Neither Popes nor Potatoes: The Irish Question and the Marxist Answer

By Rodden, John | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Neither Popes nor Potatoes: The Irish Question and the Marxist Answer

Rodden, John, The Midwest Quarterly

    ... the solution of the Irish Question [is] the solution of the English,                          and the English [is] the solution of the European.                    --Karl Marx, Ireland and the Irish Question , 159  

The Irish question was one with no easy answer. But the more Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw and studied Ireland, the more they became convinced that this small, then-insignificant nation on the outskirts of Europe could become a vital force in their international socialist revolution toward a classless society. The more they examined the centuries of foreign oppression suffered by the Irish and witnessed their steadfast Gaelic character, the more Marx and Engels believed that they had "the solution": a proletarian revolution in Ireland reverberating to England and throughout Europe. In light of subsequent history Marx and Engels did not have the solution.

Still, it is undeniable both that Ireland occupied a central place in their mature thought and that the Marx family and Engels developed extraordinarily close personal relations with the Irish. Both of these matters have been largely overlooked in the voluminous secondary literature on the lives and political theorizing of the founders of Marxism. This essay contends that detailed attention to the crucial significance of Ireland for Marx and Engels warrants scrutiny.

Admittedly, Marx and Engels's rosy scenarios concerning the revolutionary potential of Irish proletarians for triggering a European-wide revolution proved illusory. Still, Marx and Engels's theoretical formulations about Ireland in the nineteenth century offer insight into an important, passing moment in Irish colonial history and into Marxist ideology and praxis during the First International period. Indeed, any thorough assessment of the origins and development of Marxian socialism should ultimately take into account that Marx and Engels took a great theoretical and personal interest in Ireland, publicly advocated Irish independence from Britain, advanced a conception of the Irish Question and the nature of imperialism that bridged the gap between the classical era of capitalism and the writings of Lenin on the imperialist age, and radically misunderstood the implications of the collapse of Chartism in 1848 and the course that both Irish and European history would follow in the next three decades.

One of the most difficult tasks for Irishmen and Englishmen has traditionally been to agree upon the precise meaning of the Irish Question. To Edmund Burke, it was more than a matter of religious oppression by the Protestant ascendancy: "It is not about Popes but about potatoes that the minds of this unhappy people are agitated. It is not from the spirit of zeal, but the spirit of whiskey that these wretches act" (Marx and Engels, 1).

Marx agreed that the Irish Question was "an issue about potatoes, not popes." Beginning in the 1840s Marx and Engels argued that the Irish Question was essentially a materialistic, economic question of "haves" versus "have-nots," rather than a religious issue. Both men studied Ireland's domestic and international position in history in light of its current economic and political conditions. Engels, in fact, visited Ireland frequently and wrote an account of his 1856 and 1869 travels. After the death of his Irish consort, Mary Burns (whom he married on her death bed in 1863), her sister Lydia (Lizzie) became his second wife. So much did the island consume Engels's attention that he planned to write a monumental work entitled The History of Ireland, for which he did compose a few preliminary chapters. Both Marx and Engels also discussed the Irish Question in the press, argued about it with delegates to the First International, and confided to each other and associates about it in private letters. (Their preoccupation with Irish affairs also invited other Marxist thinkers--especially Irishman James Connelly, but also even Lenin and Stalin--to devote attention to Ireland.

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Neither Popes nor Potatoes: The Irish Question and the Marxist Answer


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