Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 94 April/May 1990

Over 120 years ago, through their work in the First International, Marx and Engels established that the question of Irish self-determination stands at the heart of the British revolution. It was at that time that they first publicly argued and fought for their changed position on the issue of Irish liberation and its relation to the struggle of the British working class.

Their dramatic change of view on this question was of enormous significance not only for the British working class but also more generally, for the international working class movement. In particular, as capitalism entered its imperialist phase and opportunist currents began to dominate working class movements in the more developed capitalist countries, it was a pointer to the increasing significance of national liberation struggles of oppressed peoples for the working class struggle for socialism.


Before 1848, Marx and Engels thought Ireland would be liberated as a result of the victory of the working class movement in Britain. Deeper study had convinced them that the opposite was true. The British working class would never accomplish anything until it had got rid of its present connection with Ireland. Ireland is the key to the British revolution.

They reached their new position on the basis of a concrete analysis of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. That relationship significantly changed over a 20 year period. The national liberation movement in Ireland assumed revolutionary forms with the rise of the Fenian movement – a 'lower orders' movement based on the land. The working class movement in Britain not only lost its revolutionary drive with the defeat of the Chartist movement in 1848 but also fell under the influence of the liberal bourgeoisie for a long period of time.

The British ruling class was divided into two main sections – the old landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Ireland was not only a bastion of power and wealth for the old landed aristocracy but it was a point of unity of both sections of the British ruling class. For the bourgeoisie also benefited from British domination over Ireland. Ireland was not only a source of cheap food and raw materials for British capitalists but also the impoverished Irish peasantry driven off the land and forced to emigrate to England was a source of cheap labour. This forced emigration of Irish people divided the working class in Britain into two hostile camps. It allowed the ruling class to provide a relatively superior position for British workers as against the Irish and so support and nourish the hostility bet-ween these two sections of the working class. This antagonism between British and Irish workers, argued Marx and Engels, ‘is the secret of the impotence of the English working class despite its organisation’. For the oppression of Ireland united the ruling class and divided the working class.

The British ruling class was most vulnerable in Ireland where the power of the landed aristocracy was being challenged by a revolutionary national movement based on the land. A defeat for the British ruling class in Ireland would open the way for the British revolution. Provided, of course, that the British working class ‘made common cause with the Irish’. The national emancipation of Ireland is the first condition for the victory of the British revolution. And unless the British working class ‘made common cause with the Irish’, the British working class would never accomplish anything.

Marx made the further point that ‘landlordism in Ireland is maintained solely by the English Army’. It alone prevents an agrarian revolution taking place. And that Ireland was the only pretext for the English government retaining a big standing army which, if need be, could be used against English workers after having done its military training in Ireland. A point of some significance for our understanding of the Irish question today.

Marx and Engels’ support, through their work in the First International, for the Irish liberation movement had ‘other objects’ besides opposing the brutality of English rule on the grounds of ‘sympathy’ or ‘international justice’. These ‘other objects’ were precisely to separate the policy of the working class with regard to Ireland most definitely from the policy of the ruling class. Only by making ‘common cause with the Irish’ and taking the initiative in dissolving the Act of Union could the working class lay down the basis for its own emancipation. This was inevitably to put Marx and Engels into conflict with those opportunist leaders of the English labour movement who wanted to follow Gladstone and the leaders of the liberal bourgeoisie. The Irish question then as today posed the very practical question of the struggle against opportunism in the British labour movement.


Marx and Engels not only regarded the Irish question as critical for the class struggle in England but also internationally. England, the dominant world power at the time, was the only country in which the material conditions for a workers’ revolution had developed up to a certain degree of maturity. To hasten the revolution in England, Marx said, ‘is the most important object of the International’. The sole means of doing this is to make Ireland independent. The task of the International, therefore, was to put the ‘conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with the Irish’.

The International took up the Irish question on many occasions. It played a leading role in defending the Irish liberation struggle and fighting for the rights of Fenian prisoners.

In 1865 the Fenians made plans for an armed uprising but due to the activities of informers this did not take place, and some of the leaders of the movement were arrested. Fenian newspapers were suppressed and Habeas Corpus suspended. The General Council of the International supported a campaign started in England in defence of Fenian prisoners. It made sure that wide publicity was given to the barbaric treatment of Irish prisoners, and it supported appeals to collect funds for families of Irish prisoners.

In February-March 1867, the armed uprising, for which the Fenians had long prepared, suffered defeat. Many leaders were arrested and put on trial. On 18 September 1867, in Manchester, an armed attack on a police van was organised to release two Fenian leaders. Their escape was a success but during the clash a police officer was killed. Large numbers of Irishmen were soon arbitrarily  rounded up. Five were put on trial for their lives accused of killing the policeman. In this patently rigged trial they were all found guilty and sentenced to death. A wave of protest in England and Ireland took place. Marx and his supporters won the International to a call for the commutation of the death sentence.

In defending their stand on the Irish question in the First International, Marx, Engels and their sup-porters came up against the opportunist leaders of the British labour movement who at that time were moving closer to Gladstone and the leaders of the liberal bourgeoisie. They were forced to deal with political attacks on the Irish liberation movement which have recurred ever since. These included those of the ‘English would-be liberators’ who thought Fenianism ‘not altogether wrong’ but wanted the Irish movement to use the ‘legal means of meetings and demonstrations’ by which the English movement conducted its struggles. Supporters of Marx and Engels argued that the Irish had every right to use force since force was used to deny them their freedom.

A bitter debate took place in the Reform League – a movement for Suffrage reform which had six members of the General Council on its standing committee – over a letter written by its President, Beales, which, while approving the objections of the Fenians, had condemned their tactics. He was attacked by members of the League’s Council, and most strongly by its members who also sat on the General Council of the International – Lucraft, Odger and Weston who defended the use of force by the Fenians. A widespread attack by the press on the Reform League followed and, in particular, on Lucraft and Odger who were prominent trade union leaders, for encouraging Fenian assassins. Pressure was put on them to withdraw their statement by the bourgeois radical leaders of the Reform League. And at the next meeting of the League's Council they went back on their position, claiming that they had been misunderstood.

Nevertheless there was great support among the working class for the Fenians as Engels stated in a letter with much approval:  ‘. . . the London proletarians declare every day more and more openly for the Fenians and hence – an unheard-of and splendid thing here – for, first, a violent and, secondly, an anti-English movement’.

In spite of the widespread campaign, three of the Fenian prisoners were brutally executed.

The next major campaign on the issue of Irish prisoners occurred towards the end of 1869. The International helped organise a mass demonstration in London, estimated at nearly 100,000 people, in support of the demand for amnesty for Irish political prisoners. When Marx, in supporting this call, accused Gladstone ‘of deliberately insulting the Irish Nation’ and attacked the conduct of his government, this attack was clearly too much for some of the English members of the General Council. Odger objected to demands for ‘unconditional release’ of the prisoners and argued that while he himself was for their release, ‘it is impolitic to proceed in that way, it prejudices the case’. He also defended Gladstone. Marx's reply is a political guideline for today: ‘It is more important to make a concession to the Irish people than to Gladstone’. Finally Marx and Engels faced defenders of British rule over Ireland who argued that Ireland could not be independent because it would under-mine the security of Britain.

Three English trade unions left the International because of its principled position on the Fenians. While this certainly shows the political bankruptcy of these unions, the debates also show the important effect which Marx and Engels’ revolutionary stand in support of the Irish had in combating the political influence of the opportunist leaders of the British labour movement.


There is still one more important dispute which took place in the International on the Irish question. At the Council meeting of 14 May 1872, John Hales, an English trade unionist and secretary of the General Council, opposed the formation of Irish nationalist branches of the International in England. He argued that such branches went against the ‘fundamental principle of the Association’ which was ‘to destroy all semblance of nationalist doctrine’. Further the formation of Irish branches in England ‘could only keep alive that national antagonism which . . . existed between the people of the two countries’.

Engels’ reply to Hales is of great importance. His essential argument was that in the case of the Irish, true internationalism must necessarily be based on a distinct national organisation which had as its first and most pressing duty the national independence of Ireland. He argued that it was an insult to Irish working men to ask them to submit to a British Federal Council. The Hales notion was put and lost with only one voting in favour. Engels’ intervention had prevented the International undermining its own cause among Irish workers.

Engels’ intervention was to be clearly vindicated in November 1872 when the Irish members of the International in London organised a massive demonstration in Hyde Park to demand a general amnesty for Irish prisoners. All London’s democratic organisations were contacted and a committee which included three General Council members (an Irishman, Englishman and German) was set up. Two days written notice had to be given of such meetings indicating the names of speakers. The Irish refused and the committee agreed.

The massive 35,000 strong demonstration went ahead as arranged, the first Irish demonstration to be held in Hyde Park. It was also the first time the English and Irish sections of the International had united in solidarity. That this could happen was due to the principled support of the Irish people’s struggle for freedom in the First International and particularly due to the influence and stand taken by its communist leadership, Marx and Engels.