“Marx demanded the separation of Ireland from Britain “although after the separation there may come federation,” demanding it, not from the standpoint of the petty-bourgeois Utopia of a peaceful capitalism, or from considerations of “justice for Ireland,” but from the standpoint of the interests of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat of the oppressor, i.e., British nation against capitalism.” – Vladimir Lenin, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 1915.
This is the theory of anti-imperialism which has dominated Irish nationalist thought for the past half-century.
It is on this fundamental principle which contemporary Irish republicanism rests its raison d’être, its very proclamation to the world for national self-determination and for separate existence.
What Marx bitterly remarked of the Fenians of his day, that they were too insistent that the Irish national struggle would be “something quite separate, apart from the rest of the world” could not be said of the Fenians of a century later.
The necessity to extract military and political aid has long dictated that Irish nationalists seek alliances with stronger powers, in the Ireland of the past, this manifested itself in alliances with the great powers of the Continent in France, Spain and Germany, and it was this necessity in part that drove Irish nationalists into the arms of the fledgling anti-imperialist, internationalist movement that emerged from the counter-cultural revolution of the late 1960s.
There were, however, also clear ideological shifts at play; quite famously in the notorious and oft quoted gesture of Bernadette Devlin, who, whilst visiting the United States in the 70s, gave away the honour of the keys to New York to the Black Panthers, spurning the largely conservative Irish American nationalist diaspora in the process, in spite of the fact that even from a strategic standpoint, the latter were readily prepared to give arms, whereas the former could only have given at most moral support.
The embrace of the ideological tenets of anti-imperialism led to a subtle yet critical difference in how Irish nationalism defined its key aims to the world. The social, economic, cultural and political aims of Irish nationalists were necessary not for their own merits, not based on the simple axiom of “justice for Ireland” that Marx contemptuously sneered at, but that these things were means to an end. It was that the cause of Irish freedom now required explanation to the world.
That it did not only require explanation but also gentrification and expansion. As was believed by Marx and Lenin, Ireland’s struggle was not for its own sake, but also for the sake of the English working-class, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the complete and total opposition large swathes of the English working-class had and have towards Irish republicanism.
That Ireland’s struggle was also now for the sake of all other “national liberation” movements, often putting the name of Ireland beside the name of countries with which Ireland had no history with, let alone any interest in.
But of “anti-imperialism”, surely one must admit that Ireland, in its struggle against Britain, must also oppose the structure of imperialism by which Britain asserts itself in Ireland? Indeed, Ireland in such a sense opposes British imperialism. But of imperialism in the abstract, Irish nationalists were historically apathetic, and often only saw imperialism as purely a British contraption, rather than the shared spoils of all the great powers of the world.
Stephen Howe has argued that “little explicitly anti-imperial thought or writing of a global or general kind is to be found in nineteenth or early-twentieth century Irish nationalism”. Niamh Lynch, who somewhat refutes Howe’s thesis on the basis that by such criteria, anti-imperialism would therefore not genuinely exist anywhere let alone Ireland, nonetheless wrote that the Irish nationalist perception of imperialism as a power structure up to the period of the early twentieth century originated mainly from the writings and thought of John Mitchel, a thinker who we know not to have been particularly leftist.
Mitchel, who wrote of liberalism and imperialism as simply “the English system”, indeed wrote of the oppression of the Indians, Maoris, Afghans, even surprisingly of the oppression of the native black population of South Africa, but his anti-imperialism, unlike that which saw Irish nationalism as an effective means to an end in the wider struggle against imperialism, rather saw the anti-imperial struggles in India, New Zealand and Afghanistan, as means to an end in the wider struggle against Britain and the freedom of Ireland from British rule.
This Mitchelite conception of anti-imperialism Pádraig Pearse hearkens back to most famously in 1914:
“Wherever England goes on her mission of empire we meet her and we strike at her; yesterday it was on the South African veldt, today it is in the Senate House at Washington, tomorrow it may be in the streets of Dublin. We pursue her like a sleuth-hound; we lie in wait for her and come upon her like a thief in the night; and some day we will overwhelm her with the wrath of God.”
Arthur Griffith, whilst still a journalist writing for The United Irishman in 1899, where in its columns the political faith of Sinn Féin was germinating, would accept imperialism “as a large and important school just and honest”, and that as a general policy was “merely an exchangeable term for the advance of civilisation” and “the embodiment of human progress carried out and polished by the attritions of nations.”
British imperialism in Ireland was indefensible to Griffith for the relations between England and Ireland were “incapable of being anything but unsound, hollow, and insecure”, yet Griffith readily admitted that such conditions did exist, for instance, in regard to the relations that existed between England and Canada.
“Imperialism as a broad policy may be defended; but the Imperialism which sets England on a throne of golden luxury while other nations are sweating with the task of propping it up, cannot surely commend itself to the great bulk of that loose and scattered organism called the British Empire.”
In a pre-emptive strike against those who will inevitably retort that Griffith was a Free Stater, it should be noted that this was written over two decades before the signing of the Treaty.
Lynch goes on then to define the Irish nationalist critique of imperialism borne from the writings of Young Ireland:
“In an era when romantic nationalism emphasized cultural specificity and the organic nation, imperialism appeared to demand an unnatural and destructive cosmopolitanism. Ireland, nationalists argued, did not benefit from Britain’s global empire, did not share Britain’s sanguinary thirst for wider dominion, and could not fulfil its own national destiny while bound to a system in which metropolitan exigencies would always take priority over national considerations. Imperialism, moreover, came to be seen as inextricably tied to political and economic liberalism…”
Of this rather conservative critique of imperialism constructed by Irish nationalists of the 1840s, can it not be found a direct and striking parallel to the anti-imperialism that Irish nationalism finds itself saddled with today? Does Irish nationalism benefit from internationalism’s quest for wider dominion? Does Irish nationalism benefit from a system that often ostensibly takes the priority of internationalist and socialist theory over national considerations? Can one seriously argue that the anti-imperialism of the modern age is not cosmopolitan and is not inextricably tied to political and economic liberalism?
Of Irish nationalism’s historic apathy towards the institution of imperialism, it can be noted that on three significant occasions in Irish history, a native Irish rebellion against British rule was financed by the military aid of imperial European powers, Spain in 1602, France in 1798 and Germany in 1916.
It was not that the Gaelic rebels of the sixteenth century, educated as many of them were in the Continent, were oblivious to the Spanish conquest of the Americas and of the informal existence of the caste system, or that the United Irishmen consigned to the fate of émigrés in Paris were unaware of the imperial designs and ambitions of Napoleon, or that Roger Casement, who wrote fiercely against Leopold’s imperialism in the Congo, had never consulted a map of Africa which showed that bordering Belgian Congo to its south was German Namibia.
Each of these generations were prepared to make deals with the Devils abroad to vanquish the Devil at home. They were prepared to contend with the geopolitical reality that imperialism, as a structure by which the nations of Europe had conquered the world, existed, and that Ireland, who could not free herself out of her own accord, needed to contend with the reality of great power politics, and to secure assistance where possible from those great powers who, whilst often imperialistic themselves, nonetheless found themselves in deadly opposition to England.
But this also asserts what for centuries was an established truth, that Ireland’s natural orbit is Europe. The British conquest, by denying Ireland the national rights of Europe, drove a wedge that separated Ireland from Europe, stunting its development and denying part of the essence of Irish identity and nationality – its rightful place in European civilisation.
But Irish nationalists of past generations continuously looked to Europe as the lodestar, as the standard bearer, for Irish nationalism recognised its place as being within the European civilisational order. The revolutionary republicanism of the United Irishmen was a product of the thought of Europe and of Europeans. The romantic nationalism of Young Ireland was to its core European, and Ireland’s Kossuth, Thomas Davis, placed Ireland as one of the lineal descendants of the Greco-Roman tradition, where “every great European race has sent its stream to the river of Irish mind.” The cultural nationalism of Douglas Hyde and the Gaelic League had as its unyielding mission to restore Ireland to being “one of the most original, artistic, literary, and charming peoples of Europe.”
What of this European part of ourselves does anti-imperialism acknowledge? That Ireland’s historical development of a nation makes it distinct from the majority of the European Continent dictates to them that Ireland must re-orient itself away from its European orbit and instead towards the orbit of some half-baked Third Worldism, something which is totally contrary to our racial characteristics as a people.
Irish nationalism cannot have any hope of organic development whilst it tethers itself to the worthless praxis of anti-imperialism, it must cut itself loose, and reorient itself back to its traditional bearings at the western frontier of the European continent, and fulfil its destiny as being worthy of its place within European civilisation.
Of imperialism, Ireland has little to praise, but as much can be praised of that theory which dictates that it is the duty of Ireland to fight for the working man of Manchester and the poor labourer of Rojava. Ireland knows no duties other than her duty to herself. Ireland’s justice is her own, to be affirmed and achieved without qualification or apology, so let Ireland’s justice be something quite separate, apart from the rest of the world.