National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 7: The Protestant working class

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Critical scholarship on Connolly’s attempts to grapple with the nature and roots of Loyalist ideology has failed to pursue the very obvious shortcomings of his analyses. The work of Bew, Patterson, Morgan etc., while correctly locating Connolly’s weaknesses in his failure to understand the unique features of social and economic development in Ulster, do so from a position hostile to the traditions and method of classical Marxism. Nowhere among whose who claim that tradition in Ireland has there been any attempt to draw upon the rich lessons of Bolshevism and the Third International on questions of imperialism.

As we have argued throughout, Connolly’s Marxism suffered from both an inadequate grasp of historical materialism and the specific influence of the politics and intellectual milieu of the SDF. The significance of this has already been demonstrated especially in relation to religion in general and Catholicism in particular.

Rather than help Connolly confront religion and Catholicism, his theoretical position accommodated to it and a fortiori the grip of nationalism upon the Irish worker masses in town and country. Equally they were to have tragic consequences for his understanding of Protestantism in Ireland and shaped the attempts he would make, in his second period in Ireland, to both explain and relate to the Protestant working class.

Connolly’s revision of classical Marxism in regard to the national question was connected to a qualitative revision of the Marxist materialist explanation of religion. For Marx and Engels, religion functions as part of the class-based forms of society which have grown up in history. But the role of specific religions in history can only be understood within definite social conditions and in relation to specific social classes.

This was not Connolly’s approach. Catholicism in Europe, he argued correctly, was the reactionary consciousness of the hierarchical feudal lordship. But Catholicism in Ireland was, on the contrary, the spontaneous expression of the moral sentiment of the organic community—the sept. Like the ‘Irish community’ itself, Irish Catholicism became subordinated to the anti-democratic bureaucratic spirit and organisation of the pro-English (and pro-capitalist) authoritarian church. Furthermore, as the national struggle in Connolly’s schema was simultaneously ‘a class struggle’, the continued loyalty of the plebeian masses to their Irish faith represented evidence of healthy collective values as against the alien values of ‘individualism’ and ‘materialism’—the norms of private property.

Connolly’s schematic and metaphysical rendering of Irish history as a constant struggle for the realisation (recovery) of an indigenous class-less nation severely restricts the scope of his enquiries into the complexity and periodisation of the Irish social formation and its development after the Norman invasion. By the period of the Anglo Norman influx the Irish social formation already represented an indigenous feudalism, weak compared to its European counterparts, and ultimately, if unevenly, incorporated into the Anglo Norman lordship. But by interpreting the conflict between two feudal entities as a class struggle for the Irish ‘nation’ Connolly does not grasp the implications and significance of the invasion and of the changing nature of English rule in Ireland. These changes were brought about by the slow emergence and then the break-up of Absolutism from the War of the Roses up to Cromwell and the Williamite coup in England. It is this period that is crucial for the real significance of Protestantism, and its part in the development of merchant capitalist social relations and the market.

As Marxism classically understands it, absolutism represented the effort of a threatened nobility to re-organise the basis of its state power after the breakdown of serfdom, the rise of towns and the dissolution of local economy. Regional power tended to be replaced by the centralised state of an emergent nation, represented by the absolute monarch. On the one hand this absolutist state sought to maintain feudalism by preventing the separation of manufacturing production from the land (a precondition of capitalist production). On the other hand, it helped to further dissolve feudalism by creating a unified and centralised state and superstructure, which aided the rise of merchant capital. Absolutism, then, carried out certain necessary functions of primitive accumulation which was a crucial early historic stage in the emergence of the modern industrial capitalist system.

The complete subjugation of native feudalism and the policy of systematic colonisation in Ireland from the early 17th century absorbed Ireland into the developing modern capitalist world system mainly through Ireland’s relationship with England and its emerging capitalist economy. The nature and role of Protestantism in Ireland has to be connected with these events. But for Connolly if Catholicism had an exceptional character so too Protestantism. Writing in 1913 he argues:

to explain—I mean that whereas Protestantism has in general made for political freedom and political radicalism it has been opposed to slavish worship of kings and aristocrats. Here in Ireland the word Protestant is almost a convertible term with Toryism, lickspittle loyalty, servile worship of aristocracy and hatred of all that savours of genuine political independence on the part of the lower classes. (Ireland on the Dissecting Table, p.25).

And earlier, in his debate with Father Kane in 1909, linking the seizure of the monasteries in England with the conquest of Ireland:

How do the Catholic clergy dare to defend the possessors in the present possession of their stolen property when they publicly proclaim from the altar their knowledge of the inhuman crimes against God and man by which that property passed out of the hands of Church and people? The reformation was the capitalist idea appearing in the religious field; as capitalism teaches that the social salvation of man depends solely upon his own individual effort, so Protestantism, echoing it, taught that the spiritual salvation of man depends solely upon his own individual appeal to God; as capitalism abolished the idea of social interdependence which prevailed under feudalism, and made men isolated units in a warring economic world, so Protestantism abolished the independent links of priests, hierarchy and pontiffs which in the Catholic system unites man with his Creator, and left man at the mercy of his own interpretations of warring texts and theories. In fine, as capitalism taught the doctrine of every man for himself, and by its growing power forced such doctrines upon the ruling class it created its reflex in the religious world, and that reflex, proclaiming that individual belief was the sole necessity of salvation, appears in history as the Protestant Reformation. Now, the Church curses the Protestant Reformation—the child; and blesses capitalism—its parent. (Labour, Nationality and Religion, p.58).

Thus Connolly acknowledges the role of Protestantism in the development of capitalism in the period of the Reformation, but he omits anywhere to recognise this as a progressive development and even significantly inverts its actual meaning to fit the tenets of his schematic reading of Irish historical development from the period of the rise of absolutism onwards. He achieves this by identifying Protestantism with capitalism and its values of ‘individualism’ and ‘materialism’.

Since capitalism and its values are alien, Connolly interprets Protestantism as an alien system of religious belief, one synonymous with the conquest. From such a position he interprets the dissolution of the monasteries and the seizure of the property of the feudal Catholic church by Henry VIII as nothing more than a regrettable expression of capitalist individualism. Such a method cannot unravel from a materialist standpoint the real significance of Protestantism for the economic, social and political processes in Ireland from the 15th to the 18th century.

For Marx an understanding of English absolutism and Protestantism flows from an analysis of the development of capitalism in England. Of that Marx wrote:

"the different moments of primitive accumulation ... in England at the end of the 17th century ... arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation and the protectionist system. These methods depend upon in part brute force, e.g. the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode ..." (Capital, Vol. l, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970, p.751).

Colonisation was one of the main elements of the absolutist state’s policies which promoted the development of capitalism in England. For Marx the key to explaining political events in Ireland lay first in the nature and purpose of the struggles within the English feudal nobility as the process of absolutism develops, and then, secondly, through the expanding penetration of merchant and commercial capital, in a growing conflict as the new forces and mode of capitalist production emerges.

Connolly’s position is different. In both Erin’s Hope where he concentrates on the period 1169-1649, and in Labour in Irish History which deals with both the Jacobite wars and 1691-1900, it is abundantly clear that he lacked Marx’s framework and insights. In neither does he give any detailed analyses of the period crucial to his schematic reading of Irish history, 1169-1649. It is simply described as “war against the foreign oppressor” and a war against “private property”.

No distinction is drawn between the periods before and after the War of the Roses. Yet it was on the basis of victory in that war that the Tudor kings established a state which both desired and needed to transform its own role in Ireland. From that point on, the varying forms of attack on Irish feudal property and the transfer of land ownership in the 16th and 17th century express the interests of the absolute Tudor monarchy. In failing to explain any of these phenomena Connolly cannot link the resurgence of English interest in Ireland under the Tudors to the process of primitive accumulation in England. A central part of this was the expropriation of Catholic Church lands and the establishment of the Protestant Church of England.

Therefore, the spread of Protestantism in Ireland, and especially the spread of radical Presbyterianism, had a historically progressive character. It represents one vital element of the process, from the point of view of the development of the productive forces, whereby the feudal mode of production in Ireland, as in England, was increasingly subordinated to the process of accumulation of capital and, by the 18th century, to the rising interests of the merchant and industrial bourgeoisie. This is not to say, of course, that the process was progressive through and through. It was Marx who more than once made the point that the bourgeoisie, right from its first successful seizure of state power from the feudal aristocracy in the Cromwellian revolution, combined bourgeois revolution in Britain with murder, dispossession and persecution of native and Anglo-Norman Irish as part of Cromwell’s Irish wars and plantations. That is, the liberation of Britain through bourgeois revolution has as its penumbra the greater enslavement of the Irish.

In contrast to Marx’s extended explanations in Capital, Vol. 1 and elsewhere (Ireland and the Irish Question, p.133), Connolly cannot connect absolutism’s desire for land in Ireland with the transition from feudalism to capitalism. He fails to place religion in this process. Without such a framework, which relates ideological forms to their role in the development of the forces of production and the struggle of social classes, he sees it as no more than a conspiratorial ideological device used by the ruling classes to dupe the plebeian toilers. This finds expression in Connolly’s various accounts of Ulster history.

In the Ulster Plantation and the Jacobite wars of 1689-91—in his view merely a feud between two factions of the English feudal aristocracy in Ireland—religion (and patriotism) are only seen as cynically employed to mobilise the soldiery and support for the respective monarchs. (Labour in Irish History, p.7). A Marxist account, on the other hand, recognises these wars as being fought in Ireland for the control of the British state: the role of religion could only be understood in relation to the interests of both Ulster Protestant planters and Irish Catholic aristocracy in the class struggles of the commercial and merchant capitalist interests against reactionary Stuart absolutism. Marx describes…

the fear felt among the new great landowners created by the Reformation of the re-establishment of Catholicism, in which case they would, of course, have to surrender their stolen church property, as a result of which seven-tenths of the total acreage of England would have changed owners; the fear of Catholicism felt by the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, since it by no means suited their business interests; the nonchalance with which the Stuarts, to their own advantage and that of their court nobility, sold the whole of English industry and commerce to the government of France—the only country which at that time was endangering England with its competition, in many respects successfully. (Surveys from Exile, Penguin, pp 253-254).

The re-establishment of Catholicism had become, in this analysis, the issue over which the fate of English capitalist development would be decided.

While Connolly acknowledges the connection between the Jacobite wars and “English politics” (LIIH, p.10), he cannot identify the special significance of religion to them. Both Catholicism and Protestantism are mobilised to confuse the masses. Whereas for Marx, religion is an active and meaningful factor in explaining how different classes and fractions understood their social interests and pursued them.

Bourgeois market-relations and interests expanded and deepened both in England, and in Ireland. Within the ruling alliance Ireland was a stronghold of the landowners, and the extra strength they drew there was to have serious repercussions for the balance of power within the English ruling class. Meanwhile in both countries, with the smashing of the Stuart absolutist party Catholicism slowly ceased through the 18th century to represent the ideology of that reactionary alliance of monarchy and aristocracy. By the end of the 18th century many of the anti-Catholic measures lost the economic and political significance they had in the early years of Penal Laws.

The North-East—Uneven Development

Connolly never develops such an analysis. As a consequence the meaning of the alliance of the planted Ulster Protestants with the bourgeois revolutionaries of Cromwellian England escapes him. Ulster’s plantation in the first decades of the 17th century had marked differences from the other plantations either earlier or later. Not only in the humbler socio-economic status of the colonists, the relative smallness of their settlements—none more than 2,000 acres—their strong adherence to the precepts and ‘democratic’ organisation of anti-Anglican Presbyterianism; but also vitally important is the fact that they had developed by the mid-17th century the most advanced core area of domestic linen production in Ireland.

Thus in Ulster alongside a native peasant-based economy emerged a small farmer economy geared towards petty commodity production in domestic textiles: a development which reflected and deepened the process of class, regional and ideological differentiation in Ireland, i.e. uneven and combined development. This was the concrete form taken by the intensification of the grip of merchant and commercial capitalisation of Ireland. It is this which enables us to explain the historically progressive support of Ulster Protestants for Cromwell and the Puritans whose victory in the English civil war ensured the effective destruction of the absolute monarchy and the partial break-up of its Catholic base in Ireland.

The Cromwellian settlement was crucial for the future path of development and the complexity of the Irish social structure. First, the forced transfer of the Catholic aristocracy (who had supported the Royalist cause) to the west, thereby further accelerating the rhythm of uneven regional development. Second, their replacement by the new English and Scottish landowners everywhere but in Ulster, whose share of land from 1640-1688 almost doubled to 78 per cent—creating in the process a new landowning Irish ascendancy as a right wing to the British ruling class. Third, the introduction into Ireland on a hitherto unprecedented scale, of merchant capitalist adventurer companies and their speculative activities in land, which in turn meant that the land increasingly took the form of a commodity.

For Connolly, however, the nature of the plantation in Ulster assumed no special importance for the development of capitalist property relations or the role of Orangeism in Irish history. It merely signalled the expropriation of the real Irish from the land and consolidation two-fold of foreign rule and cultural oppression—private property and Protestantism.

This aided the conspiratorial manipulation of religion by the ruling classes as a means to divide the plebeian masses.

I have pointed out before that the Ulster plantation of James I was a scheme under which lands stolen from the natives were given to certain crown favourites and London companies and that the rank and file of the Protestant English and Scottish armies were only made tenants of these aristocrats and companies ... All the Antrim lands were settled by a Protestant tenantry ... they worked hard, reclaimed the land, built houses, drained, fenced and improved the property ... (Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table, p.43).

and again:

If the north east corner of Ireland is therefore the home of a people whose minds are saturated with conceptions of political activity fit only for the atmosphere of the l7th century ... the fault lies not with these toilers but with those pastors and masters who deceived it and enslaved it in the past ... and deceived it in order that they might enslave it (North-East Ulster, in Socialism and Nationalism collection, Dublin 1948, p.103).

Therefore, for him the key point of the 18th century was that:

The Protestant and Catholic tenants were suffering one common oppression ... To the vast mass of the population the misery and hardship entailed by the working out of economic laws were fraught with infinitely more suffering than it was at any time within the power of Penal Law to inflict. (Labour in Irish History, pp 51-52).

Under the appearance of religious differences, class conflicts between owners of property and labourers were the truly significant dividing line:

Class lines ... were far more strictly drawn than religious lines as they always were in Ireland since the break-up of the clan system and as they are today. (Labour in Irish History, p.33)

The point of this characteristically economic-reductionist interpretation, liberally supported by accounts of plebeian struggles against property, resides in his need to explain the emergence of Grattan’s Volunteers and later the United Irishmen. For Connolly it is “labour”, as the material and ethical embodiment of the nation which alone can realise freedom. He is forced to dispense with all struggle by sections of the ascendancy and the bourgeoisie. The democratic demands of native capital are not recognised.

... the patriots who occupied the public stage in Ireland during the period ... never once raised their voices in protest at such social injustice. Like their imitators today they regarded the misery of the Irish people as a convenient handle for political agitation... (LIIH, pp 20-21).

and:

The Irish parliament was essentially an English institution; nothing like it existed before the Norman Conquest... England sent a swarm of adventurers to conquer Ireland; having partly succeeded these adventurers themselves established a parliament to settle disputes among themselves to contrive measures for robbing the natives, and to prevent their fellow tyrants who had stayed in England from claiming the spoil. (LIIH, p.21).

Even the claim, popular in his period among nationalists, that the legislative independence and free trade won by the Volunteers and Grattan’s parliament occasioned a growth in prosperity and economic expansion, is strongly rejected by Connolly: “We must emphatically deny that such prosperity was in any way but an infinitesimal degree produced by Parliament”. (LIIH, p.26) and “not that the loss of Parliament destroyed Irish manufacture but that the decline of Irish manufacture ... made possible the destruction of the Irish parliament. (LIIH, p.31).

Having disposed of the roles and motives of the reforming ascendancy or bourgeois reformers, Connolly suppresses the real economic, social and political goals of the leaders of the revolutionary wing of the bourgeoisie from the reform movement. As a consequence, the importance of their religion to their class interest is never understood.

He ignores the origins of Tone’s United Irishmen in the series of political and economic developments which led the most militant advocates of change from their initial position of support for reform (and loyalty to the Crown) to their final position of revolutionary bourgeois republicanism. He distorts the real significance of the economic conflict between the British and Irish propertied classes by refusing to recognise that the underlying economic purpose of their democratic struggle was to open a path for the development of native Irish capitalism. So he merely notes:

The development of industry has drawn large numbers of the Protestant poor from agricultural pursuits into industrial occupations and the suppression of these latter left them both landless and workless (LIIH, p.52).

This suppression refers to British measures and economic competition. Thus:

The Protestant workman and tenant was learning that the Pope of Rome was a very unreal and shadowy stranger compared with the social power of his employer or landlord; and the Catholic tenant was awakened to the perception of the fact that under the social order the Catholic landlord represented the Mass less than the rent toll. The times were propitious for a union of the two democracies of Ireland. They had travelled from widely different points through the valleys of disillusion and disappointment to meet at last by the unifying waters of a common suffering. (LIIH, pp 52-53).

The democratic programme is emptied of its real economic and class significance. Instead, the United Irish leaders emerge to express a popular will for “democracy” and “sovereignty” by taking their stand on two things: “The national will was superior to property rights and would abolish them at will” and “the producing class could not be expected to rally to the democratic revolution unless given to understand that it meant their freedom from social as well as political bondage”. (LIIH, p.66).

Social, economic and regional differentiation, in developing modes of production—involving conflicts between landlords and tenants, landlords and bourgeoisie, bourgeoisie and independent producers, bourgeoisie and workers, agricultural labourers and cottiers etc. are selectively ignored to establish the pre-conceived identification of labour and nation in the revolutionary events of the 18th century. Thus we are left with no means to grasp the significance of the fact that while it was Presbyterian manufacturers and merchants in Belfast who led tens of thousands of Presbyterian tenant farmers to Antrim in the ‘98 revolution, it was Anglican (Church of Ireland) cottier weavers—Orangemen—of the Ulster countryside around Armagh and south Down who crushed them. To do so we need to see the relationship of the competing social classes to the process of change and development in Ulster within the momentum of capitalist industrialisation.

It is necessary to begin with the perspective and interests of the British state after the Williamite Glorious Revolution. The state was dominated by the Whig landed aristocracy who were committed to the protection of existing industry and the defence of British trading (what Marx calls ‘merchant’) capital, against the emergence of an Irish rival. According to Marx, the primary purpose of the British state in controlling Ireland in the 18th century lay in ensuring the implementation of mercantilist policies promoting English commerce, and to prevent any possible alliance between Irish merchants and the landed ascendancy in Ireland. This meant strengthening the Established Church, and ensuring state control of the judiciary to gain control over land titles.

Mercantilist policies (i.e. taxes and other state policies to promote English industry), as they had developed in the 18th century, reinforced the tendency of the Irish economy to orientate to the needs of the British economy. In the period 1650-1750 the Irish landlord and merchant bourgeoisie on most of the island ceased to be, to all intents and purposes, potential competitors with their neighbours. Ireland became within that period an agricultural province supplying cheap food and labour for the growing industrial market of England.

Only in one sector was economic growth of Irish manufacturing fostered and developed—in linen where no competition could be offered, as England possessed no comparable industry. Through the 18th century the export of linen became the single most important item of trade—by 1720 it accounted for over one half of all exports to England. In 1700 half a million yards were exported but by 1800 the figure had reached 38 million yards. Clearly the main external reason for its growth was the existence of a rapidly expanding market to which Irish linens had duty-free entry. By the end of the 18th century the industry existed all over the country in the hands of merchants with no interest other than to supply the English market. Only in Ulster did control of the industry rest in the hands of the direct producers themselves. It is this that provides the key to an understanding of both the drive towards mechanised factory production in both linen and cotton, the emergence in Ulster of a force among the cottier weaver class in reaction against these developments.

The primary economic significance of the Plantation in Ulster lay in the type of agriculture it established, proving conducive to the development of domestic handicraft linen industry. Smallholdings, whether of tenant farmer or cottier weaver, were used for the growing of not only food but also flax for domestic consumption. In general domestic industry, prior to the development of the factory system required the existence of a peasantry independently possessing a dwelling and a source of subsistence. Such was the case in Ulster. Marx explains the nature of this mode of production, i.e domestic industry:

... it attains its adequate classical form only where the labourer is the private owner of his means of labour set in action by himself ... This mode of production presupposes parcelling of the soil, and scattering of the other means of production. As it excludes the concentration of these means of production, so it also excludes cooperation, division of labour within each separate process of production, the control over the productive application of the forces of nature by society, and the free development of the social production process ... At a certain stage it brings forth the material agency for its own dissolution. (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, pp 61-2).

Taking advantage of the British market and increasingly attracting financial support from the landlords, its development in Ulster hastened a process of social, cultural, economic and regional differentiation of Ulster from the rest of Ireland, which would culminate in the period of mature industrial capitalism in the second half of the l9th century.

One of the most important effects of the 18th century growth of this mode of production was its effect on merchant capital. A weak merchant capital had existed in Ireland in the 16th century. During the 17th century merchant capital all over the island depended on local trade and importing consumer goods for the local landowners, administrators, the Army and the Established Church, while exporting limited amounts of wool and foodstuffs. These developments continued into the 18th century, when, with the increasing growth of commercial agriculture and a merchant capital allied with the producers, conflict developed with feudal agricultural forms and relations as well as with the British state in Ireland which supported them.

But it was in relation to the linen and cotton industry that merchant capital began to emerge, increasingly freed from dependence on agriculture. As they developed, merchants became less dependent on landlords because the local markets grew extensively on the basis of trade with England. In the linen industry merchants began to overlap increasingly with bleachers, the final most capital intensive aspect of the industry, and the stage with the most fruitful promise of capital accumulation. One important indication of these changes occurred when alternative Linen Halls were built in Newry and Belfast to break the Dublin-based state Linen Board monopoly of the export trade. The concentration of capital in the hands of these merchants led to the increasing mechanisation and capitalisation first of cotton production and later linen production, as market force and competition intensified. Concentration of capital, mechanisation and intensified competition led in turn to the expropriation of the previously independent and domestic producers in Ulster. Part of this expropriation was well under way by the 1780s with the deliberate introduction of Catholics into the industry—previously excluded due to lack of capital and tradition—in order to sharpen competition and lower the wages of Protestant spinners and weavers.

Here we witness the two-fold dialectical process central to Marx’s classical theory of capitalist development—the sharpening of competition and market forces leading to the gradual separation of the immediate producers from their means of production. Simultaneously, because of the increasingly available “free” labour power, land and capital and other means of production could be combined in the most profitable manner in mechanised factory production.

Connolly had correctly observed the results of these processes at work in Ulster but concluded that they heralded the beginning of the end for private property in 1798. In fact they signified only the first stage, the end of the beginning of capitalist private property. On one side in this process were the Anglican rural cottier weavers’ class, while on the other were the newly expanding Presbyterian urban manufacturing bourgeoisie. This constitutes the material basis of their conflict, located at different ends of the objective process of capital accumulation. It is also the framework for placing the specific role of Presbyterian and Orange ideology. Moreover, it is only through an understanding of the outcome of their conflict—the political defeat of the urban bourgeoisie and their economic subordination to the dynamic industrialisation of British colonial capitalism—that we can explain the 19th century conversion of Presbyterianism into an ideology allied to Unionism, and thus the greater consolidation of Orangeism throughout Ulster.

This objective development towards the realisation of a mature capitalist mode of production set in motion processes which brought the most economically advanced merchants and manufacturers to the head of a struggle for a bourgeois republic and the defeat of English colonialism and Irish landlordism. The same events led also to the mobilisation of one of the most oppressed social groups, in defence of colonialism and landlordism, under the banner of Orangeism.

Traditional Protestant tenant defence organisations—out of which Orangeism grew—were thrown up originally when Catholics were encouraged to compete as linen weavers in the countryside. These organisations, which existed to protect jobs and conditions from Catholic dilution—grew over into a mass organisation with a general pro-colonial anti-national programme and ideology only indirectly related to its original purpose.

Increasingly cottier weavers could be serviced by being in the same Orange Order. They were threatened by the expansion of factory production carried out by a growing bourgeois strata in the vanguard of social and political change. They were further exacerbated by the encouragement given to Catholics to compete as linen weavers in the countryside and as factory labourers in the towns. The calculated organisation and mobilisation of the Catholic peasantry by the United Irishmen threatened to accelerate these economic assaults on the cottier weavers and to generalise those assaults by radical political change. The continued growth of manufacture would, in the long term, spell the end of the independent domestic producer and his mode of production. In the short term, however, it was the cottier weaver and the stratum immediately above him who would be the first victims of the development of manufacture. This outcome would be made even more certain by a revolution which sought to destroy landlordism for ever and remove the British ruling class and state interest in Ireland.

For Connolly, on the contrary, the material root of Orangeism and Loyalism was landlordism, with its historical foundations in the plantation of Ulster three hundred years ago.

I have explained before how the perfectly devilish ingenuity of the master class had sought its end in North-East Ulster. How the land was stolen from Catholics, given to Episcopalians but planted by Presbyterians; how the latter were persecuted by the Government but could not avoid the necessity of defending it against the Catholics and how out of this complicated situation there inevitably grew up a feeling of common interest between the slaves and the slave driver. (North-East Ulster, in Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table, p.38).

No subsequent event is considered relevant. As he saw it Protestant workers and toilers, taking their place alongside their fellow Catholic workers in the events of 1798, were assuming and confirming their place in Labour as the destiny of the nation. Even as the Loyalist Orange working class were being mobilised in hundreds of thousands in 1911, He continued to assert that Orangeism was a declining phenomenon of landlordism.

... there is no economic class in Ireland today whose interests as a class are bound up with the Union. The Irish landlords who had something to fear ... have now made their bargain under the various Land Purchase Acts ... only the force of religious bigotry remains an asset to Unionism ... it may be assumed that the 12th of July this year will be exceptionally large as every effort will be made, and no money spared, to make an imposing turn-out in the hope of averting Home Rule ... but the parade will be the last flicker of the dying fire which blazes up before totally expiring. (A Plea for Socialist Unity, in The Connolly Walker Controversy, Cork Workers Club, 1974, p.1).

Hence his false expectation that economic and class struggles would dissolve such antiquated division.

Protestant Working Class

If Connolly didn’t understand the nature of Orangeism in the 18th century, even less did he grasp its ability to survive and develop with an entirely different complex of factors in the 19th century and the period of industrial capitalist expansion in the North East. The Act of Union underlined this new situation. It set firmly in motion economic processes whose maturation would result, by the end of the 19th century, in the complete integration of a highly industrial north-east Ulster into the British colonial capitalist system. Simultaneously the rest of Ireland would experience a similarly dependent development but as stagnant commercialised agricultural reserve providing food and labour to the expanding capitalist British market.

This pattern of intensified colonial dependency was in turn to produce its own contradictions. By the 1860s the industrial sector of British capitalism and the newly emerging Catholic bourgeois class in the agricultural south increasingly sought to come together to pursue their mutual interests in developing a rationalised and efficient agriculture within a redefined political framework of Home Rule. This provided the general framework for development in the second half of the 19th century and explains the relationship between industrial development and the role of Orangeism and Loyalism be understood.

The development of capitalist agriculture in Ireland in the 19th century, the strengthening of merchant capital especially in Dublin and in Cork with the development of the railways and shipping (and the tentative re-emergence of a southern Irish industry (e.g. the co-op movement) towards the end of the 19th century) brought into existence a distinctive Catholic bourgeoisie. As Engels describes it:

Soon after the establishment of the Union (1800) began the liberal-national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie which as in every peasant struggle with dwindling townlets (for example Denmark) 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. (Engels in Ireland and the Irish Question, p.451).

Support from one wing of the liberal industrial bourgeoisie to the partial solution of the democratic tasks in Ireland and the opposition of the Tory interests, reflects the different perceptions of these sections of the British ruling class to the best means of pursuing and protecting British interests as a whole.

For the liberal bourgeoisie in England the fact that the new Irish bourgeoisie was Catholic became less and less important. For the Tories, given their perspective on protecting imperial interests, Protestantism and Loyalism remained vital as an ideological basis for rule in Ireland, and Tory strength in particular. The economic basis of this is graphically described by Marx when commenting on one of the earlier reforms granted by the British state to accommodate the Catholic Church and its bourgeoisie, by disestablishing the Church of Ireland in 1867:

... the English Established Church in Ireland—or what they used to call here the Irish church—is the religious bulwark of English landlordism in Ireland, and at the same time the outpost of the Established Church in England herself. (I am speaking of the Established Church as a landowner.) The overthrow of the Established Church in Ireland will mean its downfall in England and the two will be followed by the doom of landlordism—first in Ireland and then in England. I have, however, been convinced from the first that the social revolution must begin seriously from the bottom, that is, from land ownership. (Marx in Ireland and the Irish Question, p.160).

Protestantism would once more assume a key role within the outlook of the industrial proletariat of the North East. The defeat of Belfast and the United Irishmen did not lead to an immediate assault on the Belfast bourgeoisie in the Act of Union. The maintenance of full protective duties on cotton until 1816 and of some protection until 1824 gave Ulster capital the opportunity to use its development of factory production to avoid the fate of the rest of Ireland’s industry as it crumbled before the superior competitive might of British industry. The vital period, however, occurred around 1825 when, with the development of wet spinning, the linen industry was transformed, by an injection of capital from the declining cotton industry, into a highly mechanised and qualitatively new industry. The growth of the Brewery and the Shipping industries followed in the wake of this expansion of steam-powered linen mills throughout the Lagan Valley and the rapid expansion of population in Belfast. Joint stock banking promoted a further stage of developments within the industry, one peculiar to Belfast—the combination of weaving and spinning. With the increase of commodity farming as industrial expansion continued, the character and shape of the class structure in Ulster began to take on the features unique to that part of Ireland.

The figures for the population growth in Belfast from 1770 onwards underline the enormous scale of development and change in the class structure.

1770 8,500 1841 70,000

1800 20,000 1851 100,000

1815 30,000 1861 120,000

1831 50,000 1901 350,000

But the massive 14-fold increase from 1760 to 1861 hides the process of rural impoverishment, forced migration and urban competition for jobs so typical of the way in which capitalism had developed in Britain.

The situation of Catholics in Belfast was not, therefore, unlike that of the Irish in English cities as described by Marx:

... the English bourgeoisie has not only exploited Irish poverty to keep down the working class in England by forced immigration of poor Irishmen, but it has also divided the proletariat into two hostile camps. ... The average English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life. He feels national and religious antipathies for him. He regards him somewhat like the poor whites of the Southern States of North America regard their black slaves. This antagonism is artificially nourished and supported by the bourgeoisie. It knows that this scission is the true secret of maintaining its power. (Marx in Ireland and the Irish Question, p.254).

Thus in the growth and concentration of Belfast’s urban industrial working class, job competition from impoverished Catholic rural migrants (10% of Belfast in 1800, 33% in 1835) gave life ‘spontaneously” to Orangeism as an expression of Protestant workers’ attempts to protect themselves from Catholic dilution, just as it led to anti-Irish racism in English cities. As in England, described by Engels in The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1844), this, aided by a bourgeoisie who owned the land and controlled housing developments, created large scale ghettoised divisions especially in West Belfast, as the city expanded. Employment in the mills became, as a result, sectarianised and stratified in terms reflecting the dominance of Protestant workers in the labour market.

This labour market was cruelly harsh as the conditions for survival of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie against English capitalist competition made it necessary to extract a significantly higher amount of surplus value out of its workforce. Thus the breaking of the textile workers’ struggles after the end of the Napoleonic war created the conditions for using every device to lower wages and conditions. The textile workers’ union disappeared in 1825, not to appear again for 40 years.

Against this background O’Connell and the Catholic bourgeoisie emerged through the Catholic Association formed in 1823 to fight for emancipation, against the tithe payments to the landowners’ church, and to win Repeal. The complete union of the Catholic peasantry, the Catholic Church and the Catholic bourgeoisie raised once more the nationalist threat to the colony. The regional mobilisation of the Protestant working masses under the banner of Orangeism and Loyalism began to develop. The leaders of this mobilisation were not only the ascendancy but, from 1830 onwards—the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. Their evangelical counter-revolution, led by the demagogue anti-Catholic Cooke, signalled the complete class submission of this group to the interests of imperialism. By the end of the 1830s more than half the Orange Lodges in Ireland were located in the greater Belfast region.

However, competitive job rivalry between workers, and the Catholic Emancipation movement, cannot fully account for the ability of the landowners and bourgeoisie to mobilise Protestant workers behind the banners of sectarian anti-nationalism. For it is clear that as industrialization continued throughout the century, the proportion of Catholics in the working class population of Belfast declined relative to Protestants. Between 1861 and 1910 the total population of Ulster declined by 10% mainly due to emigration from the land. But the proportion of Catholics also declined from 33% of the total to 25%. In Belfast in particular the number of Catholics rose from 40,000 to 85,000 over the same period due to migration from the land. But as a proportion of the total population of Belfast they also declined from 34% to 24% in the face of large scale Protestant migration to Belfast from the countryside. These figures indicate that in Belfast, as in major English cities, Catholics tended to become a smaller proportion of the available workforce towards the end of the 19th century. As a result, as Engels noted in 1892, anti-Irish ideology became less and less effective as a tool of Conservative influence among English workers in England’s major industrial centres. But this did not happen in Belfast. We need to understand why, contrary to Connolly’s experience in Scotland or Larkin’s experience in Liverpool, this was not happening in Belfast.

The underlying cause lay in Belfast’s hinterland, quite different from the rural surroundings of English cities. Catholic-Protestant divisions were solidly sustained among domestic weavers and rural labourers in Ulster throughout the 19th century, where proportions remained more stable. These divisions acted as a powerful reservoir feeding sectarian divisions in the industrial workplaces and urban areas in Belfast and Derry. They did so all the more sharply in the context of the second stage of Belfast industrial development in the latter half of the 19th century.

The key to the development of capitalism in the latter half of the 19th century is the growth of imperialism, as free trade and laissez-faire competition were transformed into the stage of monopoly. Britain was the first and most powerful capitalist power and so was able to allow certain improvements in the conditions of the whole of the English working class from 1847 onwards. As large scale manufacturing emerged, certain strata, in particular craft skilled workers, benefited most, in return for industrial peace. Engels referred in 1892 to this strata as an ‘aristocracy of labour’. We need to look briefly in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky in order to see more clearly the specific form and function an aristocracy of labour had (and still has) within the Protestant working class of Ulster.

The truth is this, during the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working class have to a certain extent shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were very unequally parcelled out amongst them; the privileged minority pocketed most but even the great mass had at least a temporary share now and then (Engels, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, London, Panther, 1969, p.34).

Secondly, the great Trades Unions. They are organisations of those trades in which the labour of grown-up men predominates, or is alone applicable. Here the competition neither of women and children nor of machinery has so far weakened their organised strength. The engineers, carpenters and joiners, the bricklayers are each of them a power to that extent, that they can even successfully resist the introduction of machinery. That their condition has remarkably improved since 1848 there can be no doubt ... they form an aristocracy of labour among the working class; they have succeeded in enforcing for themselves a relative comfortable position and they accept it as final. They are the model working men of Messrs Leane Levi and Giffen, and they are very nice people nowadays to deal with, for any sensible capitalist and for the whole capitalist class. (The Conditions of the Working Class in England, p.31).

Engels recognises the aristocracy as a fraction of the English working class while aware that materially all workers benefited from Britain’s role as the first monopoly capitalist state. Engels believed, correctly that the emergence of New Unions of the unskilled, semi-skilled and especially of women, heralded the end both of Britain’s monopoly position in world capitalism and of the dominance over the working masses of the narrow, conservative outlook of the aristocracy of craft workers.

Lenin developed these insights to give them their fullest expression in a theory associated with his examination of imperialism as a higher stage of capitalism. He bases his analysis on the points already observed by Engels. He notes:

... two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already observed [by Engels] in Great Britain by the middle of the 19th century viz. vast colonial possessions and a monopolist position in the world market. Marx and Engels traced this connection between opportunism in the working class movement and the imperialist features of British capitalism systematically, during the course of several decades.

The causes are: 1) exploitation of the whole world by this country; 2) its monopolistic position in the world market; 3) its colonial monopoly. The effects are: 1) a section of the British proletariat becomes bourgeoisified; 2) a section of the proletariat permits itself to be led by men bought by, or at least paid by, the bourgeoisie. (Lenin, Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Progress, Moscow, 1983, pp 100-102).

Finally, Lenin characterised the situation in 1916 as one where imperialism has grown from an embryo into a predominant system and specifies some of the effects:

The distinctive feature of the present situation is the prevalence of such economic and political conditions that are bound to increase the irreconcilability between opportunism and the general and vital interests of the working class movement ... instead of the undivided monopoly of Great Britain, we see a few imperialist powers contending for the right to share in this monopoly, and this struggle is characteristic of the whole period of the beginning of the 20th century. Opportunism cannot now be completely triumphant in the working class as it was in England in the second half of the nineteenth century; (Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism, p.102).

And even more strongly:

The bourgeoisie of an imperialist “Great” Power can economically bribe the upper strata of “its” workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million. And how this little sop is divided among the labour ministers, “labour representatives” (remember Engels’ splendid analysis of the term), labour members of War Industries Committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc., etc., is a secondary question ...

It was possible in those days to bribe and corrupt the working class of one country for decades. This is now improbable, if not impossible. But on the other hand every imperialist “Great” Power can and does bribe smaller strata (than in England in 1848-68) of the labour aristocracy. (Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, Progress, Moscow, 1972, p.13).

Lenin elaborated from these points the role of the late 19th century ‘labour aristocracy’, the craft trades of the vast shipbuilding and engineering complexes in Britain, in providing the base for a trade union bureaucracy and officialdom complicit in British imperialist rapacity in the world market. The politics of ‘reformism’ expressed the outlook of this stratum in Britain and in Belfast in the emergence of a Labour party in the first decade of the 20th century:

Formerly a “bourgeois labour party”, to use Engel’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a “bourgeois labour party” is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries. (Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, pp 13-14).

Trotsky, following on from Lenin’s analysis, attempted to relate his key ideas to the changed conditions in the 1920s and 1930s. Trotsky notes in particular a distinction between the nature of the labour aristocracy in imperialised countries compared to the labour aristocracy in the imperialist countries:

Mercilessly plundering its Asiatic and African slaves and its Latin American semi-slaves, foreign capitalism is at present compelled in the colonies to feed a thin layer of aristocracy, pitiful, pathetic but still an aristocracy amid the universal poverty. Stalinism has in recent years become the party of this labour “aristocracy” as well as of the “left” section” of the petty bourgeoisie. (Trotsky Leon, A Fresh Lesson, Writings 1938-9, Pathfinder, p.73).

Let us now turn to the significance of these points for a deeper understanding of the Belfast Protestant proletariat. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of the shipbuilding and engineering industries, spatially concentrated within the Lagan Valley. These developments created like elsewhere, a stratum of the most highly skilled workers, with the traditional craft prejudices and privileges relative to all workers. However, we need to place this development with three important contexts. First the enormous historical advantage that British capitalism had as the first complete monopolist of the world market. Second, Britains role as a colonial power, which as Lenin pointed out gave an added basis to the monopolist role and the advantages accruing to all sections of workers in England from 1848 onwards. Third, Ireland was a colony within which Ulster’s mature, advanced industrialisation was achieved through its full economic integration with British capitalism; whereas the rest of the island stagnated. All these factors affected the nature of the labour aristocracy in Belfast.

The first successful stage of industrialisation, in linen, took place against the background of fierce assault on the working class by the bourgeoisie. Competition between Catholic and Protestant workers was an added factor to the lower wages of all workers. A sectarian stratification pattern of employment emerged, which reflected the ability of Protestant workers, through Orange patronage, to control the labour market. With the onset of bourgeois Catholic nationalism and its threat to the colonial rule of the aristocracy and Protestant capital in Ulster, the political mobilisation of Protestant workers behind the Orange banner intensified (e.g. 1837 demonstrations against O’Connell’s visit to Belfast). By the 1850s employer patronage grew as a result of both this threat and the expansion of the economy.

It was within these social relations that the labour aristocracy of craft workers—carpenters, plumbers, fitters etc.—which existed in the 1850s had grown up. Many of those who made up this stratum in the 1850s had been migrants from the declining Dublin Protestant working class. Many were also soon involved in leading the Orange riots of 1857. Events in the second half of the 19th century did not dissipate these sectarian divisions, as occurred in England, but intensified them as the Belfast labour aristocracy developed to a level unique in Ireland. The process deepened with the generalisation of manufacture from cotton to linen, engineering and shipbuilding, involving the crystallization of a classical labour aristocracy on the basis of access to the British market while at the same time the Catholic peasantry was being mobilised behind an emergent Catholic nationalist bourgeoisie.

Two points need to be underlined here. First, the labour aristocracy constituted proportionately a larger section of the working class in Belfast than in any other part of the colony of Ireland, and was thus an especially key section of the Protestant working class. Its impact and its material ability (through the link of family, ghetto and Lodge) to hegemonise the rest of the Protestant proletariat throughout Ulster was correspondingly greater. Second, its relationship to the employing class was further structured by the position of Ulster within the most powerful colonial and industrial power of the globe. As a result its sense of political identity was anchored in resistance to any threat from Irish nationalism, whose goals and character threatened both these material foundations of the Ulster economy and the ideological hegemony of loyalism. The labour aristocracy of Belfast sought to ensure its supremacy within the labour market under capitalism by its defence of the political conditions guaranteeing its privileges.

The fact that Protestant labour aristocrats created the very model of exemplary trades unions, in defence of their wages and conditions against the employing class and other strata of workers; the fact that they, simultaneously, were the most resolute in defence of Orange political principles, is not evidence, as some suggest, for some mysterious ‘relative autonomy’ separating their ideas off from their economic conditions as workers. As Marx, Engels and Lenin pointed out again and again, it underlines the compatibility of trade unionism per se with capitalism. Trade unionism, as the organised expression of workers within capitalism, has no necessary connection with socialist politics. Trade unions have been and often are, anti-socialist, Catholic or liberal, or even racist. As Lenin pointed out:

All those who talk about “overrating the importance of ideology”, about exaggerating the role of the conscious element etc., imagine that the labour movement pure and simple can elaborate, and will elaborate, an independent ideology for itself if only the workers “wrest their fate from the hands of the leaders”. But this is a profound mistake. (Lenin, What is to be done, Progress, Moscow, 1972, p.39).

There is much talk about spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology... for the spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working class movement from this spontaneous, trade unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of the revolutionary Social-Democracy. (p.41).

The form that such enslavement took in Ulster, for reasons that have been made clear, is ideologically bound up with the Protestant bourgeois hostility to Irish nationalism in the 19th century. Significantly, as Gibbon correctly points out, it was in the late 1860s when Gladstone and the Liberal Party first put their proposals for Home Rule, that the Protestant Working Men’s Association, made up of the skilled strata, acted to force the employers into an alliance of Orange men against Home Rule. This became the basis for an expanded Orange Order—an all-class alliance. In turn this was later to be mobilised by the Unionist Party against Sinn Fein. It embraced the grandees of the aristocracy and the Tory Party as well as the masses of Protestant workers, labour aristocrats and much of the Protestant bourgeoisie. The ability of Orangeism, and the closely related Masonic and other orders bound up with Protestantism, to hegemonise the Protestant working class population in towns and country, reveals the extent to which all Protestant workers relative to Catholics, were in a position to receive marginal privileges in return for support for a political cause.

These privileges do not mean that unskilled Protestant workers were also labour aristocrats. But they enjoyed, preferential treatment in the allocation of available jobs and houses and in the determination of working conditions, job security and possibly wage rates. These marginal privileges were perceived by Catholics, and understood by Protestant workers themselves, to represent a superior position within the labour social and political hierarchy. Such marginal privi;eges, relative to the mass of Catholic workers, did not mean that the mass of Protestant labourers shared anything of the material levels of privilege of the labour aristocracy proper. The labour aristocracy remained the key basis for bourgeois influence within this section of the working class as a whole.

The Protestant loyalist working class across Ulster was enveloped by a strong sense of inner belief in the communal and personal superiority of the Protestant. What Marxists observe is that such belief has a material foundation and in that sense can be said to specify a shared ‘labour aristocratic’ outlook, despite the recurrent tensions and conflict among economic layers of Protestant workers against their employers.

Connolly never developed any such understanding of the conditions giving rise to Orangeism in the Lagan Valley. His view was that its historical foundation lay in the plantation of Ulster in the early 17th century, and that its conditions of existence and survival were the maintenance of that rural landlord-dominated society.

At one time in the industrial world of Great Britain and Ireland the skilled labourer looked down with contempt upon the unskilled and bitterly resented his attempt to get his children taught any of the skilled trades: the feeling of the Orangemen towards the Catholics is but a glorified representation on a big stage of the same unworthy motives—an atavistic survival of a dark and ignorant past. (Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table, p.40).

This was clearly wrong. It led him to underplay the potential strength of Irish nationalism among the majority of Catholic workers and to ignore the increasing reality of Orangeism and Loyalism among Protestant workers in the first decade of the 20th century. Inevitably he was swept along by events because he lacked any method of arming his socialist party, the Labour Party or the trade unions with a perspective or tactics which could break the most concentrated industrial proletariat in Ireland from its pro-imperialist and Unionist coalition with Orange capitalism.

From his point of view it was simply because they were toilers that Protestant workers would be essentially sympathetic to the national struggle. All that remained in working class Loyalism was, therefore, a false consciousness which could be erased by educating Protestant workers to their class-wide interests in the trade union and Labour Party organisations. And when in the heat of the massive anti-Home Rule mobilisations of 1912-14 this had clearly not happened, Connolly moved closer and closer to the nationalist position that Protestant workers must be dragged against their wishes, but for their own good, into a united Ireland whose benefits would win them over.

The authentic Marxist tradition, on the other hand, leads us to a much more scientific historical understanding of this profound division in the class—and in the nation. At the same time it enables revolutionary socialists to carefully distinguish the class programme of the proletariat from all anti-imperialist nationalist struggles.

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