Herman Gorter

Ireland: The Achilles' Heel of England

Published: The Workers' Dreadnought, Volume VII, no. 7. May 8, 1920.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2017

Lenin, in his famous book, "State and Revolution," writes that the Marxistic theoreticians in Holland consider the question of the independence of nations too much from the point of view of Holland. Our Russian comrade says, that in our over-arduous endeavour to fight the narrow nationalism of the Dutch bourgeoisie, we keep to much aloof from the whole question of nationalities and nationalism.

For once I think our friend is absolutely wrong. In the first place because the reason he gives for our attitude is not correct; the bourgeoisie in Holland was not, and is not yet, nationalistic in the sense of wishing to annex other territories. Indeed, it is possibly the only bourgeoisie in Europe which, in spite of the fact that next door to Holland four million Dutch-speaking people—the Flemish in Belgium—has not wished to annex its neighbours. An exceedingly large majority of the Dutch bourgeoisie was, and is to this day, quite indifferent towards the Flemish. Probably not one thousand of the Dutch bourgeoisie wish to be united with them. This is due to many economic and political reasons, one of which is very simple, namely, that Belgium and Flanders also have hitherto been the battlefield of Europe. The Hollanders prefer the battlefield to be outside their frontiers. The reason given by Lenin, therefore, does not exist for us, Dutch Marxists.

There is another point in which I disagreed with Lenin's argument on nationalism. Lenin was of opinion that national independence in all countries and under all circumstances, even under Imperialism, was better for the cause of the proletariat than dependence. I agree with him concerning the time before Imperialism comes to be developed (the time of Marx, therefore). But I have maintained, and I maintain it yet, that this cannot be said for the time under Imperialism, when capitalism continues, and is not replaced by Communism. Then the question is doubtful, and ought to be examined individually in the case of each country.

If for instance in an independent Hungary, or an independent Austria, or perhaps another of the independent States into which Austria-Hungary has been divided, English or American capital should obtain the domination, it is greatly to be doubted whether the condition of the proletariat also in regard to the class-struggle would not be far worse than before. For, although the country then be politically independent, and Lenin's condition obtained, economically the land would be utterly dependent on a foreign nation. The "Rote Fahne" of Vienna expressed the matter thus: "From now on the Austrian workers are the coolies of Allied capital."

The same argument holds good for a number of small nations in the East: the Baltic and Balkan States and Poland. In a little while, Germany itself will perhaps be in the same position, for Anglo-American capital is already purchasing numerous factories, mines, shipping companies, and so on, there.

Banking capital, very powerful now only in the United States and England, strives for dominion over ruined Europe. The national capitalists there will become the employees of the monopolistic capital of England and the United States. Then the struggle of the workers in the countries dominated by British and American capital will not in the first place be directed against their own capitalists, but against those of foreign countries, who live a long way off. This, for the proletariat, is an extremely unfavorable state of affairs. In some cases, it may be less favourable to the class-struggle than political dependence.

I have expressed this elsewhere in the following way: Under Imperialism, under the Trusts and the Banking Capital there can be no real independence for the small nations. Either they are a political unity with a big nation, and therefore politically dependent, or they are independent politically, but utterly subjugated economically. AS LONG AS IMPERIALISTIC CAPITALISM PREVAILS, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to decide whether dependence or independence should be wished for or propagated.

This is all that I have brought forward against Lenin's opinions, and I believe that the present condition of Europe has justified my contention.

The standpoint only hoods good, and has only been defended by me, for the period in which IMPERIALISTIC CAPITALISM REMAINS UNSHAKEN.

Should Capitalism become shaken, so that it could be replaced by Socialism, then the entire position changes.

In that case I agree with Lenin completely; then I never even doubted the sagacity of his views.

And this is the case to-day, in all the small States of Europe we have been enumerating, and also in Ireland.

In all the big countries, and also therefore in these smaller ones, Socialism can now be attained. And the claim of Independence for all Nations, doubtful so long as Imperialistic capitalism remains unshaken, now becomes fully justified.

For this independence now becomes a means to weaken the position of all the big capitalistic nations, and even to cause their downfall.

For no country this is no more true than for Ireland. If Ireland should become independent, Great Britain would be struck to the very foundations.

Now therefore it is the duty of all British Communists to demand the complete independence of Ireland, and to take all the measures required to bring it about.

And for the entire Third International this is of the utmost importance. Again England is the rock on which Capitalism is firmly rooted, the bulwark of world-capitalism, the hope of all counter-revolution, and all reaction. But Ireland is the Achilles' heel of England. For the revolution on the European continent, therefore for the world-revolution, it is a vital question that British capital should be hit there.

The gigantic genius of Marx saw all this long ago, and, as it now seems to us, has predicted it for our times. He deals with the question of England and Ireland, and almost completely describes the situation of today in the following two passages:

"That country which makes entire nations into its proletarians, which encompasses the whole world with its gigantic arms, that once already has defrayed out of its own funds the cost of a European restoration, in the very heart of which the class-antitheses have developed into the most pronounced and shameless extreme:—that England seems to be the rock against which all revolutionary waves are broken, and which starves the new society already in the maternal womb. England dominates the world-market. A subversion of the national-economic relations in any country of the European continent, or in the whole of the European continent, would be without England no more than a storm in a glass of water. The relations of industry and commerce within every nation are dominated by their intercourse with other nations, and depend on their relation to the world-market. England, however, dominates the world-market, and the bourgeoisie dominates England."

This applies in an almost magic way to our own times. For now also England, by means of its gigantic transport fleet, can well-nigh starve and strangle the new Socialist society in the maternal womb. And now also, after the fall of German capital, it dominates, though no longer alone, the world-market. Now also Great Britain is the rock of capitalism for Europe.

Marx's observations on Ireland are no less true. He says:

"Ireland is the stronghold of the English landed aristocracy. The exploitation of this country is not only the main source of the national wealth, it forms likewise England's greatest moral strength. It represents, in fact, the domination of England over Ireland. Ireland therefore is the great expedient, by means of which the English aristocracy maintains its domination in England itself. On the other hand, withdraw the English Army and police from Ireland to-morrow, and you will straightaway have an agrarian revolution in Ireland. The fall of the English aristocracy in Ireland, however, needs must imply, and inevitably leads to their overthrow in England. Through this, the primal condition for the proletarian revolution in England, would be fulfilled. ...

"England, the metropolis of capital, and up to the present day the dominating power in the world-market, is meanwhile the most important country for the workers' revolution. It is moreover the only country where the material conditions for this revolution have been developed to a certain degree of ripeness. The hastening of the social revolution in England, therefore, is the most urgent object of the international workers' association. The only means of bringing it about more quickly, is to render Ireland independent. It is therefore the task of the internationals everywhere to expose the conflict between England and Ireland, and to side openly with Ireland in all cases. On the General Council in London rests the special duty of making the English working-class realise that to them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice and human sentiments, but the primal stipulation for their own social emancipation."

There have been changes in Ireland, and England's position to-day is not quite what it was, but that which has been said by Marx about the First International and the British Socialists, applies still, and a hundred times more, to the Third. The Third International must strive by every possible means, to promote the independence of Ireland.

But in the hands of the British workers lies the fate of Ireland. They must follow the example given by Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviki, who, in order to make the revolution in the whole of Russia, demanded the independence of Finland, Poland and the Baltic States.

The attitude of the British workers with regard to Ireland is the barometer for the British revolution.