Books: Remembering James Connolly

 May 2017 Connolly


 James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland,” by Priscilla Metscher. (Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 2002), 243 pages.

The aftermath of the 101st anniversary of the Easter Rising is a good time to become (re)acquainted with the views of the great Irish republican socialist, James Connolly. Though many of today’s Irish nationalists and “socialists” pay homage to him, they support parties that collaborate in the partition of Ireland, and that vote for capitalist austerity measures.

As Priscilla Metscher’s well written, amply annotated book implies, this is worse than ironic. She presents a comprehensive survey of Connolly’s politics, as they evolved between 1896 and 1916. Each chapter links his writings and speeches to the momentous events of his time.

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1868 of Irish immigrant parents and grew up in the slums of that city. He started to work at about age 10 as a printer’s devil, then in a bakery, then in a tiling factory. At 14 he joined the army and was sent to Ireland, where over the next seven years he saw first-hand the oppression of the Irish people. Back in Scotland he joined the socialist movement, standing (unsuccessfully) as its candidate for municipal office in 1894. He knew about the Land League in Ireland, and as a socialist, realized the importance of British workers’ support for the freedom struggle in Ireland.

Connolly learned that the struggle of the Land League was diverted by adoption of the single-plank electoral platform of Home Rule, counter posed to independence from Britain. His remedy was the organization of a working-class party that would go beyond the liberal aims of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

With a few fellow workers, Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. As the name suggests, it set to unite the struggle for national freedom with the socialist emancipation of the working class. Its programme proclaimed the need for nationalization of railways, canals, banks, and the “gradual extension of the principle of public ownership and supply of all the necessaries of life” (all quotes are from the book).

In 1903 Connolly helped to write a manifesto for the Socialist Labour Party of Scotland, which more clearly expressed the need for a working-class party, the concept of the class struggle, and the aim of wresting control of the state from the capitalist class.

Its immediate demands combined with a vision of profound change involving workers’ control of industry and a cooperative agricultural system. Under the slogan “agitate, educate, organize,” working-class power should be spread by all means, including elections. But he maintained that the election of a majority of Socialist Republicans to parliament would not herald the dawn of the socialist republic. It would, however, represent “the moral insurrection of the Irish people”: “their desire for separation from the British Empire,” which could be converted into a military insurrection by the use of “a small expeditionary force and war material.”

Connolly rejected the conspiratorial methods associated with the failure of the Young Irelanders and the Fenians. He wanted to make republicanism a public issue, to purge it of “the odor of illegality,” and to change it from the “politics of despair” into the “Science of Revolution.” In the process, he tried to convert “advanced nationalists” to socialism, making a key distinction between bourgeois liberals and anti-imperialists.

He realized that the limits of constitutionalism (legislative reform of the structure of government) are dictated by the very nature of the state “created by the propertied classes for their own purposes.”

The election of a majority of Irish Socialist Republicans to parliament would be a preliminary step, but only a step, towards the “revolutionary reconstruction of society.” The latter is the task of the working class, in which he included the rural peasantry.

How would this be done? “The governing power must be wrested from the hands of the rich peaceably, if possible, forcibly if necessary.” Expect the rulers to resist fiercely.  Connolly’s answer, like Malcolm X’s many years later, was simply: by any means necessary.

The ISRP was a tiny propaganda group. Connolly tried to forge it into a disciplined body, equipping it with a vital tool of education and organization—the party newspaper. Connolly was the editor and publisher of the Workers’ Republic. He used the pages of the WR not only to present socialist republicanism to the general public, but also as a weapon against the Home Rule party and the United Irish League, exposing their capitalist interests in “making terms with the Imperial government.”

The ISRP was internationalist. It held the first public meeting to protest against the Boer War in 1899. “Every war now is a capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must make or perish.” The spectacle of imperialist war reinforced Connolly’s belief that it was unlikely that the capitalist class as a whole would yield up its privileges peacefully.

Frustrated by the slow progress of the ISRP, Connolly emigrated to the United States in 1903. Over the next seven years, he became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and a member, and critic, of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party.

The SLP was sectarian on political and trade-union issues, quite evident in its strident propaganda against Catholicism and its dual-unionism stance. De Leon provoked a split in the IWW, driving the latter even farther away from campaigning on political issues and towards anarchism. In 1908, after quitting the SLP, Connolly joined the Socialist Party of America, attracted by its mass base and growing left wing, notwithstanding its political reformism. But the idea of industrial unionism stayed with him, making him a sharp opponent of the craft unionism of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labour.

In “Socialism Made Easy,” Connolly subordinates the political struggle for state power to the everyday battle at the work place to control industry.

His concept of the party is “one Socialist party embracing all shades and conceptions of Socialist political thought.” But he contradicts that view by reiterating the vanguard role of the socialist party, and moreover, by asserting the importance of political action before economic battles.

His major work, “Labour in Irish History,” shows the development of a national self-consciousness in Ireland, the result of centuries of oppression and of action against it. With that book, which he regarded as part of the literature of Gaelic revival, Connolly set out to map an Irish path to socialism. A free Ireland would take its distinct place in the world: “the internationalism of the future will be based on the free federation of free peoples.”

Sadly, his vision of freedom was impaired on women’s emancipation. While in the forefront of the fight for women’s suffrage, Connolly opposed divorce, and rejected any attempt “to identify Socialism with any theory of marriage or sexual relations.”

The Belfast to which Connolly returned in 1910 was a scene of sweated labour and miserable wages. Industrial unrest in 1909 and 1911 led to a major confrontation in 1913, the Dublin Strike and Lockout. Tens of thousands joined the struggle, which was met with stiff employer intransigence and unbridled police brutality. The strikers implored the British Trades Union Congress to take sympathy strike action, to isolate Belfast from international trade and commerce. But the TUC refused, signaling the end of an inspiring chapter.

Connolly was quick to point out that the growth of unions and labour federations did not necessarily mean a great increase in solidarity and revolutionary spirit; it often led to increased bureaucracy and alienation of officials from the rank and file.

It was also during the Dublin strike that the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers were founded, which paved the way to the Easter Rising of 1916.

Meanwhile, the First World War raged across Europe. At an international conference of socialists in Zimmerwald in 1915, Russia’s Bolshevik Party leader V.I. Lenin said, “Turn the imperialist war into civil war.” Connolly agreed. The suppression of Irish nationalist papers, plus other restrictions of civil liberties, and the threat of conscription by the British crown, led him to say, “constitutional action in normal times … revolutionary action in exceptional times. These are exceptional times.” He turned to making the Citizen Army into a disciplined force.

In James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland,” the reader meets James Larkin, the impassioned and impetuous class-struggle labour leader, and Padraic Pearse, the radical nationalist intellectual, president of the provisional government of the Irish Republic and commandant-general of its Citizen Army.

The book chronicles the series of unfortunate events that doomed the Easter Rising, which began April 24, 1916. Connolly, vice president of the rebel Irish Republic, was injured while defending its headquarters in the Dublin Post Office. He was captured and shot in Killmainham Jail by the British.

Lenin observed that a revolutionary situation was growing in Ireland, but was not fully developed. Still, this uprising was no putsch. It was a true popular rebellion, however premature. The historical tragedy was that James Connolly and Padraic Pearse were eliminated just prior to the revolutionary situation that soon emerged in 1918-20.

An important political error in Priscilla Metscher’s book is its claim that Connolly subscribed to a “stages” concept of the revolution, such as outlined by Lenin in his early “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.” The truth is that both Lenin and Connolly recognized certain phases of the struggle, but they rejected any notion of stages in which the interests of the working class should be subordinated to those of the capitalists, domestic or foreign. As Russia demonstrated, it was a Permanent Revolution that ushered in the workers’ state that began socialist construction.

In his “Re-Conquest of Ireland,” Connolly replaces the term “Workers’ Republic” with “Co-operative Commonwealth,” which he defines as “a system of society in which the workshops, factories, docks, railways, shipyards, etc., shall be owned by the nation, but administered by the Industrial Unions of the respective industries.” This is clearly not a blueprint for a bourgeois state.

What stood in the way of Connolly’s dream? It was the absence of a strong, democratically centralized, revolutionary workers’ party, and the lack of a revolutionary socialist-led labour movement. But that takes little away from the fact that James Connolly was one of the greatest socialist leaders of the 20th century.


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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.