Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ulster: the origins of sectarianism (2000)

Book Review from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ulster's Third Way by Brian McClinton, Ulster Humanist Association. 76 pages.

The title of this booklet is something of a misnomer. It does not really propose an alternative political or economic scheme for Northern Ireland. What it does do is outline the religious conflict that was, and is, interwoven into the politics of Ireland and which has played a vital role in confusing the working class. Unfortunately, the author gives religion an independent role in the Irish conflict whereas it was a weapon, albeit a powerful one, used by contending economic interests in fashioning the politics of the country.

Protestantism, in its most virulent form, as McClintock shows, came to Ireland in the shape of the Plantation of Ulster in 1603. But the Gaelic tribes that resisted the Planters did not do so because of their opposition to Protestantism. Had the Planters been Catholics, or even Humanists, intent on dispossessing those already there, the latter would still have resisted and the ensuing violence would have become a marker in Irish history.

The belief is common in Ireland, where it was ruthlessly promoted by the Protestant Ascendancy, that the Church of Rome strongly favoured Irish political independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inevitably some local clergy, reflecting their upbringing and the sympathies of their local communities, were Nationalist or Republican in outlook but the Irish Hierarchy remained consistent in its opposition to Irish independence through the ages. Rome's aspiration was to use Ireland as a springboard for the re-conversion of England, where, despite sometimes ferocious persecution, the Catholic Church retained many influential allies.

According to McClintock, Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen succeeded in persuading a group of Protestant and Catholic Irishmen to abandon their religious affiliations in the 1790s in pursuit of a common interest and that is the way forward. That is a half-truth that has sustained much Republican fiction. True, some northern Presbyterians and some southern Catholic peasants were united in an organisation whose purpose was to overthrow English power in Ireland. But the interest of the northern Protestants and the southern Catholics were certainly not identical. In the North the Protestants were farmers who enjoyed a modicum of prosperity as a result of the benefits of what was known as Ulster Custom. These, in turn, were led by a Presbyterian petite bourgeoisie, largely inspired by the French Revolution and the writings of Tom Paine. This revolutionary zeal was inspired by what they perceived to be adverse trade sanctions operated by London and, it is no accident that in later years, when their grievances were put right, the political heirs of these Presbyterians became the bitterest opponents of Irish Home Rule.

Conversely, in the south, the Catholic peasantry were motivated by their wretched conditions as tenants-at-will and, while the rebellion in the North was directed against the English military establishment, the Rising in the south was primary aimed against landlords, and their land stewards, who were invariably Protestants.

The working class and small farmers, who constituted the voting and cannon fodder at the turn of the last century and who are still burdened by the slogans of bigotry which disguise the true nature of the Irish conflict, did not mysteriously arrive at a sectarian consensus. This was the work of political opinion-formers, politicians, the business community and, of course, church leaders acting in a political capacity. Where the churches are indictable is in their willingness to be used by the profane business and political interests whose ultimate power resided in the numbers they could enlist into their battalions.

As a Humanist McClintock does a good job in helping to clear away the ignorance and superstition on which religion is based, but because in Ireland he finds more justification for his case in the story of what happened, he wholly neglects the more important question of why it happened. Thus he disregards the conflicting economic imperatives of the fledgling southern capitalists and those northern capitalists who had got fat on the benefits of the British connection imperatives, which lay behind an apparently religious conflict.
Richard Montague

The Passing Show: Fifth Column (1960)

The Passing Show column from the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a letter to The Times Maurice Macmillan, the Conservative M.P. and Chairman of the Wider Share Ownership Committee, wrote as follows (18/12/59):
Your leading article on wider shareholding on December 14th draws attention to the Acton Society Trust’s conclusion that this is a socially desirable goal, and that among employees there is very little opposition on political grounds to the idea of owning shares.
Mr. Macmillan’s Committee is, he says, examining “the problems involved,” including the “means of overcoming the feeling that share buying is for the rich.” Many workers will hope that the Committee will also study another of the “problems involved”: where the money is going to come from. Mr. Macmillan only describes as a “feeling” the belief that share buying is for the rich. His committee—which includes “joint stock and merchant bankers, stockbrokers, unit trust and investment directors, well known industrialists.” and so on, could soon overcome this feeling by distributing enough money to the workers for them to buy shares with. Judging from the description of the committee-members, they could well afford a few thousands for this praiseworthy cause. They would find workers ready enough to keep some of the surplus value for themselves, instead of seeing it taken away for distribution among the non-workers. But supposing, Mr. Macmillan, that the workers got too enthusiastic about keeping surplus value for themselves Supposing they decided that since they produce all this surplus value, they would keep it all for themselves, and not let any of it be stolen from them for the support of idlers. Supposing, in a word, that they introduced Socialism. What then? How soon your committee-members would disband, about face, and form a “Narrower Share Holding Committee”! Perhaps you had better think again before encouraging workers to keep some of the surplus value for themselves.

Fifth Column

But let us examine the deeper implications of Mr. Macmillian's proposals. Of course, the stockbrokers and unit trust directors on the committee would like more people to buy shares, since that would mean more business for them. And. of course, all the committee members would like some workers to own a handful of shares, since then they would be tempted to oppose strikes and other forms of workers’ self-defence, to safeguard the extra pound or two they would get as dividends. It would be planting a ruling class fifth column among the workers. One doesn’t have to say who would gain most from this, the worker with his ten shares or the employer with his thousand.

But, however much the committee would like this to happen, on any significant scale it just isn’t practicable. Capitalism can only exist on the backs of a propertyless working class. Wherever capitalism, either private or state, has appeared, one of the essential pre-requisites has been the divorce of the mass of people from any ownership of the means of production—the peasant has been robbed of his land, the handworker forced from his tools. If the individual was left as a small producer, he could not be compelled to take on the stultifying, monotonous, deadening jobs which he must do to keep capitalism going, and the ruling class rich.

The same applies now. If any significant numbers of workers were to own shares sufficient to support them without working, there wouldn’t be enough people left to do the work which must be done to keep capitalism alive. Mr. Macmillan needn’t worry about this happening, however. For all employers are continually trying to keep down their workers’ wages. As soon as numbers of workers began to own shares, this would weaken their will to resist the lowering of wages (either by direct cuts or by inflation); and as wages fell, so even those workers owning shares would have to sell them to make ends meet.

To sum up, one might say that Mr. Macmillan and his committee are pursuing by impracticable means an impossible end, and one which would horrify them if they ever did attain it.


In the public wrangle among Labour Party leaders, which has followed their third successive defeat at the polls, Douglas Jay, Labour M.P. for Battersea North, came out with the following (Daily Herald, 27/11/59):—
The other frankly Marxist cobweb is the belief that Socialism consists in turning the whole of industry and trade into a State monopoly.
This belief is certainly a cobweb. We have had more than enough demonstrations of the fact that state ownership of industry is merely state capitalism: the workers in state industry are still just as much exploited as those in private industry, the only difference being that the interests of the capitalist class as a whole are allowed rather more influence in its running, as against the interests of the private shareholders in that particular industry. It is an alteration made by the capitalist class for their own benefit, and has no more to do with Socialism than the manoeuvrings on the Stock Exchange.

So far we agree with Douglas Jay. But what on earth made Mr. Jay describe this operation as “Marxist”? Marx and Engels believed in a new society, where each would contribute according to his ability, and would receive according to his needs: this involving, of course, the end of our present wage-slavery, which is an integral feature of state as of private capitalism. If Mr. Jay has come across any evidence to the contrary, he should really let the rest of us into the secret.
Alwyn Edgar

The Passing Show: Churchill at Omdurman (1960)

The Passing Show column from the January 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

Churchill at Omdurman

In his book My Early Life (quoted in The Observer, 6/12/59) Sir Winston Churchill talks of his part in the Battle of Omdurman. Just before the battle he was on patrol:
Talk of Fun! Where will you beat this! On horseback, at daybreak, within shot of an advancing army, seeing everything. and corresponding direct with headquarters.
Yes, it must have been exciting. Too exciting, perhaps, for some tastes. After taking part in the battle itself Churchill records what he saw:
But now from the direction of the enemy there came a succession of grisly apparitions: horses spouting blood, struggling on three legs, men staggering on foot, men bleeding from terrible wounds, fish-hook spears stuck right through them, arms and faces cut to pieces, bowels protruding, men gasping, crying, collapsing, expiring . . . In all out of 310 officers and men the regiment had lost in the space of about two or three minutes, five officers and sixty-five men killed and wounded, and 120 horses-- nearly a quarter of its strength.
But the men killed and maimed had not been sacrificed for nothing. The battle at Omdurman was a triumph for the British ruling class over the native Sudanese leaders, and meant that henceforth the British workers and the Sudanese peasants would labour for the same masters. It was not surprising that British Capitalism hailed this waste of life as a glorious victory.

The Bishops

In these decadent days bishops are always complaining about their half-empty churches, and it must be disappointing to them to find that their brand of aspirin is not selling so well as it once did. They can be forgiven, then, if like other firms they try a little self-advertisement now and again. Their managing director, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had this to say the other day (The Guardian, 20/11/59):
(The bishops) have no other means of directing or steering the clergy or laity except by their own quiet, loving pastoral discretion, and 1 believe that if there arc people who stand out far and away for their grace and wisdom, it is the bishops of the Church of England.
Since Dr. Fisher is the head bishop, he should know.


Mr. D. L. Blunt, the Kenya Minister for Game and Fisheries, has warned the Kenya Legislative Council of the serious effects of the “large-scale poaching” of Kenya's wild animals (The Times, 9/12/59). He said that poaching had become “systematically organised and a commercial money-making racket.” No one would wish to see the wild life of Kenya slaughtered to extermination, but two comments may be made. Firstly, when the Kariba Dam was built by the white settlers in the Rhodesias, to provide the power needed for the development of Rhodesian Capitalism, they were not deterred by the thought of all the wild animals that would be drowned as the waters rose. And secondly, can the Kenya whites complain about the poaching of wild animals when they themselves have poached an entire country?

All-Powerful, All-Good?

According to the Italian commission of inquiry, “the 31 people—26 passengers and five crew—killed when a British European Airways Viscount crashed near Anzio in October last year after a collision in daylight with an Italian jet fighter, died because of ‘‘an act of God'" (The Guardian, 25/11 /59). The commission also found that a “further cause” of the disaster was that the Viscount had gone off its course, and was flying in an area reserved by the Italian Government for military activity.

Ruling classes have found since the beginning of civilisation that the idea of a God was very useful to them—no doubt one of the main reasons why the idea has survived, instead of vanishing along with the other frightened imaginings of primitive man. They still find it useful. The real cause of this disaster appears to be that the Viscount flew into an area reserved for war preparations: those killed in it were among the first casualties of the next war. But the Italian authorities could not be expected to admit that. It isn't the first time a ruling class has sheltered behind a God

Sweet Music

The latest move to “improve” factories is like reforms: ostensibly it is for the workers’ benefit, but really the advantage goes to the Capitalist class, or that section of the Capitalist class which introduces it. This new development is the continuous playing of background music, piped into the factory or office by any of half-a-dozen companies in this field. The aim is simply to increase production and therefore profits. As The Guardian says 110/12/59): “The pace must be stepped up at the times when workers flag.” No doubt our reformers, those staunch allies of “progressive" Capitalism, will lash themselves into a fever of enthusiasm in support of this step forward as well. Socialists will prefer to work for a system in which those who want to listen to music will be able to, and those who don’t want to listen won’t have to.
Alwyn Edgar