Socialism is an economic system which is based on co-operation rather than competition and which utilises centralised planning and distribution. Central to the meaning of socialism is the idea of collective or common ownership of the means of production. This proposes that governments—either central or local—should own and control a nations resources rather than individuals. Thus, socialism calls for public ownership of land, factories and other basic means of production. Some elements of socialism date back to ancient Greece. In the 4th century B.C., the Greek philosopher, Plato, proposed that a ruling class own everything in common, putting the welfare of the state above all personal desires.
In modern times, the theory of socialism stems from attempts to address the chronic social conditions experienced by workers in the early 1800’s. With large-scale industralisation and urbanisation at the end of the 18th century, severe social problems meant workers frequently endured long hours, poor pay, inadequate housing and dangerous working conditions. Supporters of socialism quickly identified deficiencies within capitalism that needed to be addressed for the benefit of the entire community. Many condemned the competitive and selfish nature of capitalism as counter-productive and responsible for breeding conflict between workers and the owners of production. To correct this problem, Socialists argued for a fairer distribution of a nation’s wealth. Amongst the earliest supporters of socialist ideas were Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. Both these men established communities for workers, known as co-operative settlements, which they hoped would embody the ideal social and economic conditions. Early socialists were commonly referred to as ‘utopian’ socialists because of the similarity of their ideals to those contained in Thomas Mores’ famous sixteenth-century text, Utopia.
In the middle of the 19th century, Karl Marx, went even further in his definition of socialism. A German economist, Marx’s basic ideas, outlined in The Communist Manifesto, stressed that all history is a series of struggles between the ruling and the working classes. Marx was convinced that the capitalist system would be overthrown and replaced by a new system committed to the welfare of the nation as a whole as opposed to individuals. According to Marx, common ownership would prevail over economic privilege. To distinguish his brand of socialism from earlier versions, Marx labeled his mode of thought as “scientific socialism”. At the turn of the 20th century many followers of Marx deemed that violence, through revolution, was acceptable in efforts to replace capitalism. This right to bear arms and use violent means would later form the basis of communist doctrine.
Traditionally, the origins of socialism in Ireland have been traced to the Irish Republican and Socialist Party (IRSP) founded by James Connolly in 1896. Recent studies though point to an earlier presence of socialism or at least the ideas that later formed the core principles of socialism in Ireland. In 1872, branches of the International Working Men’s Association were established throughout Ireland. Located in Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Cootehill, these bodies identified themselves with ideas currently circulating on the continent and expressed through Karl Marx’s International socialist mouthpiece: International. These early socialist forums had a short existence. Immense opposition from the Catholic Church, the broadsheet press, and various political groups forced the closure of these early socialist bodies. Socialism in Ireland was attacked for many reasons. Because of its perceived alliance with atheism, the established Church naturally rejected the socialist message. Welcoming the demise of the International Men’s Association, Canon Maguire, a Cork cleric, noted with satisfaction that:
“those wretched people had been expelled from Belfast”.
Secondly, many of those active in politics in the 1870’s deemed socialism as irrelevant in the greater objective of gaining Home Rule and Land reform. Michael Davitt is a notable exception in this regard. However, the social composition of Ireland at this time and the predominance of agriculture acted as the main brake on socialist development in Ireland. Farmers were far more concerned with gaining land ownership rights than to worry about securing better conditions for the minority that earned their crust in the few underdeveloped Irish industries.
The socialist movement remained on the periphery of Irish politics until 1885. In this year, the Dublin Democratic Association came into existence. In practice this organisation developed as an offshoot of the much larger British group known as the Democratic Federation. Thus, Irish socialism throughout this period took direction from the British Socialist revival of the 1880’s. In an effort to attract some support from the landed interests the association proclaimed its objective was:
“to promote and defend the rights of labour, and to restore the land to the people”.
The formation of the Dublin Democratic Association was important insofar as it provided a valuable forum for meeting and discussing issues that affected the workers of the day. In some cases hundreds attended its Saturday meetings held at the Rotunda in Dublin. Eventually, financial insecurity coupled with a declining membership saw the organisation fold.
The Socialist League followed quickly on the heels of the Dublin Democratic Association. Once again, the Dublin branch arose out of a larger network established in Britain in December 1884. Indeed, it was with the arrival of an English anarchist, Michael Gabriel that the Dublin Socialist League began to make ground. It differed from previous Irish socialist organs in its radicalism. The defence and promotion of workers rights and issues took precedence above everything else. In line with this approach, the League explicitly denounced Parliamentary democracy as inadequate for highlighting the plight of workers. Because most MP’s were drawn from the upper landed classes or the wealthy industrial bourgeoisie, the League viewed Parliament as the defender of the status quo and thus, the enemy of working class agitation. Gabriel asked:
“What would be the use of sending labour candidates to Parliament? It would be no use whatever to send them to talk to capitalists and landlords whose interests were different from theirs. As working men they would never get anything by using a vote.”
Most members of the Socialist League rejected the notion that change could be achieved through constitutionalism. In their own words:
“everything depended on the organisation and co-operation amongst the working class”.
Disputes and problems in dealing with fundamental political issues soon crippled the League. The League’s militant approach pushed it towards Marx’s view of the socialist movement as international in character. By this assumption, political creeds like nationalism were seen as contradictory to the goals of socialism. Nationalism with borders that separated nation states were thus rejected in favour of a movement that would unite workers of all countries in a bid to achieve universal improvements. The Dublin Socialist League acted accordingly in rejecting the nationalist, albeit limited, Home Rule movement. Taking a cue from Marx, the Dublin league contended that Home Rule would entail:
“the rule of the farmer, the publican, the clergymen and the politicians.”
As expected, opposing such a popular movement as Home Rule and a leader as charismatic as Parnell brought widespread contempt for the Socialist leaders. The pursuit of militant socialism continued throughout the latter 1880’s. The National Labour League in 1887 openly called for a socialist uprising in Ireland. J. B. Killen, a senior Land Leaguer, approved of such militancy because the [Irish] worker was:
“justified in using any means whatever in order to get rid of the idle class that fattened upon his misery.”
The golden age of socialism in Ireland occurred with the arrival of James Connolly in 1896. Born amid the slums of Glasgow, Connolly educated himself in politics, economics and history. Attracted to Ireland with the prospect of a regular income, Connolly immediately set about reorganising the Irish Socialist movement. The establishment of the Irish Socialist Republican Party followed in 1896. Interestingly, Connolly’s interpretation of socialism in Ireland dated back to medieval times. He clearly viewed the old Gaelic/native Irish custom of communal ownership of food and resources as a practice very similar to the tenets of nineteenth-century socialism. Only with the Anglo-Norman invasions and subsequent introduction of feudalism did the native Irish practice of “Celtic communism” cease to exist. To restore the communal ideal, Connolly declared the aim of the ISRP as:
“the establishment of an Irish Socialist Republic based upon the public ownership by the Irish people of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange.”
To create a forum for discussion, Connolly also started his own newspaper, entitled, the Workers’ Republic. Five memebrs of the party unsuccessully contested the Dublin municpial elections, 1899-1903. It represented Irish socialism with three delegates at the fifth Cengress of the Second International held in Paris, September 1900. Interestingly, Connolly added a new dimension to the Irish Socialist movement. He openly championed Irish nationalism as a means to further socialism in the country. He argued that nationalists and socialists confronted a common enemy in British imperialism. Only by forming an alliance with the nationalist movement and throwing off the shackles of British imperialism would the conditions necessary for socialism occur.
Connolly found he had much work to do in Ireland. Dublin at the turn of the 20th century was notorious for its terrible slums. Throughout the city, large families lived in wretched conditions, often, occupying one or two room tenement flats. Diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid flourished in these cramped and overcrowded conditions. For the many unskilled labourers who searched for work on a daily basis life in Dublin was difficult. D. A. Chart, who worked in the State Paper Office in Dublin, reiterated the hardship encountered when he wrote that there was:
“no exaggeration in the statement that the people of this class are perpetually on the verge of hunger.”
With the help of Jim Larkin, Connolly strove to win concessions from employers for Dublin Workers. Syndicalism, the idea that all workers should unite in ‘one big union’ and use a sympathetic strike to further their ends, continued to gain popularity. The rationale being that a single large union, with subdivisions similar to the functioning segmentation of industry, would render strike action most effective and act as a back-up to parliamentary politics. This idea remained a central plank of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) formed by Larkin in 1909. This organisation increased its importance in 1911 when it gained a foothold of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC). Together, Connolly and Larkin, vowed to end the exploitation of the unskilled labourer in Dublin. To this end, Connolly persuaded the ITUC to form the Irish Labour Party in 1912. In anticipation of the granting of Home Rule, it was viewed that the Irish Labour Party would give a measure of political clout for the socialist movement in any new parliament. Larkin’s continued agitation for workers started to reap significant rewards between 1911 and 1913. Pay increases and improved contracts of employment were achieved for farm labourers and those working in Dublin port. With a membership close to 10,000, employers increasingly felt threatened by the ITGWU and the level of sophistication achieved by Dublin trade unions. Eventually, William Martin Murphy’s refusal to tolerate the membership of tramway workers in the ITGWU led to the Lockout of 1913. Five months later and after immense suffering and violence the socialist movement succumbed to the greater authority wielded by the employers. To the regret of many, including Seán O’Casey, Irish Socialism would never again reach the heights of 1913. Instead, nationalism and the independence movement would overtake socialism as the primary goal for most Irish people.
Writings, biography & studies. All Connolly’s principal writings are re-published in James Connolly, Collected works (2 vols, Dublin 1987) and these are all available on the Internet at http://celt.ucc.ie/englist.html#20thnf (together with a fuller bibliography of Connolly). A larger archive of his writings is at http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/ Desmond Ryan, James Connolly: his life, work & writings (Dublin 1924). Cathal O’Shannon (ed), Fifty years of Liberty Hall (Dublin 1959). Desmond Ryan, ‘James Connolly’, in J. W. Boyle (ed), Leaders and workers (Cork 1960; repr. Cork 1978). C. Desmond Greaves, The life and times of James Connolly (London 1961). Samuel Levenson, James Connolly: a biography (London 1973). Roger Faligot, James Connolly et le mouvement révolutionnaire Irlandais (Paris 1978). Bernard Ransom, Connolly’s Marxism (London 1980). Ruth Dudley Edwards, James Connolly (Dublin 1981). Desmond Fennell, ‘Irish socialist thought’ in Richard Kearney (ed.), The Irish mind: exploring intellectual traditions (Dublin 1985) 188-208. Emmet Larkin, ‘Socialism and Catholicism in Ireland’ in Studies; an Irish quarterly review 74 (1985) 66-91. David Howell, A lost left: three studies in socialism and nationalism (Manchester 1986). Priscilla Metscher, Republicanism and socialism in Ireland: a study of the relationship of politics and ideology from the United Irishmen to James Connolly (Frankfurt-am-Main 1986). Kieran Allen, The politics of James Connolly (London 1990). Paul Dillon, ‘Irish larbour, Irish Soviets and European revolution, 1913-23’ in The History Review: journal of the UCD History Society 6 (1992) 67-80. William K. Anderson, James Connolly and the Irish left (Dublin 1994). Patrick Walsh, Irish republicanism and socialism: the politics of the republican movement 1905 to 1994 (Belfast 1994). Richard English, ‘Reflections on republican socialism in Ireland: Marxian roots and Irish historical dynamics’ in History of Political Thought 17 (1996) 555-70. Peter Berresford Ellis, A history of the Irish working class (London 1996). Fintan Lane, The origins of modern Irish socialism, 1881-1896 (Cork 1997).