A Comment on Connolly on Mill on Colonialism

In 1897, the famous anti-colonial marxist James Connolly chose as the epigraph for his pamphlet, Erin’s Hope: The Ends and the Means, a short passage written by the English liberal John Stuart Mill.

A quotation from J.S. Mill is a somewhat surprising way to begin a pamphlet on, of all topics, the relation between class struggle and national liberation in the context of colonial capitalism. Connolly was keen to develop a version of marxism that could speak to Irish workers locked in a double struggle against colonial domination on the one hand and class exploitation on the other. Mill, by contrast, once argued that colonized people were, like children, incapable of governing themselves, so that “despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians provided the end is their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end” (Mill, On LIberty, Chapter 1).

What insight did Connolly find, no doubt unexpectedly, in Mill’s work?

The passage from Mill which interested Connolly enough that he used an extract from it as his pamphlet’s epigraph is, on the surface, about Ireland. But what must have captured Connolly interest in Mill’s analysis is not just that it sheds light on Irish history specifically, but that it sheds light on colonialism as such, insofar as it is intertwined with class struggle. Surprisingly, Mill articulates very well (and thus anticipates) the starting-point of Connolly’s own approach to developing an anti-colonial marxism which integrates class conflict with national liberation in a particular way. (There are echoes of this view, too, in Julius Nyerere’s “Ujamaa” or “African socialism,” among other views, but I won’t pursue that here.)

The key passage is from a text called “England and Ireland.” There, Mill writes:

“Before the Conquest, the Irish people knew nothing of absolute property in land. The land virtually belonged to the entire sept [i.e., clan]; the chief was little more than the managing member of the association. The feudal idea, which views all rights as emanating from a head landlord, came in with the Conquest, was associated with foreign dominion, and has never to this day [i.e., 1868] been recognised by the moral sentiments of the people….[Landlordism remains] always connected with the latest and most odious oppressions of foreign invaders. In the moral feelings of the Irish people, the right to hold the land goes, as it did in the beginning, with the right to till it….The landlords [installed by colonialism] were a mere burden on the land. The whole rental of the country was wasted in maintaining, often in reckless extravagance, people who were not nearly as useful to the hive as the drones are, and were entitled to less respect. These are the antecedents of Irish history in respect to property in land…, for it is not the right of the rent-receiver, but the right of the cultivator, with which the idea of property is connected in the Irish popular mind….[W]hen a people have no means of sustenance but the land, the conditions on which the land can be occupied, and support derived from it, are all in all.” (John Stuart Mill, “England and Ireland,” 1868).

What Mill captures surprisingly well is a complex analysis, taken to heart by Connolly, which can be expressed in four theses about colonialism as Connolly understood it:

(1) that colonialism is a class project of exploitation, not just in addition to but in and through its being a form of national oppression;

(2) that the regimes of exploitation established under colonialism normally displace pre-colonial forms of collectivism and egalitarianism that continue to serve as, at once, a bitter memory of what has been taken away and an ideal of a possible future with enduring appeal;

(3) that the dispossession of land has a dual status of moral injury inflicted in the past, and ongoing structure of harm and endangerment because it cuts people off from their capacity to ensure their subsistence and autonomy; and

(4) that the structures of dispossession do not just subordinate the dispossessed economically and politically, but also lay the basis, or rather preserve the foundations, for an alternative morality, a counter-ethic of solidarity and the sharing among equals of benefits and burdens, which is rooted in the old collectivism, points toward an egalitarian future, and functions right now as a basis for denouncing the parasitism and self-indulgence of the exploiters.

Mill often enough says stupid, and sometimes racist things about colonialism, but here he has really hit on some key points that marxists would do well to take seriously, as Connolly did before us. Regardless of sources, these ideas were drawn into 19th century marxism and remain an important part of our tradition with enduring relevance.

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