Historical role of bourgeois nationalism

Everywhere we look in the world we can see how the so-called national bourgeoisie has failed to solve the national question. Ireland is no exception. The history of Ireland since the 18th century shows that the bourgeoisie is not capable of waging a serious struggle against imperialism or of solving the national question. The weak and toothless Irish bourgeoisie arrived too late on the stage of history. It was unable to compete with the giant across the water, which in any case was determined to prevent the rise of a powerful rival in Ireland, which it wanted to keep as a backward agrarian colony.

From the very beginning the Irish bourgeoisie was incapable of playing an independent role or of developing Ireland as a strong and independent nation. It was always content to play second fiddle to the English landlords, bankers and capitalists, while grumbling about its disadvantaged situation. At every decisive moment it betrayed the cause of Ireland in favour of its selfish economic interests. On those rare occasions when it grudgingly supported the struggle against English domination, it did so only in order to keep the masses under control, to apply the brakes and in the end to sell out to England.

It is therefore impossible to understand the national liberation struggle without analyzing its class content. In their writings we discover that Connolly, Lenin and Trotsky adopted the same attitude towards the national bourgeoisie. Connolly wrote: "The working men fought, the capitalists sold out, the lawyers bluffed." (Labour in Irish History, p. 52.) These words sum up two hundred years of Irish history down to the present day. As early as the 18th century, it is worth repeating, the great Irish revolutionary democrat Wolfe Tone stated that Ireland could only be freed by the "men of no property". He wrote: "Our freedom must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not help us they must fall; we will free ourselves with the aid of that large and respectable class of the community - the men of no property."

These were prophetic words! The conduct of the bourgeois nationalist leaders throughout history is not at all accidental. Starting with Henry Grattan, the well-to-do proponents of Irish nationalism have always defended their own selfish class interests and always preferred a deal with the imperialist masters rather than allow power to pass to the Irish workers and poor farmers. Right down to the present day, when the 26 Counties have had a caricature of "independence" for over 80 years, it feels far more comfortable with the rich and powerful in England than with its own working class, let alone the movement in the Six Counties, which it sees as a liability.

The real history of the national liberation struggle in Ireland begins with the French revolution. The destiny of Ireland has repeatedly been shaped by revolutionary developments on a world scale. Even before the French revolution, the first impulse to the Irish national liberation movement came from the American Revolution. The loss of the American colonies showed that England was not invincible. It also disposed London to make concessions to the emerging Irish bourgeoisie, as it did in the Navigation Acts of 1778. Emboldened, the mainly Protestant Irish bourgeoisie pressed for more rights. In 1779, when the Dublin Parliament met, all the MPs pledged to wear only Irish manufactured clothes. This showed the real interests of these gentlemen, who organized the Irish Volunteers - an armed force of 80,000 at its peak, pledged to secure Ireland's rights from England.

However, from the beginning the Irish bourgeoisie was concerned first and foremost with their narrow class point of view. The "rights" they aspired to mainly concerned their trading interests. The Irish parliament passed a motion declaring that "only by a free trade could this nation be saved from impending ruin." The feeble administration of Lord North in London, chastened by defeat in America, backed down and conceded free trade for Ireland. The flood tide of "Protestant Ireland" came in 1782, when the Volunteers at Dungannon proclaimed what is now known as "Grattan's Parliament". Again London appeared to give in, whereupon the Irish bourgeoisie showed its gratitude by voting one hundred pounds to the British navy, and another fifty thousand to Henry Grattan who was supposed to have clinched the deal. This little detail sets the tone for the whole business: it shows the venal and cowardly character of the Irish bourgeoisie, which behaved like a faithful dog licking the hand of the master who was kind enough to throw it a bone. It also shows that the services of those who pretended to stand for "Irish Freedom" always came with a price tag attached.

Grattan made a famous speech, ending: "Ireland is now a nation. In that character I hail her and, bowing in her august presence, I say esto perpetua." In reality, this was all a hollow show. Grattan's parliament lasted only 18 years. The "new constitution" rested on an unreformed parliament of wealthy Protestants. How could this be, when the great majority of Irish people were Catholics and oppressed peasants? The Parliament was corrupt and rotten. This is what Connolly wrote about Grattan:

"Mr. Grattan would have given the vote to any man who owned property, irrespective of religion, and he opposed its extension to any propertyless man. In the Irish House of Commons he bitterly denounced the United Irishmen [....], for proposing universal suffrage, which he declared would ruin the country and destroy all order.

"It will be seen that Mr. Grattan was the ideal capitalist statesman; his spirit was the spirit of the bourgeoisie incarnate. He cared more for the interests of property than for human rights or for the supremacy of any religion." (Labour in Irish History, p. 55.)

These lines accurately express the nature of all bourgeois nationalists everywhere - not just in Ireland. Their inevitable tendency to betray the people and compromise with imperialism is not an accident. It flows from their class interests and their position as exploiters of the working class and the peasantry. It is impossible to begin to understand the history of the Irish national struggle unless from a class point of view. That was always the standpoint of the Marxist James Connolly.

"The Parliament of 1782" was regarded by the real Irish revolutionaries as a sell-out, much as we regard the so-called peace process today. It was a deal reached by the bourgeois leadership with London behind the backs of the people and against their interests. By contrast, the most advanced elements of Irish society, inspired by the French Revolution, stood for a revolutionary solution, based on the self-movement of the masses - the "men of no property".

Wolfe Tone

In September 1791, Theobald Wolfe Tone - who came from a Protestant background - published a pamphlet entitled "An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland". This pamphlet, with its revolutionary spirit and its biting characterization of the "glorious revolution of 1782" was deliberately suppressed by the Irish bourgeois nationalists and was only republished in 1897. This is typical of the way the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists seek to distort and suppress the real history of Ireland's national liberation struggle and conceal its class nature. Wolfe Tone is presented as a revolutionary "icon", but the true nature of his ideas is suppressed and hidden from the new generation of Irish youth - exactly as happened with Connolly.

Writing about Wolfe Tone, and unwittingly about himself, Connolly remarked, "Apostles of freedom are ever idolized when dead, but crucified when living." The first duty of Irish Marxists must be to rescue the memory of the great revolutionary leaders and martyrs of the past and explain to the new generation the traditions of the Irish people. This is the only way in which we can finally break the pernicious stranglehold of bourgeois and middle class nationalism on the movement - the prior condition for future victory.

From the very beginning, the policies of the bourgeois nationalists were challenged by courageous men and women who understood the need to unite the national liberation struggle with the struggle for social liberation. In his pamphlet Wolfe Tone wrote: "the revolution of 1782 was the most bungling, imperfect business that ever threw ridicule on a lofty epithet, by assuming it unworthily. It is not pleasant for any Irishman to make such a concession, but it cannot be helped if such a truth will have it so. It is much better that we should know and feel our real state, than delude ourselves or be gulled by our enemies with praises which we do not deserve, or imaginary blessings which we do not enjoy." (Labour in Irish History, p. 57.)

How relevant these lines sound today! The tendency to prettify reality and to conceal things under false names ("revolution", "national liberation", "armed struggle" etc.) has been a constant feature of the history of Ireland ever since the days of Wolfe Tone. It is necessary to cut across this thick fog and – like James Connolly - call things by their correct names.

"The Revolution of 1782", writes Connolly, "was a Revolution which enabled Irishmen to sell at a much higher price their honour, their integrity, and the interests of their country; it was a Revolution which, while at a stroke it doubled the value of every borough-monger in the kingdom, left three-fourths of our countrymen slaves as it found them, and the government of Ireland in the base and wicked and contemptible hands who had spent their lives in degrading and plundering her; nay, some of whom had given their last vote decidedly, though hopelessly, against this, our famous Revolution." (Labour in Irish History, p. 58.)

The United Irishmen linked the national liberation struggle with the tasks of the social emancipation of the masses. Connolly cited the movement as "a revolutionary party openly declaring their revolutionary sympathies but limiting their first demand to a popular measure such as would enfranchise the masses, upon whose support their ultimate success must rest" (Labour in Irish History).

Inspired by the revolutionary democratic ideals of the French Revolution, Tone and the United Irishmen demanded equal representation of all the people in parliament, irrespective of class or creed. They waged a class war against the aristocracy. The movement to unite the masses terrified the aristocracy and proprietors - English and Irish, Catholic and Protestant - against the United Irishmen. The latter were not narrow nationalists, but revolutionary democrats and internationalists who actively sought - and obtained - contacts with revolutionaries, not only in France, but also in England and Scotland. Belfast was then a hotbed of revolution and the seat of the first society of United Irishmen. They worked out a revolutionary programme of democratic demands, including the enfranchisement of all the people, making no distinction between taxpayers and non-taxpayers. As Connolly comments:

"Nothing less would have succeeded in causing Protestant and Catholic masses to shake hands over the bloody chasm of religious hatreds, nothing less will accomplish the same result in our day among the Irish workers." (Labour in Irish History, p. 80.)

The United Irishmen, as Connolly explained were both revolutionary democrats and internationalists. They stood for a popular revolution that would unite all the oppressed masses of Ireland, irrespective of religious differences:

"The Protestant workman and tenant was learning that the Pope of Rome was a very unreal and shadowy danger compared to the social power of his employer or landlord, and the Catholic tenant was awakening to a perception of the fact that under the new social order the Catholic landlord represented the Mass less than the rent-roll." (Labour in Irish History, p. 70.)

In the end, however, the movement of the Volunteers was "a chapter of great opportunities lost, of popular confidence betrayed", as Connolly said. And the same thing could be said of every subsequent phase of the Irish national liberation struggle right up to today. Despite all their heroism, the United Irishmen were defeated. Why? Because in the moment of truth, class loyalties always prove more powerful than religious or national affiliation. The wealthy Irish property owners felt, correctly, that they had much more in common with the English propertied classes than the revolutionary Irish poor.

The Betrayal

The uprising, which was led by Protestant revolutionary democrats, representing the "men of no property", was betrayed by a Catholic silk-merchant, Thomas Reynolds, who provided the government with advance warning and a copy of a paper of the Supreme Executive of the United Irishmen, showing that no less than 279,000 men were sworn and armed to rise. The rising was aborted and its supporters put down with great barbarity. Peasants were tortured to reveal the hiding places of arms. Tone cut his own throat to avoid being hanged.

One contemporary reports:

"Numbers have been flogged who have been caught with pikes, and all but one peached and discovered. I have seen none of these floggings, but it is terrible to hear the perseverance of these madmen. Some have received three hundred lashes before they would discover where the pikes were concealed." (P. Johnson, Ireland, a Concise History, p. 81.)

Following the suppression of the Volunteers (the 'military wing' of the United Irishmen) in March 1793, the movement went underground and embarked on a period of reconstruction. This was based on social radicalism and, following Wolfe Tone's advice, they began to enlist "the men of no property", the journeymen and wage-earners who were already well organised in combinations, especially in the Dublin area. A network of workingmen's 'reading clubs' was formed, under the influence of the French Revolution and Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man.

Divide and rule

The British imperialists had received a rude shock in 1798, and decided that they would have to take serious steps to ensure that it was not repeated. The Act of Union of 1801 brought Ireland under the direct rule of Westminster. But the revolutionary events of 1798 made the British ruling class aware of the mortal threat posed by a united movement of the Irish Protestants and Catholics. Henceforth all their efforts were concentrated on destroying that unity.

A reign of terror was organized against the mainly Catholic peasantry. But the main weapon upon which England relied to destroy the Irish revolution was the fomenting of divisions between Catholics and Protestants. In the words of General Knox, the commander of the British garrison in Ireland: "I have arranged to increase the animosity between Orangemen and the United Irish. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North." (Quoted in Liam de Paor, Divided Ulster, p. 57, our emphasis.)

The Orange Order was born in Armagh in 1795 as part of a campaign to terrorize the Catholics and deny them full citizenship rights. However, the Order was directed not just at Catholics but also 'disloyal' Protestants. It was actively backed by the British state in the years leading up to the 1798 rebellion precisely in order to drive a wedge between ordinary Catholics and Protestants.

The 12th of July was chosen as the key date for Protestant celebrations, ostensibly to mark the Battle of the Boyne, but the real reason was to provide an alternative attraction to the celebration of Bastille day. From the very beginning the 12th of July celebrations were marked by sectarian attacks against Catholics. In 1795 up to 7,000 Catholics were driven out of Armagh by Orange Order pogroms. However, it is not generally known that many expelled Catholic families were sheltered by Presbyterian United Irishmen in Belfast and later Antrim and Down, and the (mostly) Protestant leadership of the United Irishmen sent lawyers to prosecute on behalf of the victims of Orange attacks. They also sent special missions to the area to undermine the Orange Order's influence.

At this time there was a bitter struggle between landlords and tenants in the area. Commenting on this the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh said "the worst of this is that it stands to unite Protestant and Papist, and whenever that happens, good-bye to the English interest in Ireland."

The Orange Order played a key part in undermining the 1798 rebellion. At the time General John Knox described the Orange Order as "the only barrier we have against the United Irishmen" after the failed rebellion he wrote "the institution of the Orange Order was of infinite use".

Paradoxically the Orange Order was originally opposed to the Union, whereas the Catholic Church supported it. The Catholic bishops and priests, not for the last time, backed the British authorities against the United Irishmen whose revolutionary and atheistic ideas were anathema to them. In January 1799, an assembly of Catholic bishops accepted a government offer of state provision for the Catholic clergy, in return for letting the state confirm Episcopal elections and the appointment of parish priests. In the end, of course, they received next to nothing.

Today we stand firmly on the basis of the revolutionary traditions of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. We understand that Ireland will never be united and free unless and until the working class places itself at the head of the liberation struggle and links this firmly with the task of the social revolution. We also understand that the prior condition for the socialist transformation of society is the maximum unity of the working class, cutting across all lines of nationality, religion and gender.

It is absolutely false, defeatist and reactionary to argue that it is impossible to achieve the unity of the Catholic and Protestant working people. That was done in the past by the United Irishmen and by Connolly and Larkin. There is no reason why it should not be done again. What is necessary is to fight on the basis of those social and class demands that are capable of uniting the working class against landlordism and capitalism. What is needed is a class policy. To quote Connolly:

"To accomplish this union, and make it a living force in the life of the nation, there was required the activity of a revolutionist with statesmanship enough to find a common point upon which the two elements could unite, and some great event, dramatic enough in its character, to arrest the attention of all and fire them with a common feeling." (Labour in Irish History, pp. 70-1.)

The cardinal lesson of all Irish history ever since 1798 is quite clear: the division between Catholic and Protestant was the main weapon used by imperialism and reaction to weaken and undermine the struggle of the people for their national and social emancipation. The conclusion is likewise inescapable: every step that tends to increase the unity of the working class of the two communities is progressive and must be supported, every action that tends to increase the division serves the interests of imperialism and reaction and must be rejected.

After the defeat of the United Irishmen in 1798 came the so-called Emmet conspiracy, which was even more distinctly democratic, international and popular in content. It had a more working class composition. Significantly, once more, the movement was betrayed to the authorities by middle class Catholic "nationalists". The Rev. Thomas Barry, parish priest of Mallow, discovered the plot in confession and ordered his parishioner to reveal it to the military.

"Emmet is the most idolized, the most universally praised of all Irish martyrs; it is, therefore, worthy of note that in the proclamation he drew up to be issued in the name of the 'Provisional Government of Ireland' the first article decrees the wholesale confiscation of church property and the nationalization of the same, and the second and third decrees forbid and declare void the transfer of all landed property, bonds, debentures and public securities, until the national government is established and the national will upon them is declared."

Connolly comments on this:

"Two things are thus established - viz. that Emmet believed that the 'national will' was superior to property rights, and could abolish them at will; and also that he realized that the producing classes could not be expected to rally to the revolution unless given to understand that it meant their freedom from social as well as from political bondage." (Labour in Irish History, pp. 86-7, our emphasis)

These lines are of crucial importance. Their meaning is quite clear and unambiguous: that the struggle for political freedom - including national liberation - is unthinkable unless it is linked to the social emancipation of the working class. This is the great lesson which Connolly derived from a painstaking reading of Irish history. His opinion of Emmet is thus different to that of the professional eulogisers who habitually gather like vultures around the coffin of a dead revolutionary - that "crop of orators who know all about Emmet's martyrdom, and nothing about his principles." (Ibid.)

These lines could be said equally of the historical destiny of Connolly himself.

Catholic Emancipation

The national oppression of the Irish people was made more bitter by the introduction of a religious element after the Reformation. In the nineteenth century, the enforced collection of a religious tax (the tithe) by the Protestant Episcopalian Church was a particularly brutal measure, detested by the Catholic peasantry. Protestant clergy would collect this hated tax accompanied by police and soldiers. The peasants resisted, leading to clashes with the army, where peasants were wounded or killed. The masses organized secret societies like the Ribbon and Whiteboy societies to resist these impositions, but the middle class politicians who spoke in the name of the Irish people gave no support to this movement.

In 1818 the Protestant church founded a society to develop the Irish language as a means of obtaining conversions. Its members challenged the Catholic priests to debates in Gaelic on doctrinal differences. As a result of this Protestant interest in Gaelic, the Catholic Church threw all its weight behind the teaching of English in all elementary schools. This sealed the fate of the Irish language as a spoken language. Thus, the spread of education undermined the language, which was further decimated by the effects of mass emigration after the Famine.

Daniel O'Connell was typical of the middle class political exploiters of the Irish people - "those well-fed snobs", as Connolly described them - who leaned on the masses to further their own careers, only to abandon them as soon as their narrow interests were served. His first act was to repudiate Wolfe Tone and his companions as "criminals":

" 'As to '98', he said, 'we leave the weak and wicked men who considered force and sanguinary violence as part of their resources for ameliorating our institutions, and the equally wicked and designing wretches who fomented the Rebellion and made it explode...We leave both of these classes of miscreants to the contempt and indignation of mankind.' " (P. Johnson, Ireland, a Concise History, p. 92.)

O'Connell benefited from the wave of agitation that swept across England in the early 1830s. This in turn was a partial reflection of the July Revolution in France which had overthrown the Bourbons in 1830. As always, democratic reform in Britain was a by-product of revolution in Europe. But whatever concessions are made by the ruling class are always partial and niggardly. The 1832 Reform Act for Ireland did not democratize the vote at all, restricting it to ten pounds householders in towns and twenty pounds leaseholders in counties. What it did do was to enfranchise the Catholic middle class in the towns, preparing the way for the 1840 Municipal Reform Act which abolished the corrupt old Protestant corporations and allowed the Catholics to take over the towns and cities. O'Connell himself became mayor of Dublin.

This wily and unprincipled opportunist leaned on the Irish masses to further his own career, speaking to mass meetings of up to 250,000 people, demanding an Irish parliament, but all the while upholding the class interests of the capitalists against the workers and the poor. In the English parliament, this consummate representative of Capital opposed the introduction of the Factory Acts aimed at lightening the burden of labour, on the grounds that "they (Parliament) had legislated against the nature of things and against the rights of industry." "Let them not", he said, "be guilty of the childish folly of regulating the labour of adults, and go about parading before the world their ridiculous humanity, which would end up by converting their manufacturers into beggars." (Labour in Irish History, p. 125.)

While making demagogic speeches appealing to Irish nationalism, O'Connell was ingratiating himself to the English Establishment. His whole mentality can be seen in his speech at Mullingar on 14 May 1843:

"They say we want separation from England, but what I want is to prevent separation taking place. There is not a man in existence more loyally attached than I am to the Queen - God bless her. The present state of Ireland is nearly unendurable, and if the people of Ireland had not some person like me to lead them in the paths of peace and constitutional exertion, I am afraid of the result (hear!) While I live I will stand by the throne (hear, hear!)." (P. Johnson, Ireland, A Concise History, p. 94.)

Authentic voice

This is the authentic voice of the Irish bourgeoisie - unprincipled, reactionary, cowardly, groveling. The move to obtain rights for Catholics was aimed at improving the position and furthering the careers of people like O' Connell, not the masses, as Connolly points out:

"The Catholic middle, professional and landed class by Catholic Emancipation had the way open to them for all the snug berths in the disposal of the Government; the Catholics of the poorer class as a result of the same Act were doomed to extermination..." (Labour in Irish History, p. 102.)

After the Emancipation, the Irish masses were no better off than before, as we see from the declaration of a witness from the labourers to the Ribbon Association:

"What good did the Emancipation do for us? Are we better clothed or fed, or are our children better clothed or fed? Are we not as naked as we were, and eating dry potatoes when we can get them? Let us notice the farmers to give us better food and better wages, and not give so much to the landlord, and more to the workman; we must not be letting them be turning the poor people off the ground." (Labour in Irish History, p. 104)

Here is the real voice of the Irish people, not the sleek lawyers' arguments of the middle class nationalists, under whose cloak of "patriotism" was always concealed the most barefaced and cynical self-interest. Connolly observes dryly:

"It is difficult to see how a promised Repeal of the Union some time in the future could have been any use to the starving men of Clare, especially when they knew that their fathers had been starved, evicted and tyrannised over before just as they were after the Union." (Labour in Irish History, p. 103.)

This shows the abyss that has always separated socialists from nationalism. Our standpoint has always been a class standpoint and no other. Our aim is the political and social emancipation of the working class, as the only way to guarantee a decent life for all. Insofar as we fight for national liberation it is as part of a far broader struggle against capitalism and imperialism on a world scale. Under no circumstances will we accept the subordination of the fight for the interests of the working class to the alleged interests of the Nation - an artificial formula which seeks to hide from view the never-ending struggle between Capital and Labour.

Again this was always the position of Connolly:

"It may be argued that the ideal of the Socialist Republic, implying as it does, a complete economic and political revolution, would be sure to alienate all our middle-class and aristocratic supporters who would dread the loss of their property and their privileges. What does this objection mean? That we must conciliate the privileged classes in Ireland! But you can only disarm their hostility by assuring them that in a free Ireland their privileges will not be 'interfered with'. That is to say, you must guarantee that when Ireland is free of foreign domination, the green-coated Irish soldiers will guard the fraudulent gains of the capitalist and the landlord from the 'thin hands of the poor' just as remorselessly and just as effectually as the scarlet coated emissaries of England do today.

"On no other basis will the classes unite with you. Do you expect the masses to fight for this ideal?" (Shan Van Vacht, January, 1897.)