Foreword to Marx and Engels on Ireland

Editor’s Note: Desmond Greaves was invited to write a Foreword to the English edition of the 500-page volume, Marx and Engels on Ireland and the Irish Question, which was published in 1971 by Messrs Lawrence and Wishart, London, on behalf of Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR.  The Russian text of this compilation was prepared by L.I.Golman and V.E. Kunina and was edited by R.Dixon.  Translations from German, French and Italian texts into English for purposes of the collection were done by various hands and Engels’s “Notes for the History of Ireland” and “Notes for the Preface to a Collection of Irish Songs” were translated by Angela Clifford. 

L.I.Golman wrote an Introduction to the collection in which he states:  “Marx and Engels wrote more about Ireland than has been collected between these covers. Their précis and notes on Irish history and economy are given in part only, since substantial sections of these preliminary summaries are still in process of deciphering. However, this book comprises their most pertinent statement on the subject at hand and presents a comprehensive picture of their views.”

The compilation contains the well-known aphorisms of Marx and Engels which Greaves often quoted in his public lectures and writing, namely, that ”A nation which oppresses another forges its own chains” and that “Two nations in Europe are never more international than when they are most national: the Irish and the Poles.”  Greaves’s own political activity in relation to the Irish question was clearly influenced by Marx’s insight expressed in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann dated 29 November 1869:  “I have become more and more convinced – and the only question is to drive this conviction home to the English working-class – that it can never do anything decisive here in England until it separates its policy with regard to Ireland most definitely from the policy of the ruling classes, until it not only makes common cause with the Irish but actually takes the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801… And this must be done, not as a matter of sympathy with Ireland but as a demand made in the interests of the English proletariat. If not, the English people will remain tied to the leading-strings of the ruling classes, because it will have to join with them in a common front against Ireland.”

And again, in a letter to Engels two weeks later, Marx wrote:  “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.”  

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Foreword by C.D.Greaves to the volume Marx and Engels on Ireland and the Irish Question

There are many reasons why the publication in one volume of the writings of Marx and Engels on Ireland is to be welcomed. It is timely since the myth that the Irish national struggle was over has been exploded by events in “Northern Ireland”, the area, since the partition of 1921, still held within the Union. The present tangled position is totally incomprehensible to those who lack knowledge of the historical events which brought it about. That in their day Marx and Engels faced and solved problems which are essentially those that still lie before us today will be apparent to any reader of this book who has freed himself even modestly from that limitation. Consequently, it provides numerous guide-lines which, mutatis mutandis, have high relevance today.

It should perform two valuable functions. First it should give the Marxists, of England and the world, a fresh interest in the Irish question, when they see how seriously the founders of Marxism regarded it, and the sheer volume of the work they devoted to it. And it should help to restore vision in what has tended to become one of the blindest spots of the English labour movement.  England has centuries of imperialism (in the broad sense) behind her.  Consequently most of her best radicals have tended, in their struggle against the chauvinism surrounding them on all sides, to identify all national struggles with reaction. Perhaps since Irish people resemble them so much, in contrast to peoples further afield, they find it hard to believe that Irish nationalism has not the same content as that of their own ruling class, which they have rejected. Wisdom begins in frank, total and unconditional recognition of the right of the Irish nation to determine its own international destiny, and it is from that point that the identity of interest between the working class of England and that of Ireland begins to operate in practice.

Second, it should arouse the interest of the Irish people in Marxism, which the present ruling classes have tried to represent as something alien to them. Not that the masses have altogether believed it. There were many bold craftsmen in country parts, even in the dark days of the forties and fifties of this century, who knew well that Marx defended Ireland in Capital.  The book has been available in public libraries. But a nation seeking national freedom thirsts after politics, not economics. Many would know, few would read. The collection made by the late Ralph Fox contained some of the letters and exercised some influence in the thirties, but has been long out of print, except for a few copies zealously guarded in Dublin.

At the turn of the century the great Irish Marxist James Connolly, a working man who taught himself German, spread some knowledge of the Letters to Kugelmann. Connolly’s life work was indeed the revival and application of Marx’s teaching on the primacy of the national independence struggle within Ireland. He had become aware of this teaching while a member of the Social Democratic Federation in Edinburgh, at a time when Engels was still alive and influencing the theoretical development of the world proletarian movement.

The extension of the International Workingmen’s Association to Ireland is referred  to in Dr Golman’s admirably compact but comprehensive introduction. It must not be lightly assumed, however, that it arose from a foreign importation.  There were a number of left radical and socialist-oriented groups in Ireland during the times of the Chartists.  The attempts of O’Connell’s followers to extinguish Chartism in Drogheda received attention in the Northern Star.  It is surely no accident that Feargus O’Connor, who became the leader of Chartism in England during one of its most virile periods, was the nephew of Arthur O’Connor, the United Irishman, and that he chose for the name of his paper the name given by the United Irishmen to their own paper in Belfast.

The deepest and most abiding tradition in Ireland is that of Republicanism, best expressed in Marx’s day by the Fenians.  It originated in Ireland’s response to the French  revolution. As Wolfe Tone wrote: “In a little time the French Revolution became the test of every man’s political creed, and the nation was fairly divided into two great  parties, the Aristocrats and the Democrats. . . .It is needless, I believe, to say I was a Democrat from the beginning.” 

In his centenary book The Internationale  Mr R.Palme Dutt remarks that “The international communist movement developed in direct  line of descent from the left wing of the democratic revolution and the first beginnings of the working-class movement”. He quotes Marx in 1848: “The Jacobin of 1793 has become the Communist of today.” Because of their common origins in the political movements of the oppressed classes of Europe in the early nineteenth century, Republicanism, pragmatic rather than scientific, but consistently revolutionary, showed a constant receptivity to socialist ideas.  Thus it is said that Stephens, the Young Ireland revolutionary forced to  flee to Paris after the failure of the  rising of 1848, had contact with revolutionary socialist groups, before returning to Ireland (after a stay in America) to found Fenianism.  The great Fenian John Devoy, while scarcely describable as a Marxist, worked closely with the First International. Why then did the United Irishman of 1798 not become the Communist of 1848?  The full answer must await a study that the publication of this book must surely stimulate, namely, the analysis of ideological developments in the Irish national movement during the nineteenth century. But a decisive factor must surely have been the diaspora following the “famine” and the scattering of Irish revolutionaries over the face of the earth.  The emigrant ship was English imperialism’s strongest safeguard alike against revolution  and against revolutionary ideas.

The radical wing of Republicanism was constantly attracted towards the revolutionary working class.  Thus Clarke, Pearse and MacDermott were drawn into an alliance with Connolly in 1916.  Similar forces came together in 1921-22. The bourgeoisie, backed by a confused and fearful Labour leadership, was prepared to accept partition, which Lloyd George had forced on Ireland at the point of the gun. The Republican party, Sinn Fein, split. Among those who opposed the monstrous settlement were leaders such as Liam Mellows, strongly influenced by Connolly’s teachings, and Marxists within the Republican movement, such as Peadar O’Donnell. Outside the Republican ranks the only party to oppose the Treaty was the young Communist Party of Ireland, led by James Connolly’s son, and a number of its members took part in the fighting that ensued.  In the twenties and thirties the Republican newspaper An Phoblacht regularly carried articles by internationally known Marxists.  It may therefore be said, and the Irish reader of this book can judge for himself from his own experience, that so little is Marxism alien to the Irish tradition that reactionary ruling classes, actual or prospective, have always sought special means for insulating the people from its influence.

There was perhaps instinctive recognition of this fact in Engels’s envious cry when O’Connell was parading Ireland with two hundred thousand followers about him. “Give me”(surely this emphasis is implied) “two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy.”  Engels’s favourite resort was the home of the Burns family, who had Fenian connections. After the death of his constant companion Mary Burns in 1863, her sister Lizzie became his second wife and accompanied him on his visit to Ireland in 1869. The fascination which the country held for him was expressed in his description of the Irish climate:  “The weather, like the inhabitants, has a more acute character, it moves in sharper, more sudden contrasts; the sky is like an Irish woman’s face: here also rain and sunshine succeed each other suddenly and unexpectedly and there is none of the grey English boredom.” There is a research subject for some young historian in the details of Engels’s connections with Ireland and the Fenians of Lancashire.

Indeed, the subject of this collection prepared by Dr Golman and Dr Valeria Kunina might well spur much research in Irish and English political and economic history. That Marx postulated a special variant of the universal law of capitalist accumulation in Ireland has been very little appreciated even in Ireland , where it  still appears to be generally accepted that such economic categories as prices of capital goods followed the same pattern in Ireland as in England. It would be interesting to expand Marx’s analysis of the eighteen sixties, in Capital, to cover a longer period and to collate the data throughout the whole field of Irish economic life. It would also not be impossible to find evidence that the special mode of capital accumulation discerned by Marx  over  a hundred years ago is by no means defunct today.

Marx and Engels never had the opportunity to arrange and systematise their ideas on Ireland and Irish history in a state suitable for publication. As Dr Golman points out, despite the obvious existence of a completely ordered outlook, it has to be “gleaned from handwritten notes and fragments”. But there is no subject on which Marx’s and Engels’s views are not provocative of further thought. And this is going to be the great value of this compilation. The problems of Ireland today, internally, and in her relations with England, Europe and the world, are complex and thorny.  Viewed as dogma, Marx’s  or Engels’s writings will not help to solve them. But their writings were not intended as dogma. Viewed as examples of the analytical methods of a scientific genius, revealing the way problems were approached and how thought out and solved, the contents of this book make a most important contribution to the equipment of the Labour and Republican  movements on Ireland, and to their progressive  counterparts in Britain.

C. Desmond Greaves

Liverpool, September 1970