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A Letter to Irish Workers

Correspondence

A Letter to Irish Workers

“Imagine 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 people and in many cases different families, all huddled together, eating and sleeping and performing the ordinary functions of life in one room! How is it possible for the physical, mental and moral life of these men, women, and children to be maintained when they are forced to herd together in such awful conditions? The death-rate in Dublin is the highest of the United Kingdom. The infantile death rate is 200 per 1,000 in Summer Hill and Gardner St. districts and 220 in Church St. district.  In Dublin there are 20,000 houses of one room.”

This is an extract from an article published in 1914 on the conditions in Dublin. In a sworn housing inquiry in the same city in 1913 Dr McWalter, a member of the Insurance Committee, stated that about 10,000 families in Dublin were living under unhealthy conditions. Practically two persons out of every five died in institutions or asylums in Dublin, and that was absolutely abnormal. If they had 40 per cent living in institutions it meant there were 40 per cent who could not normally provide for themselves. He had known women who were obliged to live on 3d a day. In 12 wards the influence of the slum landlord was very strong. He did not think there were more than three or four members of the Corporation who were not slum landlords.

The object of these quotations is to contrast the aims and ambitions of the Irish “patriots” with those social and economic conditions in Ireland which it is the ideal of Socialists to abolish in every land cursed with the iniquities of modern capitalism, and the aim of this letter is to show in some slight measure at least that the aims and ambitions of Irish “patriots” are not identical with the principles and ideals of international Socialism, and that there is, in fact, no necessary connection between the two things.

Let every British Socialist face the fact that Irish “patriotism” is not Socialism and that the achievement of Irish nationality even up to the highest professed ideals of traditional Irish patriotism, namely, the complete separation of Ireland from Britain, would not “free Ireland” one iota in any sense satisfactory to the international Socialist and absolutely demanded by Socialist principles. This age-long struggle of Irish “patriots” to “free Ireland” is therefore from the Socialist point of view an utter chimera, which, if it could be achieved, would be to the wretched wage-slaves of Ireland but as the apples of Sodom, fair to the eye, but turning to smoke and ashes when plucked. The international Socialist who happens also to be an Irishman can and does feel profound sympathy with all the struggles of his countrymen, and even their pathetic efforts to achieve the utter futility - from the strictly Socialist point of view - of Home Rule, or of an Irish republic, can excite his pity for their useless sufferings, even though he cannot take part in their misdirected exertions.

It may seem an ungracious thing in some quarters to censure even mildly these efforts of Irishmen considering the sufferings of imprisonment and death which many of them have recently endured; but in the name of humanity - which is a greater name even than that of Irish nationality - let the question be faced: Was it a gracious thing to cause over 1,300 casualties in Dublin in Easter week, many of these being women and children and non-combatants, and that, too, at a time when the world was plunged into the most dreadful and bloody war in all history? And what was it all for? Was it the last desperate effort of outraged men to rescue the wretched slum-dwellers of Dublin from their inhuman dens and provide them with decent habitations and a living wage? Was it to mitigate the lot of the poor Irish agricultural labourer, to save him from the brutal conditions in which he has lived for generations, one of the most abused human creatures in Europe? Whatever answer to such questions might be given by such men as the late James Connolly, it cannot be pretended for one moment that the rank and file of Irishmen who are still willing to fritter away their energies in this age-long race after the will-o’-the-wisp of a “nationality” that would leave them economically where they are, or worse, have any definite aim of striking at the root of Ireland’s economic and industrial miseries. There is, on the contrary, abundant evidence to prove that many of them are still completely possessed by all the traditional fury of the traditional “patriot”. “Ireland a nation” may conceivably be a high ideal to thousands of Irishmen, but the point to be emphasised here is that it is not a first-class Socialist issue, that it has no direct relation to Socialism, and that there is no satisfactory evidence adduced to show that its realisation under modern capitalism would be of the slightest benefit to the Irish workers.

From the point of view of the international Socialist, Home Rule is not worth the bones of one Irish volunteer, an Irish republic of wage-slavery and capitalistic plunder is not worth the bones of one Sinn Fein volunteer, and the maintenance of the legislative union with England is not worth the bones of one Ulster volunteer. No true Irishman who has any real regard for his country and his kind can afford the loss of a single fellow-countryman, whether of Ulster, Munster, Leinster or Connaught, in these dramatic enterprises concerning things that don’t matter a groat for the economic prosperity and happiness of the great masses of the Irish people.

In these bitter days of war, with food prices so abnormal, we have here in Belfast linen weavers whose average wages are only 15s a week, and in one of the largest department shops in the city - Robinson & Cleavers - a strike has been going on for many weeks against wages that must mean actual starvation. These wage-slaves have issued a leaflet in which they tell the public that a girl with two years’ experience receives only 5s a week, another with four years’ experience 6s a week, a third with seven years’ experience 9s, and a fourth with eight years’ experience receives 9s 7½d.

Now what in Reason’s name had the dramatic follies of Easter week to do with such facts as these? Would a Parliament on College Green abolish these conditions? Would an Irish republic deal drastically with the oppressors of Irish shop-girls? Five years ago a prominent Socialist organ (the Clarion) described the Irish Parliamentary Party as a “group of old-fashioned politicians of the most commonplace wire-pulling type, while its political influence is a danger to real democracy and a stumbling bloc to real reform”. Yet this is the party that is struggling to set Ireland “free”, while, of course, the opposing group of Irish politicians are struggling equally hard to keep Ireland free and to maintain all the blessings we enjoy under the legislative union with England. Presumably the above-mentioned facts and figures are some of these blessings - our “birthright”, as these grotesque humbuggers of the people are fond of calling them! Let it be repeated that to the genuine Socialist neither of these achievements are worth the sacrifice of a single “patriot” belonging to either of the deluded hosts. Nay, poor old deluded, suffering and bleeding Ireland needs all her sons of the North, South, East and West, not to engage in fratricidal strife at the behest of their political and economic lords and masters - backed by canting theologians, those henchmen of the great everywhere - she needs all her sons on the contrary to unite in one strong bond of loving service for each other, to drop the worn-out slogans and shibboleths of generations of dead and gone, and by their goodwill and loving service to living Irishmen and women and little children, overthrow once for all this outrageous tyranny of a dead past.

What, then, ought to be the attitude of genuine Socialists in every part of the United Kingdom who know the truth about these matters? Every convinced and genuine Socialist knows full well the utter futility of trying to work out the salvation of Ireland, or any other geographical area of the earth’s surface inhabited by wage-slaves, by an overthrow of political masters. Every Socialist therefore who knows these things is guilty of a grave offence against any community of fellow workers when he lends countenance and encouragement to what he knows are acts of futility and folly that can only bring suffering upon these misguided men in the event of failure, and complete disillusionment in the event of apparent success.

Let Socialists beware of dealing lightly with their fundamental principles, and let them use every opportunity of teaching the deluded Irish workers what are the true and only means of achieving their real political and economic salvation. No honest, intelligent and conscientious Socialist can allow himself to indulge in any dishonourable coquetting with Irish revolutionary movements of a merely political character because he knows that no such movements can ever set Ireland truly free. He knows that it is fratricidal folly and madness for the Irish workers to take up arms against the English workers, and that even poor Tommy Atkins himself is merely an unfortunate British worker who fled to the army for refuge because he was starved out from hearth and home.

In the name of humanity and of sanity let every international Socialist in the United Kingdom have done with the traditional follies and foolishness of Irish politics, whether of Nationalism or of Unionism, whether of Whiggism or of Toryism. Let us bend all our energies to the glorious enterprise of emancipating the workers of these islands from the cruel and bloody chains of modern capitalism, with its wage-slavery and sweated labour at the best, and its idleness and starvation as the oft recurring lot of millions of our toiling and dispossessed brothers and sisters. Every professed Socialist who lends countenance and encouragement to the deluded Irish “rebels” in their vain efforts to “free Ireland” is guilty either of betraying his Socialist principles or he is ignorant of what Socialist principles really are. In the popular phrase he is either a knave or a fool. Now in our great world-wide movement we want neither knaves nor fools, but men and women who believe in their hearts what they profess on their lips, and who are willing to go forth to achieve and establish their faith by every effective and honourable means. Socialists of this stamp will not hypocritically encourage the deluded Irish workers to dash themselves against the rocks of British militarism for the worthless prize of an “Irish republic” as some so-called Socialist journals are doing at this moment. International Socialists know too much about these “republics”, these “lands of the free”. we know that they are simply hot-beds of capitalist competition, knavery, and plunder, and that the only freedom they give the workers is the freedom to wear themselves out in producing surplus-value, and after that to die in the nearest ditch and make way for a fresh batch of deluded victims.

Our solemn word to Irish wage-slaves is, let them use their remaining strength to shake off the leeches of capitalism that are sucking their life-blood instead of hastening their destruction in a mad effort to set up Tweedledum in place of Tweedledee. Let them beware of “republics”.

Thos Brown

[Our correspondent is not a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain - ED. COMM.]