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Book Review: 'The Life of Parnell'

'The Life of Parnell', by R. Barry O'Brien

To those who are interested in politics Mr. O’Brien’s work will be found instructive. To the Socialist it is doubly interesting, because it brings direct evidence in support of many of his contentions. The working class must, before they can establish Socialism, control the political machine; the history of the Irish Movement, especially during Parnell’s time, has been a record of the efforts of a party to achieve this for a specific object—Home Rule. These efforts took the form of appeals, arguments, demonstrations, and obstruction. The same tactics, with the exception of the last, as the Labour Party adopts. The plain fact that the Irish have not even yet succeeded, though more than half a century has covered their efforts, proves the absurdity of the Labour Party’s pretensions.

The Irish Party was a purely capitalist party, and as such, its success could only mean a change of rulers for the working class of Ireland. The latter had but to examine the condition of the working class of England, or indeed, the workers of any capitalist country, to see that the human parasite makes no distinction in the degree or nature of his exploitation, between the slaves of his own or any other nation.

Mr. O’Brien frequently refers to the object of the Irish Party under Parnell as being revolutionary. It was, of course, nothing of the kind. There has never been anything else in Irish affairs but a quarrel between two sections of the ruling class for the right to govern the Irish working class. Of what minor importance they consider the quarrel is shown in the rapidity with which they patched it up on the outbreak of the present war.

When Parnell first entered Parliament he found the Party composed of men afraid to mention Home Rule, so ultra-respectable were they. Like the Labour Party they were fearful of giving offence. Parliamentary customs, procedure, and conventionality were sacred to them. Like them they acted on the assumption that moderation was best, that they should refrain from actions that might embarrass the Government. And, indeed, the course of moderation and restraint would be best if their object was to keep on good terms with society, or (in the case of the Labour Party) to ensure the goodwill of the Liberals that they might retain their seats—and salaries.

Parnell had been taught to hate the English and cared nothing for their regard; consequently it was easy for him to see how ridiculous was the Irish policy and methods. With the help of Mr. Biggar he systematically obstructed business in the House, earning not only the condemnation of the Government but of his own party as well. His object was to gain the support of the extremists, and, if possible, to reconcile the differences between the various sections. Isaac Butt unintentionally assisted him in the first, when at the instigation of English and Irish members, he reprimanded him for his conduct in the House. Butt fought strenuously for his position, the forces against him, however, particularly the Fenians, were too strong.

Parnell became the leader and idol of the Irish; and although as ignorant and superstitious as the workers he led, he inspired confidence and received a ready support. Many labour leaders resemble him in this respect, though they lack his audacity and courage. A working class not understanding their class position is the natural prey of these "Born Leaders,’’ whether the latter are conscious of the fraud they perpetrate or not. Parnell openly boasted that he "led a nation.” When differences arose over Captain O’Shea's candidature, he won over the rank and file by merely proclaiming, without evidence of any kind, that he "held a Parliament for Ireland in the hollow of his hand.” On these and other occasions be allowed his ambitious nature to be seen, and showed that he could stoop, as other capitalist politicians, to the usual political confidence tricks. The fact that Parnell was incorruptible and sincere did not make his cause genuine. There are politicians in every party equally sincere, yet from a scientific standpoint equally in error. The workers cannot afford to waste time sorting out the conscious frauds from the mere sentimental babblers. Their wisest course is to ignore the leader and tackle the question on its merits: by careful thought it is easy to discriminate between the sound and the unsound.

Ireland, says Mr. O' Brien, more than any other nation, is addicted to hero-worship. If that is true the reason must lie in their greater ignorance. But hero-worship is common to every country; demagogues with plausibility and eloquence, when they discover the language that tickles the ears of the workers, are promptly idolised. For every hundred that worshipped Parnell a thousand worshipped Gladstone, and have transferred their reverence to his successors —all of them equally fraudulent and hypocritical, and like the Welsh peace and war god of to-day, covering their imposition with false sentiment, vehemence, and professed sympathy for the poverty-stricken toilers.

The ruling class does not rely on one demagogue to “lead a nation,” there are many volunteers and much competition, with almost as many policies and palliatives—most of them quite shallow and easily exposed. It is the workers themselves, by their adulation, that create personalities; that make a man great in the modern sense. When the "Hero” has gone the way of all flesh, the false and unscientific ideas that he foisted on an over-credulous working class are examined by those who come after with coolness and deliberation, and their verdict must necessarily be that those associated with it were either knaves or dupes. There is only one way for the worker to escape this verdict: to study Socialism, when he can no longer be fooled. Once understanding his class position, he has only himself to blame if he so far loses his self-respect as to act against his convictions.

In more than one respect the Industrial Unionist resembles the Fenians of Parnell’s time. Inconsistency is a characteristic of both. As an organisation the Fenians denounced political action, yet their members were at liberty to support Parliamentary candidates; the same applies to every Industrial Union. The Fenians wasted their time and energy in boycotts, outrages, and attempts to release prisoners, which even when successful merely gave a local or individual benefit here and there. The most that the outrages did was quite unintentional on their part; they strengthened the hands of the Parliamentary party, as Parnell discovered when the Land Bill was introduced. The Industrial Unionist copies the lawlessness of the Fenians with sabotage, but has never yet—even in the United States—scored any success worth mentioning.

The constitutional weapon is condemned by them because the class that controls it use it in their own interest They blame the weapon, when they should rather blame themselves for not organising to control it, instead of leaving it in the possession of their enemies. The machinery and forces that enable a class to govern are obviously instruments of oppression, and must be subverted before the oppressed class can be free. Precedents are only of value when the conditions are the same. The political machine has never helped the working class because they have never controlled and used it; they have never been conscious of the necessity.

The Industrial Unionist pretends to think that a revolutionary working-class party, politically organised, is an impossible conception. He purposely declines to see the wide difference that exists between the Socialist Party and the pseudo-Socialists and Liberal Labourites. But this blindness is only assumed to cover the weakness of his case in comparison with Socialism. He thinks that if he asserts the impossibility or non-existence of such a party often enough and loud enough, he will hide the fact that lie has never yet been able to show how, without political organisation of the workers, the machinery of government can be controlled or rendered ineffective.

The life of Parnell is a story of political machination and trickery. Not one of the actors escaped altogether the defiling influence of the struggle for power. It is a permanent example, exposing the trickery and cunning of capitalist politicians. Because Parnell's policy was effective, from the Irish capitalists’ view point. every possible means were adopted to crush him both inside and outside of Parliament. Gladstone imprisoned him, sanctioned a mission to Rome with the object of using the influence of the Vatican to turn the Irish priests against him and undermine his influence with the workers,  and seized with avidity upon the opportunity that Parnell's relations with Mrs. O'Shea gave to drive him out of public life. “The Irish Royal and Patriotic Union.’’ with funds supplied by men so high placed as to be "above suspicion,” employed Piggott, who they knew to be a scoundrel, to find or manufacture the evidence that would implicate Parnell in the Phoenix Park murders. "The Times” transactions with Sheridan showed the eagerness of the Press to help in the general movement to crush him, and sanctimonious pharisees of the Hugh Price Hughes type, while they gave—for an income—a willing support to the system that produces immorality in abundance, condemned him as unfit for public life in England —so pure is it.

There is not the slightest doubt that capitalist politicians will exercise all their cunning against the working class party as it advances. To-day any old tale goes down with the majority of the workers; as their knowledge increases and class hatred becomes general, the wiles of the professional politician will become more subtle, but the Socialist philosophy, based upon science and translated into definite principles, is proof against every form of trickery. It calls upon the workers to organise for Socialism only; to carry on the work of organisation openly; to keep the movement clean and free from suspicion, and to work zealously and fearlessly for the overthrow of capitalism, with all its needless poverty, and the establishment of that system wherein the means of life will be owned and controlled by those who use them.

F. Foan