This week I follow an American practice and give this space* to a "guest columnist" with something to say in our discussion on the rights and wrongs of adults hitting children. He signs himself "Seumas". Beyond that I cannot tell you his name, because I do not know what his name is**. Or, rather, was: Seumas has been dead a long time now. His article was published in December 1911 in the paper of the Irish Transport Workers' Union, Jim Larkin's "Irish Worker". I read it in the files of that paper some time back, and our discussion reminded me of it.
Seumas was addressing himself to Dublin workers who lived in extremes of poverty, degradation and squalor unimaginable even in post-Thatcherite Britain. 21,000 families—big, Catholic families — lived in one-room tenements without running water or sanitation. Most had no regular income. They were women and men about whom James Connolly, praising the work of "Larkin's Union", which raised them up, truly said that centuries of social outlawry had thoroughly degraded them and left them with no means of self-defence except `'the arts of the lickspittle and the toady" — until they learned to combine and organise in the union. If conditions ever justify hard-pressed adults 'smacking'children, 'smacking' children was 'understandable' in these conditions.
Yet the union worked to civilise its members, fighting drunkenness and the habit of settling arguments with fists, campaigning to stop employers paying out wages in pubs, and so on: it published this article as part of that work of raising up the working class into a fitness to rule itself. Seumas's article is reminiscent of the articles Trotsky wrote in Pravda in 1923, "Problems of Everyday Life".
It seems to me that Seumas, whose article is printed here under its Irish Worker headline, puts his finger right on the issue: the social submissiveness of the worker, on which capitalist ciass rule depends, is taught first in the home, by blows and other forms of coercion.
I have not cut the parts of Seumas's article which deal with things other than the treatment of children—his appeal for tolerance and reason and so on. After 80 years, he is entitled to say his full piece, and even after 80 years, though many things are changed—corporal punishment was abolished in Irish schools, earlier than in English schools—the descendants of those he addressed would benefit by listening to him.
* The Socialist Organiser Column "Against the Tide"
** A possibility is that it was written by Francis Sheehy Skeffington.
Thomas Davis penned a very significant phrase when he wrote of the "Cymric [Welsh] Nation":
Freedom is the Soul's creation,
Not the work of hands".
This is not the contradiction of the phrase quoted by Garryowen last week:
Who would be free themselves
Must strike the blow".
Men do not strike blows for freedom who have not freedom in their hearts, whose souls are not already free. In this sense there are men who are in dungeons who are free, and highly respectable citizens who are slaves. The pride of freedom or the meanness of slavery is in the soul, and the temper of the soul decides whether we walk with the progressive legions of liberty or take any of the various ways of telling our brothers and sisters to "keep on starving".
This is the point to which I want to call the attention of working men, that in the everyday course of their lives they are making liberty or slavery dominate in the souls of those they have influence with, their friends, comrades, but, especially, their children.
In this "disthressful country" of ours, blighted by foreign rule and our own imitation tyrants, it is hard to find a man of free habit of mind, one that can think and talk independently of the common prejudice, and who does not desire to replace one tyranny by another. Many of our countrymen have learned freedom of soul in other countries where it is common; comparatively few of our people at home have succeeded in raising their heads above the fog of prejudice (made and fostered by our rulers) that obscures every public issue in Ireland.
Fewer still have learned the precious lesson of charity and politeness towards those of their countrymen who do not think and act as they do themselves, and the urgent necessity of keeping out blows of the common enemy; that is freedom for others as well as themselves.
There is tyranny with its attendant slavery all through Ireland; one of the numerous historical legacies with which we can profitably part. Those who have never lived outside our atmosphere of cant, cringe and mutual disrespect seldom realise to what extent our liberty as individuals is invaded and our common rights as God's creatures denied or cornered by petty tyrants, and retailed at a profit.
From early childhood, the children of the monopolists are pampered and spoiled; those of the working man are shouted at and kicked, and beaten by parents, guardians and neighbours. In school, masters are frequently worse. The writer of this article (though of average behaviour) was brutally flogged in presence of the school by a strong adult male for having skipped two pages in his exercise book; and in seven years of school life, his nerves were so ruined by bcating and overwork (with result-fees for object) that more than ten years steady treatunent barely sufficed to bring them back to normal.
In some schools a monitor cannot teach long multiplicadon without mimicking the German Emperor, and persecuting the people who do not minister to his miniature majesty; none dare ask the reason why, or question the utility of what they are taught.
To ensurc an unhealthy meekness of manner, which the teacher says is 'being good', all initiative is disouraged. and personal opinions are punished as impertinence. Hypochrites and tell-tales are frequently installed as favourite. The head teacher or manager leads the way in fawning on anyone of place or title who comes near the school.
Thus are "good" citizens trained for the ''battle of life".
ln business, his fellow workers continue the same siave-making process. Everyone tries to sit on the newcomer, ana his senior, at the workbench or in the office, copies the antics of the monitor in the class. Slaves have no respect tor their feliow slaves, and their employers, being of the tyrant persuasion. promote those who are most slavish. The tone of a clergyman's sermon here is much more imperious than what we hear in England or America, though the doctrine be the same!
Let the working man be no party to this slave-making. Remember the words of Lazare Hoch, Napoleon's brilliant rival to his wife: "Do not beat our boy, but correct him with gentleness. I do not wish that he shall be degraded by having to endure physical violence.
Do not connive with the slave makers at school by telling your child: "If you did not deserve the punishment, you would not get it". Inquire of the school. Don't send your flesh and blood to schoolteachers for slavish displays. If the school books are unmanly and un-lrish be manly enough to object, to get them changed. Get others to object and you will change them.
If you want liberty for yourself, don't be harsh with men under you. Treat them as men. If you believe that the salvation of Ireland can only come from Westminster per John Redmond, don't hate Sinn Fein because it doubts the first article of your faith. Sinn Feiners, don't imagine nationality began ten years ago; or think it if you like, but don't despise the man of longer memory, and let him see it.
Allow the other man the liberty to think for himself, and voice his thought. A free exchange of opinion brings out the truth; hatred and disrespect give brawlers their chance, and the enemy their light.
You, workers, can, if you choose, rear a generation of men whose souls will be free. A generation of free men would lose no time in gaining free institutions; they could not be denied.
This appeared in Sean Matgamna's "Against the Tide" column in Socialist Organiser, 1n 1993.