Frederick Willis

Ireland and the Social Revolution

Source: The Communist Review, May 1921, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Not only the Irish Sea divides the peoples of Ireland and Great Britain. There is a difference of outlook and temperament, due to economic and historical causes, that also separates them. To the average Irishman the typical Briton is a clumsy, blundering, tyrannical fool; just as in British eyes, the typical Irishman is a spoilt child, unreasonable, petulant, and totally irresponsible. The difference is intensified by the hatred and suspicion engendered by the bestial war carried on by the British invader. In this atmosphere of complete misunderstanding good people of all parties in England expect to find a way to reconciliation along the lines of what used to be so charmingly termed a “Union of Hearts” always on the basis of the continued domination: of the larger island. That is to say, they miss the two most fundamental features of the problem: the innate passion for national independence on the one hand, and the grim determination of British imperialism to retain full-blooded power anywhere and everywhere, on the other.

If certain Liberals and sentimentalists thus fail to face reality, it is because they know no better. They are wedded to a view of things that sees nothing beyond the capitalist order, with its precariously balanced play of forces, its national boundaries, and its class distinctions. The vague cosmopolitanism which distinguishes some of them has nothing in common with the internationalism which is the very essence of the Communist belief. For this and a thousand other shortcomings they are doomed to everlasting futility. We need waste no further time on them.

The Communist approaches the Irish problem from another direction. If national independence, as such, has no charms for him, he understands well enough the demand of an oppressed people for self-determination. He knows that an independent Ireland on a capitalist basis would solve no working-class problems, nor—by itself—help on the world revolution. And since it is the world revolution alone that concerns him, the appeals of Irish patriotism—again, as such—sound in his ears strangely, like those of any other crude patriotism-including his own British brand.

On the other hand, in the struggle of Irish peasants and workers against English or Irish landlords and capitalists he has a passionate interest—not because they are Irish, but because they are peasants and workers. By the mere fact of the struggle they become linked up with the world movement of the workers; potential recruits to the international army of Communism. Here, he says, is the real fight; the struggle of the dispossessed against the possessors; the only fight that matters. This, alone, is life—

“All other life is living death; a land where none but phantoms dwell:
A breath, a wind, a sound a voice—the tinkling of a camel bell.”

At this point he finds himself brought up with a jerk against the ugly fact of British imperialism.

World capitalism at the moment find its most developed expression in the British Empire. It may well be that that Empire has passed its zenith; even now the signs of decay are manifest. The fact remains that it is still the central point round which capitalism rallies, and it speaks through its rulers in capitalism’s most blatant and authoritative voice. The collapse of British capitalist imperialism would let loose at once tremendous forces that would surge forward inevitably, towards world revolution. Any weakening of British imperialism, therefore, weakens world capitalism. From this point of view the struggle of the Irish people, however national or patriotic it may be in its immediate aims, is a blow struck for the workers everywhere. It need not be said that Communists, apart from all this, oppose wholeheartedly the savage repression of the Irish people which has made the name of Great Britain a byword and a shame among the nations of the world.

Within Ireland itself the class struggle is no less a fact than elsewhere. Irish labourers, Sinn Fein though they be, are just as much exploited by Sinn Fein employers as are British miners by British mineowners. But, for the time being, the class struggle is smothered by the urgency of the fight against foreign oppression. Just as the Great War was a struggle between two imperialisms superimposed upon the struggle of the classes, so is the struggle for Irish independence superimposed upon the Irish class struggle. The national rebellion draws to itself all the revolutionary forces, and, indeed, to a large extent takes upon itself the character of a revolt against capitalism, since the British Government is so obviously the executive committee of the big financial interests. The small capitalists and farmers of Ireland find themselves arrayed against British capitalism much in the same way (although not for the same reasons) as the peasant proprietors of Russia found themselves arrayed against Czardom. And the labourers and wage-earning peasants, swept, perforce into the vortex of national struggle, merge their local class antagonisms into one stupendous hate of the enemy over the water. If this analysis be approximately correct it follows that the awakening masses of British workers must find themselves brought more and more into line with their fellow workers in Ireland. For the enemy in both cases is the same. As their own struggle develops it will compel them to draw closer and closer to all the insurrectionary elements fighting against British imperialism, and make common cause with them for its final overthrow. Assuredly, British capitalism stands or falls with British imperialism.

The real problem is to find immediate points of contact between British workers, slowly developing through disillusionment and struggle into revolutionary consciousness, and Irish workers already grimly engaged in a war against extermination. To our everlasting shame we have stood by in cowardly silence while Ireland has been ravaged by fire and sword. In our name, Sir Hamar Greenwood carries on his bloody masquerade. The one great gesture made on this side, when Bromley and his engine drivers made their protest, remained nothing but a gesture because of the lack of response from other workers. That failure was the measure of our own cowardice. If there existed in this country the nucleus only of a strong, determined, and revolutionary working class the position would be infinitely clearer. As it is, that nucleus is but now in the making. But events move rapidly in these days, and the growth of Communism among the organised workers of Britain, together with the difficulties inevitably created within capitalism as it collapses, into anarchy, will force both British and Irish workers to join hands in a common struggle against the common enemy. As the mutual ties become closer, so will the combined struggle be lifted on to a higher plane. The differences of national temperament, the racial prejudices deliberately created by the governing class, will be as nothing in face of the ever growing menace of British imperialism to Irish labourer and British worker alike.

The duty of the Communist Party is to assist this development by every means possible. It is no easy task. Quite sincerely we can endeavour to rouse our own countrymen into revolt against the vile deeds of the Government in Ireland. By so doing we do but perform an elementary act of justice, and establish a claim, at least, on the confidence, of the Irish people. To propagate the ideas of world communism among Irish workers is not so simple a matter. This much can be said with certainty. That revolutionary section of Irish workers which understands the nature of the struggle against capitalism is already moving towards Communism and the Third International. Small though it be in, numbers, it constitutes a definite link between Ireland and the world revolution. The maintenance and strengthening of that link is an immediate task which it is clearly our duty to perform. Time, and the progress of the fight against capitalist Britain will bring a consciousness to the mass of the people which clumsy intervention on our part would only serve to prevent. Let us be content for the moment to know that the struggle of nationalist Ireland against imperial Britain is weakening capitalism at its very centre. The loom of history is weaving a fabric in Ireland in which the warp may be nationalism but in which the woof is decidedly of a class-war nature. The day when the workers of Britain throw off the chains of their masters will be day of triumph not only for ourselves but for Irish independence also.

Triumph, too, for the cause of Communist Internationalism in both countries.

Fredk. Willis