Nov 07 2011

A new review of ‘From Davitt to Connolly’ by Tara O’Sullivan

Celtic Soul Brothers

Tara O’Sullivan (from Red Banner, issue no. 45)

A review of From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from below’ and the challenge to the UK state and British Empire 1879-95, by Allan Armstrong

Earlier in the year we witnessed much discussion of relationships between Ireland and Britain. Some was of interest, but the worst of it was that the debate was occasioned by the visit of a certain over-privileged woman with a big house in London, and accompanied by moronic assertion that acquiescing in such a parasitic presence was some sign of maturity. But the histories and destinies of these two islands are linked in plenty of ways infinitely more relevant than the backslapping banqueting of the rich and their retinues.

Allan Armstrong’s book examines such a part of our history, a history of combined efforts to break such power and privilege and end the injustices that working people laboured under. The official take on the period covered here focuses on the Westminster cattle trading between Parnell and Gladstone, the vagaries of the Liberal/Home Rule alliance up to the point where it notoriously ended in tears. Here, however, we see what could have been the makings of a very different kind of alliance, aiming for real political democracy and radical change in social and economic relations.

The book opens as the land war does, a sustained militant movement to overthrow landlordism in Ireland, which inevitably fused with the attempt to win greater national independence. As outlined here, Michael Davitt personally had higher ambitions than others in leading positions: he wanted the land nationalised, not just taken from the landlords, and an Irish republic rather than home rule within the British empire. But this point of view was only one minority strand within the movement, and one which was continually subordinated to more moderate aspirations. The author puts his finger on “Davitt’s main political weakness—his overriding concern to maintain public unity” (p 58). Again and again we read of Davitt agreeing to hush up his more radical demands, so as to prevent a common front to the enemy. The unity of the land war was firmly based on this low common denominator. In view of this, the following characterisation of Parnell’s position seems to miss the point (p 42):

“A different strategy was already forming in his mind—a slower transition to peasant proprietorship and to Irish Home Rule. He was planning his own ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’—the ‘revolution’ being “The Fall of Feudalism”, or the breaking of landlord power; the ‘counter-revolution’ being the cementing of bourgeois political, economic and social power in Ireland, with the backing of the larger tenant farmers.”

The Land League’s stated aim was to win ownership of the land for tenant farmers instead of landlords, while the Home Rule party had the explicit object of an Irish parliament subordinate to Westminster. Parnell’s strategy was nothing new, only a continuation of the agreed strategy: sticking to the original aims of the revolution (in so far as it can be called such), not a counter-revolution. It was the strategy of Davitt and his allies that would have broken new ground, extended the revolution further—and it was their failure to organise openly and independently for that which deserves blame for it not happening, not Parnell doing what came naturally to himself and the class he represented.

A particular quality of the period is well highlighted, drawing a lesson that needs reiterating today, on both sides of the Irish Sea (p 24):

“Migrant labour played a key role. The constant changes in the class composition of the ‘lower orders’, leading to the fall or rise of certain categories of labour, initially made working class organisation more difficult, as employers deliberately promoted ethnic or sectarian divisions amongst their workforces. However, migrant labour also brought its ready-made traditions of struggle, imported by workers from other nations and regions. These traditions were drawn upon and modified in the course of struggle. They contributed to the political awareness and fighting capability of a new ethnically mixed working class.”

The existence of such a contribution has been noted before, of course. Anyone who ever read a history of trade unions in England knows that if you removed all the Celtic names you would have precious little left. Armstrong doesn’t present this as just a pleasant multicultural curiosity, however, but recognises it as a powerful dynamic in the making and renewal of the working class, a dynamic which should be evident in struggles of our own day.

But is it the case that “From the early 1880s an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, of Irish social republicans and Scottish, Welsh and English Radicals, was created” (p 25)? Though a deal of evidence is presented here, it doesn’t back up such a sweeping claim. We read repeatedly of links made from time to time between struggles of working people in those four countries, but nothing that constitutes anything as strong or as lasting as an alliance.

In fact, a strange construction has sometimes to be placed on the material to make it fit this interpretation. In 1886 Davitt addressed Welsh miners and condemned the exploitation they faced. This is portrayed as “further strengthening the link between land and labour” across national boundaries (p 82). But he was electioneering on behalf of a Liberal Party candidate, in the hope that a Liberal government might grant a more generous measure of home rule to Ireland—hardly a radical alliance forged in the heat of class struggle.

This leads to wondering why—apart from the intrinsic interest of the events themselves—the period 1879-95 is chosen. Sympathies and common action between radicals in Ireland and Britain, encompassing Irish independence and social justice, were evident in earlier periods, after all. Left-wing Chartists and left-wing Young Irelanders stood together in 1848. In the 1860s and 70s radical Fenians and the International Working Men’s Association made common cause. So why 1879-95 specifically?

Armstrong explicitly argues here and elsewhere (see ‘The need for internationalism from below’, Red Banner 33, for instance) for a mutual internationalist alliance of socialists in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, in answer to the concerted efforts of those who rule these countries. While myself and Allan have had a friendly disagreement around whether Britain and Ireland should form an especial framework of activity for socialists (see our letters in Red Banner 34 and 36), it is a noble aim which socialists here in the western reaches of Europe can only welcome.

There is something problematic, however, about reading this perspective back into history. The concept of an “internationalism from below” alliance is entirely the author’s own, not one that ever emerged in the actual struggles of the time. Solidarity with Irish struggles was widespread, but more often on an all-British basis than consciously Scottish,Welsh or English. The emergence of these national questions was more prominent in 1879-95 than before—which presumably explains the book’s focus on the period—but Britain, even the United Kingdom, still formed the dominant terms of reference.

This is evident among Marxist thinkers of the time too, who Armstrong either criticises or claims as supporters—but the proof for their support is weak. He presents Friedrich Engels in 1891 being “in support of a federal republic for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales… He now advocated a federal republic for the four nations” (p 131-2). In reality Engels had written (in a well-known critique of a German socialist programme) that such a republic “would be a step forward” compared to the UK, while still advocating a decentralised unitary republic for Britain and elsewhere. Similarly, “Connolly pursued a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’” (p 21). But while of course insisting on Irish independence, Connolly’s assault on the UK never envisaged an independent Scotland or Wales, or separate socialist organisations in Britain’s three countries (despite th option of establishing a Scottish Socialist Labour Party being wide open to him around 1903).

Again, the argument is more concerned with the early 21st century than the late nineteenth. The author makes no bones about this, as in his characterisation of many British Marxist responses to the issues (p 17):

“They either see the ‘National Question’ as a diversion from the ‘real struggle’, or begin by giving their support to liberal unionist options to defend the UK. When the ‘National Question’ refuses to go away, some ‘Marxist Radicals’ end up tailing the more liberal sections of the British ruling class, when they call for more powers for the existing devolved assemblies. A few go so far as to advocate a new federal arrangement between the constituent parts of the UK.… They hide behind the formulation of support for the ‘right of national self-determination’… take their political lead over the UK constitution from the liberal wing of the British ruling class, or sometimes from the Nationalist parties…”

There is much here that we can regrettably recognise, left-wingers who would prefer if questions of political democracy would conveniently go away and leave them to the bread and butter they know best. Not alone do such issues refuse to go away, however: we shouldn’t want them to. Demands for political democracy are an integral part of our work, often powerful elements in undermining the system we oppose and developing the desire for an alternative.

But is their demand for less than full Scottish and Welsh independence the problem? Take the case of Wales. The only trouble with demanding an independent Welsh republic is that few of the people living there want one. At the moment, most of Wales wants a certain level of self-government—more than it has at present—without breaking away from England completely. This can change, of course, and any decent socialist will fight for Wales’s right to separate as soon as it wants to. But until such a time, our job is to support the Welsh people’s right to vary, weaken, or sever that link as they see fit, to determine their own national future. Socialists support the right to divorce absolutely, but leave it up to people themselves whether they want to break up or not.

This doesn’t amount to defending the UK or a reformed version of it. The grave of the United Kingdom is one every socialist should want to dance on. This forced union, presided over by acres of feudal mummery, belongs in the museum, with its Union Jack torn up for dishrags. But does it have to be replaced by discrete Scottish, Welsh and English workers’ republics, or could a socialist Britain with full autonomy and the right to separate not do the job? The oppression of Ireland has always been greater, and its partition inherently sectarian and anti-democratic, but there are a host of reasons—geographic, economic, cultural and others—why the nations which inhabit Britain might want to share a workers’ republic which accommodated their diverse needs.

If we look to mainland Europe and further afield, it is hard to find many state boundaries that don’t perpetuate some kind of injustice. The map is dotted with nations, nationalities, ethnic and cultural groups whose existence is denied and marginalised by undemocratic capitalist states. Socialism—both as a future society and as a movement aiming for it—will have to come up with various ways to respect their rights, and independent statehood is only one solution among many. Proposing it as the only or primary solution fails to do so, especially in cases where it isn’t wanted by the peoples involved themselves. For instance, a socialist England or Britain should go out of its way to facilitate as autonomous a relationship as Cornwall wants and to support the use of the Cornish language—but proclaiming an independent Cornish republic that hardly any Cornish people want would only be dodging the difficulties involved.

From Davitt to Connolly goes to the heart of such debates, spurning a bad tradition on the left of ignoring tough dilemmas which defy banal answers. It throws light on a crucial period of history for Ireland and its neighbours, one which contains lessons for us today. It is clearly written, not by someone bestowing his private enlightenment upon lesser mortals, but a socialist concerned above all to build a movement of equals that can take capitalism on in these islands and beyond. It deserves to be met in the same spirit.

Looking For A Political Soul Sister

Allan Armstrong replies to Tara O’Sullivan’s Celtic Soul Brothers in Red Banner, no. 45

Once again, Tara O’Sullivan is to be congratulated for her contribution to the continuing debate on the relationship between Socialists in the different nations and states comprising these islands 1. Tara raises some interesting and challenging questions in her critical review of my book, From Davitt to Connolly – ‘Internationalism for Below’ and the challenge to the UK state and British Empire from 1879-95.

Tara wonders why I have chosen this particular period and points to earlier examples of  “sympathy and common action between radicals in Ireland and Britain.” My book is an elaboration of a single chapter from a much larger four volume work I have been writing, entitled Internationalism from Below 2. In this work ‘internationalism from below’ is considered first in relation to the development of nation-states and nationalism; then in relation to other oppositional strategies adopted as mercantile and industrial capitalism developed along with their particular forms of imperialism.

These strategies have included – ‘universalism from above’ and ‘below’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’; support for ‘historic nations’ against ‘non-historic peoples’; and social imperialism against the ideas of Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and the Austro-Marxists. Tara will be pleased to note that, in volume 2, I do take up all the other examples she gives, whilst, in volume 1, I also deal with the first ‘internationalism from below’ alliance of the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen, the London Corresponding Society and their other international allies.

The Introduction in From Davitt to Connolly highlights one of the main reasons I have chosen this particular period. It was written in the context of challenging British Left unionist and Scottish Left nationalist currents, particularly in the Scottish Socialist Party. However, chapter 1 is almost like a second introduction and points to the impact of the break-up of the UK, beginning in 1922, on Socialist and Labour historians’ reading of events in relation to class struggle in these islands. Therefore, I hope that, even if people still have doubts about my full-blown ‘internationalism from below’ interpretation, they will appreciate this aspect of the book. I particularly welcome Tara’s words of encouragement in this regard.

Tara’s first criticism of my book is that “the concept of an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance is entirely my own.” In reply, I would argue that my own particular contribution only amounts to the use of the label ‘internationalism from below’ to describe the strategy utilised by the alliance of social republicans, Radicals and Socialists that developed in the period I wrote about.

By way of an analogy, the term ‘capitalism’ was not used at the time to describe the system which tenant farmers, artisans, the new working class and others were up against when they first fought against capitalist encroachment. Thomas Hodgskin was the first to use this term in 1825 in his Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital. However, Marxists and others have also been quite happy to apply the term ‘capitalism’ to describe its mercantile and early industrial forms long before this word was actually in use. Similarly, I think the phrase ‘internationalism from below’ helps us to understand what was at stake in the struggles I describe, particularly when set against the ‘internationalism from above’ alliance of the Gladstone’s Liberals and Parnell’s Irish National League (INL).

Tara also suggests the word ‘alliance’ is too strong a word to describe the international cooperation she recognises did exist. Whilst there certainly was no signed and sealed formal agreement between the various participants, I do think the book demonstrates that many of those struggling in the various Land Leagues, in the Scottish Land and Labour League (SLLL) (as the Socialist League was called in Scotland), the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) and Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF), were aware of the imperial nature of the UK state and the potential for an alliance of national democratic challenges from below. People will just have to read it to see for themselves!

Tara criticises my own characterisation of Parnell’s suppression of the Irish Land League after the Kilmainham Treaty as a ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’. She states that, “Parnell’s strategy was nothing new, only a continuation of the agreed strategy: sticking to the original aims of the revolution (in so far as it can be called such), and not a counter-revolution. It was the strategy of Davitt and his allies that would have broken new ground… Parnell {did} what came naturally to himself and the class he represented.”

Tara is quite correct in stating that Parnell’s class objectives did not change. However, what she misses out is the impact of the struggle itself. Davitt, and other leaders in the Land War, more closely involved on the ground than Parnell, saw the much greater potential that the mass Land League struggle opened up. This led them to raise new demands, to extend the fight beyond Ireland, and to advocate  continued mass action. This meant prioritising the Land League’s mass campaign over the earlier Home Rule League parliamentary and the Fenian Brotherhood military strategies. The mass action aspect of the Land League’s campaign was subordinated, both in the minds of Parnell and the Fenians, to their own preferred strategies – parliamentarianism and physical force respectively. This resulted in the emergence of the INL and the Invincibles. Both contributed to the undermining of the mass action.

However, Parnell’s success in diverting this struggle into purely constitutional channels was far from uncontested, and was not that easy for him to achieve. Precisely because of the mass struggle, initiated by the Land League, Parnell was unable to move seamlessly from his initial public support for mass action (whilst distancing himself from what he saw as it excesses) to the purely constitutional politics, which he probably always really wanted. Parnell’s attitude to growing women’s involvement in the action, demonstrated by his determination to shut down the Ladies Land League (much to the consternation of his sister, Anna), is just one example of the problems he faced in getting his way as a result of the huge impact of the struggle itself . Thus, it can be argued that the launch of the Land War opened up a period of revolutionary change in the social relations found in Irish agriculture; but that Parnell, and his bourgeois and large tenant farmer backers, severely reined in the wider potential, bringing about, in effect, a ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’.

Tara agrees with the criticisms I make of  “Davitt’s main political weakness – his overriding concern to maintain public unity” with Parnell. However, she thinks I place a “strange construction… on the material to make it fit {an ‘internationalism from below’} interpretation”. In particular, she cites my reference to “Davitt address{ing} the Welsh miners and condemning the exploitation they faced.”  Tara protests, reminding readers of the context. Davitt “was electioneering on behalf of a Liberal Party candidate, in the hope that a Liberal government might grant a more generous measure of home rule to Ireland — hardly a radical alliance forged in the heat of class struggle.”

I think though, that my book highlights the growing contradiction between many of those involved in the unfolding class struggles, which demanded a higher form of politics, socialist republicanism, and the inherited politics held by these people. The two dominant ways of thinking on the Left in Davitt’s day were Radicalism (mainly in Britain) and social republicanism (mainly in Ireland). Davitt was very much influenced by both of these ways of thinking, given his Irish birth and his upbringing in industrial Lancashire.

In retrospect, it is relatively easy for us today to see the need back then for a new specifically socialist republican politics, and to understand the political shortcomings of those who were unable to make that transition. The book shows how Davitt, along with others, was very much on the cusp of such a transition, but they were often dragged back by their adherence to now outdated politics.  Yet, they still made significant contributions to the struggle.

Perhaps, we can get a better appreciation of what was happening, if we consider today, how hard it is to get self-declared Socialists to break from the old social democratic shibboleths, outdated strategies (e.g. neo-Keynesianism) and misplaced party loyalties, even when throwing themselves into ongoing struggles, for example, against austerity and cuts.

We have the example of John McDonnell, possibly the last socialist Labour MP in the UK. He is still involved in the official machinery of the British Labour Party and the UK state. Yet, he is often prepared to offer his support for real class struggles on the ground. Davitt, whilst using his 1886 tour of Britain to garner support for the Liberal-INL Home Rule electoral alliance, also used the opportunity to try to bring the miners into struggle, on the basis of opposing mining royalties. I think this provides another example of such contradictory behaviour.  Engels appears to have appreciated Davitt’s contribution, even as late as the period of ‘New (Trade) Unionism’, as I show in the book.

Of course, there will always be some tension between those to whom the political limitations of others (such as Davitt in the past) and the needs of the current movement at the time are stark; and those who still remember the earlier contributions made by such people, but who now hold things back. Despite the growing evidence of Davitt’s political failings, particularly during and after the Kitty O’Shea Scandal, I still find Davitt a sympathetic character, especially when you examine his life of struggle and the changing problems he confronted.

My book ends just before James Connolly left Edinburgh in 1896 for Dublin. Keir Hardie provided Connolly with some money, thinking he was going to set up a branch of the Independent Labour Party in Ireland. Instead he chose to set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party.  In this he was very much influenced by John Leslie’s (fellow SSF and later SDF member in Edinburgh) interpretation of Michael Davitt and the Land League legacy. This led to Connolly rejecting the all-UK strategy of British Socialists at the time. He took Davitt’s social republican and Radical-Liberal alliance on to higher plane by arguing for a new Irish Socialist Republican and British Social Democratic/Socialist alliance, effectively on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’.

Tara points out that “Connolly’s assault on the UK never envisaged an independent Scotland or Wales.” In this she is quite correct.  However, the book shows how the challenge of the promising SLLL, SSF and SLP (all of which Connolly joined after he moved back to Scotland), had been contained by the British ruling class by 1895. This contributed to the tacit adoption of a ‘British road to socialism’ by the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party.  So although, as Tara points out, it was mainly Scottish members of the SDF who broke away to form the de-Leonite Socialist Labour Party, they did not form a specifically Scottish party in 1903.

It was not until 1919, that the Scottish SDF member, John Maclean, switched from its ‘British road to socialism’ course and adopted Connolly’s strategy of the ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire’. Maclean specifically added Scotland to the fault line in the UK state set-up, which he could clearly see in Ireland after his visit to Dublin that year, shortly after the Limerick Soviet. I have dealt with these developments elsewhere 3, but I also intend to write a follow up book, From Connolly to Maclean – ‘Internationalism from Below’ and the Challenge to the UK state and British Empire from 1896-1923, to develop these ideas.

Tara argues that it is not necessary for Socialists to advocate the break-up of particular states, provided that they champion “the right to separate”. There are considerable problems with the ‘right of self-determination’ both as used by Kautsky and Lenin. I have also addressed these problems elsewhere  (4) and would need a lot more space to do so here. Indeed one of the purposes in writing my longer Internationalism from Below is to show the profound ambiguities in this formulation and how, along with Luxemburg’s and the Austro-Marxist alternatives, they undermined the full potential of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave.

Tara, who lives in a state that has already broken away from the UK (if not from its wider economic stranglehold, as the banking crisis demonstrated), appears to take this (partly thwarted) revolutionary action as having been almost inevitable. This seems to follow from her quite valid comment that “the oppression of Ireland has always been greater”. However, Tara rather underestimates the initially isolated position of that great revolutionary, James Connolly, when he first advocated the break-up of the UK, and his considerable contribution to bringing about revolutionary change.

The vast majority of the Irish working class at the time gave its support to Home Rule parties. They did not advocate the break-up of the UK or British Empire. This was highlighted by their role in recruiting Irish workers and small farmers in the First World War. Even the early Sinn Fein looked to an Austro-Hungarian-style ‘dual monarchy’ solution (Britain and Ireland) to the National Question. It was only in the context of the horrors of the First World War that the majority of Irish workers began to move towards the break-up of the UK strategy, which Connolly and a few others had long being arguing, but from a minority position.

There is probably greater support for specifically socialist republican politics in Scotland today (albeit still far too small) than in Ireland in the days of Connolly’s ISRP.  There is even greater support in Scotland for Home Rule (now termed Devolution) than in the days of the Irish Home Rulers. Scotland’s own ‘dual monarchy’ party, the SNP, also enjoys much wider support than the early Sinn Fein. Mercifully, the ultra-Unionist, including Loyalist forces, whilst real enough, are also smaller.

What this shows is that not only is the National Question very relevant in the UK today but, as in the period before the First World War in Ireland, it is dominated by bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces. Connolly didn’t start from an opinion poll showing the extent of support for Irish independence, but from an analysis of the role of British imperialism and the contradictions it led to, and the possibilities this opened up for Socialists.  This is the approach I advocate today, when the US/UK imperial alliance, fronting corporate capital, is the dominant imperial force in the world.

The future for the working class, and indeed for wider humanity, is pretty bleak as the current capitalist crisis envelops us all. We need to find an effective strategy to challenge this. Only we cannot afford to wait for a new inter-imperialist war to win majority support!  The National Question, which Tara recognises as constituting a vital issue of “political democracy”, still acts as a fault line through UK and Irish politics. This should not be left to the Nationalist parties, which are all prepared to make their own accommodation with corporate capital and imperialism.

Connolly’s proposed alliance of Irish Socialist Republicans and British Social Democrats turned out to be problematic, especially when it came to getting British support for the 1916 Rising. The British Left remains a problem today. I have argued that, in some respects, their hard-wired sectarianism mirrors their adaptation to the UK state.  This is why we have to take Connolly’s version of ‘internationalism from below’ on to a new higher plane through a specifically socialist republican alliance of organisations in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Indeed, some of the lessons to be learned from the negative experience of the ‘British Left’ – the SWP and IS (CWI), both London centred – in helping to sabotage the promising Scottish Socialist Party are probably of considerable relevance in Ireland. Here these organisations’ ‘colonial offshoots’ look set to repeat their divisive roles in relation to the promising United Left Alliance. Although the CWI and SWP constitute their own sectarian ‘internationalism from above’ alliances, they have no strategy to deal with the British and Irish ruling classes’ own ‘internationalism from above’ alliance promoted through the ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’, nor their promotion of ‘social partnerships’.

I particularly welcome Tara’s conclusion, which acknowledges that “From Davitt to Connolly goes to the heart of such debates, spurning a bad tradition on the left of ignoring tough dilemmas which defy banal answers. It throws light on a crucial period of history for Ireland and its neighbours, one which contains lessons for us today.”

1. See our previous debates on ‘Internationalism from Below’ in Red Banner, issues no. 33, 34 and 36.

2. All these volumes will be published, as they become available for free, on an internet site. In the meantime volumes 1 and 2 are completed and can be obtained in pdf format on request by e-mailing:- intfrobel@hotmail.co.uk

3/4 These can also be obtained by e-mailing intfrobel@hotmail.co.uk

Also see:-

A Review of From Davitt to Connolly by Chris Gray, and 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>

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