James Connolly: for the love of freedom

Priscilla Metscher takes a fresh look at the politics of the labour leader, marxist theoretician and Irish patriot James Connolly who identified the significance of linking the fight for socialism in Ireland to the struggle for national liberation

JAMES CONNOLLY was undoubtedly a prominent figure in the Irish, British and US labour movements at the turn of the 20th century.

His dramatic political career corresponds roughly to the life span of the Second International (1899-1914) and his writings reflect both the strength and weaknesses in the left-wing of the International.

Connolly did not come from an academic background. He was born in the Edinburgh slums, coming to Ireland in 1896 as paid organiser of the Dublin Socialist Club.

He was one of the first theoreticians of the labour movement to come from the working class, having to leave school at an early age to help support the family financially. His education was mainly auto-didactic, gained to a large extent through long hours of study in the National Library, Dublin.

His education in socialism was derived from the writings published by the British socialist movement and from those writings of Karl Marx which were available in English translation at that time. In Ireland he could also draw on a specific tradition of Irish socialism.

In his major work, Labour in Irish History, published in 1910, he dedicates a whole chapter to the early Irish socialist William Thompson whom he regards as “the forerunner of Karl Marx”. Connolly was influenced substantially by the writings of the radical Young Irelander James Fintan Lalor. He was greatly impressed by Lalor’s analysis of the land question in Ireland and of his demand that “the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.”

Connolly also draws attention to the close connections between Fenianism and labour agitation in Ireland. He comments, “It was in fact only amongst the youngest and most intelligent of the labouring class, of the young men of the large towns and cities engaged in the humbler walks of mercantile life, of the artisan and working classes that it found favour.”

Individual Fenians were members of the First International (International Working Men’s Association) and support was given by the IWMA to the Fenian amnesty movement. The Irishman and former Fenian Michael Davitt was to a certain extent a forerunner of Connolly in the field of labour politics in Ireland. Davitt’s name is primarily connected with the Land League of the 1880s and his attempt to combine the national question (in the form of home rule) with the social question (the land question). Davitt stands out as a pioneer of independent labour politics. On coming to Ireland Connolly considered it his prime task to establish a genuinely Irish socialist party which would recognise the needs of the Irish nation as distinct from Britain.

Thus the Irish Socialist Republican Party was founded in 1896 as an independent national workers’ party. It was Connolly’s conviction that “the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland — the socialist and the national — were not antagonistic, but complementary, and that the Irish socialist was in reality the best Irish patriot.”

He recognised that the fight for socialism in Ireland must be linked to the struggle for national liberation and that the Irish socialist was the continuing force of the revolutionary republican tradition. Again and again Connolly draws our attention to the republican tradition founded by the United Irishmen.

The Irish socialist republicans, he writes, fight for “the realisation of that freedom for which the United Irishmen fought.” He succinctly points out that the United Irishmen, far from wallowing in the glorious memories of the past, “unweariedly insisted upon the necessity of a change for the sake of the present.” “They,” he said, “turned the attention of the people, not to the ‘glorious past’, but to the shameful and hateful present, to the pregnant and fateful future.”

The years 1903-1910 were spent by Connolly and his family in the United States where he became active as organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). His theories of industrial unionism, of the creation of a socialist form of society through the use of industrial rather than political action, he elaborates in his writings of that time. They no doubt influenced his later political development after his return to Ireland, his role in the Dublin strike and lockout of 1913 and his work as organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Connolly never completely abandoned certain basic elements of industrial unionist thought. This is shown later in his idea that the ITGWU as a military and industrial organisation should play a leading role in the struggle for national independence.

In the course of time he modified these concepts and in articles written later we find side by side with syndicalist statements others in which he stresses the necessity for the working class to organise politically.

It was on Connolly’s initiative that the Irish Labour Party was founded in 1912. The main function of the party, based in the trade union movement would lie in the field of immediate reform. Connolly developed the idea of an organisational trilogy: the ITGWU as union organisation for industrial action, the Labour Party for parliamentary action and a socialist party, the Independent Labour Party of Ireland for the ideological sector.

Connolly was aware that the struggle in Ireland for national independence, democracy and socialism was not an isolated struggle, but one which was embedded in a universal struggle for freedom. He recognised the identity of interests of the international working class and of all suppressed peoples.

At the turn of the 20th century Connolly had already identified the beginning of a new phase of national and international class struggle. This insight caused him to understand the true character of modern warfare.

In articles in the Workers’ Republic on the Boer War (1899-1902) he voiced his opinion on the roots of modern war: “The influence which impels towards war to-day is the influence of capitalism. Every war now is a capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must make or perish.”

During World War I Connolly’s stand was clearly the position of the left-wing of the Second International: in the event of failure to prevent an outbreak of war the international working class should use the situation to bring about the downfall of the capitalist class in Europe.

An appeal to a false sense of national pride, the call to loyalty to Britain and the British empire was deliberately provoked, he believed, by the ruling class in the interest of finance capitalism. Thus the Irish struggle for self-determination was, to Connolly, part of the general struggle to overthrow European capitalism.

Connolly’s understanding of the significance of national liberation movements in the epoch of imperialism as a factor making for the overthrow of capitalism is derived from the specific Irish experience. This should be considered when assessing the role he played in the Easter rising. Connolly was forced in the end to agree to a rising which was politically less advanced than that which he himself had conceived. There was the absence of a strong socialist party, while the Irish TUC was not in a position to accomplish wide-scale industrial action to help pave the way for armed insurrection and the Irish rising occurred before the situation in the other European countries was ripe for revolution.

Connolly could not have foreseen that only two years later there would be a revolution in Russia which could have changed the situation in Ireland dramatically.

Connolly’s politics as well as his socialist theory must be placed in a wider context than Ireland alone, for they are part and parcel of European, indeed of world history.

The historical period in which Connolly stands, the first half of the 20th century, was, to use Eric Hobsbawm’s concept, an age of extremes, determined by the dramatic outbreak of the inherent contradictions within imperialism. It was a period of social revolution which bore in itself the potential of transforming the whole fabric of capitalist society.

This was true for the situation in a number of European countries of which Ireland was the first to be followed by Russia, Germany, Austria, Italy and later Spain. With the exception of Russia where the revolution was successful, the attempts to open up roads to socialism were brutally crushed.

In the last century some, if not most of the best leaders of the socialist revolution were murdered by an imperialist war machine: Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Gramsci (who died in a fascist prison) and Allende immediately spring to mind.

Living at the beginning of a period of crisis which was to shake and eventually shatter the traditional bourgeois world, Connolly, reflecting in 1915 on the outbreak of war, wrote prophetically: “The war madness has... revealed our rulers for what they are -- monsters in tooth and claw. Yes, revolution is no longer unthinkable in Europe; its shadow already looms upon the horizon.”

James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland by Priscilla Metscher is published as Volume 14, Nos. 1 & 2 of Nature, Society and Thought: a journal of dialectical and historical materialism, University of Minnesota, price. $10 pbk Copies can be ordered from the Four Provinces Bookshop, 244 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8JR (Check UK price with shop or supplier)

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-12-29 15:53:40.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2002 Priscilla Metscher