Letters of Karl Marx 1870

Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt
In New York

Source: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Selected correspondence Progress Publishers, 1975, pp. 220-224;
Written: 9 April 1870;
Transcribed: Rick Kuhn.

London, April 9, 1870

... The day after tomorrow (April 11) I shall send you whatever documents of the International I happen to have on hand. (It is too late to mail them today.) I shall likewise send some more of the Basle [reports].[a]

Among the material sent you will also find several copies of the resolutions of the General Council of November 30 on the Irish amnesty, resolutions which you already know and which were initiated by me; likewise an Irish pamphlet on the treatment of the Fenian convicts.

I had intended to submit further motions on the necessary transformation of the present Union (i.e., enslavement of Ireland into a free and equal federation with Great Britain. For the time being, further progress in this matter, as far as public resolutions go, has been suspended because of my enforced absence from the General Council. No other member of it has sufficient knowledge of Irish affairs and adequate prestige with the English members to be able to replace me in this respect.

However time has not been wasted and I ask you to pay particular attention to the following:

After studying the Irish question for many years I have come to the conclusion that the decisive blow against the English ruling classes (and it will be decisive for the workers’ movement all over the world) cannot be delivered in England but only in Ireland.

On January 1, 1870,[b] the General Council issued a confidential circulare drawn up by me in French (for only the French journals, not the German ones produce important repercussions in England) on the relation of the Irish national struggle to the emancipation of the working class, and therefore on the attitude which the International Association should take towards the Irish question.

I shall give you here only quite briefly the salient points.

Ireland is the bulwark of the English landed aristocracy. The exploitation of that country is not only one of the main sources of their material wealth; it is their greatest moral strength. They, in fact, represent the domination over Ireland. Ireland is therefore the cardinal means by which the English aristocracy maintain their domination in England itself.

If, on the other hand, the English army and police were to be withdrawn from Ireland tomorrow, you would at once have an agrarian revolution in Ireland. But the downfall of the English aristocracy in Ireland implies and has as a necessary consequence its downfall in England. And this would provide the preliminary condition for the proletarian revolution in England. The destruction of the English landed aristocracy in Ireland is an infinitely easier operation than in England herself, because in Ireland the land question has been up to now the exclusive form of the social question because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority of the Irish people, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question. Quite apart from the fact that the Irish character is more passionate and revolutionary than that of the English.

As for the English bourgeoisie, it has in the first place a common interest with the English aristocracy in turning Ireland into mere pasture land which provides the English market with meat and wool at the cheapest possible prices. It is likewise interested in reducing the Irish population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that English capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with “security”. It has the same interest in clearing the estates of Ireland as it had in the clearing of the agricultural districts of England and Scotland. The £6,000-10,000 absentee-landlord and other Irish revenues which at present flow annually to London have also to be taken into account.

But the English bourgeoisie has also much more important interests in the present economy of Ireland. Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

But the evil does not stop here. It continues across the ocean. The antagonism between Englishmen and Irishmen is the hidden basis of the conflict between the United States and England. It makes any honest and serious co-operation between the working classes of the two countries impossible. It enables the governments of both countries, whenever they think fit, to break the edge off the social conflict by their mutual bullying, and, in case of need, by war between the two countries.

England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.

These are roughly the main points of the circular letter, which thus at the same time give the raisons d’étre of the resolutions passed by the Central Council on the Irish amnesty. A little later I sent a strongly-worded anonymous article[d] on the treatment of the Fenians by the English, etc., attacking Gladstone, etc., to the Internationale (organ of our Belgian Central Committee[e] in Brussels). In this article I have also denounced the French Republicans (the Marseillaise had printed some nonsense on Ireland written here by the wretched Talandier) because in their national egoism they are saving all their wrath for the Empire.

That worked. My daughter Jenny wrote a series of articles to the Marseillaise, signing them J. Williams (she had called herself Jenny Williams in her private letter to the editorial board) and published, among other things, O’Donovan Rossa’s letter. Hence immense noise.

After many years of cynical refusal Gladstone was thereby finally compelled to agree to a parliamentary enquiry into the treatment of the Fenian prisoners. Jenny is now the regular correspondent on Irish affairs for the Marseillaise. (This is naturally to be a secret between us.) The British Government and press are furious because the Irish question has thus now been placed on the agenda in France and that these rogues are now being watched and exposed via Paris on the whole Continent.

We hit another bird with the same stone, we have forced the Irish leaders, journalists, etc., in Dublin to get into contact with us, which the General Council had been unable to achieve previously!

You have wide field in America for work along the same lines. A coalition of the German workers with the Irish workers (and of course also with the English and American workers who are prepared to accede to it) is the greatest achievement you could bring about now. This must be done in the name of the International. The social significance of the Irish question must be made clear.

Next time a few remarks dealing particularly with the position of the English workers.

Greetings and fraternity!
Karl Marx


a The reference is to the reports of the Basle Congress of the First International published by the General Council.—Ed.

b Marx wrote: “December 1, 1869”, apparently a slip of the pen.—Ed.

c Karl Marx, “Le Conseil Général au Conseil Fédéral de la Suisse Romande” (“The General Council to the Federal Council of Romance Switzerland”).— Ed.

d “Le gouvernement anglais et les prisonniers fénians” (“The English Government and the Fenian Prisoners”) published on February 27, 1870.—Ed.

e Marx is referring to the Belgian Federal Council.—Ed.