Century of Endeavour
Standish O'Grady and Socialism
Review: To the Leaders of Our Working People,
Standish O'Grady, ed EA Hagan, UCD Press 2002, pb ISBN 1 900621 41 X £12.65 €17.
(c) Roy Johnston 2002
Ed Hagan, who is Professor of English at Western Connecticut State University, and a stalwart of the Irish Studies community in the US, has done us a service by resurrecting a series of articles written by Standish O'Grady during 1912-13 in Jim Larkin's Irish Worker. He has rescued O'Grady from the image imposed on him by Yeats and others, that of a romantic quasi-feudal visionary, and placed him firmly in the progressive anarchist tradition of Kropotkin, and also that of Owenite Utopian socialism, as exemplified in the Ralahine commune described by Connolly in Labour in Irish History.
Mainstream Marxist thinking, which is now beginning to address the problem of the genesis of the repressive role of the State under Stalin, ignores these traditions at its peril. It could be argued that a socialist economy, if it were to exist, would consist of a free market inhabited by an ensemble of producer-owned communes, run by elected boards of managements, and using advanced productive technologies. In such a situation the State would not be a player but a referee, imposing rules governing quality and environmental control, long-term sustainability, spatial strategy, co-operative credit, contracts and so on. O'Grady foreshadows this with his vision of giving the Dublin unemployed and their families the option of re-locating to centres of 'rural civilisation' in a decentralised economy under co-operative ownership and management.
His classical background informs his tendency to regard the Greek city-states as models for his communes, and to regard the emergent Irish nation as a 'commune of communes', rather than a centralist State on the British model, dominated by capitalist principles. He was opposed to violence, and regarded the worker-owned commune as 'the form of human organisation most likely to escape capitalist hegemony' (Ed Hagan). He looked to the trade union movement as a means of organising to provide the means of co-operative investment in productive resources. The key political act would be the Trek of overcrowded Dubliners re-colonising the underutilised surrounding land. He supported the expansion of technical education, and learning by doing.
There is unfinished business in relating O'Grady's ideas to Connolly's; my guess is that they are closer than Hagan gives O'Grady credit for. Connolly did not 'seek violent confrontation', as Hagan suggests, he was forced into the situation where he felt there was no alternative, and the key agent was the World war. Nor, to my mind, is it fair to O'Grady to use the term 'feudalism' to describe his decentralised vision, as Hagan does, though to be fair to Hagan, O'Grady used the term himself on occasion, with a connotation implying 'small-scale local community throwing up its own accepted leadership' rather than warlords. He had the Greek city-state in mind, and this after all was the cradle of democracy, where it managed to avoid the war-lord mode.
The notes include references to contemporary activists who have been forgotten, like JW Petravel (1870-?) who promoted co-operative communes using Christian sources, and WR MacDermott (1838-1918) who wrote about south Tyrone in 1902 in The Green Republic. My father Joe Johnston was also a co-operative activist from about 1913 and I now recognise O'Grady influences in his writings, which I am currently editing, from this period and later. For this I must thank Ed Hagan.
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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 2002