Karl Kautsky


3. 19th Century Uprising

At first, England’s industrial development intensified Irish misery. But industrial capitalism cannot expand beyond a certain point without rousing the lower classes, above all the industrial proletariat, to fight for political rights and social freedom.

A strong Irish oppositional movement arose as early as after the American War of Independence (1776-1782). It led to several concessions to Irish catholics in the face of England’s weakness resulting from the war.

A struggle for the right to vote began in England after the Napoleonic Wars. A struggle by the Catholics against their lack of rights, which prevented their access to public office and Parliament, arose parallel with this. And this Irish struggle was successful even earlier than that of the English for the extension of the franchise. Catholic Emancipation, which opened the way to public office and parliament for Catholics, went through as early as 1829; the extension of the franchise not until 1832.

This electoral reform did not satisfy the English masses. It merely removed the ascendancy of landed property in favour of the bourgeoisie, but denied the right to vote to the workers. These continued the fight for the vote in the form of the Chartist movement.

The Irish were not satisfied with the opening of the way to Parliament either. Now they demanded their own Parliament. Ireland had had one till 1800. But the country’s independence seemed highly dubious to England at that time as the French Revolution made the Irish friends of the French; and during the war between England and revolutionary France they had favoured French landings on the Irish coast.

The dissolution of the Irish Parliament in 1801 had not moved the mass of the people, for this Parliament had represented only the Protestant large estate owners and their lackeys.

Now, after Catholic Emancipation, a Parliament for the Irish people took on a quite different significance. The struggle for it began immediately after Catholic emancipation was carried. In 1830 the Repeal Association was founded with the aim of forcing the Repeal of the Union between the Irish and English Parliaments.

This movement soon achieved great strength, so long as the English Chartist movement stood beside it. The defeat of the European revolutionary movements, and especially of the proletariat in 1848, caused the death of Chartism and also of the Repeal movement.

Simultaneously with this open political agitation, a secret economic defence movement had been going on since the end of the 18th century. When and where the economic pressure became particularly intolerable secret societies arose, usually calling themselves “Whiteboys” because of the white shirts they wore over their clothes for purposes of identification, during their night-time campaigns. Their aim was to intimidate and injure hard-hearted landowners by terroristic outrages. The English government never succeeded in mastering these secret bands. These were never under central command, (unlike the city secret societies of the time, in Italy and France), so at most, a single district here and there could be exposed. But even this was difficult for in the country informers do not develop easily as the goings and comings of individuals are much more obvious than in a big city.

These secret societies became a source of heavy looses for landowners and the English tax-payers, who had to pay for a powerful military and police force in Ireland. But if their lack of co-ordination made the suppression of the secret societies difficult it also prevented them from arriving at large combined operations.

By the beginning of the sixties the masses, all over Europe had recovered from the blows dealt them by reaction after 1848. The proletarian movement then surged up anew in England, and likewise the rebellion of Ireland against England.

But in meantime each of these movements had won new bases, and with them new forms. The proletarian movement did not rejuvenate the political party of Chartism but was centred in the trade unions. To begin with these followed the “International” but after the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 they increasingly succumbed to liberal influences.

In Ireland, however, emigration had become particularly heavy after the collapse of the European Revolution. Millions of Irish found themselves together in America, freed from the degrading effects of the misery at home, but filled with love for their native land and filled with hatred for those who had driven them over the ocean: the English. Now arose a new and terrible enemy for England; but a new and powerful help for Ireland: the Irish in America. Fanatics (as emigrants are as a rule), having greater resources than their brothers at home, they now gave a tremendous impetus to the Irish struggle for independence.

A new secret society became active in 1861, that, of the Fenians. This time it was a centralised society with an unseizable supreme command based in America and supplied with American resources. The society tried to bring about an armed uprising. When attempts at this failed, it turned to terroristic activities, not only in Ireland but also in England. The Fenians hoped to force a completely independent Irish Republic from the enemy by intimidation.

They failed to achieve this, although they were not entirely unsuccessful. They forced concessions from the English government: laws which were supposed to improve on the one hand the position of the Irish tenant, and on the other, that of the catholic clergy in Ireland. These law reforms started in 1869, and had the immediate effect of conciliating the catholic clergy, who had become the most influential leaders of the mass of the Irish people, and of turning them into a part of the establishment. [2]

On the other hand, the land laws remained totally inadequate for a long time.

Nevertheless, the reforms, together with coercive measures, were enough to force the terrorists into the background for a while.

Meanwhile the Irish had learnt how to handle Parliamentarism, to which they had had access for a generation.

The Irish National Party was formed in 1872 and it demanded “Home Rule” (self-government or national independence) for Ireland. It did not differ greatly from the Fenians in aims, only in means. However the Home Rule Party did not entirely disdain the strengthening of parliamentary action through acts of terrorism by the Fenians – with whom close contact was sometimes maintained.

The Fenians and Home Rulers became particularly aggressive in the early eighties when competition from American food-stuffs drove the prices of agricultural products right down, and would have made the position of the Irish tenant a desperate one if rents hadn’t been considerably reduced.

In contrast to Ireland’s growing power of attack, the power of her opponent to resist was weakening.

The reduction of land-rents, which had become unavoidable, made the most determined opponents of Home Rule – the great landowners of Ireland – favour separation in order to save what could be saved. [3]

On the other hand in England the Liberal Party became more and more radical, and more and more conciliatory towards the Irish. We have already mentioned that the English workers had come increasingly under Liberal influence after the Paris Commune. This estranged them from socialism. However the Liberals only succeeded in attracting them by continually adapting themselves to the workers’ demands.

Thus they had to replace the policy of forcible suppression of national movements with one of compromise and conciliation.

However the English taxpayers as a whole also grew to dislike a policy of suppression which entailed even more enormous costs, and the less they had the interests of the great landowners at heart, and the more the Irish landowners themselves showed themselves willing to be bargained with, the more pointless it all seemed.

Finally the presence of the Irish members in the English Parliament made it increasingly difficult to legislate quickly and successfully. Ireland sent 105 members into Parliament, of which the majority, usually over 80, were nationalists. Frequently they held the balance between the two large traditional parties, and were always inclined to join the Opposition and use all the tricks of the trade to make the life of every government a misery, and, at the very least delay that legislation in which they had no interest.

In 1865 the workers won an electoral reform, which admittedly did not give the universal vote, but which gave a vote to many workers who had previously not had one. After the reform new elections were held and the Liberals won with a large majority. Gladstone then brought in a Bill designed to create an Irish Parliament.

However not the whole of the Liberal Party could accept this step. It split and Gladstone was defeated with 311 as against 341 votes.

It was not until 1893 that Gladstone got a majority for a new Home Rule Bill, but only in the Lower House. The Upper House rejected it. As long as this resistance was unbroken, Home Rule remained impossible, and the English retained the methods of carrot and stick. They passed land reforms which were more and more radical and which were increasingly successful economically, but at the same time they passed coercive laws which exacted unprecedented sacrifices from both sides and whose only lasting effect was the growing embitterment of the combatants.

The Upper House did not lose the power of blocking Home Rule till 1911. From then on England no longer stood in the way of granting Home Rule to Ireland.

But meanwhile a new opponent of this demand had arisen in Ireland itself. That was Ulster.



2. It is not clear in what sense Kautsky means that the clergy had become part of the establishment. They certainly did not become part of the British establishment in Ireland at this time: on the contrary, with the replacement in about 1850 of the liberal hierarchy of the first half of the century by the Ultramontane hierarchy which has dominated Southern Irish society ever since, the Catholic Church became one of the chief anti-British forces in Ireland. From 1850 the clergy behaved as a distinct Irish establishment, dedicated to eradicating the effects of British liberalism and secularism from Irish society.


3. Around 1870 some landlords took the initiative in launching the Home Rule movement, reckoning that they had better chances of survival in a Home Rule Ireland which they helped to bring into being, than in a United Kingdom in which the agrarian demands of the Irish peasants were made law by the British industrial capitalist ruling class, which had little sympathy with the cause of landlordism. Isaac Butt, the founder of the Home Rule movement, was a lifelong champion of Orange Tory landlordism.


Last updated on 17.12.2003