James Connolly


Father Finlay, S.J., and Socialism


From Workers’ Republic, July 1, 1899
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.

“Those who seek a comprehensive remedy for the sufferings of the working classes look beyond trades unionism. They perceive that they must modify more profoundly the relations between labour and capital; to bridge across the chasm dividing them, and so to abolish that rivalry of interest out of which has grown so much inhumanity to man. One class of reformers propose to effect this change by the absolute abolition of private capital – by taking capital, or the material instruments of wealth production, out of the hands of the individuals and classes, and making it the property of the community, vesting it in the State. This scheme, a dream of the socialist – impossible to work out in practice, hopelessly breaking down wherever it has been tried, violates the fundamental conception of all property. What a free man creates by his labour, that is his property; if it is his property he can do with it what he wills – consume it by present use or reserve it for further production. To forbid him the right to reserve it or use it as capital would be to deny him the right to possess property. From this point of view – as well as from others – socialism is seen to have much in common with slavery.”

The above quotation, from the paper on Cooperation read by Father Thomas A. Finlay, S.J., before the fourth general meeting of the Maynooth union, calls for more than a passing notice, is deserving of more intelligent criticism than our capitalist contemporaries have been able to bring to bear upon it. For this reason we propose to place before our readers a brief statement of our position in so far at least as it is affected by the assertions contained in the paper quoted from above.

We readily allow that no man in Ireland within the clerical body, and few men in Ireland outside the ranks of the adherents of scientific socialism, can bring to bear upon questions of political economy, and the effect which theories of political economy have had upon the industrial life of the people, such a wealth of knowledge as the reverend gentleman whose paper we are now discussing. The feeble and ineffective efforts of the Home Rule pressmen to criticise the cooperative movement to which Father Finlay devotes so much of his energy and ability is in itself proof enough that, however efficient our journalistic guides may be as caterers to the palate of a reading public ready to forgive every inconsistency of statement or colouring of fact, if only it is seasoned with a dash of ‘patriotism’ or ‘true religion,’ as helps to the intelligent discussion of an economic question they are worse than useless.

The economic theories held by the non-socialist parties in Ireland today and voiced by their publicists on press and platform, are in fact the theories which prevailed in England more than fifty years ago – during the agitation for the repeal of the corn laws, and for free trade in general. Such ideas are now regarded throughout the remainder of the world as outworn and obsolete; it is only in Ireland they survive, and in Ireland only among men, who having failed to keep step with the intellectual march of the world, would fain convince themselves that the intellectual incapacity which shuts them off from sympathy with the thought of the age is the distinguishing birthmark of a true celt. That the criticism of such persons should be of little effect in adding to our knowledge any important truth on an economic subject is, of course, to be expected, and we do not propose to waste our own or our readers’ time in discussing them. But the arguments of Father Finlay naturally carry more weight, and deserve, we repeat, a much more serious study.

To begin with we would like to remind the reverend lecturer that he did not place before his hearers such a dear and definite idea of the true socialist position as he himself possesses. In a lecture delivered in Dublin before the Statistical Society some few years ago, in dealing with the teachings of Karl Marx – the ablest exponent of socialism the world has seen, and the founder of that school of thought which embraces all the militant socialist parties of the world – Father Finlay laid before his hearers an exposition of the evolutionary nature of the socialist doctrine, its historical derivation and materialistic basis, which is not at all compatible with the crudely false conception of socialism to be found in the foregoing quotation. Modern socialism, he showed, is not the product of the brains of any man nor of any number of men; it is the legitimate child of a long, drawn-out historical evolution, and its consummation will only be finally possible when that evolutionary process has attained to a suitable degree of development. As capitalist society – the system of wage-labour and ‘free contract’ between master and man – was only developed according as the system of feudalism – or serf labour under a hereditary landowning nobility – broke down owing to the demand for new methods of industry produced by the opening up of new markets through the discovery of America, and the perfection of means of transit and communication, in like manner will socialism also come when the development of capitalism in its turn renders the burden of a capitalist class unbearable, and the capitalist system unworkable.

Socialists point out that the capitalist system depends upon the maintenance of an equilibrium between the producing and consuming powers of the world; that business cannot go on unless the goods produced can find customers; that owing to the rapid development of machinery this equilibrium cannot be maintained; that the productive powers of the world are continually increasing whilst the virgin markets of the world are as continually diminishing; that every new scientific process applied to industry, every new perfecting of machinery, increases the productivity of labour, but as the area of the world remains unaltered the hope of finding new markets for the products of labour grows ever less and less; that a time must come when all the world will be exhausted as a market for the wares of commerce, and yet invention and industrial perfectioning remain as active as ever; that then capitalism – able to produce more in a few months than would supply its customers for years – will have no work for the workers who, constituting the vast majority as they do, will have to choose between certain starvation and revolt for socialism. That the same economic development which will create the necessity for revolt will also provide the conditions required to make that revolt successful, in so far as it will have forced out of business the multitude of small capitalists, and replaced them by huge Companies, Stores, and Trusts – huge aggregations of Capital under one head, a unification of industry, requiring only the transference of the right of ownership from the individual to the democratic community to bridge the chasm between capitalism and socialism. That the private property which the worker should possess in the fruits of his toil is continually confiscated today by the capitalist process of industry, and that socialism by making all citizens – society – joint heirs and owners of the tools of production, will restore to the workers that private property of which capitalism deprives them.

Here then is a statement of the aims and principles of modern socialism. The intelligent reader will observe that this is not a mere piece of speculative philosophy, nor yet the product of disordered brains acted upon by hunger-weakened stomachs. On the contrary it is primarily a scientific analysis of the past and present structure of society, a comprehensive summing up of the facts of history.

In face of this fact, which we would most respectfully remind Father Finlay he has himself most lucidly explained here now what becomes of his statement at Maynooth that socialism had “hopelessly broken down wherever it has been tried.” The statement was crudely false, mischievous, and misleading, and Father Finlay would not risk his reputation by repeating it before any audience of scientists in the world. That he thought it quite safe to make such an utterance at Maynooth is an interesting indication of the low estimate in which he held the intellectual grasp of his hearers on the thought of their generation. Socialism has not “broken down wherever it has been tried,” because, being the fruit of an historical evolution yet to be completed, it has never been tried.

If Father Finlay can tell when and where such an industrial order as would be recognised by the socialist parties of the world as socialism has been tried and failed then we will publicly recant our errors. Wanting such information we, and with us an ever-increasing band of the wage-slaves of capitalism, will continue to prepare for that revolt which shall establish the socialist republic.


Last updated on 29.7.2007