Karl Radek

The End of a Song

(9 May 1916)

Karl Radek, The End of a Song, Berner Tagewacht, 9th May 1916.
Translated by Andreas Probst.
Downloaded with thanks from the Workers’ Republic Website. [1]
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

With the thundering of cannons, the Irish ghost which, since the 18th century, has constantly kept the rulers of England on the trot, has been ceremoniously buried. The Irish question, a question that could endanger England’s position toward the outside, has come to an end.

The Irish question was an agrarian question. Like a squire craving for farmland, England conquered Ireland. This wasn’t the only reason for the conquest; new reasons would be found to justify the mastery of the Emerald Isle. Nevertheless, it is true that an independent Ireland could always obstruct England’s sea routes just as England obstructs Germany’s sea routes. Thus the oppression of Ireland didn’t get smaller but larger. Any industrial development was oppressed, too. In the twenties of the 18th century, in one of his pamphlets, the great English satirist Jonathan Swift wrote

‘The conveniency of ports and havens, which nature has bestowed so liberally on this kingdom, is of no more use to us than a beautiful prospect to a man shut up in a dungeon.

‘As to shipping of its own, Ireland is so utterly unprovided, that of all the excellent timber cut down within these fifty or sixty years, it can hardly be said that the nation has received the benefit of one valuable house to dwell in, or one ship to trade with. ‘Ireland is the only kingdom I ever heard or read of, either in ancient or modern story, which was denied the liberty of exporting their native commodities and manufactures wherever they pleased, except to countries at war with their own prince or state ...

‘One third part of the rents of Ireland is spent in England; which, with the profit of employments, pensions, appeals, journeys of pleasure or health, education at the inns of court and both universities, remittances at pleasure, the pay of all superior officers in the army, and other incidents, will amount to a full half of the income of the whole kingdom, all clear profit to England.’

Ireland’s situation was desperate: with all the land in the hands of the English squires, the Irish were nothing but ill-treated tenant farmers who could be sent packing any day; any possible development of industrial activities was oppressed, nipped in the bud by English legislation. The administration was controlled by England, laws were made by the Westminster Parliament without any regard for Ireland’s necessities. No wonder that even English farmers settled in Ireland revolted against this oppression. The Irish uprisings during the Napoleonic wars were an incessant ‘mene, tekel, Peres’. When, in 1845, due to the terrible mismanagement of the English, the potato disease caused a general famine that decimated the population and drove people to emigration – Ireland’s population fell from 8,177,000 in 1840 to 6,696,000 in 1850 – the flame of Irish uprisings and guerrilla war in which the Irish tenant farmer expressed his feelings with incendiarism and knife blazed up again.

‘We have plenty of means to oppress the rebellion in Ireland,’ wrote gentle Queen Victoria in 1848, ‘the Irish must be given a good lecture or we will start again’ (quoted in E. Meyer’s well-known book, England).

Though Ireland saw the building of a forest of gallows, instead of the ships made of choice timber that Swift wanted, though the Irish rebels in the prisons of the free England were being tortured, they wouldn’t be convinced at all by these ‘English lessons’. In the eighties, the agrarian revolts took hold of Ireland again. The English bourgeoisie felt compelled to make concessions to the Irish farmers. This wasn’t hard to do because England was exploiting the whole world by then. After Ireland was granted quite a number of political concessions – such as abolition of the privileges of the English state Church – the English bourgeoisie itself laid a restricting hand on the mastery of the English squires in Ireland. In 1881, as a result of the boycott-movement organised by Parnell, a law was enacted prohibiting the squire from turning a peasant out if he only did his duty. At the same time, royal land commissions were set up having the effective power to reduce the rents. Seeing that, many squires preferred selling the land to the government which transferred it to the farmers. At last, in 1903, reforms made by the conservative government gradually expropriated the great landowners and turned their land into farmland. The farmers who – up to now – had been the social basis of any anti-English movements were satisfied and turned to the loan societies and the questions of arable farming.

‘Boycott, mutilation of cattle, political murder and refusal of the rent are – even if not totally dead – no longer a political factor ... After the great agrarian reform, the catholic population of Ireland no longer consists of malcontent hungry people but of small farmers with peaceful, conservative leanings’, wrote Professor Dibellius in his thorough essay on England’s Irish problem. This judgement confirms what we have heard from such a good judge of English affairs as Comrade T. Rothstein, during the Dublin riots.

Meanwhile, the nationalist movement in Ireland has a new social basis. The economic rise of the Irish farmers also encouraged the development of the urban petty bourgeoisie, the intellectuals who rendered their services as lawyers, teachers, journalists to the peasantry. The petty bourgeoisie suffered under the competition of the English capital; the intellectuals began to dream of a complete autonomy given by the government. They even began to make a stand for the Irish language to become the official language of the country although it is only spoken by about seven percent of the population and has remained on a medieval level. This movement which called itself ‘Sin Fein’ [sic] was a purely urban petty bourgeois movement which – despite the great noise it made – had little social backing. Hoping for German help, Sin Fein [sic] let itself inspire an uprising leading only to a putsch the English government could easily manage.

The extinction of the Irish fire is part of the so-called national question. That national movement is only a real force when it is backed by strong class-interests. When, in Poland, the nobility gave place to a bourgeoisie which despite being oppressed found a possibility of economic development in the czarist empire, the bourgeoisie wouldn’t hear of the fight for independence. In the long run, czarism would have become an obstacle to any development for the Polish bourgeoisie as well. But this fact could not justify an attempt to separate from Russia as a country, but one to get rid of the czarist mastery. The Irish peasantry abandoned the banner of the fight for independence, when its economic interests were no longer in conflict with the English government. It contented itself with the fight for self-government. Tragically enough, the Sinn Féiners – being petty bourgeois – didn’t understand that but lulled themselves to sleep with nationalistic dreams. In conformity with the normal bestial character of such rulers, the English bourgeoisie will punish them for this error with the gallows. They die as victims of the imperialist world war and thus the proletariat – though negative, often hostile to their ideals – also wrote their part with blood in the big book of guilt of those who unleashed it.

Note from Workers’ Republic Website

1. See D.R. O’Connor Lysaght (ed.), The Communists and the Irish Revolution for a comprehensive collection of writings relating to Ireland by major historic figures of the Russian Revolution.

Last updated on 18.10.2011