James Connolly, Irish socialist

German-based Irish historian and Connolly scholar Priscilla Metscher examines the development of Connolly's political beliefs

Priscilla Metscher

JAMES CONNOLLY was one of the outstanding figures of the British and Irish labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century. His political career corresponded roughly to the life-span of the Second International (1889-1914).

Connolly was one of the first theoreticians of the labour movement to come from the working class. As he had to leave school at an early age to help support his family financially his education was mainly autodidactic, gained through long hours of study in the National Library of Ireland.

His education in socialism was derived from the writings published by the British socialist movement of the time and from the works of Karl Marx that were available in English translation. His political thought was formed in the first instance by his activities and experiences in the British, Irish and American labour movements.

Considering the fact that because of his political and trade union activities he had little time to write, it is indeed remarkable that he achieved so much in this field. Connolly's longest work, Labour in Irish History (1910), is a testimony and tribute to the four hundred-years struggle of the Irish labouring classes against British colonial rule in Ireland.

Connolly arrived in Dublin in 1896 from Scotland where he had previously been active in the socialist movement there. Socialism existed in Ireland prior to Connolly's arrival. In Labour in Irish History he refers to the early Irish socialist William Thompson as "the forerunner of Karl Marx".

Connolly was also greatly impressed by the writings of the Young Irelander James Fintan Lalor and his analysis of the land question in Ireland, 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." The Irishman and former Fenian Michael David stands out in the 1880s for his activities in the Land League movement and his attempt to combine the national question with the social question (land question).

At the time of Connolly's arrival in Dublin socialism in Ireland had become mainly British based, an expression of the colonial status of the country within the labour movement. The majority of trade unions were British-based and Irish socialists belonged either to branches of British socialist organisations or had strong contacts with British socialist organisations.

Connolly considered it his prime task to establish a genuinely Irish socialist party which recognised the needs of the Irish nation as distinct from Britain. The Irish Socialist Republican Party was founded in 1896 as an independent national workers' party, in the interests of the Irish working class.

The party had its roots in the radical democratic republican tradition, for Connolly considered 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. As he formulated it in Erin's Hope in 1909: "The two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland - the Socialist and the National - were not antagonistic, but complementary."

At this early stage of his political thought Connolly had not yet considered the possibility of a long-term strategic alliance with other political forces: "No revolutionists can safely invite the co-operation of men and or classes whose ideals are not theirs", he wrote in 1897. He did, nevertheless, co-operate with other anti-imperialists in issues he considered to be of importance to the Irish working class, as for example with Arthur Griffith of Sinn Fein and the nationalist-minded Maud Gonne in the anti-Boer War-campaign. But he considered that nationalists must be convinced that they could only effectively bring about a change in Ireland by becoming socialists themselves.

In the years 1903-1910 James Connolly was active in the American labour movement as organiser of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). His concept of industrial unionism gave greater priority now to the economic struggle: "The struggle for the conquest of the political state of the capitalist is not the real battle, but only its echo." The core of the new social order was the industrial union.

Connolly never completely abandoned certain basic elements of syndicalist thought. This is shown after his return to Ireland in his idea that the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, as a military and industrial organisation, should play a leading role in the struggle for national independence.

Before the outbreak of World War I Connolly's understanding of the relationship between nationalism and socialism was becoming clearer. Although condemning the Home Rule Party as the enemy of the Irish working class, he appreciated the important consequences for the Irish workers if they made the question of home rule part of their own political policy. Home rule would not be the final solution, only the first step.

In 1914 the British government shelved the question of home rule for Ireland and Connolly turned to developing a strategy which would deal with the new situation. His stand was the position of the left wing of the Second International, laid down at the Basel Congress of 24-25 November, 1912. It had been resolved that the international working class should prevent war by all means at its disposal. However, in the event of the outbreak of war the situation should be used to bring about the downfall of the capitalist class in Europe.

Connolly believed that Labour in Ireland could set an example to socialists in the other European countries which would lead to the establishment of socialism in Europe. He thus anticipated the left-wing resolution of the Zimmerwald Conference, 21 September, 1915 which maintained that the emancipation of the oppressed nations as well as the enslaved classes should be the work of proletarian class struggle.

Connolly's subsequent role in the Easter Rising of 1916 must be seen in this light, as he understood the Irish struggle for self-determination to be part of the general struggle to overthrow European capitalism.

The Dublin strike and lockout of 1913 gave impetus to the later alliance between Connolly and advanced nationalists. As he wrote in 1915: out of that experience "is growing that feeling of identity of interests between the forces or real nationalism and Socialism".

Members of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the radical republican movement from Fenian days, were not averse to an alliance with Connolly and the labour movement. The working class would be, Connolly believed, the decisive force in the struggle:

"Is it not well and fitting that we of the working class should fight for the freedom of the nation from foreign rule, as the first requisite for the free development of the national powers needed for our class? It is so fitting."

The republic which would be set up in "the first days of freedom" was the first step along the path of emancipation. "In the event of victory hold on to your rifles," he said, "as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty."

Connolly was forced in the end to agree to a rising much less politically advanced than that which he himself had conceived. The Irish rising occurred before the situation in the other European countries was ripe for revolution, and so, in 1916, it was fated to remain an isolated event. Had it occurred two years later, with a revolution in Russia, the outcome may have been very different.

Priscilla Metscher was born in Belfast is the author of James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland (NST, 2002) and Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland (Peter Lang, 1986)

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-05-25 17:52:56.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2006 Priscilla Metscher