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Marx on nineteenth-century colonial Ireland: analysing colonialism as a dynamic social process

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Eamonn Slater
Department of Sociology, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Terrence McDonough
Department of Economics, National University of Ireland, Galway


Discussion of the relationship between Ireland and colonialism has often revolved around similarities and differences between the Irish situation and other, more iconic, examples of colonised societies. This tendency has been partially encouraged by the prominence within Marxian scholarship of dependency theory, which contends that the underdevelopment of colonial societies is due primarily to their integration into the capitalist world economic system. In this analysis, all colonised societies can be characterised by this integration into world capitalism, and consequently share a common source of exploitation and disadvantage. This perspective has often located its source in Marx’s writings on India and, crucially for our current concern, Ireland. This article explores a different perspective on colonialism which the authors believe can be found in Marx’s consideration of the Irish situation.

Ireland and the British Empire-Commonwealth
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2008

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1 Karl Marx, ‘Outline of a report on the Irish question to the communist Educational Association of German Workers in London, December 16, 1867’ in idem and Frederick Engels, Ireland and the Irish question (Moscow, 1978), pp 136–49.

2 Ibid., p. 555, n. 110.

3 Accounts can be found in Moody, T. W., The Fenian movement (Dublin, 1968)Google Scholar; Kee, Robert, The green flag, (3 vols, London, 1972), iiGoogle Scholar; Comerford, R. V., The Fenians in context: Irish politics and society, 1848–82 (Dublin, 1985)Google Scholar; Newsinger, John, Fenianism in mid-Victorian Britain (London, 1994)Google Scholar; and Rafferty, Oliver P., The Church, the state and the Fenian threat, 1961–75 (Basingstoke, 1999).Google Scholar

4 See esp. Newsinger, Fenianism.

5 Ibid., p. 61.

6 Marx to Engels, 2 Nov. 1867 (idem & Engels, Ireland & the Irish question, p. 153).

7 Marx & Engels, Ireland & the Irish question, p. 552.

8 Minutes of the meeting of council and members and friends of the association, 19 Nov. 1867 (ibid., pp 485–9).

9 Marx to Engels, 30 Nov. 1867 (ibid., pp 156–7).

10 Ibid., pp 156–8.

11 Ibid., pp 157–8.

12 Ibid., p. 158.

13 Mohri, Kenzo, ‘Progressive and negative perspectives of capitalism and imperialism’ in Chilcote, Ronald (ed.), Imperialism: theoretical directions (Amherst, New York, 2000), p. 134.Google Scholar

14 Vujacic, Ivan, ‘Marx and Engels on development and underdevelopment: the restoration of a certain coherence’ in History of Political Economy, 20, no. 3 (1988), p. 483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Brewer, Anthony, Marxist theories of imperialism: a critical survey (2nd ed., London, 1990), p. 48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Munck, Ronnie, The Irish economy: results and prospects (London, 1993), pp 123.Google Scholar

17 Jacobsen, John Kurt, Chasing progress in the Irish Republic (Cambridge, 1994), pp 4550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 O’Hearn, Denis, The Atlantic economy: Britain, the U.S. and Ireland (Manchester, 2001).Google Scholar

19 See, for instance, Howe, Stephen, Ireland and empire: colonial legacies in Irish history and culture (Oxford, 2000), p. 3.Google Scholar

20 Hazelkorn, Ellen, Marx and Engels on Ireland: an annotated checklist, American Institute for Marxist Studies bibliographic series, no. 15 (New York, 1981), p. 2.Google Scholar

21 Coughlan, Anthony, ‘Ireland’s Marxist historians’ in Brady, Ciaran (ed.), Interpreting Irish history (Dublin, 1994), p. 291.Google Scholar

22 Hazelkorn, Marx and Engels on Ireland, p. 38.

23 Marx & Engels, Ireland & the Irish question.

24 Marx, ‘Outline’, pp 136–49.

25 Karl Marx, ‘Notes for an undelivered speech on Ireland’ (idem & Engels, Ireland & the Irish question, pp 130–5).

26 Karl Marx, ‘Record of a speech on the Irish question delivered by Karl Marx to the German Workers’ Educational Association in London on December 16, 1867’ (idem & Engels, Ireland & the Irish question, pp 150–3.

27 Marx, ‘Outline’.

28 Ibid., p 136.

29 Ibid.,p. 137.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., p. 140 (italics as in original).

32 Ibid. (italics as in original).

33 Ibid., p. 139.

34 Ibid., p. 142.

35 Ibid., p. 139 (italics as in original)

36 Ibid. (italics as in original).

37 Ibid., p. 141 (italics as in original).

38 Ibid., p. 142 (italics as in original).

39 Marx, ‘Record’, p. 151.

40 After a description by Marx: ‘It is as though light of a particular hue were cast upon everything, tingeing all other colours and modifying their specific features as if a special ether determined the specific gravity of everything found in it’; Marx, Karl, A contribution to the critique of political economy, ed. Dobb, Maurice (Moscow, 1977), p. 212.Google Scholar

41 Marx, ‘Outline’, p. 137.

42 Ibid., p. 139 (italics as in original).

43 Ibid., p. 137.

44 Marx, ‘Record’, p. 150.

45 See, for instance, Crossman, Virginia, ‘Colonial perspectives on local government in nineteenth-century Ireland’ in McDonough, Terrence (ed.), Was Ireland a colony? Economics, politics and culture in nineteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2005), pp 102-16.Google Scholar

46 Butt, Isaac, The Irish people and the Irish land: a letter to Lord Lifford (Dublin, 1867), pp 188-9.Google Scholar

47 This argument is developed in more detail in Slater, Eamonn and McDonough, Terrence, ‘Bulwark of landlordism and capitalism: the dynamics of feudalism in nineteenth-century Ireland’ in Research in Political Economy, 14 (1994), pp 63118.Google Scholar

48 Marx, Karl, Capital: a critique of political economy (3 vols, London & New York, 1976-81), iii, 763.Google Scholar

49 Ibid.

50 Marx, ‘Outline’, p. 143 (italics as in original).

51 Ibid.

52 Hancock, William Neilson, Impediments to the prosperity of Ireland (London, 1850).Google Scholar

53 Marx, ‘Outline’, pp 133–4.

54 Marx, ‘Record’, p. 152.

55 Marx, ‘Outline’, p. 142 (italics as in original).

56 Ibid., p. 151.

57 Kevin O’Neill, in his study of County Cavan suggests that the ratio between the rent paid by the subtenant and the head tenant is 2:1: Family and farm in pre-Famine Ireland (Madison, W.I., 1984), p. 60.Google Scholar

58 Extra-economic coercion in the extraction of surplus labour is identified as the essential characteristic of feudalism in Laclau, Ernesto, ‘Feudalism and capitalism in Latin America’ in New Left Review, no. 67 (May/June 1971 ), pp 1938Google Scholar, and in Marx, Capital, iii, 926–7.

59 Slater & McDonough, ‘Bulwark of landlordism and capitalism’.

60 Marx, Capital, i, 860.

61 Marx, ‘Outline’, p. 144.

62 Ibid.

63 This argument is developed in more detail in Slater & McDonough, ‘Bulwark of landlordism and capitalism’, pp 63–118.

64 Marx, ‘Notes’, p. 133.

65 Marx, ‘Outline’, p. 144.

66 Marx to Engels, 30 Nov. 1867 (idem & Engels, Ireland & the Irish question, p. 158) (italics as in original).

67 Marx, ‘Outline’, pp 145–6. The decline in productivity that Marx observed in the contemporary statistics has been confirmed in more recent historical work. The less intense cultivation involved in the switch from spade to plough husbandry after the Famine consequent on the consolidation of farms would have contributed to the fall-off in productivity. The fall in the amount of labour applied to the land was especially important (see Turner, Michael, After the Famine: Irish agriculture, 1850–1914 (Cambridge, 1996), p. 29)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The statistics would be impacted, however, by the fact that 1859 to 1864 was a period of agricultural depression brought on by poor weather conditions, which damaged output (ibid., pp 30–2). The point here is not the empirical accuracy of the argument but the way in which Marx integrates a number of levels of analysis in his treatment of the Irish colonial situation.

68 Marx, ‘Notes’, pp 132–3.

69 Foster’s best articulation of this perspective is in his article for the American Journal of Sociology: Foster, John Bellamy, ‘Marx’s theory of metabolic rift: classical foundations for environmental sociology’ in American Journal of Sociology, 105, no. 2 (Sept. 1999), pp 366-405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

70 Marx, Capital, i, 860.

71 Marx, ‘Outline’, p. 146.

72 Marx, ‘Notes’, p. 133.

73 Marx, ‘Outline’, p. 148 (italics as in original).

74 Marx, ‘Record’, pp 151–2.

75 Ibid., p. 152.

76 Ibid.

77 Karl Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue, March 1870 (idem & Engels, Ireland & the Irish question, p. 404).

78 Ibid.

79 Newsinger, John, ‘“A great blow must be struck in Ireland”: Karl Marx and the Fenians’ in Race and Class, 24, no. 2 (1982), pp 151-67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

80 Marx,‘Outline’, p. 149.