Jun 20 2011

Review of From Davitt to Connolly by Chris Gray

The following review of From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from Below’ and the Challenge to the U.K. State and British Empire 1879 – 1895 appears in Issue 20 of Permanent Revolution

Allan Armstrong, From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from Below’ and the Challenge to the U.K. State and British Empire 1879 – 1895 (Intfrobel Publications 2010). Paperback. 205pp. £7.99

This book is a valuable addition to the literature on the history of the labour movement in the UK in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. It focusses on the political career of Michael Davitt, sometime Fenian and subsequently independent radical, who, as the author explains, constitutes a bridge between that earlier Irish movement, which was, as Marx and Engels observed, a lower orders one, and James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party, founded in 1896.

In passing the book has some interesting reflexions on Charles Stewart Parnell, Keir Hardie and David Lloyd George, among others. It also situates the whole march of events in the context of British imperialism’s politics moving from the advocacy of free trade to what the author calls high imperialism —Rudyard Kipling could be taken as a representative spokesman of the latter, but one could also instance Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Chamberlain and a number of other prominent personalities.

Allan Armstrong appears to be a member of the Scottish Socialist Party. This impression derives from his attacks on, inter alia, the Left unionist tradition. The comrade writes, In particular, the SWP, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the CPGB – Weekly Worker brought this tradition into the SSP. Those remaining in the CWI, forming the International Socialists, adopted a Left nationalist approach on paper towards Scotland, but remained essentially left unionists in practice. …Today, after a major internal crisis [l’Affaire Tommy Sheridan], both the SSP and the breakaway Solidarity face strong pulls in the form of Left nationalism and Left unionism, accompanied by tendencies to populism. Socialist Republicanism remains a significant force only in the SSP. (pp. 18-19).

Perhaps because the work is a historical one, we are not given a characterization of what Allan Armstrong understands by socialist republicanism. However, reading between the lines, it would appear to consist in a political project aiming at the destruction of the British state and its replacement by socialist republics in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales.

Far more important than what the book doesn’t say, however, is what it says. Particularly valuable is the picture of Michael Davitt which emerges. It is easy to dismiss Davitt as a political operator active on the Irish stage only. Such an evaluation is miles away from the truth. The Irish Free State in its early years was keen to promote this travesty: it issued a commemorative stamp honouring Davitt as one of the national heroes but was silent about his radicalism.

Likewise the standard left-wing work in English on Irish nationalism, Erich Strauss’s Irish Nationalism and British Democracy, leads the reader to see Davitt as an Irish political figure pure and simple. What Armstrong documents in considerable detail is Davitt’s role as a radical operating not only in Ireland but also in England, Scotland and Wales, in pursuit of internationalism from below. In part this was forced on him by the pro-bourgeois influence exercised by Charles Stewart Parnell, who was anxious to distance himself from the aspirations of poorer tenant farmers, landless labourers and industrial workers in Ireland.

Parnell’s politics were tailored to the aims and objects of the strong farmers and the emergent Catholic Irish bourgeoisie (see pp. 31-2). Davitt’s strategy was, in principle, different, being a development from physical force Fenianism, expressed in the so-called New Departure, which took its inspiration from an earlier politician, James Fintan Lawlor (see p. 30 and Connolly’s Labour in Irish History). This involved militant action in support of tenant right in order to break the power of the landlords, a political campaign for Irish home rule and the clandestine importation of arms from America. Unfortunately Davitt was unable to bring this strategy to fruition—for an interesting criticism of his tactics see p. 42.

Parnell gained the upper hand, only to see his power destroyed by the revelations in the O’Shea divorce case (pp. 128-9). Davitt soldiered on, but he showed a propensity to ally with Lib-Lab politicians—e.g. by appearing on the same platform as the Welsh miners’ leader William Abraham (“Mabon”) (p. 82). The baton passed to James Connolly—see the final chapter of the book, which details the activities of the newly-formed Irish Socialist Republican Party.

This chapter, like the rest of the book, is excellent: it is marred only by an uncritical reference to Connolly outlining the role of primitive communism in Ireland up to the seventeenth century (p. 161). Alas, this view of Connolly’s finds no support at all in the Irish law tracts. The subject is ably discussed in Andy Johnston, James Larragy and Edward McWilliams, Connolly: A Marxist Analysis (Irish Workers’ Group, 1990).

The book contains a useful bibliography, an index and a fine selection of pictures, including one of the Liberal Irish Secretary William Buckshot Forster — so called because he advocated the use of buckshot rather than cartridges against those resisting eviction, on the grounds that it was more humanitarian (p. 50). There is even a picture of the notorious Captain Boycott—assuming one wants one.

This book is evidently part of a larger historical research project. The publishers advertise four volumes (available on line at http://www.internationalismfrombelow.com) for 2011:

1. The Historical Development of Nation-States and Nationalism up to 1848.
2. The World of Nation-States and Nationalism between the Communist League and the early Second International (1845 – 1895).
3. Revolutionary Social-Democracy, Nation-States and Nationalism in the Age of the Second International (1889 – 1916).
4. Communists, Nation-States and Nationalism during the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21.

If the quality of scholarship in these works turns out to be of the same high order as that in From Davitt to Connolly, then we are in for a treat.

Chris Gray

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4 Responses to “Review of From Davitt to Connolly by Chris Gray”

  1. Emancipation & Liberation » A new review of ‘From Davitt to Connolly’ by Tara O’Sullivan says:

    […] A Review of From Davitt to Connolly by Chris Gray, Book Launch: From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from Below’ by Angela Gorrie, in the current Emancipation & Liberation, issue no. 20 and internationalism from below book launch//a> […]

  2. Emancipation & Liberation » THE RCN AND THE CAMPAIGN FOR SCOTTISH SELF-DETERMINATION says:

    […] http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/06/20/review-of-from-davitt-to-connolly/ Chris Gray – Review of From Davitt to Connolly by Allan Armstrong, 20.6.11 (first appeared in Permanent Revolution) […]

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