Capital’s First Colony? A Political Marxist approach to Irish “underdevelopment”, Tiarnan Somhairle

5th Feb, 2018

Eviction scene

Presented at Historical Materialism London (2017) by Tiarnán Somhairle

Tiarnán is an independent Marxist researcher interested in theories of underdevelopment and Irish historiography. He blogs at


This paper is a preliminary attempt to sketch out some aspects of a Political Marxist analysis of Irish economic development and underdevelopment in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s divided into four short sections:

The first section is a brief summary of the Political Marxist definition of contrasting feudal and capitalist social property relations and ‘rules for reproduction’.

The second section then attempts to adjudicate based on prima facie evidence whether feudal or capitalist social-property rules for reproduction were being followed by exploiters and exploited in Ireland on the eve of the Famine in the 1840s.

It’s suggested that non-capitalist social-property relations prevailed across much of the country, but that a transition to capitalism had occurred in the settler-colony in the northeastern region of Ulster and had occurred or was occurring in the enclosed grazing lands of the midlands.

The third section offers an explanation for these regionally distinct social-property relations from a Political Marxist perspective, in terms of divergent patterns of colonisation in the seventeenth century and the subsequent regional evolution of class struggle and balance of class forces.

The forth section briefly surveys the post-famine era and questions whether it witnessed the consolidation of capitalism in Ireland, as suggested by Marx in Chapter 8 of Capital. Drawing on the work of Ellen Hazelkorn, I suggest this is doubtful, thus partly explaining the persistence of “underdevelopment” in the south-west of Ireland into the 20th century.


Social-property relations and rules for reproduction

For Robert Brenner, as he and later Political Marxists have systematised his approach, class societies are constituted by specific macroeconomic contexts or social-property relations – i.e. the dispersal and possession of economic and political resources that determines the interaction of actors within a given set of social relations, as well as determining the relationship between the productive system and nature.

Each system of social-property relations has its own corresponding microeconomics, or rules of reproduction, i.e. the rational actions and constraints that actors must follow in order to successfully reproduce themselves within that system.

The pursuit of these reproductive strategies by economic actors – whether exploiters or exploited – are thus reflected in aggregate patterns of development or non-development as the case may be in the economy.



Under feudal social-property relations, peasant possession of the means of subsistence in land, and means of production in their tools and labour, means that surplus has to be extracted by extra-economic coercion after the process of production itself has been completed, i.e. the forceful taking of feudal rent.

This feudal macroeconomics corresponds to the microeconomics of its conflictual rules of reproduction: since peasants quite rationally – given possession of their means of production (land, tools) – aim to produce for subsistence, rather than surpluses that could be appropriated without recompense by lords.

This typically means undertaking ‘safety first’ agriculture on the small plots of land in their possession, in order to insure against poor harvest and other variable factors, and only selling physical surpluses on the market.

These conservative economic practices go hand-in-hand with precapitalist family reproductive and property strategies: for example the subdivision of holdings in order to set up children independently and the practices of early marriage and high fertility, intended to act as a safety net for when peasants grows old or infirm in the absence of a social security system.

Lords on the other hand carry out ‘political accumulation’ under feudalism. Unable to wield entrepreneurial oversight over the direct labour process, they instead invest surpluses coercively extracted from their peasants in building larger, more cohesive, better-armed political groups, in order to in turn to coercively extract further surpluses either from other lords or peasants.

Production can be expanded, but usually only extensively rather than intensively – for example, through the cultivation of new lands, not via the application of superior techniques or technology to current land inputs, since the peasants given their possession of the means of production are not expellable from the process of production.

The aggregate pattern of these feudal rules for reproduction follow a very classical Malthusian-Ricardian trajectory: as peasant population grows, the average size of holdings decreases due to the subdivision of land, which in turn leads to forced movement onto worse land and the reclamation of marginal land. Little specialisation or investment occurs, and instead there a decline in labour productivity across the economy occurs, alongside rising food and land prices as population explodes.

This “development” culminates in recurrent eco-demographic crises as peasant over-population strikes, leading to a fall in population, which in turn causes a decline in lordly incomes, which given feudal social-property relations can only be made up for by further punitive taxation of the peasantry, which inevitably triggers a downward spiral culminating in war or prolonged social conflict.



Capitalist social-property relations on the other hand are characterised fundamentally by the separation of the direct producers from their means of subsistence, rendering them dependent on the market for inputs.  As “market dependent” producers, obliged to purchase their inputs, they are in turn required to sell their outputs, in order to secure the funds to buy their inputs – they are thus required to produce competitively in order to survive.

In other words capitalist rules for reproduction compel individual economic units to maximise their price-cost ratio and profits: they’re compelled to specialise, to accumulate/reinvest surpluses; to innovate and bring in the latest inventions; and to move from line to line in order to meet changing demand.

This economic behaviour in the aggregate witnesses the classic Smithian pattern of capitalist growth with rising productivity/output per person, especially in agriculture; which in turn means the capacity to support an ever large proportion of population outside of agriculture.

This then leads to a rising real wage due to the declining cost of food, and an increase in discretionary spending which leads to the growth of the domestic market. This is reflected in terms of settlement pattern by the ascension of towns and cities, and increasing urbanisation.

Again, capitalist social-property relations generate their own specific forms of crisis: over-accumulation, over-production, a falling rate of profit, etc.



Transitions between the two regimes of social-property relationships (and from slavery to feudalism, or capitalism to socialism) can and of course do occur, but within the Political Marxist perspective they are usually premised on a crisis of the existing social-property relations and the historically specific and contingent outworking of class conflict, not the transhistorical or teleological outworking of forces such as commercialisation, the growth of the productive forces, or demography.


Ireland on the eve of the Famine: prime-facie evidence of precapitalist social-property relations

So what is the prima facie evidence for non-capitalist or feudal social-property relations and rules for reproduction in Ireland on the eve of the Famine in the 1840s?

Quantitative evidence is offered by the incredible extent of sub-division, which had fuelled early marriage, and a high birth rate, indicating classical precapitalist peasant rules for reproduction.

The potato, which was grown widely, was used as a primary subsistence crop for the smallholder and labourer, and an entire leasing system was developed around it: the cottier or conacre system, whereby labourers were able to access a patch of land on which to grow their potato crop in return for labour on a farmer’s holding or on a landlord’s demesne. Access to fuel was also non market-dependent, as ancient turbary rights were strongly defended.

Irish smallholder agriculture was also characterised by its technological and technical backwardness that rendered ‘improving’ landlords, interested observers, and celebrity travellers such as Arthur Young aghast. Some of these practices included ploughing with the tail of a horse, and other ‘primitive’ Gaelic methods that had been long superseded by convertible husbandry in England and the nascent mechanisation of agricultural labour. There was also the widespread and continued existence of ancient rights to the commons such as the rundale system.

Another example of non-capitalist reproductive strategies on the part of the Irish peasantry was the proliferation of “proto-industry” across Ireland in the period preceding the famine. For typical Smithian historians this is indicative of a tenantry seeking to benefit from growing commercial opportunities, however this is belied by the crude and unspecialised nature of the crafts – particularly part-time spinning and weaving of low quality wool and linen – and the failure to make the transition to mechanisation in the 19th century.

These crafts thus were not specialised petty commodity production but rather the by-employments of rural tenants squeezed to the max by growing demographic pressures and landlord exactions of “absolute” surplus labour. This is demonstrated by the fact that they were concentrated in the poorest parts of countryside, their geographically “scattered” pattern across the countryside (rather than in specialised rural industrialised regions as occurred in England, and in Ulster), and by their non-specialisation and general orientation towards the domestic market, as well as their collapse in the wake of the famine as holdings consolidated and extreme rural precarity declined.

Qualitative evidence for the existence of a pre-capitalist landlord and tenant class is offered by the extent to which contemporaries described the Irish tenantry as a peasantry, in contrast to the English yeomanry. Travellers and statistical observers – from Arthur Young to Poor Law Inspectors – were wont to describe the abject poverty of the Irish tenant in contrast to his English counterpart. In particular, it was suggested that their clothing and houses were of a particularly poor quality. And yet modern cliometrics has demonstrated that the Irish tenant was a relatively healthy and physically robust specimen in this period – precisely due to his non-market determined access to turf and the potato, the staples of peasant reproduction.

In terms of landlord rules for reproduction, the lack of investment by Irish landlords in their properties was a renowned and almost caricatured aspect of this social class, as satirised in the classic of Irish 18th century literature ‘Castle Rackrent’.

While nationalists then and now have attributed this to absenteeism (which never stopped English landlords from systematically improving their estates) or lack of patriotic feeling, it seems more straightforward to relate this economic behaviour by the lords to the fact that they were confronted by a traditional non-capitalist tenantry, that violently refused to be separated from its means of subsistence, and thus could not be rendered fully market dependent.

As non-capitalist lords therefore, they took a rational extensive approach to increasing surpluses: through the reclamation of marginal lands or through the intensive squeezing of their tenants through ‘rack-rent’ and precarious leases such as those of a ‘tenant at will’. This relationship between Anglo-Irish lords and tenants was bound up with extra-economic conditions involving a particular mixture of coercion and patronage. Penal laws still held many Catholics in forms of legal bondage, and debt bondage was added to that burden as rural precarity grew in the period leading up to the famine.

Rather than technical implements or improvements to the land, the Irish landlords’ preferred mode of surplus appropriation was “political accumulation”: gaining political office and building the coercive apparatus of the state, as well as conspicuous consumption. Rationally, the rents they did accumulate were removed to London’s stock markets or gambling dens, rather than re-invested in their estates.

In other words, the lords of the great arable estates in Ireland were much like the slaveholding planters of the southern United States that Charlie Post has described – they were market dependent and rational profit seekers, however their process of production contained a ‘fixed’ and unmovable labour force, that could not be expelled in order to cut costs in response to declining market productions, or at least not without the cost of sustained and costly social conflict and violence. Though obviously the oppressive system of Irish tenurial relations did not involve the same degree of naked brutality or domination as the West African slave trade and US chattel slavery.

Many Irish landlords were deeply indebted themselves – partly a reflection of these conditions – and simply didn’t have the funds to undertake large-scale clearance or combat agrarian tenant resistance, which was widespread in this period in the form of tenant secret societies such as the Whiteboys.

The macro-economic result of these non-capitalist rules for reproduction was, unsurprisingly, an extreme and continually increasing population, declining labour productivity, the classical Ricardian/Malthusian factor price movements described by Brenner, and a lack of profound urbanisation outside of the commercial hub of Dublin. This all culminated of course in the classical “Malthusian” crisis of the Famine.

It is my belief therefore that strong prima facie evidence existences for the categorisation of social property relations in pre-famine Ireland, despite the innovations of some landlords and tenants, under the pressure of British trends – as precapitalist.

However, there is also prima facie evidence that a transition to capitalism had occurred in two specific regions in Ireland prior to the famine: in industrialising Ulster – which had become a hub of British imperial textile exports in linen weaving and spinning, and in the cattle-raising regions of Leinster and east Munster where large grazier farmers and ranchers formed a distinct and prosperous yeomanry.

It’s my belief that these two sets of social-property relations (precapitalist and capitalist) that existed in the Irish countryside prior to the famine existed in dynamic tension – as indicated by the increase in evictions, the sustained pattern of agrarian violence carried out by tenant secret societies, and the gradual pushing of the smallholders onto inferior land with the westwards expansion of cattle-raising.


Divergent evolutions from 16th and 17th century colonisation

So how does a Political Marxist approach attempt to tackle this evidence of uneven development, without falling back into various teleologies or transhistorical extra-human motive forces?

I believe that the answer lies in investigating the specific social-property relations established in the 17th century when the last of the precapitalist Gaelic system was destroyed by the English state.

I believe that across much of the west and south of the island that remained non-capitalist in character in the mid 19th century, peasant political organisation and relative lack of lordly resources in the 15th, 16th and 17th century colonisation process allowed the vast majority of the peasantry to remain on the land in their traditional ways.

The conversion to “commercialised” agriculture allowed the flourishing of a money economy and private property, but it could not separate the producers from their means of production so long as they remained politically organised enough to resist landlord encroachments. The tenants were also at a land/labour advantage given the demographic crisis that occurred in the wake of the Cromwellian invasion through devastating war and plague.

Particularly given its relative isolation, as well as the extent of lands maintained by Catholic landholders in the southwestern region, I think this adequately explains subsequent evolutions in a feudal pattern across much of the south and west of Ireland.

In the grazier lands of the midlands, east Connacht, and east Munster however, I believe that a relative transition was carried out in the wake of the Cromwellian settlement through the physical extinction of the previous landholders, and the cooperation between landlords, middlemen, and a tenantry holding competitive leases which resulted in a booming agrarian capitalism focused on the export of live cattle to English and European markets.

Here tenants managed the vast cattle herds of the great estates in compact enclosed farms, leading to the specific rural class structure of the midlands by the mid 19th century. The majority of this “underground gentry” practiced primogeniture, and its ranks (and second sons) formed the cadre of middle class Irish constitutional nationalism. The continued existence of the cottier system however – where labour was exchanged for a potato wage – kept a large proportion of landless producers on the land, thus retarding social differentiation or the growth of a domestic market for farm implements.

In Ulster on the other hand, a number of processes lead to the growth of a capitalist linen export industry and the growth of petty commodity agriculture servicing this growing class of textile workers off the land.

Firstly, the relative equality of Protestant tenants and lords ruled out direct extra-economic rents, and this ‘Ulster Custom’ allowed for the development of a competitive market in land, and security of tenure.

Secondly, I believe that in the industrial core of the Lagan Valley tenant farmer-weavers – and their Catholic competitors – were rendered market dependent in the early 18th century when leases were adjusted from the previous “customary” sub-economic rents dating from the initial plantation to economic rents reflecting the market value of land, compelling these specialised linen weavers to orient ever-increasing proportions of their product to the market.

As weavers continued to sub-divide their holdings, i.e. tried to reproduce themselves in non-capitalist ways, they were rendered more and more market dependent as their holdings shrunk below subsistence, and thus could serve as a source of commoditised labour power for market dependent linen merchants and bleachers.

Finally, and this was a more protracted process, the Protestant farmland core of Derry, south Antrim, and North Down developed a specialisation in grains as the breadbasket for its industrialising sister region around Belfast and its hinterlands, involving a similar pattern competitive leaseholding setting off a Smithian process of growth.



To conclude, what was impact of the Famine for social-property relations in Ireland?

In conventional Marxist writing on the topic (including Marx’s own contribution in Chapter 8 of Capital Volume 1), the potato famine of 1845-1852 and its associated demographic catastrophe are often taking as the obvious “transition point” for the establishment of capitalism in Ireland, due to the consolidation of holdings it triggered and the transition from arable to pasture farming.

However – drawing on Ellen Hazelkorn’s essays on Marx’s writings on Ireland in Capital – I believe that this is a mistake. In particular, Marx made a number of avoidable empirical errors – for example choosing for his survey of consolidated holdings and declining smallholders a period of deep depression in the Irish agrarian economy – as well as unavoidable ones: for example he could not have foreseen the Land War and the eventual move towards peasant proprietorship in Ireland.

Instead of the extinction of the smallholder and the move towards ever larger and more consolidated enclosed farms on the English model, the post-Famine period in Ireland demonstrated its own specific dynamics of class struggle, which in fact resulted in the consolidation of an only partially market dependent smallholding class on the land – particularly across most of the poorest regions of the south, a class which proved almost impossible to remove by peaceful means right into the 20th century.

In the absence of systematic land reform, capitalist growth – outside of the grazier holdings of the midlands and east coast, and Ulster, which remained part of the United Kingdom following partition in 1921 – could not be instantiated. This (along with the graziers rational commitment to free trade with England at any cost) was the primary cause of Irish underdevelopment over the post-famine period and into the 20th century, not the caricatured impact of “neo-colonialism” or continued domination by perfidious Albion.