“Brushing aside the fallacies of Adam Smith and his tribe, List points out that between the individual and humanity stands, and must continue to stand, a great fact – the nation.” – Arthur Griffith, ‘The Resurrection of Hungary’

International Ideology and Irish Nationalism in the Early 20th Century

Several internationally significant ideological traditions were intertwined with the Irish revolutionary struggle in the early twentieth century; most notably, Marxism. This is not to say that the majority of Irish Nationalists during this period were Marxists. Rather, Marxism was the most prominent of the intellectual traditions which held international significance. The lockouts of 1913, the Limerick Soviet in 1919, and the role that the ‘Irish Citizen Army’ played during 1916 attest to its influence. 

A tradition distinct from Connolly’s Marxism was affirmed by Pádraig Pearse. Although more of a poet than a theorist, Pearse’s thought mirrored a significant anti-rationalist trend that was prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries in continental Europe. Pearse’s blood-infused-mythic weltanschauung was most clearly articulated when he stated: “Blood is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood… there are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them!”.

His emphasis on blood sacrifice echoes the work of George Sorel, the French syndicalist who contended that violence was a regenerative force in human history. For Sorel, once the spectre of violence is abrogated the reign of money and deceit triumphs. Against traditional Marxism’s dogmatic contention that the material base was the main causal factor in human society, Sorel affirmed the power of myth to inspire human action. 

Yukio Mishima also belongs to this tradition. Mishima committed suicide on November 25, 1970, in an act of self-sacrificial martyrdom. His suicide was intended to serve as a mythical anchoring point from which the Japanese could draw strength and vigour; engendering a re-orientation of post-War Japanese society away from the yoke of American hegemony and effeminising pacificism, and toward renewed Imperial aspirations. Like Mishima, Pearse viewed the Rising as the mythic event which would spur on Irish independence, and more importantly, the return of Irish honour. 

Griffith’s Relevance 

While Pearse and Connolly are the most notable representatives in the Irish revolutionary context of wider trans-national traditions, there is a third tradition which, despite its significance, is afforded far less attention than the Marxism of Connolly and the Mythic Vitalism of Pearse. I refer to the National System of Political Economy developed by Friedrich List.

The National System was pioneered in Ireland by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin. In the years succeeding his death, Griffith’s fame has been dwarfed by his contemporaries. However, his status during this time was significant. Seán T O’Kelly once said, “Griffith’s political philosophy, so eloquently taught, and his long years of toil and sacrifice, brought the present generation of Irishmen from their knees to their feet and rekindled in their hearts the almost extinct flame of liberty”. 

In 1915, the ‘Spark’ newspaper conducted a poll which asked: “Who is the Irish nationalist whom Dublin wishes most to honour?”. Arthur Griffith topped the poll, ranking higher than Eoin MacNeil, the leader of the ‘Irish Volunteers’. The editor said of the outcome: “The name Arthur Griffith has been chosen by a majority of readers of the Spark .  What Ireland owes to Griffith, to his patriotism, to his self-sacrifice and to his ability and earnestness will one day be told. The man’s modesty prevents it being known to his contemporaries”. 

Griffith and Rightist Ideology.

Griffith’s astuteness ranged multiple disciplines, from economics to politics. His preface to John Mitchell’s ‘Jail Journal’ established his Rightist credentials. He explicitly declares that Irish Independence is not contingent upon 18th century notions of the ‘rights of man’, equal rights for all peoples, or any other spurious universalist abstraction. The founder of Sinn Féin would not have agreed with Mary Lou MacDonald’s support for an Ireland which is “no longer defined solely by orange and green”. 

Paul Gallagher, the co-editor of the ‘Executive Intelligence Review’, succinctly sums up Griffith’s ultimate political aim: “Arthur Griffith based Sinn Fein’s political organizing on the idea that ‘the objective of all national effort must be the restoration of Ireland to the status of a sovereign state.’”. For Griffith, List and his theory was integral to achieving this goal. 

Economic heterodoxy is a notable aspect of the early twentieth century. Tired of the lethargy inducing left-right dichotomy, this period was marked by new synthesises and theoretical developments; Major C.H Douglas’ ‘Social Credit’ economics being the most prominent. Griffith paid keen attention to such developments. Ezra Pound – America’s greatest poet, man of the Right, and banking reform advocate – noted that Griffith took an interest in Douglas’ anti-usurious banking reform theory: “the Sinn Feiners… put a man on to studying the New Economics”. 

Griffith’s significance may have waned after his death, but his right-wing political views echoed for generations after he passed. As late as the 1940s, Sinn Féin was hostile to Liberal Parliamentary Democracy. During his first presidential Ard Fheis speech in the early 1960s, Tomás Mac Giolla explicitly denounced Communism, which he called a “menace”, stating that it should be fought against by Republicans. 

He was not blind to the danger of post-war Americanisation either: “the spirit in the Irish people is being slowly asphyxiated by American and British materialism and it is now to be finally extinguished in the new materialist Europe on the specious plea that we are aiding in the fight against Communism”. 

Notably, Sinn Féin drew inspiration from Pope Leo XIII’s Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in the 1940s. Written during the 19th century – a period of industrialisation, proletarianisation, ascendant Capitalism, and Socialist agitation – the aim of the encyclical was to go beyond the false Capitalist-Communist dichotomy, toward a new economy built on Catholic Social Justice, duty, and ethical principles. The state was to be organic, with each component part contributing in its own fashion toward the common good. Capitalism’s rabid individualism and Socialism’s advocacy of class war were to be rejected since they engendered disequilibrium within the national body.

The encyclical was highly influential on Salazar’s Portugal and Peron’s Argentina. Considering Griffith’s views, it would not be surprising if the encyclical exercised an influence upon him. During the height of the 1913 ‘Lockout’, Griffith wrote: “I deny that Capital and Labour are in their nature antagonistic – I assert that they are essential and complementary to each other. The incentive and right of both is the profit of production, and the security of one and the efficiency of the other are essential to national prosperity… It is the duty of the organized nation to protect Labour, and to secure for it the profits of production, not a mere competitive wage… The free nation I desire to see rise again on the soil of Ireland is no offspring of despair – no neo-feudalism with Marx and Lassalle and Proudhon its prophets.”

The National System and its enemies

Griffith’s primary influence was Friedrich List, the German anti-free trade economist who wrote ‘The National System of Political Economy’ in 1841. List and his theories are anathema to both Laissez-Faire Capitalists and the International Marxists. 

His emphasis on protectionism and state intervention was diametrically opposed to Adam Smith’s liberal attitude toward free trade. Jack Russell Weinstein sums up Smith’s view on the matter: “Free trade, Smith argues, rather than diminishing the wealth of the nation, increases it because it provides more occasion for labour and therefore more occasion to create more wealth.”. List countered this attitude, arguing that the adoption of the theory of free trade would lead all developing nations into the national condition of pauperism.

Karl Marx contemptuously remarked that List was ‘irrelevant’. Marx believed that Capitalism was moving in a globalised direction and hence any restriction of capital along national or intermediate lines was contrary to the movement of history; to him List was a reactionary, impotently resisting the immutable course of history.

In his work ‘On the Question of Free Trade’ (1848), Marx wrote: “But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade.” This quote not only highlights Marx’s support for free trade, but more importantly, it shows that he was willing to sacrifice the welfare of workers to the altar of his revolutionary ideology. 

Ironically – as both Roman Szporluk and A. James Gregor point out – List’s developmentalist Nationalism was far more relevant to the material conditions of twentieth century developing nations than Marx’s theories. Italy, China, and Russia provide case studies for the victory of List over Marx in countries which had not achieved industrialisation – whether by the adoption of Listian policies under the veil of ostensible Marxism (Deng Xiaoping in China and Vladimir Lenin in Russia), or through the physical and intellectual victory of the Listians over the Marxists (Italy). 

The aforementioned nations were either in a nascent stage of industrialisation or stuck in an agrarian mode of production. Marxism was a critique and analysis of capitalism, which had reached its hitherto zenith in England during Marx’s life. Its prescriptive elements were “designed for application in industrial mature economies”, and hence were totally unsuitable in the conditions of developing nations which had not sufficiently industrialised.

In contrast, List’s theory was relevant to nations which had either not yet industrialised or, if it had, was in a state of industrial infancy; it posited that such a nation must adopt protective measures to cultivate domestic industry prior to adopting free trade. 

In ‘Communism and Nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List’, Roman Szporluk outlines Marx and List’s relationship with twentieth century revolutionary struggle: “Contrary to much of the folk wisdom of contemporary social science, it is the latter doctrine [List’s], rather than the former [Marx’s], that has really inspired revolution in the twentieth century”. 

The History of the National System. 

Griffith’s ‘Resurrection of Hungary’ is awash with praise for List; it declares List to be the greatest enemy of England since Napoleon, credits him as the real founder of the German nation (though the creation of the German customs union, the Zollverein), and agrees with Louis Kossuth’s contention that List is the “Economic Teacher of the Nations”.

Despite his admiration, Griffith perceptively recognised that Friedrich List was not an original thinker. In 1822, List was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment by the Württemberg government for advocating reform. After serving his sentence and travelling around Europe, he migrated to America in 1825. Although Initially a Free-Trader, List converted to the national system after arriving in America. 

Griffith mentions the American theorists who were important influences upon List’s thought: “On his release he retired to America. Here he fell under the influence of the two Irishmen, Carey, whose ideas, incorporating with his own, formed the foundation of his doctrine of National Economy, on which modern Germany is built. Carey the elder was an Irishman forced to flee his country by Mr. Pitt. Settling in America, he married, and his famous son, Henry Carey, elaborated the doctrine of Protection which the United States adopted in opposition to the doctrine of Smith. Henry Carey is the author of the United States as England’s commercial rival. List, his colleague, is the author of Germany as England’s competitor in sea power”

In mentioning List’s theoretical roots in Irish-American authors, Griffith far surpasses neo-classical economists who have a tendency to omit America’s history as the eminent protectionist nation in the 19th and first half of the 20th century – certainly an uncomfortable truth for proponents of the free trade system. 

Henry Charles Carey was Lincoln’s main economic advisor. Like List he had started his career as a vocal supporter of free trade, opting for the protectionist model when he got older. In his ‘The Way to Outdo England Without Fighting Her’, Carey advocated for the continuity of Lincoln’s debt-free, state issued ‘Greenback’ currency in order to free America’s economy from British Oligarchs. As Lincoln’s economic advisor, he was influential in ensuring the maintenance of high tariffs. 

However, Griffith’s claim that Carey is the progenitor of America as “England’s commercial rival” unintentionally eschews earlier American proponents of the national system. The American statesman Henry Clay predates Henry Carey in his support for it. Clay was integral in passing the Tariff of 1816, the purpose of which was to protect America’s industry from foreign competition. 

From 1816 to the end of World War Two, American tariff rates never dipped below 25% and averaged around 40%. Despite the claims of Free Traders that protectionism is the policy of parochial nations destined for pauperism, the contemporary developmentalist economist Ha-Joon Chang points out that “throughout the nineteenth century and up to the 1920s, the USA was the fastest growing economy in the world, despite being the most protectionist during almost all of this period”.

Kicking Away the Ladder

A core concept elucidated by every major representative of the National system – from Hamilton to List to Chang – is the notion of ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’. From the 19th to the 21st century, industrially developed nations have advocated universal free trade policies, arguing that protectionism hinders the advancement of developing nations.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, almost every developed nation on the planet built their economy using protective tariffs and other interventionist policies, so why shouldn’t developing nations do the same? Secondly, the industry of developing nations hasn’t progressed to the degree that is necessary to be able to compete with the already extant industries found in more advanced economies. 

Hence, when theorists of the National System use the term ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’, they refer to the consistent policy of all developed nations to obscure and omit the means by which they achieved economic efficacy. It is in their national interest to do so, since the progression of developing nations increases competition for already developed nations. 

Arthur Griffith, with his typical perceptiveness, noticed this phenomenon of ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’ being practiced by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries. Speaking candidly, Griffith says that the free-trader Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ “was, is, and will remain the best example of a subtle scheme for English world-conquest put forward under the guise of an essay on political economy flavoured with that love of man which, hooks in the sentimentalists of all countries”. 

Griffith points out the blatant Machiavellian hypocrisy that underlay British trade policy prior to the advent of the corn laws: “In 1824, when modern English history starts, the policy of England was to ensure that the foreigner bought from England and to prevent England buying from the foreigner. The doctrines of Adam Smith were sedulously promoted on the Continent by England while she kept her own ports closed”. In other words, protectionism for me but not for thee. 

Griffith’s contention that Adam Smith’s theories were weaponised against the continent by the British government is – as Ha-Joon Chang notes – backed up by many historians who note that Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 were a form of “free trade imperialism” against the continent once Britain was sufficiently industrialised. Ha Joon Chang states that the repealing of the corn laws occurred to “halt the move to industrialisation on the continent by enlarging the market for agricultural produce and primary materials.”. 

Paul Gallagher alludes to the weaponization of intellectuals in the service of British trade policy: “Griffith directly attacked William Pitt the Younger and Lord Castlereagh, pet ministers of that Lord Shelburne who deployed Hume, Smith, Malthus, Bentham, Gibbon et al. against the American Revolution and its influence [the American System]”.

From the reign of Edward III in the 14th century, during which he “banned the import of woollen cloth”, to the weaponisation of leading intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries in the service of geopolitical trade machinations, England has pursued trade policies which unilaterally benefited it at the expense of competitor nations and its own colonies. 

In keeping with this tradition, Britain passed the ‘Wool Act’ in 1699. Fearing competition from its colonies, this act prohibited woollen exports from them to Britain. Ireland’s wool was superior to that of Britain and was out-competing it. Ha-Joon Chang notes that this policy “essentially destroyed the Irish woollen industry”. The Indian cotton industry was weakened in the same year through a similar process, and finally destroyed in 1813 – by 1873 “40%-45% of all British cotton textile exports went to India”. The adduced examples show that like the United States, Britain was not built upon laissez-fair free trade. 

It is unsurprising that Britain acted in a similar way toward the America – Chang notes that “Britain did not want to industrialise the Colonies”. Alexander Hamilton was convinced that only though unilaterally beneficial protective tariffs could America ever hope to build up its industry to a point where it could compete with Britain fairly. This revelation on Hamilton’s part was the birth of the infant industry argument, and more importantly, the American system on December 5th, 1791 when Hamilton published his ‘Report on Manufactures’ which advocated protection for less developed industries. 


List’s influence extends over the whole of Griffith’s thought. The struggle between nations is central to the National system. Hence ideologies like dogmatic free trade, atomistic Liberalism, and the class war of Marxism are inimical to the health of the national body, which is necessary for reasons relating to internal equilibrium and, more importantly, so that the nation can present a united front vis-à-vis competing nations. High wages, social justice, duty, and an ethical economy are the solution. So is protectionism, depending on the context; no representative of the National System ever dogmatically asserted the superiority of protectionism in every circumstance.

Arthur Griffith once stated that he wished List’s ‘National System of Political Economy’ to be in the hands of every Irishman, I hope this article has contributed toward the fulfilment of that dream.

Posted by Ulick Fitzhugh


  1. An illuminating article. Well done.


  2. Councillor Cathal Boland 16/08/2020 at 4:43 pm

    Excellent, I have just returned from laying a wreath on the grave of Arthur Griffith, a great man. He is remembered on the third Sunday of August every year, when along with his friend Michael Collins.
    Arthur was exceptional, and considering his background and limited formal education remarkable. His vision and courage in presenting and defending his ideas set him apart from many others who at best, parroted what others thought.
    He still has relevance today, and I am sure that his thinking would have evolved and adapted to the changes about him but that he’d have provided his own perspective and offered alternative solutions.
    When at his graveside, my companions asked what the broken pillar? They thought someone had been destructive and impressed to find it represents his short life and that he was taken before completing his work.


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