“Capitalism is the most foreign thing in Ireland.”
– JAMES CONNOLLY
AMONG the many startlingly swift revolutions which have been brought about by the War, there are few more striking than the revolution of attitude effected in the Irish working class. People familiar with Dublin before the War who should re-visit the Irish capital to-day would suppose that not five, but fifty years had passed, so great a change is obvious in the attitude and condition of the city’s democracy. The change is not confined to Dublin, nor to Dublin and Cork, although they lead in the industrial social movement; for all through the country labour is organising with a thoroughness and a determination that before the war the most sanguine democrat hardly hoped to live to see. It is obvious to the student who takes the pains to go among the people to learn their views, and who reads the literature of the movement, that Irish labour has envisioned the aim of effecting in the industrial world the same recovery of national control as has been achieved at least in principle in the land. The labour movement owes its strength and enthusiasm to the fact that it has all the driving force of national resurgence behind it.
In the labour movement we see the town-dwelling Gael fighting the national cause on the social plane exactly as his brother in the counties has fought it. It is not merely because he wants better food, cheaper fuel, and housing something better than a beast’s, that the Irish workingman is seeking to link up the country’s labour in “One Big Union”: it is because he wants to live a completely Irish life to rear sturdy Irish children to share with the men on the land a common Gaelic heritage. His inspiration is seen in the phrase in which James Connolly so vividly described the true nature of the democratic movement: “The Re-Conquest of Ireland.”
The bullet that killed James Connolly slew also the Capitalistic Order. It sanctified labour with a martyrdom, and damned labour’s enemies with a mortal crime. Whether it is agreeable to our wishes or not, we have to recognise that the doctrine of James Connolly has completely conquered industrial Ireland since his death. His work has also affected developments in Russia and Revolutionary Germany, and may yet show its fruits in France, America and Australia. This is a big saying. Yet it is known to all that the Bolsheviks, the only protagonists in the great world-struggle who performed a great act of renunciation in the name of Conscience, Justice and Liberty, were led by men who studied Connolly’s writings and watched his career. Just here we are not concerned with Connolly as an international force, or the influence of the Irish Insurrection upon the world. But it is necessary to observe that Connolly, besides being an Irish leader, was a man with a political creed of historic importance. His formula of a Workers’ Republic has set Republicanism on a hope-fuller path than that which it has trodden in France and America.
What is most interesting of all is, that after he had formed his political creed, Connolly examined Irish history, and found the cause of Irish Nationalism to be historically in harmony with the social principles that he had deduced from universals. In other words, he found that the great heroes of Ireland’s cause had always been men acting in accord with the aim of social justice. He examined the Gaelic State, and found it to have been in the past an actual embodiment of the State that he was seeking in the future. Hence, from beginning with formulas necessarily of a somewhat doctrinaire character, he came to declare, not that the Irish people must construct a state on such-and-such theoretic lines, but that they must restore their native and submerged constitution. This I take to be his mental attitude as traced from his early propaganda to his great final testaments, Labour in Irish History and The Re-Conquest of Ireland.
It is regrettable that we have no Credo from the pen of the “ultimate” Connolly. No close student of the times can doubt that Connolly was one of the pillars of new Europe; that his influence will prove as great as, though more salutary than, that of Rousseau. Hence, we could wish that in that epoch-making Spring of 1916 he had set down a considered testament. We know at least that love of Ireland and earnest sincerity had brought him to a position in regard to Nationalism that cancelled many of his early and groping theories, and made him perfectly orthodox in attitude towards Irish spiritual tradition. We know, too, that his comrade-in-arms at the last, Padraic MacPiarais, that great representative figure of Irish Catholicity, whose writings are eminent in the Catholic literature of the age, had adopted Connolly’s creed, so that Connolly’s faith is sealed, not only by his own, but by the ratifying blood of the Columcille of our days. Connolly’s Republic was proclaimed in Easter Week by men who were as representative of Catholic tradition as if they had learnt from the lips of Brigid and Breandan. The creed of the Workers’ Republic was signed by the true children of Holy Ireland of old.
When he spoke in the international vocabulary, Connolly said: “We seek a Workers’ Republic.” When he spoke in Irish terms, he said: “We want the free Irish State of old restored.” The phrase “Workers’ Republic” is an excellent modern translation of Gaelicism. It enables us correctly to grasp the plan of old Irish civilisation, and Irish history in turn throws light on the possibilities of modern Labour- Republicanism. Thus we are often told that advanced Labour’s aim of securing communal possession of the national wealth would result in the insecurity of the individual for want of personal property. Yet the example of the Gaelic State shows that when the national wealth is owned by the nation, it is possible for the most stable and widely-diffused personal security to exist. Never was the farmer more firmly set in his holding than when he was unable, on the one hand, to amass more land than his share and reduce his rivals to being his tenants, or to alienate their share from his family on the other.
The example of old Ireland shows us, further, that even where the power to expropriate the means of production from the people, and to destroy their personal independence is denied to the capitalist, it is still possible for the fortunate individual, through industry, genius, or public gratitude for services, to amass legitimate objects of enjoyment, and enjoy as jolly a life as the world can offer. One luxury is to be prohibited hereafter the luxury of power. The arbitrary power to make or mar the happiness of thousands is forever to be removed from the rich. The luxury of being able to unsettle the lives of scores of workers, to fill homes with anxiety, to tear up rooted associations, to sway markets, to overthrow the labours of patriots by impoverishing districts and shifting the economic balance hither and thither this is to be denied, like the luxury of furious driving on the public road. But this does not necessarily mean that no one shall enjoy rare wines, big houses, gardens, costly books and the means of travel.
The aim of Irish Labour – to take over from foreign, anti-Irish and usurping powers the commerce and industry of Ireland – is this Socialism? Reactionaries storm at the movement, quoting all the shibboleths of Anti-Socialistic theory. The workers are being led astray by evil teachers, are being betrayed into conflict with rightly-constituted authority, are seeking what is not their own. These are the cries. The same were raised against the United Irishmen, the Land Leaguers, the Fenians, the Parnellites and Sinn Fein: against every party, in fact, which has stood for the submerged nation, and which time has justified. But those who attack Irish Labour, rarely do their opponents the compliment of studying their case. In consequence their accusations fly wide of the mark, and are rightly disregarded by the nation, strong in the conscientious knowledge of the justice of its cause. Mr. Thomas Johnson, a brilliant upholder of Connolly’s faith, said but recently that when he was asked whether he was a Socialist, he knew not what to answer, for the practical work of the rapidly-advancing Labour cause so completely absorbed the attention, that the brain was never troubled with the academic problem of whether this or that label was proper to the measures which the course of events directed Labour to take. That is the attitude of Irish Labour an attitude of complete indifference to formulas.
Nothing could be more futile in the opponents of the Labour uprising than to seek to check it with the bonds of academic argumentation. If any dogma of theorists stands in the way of the nation’s march, so much the worse for the theorists. The nation sees the road clearly before it. But when we examine the theoretical problem: Is it Socialism? we find, on the whole, that there need be no particular anxiety on that score. Connolly, who gloried in the name of Socialist, had the most eclectic of minds. He drew, not from one school of Socialism, but from all sources that could prove serviceable to the case of Ireland. So far from seeking to impose on Ireland the rigid doctrine of any special Socialistic school, Connolly was prepared to welcome any movement that would advance his central purpose the restoration of economic Ireland to the dispossessed Irish masses. Thus he strongly advocated the Agricultural Co-operative Movement, and himself used with approval the co-operative leader’s formula of “a Co-operative Commonwealth.” He accepted this phrase as a synonym for his own ” Workers’ Republic.” No mere doctrinaire would be thus liberal. Connolly was a follower of Marx, the classic of Socialism, in hoping for the overthrow of the Capitalist Order.
Yet he was also a follower of Thompson, the Irishman who founded Socialism, whose formula was: that the workers must be their own capitalists, a doctrine that paralyses Anti-Socialistic reasoning. Thus, Connolly was not concerned to pledge Ireland to a theory. His plan was to work along whatever roads proved open towards the substitution of the People’s sovereignty for the sovereignty of the nationless capitalist. Connolly stands or falls, not by the theory of Socialism, but by the ideal of Popular Control, however it be achieved.
It follows, then, that academic denunciations of Socialism such as are given prominence from time to time in the newspapers, have no bearing upon the real problems of the hour. We take a typical utterance of an opponent of the movement inaugurated by Connolly. The speaker, states the report:
“…said that labour had a perfect right to combine to safeguard its interests, and so had employers. All the labour troubles we had now were due to the Reformation, which destroyed the Christian guilds (first started by the Dominicans in Italy), making them give place to competition between wealth at the top and misery at the bottom. . . . Those who wanted to interfere with peace and social order must be put down. . . . Labour had no right to organise itself to interfere with the rights of other classes in the Nation.“
Let, us examine this characteristic example of the attacks which are made every day upon Irish democracy. Passing over the question of the origin of the Christian guilds, let us observe first that the guild system did not exist in the Gaelic State. The abolition of guilds, therefore, had no effect on Irish history. Guilds existed only in the English Pale and other Anglicised centres. The mass of the nation’s industry was conducted without them. Is it not, then, verging on the preposterous to admonish the Irish Nation for the faults of other lands? Thus the attackers of Irish National movements ever ignore (like the Penal Code) the existence of the Irish people and their personal history.
As to the alleged merits of the guilds, which throve in England, it is a well-known fact that they proved economically inefficient. Religion had nothing to do with their disappearance. They upheld apprentice-ship and maintained a good standard of work like trades unions. But in origin they were workers’ unions formed to combat merchants’ (or capitalists’) unions, and once they were established they proved as tyrannous as the merchants’ associations before them. They exploited their monopolies to the full: that was the cause of their fall. We read that in Coventry once, the barbers agreed to raise their prices “to the damage of the whole people,” and the one honest man who declined to profiteer was threatened with violence and “brought before a spiritual court to answer for his treason.” Some dyers in the same town once refused to be bound by the guild’s rates, and that most religious body “hired Welshmen and Irishmen to waylay and kill them.” So far from serving the state loyally, we read of the guilds that in the sixteenth century, the joiners and carvers of Chester, instead of supplying the citizens at fair prices, “sold their wares to Ireland and other places beyond the sea at unreasonable prices, to their own enrichment and the community’s expense.” The guilds again refused membership to strangers and yet denied the strangers the right to work. Thus in the fifteenth century the guilds of Bristol excluded aliens and “rebels of Ireland.” Bristol was then as Irish as Liverpool is to-day, but here was English democracy declaring “No Irish need apply.”
From these examples it is clear that the so-called “Catholic Guilds” of England, with which efforts are made to side-track Irish Labour from Irish ideals, had developed during the Middle Ages into unscrupulous monopolistic institutions, displaying all the arbitrary and anti-social abuses of power which to-day we object to in capitalism. They quarrelled one with another and, according to the opinion of many, tended to restrict the volume of national production. At least, guildless Ireland produced such good and cheap cloth in the Middle Ages that guild-constituted England had to resort to arms to destroy the rival trade. Cloth was then the principal commodity of exchange, and Ireland’s Continental cloth trade was attacked by an English navy. The essential fault of the guild system of society was, as all authorities admit, the fact that the guild-member’s public spirit was limited by his trade. He thought of and worked for the enrichment of the bootmakers, if he was a bootmaker, and he cared little how ironworkers or hatmakers fared tried, indeed, to benefit by their misfortunes. Under the Gaelic system, the clothworker did not look for succour in distress to brother cloth-makers, but to the stateship to which he belonged. When a man looked outside himself, it was not to an artificial corporation, like a trade guild, but to his natural brotherhood, the community. This placed public spirit in the place of trade jealousy, and bound together farmer, artisan, and professional man in the sense of a common heritage. That trade societies must exist in the modern world is obvious, but Irish Labour’s ambition of federating all the workers of Ireland into “One Big Union” means that the evils of guild sectionalism shall not appear in the new Gaelic State. The union of unions will keep before the nation its substantial solidarity, and the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.
So far from the guilds having anything to do with Irish history, so far from them having been destroyed by the Reformation, we see that they concerned Ireland not at all. But observe the suggestion that the Reformation is responsible for Ireland’s economic ills. Here we have another characteristic attempt to side-track the democratic movement with a false suggestion. The Reformation had no more to do with Ireland’s economic case than had the spread of Buddhism in Japan. For whatever the Reformation may have done in England, this is certain, that Ireland’s economic troubles all date from the expropriation of the Irish race the overthrow of the Gaelic State by the attempted extirpation of the Irish people. The vitality of the state was such that all efforts to suppress it failing, England decided to wipe out the population in which it lived. And attempts to put this policy of extirpation into effect were first made by the Catholic English Queen Mary, the mortal enemy of the Reformation. It was she who first began the God-defying and murderous policy of expropriation, clearances and plantations the policy finally brought to perfection by the Penal Code. Apart from the fact that Ireland’s most relentless enemies have always been found in the ranks of English nominal Catholics, the fact that the destruction of the Irish State was first taken in hands by “Bloody Mary” is sufficient evidence that the Reformation has nothing to do with our affairs. To talk of the Reformation in regard to Irish Labour, merely amounts to an attempt to substitute sectarian hatred for historical fact and practical politics.
Much use is made by the Anglicised bourgeoisie of sectarian cries. Thus Connolly’s occasional tussles with Catholic publicists are being continually referred to. Controversial phrases of Connolly’s are flaunted in the face of the Catholic worker by those who have no sympathy with his national and social aspirations, in hope of terrifying with the suggestion that Connolly was a bad Catholic and a teacher of anti-Catholic doctrine. This policy is treachery to the Church. No course of action could do more to create distrust in the worker’s mind. Conscience and reason, all the most-deep-seated instincts of the Irish nature, tell the worker that his objects are just and right. When men of authority and learning accuse him of heresy in theoretic terms that he cannot grasp, he is dangerously bewildered. When he is told that Catholic guilds, such as Ireland has never heard of before, are the remedy for his ills, and that he must forsake the path before him that he knows to be right, he is doubly perplexed. It is then that the Red-Flaggery of your jejune Revolutionist begins to sound reasonable. When right authority sides with wrong authority it commits a suicidal act.
To preserve our people from rash Red-Flaggery, though the danger is very small the Irish people’s good sense and deep faith have preserved them from this peril in their other struggles it is much to be wished that an Irish Lacordaire should arise to champion in high places the workers’ cause. He would show, in the terms of learning, the vital justness of the resurgent nation’s aims. We claim that those aims are perfectly in accord with the Moral Law and with Catholic Social Philosophy. No one has claimed for Connolly “verbal inspiration.” Many of his controversies and contentions are by many regretted. But it is a true proverb that says: ” He who never made a mistake never made anything else,” and in all the essential, substantial features, we claim that Connolly’s teaching is acceptable to the most orthodox. We claim that “Catholic Social Reform” must, in the very nature of the case, be based upon the basic principle of Connolly’s teaching the Re-Conquest of Ireland. Justice cannot exist in a state that is rooted in injustice. Without re-conquest, reform cannot begin. The first act of Catholic Social Reform, therefore, must be to throw itself into the re-conquest struggle.
The Land War was a piece of Catholic Social Reform of the most practical kind. When the Turks swept into Christendom, stamping out the Christian State, murdering and exiling the Christian population, King John Sobieski, leading the armies of Catholic Poland, drove back the infidel hordes before the heart of Christendom could be pierced. Sobieski died, and Poland’s military power ended. But all Catholic historians join in praising her great struggle against the Turk as a holy war. Now there was not one detail of formal difference between Poland’s war against the invading Turks and Ireland’s war against the invading landlords. Both were fought by good Catholics to drive out the enemies of civilisation from the threatened Christian State, for the securing of the Christian community in its home. Catholic formulas were not much used in the Irish war, for it is not the Irish way to make a parade of principles. But if the salvation of a Catholic community from extermination by invading thieves be not a Catholic cause it is hard to imagine circumstances worthy of that name.
The holy intentions of the Irish people in the struggle are seen in the self-sacrifice, the risk, the restraint and the courage with which the guerrilla war was fought. Guerrilla war, like insurrections, and strikes and other appeals to force, is to be resorted to only with the gravest circumspection, because of the temptation that is offered to irresponsible violence. But it stands eternally to the honour of the Irish people, and as evidence of their firm respect for the Moral Law, that in their guerrilla war, the enemy garrison was never shot at save in the way of business.” There was no disorderly violence, no act of personal revenge. In any other country, the police and other spies who gave Irish citizens into the hands of the enemy garrison would have fallen victims to the vengeance of the bereaved.
The industrial movement, as has been pointed out, is the town phase of the same holy war as the struggle for the land. It is thus, in its essence, a cause in accord with the principles of Justice and Right. But it is not, like the land war, a fight against individuals. The employers are not in the position of the landlords. The artisan dismissed from employment can, theoretically at least, secure employment elsewhere. He is not like the land tenant who, deprived of his holding, was torn from the very roots of his existence as an Irish citizen. The industrial quarrel is with a foreign system imposed on the Irish people and their country, by which self-realisation of the nation is rendered impossible, and the control of Irish wealth invested in anti-Irish powers. With an object in view, then, the achievement of which will be a victory for Christendom, and firm in the resolve to achieve it by moral means, the Irish democracy resents with bitterness attacks made upon its purposes in the name of ethical theory. To develop this we must start another chapter.