Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

G.M., Communist Federation of Britain (M-L)

On the “Usefulness” of “ECONOMICS OF PARTITION”


First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 7, Summer 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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To comrades who are trying to construct a coherent, scientific analysis of the Irish situation, perhaps one of the most influential publications proposing the ’two nations’ line is the revised edition of ECONOMICS OF PARTITION, produced by the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO), now an openly revisionist organisation, since the recent domination of Nina Stead’s sophisticated ’British Road to Socialism’ (THE COMMUNIST, No.59). On the face of it, this document has a wealth of ’fact’ (Norman Mailer would use the term ’factoid’), is well-argued and is in the definitive style of one B. Clifford.

Comrade EK, in his article ’Ireland and the Colonial Question’ (MLQ 5, p.30, note 7), even infers that it is a most useful work.

I therefore intend to show that the document is, characteristically of BICO-revisionism, selective in the use of quotations offered for our consumption that the B. Clifford school of argument ignores any statement in their own references running contrary to their basic ideological position on Ireland; and consequently, that the document is not at all scientific. It is a pity that comrade EK himself did not see fit to investigate this matter before pronouncing on its worthiness.

Two of the most basic ideological rocks on which ECONOMICS OF PARTITION is founded concern 1. The rise of the Linen Industry in Ulster, and 2. Ulster Tenant Right.

In ECONOMICS OF PARTITION the BICO quote a large number of bourgeois historians on Ireland as a means by which to prove their ’two nations’ thesis. While not being averse to quoting bourgeois historians, in principle, it is nevertheless a gross distortion to present their views which support one’s position whilst blithely ignoring their views which run contrary to one’s basic ideological position. Wherein is the ’usefulness’ of that?

In ECONOMICS OF PARTITION, Ulster Tenant Right and the rise of the Ulster Linen Industry are paramount in the BICO’s claim that indigenous Ulster petty-capitalism was the basis of the uneven economic development in Ireland rather than this uneven economic development being due to external influences by the British bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The development of the Linen trade in Ulster in the 18th-century created a mass petty-bourgeois basis for the development of capitalism and in the course of the 19th century large scale industry arose on that basis. (ECONOMICS OF PARTITION, p.25)

The BICO attempt to show that only the Ulsterman was capable of generating a petty-bourgeois market while the catholic Irish peasantry was incapable of doing so, this being due more to ’indigenous’ characteristics within the Ulster protestant population rather than this capitalism developing as a result of British policy. Comrade EK echoes this theme:

The Plantations were made up largely of Lowland Scots; they brought to Ireland a new bourgeois democratic political outlook, which expressed itself ideologically as Presbyterianism. Significantly, they established (not without prolonged struggle) a new form of land tenure (The Ulster Custom) which was bourgeois democratic in essence as opposed to the feudal relations of production which predominated throughout the rest of Ireland. (MLQ 5, p.26)

As I have already said, the BICO extensively quote from bourgeois historians, especially Gill and, Black, to prove the above argument, which comrade EK supports. Therefore, these sources of information on the Ulster Linen Industry and Ulster Custom will now be reviewed to show that Black and Gill make a whole series of observations which tend to contradict the above BICO/EK thesis.


ORIGIN: The historical origin of Ulster Custom, like every thing else which relates to Partition, is the subject of dispute between the historians of the rival nationalisms… The historical propaganda of Catholic nationalism cannot admit that anything good ever came to Ireland through Protestant Ulster. (ECONOMICS OF PARTITION, p.7)

Thus runs the BICO introduction to Ulster Tenant Right, and they further ask:

How did it come about that tenant right got established in Protestant Ulster before it came into being in Gaelic, Catholic Ireland? (ibid)

According to the BICO, (and presumably comrade EK) the simple answer is:

The Protestant tenant-farmers acquired coherence as a class, and forced the landlords to recognise (their rights) through class struggle, before the Catholic peasantry did so. (ibid)

And furthermore, they assert that it is Southern Catholic Nationalist propaganda to suggest that the Protestant settlers were in any way favoured over the Gaelic, Irish peasantry. Quite correctly, the BICO point out that in Ulster tenant right was maintained against encroachment from the landlords by the use of force, if necessary. They quote extracts from the bourgeois historian, Lecky, extensively, to prove the point:

The Oakboys (organised bands of Protestant tenant farmers – GM) appear to have first arisen against the Road Act which ordered that all highways should be repaired by the personal-labour of housekeepers. It was stated that the landed proprietors who constituted the grand juries had had many roads made which were of little or no use to the community at large, and were intended for the exclusive benefit of their own estates In addition the question of tithes had recently acquired in the North, as well as the South, a new prominence. (IRELAND IN THE 18TH CENTURY, Vol. 2)

It was in the summer of 1763 that bodies of men, sometimes 400 or 500 strong, assembled to the sound of the horn, wearing oak boughs in their hats. They erected gallows, attacked houses, compelled clergymen to swear that they would not levy more than a specific proportion of tithe, and laymen that they would not assess the county at more than a stipulated rate, and assaulted all whom they found working on the roads. Dr. Clark (Episcopal Rector of Armagh) was seized and carried in derision through various parts of the county, and many of the clergy were compelled to take refuge within the walls of Derry. The flame spread through Armagh, Tyrone, Derry and Fermanagh. (ibid)

And further:

The conduct of Lord Donegal brought the misery of the Ulster peasantry to a climax, and in a short time many thousands of ejected tenants banded together under the name Steelboys, at first almost exclusively Protestant They attacked many houses and were guilty of many kinds of violence, and they soon administered illegal oaths, and undertook the part of general reformers. One of their number being consigned at Belfast, a large number of Steelboys accompanied by many thousands of peasants who neither before, nor after took any part in the insurrection, marched upon that town and succeeded in obtaining his release. (ibid)

All of this is quoted by the BICO in an attempt to show the militancy of the Ulster tenant-farmer when confronted by the attempts of landlords to remove or restrict his tenant right, which is historically accurate as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Because of Ulster national-chauvinism, the BICO fail to objectively look at the efforts of the Catholic peasantry in the rest of Ireland in their attempts to achieve parity with the Ulsterman’s security of land tenure. That the Catholic peasantry was not successful in this objective is not a reflection of their class passivity of their alleged feudal outlook; of their alleged desire to maintain feudal relations of production, but was due to the fact that their oppression was sanctioned, as a matter of policy by the British Crown, while repression and restriction of the land rights of the Ulsterman when it occurred was of a purely local character and not sanctioned by the British state apparatus.

Gill’s views on the land question are not taken up by the BICO simply because his views do not accord with what the BICO would have us believe. He writes:

Operation of Penal Laws. An obstacle which lasted through a great part of the l8th century was the existence of penal laws (applied by the British Crown since Cromwellian times to the Gaelic Irish–GM) against Roman Catholics. Without doubt the restriction on and tenure and the possession of property by Catholics, together with the exclusiveness of the guilds, made It very difficult for Catholics to acquire capital and so hindered them from taking up manufacture. (THE RISE OF THE ULSTER LINEN INDUSTRY p.23) (my emphasis – GM)

According to Gill, the operation of these Penal Laws had an immensely important effect in removing any impetus towards petty-bourgeois production in the rest of Ireland.

Land Tenure. The worst feature of the Penal Laws, from an economic point of view, was that they encouraged a bad system of land tenure and there can be no doubt that the growth of industry in Ulster, and its comparative failure elsewhere, was due to the differences in land systems more than any other cause ...The faulty and unfair methods in use over the rest of Ireland were a constant bar to private enterprise and public policy. (ibid, emphasis added)

In considering the comparative successes of petty-bourgeois production in Ulster, and its failure in the other parts of Ireland, Gill clearly and unequivocally states that the main cause of this was due to the difference in land systems in Ulster and the rest of Ireland. He said that the Penal Laws discouraged the growth of petty-bourgeois production in the rest of Ireland. In their attempts to persuade us that only the Protestants were successful at being petty-bourgeois because of their anti-feudal, petty-bourgeois ideology of Presbyterianism, the BICO dare not bring to the surface Gill’s comments on Ulster Custom, the Linen Industry and Penal Laws with any great clarity.

How is it that when Gill is quoted extensively by them on other matters, they ignore his comments on land tenure and the Penal Laws? To make the matter even clearer we read in a footnote from Gill that

If the Irish peasantry had had more security of tenure, the large undertakings in the South might quite well have given rise to widespread domestic industry. A development of this kind, from the trade of ’factory masters’ to that of independent weavers and small manufacturers, took place in Russia during the first half of the 19th century. (ibid, p.137)

One can only surmise from the non-appearance of these quotations in ECONOMICS OF PARTITION that the BICO are not interested in the effects of the Penal Laws on the Catholic population, and the subsequent deleterious effect on developing petty-capitalist production; instead; they prefer to pretend to us that the class cohesiveness of the ,Ulster tenant-farmers was the main reason for the rapidly expanding capitalist production in that province, while feudal relations of production still prevailed over the other provinces.

Which brings me to the second basic point that must be refuted, namely, the implication that the alleged feudal outlook of the inhabitants of the rest of Ireland prevented, as the main reason, the rise of bourgeois production. While we must undoubtedly recognise the ability of the Ulster Protestant tenant farmers to organise as a class in class struggle when local attempts were made to remove their bourgeois democratic rights, comrade EK must also recognise (but will he?) the ability of the Southern Irish peasantry to fight against oppressive feudal relations of production, which the BICO are not prepared to do. According to Robert Kee:

...under the permanent social persecution which crystallised as the land system of Ireland at the time of the Penal Laws and long outlasted them, the Irish-poor (the Catholic population in the main – GM) resorted to primitive self-help in the one obvious form that was available. A rough justice of the common people’s own making took the place of the law which gave so little. (THE GREEN FLAG, p.24)

This ’rough justice’ took the form of:

...bands of men, with blackened faces and wearing white shirts over their clothes for easier mutual recognition at night, (who)started to roam the countryside mutilating cattle and carrying out their reprisals for the tyranny and rapacity of harsh landlords or the subservience of those who played along with them. (ibid, p.24)

And further, we read:

It was in 1760 that the Whiteboys movement, as it came generally to be called, broke out on a large scale. Bodies of armed men, numbering anything from half a dozen or so to five hundred, again took to riding about the countryside at night with white shirts over their clothes, tearing down fences which enclosed land for pasturage, rather than tillage, punishing those who collected tithes for the Protestant Church, preventing the payment of extortionate rents, intimidating would-be tenants from taking land from which another had been evicted, and generally asserting the existence of rough and ready justice to redress the grievances of the poor. (ibid)

Many organisations of this type came into being, including the Rightboys, White boys, Thrashers and later on in the 19th century, the Rockites and Ribbinmen, who were prepared to wage a class struggle with their overbearing landlords. In addition, we should understand that these clashes in southern agrarian society did not simply occur on the basis of Protestant land-owners versus Catholic peasantry. Robert Kee observes:

(that when) discriminating legislation against Catholics was lifted, the Whiteboys and other organisations attacked the Catholic land-owing class with the same severity as they did the Protestant landowners. (emphasis added)

The Penal Laws preventing Catholics from owing, leasing or inheriting land had been repealed in 1778 and 1782, and Catholics were landowners again on quite a considerable scale. All contemporary witnesses, including Daniel O’Donnell, agree that not only were attacks directed proportionately as much against Catholics as Protestants but also that the Catholic gentry were equally active in putting disturbances down. (emphasis added)

In the sphere that mattered most to the Irish peasantry, that of their economic status on the land, members of their own religion and blood were to be found in the 19th Century increasingly on the other side of the fence, of the landlords wall, with the Protestant. (THE GREEN FLAG, p.27, emphasis added)

These comments are more than adequate in showing the ability of the Catholic peasantry to wage class struggle as a class irrespective of whether their oppressor was Protestant or Catholic.

Will comrade EK please explain why rival ’nationalisms’ did not deflect the Irish peasantry from vigorously opposing either section of the landlord class?


The Ulster Linen industry is of immense importance in the rise of petty-bourgeois production in Ireland. The growth of flax and its subsequent manufacture into linen provided tenant-cottiers with the opportunity of small-scale production which supplemented their income and ensured a small but continually growing basis for future large scale capitalist production. Therefore in terms of Irish industry the linen trade was at one time the only industry worth mentioning, and it is in this context that linen manufacture was important.

As we shall see, in all cases where it ’proves’ the BICO’s case that petty-capitalism in Ulster throve on its own basis, quotations are offered from bourgeois historians as ’evidence’.

Comrade EK must stop placing faith in the objectivity and “usefulness” of his BICO mentors and do a little of his own investigating. Perhaps he should start with the part played by external forces in the rise of Irish Linen production.

Concerning the very important part played by Louis Crommelin, a French Huguenot who fled to Ulster to escape the persecution of Protestants in France, the BICO quote Robert Stephenson, a linen manufacturer, on Crommelin’s handbook on Linen production:

his (crommelin’s) last chapter contains his whole theory and practical Knowledge of Bleaching, and by following the Directions he lays down in his Course of Operation, I will venture to say that it is impossible to make a white Piece of Linen; his scheme is the most expensive I have ever met with nor indeed do l believe he ever made a white Piece of Linen or had any knowledge of this Part of the Mystery (as he terms it) (ECONOMICS OF PARTITION, p.25).

Contrary to this point of view of the bourgeois, Stephenson, that Crommelin was almost entirely ignorant of how to make linen, Gill quotes the Linen Board of Ireland who in reviewing the progress of Crommelin’s work in raising the technical ability of Ulster to produce Linen and in recommending the continuation of Crommelin’s grant after 1712, wrote:

The said Crommelin and colony (of Huguenots – GM) have been very serviceable and greatly instrumental in the improving and propagating the flaxon manufacture in the north part of this kingdom; and the perfection to which the same is brought in that part of the country is very much owing to the skill and industry of the said Crommelin. (THE RISE OF THE ULSTER LINEN INDUSTRY, p.19)

There we have it. Either we accept the criticism of Crommelin by Stephenson, in that the former had never made any linen at all by the method, that he was trying to propagate, or we accept the view of the Irish Linen Board that Crommelin brought ’perfection’ ,’skill’ and ’industry’ to the manufacture of Ulster linen.

If Crommelin’s technique was as bad as Stephenson claimed why did the Irish Linen Board waste its money continually providing him with a grant?

Looking at this in a broader context it should be noted that the BICO’s ECONOMICS OF PARTITION ’fails’ to notice the praise lavished on Crommelin by agents of the Crown since this could possibly detract from the dynamic petty-capitalist image of the Ulsterman who did it all on his own. The indigenous dynamism of the Ulster petty-bourgeoisie must never be in doubt; anything such as Robert Stephenson’s remarks which can be used to place, doubt on the value of the contribution made by Crommelin in Linen manufacture is dredged up. The BICO do not of course, refer to the Irish Linen Board’s remarks.

Is comrade EK really satisfied with the one-sided, subjective approach shown’ in ECONOMICS OF PARTITION? If he is, then let us continue. Another bourgeois historian, DC Chart, suggested that Crommelin had administered a great impetus to the linen industry, the BICO merely point out that this viewpoint ’has somewhat more substance’ than the assertion that the Earl of Stafford had more than a marginal effect on the industry.

Thus, the general approach of the BICO is to minimise the importance of Crommelin as an external influence.

One could also argue at length with the BICO statement that:

There was no special legislation (concerning the Ulster linen trade – GM) What legislation there was, was designed to favour the southern organisation of the trade, and was unfavourable to Ulster. (ECONOMICS OF PARTITION, p.31)

Rather, one should say more correctly that irrespective of whether there was any special treatment of the South compared with the North or vice-versa, any legislation promulgated at a secondary level by the British Crown regarding the Linen trade had different effects in Ulster compared with the rest of Ireland, this being due to the non-existence of security of tenure in the South, thus ensuring the failure of policies designed to raise industrial production. As comrade EK himself said, one cannot legislate capitalism into existence, especially in a situation where feudal relations of production were reinforced by oppressive Penal Laws.


It is an easy thing to show the Ulster chauvinism of the BICO by merely confronting them with little bits of history that ’just happen’ to be left out of the general picture of industrialisation in Ireland.

It is a simple thing to show that the Catholic peasantry were able on many occasions to stand as a class in opposition to their class enemies, both Protestant and Catholic landlords.

However, the BICO fail to show this historical fact and EK, in all his writings, has not yet done so. But then, he might not think it an important thing to show. However, it is an undeniable historical fact that as early as 1711 in the south, collective peasant action occurred which had clearly-defined class aims. Robert Kee records that:

the Oakboys and Steelboys developed as Protestant counter-parts of the Whiteboys. (THE GREEN FLAG, p.27)

To explain why the Catholic peasantry did not succeed as a class in the same period as the Ulster tenant-cottiers did in the creation of small-scale capitalist industry, we can say the following:

1. industry in Ulster initially advanced on the basis of tenant-right and the linen industry which, unlike later industry elsewhere, in Ireland complemented the British market in this type of commodity, and was not restricted by the Crown in its growth.

2. lack of tenant-right in the south, initially due to the Penal Laws, was a major factor in the inability of southern industry to implant itself.

the general absence of security of land tenure and of employment opportunities outside agriculture (excluding Ulster – GM) combined with a rapid growth of population, produced a system of social and economic relations widely differing from that known in Britain. (DC Black, ECONOMIC THOUGHT & THE IRISH QUESTION, 1811-1870, p.7, emphasis added)

This, then, is a clear exposition of why industry did not develop in the rest of Ireland at the same rate as in Ulster.

While the BICO (and presumably their pupil, comrade EK) place the ’petty-bourgeois, Presbyterian outlook’ of the Scots planters in Ulster in the primary position in attempting to explain the process of industrialisation of the province, bourgeois historians such as Black, Gill, Lecky and others consider that the cause was primarily due to objective causes such as the absence of Penal Laws and security of tenure combined with the introduction of experts such as Crommelin.

Does comrade EK still think that ECONOMICS OF PARTITION is useful?