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Book Reviews

Radical Politics in Modern Ireland. The Irish Socialist Republican Party 1896-1904. David Lynch. Irish Academic Press. €39

The Irish Socialist Republican Party, which only existed between 1896 and 1904, was the equivalent in Ireland of the Social Democratic Federation in Britain. Like the SDF, the ISRP tried to combine campaigning for the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production (socialism, also called at the time, in Britain as well as Ireland, the Socialist Republic) with campaigning for reforms as a means, in the words of the ISRP’s programme, “of palliating the evils of the present social system”. The ISRP had another demand: Irish independence. As this book shows, it wasn’t easy to combine these three objectives.

The party – which according to Lynch never had more than 80 members – was torn in all three directions. The main enemy was seen as the Home Rule party, both because it stood for capitalism in a Home Rule Ireland and because it didn’t stand for a complete political break with the British Empire. This led the ISRP to appeal to “advanced Nationalists”, trying to convince them that an independent capitalist Ireland was an impossibility and that if they wanted an independent Ireland they should support socialism. One of Lynch’s criticisms of the ISRP is that it wasn’t true that an independent capitalist Ireland wasn’t possible. It was (and it happened), and was the explicit policy of Arthur Griffith’s original Sinn Fein with its call for the establishment of an Irish Stock Exchange, an Irish merchant marine, protection for Irish manufacturing industries, etc and the implicit policy of the physical-force Republicans.

The leading light in the ISRP was James Connolly, who for virtually the whole of its existence was its full-time organiser and editor of its paper, the Workers’ Republic. He was later to resolve the conflict between socialism and republicanism by opting for republicanism and to die in a futile bid to establish an independent Capitalist Republic in Ireland. He is in fact an Irish National Hero with a railway station in Dublin named after him. As a result, his political writings, including those in which his socialism was more prominent than his republicanism, are still printed and read. Particularly good, from this period, is his Labour in Irish History which, though not published as a pamphlet till 1910, first appeared as a series in the Workers’ Republic.

But it was not the conflict between socialism and republicanism that led to the demise of the ISRP in 1904, but that between socialism and reformism. From about 1898, as Lynch records, the ISRP came under the influence of the SLP of America and Daniel De Leon. In 1900 the SLP abandoned its reform programme and similar ideas spread within the ISRP. Although the ISRP never actually dropped its reform programme, when Connolly stood in the elections to Dublin City Council in 1903 his election address (reproduced as an appendix to this book, but which can also be seen at, unlike at previous elections, contained no programme of reforms. Connolly presided at the founding conference of the Socialist Labour Party of Britain in 1903 – part of the “impossibilist revolt” within the SDF which also led to the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain the following year. He emigrated to America in 1903, so contributing to the demise of the ISRP, joined the SLP and became a De Leonist Industrial Unionist for a while. But that’s outside the period of this book. A number of early members of the SPGB had previously been in the ISRP.

Lynch writes as a Trotskyist (quoting from Tony Cliff’s Life of Lenin), which leads to some misinterpretations. For instance, when the ISRP made the point that in socialism there’d be no need for trade unions and strikes (because there’d be no class working for wages) he likens this to Trotsky’s proposal to suppress trade unions in Bolshevik Russia because there was no need for them under a “workers’ government”. More amusing in view of the sort of criticism the SWP makes of us, is Lynch’s argument that the ISRP, despite its emphasis on electoral action, wasn’t a mere electoralist party as it also held numerous street corner meetings and so was also engaged in street politics. Nevertheless, his book is the only history of the ISRP and as such a valuable addition to the history of the working-class movement in the two large islands off the north-west coast of the European mainland.

Britain in Numbers: The Essential Statistics by Simon Briscoe (Politico’s, 2005) £14.99

Did you know that workers in Britain clock up nearly 900 million hours of work each week? That a recent survey of 688 school lunchboxes recorded just one salad? Or that half of the households in the UK have less than £1,500 in savings? Simon Briscoe is Statistics Editor of the Financial Times and this book provides copious statistics on a range of key indicators for British society and the economy at large, including comparative statistics with other countries. There are 78 chapters in total covering everything from asylum seekers to unemployment through to internet usage and vegetarianism.

As is always the case with books such as this socialists will claim that a lot of the statistical categories deployed are highly superficial or artificial (those for class being the most obvious example), but much else of what is presented is valuable and can be used to test some of the claims of politicians of all parties on major economic, social and political issues. The early section of the book is particularly interesting as it accounts for the growth of statistics-keeping and publication in the UK, set in the context of more recent developments such as the increasing use of targets as an aid to meeting policy objectives. Briscoe also usefully discusses how statistics can be used to deceive as well as illuminate and identifies a number of the common tricks employed by governments and others using case studies to illustrate his point.

Briscoe is a strong critic of New Labour in office and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in particular. The way in which the Chancellor has made extravagant claims for economic growth, low unemployment, inflation and interest rates attracts some merciless criticism, and rightly so, with Briscoe detailing the statistical distortions and trickery used to justify bogus (or highly partial) claims.

Unfortunately, other aspects of Briscoe’s book are less satisfactory. While his critiques of Labour since 1997 are authoritative and have much to commend them, Briscoe has a regrettable tendency to argue that anything he considers to be positive about the British economy or society at present has its origins in the Conservative governments that dominated politics before Blair came to office. Quite remarkably, for instance, he can claim that the Conservatives appear to have “put in place many of the foundations for the current [economic] stability”. Exactly what these foundations are or how the Conservatives laid them he doesn’t say, and it is also noticeable that he doesn’t say – with the type of sleight of hand he chides others for – that the UK saw its two most severe downturns since the Great Depression, firstly under Thatcher in the early eighties and then under Major in the early nineties, with the ERM debacle to boot. Some ‘foundations’ and some ‘stability’.

Generally, he places far too much emphasis on differences between Labour and Conservative governments in office – on occasion not being able to see the wood for the trees (and sometimes the branches and even the twigs). Desperate to paint Labour as a party of big government, high spending and high taxation (and – by association – comparative economic incompetence) he manages to portray a picture of Labour and Conservative governments in modern history that few people who are thinking seriously about the issues are likely to find convincing.

You would never think it from reading Briscoe, but tax as a percentage of GDP was higher when Thatcher left office than it was when she was elected in 1979 and it is an almost identical figure now under Blair (at about 36 per cent). Similarly on government spending, where little that is remarkable has occurred for many years. Largely because of the raft of one-off privatisations in the 1980s, the proportion of GDP accounted for by state spending declined from its peacetime peak in the early-mid 1970s (under Tory Ted Heath and then Labour’s Harold Wilson) but since then it has tended to hover around the 40 per cent mark under governments of both complexions.

So while useful, this book has to be treated with caution as it seems to exaggerate the differences between the parties when in office, and it certainly understates the uncontrollability and anarchy of the capitalist economy, subsequently over-estimating the power of governments (especially Conservative ones it would seem) to influence it through his favoured low tax and spend policies.

The book was published just before the General Election and was reviewed in many of the broadsheet newspapers with the underlying suspicion that Briscoe hoped it would open up a debate that might be ultimately favourable to the Tories on Labour’s economic record. If so, it failed and is a bit of a curate’s egg because of it.