National Sections of the L5I:

Chaper 2: The Irish populist dimension

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But the palm of honour for the clearest exposition of the doctrine of revolution, social and political, must be given to James Fintan Lalor, of Tenakill, Queen’s County.

The working-class democracy of Ireland … would be uselessly acquiescing in the smirching of its own record, were it to permit emasculation of the message of this Irish apostle of Revolutionary Socialism. (Labour in Irish History, New Books, Dublin, Introduction to ch. XIV).

Parallel with his political activity on the Scottish left, he had explored Irish radical traditions for arguments to counter the political influence of the constitutional bourgeois nationalism of the Home Rule variety. It is necessary to deal in some depth with this aspect of his political evolution in the 1890s to demonstrate how his ideas assumed a ‘populist’ direction and how underconsumptionist errors in economic theory played a significant part in his thought as a whole.

The writings of James Fintan Lalor (1807-1849) came to have a seminal influence on Connolly’s thought through his comradeship in Scotland with the socialist and former Fenian John Leslie (1859-1921). Leslie helped lay down the lines of Connolly’s break with orthodox Marxism on the national question. Drawing from the works of Leslie and Lalor, Connolly proceeded to evolve his own doctrine of ‘socialist republicanism’ from the mid 1890s. While this innovative break from the SDF’s orthodoxy has been justifiably hailed for its challenge to the hegemony of the Irish bourgeoisie in the national independence struggle, its debt to the petit bourgeois populism of Lalor has rarely been assessed critically.

The immediate political pressure to develop a new analysis of the Irish question came from the Irish immigrant population in Edinburgh in the early 1890s. Ever since Keir Hardie’s ILP had begun to engage in “political action” with the support of the Edinburgh Marxists in the SSF, they came up against the Liberals, Tories and Irish middle-class nationalists. The nationalists, where they had no candidate of their own, opposed the Scottish socialists with particular vehemence in view of the fact that their position on Ireland remained no different to that of the Liberals and merely followed the passive London SDF line of “legislative independence” for Ireland. The fall of Parnell followed by the defeat of the second Home Rule Bill and collapse of Gladstone’s government created a new situation by March 1894. The Home Rule movement was wracked with divisions.

Home Rule appeared at the time, in Leslie’s words, to be a “dissolving view”. He therefore made a bold effort to address the new political context with an analysis that would, he hoped, be the basis for splitting the Irish immigrant workers away from their erstwhile “gintlemen” nationalist leaders, as well as being the basis for future organisation among the Irish urban workers and rural proletariat. Leslie’s analysis was published as a series of articles from May 1894 in Justice, the newspaper of the SDF. Later the articles were compiled into a pamphlet, The Irish Question.

At the heart of Leslie’s suggestive analysis, soon to be developed schematically by Connolly, was an attempt to give to the national question a social plebeian character by hitching it to the revolutionary dynamic of the “most oppressed class”. Leslie’s attempt to give Irish nationalism and the national question a social revolutionary content took its inspiration from the agrarian revolutionary ideas of Lalor. In the years 1847-48 Lalor developed the argument that in order for the Irish to achieve “the conquest of our liberties” it was necessary to first achieve “the re-conquest of our lands”. In other words national independence would come when the peasantry threw off the yoke of English landlordism and restored the soil to the “people”.

Leslie, in the context of the 1890s, attempted to develop this idea by substituting the rural and urban proletariat for the peasantry as the class whose interest genuinely lay at the root of the national struggle. Leslie argued:

Students of Capital will know from the excellent series of tables there given by Marx on section F, Chapter XXIV, that although manufacturing industry is in a relatively backward condition in Ireland, yet the law of capitalist accumulation and concentration is in full force and operation in agriculture and such manufactures as there may be. (The Irish Question, Cork Workers Club, 1974, p.11).

He suggests that the laws of capitalism had by then taken possession of Irish agriculture (he makes little reference to industry despite the advanced development of the north-east) and had polarised the countryside fully between proletariat and capitalists. The reconquest of the soil by the Irish urban and rural workers would simultaneously free the nation and circumvent any further capitalist development, thereby inaugurating Irish socialism. In this manner he telescoped the national question, the land question and the struggle for socialism into a ‘combined’ overall goal.

Before examining this theme more fully we must point out why Leslie’s innovation was a departure from Marxism. It is understandable that he wished to escape the sterile orthodoxy of the SDF. Under Hyndman its concept of legislative independence for Ireland fell far short of recognising the right of the Irish to full secession from the British state, merely amounting to limited autonomy. Moreover, such was the degree of adaptation by various social democratic (formally Marxist) parties to their existing national capitalist states in the period of nascent European imperialist rivalry that some socialists believed that imperialism was a progressive force for development in the backward world. This adaptation, attempting to render imperialism more benevolent and peaceable, took root in the main-stream outlook of the SDF. There was little place in it for the view that national struggles of oppressed countries had a progressive content as against imperialism.

Having said this, however, the distorted SDF position still rested on the orthodox and valid Marxist understanding of the national question. In the economic sphere this meant the rise of a territorially specific manufacturing bourgeoisie which creates a home market on the basis of a unified and independent nation state. Politically it meant that the bourgeoisie overthrew the old order and established its rule over all other classes within the confines of its own creation, the nation state.

Once ensconced, the bourgeoisie rested its formally democratic parliament on a state apparatus which could be relied upon to defend the social relations of capitalist exploitation, in the last analysis through its monopoly of armed force. Thus the question of capital lies at the heart of the struggle to establish the independent unified nation state. This remains valid even though in the epoch of twentieth century imperialism the native colonial or semi-colonial bourgeoisie is not capable of leading genuine economic development because it is subordinated through finance capital to the interests of the metropolitan imperialist powers.

Marx, writing in 1867, championed the fight among the English working class for the right of Ireland to full secession from the oppressive colonial Act of Union of 1800. This would, he argued, enable the workers of Britain to free themselves of the imperial chauvinism which tied them to their ruling class. It would enable the Irish to establish “self-government” and open the struggle for “an agrarian revolution” as well as establishing “protective tariffs against England” (Marx & Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978, p.158). These would be the best conditions for the development of Irish capitalism and the uprise of the working class in Ireland which could link its class struggle for socialism with that of their immediate brothers and sisters—the working class of Britain. In this dialectical sense the British working class had a keen interest in ending national oppression.

The struggle for an Irish nation-state originated not in the misty past or in the land question as such but in the emergence of Irish capitalism, particularly in the 18th century. It reached its peak in the last decades of that century by uniting many sections—peasants, merchants, artisans etc. under the lead of the rising manufacturing bourgeoisie. It rose above religious divisions and, in the person of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, it genuinely sought a modern, national, democratic and clearly bourgeois republic. Moreover, although prepared to rally the “men of no property” if necessary in breaking British aristocratic control, Tone’s goal was not to free the oppressed masses from poverty but centrally to advance the interests of the progressive Irish bourgeoisie of the time. The thwarting of that revolution by semi-feudal landlordism, Orangeism and the English ruling class in 1798 was a profound defeat. Nevertheless, in the new century a bourgeois, nationalist movement re-emerged to challenge the Union of Britain and Ireland, under the pragmatic leadership of O’Connell, with the ability at certain junctures to mobilise the majority of the Catholic masses behind it.

The new nationalist movement was no longer led by the vigorous industrial bourgeoisie which had dissented from the religions of both the colonial state (Anglicanism) and the popular masses (Catholicism). Instead it was rooted in the Catholic sections of the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie in commerce, small-scale manufacturing, and the farming class which through famine, brutal clearances and land-purchase schemes gradually emerged to replace landlordism over a period of 60 years. In terms strictly of class interest there is, therefore, a continuity between heroic figures of the 1798 Jacobin tradition of Wolfe Tone before the Act of Union, and the cautious and conservative leaders of the nineteenth century. To overlook the central importance of the bourgeoisie in defining the national question and to attempt to redefine it around the class interest of the most oppressed class, whether the peasantry or later the working class, was wrong.

Engels, writing in 1882, was aware of the different trends as well as their limitations:

In Ireland there are two trends in the movement. The first stems from the organised brigandage practised with the support of the peasants and the clan chiefs dispossessed by the English, and also by the big Catholic landowners (in the 17th century these brigands were called Tories…) … all of this is as old as the present English land ownership in Ireland, that is, dates back to the end of the 17th century at the latest… But as regards its nature, it is local, isolated and can never become a general form of political struggle.

In Engels’ analysis it was the bourgeoisie which developed national slogans to rally the support of the peasantry, while movements arising out of the agrarian question never accomplished the task of generalising to the level of a national political struggle. He continues, referring to the second trend:

Soon after the establishment of the union in 1800 began the liberal-national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie which, as in every peasant country with dwindling townlets … finds its natural leaders in lawyers. These also need the peasants. They, therefore, had to find slogans to attract the peasants. Thus O’Connell discovered such a slogan first in the Catholic Emancipation and then in the Repeal of the Union …
After the American civil war, Fenianism took its place beside these two trends. (Ireland and the Irish Question, p.451 ff.).

Marxism views the rural petit bourgeoisie as a vacillating social mass which is pulled and pushed by the external power of the urban-centred classes. Historically this is intensified by the development of capitalism and the differentiation within the peasantry into bourgeois (labour-hiring) peasants, petit-bourgeois middle peasants and semi-proletarian poor peasants and unemployed. The peasantry as a whole, therefore, opposes semi-feudal landlordism, but it becomes divided increasingly as capitalism penetrates into agriculture. It cannot rise to the level of a ruling class, the condition for solving major political tasks, but the peasantry remains a key factor in the struggles for power by the capitalist class or the modern working class.

Classical Populism

The strategic centralised power of the bourgeoisie was, however, challenged in the name of peasant ideologues in various parts of the world in the 19th century, particularly where the yoke of feudal oppression gave the peasantry a clear sense of unity in opposition to feudal or semi-feudal oppression. The classic example of such parties was the Narodnik, or People’s Party which arose in Russia. The Narodniks argued that not only could the peasantry overthrow feudal oppression but that they could actually bypass capitalism and set up a native form of peasant “socialism”. In 19th century Ireland, although the rural tenantry never expressed themselves through a party of their own, the idea that they could use their collective power to combat English landlordism was articulated most eloquently by Lalor.

Though long dead and widely forgotten, his ideas were to be resurrected and drawn upon by John Leslie who described Lalor as “the man who first pointed out the class nature of the Irish movement” (The Irish Question, p.5.) Not a bourgeois revolutionary in the classic mould, Lalor identified himself with the interests of the peasantry and sought to place the land in their possession in such a form that “capitalism” could be avoided. Fintan Lalor’s originality consisted in the attempt to transform in a social revolutionary direction the conspiratorial, putschist republicanism of the Young Irelanders of 1848. These, such as William Smith O’Brien (1803-64), Charles Gavan Duffy (1816-1903), Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-67), were the militant descendants of the United Irishmen in arms. Lalor had little faith in conspiratorial rebellion. Rather, he aimed to tap the explosive hatred of the Irish tenants for the English “garrison” of landlords and make the peasantry the locomotive of a social revolution that could take in tow the struggle for a national independent republic. The inspirational power and novelty of this redefinition of republican methods is in no way vitiated by the fact that Lalor had no success in making it a practical aim of a mobilised mass tenantry.

However, while the Young Ireland movement had broken from O’Connell’s movement for Repeal of the Union, as did Lalor himself, Young Ireland was in the fullest sense the descendant of Tone—national, secular and urban-bourgeois. Lalor, by contrast, had always been closely involved with the plight of the peasantry. In the throes of the great famine he stood out in opposition to Whig policies of laissez faire which maintained the export of cash crops from the country while the mass of poor peasants and rural labourers died of starvation. This led him to attack capitalism. His ‘anti-capitalism’, however, was based not on the class interests of the proletariat, even the rural proletariat, but on ‘the people’, meaning the native peasantry. The prime immediate target of his revolutionary strategy was the English landlords, a semi-feudal class. He redefined the essence of the national question thus: “It is a mere question between a people and a class—between a people of 8 million and a class of 8,000”. (Marlowe, Collected Writings of James Fintan Lalor, Dublin, 1918, p.59). As for the leading role he ascribed to the peasantry the goal was:

… not to resume or restore an old constitution but to found a new nation and raise up a free people, and strong as well as free, and secure as well as strong, based on a peasantry rooted like rocks in the soil of the land— this is my object. (Readings from J.F. Lalor, Belfast Republican Centre, 1975, p.68).

Lalor’s programme looks to a utopia, a society that can never exist in real history. It idealises petty-commodity production by peasants and artisans supposedly free from the crushing competition of capitalism and the tyrannical oppression of landlordism and usury. As such they bear no resemblance to the propertyless urban proletariat created by capitalism. Lalor reflected and expressed these illusions well when writing nostalgically of the fate of the petit bourgeoisie in previous times:

The masters in those days were only small capitalists, as each man endeavoured to be one, but they were sure of independence, for they did not believe that their goods depended on unlimited production, and hence ruinous competition, but on the income of the country—on the fact of the people, the masses, possessing wealth. It is not the few rich in a country which consumes the products of labour—they only consume luxuries and these luxuries must always give but a precarious employment—it is the diffusion of wealth among the population generally which regulates the demand and ensures the labourers from sudden and ruinous fluctuations; and this system of numerous small manufacturers produced the result. (Marlowe, p.109).

In real life, however, capitalism relentlessly subordinates the mass of small producers to its system of generalized commodity production where labour power becomes just another commodity while the land of the small peasantry is consolidated into ever bigger capitalist farms.

Lalor equated the new system of capitalism in England with that of the “landlord thugs”. His criticisms of capitalism reflect the crushing oppression of the Irish peasantry at the hands of both landlordism and the laissez faire industrial capitalism in England. He explicitly follows the line of argument of the romantic economist Sismondi (1773-1842), the critic of untrammeled industrial capitalism. Sismondi sought to introduce strict regulation of competition and looked back towards feudalism rather than forward to the working class struggle for socialism. Lalor attacks Ricardo, the theoretician and defender of the industrial bourgeoisie, vituperating against England’s industrial revolution for having “blasted” the population with “true pauperism … in all its unmitigated horrors”. Along with this horror of industrial capitalism, however, goes his horror of the working class:

This class, resembling the Proletarii of the Roman Empire, is increasing with fearful rapidity, and will one day revenge all the wrongs on their oppressors, but will also, it is feared, destroy society itself. This class may be called the destitute, to distinguish them from the general poor. (Marlowe, Collected Writings of James Fintan Lalor, p.100).

In this shape Lalor wishes to avoid capitalism, and while this goal is in itself utopian, his programme for a “moral insurrection” against landlordism by means of a rent strike, resistance to evictions and seizures of corn stores by the mobilised tenantry, in spite of contradictions, might have opened a struggle to smash English landlordism. As such it contained components of a revolutionary democratic programme and would, if implemented, have helped to radically free Irish capitalism from the obstacles of the semi-feudal aristocracy. As a revolutionary alternative to gradual land reform from above it would nevertheless have accelerated the emergence of capitalism from within the peasantry.

Lalor’s fear of the proletariat is worked into his plan for insurrection. In his plans for the Felon Club he wrote in the spring of 1847:

As a matter of fact no man will offer himself, or be accepted as a member, unless he holds out principles and unless he is prepared to arm and fight in support of them when called upon. But this will not be enough, else a common labourer unable to read or write would be eligible … It is not the common labourer but the skilled labourer we desire to engage and organise in this club. (The First Step, L. Fogarty, (ed.), in James Fintan Lalor, Collected Writings, Dublin, 1947, p.86-7).

Lalor’s programme was land-centred and directed towards a utopian, peasant-based republic which took little or no account of the key significance of capital in the Irish economy. He explicitly sought to avoid the social relations of capitalism, believing in a solution to the land question that excluded the rise of an industrial bourgeoisie. Further, he believed the land struggle would, like an engine pulling a carriage, bring in its train the solution of the national question. He was doubly wrong. It was historically impossible to write the bourgeoisie out of the national question. The land struggle of the peasantry could never take the form of a general political movement without a leading role for one of the modern urban classes created by capitalism.

Given the wholesale decimation of the rural proletariat and cottier class by famine and emigration, given the immaturity of the modern proletariat scattered throughout the south (only in the north-east was it developing in a concentrated way) it was inevitable that the peasantry, after the failure to rise in 1848, would again tend to fall under the hegemony of lawyers (such as Isaac Butt) who were, as Engels observed, the usual representatives of the urban bourgeoisie in backward conditions.

Lalor’s prognosis of a peasant proprietary as the basis for avoiding capitalist social relations was shown to be wholly fallacious by later events. For the mass Land War of 1879-82, in which the peasantry took up some of his programme, set in train the consolidation of conservative, Catholic, nationalist, capitalist and middle-peasant farming classes.

The Marxist tradition, therefore, characterises Lalor as an agrarian populist, a revolutionary against landlordism yes, but a utopian who was blind to the internal dynamic of capitalism within the Irish peasantry. He stands outside the classic bourgeois revolutionary tradition of the late eighteenth century because he places at the heart of his programme the ownership of the land and not the national and independent rule of a rising industrial bourgeoisie.

He stands outside the scientific socialist tradition, too. He looked to the past and feared the rising proletariat. Objectively his programme defended private property in the means of production. Even if he was for “land nationalisation”, as some have argued, this was only in the sense of expropriating landlords, and was at most a radical bourgeois demand.

Leslie Re-elaborates Lalor

It was John Leslie who, sensing the opportunity to challenge the political claims of Irish bourgeois nationalists in the 1890s, first pressed the ideas of Lalor into service in an attempt to create a new political synthesis. Essentially he did so to postulate a different and supposedly more valid strand in Irish nationalism, as against urban bourgeois nationalism whether of liberal or radical-conspiratorial stripe.

In Lalor’s critique of O’Connell’s Repeal movement and in his ‘social revolutionary’ approach to national independence, Leslie found what he thought was the perfect analogy for his own criticisms of the Home Rule movement and the model for a social-revolutionary redefinition of the Irish question in the 1890s. But he ignored or did not understand the bourgeois limits of Lalor’s programme. Indeed, he characterised Lalor as not just an opponent of capitalism but also a proponent of the “working class’s point of view”.

In The Irish Question he presents selective and modified excerpts from two of Lalor’s articles, avoiding all reference to the creation of a free tenantry, or to the “fearful proletarii”. He does, however, attack the rest of the Young Irelanders and John Mitchell for their anti-Jacquerie and anti-socialist beliefs:

This is evidence enough that the men of ’48, despite their patriotism, were from the working class point of view, not much better if any than those they rebelled against, and that it was as hopeless to expect from them a true definition of the rightful basis of property, as from the English governing classes themselves. Not but that a few did see it with Lalor, but they were as voices crying in the wilderness. (p.6).

In this way he honed a critical edge of sorts against what he mistakenly saw as the “dissolving view” of Home Rule and against the middle class fragments of the Home Rule movement of the 1890s, divided over Parnell. In looking to Lalor he believed he could challenge these nationalists without thereby standing outside the ‘nationalist tradition’ itself. Lalor’s break with the Repeal movement, in his view, paralleled his own attempt to shake loose from the Home Rule movement and yet still remain within the nationalist tradition in the name of a more militant and plebeian patriotism.

He proceeds to analyse the Land War and the Kilmainham Treaty signed by Parnell which ended it with the promise of gradual peasant proprietary. This, he states, “secured the practical abandonment of the land agitation and the adoption of the single-plank platform of Home Rule” (p.9). His description of the Land War is perceptive. Yet it falls down because it is ambivalent on the issue of the class interests served by Parnell in putting himself at the head of the Land League and in signing the Kilmainham Treaty. Thus, when he refers to the vacuity of the single plank of Home Rule he obscures the ‘national interest’ of Irish capitalism which stood behind it. He interprets Parnell’s role in the Kilmainham Treaty without reference to his bourgeois politics and merely as an error of judgement:

Gladstone never did a cleverer piece of work in his life, and that is saying a great deal. To this day it is problematical if Mr. Parnell fully understood the land question; certainly his sudden acceptance of some vague nationalisation scheme during the stormy period that closed his remarkable career, while previously he would not hear of it, tends to show that he did not understand it. (p.9)

Leslie then proceeds to develop an abstract perspective for the ‘town and country toilers’ completely counterposed to the post-Parnell Home Rulers. The repossession of the soil, the concept he drew from Lalor, would place socialism on the agenda as the very condition for national independence and industrialisation. The first step in his argument is based on a misinterpretation of Lalor’s populist demand—land to the peasants—as an intrinsically anti-capitalist measure. Even if we were to interpret Lalor’s anti-landlord programme as a form of “nationalisation of the land”, Marx is in no doubt but that it belongs to the bourgeois democratic programme. Marx explained that this demand expropriates the feudal landlords, abolishes ‘absolute’ ground rent and at the same time breaks their power to appropriate a portion of the profits generated by the occupiers of the land.

After the 1905 revolution in Russia, Lenin likewise argued that socialists should address the revolutionary bourgeois strivings of the peasantry against the landed aristocracy not only with ‘land to the tiller’ but also the slogan of land nationalisation. While such a measure, he argued, avoided building a Chinese Wall between completing the bourgeois revolutionary tasks and the goal of socialist revolution, he was absolutely clear that it was not in itself a socialist slogan. It was a slogan of the most revolutionary democracy aimed against the landed aristocracy. This was to be taken up alongside the central bourgeois-democratic slogans against the autocracy— the Republic, and the Constituent Assembly. Thus he defined land nationalisation as:

on the one hand a partial reform within the limits of capitalism (a change in the owners of a part of surplus value) and, on the other hand, it abolishes monopoly [of land] which hinders the development of capitalism as a whole. (Lenin, The Agrarian Programme of Social Democracy in the First Russian Revolution, Progress, Moscow, p.79).

Leslie lacked this rigorous understanding of the land question. Coming as he did from involvement with the Land League and Fenianism, subsequently through the school of British social democracy, and influenced in no small part by the abstract propagandism of William Morris for the socialist maximum, he directly adapted Lalor’s radical populism to his own dream of creating in Ireland a socialist “Land and Labour League”.

Having adopted Lalor as a ‘socialist thinker’ he develops a very one-sided picture of capitalist development in post-famine Ireland, which was in his view confined to agriculture. For this he draws from a section in Vol. 1 of Capital in which Marx refers to the substitution of pasture for tillage:

although manufacturing industry is in a relatively backward condition in Ireland, yet the law of capitalist accumulation and concentration is in full force and operation within agriculture and such manufactures as may be. Notwithstanding Gladstonian Land Bills, the concentration of lands with the decrease in the area of arable and increase in pasture land goes on apace … (The Irish Question p.11).

He was unjustified in his sweeping assertion. Engels himself in 1888 noted the slowdown in peasant depopulation in the process of land centralisation. The preponderance of the middle peasantry and the appetite for independent proprietorship among them made him more cautious in his prognosis than Leslie.

But for the suppression of the Land League in 1882, Leslie continues, a Land and Labour League could have evolved out of it and, “there is little doubt but that [it] would have become one of the most formidable working class organisations in the world”. He argues that such a departure was once again on the agenda in 1894. Flowing inevitably from this analysis is the attempt to bypass the specific revolutionary bourgeois dynamic that still existed among the masses of peasant tenants against semi-feudal landlordism. Instead, he plots out a path in which the working class of town and country would

declare, as James Fintan Lalor did, that the emancipation of their class from economic bondage means the emancipation from all bondage; that the interests of their class are paramount and before the interests of all other classes in society. (The Irish Question, p.14).

In this manner he equates nationalisation of the land with the expropriation of capitalism and identifies the interests of the rising farmer class with those of the old landlord class. Indeed, he echoes the utopianism of Lalor by arguing that the town and country working class could “have what is termed capital without the capitalist”. His variant argues simplistically that the “Irish people” should not “call in the capitalist” but that they should, by repossessing the land, make a leap to socialism, on the basis of which they may industrialise without the “pandemonium” of capitalist exploitation in “their fair island”. Leslie fails to challenge Lalor’s populist premises:

that the enjoyment by the people of the right of first ownership of the soil is essential to the vigour and vitality of all other right. (The Irish Question, p.5)


that the land question does contain but the legislative question [i.e. Repeal] does not contain, the materials from which victory is manufactured. (Readings from J.F. Lalor, p.73).

Instead, he inserts the working class of town and country as the leading interest in the national struggle where Lalor had designated the peasantry. He wrongly suggests that nationalism, redefined by changing its class content in this way, need no longer be seen as serving the interests of the Irish bourgeoisie, but instead becomes an intrinsically socialist movement.

Leslie’s intention was to overcome the retarding influence of the Irish Home Rule movement, to move the SDF beyond its passive acceptance of Home Rule and to hasten Ireland’s separation from the Empire. In the programme of a Land and Labour League fighting for repossession of the land from the Empire he thought he had found a way to combine the struggles of the oppressed and exploited against imperialism. However, his denial of the national interest of the Irish capitalist class led him unwittingly to present national independence, redefined after Lalor as the outer echo of the land and labour struggle, as the principal goal of the labour movement.

In the epoch of imperialism it would, of course, become increasingly evident that the working class would be compelled to combine tasks inherited from the unfinished bourgeois democratic revolution with the fight for its own class interests. However, the task stressed by the revolutionary wing of the International—led by Lenin, Luxembourg and Trotsky—was for socialists to challenge the hold of nationalism at the same time as taking up the struggle against national oppression as a struggle against imperialism.

In the Irish context this implied combating nationalism whether in its Fenian and populist expressions or in its bourgeois constitutional form. Leslie did indeed counter Fenian and Home Rule ideologies, but he did so within the tradition of populist nationalism. The consequences of this adaptation were to be revealed fully in the theory and practice of Connolly.

One of Connolly’s first publications when he came to Ireland in 1896 was an edited selection from Fintan Lalor’s writings. The introduction to this pamphlet contains the following revealing statement:

The Irish Socialist Republican Party, as the only political party which fully accepts Fintan Lalor’s teaching, from his declaration of principles to his system of insurrection, hope that in issuing this pamphlet, they will succeed in bringing home to the minds of their fellows, a realisation of the necessity which exists for the creation of a party which will aim at giving effective political expression to the twin ideas of national and industrial freedom now so hopelessly divorced in the public life of Ireland. (Connolly (ed.), The Rights of Ireland and Faith of a Felon, Introduction, p.ii, National Library).

The influence of Lalor, through Leslie, surfaces clearly in the pamphlet Erin’s Hope, written by Connolly and dating from 1897. In it, Connolly repeats Leslie’s emphasis on the land, as opposed to the rise of Irish capitalism, as the historic basis of the national movement.

The Irish question has, in fact, a much deeper source than a mere difference of opinion on forms of government. Its real origin and inner meaning lay in the circumstances that the two opposing nations held fundamentally different ideas upon the vital question of property in land. (Edwards & Ransom, pp 172-73).

In fact, far from recognising in the developing Irish bourgeoisie of 18th century Ireland the germ of the various movements for independence, Connolly argues that the Irish middle class only served to subvert this movement. The content of the real Irish movement, he argues, was fundamentally against private property. He refers to the ancient “clan system” with its basis in common landed property and portrays the conquest as the attempted subversion of that principle by “feudal-capitalist” private property. With the “dispersion of the Irish clans” he says, “the demand for the common ownership of land naturally fell into abeyance”.

He continues that “in the intervening period a new class had arisen—the “Irish middle class”. But its role was purely that of an enemy within, based on “the alien social septem” (capitalism) and serving only to bring about “the legal dispossession and economic dependence of the vast mass of the Irish people, as part of the natural order of society”. (Edwards & Ransom p.176).

On the basis on this analysis, Connolly concludes that now the wheel has come full circle. He takes up Lalor’s argument that the reconquest of the land (which, after Leslie, he interprets as a demand for nationalisation of the land on a socialist basis) is now the sole basis for genuine national independence. He enlists arguments derived from his SDF background in economics—specifically the argument that markets are saturated world-wide and that Ireland is too poor to constitute a home market for its own industry. He writes:

… tell me how poor Ireland, exhausted and drained of her life blood at every pore, with a population almost wholly agricultural and unused to mechanical pursuits, is to establish new factories, and where she is to find the customers to keep them going. She cannot find new markets. The world is only limited after all … (Edwards & Ransom, p.179).

These arguments combine to form the basis for collapsing the “national, economic and social re-conquest” of Ireland all into one task. They form the basis for his dismissive attitude towards the resurgence of Home Rule in 1898-99 under Redmond. They also lead him to dismiss peasant proprietorship as a utopian ideal. Referring to new farm technology in the USA and Australia, he writes: “How are our small farmers to compete with a state of matters like this” (Edwards & Ransom, p.183) and:

The agriculture of Ireland can no longer compete with the scientifically equipped farmers of America, therefore the only hope is to abandon competition altogether as a rule of life, to organise agriculture as a public service under the control of boards of management elected by the agricultural population (no longer composed of farmers and labourers, but of free citizens with equal responsibility and equal honour) … (Edwards & Ransom, p.187).

From here, following Leslie, he creates a general schema based on the nationalisation of the land on collective principles and involving an agrarian-based ‘socialism’ as the very condition for national independence:

Let the produce of the soil go first to feed the Irish people, and after a sufficient store has been retained to insure of that being accomplished let the surplus be exchanged with other countries in return for those manufactured goods Ireland needs but does not herself produce. Thus we will abolish at one stroke the dread of foreign competition and render perfectly needless any attempt to create an industrial hell in Ireland under the specious pretext of ‘developing our resources’ (Edwards & Ransom, p.187).

In this form Connolly attempts to solve both the national and socialist tasks. It is a perspective constructed on the national terrain; a strongly autarchic programme for an isolated national system of production. In this respect he is drawn inevitably closer to the programme of petit-bourgeois revolutionary nationalism of the Pearse variety. As already argued, Connolly believed that the uncompromising nationalist would inevitably turn to socialism for a solution “to the labyrinthine puzzle of modern economic conditions”. But, through Lalor’s populism, which he mistakenly confuses with socialism, the socialist principles are fused with those of the petit bourgeoisie. This merging of programmes could only make more difficult the task of breaking workers and small farmers from the hegemony of bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalism. It fails to spell out tactics capable of relating to the actual dynamics of the social and political movements of his day, namely the re-emergent Home rule movement. Thus he lacked a method whereby socialists could fight to break from the bourgeoisie the poor peasant farmers of whom many were not yet covered by land purchase schemes, and win them to the side of the proletariat.

Connolly had interdefined the principles of national independence and ‘land to the tiller’ with the socialist revolution itself to such an extent that he could not deal tactically with each question as it dynamically arose, while connecting it to the strategic perspective for socialism. His belief in Erin’s Hope that the rural tenants oppressed by landlordism were doomed anyway—to the mortgages which would follow a land purchase deal—ignored the important potential which remained for arousing the peasants to struggle against the landlords for their demands. Instead, he wished the oppressed farmers to see the fruitlessness of “individualism” as an answer to their conditions and find their way to socialism as the only ‘rational’ one for them.

In his propaganda he invested popular nationalist aspirations with a socialist essence. “Re-conquest” of the land and nation became dependent on “socialist revolution”. That is, he placed these goals in the ‘maximum’ programme, as part of the ultimate goals of socialism. This was a break with social-democratic Marxism which placed the democratic tasks in the sphere of reforms to be won under capitalism—the minimum programme. In the interim he was left to fight for the practical demands of the ‘minimum’ programme of the SDF—municipal reforms, the 48-hour week etc.

When analysed in this way we find a basic programmatic confusion behind the slogan which sums up Connolly’s politics—The cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour, the cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland. This formula has wrongly been interpreted by some commentators as anticipating Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. Thus Millotte argues:

In prosecuting socialism as the aim of the working class in the struggle against imperialism Connolly was not denying that the immediate objective tasks of the coming Irish revolution would benefit the middle class (bourgeoisie) at least as much as the workers: the winning of national independence, the final eradication of landlordism and the establishment of basic political freedoms. He was saying that because the bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying through its own revolution the task fell to the working class and they could only complete it by proceeding without interruption to the establishment of a socialist republic. [author’s own emphasis] (M. Millotte, Communism & Modern Ireland, Gill & MacMillan, 1984, p.10).

Others like Desmond Greaves see Connolly’s formulae as having their foundations not only in the re-affirmation “of an old Marxian principle”, but also in the foreshadowing of the Leninist attitude to national oppression in the epoch of imperialist decay. Unfortunately, that was anything but the case. What Greaves understands to be Lenin’s programme on the national question is in fact the Stalinist distortion of it whereby the working class is disastrously subordinated to bourgeois nationalist forces, as in China in the twenties. The new Stalinist principle “combined” the national-democratic and socialist tasks by confining the working class struggle strictly within the limits of the bourgeois-democratic programme, however radical. Only in a further separate “stage” would the working class struggle for its own power. In practice such a policy meant that the working class helped the national bourgeoisie into power only to see its own mobilised strength broken for the subsequent period.

The real foundations of Connolly’s attitude to the Irish national question are, in the first place, a regressive break from the Marxist theory of the nation in a radical populist (and petit-bourgeois) direction. Connolly’s SDF Marxism, with its erroneous theory of markets and capitalist development had already led him to derive wrong conclusions which he shared with the Populists. This was made specific by adapting Lalor’s idea that the social content of the national struggle was land and labour, as opposed to the needs of capital. In this manner Connolly created a rationalistic schema in which capitalism was portrayed as the least ‘practical’ option for Ireland, an essentially “foreign” excrescence etc.

Secondly, in contrast to Lenin, who viewed national anti-imperialist revolutions as a necessary and contributing force in hastening the world-wide struggle to establish workers’ states and thus the international basis for socialism, Connolly developed the view that socialism and nationalism in Ireland, i.e. on the national terrain, were “not antagonistic but complementary”. The Irish socialist, therefore, in order to prove that he is “in reality the best Irish patriot”, must “look inward upon Ireland for his justification, rest his arguments upon the facts of Irish history…” (Edwards & Ransom, p.166).

Such statements were more than a matter of pedagogy with Connolly. His own understanding of the Irish revolution represented a non-Marxist adaptation to Irish revolutionary nationalist traditions. It was an adaptation that was to assume more force and significance when he turned to the study of Irish history in his search for a viable socialist theory for Ireland.