James Connolly


Labour, Nationality and Religion


The Firebrand or the Oive Leaf

Socialists will not shrink from resorting to brute force. A Socialist ring will not scruple when there is a question of finally superseding the old order of society to snatch up anarchist weapons – the dagger, the torch, the bomb. Listen to the candid utterances of the great founder of Socialism, Karl Marx, with his henchman, Engels, declared in their manifesto “that their purpose can be obtained only by a violent subversion of the existing order. Let the ruling classes tremble at the Communist revolution”.

Again, at the Congress of The Hague, Karl Marx, as the mouthpiece of Socialists, officially declared: “In most countries of Europe violence must be the lever of our social reform. This violent upheaval must be universal. A proof of this was witnessed in the Commune of Paris, which only failed because in other capitals – Berlin and Madrid – a simultaneous revolutionary movement did not break out in connection with the mighty upheaval of the proletariat in Paris.” Again, Bebel, one of the greatest leaders of Socialist thought, dared to say in the German Reichstag: “The Commune in Paris was only a slight skirmish in the war which the proletariat is prepared to wage against all palaces.” Again, Bebel said elsewhere this Socialistic change cannot be brought about by “sprinkling rose-water”. At the Socialist Convention at Ghent in 1877 one of their leaders said: “When our day comes, rifle and cannon will face about to mow down the foes of the Socialist people.” At a public meeting during the recent elections in England an M.P. supporter of the Liberal Government is reported to have said: “I honour the man or woman who throws a bomb.”

That some Socialists believe that force may be used to inaugurate the new social order only indicates their conviction that the criminal capitalist and ruling classes will not peacefully abide by the verdict of the ballot, but will strive by violence to perpetuate their robber rule in spite of the declared will of the majority of the people. In this conviction such Socialists are strengthened by the record of all the revolutions of the world's history. It is a well-established fact that from the earliest revolutionary outbreak known down to the Commune of Paris, or Red Sunday in Russia, the first blood has been shed, the first blow struck, by the possessing conservative classes. And we are not so childish as to imagine that the capitalist class of the future will shrink from the shedding of the blood of the workers in order to retain their ill-gotten gains. They shed more blood, destroy more working class lives every year, by the criminal carelessness with which they conduct industry and drive us to nerve-racking speed, than is lost in the average international war. In the United States there are killed on the railroads in one year more men than died in the Boer War on both sides. When the capitalists kill us so rapidly for the sake of a few pence extra profit it would be suicidal to expect that they would hesitate to slaughter us wholesale when their very existence as parasites was at stake. Therefore, the Socialists anticipate violence only because they know the evil nature of the beast they contend with. But with a working class thoroughly organised and already as workers in possession of the railroads, shops, factories and ships, we do not need to fear their violence. The hired assassin armies of the capitalist class will be impotent for evil when the railroad men refuse to transport them, the miners to furnish coal for their ships of war, the dock labourers to load or coal these ships, the clothing workers to make uniforms, the sailors to provision them, the telegraphists to serve them, or the farmers to feed them. In the vote, the strike, the boycott and the lockout exercised against the master class, the Socialists have weapons that will make this social revolution comparatively bloodless and peaceable, despite the tigerish instincts or desires of the capitalist enemy, and the doleful Cassandra-like prophecies of our critic.

And if the capitalists do abide the issue of the ballot and allow this battle to be fought out on lines of peaceful political and economic action, gladly we will do likewise. But if not –

But the real point is this: it is not merely the Rothschilds or other millionaires who are to be robbed; it is nor merely the fashionable people who live in palaces and drive in motor cars who are to be robbed, but the shopkeepers are also to be robbed; it is not merely the great big shopkeepers who are to be robbed, but every small business house will be robbed. The professional classes, the barristers and the doctors will be robbed. The small farmer, the small cottager will be evicted. The cabman’s horse and cab will be taken from him. The poor woman who sells apples in the street will have her basket seized upon. These are all ways of making money, and the Socialist says that nobody has any right to make money except the Socialist state. Do you think that men would stand this? Do you think that a tenant who has bought out his land will willingly give it up to the Socialist who promises to spoonfeed him? Do you think that any respectable shopkeeper would give up his shop for the honour of being the shop-boy of a Socialist flunkey? Do you think that any manly man would give up the few shillings that are his own in order to become an irresponsible easy-going loafer in an idealised workhouse? No.

This argument is brought in after telling a silly story about a Socialist who wanted Rothschild to divide up, and the story is told despite the fact that the reverend and pious lecturer has frequently explained that Socialism has nothing to do with dividing up. In fact Socialists want to stop dividing up with the “irresponsible easy-going loafers”, called aristocrats and capitalists, in the “idealised workhouses”, known as palaces and mansions. All those poor workers whom he mentions – the small farmer, the cottager, the cabman, the apple-woman, the doctor – all are compelled to divide up with the capitalist, speculator and landlord, and Socialism proposes to them that instead of wearing life out working night and day as in the case of the doctor, or shivering and suffering as in the case of the farmer, the cottager, the cabman, and the apple-woman, they shall help to establish a system of society where the functions they now perform shall be performed better through more perfect organisation, with equipment supplied by the community, and where they shall be honoured co-workers with all their fellow-workers, with an old age guaranteed against the want and privation they know awaits them under the present order. And they are hearkening to this Socialist promise of relief from their present social purgatory.

Father Kane next proceeds to quote Socialists to prove the beneficence of medieval Catholicism. He says:

The contrast is reproduced under a different aspect when we compare the Church of Christ with the Church of Luther, King Harry and Queen Bess. Whoever studies Socialism will find that there is much to learn from this contrast. We read in Professor Nitti, of Naples: “An English Socialist, Hyndman, whose profound historical and economic learning cannot be questioned even by his adversaries, has understood and admirably expressed the many benefits society has derived from the Church of the Middle Ages.” Hyndman wrote:

It is high time that the nonsense that has been foisted on to the public by men interested in suppressing the facts should be exposed. It is not true that the Church of our ancestors was the organised fraud which it suits fanatics to represent it. The monasteries and priests did far more for elementary education than is at all known ... As to university education, where would Oxford be to-day but for the munificence of bishops, monks, and nuns? Fourteen of her finest colleges were founded by churchmen or abbots for the benefit of the children of the people. The Reformation converted these colleges into luxurious preserves for the sons of the aristocracy.

He tells us how the Reformation converted the lands of the monasteries into the properties of rack-renting landlords. Abbots and priors were the best landlords in England. While the Church had power, permanent or general pauperism was unknown. One-third of all tithes, one-third of all ecclesiastical revenue was first set aside to be given to the poor. The monks were the road-makers, alms-givers, teachers, doctors, nurses of the country. They built, furnished and attended the hospitals, and gave the poor relief out of their own funds. While the monasteries stood, the poor or unemployed were always sure of food and shelter. Look at the other side of the contrast. When Harry VIII was king in Merrie England he wanted to get rid of his wife and he wanted to get money. Both motives moved him to break away from the Church of Christ, and to confiscate the monasteries. One sad and most pitiful result was that thousands and thousands were driven out on the roads to beg. They were all able men and willing to work, but the monasteries had disappeared, and with them work and shelter and food. These ‘sturdy beggars’, or ‘stalwart vagabonds’, as they were called, thronged the road. They had been able to earn their bread under the old Church of Christ, but under the new church of King Hal and his merry men, these ‘sturdy beggars’ were a nuisance. In 1547 a law was passed that these ‘sturdy beggars’ should be branded with hot irons and handed over as slaves to the person who denounced them, or if again caught they were to be hanged. Under good Queen Bess unlicensed beggars over fourteen were flogged and branded on the left ear unless someone would take them into service for two years. If they begged again, all over eighteen were executed unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years; caught a third time, death was the penalty, without reprieve. Hollingshead asserts that in the reign of the good King Henry VIII, 72,000 sturdy beggars were hanged for begging. That was the contrast between the Reformation and the love of Christ’s Church for Christ’s poor. It was the way in which the Reformation solved the difficulty of the unemployed. Queen Bess, the ‘virgin queen’, the good, sweet Queen Bess, found a woman’s way of following her father’s mood. She had her ‘stalwart vagabonds’ strung up in batches, like flitches of bacon along the rafters, in order to teach the people the godly way in which they should walk – the way of her Reformation of the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ has always protected the poor.

This long extract should be enlightening and illuminating to our readers. It shows that the Socialists have been uniformly fair in their treatment of the attitude of the Catholic Church of the past towards the poor, that they have defended that Church from the attacks of unscrupulous Protestant historians, upon that point, so that our reverend friend has to admit that a correct knowledge of the contrast between the attitude of the Church and that of the Protestant reformers can be best attained by whoever studies Socialist literature. But, as we pointed out in a previous chapter, when Father Kane is recounting the numberless murders, outrages, and barbarities practised upon the poor by the aristocracy of the Reformation he is telling also where we are to find the title deeds of the landed estates of England and Ireland. And it is just those landed estates, gained by such means, that Father Kane and his like are fighting to perpetuate in the ownership of the English and Irish aristocracy to-day. How do the Catholic clergy dare to defend the possessors in the present possession of their stolen property, when they publicly proclaim from the altar their knowledge of the inhuman crimes against God and man by which that property passed out of the hands of Church and people? The Reformation was the capitalist idea appearing in the religious field; as capitalism teaches that the social salvation of man depends solely upon his own individual effort, so Protestantism, echoing it, taught that the spiritual salvation of man depends solely upon his own individual appeal to God; as capitalism abolished the idea of social interdependence which prevailed under feudalism, and made men isolated units in a warring economic world, so Protestantism abolished the interdependent links of priests, hierarchy, and pontiffs which in the Catholic system unites man with his Creator, and left man at the mercy of his own interpretations of warring texts and theories. In fine, as capitalism taught the doctrine of every man for himself, and by its growing power forced such doctrines upon the ruling class, it created its reflex in the religious world, and that reflex, proclaiming individual belief was the sole necessity of salvation, appears in history as the Protestant Reformation. Now, the Church curses the Protestant Reformation – the child; and blesses capitalism – its parent.

Now listen to the peroration of our critic:

Nothing will do but Socialism.

Not so! not so! The Church of Christ teaches both men and masters that for their own sake they should be friends not foes, that their mutual interests are inseparably interwoven, and that they are bound together not merely by the duties or rights of justice, but by a sacred bond of kindliness, which is the same virtue that moves a man to fondly love his home and nobly love his fatherland. Still, still! – that misery! that most sad poverty, that despairing wretchedness of utter want! Surely! surely were the kind Christ here, Whose heart was moved to tender pity for the hungering crowd; surely He would give them food. He is not here, but in His stead He has placed you, Christian men and women, that you may do His blessed work. Have pity! have pity on the poor. We cannot stand idly by with folded arms while so many starve, nor can we suffer, while we have wealth to spare, that such multitudes who are brothers and sisters of our human blood should eke out in lingering death a life that is not worth the living. There is no need, no excuse for Socialism. But there is sore need of social reform. The state is indeed bound to enforce such remedial measures as are needed, and of these, whatever be our politics or party, we must all approve. But in our own way and in our own measure we should recognise in actual practice that Christians should be like the great Christ Who had pity on the poor.

And so he concludes – with an appeal for pity for the poor. After all his long discourse, after again and again admitting the tyranny, the extortions, the frauds, the injustices perpetrated in our midst every day by those who control and own our means of existence, he has no remedy to offer but pity! After all his brave appeal to individuality, to national honour, to the heroic spirit in poor men and women, he shrinks from appealing to that individuality, to that national honour, to that heroic spirit in the poor and asking them so to manifest themselves as to rescue their lives from the control of the forces of mammon. Professing to denounce mammon, he yet shrinks from leading the forces of righteousness against it, and by so shrinking shows that all his professed solicitude for justice, all his vaunted hatred of tyranny, were “mere sound and fury signifying nothing”.

Is not this attitude symbolic of the attitude of the Church for hundreds of years? Ever counselling humility, but sitting in the seats of the mighty; ever patching up the diseased and broken wrecks of an unjust social system, but blessing the system which made the wrecks and spread the disease; ever running divine discontent and pity into the ground as the lightning rod runs and dissipates lightning, instead of gathering it and directing it for social righteousness as the electric battery generates and directs electricity for social use.

The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go. And in the work of abolishing it the Catholic and the Protestant, the Catholic and the Jew, the Catholic and the Freethinker, the Catholic and the Buddhist, the Catholic and the Mahometan will co-operate together, knowing no rivalry but the rivalry of endeavour toward an end beneficial to all. For, as we have said elsewhere, Socialism is neither Protestant nor Catholic, Christian nor Freethinker, Buddhist, Mahometan, nor Jew; it is only HUMAN. We of the Socialist working class realise that as we suffer together we must work together that we may enjoy together. We reject the firebrand of capitalist warfare and offer you the olive leaf of brotherhood and justice to and for all.


Last updated on 12.8.2003