Karl Kautsky


5. Outlook for the Future

b) The Effect outside Ireland of the Solution of the Irish Question

But the freeing of Ireland will become more important because of its effect back on the workers’ movement in America and England. Oppressed Ireland has, year in, year out, sent countless hordes of workers to both countries, workers whose thoughts and aspirations were of a completely nationalist character. They remained a foreign body in the working class of the country in which they found work, and did not share their struggles, that is, not their political ones. Also even where they did not appear as strike-breakers, they were still a hindrance to each independent working class movement. Accustomed to common struggle with bourgeois elements from the very beginning, they also liked to support those bourgeois-parties in America and England from which they most expected a furtherance of Irish aims. They sold their votes to them for small national concessions, often enough just for money in America. In the United States the Irish formed the most corrupt section of the proletariat and the greatest obstacle to socialist propaganda in their ranks. In England also there was nothing more unreliable in the working population than the Irish vote. Often enough in the Parliamentary elections, if the Liberals had promised Home Rule, Irish votes turned the scales against socialist candidates who were embarrassing to the Liberals.

An even worse effect was that the everlasting pre-occupation with Irish problems reduced the time and energy for dealing with social problems for all the English parties.

All this must now change. Irish emigration will doubtless decrease. However, those Irish workers, who emigrate to England or America will no longer be accustomed to bourgeois leadership by the national struggle, but will become responsive to independent class politics. And they will stop carrying on Irish politics abroad, but will merge into the working class of the country and follow their class politics without national ulterior motives.

But the English workers now get a free hand in their own country, and get the possibility of concentrating their total force on the struggle for socialism.

Already in 1869, Marx wrote to Engels (Letter of 10 December):

“It is in the direct, absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present union with Ireland ... I have long believed it possible to overthrow the Irish regime by the influence of the English working class. I have always put this interpretation in the New York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything until it is rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement, in general.”

Now it is clear that this interpretation was completely justified.

Marx expressed the same view at almost the same time in a letter to Kugelmann of 29th November 1869. He wrote here:

“I am more and more of the conviction – and now is the time to drill this conviction into the English working class – that it can never do anything decisive here in England ... until it not only makes common cause with the Irish but grasps the initiative in dissolving the union of 1801 and replacing it by a free, federal relationship. And, what is more, this must be pursued not as a question of sympathy for Ireland, but as a demand based on the interest of the English proletariat. If not each of its movements in England itself will be crippled by the dispute with the Irish, which form a considerable part of the working class in England itself ... And it is not only England’s social development which remains crippled by the present relationship to Ireland, her foreign policy is also affected in relation to Russia and the United States.

“But as the English working class undoubtedly constitutes the decisive weight on the scales of social emancipation generally, the main point is to apply the lever here.”

That applied half a century ago. It applies far more today. Between then and now England’s weight in the scales of social emancipation has been indeed light, but since the world war she has again become of decisive importance in the world struggle for social emancipation, and the practical consequences of this are now quite different to those of 50 years ago. For we have stepped from the age of expectancy into that of fulfilment.

Admittedly the human spirit is of a very conservative nature. Only slowly does it follow those changes in social organisation which are decisive for the changing historical forms which Thought assumes.

Is it not probable, therefore, that in the forthcoming elections to the English parliament the blessed influence on English politics which must follow the Irish solution will make itself strongly felt? But it is certainly to be expected; that was shown by the by-elections held hitherto that the general election will certainly bring a significant strengthening of the workers’ party and its political influence. That must unleash great social struggles. It will certainly be of importance to their outcome that the crippling dead weight of Ireland has been removed from England’s internal politics. And this must have effects far beyond England itself. Every social success of the English workers’ party will have an inspiring and strengthening effect on the socialist movement of all countries. Each strengthening of the workers’ party must influence most deeply not merely the internal, but also the external policies of England; and, what is more, in the sense of the reconciliation of peoples and their concerted action for the common welfare, it must influence the ending of the present system of mutual mistrust, of the arms race, of advantage to the strong and oppression of the weak. Starting from proletarian England this system will be replaced by the new world politics of international socialism.

Little though we expect directly for the cause of social progress from the new Irish Free State, yet do we joyfully greet its creation as the first step by Europe away from the agonising hell, into which it was thrown by the world war, into a higher and better existence of lasting world peace and well being for all.


Last updated on 20.1.2004