April 2012        


From Davitt to Connolly

Allan Armstrong, From Davitt to Connolly: “Internationalism from Below” and the Challenge to the UK State and British Empire from 1879 to 1895, Edinburgh: Intfrobel Publications, 2010 (ISBN 978-0-9567412-0-2; £9.99).

This is an interesting but unusual book. It is not a sequential history of the lives and times of the two men in its title but, as the subtitle suggests, a thesis on the social developments of these islands during their times. They were, however, the best examples of leadership in what the author calls “internationalism from below,” mainly for their advocacy of mass actions but also because the causes they championed helped undermine the constitutionality of the British imperial state.

     The author writes: “An Internationalism from below approach better appreciates the impact of the constitutional monarchist, unionist and Imperial UK state (and later a divided Ireland) upon class struggles. It recognises the political and social significance of the national democratic movements which has contested the UK’s union-state constitution. It is also more able to account for the class struggles which emerged and influenced each other in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”
     Michael Davitt is not as well known as James Connolly—in fact he has come to be neglected in recent years—yet he played a formidable role in the shaping of modern Ireland.
     As a teenage Irish emigrant he lost an arm working in a mill in Haslingden, Lancashire. His experience in the “dark satanic mills” led to his radicalism, and he joined the Fenian Brotherhood (IRB) in 1865. Imprisoned, like many Fenians, in intolerable conditions in British jails, he went on to become the main innovator of the “New Departure.” This was a strategy for co-ordinating the three strands of resistance to British hegemony over Ireland: the Fenians’ conspiratorial work for a republic, the parliamentary campaigns for a devolved Irish parliament under Parnell, and the mass organisation of tenants and landless farmers.
     Davitt’s advanced social position—“the land for the people”—and his seeing beyond “home rule” ran counter to clerical interference, Orange sectarianism, and the fears of the men of property of the movement.
     While this mass movement of the Land League did eventually break the back of foreign landlordism, it did not lead to what Davitt believed in—the nationalisation of the land—but rather to settlements that mainly favoured the middle and upper strata of Irish landowners.
     On the political side, the British establishment, aided and abetted by reaction in Ireland, blocked the hopes of any settlement of the “Irish question” by destroying Parnell and his party.
     Davitt, unfortunately, took the wrong side in the bitter dispute that divided nationalist Ireland, and it took another generation to restore confidence.
     The book traces the other influences of Davitt within the intertwining of the social and political struggles in Britain. The Land League had set up branches in Britain, and as land reform was an issue there, common links were forged, particularly in Scotland. This reviewer, while living in Manchester in the early 1960s, remembers visiting buildings in Lancashire that were still called Land League and Labour Clubs and were then used as Irish and working men’s social clubs—including one in Haslingden.
     Davitt was an integral part of the diverse democratic and radical formation of the early British labour movement as it sought to distance itself from the Liberal Party’s influence. The book traces these and later the entrance of Connolly into the Scottish scene, which shaped his Marxism.
     The other great influence from this ferment of ideas and actions was the birth of “new unionism,” which eventually arrived in Ireland in the person of Larkin and Connolly.
     As all epochs had a defining point, new unionism was that pivotal moment. Basically, trade union organisations had grown out of the city guilds and mutual aid societies into unions exclusively for craft workers. While at moments of tension in society and employer offensives they could be combative, they largely tended to be self-protective and sectionalist. They were breeding-grounds for illusions of empire and belief in the permanence of the capitalist system. From them grew social democracy, with its achievements and its failures.
     At the turn of the century, with the spread of socialist ideas came the vision of an alternative system, called socialism, and the notion of class solidarity. Such leading figures as Tom Mann, Keir Hardie and Ben Tillett urged the unskilled workers to rise out of their poverty by bypassing the craft unions and building new, open unions. Unions of dockers, gas workers and carters soon grew and challenged the employers by militant strike actions. Like all movements organic in their origin, the message was repeated elsewhere, with the Wobblies (IWW) in the United States and in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. The wave was brought to Ireland and had its apex in the general strike in Belfast in 1907 and in the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913.
     Armstrong in his short book tries to show all these related struggles: for the independence of Ireland, Labour’s independent representation in Parliament, the attempt to gain supremacy for Marxism in those early battles of ideas, and the quest for the formation of mass support and its organisational forms. He calls this “internationalism from below” and credits for our consideration Davitt and Connolly with being its main protagonists. Let’s not quibble about terms but rather attempt to fit the concepts into our epoch.
     While he touches on current themes and problems, he has promised to write further volumes, and in these times of debate about Sottish and Welsh independence a convergence of ideas, activity and solidarity throughout the labour and radical movements in these islands is indeed timely.

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