So, seeing Michael Davitt’s history sparked my interest. After looking at much of his policies and radical beliefs, I think it’s pretty safe to call him a Communist. He was evicted with his family at the age of 4, began work at 10 in a mill and then had to have an arm amputated after a work accident. He tried throughout his life to complete land reform and in his words,
“the land question can be definitely settled only by making the cultivators of the soil proprietors”
essentially, he’s advocating for worker ownership of the means of production. Alongside this, he also called for free education, workers’ councils, the right to vote for all (particularly women), labour unions, Irish and British working-class solidarity, secular education and state and improved working conditions such as shorter working days and supplied housing. The reason this surprised me was because when we talk of Irish socialists, it is always James Connolly or maybe James Larkin. What we seem to forget is that Ireland has always been a hotbed for anti-capitalism. Just to name a few, we have Oscar Wilde, Sean O’ Casey, Connolly, Larkin, Davitt, Countess Markievicz, Séan Garland, William Thompson, Liam O’ Flaherty, Sean Murray, Bernadette Devlin, James Joyce, Michael Collins, Jack White, the Limerick Soviet, the Irish Citizens’ Army, the Irish Republican Army, etc.
In the late 1870’s and particularly in 1879, the potato crop begun to fail again in the West (in 1877,’78 and ’79), Davitt, after discussing with Devoy on land reform during his time in the US, came up with his policy of the “New Departure”. This was essentially establishing Parnellism with Charles Stewart Parnell by electing land agitators and constitutionalists into parliament. The Parnellites were influenced by the tactic of obstructionism by giving long speeches in Parliament. He established the Mayo Land League and later the National Land League and began boycotting landlords to abolish landlordism in Ireland and establish a nationalisation of land in Ireland with the slogan “the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland” and “the land question can be definitely settled only by making the cultivators of the soil proprietors”. The moderate stance of Parnellism allowed for popular support and little backlash. It called for the 3 F’s; Fair rent, free sale (reach full ownership) and fixity of tenure (unfair eviction). The Land War as it was titled lasted from 1879 until 1882. This crop failure was particularly devastating because of the economic depression that was currently happening, this left Irish tenants unable to migrate like they did in the Famine. Thus, landlords raised rents due to the depression. As you can see, if this escalated any further, it could be hugely devastating.
Davitt was completely anti-clerical, he viewed the Church as an entity for oppression and wished for the separation of Church and State, much like the Irish Republican Brotherhood at the time. Too, he grew disillusioned with Parliament in the UK, he departed in 1896 and claimed,
“no just cause could succeed there unless backed by physical force”
Irish clericalism grew in the next generation of Fenians however, this is why Ireland was a Catholic state when it gained its independence and still is today.
He was ardently anti-imperialist, understandably since Ireland was a victim of it. On top of this, he was an internationalist, unlike most others at the time, even among socialists. Weirdly, I did see someone say that this anti-imperialist stance was hypocritical because he supported the Russians in their conflicts with the Japanese, the Japanese had begun the Meiji Restoration and centralisation of power under the Emperor, they put the military first and claimed that they were the spreaders of civilization and enlightenment, much like the “white man’s burden”. He supported oppressed Jewish communities in Limerick after they were boycotted and wrote on the Russian attitude toward Jews and the Kishinev pogrom where a community was massacred, the Russian state denied the massacre where 51 were killed and 400 injured, dozens of women were raped, children orphaned, 10,000 Jewish refugees fled the city and a third of the buildings damaged. He opposed the First and Second Boer War against the Zulus in South Africa by the British and claimed it was clear imperialist aggression, he said that it was simply a “stockbrokers’ war”. Gandhi has said that he was inspired by Davitt’s Land League. Side note: Ho Chi Minh witnessed news of Irish guerrilla warfare while in London and decided to utilise it during the wars with France, Japan and the US.
I do believe that Davitt made some mistakes, however. He was unwilling to use force and militarism to achieve his goals. The tactic of boycotting only worked then because it was relatively new, capitalism had little defence from it. Too, I believe he was too focused on agrarianism and land reform than for lifting up the oppressed in general. To be true, he was for nationalisation of land but he fought more so for fair treatment under the system rather than for the abolition of the system. These such things happen often in revolutionary movements, specifically in Africa, they moved only from European oppressor to African oppressors. I believe that he could have forged closer relationships with the Celtic League nations (Cornwall, Scotland, Wales) against England, the main oppressor. He only did so with the highlanders and labour movements in Britain, leaving it quite separate and divided into its own sections. He continued to distance himself from popular support and his previously gained supporters. Too, revolutionaries distanced themselves from him as he denounced the Fenian bombings. He was too trustful of Parnell and formed the National League which placed land reform as secondary to Home Rule, which, in itself, was too against Davitt’s beliefs and was simply a compromise for actual independence. He should have worked with revolutionaries from the beginning. He was also a Zionist, after the Kishinev massacre, he supported a home for Jews in Palestine. (However, he could not have seen what it would turn into. A settler-colonial state that exemplifies exactly what is was created to stop against Jews.) His hatred for the British clouded his judgement, he supported Boer racism against other Africans and described them as savages. He made anti-Semitic statements too, claiming that the Uitlander population of Boer territory were Jewish conspirators.
Despite his occasional toxicity and absolutist tendencies in many aspects of his politics, I still regard him, rightly, I believe, to be a hero of Ireland and a champion of oppressed peoples. We should realise that none of our heroes are perfect and are all open to scrutiny. Marx was evidently a racist yet his theory is praised and an objective force for good in the world of those he deemed as inferior. History is grey.
I highly recommend that people research more of the Land League and Davitt in general. He has a recognisable name in Irish History yet most people would say nothing other than, “I’ve heard the name”.