James Connolly


Labour, Nationality and Religion


Chapter I
The Problem Stated

It is not to be wondered at that the spirit of restless revolt which has gained such predominating influence over the nations of the world should have passed beyond the arena of politics to assert itself in the domain of practical economy. The causes likely to create a conflict are unmistakable. They are the marvellous discoveries of science, the colossal development of industry, the changed relations between workmen and masters, the enormous wealth of the few and the abject misery of the many, the more defiant self-reliance and the more scientific organisation of the workers, and finally a widespread depravity in moral principle and practice. The momentous seriousness of the coming crisis fills every thoughtful mind with anxiety and dread. Wise men discuss it; practical men propose schemes; platforms, Parliaments, clubs, kings, all think and talk of it. Nor is there any subject which so completely engrosses the attention of the world.

Encyclical on Labour by Pope Leo XIII, 1891.

In our analysis of the discourses against Socialism which formed the burden of the Lenten Lectures of Father Kane, S.J., we propose to cite at all times the text we are criticising, and we regret it is not practicable within our space to quote in full the entire series of lectures, and can only trust that our readers before making up their minds upon the question will procure a verbatim report of these discourses in order that they may satisfy themselves upon the correctness of our quotations. As far as it is possible, without destroying the unity of our argument, we shall follow the plan of the lecture itself, and attempt to answer each objection as it was formulated. But when an objection is merely stated, and no attempt made to follow it by a reasoned argument sustaining the objection we shall not waste our readers' time or our own by wandering off in an attempt to answer. One point stated by our reverend opponent, and then immediately forgotten or systematically ignored, requires to be restated here as the veritable anchor from which the argument should not be allowed to drift. Had our opponent clung to that anchor it would not have been possible for him to introduce so much extraneous matter, so much senseless speculation and foolish slander as he did introduce in the course of his long-drawn-out criticism. That point, as stated by Father Kane, is:

Once for all we must understand a Socialist to be that man, and only that man, who holds the essential principle of Socialism, i.e. that all wealth-producing power, and all that pertains to it, belongs to the ownership and control of the State.

Thus, at the outset of his lectures, in his first discourse, the reverend gentleman makes it clear that Socialists are bound as Socialists only to the acceptance of one great principle – the ownership and control of the wealth-producing power by the State, and that, therefore, totally antagonistic interpretations of the Bible or of prophecy and revelation, theories of marriage, and of history, may be held by Socialists without in the slightest degree interfering with their activities as such, or with their proper classification as supporters of Socialist doctrine. If this great central truth had been made as clear as its importance justifies, and as firmly adhered to by our opponent as the Socialists themselves adhere to it, then it would not be necessary for the present writer to remind our critics of those uncomfortable facts in Irish history to which we have referred in our introduction, nor to those other facts in universal history we shall be forced to cite ere our present survey is finished.

Says our critic:

We now come to examine its principles. One fundamental principle of Socialism is that labour alone is the cause of value, and that labour alone can give any title to ownership. This was first formulated by Saint Simon, and is generally adopted by Socialists. This principle is false. It is founded on an incomplete explanation of the origin of value. We will put it to the test later on. At present we need only remark that a thing may be of real use and therefore of real value to a man who has a right to use it, even independently of any labour spent upon it. Fruit in a forest would have real value for a hungry man, even though no human labour had been given to its growing. Another principle, one invented by Karl Marx, is what he calls the materialistic conception of history. It is an application of the wild philosophic dreams of the German, Hegel; it means, in plain English, that the economic or, broadly speaking, the trade conditions existing in the world determine the way in which the production of wealth must work out. Now, this working out of production determines what men’s social, ethical, and religious opinions shall be. But the economic conditions are always in a state of evolution, and thus, after a time, they come into collision with the previous social, ethical and religious state of things. But these latter do not die without a struggle, and consequently re-act, and limit to some extent the influence of the material evolution which is going on. I have given this principle as fully as I can in a short space. It assumes that everything in the world depends absolutely and exclusively upon the mere action of mere material causes. It is a principle the only proof of which is in the begging of the question, in supposing that there is no God, no soul, no free will, nothing but mud and the forces of mud.

We are indebted to our critic for his statement of the importance of this doctrine of the materialistic conception of history, although we are amused at his characterisation of the doctrine itself. In the beginning of his description, ever mindful of the necessity of prejudicing his hearers, he describes it as an application of the “wild philosophic dreams” of Hegel; in the middle it is stated that the doctrine rejects dreams as a foundation of religious belief and bases our ideas of religion upon the impression derived from material surroundings, and in a final sentence, so far from it being dreams, it is “nothing but mud and the forces of mud”.

Let us examine briefly the true context of this doctrine. While remembering that there are many good Socialists who do not hold it, and that a belief in it is not an essential to Socialism, it is still accepted as the most reasonable explanation of history by the leading Socialists of this world. It teaches that the ideas of men are derived from their material surroundings, and that the forces which made and make for historical changes and human progress had and have their roots in the development of the tools men have used in their struggle for existence, using the words ‘tools’ in its broadest possible sense to include all the social forces of wealth-production. It teaches that since the break-up of common ownership and the clan community all human history has turned around the struggle of contending classes in society – one class striving to retain possession, first of the persons of the other class and hold them as chattel-slaves, and then of the tools of the other class and hold them as wage-slaves; that all the politics of the world resolved themselves in the last analysis into a struggle for the possession of that portion of the fruits of labour which labour creates, but does not enjoy, i.e. rent, interest, profit. Here let us say that no Socialist claims for Marx the discovery or original formulation of the doctrine of the materialistic conception of history – indeed, the brilliant Irish scholastic, Duns Scotus, taught it in the Middle Ages; but that more precise formulation of the guiding forces of history which relate to the influence of economic factors, and which we call economic determinism, has indeed Marx as its clearest expositor, although the Irish economist, William Thompson of County Cork, in 1826, had pointed it out before Marx was out of swaddling clothes.

On the first point, viz., the influence of our material surroundings upon our mental processes and conceptions, a few words should be sufficient to establish its substantial truth in the minds of all those who do not fear the light.

Down on the western coast of Ireland the fishermen use, or did until quite recently, as their sole means of sea-going, a little boat made simply of a framework covered with animal hides or tarpaulin, and known as a coracle. At one time in the history of the world such boats represented the sole means of ocean travel. Now, is it not as plain as that two and two make four that the outlook upon life, the conceptions of Man’s relation to nature, the theories of international relations, of life which characterise the age of the Lusitania, the flying machine, and the wireless message, could not possibly have been held by even the wisest men of the age of the coracle. The brains of men were as able then and as subtle in their conceptions as they are to-day, in fact the philosophers of ancient Asia have never been surpassed and seldom equalled in brain power in the modern world; but the most subtle, acute and powerful mind of the ancient world could not even understand the terms of the social, political, or moral problems which confront us to-day, and are intelligently understood by the average day labourer. We are confronted with a salient instance of this in Holy Scripture. We read the inspired revelation of prophets, judges, and saints giving the world instructions for its future guidance; we read of commands to go forth and convey the gospel to the heathen; but nowhere do we read that those inspired men knew or spoke of a continent beyond the Atlantic in which immortal souls were sitting in darkness, if souls can be said to sit. The wise men of the ancient world, the inspired men of the Holy Land, the brilliant philosophers and scholastics of mediaeval Europe, were all limited by their material surroundings, could only think in terms of the world with which they were acquainted, and their ideas of what was moral or immoral were fashioned for them by the social system in which they lived. Slavery is held to-day to be immoral, and no chattel slaveowner would be given absolution; but when Constantine the Great accepted the Christian religion the Pope of the period received him with acclamation, and no one suggested to him the need of surrendering his slaves, of which he held thousands. Queen Elizabeth of England, ‘Good Queen Bess’, engaged in slave trading and made a good profit in the venture; but no Catholic historian or pamphleteer of the period ever attacked her for that offence, although attacks for other causes were made in plenty. How is it that the point of view as to the morality of slavery has changed? It cannot be that religion is changed, for we are told that religion is the same yesterday, to-day and for ever. If it is not because it has been discovered that it is cheaper to hire men and discharge them when the job is done, than it was to buy men and be compelled to feed them all the time, working or idle, sick or well, for what reason has the change in our conceptions come? Stated brutally, the fact is that slavery is immoral because it is dearer than wage labour. And so with all our other intellectual processes. They change with the change in our environment, particularly our economic or social environment.

A negro slave in the Southern States of America was told by his owner to go up and fasten the shingles on the top of the roof of his master’s dwelling. “Boss”, said he to the slaveowner, “if I go up there and fall down and get killed you will lose that 500 dollars you paid for me; but if you send up that Irish labourer and he falls down and breaks his neck you won’t even have to bury him, and can get another labourer to-morrow for two dollars a day”. The Irish labourer was sent up. Moral: Slavery is immoral because slaves cost too much.

As man has progressed in his conquest of the secrets of Nature, he has been compelled to accept as eminently natural that from which his forefathers shrank as a manifestation of the power of the supernatural; as the progress of commerce has taken wealth, and the power that goes with wealth, out of the exclusive ownership of kings and put it in the possession of capitalists and merchants, political power has acquired a new basis, and diplomatic relations, from being the expression of the lust for family aggrandisement, have become the servants of the need for new markets and greater profits – kings wait in the ante-chambers of usurers like Rothschild and Baring to get their consent for war or peace; Popes have for hundreds of years excommunicated those who put their money out at usury and have denied them Christian burial, but now a Pierpont Morgan, as financier of the Vatican, lends out at interest the treasures of the Popes. And man, caught in the grasp of the changing economic conditions, changes his intellectual conceptions to meet his changed environment. The world moves even although men stand still, and not the least of the changes have been those of the ghostly fathers of the Church towards the world and its problems. Like the girl to the kisses of her sweetheart, the Church has ever to the blandishments of the world –

Swearing she would ne’er consent, consented.

Our critic proceeds:

The third principle of Socialism is the theory of Karl Marx, by which he tries to prove that all capital is robbery. He calls it the theory of Surplus Value. Value is the worth of a thing. Now, the worth of a thing may be in that it satisfies some need, as a piece of bread or a blanket; or the worth of a thing may be in that you can barter it for something else, as if you have more bread than you want, but have not a blanket, you may give some of your bread to a man who has no bread but can spare a blanket. The first kind of value is use value, or own worth. The second kind of value is exchange value, or market worth. Instead of mere direct barter, money is used in civilized nations as an equivalent and standard for exchange value. Now, Karl Marx asserts that exchange value, i.e. the worth of a thing as it may be bought or sold, arises only from the labour spent on it. He goes on to say that a workman only gets his wages according to the market value of his labour – that is to say, he is only paid for his time and toil – whereas the value of his labour, i.e. the worth which results from his labour, may be far in excess of the wages which he gets. Marx calls this value or worth which results from labour over and above the wages of labour, which is equivalent to the labourer’s support, Marx calls this overworth surplus value. He states that while it goes to the pocket of the employer, it is really the property of the workman, because it is the result of his labour. This surplus value is really capital, and is used by the employer to create more surplus value – that is to say, more capital. Let me put this in another way: while the value of a thing for a man’s own use may depend on the thing itself, the value of a thing in the market arises only from the labour spent on it. But the labour spent on it may also have its market value in winning its wage, or it may also have its use value in producing greater value than its wage. But this use value arises from labour as well as the exchange value, and, therefore, belongs to the workman and not to the employer. All this ingenious and intricate system rests absolutely upon the one assumption that exchange value depends only on the labour spent. Now, this assumption is quite false and quite groundless. The worth of a thing in the market will depend first of all upon the nature of the thing’s own worth for use. Secondly, upon the demand and other outside circumstances. And thirdly, upon the labour spent. A bottle of good wine will have more exchange value than a bottle of bad wine, even though it may not have cost more labour. A pair of boots carved out of wood with long and careful toil will fetch less in the market than a simple pair of brogues. The principle that labour alone is the source of value and the only title to ownership was adopted by the American Socialist platform in 1904, with the recommendation that the workmen of the world should gradually seize on all capital.

Now, as to the Socialist system. In the official declaration of the English Socialists we read – the object of Socialism is “the establishment of a system of society, based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth, by, and in the interest of, the whole community”.

There is little to refute here that will not have readily occurred to the mind of the intelligent reader. In fact, the haste with which Father Kane left this branch of the subject evinced his knowledge of its dangerous nature. The exposition of the true nature of capital, viz., that it is stored-up, unpaid labour, forms the very basis of the Socialist criticism of modern society, and its method of wealth production; it is the fundamental idea of modern Marxist Socialism, and yet in a discourse covering four columns of small type in the Irish Catholic (what a misnomer!) the full criticism of this really fundamental position takes up only twelve lines. And such a criticism!

“A bottle of good wine will have more exchange value than a bottle of bad wine, even though it may not have cost more labour.” Does the reverend father not know that if good wine can be produced as cheaply as bad wine, and in as great quantity, then good wine will come down to the same price as the inferior article? And if good wine could be produced as cheaply as porter it would be sold at the same price as porter is now – heavenly thought! It is the labour embodied in the respective articles, including the labour of keeping in storage, paying rental for vaults, etc., that determines their exchange value. Wine kept in vaults for years commands higher prices than new wine, but could chemists give new wine the same flavour as is possessed by stored-up wine, then the new would bring down the price of the old to a price governed by the amount of labour embodied in the new.

“A pair of boots carved out of wood with long and careful labour will fetch less in the market than a simple pair of brogues.” How illuminating! But what governs the price of the brogues? Why, the amount of labour socially necessary to produce them. The amount of labour necessary to produce an article under average social conditions governs its exchange value. “Boots carved out of wood with long and careful labour” are not produced under average social conditions; in discussing the economic question we discuss governing conditions, not exceptions. Hence the exchange value of boots such as those instanced by Father Kane is as problematical as the moral value of his hair-splitting. If you do not believe labour cost governs the exchange value of a commodity, ask a Dublin master builder to tell you what factors he takes into account when he is asked to give an estimate for building an altar. If he is a Catholic he will cast up his estimate with the same items as if he were a Protestant – that is to say, he will count the cost of labour, including the cost of labour embodied in the raw material, and he will base his estimate upon that cost. Ask any manufacturer, whether employing two men or two thousand, how he determines the price at which he can sell an article, and he will tell you that the cost of labour embodied in it settles that question for the market and for him. Yet it is this simple truth that Father Kane and such enemies of Socialism deny. Altars, beads, cassocks, shoes, buildings, ploughs, books – all articles upon the market except a politician's conscience – have their exchange value, determined in like manner – by their labour cost.

The learned gentleman winds up his lecture with a sneer at Socialist proposals, and an unwilling admission of the terrible logic of our position in future politics. He says:

The means and method of the Socialist have now to be considered. Here we have to consider their destructive and constructive methods – what and how they are to knock down, what and how they are to build up. Here, however, we meet with an endless difference of Socialist opinions. As to the knocking down process, some Socialists are very enterprising, and appear to quite fall in with the anarchist programme of the dagger, the firebrand and the bomb. Others prefer to work through parliament by legal voting and by legal measures. Most of them appear from their speeches and writings to be very little troubled with scruples as to the right or wrong of means to be employed. Some fashionable and aesthetic dabblers in Socialism, amongst whom are men of culture, education and wealth – as, for instance, are some prominent members of the Fabian Society – would work very quietly and very gently; they would even contemplate offering some compensation to the owners whose property they stole, but more probably when the real crash came they would gracefully retire with their culture, their education and their money. A man who makes £25,000 a year by amusing the public is not the sort of man who is likely, when the time comes, to willingly give up all that he owns for the honour of sweeping a street crossing as a Socialist. That is only the superficial nonsense which some people pass off as Socialism. Come to the practical point. The way in which Karl Marx explains how all capital is to be confiscated is as follows. On the one hand, that fierce competition which is the war of the financial world will result in the survival of a very few and very grasping capitalists. On the other hand, the army of labour will be more enlightened, better organised, and more scientifically led. It is easy to see what the enormous multitude of the proletariat – with force, votes and law on their side – can do with the few fat but helpless millionaires whose money is wanted. In any case the Socialist intends by one means or another to take private property from all those who have any. As to the constructive methods of the Socialist, we have dreams, visions, castles in the air, fairy tales in which there is much that is amusing, some things that are very sentimental, and some things that are very foul, but in all of them one element is lacking – common sense.

It is surely not necessary to point out that according to the Socialist doctrine the capitalist class are themselves doing much of the constructive work; they, pushed by their economic necessities, concentrate industries, eliminate useless labour and abolish useless plants, and prepare industry for its handling by officials elected by the workers therein. On the other hand, the “army of labour, more enlightened, better organised and more scientifically led”, banded into industrial unions patterned after the industry in which they are employed, will have prepared the workers to take possession of the productive and distributive forces on the day the incapable capitalist class are forced to surrender to a “proletariat with force, votes and law on their side”.


Last updated on 12.8.2003