1883-1983 Marxism -
the ideas of the founders of Irish Labour

Militant Irish Monthly, March 1983

Finn Geaney
Executive Dublin Trades council (personal capacity)

For more than a century millionaire industrialists, landlords, and military dictators have shuddered at the onrush of Marxist ideas amongst workers, peasants, rural labourers and other oppressed sections of the population.

Ruling classes have striven to distort and misrepresent Marxism. These people have twisted the record of history, doctored economic facts, and have stood philosophy and science on their heads. Yet, the influence of Marxist ideas continues to grow. There is not a country in the world which has remained insulated. What begun as an idea, became transformed into a living political force, when absorbed by the workers' organisations.

Marxism has been part of the traditions of the Irish labour movement for more than a century. A number of Fenian leaders, such as Stephens and O'Donnovan-Rossa, played a role in the First International, the organisation set up by Marx and Engels in 1864. Branches of Marx's International were established in Belfast and Cork.

But it was James Connolly, the most important figure in Irish history, who truly established Marxism in the record of the labour movement here. James Connolly built the trade unions and labour organisations in hothouse conditions. While strikers were being shot, and their supporter's battoned, Connolly stood in the foreground as the champion of the oppressed. In the end he gave his own life in a desperate struggle to halt the slaughter of worker against worker being generated in Europe by the imperialist powers.

There were socialists in Ireland before Connolly. William Thompson, an Irish economist, in 1826 put forward the idea that capitalist control over working people was the cause of all social misery. 40 years before Marx published Capital, he explained that profit is the unpaid labour of the working class. Those who argue that Marxism is alien to the Irish labour movement have little knowledge of history.

Marxism is not a dogma or a set of predictions. Still less is it an encyclopaedia of ready-made answers to political problems. Marxism is a living science; above all else it is a method. It is a body of knowledge and an approach to understanding questions. Like all sciences, it bases itself on the real world of real things and real processes.

When astronomers set about examining the origins of a star or the distance of a particular galaxy form the earth, they do not use pre-conceived ideas or personal impressions as the starting point for their work. A researcher in the process of developing anew chemical which is to be used in combating disease, or an engineer designing a bridge, cannot be successful if s/he merely indulges his/her own subjective impressions. If progress is t be made, then prejudice must be swept aside, The real world of matter and energy- material things and the processes which arise from their interaction - can be the only basis if effective results are to be achieved. So too with politics and society. The structure of society, its laws, its morality, its dominant ideas, reflect the needs of the ruling class; in the last analysis they depend on who own the means of production, the factories, the machines, the mines, the land, the raw materials.

We can see the living proof of this every day. It is perfectly legal for the multinational company Ranks to sack its entire workforce in Dublin. Yet, when workers protest and occupy the plant they are imprisoned. The moral code of capitalist society speaks of the 'rights of private property'; yet, this is only a cover to enable factory-owners to lay off workers, landlords to evict tenants, private hospitals to refuse treatment to the poor, and private schools to reserve admission for the rich and privileged. If a hungry pensioner takes a loaf of bread from the supermarket without paying, he or she would be arrested; a speculator on the stock exchange juggling with shares can make millions of pounds, at the expense of factory closures, and be described as a hero in the media.

The labour movement has traditionally demanded that control and ownership of basic industries be in the hands of working people - nationalisations and workers' control. Here is the living embodiment of a fundamental idea of Marxism. James Connolly demanded again and again state ownership of industry. But this demand did not come from him alone. Michael Davitt, leader of the Land League, campaigned for the nationalisation of the land and for 'extension of State and municipal control and ownership of such monopolies as can be managed by public bodies'. Liam Mellowes, an important figure in the early part of this century, wrote in 1922 that '…all industry will be operated by the state…that lands of aristocracy will be seized and divided.' James Fintan Lawlor, a leader of the 1848 Rebellion, stated that ' ..the entire ownership of Ireland…is vested of right in the people of Ireland.' The programme of the Irish Labour Party in 1935 called for 'nationalisation of basic industries.'

Middle class writers and smart academics continuously repeat that Marxism is out off date. It was okay, they say, for the last century, but in today's conditions it is irrelevant. However, the real reason for their rejection of Marxism is that Marxism approaches all questions from a class point of view. We live in a class society, so how could a system which examines political questions from a class viewpoint be irrelevant?

James Connolly took a Marxist and class approach in his analysis of the situation in Ireland. His book, Labour in Irish history, is a classic of Marxist thought. There were many strands of opinion within the movement struggling for freedom in Ireland throughout the centuries. But Connolly explained that, for working people, this freedom 'must be incomplete and insecure until they wrest from the governing classes the possession of the land and instruments of wealth production.'

Connolly was proven correct. We have had 'independence' in the South of the country for 60 years. Yet 200,000 are unemployed there. A further 150,000 are out of work in the North. In both areas the economy is devastated; living standards are falling. The superiority of the Marxist method is here demonstrated.

Following the death of Karl Marx in 1883 his ides were further developed by people such as Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Connolly, and also now by Militant Irish Monthly, the Marxist tendency within the labour movement in Ireland. The pitfalls which await every advance of labour in Ireland can only be avoided through an understanding of the laws of society and of the processes of history. Marx examined history as a scientist would examine a laboratory manual; as a way of discovering the general laws at work in society.

Only when the chemists began to understand the role played by penicillin in halting the growth of bacteria could diseases like tuberculosis be successfully fought. The conquest of nature requires first an understanding of nature's laws and processes. So too within society.

It is necessary that the inherent tensions of class society, which explode periodically into turmoil and revolution, be understood within the organisations of labour. For without this understanding, how can success be achieved in changing the direction of society! The role of Marxism is one of understanding society in this way, and of laying the basis for building a movement which can be successful in ending the oppression of mankind in all its forms.

More Labour History pieces are available here

Another series of articles on Northern Ireland political developments
are available here.

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are available in our sitemap