‘The Will of the People’ would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all’ – Father Kane
‘All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!’ – James Connolly
Business owners and establishment politicians are often represented as the “incarnation of progress” in modern society. The public is often portrayed as a mass or “mob”, unworthy of making decisions or of the responsibility to change history. In 1910, James Connolly eloquently and passionately conveyed how it was and is the public – ordinary people together in force and solidarity – who have made the significant changes and improvements in society throughout history.
In 1910 James Connolly wrote Labour Nationality and Religion in response to a discourse against Socialism by Father Kane in Dublin. Father Kane referred to the will of the people, essentially, as the will and rule of the ‘mob’. Connolly embraces the word mob and uses it to encapsulate the positive role it has played throughout human history.
I thought it would be interesting to share this ever-relevant discourse here, starting with Father Kane’s impression of the public, and then Connolly’s response to it.
Father Kane on socialism and the “mob”:
In Socialism there could be no healthy public opinion, no public opinion at all except that manufactured by officialdom or that artificially cultivated by the demagogues of the mob. There could be no free expression of free opinion. The press would be only the press of the officials. Printing machines, publishing firms, libraries, public halls, would be the exclusive property of the state. We do not indeed advocate utter licence for the press, but we do advocate its legitimate liberty. There would be no liberty of the press under Socialism; no liberty even of speech, for the monster machine of officialdom would grind out all opposition – for the monster machine would be labelled, ‘The Will of the People’, and ‘The Will of the People’ would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all, because blindly led by blind leaders. Brave men fear no foe, and free men will brook no fetter. You will have thought, in your boyhood, with hot tears, of the deeds of heroes who fought and fell in defence of the freedom of their fatherland. That enthusiasm of your boyhood will have become toned down with maturer years in its outward expression, but mature years will have made it more strong and staunch for ever, more ready to break forth with all the energy of your life and with all the sacrifice of your death in defiance of slavery. You may have rough times to face; you may have rough paths to tread, you may have hard taskmasters to urge you toil, and hard paymasters to stint your wage; you may have hard circumstances to limit your life within a narrow field; but after all your life is your own, and your home is your own, and your wage is your own, and you are free. Freedom is your birthright. Even our dilapidated modern nations allow to a man his birthright – freedom. You would fight for your birthright, freedom, against any man, against any nation, against the world; and if you could not live for your freedom, you would die for it. You would not sell your birthright, freedom, to Satan; and I do not think that you are likely to surrender your birthright, freedom, to the Socialist. Stand back! We are free men. Stand back, Socialist! God has given us the rights of man, to our own life, to our own property, to our own freedom. We will take our chance in the struggle of life. We may have a hard time or a good time, we may be born lucky or unlucky, but we are free men. Stand back, Socialist! God has given us our birthright, freedom, and, by the grace of God, we will hold to it in life and in death.
After you have done laughing at this hysterical outburst we will proceed to calmly discuss its central propositions. To take the latter part first, it is very amusing to hear a man, to whom a comfortable living is assured, assure us that we ought to tell the Socialist that “we will take our chance in the struggle of life…
How can a person, or a class, be free when its means of life are in the grasp of another? How can the working class be free when the sole chance of existence of its individual members depends upon their ability to make a profit for others?
The argument about the freedom of the press – a strange argument from such a source – is too absurd to need serious consideration. Truly, all means of printing will be the common property of all, and if any opposition party, any new philosophy, doctrine, science, or even hair-brained scheme has enough followers to pay society for the labour of printing its publications, society will have no more right nor desire to refuse the service than a government of the present day has to refuse the use of its libraries to the political enemies who desire to use those sources of knowledge to its undoing. It will be as possible to hire a printing machine from the community as it will be to hire a hall. Under Socialism the will of the people will be supreme, all officials will be elected from below and hold their position solely during good behaviour, and as the interests of private property, which according to St. Clement are the sole origin of contention among men, will no longer exist, there will be little use of law-making machinery, and no means whereby officialdom can corrupt the people.
This will be the rule of the people at last realised. But says Father Kane, at last showing the cloven foot, “the will of the people would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all, because blindly led by blind leaders”. Spoken like a good Tory and staunch friend of despotism! What is the political and social record of the mob in history as against the record of the other classes? There was a time, stretching for more than a thousand years, when the mob was without power or influence, when the entire power of the governments of the world was concentrated in the hands of the kings, the nobles and the hierarchy. That was the blackest period in human history. It was the period during which human life was not regarded as being of as much value as the lives of hares and deer; it was the period when freedom of speech was unknown, when trial by jury was suppressed, when men and women were tortured to make them confess crimes before they were found guilty, when persons obnoxious to the ruling powers were arrested and kept in prison (often for a lifetime) without trial; and it was the period during which a vindictive legal code inflicted the death penalty for more than one hundred and fifty offences – when a boy was hung for stealing an apple, a farmer for killing a hare on the roadside. It was during this undisturbed reign of the kings, the nobles, and the hierarchy that religious persecutions flourished, when Protestants killed Catholics, Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and both hunted Jews, when man “;made in God’s image” murdered his fellow-man for daring to worship God in a way different from that of the majority; it was then that governments answered their critics by the torture, when racks and thumbscrews pulled apart the limbs of men and women, when political and religious opponents of the state had their naked feet and legs placed in tin boots of boiling oil, their heads crushed between the jaws of a vice, their bodies stretched across a wheel while their bones were broken by blows of an iron bar, water forced down their throats until their stomachs distended and burst, and when little children toiled in mine and factory for twelve, fourteen and sixteen hours per day. But at last, with the development of manufacturing, came the gathering together of the mob, and consequent knowledge of its numbers and power, and with the gathering together also came the possibility of acquiring education. Then the mob started upon its upward march to power – a power only to be realised in the Socialist Republic. In the course of that upward march the mob has transformed and humanised the world. It has abolished religious persecution and imposed toleration upon the bigots of all creeds; it has established the value of human life, softened the horrors of war as a preliminary to abolishing it, compelled trial by jury, abolished the death penalty for all offences save one, and in some countries abolished it for all; and to-day it is fighting to keep the children from the factory and mine, and put them to school. The mob, “the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all”, with one sweep of its grimy, toil-worn hand, swept the stocks, the thumbscrew, the wheel, the boots of burning oil, the torturer’s vice and the stake into the oblivion of history, and they who to-day would seek to view those arguments of kings, nobles, and ecclesiastics must seek them in the lumber room of the museum.
In this civilising, humanising work the mob had at all times to meet and master the hatred and opposition of kings and nobles; and there is not in history a record of any movement for abolishing torture, preventing war, establishing popular suffrage, or shortening the hours of labour led by the hierarchy. Against all this achievement of the mob its enemies have but one instance of abuse of power – the French reign of terror – and they suppress the fact that this classic instance of mob fury lasted but eight months, whereas the cold-blooded cruelty of the ruling classes which provoked it had endured for a thousand years.
All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!
Just a thought on much of the so-called “liberal” view of the Brexit result recently. This group of generally liberal people who were genuinely horrified and shocked by the Brexit result and the racism and ignorance that they saw as being fundamental to it. The group is often represented by personalities such as Sir Bob Geldof, the singer and campaigner, who is paid a great deal of money to attend talks on poverty (reportedly $100,000), and who compared the 1916 Irish Revolution to ISIS terrorism.
There have been protests from liberals in support of overturning the result of the referendum decided by the British public. There has been a campaign to make those who voted to leave the EU (mostly working-class people) to look rather stupid; things such as the insinuation (and even direct assersions) that Leave voters didn’t know what the EU was because “what is the EU?” was reportedly top of a Google search in the days before the referendum. Nevermind that those internet searches could have been mostly Remain voters for all we know. I would argue that it was Leave voters who most clearly understood the EU as they weren’t caught up in the convoluted idea that the EU can be reformed, nor were Leave voters distracted by the far-right rhetoric. In a sense, it was much of the Remain campaigners and voters who became distracted by the far-right, as they chose to vote to Remain in the EU merely because it was the opposite to the stance of detestable UKIP and kin; the Blairites in Labour also took the view that, “anything the far-right does, we’ll do the opposite”, which turned out to be a disastrous stance for Jeremy Corbyn and others on the left-wing of the Labour party, (although, I will speculate, that Corbyn was privately in favour of leaving the EU). Labour’s failure to stand for a Leave vote, created confusion and disillusionment for working-class voters on the left. It was a massive own-goal at the time. But things have changed in the short time since then with the resignation or dismissal of many of those Blairites on the right-wing of the Labour party who, up until recently, have dominated the party’s policy. The liberal perspective was likewise reduced to “what is UKIP doing? – We’ll do the opposite”, rather than to ask what the situation at hand actually was. Of course, the Brexit referendum pitted elements of the British and European bourgeoisie against each other too, as some believed to Remain was beneficial for their profits, and others thought Leaving to be beneficial for theirs. There perhaps no better example of this than the conservative party, which was divided throughout the whole campaign. Working-class Leave voters at least understood that the EU is an anti-democratic, anti-worker and racist institution that cannot be reformed. Have a look at the excellent video below about why one working-class area of Britain chose to vote Leave.
I would argue that it was Leave voters who most clearly understood the EU as they weren’t caught up in the convoluted idea that the EU can be reformed, nor were Leave voters distracted by the far-right rhetoric – as many of the Remain voters were who chose to vote to Remain in the EU. Many argued to vote Remain merely because it was the opposite to the stance of detestable UKIP and other far-right and racist groups; the Blairites in Labour also took this view, which turned out to be a disastrous stance for Jeremy Corbyn and those on the left of the Labour party, (although, I will speculate, that Corbyn was privately in favour of leaving the EU, as he has always stated that the EU is anti-democratic). Labour’s failure to stand for a Leave vote, created confusion and disillusionment for working-class voters on the left. It was a massive own-goal at the time. But things have changed in the short time since then with the resignation or dismissal of many of those Blairites on the right-side of the Labour party who up until recently have dominated the party’s policy. The liberal perspective was likewise reduced to “what is UKIP doing? – We’ll do the opposite”, rather than to ask what the situation at hand actually was. Of course, the Brexit referendum pitted elements of the British and European bourgeoisie against each other too, as some believed to Remain was beneficial for their profits, and others thought Leaving to be beneficial for theirs. There perhaps no better example of this than the conservative party, which was divided throughout the whole campaign. Working-class Leave voters at least understood that the EU is an anti-democratic, anti-worker and racist institution that cannot be reformed. Have a look at the excellent video below about why one working-class area of Britain chose to vote Leave.
Labour’s failure to stand for a Leave vote, created confusion and disillusionment for working-class voters on the left. It was a massive own-goal at the time. But things have changed in the short time since then with the resignation or dismissal of many of those Blairites on the right-wing of the Labour party who up until recently have dominated the party’s policy. The liberal perspective was likewise reduced to the argument, “what is UKIP doing? – We’ll do the opposite”, rather than to ask what the situation at hand actually was. Of course, the Brexit referendum pitted elements of the British and European bourgeoisie against each other too, as some believed to Remain was beneficial for their profits, and others thought Leaving to be beneficial for theirs. There perhaps no better example of this than the conservative party, which was divided throughout the whole campaign. Working-class Leave voters at least understood that the EU is an anti-democratic, anti-worker and racist institution that cannot be reformed. Have a look at the excellent video below about why one working-class area of Britain chose to vote Leave.
Of course, the Brexit referendum pitted elements of the British and European bourgeoisie against each other too, as some believed to Remain was beneficial for their profits, and others thought Leaving to be beneficial for theirs. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Tory Party, which was divided throughout the whole campaign. Working-class Leave voters at least understood that the EU is an anti-democratic, anti-worker and racist institution that cannot be reformed. Have a look at the excellent video below about why one working-class area of Britain chose to vote Leave.
I’ve heard some well-educated open-minded liberals say that not enough people voted, and others say that too many people voted and a decision of such magnitude should not have been left to the public. The former ignores the fact that the gap would have been bigger on the side of Leave had more people exercised the vote, because more working-class people would have voted; the latter is simply undemocratic.
Another “liberal” minded person on facebook equated the decision of the majority of British people to “pissing in their pants to keep warm”, and his friends then went on to back him up, speaking of the “racism” of all of the leave voters. The hypocrisy and irony of their own bigotry was indeed lost on them in their self-righteous and confused comments. I suppose, to be fair, he did claim not to have understood the decision himself. An example of bigotry borne of ignorance surely.
To those “liberals” who championed the idea that the EU isn’t perfect, but argue that it can be reformed – that reformist experiment has already been tried. Greece attempted the experiment when they tried to implement anti-austerity measures while remaining inside the EU, believing a capitalistic Europe, through the EU could be reformed. And look at how the EU dealt with the Greek people who dared to stand up for themselves!
The Irish “liberal” (and liberals in general) like to see themselves as open-minded, high-minded, considered, righteous, progressive and agrees with aspects of both left and right. They consider themselves as having common sense and like to “get things done”. They see themselves as representing the reasonable, balanced view, that considers everyone’s interests in a practical way. In this way the liberal could be framed as representing the best of both worlds, the happy middle-ground, but in doing so, it is really nothing; they understand neither the forces driving capitalism, nor the experiences and interests of the working class; liberals are interested in improving conditions for others if possible, but not at the expense of their own privilege and position. Generally, the positions they do help to improve are those who are already privileged or wealthy. So they are tacitly in favour of privilege, class division, hierarchy and inequality. The liberal respects hierarchy and division as long as they are in on it, mingling amongst it. Look at the middle-class (generally liberal) professions in the legal and corporate areas for example. The liberal’s fair-mindedness is so fragile, that when their position or interests are challenged they denounce the majority of voters of an entire country as stupid and racist when the vote’s result is not to the liberal’s liking, whereas the Marxist actually analyses it.
What about this for back-handed racial and class-based condescension from actor Jeremy Irons:
We have a history of immigration. We are made up of Anglo Saxons, Normans, Celts, Vikings, West Indians, Pakistanis, you know, thank God for them – you can get a pint of milk at eleven o’clock at night most places
Yes, it’s fun to work until eleven o’clock at night. “We’re just glad you could get your pint of milk Mr. Irons, Sir.”
Liberals see socialism as misguided, unreasonable, unnecessary and dangerous. They bar the doorways to this progressive alternative for human-kind, and then they wonder why the far-right reactionaries are gaining followers and influence through the window. Liberals prop up institutions like the EU, which are antagonistic to the interests of the working class, they under-mine credible leaders on the left, such as Jeremy Corbyn who have always opposed the EU, and then they are astonished that the politicians taking the lead are opportunist, populist, nationalist and racist!
Now, liberals should ask themselves – is this the extent of liberalism?
I’ll leave it with Sir Bob Geldof, who, in many ways sums up the “principles” of the modern liberal.
‘I’ll shake hands with the devil on my left and the devil on my right to get where we need to be.’ (Irish Times)
And in regard to having principles, Geldof, referring to Jeremy Corbyn whom he said should step-down despite Corbyn having a massive democratic mandate from Labour members:
‘He’s a principled man but if you’re the leader of a party you have to… park your own principles’
The liberal view: park your principles. Analyse nothing. Stand for nothing. Evil motivations must be considered too.
Results of the Brexit Referendum has dominated the narrative over the past 24 hours, through mainstream media and social media. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the points, observations and opinions on it, from an Irish point-of-view, which were posted on facebook and appeared on my feed.
The Referendum results have created a full-blown crisis in the UK and total panic in Brussels. Denmark and Holland will go next. The French elite will be under huge pressure to concede a referendum. The German establishment will be meeting frequently and in secret to prepare a Plan B, which will mean a serious restructuring of the Eurozone.
It was a revolt against the political establishment (Ed Miliband acknowledged this fact) and had Corbyn come out for LEAVE his party would have been in a very strong position. The Tories are wounded. Labour and others should demand an early election. Impossible to wait till 2020. And the election campaign should be waged fiercely for an anti-capitalist programme and fighting the Right on racism/xenophobia, etc. Mass campaigning of the sort that won Corbyn the leadership is the way forward.
PS: After I debated Varoufakis he came and whispered in my ear: ‘Tariq, don’t doubt that if there is a Brexit, I won’t be shedding any tears.’ Time for him to say it in public…
Corbyn had an opportunity to stand up to the right-wing in his own party and put forward a principled Left and socialist position on the bosses’ club that is the EU. If he had, he would have been vindicated by the popular anger of the working class.
Instead, Corbyn and others on the Left capitulated. To quote Brendan O’Neill, the Left threw their “lot in with the very people it was founded a few hundred years ago to challenge: kings and tyrants and other benign guardians of the stupid people.”
Why? Because they were so frightened of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that they sided with the Tories and EU to keep them in check? Cowards. Cowards who have abandoned the idea that working class have agency and can defend its own interests without having to rely on the benevolence of its enemies.
There’s a reckoning coming and it’s now time to rebuild a mass socialist alternative that stands in the legacy of Tony Benn and Bob Crow. It’s up to Corbyn et al now to decide which side they want to be on.
Via a Facebook user:
One thing is clear: The decision of Corbyn, the Labour left, and much of the wider left to support a Remain vote in the EU referendum was an incredible political own goal.
The referendum showed massive working class anger and disaffection. Had they argued for a leave vote, they could have dramatically changed the debate, and been well positioned to benefit from the enormous instability this will cause within the Tory government.
Instead, they sided with the establishment and the capitalist class. In doing so, they allowed UKIP and the populist right to be the main voice of people’s discontent and allowed the debate to be focused to a significant extent on immigration with no effective means of combatting anti-immigrant sentiments.
And of course, taking a remain position hasn’t stopped the Blairites and the media from blaming Corbyn for the result and looking for his head.
And what did they do it all for? To defend the anti-democratic, neo-liberal, racist EU austerity project.
There will now be a political crisis and a major discussion about what kind of exit should happen; it is still possible to cut across and challenge the anti-immigrant right and their narrative. But it would have been a lot easier if the left had held its nerve and stuck to its principles on the EU from the start.
Another Anonymous Facebook User:
In Barking and Dagenham, where less than half of the population now identify as white British, 62% of people voted to leave. In neighbouring Newham, one of the poorest and also the most ethnically diverse area of the country, 47% voted to leave.
Difficult decision to make I’ll admit. Big business, TTIP etc on one side, racist fuckers leading on the other. The left should have properly backed breaking from Europe to take the arguments away from the bigots.
One thing that is clear is this morning is hilarious, “the markets”, the banks, big business have gone demented because of a democratic decision made by an actual population of people, imagine that? Pity the head bangers are heading up the Leave side. And all racists across Europe are going to jump on the bandwagon and raise their profile through this decision. The Left across Europe needs to get its shit together to channel this decision in the correct direction and demonstrate the real reasons this decision is important to stop the neo-liberal agenda of the European project.
A social Europe based on solidarity YES
A Europe based on controlling populations and pushing an economic agenda NO
Ugh, Capitalists … :
Huey P. Ashmore:
People going on about how Brexit is a victory for backward racists like Farage should probably remember that the EU is paying the quasi-dictatorship of Turkey a 3 billion Euro bribe to block Syrian refugees coming into Europe with military force.
Ruth Coppinger TD:
Media and establishment shocked by Brexit. The left case against the undemocratic and neo liberal EU was not as widely publicised as it would have been had Corbyn and the left made it, but those are factors in the large working class turnout that delivered the result. We need a Europe for the millions, not the millionaires.
During a conversation with an acquaintance recently, I mentioned that we hear a lot about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Ireland through our media, but virtually nothing about Bernie Sanders, as if Trump and Clinton were the only two campaigning for the US presidency. The fact that we don’t hear about Sanders seemed innately important to me and I was (and am) concerned by it.
“It doensn’t really matter though, we can’t vote for them anyway”, was his quick answer. His reply seemed at first quite clever due to its quickness and his assured tone, but it left me dissatisfied. It dismissed my concerns as irrelevant. I was irked by his off-handedness to the issue and the concerns one may have about it. “Surely, this is an important and relevant issue?” I thought to myself. At the time, I could not think of a response quickly enough (I was heading out with other friends for a few social drinks and I had not much time to talk). I knew it was an important thing that we hear about Sanders – it seemed instinctively important – but I had never really given any thought to why it is, and so I could not think of a quick answer to the argument that “it doesn’t really matter” to Irish people. “Why does it matter?”, I asked myself.
So why then, is it important for people outside of the US to hear about Bernie Sanders and his ideas, as well as Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s? It is because Sanders represents a political alternative which is relevant to us all, regardless of our nationality, if we come from an ordinary background. But this political alternative does not represent the interests of corporations and powerful interests in the US or elsewhere around the world.
Sanders has the potential to inspire the Irish working class, to influence our ideas and represents how the working class across the world are actually connected by these common interests. Much of what Sanders says, is reflected in what Paul Murphy, Ruth Coppinger, et al say in Ireland, or what Jeremy Corbyn says in Britain; despite some political differences, all their arguments rotate around the broad idea of socialism and a re-working of how we organise the running of our society.
The fact that socialism is being discussed in the context of the US presidential election on such a large scale is surely an important thing to talk about too; the US, arguably the most advanced capitalist country on the planet.
I Worked Hard For It All, Without Help From Anyone.
She was working from home alone and had become slightly hungry. She thought about her options from what was available and resolved to make a ham and cheese sandwich. All the necessary ingredients were there in her cupboards and fridge – her favourite bread, cheese, style of ham, butter, sauces etc. – and so she began preparing them. Finally, when the sandwich was as she prefers a sandwich to be, she ate. She made her lunch and ate it. Following her satisfying lunch she was fuelled to do all of the other activities that she did during the day (with the aid of quite a bit of coffee). It had fuelled her to continue to work hard and get on with her life for a little longer; fuelled her towards hitting more of those targets and the rewards promised to her for her hard and important work. A step closer to that bonus, securing that commission and getting that new high-powered German luxury executive saloon. But there is a background to her sandwich which has been neglected.
A few days earlier she ordered groceries online from her local grocery store (because being a busy person, she had no time to go to the shop). Some of those groceries would become her sandwich ingredients. A woman whom she would never meet received her order and processed it. That person gave the order, in turn, to her colleague who collected the groceries as they were listed; she spent about 40 minutes gathering them in a trolley. Once they were all collected and verified, the order was arranged in bags and crates for delivery to the home of the sandwich loving lady. At the appointed time, a delivery driver – one of three on duty in the shop at that moment – would lift the crates into his van and deliver them to her home. When the customer signed for the delivery, the delivery man was the only person whom she had contact with throughout the process.
A day before the delivery, the bread, cheese, ham, butter, sauces and everything else was packaged in the facilities of the respective food companies and delivered to grocery stores all around the area. Packaging people packaged, delivery drivers delivered to shops and supermarkets. Prior to the packaging process, bakers baked the bread (with everything that that involves), cheesemakers made the cheese (with everything that that involves), butchers – and people working for meat companies – oversaw the production of the pre-packed sliced ham, and creameries and sauce factories were filled with employees doing various things to mass-produce butter and sauce.
Prior to that, the bakery company needed to order the ingredients to bake bread, the creameries needed ingredients to create cheese and butter. All the different producers needed the tools to make products from their ingredients, and they needed engineers, technicians, IT experts and mechanics to ensure the tools and machines continued to work efficiently. Prior to that, countless people did countless things to make all of this happen.
How many people does it take to make a ham and cheese sandwich?
When she considered what to eat for lunch that afternoon, the process would have been more or less the same had she decided to have a salad or a chocolate bar or anything else.
We are all connected. We are all part of something called society, doing something which contributes to one another’s lives. All of what we have is only made possible due to the work of others and this simple fact is generally ignored. The working-class, producing all of this essential stuff, receives no media coverage for their achievements and thankless drudgery, and will never experience owning that luxury executive vehicle. None of us – however hard working – has achieved anything on our own. It has been made possible by the efforts and struggles of countless humble people. They carry this out daily, invisible. The very expression of our individualism – and we are all different and unique and wonderful – is dependent on each other.
Food for thought the next time you make yourself a sandwich.
As we grapple to understand what exactly happened in Brussels, and why such horrific acts might be committed, my thoughts and sympathies go out to all of the innocent people who have been affected by this – the victims, their families and friends, and the people of Belgium, who are surely suffering from the trauma and upset which such attacks cause. Also in my thoughts are the many people who travel to Brussels for whatever reason. Innumerable innocent people merely going out to work and getting on with their lives. One can only imagine the suffering and consider what the ramifications might be if a similar attack occurred in Ireland.
Does it say something about our consideration of the Irish Revolution generally, that the rebels’ original writings remain obscure and are not available in any of the main Irish bookshops – you will not find them in Eason or Dubray anyway. One would find it difficult not to notice the great many books currently being made available about the 1916 period – some good, many bad, new re-tellings and recently re-published old ones – but these are mostly summaries, opinions of characters and ideologies, secondary sources, or second-hand accounts of events.
I have seen no publications of any of Patrick Pearse’s work for example – someone often described as a poet and play-write. Also conspicuous by its absence is James Connolly’s essential Labour In Irish History;its procurement is most likely to be gained only in back-alley partisan bookshops, from certain political groups, or on-line. Apart from the Revolution Papers why is there no complete re-publications of anything written by Arthur Griffith? – a person who, although he did not participate in the Rising, was a prolific political writer of that time on behalf of Sinn Féin. I have my own opinions on why all of this might be, but here I am only raising the question.
Can we understand what the rebels intended without having read what they wrote? After all, Pearse, Connolly, and Griffith were very different politically and disagreed on fundamental issues, (Griffith was quite conservative, Connolly was a socialist). These stark ideological differences are not generally acknowledged (and I fear not generally realised) in an environment where those names, often mentioned in the same breath, are synonymous with the nationalist struggle against Britain and nothing else. It seems to me, that the current environment being promoted is one which acknowledges the characters of the 1916 period, and celebrates them, but does not encourage us to understand them.
Today, a headline from The Guardian has been shared about on social media: that the ‘Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population, says Oxfam’. As one indication of how inequality has widened through the years of austerity – to the benefit of the world’s richest – almost exactly 2 years ago The Guardian wrote how the world’s 85 richest people were as wealthy as half of the world’s population. Last year it was 80 people. If wealth inequality continues at this rate, the world’s richest people will fit more comfortably in a van than in a bus.
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ … When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
DURING the First World War – that Great War – generals on the attacking side were generally optimistic of a successful onslaught – after all, they had planned it. Generals on the opposing side were equally optimistic, but they were confident about their army’s chances of defending against the onslaught and then launching their own counter-attack. This level of optimism on both sides certainly contributed to the bloodiest stalemate the world has ever seen. Meanwhile, the ordinary soldiers of both the attacking army and the defending army consisted of tens of thousands of poor young men who would do all this bloody fighting. I’m not so certain that, by 1917 at least, those ordinary men in the trenches awaiting the barrages, bullets and bayonets were as optimistic about the approaching battles as the generals were. If they were optimistic, it was probably as likely to be about something other than “a successful onslaught”. Perhaps they were optimistic about a quick end to it all, in whatever form that might be. Anyway by 1917, the soldiers of the Russian Army seem to have suffered a bad case of pessimism about the whole thing, because they mutinied and revolted, motivated by the rather negative idea of improving their conditions. Alas, the rest is history.
Letting Ignorance In
If religion is the opium of the people, fortune tellers and hypnotists might be the peoples’ placebo.
In a conversation I had with my sister recently, I mocked the act of fortune telling and hypnosis, to her chagrin. I mocked people’s superstitious faith in such performances. Had I known beforehand the earnestness of her regard for such performers and alchemists, I might have been more considerate, or more quiet. I will not recall the conversation here, suffice to write that it ended abruptly when my sister (rather bitterly) called me a “negative” and “pessimistic” person.
Her remarks hurt. Naturally, I consciously strive to be an upbeat and positive person, and I think that I succeed in this much of the time, despite the obstacles. Therefore, I pondered, if I consider myself to be generally optimistic, and others do too, what was it about my outlook that my sister found so pessimistic? What is optimism?
According to my sister, hypnosis and fortune-telling will only work on optimistic, positive people, and it would not work on me because of my “negativity”. One has to “want to be hypnotized”, one has to “let it in”, and clearly my skepticism prevents me from “letting it in”. I must allow myself to be fooled. ‘IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’.
Similarly, regarding politics and economics, we are often distracted and manipulated by the establishment’s vision of optimism. Their optimism, I believe, is pessimism with a smile. Their optimism, like all their ideas, is insidious; by allowing it to shape our own optimism we deny ourselves the possibility of a better kind of society and limit ourselves to their restrictive ideas of what our world should be like.
Optimism is Subjective; One Man’s Charity is Another Woman’s…
Optimism is surely subjective. One – let’s call him John – may see a food bank, a soup kitchen or yet another charity being set-up, and find such moments to be worthy of congratulation and celebration. Celebrating these charitable measures, John recognises that good is being done and a noble effort is being made by those running such organisations. In John’s opinion, something is being done to combat the deficiencies of our society.
Conversely, a second person – let us call her Mary – may interpret the existence of such charitable organisations as being a result of increasing poverty and desperation, and therefore, they should not be cause for jubilation. Mary will argue that instead of reflecting the good in society, charities merely reflect the terrible failures of our system; the more charities that are created, evidently the worse-off our society is. Furthermore, Mary understands that charities offer only immediate and minimum relief to those who need it, they are not a solution to misery or a prevention of it. Mary sees that political leaders, instead of finding the long-term solution to poverty, are merely resolved to allow charities to alleviate short-term suffering – shirking their responsibility to develop effective solutions.
Now, of course, I do not wish to be misunderstood. Charities are required to offer immediate aid for those who need it, and that is vital to those in desperate situations right now. However, instead of relying on emergency aid, Mary promotes and strives towards an alternative way of organising society where such organisations are not needed because there will be virtually no poverty. That is her optimistic vision. Mary will be described as “anti”, “negative” or “pessimistic” by John and his supporters because of her criticism of his appearances at the opening of food banks and the congratulatory newspaper articles that report it.
The “problem” with Mary is that she has questioned things. She has questioned why charities exist, and questioning things is often seen as negative by the establishment, because it represents an obstacle to how they would otherwise wish to proceed. Hence, questioning or critical thinking is portrayed as pessimistic by the ruling class and those influenced by them.
Robert Tressell put it best when he wrote about ‘The OBS’:
‘One of the most important agencies for the relief of distress was the Organized Benevolence Society. This association received money from many sources. The proceeds of the fancy-dress carnival; the collections from different churches and chapels which held special services in aid of the unemployed; the weekly collections made by the employees of several local firms and business houses; the proceeds of concerts, bazaars, and entertainments, donations from charitable persons, and the subscriptions of the members. The society also received large quantities of cast-off clothing and boots, and tickets of admission to hospitals, convalescent homes and dispensaries from subscribers to those institutions, or from people like Rushton & Co., who had collecting-boxes in their workshops and offices…
The largest item in the expenditure of the Society was the salary of the General Secretary, Mr Sawney Grinder–a most deserving case–who was paid one hundred pounds a year.
After the death of the previous secretary there were so many candidates for the vacant post that the election of the new secretary was a rather exciting affair. The excitement was all the more intense because it was restrained. A special meeting of the society was held: the Mayor, Alderman Sweater, presided, and amongst those present were Councillors Rushton, Didlum and Grinder, Mrs Starvem, Rev. Mr Bosher, a number of the rich, semi-imbecile old women who had helped to open the Labour Yard, and several other ‘ladies’. Some of these were the district visitors already alluded to, most of them the wives of wealthy citizens and retired tradesmen, richly dressed, ignorant, insolent, overbearing frumps, who–after filling themselves with good things in their own luxurious homes–went flouncing into the poverty-stricken dwellings of their poor ‘sisters’ and talked to them of ‘religion’, lectured them about sobriety and thrift, and–sometimes–gave them tickets for soup or orders for shillingsworths of groceries or coal. Some of these overfed females–the wives of tradesmen, for instance–belonged to the Organized Benevolence Society, and engaged in this ‘work’ for the purpose of becoming acquainted with people of superior social position–one of the members was a colonel, and Sir Graball D’Encloseland–the Member of Parliament for the borough–also belonged to the Society and occasionally attended its meetings. Others took up district visiting as a hobby; they had nothing to do, and being densely ignorant and of inferior mentality, they had no desire or capacity for any intellectual pursuit. So they took up this work for the pleasure of playing the grand lady and the superior person at a very small expense. Other of these visiting ladies were middle-aged, unmarried women with small private incomes–some of them well-meaning, compassionate, gentle creatures who did this work because they sincerely desired to help others, and they knew of no better way…
Meantime, in spite of this and kindred organizations the conditions of the under-paid poverty stricken and unemployed workers remained the same. Although the people who got the grocery and coal orders, the ‘Nourishment’, and the cast-off clothes and boots, were very glad to have them, yet these things did far more harm than good. They humiliated, degraded and pauperized those who received them, and the existence of the societies prevented the problem being grappled with in a sane and practical manner. The people lacked the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are produced by Work: these people were willing to work, but were prevented from doing so by the idiotic system of society which these ‘charitable’ people are determined to do their best to perpetuate.
The Job Centre
When I was unemployed I had to attend a job-seeking workshop. Now, the people hosting the workshop were polite and well-meaning people. They seemed to be from working-class backgrounds themselves, but the workshop was funded by a local and well-known entrepreneur, and the kinds of ideas which he is likely to espouse were also the ones propagated by the staff at the week-long workshop. This was perhaps done unconsciously by our hosts, but I would speculate that they were trained in what to say to job seekers and genuinely believed that it was good advice. Invariably, the advice given to fellow unemployed attendees was approximately this: “So you’re unemployed, but all is not lost! Perhaps you’re not being optimistic or pro-active enough. You have plenty of skill and talent – you just need to uncover it! You must take responsibility and get organized”.
Admittedly, this is generally good advice, if a little patronizing, but I had two concerns with how it was imparted. Firstly, it placed all of the responsibility on the job-seeker, who, it was suggested, should be going so far as to buy expensive Italian leather shoes as a gimmick to put their CVs into (as I was told one very clever person had done before). The fact that most unemployed people cannot afford Italian leather shoes to wear, never mind using them as kind of envelope, did not seem to be considered by the person lecturing us.
Secondly, questioning why unemployment exists, or questioning if employers share any fault for unemployment wasn’t discussed at all, because if it was, it would be seen as “negative thinking” by many there. This would probably be seen as argumentative, and therefore “negative” discussion. I happen to think it could have inspired healthy debate and ideas – a positive and democratic thing in my opinion. Unemployment is an inherently political issue, yet there was no political discussion at all at this workshop. When debate and discussion inspires ideas, we should not be surprised that it is avoided at such events. Having such discussion would undoubtedly have raised issues among the unemployed attendees which the entrepreneurial benefactors and conservative politicians would have found to be against their interests. What resulted in these workshops was an oppressive and patronizing atmosphere of staying positive – positive in the defined sense – with strictly no deviation, not too dissimilar to Pauline’s Job Centre from the League of Gentlemen (above).
************** Optimism and Climate Change:
Recently, I could not escape the news reports about the “optimistic” and “historic” outcome of the Conference On Climate Change in Paris which has been hailed in the media. But how optimistic was it really?:
‘Instead of a target of a world where all energy must be renewable, big business and their lobby groups have managed to establish vague goals in the agreement that aims for “net-zero” emissions some time in the century’s second half… [sic]
‘…The politicians have managed to sell a positive spin on the agreement mainly because all governments have now been forced to at least pay lip service to the issue of global warming. The most crude climate deniers are now more or less limited to the Republicans in the US Congress. However, the oil and gas industry as well as the world’s governments, are trying to hide behind a green disguise…’
‘…Unfortunately, such claims in fact represent a huge “green washing” of reality. As the 74-year-old doyen of climate science, James Hansen, says, ”It’s really a fraud, a fudge without action, just promises”.’
‘…“We managed to tighten the agreement regarding the temperature target, and then it was not possible to also tighten emission targets”, says the Swedish minister Åsa Romson in a telling comment, as if it were possible to achieve a tighter temperature target without a dramatic tightening of emission reductions towards the eliminating carbon emissions completely.’
But then, immediately tightening emissions targets by the required amount would hamper profits. This is the extent of establishment optimism – optimism influenced only by the availability for massive profiting. Any serious solution is avoided because it would require a revolutionary change to our economic system – something the 1% leading our society are obviously not prepared to do. Naomi Klein has written much about this in her recent book This Changes Everything.
Optimism in Irish Politics
In Ireland, in recent years, we have seen examples of how “optimism” is used by establishment politicians towards a certain end.
For example, in 2007, after receiving warnings from high-profile economists of a pending economic crash, Bertie Ahern’s infamous remark aimed at critics of his Government’s economic policy was:
‘Sitting on the sidelines or on the fence, cribbin’ and moanin’ is a lost opportunity. In fact, I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide’.
The fact that many young adults were committing suicide because of factors linked to social and economic policies of his Fianna Fáil party was lost on him.
More recent political discourse has seen how critics of the status quo, critics of austerity, critics of capitalism and critics of mainstream politics are “dismal and negative“, conversely, the Government parties describe their policies in the most optimistic terms.
‘One of the downsides of some of the Opposition in the Dáil at the moment is they’re a bit dismal and a bit negative and, I suppose, dissonant in the sense that obviously they don’t see very much particularly right with Ireland, but that’s their issue.’ – Joan Burton, Labour.
According to this narrative, it is not that the opposition is being constructively critical or have optimistic ideas of their own, they are merely being unpatriotic, and – it is ambiguously implied – they even have mental illness issues of some sort. Incidentally, it should also be pointed out, that no ideas or plans are being critiqued, it is just an attack on personalities (and, indirectly, on personality disorders).
Last month, optimism was even used by a politician as a justification for his corrupt practices. Cllr. O’ Donnell, (during secret recording in a sting by an undercover RTÉ journalist) remarked at one stage:
I am a business man. I am not a negative person. I like to see things going forward, progress, like … and eh … there’s some members of Donegal County Council who would be the completely opposite.” [sic]
Voltaire on Optimism
This advocation of blind optimism of the status-quo, is the kind of baseless optimism that Voltaire satirizes in his novella, Candide, or Optimism.
Dr. Pangloss, indoctrinates his eager young pupil, Candide, to believe that prevailing establishment ideas are the best ideas and the only plausible ones:
“It is demonstrable… that things cannot be other than they are. It follows that those who say that everything is good are talking foolishly: what they should say is that everything is for the best.”
Dr. Pangloss’ perspective is an inherently conservative one; if things were merely good, then it implies things could improve, but if things are all for the best, then there is no need to question, critique or change anything.
Candide becomes slowly disillusioned with this paradigm when his comfortable life is abruptly disturbed and he experiences some very severe realities. He tries to remain optimistic and make the best choices. We can see how far these “choices” get him in the extract below. Perhaps then, everything is not for the best, perhaps optimism in the status quo is not enough in a world where you are subject to cruelty and injustice and where existential “choices” do not have any significant effect:
‘At the court-martial, Candide was asked whether he preferred to run the gauntlet thirty-six times through the whole regiment, or to have his skull split by a dozen bullets. It was no use his saying that he didn’t want either. He had to choose; so he excercised that divine gift known as ‘Free Will’ by choosing to run the gauntlet thirty-six times… As they were getting ready for the third lap, Candide gave up, and asked them, as a favour, to blow his brains out…’
Ruling Class Optimism
If ruling-class optimism can be described as pessimism with a smile, then utopianism can come dangerously close to being nothing more than wishful thinking. Of course we should never cease striving for utopia – there are always improvements to be had – but how do we achieve this in a pragmatic way? I think that this is what Karl Marx and later Marxists tried to figure out and explain.
One could argue, that in a class-based society such as the one we live in, the ruling-class virtually determines the form of prevailing ideas. The ruling class voice is loud and clear, broadcast across TV stations, radio stations, magazines, newspapers – as it owns or controls all of these – and its ideas are shared again on social media sites. Therefore, the ruling class can more or less define what is to be done – and not only that – the establishment can influence how we should be thinking about what is to be done. This is what Noam Chomsky referred to as Manufacturing Consent. In other words, a ruling class (with its media, employers, politicians, laws, bureaucracy etc.) defines what is optimistic, and what is not. In such instances, one who holds a critical view or who questions the status quo is held as a negative, defeatist, depressing or a “dismal” individual, who is “against everything and for nothing”, because their optimism contradicts the kind that is held to be optimistic by the ruling-class.
There Is An Alternative
My optimism is shaped by the goodness of people and the idea that a society can be formed in which this goodness, instead of greed, is harnessed and maximised. A society which is motivated by the common good instead of profit, and organised democratically instead of by class and wealth. One in which suffering is minimized, where poverty is eradicated as far as it can be, and people support one another; a society which includes democratic processes in all of its functions; a society which looks to utopia, which strives for the ideal, and not one, as we have now, which inflicts suffering on the many for the benefit of the few and declares “we find it regrettable to do so, but it is the only option”. There is another option, I believe it is called socialism.
Oscar Wilde wrote:
‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias’. – The Soul Of Man Under Socialism
To aim towards utopia, is not to be a Utopian. Achieving an alternative society in a pragmatic way, and showing that the emergence of such a society is not only pragmatic but inevitable, is what Karl Marx and other Marxist socialists have attempted to do over only the past 150 years. Indeed, if one thinks about it, the “prediction” that Marx made regarding the death ‘knell of capitalist private property’ is not really very shocking or prophetic. If human society survives any natural disaster and continues centuries or millennia into the future, the most obvious thing in the world is that it will do so under a different economic and social system, and because it is natural for humans to strive towards equality, freedom and progress, it is quite likely that that system will be socialist. But achieving it, that requires optimism.