National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 3: Labour and nation in Irish history

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Connolly’s general conception of Irish history gave full expression to his hybrid of Marxism and populism. This emerges in a number of distinct themes, centrally the collapsing together of the “nation” and the working class. Starting from the view that pre-Norman Ireland was a communal and democratic Irish nation he goes on to portray all resistance to Norman and English conquests as revolts of labour against the “alien”system of private property. Inevitably this leads him to deny any historically progressive role to the bourgeoisie in Ireland. His major historical work, Labour in Irish History, so often claimed by the Irish left as a Marxist classic, emerges under closer scrutiny as a bold, creative but essentially un-Marxist presentation of Irish history.

In the first issue of The Harp he declared:

We propose to make a campaign among our countrymen and to rely for our method mainly upon imparting to them a correct interpretation of the facts of their history, past and present. (Vol. 1, no. 1, p.6, National Library.)

By a “correct interpretation” Connolly intended a Marxist analysis, but with all the limits of the Marxism in which he had developed in Scotland. He makes explicit claims about the method to be applied in approaching Irish history. Again in The Harp he writes:

The Harp was established to show a more excellent way, to show how a socialist philosophy for Irishmen can be deduced from Irish history and ought to be so deduced; instead of the other method of striving to make socialists of Irishmen by reciting to them the unfamiliar history of England and America. (Vol. 1, no. 6, p.3).

In this approach to history two distinct tasks are confused. The first, which was central to Marx’s work in Das Kapital, was to elucidate the laws and nature of capitalism in general. Marx used evidence from England in order to discover and illustrate these laws because England had pioneered industrial capitalism and best revealed its workings. However, in interpreting the concrete experience of particular countries, it was necessary to proceed by rigorously applying political economy as only one part of the broader method of historical materialism in each national context. This second task requires great conceptual clarity and a concrete grounding in the Marxist theory of the national question, the land question, historic modes of production, ideology and religion, forms of class organisation and class struggle. The purpose for Marxists throughout is to lay the basis for a revolutionary programme that is truly concrete in local conditions. It is in this context that we must measure Connolly’s interpretation of Irish history.

The misconception which already looms in Connolly’s definition of this task—and which emerges fully in his historical writings, is his belief that a “socialist philosophy” can be “deduced” from Irish history. This summary formula is already at odds with the Marxist approach to history. In his own first work on Irish history, Erin’s Hope (1897), we find him acknowledging the conflict between the analysis to be made by the “sympathetic” student and the scientific materialist analysis of the “ardent student of sociology”, i.e Marxism:

The ardent student of sociology, who believes that the progress of the human race through the various economic stages of communism, chattel slavery, feudalism and wage slavery, has been but a preparation for the higher ordered society of the future; that the most industrially advanced countries are but, albeit often unconsciously, developing the social conditions which, since the break-up of universal tribal communism, have been rendered historically necessary for the inauguration of a new and juster economic order, in which social, political and national antagonism will be unknown, will perhaps regard Irish adherence to clan ownership at such a comparatively recent date as the 17th Century as evidence of retarded economical development, and therefore a real hindrance to progress. But the sympathetic student of history, who believes in the possibility of a people by political intuition anticipating the lessons afterwards revealed to them in the sad school of experience, will not be indisposed to join with the ardent Irish patriot in his lavish expressions of admiration for the sagacity of his Celtic forefathers, who foreshadowed in the democratic organisation of the Irish clan the more perfect organisation of the free society of the future. (Erin’s Hope, New Books, Dublin & Belfast, 1972, pp 6-7).

The implications of this are radical. He admits that a scientific analysis would conclude that Irish social development had been held back historically, but that a “sympathetic” analysis would reach a very different conclusion.

In The Harp he refers to two sets of impressions we all supposedly carry with us—one from our own life experiences and the other from a racial memory of the past—and writes:

We of the Harp and the Irish Socialist Federation believe in uniting both sources of influences upon our side in showing our fellow countrymen and women that the history of the Irish race combines with the history of the working class in pointing to the workers’ republic—a society based on the ownership by all of the means by which all exist, as the true goal of our endeavours, the promised-land of our 1000 year journey in the wilderness. (Vol. 1, no. 6, p.4).

Here we see him accept the framework of Irish nationalist historiography instead of investigating history from the Marxist standpoint of the development of the forces of production, diverse social classes, modes of production and exchange and, especially, distinct historical epochs. As against the materialist method, his approach is idealist. Although he does seek to apply the concept of class struggle to Irish history, he fails to correctly identify or describe the different forms of class struggle but reduces them all to expressions of Irish ‘labour’ whatever the period.

Centrally, he lends a purpose or teleology to Irish history. He holds that there is from early times a direction and an inner movement in history towards the socialist system. As a consequence he assimilates all the struggles of “the real Irish”, against Norman feudal invaders, English mercantilist colonisers, British capitalist domination, 20th century imperialism and native capitalism. The idealised, abstract, 1000-year struggle would end in the achievement of socialism and the recovery of the supposedly communal and democratic life of pre-Norman Ireland. Further, he dissolves the distinction between the toiling peasant classes of different epochs and the modern working class, composing them into one social force under the name of an Irish “nation” supposedly existing since Celtic times. For Connolly, this “nation” by “political intuition” and the “instinctive racial sagacity of the Celt” anticipated socialism and might have, so to speak, leaped over the capitalist stage of development were it not for the alien importation of capitalist social relations in property. This is a classically Populist position.

For Marx and Engels history is the progressive unfolding of the possibilities of human society, a development driven by conflict, from the more primitive to the more advanced, a movement which they saw as capable, however, of suffering reverses. Transition to a more advanced form of society always pivots on the conflict between the new forces of production (new classes and technical means) growing up in the old social formation, and the social relations of production (the forms of control and ownership) which increasingly hold back the new development. Marx and Engels understood “primitive communism” as a society unable yet to create a surplus of wealth which could be the basis for a privileged ruling class to crystallize. Primitive communism necessarily gave way to class society—chattel slavery, feudalism, or the Asiatic mode of production. Marxism shows how this is a historically progressive development, just as it understands the transition to capitalism from feudalism as a qualitative step forward for mankind.

Even if it were true that a Gaelic-Celtic primitive communism persisted until broken up by a Norman-British invasion ‘importing’ a system of private property—and we shall see that Marx himself refutes this—it would be totally foreign to Marxism to lament nostalgically over this inevitability or to rail against the emergence of private property as a cause of regret and woe as does Connolly:

In Ireland it was private property in land that was the original and abiding cause of all our woes. (The Harp, Vol. 1, no. 5, p.3).

Celtic “primitive communism” is portrayed as superior to feudal private property. Even more, it was superior in Connolly’s perspective to the capitalism which was later to replace feudalism in Ireland as the dominant mode of production. In this fundamentally populist revision the materialist analysis of Irish history is reduced to the repeated application of an idealist schema of which the following is the most concise expression:

The history of Ireland ever since the English invasion has been one long history of a conflict between common property represented by the Irish and private property represented by the English”. (The Harp, Vol. 2, no. 11, p.1).

In this conception of historical progress the future consists of a retrieval of the idealised images of a primitive past. In the Workers Republic in 1898 he wrote:

There is only one remedy for the slavery of the working class and that remedy is the socialist republic, a system of society in which the land and all the houses, railways, factories, canals, workshops and everything necessary for work shall be owned and operated as common property much as the land of Ireland was owned by the clans of Ireland before England introduced the capitalist system amongst us at the point of a sword. (Woodquay Ward election address, Jan. 1903 in Workers Republic collection, Dublin 1951, p.45).

Connolly actually acknowledged that Irish society would, if left to itself, have developed through its own stages of feudalism and capitalism but for the foreign conquest. But, because it didn’t, he mistakenly makes an exception of Ireland from historical materialist analysis, applying instead a nationalist and populist plebeian perspective to deduce a “socialist philosophy of Irish history”. Lalor equally looked backwards and idealised the past to find a vision of a harmonious society that might escape the ravages of capitalist development but he looked back only to the small scale producers of early capitalism in general, artisans and peasants, and not to ancient Ireland.

Marxism in Russia developed its materialist analysis only in the fight against the populist and nationalist intelligentsia. The ‘father of Russian Marxism’, Plekhanov, fought against the abstract schematism of the populist Tikhomirov in terms that could apply equally to Connolly:

We have already seen that in his opinion history has some kind of independent abstract “movement towards the socialist system”; given such a “movement” one can with impunity “criticise” all the motive powers and springs which first compelled progressive mankind “to face with sober senses their real conditions of life and their relations with their kind”. (Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. 1, Progress, London, p.195).

Marxism sees no such abstract movement. The “motive powers and springs” of material necessity and social conflict alone can drive history ultimately forward. The historical ‘process’ in any epoch is nothing more than the actual contradictions and conflicts stemming from the material realities of class society. Tikhomorov was basing his historical schema on the populist premise that inherent qualities in pre-capitalist Russia would allow it to evolve directly into socialism. The foundations of this view were laid by Alexander Herzen in the middle of the 19th century. Herzen, one of the founders of Russian populism, wrote that Russia was exceptional in possessing a social system that pointed directly towards socialism:

Strictly speaking, the Russian people only began to be acknowledged after the 1830 Revolution. People saw with astonishment that the Russians, though indifferent, incapable of tackling any political questions, were nearer to the new social system by their way of life than all the European peoples … To retain the village commune and give freedom to the individual, to extend the self government of the village and volost to the towns and the whole state, maintaining national unity—such is the question of Russia’s future, i.e the question of the very antinomy whose solution occupies and worries minds in the West. (Selected Philosophical Works, Vol.1, p.130).

Connolly’s historical schema contains striking parallels. He too detected a socialist future, by-passing capitalism, in Ireland’s pre-capitalist past, similarly blinded to the historically progressive though limited character of bourgeois nationalist movements in Ireland. It led him to a wholesale distortion of the nature of Pre-Norman Ireland.

Marx on Pre-Norman Ireland

In the writings now published in English as The Ethnological Notebooks, Marx made an incisive analysis of pre-Norman Ireland in which his characteristic thoroughness in going over the available sources arrives at a radically different conclusion to Connolly.

In looking at pre-Norman Ireland Connolly focuses on what he considered to be the social relations of production, with communal ownership of land as the exclusive form of property. This defines Gaelic society overall as “communal” and “democratic”. Other forces of production e.g. mills, looms, weavers etc. he merely mentions in passing. Marx also was aware of the existence of tribal forms of land tenure on a very large scale in pre-Norman Ireland:

The tenure in land in Ireland was essentially a tribal or family right … all the members of a tribe of family in Ireland had an equal right to their appropriate share of the land occupied by the whole. (The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, L. Krader, (ed.), Assen, Von Gorcum, 1972, p.304)
All the unappropriated waste-lands are in a more especial way the property of the tribe as a whole and no portion can theoretically be subjected to more than a temporary occupation. (EN p.289)
[Abbreviations and non-English phrases in these multi-lingual notebooks of Marx have been rendered into English in all the excerpts quoted.]

In order to characterise the dominant mode of production and the social formation based on it, Marx examined all salient forces of production—not just land, but factors such as cattle which greatly determined the productivity of land. He also examined the social relations of production—and the associated relations between the different classes which he points to in pre-Norman Ireland. Connolly makes do with a timeless schema of communal ownership and egalitarianism which comes to ruin only at the hands of the invader’s alien system. Marx’s writings, by contrast, are rich in analysis of the new forces of production giving rise to new social relations which become pitted in class struggle and war against the remnants of communal control of land. He shows that these remnants were being actively challenged and already far advanced in decay by the time the Senchus Mor was written.

Marx notes that the growing power of chieftains in Ireland had transformed them into developing feudal lords before the oldest texts known were written, i.e chiefly the Senchus Mor. He followed the scholar Whitley Stokes in attributing the Senchus to the 11th century but later scholarship has placed them much earlier, most probably dating from the 8th century. Connolly, on the other hand, suggests that an ancient classless society was not extinguished until the Cromwellian plantations in the 17th century, more than 800 years after the Senchus Mor was written. Marx notes of the emergent Irish feudalism:

Even according to the Irish texts, apparently oldest, much of the tribal territory appears to have been permanently alienated to the sub-tribes, families or dependent chiefs. The glosses and commentaries show that before they were written this process had gone very far indeed. The power of the Chief grows first through the process elsewhere called “commendation”, through which the free tribesman becomes “his man” and remains in a state of dependence having various degrees; further through his increasing authority over the waste-lands of the tribal territory and from the servile or semi-servile colonies he plants there; finally from the material strength he acquires through the numbers of his immediate retainers and associates, most of whom stand to him in more or less servile relations. (EN, p.294).

By referring to “commendation” Marx is drawing out the similarities to European feudalism in which a vassal was a “commended man”.

Repeatedly, Marx notes that availability of land was not an economic problem in itself:

The difficulty—in ancient Ireland—was not to obtain land but the means of cultivating it. The great owners of cattle were the various chiefs, whose primitive superiority to the other tribesmen in this respect was probably owing to their natural functions as military leaders of the tribe. On the other hand it appears to be entailed by the Brehon laws that the chiefs were pressed by the difficulty of finding sufficient pasture for their herds. They got their growing power over the waste land through particular groups which they dominated, but the most fruitful portions of the tribal territory were apparently those which the free tribesmen occupied. Hence the system of giving and receiving stock to which two subtracts of the Senchus Mor are devoted. (EN, p.297).

What then were the means of making productive the land one possessed or could control? There were implements, oxen—the tractor of the iron age—and human toilers. The latter included tenants-at-will (“fuidhirs” broken from their own tribes); “sen-chleithe” or hereditary serfs; varying numbers of slaves at the base of society; and different types of vassals resting on this base. Marx gives detailed consideration to cattle, oxen, tenants-at-will, hereditary serfs, base and free tenants and vassalage relationships. He draws a picture of a quickening transition from decaying clan society to a native Irish feudalism.

In his analysis, cattle—both stock in general and oxen—play the role of ‘fief‘ in binding vassals to their overlords in this period of transition. In tillage they served as instruments of production and sources of manure. When distributed to vassals by clan chiefs who were developing into feudal lords they were the basis for a return of rent in kind while allowing the vassal the means of subsistence:

Horned cattle showed their greatest value when groups of men settled on spaces of land and betook themselves to the cultivation of food grain. First they were valued for their flesh and milk, but still in very early times a distinct special importance belonged to them as instrument or medium of exchange. In Brehon laws horned cattle figure as medium of exchange; fines, dues, rents and returns are calculated in livestock, not exclusively in kine, but nearly so. They constantly refer to two standards of value, ‘sed’ and ‘cumhal’; ‘cumhal’ could originally have meant a female slave, but ‘sed’ is plainly used for amount or quantity of livestock. But later cattle were primarily valued for their use in tillage, their labour and their manure. (EN, p.297).

Thus vassals in turn had the means of imposing the same kind of fief on the serfs below them. The role of stock in establishing feudal bonds between social classes and transforming free tribesmen into vassals is referred to as follows:

Thus the Chiefs appear in the Brehon laws as perpetually giving stock and the tribesmen as receiving it. By taking stock the free Irish tribesman becomes the Ceile or Kyle, the vassal or man of his Chief, owing him not only rent but service and homage. The exact effects of commendation are thus produced. (EN p.298)

The deepening of this dependency varied and gave rise to higher and lower vassalage—to Saer-Stock and Daer-Stock. These classes are compared to the ‘free’ and ‘higher base’ tenants of the English feudal manor. He describes these classes graphically:

The Saer-Stock tenant receives only a limited amount of stock from the Chief, remains a freeman, retains his tribal rights in their integrity; the normal period of his tenancy was 7 years and at the end of it he became entitled to the cattle which he had in his possession. In the meantime he had the advantage of employing them in tillage, and the Chief received the growth and increase (i.e. the young and the manure) and milk. Similarly it is expressly laid down that the Chief is entitled to homage and manual labour as well; manual labour is explained to mean the service of the vassal in reaping the Chief’s harvest and in assisting to build his castle or fort; it is stated that in lieu of manual labour, the vassal might be required to follow his Chief to the wars.

Daer-stock tenancy arose when either any large addition to the stock deposited with the Saer-stock tenant occurred or an unusual quantity was accepted in the first instance by the tribesman. The Daer-stock tenant had parted with some portion of his freedom and his duties are invariably referred to as very onerous… If the Chief placed three heifers with a tenant he became entitled to the calf, the refections—i.e. the right of the Chief who had given the stock to come with a company of a certain number and feast at the Daer-stock tenant’s house, at particular periods, for a fixed number of days—and the labour. This rent in kind or food rent had in this, its most archaic form, nothing to do with the value of the tenant’s land, but solely to the value of the Chief’s stock deposited with the tenant; it evolved later into a rent payable in respect of the tenant’s land. The most onerous impositions on the Daer-stock tenant were the refections. (EN, pp 298-9).

The rising nobility hastened the dissolution of communal land ownership by planting numerous displaced tribesmen as tenants-at-will on waste-lands. The more such tenants came into existence the greater became the control of the chiefs over these lands. Relations between the nobles and the free tenantry, unlike the vassalage relations based on giving stock, involved few ties of mutual obligation. Consequently, such tenants could fall into serfdom if they lost their tenure. Indeed, it became common for dispossessed tribesmen to fall directly into serfdom:

The most crucial fraction of those classes which the Chief settled on the unappropriated tribal lands (were) those called Fuidhirs—strangers and fugitives from other territories, in fact men who had broken the original tribal bond which gave them a place in the community. It is evident from the Brehon law that this class is very numerous; they speak on various occasions about the desertion of their lands by families or portions of families. In certain circumstances the rupture of the tribal bond and the flight of those who break it were eventualities handled by the law. The responsibility of tribes, sub-tribes and families for the crimes of their members … might be prevented by compelling a member of the group to withdraw from its circle; and the Book of Aicill gives the legal procedure which is to be observed in the expulsion, the tribe paying certain fines to the Chief and the Church and proclaiming the fugitive. The result was probably to fill the country with “broken men” and these could find a home and protection by becoming Fuidhir tenants; everything which tended to disturb the Ireland of the Brehon Laws tended to multiply this particular class. The Fuidhir tenant was exclusively dependent on the Chief and only connected to the tribe through the latter; the Chief was moreover responsible for them. They cultivated his land and were, thus, the first tenants-at-will known to Ireland … On the other hand the Chief had a major interest in increasing Fuidhir tenants. One of the tracts says “He brings in Fuidhirs to increase his wealth”. The interests really injured were those of the tribe which suffered as a body by the curtailment of the waste land available for pasture. (EN, pp 301-2).

The fuidhir as a type of tenant-at-will and another of the type, the “bothach”—who had probably been driven down to his status by the lack of enough land and cattle for economic self-sufficiency—were freer to move than the vassals in base-clientship as they could part with their lord at any time by giving due notice that they proposed to abandon their holding, and surrendering two-thirds of the product of their husbandry. But they were more likely to move downwards into the class at the base of Irish feudalism—as with feudalism elsewhere—the hereditary serfs or sen-chleithe. McNicholl, a modern historian of the period, writes that “the sen chleithe was bound to the land and passed with it when alienated as an appurtenance.” He continues:

Lower yet was slave, male or female, a chattel whose owner possessed the power of life or death over him or her; yet not quite such a chattel that he could be given in fief like cattle. With him ranked the prisoner taken in war who had not been ransomed, who was a much as his captor’s mercy as the slave. (G. MacNicholl, Ireland Before the Vikings, Gill History of Ireland, 1, p.68).

Connolly did, at least once, acknowledge slavery in Pre-Norman Ireland, in 1908 in The Irish Masses in History, (Socialism and Nationalism collection, Dublin, 1948. p.84). It is never reconciled, however, with his repeated view of Gaelic society as communal-democratic without reference to social classes.

The process of forcefully appropriating waste land and colonising it with tenants-at-will gave way to new groupings and relations that undermined clan society. The Brehon legal forms both disguised the realities of feudal exploitation and provided the framework through which it actually came into existence.

The chief who “gave stock”, i.e made vassals of the recipients, was not always of the same tribe as those who received it:

Brehon law sought to place barriers in the way of establishing this vassalage relation between a tribesman and a strange Chief. But there are abundant admissions that this happened. Every nobleman is assumed to be as a rule rich in stock and to have an interest in dispersing his herds by the practice of giving stock. The enriched peasant, the Bo-aire, had Ceiles who accepted stock from him. Hence the new groups formed in this way were often quite distinct from the old groups composed of the Chief and his clan. Again the new relation was not confined to Aires or noblemen and Ceiles (i.e. free but non noble tribesmen). The Bo-aire certainly, and apparently the higher Chiefs also, accepted stock on occasion from chieftains more exalted than themselves and in the end to “give stock” came to mean what was elsewhere meant by “commendation”…

The natural growth of feudalism was not as some eminent recent writers have supposed, entirely distinct from the process by which the authority of the Chief over the tribe or village was extended, but rather formed part of it. While the unappropriated waste lands were falling into his domain, the villages or tribesmen were coming through natural agencies under his personal power. (EN, p.300).

This growing power and wealth could be used to subordinate increasing sections of the free tribesmen who occupied “the most fruitful portions of the tribal territory”, by turning them into payers of rent in kind (cattle, milk, refections) and later payers of rent on their land.

Marx’s understanding of pre-Norman Ireland, therefore, contradicts Connolly’s assumptions about it. Connolly, guided by nationalistic sentiment, and with no more basis than a romanticised understanding of the Brehon Laws with their, conjured up an entire social order based on “democracy” lasting until about 1650. Even if it had existed, such terms in any case could not be applied to primitive society, as the basis of primitive-communal forms is understood by Marxism to lie in an economic scarcity so generalised that it compelled groups to co-operate and share the fruits of their toil for the sake of bare survival.

Marx investigated the oldest available literature with a critical scientific eye for evidence of the real social relations rooted in a newly developing mode of production. He used the writings of scholars who had translated and commented on the oldest documents of pre-Norman Irish clan society. Marx concluded that Irish clan society had undergone rapid decay and replacement by the elements of a native feudalism before a date he assumed to be about 1100. With recent corrections in dating the old documents, Marx’s view, corroborated by modern bourgeois scholarship, forces us to conclude that a feudal mode of production was in the ascendant a full three centuries or more before Norman feudalism penetrated the island, and all of eight centuries or more before the Gaelic chieftainships fell finally.

For Connolly the period from the Norman invasion in 1169 to the Cromwellian victory over the Gaelic resistance in the 1650s was a struggle between an imagined native system of communal property and a foreign so-called “feudal-capitalist” system of private property. The scientific view, however, shows that the conflict up until the War of the Roses and Tudor absolutism was between advanced Norman and English feudalism and a more primitive Irish feudalism.

The victory of the invader was made inevitable by the strengths of the Norman system. It had developed to the full the scope of military obligation as a service required of vassals and as a general levy on all free men. Irish feudalism, on the other hand, left the link between fief and military service more indeterminate. And in relation to the economic and social power of its rulers, the Anglo-Norman system had the advantage that when feudal tenures expired the fief lands were remitted to the Crown. In the Irish system there was the absence of any central “register” of titles though there is evidence of local chancery in the decade before the Anglo-Norman invasion. (New History of Ireland, Gill & McMillan, Vol 8, p.72). More importantly, vassalages could end, typically after seven years, without such remission. Thus was prevented the development of the kind of vast royal demesne enjoyed by the Anglo-Norman overlordship. Norman feudalism evolved a fully explicit rule of royal and noble succession whereas the native feudalism did not. Struggles over succession were the rule rather than the exception in Ireland.

The victory of the vastly superior Norman system of feudalism had its other side in the cultural assimilation of the Normans to Gaelic language and customs and the integration of many of the Irish chiefs into the new political order. Cultural assimilation of conquering invaders is not historically rare. It serves to underline, however, the similarity in essential property relations of the two social systems—both feudal class systems, both rooted in a similar mode of production based on the exploitative ownership of means of production of a similar kind.

Modern bourgeois study of Pre-Norman Ireland sharply contradicts the claims which Connolly, in contrast to Marx, took uncritically from the nationalist histories of his time. However in spite of assembling the evidence for it, most modern Irish academics refuse to characterise the period in terms of its class nature and mode of production. The nationalist myths about Brehon-law Ireland thus continue unchallenged.