Socialist Classics: Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Crisis of Social Democracy’

In Issue 62 (December 2015) Joe Conroy looked at a work that kept socialism alive amid the betrayals of the first world war.

In February 1915 Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned in Berlin. She had been sentenced the year before for inciting soldiers to dis­obedience, but the sentence hadn’t been carried out. The authorities clearly believed that putting her off the scene now would be useful. From the outbreak of the world war, she had been among the most vocal of the few socialists in Germany who dissented from their party’s support for the war, and were now beginning to organise and make their voice heard.

While her imprisonment was a major blow to these efforts, official hopes that Luxemburg’s voice would be silenced went unfulfilled. She could still write behind bars, and worked on a scathing indictment of the war and the Social Democratic Party’s acquiescence in it. By April it was ready and smuggled out, but her comrades on the outside, harassed and with little resources, couldn’t get it printed. Only when she was released after a year was it finally published, in secret, but the demand necessitated numerous reprints. She signed it with the pseudonym Junius—used in eighteenth-century England by a defender of popular rights against the monarchy—and it has often been known since as the Junius Pamphlet.

Luxemburg begins by describing the atmosphere of the war, now the initial hysteria had settled down: “mass butchery has become a tiresome, monotonous everyday task”. War was now literally a case of business as usual:

The cannon fodder that was loaded and patriotically cheered on in August and September is rotting in Belgium, in the Vosges, in Masuria, on the killing fields from which crops of profit shoot up powerfully.… Business is flourishing upon the ruins.… Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth—thus stands capitalist society, as it is.… Dividends are rising, and proletarians are falling.

But even worse was the response from the sworn enemies of capitalism: “in the midst of this inferno a world-historic tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of international social democracy”. The parliamentary representatives of the Social Democratic Party of Germany had voted to give financial support to the war, and the party as a whole had hastened to give political support: “it forgot all its principles, its pledges, the decisions of international congresses just at the moment when they should have been applied”. It had called for all classes to rally around the national flag in wartime, “declared the class struggle to be extinct”, but the other side was cleverer:

Have private property, capitalist exploitation and class rule by any chance ceased to exist? Have the property owners perhaps declared in a flush of patriotism: in view of the war, we hereby hand over for its duration the means of production—land, factories, works—as common property, renounce the exclusive right to profit from commodities, abolish all political privileges and sacrifice them on the altar of the fatherland as long as it is in danger?… The abolition of the class struggle was, therefore, an entirely one-sided affair.

This capitulation, repeated by social democrats in the other warring countries, led thousands of workers to go to the front without protest, to kill and be killed. It was not just weakening the working class from an intellectual or political point of view, but literally decimating them, physically exterminating them:

It is our strength, our hope that is being mowed down there in swathes, day after day, like grass before the scythe.… The flower of our manhood and youthful strength, hundreds of thousands whose socialist training in England and France, in Belgium, Germany and Russia was the product of decades-long work of education and agitation, other hundreds of thousands who could have been won over to socialism tomorrow, are falling and decaying miserably on the battlefields. The fruit of the sacrifices and toil of generations over decades is destroyed in a few weeks, the elite troops of the international proletariat are cut down at the root of life.

The excuse that Germany was fighting a noble war for democracy against the evil Russian dictatorship is torn apart. That dictatorship was one of the most oppressive on earth, but the revolutionary move­ment in Russia was growing and preparing to challenge it—until the outbreak of war temporarily disorientated and suppressed it: “‘German rifles’ are crushing, not Tsarism, but its opponent.” German propaganda lamented the plight of Poles under the Russian empire, but Luxemburg—who was one of them—points out that others suffered under German rule, where “Polish children had the German ‘Our Father’ beaten into them with bloody welts on their bodies”. But what else would the warmongers do but excuse their actions as defensive?

When and where has there been a war, since so-called public opinion has played a role in government calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword for the one single purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameless attack of the enemy? The legend is as much a part of warfare as powder and lead.

The war could only be understood in its global context. Luxemburg traces the development of German imperialism in particular, and its role in the international power play which formed the backdrop to the outbreak of 1914. Imperialism is “an innately international phenomenon, an indivisible whole that can only be understood in all its inter-relations”, she writes. Looked at in isolation, the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was a clear imperialist aggression, but “Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great chess game of world politics”, and she praises the Serbian socialists who saw that it would inevitably be dragged into the overall imperialist war, “a competitive struggle of an already fully-developed capitalism for world supremacy”.

From this she draws a general conclusion on the position of nations: “in today’s imperialist milieu there can no longer be any wars of national defence generally”. It was true enough to say that the nationalism of the great powers was a fraud designed to perpetuate oppression, even when they were invoking support for smaller states under their wing. But what about the attempts then being made by Egyptians or Africans or Irish to win national independence? Far from cloaking imperialist desires, they were throwing damaging spokes into the wheels of imperial chariots. Even though opposing empires naturally attempted to profit from their rivals’ discomfort, the demand to break away from empires deserved the full support of socialists.

A strange twist on Luxemburg’s anti-nationalism comes when she claims that “The highest duty of the Social Democracy towards its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialist war… That would have been truly national”. To a large extent, she is trying to throw back at the party leaders their own pretensions of standing up for the German people. Her claim is that ordinary Germans would suffer from the war rather than benefitting, but to couch that in a nationalist phraseology—particularly one as inextricably imperialist as German nationalism was in 1914—is confusing, at best.

(Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s true position here is grossly distorted for English speakers by a translation published in New York in 1918 and still doing the rounds in print and on line, although it is often poor and sometimes inaccurate. She wrote that as long as imperialism exists, “the right of national self-determination has nothing at all in common with its practice”, but this is translated as “there can be no ‘national self-determination’”. The same translation says that “Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialist desires, a battle cry for imperialistic rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic wars.” However, the words “Today the nation” have been dropped into the middle of a sentence, changing its meaning radically. Luxemburg was writing here about “The national phrase”, which imperialism has “perverted into its opposite”.)

But would the triumph of one particular side in the war be a more favourable result for the working class? This was like making “a choice between two beatings”, says Luxemburg:

For the European proletariat as a whole, victory or defeat of either of the two warring camps would be equally disastrous from its class standpoint. For war itself as such, whatever its military outcome, means the greatest conceivable defeat for the European proletariat, and the quickest forcing of peace by the international struggle of the proletariat can bring the only possible victory for the proletarian cause.

This contrasts with the ‘revolutionary defeatist’ position of Lenin, especially, that defeat of your own side would be preferable. Any anti-war agitation tends to weaken the particular state in which it takes place: successful agitation in Germany, for instance, would restrict the capacities of the German military. Luxemburg’s own activities show clearly that she never allowed the consideration of undermining the German war effort to hold her back. But defeat for one side necessarily implies victory for the other, and she is here speaking from the standpoint of the international working class. She was right to raise the idea of a third possibility coming out on top, of workers’ revolt exhausting the resources of both sides and ending the war altogether—and the final outcome of the war was not too far at all from that.

The war was confronting humanity as a whole with an over­arching choice: “either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism, i.e., the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method: war”. The important thing was to learn this lesson, so that something could yet be salvaged from the slaughter:

Socialism is lost only if the international proletariat is unable to judge the depth of the fall, doesn’t learn from it.… The working class must always fearlessly look truth in the face, even the bitterest self-accusation… we will win if we have not forgotten how to learn.

What should socialists have done in August 1914? Not proclaim a revolution, but hold their nerve and speak the truth: “not ridiculous prescriptions and recipes of a technical nature, but the political watchword, clarity on the political tasks and interests of the proletariat in the war”. It is quite possible that such a stand would have proved un­popular in the first months of war hysteria. “At first we would perhaps have achieved nothing but that the honour of the German proletariat would be saved”, but even that would be no small thing. It would have maintained the socialist movement “like a rock in the roaring sea”, eventually attracting those sickened of the carnage and looking for solutions. When hatred of war connects with desire for a new world, such solutions become practical:

The madness will only stop and the bloody nightmare of hell will only disappear when the workers in Germany and France, in England and Russia finally awake from their intoxication, reach out a fraternal hand to each other, and drown the bestial chorus of warmongers and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the powerful old battle-cry of labour: Proletarians of all countries, unite!

Socialist Classics: Leon Trotsky, ‘Results and Prospects’

75 years after Trotsky’s assassination Maeve Connaughton examined one of his lasting contributions to revolutionary thought in March 2015 (Issue 59).

In 1905 Leon Trotsky was a leader of the St Petersburg Council of Workers’ Deputies, the most extraordinary phenomenon thrown up by the revolution Russia went through that year. As the Tsarist regime began to regain the upper hand against the revolutionaries, it moved to arrest leading members of that council, or soviet as it was called in Russian. There is a photograph of Trotsky in his prison cell in 1906 as he awaited the trial where he would speak in defence of the soviet. He sits on a chair and looks away from the camera awkwardly, self-consciously, as if making an effort to do so. Just behind him the cell door frames the jailers’ spy-hole, supposedly all-seeing but unable to prevent a camera being smuggled in to capture this image. No more could the regime imprison the minds of its captives, and Trotsky was spending his time behind bars profitably, drawing lessons from the revolutionary events in the hope of assisting future efforts in the same line.

The outstanding work of that period is Results and Prospects, similarly smuggled out and published before Trotsky and his com­rades were hauled off to Siberia after the inevitable verdict. It bears the imprint of the revolution on its pages, invoking “growing social conflicts, uprisings of new sections of the masses, unceasing attacks by the proletariat upon the economic and political privileges of the ruling classes”, the kind of period which “gives the proletariat ten years’ experience in a month”.

The book addressed a major debate on the Russian left about what kind of revolution they were involved in. Most socialists were agreed that it was a bourgeois revolution, which could at most get rid of Tsarism, clear the way for capitalist development, and leave the working class a clearer field to begin its own fight for socialism. Where they differed was over who would lead this bourgeois revolution. The Mensheviks insisted that the capitalists would stand at the front of their own revolution, with the workers pressurising them to keep up the fight against the regime. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had no faith in the capitalists, and thought the workers should take power alongside the peasantry in order to push the bourgeois revolution as far as it could go within the limits of capitalism. The uniqueness of Trotsky’s position lay in his argument that the working class could not just take power but, instead of stopping at the overthrow of Tsarism, could move towards ending capitalism itself.

This idea was rooted in an analysis of Russia’s economic develop­ment. Coming to capitalism later than western Europe, it could assimilate the technologies and processes of its predecessors. As a result, a political system based on a more or less feudal autocracy oversaw the introduction of a thoroughly modern capitalism. This inevitably entailed the creation of a working class with its hands at the levers of this new economic power, the secret of “the dis­proportionately large political role played by the Russian proletariat”. On the other side of the equation a capitalist class grew, but instead of boldly asserting its political interests against Tsarism, it preferred the protection of the regime to the threatening power of the workers.

Trotsky only applied his conclusions to the Russian situation, and it would be another twenty years before he saw them having a wider application. Nevertheless, his arguments about Russia’s prospective development entail a general conception of Marxism which goes against the grain of how it is commonly understood. To counter the claim that Russia and its working class were insufficiently developed for socialism to come on the agenda, he had to examine what the necessary conditions for socialist revolution are.

First of all, socialism cannot be a realistic prospect unless it provides a better way of producing and distributing humanity’s resources. But Trotsky argues that, in this sense, “sufficient technical prerequisites for collective production have already existed for a hundred or two hundred years”. There could scarcely have been any time when the great industrial advances introduced under capitalism would not have worked better in a hypothetical socialist economy.

It is not possible to draw an equals sign between a society’s economic position and its politics: “Between the productive forces of a country and the political strength of its classes there cut across at any given time various social and political factors of a national and international character, and these displace and even sometimes completely alter the political expression of economic relations.” A complex interaction of objective and subjective causes is at play here:

the day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and finally, upon a number of sub­jective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers.… Politics is the plane upon which the ob­jective prerequisites of socialism are intersected by the subjective ones.

All the economic development in the world will not bring about socialism unless the working class understands the need for it and is prepared to fight accordingly. Such class consciousness on the part of the workers is an indispensable prerequisite. But that doesn’t mean the physical establishment of a new world has to wait until workers mentally inhabit it beforehand:

One must not confuse here the conscious striving towards socialism with socialist psychology. The latter presupposes the absence of egotistical motives in economic life; whereas the striving towards socialism and the struggle for it arise from the class psychology of the proletariat. However many points of contact there may be between the class psychology of the proletariat and classless socialist psychology, nevertheless a deep chasm divides them.

Fighting against capitalism does give rise to “splendid shoots of idealism, comradely solidarity and self-sacrifice”, but Trotsky is right to say that these get smothered by capitalism at every turn. Living a life of selfless altruism in a society based on selfish individualism is impossible: even the most committed socialist could hardly afford to pass up a job because someone else might be in greater need of it.

However, he undermines his argument when summing it up thus: “Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a prerequisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a prerequisite to socialist psychology.” The attitudes engendered in the fight for socialism are a precursor of the attitudes which a socialist society itself would engender, attitudes which would be moulded in struggles to bring about such a society. The “points of contact” Trotsky noted get forgotten here, as material conditions are simply presented as cause and consciousness as effect, when a more dialectical relation would be evident in reality.

Such a relation can be seen where Trotsky discusses the interface between economic development and political awareness: “these processes take place simultaneously, and not only give an impetus to each other, but also retard and limit each other”. If they grow out of proportion, with one aspect failing to keep pace with others, this can throw up problems. Socialist organisations can increase their vote and membership without increasing their value to the class struggle:

the work of agitation and organisation among the ranks of the proletariat has an internal inertia. The European Socialist Parties, particularly the largest of then, the German Social Democratic Party, have developed their conservatism in proportion as the great masses have embraced socialism… the propagandist socialist conservatism of the proletarian parties may at a certain moment hold back the direct struggle of the proletariat for power.

Not the least service of the revolution in Russia had been to shake up this inertia on the European left.

The conclusion from Trotsky’s analysis was that “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.” The implication of this global conclusion for his own country was also clear: “the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers”.

This clearly distanced Trotsky from the Mensheviks’ idea that the working class couldn’t and shouldn’t aim at taking charge. But he was no less opposed to the Bolshevik plan for workers taking a share of power in a revolutionary government which would pull up short before the prospect of socialism. To imagine that socialists could enter such a government and introduce radical reforms with workers’ support but then “leave the edifice they have constructed so as to make way for the bourgeois parties” was utopian. On the contrary, such a government would be forced “by the very logic of its position” to move in a socialist direction.

Trotsky cites a very practical example. One of the measures a revolutionary government would introduce was the eight-hour day, a basic demand of workers in Russia and elsewhere, a reform which didn’t threaten the capitalist system itself but would make life under it more tolerable. The capitalists would resist it, however, and likely close down their factories, locking out workers until they agreed to return for ten or eleven hours a day. How would the government respond? As Trotsky says, “it is quite obvious that the representatives of the workers in the government cannot reply to the demands of un­employed workers with arguments about the bourgeois character of the revolution”. They would have no alternative but to take over those factories, for those workers to take control of them. The very fact of socialists being in power to genuinely fight for the cause of the working class “places collectivism on the order of the day”.

A workers’ government in Russia would of course have to bring about basic political changes in Russian society, to abolish the Tsarist dictatorship and enshrine democratic rights. But it would also have to face up to the questions at issue between workers and capitalists. Rather than avoiding or postponing them, it would have to deepen the revolution, to make it socialist:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy.

A major objection to this notion was the fact that the urban working class made up only a minority of Russia’s population. Trotsky’s reply—that this minority was concentrated in the decisive areas of the economy—was true, but still, the vast majority of the people lived in the countryside and worked in agriculture. This was why the Bolsheviks insisted on a revolutionary government “of the proletariat and peasantry”. Trotsky agreed that representatives of the peasantry should absolutely be part of a revolutionary government alongside the workers. But who would direct such a government? Which class would play the leading role in it? “When we speak of a workers’ government”, he wrote, “we have in view a government in which the working-class representatives dominate and lead.”

“Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role”, he insisted. While this sounds harsh, it holds true. The scattered nature of small farming as a way of life, both geographically and economically, has always left farmers playing a supporting role to the main urban classes—an important one, but not an independent one. Because of the unstable intermediate social situation in which they find themselves, their politics has a tendency to be “indefinite, unformed, full of possibilities and therefore full of surprises”.

The working class would have to “carry the class struggle into the villages”, supporting poor farmers and above all agricultural workers against rich farmers, encouraging such class antagonism in order to “destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits”. It would promote socialised agriculture on large units, but expropriating small holdings “in no way enters into the plans of the socialist proletariat”.

Trotsky foresees a very defined relationship between the two classes:

The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it. …nothing remains for the peasantry to do but to rally to the regime of workers’ democracy. It will not matter much even if the peasantry does this with a degree of consciousness not larger than that with which it usually rallies to the bourgeois regime.

The peasants would support the working class in the constituent assembly, but this would be “nothing else than a democratic dress for the rule of the proletariat”.

In passages like these, Trotsky is clearly going too far, consigning Russia’s peasantry to an utterly subordinate role as passive camp followers, unthinking objects of whichever political force happens to bestow benefits upon them from the heights of power. On the contrary, workers would have to go out of their way to win over small farmers, to persuade them of the benefits of a socialist order, repeatedly and continuously. For the working class, hegemony is not a cynical politicians’ game but a process of active political engagement with its allies, taking their concerns on board and incorporating them into the work of socialist transformation. If the peasantry were as devoid of initiative as Trotsky paints them here, it would be difficult to envisage the practicalities of abolishing landlordism and moving towards socialist agriculture, if only because there would be hardly anyone on the ground to carry it out.

The claim that the workers of Russia could begin to assault the very foundations of capitalism was an audacious one, but if they could begin that job, Trotsky never claimed that they could finish it. Their position at the helm of Russia would be “cast into the scales of the class struggle of the entire capitalist world”. The workers of more economically advanced countries would have to follow their example and take power themselves: “Without the direct state support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power”. On their own, Russian workers would go down to inevitable defeat, but if their revolution became just one link in a chain of revolutions, an international foundation could be laid on which socialism could develop.

Socialist Classics: Paulo Freire, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’

Issue 56 (June 2014) saw Tara O’Sullivan discussing a revolutionary approach to education and social change.

In 1845, as he was working out a way of seeing things which would revolutionise the world, Karl Marx noted that some materialists see people as utterly dictated by their education and circumstances, a view which forgets “that circumstances are changed by people and that the educator must himself be educated”. At the end of the day, education, education, education is at the heart of what socialists seek to do. This is not just a question of what goes on in school classrooms —crucial as that is—but how people learn to understand and shape their world, and how socialist ideas get presented and accepted. The idea that the way knowledge is shared is at the heart of social change, and that social change is at the heart of the way knowledge is shared, formed the foundation for the work of Paulo Freire.

Freire was born in Brazil in 1921 into a comfortable middle-class family. But the economic depression of the following decade took a toll on his family’s fortunes and, although they later recovered their position, the uncertainty of this period may well have helped to shape Freire’s outlook. He became a teacher, eventually working on literacy programmes among the country’s poor. They were so successful that he was forced into exile when a military clique seized control of the country, but he continued his work in Chile. He published Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, expounding the philosophy behind his educational practice.

He characterises the conventional model of education bitterly:

This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).… Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositors and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and ‘makes deposits’ which the students patiently receive, memorize and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education…

While lip service is nowadays officially paid to a more mutual interaction between teacher and students, this is more appearance than reality. Even banks themselves have replaced the officious managers of old with a supposedly more customer-friendly open door, while still playing the same role in perpetuating inequality. Likewise, education is still premised on lodging information in students’ heads to be regurgitated as required for the sake of exams, points, quali­fications. Even with the best will on the part of teachers, the imperative to allocate people to roles in the capitalist economy ultimately shapes how they are taught.

Real education works very differently, insists Freire:

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.… Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information. …there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only men who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.

(The book constantly refers to the thoughts and actions of “men”, with women not getting a look in. While this terminological failure could be partly put down to the over-gendered language of the times, Freire’s failure to even mention the specific nature of how women experience the world is a more fundamental one.)

As against ‘banking’ education, which takes for granted the world as it is, “problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality… not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in trans­formation”. The educator’s “efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking”, meaning that “both are simultaneously teachers and students”.

the problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students—no longer docile listeners—are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-examines his earlier considerations as the students express their own. …the organized, systematized, and developed ‘re-presentation’ to individuals of the things about which they want to know more.

Such education is unapologetically revolutionary, challenging the existing order of things and working towards a different, human society. Struggle for such social transformation is needed for emancipatory education to work, but the critical thinking entailed in such education is just as necessary to achieve that transformation:

It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection… it would be a false premise to believe that activism (which is not true action) is the road to revolution. Men will be truly critical if they live the plenitude of the praxis, that is, if their action encompasses a critical reflection…

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.” The human­itarian approach to education essentially reproduces the ‘banking’ concept. While it is concerned with the well-being of the poor, and often sincerely, it still sees itself holding the keys to knowledge, allowing the oppressed judicious doses of cut-and-dried facts to be learned. Even if the avowed aim is to help them live better lives, “not even the best-intentioned leadership can bestow independence as a gift”.

Here and throughout the book, Freire is not just discussing the activity of educationalists as such, but of all who aim to bring people a greater awareness of the world. The lines between classroom education and the political education of a revolutionary movement aiming to change consciousness and the world are deliberately blurred —or rather, their basic identity is affirmed, “the eminently peda­gogical character of the revolution”.

So there is no room for the notion that a liberating pedagogy is something to be introduced ‘after the revolution’. First of all, this conception of revolution as a single point in time is mistaken: “the taking of power is only one moment—no matter how decisive—in the revolutionary process… there is no absolute ‘before’ or ‘after’, with the taking of power as the dividing line”. To postpone education based on dialogue and problem posing to an indefinite future means sticking with ‘banking’ education for the present. Even if the information to be deposited within passive learners is revolutionary in intent, this approach inherently contradicts the revolution:

they cannot use the methods of banking education in the pursuit of liberation, as they would only negate that pursuit itself. Nor may a revolutionary society inherit these methods from an oppressor society.… In the revolutionary process, the leaders cannot utilize the banking method as an interim measure, justified on grounds of expediency, with the intention of later behaving in a genuinely revolutionary fashion. They must be revolutionary—that is to say, dialogical—from the outset.

Revolutionary education is a means as well as an end, a method of bringing about change as well as its result. The same goes for the way revolutionaries organise: “organization only corresponds to its nature and objective if in itself it constitutes the practice of freedom”. Indeed, critical and creative dialogue through every phase “is one of the most effective instruments for keeping the revolution from becoming institutionalized and stratified in a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy”.

However, “for the Leftist sectarian, ‘tomorrow’ is decreed beforehand, is inexorably pre-ordained”. He treats people “as objects which must be saved from a burning building” rather than as subjects of the revolutionary process. He “feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer”, considering himself “the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom—which must then be given to (or imposed upon) the people” by “monologue, slogans and communiqués”.

As against that, “Scientific revolutionary humanism cannot, in the name of revolution, treat the oppressed as objects to be analysed and (based on that analysis) presented with prescriptions for behaviour… cannot designate its leaders as its thinkers and the oppressed as mere doers”. Their objective is

not to ‘win the people over’ to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor. The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.

From the word go, revolutionaries must learn while they teach: they

do not go to the people in order to bring them a message of ‘salvation’, but in order to come to know through dialogue with them both their objective situation and their awareness of that situation… Although they may legitimately recognize themselves as having, due to their revolutionary consciousness, a level of revolutionary knowledge different from the level of empirical knowledge held by the people, they cannot impose themselves and their knowledge on the people. They cannot sloganize the people, but must enter into dialogue with them, so that the people’s empirical knowledge of reality, nourished by the leaders’ critical knowledge, gradually becomes transformed into knowledge of the causes of reality.

But this does not mean stopping short at the views currently held by the people: “Neither invasion by the leaders of the people’s world view not mere adaptation by the leaders to the (often naïve) aspirations of the people is acceptable.” Freire gives the example of a grassroots demand for wage increases. It would be wrong to limit political action to such a demand, but equally wrong to “overrule this popular demand” in favour of immediate abolition of the wages system. A synthesis is needed which supports the demand while posing it as just one aspect of a wider problem whose solution necessarily goes far further than higher wages.

There are flaws in Freire’s analysis. He speaks of dialogue between “leaders” and “the people” throughout. “Usually this leadership group is made up of men who in one way or another have belonged to the social strata of the dominators”, he writes. Although he constantly stresses that they can’t be true revolutionaries until they leave behind them all traces of their old class outlook towards the poor, these leaders are an external force who “go to the people”. The vagueness, and even ambiguity, of an undifferentiated “people” is problematic, ignoring very important class distinctions and their political implications. But above all, there is no understanding that revolutionary consciousness can emerge from within the oppressed themselves, that in struggle they can bring forth their own leaders. In fact, Freire concludes that the people cannot work out their own salvation unaided: “Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders—in their communion, in their praxis—can this theory be built.”

This is largely due to the influence of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, whose politics are often uncritically referenced by Freire. His mistake lies in not going far enough in his insistence that liberation can only come from the people themselves. Just as teachers and students merge into one in his educational model, leaders and workers must merge into one in revolution, their functions becoming complementary and undivided aspects of a unified praxis. But it is entirely in the spirit of Freire’s own revolutionary pedagogy that we should question and hope to deepen his ideas, in the hope of better fitting them for the work of human liberation which inspired him.

Socialist Classics: William Morris, ‘News from Nowhere’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

Tressell explains in his preface that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Chapter 48)

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

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

Socialist Classics: Leon Trotsky, ‘Literature and Revolution’

One of Marxism’s best discussions of art was discussed in Issue 22 (July 2005) by Joe Conroy.

Marxist writings on literature are often irritating. Either they content themselves with unobjectionable generalisations, or engage in such particular analysis that only the specialist can get much out of them. Very few manage to steer between the two rocks, and Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution is possibly the best of them. It bears the marks of its time, of course: most of the writers from the Russia of 1924 that he refers to have passed into obscurity, so that today’s reader can make little sense of the specifics. But there is enough that still applies in there to stimulate thought among socialists on questions of art and culture.

First of all, Trotsky insists that socialists should actually be thinking about such questions. The victory of socialism would not be measured by its ability to satisfy basic needs like food and clothing, but by its ability to foster a new art. This was an indispensable part of humanity creating a free life for itself: “the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry”, for instance (Literature and Revolution, Michigan 1960, p 170).

For some reason, this conviction of the absolute necessity of art is rare among socialists. Our indictments of capitalism tend not to mention the stifling of artistic creativity: the changes we call for tend not to encompass artistic revolution. The occasional criticisms we make of official arts policies usually boil down to mumbling that more money should probably be spent on that sort of thing. The idea that we should be talking about art and its role, pushing artistic debate forward as opposed to just reviewing the odd novel, is still lacking. Most socialists prefer to stick to bread and butter in their politics—forgetting that bread and butter is only a bare culinary minimum, not a proper square meal.

For Trotsky, art was not just necessary in a holistic sense, as part of a fully-rounded development, but also as part of the struggle to change the world: “how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life without seeing oneself in the ‘mirror’ of literature?” To reject this would be “to strike from the hands of the class which is building a new society its most important weapon” (p 137). He writes this in a post-revolutionary context, with the capitalist class overthrown: prior to such a situation, art can hardly be the “most important weapon” in the working-class arsenal. But it is one of the most important. To fully understand the world we are trying to change and the world we are trying to create, we need a sense of perception that is artistic.

Many, if not most socialists underestimate the transformation that a socialist revolution would try to bring about. It’s not a matter of writing a new name on the title deeds to the means of production, but of human beings living an entirely different kind of life. Escap­ing from the chains of material want is an indispensable foundation for this, but no more than that. The key is people relating to each other as freely associated active individuals, making a reality of “All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming—so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians—such as disinterested friendship, love for one’s neighbor, sympathy” (p 230). At the end of the day, socialist politics is about creating a desire for such a life—or rather, awakening the desire for it that is already in us, but buried—and a contempt for a condition that denies it.

To comprehend how the need for human liberation is crushed out of us calls for an approach which is beyond the journalist’s statistic, the documentary maker’s camera, the orator’s phrase. To see the reality of how class society distorts and constricts the most intimate aspects of human relations requires a reconstruction and a presentation of them that only an artist can accomplish. To realise how people do their best to maintain a human existence with each other in spite of it all can’t be done without the peculiar type of ‘mirror’ that art holds up to us. It is only right that most socialists admire the work of Ken Loach—but how many have noticed that Kes is a far more revolutionary film than Land and Freedom?

Trotsky naturally insists on art being indissolubly linked to the society it is produced in, and the class make-up of that society. The retort that art is an expression of individual feeling doesn’t contradict this at all, because it doesn’t ask how this individuality is formed and how social change “shakes up individuality” (p 12). Socialism is not about suppressing individuality but developing it, and again, literature is necessary to do this (p 225):

What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoievsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and pro­founder understanding of its psychic forces and of the rôle of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.… [The literature of Maxim Gorky] fed the early Spring revolutionism of the proletariat on the eve of 1905, because he helped to awaken individuality in that class in which individual­ity, once awakened, seeks contact with other awakened individualities. The proletariat is in need of artistic food and education…

All this is Greek to a lot of socialists: “there are many people in this world who think as revolutionists and who feel as Philistines” (p 147). This applies equally to some of those socialists who ‘go in for’ the arts. The high jinks, politely termed ‘street theatre’, that accompany some left-wing demonstrations these days are usually painful to behold. Much of the poetry solemnly recited at the odd left-wing event with cultural pretensions should really have stayed in the shoebox under the bed. A lot of the time, this is just a case of people who, if they were half as good as they think they are, would be twice as good as they really are. But often, their artistic in­adequacies are not unrelated to the shallowness of their political commitment. Formally, they accept the socialist principles and all the rest of it, but it’s only skin deep: “they have not entered, so to speak, into their blood”, as Trotsky says of one group of writers (p 146), and so they can’t express them artistically.

“Proletarian art should not be second-rate art”, he writes (p 205). The fact that it so often is shows how low a premium is put on it. Artists have to pay their dues, and Trotsky devotes much of the book to straightforward formal criticism. A poet has to learn how to fashion a line of verse, a musician has to learn the chords, a painter has to learn how to wield the brush. Praising a bad work of art and putting it on the wall might be justifiable for a national school teacher, but socialists shouldn’t allow diplomacy or even political affinity to come between them and honest criticism.

And that criticism has to be artistic before it is political (p 178): “A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art.” Trotsky goes on to say that Marxism can explain the historical roots of artistic development, but is careful not to make any more extravagant claims for it (p 218):

The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means.… The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command.

The last sentence betrays the way Trotsky had come to conceive of socialist thought and activity as coming entirely out of and through “the Party”. The book came out in the midst of the squabble for Lenin’s succession, and Trotsky, with the zeal of a late convert to Bolshevism, was at pains to prove himself Leninicis ipsis Leniniores: more Leninist than Lenin. But his point about socialist attitudes to art is clear and correct.

A socialist society being built should allow “complete freedom of self-determination in the field of art” (p 14). Of course, a play advocating the return of the Tsar and the shooting of all the Bolsheviks should be treated the same as a pamphlet advocating the same, but outside of clearly counter-revolutionary art, artists should face no hindrance. The persecution of artists who wouldn’t bend the knee to the Russian Communist Party was still a few years ahead as Trotsky was writing but, although he deplores any “petty partisan maliciousness” towards awkward artists (p 221), such maliciousness was already paving the way.

He makes clear that “a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders” is foreign to Marxism, as are demands “that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital” (p 170). On the other hand, the only artist Trotsky singles out for wholehearted praise is one Demyan Biedny. The reason none of us have heard of him is that he was a not too significant author of agit-prop poetry. There’s no reason why propaganda art can’t be good art, of course, but Trotsky praises the propagandist rather than the artist (p 213): “Not only in those rare cases when Apollo calls him to the holy sacrifice does Demyan Biedny create, but day in and day out, as the events and the Central Committee of the Party demand.” Faced with this, the best approach is: Don’t do as Trotsky does, do as Trotsky says.

When socialism has finally triumphed over capitalism, he writes, political struggles will be replaced by aesthetic ones: people will form ‘parties’ for or against a particular architectural project or artistic style. This is already happening to some extent, as the threat to drive a motorway through the Tara-Skryne valley has shown, and nothing goes up in Dublin without everyone having an opinion on it. (Trotsky’s impression of the Eiffel Tower could equally apply to the Spike (p 247): “one is attracted by the technical simplicity of its form, and, at the same time, repelled by its aimlessness”.) “The wall between art and industry will come down” in a socialist society (p 249), making all work into a work of art. Mountains will be moved and rivers re-routed, says Trotsky, adjusting the world to human taste. The results of reckless interference with nature would cause us to be more humble today than to treat the earth as clay to be moulded as we wish—but this is maybe only counselling a more cautious way of doing the same thing. Whether Trotsky is right in believing that socialism would make Aristotle average, his vision of artistic liberation dwarfs the limited horizons of many socialists. But above this ridge, new peaks will rise.

Socialist Classics: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, ‘The Rebel Girl’

In Issue 55 (March 2014) Joe Conroy looked at an intriguing Irish-American socialist who confronted both the might of capitalism and personal pressures to conform.

In 1906, as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was winning fame and notoriety as a sixteen-year-old socialist firebrand, a big-shot Broadway producer asked to see her, and offered her a part in an upcoming play on labour strife. “I don’t want to be an actress!” she replied. “I want to speak my own words and not say over and over again what somebody else has written. I’m in the labor movement and I speak my own piece!” I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of ‘The Rebel Girl’ became the title of the memoirs she published in 1955. Before her death in 1964 she asked that future editions be entitled The Rebel Girl. The original title was better, and even though union martyr Joe Hill writing ‘The Rebel Girl’ for her is some claim to fame, it’s not one of his better songs. Under either title, Flynn’s book is a fascinating record of political struggle in the US and the personal contradictions it confronted her with.

When reading a socialist’s biography, the question of how exactly they ended up a socialist is always to the fore. Flynn’s mother offered an uncommon example of a woman not prepared to accept her place. She worked outside the home, read widely, and encouraged her daughters to think for themselves. Her father was self-educated and involved in the socialist movement, later on an election candidate. Neither parent held religious beliefs, and political discussion was always going on:

We were conditioned in our family to accept socialist thinking long before we came into contact with socialism as an organized movement.… Ideas were our meat and drink, sometimes a substitute for both. It is not strange, therefore, that in such a household our minds were fertile fields for socialism, when the seeds finally came.

They often attended socialist meetings as a family. Elizabeth’s first boyfriend was an anarchist who quoted left-wing writers and brought her to meet Emma Goldman.

Her first public activity as a socialist came when, not yet sixteen, she was invited to speak to the Harlem Socialist Club. She chose ‘What Socialism Will Do For Women’ as her topic, and was well received. August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism had fired her imagination, as had Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Having to speak from her own area of interest and expertise, she took on the specific exploitation of women workers and how a new society could end it. This initial impulse to her socialist activity remains a constant feature throughout the book.

Her father was put out that he hadn’t been asked to speak, considering himself quite the expert. “I’m afraid my father would be labelled a ‘male-supremacist’ these days”, writes Flynn, although an overblown idea of his own importance seems to be as much to blame as outright sexism. He spouted from books while his wife cleaned around him, insisting that his daughters stop doing their homework while he explained what was really important. Their mother realised something was amiss when Elizabeth’s seventeenth birthday party was attended exclusively by the father’s middle-aged comrades. Flynn muses on how socialists should bring up their children, and is grateful to her father at least for not wrapping them up in cotton wool against the world’s problems and potential solutions. In her case, healthy rebellion against his authority lay, not in rejecting his socialism, but in making it into a living, active principle.

Another strong influence was her Irish background. In traditional Irish-American style, there are cheesy references to “the Emerald Isle” and “that most distressful country”, as well as a dubious claim that all four great-grandfathers fought in 1798. (When the French landed at Killala, “Young Irishmen for miles around dropped their potato digging”, apparently!) But behind the shamrockery, there is a significant element in Flynn’s political formation. “As children, we drew in a burning hatred of British rule with our mother’s milk”, she writes. Her mother’s background seems intriguing, a nationalist family of non-practising Presbyterians from Loughrea. Her father’s cursing of England was easy to broaden out: “When one understood British imperialism it was an open window to all imperialism.”

New York was home to a good few Irish-American socialists at the time, and Flynn was a founder member of the Irish Socialist Federation in 1907. Her description of James Connolly has often been quoted:

It was a pathetic sight to see him standing, poorly clad, at the door of Cooper Union or some other East Side hall, selling his little paper. None of the prosperous professional Irish, who shouted their admiration for him after his death, lent him a helping hand at that time.… He had no false pride and encouraged others to do these Jimmy Higgins tasks by setting an example.

Some of those prosperous professional Irish are with us still, platonically admiring Connolly while they wouldn’t be seen dead distributing unpopular propaganda cutting across the prejudices of the day. The picture confirms Connolly as someone who expected commitment to unglamorous practical work as an inherent part of a socialist’s job. (Jimmie Higgins, by the way, is a novel by the US socialist Upton Sinclair whose early chapters portray a socialist engaged in similarly mundane work.)

There are asides which reveal interesting aspects of the Irish-American left. Some of the Connolly daughters were less than happy about leaving America in 1910, it seems. The plan to bring Dublin strikers’ children away on holiday in 1913 was inspired by the big textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the year before—but Flynn, who was centrally involved in that strike, says that the precedent came from Europe. Jim Larkin turns up on her mother’s doorstep in 1914 with the words: “James Connolly sent me.” Maybe he only meant that Connolly gave him the address to look up, or maybe Larkin was beginning to weave a tale which would grow wings in subsequent years.

The intersection with other ethnic groups is interesting. Sam Stodel was also present at the founding of the ISF but, tragically, “we excluded him as we feared ridicule if we included a Jew”. This anecdote, of Flynn’s arrest at a demonstration, illuminates a complicated dialectic of oppressor and oppressed:

a very provocative act was committed by the police. A Negro policeman, and there were very few at that time, was thrust forward by the white cops to make the arrest and face the jeers and catcalls of over a thousand workers, predominantly Irish. The contemptible meanness of forcing him to arrest a white woman—and an Irish one at that—was clear to me. I felt the man trembling when he grasped my arm. “Don’t worry, I’ll see that they don’t hurt you!” I assured him.… I was greatly relieved when we reached the local police station, followed by hundreds of workers. I felt I had delivered him safely. Usually I had scant sympathy for a policeman, but from this instance I began to realize that a special persecution of the Negro people extended to all walks of life, and no Negro was exempt, not even a policeman.

Throughout the twenty years of activism covered in the book, “all the work I did was for the movement, sometimes paid for and some­times not”. She spoke and organised for the Industrial Workers of the World, and often found herself specialising in defending workers imprisoned for militant union activity. And such activity could be a matter of life and death, as these pages testify. IWW organiser Frank Little was lynched in 1917, with gravedigger’s measurements pinned to his body as a warning. Another, Fanny Sellins, was shot in the back by police in 1919 when she tried to stop them attacking a striker: “After she fell, they pumped more bullets into her body” and one cop paraded around with her hat on. In the same year, Wesley Everett tried to defend an IWW hall from a right-wing mob, but they got him:

Everest was beaten, a rope put around his neck and he was dragged senseless to the jail. In the night he was taken out, castrated and lynched, his swinging body used as a target for shot after shot. The next day the body was brought back to the jail and thrown in among the prisoners, then taken out and surreptitiously buried in an unknown grave…

It is small comfort that the evidence goes against the claim that Everest was castrated, but revolutionary activists in the US at that time faced dangers akin to those meted out by dictatorships.

Flynn draws lessons from her activity which at times read like a striker’s handbook. “The life of a strike depends upon constant activities”, involving not just all groups and nationalities among the strikers themselves, but their families and communities. Decentralised administration is needed: “When funds came directly to a local strike committee they were bound to participate more actively in raising them.”

However, “Most of us were wonderful agitators but poor union organizers.” Few roots were struck that could grow outside the heady times of struggle and consolidate what had been won. Hundreds of thousands joined the IWW, but precious few stayed. Flynn writes that “the IWW carried ‘rank-and-file-ism’ to excess”, allowing its fear of bureaucracy to stifle effective long-term organisation. Later on, though, she saw it moving “From the extreme of anarchistic de­centralization… to develop a degree of bureaucratic centralism that was equally dangerous”.

Early on Flynn tells of her marriage to an IWW organiser, admitting there was some justice in a comrade’s observation that she was falling for the glamour of a rebel as much as anything else. He wanted her to settle down to life as a wife and mother, but “I saw no reason why I, as a woman, should give up my work for his.” They separated, and Flynn entered a relationship with Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca. This lasted for years, but eventually broke down, Flynn claims, because—on top of Tresca’s infidelities—she was still un­willing to play the subordinate domestic role expected of her.

This is the point where the memoirs end. She had told the story of “My First Life” up to 1926, and planned another volume on “My Second Life”. The break between the two lives is supposed to be around her decision to join the Communist Party of the USA after years of hesitation about committing to party discipline. But this doesn’t ring true. She didn’t actually join the Communists until 1936, supposedly because faction fights in the party prevented her application being processed. Such fights were going on fiercely, but ten years is a long time to let a membership application slide. The preface to The Rebel Girl says that the next book would deal with “my life as an active Communist from 1936 to the present day”. But what about that decade in between?

It must be down to another case of her personal desire for free­dom conflicting with the political imperatives of others. Over those ten years, Flynn lived with Marie Equi, a women’s rights campaigner and IWW supporter who spent three years in jail for opposing the first world war, and is favourably referenced several times in The Rebel Girl. Equi was an out lesbian, but whether her relationship with Flynn was sexual is unclear: she was at the very least a source of compassion as Flynn recovered from exhaustion brought on by constant activity and her split with Tresca. But the question is ultimately irrelevant: the close companionship of two independent women was enough of an offence to received wisdom in itself.

Such things remained scandalous in the 1950s. Gay members of the US Communist Party then were asked to leave, or even expelled. Officially, the party was afraid their sexuality could be used to blackmail them and obtain information. Communists likely felt they had a hard enough job defending their own existence against all the witch-hunts without having to defend gays and lesbians too—not unlike the Irish Socialist Federation’s fear of admitting a Jewish member. But there was also a strong view—found elsewhere on the left, too—that homosexuality was an unfortunate deviation caused by capitalism.

Flynn was imprisoned for two years by McCarthyism, and the book she wrote about that experience paints a negative picture of lesbians on the inside warped for lack of male partnership. There is some evidence that she originally wrote far more sympathetically of her lesbian fellow inmates, only to rewrite the chapter under pressure from the CPUSA who published the book. An FBI report claimed that Flynn had a relationship with another prisoner—but such a source is of course very suspect. A biographer examining the issue was originally denied access by the CP to Flynn’s papers, and when those papers became available, writings on her time with Equi were missing.

“There were no hard and fast lines drawn between one good freedom cause and another and no such fears of reprisal as there are today”, Flynn writes of the 1920s. “People were not afraid they would hurt one cause by identifying themselves with another.” The Rebel Girl testifies to the power of that quest for all-round liberation, to the inspiring movements and struggles it gave rise to. But it speaks also—both in what it says and what it leaves out—of the tragedies that follow when that quest is fettered by what is fancied to be acceptable or popular.

Clasaicí Sóisialacha: Leon Trotscaí, ‘An tIdirchlár’

In Eagrán 53 (Meán Fómhair 2013) mheas Seán Ó Gadhra saothar mór an Trotscaíochais 75 bliana ar aghaidh.

Ceann de mhórscéalta laochais an tsóisialachais atá ann: Leon Trotscaí ar ionnarbadh ó fhothrach na réabhlóide, ar a sheachaint i Meicsiceo, ag iarraidh an bhratach a choinneáil ar foluain ar éigean agus scáil na deachtóireachta is na cogaíochta ag titim anuas ar an gcine daonna. Chreid sé go raibh sé in am ag an dornán beag dílis a fhógairt go raibh gluaiseacht úr dá tógáil acu ar fud an domhain. Rinneadh amhlaidh i 1938, agus chum sé Arraingeacha Báis an Chaipitleachais agus Cúraimí an Cheathrú hIdirnaisiúntán mar chlár dóibh. Ní hionadh gur ghreamaigh ainm ba ghonta de roimh i bhfad, An tIdirchlár, agus ba shin a bhí ann, clár a dhéanfadh ceangal idir inniu agus amárach, idir na cathanna beaga agus na coimhlintí báis is beatha, idir céadriachtanais na n‑oibrithe agus an claochlú sóisialach: “Caithfear cuidiú leis an bpobal i rith na coimhlinte laethúla teacht ar an droichead idir éilimh an ama i láthair agus clár sóisialach na réabhlóide.” (Leon Trotscaí, An tIdirchlár: Arraingeacha Báis an Chaipitleachais agus Cúraimí an Cheathrú hIdirnáisiúntán, foilsithe ag D R O’Connor Lysaght, Baile Átha Cliath 2013, lch 20.)

Is é freagra Throtscaí ar an mboilsciú an sampla is cáiliúla de na hidiréilimh a bhí i gceist aige. Agus praghsanna bunearraí ag ardú thar acmhainn na n‑oibrithe, “ní féidir troid ach faoi mhana an scála aistritheach pá”: go rachadh pá suas bonn ar aon le praghsanna (lch 21). Tá an chuma air gur réiteach breá simplí é, ach más ea, tuige nach gcuireann oibrithe chun cinn mar éileamh ariamh é?

Ar an gcéad dul síos, i dtréimhsí maithe don aicme oibre, bíonn siad in ann arduithe go maith os cionn an ráta boilscithe a bhaint amach, agus ba dhíchéillí dóibh cloí le scála ba lú ná sin. Is éileamh é nach bhfuil feidhm leis ach amháin nuair nach bhfuil na hoibrithe sách laidir lena chur i gcion. Anuas air sin, thabharfaí mar fhreagra láithreach air nach bhféadfadh an córas caipitleach a leithéid a sheasamh. Go breá, arsa tusa—ach má tá sciar mhaith den aicme oibre ullamh a ghabháil chomh fada leis an gcóras a chur ar ceal, cén call dóibh a bheith ag méirínteacht le scálaí pá ar chor ar bith? Déanann an t‑éileamh dearmad ar ghá a shonraíonn Trotscaí in áit eile, manaí “a bheith faoi réir ag comharthaí na gluaiseachta” (lch 24). Agus gluaiseacht ag fás, tugann sí a cuid éileamh féin chun tosaigh le freastal ar riachtanais na huaire. Is leis na héilimh seo a chaithfeas sóisialaithe tosaí, nasc a dhéanamh idir iad seo agus an sóisialachas. Ní gar dóibh éilimh réamhdhéanta a tharraingt as a bpóca mar mhalairt orthu. Nuair a leagtar éilimh síos roimh ré, cothaíonn sé meon aisteach i measc sóisialaithe, gur againne atá na freagraí agus nach gá ach iadsan—na hoibrithe—a thabhairt ar aon bharúil linn. Go deimhin, spreagann sé amhras roimh éilimh a eascraíonn ón ngluaiseacht féin, an tuairim go gcaithfear a theacht rompu sula gcuirfí an réabhlóid den bhóthar ceart, mar dhóigh de.

Is minic a cheapann daoine—lucht leanta Throtscaí san áireamh—gurb ionann idiréileamh agus éileamh nach féidir a chomhlíonadh faoin gcaipitleachas, ach dearbhaíonn Trotscaí: “Braitheann sé ar sheasamh na bhfórsaí i ngach cás ‘an féidir’ nó ‘nach féidir’ rud a bhaint amach”. Díreach ina dhiaidh sin, áfach, deir sé go dteaspánfaidh coimhlint ar shon idiréileamh bealach na réabhlóide, “cibé rath praiticiúil laithreach a bheidh uirthi” (lch 22). Cheapfá uaidh seo gur cuma bua nó bris i bhfeachtas an lae inniu ach na ceachtanna cuí a fhoghlaim as. Is beag tuiscint a léirítear anseo ar thábhacht na bhfeachtas seo, ar an difríocht a dhéanann feabhas anseo is ansiúd do staid agus meon an aicme oibre. Is fearr a throideann daoine agus buanna ar a gcúl. Níl aon chodarsnacht idir an réabhlóid agus gnáthchathanna an lae, agus ní féidir “an obair seo a dhéanamh gan aon deighilt ó fhíorchúraimí na réabhlóide” (lch 20) má cheapann tú nach luíonn siad le chéile go dlúth.

Is fíor do Throtscaí go bhfuil gá leis an droichead a luann sé, ach is fíor dó freisin nach bhfuil idiréilimh ach “mar chuid den droichead seo” (lch 20). Ní féidir an milleán a bhualadh airsean as an nós atá ag go leor dá lucht leanta ó shin idiréileamh a spíonadh mar aonfhreagra gach ceiste. Ní annamh a dhéantar sin leis an éileamh go mbunófaí “grúpaí féinchosanta oibrithe” (lch 30), ach leagann Trotscaí béim ar an gcomhthéacs, go raibh caipitlithe ag eagrú buíonta armtha in aghaidh na n‑oibrithe, agus an faisisteachas féin ag fás. Ní bithéileamh i gcomhair chuile ócáid é, cuma cá seasann gluaiseacht na n‑oibrithe, ach é “ag dul ar aghaidh léi céim ar chéim. Nuair a theastóidh sé ón bprólatáireacht, tiocfaidh sí ar bhóthar agus modh a harmála.” (Lch 31.) Ní hé liosta beartanna a dhéanann droichead go dtí an réabhlóid, ach tuiscint ar an méid a bheas ag teastáil leis an mbruach thall a bhaint amach as seo.

Agus i measc na n‑idiréilimh réamhcheaptha uilig, tá tuiscint dá leithéid le fáil anseo. Ní leor éilimh is manaí a fhógairt don saol (lgh 34-5): “Caithfear na bunsmaointe seo a léirmhíniú, á mbriseadh síos i smaointe níos nithiúla éagsúla, ag brath ar an gcaoi a dtéann cúrsaí ar aghaidh agus meon aigne an phobail.” Ba iomaí caint faoi ‘chosaint an náisiúin’ a bhí le cloisteáil sa tráth seo, mar shampla, ach seachas í a cháineadh as éadan, ba cheart aithneachtáil idir náisiúnachas na saibhre a bhí ag iarraidh a gcreach impiriúlach féin a chosaint, agus náisiúnachas na cosmhuintire a raibh cosaint a dteallach féin ar a chúl, “agus caithfimid an chaoi le breith ar na gnéithe seo a thuiscint” (lch 35).

Tá ceann de na rudaí is luachmhaire a chuir Trotscaí le stór an tsóisialachais le fáil san Idirchlár, leiriú ar an gcaoi a gcomh­cheanglaítear bunéilimh dhaonlathacha—ar neamhspleáchas náisiúnta, parlaimint, deireadh leis an tiarnas talún agus a leithéid—go dlúth leis an gcoimhlint ar shon an tsóisialachais. “Ní scartar ó chéile manaí daonlathacha, idiréilimh agus fadhbanna na réabhlóide sóisialaí ina réanna stairiúla ar leith sa choimhlint seo: leanann siad ar a chéile go díreach.” (Lch 42.)

Agus teastaíonn an daonlathas go géar ón gcoimhlint shóisialach. Is iad comhairlí na n‑oibrithe a buaic, iad ag eagrú troid leathan an aicme oibre agus ag freagairt go beo di (lgh 41-2):

Osclaíonn siad a ndoirse don phobal faoi chois ar fad. Tagann ionadaí gach sraith isteach trí na doirse seo, á dtarraingt isteach i sruth ginearálta na coimhlinte. Athnuaitear an eagraíocht seo, ag leathnú in éineacht leis an ngluaiseacht, arís is arís eile ina broinn.… ag feidhmiú mar mhaighdeog a n‑aontaítear na milliúin den lucht oibre timpeall uirthi ina gcoimhlint in aghaidh na ndúshaothraithe…

Bhí fios a ghnóthaí ag Trotscaí anseo, nó bhí sé féin chun tosaigh nuair a cuireadh comhairlí mar seo ar bun sa Rúis, na ‘sóivéidí’, i 1905 agus aríst i 1917. Cé go raibh ainm na sóivéide ar institiúidí riaracháin ansin fós, b’fhada an daonlathas glanta chun siúil astu. Ní raibh sa stát sin anois ach “arm foréigneach maorlathach in aghaidh an aicme oibre”. Mar sin féin, “is stát meata de chuid na n‑oibrithe i gcónaí é”, dar le Trotscaí (lch 47). Cé go raibh maorlathas Stailin i gceannas an stáit, bhí seilbh ag an stát ar an ngeilleagar, agus ba cheart do shóisialaithe troid leis sin a chosaint le linn dóibh troid leis an maorlathas a chur ó chumhacht.

Ach—mar is léir ó na bancanna a bhfuair muintir na hÉireann seilbh orthu le deireanas, mar dhea—cén mhaith seilbh an stáit gan an stát a bheith i seilbh na n‑oibrithe? Riar daonlathach na n‑oibrithe ar mhaithe leis an bpobal a chuirfeadh réabhlóid shóisialach ar chúrsaí eacnamaíochta, agus ní bheadh aon chosúlacht idir sin agus an riar ollsmachtach ar mhaithe lena aicme féin a bhí ag Stailin orthu. Ní fhéadfái an sóisialachas a chur chun cinn aríst gan é a dhealú glan ón Stailineachas, agus ba laincis ar an iarracht sin an chaoi ar sheas Trotscaí is a lucht leanta air go raibh fiúntas áirid le cosaint i gcóras na Rúise.

“Tá an réamhchoinníoll eacnamaíochta leis an réabhlóid phrólatáireach bainte amach cheana i gcoitinne”, a chreid Trotscaí, agus ba “D’aineolas nó dallamullóg d’aon turas” a mhalairt a rá. Ba mhinic “go raibh an phrólatáireacht ullamh ó chroí an córas caipitleach a threascairt” gur chuir ceannairí a ngluaiseachta stad leo: “Is é nádúr deistapaíoch cheannaireacht na prólatáireachta an phríomhbhacainn sa bhealach”. Dá bharr sin, “níl i ngéarchéim stairiúil an chine dhaonna ach géarchéim na ceannaireachta réabhlóidí” (lgh 17-18).

Is dearcadh coitianta ar an eite chlé ariamh é, go bhfuil fonn cráite ar na hoibrithe an caipitleachas a leagan ar maidin marach na fealltóirí diabhlaí i gceannas orthu dá gcoinneáil siar. Ach má bhíonn na hoibrithe chomh réabhlóideach seo i ndáiríre, ullamh an aicme chaipitleach a chur de leataobh, ba réidh a bhrúfaidís ceannairí gan mhaith as a mbealach freisin. Is fusa réamhchoinníollacha eacnamaíochta an tsóisialachais a chur ar fáil ná an coinníoll is cinniúnaí ar fad, go mbeadh formhór mór an aicme oibre suite de ina gcroí istigh gur gá agus gur féidir saol nua a chur in ionad an chaipitleachais. Ach an dearcadh gurb iad na ceannairí bun is barr na faidhbe, tógtar é ar mhímhuinín as an aicme oibre, ar an tuairim nach dtig leo iad féin a fhuascailt as a stuaim féin, go gcaithfidh ceannaireacht sheachtrach de chineál éicint iad a stiúrú chun bua. Is é an bunghnó i gcónaí, mar sin, ceannaireacht cheart a chur le chéile le áit an cheannaireacht mhícheart a ghlacadh.

Tá an dearcadh le brath agus Trotscaí ag fiafraí cé a réiteos anchás an domhain: “Faoin bprólatáireacht atá sé anois .i. a hur­gharda réabhlóideach go príomha” (lch 18). Go tobann, ní hí an aicme oibre a chuirfeas an sóisialachas i gcrích, ach dream amháin díobh ag obair thar a gceann. Dá chomhartha sin, is é “príomhchúram” na linne eagar a chur ar an dream seo, “Páirtithe réabhlóid­eacha náisiúnta a thógáil” (lch 23). Ar ámharaí an tsaoil, bhí eagraíocht nua ag Trotscaí féin a dhéanfadh sin: “is ar ghuaillí an Cheathrú hIdirnaisiúntán ar fad a thiteann an choimhlint réabhlóid­each” agus cogadh ag bagairt (lch 33). Seachas é, go deimhin, “níl oiread agus sruth réabhlóideach amháin ar an bpláinéad ar fiú an t‑ainm é” (lch 57).

Bhí mórdhifríocht idir bunú an idirnáisiúntáin seo agus an trí idirnáisiúntán a chuaigh roimhe. Cuireadh iad sin ar bun tráthanna a raibh borradh ag teacht faoi ghluaiseacht na n‑oibrithe, in 1864, 1889, 1919. Ba scéal eile ar fad é i 1938, áfach, cúis na n‑oibrithe ar an bhfaraoir géar mara raibh sí báite faoin deachtóireacht. D’amhdaigh Trotscaí gur eascair an Ceathrú hIdirnaisiúntán ó “na díomuanna is mó a bhain don phrólatáireacht i rith a staire” (lch 57), ach d’fhéach sé le áil a dhéanamh den éigean seo, ag rá go mba é donas an scéil go díreach a d’éiligh é. Bhí an aicme oibre ag cúlú, agus ba é a gcloch nirt greim a choinneáil ar a raibh acu, ach gheall an t‑idirnáisiúntán beag bídeach seo dóibh go raibh “bratach an bhua atá chugaibh” ina lámha (lch 57). Agus an fhéiníomhá seo ina aigne, ní fhéadfadh sé maireachtáil ach i dtuilleamaí na dallamullóige, ag iarraidh comharthaí bua a léamh áit a raibh tubaist le feiceáil. Is deacair a chreidiúint go bhféadfadh Trotscaí abairt mar seo a thabhairt uaidh (lch 47): “Tá oibrithe tosaigh an domhain deimhin de cheana nach dtreascrófar Mussolini, Hitler agus a gcuid gníomhairí is aithriseoirí ach faoi cheannaireacht an Cheathrú hIdirnaisiúntán.”

Le fírinne, ba é “bratach gan smál” (lch 57) an t‑aon rud a bhí le tairiscint acu: mara raibh aon bhua bainte acu ná a chosúlacht sin orthu, ní raibh siad páirteach sa bhfeall agus sa gcur i gcéill a bhí ag gabháil in ainseal ar ghluaiseacht na n‑oibrithe. Tráth a raibh ceannairí ag baint slí beatha shocair aisti, scríobh Trotscaí (lch 56): “Ní bhfaighidh bealach isteach chugainn ach iad siúd arb ail leo a bheith beo ar son na gluaiseachta, seachas a bheith beo ar an ngluaiseacht.” Tráth a raibh an bhréag is an cleas in uachtar inti, dhearbhaigh sé (lgh 53-4): “Aghaidh chóir a thabhairt ar an bhfírinne; gan slí na saoráide a lorg; rudaí a ghlaoch ina n‑ainm; an fhírinne a rá leis an bpobal, dá sheirbhe í; gan eagla a bheith orainn roimh chonstaicí; a bheith fíor i dtaobh rudaí beaga chomh maith le rudaí móra; an clár a bhunú ar chiall choimhlint na n‑aicmí; a bheith dána nuair a thagann uair an ghnímh—seo iad rialacha an Cheathrú hIdirnáisiúntán.” Scríobh sé an méid seo agus é ag faire thar a ghualainn dóibh siúd a mharódh gan trócaire é roimh i bhfad eile. Ní hionadh an fonn sin a bheith orthu, agus tá tairbhe le baint againn i gcónaí as a chath uaigneach in ainneoin na n‑ainneoin.

Socialist Classics: Hal Draper, ‘The Two Souls of Socialism’

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh wrote in Issue 48 (June 2012) on a work that insists real socialism can only come from below.

Having been active on the US left since the 1930s, by 1960 Hal Draper was prominent in a socialist group not claiming to be a party and refusing to be a sect, concentrating on spreading the ideas of a truly revolutionary socialism where it could. This essay was first published that year, and appeared in various forms before taking final shape as a pamphlet in 1968. While the crowning achievement of Draper’s legacy is his outstanding series examining Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, the approach that underlay his Marxism is explained in The Two Souls of Socialism, and it remains an important work in clarifying just what socialism is, a question no less relevant half a century on.

The clarification was needed because of “a crisis in the meaning of socialism” that had gripped the left. Vast swathes of the world officially defined themselves as socialist and permitted no other definition, but the claim was commonly swallowed elsewhere. Draper echoes Connolly in his characterisation of such countries: “The state owns the means of production—but who ‘owns’ the state?” Social democracy in the west exuded sweetness and light in its desire to reform capitalism, but “It bears a fatal family resemblance to the Stalinist conception of imposing something called socialism from the top down, and of equating statification with socialism.” The basic similarity between them outweighed any differences. Draper traces the same faultline through the history of left-wing activity and thought: “the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below”.

Perhaps surprisingly, he excludes anarchism from the camp of socialism from below. Its affirmation of absolute individual liberty logically leads to the right of individuals to impose their own tyranny on others, even on the majority. “It is the other side of the coin of bureaucratic despotism, with all its values turned inside-out, not the cure or the alternative.” His argument is based on the founders of theoretical anarchism, and he undoubtedly has a case as he dissects their writings. Proudhon, in particular, was a convinced sexist and racist, an opponent of trade unions, and a cheerleader for dictators when he wasn’t eying up their position for himself.

In the US at the time Draper was writing, this purely individualist anarchism was dominant, and still persists there. In Europe anarchism took a different road, however. In many countries it fused with early labour movements, whose instinctive solidarity trumped the indiv­idualism in anarchist doctrine while fiercely maintaining its libertarian impulse. As a result, most anarchists do accept the need for collective cohesion based on democratic decision making, while insisting that it operate directly and from the grassroots up. Such an anarchism undoubtedly finds its rightful place on the same terrain as socialism from below.

Socialism from below rests on the principle “that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized ‘from below’ in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny”. This principle, and the rejection of other supposed roads to socialism, was at the heart of Marx’s politics especially:

“The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”: this is the first sentence in the Rules written for the First International by Marx, and this is the First Principle of his lifework. …Marxism came into being, in self-conscious struggle against the advocates of the Educational Dictatorship, the Savior-Dictators, the revolutionary elitists, the communist authoritarians, as well as the philanthropic dogooders and bourgeois liberals.

The essay surveys the later history of the movement and identifies as representatives of this tradition William Morris in Britain, Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, and in the US Eugene Debs, who he quotes at some length:

Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.

Draper argues that “a socialism-from-below is possible, on the basis of a theory which sees the revolutionary potentialities in the broad masses, even if they seem backward at a given time and place”. This is the importance of socialism having a theoretical basis if it is to survive. The immediate evidence of our own eyes often presents us with a working class that doesn’t want to liberate itself, that is either more or less happy with its lot, or is unhappy but looks to other forces to solve its problems. To see beyond that, to the possibility of workers being willing and able to take direct collective control of their own destinies, requires the ability to abstract from what currently exists to what can exist, to divine within the current state of affairs the elements of an entirely changed situation. In circumstances where that seems to be a perspective belonging to other eras or worlds, it is un­deniably difficult to keep your eyes on the prize, to hold to an understanding, a conviction that workers’ revolution is a genuine potential.

But that conviction is the indispensable ever-present condition for socialism from below: “all socialists or would-be reformers who repudiate it must go over to some Socialism-from-Above”. And to look for socialism from above is far more pervasive and widespread than envisaging it from below:

Instead of the bold way of mass action from below, it is always safer and more prudent to find the “good” ruler who will Do the People Good. The pattern of emancipation-from-above goes all the way back in the history of civilization, and had to show up in socialism too.… The history of socialism can be read as a continual but largely unsuccessful effort to free itself from the old tradition, the tradition of emancipation-from-above.

Socialism from above isn’t always imposed by those in positions of power. It can sometimes be brought about by a movement of sincere self-sacrificing revolutionaries:

The new order will be handed down to the suffering people by the revolutionary band. This typical Socialism-from-Above is the first and most primitive form of revolutionary socialism, but there are still today admirers of Castro and Mao who think it is the last word in revolutionism.

The best will in the world can run into the stream of socialism from above. People who honestly want to end injustice in the world may not have freed themselves of the prejudice that some group has to be in charge, may still be unable to imagine that the working class can rule in concrete reality rather than having someone rule in their name. “It must not be supposed that Socialism-from-Above necessarily implies cruelly despotic intentions.” People with a heartfelt desire to end human exploitation, with no desire for self-aggrandisement, can end up organising “a movement-from-below to effectuate a Socialism-from-Above”, purely out of a belief that ‘someone has to take charge of things’, even if only ‘for the time being’ until the masses have had a chance to get with the new set-up.

Such a belief comes of the opinion that, when all is said and done, the working class cannot actually liberate itself by its own efforts. One of the foundation texts of socialism from below should be a letter written to German socialist leaders in 1879 by Engels on behalf of himself and Marx in reply to moves to replace advocacy of class struggle with general reconciliation. When the International was founded, writes Engels, we insisted that the emancipation of the workers had to be won by the workers themselves: “So we cannot go along with people who openly state that the workers are too un­educated to free themselves”.

But such people are legion, more numerous than is known, and even among the most vaunted theorists of socialism. Kautsky wrote in 1901:

Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.… The bearer of science is not the proletariat, however, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated… Thus, socialist consciousness is something brought into the proletarian class struggle from outside…

Such words would have been well forgotten by socialists if it wasn’t for Lenin pronouncing them “profoundly true and important” in What is to be Done? and adding his own twopenceworth:

The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness… The doctrine of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes… as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.

If all this were true, then socialism from above would be the only game in town. If the workers don’t have the knowledge to work out their own emancipation unaided, their only hope is that some kindly bourgeois intellectuals will be so good as to show them the way.

Thankfully, it isn’t true. Modern socialism didn’t arise in the minds of Marx and Engels, or as a result of them reading Hegel that bit more assiduously than anyone else. It arose from the struggles of workers in Germany, in France, in England, and the contribution of Marx and Engels generalised from the ideas and theories thrown up by these struggles. Socialist consciousness has repeatedly appeared within the working class, on an individual and a mass basis. Lenin, of course, went on to often say the opposite of what he said here, but appealing from Lenin drunk to Lenin sober only makes sense if we acknowledge that he clearly should have had his keys taken off him when he claimed that workers cannot become socialist independently.

One of Lenin’s great achievements is that, when faced with a workers’ revolution from below in 1917, he had the sense to join it rather than try and dictate to it. But still, the old conception remained and surfaced from time to time. Even a late recruit to Bolshevism like Trotsky could write in The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk: “Only when the revolutionary party firmly and unflinchingly speeds to its goal can it help the working masses to overcome all the slavish instincts inherited from centuries and lead the masses to victory.” The “revolutionary party” here becomes an independent actor in its own right on the historical stage, boldly making the revolution against the innate instincts of the workers. This is a socialism explicitly coming from somewhere above the working class, even if it recognises the necessity of their support from below.

Draper doesn’t deny the slavishness bred into the working class by its oppressors, but he believes that it can overcome that slavishness in revolutionary action:

How does a people or a class become fit to rule in their own name?
Only by fighting to do so. Only by waging their struggle against oppression—oppression by those who tell them they are unfit to govern. Only by fighting for democratic power do they educate themselves and raise themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power. There has never been any other way for any class.

This is not to say that socialists should sit around waiting until this glorious event comes to pass. They have a job to do, doing their best to hasten it, but by working for the strengthening of their class rather than their own agenda: “the function of the revolutionary vanguard is to impel the mass-majority to fit themselves to take power in their own name, through their own struggles”.

Where socialists see themselves as the subject of revolution rather than the working class, base their political activity on developing their own project rather than the fighting capacity of that class, the most they can hope for is to construct the vehicle for another tilt at socialism from above. There is “extraordinary insensitivity” on the left, as Draper notes, “to the deeprooted record of Socialism-from-Above as the dominant component in the two souls of socialism”. Socialists who take their bearings by what is good for their own organisation rather than the interests of the working class are renewing that tradition, however much they may pride themselves on having broken from it.

The struggle between the two souls of socialism is a truly Faustian one, above all because they do indeed dwell within the one breast. There is a permanently powerful temptation to reconcile them, to blur the lines and muddle through, but such short cuts veer in a different direction sooner or later. A certain type of resolve is needed to break through to the difficult road of revolutionary transformation from the ground up. After all, Draper is right: “To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.”