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The Rift of Éire

Workers at a mine in Knockmahon, County Waterford, Ireland in 1906

Workers at a mine in Knockmahon, County Waterford, Ireland (1906).

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. Brett Clark is associate editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Utah.

This article is taken from chapter 2 of Foster and Clark’s latest book, The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Ecological Rift (Monthly Review Press, 2020).

A number of critics of Karl Marx’s metabolic rift analysis have argued that despite his crucial ecological observations, his “views on nature are not exactly systematic” and have little importance for his critique of capitalism as a whole.1 Similarly, Marx’s analysis of Irish history has often been characterized as overly empirical and episodic, lacking a “comprehensive treatment.”2 It is significant therefore that the last decade has seen a revolution in ecological studies of nineteenth-century Ireland highlighting the unity and complexity of Marx’s historical analysis in this area, in which his theory of metabolic rift has played the central role. Based in part on the recent pathbreaking work of Irish scholars, including Eoin Flaherty, Terence McDonough, and Eamonn Slater, we argue that Marx’s (and Frederick Engels’s) analysis of nineteenth-century Irish history revealed what is referred to here as “the rift of Éire” in the colonial period.3 Indeed, it is in relation to the analysis of the systematic disruption of the Irish environment that Marx’s ecological inquiries can be seen as taking on a concrete and developed form, encompassing the ecological as well as economic robbery that characterized the Irish colonial regime.

Marx and Engels were strong critics of English colonialism in Ireland and supporters of Irish revolutionary movements throughout their adult lives. Their writings on Ireland, including newspaper articles, speeches, letters, and unpublished and unfinished manuscripts, come to around five hundred pages in print.4 Marx’s most important analyses on the Irish question, however, occurred in November and December 1867, shortly after he had completed the first volume of Capital. On September 11, 1867, three days before the first thousand copies of Capital were to be published in Hamburg, two Fenians, Irish nationalists, were arrested in Manchester: Colonel Thomas Keely, who had organized an abortive Fenian uprising the preceding March, and Captain Thomas Deasy. A week later, on September 18, the prison van was ambushed by the local Fenian organization, liberating both men. However, in the process a shot was fired into the van, perhaps intended to break the lock, and a police sergeant, Charles Brett, was killed. Keely and Deasy escaped, making their way eventually to the United States, but three Fenians were arrested on the spot and many more men were arrested indiscriminately in Irish communities in Manchester. Five men were charged with the murder of Sergeant Brett.5

Marx wrote to Engels on November 2, 1867, that he was seeking “in every way” to back the English workers supporting Fenianism. On November 13, all five men were found guilty and condemned to be executed. On November 19, Marx called for a full discussion of the Fenian question at a meeting of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association. The meeting was held on November 26, three days after three of the convicted men were executed (one of the five was pardoned and the other had his sentence commuted). Marx had prepared five-and-a-half pages of notes for a talk on the occasion, but feeling that his broad historical analysis of the Irish question was inappropriate so soon after the executions, he yielded the floor to the Englishman Peter Fox. Marx’s full address was given to the German Workers’ Educational Association in London on December 16, when he presented a ninety-minute talk based on a further set of thirteen-and-a-half pages of notes. Although he did not write out his entire speech on that occasion, we have in addition to his notes, a two-and-a-half-page summary of his talk, taken down in the meeting by Johann Georg Eccarius. In addition, Marx wrote a detailed summary of his analysis of the Irish situation in a letter to Engels on November 30.6

These four documents from November–December 1867, together with supplementary material from Capital, his New York Tribune articles going back to the 1850s, and other related writings, along with some of Engels’s correspondence and unfinished History of Ireland, form the basis for the present analysis of Marx’s systematic treatment of the Irish question, including what Slater has called a “more severe form of the metabolic rift” than exists under capitalism per se—reflective of the colonialism that was imposed on Ireland by the English, both before and after the Great Famine.7 Marx provided a long historical perspective on the colonization of Ireland, though concentrating on nineteenth-century conditions separated by the Great Famine: the Period of Rack-Renting, 1801–46, and the Period of Extermination, 1846–66.8 The rift of Éire, he was to argue, culminated in the expulsion of the population and the destruction of the soil, presenting a choice between ruin and revolution.

The Period of Rack-Renting (1801–46)

For centuries, the British Crown waged a campaign of conquest on Ireland, which involved murder and expropriation. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the native population of Ireland was pushed onto marginal lands, at best, particularly in the western region of the country. Protestant Penal Laws ensured that Catholics were not allowed to hold office, own land, or receive inheritance. The English, Marx pointed out, effectively robbed the land and became the “land-owning aristocracy.”9 Westminster came to directly rule Ireland, which was formalized in 1801, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established. In his historical analysis of the rack-renting period, Marx devoted much attention to assessing how the property, technical, and food-regime relations took distinct forms, which created the foundation for the emerging colonial metabolic rift.

During the 1800s, the manufacturing industries of Ireland were dramatically diminished or eliminated, unable to compete with British operations. As detailed by the famous Irish nationalist leader and lawyer Isaac Butt (1813–79), in 1800 in Dublin, there were ninety-one wool manufactures, with over 4,000 workers. By 1840, there were only twelve manufactures, employing 682 people. The same trend was evident in industries associated with the production of silk, flannel, hosiery, and blankets across the country. There were one thousand looms in County Wicklow in 1800, however, by the 1860s there were none.10 As deindustrialization advanced, Ireland was turned almost exclusively into an agrarian nation.11

As a result, during this period, the power of the landlords increased. There were a few English and Anglo-Irish families, as part of the “ascendancy class,” who controlled the only means of survival and wielded expansive influence.12 The landlords, many of whom were absentees, often employed “middlemen” as intermediaries who handled the subletting of holdings to tenant farmers in the expanding “rack-renting” system.13 Named after the instrument of torture, rack-renting stretched these farmers to the margins of existence, as they paid excessive rents, as part of year-to-year contracts that gave them access to agricultural lands. The tenant farmers, depending on the size of the land they rented, would in turn lease out small plots of land to cottiers (rural laborers living in cabins) in exchange for labor in the fields.14

Under this rack-renting arrangement, tenant farmers paid for the use of the land and any improvements they made. In other words, if they invested in the means to enhance the productivity of the crops, such as enriching the soil, their rents increased, eliminating any additional earnings they generated. To make matters worse, the owners regularly demanded “higher rents on the expiration of the existing lease,” exacerbating the insecurity of tenants. Either tenant farmers renewed leases under “less favourable conditions” or they were evicted. If the latter situation arose, the new tenants paid higher rents, associated with improvements from the previous occupants. Marx explained that the consequences of “the system of rack-renting” were extremely clear, as “the people had now before them the choice between the occupation of land, at any rent, or starvation.” In this situation, he indicated, “middlemen accumulated fortunes that they would not invest in the improvement of land, and could not, under the system which prostrated manufactures, invest in machinery, etc. All their accumulations [and those of the owners] were sent therefore to England for investment.”15

For the small farmers and cottiers as “tenants-at-will” of the owners, there emerged a tendency to maintain the general conditions of the soil just enough to support the production of desired crops, with little to no added investment in drainage and irrigation, as this would have resulted in even higher rents and losses for the farmers. These rack-renting conditions, Marx assessed, created a situation that “left the Irish, however ground to the dust, holder of their native soil.”16

The farms generally consisted of the tenants and cottiers. The latter lived in modest cabins, generally with access to a few acres of land for tillage that the tenant leased, which was known as the conacre system. The cottiers commonly did not receive wages, as they agreed to provide a specific number of days of labor to the tenant farmers in exchange for housing and access to small parcels on which they raised their food—potatoes. Marx noted: “the great mass of agricultural wages were paid in kind, only the smallest part in money.”17 Cottiers, if possible, raised a few pigs, which were fed surplus potatoes, or spun linen in their cottages to sell locally in order to make a small amount of cash to cover any shortfalls related to the agreed-upon hours worked in relation to rents.18

Beginning in 1815, the Corn Laws in Britain generated high prices for grains, encouraging an expansion of tillage in Ireland, in order to serve the needs and interests of the English. Marx documented the increase through the years—in the three years following passage, “300,000 qrs” (quarter of a hundredweight) were exported to Britain, followed by over a million in 1820, and two and half million in 1834.19 In the early 1840s, the Irish were producing grain yields per acre that were just below the English, and potato yields twice that of the French.20 This situation intensified the plundering of Ireland of its resources, in a colonial metabolic transfer that increased the vulnerability of the country, its people, and the soil.

In The Rural Economy of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1855), Léonce de Lavergne pointed out that it was widely recognized in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in the writings of figures like Arthur Young, that the soil of Ireland was far “superior to England,” given that it was richer in nutrients.21 These conditions dramatically changed as a result of the colonial relationship, the rack-renting system, and the practices on farms. Tenant farmers in Ireland primarily practiced a rotation consisting of growing two grains, such as wheat and oats, in succession, and then potatoes. The grains served as cash crops for export to Britain and as the basis to cover the costs of leasing the land. Potatoes provided a basis for subsistence. Farmers moved through this rotation, without letting the fields lay fallow or growing clover in order to rest the land and help restore fertility. In an attempt to replenish the soil, farmers added much manure when it was time to plant potatoes.22

“The ridge system of cultivation,” Slater explains, was used to grow potatoes via a method of deep cultivation, whereby a spade was utilized to access the nutrients in the subsoil and mix them with the top soil. Earthing (hilling) potatoes was a labor-intensive process. The cottiers “laid the manure directly on the surface of the sod. The seed potato was then placed upon the surface and covered with an inverted sod dug with the spade from the trench paralleling the seed row. This was repeated across the width of the field to create a series of troughs and ridges.” As the potatoes grew, cottiers used spades to dig up even more soil from the trench, in order to cover the stems of the plants, which encourages tuber growth. Through this process, not only was the subsoil mixed with the top soil, but minerals from the iron pan—the hard layer that forms under soil due to the deposit of iron salts, which prevents adequate drainage—were brought up, as it was broken up.23

In his discussion of how distinctions “in the chemical composition of the soil” influenced variations in the “natural fertility” of land, Marx specifically focused on how various techniques brought “different types of soil into cultivation,” which could enhance or diminish available nutrients. For example, he explained, “artificially induced improvements in the composition of the soil or of a mere change in the hierarchy of soil types” could take place “when various subsoil conditions come into play, once the subsoil also begins to be tilled and turned over into top layers,” as was the case in the spade production of potatoes in Ireland. It “turn[ed] the subsoil into the top layer or mix[ed] the two together.”24

The practices associated with the ridge system of potato production in Ireland helped increase the amount of nutrients available to support plant growth. Nevertheless, further enrichment was needed, as potatoes required more nutrients than the other crops.25 Cottiers devoted much work to gathering additional fertilizers, including dung, sand, seaweed, shells, and ashes, in order to enrich exhausted soils. While manure from farm animals was used, it was in short supply, as much of the land during this period was devoted to tillage, rather than pasture. Thus, some cottiers collected manure-soaked grasses where animals were concentrated to integrate these nutrients into the soil to grow potatoes. In the winter, the animals were sheltered and fed potatoes within the small family cabins, allowing cottiers to collect 10 to 15 tons of manure in the spring. The sand, seaweed, and shells were carted from the sea to markets in towns for sale. For ash fertilizer, the top five inches of the land were dug up and dried before being burned. The resulting ash was then mixed with the soil. This was not a sustainable practice, however, since it led to the loss of organic matter.26

Given that manuring by cottiers was reserved for the potato rotation, the ridge system improved the drainage of the fields and brought up necessary nutrients and minerals from the iron pan and subsoil. The incorporation of additional fertilizers further enriched the soil. These practices supported the potato crop as well as the rest of the grain portion of the rotation. The metabolic rift in the soil nutrient cycle remained present, however, manifesting in a number of socioecological challenges. After a full rotation of crops, the soils were generally exhausted. Planting and manuring potatoes played an important role in trying to help improve soil conditions.

Slater points out the differing roles of the potato. For tenant farmers, it was necessary for helping restore soils to support cash crop production. For cottiers, it provided them with food. Nevertheless, the crops were still taking up more nutrients than were being incorporated into soil. Cottiers thus had the demanding task to devote even more time and energy through the years to restoring these depleted fields, given that under the conacre system the potato crop was their responsibility. The mining of nutrients from the subsoil and the gathering of additional fertilizers, by cottiers, helped temporarily support this arrangement, but lands were often rendered unproductive for years.27

The property relations, the rack-renting arrangement, and the conacre system created a “constant drain of rent,” which “was shown in the continual export of agricultural produce” of grains to Britain. Lavergne indicated that this drain “created a void which was not filled up by any return.”28 Irish families subsisted on a diet consisting of potatoes, along with some milk and fish. During this period, the average male, doing physically demanding work, reportedly consumed up to twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes per day.29 The lack of other nutrients, and marginal existence, created according to Marx a “state of popular starvation.”30 Lavergne proposed that the potato was “one of the most valuable gifts…but only on condition that it is not too greatly extended, as then it becomes a scourge, for it exhausts without renewing the means of production.”31 For Marx, this situation was bound to the larger colonial metabolic rift, associated with the conquest of Ireland and the period of rack-renting. “The landowner,” Marx remarked, “who does nothing at all here to improve the soil, expropriates from him [the tenant] the small capital which he incorporates into the soil for the most part by his own labour, just as a usurer would do in similar conditions. Only the usurer would at least risk his own capital in the operation. It is this continuous robbery that forms the object of the dispute over Irish land legislation.”32 During this period, the intensification and expansion of the rack-renting and conacre systems created a fragile agroecology, with an underlying metabolic rift in the nutrient cycle, which was extremely vulnerable to the famine that followed.

The Period of Extermination (1846–66)

In 1845, the potato blight caused by Phytopthora infestans, a fungus-like pathogen, which first appeared in the United States and the European Continent, broke out in Ireland. By 1846, it generated a general famine, known in Ireland as the Great Hunger or Great Famine, which lasted for three to four years, with failures of the potato crop occurring partially in 1847 and then more generally in 1848–49. A million people died and more than a million people emigrated. Ireland at the time was especially vulnerable to the effects of the blight because of the destitute condition of the population, given that its subsistence diet was based entirely on the potato and the reliance on a monoculture consisting of only one variety, the “lumper” potato. The British government, based in Westminster, responded to the famine inconsistently and inadequately. Grain continued to be exported from Ireland to feed England.33

The actual cause of the blight was unknown at the time that it appeared. Perhaps the most prominent theory then was offered by the respected scientist John Lindley, editor of the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette. He argued that the blight was the result of a deluge whereby potatoes had sucked up water through their roots and had become saturated, leading to their tissues becoming swollen and rotting away. However, Miles J. Berkeley, a mycologist who worked closely with Charles Darwin, proposed in 1846 that it was a fungus operating as a plant pathogen, calling the pathogen Botrytis infestans. The pathogen was more definitively isolated by Anton DeBary in 1876, building on Berkeley’s work, and renamed Phytopthora infestans.34 Engels was aware of the scientific debates and discoveries, indicating in a letter to Marx in 1858 that it was “single-celled fungi” that were “causing disease in potatoes.”35

Yet, for Marx, in seeking to explain the conditions in Ireland in 1867 and why the Irish peasantry remained in a perilous state, the primary issue was not the plant pathogen itself, viewed as a natural cause, but the social conditions that had paved the way to the Great Famine, that is, the entire history of the rack-renting system and the subsequent transformation in the socioecological food regime beginning in 1846. As he wrote to Engels on November 30, 1867, “The system of 1801–46, with its rack-rents and middlemen, collapsed in 1846.”36 Underlying it all, he explained in his talk the next month to the German Workers’ Educational Association, was “the exhaustion of the soil” due to a social structure that failed to replenish and improve the land.37

The “barren fields” resulting from the potato blight caused people to emigrate, resulting in the pooling of small holdings and the replacement of tillage with pasturage. But what was at first a natural tendency soon “became a conscious and deliberate system.” Chief here was the Repeal of the Corn Laws as “one of the direct consequences of the Irish disaster.” As Ireland lost its grain monopoly and cheap grain poured in from abroad, bread prices fell, and tenant-farmer and cottier rents could not be paid. Meat and wool prices had been rising for some time and the demand was great. “Wool and meat,” Marx wrote, “became the slogan, hence conversion of tillage into pasture.” In 1847–48, an Act of Parliament was passed that the Irish landlords had to support their own paupers. As a result, the Irish landlord class, already deep in debt, sought to clear their estates of the impoverished population. Worsening the conditions of the old ascendancy class, the Encumbered Estates Act was passed in 1853, forcing “the debt-ridden old Irish aristocrats to the hammer of the auctioneer or bailiff, thus driving them from the land just as starvation drove away their small tenants, subtenants and cottagers.” The entire Irish situation in this period was thus summed up by the forcible eviction en masse of the population, the consolidation of farms, and the deterioration of the soil. Between 1851 and 1861, the total decrease of farms was 120,000, mainly affecting farms of less than fifteen acres.38

At the center of Marx’s argument was the dramatic decline in estimated yield per acre of every major crop. In his December 1867 speech, he provided data indicating that, in 1851–56, wheat had declined by 9.6 percent, potatoes by 43 percent, and flax by 35 percent.39 Although Ireland had previously exported vast quantities of wheat, it was now said by the ruling British colonial interests to be good “only for cultivating oats.” Indeed, by 1866, Ireland was exporting only an amount equivalent to a little more than a quarter of the wheat that it was importing. Becoming a net importer of grain was of course partly a product of the competition presented by cheap foreign grain following the Repeal of the Corn Laws. But a more critical problem was the deterioration of the land itself, which was only compounded by the expulsion of the cottiers. In the conacre/rack-renting system, “the farmer,” Marx noted, had “in a great measure trusted to his labourers to manure the land for him.”40 With the breakdown of that system following the Great Famine, the clearing of the estates, and the consolidation of farms, the process of manuring, hitherto carried out by the peasants with their spade agriculture and ridge system of cultivation, was undermined. The law of replacement regarding soil nutrients, as identified by Justus von Liebig, was violated, generating a new, hardly less extreme modality of the metabolic rift, attributable to the “new regime” of food production.41 “Since the exodus,” Marx remarked, “the land has been underfed and overworked.” The resulting decline in agricultural productivity, he hastened to add, was not necessarily reflected in value terms, since under consolidation and the shift from tillage to pasturage “rents and profits…may increase, although the produce of the soil decreases. The total produce may diminish, and still [the] greater part of it be converted into surplus produce, falling to the landlord and (great) farmer. And the price of the surplus produce has risen.” None of this, however, altered the fact that less food was being produced per acre. The upshot was the “sterilisation (gradual) of the land, as in Sicily by the ancient Romans.”42

The rack-renting system in which the laborers were “ground to the dust” was replaced by a “regime since 1846, [which] though less barbarian in form, [was] in effect [hardly less] destructive, leaving no alternative but Ireland’s voluntary emancipation by England or life-and-death struggle.” The most visible manifestation of the new agricultural regime, was, Marx pointed out, that “in 1855–56, 1,032,694 Irishmen were replaced by 999,877 head of livestock (cattle, sheep and pigs).”43 Marx wrote in Capital: “Having praised the fruitfulness of the Irish soil between 1815 and 1846, and proclaimed it loudly as destined for the cultivation of wheat by nature herself, English agronomists, economists and politicians suddenly discovered that it was good for nothing but the production of forage.”44 Or as Engels satirically put it, in 1812

England was at war with the whole of Europe and America, and it was much more difficult to import corn—corn was the primary need. Now America, Rumania, Russia and Germany deliver sufficient corn, and the question now is rather one of cheap meat. And because of this Ireland’s climate is no longer suited to tillage.… Today England needs grain quickly and dependably—Ireland is just perfect for wheat-growing. Tomorrow England needs meat—Ireland is only fit for cattle pastures. The existence of five million Irish is in itself a smack in the eye to all the laws of political economy, they have to get out but whereto is their worry!45

The solution that the English and the Anglo-Irish landlord class imposed on colonial Ireland in the period after 1846 was what Marx called a “fiendish war of extermination against the cott[i]ers.”46 In employing the term extermination to describe the Irish condition, Marx and Engels, along with their contemporaries, such as Butt and Lavergne, had in mind its twofold meaning as both exclusion and annihilation of the Irish peasantry.47 The result of this “quiet business-like extinction,” as Marx called it, was the forced emigration, death, pauperization, and “physical deterioration” of the great mass of the Irish people. For the Irish, Marx observed in 1867, it is a question of a “life-and-death struggle.” The “absolute increase in the number of deaf-mutes, blind, insane, idiotic, and decrepit inhabitants,” what could be called a corporeal rift, was a natural result of these conditions. In such circumstances, the Irish were forced to choose between “ruin and revolution.”48 Hence, the Fenian upsurge.49 Hence, the Land War that was to follow. Each generation of Irish was forced in their own way to rise up against English rule.50

Colonial Ireland and the Metabolic Rift

In discussing the absolute general law of accumulation in relation to Ireland in the first volume of Capital, Marx observed that the depopulation of Ireland had reduced the amount of cultivated land and hence the production of the soil, with a greater area given over to pasture. However, in referring to the decreasing production of grain that resulted, he noted that this was also accompanied by decreased production per acre, which could not be separated from the fact that “for a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.”51 The failure to maintain the soil metabolism was central to Marx’s understanding of the extreme ecological degradation of colonial Ireland and was also emphasized in his December 1867 speech on Ireland, in which he indicated that the nutrients necessary to fertilize the Irish soil “were exported with the produce and rent.”52

Marx’s analysis here coincided with what Jonathan Swift in Maxims Controlled in Ireland and Thomas Prior in A List of the Absentees of Ireland had both in 1729 called the “drain” of wealth from Ireland to England.53 The full extent of this drain was made clear in the 1804 treatise An Essay on the Principle of Commercial Exchanges, written by John Leslie Foster (later appointed Baron of the Exchequer of Ireland), which documented the enormous payments of the Irish to the English in the form of rents to absentees. The great drain of value to absentee landlords was financed by the export of grain to England for which the Irish themselves received nothing in return. The loss of the produce Ireland exported to pay the rent of absentee landlords forced it to seek increased imports. This, however, necessitated a vast borrowing of foreign funds (primarily in England) to finance Irish imports, leaving the country deeper and deeper in debt.54 As Foster said, “it is Ireland paid by Ireland to work for England. It is the part of England to enjoy, and of Ireland to labour.”55 As Marx noted, referring to a later report, Ireland was “forced to contribute cheap labour and cheap capital” to further the industrialization of England.56

But the drain, as Marx so astutely emphasized, was not simply a question of economic values but of natural-material use values. In the case of Ireland, an agrarian nation under colonial rule, what was being drained away was the most important use value of all—the nutrients that were vital to the replenishment of the soil. Ireland was thus the site of an extreme metabolic rift, caught in the vice grip of economic and ecological imperialism, from which arose the necessity of “ruin or revolution.”57


  1. Philip Campanile and Michael Watts, “Nature and Ecology,” The Bloomsbury Companion to Marx, ed. Jeff Diamanti, Andrew Pendakis, and Imre Szeman (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 358; Alan Rudy, “Marx’s Ecology and Rift Analysis,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 12 (June 2001): 61.
  2. Stephen Howe, “Historiography,” in Ireland and Empire, ed. Kevin Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 246.
  3. Key works include Eamonn Slater and Terrence McDonough, “Marx on Nineteenth-Century Colonial Ireland,” Irish Historical Studies 36/142 (November 2008): 153–72; Eamonn Slater and Eoin Flaherty, “Marx on Primitive Communism,” Irish Journal of Anthropology 12/2 (2009): 5–34; Eoin Flaherty, “Geographies of Communality, Colonialism, and Capitalism,” Historical Geography 41 (2013): 39–79; Eamonn Slater, “Marx on Colonial Ireland,” History of Political Thought, 39/4 (Winter 2018): 719–48; Slater, “Marx on the Colonization of Irish Soil,” MUSSI Working Paper Series 3 (January 2018); Slater, “Engels on Ireland’s Dialectics of Nature,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 29/4 (2018): 31–50.
  4. Anthony Coughlan, “Ireland’s Marxist Historians,” in Interpreting Irish History, ed. Ciaran Brady (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994), 291.
  5. Slater and McDonough, “Marx on Nineteenth-Century Colonial Ireland,” 154; Hal Draper, ed., The Marx-Engels Chronicle (New York: Schocken, 1985), 138.
  6. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Ireland and Irish Question (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 120–48; Slater and McDonough, “Marx on Nineteenth-Century Colonial Ireland,” 158–59.
  7. Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 40.
  8. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 131–35, 210. Marx in his outline for his December 1867 talk does not include a title/subtitle to designate the 1801–46 period, but it is clear from his description that the “Period of Rack-Renting,” which we employ here, is appropriate. In relation to the new conditions in the 1846–66 period, Marx refers to “The Clearing of the Estate of Ireland” which conforms to what he and Engels, along with their contemporaries, referred to as “extermination,” encompassing both of its classical meanings as exclusion and annihilation, in the case of the cottiers. Indeed, Engels refers to 1846–70 as “The Period of Extermination,” which we have followed here, based on the entry for “extermination,” Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 938. Marx utilized the term extermination in this sense in 1858 in an article for the New York Tribune. See Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 90.
  9. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 127, 140; Dean M. Braa, “The Great Potato Famine and the Transformation of the Irish Peasant Society,” Science and Society 61/2 (1997): 193–215.
  10. Isaac Butt, The Irish People and the Irish Land (Dublin: John Falconer, 1867), 94–95.
  11. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 61, 132.
  12. Helen Litton, The Irish Famine (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1994), 9.
  13. Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 13–15.
  14. Litton, Irish Famine, 9–10; Ross, Ireland, 206–7; Slater and McDonough, “Marx on Nineteenth Century Colonial Ireland,” 36.
  15. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 77, 132–3.
  16. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 59–60, 123–24.
  17. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 109.
  18. Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 20.
  19. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 133.
  20. Cormac Ó Gráda, “Irish Agricultural History,” Agricultural History Review 38/2 (1990): 165–73.
  21. Léonce de Lavergne, The Rural Economy of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London: Blackwell, 1855), 343.
  22. Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 21.
  23. Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 21–23; Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson, Irish Farming, Implements and Techniques, 1750–1900 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1986), 57–58.
  24. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 790.
  25. Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 24.
  26. Walsh, P. F. Ryan, and J. Kilroy, “A Half Century of Fertiliser and Lime Use in Ireland,” Dublin (1956/1957): 104–36; Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 22–24; George Hill, Facts from Gweedore (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1971).
  27. Slater, “Marx on the Colonization,” 23–25.
  28. Lavergne, The Rural Economy, 353–54.
  29. James S. Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Phoenix Mill, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2001), 1.
  30. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 133.
  31. Lavergne, The Rural Economy, 355.
  32. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 763.
  33. Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine; Christine Kinealy, The Great Calamity (Dublin: Gill and McMillan, 1994); Davis Ross, Ireland: History of a Nation (New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 2006), 223–28; Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962); Litton, The Irish Famine.
  34. Jean Beagle Ristaino and Donald H. Pfister, “‘What a Painfully Interesting Subject’,” Bioscience 66/12 (December 2016): 1035–45; Sarah Maria Schmidt, “Anton de Bary,” Microbes Eat My Food, January 27, 2015.
  35. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 21 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 327.
  36. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 147.
  37. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 141. Lavergne also referred to the “short-sighted and hungry exhaustion of the productive powers of the soil” in Ireland. See Lavergne, The Rural Economy, 356. Based on contemporary ecological knowledge, we can amplify Marx’s analysis by underscoring that by growing one variety the narrow genetic base of the crop meant that there was no resistance to the disease anywhere in the country. Inadequate rotations also contributed to disease prevalence. The disease infects plants by airborne spores and raindrop splash causing soil with spores to get on the leaves. This is still a difficult problem for organic growers of both potatoes and tomatoes, but using blight-resistant varieties, good rotations, and mulching the soil surface with straw helps considerably. (We would like to thank Fred Magdoff for emphasizing these points.)
  38. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 76, 134, 138, 147.
  39. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 135–36. The value of output per “standard man days” in crop production dropped by around 17 percent between 1851 and 1861. Michael Turner, After the Famine(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 191.
  40. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 122.
  41. Justus von Liebig, Letters on Modern Agriculture (London: Walton and Maberly, 1859), 175–70, 220, 230; Karl Marx, Dispatches for the New York Tribune (London: Penguin, 2007); Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 126, 133–34, 147–48.
  42. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 122, 136; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 860.
  43. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 123, 126, 138.
  44. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 870.
  45. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 188, 191.
  46. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 90.
  47. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 190, 210: Butt, The Irish People and the Irish Land, 172; Lavergne, The Rural Economy, 367; “Extermination,” Oxford English Dictionary, 938.
  48. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 123, 126, 137–38, 142.
  49. Marx viewed Fenianism as reflecting a “socialist tendency (in a negative sense directed against the appropriation of the soil).” See Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 147.
  50. We owe our understanding of these longer-term developments to correspondence with Eamonn Slater.
  51. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 860.
  52. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 141.
  53. Jonathan Swift, “Maxims Controlled in Ireland,” in Swift’s Irish Writings (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 118; Thomas Prior, “Extracts from Thomas Prior, A List of the Absentees of Ireland,” in The Great Irish Famine, ed. Karen Sonnelitter (Peterborough, ONT: Broadview, 2018), 32: Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 21, 222.
  54. John Leslie Foster, An Essay on the Principle of Commercial Exchanges (London: J. Hatchard Bookseller to Her Majesty, 1804), 22–44. There were similarities between the “drain” of surplus from colonial Ireland as depicted here and the British drain of surplus from India. See Utsa Patnaik, “Revisiting the ‘Drain,’ or Transfers from India to Britain in the Context of Global Diffusion of Capitalism,” in Agrarian and Other Histories, ed. Shubhra Chakrabarti and Utsa Patnaik (New Delhi; Tulika, 2017), 277–317.
  55. Foster, An Essay on the Principle of Commercial Exchanges, 27.
  56. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 133.
  57. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 142.
2020, Volume 71, Issue 11 (April 2020)
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