessity of studying the position and prospects of the revolutionary working class opposed to those classes.

That is part of the aim and purpose of this paper. To present to our readers a brief resume of the important advances made by the Socialist forces along the lines of the Class War.

You meet this Class War everywhere, but do not always recognise it. It is our duty to label its every manifestation, in order that you may recognise it.

This you have been told by most of your public speakers on the Transvaal War, that it is a capitalist’s war. So it is. It is one manifestation of the Class War.

So is the war in the Philippines.3 So are all modern wars; all manifest­ations of the struggle of Capital to enlarge its domain of exploitation.

And in like manner all efforts to beat back those forces of capitalism are of a kin to the efforts of the working class to rid themselves of the burden of capitalism.

In fact the capitalist has so far extended his powers that every political movement of the present bears a direct relation to the class war, and desires to be keenly watched for that very reason.

The effort of the British Governing Class to impose its rule upon the Transvaal is simply an exemplification of capitalism fully grown and developed; the efforts of the Irish master class to retain its hold upon public power in our corporations and other boards is an exemplification of the same unclean animal’s attitude when too weak to dare show all its teeth.

As soon as the Irish master class attains the strength of its British brother it will develop all his brutal traits; at present it can only exercise his sneaking proclivities.

The English master class bullied the Boer, and grovelled before the Emperor; the Irish master class in Ireland denounces the Englishman, and in England grovels before every English politician who winks his eye in the direction of Home Rule.

Brothers both.


Dogma and Food

[The Workers’ Republic, December 9 1899]

At a meeting of the Sacred Heart Home in Dublin the other day a most powerful and impassioned appeal was made by the Archbishop of Dublin for funds to provide proper care and training for the Catholic children who, from the poverty and carelessness of their parents, frequently fall into the clutches of “proselytisers” who make their misery a weapon of warfare against their religion. We do not propose now, nor at any other time, to enter into the disputes of rival religions, but we do think that the occasion merits at least a passing notice on our part, helping as it does to illustrate the truth of our contention that the social question, or the bread and butter question, is the root question of all, and until it is settled no other question of fundamental importance can be grappled with in any but an incomplete and unsatisfactory manner.

For what is the position upon which the appeal for funds to carry on the charitable work of the Sacred Heart Home was based? That owing to the poverty-stricken condition of large masses of the people the Catholic faith of the children was at the mercy of those missionaries and other Protestant agencies who come with charitable contributions to the parents and make of their charity a means for obtaining control of the education and bodily person of the child. Here then we have the statement clearly made that the manifold dangers against which we are so solemnly warned spring from POVERTY. Reasoning on this matter from the standpoint of a mere layman we would be inclined to say that the first line of attack along which the Archbishop should direct the forces of his eloquence, and the attention of the world in general, is that of poverty and the institutions which create it. If you destroy the social institutions which create poverty, if you lift the working class from their present position of economic dependence, and in so doing assure to all men and women a sufficiency of the good things in life in return for a moderate amount of labour, then the insidious work of the “souper” is ended and all religious denominations will require to stand or progress by their inherent truths alone.

But nowhere in all the passionate exhortations of our clerical leaders do we find this point ever noted; instead we are to have appeals for funds to be applied for the purpose of saving Catholic children from the temptations of “proselytisers;” and as said temptations usually take the form of food and raiment, to supply food, raiment, and if necessary, shelter through Catholic sources. In all this there is no question of whether it would be a subject worthy of consideration to consider what means should be taken to abolish the poverty which degrades the workers so much that they are ready to traffic in their children in such a manner.

Yet until this question is dealt with all the efforts of the Sacred Heart Home, and such-like institutions, will be of practically no avail in com­batting such degradation. The place of the children rescued today will be filled tomorrow by the children of other parents hurled into the abyss of slum life and misery by the ceaseless working of our unjust social system. We on this journal, or in this party, are not allied, nor opposed to, any particular creed or Church—seeking the emancipation of the working class from the unholy trinity of Rent, Interest and Profit we require the aid of men of all religions and of none—but we consider it our duty to point out that if the speakers at the Sacred Heart Home at Drumcondra were really in earnest in their desire to save the children, they would find in the Municipal Programme of the Socialist Republican Party a plank, that of the Free Main­tenance of Children, which, if applied in practice, would prevent effectually all that hopeless misery out of which such degrading incidents as those complained of spring.

But it is at all times more congenial to a certain class of minds to nibble at consequences rather than to strike boldly at the root of the evil; that, and the unpopularity sure to be the reward of the political party which, despising cheap methods of gaining sympathy, instead of whining over the sufferings of the poor, calls upon them to rebel against the oppressive institutions which cause it, explains why our public men in general are chary about touching a reform, be it ever so practical, which appeals to manhood rather than to wealth.

But all such admissions of timidity coupled with an admission of the degrading nature of capitalist society, such as that the assembled clerics treated us to on Monday last, only tend to confirm the faith of the Socialist Republican in that uncompromising course of action which rests all its hopes in the right arms and clear brains of the disinherited—the working class.


  1. In ‘Home Thrusts’ in the October 8 1898 Workers’ Republic Connolly wrote: “The Corporation can provide dwellings for the working people at a rent to cover the cost of construction and maintenance alone, and can procure money for the purpose by a stiff tax on unoccupied houses.”
  2. At the end of 1895 L Storr Jameson, an official of the British South Africa Company, led an unsuccessful armed assault against the Boer government of the Transvaal, led by Paulus Kruger. Kruger also led the Boers in the war with Britain that had broken out in October 1899.
  3. Having taken the Philippines from Spain in the war of 1898, the United States were now attempting to suppress a guerrilla movement for independence.

George Orwell: Anything but a saint

On the centenary of Orwell’s birth, Kevin Higgins discussed his controversial legacy in Issue 17 (November 2003).

This year’s centenary of George Orwell’s birth at Motihari in Bengal, India on 25 June 1903 has seen a marked upturn in interest in both his writing and in the man himself. Penguin have republished pretty much everything he ever wrote—both novels and non-fiction—in a series of glossy volumes, which basically add up to a collected works. There have also been two new biographies, both of which have, to varying degrees, tended to try and shift the spotlight away from George Orwell the stubborn teller of inconvenient political and social truths, and onto Eric Blair the man behind the pseudo­nym. There is certainly something to be said for this sort of approach: as someone who has read Orwell’s work voraciously over the years, I know that I certainly relished the opportunity to leaf through the grubby details of his life. But it also has its limitations.

The fact that he visited prostitutes, made throwaway comments insulting gay contemporaries such as W H Auden and didn’t like Scottish people is, of course, on one level all very interesting. On another level though, it is also completely irrelevant, doing nothing to diminish his critiques of capitalism and Stalinism in works such as Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I once heard someone say that everything Karl Marx had ever written could be dismissed as “rubbish” because he had throughout his life failed to properly provide for his family and (if that wasn’t bad enough) then got his housekeeper Helene Demuth pregnant. If we were to use, for example, the fact that Orwell apparently sometimes paid for sex to try and in any way diminish his achievement as a writer and political thinker, then this is the rather intellect­ually limited road we’d be heading down.

George Orwell was certainly flawed, both as a man and as a writer. When he came back to England in 1927, after a five year stint as a Colonial Policeman in Burma, and decided to ‘become a writer’ he looked like an unpromising wannabe indeed. The poet Ruth Pitter was a neighbour of his at the time:

He wrote so badly. He had to teach himself writing. He was like a cow with a musket.… I remember one story that never saw the light of day… it began “Inside the park, the crocuses were out…” Oh dear, I’m afraid we did laugh, but we knew he was kind, because he was good to our old sick cat.

Like most fledgling writers he started off by writing reams of grandiose garbage. According to Bernard Crick’s 1980 biography, George Orwell: A Life, the worst of this appears to have been a fragment of a play about a couple whose baby is dying because they can’t afford an operation she desperately needs. Despite their desperate need for money Francis, the father, refuses a job writing

advertising copy for “Pereira’s Surefire Lung Balm”… because the firm are swindling crooks, the substance is noxious, and, besides, he’s got his artistic integrity to consider. When his wife reminds him of Baby’s needs, he suggests that for her to prostitute herself would be no worse than the job she wants him to take. Then the scenario turns abruptly from naturalism to expressionism… “Everything goes dark, there is a sound like roaring waters.… the furniture is removed”; and we are in a timeless prison cell, in something like the French Revolution, with poet, poet’s wife and christian who “sits… reading a large book. He has a placard inscribed deaf around his neck.”

If a contemporary version of this early Orwell lived around the corner from me, I have no doubt that I would spend a good deal of time desperately trying to avoid him. I have known such people, and they rarely grow up to produce masterpieces!

The early Orwell’s politics were similarly unfocused and adolescent. Looking back on his earlier self from the vantage point of 1936 he has this to say in The Road to Wigan Pier:

I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time [roughly 1928-1933] failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying.

The early Orwell’s stance could in a sense be read as the oh so predictable, immature rejection of bourgeois society by one of its more privileged members, who almost certainly only had a vague notion of what the word ‘bourgeois’ actually meant, and certainly hadn’t the faintest idea how things might actually be changed. Most such middle-class radicals end up being reabsorbed by the society they once supposedly despised. At best they become concerned journalists or perhaps panellists on The View. At worst they end their days thinking that Eoghan Harris has a point. But Orwell was clearly different. His rebellion was a serious one. It was this failure-worshipping stance that led Orwell to drift down among the tramps and winos of London and Paris. And from this milieu came the material for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. By now his writing had greatly improved from those early, laughable efforts. The plain documentary prose style for which he became famous was already visible. Orwell was nothing if not persistent. In Ruth Pitter’s words: “he had the gift, he had the courage, he had the persistence to go on in spite of failure, sickness, poverty, and opposition”.

The three years that followed saw him produce a novel each year, Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). The most significant of these for us is probably Burmese Days, a damning anti-imperialist indictment of British colonial rule in Burma: something Orwell knew from the inside having spent five years working as a policeman for the British regime there. All of these novels deal with issues important to Orwell: repression, snobbery, hypo­crisy, the worship of money and the frustration of artistic ambitions.

My personal favourite is Keep the Aspidistra Flying: his grim but often hilarious portrait of Gordon Comstock, a down-at-heel poet forever beset by financial embarrassment and sexual frustration. Comstock is obsessed with not being ruled by the “Money God”, and so leaves a well-paying job writing slogans for an advertising agency, and gets a badly-paying job in a bookshop. At least that way he has some hope of retaining his integrity. In the end, though, his girlfriend Dorothy becomes pregnant, and Comstock leaves the bohemian life behind; surrendering himself entirely to a future of Money, Marriage and Aspidistra Plants, all the things he previously spat venom at. Orwell’s portrait of Gordon Comstock is perhaps the last we see of his early, unfocussed radicalism. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published in January 1936. By December of that year the Spanish civil war had broken out, and Orwell was in Barcelona fighting against the forces of General Franco as a member of the POUM militia.

Just after he’d finished Keep the Aspidistra Flying Orwell was commiss­ioned by Victor Gollancz of the Stalinist-leaning Left Book Club to write a book of documentary non-fiction about the condition of the unemployed in the industrial north of England. Gollancz offered him an advance of £500, huge money for the time. This was the coincidence which finally pushed George Orwell to become the overtly political writer we have come to know. Years later his friend, Richard Rees, recalled: “There was such an extraordinary change both in his writing and, in a way also, in his attitude after he’d been to the North and written that book. I mean, it was almost as if there’d been a kind of fire smouldering in him all his life which suddenly broke into flame at that time.”

Of course, events external to Orwell’s day-to-day life played their part too. 1936 was the year when the political and economic crisis of the 1930s really began to seriously gather speed as it hurtled towards disaster and the second world war. In March of that year the German army moved into the previously demilitarised Rhineland: the first serious violation by Hitler of the Versailles Treaty. In May Italy invaded Abyssinia and Mussolini declared that a new Roman Empire had been established. In July General Franco’s forces rose up and tried to overthrow the Republican government in Spain. When they didn’t achieve the easy victory they’d expected, the Civil War began. In October Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were beaten off the streets by anti-fascists at Cable Street as they tried to march through the predominantly Jewish areas of the East End of London. And in December the abdication of Edward VIII did its bit to heighten the sense of crisis.

When he asked Orwell to write the book that would become The Road to Wigan Pier, Victor Gollancz hoped Orwell would produce a book some­thing like Down and Out in Paris and London, except that this time the focus would be industrial workers (both employed and unemployed) and their families, rather than tramps. What Orwell actually produced was a book of two very distinct halves: the first of which provides us with some of the best portraits to be found of working class life in 1930s England. For the first time Orwell begins to see working class people as human beings fully conscious of their own position at the bottom of society. He recalls watching a young woman trying to unblock a drain with a stick: “I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing I was.” Elsewhere, though, his view of working class life is just a little sentimental:

In a working-class home—I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes—you breath a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which is not so easy to find elsewhere.… on winter evenings when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in his shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits the other with her sewing, and the children with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the mat.

The picture Orwell paints of this happy, simple life is so idyllic that it sounds almost like something from a speech by Ronald Reagan or Éamon de Valera. I have to confess that whenever I actually come across people as apparently wholesome as this, I tend to suspect that they either have bodies buried under the patio, or that Father (God bless him) will in the fullness of time be escorted into the back of a police van with a bag over his head, having been caught bouncing the little ones on his knee just a little too vigorously.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a hilarious, if at times slightly cranky portrayal of the organised left of the time. On his way to attend the Independent Labour Party Summer School at Letchworth, Orwell spots two other likely attenders:

both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on the top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, and then, back at them again, and murmured, ‘Socialists’.

Orwell seems to have enjoyed the company of those working-class activists he met in the North of England. But he quite clearly detested those on the left he saw as middle-class trendies or frauds of any type:

‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-haired Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankiness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.

Despite his scathing portrayal of much of the left, Orwell himself was nevertheless moving sharply to the left politically. In early December he put the finishing touches to The Road to Wigan Pier and made arrangements to travel to Spain, where the civil war was now raging. He arrived in Barcelona on 22 December and was greatly impressed by what he saw:

The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing.… Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the Anarchists… Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Seňor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’.

His experience in Spain would lead Orwell to write what is arguably his best book, Homage to Catalonia. But during his time there, Orwell was more than merely another literary tourist: he fought and was shot and badly injured. It was Orwell’s personal experience of the role played by the Stalinists in undermining and ultimately sabotaging this revolution that turned his fairly vague suspicions about ‘the cult of Russia’ into an implacable hostility towards Stalinism, which he retained for the rest of his life. During the Russian-backed crackdown on ‘Trotsky-Fascist Fifth Columnists’ in June 1937 he himself was forced to go on the run, sleeping rough on the streets of Barcelona for several nights, to avoid being rounded up because of his membership of the anti-Stalinist POUM militia. His friend George Kopp was imprisoned and tortured by the Stalinists. The torture with rats of Winston Smith in Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four is apparently partly based on Kopp’s treatment at their hands. And yet despite this tragic outcome Orwell left Spain inspired with an impatient, nagging hope:

For months past we had been telling ourselves that ‘when we get out of Spain’ we would go somewhere beside the Mediterranean and be quiet for a little while and perhaps do a little fishing… It sounds like lunacy but the thing that both of us wanted was to be back in Spain. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me.… the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances, the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution…

I think it is fair to say that Orwell left Spain a convinced revolutionary socialist. Indeed he spent the next couple of years waiting for a revolution, which in the end didn’t come. His next novel Coming Up For Air (1939) is a portrait of George Bowling, “a fat insurance salesman worn down by a loveless marriage, the expense of a family, children who despise him”. Bowling is exactly the sort of beleaguered Mr Average that Orwell thought the left needed to appeal to if it was ever to successfully take power in Britain. The coalminers and the cranks would never be enough. A win on the horses inspires Bowling to leave home one day and try to recapture something of his youth:

Of course, his journey is doomed—the small town [where Bowling grew up] had been engulfed by suburbia and his woodland paradise infested with fruit juice drinking, nudist vegetarians, and Garden City cranks.… Katie, his childhood sweetheart is now a worn-out, middle-aged drab and the secret pool, the symbolic centre of his childhood fantasy, turned into a rubbish dump. The horrors of the mass society have overwhelmed the holy places and Doomsday threatens in the form of Hitler, Stalin and their streamlined battalions.… George returns to his bourgeois prison to face again his nagging wife and unlovable children.

Orwell had clearly moved a long way since the days when he believed that salvation could only be found down among penniless tramps. He was now thinking in concrete terms about how society might actually be changed, and socialism made to appeal to both the working and middle classes.

The two novels that followed before his premature death from TB in 1950 are what transformed him from a medium-sized 1930s figure into a literary superstar, whose books will no doubt still be read two hundred years from now. Animal Farm (1945) is an ingenious Swiftian satire on the Russian Revolution betrayed. Orwell has been accused by some of jumping on the Cold War bandwagon, and of allowing his work to be used by reactionaries and warmongers to attack the socialism which he himself believed in. It’s important to remember, though, that when Orwell was writing and trying to find a publisher for Animal Farm, the second world war was still on, and Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were still allies. Orwell actually found it incredibly difficult to find a publisher for what was seen at the time as another trouble-making book by him. So the charge of opportunism really doesn’t stick. Later Disney (with a little help from the CIA) purchased the film rights to the book and famously removed the last scene in which the animals peer in the window at the pigs and the humans having dinner together, and cannot see any difference between them. Orwell’s message that the Stalinist bureaucracy (represented by pigs) and the capitalist class (represented by the humans) were as bad as each other was no doubt a little inconvenient for the American cold war propagandists who hijacked his work. The manner in which life-long Soviet apparatchiks such as Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin managed to trans­form themselves into advocates of the gangster capitalism now prevalent in Russia shows that he was of course right: in the last analysis there was very little difference between them and the capitalist class in the west. They would do anything to hang onto their positions, up to and including the complete restoration of capitalism.

His last major work was Nineteen Eighty-Four, a deeply pessimistic portrait of a totalitarian society, resembling those that then existed in eastern Europe. By the time he wrote this book, Orwell had moved away from the near Marxist stance of Homage to Catalonia. His revolutionary moment had passed. And of course world events had moved on too. The second world war was over, and Britain now had a Labour government which Orwell basically supported. It was this Labour government—a government far to the left of that of Tony Blair—which created the National Health Service and the welfare state. By the time Orwell died in 1950, the political situation was completely different to that of 1936, the year he went to fight in Spain. Orwell had an instinctive rather than a theoretical attitude to politics. His contempt for theoreticians—“shock-haired Marxists chewing polysyllables”—led him to spend a lot of time reacting against other people’s ideas rather than coming up with credible ideas of his own.

The worst example of this is his stance in relation to World War II. In September 1938, during the Czechoslovakia crisis, Orwell published a short article in New Leader, the paper of the ILP, in which he stated: “We repudiate… all appeals to the people to support a war which would, in fact, maintain and extend imperialist possessions and interest, whatever the incidental occasion.” At the time the Stalinist parties where promoting the Popular Front policy. ‘Democracy not Fascism’ was the slogan, and they were desperate to build an alliance against Nazi Germany between the Soviet Union and western powers, such as Britain and France. When the war actually came both Orwell and the Stalinists did a complete about-turn. The Hitler-Stalin pact was signed and the Soviet Union stayed out of the war until it was attacked itself in 1941. The Communist Parties attacked the war as ‘imperialist’, just as Orwell had in his New Leader article. Orwell, on the other hand, strongly supported the war effort and vehemently attacked the anti-imperialist, anti-war point of view, which he himself had still supported as late as August 1939. He never properly explained this about-turn. A likely explanation is that, by then, his hatred of the Stalinists was so intense that when he heard them saying one thing, he would, if at all possible, say the opposite.

His hatred of all things Soviet was also his motivation when, on 2 May 1949, he sent a list of suspected Communists and fellow-travellers to the British intelligence services. The list included both literary figures such as Stephen Spender and J B Priestley, and left-wing Labour MPs such as Ian Mikardo and Tom Driberg. A number of the people named by Orwell were outed not just as suspected Communist sympathisers but also as homo­sexuals. Given that homosexual acts between men were still illegal in Britain, and would remain so for another twenty years, this was a partic­ularly disgusting thing to have done. Orwell handed MI5 material which they would no doubt use to blackmail left-wingers and socialists. There is no excuse for this. Despite his many faults, though, Orwell is a writer whose work will always be of interest to socialists, indeed to thinking people everywhere. Yes, he was often cranky, often wrong. But his dogged pursuit of some of the awkward questions of his time led him to produce two of the master­pieces of socialist literature, Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm. And the bravery he showed in opposing Stalinism—not when it was weak and collapsing but at the height of its power—cannot be lightly dismissed. If this Orwell lived around the corner from me, he would be welcome to come around for a cup of tea anytime. No doubt we would argue. But such is life.

Class, colonialism and economy in Palestine

Colm Breathnach explored the class dynamics of Palestinian society in Issue 16 (July 2003).

With the American victory in the Iraq War, world attention has again turned to Palestine. There is no doubt that this was a war for oil, but it also put in place another piece in the great jigsaw called global dominance. ‘Stability’ in the Middle East is absolutely essential for the continued and enhanced hegemony of US imperialism in the region. This hegemony translates in practical terms as a compliant government in Iraq, control of all oil re­sources in the region, regime change or compliance in Syria and a final and comprehensive ‘peace’ agreement in Palestine. This settlement must guarantee the security of the Israeli state and effectively ensure the pacific­ation of the Palestinians and their confinement to an emasculated statelet ruled by compliant stooges.

While there has been much discussion on the left about the question of Palestine it has tended, not without good reason, to concentrate on the bigger picture. This has left little space to discuss the internal dynamics of Palestinian society or for that matter, the internal contradictions of Israeli society. The purpose of this article is to look at these internal dynamics and how they relate to Israeli colonialism.

The nature of Israeli colonialism

It is to the essence of this imperialist-backed local colonialism that we must first turn. To try to understand the internal dynamics of Palestinian society as if it can be extricated from the all-encompassing effects of Israeli colon­ialism is a spurious exercise. It would be akin to the well worn character­isation of Palestinian society by rightist commentators as ‘naturally’ extremist, breeding and training hordes of crazy suicide bombers, rather than seeing the origin of individual acts of terror and growth of the fundamentalist organisations in the crushing weight of occupation.

The nature of this Israeli state cannot be considered in isolation from the general question of the role of colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East nor from the history of European nationalism and fascism. Three separate but interlinked developments caused the creation of Israel: the desire of British imperialism to create a secure ‘European’ bridgehead on the Eastern Mediterranean coast as a counter to the rising Arab nationalism; the desire of both Zionist Jews and anti-semitic forces to solve the so-called Jewish question by ‘ridding’ Europe of Jews or creating a Jewish homeland outside Europe; and, of course, the unprecedented genocide of the Holocaust.

The nature of the current Israeli state is a complex one with contra­dictory elements: a client state of US imperialism subsidised to the tune of $1.8 billion per annum in military subvention and $500m per annum in private funding (mainly from the Jewish community in the US), an apartheid entity grounded on confessionalism, the legal exclusion of the Palestinian minority and its creation in a monstrous orgy of ethnic cleansing. Perhaps its most significant characteristic is the highly militarised nature of a society increas­ingly dominated by a politico-military elite intent on further increasing this militarisation of society. This would account for developments such as the repression of the refuseniks (Israelis who refuse to serve in the army) and the transformation of a primarily intensive agricultural economy into a high-tech industry-centred economy, with the arms industry at its core. Yet inherent in this bizarre structure are major contradictions of class, ethnicity and religion, even within the ‘Jewish’ majority. The direction of recent policies regarding the Palestinians seem to be largely based on a desire of a section of the elite to bind the diverse Jewish populations of Israel in a siege mentality and to complete the War of 1948 by the final conquest of all of historic Palestine, solving the ‘Arab Question’ by gradual ‘voluntary’ transfer and the creation of isolated and impotent Bantustans.

The occupation as settler colonialism

The process occurring in Occupied Palestine is straightforward settler colonisation displaying all the classic characteristics of such a process: political and legal domination over an alien population, relations of econ­omic dependence and exploitation between the indigenous population and the colonisers, compounded by racial/cultural inequality on a grand scale. One sight of the manicured and sprinkled lawns or the azure blue swimming pools of a settlement perched above the parched brown of a Palestinian village is evidence enough of this.

It is no coincidence that the Israeli occupation reeks of past colonial enterprises such as the Plantation of Ulster, the American frontier in the late nineteenth century, or apartheid South Africa. The location of settlements on strategic hilltops, the militarised nature of settler society, the politico-religious justifications, the total complicity and support of the Israeli army, the widespread disregard by both settlers and army for the rule of (Israeli) law, the impunity of settlers in their criminal actions towards the Arab population, the grand-scale resource exploitation of continuous land grabbing and water diversion, the gradual confinement of the ‘native’ population into smaller and smaller zones are resonant of past colonialism. Nor are such resource-robbing peripheral settler colonies unique to this region as exemplified in the current situation in West Papua, Western Sahara, Tibet and Sin kiang. All these colonies serve in some way as strategic buffers for the metropolitan elite, as protection against rival powers/states and as a rich source of wealth for local or multinational capital. Hence the Israeli settlements serve a key military and strategic pur­pose, ensuring the continued subjugation of the Palestinian population, acting as a buffer against the ‘Arab Sea’, making the creation of a viable Palestinian state extremely difficult and of course strengthening Israel’s position as the key forward position of American imperialism in the region.

But what of the role of Jewish religious fundamentalists in the settle­ment process? Theirs is essentially that of ideological justifiers of a crude form of colonial annexation. They provide the ideological fig leaf for the illegal expropriation of another people’s land; they are the 21st century advocates of modern manifest destiny. Yet even settler society is not without its contradictions. The major division of settler society is between the economic, mainly new immigrant settlers (mostly from the former Soviet Union, from where approximately 750,000 immigrants arrived in the 1990s) who are attracted to the settlements by social and economic incen­tives, and the ideological settlers (many from the USA) who simply regard this land as theirs by right of divine grant. This division is reflected spatially, with the bulk of economic settlers occupying the settlements around Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the bulk of ideological settlers in the smaller outlying settlements, the four heavily guarded Al Khalil (Hebron) city settlements being the epitome of these. As to the contention that they are too entrenched to be removed, it seems from recent opinion polls that the large majority of settlers would move back to Israel if granted compen­sation, adequate rehousing, etc, and that only a very small minority would need to be forcibly removed.

Palestinian society

No society is unitary: all but the most primitive are divided by class, gender and a range of other divisions. Even in a colonial framework, where the class divisions and other social structures of the colonised may be muted or hidden by the overarching reality of colonial domination and appropriation, these structures remain, albeit distorted by the primary forces of exploitation.

It needs to be repeated that the occupation has had a catastrophic effect on the whole Palestinian economic and social structure. One cannot view a colonised society independent of the effects of colonisation. The immiseration of Palestinian society by the ferocious oppression of the occupiers, especially since the start of the second intifada, has affected all classes, but the poor have paid the highest price. Locked into the tiny cells of a dissected prison, the poor of the villages and camps have little to fall back on but their family networks and charity. By mid-2001 64% of Palestinian households were living below the poverty line and 53% were in receipt of some sort of humanitarian aid.

Two simple examples illustrate this mass immiseration. Firstly, take electricity. Most Palestinian households are dependent on electricity bought from the Israel Electric Company by the municipalities. Some towns try to generate their own electricity from small power plants or generators, but these are frequent targets for Israeli attacks. Many municipalities are now heavily in debt to the IEC, since most people have no regular income with which to pay their bills. In many areas electricity is only available at certain times.

The vital resource of water presents an even starker example. The Israeli water authority, Mekorot, controls all water supplies with the result that 79% of the renewable water resources of Occupied Palestine are used by Israelis, either within Israel itself or by settlers in the West Bank or Gaza. Some 215,000 Palestinians now live in villages that are not connected to the water network, depending on springs, rainfall cisterns and water tankers. Israeli troops constantly puncture the water tanks during punitive raids, in a deliberate policy of depriving people of this essential resource. The army frequently deprives villages of water for days on end by preventing access of water trucks, which in any case are exorbitantly expensive. Mekorot power has been used to prevent Palestinians from digging deeper wells despite the fact that the boring of deep wells by the settlers has lowered the water table. The outcome has been predictably disastrous: of the 750 Palestinian wells functioning in 1967 less than half are now functioning. These policies amount to environmental warfare aimed at the civilian population.

It is difficult to accurately describe the complex class structure of Palestinian society given the differing interplay of class structures in different areas. To add to the confusion there is the ambiguous class position of many Palestinians in rural areas, where an individual might own a small farm, run a small shop or work as a teacher or an electrician all at the same time. On top of all this there is the reassertion of traditional extended family structures brought about by the destruction of the proto­structures of the stillborn Palestinian Authority state, so that it is impossible to treat a person’s class position in isolation. This reassertion has manifested itself in increasing recourse to family elders to settle individual disputes or a reliance by all extended family members on those still involved in economic activity as a basic ‘welfare net’. So it is at the risk of simplification that one attempts to identify and characterise the main social classes or class fragments in Palestinian society.

At the bottom of the social structure in terms of both wealth and power is the manual working class: labourers and the unemployed, impoverished not only by the direct effects of occupation but also by the closure of Israel to migrant Palestinian labour. Up until the start of the second intifada, 23% of the Palestinian labour force worked in Israel, possibly something in the order of 140,000 workers. This process increased the proletarianisation of rural Palestinians and to a certain extent loosened the ties of traditional village society. The Palestinian labourers mainly worked in the construction and agricultural industries, many working illegally without work permits, providing a rich source of cheap labour for Israeli capital. They have now been replaced by equally cheap labour from Eastern Europe and the Far East. Most of this class are now largely dependent on charity in the villages or UN assistance in the camps. Although hard to estimate accurately, unemployment now stands at more than 30% in Occupied Palestine. In 2000 wage workers accounted for 66% of the Palestinian labour force, although this figure includes the skilled working class and salaried middle class as well as manual labourers.

The blurring of class boundaries is epitomised by the small farmer class who form a large element in the rural areas. They often supplement their meagre agricultural income with shop ownership or skilled working class positions. Almost all farms are small family-based units producing fruits and vegetables with regional variations such as olive growing in the north of the West Bank and livestock in the south. The wealthy also often own parcels of land and are frequently accused of selling it to the settlers surreptitiously, though in reality most land is simply seized directly by the settlers or initially by the army and passed on quickly afterwards. Employ­ment in agriculture fluctuates radically according to season, with the majority of those engaged in this seasonal labour being women.

The middle class, based mainly on working in public services, especially as teachers, is quite influential. In fact 35% of the labour force worked in services in 2000. There is also a greater participation rate of women in this sector. The public sector accounted for 16% of the total labour force in 2000 and was the major generator of new employment until the beginning of this intifada. Again many middle class families in rural areas supplement their income with land ownership or small business. At the upper limits of this class stand the professionals, engineers, doctors, lawyers etc. The tourism sector which employed a significant number has completely collapsed. This has particularly affected the Christian middle class of the Bethlehem region.

To talk about a capitalist class in Palestine is somewhat of a misnomer. The private sector is massively dominated by small family-owned and run businesses, staffed largely by unpaid family participation. 92% of all private sector establishments employ 1 to 4 people. Over half of these Palestinian enterprises belong to the wholesale, retail, trade and repairs sector, so we are effectively talking about a self-employed petit bourgeoisie. Yet even to call the top layer of the business class a bourgeoisie in the classic Marxist sense of the word is somewhat inaccurate. The source of some of their wealth and whatever power they maintain in the overall scheme of things is mainly due to either their collaboration with the occupiers, their former connection with the corrupt PA structures or their diaspora-based wealth. These are in essence a crony class, dependent for their position on external forces.

Class politics

Of course this is of necessity a simplified division, as class divisions are never as neat or clear, as Marx displayed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte with his description of multiple class fragments and the political implications of such fragmentation. Nevertheless, without falling into the trap of falsely trying to identify a ‘class politics’ that does not exist just because it would fit the theoretical model more closely, it is possible to tentatively sketch some possible connections. There is certainly some correlation between degrees of resistance, political affiliation and class, though these interconnect strongly with other factors such as locality and generation.

The strongest militant resistance comes from the poor of the camps, fighting in the mixed formations of the ‘shebab’ (the boys), the heart of the military resistance. On the other hand the core of Fatah’s grassroots is the middle class, though many are now deeply wary of Arafat and the crony class that surround him. The most sophisticated politically are the generation of the first intifada, often of a more leftist or at least secular bent, men in their thirties, often from the camps, militant but far more politically savvy than the younger generation. These men seem at least in some places to be the organisers of the alternative civil society structures. The wealthier elements of the middle class and the crony class are strong on rhetoric and weak on action. To continue their business, what passes for a bourgeoisie needed to maintain a precarious balance between holding their position in Palestinian society, accumulating capital, and collaborating tacitly or actively with the occupiers.

The strength of the leftist organisations is more obviously linked to class and generation. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine seems largely confined to the thirties and forties generation of camp dwellers who came of age politically during the first intifada or earlier during the heydays of the revolutionary left. Under pressure of the adverse conditions their base has shrunk and they seem to lack any real influence on the youth, though they command respect. Their politics also seems to have degenerated under the ferocious pressure of the occupation to a romantic revolutionary nationalism entirely uncritical of the Islamicist organisations whom they seem to coat-tail with a simplistic ‘national unity’ policy. Any trace of a Marxist analysis seems to have disappeared.

The People’s Party, as the former Communists are now known, is also a rather contradictory formation. Its membership is small, consisting mainly of professionals and intellectuals as well as workers. Its programme is openly reformist (it does not even mention socialism any more) and it was a supporter of the Oslo Agreement. In contrast, however, it has been to the fore in the development of a stronger civil society in Palestine, playing a progressive role in developing alternative types of mass resistance to the occupation, in contrast to the failed strategies of both the Islamicists and the nationalists. The People’s Party has widespread respect across all sectors for its work in NGOs—in particular the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees—a respect that does not translate into membership or support. They have correctly identified that the emergence of such a civil society would allow for progressive politics to develop in Palestine, though it is doubtful, given their reformism, whether they would be the ones to energise a workers’ movement from below.

It is more difficult to characterise the class nature of the Islamicist organisations. At this stage their support seems to cross class boundaries. One fact is clear, however: they have strong and growing support amongst the poorer classes, especially in the refugee camps. This growth in support is not primarily due to a surge in fundamentalism. Its origins lie in three factors. Firstly, there is the provision of social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, prisoners’ dependents payments, charitable activities by the well-financed Hamas movement. In effect they have erected a sort of alternative welfare state at a time when huge numbers of ordinary Palestin­ians are in dire need. Secondly, the Islamicists are seen as incorrupt, in contrast to the endemic corruption of the top echelons of Fatah. Finally, they are seen to be leading the military resistance, not only through the constant use of suicide bombings but also through the actions of their armed wing in defensive operations. Their Achilles heel is that most Palestinians recognise that they have no serious political programme for the future social and economic development of Palestine. All but the most medievalist know from what has happened in Iran and elsewhere that the imposition of sharia law, which is what passes for a Hamas programme, simply does not put bread on the table.


It is not the purpose of this article to pose a socialist solution to the Pales­tine question. However, one assertion regarding a solution seems to be self-evident as the disastrous Oslo Agreement clearly revealed: the ending of the occupation will not be brought about by imposition from above but by struggle from below. Imperialism’s latest bag of tricks, the so-called Road Map peace plan, is nothing more than another Bantustan plan, designed to pacify the Palestinians and secure the Israeli state in its current form. Palestinians have been here before, when the former Israeli prime minister Barak made his famous ‘best offer’ of a state without control of water or the skies above, with its capital in a village outside Jerusalem, the main settlements annexed to Israel and refugees who make up more than half the total Palestinian population having to accept that there will be no justice for them at all, ever. It is a road map to nowhere, designed to hoodwink world opinion into believing that the USA wishes to engineer a just solution in the region. Whatever form the liberation of Palestine takes, it will not be as a gift granted from above by George W Bush or his ilk, but will be achieved by the mass resistance of the Palestinian people with the support and solidarity of ordinary people throughout the world.