‘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!