Legends of the fall

Twenty five years after the collapse of Stalinism, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh looked at its consequences in Issue 58 (December 2014).

A quarter of a century has now passed since the fall of the Berlin wall. Unless you’re pushing forty at least, your entire political activity will have taken place in the post-Wall world. The majority of that activity will have happened since its fall unless you have the free bus pass in your pocket or in the post. As if that wasn’t enough, Marathon and Opal Fruits have in the meantime become Snickers and Starburst. The point is not to remind ourselves how old we’re getting, but of how long a shadow the upheavals of 1989 cast over us all.

Some on the left haven’t stopped crying into their beer since. The most lachrymose are those who frankly believe that Stalinism was a good thing, people whose conception of socialism is irreparably warped anyway. But beyond that, many socialists look at 1989 and all that as a tragedy, an outright victory for capitalism and a catastrophe for the cause of socialism.

Of course, much depends on how we regard the system which got swept away in it all. The claim of that system to be socialist has to qualify as the cruellest and biggest of its lies. The decay of the Russian revolution became a full-scale counter-revolution from the 1920s on under the leadership of Stalin. Russian society came under the control of a ruling class, accumulating wealth and privileges for itself through the exploitation of workers. The fundamental driving force of the Russian economy was essentially the same as that at work elsewhere: it was a capitalist country through and through. Under the political influence it won at the end of the second world war, it imposed versions of the same system in eastern Europe.

The most noticeable difference between this capitalism and others was the overarching role of the state. However, in spite of neoliberal propaganda, the state is not the antithesis of capitalism, but an integral part of its functioning. The history of capitalism, east and west, is indelibly marked with the use of the state’s coercive powers to clear the way for accumulation and maintain its functioning. This, after all, is why Marxists have seen it as an instrument of capitalist rule. State control of key sectors of the economy is commonplace where private capital cannot see its way to making enough profit. In times of war and emergency, this state has never hesitated to assume overall direction of economic activity. Such state capitalism keeps the system intact. The political power inextricably bound up with it can even facilitate capitalist exploitation further by preventing workers organising in unions or parties to defend their interests against their political-economic rulers.

It was common enough for socialists to say that the Stalinist system wasn’t fully socialist, but that it was a post-capitalist one, based on socialised planned economies. Therefore such societies represented something other than capitalism, a step forward compared to it, which was worth defending. Radical democratisation was needed in the political sphere, but their economic frameworks should be reformed rather than overthrown.

Such a view mistook certain common features of capitalism for the system’s essence. State ownership of the economy, in part or in whole, is in no way incompatible with the extraction of surplus value from the working class. Government planning is something increasingly common in capitalist economies. The crucial point is the situation of the workers. If they are subject to the direction of another class, forced to accumulate wealth for the good of others, alienated from their own labour, then what you have is capitalism, whatever its outer covering looks like. Socialism would see workers democratically controlling their own labour, directing it towards their collective and individual welfare. A society in transition from capitalism to socialism would be moving from the first to the second, and the success of its transition could be measured precisely by how far it had progressed along that path.

Although when and how is a matter of debate, there would be a point in Russia’s counter-revolution when it could have been halted and reversed, when the working class could have asserted itself strongly enough to push the bureaucracy aside and regain the initiative it had won in 1917. But when that counter-revolution had consolidated its power for generations, the prospect of removing it while leaving the economic pillars standing was gone. In eastern Europe such a prospect was never there, because nothing like workers’ revolutions had happened there. Indeed, how workers’ states —even horribly misshapen ones—can be established without the workers is one of the strangest paradoxes to be resolved by socialists who imagined that capitalism had been got rid of in eastern Europe.

Much like capitalism elsewhere, Stalinist societies were prone to economic crisis, and fearful of revolt by the working class. Such revolt surfaced repeatedly, against odds difficult to imagine in the west, adding heroic chapters to the struggles of our class. Again and again, the ruling classes were forced to manoeuvre between concession and repression. Attempts in the 1980s to refurbish the system opened cracks among the rulers through which popular discontent could break through.

Admirers of Gorbachev’s limited reforms can still be found cursing the fact that the people just didn’t know their place, refused to accept the passive role alloted to them in incremental reform, instead taking matters into their own hands and further than was intended from above. Because it is, of course, untrue to say that the Berlin Wall ‘fell’: it was knocked, smashed to rubble by a popular uprising which —not unlike 1848 or the Arab spring—spread across borders like wildfire. The joy and enthusiasm of people getting off their knees and into the streets to kick a hated dictatorship into the gutter is some­thing every socialist should celebrate.

And no socialist should honestly be surprised that right-wing forces managed to ride the wave of these movements. The simple force of inertia weighs in favour of those looking to reconstitute the old order on a new basis, as against those looking to overthrow it. While socialist currents existed throughout Russia and eastern Europe, they had been kept quiet for decades and were hardly likely to emerge fully formed out of the darkness. The myth that ‘western democracy’ was the answer to people’s problems had far more power­ful forces to propagate it. Many popular revolts throughout history have stalled at an early stage, allowing other forces to fill the gap, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t authentic movements to begin with. It means that the left and the working class weren’t strong enough to win leadership of them.

“Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss”, the lyric sung a thousand times in such circumstances, was often literally true here. To an alarming extent, Communist Party apparatchiks and their placemen simply decked themselves out in reformers’ clothes and held on to positions of economic and political influence. The ease with which they shed their skins is further confirmation that socialism was not being replaced with capitalism, but one form of capitalism with another. In many cases they already had experience of introducing market mechanisms and forming partnerships with multinational companies, and adapting themselves to the new surroundings proved easy enough.

Twenty five years on, the political situation in Russia and eastern Europe is often grim enough, with right-wing governments merrily attacking the working class with gusto, sometimes utilising the repressive measures of old against opponents. To many, this is proof enough that the working class of these countries are worse off for the events of 1989, that those events clearly represent a setback.

But any comparison has to be a universal rather than a selective one. It is easy to isolate a particular time and place and find the result you are looking for, but we are dealing with a vast expanse of space and time. So we need to look at the devastating Russian famines of the 1930s as well as the shiny industrial breakthroughs of the 1960s, to examine the economic growth of modern Slovenia as well as the stagnation of Moldova, to see the wood rather than picking individual trees. Such a comprehensive examination would reveal a mixed pattern of improvement and decline in different areas. Medical statistics show that life expectancy across eastern Europe has clearly increased since 1989, but also that the differential with western Europe remains much the same. Overall, neither a dramatic rise nor a catastrophic fall in living standards is evident. Both nostalgic Stalinists and neoliberal ideologues have to systematically cherrypick their facts to sustain claims that 1989 was either the end or the beginning of a golden era for Russia and eastern Europe.

The theory that Stalinism was less than socialism but more than capitalism comes across here as an each-way bet. When such societies achieve something good such as full employment or space travel, that can be claimed as a benefit of the state-owned planned economy; when they do something bad such as shooting protestors or failing to provide basic consumer goods, that can be condemned as a failure of bureaucratic rigidity. Having your cake and eating it may be more comfortable than taking a clear position and sticking to it, but makes for political confusion.

The social welfare systems of Stalinist countries are often advanced in their favour. It is true that free health, education and childcare were often of a high standard. But the same could be said for Scandinavian countries in the heyday of Nordic social democracy. They were capitalist societies which provided a more generous welfare state. To see them as more than that is to shake hands with reformism in the belief that socialism is about making class society more tolerable rather than abolishing it.

It is important not to limit the comparison to raw economic indicators. People don’t live by bread alone, and as well as the absolute necessities of nourishment and shelter, need the freedom to think and express, to discuss and act collectively. The denial of political liberties under Stalinism is not an incidental matter, but at the heart of what was wrong with it, a sufficient condition in itself to rule out any affinity with socialism. The significant improvements in this relation across most of those countries (not all) is a major item on the credit side of the balance sheet.

Around the same time that Stalinism was departing the scene in eastern Europe, an array of states around the world dropped it too. For the most part, these were countries in the southern hemisphere which had adopted versions of the Russian model after ending colonial rule. Again, no workers’ revolution had brought them about, and no revolution was required to usher them out. Essentially, ruling elites saw no further advantage in hitching their wagons to an imploding star, and remodelled themselves accordingly.

One of the last men standing is China, along with its neighbours Vietnam and Laos. (North Korea, with its grotesque system of feudal absolutism, must be an embarrassment to even the most dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist.) While quaintly retaining the name of Communists, the Chinese ruling class have seamlessly presided over the most capitalist country in the world, coining its vast human and physical resources into profits all the bigger for the continuing suppression of workers’ rights. The options available to untramelled state capitalism have brought China close to a leading role in the world economy.

Cuba, on the other hand, has suffered heavily from the dis­appearance of the subsidies and trade it received as a loyal camp follower of the USSR. At the same time, the reprehensible economic blockade enforced by the US has limited Cuba’s chances of full dependence on the world market. Nevertheless, a move from state capitalism towards market capitalism is clearly taking place in slow motion, while Chinese-style restrictions on democratic rights remain. Supporting the Cuban people against the continuing efforts of US imperialism to bring them to heel should go without saying for any socialist, but that is not the same thing at all as supporting the Cuban government, let alone the undemocratic system it presides over. Supporting that government leads to going along with its solidarity towards reactionary regimes in Beijing and Tehran, for no better reason than they happen to find themselves on a different side to the US. There is no credibility in opposing US oppression of Cuba if you remain silent over China’s oppression of Tibet or Iran’s oppression of the Kurds. That would be to accept imperialism in some of its guises, when it should be rejected in total.

Some are taking it a step further, backing up Putin’s expansionist intimidation in Ukraine and elsewhere, and even Assad’s murderous attempt to cling to power. Old-fashioned Stalinism has here passed over into straightforward cheerleading of whoever sits in the Kremlin, as well as his puppets and his right to an imperial sphere of influence, regardless of what political flag he flies. Believing that a balance of empires is all we can hope for, desperately seeking someone with power to worship, dismissing any prospect of the working class being capable of acting for themselves on the political stage, is one of the most pathetic hangovers of Stalinism.

Claiming that life was alright under Stalinism for people who didn’t bother those in power—even if it were true—is to consign working people to a role as permanently meek objects of history, never its bold subjects. The lack of democracy under Stalinism was one of the key reasons it never caught on where people had any choice in the matter. It is crucial for the left to understand that having a free say in your life is important to the working class. And rightly so: we are not animals who can be satisfied with better rations, but humans who demand power over our lives. As Marx said, the working class needs its independence and self-respect as much as its daily bread. The basic human urge to control our destinies, to make life more democratic in the real sense, is at the heart of any meaningful socialist project.

While twenty five years is a long time, the mundane banalities and exceptional cruelties of life in Russia and eastern Europe before 1989 are still identified in the public mind with what socialism looks like. It continues to weigh down on attempts to envisage, let alone achieve, a society beyond capitalism. Instead of openly advocating an alternative way of running the world, these days the left usually reserves talk of revolution for internal consumption while presenting the working class with energetic programmes for reforming the worst excesses of capitalism. Failing to nail the lie that Stalinism equals socialism, or even a step towards it, has handed a huge advantage to the other side in the class struggle. Politics, even left-wing politics, now focusses on internal modifications of the power and wealth structure without questioning its foundations.

So Stalinism cannot be dismissed as ‘a historical question’. Being historical is no reason for socialists to forget something, anyway, but the shadow of Stalinism does still linger. Socialism has to make crystal clear that it has nothing whatever in common with that system, is determined to break unreservedly and unambiguously with that perversion of socialism, to remove that stain. Otherwise our gains won’t just be few, but will be deservedly so.

Socialist Classics: James Connolly, ‘Labour in Irish History’

In Issue 40 (June 2010) Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh celebrated the centenary of Irish socialism’s most important work.

It doesn’t say much for the Irish left that not nearly enough is being said about the centenary of its most important work. While its earlier chapters were published twelve years before, it was in November 1910 that Labour in Irish History appeared in book form and provided Irish socialism with its most substantial literary asset to date. It ambitiously attempted to uncover a historical basis for its author’s political project of making Ireland into a workers’ republic, to show that aim arising logically from historical development rather than being any kind of ideal imposed from outside the social context in which Ireland’s working people had lived and fought.

While it remains the foundation stone of Irish labour history, Connolly emphasises that “This book does not aspire to be a history of labour in Ireland; it is rather a record of labour in Irish History” (Chapter XVI). He succeeds in rescuing from the enormous condescension of posterity countless movements and activists: the rebellions of tenant farmers and rural labourers, the utopian socialist community at Ralahine, trade union organiser John Doherty, socialist philosopher William Thompson, and many more. He debunks the mythology of nationalist heroes from Patrick Sarsfield to Daniel O’Connell, and insists on the revolutionary international­ism of the United Irishmen and Robert Emmet. The Famine he lays bare, not as a natural disaster or a mere symptom of British misrule, but as a logical consequence of the capitalist system and its laws. He was making “the first attempt to treat Irish History from the standpoint of the Working Class”,1 not just to bring the reality of their past struggles and interests to the fore, but “the lessons to be derived from a study of that position in guiding the movement of the working class to-day” (Chapter I). Connolly is a meticulous and dedicated historian, but refuses to adopt a pose of neutrality between workers and their oppressors.

He is eager to explain his methodology, “the Socialist key to the pages of history”, quoting Marx that “the prevailing method of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, forms the basis upon which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history” (Chapter II).2 Connolly is unabashedly proud of this Marxist view of history and its potential:

Without this key to the meaning of events, this clue to unravel the actions of “great men,” Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbreaks, treacheries, intrigues, massacres, murders, and purposeless warfare. With this key all things become understandable and traceable to their primary origin; without this key the lost opportunities of Ireland seem such as to bring a blush to the cheek of the Irish worker; with this key Irish history is a lamp to his feet in the stormy paths of to-day.3

Labour in Irish History testifies in every chapter to how fruitful Marxism is in understanding history. Connolly sees what other historians missed because he knows to look in different places and ask different questions about different subjects. His conviction that the struggle of classes is the fundamental characteristic of social life enables him to present events as part of a consistent development with certain trends visible and certain conclusions to be drawn.

But his theoretical descriptions of this Marxist approach are often awkward, or just wrong. He intends to demonstrate how “economic conditions have controlled and dominated our Irish history”, and praises Thompson for expounding “economic determinist philosophy” (Chapters I, X). That “social organisation” following from the economic forces is left out of the picture altogether here, and there is quite a step from explaining political history on the basis of economics to portraying it as “controlled and dominated” by economics. Connolly warns us of “the vital truth that successful revolutions are not the product of our brains, but of ripe material conditions” (Chapter I), as if any revolution took place without human beings thinking, realising and arguing that the material opportunity could and should be grasped. The ideology of the capitalist class, which leads it and its representatives to genuine­ly believe that the conditions of its own rule are good for society in general, is explained as the fruit of eternal selfishness (Chapter IV): “The human race has at all times shown a proneness to gloss over its basest actions with a multitude of specious pretences, and to cover even its iniquities with the glamour of a false sentimentality.”

Sometimes this harsh determinism stands side by side with a more accurate insight, though, as in the foreword:

Just as it is true that a stream cannot rise above its source, so it is true that a national literature cannot rise above the moral level of the social conditions of the people from whom it derives its inspiration. If we would understand the national literature of a people we must study their social and political status, keeping in mind the fact that their writers were a product thereof, and that the children of their brains were conceived and brought forth in certain historical conditions.

The first sentence posits a straightforward correlation between social and literary conditions: good circumstances lead to good literature, bad circumstances to bad literature. But even the period discussed in the foreword, the second half of the seventeenth century, gives the lie to this, as a time of bleak existence for most people saw some of Ireland’s greatest literature produced by poets who did “rise above” the wretched social reality to characterise it powerfully. Other grim phases of human history have seen the same, while many periods of general prosperity have been times of bland artistic complacency. Art reflects society, but not directly or simply: artistic imagination and creation mediates the reality it confronts. On the other hand, Connolly’s second sentence here is perfectly correct, very well put and a useful presentation of an important point.

The determinism evident in theoretical formulations is balanced in descriptions of history in action. At one point, Connolly argues that if the commander of a French fleet sent to aid the United Irishmen in 1796 had had the guts to land in stormy weather, “Ireland would almost undoubtedly have been separated from England and become mistress of her own national destinies” (Chapter VII)—clearly an instance where a successful revolution needed brains as well as ripe objective conditions. He ascribes the United Irishmen’s successes to a combination of economic con­ditions, the influence of the French revolution, and “the activity of a revolutionist with statesmanship”, Theobald Wolfe Tone (Chapter VIII). While the book’s theory tends towards a paralysing belief that history is in the lap of the economy, its practice—its constant focus on the hopes, thoughts and movements of working people them­selves—outweighs that in favour of throwing active interventions into the scales of history. While we can follow the latter path in preference to the former, it would be easier if such a contradiction didn’t exist, if Connolly had explicitly resolved it.

Some of the faults consequent on this contradiction can be seen in the book’s close discussion of Grattan’s parliament, the semi-independent assembly of the late eighteenth century abolished by the Act of Union. Nationalist politicians claimed that it brought un­paralleled prosperity to Ireland, but Connolly disagrees: “we must emphatically deny that such prosperity was in any but an infinit­esimal degree produced by Parliament”. The Irish economy was subsequently left behind by Britain, he argues, because it lacked a coal supply to exploit the new manufacturing processes of the industrial revolution. Modern historians would certainly give more credence to this interpretation than the traditional nationalist reading, and of course Connolly is primarily concerned to refute the claim that re-establishing such an assembly would bring the Irish people to economic bliss: “true prosperity cannot be brought to Ireland except by measures somewhat more drastic than that Parliament ever imagined” (Chapter V).

The problem is that he starts from the premise that a Marxist almost has a duty to deny that parliaments and their legislation could possibly play any meaningful role in economic growth: “the Socialist philosophy of history provides the key to the problem—points to the economic development as the true solution” (Chapter V). But seeing economic relations as fundamental to history doesn’t mean that politics are only shaped by them, never influencing them in turn. Otherwise, why would capitalists do their best to ensure that states implement laws and policies favourable to their own interests? Engels put the point well:

Political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic etc. development is based on economic development. But they also all react upon each other and upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic conditions are cause, solely active and every­thing else only their passive effect. Rather, there is reciprocal action on the basis of economic necessity always asserting itself in the last resort. The state, e.g., influences things by protective duties, free trade, good or bad taxation system…4

And the issue of protective duties is where Connolly goes astray. He is right that “the Union placed all Irish manufactures upon an absolutely equal basis legally with the manufactures of England” (Chapter VI), but applying the same law to the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, never creates a truly level playing field. The fact that Irish capital didn’t have the legislative power to restrict British imports and give their own commodities a competitive advantage definitely contributed to its failure.

In fact, later in the same chapter we read: “An Ireland controlled by popular suffrage would undoubtedly have sought to save Irish industry while it was yet time by a stringent system of protection, which would have imposed upon imported goods a tax heavy enough to neutralise the advantages accruing to the foreigner from his coal supply, and such a system might have averted that decline of Irish industry”. So the lack of an Irish parliament did play a significant role in the economic decay after all. Once again, Connolly feels in theory bound to uphold an economic determinism, but overcomes its limitations in practice.

The book’s most unsound historical claim, however, is that “communal or tribal ownership of land” prevailed in Ireland as late as the 1640s (Chapter I). In reality, that original common ownership was gone long before Cromwell arrived, or even the Normans. Although the old forms and legal fictions were often maintained, clan leaders had effectively taken land and cattle into their private ownership. While Connolly puts this privatisation down to English colonialism, he recognises in the same chapter that

Such an event was, of course, inevitable in any case. Communal ownership of land would, undoubtedly, have given way to the privately owned system of capitalist-landlordism, even if Ireland had remained an independent country, but coming as it did in obedience to the pressure of armed force from without, instead of by the operation of economic forces within, the change has been bitterly and justly resented by the vast mass of the Irish people, many of whom still mix with their dreams of liberty longings for a return to the ancient system of land tenure—now organically impossible.

Even if feudalism had been introduced at the point of the English sword, how is that so different from the typical run of history? Economic systems rarely succeed each other through peaceful internal evolution, but usually through external pressure of trade or warfare. Even in England, feudalism was established—at least in its systematic, classic form—by Norman invasion.

Connolly’s intention is to argue that “the capitalist system is the most foreign thing in Ireland”, and therefore the nationalism of “the politicians and anti-Socialists of Ireland” is not genuine but “apostate patriotism” (Foreword, Chapter XIV). Placing opposition to capitalism on a nationalist basis is mistaken on several grounds. Firstly, the historical rationale given for it here is so easy to refute. Secondly, growth of a native capitalist class could soon turn this “foreign” system into a guaranteed Irish product. Thirdly, while Connolly illustrates that the revolutionary socialism he stands for corresponds well to Irish history, it happened to be born abroad in the struggles of French, English and German workers, and not even the most zealous genealogist could get Karl Marx an Irish passport. But principally, instead of challenging nationalism (a commitment to the Irish nation above all) with socialism (a commitment to the world’s working class above all) Connolly is trying to marry the two, to introduce socialism as no more than a logical extension of nationalism.

Again, though, Connolly supplies his own refutation, at least in part. The defeat of the clans, he writes in Chapter VIII, “made it impossible thereafter to localise an insurrectionary effort, or to give it a smaller or more circumscribed aim than that of the Irish Nation… And from that day forward the idea of common property was destined to recede into the background as an avowed principle of action”. So, far from nationalism going hand in hand with common property, the idea of the Irish nation only truly emerged through the final defeat of common property as a principle. And the notion of “the vast mass of the Irish people” resenting the death of communal ownership and longing to bring it back is contradicted by Connolly’s frank acceptance that “to-day the majority of the Irish do not know that their fathers ever knew another system of ownership” (Foreword).

The differing attitudes are occasionally due to the circumstances in which Labour in Irish History was written. The book’s first five chapters were originally published in 1898, with the remaining chapters and foreword only appearing (and probably only written) in 1908-10. Originally Connolly had dismissed left-wing rhetoric from middle-class nationalists, whose only purpose—even when it was “hardly distinguishable from the critical doctrines of Socialism” —was “to arouse the enthusiasm and obtain the support of the propertyless masses”, and was always cancelled out by right-wing statements anyway.5 This was dropped from the book, however, and Chapter XIV especially shows a marked softness towards the militant wing of the Young Ireland movement.

Thomas Devin Reilly is quoted as saying that “Communism destroys the independence and dignity of labour, makes the workingman a State pauper and takes his manhood from him.” Connolly pleads in his defence that “many who are earnest workers for Socialism to-day would, like Devin Reilly, have ‘abhorred’ the crude Communism of 1848”—but we are clearly reading the statement of someone who wants to prevent socialism rather than refine it. John Mitchel’s condemnation of the Parisian workers’ insurrection of that year is likewise explained away: he was “led astray by the garbled reports of English newspapers”. Mitchel did indeed complain that French press reports weren’t available, but he reacted to the insurgents with a bitter hatred of socialism that even the most accurate reportage wouldn’t have shifted: “they were swept away from the streets with grape and canisters—the only way of dealing with such unhappy creatures… Socialists are something worse than wild beasts”.6 James Fintan Lalor’s attempt to win in­dependence through a radical land reform is impressive, but Connolly’s depiction of him as an “apostle of revolutionary Socialism” heavily over-eggs the pudding.

The strongest feature of the book and its most enduring contrib­ution to socialist theory is how it delineates the position of various classes in Irish history. Capitalists were discommoded by British restrictions on their business, but their unhappiness had its limits: “Irish capitalism became discontented and disloyal without, as a whole, the power or courage to be revolutionary” (Chapter VIII). The empire at least provided some protection for their property, whereas a popular insurrection would be an unknown quantity, so “the Irish capitalist class dreaded the people more than they feared the British Government” (Chapter VI). They now “have a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism as against every sentimental or historic attach­ment toward Irish patriotism” (Foreword).

The gap they left was often filled by those immediately below them. “The lower middle class gave to the National cause in the past many unselfish patriots”, but tended always to push the movement along constitutional and reformist lines, “leaving untouched the bases of national and economic subjection” (Chapter I). Connolly’s point was illustrated better still in the years after his execution, when a middle-class movement did the work of an absent capitalist class, characteristically botching the job. Internationally, the phenomenon of bourgeois revolutions being carried out by proxy has recurred with varying results, but the overall failure to win full national or social liberation under middle-class leadership has persisted.

Hence the justly celebrated conclusion that “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland” (Foreword). Again and again Connolly points up the folly of a strategy for national independence which doesn’t involve working people getting what’s theirs (Chapters I, IX):

The workers, though furnishing the greatest proportion of recruits to the ranks of the revolutionists, and consequently of victims to the prison and the scaffold, could not be imbued en masse with the revolutionary fire necessary to seriously imperil a dominion rooted for 700 years in the heart of their country. They were all anxious enough for freedom, but realising the enormous odds against them, and being explicitly told by their leaders that they must not expect any change in their condition of social subjection, even if successful, they as a body shrank from the contest, and left only the purest minded and most chivalrous of their class to face the odds… the producing classes could not be expected to rally to the revolution unless given to understand that it meant their freedom from social as well as political bondage.

And again and again, he points up the need for a combined on­slaught on both the oppression of Ireland and the oppression of the workers (Chapters XIII, XIV, XVI):

a social and national revolution, each resting upon the other. …the same insurrectionary upheaval that destroyed and ended the social subjection of the producing classes would end the hateful foreign tyranny reared upon it. …the nationalist aspirations of their race pointed to the same conclusion, called for the same action, as the material interests of their class—viz., the complete overthrow of the capitalist government and the national and social tyranny upon which it rested.

Labour in Irish History is, from first to last, a sustained attack on the idea of national unity, of workers patriotically postponing their demands until the nation as a whole has won its freedom. Instead it is founded upon a strategy of fusing the national and social struggles in the fight of the working class, a permanent revolution that rids Ireland of British imperialism and the capitalist system together.

Connolly would be the last person to claim that his book was free of weaknesses. Indeed he explicitly says he is only clearing the way for “other and abler pens than our own” (Chapter I). It is doubtful if we have had any abler pens or abler minds than James Connolly’s in the century since, but we have a duty to treat him as a comrade rather than a idol, to try and correct the mistakes he couldn’t help but make. Not only will such criticism cast an even stronger light on the inexpressible political debt we still owe him in every aspect of our activity, but it will help bring his practical vision of the workers’ republic closer to realisation.


  1. As The Workers’ Republic, February 1903 said when publishing the first chapter.
  2. The sentence is actually from Friedrich Engels’s preface to the 1888 English translation of the Communist Manifesto. Like other quotations in Labour in Irish History, it isn’t 100 per cent accurate.
  3. Chapter XVI. This passage first appeared in ‘A Text for a Revolutionary Lecture’, The Harp, August 1908. I have outlined the history of the book’s composition and publication in ‘James Connolly and the writing of Labour in Irish History’, Saothar 27 (2002).
  4. Letter to Heinz Starkenburg, 25 January 1894.
  5. This sentence appeared in all four newspaper publications of the first chapter, from The Workers’ Republic, 17 September 1898 to The Harp, August 1908.
  6. John Mitchel, Jail Journal (University Press of Ireland, 1982), p 78. Connolly doesn’t mention Mitchel’s later support for the slave owners in the American civil war.

Easter 1916: A left-wing rising?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The party of the first part

In Issue 23 in November 2005, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh reviewed a study of the pioneering Irish Socialist Republican Party.

David Lynch, Radical Politics in Modern Ireland: The Irish Socialist Republican Party 1896-1904 (Irish Academic Press)

The activity of Ireland’s first revolutionary socialist organisation has understandably held the attention of the left ever since. Only a few years after its decline and fall, Irish socialists were getting a bit misty-eyed about the ISRP’s pioneering work, and rightly so. The resolve of a small group of determined activists to spread the socialist message over a century ago should inspire even the most cynical in our midst to go forth and do likewise.

James Connolly was the party’s towering figure, of course, and the ISRP has featured prominently in biographies and studies of him. Seán Cronin’s unassuming short work of 1978, Young Connolly, focuses on this period and has stood the test of time remarkably well. But this is the first full-length study of the organisation, and manages to get a bit beyond Connolly, touching upon some of the unsung members: E W Stewart, Murtagh Lyng, William McLaughlin and others.

Lynch’s best work is on the end of the ISRP, giving a pretty full account of a confusing demise. He is right to see a division between reform and revolution at play, but gives it a little too much importance as against the general exhaustion of an organisation frustrated at its lack of progress. He is rightly critical of the ISRP’s timidity when it came to religion, and its failure to present its socialism as a more thoroughgoing alternative to the republican tradition.

The author is justified in insisting that the party’s socialism envisaged a clean break with capitalism, a new society under democratic workers’ control. But this is weakened if not nullified by his later claim that “the ISRP gave birth to both the reformist socialist movement in Ireland represented by the Irish Labour Party and the more revolutionary strand” (p 158). This is based on the old chestnut that Connolly founded the Labour Party, when he did no such thing. He successfully proposed in 1912 that the unions organise to achieve independent representation of the workers on local authorities and in parliament. This was left idle (as was a similar resolution, passed ten years before) until after his death, when a Labour Party was finally established which bartered the working-class vote with whoever it could. Any similarity with what Connolly wanted, let alone the ISRP, is too superficial to credit.

In something of a break with tradition, the ISRP’s agrarian policy is taken seriously here. However, its big flaw in missing class differentiation in the countryside escapes Lynch: he himself refers to “the rural class” (p 113), as if there was only the one. The party’s proposal that local authorities rent out modern farm machinery at cost would have been little use to poor farmers whose small plots of bad land would be inaccessible to this machinery.

The myth that Connolly and the ISRP dismissed the cultural revival has persisted despite the facts, and the author is to be praised for giving it short shrift. But a proper refutation would have drawn on the publications of the Irish Ireland milieu to illustrate the fairly common cross-fertilisation of left-wing ideas with the revival, and that is something Lynch doesn’t do. He does remind us that Engels learnt some Irish so that he could study Irish history, but in contrast to his and Connolly’s example, the vast majority of Irish labour historians seem to think that the other language spoken by working people on this island holds nothing in store for them. (The few books on Connolly written in languages other than English aren’t utilised in this study.)

Here and throughout the book, Lynch is like a detective who stumbles upon leads but doesn’t follow them up. The ISRP, he writes, “consistently kept in touch with the mainstream press in Dublin” (p 22), and anyone who has looked through contemporary news­papers will often turn up a report of an ISRP meeting or speech or demonstration. But the author just hasn’t gone to the trouble of looking through these reports, letting a quite valuable source slip through his fingers.

The party’s failure to spread beyond Dublin is rightly noted as a big weakness, although it did have a fitful existence in some other cities. The Cork branch, especially, showed some promise. But there is nothing new on it to be found here, only a footnote directing the reader to Cronin’s chapter on socialism by the Lee. (Dónal Nevin’s new biography of Connolly turns up pages of information on the Cork ISRP.) Connolly often wrote of the ISRP’s work in later years, especially in his American paper The Harp, providing valuable facts and opinions—but none of that merits a mention in this book.

But the dogs that do nothing are often the most curious incidents. For my sins, I once happened to put together a collection of Connolly’s unavailable writings, the only book of new Connolly material to appear for thirty years now. Lynch is clearly aware of it, since he includes a review of it in his bibliography, but the collection itself is missing. Every other Connolly collection is listed there—at least one book on Connolly that he never quotes from is in there—but not a sign of The Lost Writings.

Although our paths have never crossed, chances are that he has imbibed a second-hand hostility to the kind of socialist politics that I go in for. This is fair enough, of course: Mr Lynch will just have to take a ticket and wait his turn with the rest. But allowing such con­siderations to dictate which books you quote or don’t quote is a kind of meanness foreign to Connolly’s tradition.

Then again, his objection could be of a more historiographical nature. Readers of that collection and other work of mine will be aware of an attention to detail that some find excessive. It would obviously seem excessive to someone under the impression that Connolly’s Labour in Irish History “had all appeared in the Workers’ Republic by 1903” (p 52) or that a Yiddish election leaflet issued in support of Connolly was “in Hebrew” (p 102) or that Connolly was executed in “the forecourt of Kilmainham Prison” (p 156).

I can only hope it isn’t too anal retentive of me to point out that there are bits missing from the quotations on pages 30, 58 and 112; that the quotation on page 58 has been switched back to front; that those on pages 60 and 80 have the wrong date. Those who read Connolly’s ‘Home Thrusts’ column of 21 October 1899 in Red Banner last year will already be aware that the sentences attributed to it on page 51 aren’t there at all: anyone free to nip into the National Library for twenty minutes will find them in an anonymous article in The Workers’ Republic a month earlier. There may be more of this kind of thing, but the publishers shouldn’t have all their corrections done for free. If you believe that getting your facts right is only a bourgeois prejudice, then you will lose no sleep about all this, but those with a care for historical accuracy may think otherwise.

Lynch gives Connolly’s 1903 election address as an appendix—or rather, he gives the version of it already available in Volume Two of the Collected Works, a version which takes certain liberties with the text. The original would have been better, but better still would be ISRP election addresses not so readily available—like the one printed in the March 1902 Workers’ Republic which proclaimed:

the Working Class must win its own Freedom, by its own hand; and this can only be done by electing Workers who, like Stewart and McLaughlin, have only one interest—the Well-Being of their Class; only one hope—the Freedom of their Class; and only one purpose to achieve—the Breaking of the Chains which bind their Class, the Workers…

Those who were bold enough to take this message to the Irish working class way back then deserve our admiration and comrade­ship. This book takes its place alongside Cronin’s and others—greater in terms of quantity—and is certainly well worth a read. Its prohibitive price means that a trip to the library is advised, while more reckless souls will know that there are still 47 shoplifting days left before Christmas. But there is the air of a missed opportunity about it all. The author remarks that writing about Connolly and the ISRP is more laborious and more rewarding than just talking about them. If he had only been a bit more laborious, it would have been a bit more rewarding.

A hundred years on: The two souls of Bolshevism

In March 2003, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the centenary of the Bolshevik party in Issue 15.

The nativity of Bolshevism has often been told. After being run out of Brussels by the secret police, fifty or sixty Russian socialists congregated in a London church in the summer of 1903. Impassioned debate and a couple of walkouts followed but, after all the jacks were in their boxes, they were split pretty clearly down the middle. Those in the majority called them­selves Bolsheviki—meaning ‘those in the majority’, funnily enough—and the rest is history.

Their leader was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and the victory of the Bolshe­viks at that conference was largely the victory of his ideas as to what a socialist party should be. He argued with characteristic force that the working class were incapable of becoming socialist of their own accord, that socialist politics would have to be brought to them from the outside by professional revolutionaries fighting against the workers’ spontaneous urges. This was reflected in his organisational proposals. The party would have to be run from the top down: bureaucracy, not democracy, was the guiding principle of revolutionary socialist organisation.

Some revolutionaries disagreed. Leon Trotsky famously commented that it would lead to a central committee substituting itself for the party, and then one man substituting himself for the central committee. Rosa Luxemburg said the central committee would be the only people in the party allowed to think, with the members subordinate to its will. If Lenin had said that Russian socialists had to get serious about promoting socialism among the working class; that scattered propaganda groups had to get together in a united party; that the repressive might of the Tsarist state had to be met with tightly-knit discipline and dedication—then it would have been a different story. But Lenin was taking ideas that had validity for a particular time and place, and putting them forward as general principles. As general principles, they were plain wrong.

The damage they did came out in 1905 when a revolution against Tsarism spread throughout the Russian empire. The Bolsheviks’ reaction was one of suspicion and hostility. The political culture of their party had taught them that spontaneous workers’ action could lead nowhere and had to be brought under external socialist control as quickly as possible. Here was just such an upsurge that seemed determined to do its own thing. When workers’ councils appeared, a potential apparatus of workers’ self-government, the Bolsheviks boycotted them, before reluctantly agreeing to take part—but only if they accepted the Bolshevik programme beforehand!

Lenin eventually pushed for a more sensible approach, but was forced to argue against his own earlier positions, claiming that he had only been exaggerating for effect. Turning his previous ideas upside down, he had to point out that the working class were ahead of the Bolshevik party, instinc­tively realising things that the Bolsheviks couldn’t, and it was about time they started learning from the workers. The founding principles of Bolshe­vism had to be jettisoned when revolution came, with their inventor leading the jettisoning process.

The Bolshevik organisation itself underwent a profound change during the 1905 revolution. Its membership increased fivefold over the period as thousands of workers blissfully unaware of Bolshevism’s birth pangs came into the party. The party’s internal life changed beyond recognition. The notion of ‘democratic centralism’ came about, with the accent clearly shifting to the word ‘democratic’: the party united to carry out its decisions collectively, but only after these decisions had been reached democratically. Members formed groups to argue for different positions at party meetings and in the party press; minorities could continue to advocate their point of view freely; branches enjoyed a good deal of autonomy from the leadership. A party of socialists in revolution could not function otherwise.

But when the upheaval of 1905 was defeated, Bolshevism suffered its own kind of counter-revolution as the party retreated into a bunker. The free discussion of ideas in a pluralist party gave way to an organisation where members were to repeat the line from above. Honest debate all too often gave way to childish sectarian abuse and expulsion.

Once again it took a revolution to rescue Bolshevism—and once again, the party nearly fluffed it. They had always insisted, following Lenin’s lead, that socialist revolution wasn’t yet on the cards in Russia, and so contented themselves with consolidating the revolution of February 1917 that replaced Tsarism with a straightforward capitalist government. Again they did their best to reign in spontaneous attempts by workers to take things further. And, as in 1905, Lenin had to get the party to dump one of the defining points of Bolshevism, one that he himself had defined.

Far more important than Lenin’s role, though—and a factor that made Lenin’s role possible—was the metamorphosis of the Bolshevik party. Membership exploded in 1917: it is estimated that, by October, only one member in twenty had known the old days of the party. People and groups who had been excommunicated for years by the Bolsheviks were now welcomed in as leaders, as their understanding of the revolution proved better than that of the ‘old Bolsheviks’. An unprecedented regime of inter­nal democracy reigned as different schools of thought openly contended as a matter of course.

For many the role of the Bolsheviks in the October revolution has served as a retrospective vindication of everything Bolshevism said and did in the preceding fourteen years. But the Bolshevik party that triumphed in 1917 bore little resemblance to the Bolshevik party that had gone before. It was the Russian working class that made the revolution: they just used the Bolshevik party as their instrument, pressuring and moulding it until it suited their needs. The hundreds of thousands of workers who poured into the party made it their own. The best of the party’s leaders had the foresight to welcome and facilitate the transformation.

The new Bolshevism faced a serious test early on, as the German impe­rial army stood poised to invade the revolution’s capital. Should Soviet Russia try to fight a revolutionary war against them, or sign an unfair peace in the hope of living to fight another day? A fierce debate raged among the Bolsheviks—but it raged freely and fairly. Both sides published their arguments in the party press; speakers from both sides kicked off discussions at party meetings; both sides were proportionally represented at all levels of the party from central committee down.

But just as Bolshevism was rejuvenated by the rise of the revolution, it stagnated with its fall. As the Russian working class was more and more decimated and isolated, the democratic reality of the revolution slipped away. When an opposition to the leadership’s policies grew inside and outside the party in 1920-21, the response was very different. Although the party published and distributed the opposition’s programme, discussion of it was one-sided and cursory. Lenin began to speak of deviationists helping the enemy, a luxury that the party couldn’t afford. He successfully proposed that factions be banned in the party on pain of expulsion.

This in itself should put paid to the myth that everything was hunky-dory as long as Lenin was around. Not in the midst of civil war with the revolution surrounded by hostile foes, but afterwards when the military threat had receded, Lenin shut down debate within the party, cut off the lifeblood that had enabled it to play such a part in 1917. Of course, when Stalin came to power he went to town altogether, stamping out any and every trace of dissent—but he didn’t lick it off the stones.

There are clearly two souls of Bolshevism. There is the Bolshevism that embodied the determination of the working class to take control in 1905 and—outstandingly—in 1917. And there is the Bolshevism of narrow-minded bureaucracy trying to order the working class around. The first, revolutionary Bolshevism is worth something. This baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water, but the baby is very small and there is a lot of very dirty water.

A hundred years on, 57 varieties of socialist stake their claim to ‘the Bolshevik legacy’. Building a replica famine ship is usually a fruitless task. Socialists operating in parliamentary democracies and grappling with the strength of reformism in the working class movement will need to be a bit more imaginative than copying a political practice that never had to face such challenges. But worse still, it is usually the wrong aspects of Bolshe­vism that are mimicked—like an Elvis impersonator who models himself on the burger ‘n’ pills slugger of 1977 rather than the man who shook up popular music in 1956.

Latter-day pretenders to the Bolshevik crown go for Bolshevism of a 1921 vintage, washed down with a glass or two of 1908 (a very bad year). Rather than the vibrant cut and thrust of 1917 Bolshevism, they go in for once-a-year democracy. The lapsed Catholic annually stumbles in to mid­night mass slightly the worse for his Christmas indulgence, and the ‘Bol­sheviks’ of today annually go through the motions of democratic debate at a conference. Outside of that, ‘democratic centralism’ means accepting the truth revealed from on high. Every member is free to express a different opinion and get the head bitten off them for doing so. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le bolchevisme révolutionnaire.

Democracy in the socialist movement is not just a good idea, a noble precept to genuflect before, but a downright necessity. Without it the voice of the rank-and-file member can’t be heard, the views of the working class outside can’t get through, genuine revolutionary activity can’t take place. This does not mean that anything goes: lines have to be drawn so that fake socialists don’t waste our time. Nor does it mean establishing a debating society: some occasions call for a little less conversation and a little more action. But a real party of revolutionary socialists would recognise diversity, debate and democracy as a good thing, an indispensable complement to revolutionary action. It would have that much in common with Bolshevism when Bolshevism had so much in common with the revolutionary working class.

Another movement is possible!

In November 2001 (Issue 11) Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the rise of the movement against capitalist globalisation.

A lot of the talk about the global economy is only hype, of course. Far from free-floating capital leaving national constraints behind it, the coercive force of national states is still an indispensable part of its arsenal. Far from borders and boundaries becoming an irrelevance, those seeking refuge from the ravages of capitalism are greeted with detention camps and deportation orders. Far from the benefits of the consumer-driven economy trickling down to all, a good half of humanity hovers on the brink of starvation.

The core of truth within all the globalisation hype is a declaration of intent on the part of capitalism. The ideologues of the capitalist class are openly proclaiming the secret of their rule, their determination that their system will penetrate every nook and cranny of the planet. As far as they are concerned, there is nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide: there isn’t a single corner of the world they won’t try to squeeze a profit from. It’s open season for exploitation, and every single one of us is fair game.

But the great thing is that this brash capitalist rhetoric of the last few years has met with a huge movement of opposition. Its origins are far more diverse—geographically and historically—than is often realised, but its greatest manifestations so far have been the thousands that have dogged the bankers and politicians whenever they congregate, opposing their diktats and discussing alternatives. The best elements of the movement have drawn the conclusion that capitalism itself is the enemy, have moved from asking whether it should be replaced to asking how it should be replaced.

Socialists who choose to sneer at and dismiss this movement have, in all probability, come to the end of their useful political existence. It has its faults, of course, but then, so has every political movement in history. It is inevitable that people coming into radical politics for the first time will bring ideas with them that are often raw and innocent. How many of the left’s golden oldies can honestly look back at our own first political steps without a bashful smile playing across our lips? We would do well to remember what Lenin said to those socialists who scorned the Easter rising: it is inconceivable that revolution will happen without political outbursts that bring all manner of half-baked prejudices with them. “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it.”

The point is that this movement is a work in progress. The position it starts from is just that, a jumping-off point, and experience can bring people to fill in the gaps and reject what needs rejecting—a labour that many of us could profit from. If traditional socialist theory sometimes gets a cold welcome in this movement, that is largely due to the Stalinist and/or social-democratic image that traditional socialist theory still conveys.

It would be easy to say, for instance, that cancelling third world debt won’t resolve the chronic problems that plague the world’s poorest countries. In itself it won’t, of course, but it will mean that some children live who otherwise would die; and a successful worldwide campaign to drop the debt would potentially open up an agenda of placing the needs of human beings ahead of bankers’ profits. The same goes for the demand to tax financial speculators in order to relieve world poverty. Socialists should be behind these kinds of demands heart and soul, seeking to ensure that they become a first step rather than the last.

This doesn’t mean nodding with a fixed smile at every notion that is put forward. There is nothing worse than the spectacle of middle-aged socialists patronising young activists by hiding their disagreements. When ideas are proposed that seem to you to be mistaken, you have to have the honesty to disagree with them, regardless of the drop in popularity or recruitment that may result.

To take an example, the idea that global production should be replaced with local production. The motivation behind it is clear. Global trade at the moment is just another of the myriad ways the world’s rich exploit the world’s poor. The only reason that runners are made in south-east Asia is that workers can be exploited at a higher rate there. The unnecessary waste that the process entails piles up yet more environmental destruction. But localising the economy would avoid the problem rather than solving it. It is possible to create a world where people on different sides of the earth work together for their mutual benefit. Instead of reigning us all in to narrow, national frameworks of production and consumption, everyone should be able to share in the diverse cultures and creations of our planet. Local production fails to envisage the possibility of such a world and so, if anything, it goes against the spirit of the movement.

Socialists need to be a part of this movement, unreservedly. We also have to be arguing for socialist ideas in it, not just holding the biggest placards and the loudest megaphones. So far, left responses have resembled the beds that Goldilocks came across. It’s either too hard and makes you uncomfortable, or too soft and damages your backbone. The third bed, the one that’s neither too hard nor too soft, is yet to be manufactured.

The movement has found an echo in Ireland, but no more than that. On May Day last a ‘blockade’ of the Dublin Stock Exchange was organised. Upon seeing a hundred people sitting on their doorstep, the mandarins of the Exchange decided to close their doors at 4.30. “We have shut down the Stock Exchange!” the megaphones proclaimed. A bit of a march ensued, to the strains of “We will fight and we will win: in London, Paris, and Dublin!”

Now, demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, Genoa and elsewhere have succeeded in throwing a spanner in capitalism’s works, in rattling the ruling class. The Dublin Stock Exchange knocking off for its tea half an hour early is not in the same league. Re-heating a thirty-year-old slogan—especially one that extends internationalism no further than Paris!—hardly expresses the dynamism of the new resistance to capitalism. At this stage, Ireland’s ‘anti-capitalist movement’ is a pale imitation of real movements elsewhere.

The call has been made, therefore, to root the movement in local Irish struggles. But you can’t just graft a ready-made tree on to young shoots as they sprout. You have to take part in these struggles as they arise, attempting to bring them together and raise them into an attack on capital­ism itself. Going backwards, carrying around your anti-capitalist tree looking for a bit of soil to root it in, is no good. A picket line isn’t really strengthened by wise men from the east bearing gold, frankincense and ‘the spirit of Genoa’. Globalisation begins at home, and the native battles against its local manifestations will have to grow from the bottom up to form a real challenge to capitalist rule.

Seattle was so successful because global opposition to capitalism combined with American opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Genoa was so successful because global opposition to capital­ism combined with Italian opposition to Berlusconi’s rule. Anti-capitalism will really have arrived in Ireland when global opposition to capitalism combines with our opposition to what capitalism is doing to us here. That means a lot of hard, unglamorous work in fights that don’t start from explicit opposition to the capitalist system at all. It also means opposing an inherently unjust political set-up in the north of our own country, not just injustice thousands of miles away.

The globalisation issue has seen socialists uniting with environmental­ists, with third world activists, with everyone… except other socialists. For some of us, it seems we can get together with people on our right, just as long as we are assured uncontested control of the left flank. The good ship Left Unity has run aground on the rocks of sectarianism, at least for the time being. Most of the left haven’t yet reached the level of political maturity where they can honestly work with other socialists—and that goes for those who boarded the ship as well as those who refused to come near it.

The introduction of refuse charges in Dublin city rightly led socialists to protest against the unfairness of them and the ill-concealed privatisation agenda behind them. What it didn’t lead them to do (initially, at any rate) was form a united campaign against them. Instead the city was partitioned into zones of influence like post-war Berlin, with the ‘great powers’ agreeing not to tread on each other’s toes (except where they could get away with it). Grown-up socialists would have enough confidence in their own politics to throw in their lot with other socialists on a level playing field—but then, grown-up socialists are extremely thin on the ground.

The future lies with a new generation of socialists emerging from the new revolts against capitalism, a generation that needn’t repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. Some of these will have joined one or other of the presently-existing organisations, probably for apparent lack of anything better. Sooner or later, if they are honest with themselves, they will come up against contradictions. How come the policies are decided at the top and then handed down? How come the same people have been leading for a couple of decades? How come members who express disagreements with the party line are frowned upon and sidelined?

A wiser course of action is to keep your powder dry, to be an active a socialist as you can, without pinning anyone’s colours to your chest. Because all this is only preliminary skirmishing, just yet: the serious contests are still to come. As the weekly announcements of job creation in the Celtic Tiger give way to weekly announcements of job losses in the Celtic Tiger, the myth of capitalist prosperity will be even harder to swallow. Even more young people—and many not so young—will take up a position of absolute hostility to global capitalism. And when they do, what passes for a socialist movement at present won’t be good enough for them.

The sort of piss-and-vinegar, bite-size socialism that is rampant today—easily-memorised slogans for all occasions—will have to give way. A new generation of socialists will demand serious theoretical answers to the difficult questions thrown up by an undertaking as big as world revolution. The organisational forms which condemn people to accept the word from on high or keep their mouth shut will also have to give way. Rather than awkwardly fitting into a cheap off-the-peg suit, a new generation of socialists will tailor new methods of organising that give them a real voice, that allow them to teach the movement as well as learn from it.

Would today’s socialists be prepared to see their organisations perish in such a process? Or has the means become more important than the end? There can be no doubt that certain socialists are congenitally incapable of the necessary alterations: years ago, the wind changed and their faces are now stuck like that. If it takes a bonfire of the vanities to clear away dead wood, so be it.

From Seattle to Genoa and beyond, the protestors have affirmed that another world is possible. So is another type of socialist movement.

The Communist Manifesto: Birthday honours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rediscovering the reconquest

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh examined a new edition of James Connolly’s The Re-Conquest of Ireland in Issue 61 (September 2015).

John Callow, James Connolly & The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Evans Mitchell Books / GMB / RMT,)

James Connolly’s pamphlet The Re-Conquest of Ireland was first published in early 1915, selling for sixpence. In 2008 Adam’s auctioneers, apparent experts at monetising our history, sold a copy of that edition for €650. Now we have a lavishly produced edition of the work, in the dimensions of a coffee table book but containing the clearest breakthrough in Connolly scholarship for a long time. Its de luxe presentation comes at an affordable price, thanks to generous sponsorship from two unions based in Britain but conscious of their debt to Connolly. In a preface, the late Bob Crow makes amends for what he openly calls the “treachery” of the RMT’s predecessors against Dublin’s locked-out workers a century ago (p 19), while stressing that the rank and file acted more honourably. The Jim Connell Society and London’s Marx Memorial Library also contrib­uted to the book’s production.

John Callow, director of archives at that library, has rediscovered a cache of papers deposited there in 1969 by Bert Edwards, husband of Connolly’s youngest daughter Fiona. They contain papers relating to the Connolly family, including Fiona’s childhood memoir, letters written to her by Constance Markievicz, and documents relative to the political activities of Connolly’s children after his death—activities more extensive than is sometimes assumed. The jewel, however, is the manuscript of the last book Connolly published, The Re-Conquest of Ireland.

The story of these papers in itself forms another interesting chapter in the history of Connolly’s Nachlass. After their acquisition was announced in the Library’s bulletin, they were ignored and even neglected. Callow speculates that the tangled politics of British Communism had an influence in Connolly’s work being downgraded in the eyes of the library, but it is clear that straightforward lack of funds, personnel and care played a large part. It seems that Fiona Connolly herself had no hand in the donation, having separated from Edwards some time before. An inquiry from Connolly’s grandson Ross in 1984 was rebuffed, and what cataloguing was done confirms little understanding of what the library had in its possession. When Callow got his hands on the collection in 2005, gaps showed that some material had gone astray or simply been stolen.

Much of the collection touches on ground which has been well covered elsewhere, and the discussion of it here is sometimes lengthier than is warranted. But there are pointers which should serve to reorient our approach to Connolly. It is significant that Fiona kept a 1910 article by Peadar Ó Maicín welcoming Connolly’s return from the US. Given that she was a three-year-old in New York at the time of its publication, it seems safe to assume that it was her father who cut it out of the Irish Nation. While it is extremely refreshing to find a labour historian willing to utilise a source in Irish, it is unfortunate that he has had the article translated by someone whose Irish just isn’t up to the job. Anyone of middling fluency could have told him that “Togha Gaedheal” doesn’t mean “one of our best speakers”, that “leabhraíní” doesn’t mean “writers”, or that “beatha lucht saothair” doesn’t mean “who will feed labour” (p 56).1

While The Re-Conquest of Ireland didn’t finally appear until 1915, its genesis goes back a good bit before that—in fact, a deal longer than Callow notes. Connolly first employed the title and central concept of the pamphlet in 1899. He welcomed moves to bring public works under the control of the new county councils as the worker using “one weapon of his emancipation—the ballot box… to transfer himself from the employment of an irresponsible master to the service of a public board”, with implications for national liberation too:

The subjection of Ireland which is represented to-day as a mere political question is instead an economic, a social question.… The conquest of Ireland is founded upon the dispossession of her people from all right to the soil, and from all right to life except upon terms dictated by the possessing class… in exact proportion as the workers take the control of the work of the country from the hands of private individuals and vest it in the charge of public bodies representing the Irish people, in the same proportion does Ireland strike from off her limbs the shackles of slavery.

Class-conscious workers could “vote to take every industry from the hands of the master class and vest it in the hands of associations of workers”. When “this socialization of society, this gradual re-conquest of Ireland” would inevitably be opposed by British imperialism, “the fight for national independence will be taken up by the working class already in possession of the internal government of the country”.2 The same concept, referred back to the same period, would reappear in the opening chapter of The Re-Conquest. As the first germ of its central idea, it would have been useful to reproduce that article in this book.3

A series of articles by Connolly on ‘Labour and the Re-Conquest of Ireland’ commenced in the Irish Worker of 4 May 1912. Its first sentence placed the series in the context of the home rule bill which had just passed its first reading. Connolly was “prepared to accept it as a working measure of reform, by means of which we may secure a foothold to enable us to still further extend our grip in the future over our country, and thus over our own lives. But a final settlement it is not.” He condemned the Redmondites’ exclusion of women from home rule, and their marginalisation of workers, as evidenced in the refusal to allow Ireland school meals or the medical benefits of the National Insurance Act. Connolly’s series would focus on the results of misgovernment in Ireland, with a lofty aim in mind:

The goal which the Labour Movement of Ireland sets before the Irish worker is nothing less than the complete reconquest of Ireland.… This is the Irish expression of that world-wide struggle of the workers for the mastery of the earth.

The sixth article (although numbered ‘V’) appeared on 15 June. Connolly hoped that the Labour Party—whose formation he had successfully proposed to the ITUC the month before—would prioritise the plight of those injured at work. He returned to conditions in the north, “glancing briefly, from the working-class standpoint, at the causes responsible for the nurture and progress of that religious bigotry which has earned for this quarter its unenviable notoriety… no good purpose could be served by seeking to ignore it as, in fact, it will not and cannot be ignored”. He traced the economic development of Ulster after the Williamite war, the scarcity of land causing tensions “which the aristocracy carefully manipulated into a religious feud”. This continued with the industrial growth of Belfast, “the employers skilfully playing the one section off against the other”. Such sectarianism perpetuated the employers’ economic dominance to the detriment of all workers: “It is due to the capitalist-landlord system that we have seen in the North of Ireland Catholic worker pitted against Protestant worker”.

Two more articles were to follow. Jim Larkin had suggested that the series be published in pamphlet form by the Labour Party, but when he failed to respond to Connolly’s enquiries on its publication, they didn’t appear. Larkin’s coolness towards the Labour Party did a lot to ensure the organisation failed to take shape, and The Re-Conquest of Ireland was amongst the collateral damage. There is something to Callow’s suggestion that Larkin may have been un­comfortable that the pamphlet “might also have confirmed Connolly as the party’s leading theorist”. He is right to regret the fact that the work didn’t appear as originally intended, “forcing a hiatus in the writing and editing… that had a significant impact upon its eventual form and focus” (p 146).

A year later, Connolly was clear that the Labour Party wasn’t about to materialise any time soon. “Last year they passed a proposal to establish an Irish Labour Party”, he told the 1913 ITUC, “but up to the present it had not been carried out.”4 He set about reorganising, rewriting and expanding The Re-Conquest for publication elsewhere. Here, this process is located during “the Christmas and New Year of 1913-14” (p 146), following other authors.5 However, Connolly was still up to his ears with a certain industrial dispute in Dublin at that time, discussing its details from his sick bed and spending the new year away from his family.6 As Callow relates, he was sending the work to an agent on 26 January 1914, after it had already been considered and rejected by a publisher. The timing doesn’t really fit, and an earlier period in 1913 seems more likely. The articles which form the core of Chapter II were published in July and September that year in the Glasgow Forward.7 A reference to the present time is followed with “(1913)”, a handwritten addition (p 204) unlikely to have been made on the cusp of 1914.

The result is reproduced photographically here. It is a collection of manuscript pages and newspaper cuttings, often cut and re-ordered, interspersed with additions, corrections and emendations. The whole is transcribed, including chapters absent from the manu­script. In all, it provides a priceless opportunity to witness Connolly at work, writing and rewriting, honing his message.

Connolly prefaces the work with a ‘Foreword’, before dropping the first article of the Irish Worker series. The prospect of home rule had receded with the growth of unionist resistance and establishment collaboration with it, and this may have influenced Connolly to broaden the context of his work beyond that. The title became just The Re-Conquest of Ireland, as the existence of a formal labour party looked increasingly doubtful. The second article in that series became the opening chapter, reordered and spliced with a section from an article of Connolly’s in Forward. The next chapter, ‘Ulster and the Conquest’, added extra material before and after a Forward article (including extracts from another article in the same paper). The next consisted of the third Irish Worker article (word for word, not “heavily reworked and edited” as claimed on p 141), plus the end of another Forward article—although only the latter cutting survives with the manuscript. ‘Belfast and its Problems’ combined articles III and IV from the Irish Worker series, with two cuts and a passage moved. The final article from the original series was dropped. Chapters on women and on education are in manuscript form. They may well have been the next two chapters intended for the Irish Worker in 1912, but must have been written later, as one refers to a schools inspection report published in the summer of 1913. A concluding chapter entitled ‘Re-Conquest’ is also in Connolly’s hand, with its final paragraph taken from article III of the original series.

The manuscript is transcribed here, but not as well as it could have been. Most pages have something which is questionable or plain wrong. Much of this concerns paragraph breaks, punctuation and capital letters being added or removed, but—while the transcription would have gained by sticking more closely to the original—there are more significant issues. Text is occasionally omitted or copied wrongly even from newspaper cuttings, and bigger problems arise from misreading Connolly’s writing. His handwriting was notorious and takes some skill to decipher (easiest done by those of us similarly afflicted), but just a little more effort would have made sense of it.

The opening sentence of Connolly’s pamphlet is well known: “The underlying idea of this work is that the Labour Movement of Ireland must set itself the Re-Conquest of Ireland as its final aim, that that re-conquest involves taking possession of the entire country, all its powers of wealth-production, and all its natural resources, and organising these on a co-operative basis for the good of all.” While the original printers read it properly,8 its style and substance suffers here, with “final” misread as “primal”, “that re-conquest” as “the re-conquest”, “powers” as “processes”, and “natural” as “national” (p 166). In other instances, “Conquest” is rendered as “Continent” (p 224), whole clauses are left out (p 215, 224, 233), and “244 pupils” are reduced to “144 pupils” (p 229).9

Discrepancies between Connolly’s manuscript and the printed pamphlet often go unnoticed. Some obviously arise from the thankless task of the printers having to understand what Connolly had some­times scrawled in haste. Such differences should at least have been noted, and where significant, used to correct errors in previous editions. It was right that a poem misquoted from memory (p 218) was corrected in 1915.10 It was presumably Connolly himself who chose to replace “proletariat” (p 221) with the less foreign “army of Labour”. But other divergences from the manuscript must be printer’s errors. The system of “clerically controlled education” (p 236) became “despotically controlled education”—although it could be argued that the distinction is a fine one! The division of trade unions in face of “a united enemy” (p 244) became “the mutual enemy”. Connolly’s manuscript envisaged political power emerging from the industrial arena “as the expression” of the workers’ economic power, before changing it to “as one expression” (p 245), but the correction doesn’t appear in the pamphlet. Support for the working class from rural co-operators, Irish speakers and patriots was described as a “happy synchronising of ideals” (p 251), but the printers performed the feat of turning “ideals” into “facts”.11

Two whole chapters from the final version are absent from the manuscript. One was taken from an article Connolly contributed to The Irish Review during the lockout, although there is no recognition of that fact here.12 The other, on the co-operative movement, was obviously written after the lockout, as was the concluding chapter. The first two pages of the chapter ‘Woman’ are missing from the manuscript, and that section, with its reference to “The recent dispute in Dublin”,13 must have been added in 1914. The opening of the chapter on ‘Schools and Scholars in Erin’ also seems to be a later addition.

The Re-Conquest having been rejected by Maunsel, who published his Labour in Irish History in 1910, Connolly sent it to a literary agent in London in January 1914 in the hope of publication there. This book has the merit of quoting from Connolly’s letters to that agent, Conal O’Riordan. Including the longest autobiographical note Connolly ever wrote, they would have been worth publishing in full, as they have never appeared in print.14 Callow follows the frustrating trail as O’Riordan displayed little understanding or enthusiasm for Connolly’s politics, and “the cultural and class divide” between the two men (p 150) began to rankle.

Callow writes that the book “grew out of street corner meetings held in the spring of 1912 in Library Street, Belfast” (p 139). While he is following other biographers here,15 the evidence shows that those lectures were given in 1914, after publication of the original series. In the Irish Worker Cathal O’Shannon announced “a series of lectures on Ulster History” by Connolly, beginning with ‘Religious Persecution’.16 Other Connolly speeches occupied his notes for the next two weeks, until a report on “the third of his series of lectures” describes a clear reprise of the discussion of post-plantation Ulster from 1912.17 A week later his notes extolled “the educative value of the series of lectures”, which inspired one opponent to hurl a bolt at Connolly’s head. Including these reports, along with the ‘Labour and the Re-Conquest of Ireland’ articles not included in the final pamphlet, would have rounded out the background to the work more fully.18 The lectures in Belfast may even have coincided with a final polishing of the text.

When all else failed, Connolly had The Re-Conquest of Ireland printed by the ITGWU: “Connolly wasted little time, after being installed as Acting General Secretary on 29 October 1914, in getting his work published” (p 287). However, while Liberty Hall is given as place of publication, neither the union or anyone else is mentioned as publisher. It was extensively advertised when the new Workers’ Republic appeared: “Should Be In Every Home… indispensable to all who wish to understand the many forces making for a regenerated Ireland… alike to the Social Reformer and the true Patriot”. Favour­able reviews were quoted, Forward calling it “brilliantly written”, and the suffragette Daily Citizen “an exceedingly valuable contribution to contemporary Irish thought”. Less expected were the Catholic Times’s decision to “heartily commend” it, while the Irish Times cautiously detected “food for thought which, revolving in the minds of practical men, may result in some desirable reforms”.19

So the claim here that the book received a “critical mauling” (p 137) doesn’t stand up, but it has fared poorly enough in later generations. While some biographers merely summarise it, those who engaged with it have often taken a negative view. Their criticisms do have some justification, but only apply to parts of the book. As Callow says, there is a “sense of unevenness” which “stems from the manner in which The Re-Conquest was written” (p 138). Other Connolly works, like Labour in Irish History and Socialism Made Easy, were written over more than a decade in two continents,20 but between start and finish of this one, “the political landscape had changed beyond all recognition and the immediate agenda… had evaporated” (p 153). When he first put pen to paper in 1912, Connolly was hopeful that a labour party, based on a growing union movement, could gather real political force in a post-home rule Ireland. By the time the pamphlet appeared, home rule was on the long finger and poisoned by the threat of partition. The labour movement had been devastated by the defeat of the lockout, international socialism had all but ceased to exist at the outbreak of world war, and the war itself rolled out a radically changed political terrain. The past to which the book belonged was a foreign country, and they did things differently there.

Publishing it in 1915 was, to a large extent, a tying of loose ends, bringing out a very worthwhile pamphlet whose time had passed, but better late than never. Its vision of the working class “quietly invading …every position of political power”, using the ballot box “to give expression to the soul of the race”,21 came from a very different place to the Liberty Hall of 1915 where its author was organising the Citizen Army to assault political power through insurrection. It can in no sense “be read as his last political testament” (p 154). Connolly was by then “operating in entirely unexpected and unfamiliar terrain with… only his own resources, instincts and naked eye to provide a guide” (p 271). When he was reacting to what he himself called “exceptional times”,22 it is too much to expect anything like an overarching summation of his political credo. From 19 February 1916 on, he even stopped advertising the pamphlet in the Workers’ Republic.

The electoral emphasis of The Re-Conquest of Ireland does now come across as its weakest aspect. Living in the aftermath of Enda Kenny’s vaunted “democratic revolution” at the ballot box confirms the belief that our destinies are shaped far more by anonymous financial markets than by the politicians we elect. But this only strengthens Connolly’s contention that collective popular control of the economy is key to a real democratic future. This overall goal is an essential feature of any labour movement worthy of the name, and the way Connolly articulates it as a logical progression from even the smallest details of local reform is exemplary. Past, present and future are linked in a creative and convincing manner. His eagerness to summon new forces such as the women’s and co-operative move­ments to labour’s banner, and to confront the specific problems of Irish and especially northern society, points towards a broader and deeper kind of revolution.

The fact that the manuscript has now appeared a century later is intriguing, and John Callow has left us all in his debt by rescuing and bringing it to public attention. It leaves us to wonder what other Connolly manuscripts might lay unutilised. A note here says that the manuscript of Labour in Irish History went astray after Nora Connolly lent it to Co. Galway VEC (p 138), and if so, it could turn up yet. Such documents have a crucial role to play in producing rigorous critical editions of Connolly’s writings. A thinker and fighter of his stature deserves that, and we deserve the greater insights it would shed on his work and the challenges we face ourselves.

An abridged version of this review appears in Saothar 39.


  1. Translating Ó Maicín’s use of “Cumannacht” as “communist” leads Callow to see “a brave departure” (p 58) where, in reality, he was only using the current Irish term for socialism (“sóisialachas” not appearing for another couple of years). Likewise, “Cumannacht na hÉireann” was the Irish name for the Socialist Party of Ireland rather than a reference to “Irish communism”. Ó Maicín’s article was among a selection of his re­published as ‘Caithfidh cumannacht a bheith ar bun’ in Red Banner, December 2007.
  2. ‘The Re-Conquest of Ireland’, The Workers’ Republic, September 2 1899.
  3. It is available in James Connolly, The Lost Writings, ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh (London: Pluto 1997), p 32-5, but the version in James Connolly, Political Writings 1893-1916, ed. Dónal Nevin (Dublin: SIPTU 2011), p 135-7, omits a third of it.
  4. Irish Worker, May 17 1913.
  5. See especially C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1961), p 270.
  6. See his letters to Lillie Connolly, 1 January 1914, and to O’Brien, 15 January 1914, reprinted in James Connolly, Between Comrades: Letters and Correspondence 1889-1916, ed. Dónal Nevin (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 2007), p 505-6.
  7. ‘July the 12th’ and ‘A Forgotten Chapter of Irish History’, reprinted in James Connolly, Selected Political Writings, ed. Owen Dudley Edwards and Bernard Ransom (London: Jonathan Cape 1973), p 143-58.
  8. James Connolly, The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: 1915), p 1.
  9. This last particular mistake has a long and persistent pedigree, first appearing in James Connolly, Labour in Ireland (Dublin: Three Candles, no date, p 233) (and reprinted in James Connolly, Collected Works, I, Dublin 1987: New Books, p 249), carried over into later editions of The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: New Books 1968, p 53; and 1983, p 57), and latterly in James Connolly, Collected Works, ed. Dónal Nevin (Dublin: SIPTU 2011, p 324).
  10. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 40. Connolly had form here, having mis­quoted the same poem in the same way in ‘Harp Strings’, The Harp, February 1908.
  11. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 41, 48, 55, 56, 58.
  12. James Connolly, ‘Labour in Dublin’, The Irish Review, October 1913. Reprinted in Political Writings, p 504-8. Similarly, a cutting from Forward is mistaken for the Irish Worker (p 170).
  13. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 37.
  14. While O’Riordan’s replies are included in Between Comrades, p 506-9, 513, Connolly’s side of the correspondence is not.
  15. See primarily Greaves, p 226, 231.
  16. Crobh Dearg, ‘Northern Notes’, The Irish Worker, April 25 1914.
  17. Crobh Dearg, ‘Northern Notes’, The Irish Worker, May 9 1914.
  18. They were republished in Red Banner, December 2007, March 2008, June 2008.
  19. Workers’ Republic, May 29 1915 and passim. On October 9 1915 the paper reprinted a favourable review from New Ireland, having given an extract from a review in the London Herald on July 31.
  20. See Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh, ‘James Connolly and the writing of Labour in Irish History’, Saothar 27 (2002).
  21. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 8, 17.
  22. ‘Notes on the Front’, Workers’ Republic, December 4 1915. This article is reprinted in James Connolly, Collected Works, II (Dublin: New Books 1988), p 114-18, but the version in Political Writings, p 585-6, silently omits several sections.

Marx and the new International

In September 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the International Working Men’s Association, in Issue 57 Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh examined Marx’s involvement.

The 1950s have a bad press and deservedly so, but the 1850s make them look a positively progressive decade. Across Europe the revolutions of 1848 were defeated, their protagonists keeping their heads down, with their enemies in virtually uncontested power. The young movement of the working class shared the bitter cup, with basic trade union organisation hanging on in places, but talk of socialism largely confined to small disheartened coteries. Capitalism seemed triumphant, and knew it. The 1860s saw a thaw set in, however, with some items of good news to hear. In America, the north was forced to forcibly uproot the institution of slavery in the southern states. In Italy, the democratic movement was bringing scattered feudal statelets together into a unified state. In Poland, a new uprising took on Russian imperial rule as well as the privileges of the nobility.

All of these developments were welcomed by the working class movement, which embraced the cause of democracy as its own. While the trade unions of Victorian Britain are often chastised as narrowly pursuing economic interest, they were in fact usually to be found enthusiastically supporting movements for greater democracy and national liberation at home and abroad. And fights for freedom in general fed in to a revival of the workers’ movement as such. Successful strikes led to improvements in conditions and organisation, with city-wide trades councils in Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London being formed, prefiguring the Trades Union Congress itself. Links were forged with unions on the continent, especially France, to prevent scabbing and express solidarity with international democratic movements.

So the meeting organised for 28 September 1864 in St Martin’s Hall in London was not that unusual. A delegation of French trade unionists were in town to meet their English counterparts, as had happened earlier that year, and the meeting was to welcome them and proclaim the international fraternity growing amongst organised workers. The London trades council was central to it, and made a special effort to attract a broad range of nationalities. The city had a good few left-wing exiles to choose from, and one of the organisers —Victor le Lubez, a Frenchman raised in England—knocked on the door of a certain German by the name of Karl Marx.

The 1850s hadn’t treated him too kindly, either. Driven from Germany after the failure of the revolution there, and then from France too, he had moved to London in 1850. He had no intention of staying long, but soon realised that the revolutionary tide had gone out for the foreseeable future. So he settled down to a tough existence, getting to grips with his economic research whenever he wasn’t writing newspaper columns to pay the rent. Still, the rent and other bills often got paid by Friedrich Engels, his comrade who happened to work in a family business up in Manchester.

As he later wrote to Engels1 Marx had a “standing rule, to decline any such invitations”, but he made an exception because “this time real ‘powers’ were involved”, the leading trade unionists of London and Paris. He suggested a German trade unionist—Georg Eccarius, an old comrade of his—to speak on 28 September, and put in an appearance himself “as a mute figure on the platform”. The meeting was “full to suffocation (as there is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place)”, and it was decided to form a Working Men’s International Association.2 A committee representing the various nationalities was elected to get it off the ground. Marx was elected for the Germans, but was far from prominent: his name comes last in the newspaper reports.

He attended the inaugural meeting of this committee on 5 October, playing an unspectacular role at an unspectacular meeting. He left before the end, but was elected to a subcommittee “to draw up a platform of principles”.3 It seems they neglected to inform him of this, and because he was too ill to attend meetings of the general committee (those notorious carbuncles at him again) he only found out when Eccarius wrote to him about some less than fortunate goings-on. John Weston, a follower of utopian socialist Robert Owen, had submitted a text which, according to Eccarius, was more of “a sentimental declamatory editorial” than a concrete programme, long-winded and full of “the hackneyed phrase, truth and justice”.4 Luigi Wolff, representing Italian workers in London, submitted a translation of their own rules. Marx was sent notice of the next subcommittee meeting, but it reached him a day too late.

Ill or not, he made sure to be at the next meeting of the central council (as it now became known). His discomfort was only added to when he heard what the subcommittee had come up with, “a horrible, wordy, badly written and completely raw preamble, pretending to be a declaration of principles” which envisaged “a sort of central government of the European working classes”.5 One council member, William Worley, objected to “the statement that the capitalist was opposed to the labourer” and wanted a statement about wealth being “in the hands of the few” struck out, but was voted down with only Weston supporting him.6 Marx offered only “mild opposition” to the subcommittee’s text,7 and even seconded the resolution accepting it. But while the substance was adopted, the subcommittee was to put a shape on it, so Marx could still have an input.

The fact that Weston’s draft hasn’t survived makes it difficult to fathom what exactly Marx objected to. Robert Owen’s work has many strands, but Weston seems to have belonged to the more conservative end of Owenism, which saw its new society as such a rational proposition that everyone, including the ruling classes, should be amenable to it. His support for Worley suggests that he had no time for the class struggle. Weston was a carpenter who had set up a successful business of his own, so may well have seen such enmity as needless and outdated. While truth and justice are un­doubtedly good things, in the absence of practical ideas on what is to be done, and who it is to be done to, they become meaningless generalisations. Marx regarded Weston himself as “a very kindly and upright man”,8 regardless of his politics.

The Italian programme was a bit different. While Weston was only an individual member of the International, Wolff represented hundreds of Italian workers in London, with a strong movement in Italy at their back, which was very popular with English trade unionists. Marx was right to detect the strong influence of Giuseppe Mazzini, a middle-class republican. The objections are clear from a pamphlet on the International’s early years written with Marx’s assistance, if not under his direction:

He [Mazzini] thundered against the class struggle. His rules were couched in the strong centralised manner suitable for secret political societies, but which would wipe out from the word go the conditions of existence of an international workers’ association, which had not to create a movement, but only to unite and bind together the already existing, scattered class movement in the various countries.9

The next meeting of the drafting subcommittee was held in Marx’s house, where he first had sight of the actual draft that had been drawn up. He was determined that as far as possible “not one single line” of it should get through.10 Part of the problem was that as many as forty rules were proposed, and by one o’clock in the morning only Rule 1 had been dealt with. Happily for Marx, an adjournment was suggested and the draft was left to him to look at.

Over the next week he started the whole thing from scratch, reducing the rules to ten, and prefacing them with an address outlining the political basis of the new association. But this was no easy matter:

It was very difficult to keep the thing in such a way that our outlook appears in a form which made it acceptable to the current standpoint of the workers’ movement.… It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old audacity of speech. Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [strongly in deed, softly in manner] is necessary.11

The address is a remarkable piece of work. It resembles the Communist Manifesto in that Marx presents his point of view in a popular manner without in the least watering down his politics. It is a fine example of drafting a text on behalf of a group, with all the concessions to collective opinions which that entails, but it remains a recognisably Marxist document, one which expresses and clarifies key points of socialist theory.

The address maintains that the working class were worse off in 1864 than twenty years earlier. In Marxological literature this gets categorised as the ‘immiseration of the workers’ thesis, usually to be followed by wages statistics supposed to refute it. But what gets forgotten is that Marx was talking about the relative position of the working class, where they stand in society, in comparison with other classes, the proportion of what they produce which gets taken off them as well as that they are allowed to keep. So he writes that “the great mass of the working classes were sinking down to a lower depth”, but this was taking place “at the same rate, at least, that those above them were rising in the social scale”. The capitalist system doesn’t necessarily decrease wages all the time, but it does widen the class gap: “on the present false base, every fresh develop­ment of the productive powers of labour must tend to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms”.

While the 1850s had seen the workers of Europe united only in “a solidarity of defeat”, legislation to limit the working day had been a real achievement. The employers had insisted on their right and duty to exploit workers as long as possible, but the workers thought otherwise: “it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class”. (The remnants of the aristocracy in England meant that capitalists still went by the name ‘middle class’.) There is a clear notion here of the working class having an economics of its own, based on its social needs as against the accumulation of profit: not finding a fairer way of running capitalism, but opposing the imperatives of humanity to it.

Marx praises England’s co-operative movement, especially co-ops set up by workers themselves, as proving that capitalists are superfluous, that “hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart”. This does sound a bit arcadian, but there are few better descriptions of what work in a socialist society should be like, and how important liberated labour would be to it. Co-operation will always come up against the rich, however, using their political privileges to maintain their economic privileges. “To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.”

Working class movements had seen “simultaneous revivals” across Europe, with great numbers involved, “but numbers weigh only in the balance if united by combination and led by knowledge”. Workers needed to show international solidarity “in all their struggles for emancipation”. Marx wound up as he did in the Communist Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The rules Marx drew up for the International open with the affirmation “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. He goes on to say that “The economical subjection of the man of labour… lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms” and so had to be the object of their endeavours. This was an international question, and solidarity was needed to prevent “the present revival of the working classes” falling into old errors. The Working Men’s International Association was therefore being formed to unite workers’ organisations for “the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes”.

The subcommittee liked what they read, only adding to the rules that members would act with “truth, justice and morality” towards each other, and that there were “No rights without duties, no duties without rights”. Hollow enough in themselves, Marx had no problem with these phrases, especially as they were “placed in such a way that it can do no harm”.12 At the central council, one member asked for an explanatory footnote to Marx’s explanation of carbon and nitrogen in the working-class diet, which he duly added. The redoubtable Worley entered the fray again to object to the word “profitmongers”, but this time carried the day, having it struck out by 11 votes to 10. The address and rules were then unanimously carried.13

It is a myth to see Marx and Engels as if they were conjoined twins, two minds with but a single thought: they were the closest of comrades, but thought for themselves and sometimes differed. Interestingly, Marx’s work in the initial weeks of the International was perhaps the only political project for twenty years which he undertook independently of Engels altogether. Engels spent most of September and the first half of October 1864 on holiday. Even when he returned to Manchester, a business crisis kept him from writing to Marx, leaving an atypical gap of nearly two months in their correspondence. Marx sent him a brief note on 2 November expressing concern at his silence, especially as “I have all kinds of important stuff to share with you”. Engels wrote the same day, with news from his travels, and Marx replied with news of the new International in a letter we have quoted from already. Even then, that news was preceded by a mixture of gossip and politics on affairs in Germany.14

Engels’s reply, three days later, is a little reserved. Without having seen the address and rules, he congratulates Marx for negotiating the antagonistic points of view. He writes that “it is good that we can again associate with people who at least represent their class: that is the main thing at the end of the day”. He can’t help thinking that it will never last, though: “this new association will soon split into the theoretically bourgeois and the theoretically proletarian elements as soon as the issues become somewhat defined”.

Marx replied that differences of opinion weren’t that hard to settle when there was agreement on the practical aim: “The thing was not quite as difficult as you reckon, when one is dealing all the time with ‘workers’.”15 He emphasised the same point in modestly telling his uncle that the International was “not without importance”: it was formed by “the real workers’ leaders of London, with 1 or 2 exceptions workers themselves”.16 It is important to remember that trade union leaders a century and a half ago were not what they have since become. While there were of course right-wing leaders and even outright traitors, the movement had not yet reached the stage where a layer of officials could cut themselves off from their rank-and-file members with interests of their own. When Marx sat round the committee table with them, the connection with the actual movement of the working class was a close one. There­fore, as he told a comrade, “The influence on the English proletariat is direct and of the highest importance.”17

Marx noted the healthy political instincts coming through in the International. Having drawn up an address of support for Abraham Lincoln in the US civil war, the traditional method of getting a member of parliament to deliver it was “strongly opposed by many members who said working men should rely on themselves and not seek for extraneous aid”.18 Marx convinced the central council not to co-opt someone about to stand in an election as “our society must absolutely avoid the appearance to serve the interests of any Parliamentary ambition”.19 In fact, they accepted Marx’s proposal “that nobody (apart from workers’ societies) should be invited, and that no one can be an honorary member”.20 The International was still prepared to co-operate with middle-class liberals, but as equals and from an independent position, as seen in a strong campaign to extend the right to vote. All the while more unions were signing up to the International, “so that by and by we are becoming a power”.21

Engels remained a bit sceptical, though. He told Marx that he could only get rid of “c. half a dozen” membership cards in Manchester, and didn’t respond to a suggestion that his partner should join.22 His statement to a correspondent that “The Inter­national Association in London is getting on famously”23 manages to praise it while simultaneously locating its influence a clear 200 miles to his south. He did set up a branch in the end, but as he only interested two friends,24 it can’t have amounted to much.

However, the strength of the International did lay in the capital at this stage, and it would take time to spread north. Engels’s position as an ostensibly respectable pillar of the business community also precluded any real involvement in its affairs. After giving up business and moving to London in 1870 he became heavily involved in the association. He was also concerned that Marx’s involvement might cause him to neglect the writing of Capital, the book he had been working on for years. Some of Marx’s comments about the International may have fed this fear: “I am in fact head of the business. And what time it takes up!”25 By the end of 1865 he was admitting that the International “weighs down on me like an incubus, and I would be glad if it could be got rid of”, before immediately insisting that he couldn’t leave because “the bourgeois element, which looks at us (Foreign infidels) with dis­pleasure from the wings, would have the upper hand”.26

But strange as it might seem, instead of interfering with Capital, the IWMA gave Marx an impetus to finally get it written, his contact with the practical movement spurring on his theoretical work. He was extremely busy, but with theory and practice together: “Besides my work on the book, the International Association takes up a fairly big amount of time”.27 Engels’s doubts were there from the very start, however. His lack of personal involvement may have lessened his interest or confidence in the initiative, but the whole idea seems to have aroused his suspicions. When Marx reported a fairly minor spat on the central council, Engels was almost in ‘I told you so’ mode: “I thought that the naive fraternité in the International Association wouldn’t last long.”28 Naive or no, the fraternity of those first six months had another good six years in it yet, in which it would blaze a trail across the political landscape.

It is a trail worth exploring again 150 years on, with even the first markers on the route pointing to an interesting path.

First of all, the International was born of a tangible revival in the workers’ movement. It emerged on a rising tide, when the move­ment was winning and growing and feeling the need for solidarity. This meant it was bringing together and strengthening what was already existing, not trying to conjure up a movement of its own in a period of retreat. Developed socialist thinkers like Marx were naturally in a minority, with recognised representatives of workers, close to the rank and file, to the fore.

It was also an intensely practical organisation. Even the job of drawing up a programme was very businesslike, and organising modest but real work on the ground was its keynote. The insistence that the only members were active members—no politicians, celebrities, or prominent leaders ‘lending their names’ for show—placed the emphasis firmly on practice.

Even someone with the political cop-on of Engels looked on suspiciously from the outside, doubting that revolutionary politics could fit in to such a practical movement without an explicit socialist perspective. But Marx, with his conviction that “our outlook” could be presented in a manner “acceptable to the current standpoint of the workers’ movement”, got it right. He didn’t water down his politics at all, but argued for them in a persuasive and rational way, so that it made sense as a logical development of what the movement was already doing anyway. To people who had campaigned to limit the working day, it made sense to see this as a challenge to the imperatives of capital. To people organising co-operatives, it made sense to see them prefiguring a new way of working. To people who had been frustrated in these efforts at every turn by the political power of the bosses, it made sense that such power had to be taken from them. To people fighting to maintain and improve the condition of their class, it made sense to see the liberation of their class as part and parcel of it. Marx started from where the movement was at, instead of weaving dreams of where it should be. But this was a starting point for an uninterrupted journey which, if followed to the full, led to socialism: “the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes” were not separate struggles or stages, but part of a single unfolding process.

No one could set the workers free but the workers themselves. This principle is right at the heart of Marxism, but often proves beyond the grasp of many who claim to follow it. To assign another class as the agency of revolution, or even an organisation acting on behalf of the working class and claiming to embody its best interests, is to set a course for something other than the emancipation of the working class. But it proved easy enough to understand for workers setting up an independent association of their own class.

They also understood the need for political theory. Shelley and life had told them that they were many while their rulers were few, and they knew that they needed to get together, but they were also aware that they would have to think about things. They didn’t need telling twice that workers should be “united by combination and led by knowledge”—not by intellectuals but by intellect, and their respect for the contribution of intellectuals like Marx only under­lined the centrality of workers in their own organisation.

This contribution of Marx’s was profound and original. He had no organisation to lean on, let alone a party, only the comradeship of Engels, who was away for the crucial period and sceptical on his return. He had the support of a handful of comrades like Eccarius, but for the most part relied on the persuasive powers of his arguments alone. Presented skilfully, and given a fair hearing from workers alive to the basic interests of their class and humanity, he was confident that they would ring true. For all the distance between his time and ours, a real understanding of his ideas and actions can help socialists make a difference whenever similar opportunities confront them.


  1. On 4 November.
  2. The name later turned into the International Working Men’s Assoc­iation, commonly the International. Marx and the other members went along with the sexism of the English language at the time, which was reluctant to afford full human status to women. It is often called the First International, but this is anachronous at best, anticipating later Internationals which were all more or less different kettles of fish.
  3. Minutes of the 5 October meeting.
  4. Letter to Marx, 12 October.
  5. Letter to Engels, 4 November.
  6. Minutes, 19 October meeting.
  7. Letter to Engels, 4 November.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Wilhelm Eichhoff, Die Internationale Arbeiterassociation: Ihre Grundung, Organisation, politisch-socziale Thätigkeit und Ausbreitung (Berlin 1868), p 4. Having asked for Marx’s help, the author received a mass of documents from him, as well as some original writing which Eichhoff told him he would use word for word.
  10. Letter to Engels, 4 November. Marx wrote this phrase in English.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Minutes, 1 November meeting.
  14. And it was followed by news of a meeting with Mikhail Bakunin: “I really liked him”, as unlike many others, he had “moved forwards instead of backwards” since 1848. As Marx and Bakunin were to cross swords in the International subsequently, this reference shows that Marx certainly had no premeditated antagonism towards him.
  15. Letter to Engels, 14 November.
  16. Letter to Lion Phillips, 29 November.
  17. Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 29 November.
  18. Minutes of central council meeting, 29 November.
  19. Letter to Engels, 25 February 1865. The words “to serve” onwards were written in English, which explains the slightly clumsy grammar in the transition.
  20. Letter to Engels, 10 December 1864.
  21. Letter to Engels, 25 February 1865.
  22. Letter to Marx, 27 January 1865. Marx’s statement, writing to Engels two days before, that “Ladies are admitted” anticipated the unanimous decision of the central council on 25 April “that females be admitted as members”, but there never seems to have been any suggestion of excluding them.
  23. Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 10 March 1865.
  24. Letter to Marx, 12 May 1865.
  25. Letter to Engels, 13 March 1865.
  26. Letter to Engels, 26 December 1865.
  27. Letter to Engels, 13 March 1865.
  28. Letter to Marx, 12 April 1865.

Labour’s love lost

In December 2012, the year the Labour Party celebrated its centenary, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh examined its past and present in Issue 50.

Discussing the Labour Party as it celebrates its centenary year is not unlike going to the dentist. Unpleasant, even painful, but it has to be done. It’s not nice to be constantly negative, but then, it’s worse to varnish the truth. Whatever way you cut it, Labour just hasn’t got as much to show for all its years as it should have. As for what it’s been up to this year, well, there’s nothing to celebrate there.

What we should be celebrating is the centenary of what actually happened in Clonmel in 1912: James Connolly and other socialists finally managed to convince the congress of the Irish trade union movement that it should establish an independent political party of the working class. This marks a big milestone in our history, an end proposed to the deep-rooted tradition of supporting nationalist or unionist parties purporting to represent all classes. It was also a defining moment in that Ireland’s labour movement was breaking with the idea that it should be a western outpost of Britain’s movement.

Unfortunately, it was to take its place in a bulging file of fine resolutions never implemented, for several reasons. A couple of months before, the courts had barred Jim Larkin from standing in elections, arising out of a legal dispute over the breakaway he had led from the British seafarers’ union. This deprived the potential labour party of its natural leader, as well as dampening Larkin’s own enthusiasm for the project. That year’s home rule bill never made it from parliament to the real world, and so the Irish political arena envisaged for the new party to operate in never materialised. The world war left the movement’s leaders all over the place, and Connolly with forces too small to strike out on an independent path any time soon.

Labour candidates were fielded here and there, as they had been since the turn of the century, on a more or less haphazard basis. While it wasn’t the labour movement’s fault that no general election took place until 1918, it was to blame for shirking that opportunity to present itself as a national party. With Connolly dead, labour tended to see the national struggle as something it could support but was not called upon to lead, and even in the 1921 election they left the politics to others.

It was only in 1922 that the Labour Party actually took shape, putting forward policies of its own, contesting a state-wide election, and forming a parliamentary group. By then, it was only a 26-county party. So the historical facts stubbornly rain on the Irish Labour Party’s parade: this is, in fact, the ninetieth anniversary of the Free State Labour Party.

But it’s the politics that really pull the plug on the celebrations and pour everyone’s drinks down the sink. In 1912 Connolly moved that the ITUC adopt “the independent representation of Labour” in Irish politics as an aim, and told the congress: “They were not going to tack themselves on to some political party of their masters in order that they might swell the fortunes and help the ambitions of their employers.” The ship that sails under the colours of Labour, on the other hand, has now clocked up twenty years governmentally tacked on to the political parties of our masters, not to mention the pacts by which it tethered itself to them electorally. The claim that Labour has betrayed its founder is made with good intentions, but is too kind: it never was the party of Connolly, and couldn’t sell out a legacy it never possessed in the first place.

Time after time Labour has gone into coalition with the right, and time after time it has been roundly punished for it. While cattle are officially lower on the evolutionary scale than Labour politicians, they know not to return to an electric fence which has stung them before. Labour, on the other hand, just keeps on going back for more. Surely naked self-interest should cause it to spurn the hand of coalition in circumstances such as last year’s, to let the poisoned chalice pass by, to stand apart and build support for itself?

Labourism, however, is founded on the idea that change comes from above, that history is made behind ministerial desks and around cabinet tables. So if you’re not in government you’re not at the races, and can’t achieve a thing. The categorical imperative to be in govern­ment trumps all else, even if being in government means doing things contrary to everything you are supposed to believe in. The idea that you might actually choose not to be in government, but to advocate changing things from outside it, goes against the party’s entire approach.

This trait can be traced all the way back to the party’s childhood. Emerging in the middle of a civil war, Labour did deplore the worst excesses of the state, but defined itself unambiguously as a stout defender of it. While it acquiesced in the 1921 treaty more than it enthusiastically endorsed it, it was clearly a pro-treaty force. The 1922 election pact between the two former wings of Sinn Féin played a part here, leaving Labour as one of the few choices for voters who wanted to express a clear preference for the treaty. Such voters abandoned the party in droves at the next opportunity, but the mould was cast. Labour’s constant presence as a loyal opposition with the Free State gave an appearance of constitutionality to a government which rested on martial law, executing prisoners and suppressing outright opposition.

This stance as steadfast champions of the state’s institutions has become an inherent part of Labour’s make-up, bred into it over generations, and far stronger in practice than its attachment to any other political principle. It came to the fore again most notably in the 1970s when Labour was happy, not just to go along with, but to actively participate in a regime which censored, framed and tortured active opponents. Even as the war in the north was winding down, many Labour politicians took a perverse pride in generating more froth at the mouth than anyone else in condemning the slightest threat to the state they love.

The Labour Party’s leftism has never amounted to more than positioning itself at the left end of capitalist politics, with whatever radicalism it has displayed safely confined within these limits. Labour now likes to think of itself as guardian of the liberal agenda, but it happily kissed the ring of the Catholic church as long as that church wielded power. Notoriously, it once even amended its constitution to meet episcopal objections, a length de Valera would never have gone to. Its timidity on abortion rights and its painfully piecemeal approach to clerical control of schools show that its current liberalism is not the strongest either.

One of the brakes on Labour’s politics has been the way the party has organised around local electoral machines. The state’s electoral system has encouraged this, but Labour is often worse than average. A party whose title proclaims that it stands for the interests of a social class should be better able to transcend regional divisions, but the link between Labour parties in various towns is sometimes no more than a federal one, with individual politicians allowed to place their own parochial concerns above party policy. And there can be few social democratic parties which have never built a sustained base in their capital city.

Comparisons with such parties elsewhere bring out some of the peculiarities of Irish Labour. It never introduced a welfare state, never housed the working classes, never nationalised key industries — things which won other Labour parties a real loyalty among workers, a hegemony over working class politics that seemed unbreakable for decades. It was never even the political expression of the union leadership, who have often supported it but were just as often more comfortable with Fianna Fáil. Without sharing the virtues of social democracy elsewhere (dubious as they have been) it enthusiastically shares its vices, particularly its headlong rush rightwards in the last couple of decades.

In certain periods and in certain ways, however, Labour has occasionally been pushed beyond its limits. In the late 1930s a few socialists from the defunct Republican Congress joined Labour along with Larkin and others, and in circumstances of deep economic crisis the party shifted noticeably to the left. In Dublin it played a leading role in organising against wartime austerity measures, becoming for the first time a vehicle for an extra-parliamentary movement of workers. Fianna Fáil was so scared that it engineered a split in the labour movement soon afterwards. In the 1960s Labour saw an influx of radicals, and this combined with the wave of global protest to bring the party to officially embrace the S word, although the shift was never as strong as that of a generation earlier.

The 1980s were different. There was an organised Labour left with threatened the party leadership, as well as more closely struc­tured opposition further to the left. Party conferences were often close-run battlegrounds between left and right. But this was only the left wing of Labour, not the left wing of Irish society, not the expression of a fightback going on outside the conference hall. While socialists could win constituency organisations, committees, or votes within the party, they could hardly win strikes or campaigns outside. The Labour left of the eighties was an internal movement running on its own steam, sometimes winning arguments among a retreating army, and its collapse at the end of the decade exposed how hollow its victories and how weak its foundations had been all along.

Was there ever any point in socialists going into the Labour Party, then? This has to be looked at as a question of tactics, dependent on the circumstances prevailing. Laying down that no socialist should ever have crossed Labour’s threshold makes no more sense than laying down that every socialist had a duty to do so. It essentially comes down to whether being in Labour increased the opportunities to spread and strengthen socialist politics. It would have made sense in the late 1930s and 40s, when radicalised workers were starting to make Labour their own and thus creating a space for socialists to organise freely. The 1960s is a less clear case, particularly when left-wing politics had so many other expressions. But 1980s Labour looks like no place for socialists at all. The general retrenchment of the left in society meant that energy needed elsewhere was spent on internal wrangling, and the price of party membership was too high. Hanging on to that membership card required breaching socialist principle, in canvassing for reactionary Labour politicians, for example. When socialists find themselves knocking on people’s doors asking them to vote for an anti-semite, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

The question hardly arises these days, as Labour stands further to the right than ever. If it once claimed to want a workers’ republic, it is now busily creating a bankers’ republic, and Labour’s way leads straight to Frankfurt after all. For all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, Labour supports and upholds attack after attack on workers, and countersigns cheque after cheque for bondholders. However, just as there are some endangered species of fish who survive in the desert, there are some left-wingers hanging on in the Labour Party.

It is easy to just write them off: too easy, in fact. They are indeed few and far between, with precious little influence on events, and consequently they tend to be quite demoralised. But such a description, or one quite similar, could well apply in large part to socialists outside Labour too: we’re hardly in a position to boast. Besides, the question is not so much how big or strong the Labour left is, but how big or strong it could become. These things can change, and we would be better preparing to meet such an eventuality than ruling it out.

Cracks have already appeared in the Labour edifice, four TDs having jumped ship since it joined this government. It may well be the case that they were largely motivated by saving their own political skins, but the focus on the character of individual politicians is misplaced. If breaking with Labour in the Dáil makes someone more electable, that shows there is an appetite among workers for such a choice. If being a Labour rebel makes someone more electable than standing on a more genuinely left-wing platform, then Labour leftism holds more attractions for the working class at present. That would point to some kind of growth in some kind of Labour left in future. And if socialists outside Labour keep up their current incapability of creating a credible force to vote or work for, a Labour left would be better placed to reap some of the fruits of discontent.

The case of recent fugitive Róisín Shortall is instructive. She was never that left-wing, but had adopted fairly classic social democratic stances on fairly classic social democratic issues such as health and education. While never being a thorn in the leadership’s side, the fact that she hadn’t gone the whole hog with them in ditching absolutely everything, as well as the bag it came in, placed her outside the inner circle. Her resignation cut the feet from under the traditional argument that, while having to make tough choices, Labour in government could still get progressive policies implemented. But again, it is not the TD who matters, but the people who keep electing her. What she stands for is obviously quite popular in Finglas and Glasnevin and Ballymun, popular enough to withstand an internal challenge from Proinsias de Rossa, a well-organised threat from Sinn Féin, and weaker attempts by socialists.

However, it isn’t rebel Labourism but socialist politics that can really address the problems faced by workers in Ireland today. Can such politics be effectively presented to them, though, without coming into contact with Labour left politicians? We could say that we want to work with their supporters but not with them, but that’s just a return to the rhetoric of the Communist International’s Third Period about ‘united fronts from below’. Telling people that the politicians they admire are only treacherous running dogs and then expecting them to join you wasn’t too successful in the 1920s and 30s, and is unlikely to be any more successful today.

Where a Labour politician has withdrawn support from the government, chances are that they will have a genuine following among people looking to oppose the attacks coming from the ruling class. Socialist activity is bound to come across such supporters, and if it is to achieve anything, will have to involve them. This requires the ability to welcome a politician’s break with the government as far as it goes, to work alongside them as far as they are prepared to fight, while criticising them unashamedly in a way which is intelligent and fair, and seems so to their supporters. It is an art that has to be learned in practice, and involves dangers to be navigated.

But confronting and navigating such dangers is better than holding ourselves apart. The independence of socialist politics is asserted in relating to others, not in splendid isolation. How many people are likely to move directly to socialist revolution, without passing Go, without collecting £200? Some will, of course, and maybe more than we think. But for the most part, a sincere belief in modifying the system for the better will precede the conviction that it needs to be replaced. Holding your nose and telling such people that they can come back and find us when they have shed their illusions will fail as it deserves to, but positively engaging with them and their opinions holds a chance of success—and that means engaging with them where they are, not where you’d prefer them to be.

There is no doubt that genuine left-wingers in Labour have some questions to answer, and if they are genuine, they will need no one but themselves to ask them. “If the Labour Party isn’t about the allocation of resources based on need,” asked Shortall on resigning, “then what is it about?” If the answer comes back along the lines of ‘Maintaining the privileges of the rich and powerful at the expense of the working class’, then their duty to oppose the party should be clear. If they honestly see a likelihood of opposing it from within, good luck to them, and we should be on the picket lines and demonstrations alongside them. But if that likelihood is exhausted, their principles should take precedence over their party.

Will there be anywhere else for them to go, though? At the moment, the alternatives differ from Labour more in degree than in kind. They are more energetic than Labour, have less baggage because of not yet facing the temptations of office, as well as a lot less success in their attempts to attract electoral support. While they appeal to an indefinite socialist future in a way Labour no longer does, for all practical purposes they offer a sharper, clearer way of achieving what Labour used to stand for, without yet offering the practical effectiveness to make such radical reformism fully credible. They spend most of their time taking up Labour’s slack, filling the social-democratic void vacated by them, advocating the kind of policies that at times wouldn’t have been out of place in Labour manifestoes, albeit with more conviction.

What is still largely lacking is a socialism based on an entirely different premise altogether. It would advocate revolution as a practical and pressing answer to our current situation, rather than a nice idea to be tacked on to the end of a rousing speech. It would make electoral interventions as and when feasible, as an optional extra to building a movement of workers from below. This would be very different to what Labour Party members are used to, but that clear-cut difference itself can persuade the best of them to take another direction, whereas trying to beat Labour at its own game is unlikely to convince them.

Socialists fighting alongside people in the Labour Party need to candidly ask them if their membership of the party helps or hinders them, if the compromises and associations it entails don’t hold them back in working for the fundamental change the world needs. Honest­ly answering that question would go a good way in strengthening the left. But socialists outside the Labour Party need to ask it of themselves and their organisations too, to put principle before party. Holding up a mirror to Labour reveals a less than pretty picture, but those of us who aspire to do things differently need to take a good look at ourselves too.