Ireland’s Marxist Historians

Anthony Coughlan

[This is Chapter 19, pp.288-305, of the book Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism 1938-1994, edited by Dr Ciaran Brady, Trinity College Dublin, and published by Irish Academic Press, 1994 (ISBN: 0716524996, 9780716524991).]


    ‘There is no stronger political force than a people’s desire for independence’

  • Charles de Gaulle

The controversy on historical ‘revisionism’ is relevant to assessments of Ireland’s Marxist and neo-Marxist historians as well as those writing mainstream academic history. Both Marxist and non-Marxist writers have faced the same intellectual issues in recent decades:  the revaluation of Nationalism and Unionism and how England’s historical involvement in Ireland influences present-day Anglo-Irish relations. Since the 1960s, in parallel with non- Marxist revisionist criticism of traditional Irish nationalist history, a younger school of Marxist or neo-Marxist writers, among them Austen Morgan, Helga Woggon, Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, have criticised the conclusions of historians of the older Marxist tradition who have been sympathetic to nationalist interpretations, principally James Connolly, Erich Strauss, Thomas Alfred Jackson and C. Desmond Greaves. The central tenet of classical Marxism in contention is the view held by Marx and Engels themselves that it is English intervention in Ireland rather than internal Irish conditions that historically has been the prime political cause of the country’s problems.

A Sociology of History.

The Marxist historical tradition aspires to be a sociology of history as well as to give a scientific account of the past. It holds that to understand history one must understand its historians, and how politics and economics condition their values and the circumstances in which they write and publish. By corollary, historians need to be aware of themselves as part of the phenomena they study, especially when they are writing on what has formed their own lives and times. They should be conscious of how their values and social interests influence their selection of what they regard as significant facts about the past and their judgments of these. The truth is the whole, as Hegel once said, so that all accounts are necessarily partial and one-sided. One can no more avoid bias in history then one can in food.1 In this perspective value-free history is inherently impossible. To claim to write it is to show philosophical bad faith and to assert a spurious universality for one’s personal value position. The good historian knows that he is a moral and political being involved in an enterprise that is also moral and political. He will follow the scientific method in weighing facts and evidence, while being conscious of, and desirably declaring, his own values. He strives for objectivity while being simultaneously ‘engaged’. As a political being the historian will be concerned with how knowledge of the past enables us to understand where we have got to in history and how such knowledge may help us tackle the problems that confront us. Most of the older generation of Ireland’s Marxist historians not only regarded history-writing as a political act, but were themselves actively engaged in contemporary affairs, principally in democratic and working-class politics. Such involvement is rare among ‘revisionist’ Marxists, whose preferred ambience is the academy rather than the polis.

While traditional Marxist historiography on Ireland was sympathetic to Irish Nationalism, it regarded the simplifications of much nationalist history, with its story of a centuries-old heroic and ‘pure’ national struggle against alien oppression, culminating in the establishment of an independent Irish State, to be part of the myth of origin of that State’s bourgeoisie. Following the ‘disestablishment’ of the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1919, the acceptance of Partition under the Treaty and the subsequent Civil War, the business and political elites that constituted the Southern Irish bourgeoisie found themselves in charge of a State that was significantly different, both as regards its territorial boundaries and its development possibilities, from that historically aspired to by Irish nationalists. Despite this they understandably sought to emphasise their State-building achievements in face of potentially threatening hard-line Republicanism to their Left. To the various myths of origin of the Irish bourgeois Establishment, writers like Strauss, Jackson and Greaves counterposed a typical Marxist concern with the role of classes and class interest as the prime motive force of history and as explaining the origin and contemporary character of the Irish State. Nonetheless, the generality of Irish historians, non-Marxist and Marxist, were at one in stressing the value of such political independence as had been achieved, despite its limitations, and hence of the movements in Irish history that could be interpreted as pointing towards that independence. This was the case so long as the Irish bourgeoisie retained enough self-confidence to aspire to play an independent role in the world, which was broadly the period from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Then the intellectual climate receptive to nationalist history, whether academically orthodox or Marxist, changed. The mass unemployment and high emigration of the 1950s led the Republic’s business and political elites to abandon the attempt to construct an independent national capitalism. Irish Governments turned away from Eamon de Valera’s policy of economic self-sufficiency and adopted instead a policy of industrialization through attracting foreign capital investment. Henceforth economic independence was to be dismissed as a pipedream. If the rationale of the Sinn Fain ideal had been that social salvation came from within, economic salvation was now seen as coming from without. The period from the 1960s to the 1980s saw the culmination of a long-growing disillusionment with the achievement of independence among the Irish intelligentsia.2

The policy of economic integration with Britain under the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965 and Irish membership of the European Economic Community from 1973, encouraged further reassessment of the value and potential of independent statehood and the nationalist assumptions traditionally underpinning that. The climate became favourable for the popularization of the work of the first generation of ‘revisionist’ historians, that of Professors Moody, Edwards and Lyons. Fr Francis Shaw’s article, ‘The Canon of Irish History – a Challenge’, which had been turned down as too shocking by the editor of Studies in 1966, the year of the 50th anniversary of the Rising, appeared in the more intellectually congenial climate of 1972, the year the Irish Government signed the Treaty of Rome.3 The recrudescence of IRA violence in the North after 1970 alienated further Southern liberal and media opinion. Increasingly the dominant Irish intellectual consensus tended to conflate nationalism with support for physical force. The violence led to a more sympathetic attitude to British Government policy and to Ulster Unionism, the strength of whose objections to Irish independence and unity, Irish nationalists, it was held, had traditionally underestimated. With the zeal of converts to a new religion the country’s young liberal intelligentsia threw off the values of their fathers. ‘Revisionism’ in history and cultural commentary became fashionable with publishers and the media. In a further development the Irish Government’s commitment to political integration with the European Community and the possible development of a quasi-federal European Union under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, seemed to put a question-mark over the very future of the sovereign Nation State itself, that key parameter of political history in modern Western Europe. Courses in ‘European studies’ proliferated in the universities and colleges. Events posed the question, and not only in Ireland: did national political history need to be reinterpreted henceforth as a mere stage in the evolution of a ‘European’ rather than a national political formation? 4 These trends from the background to the revisionist controversy.

                                                    Marx and Engels on Ireland

It is surprising how few references historians of nineteenth-century Ireland make to the work of Marx and Engels, in view of the fact that they were among the few non-Irish writers on Irish affairs at the time who were sympathetic to nationalist aspirations, about which they wrote extensively and interestingly. The volume of their collected writings on Ireland amounts to some five hundred pages, of which eighty consist of notes by Marx on the course of Irish history from the American Revolution to the Union with Britain in 1801 and over a hundred are preparatory materials by Engels for a History of Ireland which he embarked on but did not complete.5 The rest are mostly articles, letters, excerpts from speeches and reports, but with numerous remarks on Irish history overall, that together constitute a commentary on the successive phases of Irish national struggle up to their time. They are testimony to the importance of Ireland in the eyes of the founding fathers of Marxism, who pioneered the systematic analysis of the country’s social class relations.

Engels described Ireland as England’s first colony and he and his colleague traced the process of its subjugation from the 12th century. They analysed the landlord system as a foreign implant, upheld by the English Government or its surrogate in Dublin, that led to an intertwining of the popular struggle against landlordism with the national struggle for democracy and independence. Marx’s analysis in Volume 1 of Capital6 of the 19th century land clearances as a special case of capital formation, in which the replacement of tenantry by cattle entailed the expropriation of the necessary means of subsistence of the former, and not just the surplus they produced, is a valuable insight into the land question of the time.

Marx and Engels used Irish data in developing their theory of rent7 and it was primarily in relation to Ireland that they evolved their theory of imperialism. Colonial conquest, as well as distorting the social development of the conquered nation, held back progressive development in the conqueror. They judged that by confiscating Irish land Cromwell strengthened aristocracy, ditched his more radical supporters and paved the way for the Stuart Restoration. ‘By engaging in the conquest of Ireland Cromwell threw the English Republic out the window’, Marx commented on the 17th-century English revolution.8

In Marx’s view the Act of Union turned Ireland into an agricultural district of England, supplying that country with corn, wool, cattle and industrial and military recruits. It at once made the Irish question a major issue in English politics and brought an accretion of Irish immigrants to the British working class. It strengthened aristocratic power in England as well as Ireland, so delaying reform in both countries and justifying the maintenance of a larger standing army. He wrote in 1870:

‘Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocracy and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class retains its power.’9

Consequently, he advocated that for English workers ‘the national emancipation of Ireland is no question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social emancipation.’10 It was in relation to Ireland that Marx coined his famous aphorism: ‘Any nation that oppresses another forges its own chains.’11

In 1867 Marx wrote to Engels: ‘What the Irish need is: (1) self-government and independence from England; (2) an agrarian revolution…; (3) protective tariffs against England…. Once the Irish are independent, necessity will turn them into protectionists, as it did Canada, Australia, etc.’12 In the 1840s and 1850s Marx had held that Ireland would gain her national freedom through working class ascendancy in England. But in 1869 he wrote: ‘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.’13

Partly history, party political prescription, the founding fathers of Marxism shift continually between ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’. The alliance they adumbrated between Irish nationalism and English democracy has more often been a potential than a reality, but its possibilities are likely to remain as long as the Irish question remains an issue in English politics.

Sympathetic though they were to the Irish national movement, Marx and Engels were well aware of its heterogeneous character. In a letter to Bernstein in 1882 Engels outlined the two trends within it. The first was the agrarian, rooted in peasant secret societies, democratic and radical in character. The second was the ‘liberal-national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie which, as in every peasant country with dwindling townlets … finds its natural leaders in lawyers’.14 The bourgeoisie needed the social muscle of the peasantry to lend weight to their own demands, but they sought to confine agitation within bounds that would not disturb their class privileges or rouse social forces they could not control. O’Connell’s relations with the peasantry and Parnell’s with the Fenians illustrated the pattern. Marx and Engels made few references to the Irish working class. In their day this was modest in size outside the Belfast area and did not as yet play a politically significant independent role. They did not discuss Ulster Unionist opposition to the 1886 Home Rule Bill, apart from referring to ‘the Protestant braggarts of Ulster, who threaten to rebel’, and noting as instructive the defence by Conservatives like Randolph Churchill and others of Ulster’s right to resist Home Rule by force ‘as a part of constitutional theory – though only so long as they form the opposition…’ 

Their strongly positive attitude to Irish nationalism may be summed up in a comment of Engels in 1882: ‘I hold the view that two nations in Europe have not only the right but even the duty to be nationalistic before they become internationalistic: the Irish and the Poles. They are most internationalistic when they are genuinely nationalistic.’ 16

                                                    Irish Marxist History-writing

James Connolly’s stature as a socialist theoretician of the national question is likely to receive new recognition in the light of developments in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in recent years. The birth of a couple of dozen new Nation States, as forgotten national communities of those parts establish political units to represent them internationally, shows that the historical momentum of the French Revolution, with its proclamation of the democratic principle of the right of nations to self-determination, is far from being exhausted and may still in fact be nearer its commencement then its close.  The likely advent of dozens, possibly hundreds, of new Nation States to the international community over the coming century as peoples in Africa, Asia and the Middle East pass beyond kinship-based and tribal society, develop a national and linguistic identity and consciousness and find themselves restricted by the boundaries of the multinational States established by colonialism, is surely now inevitable. As the Labour movements of these countries aspire to some form of ‘socialism’ – entailing the imposition of social controls on private capital in the collective interest – they will find themselves facing the problem Connolly wrestled with in the days of the Second International: how to define the relation between national independence and socialism, between democratic struggle embracing all the people and working class struggle for the special interests of a particular class. In seeking to deal with it they might do well to emulate Connolly’s counsel when he wrote that ‘the Irish socialist was in reality the best patriot, but in order to convince the Irish people of that fact he must first learn to look inward upon Ireland for his justification, rest his arguments upon the facts of Irish history, and be a champion against the subjection of Ireland and all that it implies.’17 Connolly’s intellectual originality was to link the working-class ideal of socialism with the categories of the citizen and the native, with the republicanism of the former and the nationalism of the latter.

His book Labour in Irish History, published in 1910, was the first attempt by an Irish writer to analyse the country’s history in terms of the Marxist class categories. It inaugurated Irish labour history and is still indispensable reading for students for its insights and force of style. It is a remarkable achievement for a self-educated working-man. Connolly disclaimed any intention of writing an academic history of labour in Ireland. ‘It is rather a chronicle of labour in Irish history,’ he said. The chapters on the Jacobites, the 18th-century peasant movements, Grattan’s Parliament, the United Irishman, the Emmet conspiracy and Daniel O’Connell illustrate his thesis that ‘the Irish question is a social question. The whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the source of production, in Ireland.’19 His judgments on the relations between the main social classes at the climactic moments of Irish history have stood the test of time. Subsequent criticism has been mainly about details. They parallel the treatment of the same topics by Marx and Engels, the full extent of whose writings on Ireland Connolly was not aware of, as many were not published until after his death.

As Dr Priscilla Metscher remarks in her study of republican and socialist ideology in 19th and early 20th-century Ireland,20 Connolly’s book presents us with a radically different picture of Irish history to the conventional view. For him British imperialism is not merely armed occupation but an expression of a highly developed form of capitalism that was supported by a large section of the Irish capitalist class. Connolly regarded historical materialism as the key to the understanding of the Irish question, for ‘without this key to the meaning of events, this clue to unravel the actions of “great men”, Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbreaks., treacheries, intrigues, massacres, murders and purposeless warfare.’21

Connolly has been criticised for over-simplified views and an over-mechanistic attempt to apply the materialist theory of history by too rigidly seeking to separate political and economic causes.22 His very negative assessments of Grattan and O’Connell are partly an attempt to counter the hagiography of the romantic nationalist history of his day. In 1910 he was still under the influence of syndicalist conceptions. Thus he wrote, ‘The Irish toilers from henceforward will base their fight for freedom not upon winning or losing the right to talk in an Irish Parliament, but upon their progress to the mastery of those factories, workshops and farms upon which a people’s bread and liberties depend.’23 Connolly’s attitude at this stage was that only the Irish working class could be relied on in the struggle for national independence. He had not yet reached the position of seeing the importance of an alliance with the more progressive forces of bourgeois nationalism, which he developed after the outbreak of World War 1.

This alliance is still at the heart of historical controversy over Connolly. It is an issue vitally relevant to contemporary considerations of what should be the attitude of the Labour movement and socialists to national independence struggles, whether in Ireland or other countries. In his biography C. Desmond Greaves summarised the evolution of Connolly’s views on the subject as follows:

‘Connolly held that the national revolution was a prerequisite of the socialist revolution. But he did not arrive easily at a clear conception of their mutual relationship. At first he was inclined to identify them. Later he distinguished them as the political and economic aspects of one process. Finally he reached the conclusion that they were two stages of one democratic reorganisation of society, each involving economic changes which it was the function of political change to promote. This is the significance of his phrase “the first stage of freedom”.’24

Connolly’s participation in the Easter Rising was in line with the resolutions and slogans of the parties of the Second International to ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war’. The aspirations of the 1916 men accorded with Marx’s view that what Ireland most needed was political independence to enable it deal with its own problems itself. The rebel cause was championed by Lenin, though condemned by Trotsky. Subsequent controversies have echoed their assessments. The logic of Connolly’s writing and actions in the period leading up to 1916 was that of socialist republicanism: that socialists should participate in, and indeed seek to lead, national independence and other democratic movements. The alternative view was that by taking up nationalism Connolly had abandoned socialism. As C.D. Greaves points out, there were two variants of this. One, typical of Belfast, was for socialists to capitulate to sectarian pressure, ignore the national question, concentrate on work in the trade union movement and reform within the UK, professing a kind of Unionism of the Left. The other, typical of Dublin, was to admit that national independence was important, but to see it as separate from Labour struggle and the aspiration to socialism.  This was effectively to hand over leadership of the national struggle to the bourgeoisie, represented by Fianna Fail, or the small bourgeoisie, represented by the post-1920s IRA and Sinn Fein.  Thus ‘non-Republican socialism of the right, or the ultra-left, is inspired from one common ideological source – British imperialism.’25

The historical works of Strauss, Jackson and Greaves, though differing in detail, subscribe to the classical Marxist view that English involvement in Ireland is the political root of the country’s problems. At the time they were writing this involvement principally took the form of Partition. Erich Strauss’s study, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy26 is the first Marxist work to analyse thoroughly the class basis of the Unionist-Nationalist split in the Irish bourgeoisie. This lay in the export-orientation of Ulster’s shipping, engineering and textile trades, which made the Northerners feel threatened by the protective tariff policy aimed at developing the domestic market that Southern nationalists advocated for a Home Rule Ireland. This aligned Ulster Unionism with the Empire-free-trading interest in Britain which swung increasingly behind the Tory party after the 1886 Home Rule crisis. Ulster business also felt threatened by the prospect of facing higher taxes to finance land purchase and industrialisation under Home Rule. The popular basis of urban Unionism lay in the Protestant aristocracy of Labour in the North-East, where Protestants predominated in the skilled trades and Catholics in the unskilled. The failure of the Larkin and Connolly movement to establish political solidarity on class lines between Catholic and Protestant workers in the first decade of the century meant that the Protestants lined up behind their employers in Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912, in what might perhaps be regarded as the first proto-fascist movement of modern times.

Strauss’s brilliant book surveys the relation of Ireland and Britain from the 17th century to the 1940s, and in particular what he terms ‘the time-honoured English policy of disciplining the Irish people by detaching the middle class from the masses’.27 He sees Britain’s interest in Ireland as both economic and strategic and Ireland’s influence on Great Britain as ‘the most powerful influence ever exerted by a colony on an imperial power since the cultural penetration of the Roman Empire by Greece’ – though Ireland’s influence was of course political rather than cultural.28

Ireland Her Own, by the English working-class intellectual T.A. Jackson, was written in response to a suggestion by Connolly’s lieutenant Con O’Lyhane that he write the first comprehensive history of Ireland from a Marxist standpoint. ‘I write frankly as a partisan,’ says Jackson, ‘I have done my best to be candid, but impartiality is beyond my scope. My concern is to help forward the cause I uphold.’ Such candour has laid him open to criticism. Wartime paper shortages led his publishers to cut the final text of this fine stylist by over half its original length, but the resultant rather bare treatment of events, especially in the early period, has not detracted from its popularity, for the book has remained continually in print, with an epilogue by C.D. Greaves that brings the story to 1970. Jackson argued for a shift in the balance of political forces in Britain towards anti-Unionism as being essential for undoing Partition: ‘Partition was imposed from England. In England the work of undoing Partition must be, and will be, begun.’31

C. Desmond Greaves’s books on Tone, Connolly, Mellows and O’Casey, as well as his history of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, are widely recognised as major contributions to Irish labour history and Marxist scholarship. His study of Wolfe Tone aims to give what he terms ‘a bird’s-eye view of Irish history’ that traces the development of Irish kinship society under the impact of English conquest and feudalism and seeks to show that a movement for national political independence could only come about when the political allegiances of clan society had been uprooted. This happened with the United Irishmen of the late-18th century. The 1800 Act of Union, Greaves contends, following Marx, was aimed not only against Irish nationalism but against British democracy. The accretion of landlord strength that it brought to Westminster possibly delayed parliamentary reform in Britain for a generation, while the Union broke the alliance of Catholics and Dissenters, who did not attain complete emancipation until 1829, causing the latter to look not to the Irish Catholics but to their co-religionists in Britain for support.33

In writing The Life and Times of James Connolly in the 1950s Greaves had the advantage of being able to meet many of those who knew and worked with Connolly personally. This enabled him to establish several hitherto unknown facts about Connolly’s career, for example his Scottish birth and youthful service in the British Army. Greaves’s own estimate of his second biography, Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, as being his most important historical work, will surely stand the test of time.34 Greaves regarded the whole period 1913-1922 as encompassing what he termed ‘the Irish Revolution’ – the struggle to establish an independent Irish State – in which the 1913 lockout, the Ulster crisis, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War were episodes. So defined, that revolution is still unfinished and will remain so until Northern Ireland becomes part of an independent Irish State.

In this book a study of the complex social dynamics and class relations of the revolutionary period 1916-23 is woven round the biography of the Left-Republican leader Liam Mellows, who was executed by the Provisional Government in 1922. It shows how the destruction of Redmond’s Home Rule party in the two years after the 1916 Rising left the Southern Irish bourgeoisie without a party. For a time the small bourgeoisie, then numerically the country’s largest social class, filled the gap through Sinn Fein, Labour having opted to remain uninvolved organizationally so as to preserve the unity of the trade union movement.35 This fatal renegation, in the crucial period of the formation of an Irish State, left the radical small bourgeoisie without allies when Sinn Fein split on the treaty and the forces of large property and conservativism rallied to the Free State. Political Labour side-lined itself thereby and the leadership of the national movement passed thereafter to the national bourgeois Fianna Fail and the small bourgeois militant Republicans.

For much of his life Greaves was politically active in Britain in opposing the Stormont Unionist regime. There is a case for regarding him as the originator of the idea of a civil rights campaign as the way to shatter Unionist political domination in the North of Ireland, which was taken up by the late 1960s Civil Rights movement. His book The Irish Crisis is the first study of the history and politics of Northern Ireland from a Marxist standpoint. While being well aware of the internal factors making for Northern Ireland’s political and sectarian divisions, he regarded British Government policy in upholding Unionism as the fundamental cause of the continuance of Partition. This book was written as an expansion of an earlier reply to Barritt and Carter’s The Northern Ireland Problem: A Study in Group Relations,37 which was the progenitor of numerous subsequent ‘internal conflict’ analyses of the problem. The common feature of these studies, which have been reviewed by the late Dr John Whyte,38 is the relegation of British Government policy to, at most, a secondary role in the historical causation and contemporary continuance of the Northern crisis.

Greaves opposed the abolition of Stormont in 1972 as likely to strengthen the Union rather than weaken it, much as the abolition of the corrupt College Green Parliament in 1800 had strengthened Ireland’s links with Britain then. He advocated instead the conception of a Bill of Rights imposed by Westminster as a legislative straitjacket on the subordinate Stormont assembly. This would at once outlaw discriminatory practices, so satisfying the civil rights aspirations of the Northern nationalist population, while at the same time permitting, and preferably encouraging, a devolved administration in the North to develop closer relations with the South.

This was a policy issue that separated Greaves from the Marxist-oriented leaders of the student-based People’s Democracy of the time, who welcomed the abolition of Stormont and the imposition of ‘direct rule’ from London. A number of these – Michael Farrell, Eamon McCann, Geoffrey Bell, John Gray and Paul Arthur – have subsequently written books on Northern politics.39 Farrell’s work, in particular – The Orange State and Arming the Protestants – have been major contributions to the history of Northern Ireland from a Marxist standpoint. Another issue distinguishing Greaves from these others was his more positive attitude to the Irish State, while they tended to emphasise its conservative and denominational features. But all of these writers share a common subscription to the classical nationalist view of the Northern problem as being primarily due to Britain’s insistence on maintaining sovereignty and politically underwriting Ulster Unionism. This is what principally differentiates them from revisionist Marxist or neo-Marxist historians.

                                                      Revisionist Marxist History

Revisionist Marxist history-writing, like other intellectual trends, can be assumed to have social roots. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Marxism was a theory used by working- class political activists to guide them in their political work and help solve practical problems. Then in the mid-20th century Marxism became the creed of millions, the official ideology of several States and a dangerous ideological challenge to the West. Perhaps what could no longer be intellectually ignored or suppressed might be sapped of its subversive potential through a strategy of co-option? One may speculate that from the 1960s onwards one of the responses of political Establishments in various countries to this ideological challenge was to encourage the development of a form of ‘katheder Marxismus’, or scholastic Marxism, mainly sited in university politics and sociology departments, where the theory purveyed was far from being Friedrich Engels’s ‘guide to action’. Much of the academic neo-Marxism produced there, which has filled whole libraries with exegesis and polemic, is an eclectic ideology, a kind of Establishment socialism, Marxism without commitment, though often extremely dogmatic in form, that revises key concepts of the classical tradition, in the process frequently using left-wing terminology to produce an apologia for contemporary conservative practise. Far from using the insights of Marxism to help solve practical political problems, these Establishment or academic Marxists, radical-sounding dominies, tend to be compilers of bibliographies, dissectors of texts – some of which have been written solely for journalistic purposes – and above all inventors of jargon. As regards Ireland the political thrust of this neo-Marxist school has, broadly speaking, been to produce an apologia for British involvement in Irish affairs, and for Ulster Unionism, that parallels the work of non- Marxist revisionist historians. Some examples will illustrate the genre.

Dr Austen Morgan’s book James Connolly, A Political Biography40 is a self-proclaimed polemical work that seeks, as its blurb succinctly explains, to pose the ‘unanswered question. . . why a man who lived as a socialist died an Irish nationalist’. The question remains unanswered, one may say, because its premise is a nonsense. Connolly died, as he lived, a socialist internationalist. What is presented for explanation did not happen. Morgan’s thesis is essentially that of the 1919 Sean O’Casey: that when at the outbreak of the 1914-18 war Connolly contemplated an Irish revolution, ‘Labour lost a leader’. Left-wing terminology is used to represent Irish nationalism, the ideology of the movement for an independent Irish State, as reactionary.

The early chapters of Morgan’s biography concentrate on Connolly’s socialism, playing down his consistent stand for Irish independence. His later chapters describe Connolly’s ‘nationalism’ during the last twenty months of his life. The author seems unaware of the principle that the emancipation of a small nation is an act of internationalism, as it enables that nation to take its place in the world and relate to other nations in the international community. Connolly, like other leaders of the Second International, hoped for a revolution that would lead to the ‘dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world’. When it was clear in 1914 that this was not going to happen and that workers required the experience of war to develop a revolutionary consciousness, Connolly was left with the need for fresh tactics.

A ‘one-stage’ revolution that would bring about socialism simultaneously with national independence, was not in sight. All Dr Morgan’s talk about ‘stages theory’ is therefore redundant. There is no absolute rule. Under the conditions of the time Connolly outlined ‘two stages of Irish freedom’, which Dr Morgan refers to only to dismiss. As with many academic Marxist works, Morgan’s book gives one the impression of being written by someone with little practical experience of political activity who inhabits a world of abstractions where there is no such thing as adapting a consistent principle to transformed circumstances.

Dr Helga Woggon, in the most voluminous study of Connolly so far produced, and the first biography off him in the German language,41 also manipulates ‘-isms’ as she sends Connolly’s ‘nationalism’, in classic philosophically idealist fashion,42 into battle with his ‘socialism’. Despite her scholarship she seems to forget that the matter is one of real things rather than their theoretical reflections: of how national independence, as embodied in the establishment of a democratic State, may relate to socialism, a mode of organising that State’s economy and institutions. Dr Woggon begins with a model of what she calls ‘integrative socialism’, that is, a special form of socialist politics that consists of socialist concepts developed in a situation of national and colonial dependence. These, she says, are derived from national tradition and are ‘integrated’ into it. The political challenge is then stated to be how to turn the national revolution into a socialist one. By this standard she judges Connolly not to come up to the mark. Instead of transforming the national revolution, his socialism became swallowed up by nationalism. She subscribes to Eric Hobsbawm’s thesis that Connolly’s ‘national Marxist’ politics failed because alliances by socialists with national movements tend to weaken socialism, as it is identified thereby with anti-socialist traditions without being able to transform them.43

Dr Woggon maintains that Connolly worked with the concepts of ‘true’ and ‘false’ nationalism. ‘False’ was bourgeois nationalism, ‘true’ was nationalism from below and reflected Connolly’s alleged belief that ‘every nationalist worker because of his class identification and nationalism was predestined to be a socialist revolutionary, regardless of his political opinions’.44 Throughout her book she treats republicanism and nationalism as interchangeable. In fact Connolly differentiates much more than she gives him credit for. After all Pearse, not Griffith, was his alliance partner in 1916. He was well aware of the political and class differences between those who shared his own socialist republicanism and the non-socialist republicans of Pearse and the IRB, the monarchical nationalists of Griffith’s Sinn Fein and the constitutionalists of John Redmond’s Home Rule party. Like other left-wing revisionist historians Dr Woggon interprets modern Irish labour history since Connolly in terms of the subordination of ‘socialism’ to ‘nationalism’, for which the dead Connolly is allegedly responsible.

Bew, Gibbon and Patterson’s The State in Northern Ireland, 1921-1972, Political Forces and Social Classesclaims to be a Marxist history of Northern Ireland.45 Its value is to tell the story of Unionism during the days of Stormont and to give details, based on newly available archival material, of the differences between various Unionist factions over how best to maintain Protestant working-class support for Unionism. At the same time the authors hold that national independence and reunification of the national territory have no relevance to the future of Ireland. This is of course no novel thesis. It is the view of Unionists, of the Orange Order, of transnational capital, and of Her Majesty’s Government of the moment. The originality of the authors and of their several imitators is that no one previously had thought of presenting it as Marxism.

One of the central conceptions of classical Marxism is that in the era of capitalist imperialism the national and colonial struggles for independence, formerly part of the bourgeois- democratic revolution, have become part of the socialist revolution, the attempt to subordinate capital to the interests of the working-class. China, Vietnam and Cuba would be examples. The three authors deny that this principle applies to Ireland and spend thirty pages attacking the position of those Irish Marxists who assert it.  Once more the only novelty is that the writers consider they are Marxists themselves.

They speak throughout of Northern Ireland as a ‘State’ rather than as part of the British State and fail to address the question why Britain should seek to maintain sovereignty there. Part of their case is that Marx, Engels, Connolly and Lenin failed to see what might be called ‘Ulster exceptionalism’, based on the uneven development of capitalism in Ireland.  But they had before then the extremely uneven development of English capitalism, which did not create demands for exclusion. The authors excuse Marx because he ‘died in 1883, before Protestant opposition to any form of united Ireland had become completely clear’.46 Marx is rightly excused but the authors have grasped the wrong issue. For thirty years after Marx died Ulster Protestants continued to live in a united Ireland and were perfectly content to do so. The objection raised by Carson and his friends was to separation from England. Even today one could not guarantee Protestant objection to a united Island if they were sure England would rule the whole of it. Reunification is spurned because she cannot rule the whole.

In their final paragraph Messrs Bew, Gibbon and Patterson call for ‘a decisive break with Irish Marxism’s subordination to bourgeois ideology’, that is to say, to Republican objectives.47 What the authors substitute is an ideology of Unionism expressed in Leftist vocabulary. It is an old pattern – the ultra-Left using radical-sounding language to adopt or advance the political positions of the Right. It illustrates the political tendency of Ireland’s neo-Marxist revisionist historians, which aligns them intellectually with their non-Marxist counterparts. Their history is neo-Unionist in its values and, whether intentionally or no, is akin to conventional revisionism in providing an apologia for British Government policy in Ireland.

In his survey of the voluminous literature on the Northern problem, Interpreting Northern Ireland,48 Dr John Whyte discusses John Martin’s contention in the journal Capital and Class49 that the weakness of traditionalist Irish Marxist historians is that they have underestimated the autonomy of the Protestant working class, but this is outweighed by the greater failure of the revisionists in accepting the progressive nature of the British  State and ignoring its reactionary role in Northern Ireland. Clearly the issues remain in contention.  Only the evolution of history itself will decide whether Northern Ireland’s existence as part of the British State is going to be temporary or permanent, or indeed whether Britain itself will continue in being as a State into the coming century. On these outcomes will depend the retrospective validity or otherwise of the interpretations of Irish ‘revisionists’ and ‘anti- revisionists’, whether non-Marxist on Marxist, in so far as their work seeks to point to the future. Marxists in particular should have no difficulty in accepting that historical practice is the ultimate test of the validity of their social science.

Surprisingly, Dr Whyte seems to align himself with what is probably the most extreme form of Irish historical revisionism – the idea that there are two national communities in Ireland – when he writes archly, though surely with exaggeration, that ‘virtually no one who has put themselves to the discipline of researching on Northern Ireland still defends the one-nation theory’.50 Yet who are these two nations that supposedly inhabit the area? Protestant and Catholic? These are religions, not nations. British and Irish? Britain is the name of a multinational State, inhabited by English, Scots and Welsh, not a nation. Northern Ireland Protestants do not claim rights to national self-determination. What they assert is a supposed unilateral right to union with Britain, a State whose own future looks problematic in the light of Scottish aspirations to independent statehood, when there surely can only be rights of separation.

The least that those who contend that there are two nations in Ireland should be able to tell us is the names of the supposed nations. Yet this they fail to do. ‘Two-nationism’  has a long lineage in Unionist apologetics.51That a scholar of Dr Whyte’s standing should seem to give it his intellectual blessing demonstrates that when it comes to contemporary issues there are no neutral men among historians, that the concerns of academic history and social science are intimately intertwined with the cut-and-thrust of politics and partisanship, and that the beginning of wisdom in historical scholarship is honestly and openly to acknowledge that fact.


1. An aphorism of the late C.Desmond Greaves.  It seems to the present writer that such of the insights of modern ‘deconstructionism’ as have validity – for example, the interconnections between viewpoint and viewer, the social relativity and ideological character of both text and interpretation – are implicit if not explicit in the Marxist tradition. (Cf. Marx’s definition of the human being as ‘the ensemble of social relations’.)

2. Declan Kiberd and Seamus Deane discuss this disillusionment in their contributions to M. Ní Dhonnchadha and T. Dorgan (eds.), Revising the Rising (Field Day, Derry, 1991). Kiberd refers to examples of similar disillusion among middle-class intellectuals in other post- colonial societies.

3. Father Francis Shaw, ‘The Canon of Irish History: A challenge’, Studies, 61, 1972.

4. In the present writer’s opinion, the attempt at West European political and economic integration, far from making nationalism out of date, is likely to make the national question, the assertion of national independence and democracy against the forces that seek to diminish these, the main issue of West European politics over the coming decades.

5. K Marx and F. Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978).

6. Ibid., pp.109-126.

7. Ibid., pp.69-75, p.127, p.469. See also Capital, 3, ch.37. 

8. Ibid., p.138.

9. Ibid., pp.407-8.

10. Ibid., p.408.

11. Ibid., p.255.

12. Ibid., p.158.

13. Ibid., p.398.

14. Ibid., p.451.

15. Ibid., p.466.

16. Ibid., p.449.

17. Quoted in C.D. Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 60.

18. Labour in Irish History (New Books Publications, Dublin, 1967), p.128.

19. Ibid., p.139.

20. P. Metscher, Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland (Verlag Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 1986), p.365.

21. Labour in Irish History, p. 139.

22. Cf. J.Hoffman, ‘James Connolly and the Theory of Historical Materialism’ in  Saothar, 2,                                                                            

       pp. 53-61, 1976.

23.  Labour in Irish History, p.139.

24. C.D Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 342. The phrase referred to, which 

        was accidentally mistranscribed by Greaves and should read ‘the first days of freedom’, 

        occurs in an article in the Workers’ Republic, 15 January 1916.

25. Ibid., p.343.

26. E Strauss, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy (Methuen, London, 1951; reprinted by 

       Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1975).

27. Ibid., p.163.

28. Ibid., p.70.

29. T.A. Jackson, Ireland Her Own, An Outline History of the Irish Struggle (Cobbett Press, 

        London, 1947; 5th impression Lawrence and Wishart, 1990). There is a lengthy 

        biographical entry on Jackson in J. Bellamy and J. Saville, Dictionary of Labour 

        Biography, Vol. 4 (Macmillan, London, 1977).

30. Ibid., p.20.

31. Ibid., p.432. 

32.  C.D. Greaves, Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Irish Nation (Fulcrum Press, Dublin, 1991); 

       The Life and Times of James Connolly (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1961); Liam 

        Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971); Sean O’Casey,

        Politics and Art (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1979); The Irish Transport and General 

        Workers Union: The Formative Years, 1909-1923 (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1982).

33. Op. cit., p.106.

34.  See the account of Greaves’s life and work in A Coughlan, C. Desmond Greaves, 1913-

       1988, An Obituary Essay (Irish Labour History Society, Dublin, 1991).

35.  ‘So losing the whole of Ireland for the sake of Belfast’, as the late Peadar O’Donnell once 

        put it to this writer. 

36. C.D. Greaves, The Irish Crisis (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1972, and Seven Seas 

       Books, Berlin, 1974). Editions of this book were also published in Italian, Russian and

       Hungarian. It was based on an earlier work, The Irish Question and the British People: A

       Plea for a New Approach (Connolly Publications, London, 1963), that had been written as 

        a reply to the book by Barritt and Carter published the year before.

37.  D. Barritt and C. Carter, The Northern Ireland Problem: A Study in Group Relations   

       (Oxford University Press, 1962).

38. J. Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, 1990). Whyte discusses 

       Marxist as well as ‘internal-conflict’ interpretations in this survey of the literature on the 

       Northern Ireland problem. He mentions The Irish Crisis only in passing, preferring, as he 

       put it (p.179), to consider ‘the more substantial Marxist works’ that were soon to follow,

       and so avoids having to deal with Greaves’s arguments. He does however discuss Barritt 

       and Carter’s book sympathetically and at some length (v. the index references).

39.  M. Farrell, Northern Ireland, The Orange State (Pluto, London, 1980), Arming the  

        Protestants (Pluto, London, 1983);  E.McCann, War and an Irish Town (Penguin, 1974,

        and Pluto, London, 1980); G.Bell, The Protestants of Ulster (Pluto, London, 1976),

        Troublesome Business, The Labour Party and the Irish Question (Pluto, London, 1982), 

        The British in Ireland, A Suitable Case for Withdrawal (Pluto, London, 1984); J Gray, City 

        in Revolt: James Larkin and the Belfast Dock Strike of 1907 (Blackstaff, Belfast, 1985); P. 

        Arthur, The People’s Democracy 1968-1973 (Blackstaff, Belfast, 1974).

40. A. Morgan, James Connolly: A Political Biography (Manchester University Press, 1988). 

       The same writer repeats his criticisms of Connolly in the context of a general apologia for 

       Ulster Unionism and an attack on Irish Nationalism in his book Labour and Partition: The

       Belfast Working Class 1905-23 (Pluto, London, 1991).

41.  H. Woggon, Integrativer Sozialismus und nationale Befreiung: Politik und 

      Wirkungsgeschichte James Connollys in Irland (Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, Gottingen,


42.  Philosophical idealism – treating ideologies and interpretations as primary rather than 

        the social movements and objective reality that produce them – seems to be 

        particularly common among historians and sociologists of the national question. Thus 

        far more attention is typically given to ‘nationalisms’ and the political ideas of national

        movements than to the genesis and evolution of nationality and national communities 

        themselves. The notion of the nation as an imagined rather than a real community is a 

        typically idealist one (cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, London, 

        1983). An egregious local instance of this tendency is the opening sentence of Tom

        Dunne’s essay ‘New Histories: Beyond “Revisionism”’ (Irish Review, No.12, Institute of 

        Irish Studies Belfast, 1992), which reads: ‘The interpretation of Ireland’s traumatic 

        history has long been at the root of its political and ideological divisions…’ Here the 

        country’s divisions are seen as caused by its historians rather than historians seen as

        explaining the divisions. More academic modesty is surely called for! 

43.  E Hobsbawm, ‘Some reflections on “The Break-up of Britain”’, New Left Review, 105,

       1977. Hobsbawm’s views on the national question are criticised and, in the present 

       writer’s opinion, comprehensively refuted by J.M. Blaut in The National Question,

       Decolonising the Theory of Nationalism (Zed Books, London, 1987). A non-idealist 

       approach to the development of national and ethnic communities in ancient and 

       modern times is exemplified in the works of A.D. Smith, Professor of Sociology at the 

       London School of Economics: National Identity (Penguin Books, London, 1991), The 

       Ethnic Origin of Nations (Blackwell, Oxford, 1986), Theories of Nationalism (Duckworth, 

       London, 1983) and The Ethnic Revival (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

44. Op. cit., p.187.

45. P. Bew, P. Gibbon and H. Patterson, The State in Northern Ireland, Political Forces and

       Social Classes (Manchester University Press, 1979). In discussing this work, the present 

       writer has drawn extensively on a review of it by C.D. Greaves, ‘Irish Marxism’, Irish   

       Democrat, London (July 1980).

46. Ibid., p.3.

47. Ibid., p.221.

48. Op. cit., p.189.

49. J Martin, ‘The conflict in Northern Ireland: Marxist Interpretations’, Capital and Class, 18, 


50.  Op. cit., p.191.

51.  James Anderson has shown that the idea of an ‘Ulster Protestant nation’ was first

       floated by the Liberal Joseph Chamberlain and the Conservative leader Lord Salisbury in

       1886 during the crisis over the first Home Rule Bill, though to a marked lack of response 

       from within Ireland (v. ‘Ireland’s First Home Rule Crisis’, in C.H. Williams and E. Kofman 

       (eds.), Community Conflict: Partition and Nationalism (Routledge, London, 1989). His 

       examination of ideological reactions in Ulster at the time, based on a study of 

       contemporary local newspapers, leads him to repudiate the contention of such writers  

     as Heslinga and Gibbon that what might validly be designated a distinctive Ulster 

     nationalism was evident either then or later (cf. M. Heslinga, The Irish Border as a Cultural

     Divide (Van Borcum, Assen, 1962, and P. Gibbon, The Origins of Ulster Unionism

     Manchester University Press, 1975). The ‘two-nations’ view was also advanced during the 

     third Home Rule crisis, in particular by the English journalist W.F. Moneypenny in The Two

     Irish Nations (John Murray, London, 1913).