Connolly and the First World War

Submitted by Matthew on 31 August, 2016 - 12:24

Part 11 of Michael Johnson’s series on the life and politics of James Connolly. The rest of the series can be found here.


In March 1914, Asquith made his new and final proposal on Home Rule, putting forward a scheme whereby the Ulster counties could exclude themselves from the new Irish constitution. It was supposed to be a temporary exclusion, for six years, but a general election in the interim delivering a Tory majority could make it permanent.

It was clear that Ulster was holding out for permanent exclusion — partition — if could not prevent Home Rule from passing. Adding to the atmosphere of crisis was the “Curragh mutiny” on 20 March 1914, when a group of officers threatened to resign if asked to enforce Home Rule on the Protestants.

Connolly set himself against any form of partition, arguing that it would lead to a “carnival of reaction” on both sides of any new border. Connolly was prophetic. He wrote: “Such a scheme would destroy the Labour movement by disrupting it. It would perpetuate in a form aggravated in evil the discords now prevalent, and help the Home Rule and Orange capitalists and clerics to keep their rallying cries before the public as the political watchwords of the day. In short, it would make the division more intense and confusion of ideas and parties more confounded.”

Unionist intransigence and the outbreak of the War in August 1914 delayed the implementation of Home Rule. The outbreak of the war, which the socialist movement had pledged in solemn resolutions to oppose, came as a huge blow to Connolly. The Second International’s position, agreed at Stuttgart in 1907 and subsequently re-affirmed at its Copenhagen and Basel conferences in 1910 and 1912, was to work to “exert all their efforts to prevent the war by means of co-ordinated strike action” and, failing that, “to work for its speedy termination, and to exploit with all their might the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the population and to hasten the overthrow of capitalist rule.”

When it came to it, the resolutions proved worthless, as the parties of the Second International — with the exception of Ireland, Russia, Serbia and Italy plus the Tesnyaki in Bulgaria and a few other groups — backed “their own” governments’ war efforts. In Britain, as Connolly wrote: “With the honourable exception of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), the organised and unorganised Labour advocates of Peace in Britain swallowed the bait and are now beating the war drum.”

The Irish TUC and Labour Party, however, released a statement opposing the war on 10 August 1914: “A European war for the aggrandisement of the capitalist class has been declared. Great Britain is involved. The working-class will, as usual, supply the victims that the crowned heads may stalk in all their panoply of state…”

For Connolly, the war changed everything. He was gripped both by despair at the failure of the socialist movement, and by a burning sense of urgency. When the war started, he lamented that “civilisation is being destroyed before our eyes; the results of generations of propaganda and patient heroic plodding and self-sacrifice are being blown into annihilation from a hundred cannon mouths.”

Abandoning his earlier Second International-type critique of the “unfortunate insurrectionism of the early Socialists”, Connolly thought that amidst the carnage and slaughter, “even an unsuccessful attempt at socialist revolution by force of arms, following the paralysis of the economic life of militarism, would be less disastrous to the socialist cause than the act of socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers.” Connolly’s hope was that “starting thus, Ireland may yet set a torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.” To those socialists who looked forward to the war ending so that the business as usual of gradual progress could continue, Connolly rebuked that “we cannot draw upon the future for a draft to pay our present duties. There is no moratorium to postpone the payment of the debt the socialists now owe to the cause; it can only be paid now. Paid it might be in martyrdom, but a few hundred such martyrdoms would be but a small price to pay to avert the slaughter of hundreds of thousands.”

Larkin’s departure to America in October 1914 put Connolly and his allies, such as Helena Moloney and Michael Mallin, in an increasingly influential position in both the ITGWU and the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA). According to Ann Matthews, around the end of 1915, Connolly began to tighten up the membership of the ICA “to ascertain its numerical strength and the membership’s commitment.”

William O’Brien later recalled that Connolly told him that he “did not desire any man to remain in it who was not prepared to respond to the call to arms which might come any day, and any man who was not so prepared should now drop out and there would be no hard feelings about it. He then had a fresh register made out of all who remained in and this register had been preserved.”

For Connolly, this insurrectionary urgency was only heightened by the repressive logic of Britain’s wartime regime. The sweeping powers granted to the authorities by the Defence of the Realm Act, including the suspension of jury trials, a harsh regime of censorship, and the 1915 Munitions of War act which suspended trade union rights, were from Connolly’s perspective an existential threat to both the Irish labour movement and the Irish Volunteers. He therefore increasingly drew a distinction between normal periods of capitalist rule and war-time conditions, with the latter ushering in an “era of ruthless brute force, of blood and iron” in which open democratic agitation had little grip in the face of ruling-class violence.

In December 1914, The Irish Worker newspaper published by the ITGWU was suppressed, prompting Connolly to relaunch The Workers’ Republic on 29 May 1915 and campaign relentlessly for an insurrection. When, in late 1915, it looked like conscription might be imposed on Ireland, he began arguing for a striking a pre-emptive blow, warning that those “who now would oppose conscription must not delude themselves into the belief that they are simply embarking upon a new form of political agitation.” If the government decided that conscription in Ireland was necessary “it will enforce conscription though every river in Ireland ran red with blood.”

From his earliest years as a socialist in Edinburgh he had been deeply suspicious of the Irish parliamentary nationalists, and in 1910 he had published his seminal Labour in Irish History, analysing the failure of the Irish middle-class in history to fight consistently for Irish freedom. “Only the Irish working class,” he wrote, “remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”

Yet the working-class in Dublin had been weakened by the defeats of 1913 and were in a minority in mainly rural Ireland. More fatally still, where the working-class was strongest — in Ulster — they were hostile to Irish independence. Connolly was haunted by the past memory of the “comic opera” brand of “revolutionists who shrink from giving the blow until the great day has arrived”. Having drawn the conclusion that a war-time insurrection was necessary, it was the disparity between the forces at his disposal and the enormity of the task at hand which led Connolly to look for potential allies. He found them in the rejuvenated revolutionary nationalist movement.

Here, too, the war was a powerful catalyst for political change. Irish separatism, represented by the diffuse Sinn Fein movement in the first decade of the twentieth century, was by 1910 both politically marginal and organisationally moribund; and within this movement, the outright revolutionists were isolated further. The prospect of Home Rule seemed to vindicate the Redmondites. When Redmond announced his support for the war effort in September 1914, the Irish Volunteers split. The vast majority went off with Redmond’s National Volunteers, leaving the minority with the Irish Volunteers. Yet, as the war dragged on and the casualties mounted, with Home Rule suspended and the Unionists’ treason rewarded by Cabinet seats, support began to ebb from the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).

At the same time, the Irish Republic Brotherhood (IRB) was given a new lease of life by the veteran Fenian Tom Clarke and the younger Seán Mac Diarmada, who served as treasurer and secretary of the organisation. The dead wood was purged, as Belfast-based President of the IRB Denis McCullough bluntly recalled: “I cleared out most of the older men (including my father), most of whom I considered of no further use to us.” The conflict between Britain and Germany, and the existence of a sizeable minority of Volunteers opposing the war effort, presented an opportunity that, to the rebels, seemed unlikely to come again.

In this light, as historian Fearghal McGarry wrote, a “wartime insurrection, even one likely to fail, was not only rational but a moral and historical imperative if Fenianism was to retain any credibility or future.” In September 1914, Clarke and Mac Diarmada persuaded the IRB’s supreme council of their logic and of the necessity to rise before the war’s end.

The republicans were worried that Connolly and his ICA would go it alone and stage an uprising, on account of Connolly’s unceasing campaign for an insurrection in the pages of the new Workers’ Republic. It declared (October 1915) that the: “Irish Citizen Army will only co-operate in a forward movement. The moment that forward movement ceases it reserves to itself the right to step out of the alignment, and advance by itself if needs be, in an effort to plant the banner of freedom one reach further towards its goal.”

Patrick Pearse said of Connolly in Christmas 1915 that he “will never be satisfied until he goads us into action and then he will think most us too moderate, and want to guillotine half of us.” So the IRB co-opted Connolly, after some convincing, into their latest plans in early 1916. Due to the disparity of forces between the ICA and the Volunteers, the alliance would be on Fenian, not socialist, terms.

With the failure of the European socialists to stop the war, with the Irish workers’ movement still reeling from the 1913 Lock-Out, and with the Irish Labour Party only in its infancy and the socialist forces in Ireland weak, Connolly decided to go along with the plans of the IRB, despite his reservations.

In What is Our Programme? published in January 1916, Connolly makes clear that he would have preferred a different road, all things being equal:

“Had we not been attacked and betrayed by many of our fervent advanced patriots, had they not been so anxious to destroy us, so willing to applaud even the British Government when it attacked us, had they stood by us and pushed our organisation all over Ireland, it would now be in our power at a word to crumple up and demoralise every offensive move of the enemy against the champions of Irish freedom.

“Had we been able to carry out all our plans, as such an Irish organisation of Labour alone could carry them out, we could at a word have created all the conditions necessary to the striking of a successful blow whenever the military arm of Ireland wished to move.”