“It is a system which in its least repulsive aspects compels thousands and tens of thousands to fret and toil, to live and die in hunger and rags and wretchedness, in order that a few idle drones may revel in ease and luxury.”
– Irish People, July 9, 1864
For Ireland, as for every part of Europe, the first quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of political darkness, or unbridled despotism and reaction. The fear engendered in the heart of the ruling classes by the French Revolution had given birth to an almost insane hatred of reform, coupled with a wolfish ferocity in hunting down even the mildest reformers. The triumph of the allied sovereigns over Napoleon was followed by a perfect saturnalia of despotism all over Europe, and every form of popular organisation was ruthlessly suppressed or driven under the surface. But driving organisations under the surface does not remove the causes of discontent, and consequently we find that, as rapidly as reaction triumphed above ground, its antagonists spread their secret conspiracies underneath. The popular discontent was further increased by the fact that the return home of the soldiers disbanded from the Napoleonic wars had a serious economic effect. It deprived the agriculturists of a market for their produce, and produced a great agricultural and industrial crisis. It threw out of employment all the ships employed in provisioning the troops, all the trades required to build, equip and repair them, all the industries engaged in making war material; and in addition to suspending the work and flooding the labour market with the men and women thus disemployed, it cast adrift scores of thousands of able-bodied soldiers and sailors, to compete with the civilian workers who had fed, clothed and maintained them during the war. In Ireland especially the results were disastrous, owing to the inordinately large proportion of Irish amongst the disbanded soldiers and sailors. Those returning home found the labour market glutted with unemployed in the cities, and in the rural districts the landlords engaged in a fierce war of extermination with their tenantry, who, having lost their war market and war prices, were unable to meet the increasing exactions of the owners of the soil. It was at this period the great Ribbon conspiracy took hold upon the Irish labourer in the rural districts, and although the full truth relative to that movement has never yet been unearthed, sufficient is known to indicate that it was in effect a secret agricultural trades union of labourers and cottier farmers – a trades union which undertook, in its own wild way, to execute justice upon the evictor, and vengeance upon the traitor to his fellows. Also at this time Irish trade unionism, although secret and illegal, attained to its maximum of strength and compact organisation. In 1824 the chief constable of Dublin, testifying before a committee of the House of Commons, declared that the trades of Dublin were perfectly organised, and many of the employers were already beginning to complain of the “tyranny of the Irish trades unions”. Under such circumstances it is not to be wondered at, that the attention which in the eighteenth century had been given to political reforms and the philosophy thereof, gave way in the nineteenth to solicitude for social amelioration.
In England, France, and Germany a crop of social philosophers sprang up, each with his scheme of a perfect social order, each with a plan by which the regeneration of society could be accomplished, and poverty and all its attendant evils abolished. For the most part these theorists had no complaint to make against the beneficiaries of the social system of the day; their complaint was against the results of the social system. Indeed they, in most cases, believed that the governing and possessing classes would themselves voluntarily renounce their privileges and property and initiate the new order once they were convinced of its advantages. With this belief it was natural that the chief direction taken by their criticism of society should be towards an analysis of the effects of competition upon buyer and seller, and that the relation of the labourer as producer to the proprietor as appropriator of the thing produced should occupy no part of their examination. One result of this one sided view of social relations necessarily was a complete ignoring of historical development as a factor in hastening the attainment of their ideal; since the new order was to be introduced by the governing class, it followed that the stronger that class became the easier would be the transition, and consequently, everything which would tend to weaken the social bond by accentuating class distinction, or impairing the feelings of reverence held by the labourer for his masters, would be a hindrance to progress.
Those philosophers formed socialist sects, and it is known that their followers, when they lost the inspiring genius of their leaders, degenerated into reactionaries of the most pronounced type, opposed to every forward move of labour.
The Irish are not philosophers as a rule, they proceed too rapidly from thought to action.
Hence it is not to be wondered at, that the same period which produced the Utopian Socialists before alluded to in France, England, and Germany produced in Ireland an economist more thoroughly Socialist in the modern sense than any of his contemporaries – William Thompson, of Clonkeen, Roscarbery, County Cork – a Socialist who did not hesitate to direct attention to the political and social subjection of labour as the worst evil of society; nor to depict, with a merciless fidelity to truth, the disastrous consequences to political freedom of the presence in society of a wealthy class. Thompson was a believer in the possibility of realising Socialism by forming co-operative colonies on the lines of those advocated by Robert Owen, and to that extent may be classed as a Utopian. On the other hand he believed that such colonies must be built by the labourers themselves, and not by the governing class. He taught that the wealth of the ruling class was derived from the plunder of labour, and he advocated, as a necessary preliminary to Socialism, the conquest of political representation on the basis of the adult suffrage of both sexes. He did not believe in the State as a basis of Socialist society, but he insisted upon the necessity of using political weapons to destroy all class privileges founded in law, and to clear the ground of all obstacles which the governing class might desire to put in the way of the growth of Socialist communities.
Lest it may be thought that we are exaggerating the merits of Thompson’s work as an original thinker, a pioneer of Socialist thought, superior to any of the Utopian Socialists of the Continent, and long ante-dating Karl Marx in his insistence upon the subjection of labour as the cause of all social misery, modern crime and political dependence, as well as in his searching analysis of the true definition of capital, we will quote a passage from his most important work, published in 1824: An Inquiry into the principles of the distribution of Wealth most conducive to Human Happiness as applied to the newly-proposed System of the Voluntary Equality of Wealth. Third edition.
“What, then, is the most accurate idea of capital? It is that portion of the product of labour which, whether of a permanent nature or not, is capable of being made the instrument of profit. Such seem to be the real circumstances which mark out one portion of the products of labour as capital. On such distinctions, however, have been founded the insecurity and oppression of the productive labourer – the real parent, under the guidance of knowledge, of all wealth – and the enormous usurpation, over the productive forces and their fellow-creatures, of those who, under the name of capitalists, or landlords, acquired the possession of those accumulated products – the yearly or permanent supply of the community. Hence the opposing claims of the capitalist and the labourer. The capitalist, getting into his hands, under the reign of insecurity and force, the consumption of many labourers for the coming year, the tools or machinery necessary to make their labour productive, and the dwellings in which they must live, turned them to the best account, and bought labour and its future products with them as cheaply as possible. The greater the profit of capital, or the more the capitalist made the labourer pay for the advance of his food, the use of the implements or machinery and the occupation of the dwelling, the less of course remained to the labourer for the acquisition of any object of desire.”
Or again, see how, whilst advocating political reform as a means to an end, he depicts its inefficiency when considered as an end in itself: –
“As long as the accumulated capital of society remains in one set of hands, and the productive power of creating wealth remains in another, the accumulated capital will, while the nature of man continues as at present, be made use of to counter-act the natural laws of distribution, and to deprive the producers of the use of what their labour has produced. Were it possible to conceive that, under simple representative institutions, any such of the expedients of insecurity should be permitted to remain in existence as would uphold the division of capital and labour, such representative institutions (though all the plunder of political power should cease) would be of little further benefit to the real happiness of mankind, than as affording an easy means for the development of knowledge, and the ultimate abolition of all such expedients. As long as a class of mere capitalists exists, society must remain in a diseased state. Whatever plunder is saved from the hand of political power will be levied in another way, under the name of profit, by capitalists who, while capitalists, must be always law- makers.”
Thompson advocated free education for all, and went into great detail to prove its feasibility, giving statistics to show that the total cost of such education could easily be borne by Ireland, without unduly increasing the burden of the producers. In this he was three generations ahead of his time – the reform he then advocated being only partially realised in our day. Living in a country in which a small minority imposed a detested religion by force upon a conquered people, with the result that a ferocious fanaticism disgraced both sides, he yet had courage and foresight enough to plead for secular education, and to the cry of the bigots who then as now declared that religion would die unless supported by the State, he answered: –
“Not only has experience proved that religion can exist without interfering with the natural laws of distribution by violation of security, but it has increased and flourished during centuries in Ireland, and in Greece, under and in spite of the forced abstraction of its own resources from its own communicants, to enrich a rival and hated priesthood, or to feed the force that enchained it.”
How different was the spirit of the Socialism preached by Thompson from the visionary sentimentalism of the Utopians of Continental Europe, or of Owen in his earlier days in England, with their constant appeals to the ‘humanity’ of the possessing classes, is further illustrated by the following passage which, although lengthy, we make no apology for reproducing. Because of its biting analysis of the attitude of the rich in the various stages of political society, and the lust for power which accompanies extreme wealth, the passage might have never been written by a Socialist of the twentieth century: –
“The unoccupied rich are without any active pursuit; an object in life is wanting to them. The means of gratifying the senses, the imagination even, of sating all wants and caprices they possess. The pleasures of power are still to be attained. It is one of the strongest and most unavoidable propensities of those who have been brought up in indulgence, to abhor restraint, to be uneasy under opposition, and therefore to desire power to remove these evils of restraint and opposition. How shall they acquire the power? First by the direct influence of their wealth, and the hopes and fears it engenders; then when these means are exhausted, or to make these means more effectual, they endeavour everywhere to seize on, to monopolise the powers of Government.
“Where despotism does exist, they endeavour to get entirely into their own hands, or in conjunction with the head of the State, or other bodies, they seize as large a portion as they can of the functions of legislation. Where despotism does not exist, or is modified, they share amongst themselves all the subordinate departments of Government; they monopolise, either directly or indirectly, the command of the armed force, the offices of judges, priests and all those executive departments which give the most power, require the least trouble, and render the largest pecuniary returns. Where despotism exists, the class of the excessively rich make the best terms they can with the despot, to share his power whether as partners, equals or mere slaves.
“If his situation is such as to give them a confidence in their strength, they make terms with the despot, and insist on what they call their rights; if they are weak they gladly crawl to the despot, and appear to glory in their slavishness to him for the sake of the delegated power of making slaves to themselves of the rest of the community. Such do the historians of all nations prove the tendencies of excessive wealth to be.”
In the English-speaking world the work of this Irish thinker is practically unknown, but on the Continent of Europe his position has long been established. Besides the work already quoted he wrote an Appeal of one-half of the Human Race – Women – against the Pretensions of the other half – Men – to retain them in Political and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery published in London in 1825. Labour Rewarded, the Claims of Labour and Capital Conciliated; or, How to Secure to Labour the Whole Product of its Exertions, published in 1827, and Practical Directions for the Speedy and Economical Establishment of Communities, published in London in 1830, are two other known works. He also left behind the manuscript of other books on the same subject, but they have never been published, and their whereabouts is now unknown. It is told of him that he was for twenty years a vegetarian and total abstainer, and in his will left the bulk of his fortune to endow the first co-operative community to be established in Ireland, and his body for the purpose of dissection in the interests of science. His relations successfully contested the will on the ground that “immoral objects were included in its benefit”.
His position in the development of Socialism as a science lies, in our opinion, midway between the Utopianism of the early idealists and the historical materialism of Marx. He anticipated the latter in most of his analyses of the economic system, and foresaw the part that a democratisation of politics must play in clearing the ground of the legal privileges of the professional classes. In a preface to the English translation of the work of one of his German biographers, Anton Menger, the writer, H.S. Foxwell, M.A., says of his contribution to economic science:
“Thompson’s fame will rest, not upon his advocacy of Owenite co-operation, devoted and public-spirited as that was, but upon the fact that he was the first writer to elevate the question of the just distribution of wealth to the supreme position it has since held in English political economy. Up to his time political economy had been rather commercial than industrial, indeed he finds it necessary to explain the very meaning of the term ‘industrial’, which he says, was from the French, no doubt adopted from Saint Simon.”
If we were to attempt to estimate the relative achievements of Thompson and Marx we should not hope to do justice to either by putting them in contrast, or by eulogising Thompson in order to belittle Marx, as some Continental critics of the latter seek to do. Rather we should say that the relative position of this Irish genius and of Marx are best comparable to the historical relations of the pre-Darwinian evolutionists to Darwin; as Darwin systematised all the theories of his predecessors and gave a lifetime to the accumulation of the facts required to establish his and their position, so Marx found the true line of economic thought already indicated, and brought his genius and encyclopaedic knowledge and research to place it upon an unshakable foundation. Thompson brushed aside the economic fiction maintained by the orthodox economists and accepted by the Utopian, that profit was made in exchange, and declared that it was due to the subjection of labour and the resultant appropriation, by the capitalists and landlords, of the fruits of the labour of others. He does not hesitate to include himself as a beneficiary of monopoly. He declared, in 1827, that for about twelve years he had been “living on what is called rent, the produce of the labour of others”. All the theory of the class war is but a deduction from this principle. But, although Thompson recognised this class war as a fact, he did not recognise it as a factor, as the factor in the evolution of society towards freedom. This was reserved for Marx, and in our opinion, is his chief and crowning glory. While Owen and the Continental Socialists were beseeching the favour of kings, Parliaments and Congresses, this Irishman was arraigning the rich, pointing out that lust of power for ever followed riches, that “capitalists, while capitalists, would always be law-makers”, but that “as long as a class of mere capitalists exists, society must remain in a diseased state”. The fact that the daring Celt who preached this doctrine, arraigning alike the social and political rulers of society and society itself, also vehemently demanded the extension of the suffrage to the whole adult population, is surely explanation enough why his writings found no favour with the respectable classes of society, with those same classes who so frequently lionised the leaders of the Socialist sects of his day.
In our day another great Irishman, Standish O’Grady, perhaps the greatest litterateur in Ireland, has been preaching in the pages of The Peasant Dublin, 1908-9, against capitalist society, and urged the formation of co-operative communities in Ireland as an escape therefrom. It is curiously significant how little Irishmen know of the intellectual achievements of their race, that O’Grady apparently is entirely unconscious of the work of his great forerunner in that field of endeavour. It is also curiously significant of the conquest of the Irish mind by English traditions, that Irish Nationalists should often be found fighting fiercely against Socialism as “a German idea”, although every social conception which we find in the flower in Marx, we can also find in the bud in Thompson, twenty-three years before the publication of the Communist Manifesto, forty-three years before the issue of Das Kapital.
We will conclude this chapter by another citation from this Irish pioneer of revolutionary Socialism; we say of revolutionary Socialism advisedly, for all the deductions from his teachings lead irresistibly to the revolutionary action of the working class. As, according to the Socialist philosophy, the political demands of the working-class movement must at all times depend upon the degree of development of the age and country in which it finds itself, it is apparent that Thompson’s theories of action were the highest possible expression of the revolutionary thought of his age.
“The productive labourers, stript of all capital, of tools, houses, and materials to make their labour productive, toil from want, from the necessity of existence, their remuneration being kept at the lowest compatible figure with the existence of industrious habits.
“How shall the wretchedly poor be virtuous? Who cares about them? What character have they to lose? What hold has public opinion on their action? What care they for the delicate pleasures of reputation who are tormented by the gnawings of absolute want? How should they respect the property or rights of others who have none of their own to beget a sympathy for those who suffer from their privation? How can they feel for others’ woes, for others’ passing light complaints, who are tormented by their own substantial miseries? The mere mention of the trivial inconveniences of others insults and excites the indignation, instead of calling forth their complacent sympathies. Cut off from the decencies, the comforts, the necessaries of life, want begets ferocity. If they turn they find many in the same situation with themselves, partaking of their feelings of isolation from kindly sympathies with the happy. They become a public to each other, a public of suffering, of discontent and ignorance; they form a public opinion of their own in contempt of the public opinion of the rich, whom, and their laws, they look upon as the result of force alone. From whom are the wretched to learn the principle while they never see the practice of morality? Of respect for the security of others? From their superiors? From the laws? The conduct of their superiors, the operation of those laws have been one practical lesson to them of force, of restraint, of taking away without their consent, without any equivalent, the fruits of their labour. Of what avail are morals or principles or commands, when opposed, when belied by example? These can never supply motives of virtuous conduct. Motives arise from things, from surrounding circumstances, not from the idleness of words and empty declamations. Words are only useful to convey and impress a knowledge of these things and circumstances. If these things do not exist, words are mere mockery.
With this bit of economic determinist philosophy – teaching that morality is a thing of social growth, the outcome of things and circumstances – we leave this earliest Irish apostle of the social revolution. Fervent Celtic enthusiasts are fond of claiming, and the researches of our days seem to bear out the claim, that Irish missionaries were the first to rekindle the lamp of learning in Europe, and dispel the intellectual darkness following the downfall of the Roman Empire; may we not also take pride in the fact that an Irishman was the first to pierce the worse than Egyptian darkness of capitalist barbarism, and to point out to the toilers the conditions of their enslavement, and the essential pre-requisites of their emancipation?