H. Quelch

Would Ulster Be Right to Fight?

(15 September 1912)

Harry Quelch, Would Ulster Be Right To Fight, The British Socialist, Vol.1., No.8, 15 September 1912, pp.385-390.
This article is replied to by Bax in an article entitled Nationalities and Individuals, in The British Socialist, Vol.1., No.11, November 1912.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is not necessary to take too seriously the wild and whirling words of Sir Edward Carson, Mr. Bonar Law and other inciters to riot and rebellion in order to recognise that there is in certain parts of Ulster a very strong popular feeling against Home Rule. This feeling may be unreasonable and unreasoning; with no ground whatever for it except blind prejudice due to social and religious differences and animosities. The point is that the feeling is there, and that nothing whatever is to be gained by ignoring it.

So far from ignoring or ridiculing this feeling or sentiment it seems to me that we Socialists, who are out-and-out Home Rulers, are bound to give it serious consideration. For what, after all, at bottom, is the demand for Home Rule, except the expression of just such a sentiment, prejudiced and unreasoning as it may be as that which animates the opponents of Home Rule in the Protestant counties of Ulster? Economic causes, without a doubt, largely influenced Irish discontent with English rule, and, as Davitt said, the Home Rule movement was mainly an economic movement, and there is no doubt that the Land League agitation gave unprecedented vitality and vigour to the cause of Home Rule. But, altogether apart from these considerations, and before form and direction was given to the land agitation, there was a Nationalist movement in Ireland, and the idea of “Ireland a Nation” was the passionate aspiration of all patriotic Irishmen. Now, moreover, the same aspiration survives the disappearance of those economic influences which played so large and important a part in the agitation of thirty years ago.

By dint of persistent agitation, not always of the most pacific character, the Irish people succeeded in forcing successive British Governments to deal with the fundamental grievance of the Irish peasantry, landlordism, in so drastic a fashion that, for the present, that grievance may be said to have disappeared, and on every hand we hear of the prosperous and contented condition of the Irish peasantry. “The principle embodied in this Bill,” said Mr. Gladstone of one of his Irish Land Bills, “is one that I should be the last to apply to English legislation, but Ireland is within measurable distance of a social revolution.” The menace of a social revolution not only forced the last of our great commercial statesmen to apply to Irish legislation a principle which was objectionable to him but it compelled him and his successors to do for Ireland, in the matter of giving the cultivators a “grip on the land,” and in housing the labourers, what, he would never dream of doing for any other part of the United Kingdom. The result is that the inhabitants of that “most disthressful country” have become the “most favoured nation” in these islands. British credit to the tune of twelve hundred millions has been pledged to buy out the rack-renting Irish landlords and to give the peasantry a hold on the soil, and the economic basis of the Home Rule agitation has been undermined.

Nevertheless, the Home Rule agitation goes on and the demand for Home Rule has rather strengthened than weakened, albeit no longer characterised by the vehemence of the days when it was an economic as well a political question.

Deprived of its economic aspect, therefore, the demand of the Irish people, outside the Orange counties of Ulster, is just as much a matter of sentiment as is the protest of the people of those counties against Home Rule.

Home Rulers, believing in the right of every people to self-government and to the management of their own affairs, however badly they may manage them, we Social-Democrats have always championed the demand of the Irish people for legislative independence. We have aided their agitation when their present Liberal friends were coercing and dragooning them and throwing their chosen representatives into gaol. We should, in the same way, have cordially stood by them if they had risen in open revolt and put the cause of Irish Nationalism to the stern arbitrament of the sword. We, as Social-Democrats, believe in the “sacred right of rebellion” – in the right of every nation or people to fight to acquire or to defend its national freedom and independence. But if we are, and should be, in favour of a revolt by the Irish Nationalists against the Union and against being subject of an English-Scotch Protestant majority, we can scarcely condemn the Protestants of Ulster for declaring their determination to fight against being brought under the rule of a Catholic Nationalist majority in Ireland.

This raises once more the whole question of Socialism and Nationalism, and the position of the Socialist Party, internationally, in relation to what is called anti-patriotism.

It has been well said that we Socialists are Internationalists, not Anti-Nationalists. Yet we find many of our friends vehemently condemning the national idea and loudly proclaiming themselves to be anti-patriots. For them the national idea is opposed to internationalism, and patriotism is a crime against international solidarity. This appears to me to be a complete misconception arising from a perverted view or use of the terms employed. Nationalism, so far from being opposed to Internationalism, is an integral part thereof. There can be no inter-Nationalism if there no nations, and patriotism – real patriotism does not mean “my country, right or wrong,” nor the lust for domination over other nations. It means the equality and autonomy of each national unit in the comity of nations, the right of every people, in the democratic “federation of the world,” to the most complete autonomy, the fullest liberty, in directing its owns affairs and in working out its own destiny, as is compatible with the equal liberty of every other people.

On no other ground can we British Socialists justify our steadfast championship of Home Rule, our determined opposition to the suppression of the Boer Republics; our persistent demand for the substitution of native for British rule in India and Egypt. We cannot reasonably claim for other peoples the right of self-government and national autonomy if we not prepared to insist upon, to maintain and defend the same rights for ourselves.

But, it is contended by our anti-patriotic friends, Nationalism is really only thinly-veiled imperialism and patriotism, as I said some years ago, no longer means a love of one’s own country and a determination to maintain her liberties, but a love of somebody else’s country, and a determination to grab it for the benefit of the international capitalist marauders. All that is perfectly true, but we do not abandon definite principles simply because the terms by which they have been designated have been abused and misapplied; and we do not become Anti-Nationalists and Anti-Patriots because the words “Nationalism” and “Patriotism” have been wrested from their meaning and are used to denote aggressive domination and imperialist expansion. The things themselves remain the same by whatever names they may be known and to whatever misuse their original designations may now be turned. Patriotism does not mean imperialism, nor does Internationalism mean the abolition of all national autonomy, any more than real individualism means autocracy, or Socialism means the crushing out of all individuality and individual liberty.

Many Socialists regard any State interference with individual liberty – however wanton and mischievous – as an expression of Socialist principle. I, on the other hand, am a Socialist because I believe that it is only through Socialism that the fullest individuality can be developed and the greatest possible individual liberty can be secured. But what I mean by individuality or individual liberty does not imply the superiority or dominance of this, that, or the other individual. It means the sovereignty of the individual in all purely individual things, and in all self-regarding acts; and this necessarily involves the equal rights and equal liberty of every individual. As soon as those rights are interfered with true individual liberty ceases. So, too with nations. True Nationalism and patriotism exclude the idea of imperialism, of domination, of my country, right or wrong, because such an idea practically expressed by any one nation must be an abrogration of the national rights of other peoples. So far therefore, from Nationalism or patriotism being synonymous with imperialism, imperialism is the very antithesis of any sane and logical conception of nationality: Anti-Nationalists, therefore, who are so eager to divest themselves of any suspicion of chauvinism that they vehemently denounce any expression of patriotism are in serious danger of finding themselves enmeshed in the snares of imperialism. If we are so anti-nationalist that we would not raise a finger to maintain our own national liberty and independence, it is sheer hypocrisy to encourage and applaud Irishmen, Egyptians and Indians in making heroic efforts and sublime sacrifices to gain that national liberty which we regard as not only worthless, but actually mischievous and and wrong. To say that the proletariat has no country to defend, and that the class antagonism, which runs through all nationalities, is of more importance than the divisions between nation, is but to beg the question. All questions cannot, unfortunately, be settled in terms of the class war and the material interest of a proletarian in the land in which he lives, or its institutions, is not likely to be enhanced by the suppression of national autonomy.

There can be no question, therefore, that Socialists must be Nationalists and stand for national autonomy in a world federation, just as they are individualists and stand for individual liberty in society generally.

Whereas, however, there is no difficulty in determining what is an individual, and little in deciding what rights and liberties pertain to the individual human being in society, it is by no means so easy to determine what does, or should, constitute the national unit, or what are the limits of its autonomy. On the determination of the former question depends the answer to the question at the head of this article.

We have been told repeatedly that, in certain contingencies, “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”. To that asseveration I can only put the question – Will it? I have no hesitation in saying that any and every nation has a right to fight for its liberty, and maintain its autonomy. But what is, or constitutes a nation? Or what determines what should be autonomous unit in the international democratic federation of the peoples? To me it appears that, this can only be determined by a variety of circumstances or factors. Racial and political unity, identity of economic conditions, geographical situation, each and all of these combined, and none alone, must determine whether a given group of people should constitute a unit in the international. Certain it is that no group, however small, should be forcibly coerced against its will into forming part of such a unit, and that, finally, the question will have to be settled by each group or body of people for itself. But only for itself. However wrong the coercion of a minority by majority may be, the coercion of a majority by minority is still worse.


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