Needless Suffering in the 1840s Irish Potato Famine

Economical With The Irish

by Gwydion M. Williams

Class hatred in Britain is at its strongest in middle-class malice towards those less fortunate than themselves. A smug malice backed by a phony version of Christianity, whose true colours were shown in the infamous Workhouses, and also in the neglect of the Irish in the late 1840s.

Victorian Britain totally failed to cope with the looming problem of a world in which many other nations were industrialising and British predominance was likely to be lost. They ignored the writing on the wall, the obvious truth that Britain must help set up some solid world political structure or else face perpetual war. They contented themselves with asserting dogmatically that for them to look after themselves was all that was needed. And nowhere was their failure greater than on the matter of the Irish Famine of the 1840s.

“Laissez-faire–a belief that the public good is best served by leaving individuals to look after themselves, since government interference in economic affairs tends to upset the natural checks and balances of wealth-creation. Wilson’s magazine The Economist was to be perhaps the most influential disseminator of this doctrine, through the prism of which it examined and pronounced on the topical issues of the day; its greatest test was to be the Irish famine.”

(The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993. Ruth Dudley Edwards, Hamish Hamilton 1993. Page 6).

Natural wealth creation requires that Irish paupers be left alone to naturally die in agony. The Economist‘s official historian celebrates the fact. It was not an accident or a misunderstanding. It was absolutely central to a world-view that has carried on right to this day.

“Wilson [James Wilson, founder and first editor of The Economist] might have become a member of the Church of England, but when it came to religion, he was very much a product of his Quaker background.” (Ibid., p 47)

In the same sense that farting is a product of beans. The relationship is valid but not admirable.

Quakers were and are the closest Christian grouping to the original doctrine. They did capitulate to commerce, but in most ways they remained serious Christians. They stuck to the actual principles of the Gospels in a way that most Protestant sects did not. They trusted God enough to remain pacifists, rather than invoking random bits of disconnected biblical text to justify their own violence and malice. And whereas other Protestants disgraced their cause by promoting ‘souperism’ among the starving Irish, proper Quakers obeyed the actual words of Jesus and gave help to the needy without regard for sect or doctrine. Un-lapsed Quaker were the opposite of Wilson’s ‘starvationism’.

“It was unusual for Wilson to invoke the deity: certainly, when it came to the greatest issue of his editorship–the Irish famine–it was Adam Smith, not Jesus Christ, whose counsel he reluctantly followed.” (Ibid., p 47).

Nice of Ruth Dudley Edwards to admit that the two doctrines are as different as chalk and cheese. Smith was part of a circle of Scottish Deists who were pro-Establishment but anti-Christian. Almost all of Smith’s modern biographers evade this point.

“Did the existence of widespread starvation not prove impractical the abstract principle that a government should not meddle with the subsistence of the people? On the contrary, it demonstrated ‘the propriety of rigidly adhering to non-interference’, for it was interference in the shape of the Corn Laws that had caused the problem in the first place. Similarly, it was no part of a government’s duty to feed any or all of the people. Since its only funds came from taxation, it could feed one section of the population only by depriving another.” (Ibid., p 58)

But how could corn laws be blamed for a potato blight? Nor could regulations on food imports have much to do with Irish overpopulation, which was the deeper cause of the disaster. Ireland was at all times a food exporter, even during the famine. Though altogether four times as much food was imported as was exported, that there should be any exports from a famine zone was both wicked and stupid.

The wickedness is obvious enough. People rich enough to pay taxes are not likely to be dying of want, and their comfort ought to be secondary to the simple survival of other sections of society. I also say stupid, because Britain was to suffer enormous loss for its failure to behave with simple decency in the 1840s. A fair and generous effort to help the starving Irish might perhaps have not saved very many extra lives. But it would have left the Irish still feeling part of a wider British-Isles identity, an idea that was gravely weakened after the famine.

This is an excerpt from a much longer article, Sociocide.
First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 68, Spring 2002