Should the Left Refuse to celebrate the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688? (1988)

Submitted by dalcassian on 9 November, 2016 - 1:08 Author: Sean Matgamna

ANTI-FASCIST activists are
picketing every meeting of Exeter City
Council in protest at the council's
decision to celebrate William of
Orange's landing in Devon in 1688 on
his way to London to become King.

The council, say the activists, is pandering to
the Orange Order and to the National Front.
Briefing and Workers Press have voiced their
opposition to any celebration of I688. There
has been a long debate in the columns of
Workers Press on the issue, focusing on what
William's landing meant for the Catholics of

This is all very strange, but highly symp-
tomatic. Of course the left should celebrate the 300th an-
niversary of the 'Glorious Revolution’ of 1688,
and we can do it without in any way adopting
the viewpoint or the politics of the Orange
Order. In fact it is the anti-Williamites who
part company with Marxism, certainly with
any attempt to maintain a Marxist view of

The revolution of 1688 saw off James 11’s
attempt to restore Catholicism and absolute
monarchy in Britain and Ireland. It finally
settled the issue which had dominated the
previous 50 years — who rules, Parliament or
the King? Thereafter, Parliament ruled. James
fled, to be replaced by Parliament's choice
— The joint rule of Queen Mary, James's Pro-
testant daughter, and her husband, the Dutch
prince, King William of Orange. James's sup-
port melted away, and even those 'Tories' who
in principle supported him as the legitimate
monarch by hereditary right remained passive.

Apart from some bloodletting and the settling
of old scores in Scotland, it was virtually a
bloodless revolution in Britain. In Ireland it
was different. It was very bloody, indeed.
Backed by French money from
the absolute monarch Louis XIV, the bigoted
Catholic 'Sun King’, James had been building
up an army in Ireland for use against Parliament.
Ireland became the theatre of war bet-
ween Parliament, whose chief general was
William of Orange, and James's Irish army, to
which were added contingents of Louis's
French troops.

Catholic Ireland had, of course, much
reason for hating the Protestant establishment
which James was trying to subvert and over-
throw. Protestant Ireland, on the other hand,
was militant for Parliament. The Apprentice
Boys in what was then the Protestant city of
Londonderry stopped the governor, Lundy,
surrendering the city to James's troops by closing
the gates on them; Derry withstood a long siege.

In the 17th century there was a succession of
land confiscations as one faction or another
got on lop in Ireland, and James's Catholic
Parliament in Dublin now continued the tradition
by widespread confiscation or reclamation
of Protestant land. But, in a series of famous
battles and sieges, 'Aughrim, Derry and the
Boyne', and Limerick, Parliament defeated
James's Irish army and his French allies. The
last stand of James's Irish army occurred in the
besieged city of Limerick, under the leadership
of Patrick Sarsficld, one of James's generals
and a descendant of the O’Moore clan. People
who study these things date the popularity in
Ireland of Patrick as a given name back not
to Saint Patrick but to Patrick Sarsfield

Sarsfield surrendered on terms which included
allowing the Irish soldiers to emigrate and
enlist in the French Catholic army, which they
did, and promises that Catholics could freely
practise their religion. As Thomas Davis’s poem
puts it: Sarsfield went off to Fight and die in
Louis's wars, "but 'ere he yielded the Saxon
swore, to spoil our homes and our shrines no
more". But they did, and with a vengeance.

William of Orange, who by the standards of
the time was not a bigot, was inclined to honour
the 'Treaty of Limerick', but the new
Protestant Parliament in Dublin had other
ideas. They reversed the measures of James's
Catholic Parliament, and they brought in a
series of savagely oppressive measures against
the Catholic majority, the 'Penal Laws', many
of which bear a striking resemblance to the
laws of apartheid. (The difference was that
Catholics could convert; most of those with
property did).

Protestants who dissented from the
established Anglican Church were also
discriminated against, though not so much.
Until the last quarter of the 18th century, when
the Penal Laws began to be relaxed, this system
held ihe Catholics in helotry, without the right
to certain property, education, religion, or pro-
fessions like the law. "They bribed the son to
rob the sire" — a Catholic son could lake over
his fathom's property it he converted. "Their
dogs were taught alike to run upon the scent of
wolf or friar"... The Catholics were "Forbid
to read, forbid to plead, disarmed, disenfran-
chised imbeciles".

As late as the 1840s, the Protestant Irish
nationalist Thomas Davis could write those bitter
lines and add: "What wonder if our step
betrays the freed man born in Penal days".
Catholic Ireland would find it difficult to be
enthusiastic about Britain's 'Glorious Revolution'.

Yet despite what followed in Ireland, and
despite its inbuilt class limitations as a
revolution led by, and immediately and
primarily benefiting, the English and Scots
landed political oligarchy — despite the fact
that the common people of England and
Scotland had immediately to begin a prolonged
struggle with that oligarchy to establish their
own rights — the 1688 revolution remains one
of the turning points in human history. Essentially,
1688 only consolidated, and for 144
years finalised, the work of Cromwell's rcvolu
lion of the 1640s, when James's father Charles
had lost his head. In its course or as a direct
result of it Habeas Corpus was won, and
freedom from pre-publication censorship, responsible
democratic government (if on a very narrow
property franchise), and many other things still
unknown in most parts of the world to this
day. Its effects were felt throughout the follow-
ing century, in America, where those who won
independence from Britain in the 1770s looked
to it for inspiration, and in France, where oponcnts
of absolutism looked to the 'Glorious
Revolution' and the liberties it had secured in
the way we look back on the Russian or the
French revolution.

Like all the other similar historical events —
the English Commonwealth of the 1640s, the
American and French revolutions and so on —
which increased human liberty, took
humankind forward, and helped create the
present possibility of socialism, 1688 is ours. It
belongs to the socialists and the consistent
democrats everywhere, even in Independent Ireland.
True, it took an unconscionably long lime
for the Catholic people of Ireland to experience
its benefits. But it did bring benefits, directly
and indirectly. That Irish Republicanism which
took shape in the 1780s and '90s under the influcnce
of first the American and then the
French Revolutions owed much to it — in-
directly and directly too, for the first
Republicans were Protestants who identified
with the "Glorious Revolution". Today's vigorous
and stable Bourgeois Democracy in Ireland
is of great benefit to Ireland's workers: it has
some of its most important roots in 1688.
That socialists — and Marxists! — should
surrender this part of our heritage to the National
Front and the Orange Order is extraordinary,
but, as I've already said, symptomatic.

It is symptomatic of the state of historical
materialism in our movement, and of the
substitution of a-historical moralism for
Marxism or even an attempt at Marxism. It also
expresses a profound alienation from our own
history. Britain is imperialist, therefore the
entire history of the centuries of struggle of the
common people of Britain is tainted: that is
the underlying feeling and the real logic of it.
A cynical Stalinist historian once described
history as current politics extrapolated
backwards. That should not be the approach of
Marxists! Yet plainly in this case it is. It is all
the more inappropriate, because what happencd
in Ireland at the end of the 17th century was
part of a European conflict.

On James's side (and as his secret paymaster) was
l.ouis XIV, who ended the previous toleration
of Protestants in France in I685 by revoking
the Edict of Nantes. Louis's laws against the
Protestants had much in common with
Ireland's Penal Laws — except that Louis's
savage and sustained oppression led to the
enforced mass 'conversion' of the sizeable French
Protestant community, or to their exile (some
of them to Ireland), until the community was
all but wiped out. That docs not excuse
the oppression of the Irish Catholics; it should put ir
in its historical perspective.
In European terms William and Britain
stood for relative tolerance, against the
expansionary absolutism of the vile 'Sun King',
whose system oppressed the people of France
for 100 years more.

As on most questions like this, James Connolly
was far in advance of both the Irish Republicans
and the present day Irish and British Marxists.
In the chapter on 'The Jacobites and the Irish
People' in 'Labour in Irish History', confining
himself severely within an Irish nationalist
perspective, Connolly dismisses William as a
mere self-serving adventurer and truly says that
"neither army had the slightest claim to he
considered as a patriot army combating fur the
freedom of the Irish ...". Then he pens the
following denunciation of Sarsfield and his
associates: "So far from the paeans of praise
lavished upon Sarsfield and the Jacobite army
being justified, it is questionable whether a
more enlightened or patriotic age than our own
will not condemn them as little hetter than
traitors for their action in seducing the Irish
people from their allegiance to the cause of
their country's freedom to plunge them into a
war on behalf of a foreign tyrant..."

Connolly was surelv thinking of the attempt
by James to build up an Irish army for use
against Parliament and the British people when
he wrote in November 1913 this denunciation
of Irish nationalist grudgc-bearing, a plea for
British-Irish reconciliation:

"We arc told that the English people contributed
their help to our enslavement. It is
true. It is also true that the Irish people contributed
soldiers to crush every democratic
movement of the English people... Slaves
themselves, the English helped to enslave
others; slaves themselves, the Irish helped to
enslave others. There is no room for recrimination".

Workers Liberty 1988

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.