In the evolution of civilisation, the progress of the fight for national liberty of any subject nation must, perforce, keep pace with the struggle for liberty of the most subject class in that nation.

James Connolly

The children with whom I have played, the men and women with whom I have eaten
Have had masters over them, have been under the lash of masters,
and though gentle, have served churls.

Patrick Pearse

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood.

Thomas Gray


The economic earthquakes that for three years now, from 2008, have shaken our capitalist world have led many people to look again, but with a more receptive mind, at the analysis of capitalism made long ago by Karl Marx.

They have disposed some of them to adopt a new view of the nature of capitalism. The ultra-Tory British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, carried a cartoon in 2008 of Karl Marx laughing in his grave at the woes on Wall Street.

Capitalism itself has once more forced to the attention of serious people the objective case for a socialist reorganisation of our world. This comes after two decades of breakneck globalisation in an enormous capitalist expansion and the collapse of the murderous and reactionary Stalinist counterfeit socialism.

In 2008, when this writer debated socialism with the Observer columnist Nick Cohen, Cohen thought he was dealing a commonsensical knockout blow when he asked: how could Karl Marx have understood the world we live in a century and a quarter after his death?

The fact, however, is that Marx uncovered the basic laws under which capitalism exists and moves. Capitalism has changed and developed enormously since then, of course, and shows a great power of adaptation. But what has adapted and modified is still recognisably the capitalism which Karl Marx anatomised.

Capitalism itself creates the basic economic elements of socialism. It creates gigantic, world-straddling enterprises, some of which have budgets bigger than governments. It “socialises” the forces of production, communication, and, in part, of exchange. This is the tendency which Frederick Engels long ago described as “the invading socialist society”.

We have seen governments that had made a God of free-market economics – for instance, the Bush regime in the USA and the pre-2010 New Labour government in Britain – forced to assume responsibility for the banks, and for orchestrating the economic affairs of society. The problem is that this capitalist “socialism”, spectacularly surprising though it was and is, was social regulation in the interests directly of the capitalist class

The “socialising” character of capitalism is is a fact, a gigantic fact, no matter how defeated, the depleted and marginal the advocates of socialism may be at a given time.

But if even an honest Tory journalist can sometimes see and admit that Karl Marx’s basic analysis of capitalism still tells a lot of truth, and the fundamental truth, about the nature of capitalism, many of those who are inclined to adopt a general socialist critique of capitalism balk at the idea that the proletariat can re-make the world, that we can overthrow capitalism and replace it with international socialism. They doubt the core idea of socialism, that, as Karl Marx put it back in 1864: “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.

The proletariat, the wage-working class, is what James Connolly like his socialist contemporaries described as “the slave class of our age”; what Jim Larkin indignantly called the “undermen”; what an elitist snob, the liberal John Maynard Keynes, dismissed as the social “mud”. The visible working-class in our world, and for a long time now, seems too far from what the working class will have to be to play the role of the gravedigger of capitalism and builder of a new world in which first working-class solidarity and then human solidarity will replace the dog-eat-dog ethos, “the war of all against all”, which defines the bourgeois society in which we live.

The short answer to the doubt, though in itself not necessarily the conclusive one, is to point to the working class in history – what it has done and what it has tried to do. And not only to the great, big-scale, world-shaking deeds and attempted deeds and projects of the working class. There are many smaller actions and attempts by the working class which are buried, unmarked and unknown, in the subsoil of modern history.

For, of course, it is the victors who write history. The history of wars between countries and empires, and especially of the war of classes, where the defeated working class can so easily be misrepresented in the aftermath. Those who resisted are “Luddites”, senseless malcontents, justly defeated and conquered Calibans, dark forces from the subsoil of society, the yahoos, the morlocks, the weasels. The history of much of the working class, much of the time, is lost, sifted out by historians.

Just as the many local acts of resistance to the movement of food out of the country that must have occurred in the 1840s Irish famine are lost, buried in the obscurity of old newspaper files, so that the overall picture is one of passive acceptance of their own starvation, so too with many other aspects of the history of the working class.

And so too with the Irish working class during and after the Irish bourgeois revolutions, the economic revolution on the land and the political revolution after 1916.

The first modern labour movement, Chartism in the late 1830s and the 1840s, emerged out of the bitter disappointment of those who had helped the British bourgeoisie win its bloodless political victory in the Reform Act of 1832 and were then ill-treated by the bourgeoisie in power, and faced with being locked up in the workhouse prisons created by the New Poor Law of 1834. It would be strange if the working class which had participated in the revolutions that put the Irish bourgeoisie in power had shown no signs of fight for its own interests.

In at least two areas in County Clare, the working class showed a great deal of resistance to the conditions in which they found themselves under Irish bourgeois rule. It is probable that there were similar working-class movements in many areas. The working class of the towns, those disinherited when some of the people got the land from the old landlords, and many of whom would be doubly disinherited by being forced out of the country altogether, were anything but passive spectators of their own disinheritance, degradation and continuous victimisation.

My viewpoint, by inheritance and conviction, is that of the town labourers, a little of whose history I attempt to explore and chronicle here, in what can be no more than a rough sketch of the resistance of the working class of Ennis.

“Shrewsbury Twenty-Four”

In the events in Ennis which I describe here there is a strong parallel to events that took place in England in 1973 and 74. 31 building workers — oddly, the group is known as the “Shrewsbury 24” — were charged and tried in connection with trade-union activity.

After Britain’s first national building strike – June to September 1972 – 31 building workers were brought to trial for the mass picketing with which they had attempted to stop all sites in North Wales. In court the prosecutor described the mass picketing as “like Red Indians”. The strikers had demanded a 35 hour week, a minimum wage and an end to employment of casual workers organised by what we would now call gang masters – it was called “the lump” in the building trade. They won a big wage rise but not the end of “the lump”.

There were three “Shrewsbury” trials in all. In the first the 31 men were acquitted of all but minor charges. However five of them then had had the charge of “conspiracy to intimidate” added to the indictment against them.

During 1972 mass picketing had inflicted major defeats on the Tory government. The decisive turning point in the miners’ strike at the beginning of that year was when a mass picket of engineers, miners and other workers in Birmingham had forced the closure of the Saltley Coke Depot.

Five dock workers had been jailed in July for picketing that had recently been made illegal, only to be released under duress by the government when upwards of a quarter of a million workers all over the country immediately went on strike, and the TUC decided to call a one-day general strike. Many thousands of workers laid siege to Pentonville jail in North London for the whole time the five dockers were incarcerated. The one-day general strike proved unnecessary.

Someone in authority then decided to make an example of the mass-picketing builders. It was a political trial. Typical of the reckless misrepresentation of the workers in court had been a witness testifying that a mass of pickets had descended on a building site shouting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Indeed, building workers all over the country had chanted “Kill!”... But they specified what they wanted to kill. “Kill... the lump”.

Three of the prisoners, John McKinsie Jones, Des Warren, and Ricky Tomlinson, were charged with unlawful assembly and conspiracy to intimidate. They got sentences of nine months, three years and two years respectively.

They had been on the strike committee which had met in Chester on 31 August 1972 and among other things discussed the mass pickets that were to be mounted during the strike. On 24 February 1974, three more men were jailed for six months on the charges of “unlawful assembly” and “affray”. In response building workers struck in London, in Glasgow, and on 25 building sites in Manchester. Warren and Tomlinson went on hunger strike.

A Labour government had been elected on 28 February 1974, in an election called by the Tories against industrial militancy, under the demagogic slogan: “Who rules, government or unions?” Would Labour now act on behalf of the victimised building workers? No, of course they wouldn’t! They too wanted to demobilise working-class militancy.

It was as a result of that experience that I first became properly aware of what had happened in Ennis 40 years earlier. Watching a TV report early in 1974, both my father and my mother were visibly upset by a report that some appeal or other had failed. This was unusual, such a personal response to a big public event. Visiting them in Manchester from London, I talked to them about this and learned about the trial of the 24 labourers in Ennis in 1934.

My father had been one of 24 labourers in Ennis tried for a mass picket in 1934, as had his brother, Paddy, who was badly disabled in the Civil War at the beginning of the 1920s. The story I then heard for the first time as an adult and properly (I’d been politically at odds with my parents since I was 15) was, after 40 years, vague on detail. Both my father and my mother died within the year, and, living in London, I never got the chance to talk to them about it again.

Many years later I looked up what had happened in the files of the Clare Champion newspaper at the British library newspaper depot in Colindale. The events had taken place during the general upsurge that accompanied the establishment in 1932 and afterwards of the De Valera government, a government of those defeated in the Civil War nine years earlier.


On the Shrewsbury Pickets

What is not mentioned, and indeed ignored by the left, regarding the Shrewsbury Pickets is the fact that of the main two people who were being championed, (Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson), one of them, Ricky Tomlinson was a known racist, someone who was a supporter of the National Front and as Des Warren mentions in his own book, The Key To my Cell, (New Park Publications, 1982), pp.108-109, Tomlinson was the sort of man who, even in prison, gave fascist salutes and was happy to declare himself a National Socialist. One would have felt that the left could have favoured a less unsavoury person to have championed.

In any event, the author of this article has left out some other crucial details. The Times on December 20, 1974 quoted an appeal court judge who discussed what had happened:

"There was at each site a terrifying display by pickets of force and violence actually committed or threatened against buildings, plant and equipment; at some sites, if not at others, acts of personal violence and threats of violence to the person were committed and made. persons working on the sites and residents near by were put in fear."

This is not mentioned by the author of the article. The case, for him, is reduced to "a political trial."

Ricky Tomlinson

The article is about the Ennis labourers in Ireland in the early 1930's. The bit about the Shrewsbury trials is an aside about how the author came to know more about the events, hence not really the place to discuss the evolution of Ricky Tomlinson's politics.

I don't know anyone on the left who denies that as a young man Tomlinson was involved with the far right, including Tomlinson himself who in interviews has spoken thoughtfully about how it was a result of poverty and lack of education and how he later became a socialist.

"One would have felt that the left could have favoured a less unsavoury person to have championed."? It was the bosses who chose to victimise Tomlinson and his co-defendants. Maybe you think the left should pick and choose which victimised workers to defend according to whether they have racist, sexist or homophobic ideas?

What the bosses objected to about the picketing - and you too it seems by your uncritical quoting of the appeal judge - was that it was effective: large numbers of pickets moving between sites shutting them down and where necessary the equipment too. Scabs were "put in fear"? Good, that was the idea!

Championing Violence

While it is true that this article is mainly about the Ennis labourers, the discussion on the Shrewsbury Pickets is not a small aside but a large component.

I did not say that people on the left had "denied" that Tomlinson was in the National Front, what I said was that they had "ignored" the fact. This is by and large true. I challenge anyone to look through any leftist newspaper between 1973 and 1975, the main period during which the left championed what became known as the "Shrewsbury 2," and see any discussion of the fact that Tomlinson had stood as a candidate for the National Front and that his political views were those of the racist. I suspect that if one example is found, it will be the exception as opposed to the rule.

While Matthew above declares that he doesn't "know anyone on the left who denies that as a young man Tomlinson was involved with the far right," then I suggest that he look at Workers Press, the newspaper of the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in early 1975. After the capitalist press referenced the National Front membership, the WRP specifically denounced such claims as lies. The WRP were the among most vocal on the left in the Free the Shrewsbury Pickets campaign. This was recognised by Des Warren who went on to join that party after he had left prison. It was not until 1982 with the publishing of Warren's book through their in house publishing company, New Park Publications, that the WRP admitted Tomlinson's far right leanings. Matthew's reference to Tomlinson being a "young man" during his time with the far-right is also, in my mind, misleading. The use of the phrase "young man" was no doubt to imply that the views he held were the mistake of a youth. Tomlinson was born in 1939 and he held such views in the early 1970s when he was in his thirties, he was hardly a teenager.

Matthew seems delighted that workers were "put in fear." This is the key difference between us: he champions violence and I do not.

The truth is the left had been badly misinformed about the Shrewsbury pickets and what they got up to. This was noted by Edward Lyons QC, Labour MP for Bradford West and Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Home Office and Legal and Judicial Groups in a letter to The Times published on January 24, 1975:

"Many good trade unionists have been badly misinformed about the background to the case. No one has told them of the scale of violence used on the sites. Lord Justice James described it as a 'terrifying display of force and violence.' They remained ignorant of the fact that fellow trade union pickets testified for the prosecution. These pickets testified to the breaking of windows, throwing of bricks, overturning of machinery and to pickets behaving 'like madmen.' One such picket said he saw workmen running for their lives. It is not known, for example, that one Grocott was pulled off a ladder and struck on the head with a brick so he was in hospital for a week with concussion. Brickham - a bricklayer, 15ft above ground - was struck with a stone over the left eye so that stitches were required. On ample evidence the judge concluded that Tomlinson and Warren were the moving spirits behind this ugliness which by no means bore any relationship to ordinary picketing."

I wonder if Matthew is disappointed that more people were not hospitalised by the violence associated with Ricky Tomlinson, National Front supporter.

NF and picketing

I said that I didn't know anyone on the left who denied Tomlinson's involvement with the far right. I didn't know that the WRP had in the mid-70's but given its regime I can well accept what you say is true.

Tomlinson joined the NF in 1968 after Powell's Rivers of Blood speech when he was 28, still a relatively young man I'd say, and left in 1972 as he became more involved in trade union activity. In this 2003 interview he explains why he joined and why he left:

"I realised that by attacking immigration I was looking for a scapegoat for this country's ills. When you're at the bottom of the greasy pole, mired in shit, you're always looking for someone else to blame...I believed certain things in 1968 and I don't believe them any more. I was wrong. I was politically naive and poorly educated."

I don't "champion violence" as you say but neither do I champion "picketing" that is ineffective whether because of lack of numbers, respect for private property or not doing anything that might "put fear" into scabs.