A troubling metamorphosis

A strange and sometimes terrible thing seems to happen to ideologues when they cease to be outsiders and become insiders. This seems particularly so when they are political animals. History is full of examples of this uncanny metamorphoses. Seemingly idealistic freedom movements slouching to their goal, when once they reach it, turn into either apathetic onlookers of the very evils they formerly raged against – or worse, they become replicas of the very monsters they formerly fought tooth and nail.

Modern republicanism probably begins with the French Revolution. The American Republic is of a gentler lineage, bred out of a pragmatic response to a frustrating contre temps with a myopic British parliament and a somewhat disturbed king. The French version was similar in some ways but was fatally laced with an ideological potion which for a time led it down the path of wanton savagery, rescued only to become another kind of tyranny under the aegis of the practical genius who was Napoleon Bonaparte. But while it pursued its Rousseaunian ideological course, and gained power, it truly became a monster. It was the first of a long line of idealist ideologies to do so in modern times. The latest example of this degeneration is now again exercising its mad and lethal power on a people to whom it would have initially presented itself as saviour – the People’s Republic of China.

Among the more apathetic exemplars of this withering of idealism might be found the Republic of Ireland.

In the late 18th century the Irish patriot, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was in France seeking to enlist the forces of the French Revolution to help liberate Ireland from the laws imposed on it by the British Crown. Unlike Edmund Burke, Tone saw no hope of reforming the system which had imposed murderous penal laws on catholics and manipulated an exclusively protestant land-owning class in Ireland as its willing tool in keeping the status quo.

It is hard to read accounts today of what the people of XInjiang province or of Hong Kong are experiencing and not hear echoes from the suffering of the Irish of the 18th Century. These were set upon and oppressed by the victors of England’s own ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the late 17th century, another movement claiming freedom as it goal but then morphing into a woeful tyranny. 

Wolfe Tone, the acknowledged father of Irish republicanism, succeeded in getting French help. His and their efforts were, however, a miserable failure. He was captured, convicted of high treason and condemned to death by hanging. He asked to be shot as a soldier and when this was refused, died by his own hand. Nevertheless, he lived on as a potent symbol of republicanism for 150 years and has served as such for the eventual republic which Ireland became.

The late Seamus Deane, poet and literary critic, in an essay on Wolfe Tone (now published in Small World – Ireland 1798-2018), examines the motivation which drove this Irish hero in the direction which he took. At the heart of Tone’s political experience was his acute analysis of the condition of Ireland and the Irish – a condition he defined as one of slavery. Deane universalises this and says that all republican theory is permeated by this “whole concept of dependence and slavery… To be dependent on the wish, caprice, or undelegated authority of someone else is to lack autonomy and to be a slave. It is corrupt and corrupting, especially when sustained by violence and an endless bombardment of propaganda and threat.” This, he says, was Ireland’s condition. Such, history shows, is the ground in which so many ideologies bent on achieving freedom for peoples are nurtured. What, however, can explain the subsequent degeneration of so many of them to a condition where they now tolerate and cooperate with perpetrators of the very oppression they fought against so heroically? Or worse, how can so many of them perpetrate on their own people the injustices they once raged against?

Mao Zedong was a hero for his people – and for a time in the West, to young idealists, seemed also to be a hero. But he then turned into – and turned his Republic into – a cauldron of death. Xi Jinping can only be described as a worthy successor. What is happening in Xinjiang province, documented now in increasing detail, can only be described as slavery.

Ruth Ingham, in a recent post, quoted Geoffrey Cain, author of The Perfect Police State, who earlier this month gave evidence at the second series of hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal in London. He detailed how China’s access to an arsenal of intrusive novel technologies has enabled the state to monitor the minutiae of everyday life of each one of its citizens. These means are nothing more or less than the modern equivalent of the cadre of informers Lord Castlereagh used to dismantle Tone’s insurgency in 18th century Ireland. With these weapons the CCP, in its war on its insurgents, are spying on 15 million or so potential “terrorists” and “extremists” among the Turkic peoples of its North Western Frontier. Cain explained how these people are spied on “from the moment they leave their house, whether from the back or the front door, whom they meet, whom they might text or call on the way, what they might download on their phone and who might have sent.” All is monitored. And that is just the spying operation. The ‘re-education” atrocities come afterwards.Wolf Tone’s Ireland took 150 years to complete its journey to full republican status. Today he must be turning in his grave. The Irish Republic not only turns a blind eye to the atrocities in China, it actually cozies up to its leaders. It builds Confucian institutes on its university campuses which serve as apologists for the very evils Tone railed against when he died an ignominious death in a Dublin prison.

Alexander Dukalskis and David Farrell, political scientists in University College Dublin, in an Irish Times piece have put in focus the threats to academic freedom in Irish universities posed by China. Charles Moore, in the Spectator and in the Daily Telegraph, has been highlighting what he sees as the sad and dangerous manipulation of Cambridge University by the same kind of fellow travelling.

Dukalskis and Farrell tell us that “In February 2021, this paper reported that the head of Huawei Ireland wrote privately to Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, regarding an academic article by our colleague Dr Richard Maher about the Chinese telecoms giant. The letter said that academic freedom was a “two-way street” and requested the Minister’s “full support in mitigating the damage that has been done”. He secured a meeting with the secretary general of the department to discuss the matter. When the School of Politics and International Relations privately signalled its concern to the university leadership, the university president described our concerns as an overreaction.”

They then recount how in July 2021, the Irish Times reported on a story that involves the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies (IICS), a spin-off of University College’s  Confucius Institute, which is teaching a class in Chinese politics for UCD students. The School of Politics objected because Confucius institutes are Chinese state-affiliated entities.  The IICS and the UCD Confucius Institute were established at the same time, have the same director, the same email address, the same phone number, the same building, overlapping senior staff, and share the same mission to promote Chinese studies.

They anticipate complaints about their complaints – that it is a storm in a teacup.

“But, you might be asking yourself, what is the fuss? The problem is that the ruling party of China is a profoundly illiberal entity when it comes to the education sector. This has always been the case to varying degrees, but under current leader Xi Jinping the party has turbo-charged its control over intellectual inquiry. As part of its ‘comprehensive reassertion of control’, in the words of expert Carl Minzner of Fordham University, the party-state has focused on the social sciences to strengthen political training for faculty and standardise reading materials. Student informants and placing CCTV in classrooms to monitor teaching have increased. ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ research institutes have proliferated. Students have been arrested on campus for activism. Scholars such as Ilham Tohti remain jailed for criticising party policies.

“Nor is this just a higher education trend. For example, this summer the Chinese ministry of education announced that Xi Jinping Thought will be introduced into the national curriculum. Yes, this is the same ministry that Ireland’s own Department of Education agreed in 2019 was a suitable partner to influence Ireland’s own Chinese language curriculum.” To top it all off, they remind us, the 2020 Hong Kong ‘national security law’ effectively criminalises dissent globally, including on campus.

Part of the answer as to why and how this sad process of aversion and reversion seems to keep occurring is probably contained in another essay by Seamus Deane in Small World. In this essay, ‘Imperialism and Nationalism’, dating from 1995, he examines the complicated relationship between these two primeval phenomena, he finds nationalism’s opposition to imperialism, in some perspectives, nothing more than a continuation of imperialism by other means. Perhaps the analysis can offer an explanation of the strange outcome of so many victories of the oppressed over their oppressors. 

Of nationalism, Deane writes,“It secedes from imperialism in its earlier form in order to rejoin it more enthusiastically in its later form. In effect, most critiques of nationalism claim that, as an ideology, it merely reproduces the very discourses by which it had been subjected. It asserts its presence and identity through precisely those categories that had denied them — through race, essence, destiny, language, history — merely adapting these categories to its own purposes. It also accepts the requirements of ‘civilization’ – modernization, development, and class and gender divisions, which are integral to the system from which it ostensibly seeks to liberate itself. In brief, in the name of emancipation for itself, it joins with the global system of late capitalism and the multinational companies, becoming economically subservient while endlessly asserting cultural independence.” 

The end result, he suggests, leaves us with this: “An intellectual proletariat, with bourgeois pretensions, that claims it has achieved national consciousness is substituted for a non-intellectual sub-proletariat that once was the national consciousness. In such a situation, many forms of reaction are justified on the grounds that they are ‘national’. External domination has been introjected to the point that a nation, so construed, may be said to have learned nothing from oppression but oppression itself.” 

That the Republic of Ireland, tracing its inspiration back to the man who suffered and died to liberate a people from the most abject oppression is cooperating with this Marxist regime should dismay Irish people. It does not. That this Republic, and certain of its established state-funded institutions are now hand in glove with one of the planet’s great oppressors should be seen as a gross contradiction of everything in the inspiration which was of its essence. It is not. Sad metamorphosis indeed.


Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room of the Irish nation and its relationship with oppression – as an oppressor.

First Things@firstthingsmag·

For the first time in history, a nation has voted to strip the right to life from the unborn.

2 thoughts on “A troubling metamorphosis

  1. The Great Day by WB Yeats
    Hurrah for revolution and more cannon shot!
    A bigger upon horseback lashes a bigger on foot.
    Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
    The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

  2. On page 87 of Deane’s book he makes this observation on Yeats’ complicated reading of Ireland’s nationalism:

    “In Yeats and Joyce these paradoxes and anomalies are fundamental to the development of their very different discourses. Yeats’s poetry and plays, along with his various prose writings, attempt to resituate in and through Ireland and through his version of the Irish national character and destiny a reconstituted ideal of the heroic individual at bay in the modern world. Such an individual belongs to a specifically invoked cultural form — Irish national culture, the culture of the occult and occluded orders of theosophy, Anglo-Irish ‘aristocratic’ culture. All of these have suffered marginalization at the hands of an imperial modernity. Now, in the words of one of his most famous poems, ‘The Second Coming is at hand’; the modern World is free—falling into violence and disintegration and the alternative and opposite world of tradition, ceremony, and the mage is emerging to take its place and usher in another era in world history. Ireland is the site for such an emergence. In claiming this role, Yeats reverses the relationship between Ireland and England, but, since this is a role that has yet to be, that is in a future guaranteed by nothing more than his own quixotic version of national and world history, the reversal is phantasmal. The inevitability of a vertically hierarchical distinction between Britain and Ireland is preserved. Edward Said regards this position as characteristic of one, early phase of nationalist resistance, what he calls the ‘nativist phenomenon’.”

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