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Marx and Engels on Ireland

Marx supported and advocated independence for Ireland, a fact which is sometimes used to try to justify Socialists today supporting the demand for the establishment of a united Irish Republic.

Two points can be made here. First, what Socialists should do in the 1970’s does not depend on what Marx may or may not have done in the 1860’s. And second, the circumstances which led Marx to support Irish independence no longer exist.

Marx did support Irish independence but he did so primarily because he thought it would hasten the completion of the democratisation of the British State.

After the failure of the insurrectionary war in Europe in 1848 Marx dropped out of active politics and devoted his time to the economic and historical studies which led to the publication of his Critique of Political Economy in 1859 and of the first volume of Capital in 1867.

In 1865, however, he again became actively involved in political struggle through the International Working Men’s Association, or First International. His general strategy was the long-term one of gradually preparing the working class to win political power for Socialism. This involved Marx not only in supporting trade unionism but also in advocating various democratic and social reforms.

Conquering Feudalism

At this time the bourgeois democratic victory over feudalism was far from complete even in Britain, then the most industrially developed country in the world, and on the continent of Europe what progress had been made was continually threatened by three great feudal powers, Russia, Austria and Prussia. In these circumstances Marx considered it necessary to support not only direct moves to extend political democracy but also moves which he felt would weaken the feudal powers of Europe. For instance, he supported Polish independence as a means of weakening Tsarist Russia. His support for Irish independence was for the same sort of reason: it would, he thought, weaken the position of the English landed aristocracy.

As he put it in a letter dated 9 April,1870:

“Ireland is the bulwark of the English landed aristocracy. The exploitation of that country is not only one of the main sources of the aristocracy’s material welfare; it is its greatest moral strength. It, in fact, represents the domination of England over Ireland. Ireland is therefore the great means by which the English aristocracy maintains its domination in England itself. If, on the other hand, the English army and police were to withdraw from Ireland tomorrow, you would at once have an agrarian revolution there. But the overthrow of the English aristocracy in Ireland involves as a necessary consequence its overthrow in England. And this would fulfil the preliminary condition for the proletarian revolution in England” (Marx and Engels on Ireland, 1971, pp. 292-3).

At the time Marx wrote the English landed aristocracy still enjoyed considerable political power. The franchise had only been extended to the better-off urban workers a few years previously, and the majority of the working class were still voteless; there were not yet secret ballots; Oxford and Cambridge universities had only just been opened to non-members of the Church of England; the House of Lords could still reject any Bill it objected to as long as it was not financial.

Democracy and Socialism

Marx may well have been right about the effect of Irish independence in 1870. Since the English landlords only retained their power to exploit the Irish peasants by force of British arms, a British withdrawal from Ireland could well have led to their expropriation. But this was never put to the test and the Irish land question was solved in quite a different way even before Ireland got independence. The series of Land Purchase Acts introduced between 1885 and 1903 enabled the government to buy out the Anglo-Irish landowners and then lend the peasants the money to buy their farms. By 1921 Ireland was largely a country of peasant proprietors. In the meantime the political power of the English landed aristocracy had finally been broken by a series of measures culminating in the 1911 reform of the House of Lords.

What this meant was that by the time Ireland was about to get independence after the first world war, the changes Marx had expected it to bring—land reform in Ireland and a weakening of aristocratic power in England—had already been brought about by other means. His particular case for supporting Irish independence was thus no longer relevant. Besides, the first world war destroyed the three great European feudal powers—Russia, Austria and Prussia—so making it unnecessary for socialists to support moves to weaken them. In fact, once industrial capitalist powers had come to dominate the world, and once a workable political democracy had been established in those States, then the task of Socialists was to advocate Socialism alone, rather than democratic and social reforms that might make the establishment of Socialism easier. This is the position the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted when it was founded in 1904 and endorsed by the World Socialist Party of Ireland in 1949, and it is the basic reason why we do not support Irish Nationalism and Republicanism.

Industry, Tariffs

It is important to note that Marx’s strategy on Ireland was concerned with furthering the establishment of political democracy in England. It was not an anticipation of the Leninist theory of imperialism according to which independence for colonies will help precipitate a socialist revolution in the imperialist countries, though it is sometimes misunderstood to be this. Marx clearly writes here of independence for Ireland helping to overthrow the remnants of feudalism not capitalism itself in England.Marx clearly wrote of independence for Ireland helping to overthrow the remnants of feudalism not capitalism itself in England. Both he and Engels knew full well that, in the political conditions then existing, Socialism was not an immediate issue either in Ireland or in England.

Marx had a good sense of history and, though he himself never developed the theme, realised that the struggle of the Irish Nationalists for Home Rule was bound to help the evolution in Britain of political democracy because both struggles were directed against: the same class enemy: the English landed aristocracy. A good development of this theme, drawing on Marx, is E. Strauss’ work published in 1951 Irish Nationalism and English Democracy. Strauss, incidentally, also brings out a point neglected by Marx: the extent to which the area around Belfast was industrialized and had become an integral part of the industrial North of Britain. Marx tended to regard Ireland as a purely agricultural country and so failed to see that while Home Rule and tariff protection for infant industries might aid the development of capitalism in the agricultural South of Ireland, it would have been economically disastrous for industrial Belfast which depended on Britain for capital, raw materials and markets. But, to be fair, Marx died before Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill in 1886 revealed the determined opposition of the Belfast capitalists to the threat of being cut off from the rest of industrial Britain behind the tariff walls it feared a Home Rule parliament in Dublin would sooner or later erect. Engels should have known better, but he does have the excuse that although he twice visited Ireland he never went to Belfast. (Since he was there on holiday he can’t be blamed for this!) But if he had he would surely have recognised Belfast as a sister city to the Manchester of his youth.

Empty Conspiracy

Engels, however, did state clearly that Socialism was not an issue in the Irish question. In 1888 he gave an interview to an American German-language paper and answered one question as follows:

“A purely socialist movement cannot be expected in Ireland for a considerable time.  People there want first  of all to become peasants owning a plot of land, and after they have achieved that mortgages will appear on the scene and they will be  ruined  once more. But this  should not prevent us from seeking to help them to get rid of their landlords, that is, to pass from semi-feudal conditions  to capitalist  conditions”  (Interview,  20  September 1888,  New   Yorker Volkszeitung, Marx  and  Engels on Ireland, p.343).

Marx and Engels were much more critical in private of the Irish Nationalists —including the Fenians whose unsuccessful 1867 uprising had re-opened the Irish question for English radicals— than they were in their public pronouncements on behalf of the First International. They were particularly critical of the conspiratorial and terrorist methods the Fenians employed to try to release their members from British prisons, one attempt at which, the blowing up of Clerkenwell jail in 1867, killed 12 people and injured many more, most of them innocent members of the working class. But when two years later one Fenian prisoner, O’Donovan Rossa, a former editor of their paper The Irish People, stood for election to parliament at Tipperary and was elected (only to be disqualified), Engels wrote to Marx:

“The election in Tipperary is an event. It forces the Fenians out of empty conspiracy and the fabrication of plots into a path of action, which, even if legal in appearance, is still far more revolutionary than what they have been doing since the failure of their insurrection” (29 November, 1869, Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1941, p.274).

So, although Marx and Engels can be claimed as supporters of Irish independence, they certainly cannot be claimed as supporters of IRA-type terror to achieve it. But whatever Marx and Engels supported, we in the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the World Socialist Party of Ireland do not agree that Socialists should support, or should have supported, Irish Nationalism any more than they should support nationalism anywhere else.