Dr. Priscilla Metscher – “National interests and internationalism do not cancel each other. They should be an important part of left-wing politics todayˮ




by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik. In the following my interview with Dr. Priscilla Metscher about socialism, history of socialism, and the challenges of today’s socialism in Europe. Dr. Priscilla Metscher was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She taught Irish studies at Oldenburg University, Germany, from 1974 to 1999. She has published many articles on the history of radical Irish politics and is the author of James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland (2002) and Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland from Wolfe Tone to James Connolly (2016).
Why is it so important to study the history of politics and of political movements, like socialism for example?
First of all I think it is important to study the history of politics and political movements, as such an insight shows us that the primary motivating force in the history of class societies is productive relations and ultimately the class struggle. The centre of that struggle is politically active class consciousness and political organisation. So ideas as they evolved must be seen within the context of social and political movements. They cannot be examined as some abstract ideology apart from their social and political context.
Secondly a study of political movements with special reference to socialism shows us how socialism in the various countries evolved. The development of socialism in the dominating Western nations has in many ways a different character from socialism as it evolved in the former British colonies. Here socialism is connected to the national liberation struggle, as for example in Ireland, Britain’s first colony.
Also I think we can learn much from the strength and weaknesses within the various socialist movements. We know e.g. that at the outbreak of the First World War the socialists in the Second International were divided over support for the war effort. There were only few who, when war broke out, vehemently opposed it and called on the workers to turn the war into civil war for socialism. This was the stand of Lenin in Russia, of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany and James Connolly in Ireland.
On a positive note we see that the Russian October revolution of 1917 was successful, not only because of the circumstances existing at the time, but also because Lenin learned from the failed revolution of 1905.
What can we learn today from James Connolly?
It is important to understand Connolly as a socialist leader within the context of his time, i.e. the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. His political career corresponds roughly to the life-span of the 2nd International. I would like to say a few words about his political career, his Marxism, for these are essential in assessing his relevance today.
He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, so his first contacts with socialism were in the British labour movement. In 1896 he was offered the job as full-time organiser of the Dublin Socialist Club and so he came to Ireland. Socialism in Ireland had a long tradition, going back to the early Irish socialist William Thompson at the beginning of the 19th century. Socialist parties and clubs were in existence when Connolly came to Ireland, but they were branches of British parties. They did not have the interests ofIreland at heart. In 1896 Connolly established the Irish Socialist Republican Party as an independent party of the Irish working class with the goal of establishing an Irish socialist republic. From the outset Connolly combined socialism in Ireland with the tradition of the liberation movement there, going back to the republicanism of the United Irishmen at the end of the 18thcentury. He believed it was a historical necessity for the revolutionary elements in the national movement to join forces with the Irish working class. This led him, in fact to join forces with republicans in the organisation and carrying out of the Easter Rising 1916.
With reference to Connolly‘s Marxism it is important to emphasise that he was, in the terms of Antonio Gramsci, an ‚organic intellectual‘ of the working class. He did not come from an intellectual background nor was he a professional intellectual. His education was mainly autodidactic gained through long hours of study in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. His work as organiser in political and trade union organisations left him little time to write. For a time he was organiser of the International Workers of the World (IWW) in the USA, popularly known as the Wobblies. The aim of his writings was to develop the political consciousness of the working class and to aid political action. There are a number of points which we could take into consideration, essential to Connolly‘s Marxism, such as his contribution to the concept of historical materialism, to class as a key concept of social formation and historical progression, women‘s emancipation, but there are two points which underline Connolly‘s most original contribution to Marxist theory –firstly socialism and war and secondly anti-colonialism.
Connolly‘s anti-war stand is of course closely connected to his support of the struggle of the smaller nations for self-determination. His stand concerning war is quite clear. On one occasion he wrote „War is ever the enemy of progress…there are no humane methods of warfare, there is no such thing as civilised war, all war is barbaric“. One can certainly place Connolly along with Lenin, Luxemburg and Lebknect on the left-wing of the Second International. He was quite clear that the First World War was an inner-imperialist war for the capitalist domination of the world market, for the political domination of important territory for industry and finance capital. He participated in the Easter Rising in the hope that in the end the Rising would lead to the establishment of an Irish Socialist republic. The fact that the the Rising failed does not diminish the importance of that anti-colonial struggle. In fact the Easter Rising was not an isolated event, but was part of a revolutionary wave which occurred not only throughout Europe, but in other parts of the world up to around 1921.
What then is Connolly‘s legacy? What can we today learn from him? Connolly was convinced that the example of Irish emancipation could be an attempt to change the map of world imperialism. If we look at the situation today we see that the inherent conflict between the interests of world imperialism and those of the smaller nations has reached a new level of intensity. Paul Ziegler notes that the society we live in today is a “cannabalistic world order“. I read recently in an Oxfam report that 62 individuals control more wealth than the bottom half of the planet‘s population. In Europe alone we have only to look at the situation in Greece, Spain, Portugal or Ireland to see how the smaller nations are dictated to by the imperialist interests within the EU. I think the left in Ireland and in Europe generally should take up the interests of these nations and combine them in a programme of alternative European politics.
What are the main subjects you treat in your new book Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland from Wolfe Tone to James Connolly?
The book examines the history of radical ideas in Ireland from the emergence of republicanism at the end of the 18th century up the the Easter Rising of 1916. On the whole I have attempted to show the interaction of republicanism and socialism in Ireland, indicating how and why socialism in Ireland has a republican basis.  It was my intention to show the social movements and the accompanying phenomena of social protest in the context of changing productive relations. So the rise of Irish republicanism I see in the context of the rise of an Irish industrial middle class in the 18th century.. Similarly I examine the growth of radical nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century within the context of changing agrarian society at the close of the 19th century, i.e. the development of agriculture on a capitalist basis from landlordism to a system of peasant proprietorship. The ideas of the United Irishmen and Young Irelanders, from the end of the 18th century up to the 1840s are examined against the background of the social conditions of the period. As far as the Young Irelanders is concerned the potato famine or the Great Hunger as it is called in Ireland, lasting from 1845 into the 1850s, plays a significant role. In the years 1845-49 one and a half million Irish perished of starvation and disease, another one million emigrated, mainly to the United States. Before the Famine Ireland had a population of around eight million. This was reduced to around four and a half million after the Famine years. The population in the whole ofIreland has never reached pre-famine level.
Part II of the book deals with Fenianism and the Land War as movements essentially of the lower classes. Fenianism developed out of the previous republican movements. The use of physical force and the idea of a secret oath-bound society played a major role in the Fenian agenda. The Land War was an attempt to combine the social and national questions. The third and final section is entitled „James Connolly, Socialism and the National Question“. This part could be seen above all within the context of organised labour history, as it deals primarily with the Irish working class as an organised class and its role in the political and trade union movements of the period with a concentration on socialist theory (the development of Connolly‘s Marxism).
On the whole my aim is to show the interaction of republicanism and socialism in Ireland, to indicate how and why socialism there has a republican basis. I see James Connolly‘s life and work as the culminating point in the history of republicanism and socialism in Ireland up to the present day.
Where possible I have pointed to the important role of women in the various organisations, e.g. Mary Anne McCracken, the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the leaders of the United Irishmen who was executed in Belfast for his part in the rising of 1798, Fanny and Anna Parnell, sisters of Charles Stewart Parnell who took over the organisation of the Land League when their brother, together with Michael Davitt, was imprisoned. Likewise a number of women were active in the Easter Rising of 1916, such as Constance Markievicz and Winifred Carney (Connolly‘s secretary). In fact Connolly was of the opinion that women should take their situation into their own hands and encouraged women to participate in politics- his own duaghter Nora is a good example. As he aptly wrote: „None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter“. On another occasion he said: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave“.
Could you explain more specifically the term ‚wider class politics‘ to our readers?
„James Connolly and the Wider Class Politics of 1916“ was the title of an article I wrote last year for the Marx Memorial Library‘s journal „Theory and Struggle” and I thought it very appropriate to describe Connolly‘s concept of class politics in this way. Central, of course, to his political thought is the class struggle. He himself had considerable opportunity to experience this at first hand throughout his political career in the labour struggles of the time, whether working for the Industrial Workers of the World in theUSA or in the Dublin strike and lockout of 1913 when the Dublinemployers locked out the workers for six months. But also central to Connolly‘s political thought was the long-term goal of setting up an Irish socialist republic and to achieve this it was clear to him that the Irish working class could not accomplish this alone. So right from the start of his political activities he was concerned with forming alliances with nationalists who were not prone to socialism, but who nevertheless regarded Connolly as a reliable alliance partner in the various anti-British activities in Ireland of the time. He participated in the ’98 centenary celebrations of the Rising of the United Irishmen. He was a member of the Transvaal committee opposed to the Boer war which broke out in 1899 where he worked together with Arthur Griffith (Sinn Fein) and Maud Gonne McBride. He also helped in the organisation of the anti-jubilee demonstrations against the reign of Queen Victoria. I think this concept of wider class politics can be seen in the significance Connolly attributed to the national liberation struggle and its connection with socialist politics in the achievement of a socialist republic in Ireland.
I would like to mention Connolly‘s attitude as a socialist to religion, for it underlines the nature of his alliance policy. Quite apart from the superfluous question as to whether Connolly was a Catholic or not, much more important is his stand against those he termed ‚raw atheists‘ in the labour movement who alienated the majority of Catholic workers from the cause of socialism. InIreland and in the United States where the majority of Irish workers were Catholic, he realised that it would be pointless to try winning the mass of Irish people to socialism by putting himself forward as an atheist. Far from regarding religion as a private matter, outside the precincts of socialism, he deliberately sought dialogue and controversy with Catholic priests. Although stressing the historical-materialist foundation of socialism, he nevertheless maintained that Christianity and socialism, or within the Irish context, Catholicism and socialism were not diametrically opposed doctrines, the one negating the other. Connolly was convinced that Catholicism could not be kept out of the debate on socialism inIreland. On the contrary, both priests and Catholic laity who actively supported labour were a possitive asset to the foundation of a socialist Ireland. I think that Connolly‘s attitude to religion has a lot to tell us today, as to how socialists should react to the ever-increasing anti-islamphobia – in Germany as propagated by the AfD and the followers of Pegida and similar organisations. There are other important matters today where socialist alliance policy in the sense of wider class politics is essential. In Connolly‘s day the exploitation of the earth with catastrophic consequences for the ecological system was not as developed as it is today. The struggle in our times for the preservation of the earth is essential for the existence of all peoples.
The term ‚post-colonialism‘ is misleading, I think, as it gives the impression that colonialism is a thing of the past, but it still exists where trusts and finance capital plunder the resources of the so-called third world countries, often driving people from the land they have lived on for generations and cultivated as a means of livlihood. National liberation struggles continue throughout the world and the struggle for the upkeep of national sovereignty against world imperialism is of the utmost importance. So there are many facets to class politics today.
What is the situation today concerning European socialism? What are the main challenges?
I think concerning socialism in Europetoday we have a catastrophic situation . According to Eric Hobsbawm the left is in a double catastrophic situation. On the one hand socialism in the formerSoviet Union and other socialist countries has collapsed and on the other hand traditional socialist democracy  has degenerated into neoliberalism under the leadership of Blair in Britain and Schröder in Germany. The attempt to start again and bring together the various socialist forces has been hindered by splits within the various left-wing parties in Europe. Very often it is over the question of participation or non-participation in a government in which the neoliberal parties have the say. One very interesting development recently is the left development in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Since his election to leadership the Labour Party has the highest membership of all European parties.
Concerning challenges for the left today, I have already mentioned a few: the struggle for the preservation of the earth, the struggle against exploitation of trusts and finance capital in their own and in the third world countries. It is quite clear that we do not have a revolutionary potential in Europe today, but there are many forms of  struggles within and outside the EU which in their progressive aspects are also struggles for self-determination against the reactionary forces of world imperialism. The left, I think, must bring class politics into these struggles and here the social question combined with the national question is of paramount importance, if we are to avoid the national question being exploited by the radical right. It is not a question of negating the nation, but rather of re-moulding it in the context of working-class politics.
The aim cannot be the return to traditional nation states, but must go beyond this and go beyond the present European Union. A reform within the present European set-up is imposible for obvious reasons. The aim should be the establishment in the long run of a union of socialist republics in Europe. This means ultimately a break with present politics of the European Union rather than an attempt to ‚reform‘ the EU from within. In the long term then the aim should be the establishment of a new democratic, socialist order in Europe and this should occur within the construction of a multi-polar world. In this context national interests and internationalism do not cancel each other. They should be an important part of left-wing politics today.
An interesting and encouraging development is the issue of a declaration recently by left-wing parties across Europe. The declaration was issued at the close of an interparliamentary conference in Brussels on the EUs economic governance framework and was signed by Podemos and Izquierda Unida (Spain), Syriza (Greece), Left Block and Portuguese Communist Party (Portugal), die Linke (Germany), Front de Gauche (France), Red-Green Alliance (Denmark), Sinn Fein (Ireland) and Akel (Cyprus). Basically the declaration calls for an end to the EUs neoliberal austerity policies. It calls for a new set of economic, social and environmental policies in favour of people and workers; public investment focusing on the creation of decent and secure jobs, strengthening collective bargaining and collective agreements and extending the right to strike, the public control and the decentralisation of the banking sector.[1]  This is certainly an important step in combating the rise of the Right in Europe.

[1] This information is taken from the February issue of Sinn Fein’s newspaper An Poblacht