The Origins of Modern Irish Socialism, Fintan Lane. (Cork University Press, hb £45, pb £16.95 ISBN 1-85918-151-1, 1-85918-152-X

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

Socialism BC (before Connolly) is an episodic, disconnected subject. It staged a grand entry in the 1820s through such leading co-operators as Robert Owen and William Thompson, shrank to a shadow in the Irish Chartist movement, was re-introduced briefly by Karl Marx himself through the First International, and then found a flickering presence in reflections of the British mosquito left after 1885. The details of the story, particularly for the tangled 1885-96 period have defied many a historian, and Lane has done sterling service in clarifying the threads.
Lane’s objective is simply to show that Irish socialist politics emerged as an off-shoot of the British socialist ‘revival’ in the 1880s, and was not begun by Connolly. His narrative approach is similarly direct, disciplined, and modest. The result is a concise, readable, descriptive monograph, interpretative where necessary, but disappointing for its failure to go beyond a perfunctory level of analysis. The first three chapters deal with initiatives before the 1880s, the impact of Irish politics on the British left from 1881 to 1885, and Henry George. The next three cover socialist organisations from 1885 to 1896. Finally there is an epilogue on Connolly and the Irish Socialist Republican Party.
The chapter on Henry George is the most novel part of the book, and redresses a glaring lacuna in previous texts (mea culpa). George’s ideas on land nationalisation and single-taxation had enormous influence in the contemporary English-speaking world, and were a bridge to socialism for many in Britain; ironically, as George himself was not a socialist. George toured Ireland for the New York-based Irish World in 1881-2, and, with Michael Davitt and a few sympathisers, constituted a radical voice within the agrarian movement. Nationalist Ireland was polite, but unconvinced.
In Britain however, Home Rule politics and the Land League revived the dialectic between the Irish question and radicalism, and contributed to the formation of what later became the Social Democratic Federation, the leading British Marxist group before the 1900s. British initiatives in turn rebounded on Ireland. From 1884, Irish socialists organised in local societies, or branches of British groups such as William Morris’s Socialist League, the Fabian Society, and the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Lane has done skilled detection in tracing the activists, though a sociological synopsis of the socialists would have been useful. One is left with the impression that they were disproportionately young, middle-class, and intellectual, with a colourful tinge of foreigners and bohemians.
The variety of groups reflected an inability to build a party and dependence on successive British renewals rather than doctrinal differences, though these existed in Dublin at least. However, the British commitment was always tentative, never as strong in politics as in trade unionism, ambiguous on nationalism, and lacking in tactical imagination. Organisation was near continuous in Dublin, but intermittent in the main provincial centres. Only where socialists connected with trade unionism were they able to achieve more than a fleeting impact. New unionism, a wave of militancy from 1889 to 1891 which sought to mobilise general workers, was an ideal vehicle, and socialists made a significant contribution as union officials, activists for and on trades councils, and propagandists for class unity of ‘trade and spade’, and international solidarity through May Day celebrations and campaigns for the eight-hour day. With the decline of new unionism, socialists could cling to positions of influence only by making themselves indispensable to trades councils. When Connolly arrived in 1896, the propitious times were over. Except in Belfast, where William Walker came close to winning a Westminster seat for the ILP in 1905, opportunities for a recovery would not come until Larkinism gathered momentum in 1911.
Lane’s concluding assessment of the failure of socialism in terms of the socio-political domination of land, religion, and nationalism is too superficial. If his conclusions are valid, he has the knowledge and ability to have probed deeper. That socialists failed is not surprising. That they failed to question the application of metropolitan socialism to a colony, or create a permanent niche in politics, is curious.
One could quibble with Lane’s thesis. In what sense did modern Irish socialism originate between 1881 and 1896? None of the socialist organisations founded before Connolly survived, though the Fabians and the ILP were later re-established. Neither did their blandly anglo-centric outlook bequeath an intellectual legacy. The myth of Connolly as the forerunner should not be dismissed so easily. Myths are often a distillation of what was historically significant, and the repository of demotic truths if not historical facts. As Lane concedes, Connolly was the first to apply socialism to Ireland; his predecessors, and most of his successors, wanted Ireland to change to suit socialism. The roots of Irish socialist politics go back to Connolly.
Lane’s method is also open to question. Confining the focus to socialism results in an unduly conservative picture of labour. Trade unionism was highly politicised from the 1830s onwards, and the emergence of labour-nationalist groups during the 1890s promised to create a working class lobby within the national movement. The Lab-Nats could have been the Irish equivalent to the British Lib-Labs who constituted a stepping stone from Liberalism to Labour for the mass of British workers. The rejection of the Lab-Nat option by anglicised trade unionists and socialists—including Connolly—was the great strategic disaster of the 1890s; its result was not independent labourism, but depoliticisation. In Belfast too, the situation was not quite so gloomy. Alexander Bowman polled well in 1885 as Ireland’s first labour, not Liberal, candidate to contest a Westminster election, and in 1897 Belfast Trades Council returned six labour members to the Corporation.
However, these reservations are the stuff of debate about this book rather than criticism of the scholarship. Within his coherent parameters, Lane has provided an exhaustive, definitive survey, balanced and judicious in interpretation, and essential to students of labour history.

Emmet O’Connor


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