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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

XI – Middle Classes and Revolution

“Merchants,” said Theobald Wolfe Tone, ideologue and leader of the ill-fated 1798 uprising, “make bad revolutionaries”. So, too, as we have seen, have the middle classes since Tone’s time; in the war of independence and the bitter civil war which followed, their failure to grasp – or their refusal to accept – the class character of the forces in conflict led to compromise, indecision and betrayal by the different segments of the middle class variously involved in it, notwithstanding the courage of many of them who “dreamed and are dead”. But why? Why should the middle classes, more than any other, be the inheritors of some innate revolutionary flaw?

Because, of all classes, only the middle classes occupy a position extraneous to, and intrinsically parasitic on, the productive relationships of modem bourgeois society. The middle class today is descendant of the artisan craft masters in the medieval town and the independent freehold farmer in the country, and “survives as an anachronism, a relic of the medieval social strata from which both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and their inter-relation arose”.73

The middle classes represent the tertiary sector of the economy, engaged not in production relationships, but in providing services and distributing the social product. The middle classes, as one writer puts it, are “not so much a ‘class’ proper as a whole welter of historically conditioned transitions between the two primary poles of bourgeois society”.74

The middle classes also, more than any other social class, represent a zone of characteristically high social mobility because they still fulfill their historical role of re-stocking the ranks of the various sectors of the bourgeoisie and – more commonly! – the working class. It is a part of the middle-class ethos “to do well” and, if successful, to move into the upper classes; in practice, many fail to do so, and go to swell the masses of the proletariat.

Recent changes in bourgeois society associated with the extensive internationalisation of capital, with the growth of transnational corporations and the appearance of a new, managerial class, on the one hand, and a considerable increase in the white-collar sector of society, on the other, have given rise to a multitude of new labels and categories, but nothing has happened to change the underlying ethos of the middle classes. Social mobility, real or apparent, is still the governing ambition, and still considered the consequence of individual success or failure.

The middle classes are consequently a breeding ground for highly individualistic ideologies that reject class interpretations of social and historical change; individuals, it is believed, rise by virtue of their abilities and fall for lack of them. According to such a view, if workers had the talent to do so, they would take the steps needed to “escape” from their subordinate condition, just as the ruling classes rule because they assert their talent to do so.

Historic change is mediated in such a view, not by the interaction of class interests and forces, but by the actions of great men or evil men. The individual is supreme. In such a scheme of things, the search for individual success and power is not only justified, but is seen as central to all motivation.

It is not surprising, therefore, that independence struggles which have carried the middle classes to power have tended, as Kalecki observes in his classical study on “intermediate regimes”, to end in “the repetition of a well-known historical pattern – the final submission of the lower middle class to the interests of big business”.75

In 1922, Ireland had already accumulated some experience of this tendency. Middle-class leaders like Griffith who came to dominate the independence movement spoke consciously for business interests. As soon as they had managed to neutralise the revolutionary demand for social change that came from the representatives of the masses in the independence movement, they brought the “intermediate regime” which they headed to an end with an unhesitating submission to the interests of the new economically dominant classes, not least among them those southern Unionists who represented the remnants of the former English ruling class in the country.

Sinn Fein, as the party of the revolutionary middle class, was (and still is) a microcosm of the middle class. Within it, the same polarising processes of social mobility that distinguish the middle classes found expression in diverging political sympathies that led to a more or less continuous generation of leftward and rightward tendencies. Each allied itself, according to its own leanings, with one or other of the contrasting class forces in conflict, without, however, developing any clearly reasoned or ideological basis for such allegiances.

Political positions, whether right or left, were defended in terms of the same romanticism, using – as has been noted of conservative elements in the national liberation struggle in Mozambique, for example – “vague appeals which asked no basic questions about the nature of the society that was to be brought into being”.76

Given such circumstances and the absence of effective working class representation, there was little chance indeed of a revolutionary opposition arising within Sinn Fein that might halt the conservative, rightward course determined by Griffith and his allies in the leadership.

Next Section: XII – Middle-class Capitulation
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  1. Jackson, T.A. (1936) Dialectics: The Logic of Marxism and its Critics - an Essay in Exploration. London, Lawrence and Wishart. p.459.
  2. idem.
  3. Kalecki, M. (1976) Essays on Developing Economies. New Jersey, Humanities Press. p.31.
  4. Saul, J.S. (ed.) (1985) A Difficult Road: The Transition to Socialism in Mozambique. New York, Monthly Review Press. p.52.

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