Documents of the First International 1872
Relations between the Irish Sections and the British Federal Council
Engels’s Record of his own Report at the General Council Meeting of May 14, 1872. Marx and Engels on Ireland, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971; Marx and Engels, Collected Works, 2nd Russian ed., Vol. 18, Moscow, 1961, and later in The General Council of the First International. 1871-1872. Minutes
On May 14, 1872, a meeting of the General Council discussed the question of the relations between the Irish sections emerging in England and Ireland and the British Federal Council. Engels censured the chauvinistic positions held by Hales and several other English members of the General Council and the British Council, who obstructed the formation in the International of an independent Irish organisation and its struggle for Ireland’s independence. In the debate that ensued the majority of Council members supported Engels.
Engels’s speech has been preserved in the form of notes he made with a view to having the speech published in the press, and also (in part) in the minutes of the General Council. The speech was not published because at the next meeting of the General Council it was decided not to include the debate on the Irish question in the report intended for the press: it was thought that some of the speeches, notably that made by Hales, might be harmful to the International.
Citizen Engels said the real purport of this motion was to bring the Irish sections under the jurisdiction of the British Federal Council, a thing to which the Irish sections would never consent, and which the Council had neither the right nor the power to impose upon them. According to the Rules and Regulations, this Council had no power to compel any section or branch to acknowledge the supremacy of any Federal Council whatsoever. It was certainly bound, before admitting or rejecting any new branch, within the jurisdiction of any Federal Council, to consult that Council. But he maintained that the Irish sections in England were no more under the jurisdiction of the British Federal Council than the French, German or Italian and Polish sections in this country. The Irish formed, to all intents and purposes, a distinct nationality of their own, and the fact that they used the English language could not deprive them of the right, common to all, to have an independent national organisation within the International.
Citizen Hales had spoken of the relations between England and Ireland as if they were of the most idyllic nature, something like those between England and France at the time of the Crimean war, when the ruling classes of the two countries never tired of praising each other, and everything breathed the most complete harmony. But the case was quite different. There was the fact of seven centuries of English Conquest and oppression of Ireland, and so long as that oppression existed, it was an insult to Irish working men to ask them to submit to a British Federal Council. The position of Ireland with regard to England was not that of an equal, it was that of Poland with regard to Russia. What would be said if this Council called upon Polish sections to acknowledge the supremacy of a Russian Federal Council in Petersburg, or upon Prussian Polish, North Schleswig, and Alsatian sections to submit to a Federal Council in Berlin? Yet what it was asked to do with regard to Irish sections was substantially the same thing. If members of a conquering nation called upon the nation they had conquered and continued to hold down to forget their specific nationality and position, to “sink national differences” and so forth, that was not Internationalism, it was nothing else but preaching to them submission to the yoke, and attempting to justify and to perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common among the English working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish, and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to the Negroes.
In a case like that of the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinctly national organisation; the Irish, as well as other oppressed nationalities, could enter the Association only as equals with the members of the conquering nation, and under protest against the conquest. The Irish sections, therefore, not only were justified, but even under the necessity to state in the preamble to their rules that their first and most pressing duty, as Irishmen, was to establish their own national independence. The antagonism between Irish and English working men in England had always been one of the most powerful means by which class rule was upheld in England. He recollected the time when he saw Feargus O'Connor and the English Chartists turned out of the Hall of Science in Manchester by the Irish. Now, for the first time, there was a chance of making English and Irish working men act together in harmony for their common emancipation, a result attained by no previous movement in their country. And no sooner had this been effected, than they were called upon to dictate to the Irish, and to tell them they must not carry on the movement in their own way, but submit to be ruled by an English Council! Why, that was introducing into the International the subjugation of the Irish by the English.
If the promoters of this motion were so brimful of the truly International spirits, let them prove it by removing the seat of the British Federal Council to Dublin, and submit to a Council of Irishmen.
As to the pretended collisions between Irish and English branches, they had been provoked by attempts of members of the British Federal Council to meddle with the Irish sections, to get them to give up their specific national character and to come under the rule of the British Council.
Then the Irish sections in England could not be separated from the Irish sections in Ireland; it would not do to have some Irishmen dependent upon a London Federal Council and others upon a Dublin Federal Council. The Irish sections in England were our base of operations with regard to the Irish working men in Ireland; they were more advanced, being placed in more favourable circumstances, and the movement in Ireland could be propagated and organised only through their instrumentality. And were they to wilfully destroy their own base of operations and cut off the only means by which Ireland could be effectually won for the International? For it must not be forgotten that the Irish sections, and rightly so, would never consent to give up their distinct national organisation and submit to the British Council. The question, then, amounted to this: were they to leave the Irish alone, or were they to turn them out of the Association? If the motion was adopted by the Council, the Council would inform the Irish working men, in so many words, that, after the dominion of the English aristocracy over Ireland, after the dominion of the English middle class over Ireland, they must now look forth to the advent of the dominion of the English working class over Ireland.
A reference to a clash between the Chartists and the Irish Repealers in Manchester on March 8, 1842, provoked by the bourgeois nationalist leaders of the Irish National Repeal Association (champions of the repeal of the Act of the Union of 1801), who were hostile to the labour movement in England, notably to Chartism. O'Connor and a group of Chartists were driven by the Repealers from the Hall of Science, where O'Connor was to deliver a lecture.