Searching for Compradors in 1930s Ireland

For the past year or so I’ve been delving into the life and work of Brian O’Neill, one of the founder members of the Communist Party of Ireland and for a while its chief writer and ideologist. His main work was this one, The War for the Land in Ireland, published in 1933.[…] The few details of his life I’ve been able to uncover so far are fascinating in themselves (and I’ll post about them at a later date) but what lifted him out of the party and Comintern line you’d expect from a Moscow-trained activist was his analysis of 1930s Irish capitalism and in particular the Irish cattle industry and its ongoing relationship with British capitalism post-independence. O’Neill was particularly influenced by Peadar O’Donnell and his analysis of the big graziers or ‘ranchers’. O’Neill took this and a middleman agrarian capitalist class within Irish society who were too tied economically to the ongoing interests of British capitalism and imperialism to allow Ireland to fully break from it. They built the political and bureaucratic structures of the Free State to serve their interests, not those of the population at large. Partition suited them, a state with democratic control over the economy – which also meant the end of the live cattle trade with Britain – did not. And so they acted as a ‘third force’ within Irish society, blocking economic reform and change, keeping Ireland subservient to the economic and military needs of Britain. What makes this analysis particularly fascinating is that in an article written in 1926 entitled Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society, Mao was able to identify a similar ‘middleman’ class in China – similar not in activity (they were not farmers or ranchers) but in their relationship to foreign capital. Mao wrote that in ‘economically backward and semi-colonial China the landlord class and the comprador class are wholly appendages of the international bourgeoisie, depending upon imperialism for their survival and growth’. The purpose of Mao’s article was quite straightforward: ‘Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution’. He was concerned with identifying the social and economic classes in China that would support a revolution and the ones that would not. He concluded that ‘our enemies are all those in league with imperialism – the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia attached to them’. The idea of a ‘comprador’ class, which Mao defined as that section of the local bourgeoisie who serves foreign economic interests and has close connection with imperialism and foreign capital, became a key concept in anti-colonial movements and analysis especially from the 1940s onwards. Peadar O’Donnell and Brian O’Neill came to their own realization of this class quite independently of Mao or any others. To them it was obvious just whose interests the Irish ranchers, bankers, and the industrial capitalist class really served – and that, as with Mao, they constituted a counter-revolutionary bloc within the Irish Free State. Within the pages of War for the Land is a succinct precis of this class, their ongoing relationship with British capitalist and imperialist interests, and their position in 1930s Ireland. […]
The book was reprinted only once, in 1934, and has remained out of print ever since. The analysis itself fell out of favour in the 1940s and 1950s as the ranch war subsided and British marxism gained an upper hand in the analysis of Irish capitalism – its greatest error that of looking at Irish agriculture & seeing only a so-called pre-capitalist, pre-modern, quasi-feudalist, setup. Any analysis of the very particular historical development of capitalism in Ireland was set aside as just ‘nationalism’ and in its place the idea that as Britain was the first capitalist state all other capitalist states must follow its pattern of development. It was – and remains – a horrendously simplistic and anglo-centric view of the world. Manchester and Birmingham were able to develop as industrial centres because of Irish agriculture, Irish capital, and Irish labour, not in spite of them. […] I sometimes wonder what British marxism would have been like if British agriculture was developed in the 19th century to serve the capitalist growth of France, with British banks depositing savings not with the City of London but with banks in Paris to fund French capitalist growth not and British industry, and that there was a highly developed British capitalist class in agriculture and banking who made sure that things stayed that way – would they see that relationship as ‘feudal’? Anyways. if you got this far in the thread fair play to you. I would love to do a re-issue of the War for the Land in Ireland with a new introduction explaining all of this in more detail, along with a proper biographical sketch of O’Neill himself. Maybe next year 🤞

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s