Showing posts with label clans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label clans. Show all posts

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Celtic Communism, the Gaelic Commonwealth

 St Kilda

The remotest inhabited place in the British Isles lies some 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland, "on the edge of the world", a small cluster of islands known as St Kilda. St Kilda may have been permanently inhabited for at least two millennia and the population probably never exceeding 180.

In theory St Kilda was part of Scotland but it was effectively overlooked. The Inland Revenue never attempted to impose taxation, and the inhabitants of St Kilda were never invited to register on an electoral roll. No crime was ever officially recorded. No one from St Kilda was called up into the armed forces. Until the nineteenth century money was not used on St Kilda.

On the islands, consisting of 1575 acres of Hirta,  244 acres on Soay and  79 acres on Dun, the islanders had developed a self-sufficient communal economy based on seabirds (meat, oil & eggs), Soay sheep, fishing, and some small scale crofting. A form of primitive socialism prevailed on the island.

In 1838 Lachlan MacLean wrote "If St Kilda is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda. No taxgatherer's bill threatens on a church door-the game-laws reach not the gannets. Safe in its own whirlwinds, and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake the foundations of Europe - and acknowledging the dominion of M'Leod, cares not who sways the British sceptre. Well may the pampered native of happy Hirt refuse to change his situation - his slumbers are late - his labours are light - his occupation his amusement. Government he has not - law he feels not - physic he wants not - politics he heeds not - money he sees not - of war he hears not. His state is his city, his city is his social circle-he has the liberty of his thoughts, his actions, and his kingdom and all the world are his equals. His climate is mild, and his island green, and the stranger who might corrupt him shuns its shores. If happiness is not a dweller in St Kilda, where shall it be sought?"

On the whole the people were left free to develop their own type of society. The outcome was a form of communism in which decisions affecting the whole community were taken in a collective manner (though only by the men), work was assigned on the basis of individual skills, and there was no private property apart from accommodation, furniture, and other personal items. The community made sure that those who were sick, disabled, or elderly could live at the same standard as anyone else.

A very large proportion of the communal work involved the catching of sea birds and the gathering of eggs. After a day capturing fulmars, for example, all the dead birds would be placed on a large pile, and then distributed to each family according to the size of the family. Men who returned with especially large quantities of fulmars would receive the same share as any other.

"To discover the socialistic principle you have only to toss a roll of tobacco—an ounce will serve the purpose as well—to the first man that accosts you. True to the apostolic theory of “all things common” this latter-day Ananias will share his spoil, to the last leaf, with every smoker on the island."

The men of Hirte (the only inhabitable island) would meet every morning in what was the daily "Parliament". It had no rules, no chairman and participants arrived in there own time.This was a meeting to share information, discuss current issues, resolve disputes, and make decisions, in particular in relation to work that needed to be done. Decisions were reached by consensus. "Often the proceedings are anything but harmonious, and the loud talking of the men at one and the same moment is suggestive of anything but a peaceful solution. However, when a decision is arrived at the malcontents readily give way, and co-operate cordially with the majority." Never in recorded history were feuds bitter enough as to bring about a permanent division in the community.

The social organisation of the people of St Kilda can be summed up as a form of feudal communism. It was  feudal  in the sense that the islands were the property of a wealthy laird. At the time of the evacuation the owner was Reginald MacLeod, at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye who unverifiably claimed that the population of St Kilda had been "tenants of my family for a thousand years". He received his rent in kind and not in cash. The factor for St. Kilda took over 1,080 fish from its tenants in 1875. (Also in 1875 St. Kilda residents exported over 500 gallons of oil from seabirds, for use as medication).

Like the free workers of Jamaica that Marx describes in Grundrisse who, being "content to produce what was strictly necessary for their own consumption", and how they were portrayed by the plantation owners as idle and indulgent, so the St Kildans were similarly held in contempt by visitors and church-men for their production of use-value and their adherence to their home-grown version of socialism of simply satisfying needs.

The entire population was evacuated in 1930. Despite their reservations every member of the community came to the conclusion it would be right to leave. So ended perhaps the longest surviving "Communal Democracy" on British soil.

 On the mainland, several of them were particularly aggrieved at conditions in which they found themselves. They wrote repeated letters of complaint, a typical comment being that included in one letter from one John Gillies, saying "This home is worse than the cattle byre I had in St Kilda..."


Celtic Communism, the Gaelic Commonwealth

Marx considered certain tribal societies  "in some ways, more essentially human and liberated than a clerk in the city and in that sense closer to the man of the socialist future". The early Celt’s system of communal organisation could perhaps be cited as an example

The word "clan"derives from the Gaelic form 'Clann', meaning "children" or "stock". When a clan occupied  a territory it belonged to the clan as a community.

Engels discussed the New Lanark experiment of Robert Owen and  suggests that the success of the New Lanark experiment was in part due to the fact that the Scottish "workers' were familiar to working in communistic way as a kind of cultural or socio-economic hangover from the Scottish clan system. Which as well as operating co-operatively, as far as the labourers were concerned, the Clan leaders were more sort of paternalistic than purely exploitative. So the story goes; the Clan leaders were viewed and viewed themselves rather like a father of the clan family and likewise had a responsibility towards the rest of the clan as his "children".  The clan leader would be also like a repository of culture and knowledge etc and a matter of civic or clan pride, as far as his up keep was concerned, and an impartial administrator of the production within the community and disputes."

John Maclean's call for a communist republic of Scotland was based on the belief that traditional Scottish society was structured along the lines of "Celtic communism". He argued that "the communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis" and raised the slogan: "back to communism and forward to communism". He wrote in  his 1920 "All Hail the Scottish Workers Republic!" that "The communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis. (Bolshevism, to put it roughly, is but the modern expression of the communism of the mir.) Scotland must therefore work itself into a communism embracing the whole country as a unit. The country must have but one clan, as it were – a united people working in co-operation and co-operatively, using the wealth that is created."
He reminded the Irish in Scotland that "communism prevailed amongst the Irish clans..." so that by allying with Scottish socialist republicans they would be "carrying forward the traditions and instincts of the Celtic race".

Many have criticised James Connolly as having betrayed socialism through an infatuation with Irish nationalism. He too cites the workers' forebearers socialistic tendencies in his book "Labour in Irish History" where he refers to "The Gaelic principle of common ownership by the people of ther sources of food and maintainence".

It would indeed be wrong to follow either MacLean or Connolly and give the impression that it is by such means the workers will emancipate themselves. Engels had already pointed out that:
 "...the Celtic clans...In the course of time, under the influence of commodity production surrounding them, or arising in their own midst and gradually pervading them, and of the exchange between individual families and individual persons, they all lost more and more of their communistic character and dissolved into communities of mutually independent landowners."
The Communist Party would call MacLean supporters "claymore communists" for their nationalism and we too caution against any idea that implies socialism is possible in one country. We should not over-romanticise our history with such concepts as a brotherhood of the kilt but we can use examples and experiences from our past to demonstrate the potential for the future and that neither human nature nor national character stands in the way of achieving socialism  -  indeed, in many ways it is "back to communism and forward to communism"