Lenin on ‘The British Liberals and Ireland’

In the centenary year of the Irish Rebellion in 1916, Socialist Action continues its series on the topic. Below is a short article by Lenin, ‘The British Liberals and Ireland’, which first appeared in March 1914, that is before the outbreak of the First World War. It is reproduced in full from the invaluable Marxist Internet Archive and can be found here.

The article provides a Marxist insight into the background to the rebellion, in the preceding struggle for what was then the agitation for Home Rule. Most of Ireland was then an agricultural society, Lenin cites Marx in arguing both for an agrarian revolution and independence from Britain. With this perspective, both Lenin and Marx were strong supporters of the Fenians.

The tasks of the British workers’ movement and socialists were equally clear. They had to break free from the influence of the Liberals and support the complete abolition of the union with Britain. A break from ‘liberal-labour policy’ was necessary in British workers’ own self-interest, ‘because the British workers could not become free so long as they helped to keep another nation in slavery (or even allowed it)’.

In a key phrase, Lenin summed up the Marxist approach to the tasks of the working class in the emancipation of the whole of humanity from oppression and exploitation; the workers’ movement must place itself at ‘the head of nations and classes fighting for liberty’.

The British Liberals and Ireland

What is taking place today in the British Parliament in connection with the Bill on Irish Home Rule is of exceptional interest as far as class relationships and elucidation of the national and the agrarian problems are concerned.

For centuries England has enslaved Ireland, condemned the Irish peasants to unparalleled misery and gradual extinction from starvation, driven them off the land and compelled hundreds of thousands and even millions of them to leave their native country and emigrate to America. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ireland had a population of five and a half millions; today the population is only four and one-third millions. Ireland has become depopulated. Over five million Irish emigrated to America in the course of the nineteenth century, so that there are now more Irish in the United States than there are in Ireland!

The appalling destitution and sufferings of the Irish peasantry are an instructive example of the lengths to which the landowners and the liberal bourgeoisie of a “dominant” nation will go. Britain owes her “brilliant” economic development and the “prosperity” of her industry and commerce largely to her treatment of the Irish peasantry, which recalls the misdeeds of the Russian serf-owner Saltychikha.[1]

While Britain “flourished”, Ireland moved towards extinction and remained an undeveloped, semi-barbarous, purely agrarian country, a land of poverty-stricken tenant farmers. But much as the “enlightened and liberal” British bourgeoisie desired to perpetuate Ireland’s enslavement and poverty reform inevitably approached, the more so that the revolutionary eruptions of the Irish people’s fight for liberty and land became more and more ominous. The year 1861 saw the formation of the Irish revolutionary organisation of Fenians. Irish settlers in America gave it every assistance.

With the formation, in 1868, of the government of Gladstone—that hero of the liberal bourgeoisie and obtuse philistines—the era of reform in Ireland set in, an era which has dragged on very nicely till the present day, i.e., just under half a century. Oh, the wise statesmen of the liberal bourgeoisie are very well able to “make haste slowly” in the matter of reform!

Karl Marx, who had been living in London for over fifteen years, followed the struggle of the Irish with great interest and sympathy. He wrote to Frederick Engels on November 2, 1867: “I have done my best to bring about this demonstration of the English workers in favour of Fenianism…. I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. I now think it inevitable, although after the separation there may come federation….” Reverting to the same subject in a letter dated November 30th of the same year, Marx wrote: “The question now is, what shall we advise the English workers? In my opinion they must make the repeal of the Union [the abolition of the union with Ireland] (in short, the affair of 1783, only democratised and adapted to the conditions of the time) an article of their pronunziamento. This is the only legal and therefore only possible form of Irish emancipation which can be admitted in the programme of an English [workers’] party.”[2] And Marx went on to show that what the Irish needed was Home Rule and independence of Britain, an agrarian revolution and tariffs against Britain.

Such was the programme proposed to the British workers by Marx, in the interests of Irish freedom, of accelerating the social development and freedom of the British workers; because the British workers could not become free so long as they helped to keep another nation in slavery (or even allowed it).

Alas! Owing to a number of special historical causes, the British workers of the last third of the nineteenth century proved dependent upon the Liberals, impregnated with the spirit of liberal-labour policy. They proved to be, not at the head of nations and classes fighting for liberty, but in   the wake of the contemptible lackeys of the money-bags, the British Liberals.

And the Liberals have for half a century been dragging out Ireland’s liberation, which has not been completed to this day! It was not until the twentieth century that the Irish peasant began to turn from a tenant farmer into a free holder; but the Liberals have imposed upon him a system of land purchase at a “fair” price! He has paid, and will continue to pay for many years, millions upon millions to the British landlords as a reward for their having robbed him for centuries and reduced him to a state of chronic starvation. The British liberal bourgeois has made the Irish peasant thank the landlord for this in hard cash….

A Home Rule Bill for Ireland is now going through Parliament. But in Ireland there is the Northern province of Ulster, which is inhabited partly by English-born Protestants as distinct from the Catholic Irish. Well then, the British Conservatives, led by Carson, the British version of our Black-Hundred landlord Purishkevich, have raised a frightful outcry against Irish Home Rule. This, they say, means subjecting Ulstermen to an alien people of alien creed! Lord Carson has threatened rebellion, and has organised gangs of reactionary armed thugs for this purpose.

An empty threat, of course. There can be no question of a rebellion by a handful of hoodlums. Nor could there be any question of an Irish Parliament (whose powers are determined by British law) “oppressing” the Protestants.

It is simply a question of the reactionary landlords trying to scare the Liberals.

And the Liberals are losing their nerve, bowing to the reactionaries, making concessions to them, offering to conduct a referendum in Ulster and put off reform for Ulster for six years!

The haggling between the Liberals and the reactionaries continues. Reform can wait: the Irish have waited half a century; they can wait a little longer; you can’t very well “offend” the landlords!

Of course, if the Liberals appealed to the people of Britain, to the proletariat, Carson’s reactionary gangs would melt away immediately and disappear. The peaceful and full achievement of freedom by Ireland would be guaranteed.

But is it conceivable that the liberal bourgeois will turn to the proletariat for aid against the landlords? Why, the Liberals in Britain are also lackeys of the money-bags, capable only of cringing to the Carsons.


[1] Saltychikha (Saltykova, D. I.) (1730–1801)—a landowner, notorious for her brutal treatment of her serfs. She was responsible for the death of 139 peasants. The name Saltychikha became a synonym for bestial treatment of the peasants by the feudalist squirearchy.

[2] See Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1955, p. 236.