We have received at this office a copy of a book entitled the life of Michael Davitt, Revolutionary, Agitator, and Labor Leader, by F. Sheehy Skeffington. The book is published in London by Fisher Unwin, and has already evoked a storm of criticism and protests from the various reviewers of Ireland and England, a fact that will not seem in the least extraordinary to those of our readers who will take the trouble to dip into the book itself, as we would strongly advise them to do. For our part we do not intend to place before our readers any mere formal review of the production of Mr. Sheehy Skeffington, but rather to utilise the incident to point the moral which may rightly be drawn from the facts of that stormy period of Irish history during which Michael Davitt was a central public figure. On one point of dissent from the author's appreciation of his hero's qualities will be found centered all the criticism which we would offer were we to devote space to a more extended review. The point is this:
In dealing with the incident of the Parnell Commission Mr. Skeffington says Davitt's conduct "revealed his possession in the highest degree of great intellectual acuteness, resourcefulness, and knowledge of men." Our own opinion of Davitt's character as revealed in his whole history is far other. We conceive of him as an unselfish idealist, who in his enthusiasm for a cause gave his name and his services freely at the beck and call of men who despised his ideals and would willingly, but for their need of him, have hung himself as high as Haman. He abhorred clerical dictation in politics, yet when the psychological moment arrived to give it a death blow, when it was grappling to destroy the one leader who with himself could rally all the democracy of Ireland - Parnell, Davitt, instead of taking full advantage of the event which threw Parnell into the democratic ranks and uniting with him against clerical interference in politics, foolishly threw away his opportunity, misjudged the whole situation, and fought with all his force and aggressiveness to establish the priesthood in full control of secular affairs in Ireland.
He fought and campaigned for the Labor Cause in England, yet for the sake of harmony in the ranks he also supported and campaigned for a party - the Home Rule party - whose leaders were the bitterest enemies of the newly enfranchised workers of the Irish cities.
Again and again have the industrial proletariat of Ireland closed in grapples with the representatives of Irish capitalism, but never was the voice of Davitt raised in such a fight on behalf of labor. We are convinced that he was quite as sympathetic to the cause of Labor in Ireland as in England, but he had surrendered himself into the control of men who were quite willing to play upon Labor sentiments in England where such Sentiments might be made a menace to British aristocracy, but were determined to scotch and oppose such sentiments in Ireland where they might become a menace to themselves. Thus in his later days Davitt became the idol of the revolutionary English democracy, and disliked and distrusted by the revolutionary working class democracy of Ireland. A poor ending for such a career, and solely due to the fact that he did not possess that knowledge of men of which his biographer gives him credit. Honest himself he believed implicitly in the honesty of others, and became the tool of political crooks and social reactionaries.
But it is as the Father of the Land League that Davitt will live in history, and not in the light of the failure of his later career; and it is with that phase of his activity we wish to deal today. We believe profoundly that a close study of the events of that time would immensely benefit the militant Socialists of all countries.
It would help to demonstrate how the union of the forces of social discontent with the forces of political agitation converted the latter from a mere sterile parliamentarianism, impotent for good, into a virile force transforming the whole social system, and bringing a political revolution within the grasp of the agitators. It would show how a political majority so strong that it left the socially privileged class absolutely without the political support of the socially subject class yet left untouched the real causes of the social misery of the latter. It would illustrate how a subject nation, kept by the bayonets of foreign army beneath the heel of native tyranny, by transferring the fight from the political battle ground of words to the social and economic battle ground of acts, succeeded in almost conquering its freedom, and in quite humbling the pride of a long dominant class, and by thus demonstrating what could be done and was done by a subject nation warring on the economic field against native and foreign tyrants combined, it would also demonstrate what could be done by the working class of any independent nation should it resolve to make its political activity one instrument and expression of its economic struggles, and its economic struggles in factory, workshop and mine the generating force of its political passions and programs.
As we have again and again pointed out the Irish question is a social question, the whole agelong fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland. Who would own and control the land? The people or the invaders; and if the invaders which set of them, the most recent swarm of land thieves, or the sons of the thieves of a former generation. These were the bottom questions of Irish politics, and all other questions were valued or deprecated in the proportion to which they contributed to serve the interests of some of the factions who had already taken their stand in this fight around property interests. Without this key to the meaning of events, this clue to unravel the actions of "great men" Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbreaks, treacheries, intrigues, massacres, murders and purposeless warfare. With this key all things become understandable and traceable to their primary origin; without this key the lost opportunities of Ireland seem such as to bring a blush to the cheek of the Irish Worker; with this key Irish history is as a lamp to his feet in the stormy paths of to-day.
Yet, plain as this is to the Irish Socialist, it is undeniable that for 100 years, or since the Act of Union of 1800, all Irish political movements ignored this fact, and were conducted by men who did not look below the political surface. These men to arouse the passions of the people invoked the memory of social wrongs such as evictions and famines, but for these wrongs proposed only political remedies such as changes in taxation and transference of the seat of government from one country to another. Hence they accomplished nothing, because the political method of fighting was unrelated to the social subjection at the root of the matter. Political agitators talked of sending men to Westminster to complain of English tyranny, but conducted no campaign against the rackrenting landlord on his estate, and as a result the adhesion of an overwhelming majority of the tenants to the political agitators lightened no economic burdens, stopped no evictions, and accomplished nothing. The Land League stepped in to alter all this, and transferred the real seat of war from the hustings to the estate, from the "floor of the House of Commons" to the rent office of the landlord and the homestead of the tenant. It instructed the people to resist eviction, to refuse to pay rackrents, to terrorise landgrabbers - the scabs of the agrarian struggle - and to boycott and ostracise all offenders against the welfare of the tenant.
It made adhesion to the cause of the tenants synonymous with the call of Irish patriotism, and thus emphasised the point we have so often labored, viz. - that the Irish question is a social question. As a result of this change of base it revolutionized Irish politics. The men and women who had, with a grin on their faces, cheered the orators who talked of a "Parliament on College Green" and after cheering went home to scrape together the landlord's rent by denying themselves the comfort and even necessaries of life now listened to the practical talk of men who told them to resist their tyrants at once, and so listening they straightened up mentally and morally and kept their rents in their pockets, held their harvests, kept a grip on their homesteads, laughed in the face of the landlord whom they had hitherto feared, and so broke the back of Irish landlordism. And this great change was the result of bringing the Irish fight down from the cloud land of sentiment on to the hard basis of a fight, day by day, between the producers and the owners for the control of the means of livelihood - or to the basis of a class struggle. That the Land League did not entirely succeed in its mission was due chiefly to one flaw in the original theory of its campaign, viz. - that its promoters not being in agreement as to their ultimate ideal were unable to educate their followers against the fallacy of accepting concessions which divided and disorganised their forces when at the flood tide of success.
That lesson - the lesson of its failure, Socialists have already learned and know how to profit by; the other lesson - the lesson of its strength, is not so widely realised. It is this - the strength and power of the political agitation of the Land League lay in the fact that its representatives were the servants and mouthpieces of a class who were already organised and holding the means of production with a revolutionary intent. They were not asking government to give them possession, they were already in defiant possession and demanding that such possession be legalized. Their base of operation was secondarily at the election booth, primarily on the farm; they thought the organization of an estate against its landlord a thousand times more important than the capture of a parliamentary seat. Rather they knew that the seat would inevitably follow the fate of the estate.
In all this they showed their wisdom. And hence we claim that although the Socialist agitators of to-day in their political activity fulfil well the work of agitators as did the Irish agitators of the past, yet if they would find and utilise to the fullest all the latent revolutionary material and strength they require they must do as the Land League did - take hold of the daily fight in the workshop, and organise it in a revolutionary manner, with a revolutionary purpose and direction.
Republished in Owen Dudley Edwards & Bernard Ransom (eds), James Connolly: Selected Political Writings, New York 1974.