The national question 100 years after the Easter Rising

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One hundred years ago, during the Easter of 1916, a handful of Irish nationalists seized strategic positions in the centre of Dublin and declared Ireland’s independence from the British empire, and the creation of an Irish Republic. They managed to hold out for a few days before being crushed by the British armed forces, which did not hesitate to shell the city using naval cannon. Among those summarily executed after the Easter Rising’s defeat was the great revolutionary James Connolly, one of the best known leaders of the working class in Ireland who brought his workers’ militia into the revolt alongside the nationalist Irish Volunteers.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, support for the cause of Irish and Polish national independence had been a given of the European workers’ movement. Ireland’s tragedy and Marx’s belief in the necessity of Irish independence has been used over and over again to justify support for any number of “national liberation” movements against imperialist powers both old and new. But the outbreak of world war in 1914 set the seal on changed conditions which invalidated the old positions. As our predecessors of the French Communist Left put it: “Only an activity based on the most recent developments, on foundations that are constantly being enriched, is really revolutionary. In contrast, activity based on yesterday’s truths that have already lost their currency is sterile, harmful and reactionary”.1

Sean O’Casey reportedly said that when James Connolly was executed, the labour movement lost a leader and Irish nationalism gained a martyr.

How could this happen? How could a convinced and constant internationalist like Connolly throw in his lot with patriotism? We do not propose here to go over the evolution in his attitude in 1914: this is dealt with in an article first published in World Revolution in 1976, and which remains valid to this day2. Nor do we need to demonstrate his fundamental hostility to inter-classist nationalism: Connolly’s own words, in an article published on this site, are clear enough. Our purpose rather is to set Connolly’s thinking within the wider framework of the international socialism of his day, and to examine how the attitude of the workers’ movement to the “national question” evolved between the wave of popular uprisings against aristocratic and autocratic governments that swept Europe in 1848, and the outbreak of imperialist world war in 1914.

The events of 1848 were – as Marx was to show later – of a dual nature. On the one hand they were national democratic movements aimed at unifying a “nation” divided up among a multitude of petty semi-feudal fiefdoms: this was true above all in Germany and Italy. On the other, especially in Paris, they saw the nascent industrial proletariat appear for the first time3 on the historical stage as an independent political force. Not surprisingly, 1848 therefore also posed the question of the attitude that the working class should adopt to the national question.

The same year saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, which laid out, clearly and unequivocally, the internationalist principle as the bedrock of the workers’ movement: “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got (…) The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!4

This then is the general principle: the workers are not divided by national interests, they must unite across national boundaries: “United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat” (Manifesto). But how is the principle to be worked out in practice? In mid-19th century Europe, it was clear to Marx and Engels that for the proletariat to seize power it had first to become a major social and political force, and that this in turn was dependent on the development of capitalist social relations. Such a development meant the overthrow of the feudal aristocracy, the demolition of feudal particularism, and the unification of the “great, historic nations” (the expression is Engels’) to create the large internal market that capitalism needed to develop and in doing so, develop the numbers, strength, and organisation of the working class.

For Marx and Engels, and for the workers’ movement in general at the time, national unity, the suppression of feudal privilege, and the development of industry, can only be accomplished by a democratic movement: a free press, access to education, the right of association – these are all democratic demands, within the framework of the nation state, and whose existence is impossible without the nation state. How far these were necessary conditions is debatable. After all, 19th century industrial development was not limited to democracies like Britain or the United States. Autocratic regimes like Tsarist Russia or Japan under the Meiji Restoration also witnessed startling industrial progress during the same epoch. That said, the development of Russia and Japan remained essentially dependent on that of the more advanced democratic countries, and it is significant that the reactionary autocratic Prussian Junker regime that dominated Germany was forced to respect a certain number of democratic freedoms.

These democratic demands were also in the interests of, and important to, the working class. As Engels put it, they give the workers’ movement “room to breathe” and to develop. Freedom of association made it easier to organise against capitalist exploitation. Freedom of the press made it easier for workers to educate themselves, to prepare themselves politically and culturally for the seizure of power. Because it was not yet ready to make its own revolution, the workers’ movement at this point shared its immediate goals with other classes, and there was a strong tendency to identify the causes of the proletariat, of progress and of national unity with the fight for democracy.. Here, for example, is Marx speaking in 1848 at a meeting in Brussels to celebrate the second anniversary of the rising in Krakow, Poland: “The Krakow revolution has set all of Europe a glorious example, because it identified the question of nationalism with democracy and with the liberation of the oppressed class (…) It finds its principles confirmed in Ireland, where O'Connell's party with its narrowly restricted nationalistic aims has sunk into the grave, and the new national party is pledged above all to reform and democracy”.

The struggle for national unity and independence was by no means a universal principle however. Hence Engels, writing in The Commonwealth in 1860: “This right of the great national subdivisions of Europe to political independence, acknowledged as it was by the European democracy, could not but find the same acknowledgement with the working classes especially. It was, in fact, nothing more than to recognize in other large national bodies of undoubted vitality the same right of individual national existence which the working men of each separate country claimed for themselves. But this recognition, and the sympathy with these national aspirations, were restricted to the large and well defined historical nations of Europe; there was Italy, Poland, Germany, Hungary”. Engels goes on to say: “There is no country in Europe where there are not different nationalities under the same government. The Highland Gaels and the Welsh are undoubtedly of different nationalities to what the English are, although nobody will give to these remnants of peoples long gone by the title of nations, any more than to the Celtic inhabitants of Brittany in France”. Engels clearly distinguishes between the “right of national existence for the historic peoples of Europe” and that of “those numerous small relics of peoples which, after having figured for a longer or shorter period on the stage of history, were finally absorbed as integral portions into one or the other of those more powerful nations whose greater vitality enabled them to overcome greater obstacles”.

Was Ireland a special case?

This rejection of an all-embracing national principle naturally raises the question: what makes Ireland different? Why did Marx and Engels not advocate that Ireland should simply be absorbed into Britain, as a condition of its industrial development?

For there is no doubt that in their eyes, Ireland was a “special case” of particular significance. Marx at one point even went so far as to say that Ireland was the key to revolution in England, just as England was the key to revolution in Europe.

There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Marx was convinced that the brutal spoliation of the Irish peasantry by absentee English landlords was one of the main factors underpinning the reactionary aristocratic class that barred the way to democratic and economic progress.

Second, and perhaps more important, was the moral factor. England’s domination of an unwilling Ireland, and the treatment of the Irish, especially the Irish workers, as an enslaved underclass, was not only unjust and offensive, it was morally corrupting for the English workers. How, Marx reasoned, could the English working class rouse itself to the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order if it remained complicit with its own ruling class in the national oppression of the Irish? Moreover, as long as the Irish were deprived of their own national self-respect, there would never be a shortage of Irish proletarians ready to enlist in the service of the English army and help put down revolts by English workers – as Connolly was later to point out.

This insistence on Irish independence extended to the organisation of the First International, as Engels argued in 1872: “If members of a conquering nation called upon the nation they had conquered and continued to hold down to forget their specific nationality and position, to ‘sink national differences’ and so forth, that was not Internationalism, it was nothing else but preaching to them submission to the yoke, and attempting to justify and to perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common among the English working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish, and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to the Negroes.

In a case like that of the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinctly national organisation; the Irish, as well as other oppressed nationalities, could enter the Association only as equals with the members of the conquering nation, and under protest against the conquest. The Irish sections, therefore, not only were justified, but even under the necessity to state in the preamble to their rules that their first and most pressing duty, as Irishmen, was to establish their own national independence”.

It was essentially the same logic that led Lenin to insist that the Bolshevik Party programme should include the right to national self-determination: this was the only way, in his view, to render explicit and unequivocal the Party’s rejection of “Great Russian chauvinism” – the equivalent among Russian workers, of the English workers’ feelings of superiority to the Irish.

National unity within defined national borders, democracy, progress, and the interests of the working class: all these, then, could be seen as moving in the same direction. Even Marx – who was hardly given to sentimental flights of fancy – could, in what was perhaps a moment of unguarded optimism, envisage the possibility of the workers taking power through the ballot-box in countries like Britain, Holland, or the United States. But at no point was national unity, or indeed democracy, the ultimate goal; they were merely contingent principles on the road to that goal: “The workers have no country. Workers of all countries, unite!

The problem with such contingent principles is that they can become frozen into abstract, fixed principles so that they no longer express the dynamic vanguard of real historical development, but on the contrary become a drag, or even worse an active obstacle. This, as we shall see, was what happened to the socialist movement’s perspective on the national question towards the end of the 19th century. But first, let us pause for a moment for a brief overview of how Connolly's own thought gives concrete form to the dominant ideas of the Second International.

Although he spent some years in the United States, where he joined the IWW,5 Connolly remained very much the Irish socialist. He espoused the methods of industrial unionism, in opposition to narrow craft unionism, joining with Jim Larkin to build up the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union and playing a key role in the great Dublin strike and lockout of 1913. But even during his time in the USA Connolly was a member successively of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party, and of the Socialist Party of America, and it would be fair to say that his life was dedicated to building an Irish political socialist organisation. He would probably have thought of such an organisation as marxist, insofar as pinning theoretical labels on an organisation had any interest for him. Certainly, his Irish Socialist Republican Party6 was recognised as an Irish delegation in its own right at the 1900 Congress of the Second International. But there is little or no indication in Connolly’s writing that he knew of, or took part in, the debates within the International, on the national question in particular: this is all the more surprising in that he had taught himself to read German with some fluency.

Connolly believed that socialism could only grow in national soil. Indeed, his important study of “Labour in Irish history” is partly devoted to showing that socialism emerges naturally from Irish conditions; he highlights in particular the writings of William Thompson in the 1820s, who he considers not unjustly as one of Marx’s forerunners in identifying labour as the source of capital and profit.7

It is not surprising therefore, to see Connolly argue, in a 1909 article in The Irish Nation titled “Sinn Fein, socialism, and the nation” for a rapprochement between “Sinn Feiners who sympathise with Socialism” and “Socialists who realise that a Socialist movement must rest upon and draw its inspiration from the historical and actual conditions of the country in which it functions and not merely lose themselves in an abstract ‘internationalism’ (which has no relation to the real internationalism of the Socialist movement)”. In this same article, Connolly opposes those socialists who “observing that those who talk loudest about ‘Ireland a Nation’ are often the most merciless grinders of the faces of the poor, fly off to the extreme limit of hostility to Nationalism and, whilst opposed to oppression at all times, are also opposed to national revolt for national independence” and those “principally recruited amongst the workers in the towns of North-East Ulster [who] have been weaned by Socialist ideas and industrial disputes from the leadership of Tory and Orange landlords and capitalists, but as they are offered practical measures of relief from capitalist oppression by the English Independent Labour Party, and offered nothing but a green flag by Irish Nationalism... naturally go where they imagine relief will come from”.

This identification of the working class with the nation could plausibly claim to derive from Marx and Engels. After all, we can read in the Manifesto that “Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word”. And the same idea is found in Kautsky, writing in 1887:8Just as for bourgeois freedoms, the proletarians must come to the defence of their nation’s unity and independence, both against reactionary, particular interests, and against possible outside attack (…) In the decadent Roman Empire, social antagonisms had reached such a pitch, and the process of decomposition of the Roman nation – if we can call it such – had become so intolerable that for many, the national enemy, the German barbarian, appeared as a saviour. We have not yet reached this point, at least not in the national states. Nor do we think that the proletariat will ever reach it. Certainly, the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat is constantly increasing, but at the same time the proletariat is more and more the core of the nation in numbers and intelligence, and the interests of the proletariat and the nation are growing ever closer. A policy hostile to the nation would be pure suicide for the proletariat”.

With hindsight, it is easy to see the betrayal of 1914 – the defence of German “Kultur” against Tsarist barbarism – behind this identification of the nation and the proletariat. But hindsight is not much help in the present, and the fact is that the marxist movement at the end of the 19th century had largely failed to re-evaluate its view on the national question in the face of a changing reality.

For forty years, the socialist movement had not really challenged the Manifesto’s optimistic assumption that “National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto”. On one level this was true – we will return to this aspect shortly – yet by the 1890s the “national question” was coming to the forefront of the political scene as never before, precisely as a result of the phenomenal expansion of capitalist social relations and industrial production. With the development of modern conditions of production, new national bourgeoisies with modern national aspirations were appearing in Eastern and Central Europe. The resulting debate over the national question took on a new importance, above all for the Social-Democracy of Russia with regard to Poland, and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with regard to the national aspirations of the Czechs and a multitude of smaller Slav peoples.

Luxemburgs critique of the nation state

The last thirty years of the 19th century thus transformed the way in which the national question was posed.

Firstly, as Luxemburg demonstrated in The national question and autonomy, once the bourgeois class has conquered its internal market, it must inevitably become a conquering imperialist state. More, in capitalism’s imperialist phase, all states are constrained to seek by imperialist means to make a place for themselves on the world market. Answering Kautsky’s postulate of capitalism’s evolution towards a single “super-state”9 Luxemburg writes: “The ‘best’ national state is only an abstraction which can be easily described and defined theoretically, but which doesn’t correspond to reality (…) The development of world powers, a characteristic feature of our times growing in importance along with the progress of capitalism, from the very outset condemns all small nations to political impotence...” (Part 1, “The right of nations to self-determination”). “The argument that an independent nation-state is, after all ‘the best’ guarantee of national existence and development involves operating with a conception of a nation-state as a completely abstract thing. The nation-state as seen only from a national point of view, only as a pledge and embodiment of freedom and independence, is simply a remnant of the decaying ideology of the petty bourgeoisie of Germany, Italy, Hungary – all of Central Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is a phrase from the treasury of disintegrated bourgeois liberalism (…) ‘Nation-states’, even in the form of republics, are not products or expressions of the ‘will of the people’, as the liberal phraseology goes and the anarchist repeats. ‘Nation-states’ are today the very same tools and forms of class rule of the bourgeoisie as the earlier, non-national states, and like them they are bent on conquest. The nation-states have the same tendencies toward conquest, war, and oppression – in other words, the tendencies to become ‘non-national’. Therefore, among the ‘national’ states there develop constant scuffles and conflicts of interests, and even if today, by some miracle, all states should be transformed to ‘national’, then the next day they would already present the same common picture of war, conquest, and oppression” (Part 2, “The nation-state and the proletariat”).

For the smaller nationalities, this inevitably meant that their only possible “independence” meant detaching themselves from the orbit of one great imperialist state, to attach themselves to another. Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in the negotiations entered into by the Irish Volunteers (forerunners of the IRA) with German imperialism via the intermediary of the American Clan na Gael organisation, and Roger Casement who acted as an ambassador to Germany itself.10 Casement supposedly believed that 50,000 German troops would be necessary for a successful rising, but this was obviously out of the question without a decisive German victory at sea. The attempt to land a shipload of rifles from Germany in time for the 1916 rising ended in fiasco, but it remains a damning indictment of Irish nationalism’s readiness to participate in imperialist war.

By abandoning a marxist class analysis of imperialist war as the result of capitalism irrespective of nations, Connolly also abandoned the independence of the working class against the capitalists. How far he did so can be seen in the culpable naïvety of his idyllic depiction of “peaceful Germany”, combined with a semi-racist onslaught on the “half-educated” English workers:11Basing its industrial effort upon an educated working class, [the German nation] accomplished in the workshop results that this half-educated working-class of England could only wonder at. That English working class trained to a slavish subservience to rule-of-thumb methods, and under managers wedded to traditional processes saw themselves gradually outclassed by a new rival in whose service were enrolled the most learned scientists co-operating with the most educated workers (…) It was determined that since Germany could not be beaten in fair competition industrially, it must be beaten unfairly by organising a military and naval conspiracy against her (…) The conception meant calling up the forces of barbaric powers to crush and hinder the development of the peaceful powers of industry”. One wonders what the tens of thousands of Africans massacred during the Herero rising of 1904,12 or the inhabitants of Tsingtao annexed at gunpoint by Germany in 1898, might have thought of the “peaceful powers” of German industry.

Not only did “national states” tend inevitably to become conquering, imperialist states as Luxemburg demonstrated, they were also becoming less “national” as a result of industrial development and migration of the workforce from the countryside into the new industrial towns. In the case of Poland, by 1900 not only was the “Kingdom of Poland” (ie that part of Poland which had been incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th century) industrialising rapidly, the same was true of the ethnic-Polish areas under German13 (Upper Silesia) and Austro-Hungarian (Cieszyn Silesia) rule. Moreover, the industrial areas were less ethnic-Polish: workers in the great textile city of Lodz were Polish, German, and Jewish in origin, with a sprinkling of other nationalities including English and French. In Upper Silesia, workers were German, Polish, Danish, Ruthenian, etc. When Marx had called for Polish national independence as a bulwark against Tsarist absolutism a Polish working class barely existed: now, the question of Polish socialists’ attitude to Polish nationhood became acute, and led to a split between the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS) on the right and the Social-Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy, or SDKPiL) on the left.14

For the PPS Polish independence meant Poland’s separation from Russia, but also the unification of those parts of historical Poland then under German or Austrian rule, where Polish proletarians worked side by side with Germans (and other nationalities). In effect, the PPS made proletarian revolution dependent on the “solution” of the “national question” – which could only, as Luxemburg said, lead to division within the ranks of the organised working class in German and Austria-Hungary. At best, this would be a distraction, at worst, destructive of workers’ unity.

For Luxemburg and the SDKPiL, on the contrary, any resolution of the national question was dependent on the seizure of power by the international working class.15 The only way for workers to oppose national oppression was to join the ranks of international social-democracy: by ending all oppression, the Social-Democracy would also end national oppression: “Not only did [the 1896 London Congress] set the Polish situation squarely on a level with the situation of all other oppressed peoples; it at the same time called for the workers of all such nations to enter the ranks of international socialism as the only remedy for national oppression, rather than dabbling off and on with the restoration of independent capitalist states in their several countries; only in this way could they hasten the introduction of a socialist system that, by abolishing class oppression, would do away with all forms of oppression, including national, once and for all”.

When Luxemburg undertook to oppose the PPS’ Polish nationalism within the Second International, she was well aware that she was attacking a sacred cow of the socialist and democratic movement: “Polish Socialism occupies – or at any rate once occupied – a unique position in its relation to international socialism, a position which can be traced directly to the Polish national question”.16 But, as she said and demonstrated very clearly, to defend in the 1890s the letter of Marx’s 1848 support for Polish independence was not only to refuse to recognise that social reality had changed, but to transform marxism itself from a living method for investigating reality, into a dried-up quasi-religious dogma.

Luxemburg went further than this. In effect, she considered that Marx and Engels had treated the Polish question as essentially a matter of “foreign policy” for the revolutionary democracy and the workers’ movement: “Even at first glance this standpoint [ie Marx’s position on Poland] reveals its glaring lack of inner relation to the social theory of Marxism. By failing to analyse Poland and Russia as class societies bearing economic and political contradictions in their bosoms, by viewing them not from the point of view of historical development but as if they were in a fixed, absolute condition as homogeneous, undifferentiated units, this view ran counter to the very essence of Marxism”. It is as if Poland – and indeed Russia as well – could be treated as somehow “outside” capitalism.

The development of capitalist social relations had essentially the same effect in Ireland as in Poland. Despite Ireland’s being above all a country of emigration, the Irish working class was by no means homogeneous: on the contrary, the most heavily industrialised area was Belfast (textile industry and the Harland & Wolff shipyards), whose workers were drawn from the Catholic, sometimes Gaelic-speaking Celtic population, and from the descendants of the Protestant, Scottish and English who had been “settled” in Ireland (thanks to the violent displacement of the original inhabitants) by Oliver Cromwell and his successors. And this very working class had already begun to show the road to the only possible solution of the “national question” in Ireland: by joining ranks in the massive Belfast strikes of 1907.17 Irish workers were present in all the major industrial areas of Britain, especially around Liverpool and Glasgow.

The moral question that Marx had posed – the problem of English workers’ sensation of superiority to the Irish – was no longer limited to Ireland and the Irish: capital’s constant need to call absorb more labour power led to mass migrations from agricultural economies to newly industrialising areas, while the expansion of European colonisation brought European workers into contact with Asians, Africans, Indians... all over the planet. Nowhere was immigration more important than in the capitalist powerhouse of the United States, which witnessed not only a huge influx of workers from all over Europe, but a massive importation of cheap labour from Japan and China and of course the migration of black workers from the cotton fields of the backward South into the new industrial centres of the North: the legacy of slavery and racial prejudice remains a “gaping wound” (to use Luxemburg’s expression) in America to this day. Inevitably, these waves of migration brought with them prejudice, misunderstanding, rejection... all the moral degradation that Marx and Engels had noted in the English working class was reproduced over and over again. The more migration mixed populations of different origins, the more absurd the idea of “national independence” as a solution to prejudice inevitably became. All the more so in that underlying all these prejudices was one, universal and far more ancient than any national prejudice, driven right through the heart of the working class: the unthinking assumption of male superiority to women. Marx and Engels had identified a real problem, a crucial one even. Unsolved, it would mortally weaken the struggle of a class whose only weapon is its organisation and its class solidarity. But it could, and can, only be solved through the experience of working and living together, through the mutual solidarity imposed by the demands of the class struggle.

What caused James Connolly to end his life in such flagrant contradiction with the internationalism he had espoused during it? Apart from the weaknesses inherent in his view of the national question, which he shared with the majority of the Second International, it is also possible – though this is pure speculation on our part – that his confidence in the working class had been shattered by two major defeats: the defeat of the Dublin strike of 1913, which was in large part due to the the abject failure of the British trade unions to give the ITGWU adequate and above all active support; and the disintegration of the International itself when confronted with the test of World War I. If such were the case, we can only say that Connolly drew the wrong conclusions. The failure of the Dublin strike as a result of the Irish workers’ isolation demonstrated, not that Irish workers should seek salvation in the Irish nation, but on the contrary that the limits of little Ireland could no longer contain the battle between capital and labour which was now being fought out on a far broader stage; and the Russian Revolution, only one year after the suppression of the Easter Rising was to show that workers’ revolution, not national insurrection, was the only hope of putting an end to imperialist war and the misery of capitalist domination.

Jens, April 2016

1 Against the concept of the "brilliant leader" in International Review n°33.

2 This article has been republished in World Revolution 373 and on our website.

3 At least in continental Europe. Arguably, the proletariat had already made its appearance in Britain first with the Luddite, then the Chartist movements.

4 In the original German the last words: “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!”. Thus, a more correct translation would be “Proletarians [men and women] of all countries, Unite!”

5 The revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World

6 Connolly was one of the founders of the ISRP in 1896. Although it probably never exceeded 80 members, it was influential in later Irish socialist politics, espousing the principle of a republic in Ireland before Sinn Fein. The party survived until 1904, and published the Workers’ Republic.

7If we were to attempt to estimate the relative achievements of Thompson and Marx we should not hope to do justice to either by putting them in contrast, or by eulogising Thompson in order to belittle Marx, as some Continental critics of the latter seek to do. Rather we should say that the relative position of this Irish genius and of Marx are best comparable to the historical relations of the pre-Darwinian evolutionists to Darwin; as Darwin systematised all the theories of his predecessors and gave a lifetime to the accumulation of the facts required to establish his and their position, so Marx found the true line of economic thought already indicated, and brought his genius and encyclopaedic knowledge and research to place it upon an unshakable foundation. Thompson brushed aside the economic fiction maintained by the orthodox economists and accepted by the Utopian, that profit was made in exchange, and declared that it was due to the subjection of labour and the resultant appropriation, by the capitalists and landlords, of the fruits of the labour of others (...) All the theory of the class war is but a deduction from this principle. But, although Thompson recognised this class war as a fact, he did not recognise it as a factor, as the factor in the evolution of society towards freedom. This was reserved for Marx, and in our opinion, is his chief and crowning glory” (from “Labour in Irish history”).

Marx was always scrupulous in citing his sources and giving credit to thinkers who had preceded him, and he does indeed cite Thompson’s work in Capital (in the chapter on “Division of labour and manufacture” in Volume 1).

8“Die Moderne Nationalität”, in Neue Zeit, V, 1887, translated in Les marxistes et la question nationale 1848-1914 (Haupt, Löwy, Weill), Editions L’Harmatton, 1997, p125.

9In Nationalität und Internationalität, 1908.

10See FSL Lyons, Ireland since the Famine, Fontana Press, 1971, pp340, 350.

11In an article titled “The war upon the German nation” in Irish Worker, 29th August 1914.

12In what was then known as Damaraland, in modern Namibia. An eye-witness account described one Herero defeat: “I was present when the Herero were defeated in a battle in the vicinity of Waterberg. After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance. They were just trying to get away with their cattle”. The German High Command were fully aware of the atrocities and indeed approved them. See the article in Wikipedia

13Luxemburg herself was much in demand by the German SPD as one of their rare, and certainly their best, Polish-language orators and agitators.

14A number of outstanding figures of the revolutionary period came from the SDKPiL, among them Rosa Luxemburg herself, Karl Radek, Leo Jogisches, and Julian Marchlewski.

15It should perhaps be pointed out – though it is outside the scope of this short study – that there was a good deal of disagreement and uncertainty about what exactly identified a “nation”. Was it language (as Kautsky argued), or was it a more vaguely defined “cultural identity” as Otto Bauer thought? The question remains a valid – and open – one to this day.

16This and following quotations are taken from Luxemburg’s Foreword to the anthology The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement, which was a collection of documents from the London Congress of 1896 where Luxemburg successfully opposed the PPS’ attempt to make Polish independence and unification a concrete and immediate demand of the International.


Historic events: 


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

General and theoretical questions: 



Dublin 1916