Marx 200: Marx on Ireland & the British revolution
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx and the 135th anniversary of his death; also the 170th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. Marx and his political partner and friend Frederick Engels were staunch supporters of the struggle for Irish freedom against British political rule and economic exploitation.
So, over the course of this year, I’ll be sticking up various bits and pieces of Marx (and Engels) on the Irish national liberation struggle – and also on its relationship to the British revolution.
Anyway, here’s an extract from a letter by Marx to Engels, December 11, 1869:
“As to the Irish question. . . . The way I shall put forward the matter next Tuesday is this: that quite apart from all phrases about “international” and “humane” justice for Ireland – which are to be taken for granted in the International Council – it is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working Glass to get rid of their present connection with Ireland. And this is my most complete conviction, and for reasons which in part I cannot tell the English workers themselves. For a long time I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always expressed this point of view in the New York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got 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.”
Unfortunately, most of the British left, especially in England, have never really grasped Marx’s work on Ireland and the British revolution. Instead they do things like tag along behind the imperialist Labour Party. . .
I still recall being at an SWP meeting in Brighton, England in 1980 where there was a reportback from a central committee plenum. I had been invited to the meeting because I’d signed a petition the SWP were hawking to save the lollipop lady at the local primary school! Anyway, at the reportback people were told that the SWP was scaling down their Irish solidarity work because british workers were too backward on Ireland. People were told that workers in Britain would first have to be won on ‘bread and butter’ issues and then they could be talked to about Ireland.
The opposite of Marx and Engels’ approach.
I decided then and there that the British SWP was a hopelessly crass and opportunist organisation, not Marxist and not revolutionary, and I never went near them again.
This, by the way, was just before the first H-Blocks hunger strike.
During the 1981 hunger strikes groups like the SWP were far too immersed in respectable middle class liberal campaigns like CND to have much time and energy left for organising support for Irish anti-imperialists dying on hunger strike in the battle against the British state. They failed the test of Ireland. (The British CP and the Militant Tendency, now the Socialist Party of England and Wales, failed even more miserably. The “Militant” current, for instance, even opposed the five demands of the hunger strikers and did everything possible to prevent motions in support of the five demands being passed in trade union branches and in LP branches.)
Living through the hunger strike period in Britain finished the process of souring me on most of the British left; they were just hopeless. When the going gets tough, as in the war in Ireland, they duck for cover, run away, avoid the issue, anything but follow in the footsteps of Marx and Engels (and Lenin and Trotsky) on the issue. (Exceptions were the Revolutionary Communist Party, Red Action, and the Revolutionary Communist Group, and probably some smaller organisations I am not familiar with.)
I used to have a copy of Marx and Engels on Ireland and the Irish Question but lost it somewhere on my travels. Today, I found a copy at Abe Books and have bought it, although it will take about a month to get here. But so good to be able to stick it on my bookshelves again. And I’ll be sticking up some more extracts and commentary from the book.