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  • Irish Marxism and the Development of the Theory of Neo-Colonialism
  • Charlie McGuire (bio)


The irish marxist tradition is a valuable, if largely ignored, source of what later became dependency or neo-colonialist theory. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the early Irish Marxists operated on a political landscape that was shaped by a foreign power. Ireland was governed directly from London and existed as a component part of the British empire. This meant that from the very beginning, Irish Marxists were compelled to deal with many of the questions that would later occupy the attentions of neo-colonialist theorists. These questions centered on the relationship between economic and political domination and its consequences, both for independence struggles and for the new states that emerged from them. This essay explores the significance of Irish Marxism to neo-colonialist theory through an examination of the contribution of two of its leading adherents, James Connolly and his son Roddy Connolly. By examining their ideas and comparing them to later theories of neo-colonialism, I maintain that Irish Marxism anticipated many of the elements of this particular branch of Marxist theory.


Before we discuss the contribution of our two Irish Marxists to neo-colonialist theory, it is necessary first to identify what we understand [End Page 110] by the term neo-colonialism and the theory that underpins it. By setting out some of its constituent parts and arriving at a definition of its nature, we can create a model against which the ideas of James Connolly and Roddy Connolly can be examined and compared. Neo-colonialist theory was a development in Marxist thinking that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s. The main stimulus to this development was the continued backwardness of those postcolonial nations, mainly in Africa and Asia, that had gained formal independence after 1945. Its target was modernization theory, which attempted to rationalize and justify this backwardness on the grounds that the underdeveloped nations were at an original historic stage or point similar to that which the developed nations had long since passed. According to modernization theory, just as the developed nations had progressed, so too would the undeveloped regions—if, of course, they followed the economic, social, political, and even cultural prescriptions laid down for them by their former political overlords in the West.

In response, early theorists of neo-colonialism such as Paul Baran pointed out that, unlike the developed metropolitan states, the underdeveloped nations lacked a virile bourgeoisie capable of spearheading the tasks of political and economic development. Caught between a dominant metropolitan bourgeoisie and a rising international labor movement, the bourgeois classes in ex-colonial states were paralyzed and ultimately threw their lot in with reaction, ensuring continued underdevelopment and stagnation. As Baran commented,

. . . whatever differences and antagonisms existed between large and small landowners, between monopolistic and competitive business, between liberal bourgeois elements and reactionary feudal overlords, between domestic and foreign interests, were largely submerged on all important occasions by the overriding common interest in staving off socialism.

This resulted in a situation in which "the possibility of solving the economic and political deadlock prevailing in the underdeveloped countries on the lines of a progressive capitalism all but [disappeared]."1 [End Page 111]

The prominent neo-colonialist theorist Andre Gunder Frank also disputed the contention, central to modernization theory, that the developed nations had ever been in a state of underdevelopment; they may at one stage have been undeveloped, but that was an entirely different state. For Frank, underdevelopment was an inescapable consequence of capitalism. As he put it, it represented the "historical product of past and continued economic and other relations between the satellite underdeveloped and the now developed metropolitan countries . . . [and was] an essential part of the development of capitalism."2

The emergent strands of neo-colonial theory were articulated clearly at the Third All-African Peoples' Conference in Cairo in 1961. There neo-colonialism was identified as the "survival of the colonial system in spite of formal recognition of political independence in the emerging countries, which became the victims of an independent and subtle form of domination by political, military, or technical [forces]."3 Eight aspects of neo-colonialism were identified. These...


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