The Solidarity of Labour
From Forward, 18 April 1914.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
This being Easter week, the news from Ireland for the readers of Forward will necessarily be of a short and scrappy character. We are all busy enjoying ourselves, and as this is the last Easter before the red flames of war will light up our hilltops and the red rivers of blood flow along our valleys (ahem!), our amusements must perforce be absorbing and exciting. For it is an awful and serious thing to think that in a month or two the wooden guns of Ulster may go off, and the trained ambulance corps may be wrestling with the problems of how to tie up broken heads or staunch the flow of blood from bleeding noses.
We may not see “red ruin and the breaking up of laws,” but we may see the breaking of window panes and hear the rattle of cobble stones upon our doors.
The wooden guns of Ulster! Aye, but let us be frank with ourselves and confess that the wooden guns of Ulster have, at least, succeeded in frightening the Liberals, or if they have not frightened them, then the Liberals are engaged in the greatest game of sham these countries have ever seen. They are pretending to be frightened in order to cover their action in going back on all the promises with which they have held the Home Rulers of Great Britain and Ireland in leash for a generation. Charles Stewart Parnell could have got Home Rule with Ulster excluded thirty years ago. We have been told ad nauseam about the statesmanlike qualities of John E. Redmond as the leader of the Irish race, and yet it appears that his statesmanship has brought his followers to the point of accepting with joyful eagerness and gratitude that which Parnell rejected with scorn thirty years ago. A more miserable fiasco than this ignominious collapse of a great national movement is not recorded in history.
To this poor end have come all the glorious promises, and this poor reward is all the Irish Party can show for its persistent fight against Labour in every three-cornered election in Great Britain, in every municipal election without exception in Ireland.
It is to us a grim comment upon the boasted solidarity of Labour when we see a Labour M.P., in Great Britain, calmly announcing that he prefers to follow the official representatives of Irish capitalism rather than the spokesman of 86,000 organised Irish workers, and that he does so because the latter are yet too weak to protect themselves politically – have no votes to deliver in Parliament, whereas their enemies have.
Personally I make no complaint about the position taken up by Mr. George N. Barnes, M.P., and his colleagues. I do not complain because I expected it. I have always preached in Ireland that politically we were far behind the English and Scots workers, that many of the measures we required as an imperative necessity were already in working order in Great Britain, and that it was absurd to expect the British working men to turn aside to fight our political battles when his own required so much effort and sacrifice.
On these lines of argument I have fought for the establishment of a Labour Party in Ireland, for the separate political organisation of the Irish workers and for the separate economic and industrial organisation of the Irish workers on a more revolutionary basis than was usual in England and Scotland. This I felt to be wise, because, as much of Ireland is practically unorganised, I do not see the necessity of us committing all the mistakes in organisation already made in Britain, when we have so much practically virgin soil to till in industrial organisation here.
In doing this, in carrying on such a propaganda, I have been continually subject to misrepresentation and even abuse. I have been told that I was no Internationalist, that I was preaching hatred of England, that I was a disruptor. In vain for me to insist that the usual mistake of the Englishman, viz., that he understood Irish problems better than the Irish did themselves applied quite as strongly to British Socialists as to the British ruling class, and that therefore the Irish Socialists should work out their own policy and create their own literature, and that we must expect to be misunderstood until we could compel recognition by our own strength. For preaching this doctrine I have generally suffered the boycott from the official Socialists in Great Britain, and dislike from those in Ireland who followed their lead. But now comes along Comrade George N. Barnes, M.P., and he blandly acknowledges that Socialism in England in the votes of its Parliamentary representatives will take its cue from the representatives of an Irish party that openly avows in Ireland its hatred of Socialism and its opposition to Independent Labour representation in this country. This, I take it, is a confirmation of my position that the Irish workers must work out their own salvation, and that in the process of working it out they need not be astonished if the working-class leaders in Great Britain utterly fail to understand them.
This question of presenting Socialism so that it will appeal to the peculiar hereditary instincts and character of the people amongst whom you are operating is one of the first importance to the Socialist and Labour movement. A position, theoretically sound, may fail if expressed in terms unsuited to the apprehension of those to whom you are appealing. For years I fretted at what I considered the utterly foolish attitude of certain Socialist propagandists in Great Britain. Their arguments did not appeal to me, and I did not believe that they could appeal to anyone else. Since then I have come to believe that these people, perhaps, understood the psychology of their own countrymen better than I did, and that this question of psychology or mental make-up was of fundamental importance. Since that dawned upon me, I have painstakingly stuck to the endeavour to translate Socialist doctrines into terms understood by the Irish, in or out of Ireland. I fancy that I have at least in that respect set a headline for abler persons than myself to copy in future. But we cannot deal with Ireland without getting entangled in the question of religion. Hence I have got frequently involved in disputes centring around that point. Now observe this confession! I have, I believe, fairly well presented my case on that subject, but my case was the case for workers to whom the traditions and aspirations of Irish Nationality had been of prime importance. That achievement was reserved for, and I think has been most excellently performed by our Comrade John Wheatley and his colleagues of the Catholic Socialist Society. Nowhere have I come across literature so well suited for the purpose of making Socialists of Catholics; my own poor attempts have been, as I have said, directed to the enrolment in my ranks of Irish workers.
All this is a digression in a sense, but an understanding of it may explain to the reader ‘that tired feeling’ that comes across us in Ireland when we witness the love embraces which take place between the Parliamentary Labour Party deadliest enemies – the Home Rule Party. I say our deadliest enemies, because the Unionist Party is only a negligible quantity except in a small corner of Ireland, and in that corner it is not destined to be permanent. We do not get angry when we see these things or read such letters; we simply say – “What the devil is up with those fellows?”
There will be no bad feeling over such letters as Mr. Barnes’, or the implied refusal of the Labour Party to pay any attention to the request of organised Labour in Ireland, but it will not help on a better understanding between the militant proletariat of the two islands.
Last updated on 14.8.2003