Article from Workers' Republic 19, mid-summer 1967.
Fenianism is generally thought of as the archetypal physical force movement, directed towards establishing an independent Irish Republic. It was founded in Dublin in 1858. It organised the unsuccessful Rising of 1867. Segments of it played a leading role in the Land League agitation in the 1880s. One of its strands helped to organise the partially successful Rising of 1916.
Fenianism was in the line of that Republicanism which has for seven generations now been the vehicle of radical protest against exploitation and oppression in Ireland. At different times Republicanism has been formalised in a variety of movements reflecting the needs of the moment and the specific class content of the revolutionary impulse which called them into existence. In the era of the French Revolution it was the United Irishmen. In 1848 the Young Irelanders. In 1867 the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as the Fenians.
In the first of these the leadership was in the hands of representatives of a budding native bourgeoisie, soon to be emasculated by the effects of the Act of Union. In the second, upper middle class elements and even aristocrats were still predominant. But in the leadership of the third the educated middle classes of the old sort were conspicuously absent. Symbolically, William Smith O'Brien, he who in 1848, in armed rebellion, had asked the landlords for permission to cut down trees to build barricades, came out publicly to warn the readers of The Nation against the Fenians. Fenianism, in Marx's words, was "characterised by a socialistic tendency (in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation of the soil) and the fact that it was a lower orders' movement".
The social changes reflected in this divorcement of the upper middle classes from Republicanism and uncompromising separatism are the essential background to an understanding of Fenianism.
At their inception the Fenians found Ireland a depressed and desolated country. Frederick Engels, describing this country during a visit in.1855, wrote: "Gendarmes, priests, lawyers, bureaucrats, squires in pleasant profusion, and a total absence of any and every industry, so that it would be difficult to understand what all these parasitic growths found to live off if the misery of the peasants did not supply the other half of the picture. 'Strong measures' are visible in every part of the country, the government meddles with everything, of so-called self-government there is not a trace. Ireland may be regarded as the first English colony and as one which, because of its proximity, is still governed in exactly the old way, and here one can already observe that the so-called liberty of English citizens is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country, and the drink-sodden expression of the Prussian gendarme is developed to its highest perfection here among the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets, and handcuffs". (Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, p.112.)
Ireland in those days did indeed present a depressing picture. Ever since the Union the weaker Irish economy had been absolutely unable to make any industrial progress in the teeth of British competition. This meant that for the vast majority of the population the only means of livelihood remained the land.
Further, the pre-Famine Irish landed aristocracy did not develop the bourgeois characteristics of their English counterparts, but continued to live the life of bastard feudal magnates, expending most of their income on vast rambling retinues and uncontrolled debauchery. The result was that despite their ruthless exploitation of the peasantry they tended to fall heavily into debt.
THE FAMINE AND AFTER
The so-called Famine of 1846-8 heightened the bankruptcy of the landlords and produced even more disastrous effects for the peasants. So overcrowded was the agricultural land of the country, so close to subsistence was the vast majority of the people, that the slightest fluctuation could force millions into starvation.
The peasants grew potatoes for food and sold livestock and grain to pay the rackrenting landlords. Though the potato crop suffered from the blight for a number of years in succession, 'til finally it failed entirely in 1845, there was no famine in the sense of unavoidable natural calamity; What took place was a mass murder of the peasants by way of forcible export of grain and other food far in excess of the value of the potatoes destroyed. Connolly: "Thus in 1848 it was estimated that 500,000 persons died of hunger and 1,826,152 quarters of wheat and barley were exported."
The "Famine", coinciding with the Repeal of the Corn Laws, led to an agricultural revolution in Ireland. Corn-growing peasants, unable to compete with virgin lands and East European wheat, began to be replaced by sheep and cattle. The Irish agrarian system yielded to the English, the system of small tenantry was replaced by big tenantry. "Thus the depopulation begun by the famine was continued by the developing economic situation. This process of clearance was aided by the iniquitous 1838 Poor Law under which starving people were refused the meagre relief of a place in the workhouse unless they gave up any farms bigger than one quarter of an acre. A further stimulus to land clearance and consolidation was the Encumbered Estates Act 1849, which set aside the traditional laws of entail in respect of the most bankrupt of the Irish landlords, enabling their estates to be sold and allowing a horde of property speculators to buy up vast tracts of land. By 1857 one third of Ireland's agricultural land had changed hands.
The new capitalist landowners were even more out of sympathy with their tenants (and certainly more efficient at the business of rack-renting) than the old aristocrats had been. They had invested their money and they expected a good return on it. The most economic method of getting this was to create bigger farms with fewer people. Thus the amount of produce consumed on the land was reduced and a higher rate of exploitation became possible.
A friendly government assisted this rationalisation by passing two Acts of Parliament reducing the legal formalities connected with evictions and making the process cheaper and easier. Between 1849 and lS60 there were 37,000 evictions affecting about 200,000 people. Bitterly, Marx commented: "What can be more ridiculous than to confuse the barbarities of Elizabeth and Cromwell, who wanted to supplant the Irish by English colonists, with the present system, which wants to supplant them by sheep, pigs, and oxen! The system of 1801-1846, with its rack rents and middlemen, collapsed in 1846. (During that period evictions were exceptional, occurring mainly in Leinster, where the land is especially good for cattle raising)... Wool and meat became the slogan, hence conversion of tillage into pasture. Hence from then onwards systematic consolidation of farms... Clearing of the Estate of Ireland is now the one purpose of English rule in Ireland".
THE GOMBEENS GET FAT
As farms were consolidated and the surplus product of agriculture grew, more agricultural produce became a commodity on the market. Thus the terrible drain on population, even though it was accompanied by a slight reduction in the gross output of agriculture, meant an actual increase in the commercial life of the country and stimulated the growth of a new native middle (gombeen) class. But this class was predominantly involved in the service and distribution industries, and Irish society remained entirely dependent on Britain for manufactured goods. In fact the gombeen classes were merely middlemen between the British producers and the Irish consumers, and tended to degenerate into that category of anglicised lickspittles known as Castle Catholics.
Ireland had become a land of colonial capitalist agriculture. If in normal capitalist countries the expropriated peasantry are absorbed in industry, Ireland had no industry, with the single exception of linen in the north. The only option left to the masses was emigration to where the industry was. The home market shrank with it the income of shopkeepers, artisans, tradespeople, even while the volume exported to England (which the remaining masses in their poverty could not consume) increased: only the gombeens benefited.
MASS BASIS OF FENIANISM
The suffering resulting from the agrarian convulsions of the 1840s and 1850s was borne by the broad masses of the tenant farmers and landless men in the country, and by the artisans, labourers and urban petty bourgeois in the towns. The qualitative point in the transferring of Ireland into England's biggest pasture land, reached in '64-'65, was, in Marx's estimation, responsible for Fenianism becoming a mass movement.
The steady worsening of living conditions which had followed the Union militated against its acceptance as a permanent settlement by the masses: taken together with the results of the exploitation of Ireland's agrarian economy this meant that all popular movements had both an agrarian and a separatist character.
What were the solutions to Ireland's economic problems? Marx, in 1857, believed that Ireland needed:
1) Self government and independence from England;
2) an agrarian revolution;
3)protective tariffs against England.
Previously Marx thought Ireland's separation from England impossible. He now came to believe it was inevitable, "though after separation may come federation". Separation, in Marx's view, was necessary not merely in Ireland's interest but also that of the British and international labour movements. He observed that the great reserve of strength of the English landed oligarchy was their proto-feudal private backyard in Ireland.
He saw the bitter antagonism between the English workers and the emigrant, starving Irish workers thrown onto the English labour market as being mainly responsible for the impotence of the British labour movement. The main barrier to unity of British and American workers lay in the bitterness of the Irish-Americans towards the British working class whom they regarded as a dupe of their former oppressors.
Marx therefore concluded that the liberation of Ireland was the lynchpin on which hung the emancipation of the British workers with all its importance for the European socialist revolution, and also the unity of a large section of the international working class. He felt that the overthrow of the English landed oligarchy would be impossible so long as it remained entrenched in Ireland. When the Irish people took charge of its own destiny, elected its legislators and appointed its government without external coercion, the destruction of the landed aristocracy, who were, for the most part, English landlords, would be much easier than in England because in Ireland the landlords were the detested representatives of foreign oppression. The removal of direct imperialist control from Ireland would be the signal for an agrarian revolution to take place.
TRENDS IN THE IRISH MOVEMENT
Ireland needed self-government, agrarian revolution, and protective tariffs against England, and not only Marx saw this. This was the natural program of the national democratic revolution. But what were the real possibilities? Which classes could carry out the separatist, agrarian programme in a situation where, as we have seen, the 'liberal' bourgeoisie, the Castle Catholics, were either benefiting from the agrarian changes or profitably acting as agents for British manufactures?
There had been two trends in the Irish movement. The first was a spontaneous peasant resistance to landlordism the Ribbonmen, Whiteboys, etc., endemic to the history of landlordism in Ireland. By its nature it was local and isolated, and could never become a general form of political struggle. The second, the liberal national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie, had its natural leaders in the lawyers and came to the fore after the Union, after the defeat of the revolutionary republicanism of the United Irishmen. Needing peasant support, it had to search for slogans that would appeal to the masses. Thus O'Connell found one in Catholic Emancipation and later in the Repeal of the Union. These gombeen tricksters were not for full national independence and were quite incapable of organising a radical, peasant uprising even in the most exceptional and extreme conditions, as witness 1848. Apart from a brief period later when it allied itself with the Land League its destiny was to be that of a constitutional, lickspittle Irish bourgeois opposition, expressing its aims in timid political demands and collaborating after 1870 in legal adjustment of the land question.
In the 1850s and 1860s, with a crying need for agrarian revolution, helplessness of the peasants and feebleness of the bourgeoisie leading to their collusion with the colonial power, Ireland resembled many of the colonial countries today. But with some cardinal and illuminating differences. Even in backward countries today, where industrial workers are organised it is in big concentrations, associated with large scale modern industry, and they can thus acquire a social weight out of proportion to their actual numbers. In certain favourable conditions, a class conscious working class in such a situation, armed with the Marxist programme, can lead the peasants, push aside the bourgeoisie, and begin a process of permanent revolution ending in workers' power. But in Ireland at that time the working class was germinal and there was only small scale industry. Thus the spontaneous peasant movement was helpless; the liberal bourgeoisie were not interested; and the workers, did not possess sufficient social weight and could not play the part of leader and organiser in the manner in which they were to do in Russia 50 years later.
Thus arose a peasant and workers' movement, wedging itself between the other trends, agrarian socialist in tone, taking in the disaffected of the towns including the Irish in Britain: Fenianism. Connolly quoted Pigott on the social position of this 'lower orders movement': "It is notorious that Fenianism was regarded with unconcealed aversion, not to say deadly hatred, not merely by the landlords and ruling class, but by the Catholic clergy, the middle-class Catholics, and the great majority of the farming classes. It was in fact only amongst the youngest and most intelligent of the labouring class, of the young men of the large towns and cities engaged in the humbler walks of mercantile life, of the artisan and working classes, that it found favour." Beginning as a secret revolutionary organisation on the Blanquist model, it evolved after the MacManus funeral in 1861 into a mass movement, though still formally a "conspiracy".
THE POLITICS OF FENIANISM
Desmond Ryan wrote that "Fenianism was conceived in the defeat of an insurrection amid the horrors of famine and born in betrayal of an all-Ireland constitutional and social movement". In the wake of '48, O'Connell's Repeal Association and Gavan Duffy's League of the North and South - the first primarily a Home Rule movement, the second principally concerned with Agrarian Reform, both severely legal and -constitutional - had collapsed in a web of involvement in English party intrigue and outright personal place hunting. Only a few cowed MPs remained.
Against this background, and from the knowledge of some of the leaders (notably James Stephens and John O'Leary) of the petty bourgeois revolutionary movements on the continent, the Fenians started out by drawing a number of conclusions.
1) Equating constitutional politics with O'Connellism and its aftermath, i.e. the trickery of the lawyers on the peasants, it concluded that involvement in constitutional imperialist party politics led inevitably to meandering and corruption.
2) No worthwhile reforms for Ireland could be expected from the English Parliament, therefore Parliamentary campaigns on issues such as land reform, extension of the suffrage, etc. were irrelevant and a sham - they wanted a national revolution and not just a feeble piece-meal campaign of the old sort. Thomas Clark Luby wrote: "The Irish people know that any tenant right manufactured in the Imperial Parliament would be fraudulent and delusive in its workings... for in a British legislature, no matter how popularly elected, there could never be justice for Ireland... Irishmen know that till independence be got, a system of national manufactures cannot be created". Therefore they stood for the overthrow of British rule, regarding all political activity not directed directly towards the establishment of national independence as a waste of time.. They realised that this could only be done by the armed overthrow of colonialism, and opted for the tradition of the United Irishman, disgusted with mealy-mouthed gombeen constitutionalism.
5) The drain of emigration and the progress of land clearances gave rise to a justifiable fear that if something were not done quickly it would be too late.
The Fenians laboured constantly under a feeling of the greatest urgency. "Day after day" observed the Irish People editorially "the island is drained of its best and dearest blood... and the conviction is hourly forced on the blindest that British domination ... at last strikes at the very existence of the Irish race."
"Soon or Never" was the urgent belief that spurred the Fenians. They realised that no reforms acceptable to the British ruling class at that time could have allayed this, and that only independence, tariffs, etc., could make any difference.
4) Their Proclamation of March 1867 contained these worlds: "The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish People, and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and the complete separation of Church and State. We appeal to the Highest Tribunal for evidence of the Justice of our cause. History bears testimony to the intensity of our sufferings, and we declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England; our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields - against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our blood and theirs. Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human freedom."
(Compared with this, how parochial, pious, puerile and fossilised appear our latter-day "Fenians"!)
5) They associated reform, which they tended to see as pretty impossible anyway, with the cap-in-hand politics of the gombeen/ clergy constitutionalism which in fact achieved nothing until the Fenians themselves had frightened the British Government. They had no specific programme of reform and social reorganisation because the believed, in some ways rightly, that this could only be achieved after independence. Thus they turned their eyes and attempted to turn the social discontent on which they thrived, towards the necessary pre-condition for any decisive changes - independence under a democratic republic. (There is an interesting analogy here with the Chartists, in the relationship between the single revolutionary political goal and the genuinely lower-orders, socially motivated mass movement of which it was the expression. For the Chartists control of Parliament was to be the key to the social reorganisation which the mass ferment demanded. For the Fenians, it was independence. It is no doubt true that had the Chartists achieved the suffrage in their revolutionary manner, the use to which it would have been put would be entirely different from the results that flowed after it was granted in entirely different circumstances, piece-meal from the 1860s onwards; and no doubt had the Fenians achieved their democratic republic as they projected it in '67 the results for the masses would have been entirely different from the outcome of the present semi-independence.)
6) The organisation was secret, highly disciplined and highly centralised. In theory at least each cell or circle elected a representative to the next level of the organisation, and so on up to supreme head centre, initially Stephens and then Kelly. Under Stephens the organisation tended to be run almost completely along military lines.
THE POSSIBILITIES IN 1866/7
Such was the organisation which, by 1865, had some 100,000 members (15,000 of them in the British occupation forces). What were the objective possibilities open to it at that time? In an article in 1882 Engels, probably accurately, considered that in general: "An Irish revolt has not the slightest hope of success unless there is a war or danger of a war externally" (i.e. England's difficulty is Ireland' opportunity.) Without these conditions England, with its superior military power, was able to suppress any Irish revolt. But there was a possibility of war between the USA and ex-pro-South England just after the American civil war: "...if it had come to a war Ireland would within a few months have become a member of the United States, or at least a republic under its protection. The sum which England so readily undertook to pay in the Alabama case by decision of the Geneva arbitration was its price for buying off the American intervention in Ireland." (Marx & Engels on Colonialism, p.230).
Up to that point a serious Irish revolt might have created such a situation as to force serious concessions from Britain or even American intervention at the end of the Civil War.
In discussing the failure of Fenianism the major question, therefore, is why the chance was missed in '65. When it came to the actual rebellion finally in March 1867, the objective possibilities of victory no longer existed. After the danger of war with America had passed, "the police sufficed to settle with the Fenians" (Engels, ibid.) Without a doubt that Rising in '67 which was over in one night could have been improved upon, but at that late stage it is unlikely that any other final result was possible, however efficient the organisation. The initial mistake was made in '65.
The explanation is that the movement had serious structural and intellectual weaknesses which militated not only against its long term success but even against the full utilisation, even at the most favourable point, of the forces at its disposal. These must be examined.
FORMAL WARFARE AND AMERICAN ROMANTICS
The Fenian movement was the first Irish revolutionary organisation to enlist the active support of Irish emigrants in England and America. Hundreds of thousands of Irish soldiers and officers who took part in the American civil war (the outbreak of which forced the abandonment of Fenian plans for an early Rising) did so with the intention of building up an army to liberate Ireland. The general scheme was that the American wing was to raise money, buy arms and recruit Civil War veterans for the struggle at home. In practice little money arrived (between '58 and '67 only £52,000) and no arms. Such veterans as turned up showed little aptitude for revolution whatever may have been their abilities in formal warfare.
Meanwhile the American Fenians squandered their money on harebrained schemes of their own such as the farcical invasion of Canada. In 1865 the American movement split. Though the Fenians in Ireland had been led to believe that 100,000 rifles were on the way, none whatever arrived. This romanticism and unrealism was one reason for the frittering away of the opportunity. Closely connected with this reliance on the purely military aspect was the failure of the Fenians to appreciate the necessary connection between the national revolution unavoidably led by a hard organisation seriously prepared to fight the occupation forces, and the social struggles of the masses. is we have seen, the Fenians were overwhelmingly peasant and worker in membership. They assumed that independence would inevitably lead to peasant proprietary and indeed this was their purpose. They distrusted the upper and middle classes. They made consistent anti-landlord propaganda in their paper and they were at war with the Catholic Church (which actively supported the UK connection) in such an outspoken way as has not been dared by any group since - yet they did not see the need to link up directly their secret revolutionary organisational work with the concrete struggle of the masses, in the manner of, say, the United Irishmen who recruited agrarian secret societies and embryonic trade unions.
They were predominantly peasant in their support but they did not see the need to organise the direct seizures of land, and they failed to work for unity of this kind of action with their military plans. They tended to regard all social and economic struggles not directly, militarily connected with the national question as diversionary, irrelevant and likely to split the ranks of the freedom fighters. This was partly a reaction against the impotence of the peasant secret societies; It was undoubtedly in consonance with the thinking of the dominant European petty bourgeois revolutionism of that period. However, in its insistence on revolution as opposed to reform it had merit; and particularly as this meant that it stressed the overall struggle for state control.
But its failure to link up with the social agitation taken together with the guiding conception in the 1865-67 period of an Irish Army confronting and English army in open conflict on a date set by the leadership, was the main cause of ineffectiveness in '65 and the fiasco in '67. It involved procrastinating, a waiting approach, playing for time, waiting for arms which never came. In '65-'67 it meant postponements and delay time after time until the Fenian-infiltrated regiments had been withdrawn from Ireland, until the leadership had been arrested, until it was too late for an effective Rising to be attempted. Connolly, in his insistence on rising in 1916, was undoubtedly sharply conscious of the lessons of this and other lost opportunities.
Lenin in his letters to the Central Committee in 1917 urging and insistently demanding that they prepare an insurrection lest the tide turn and the chance be missed, demanded: "treat insurrection as an art". The Fenians, despite their formally conspiratorial character, did not do this, despite Devoy's urging on the leadership to turn out the Fenian soldiers and let them spearhead a movement of the masses. But he was overruled by Stephens and the American 'experts' trained
in the school of formal warfare. Because of this, where there might well have been a popular mass upsurge, there took place no formal warfare. They had missed the tide.
Fenianism did not achieve, and in the circumstances perhaps simply could not have achieved an Irish Republic in 1867. But the Fenians did help to scare the English ruling class into the first feeble legislation on tenants' rights: Gladstone's Land Act of 1870. And even in the '80s the "mysterious background of Fenian armed conspiracy" remained, together with the Land League struggles, an effective element in forcing concessions constitutionally.
The Fenians, reaching for the main lever to change society, the state, never elaborated a specific programme relating to the concrete facts of life of the masses. This had meant a loss of effectiveness in struggle, splitting apart of elements, social and political, that were in fact complementary, divorcement of the independence struggle from direct and immediate connection with the problems of the masses. It also meant that specific agitation on the conditions on the land was left to the gombeens, lawyers and clergy, i.e. that the land question would become under their influence constitutional land reform and not agrarian revolution.
Always a serious weakness, after the rout of the prospects of immediate sharp struggle for independence in March '67, this divorcement meant that the Fenians let the gombeen constitutionalists catch the wind from the continuing ferment. They let the issue of social alleviation become divorced from the question of independence. In the wake of '67 came a growth of land agitation, and also of amnesty agitation for the Fenian prisoners. In some areas pitched battles took place between supporters of these two strands and by their stand here the Fenians furthered the schism and helped buttress the gombeens in leadership of the peasant masses for at least a decade longer: the liberal bourgeoisie became spokesmen for tenant right under the Empire.
Fenianism first arose out of disgust with gombeen politics; and later, in the mid '70s, a section of it became frozen into the characteristic "Hillside Man" posture of physical-force-on-principle so familiar today, because of a second wave of disgust, this time with Buttism. The physical force '"Advanced Party" acquiesced in the launching of Butt's Home Rule movement in 1875. In the early '70s they took part in election campaigns, sometimes in competition and sometimes in uneasy alliance with the Home Rulers, with Butt (the Fenians' lawyer) as bonaparte. Not opposed, when the prospects of a Rising had gone for the time being, to attempts at Home Rule, they were rightly sceptical and impatient. In 1874 a leading Fenian said: "I make no objection... that the Home Rule Platform should be accepted as a compromise... but we must be told when it is going to be finished, for I don't want, and I will not be a party to seeing, the ambition of a certain class of people satisfied while hunger exists in the land and the emigrant ships take our best me away to be slaves of other nations." (D.Thornley: Isaac Butt and Home Rule, p.243).
It is probable that an agreement was reached between them and Butt to 'try out' his methods for three years after which, if he failed, they would revert to other tactics. It is a fact that until 1877 Biggar and Power, members of the IRB Supreme Council, were also members of Parliament, in fact they resigned in refusal to obey the IRB decision to withdraw from Parliament. In 1876, finally disillusioned, the Fenians once again began to break up Home Rule meetings. Fenian leaders like Daly and Doran, formerly uneasily acquiescent with Buttism, now broke "totally and irrevocably" from constitutionalism. That was the real turning point, after which some of the Fenians became sectarian physical-forcists-on-principle, confusing means with ends. But many of the ex-Fenian rank and file remained in the constitutional movement. In Britain the majority of the Fenian element was in the English Home Rule Confederation by 1876 and from there were most vociferous in demanding the sort of Parliamentary tactics later used by Parnell. Thus the mass basis of Fenianism was harnessed to Parnellism, and transmitted to his successors. As a nationalist conglomeration Fenianism contained many tendencies: after 1867, in its decline and gradual isolation from the masses, this expressed itself in splits. When Davitt, after the New Departure in 1879, led a serious attempt to apply revolutionary methods to the land struggles, this was resisted by many diehard physical-forcists-on-principle defending the pristine purity of an abstract "national movement". (The Land League, as a result, was incongruously allied politically with the rather tame demand for Home Rule.) The IRB-type revolutionaries who lasted into the 20th century were a complete anomaly, as those who have survived in the sluggish waters of Irish politics to our own day are a positive monstrosity. Their anachronistic influence has led to a succession of abortions and derailments of the masses - in the capitalist interest.
In power, having religiously maintained an intellectual vacuum where social policy should be, they begin as vaguely left-wing petty bourgeois opportunists and quickly degenerate under the class pressure of the bourgeois rulers and imperialism into timid pragmatists and outright conservatives (MacNeill and the Free Staters of the '20s; the early Fianna Fail; Clann na Poblachta in the '40s). If the Fenians proved incapable of taking power when it would have meant something, their epigone are incapable of using it even when they have it: more or less tamely, sooner or later, they step into line with the native and imperialist powers that dominate the workers and small farmers.
The centenary of the 1867 Rising has been marked by disagreements amongst the various nominally revolutionary groups in Ireland. These differences are not academic - they are intertwined with the divisions that rend the Irish would-be revolutionary movement. How one sees the Fenians seems to depend on how one sees current politics!
Naturally the remaining physical forcists applaud blindly. Criticism has come from a number of quarters with accusations that Fenianism was just a conspiracy divorced at all times from the masses. Of course there is need for a detailed discussion on the characteristic features, and the serious faults, of the Fenians: but only those who appreciate and attempt to emulate the positive sides of past revolutionists have a right to disparage them. Unfortunately those on the left who dismiss the hardness of the Fenians without more ado as "Blanquist" are usually anti-revolutionary, incapable of even conceiving of an insurrection and least appreciative of the need for a hard, seriously organised revolutionary organisation in our own conditions. Others have projected backwards, in an un-historical fashion, the sins of present and recent petty bourgeois Republicanism onto the Fenians. But the only continuity in this respect is in their common inflexibility of tactics, elevating into principles tactics and certain methods of struggle (which should be judiciously derived, in relation to goals, from concrete conditions). Here again these who most vocally criticise the physical force-ists of 100 years ago are themselves equally inflexible and unmarxist, but in the opposite direction, rejecting insurrection and physical force in any circumstances - such are the Connolly Association and the Irish Workers' Party.
But how, then, must we evaluate the Fenians?
In its best period from 1861-67 Fenianism had been a mass movement of the common people, embryonic 'socialist' in tendency, in conditions where the struggling masses were either directly connected with the land or very close to it. It did not develop any sort of scientific socialist consciousness. Whether it could have is merely a matter of speculation; there were a few very weak branches of the International Workingmen's Association in Ireland at that time. But in its relations with the International the Fenian leadership was initially unfriendly, and became only a little less so when the International played a big part in International Amnesty agitation. Perhaps the only thing that could have ensured an easy transition from the imprecise Fenian conceptions to Marxist socialism for most of the Fenians would have been the influence of a serious socialist force amongst the British workers. This, of course, was lacking at that time. Whatever the possibilities, the Fenian following was absorbed by the Home Rule movement.
Absolute condemnation of the present physical force element is necessary (and of the Sinn Fein ex-physical-force-ists) because they lag absolutely behind the knowledge, needs and potential of the times. But our criticism of the elements of this to be found already in the early Fenians is very relative and highly qualified. They were more or less of their "time" - Marx apart, and even his program for Ireland then was that of the Fenians themselves. Viewed historically, we can see the great merit of the Fenians, existing when a mass revolutionary labour movement in Ireland was probably not yet possible: it is for the same reason that we condemn their epigones who have none of their merits, and stand in the way of the revolutionary workers' movement which is not merely possible but inevitable. Thus we best honour the real merits of the Fenians as they were by condemning their biggest detractors - their epigones,
We must know with the Fenians how to keep the goal of power firmly in mind - but also how to mobilise the forces of the only class now capable of revolutionising society, the proletariat. We must know how to link its day to day struggles together in a movement aiming for power. The Fenians wanted to take power for the masses according to an unclear conception of the state and a concept of an amorphous petty bourgeois Jacobin democracy. We have a more specific and therefore more realisable goal - Workers' Power.
Fenianism was a movement in the revolutionary pre-history of the Irish people. Events over the last hundred years, mostly terrible events, have crystallised out from those masses the modern proletariat, now obviously capable of playing that decisive role in society which was beyond the ability of its embryo a hundred years ago. If Fenianism was the expression of the Irish masses in the 1860s, the revolutionary socialist movement must be the Fenianism of today, only more precise in its aims, more clear in its methods and the expression of the most revolutionary class in history. When the Phoenix of a mass revolutionary movement rises once more, it will be a Red Phoenix. Then the proletariat will finally establish the Republic. The Republic it establishes will be the Workers' Republic!