Who Was James Connolly?

Submitted by dalcassian on 16 December, 2007 - 5:04 Author: Sean Matgamna
James Connolly

One thousand men and a few women, one quarter of them the trade union militants of the Citizen Army, badly armed and with little training, went out into the streets of Dublin to challenge and to fight the greatest empire the world had seen. Many of them knew — certainly the leaders knew — that, given the isolation of Dublin, they had little chance of success.


[This article was written as an outline of Connolly's life and ideas for people who knew little of Connolly, and therefore critical assessment is only a small element in it. It apppeared in Socialist Worker in December 1969]

"Any man who tells you that an act of armed resistance—even if offered by 10 men armed with stones—any man who tells you that such an act of resistance is premature, imprudent or dangerous— any and every such man should at once be spurned, spat at. For remark you this and recollect it, that somewhere, and somehow, and by somebody a beginning must be made, and that the first act of resistance is always and must be ever premature, imprudent and dangerous." — James Fintan Lalor

Thus it was with the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. This was the spirit in which the successors of Lalor acted. And to act at all they needed such a spirit.

One thousand men and a few women, one quarter of them the trade union militants of the Citizen Army, badly armed and with little training, went out into the streets of Dublin to challenge and to fight the greatest empire the world had seen. Many of them knew — certainly the leaders knew — that, given the isolation of Dublin, they had little chance of success.

Yet: "We went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire and to establish an Irish Republic... believing that the British government has no right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland," proudly explained Connolly to the military court that condemned him to death a week later.

Earlier, Connolly had summed up the spirit of desperate determination which governed him between the outbreak of war in 1914 and his death, in 1916: 'If you-strike at, imprison or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and maybe raise a force that wll destroy you. We defy you! Do your worst!" (Irish Worker, 1914)

With such conviction Connolly faced the British government and its firing squad. Awaiting his executioners, he remained unrepentant. "Hasn't it been a good life—and isn't this a good end?" he said to his wife when she visited him for the last time. Yet, at his death, he believed that the socialists who knew him in Britain and America would never understand what he, a revolutionary socialist, was doing fighting for the mere national independence of Ireland. He knew that many of the socialists would d regard it as an aberration for a Marxist to take Connolly's course. And many of them did.

How carne Connolly to that end of his, which united the heroic act of traditional Irish Republicanism with the first decisive act of revolutionary labour?

Born of Irish parents in Edinburgh in 1868, Connolly started work in a print shop at 10 or 11 and at 12 in a bakery. Like most emigre families, the Connollys remained very much attuned to Ireland. There at that time the crypto-socialist Fenian movement of the 1860s had given way to the fight of the Land League and Parnell's parliamentary party.

The League welded the tenants together to fight the landlords. Tenant solidarity and its warlike expression, the boycott, together with Parnell's obstruction in parliament, shook the English system. Callous men who had never bothered when the Irish people suffered in silence now became convinced of the need to solve 'the Irish problem' from above, before it solved itself from below.

The Connolly family atmosphere in Edinburgh, like that of most Irish families then, was saturated with a spirit of bitter rebellion against the 'English system': it was in the air which the child James Connolly breathed, and it never left his system.

At 14 he joined the army, following many young workers forced in by economic pressure and following also a Fenian tradition: in the army they learned to use arms. Connolly was stationed in Ireland and it is probable that he deserted.

The Irish Socialist. Republican Party

By 1889 he had become a socialist. The Jacobin ideas of the Irish Republicans transplanted to the conditions of the workers in Edinburgh blossomed easily and naturally into a socialist consciousness. From then to 1896 he developed his knowledge, winding up in the Marxist Social Democratic Federation. (Though his 'Marxism' remained one-sided: he seems never to have shed Catholicism.)

He married and 'inherited' a job as an Edinburgh dustman, but when he fought a local government election he was squeezed out and thereafter found it impossible to get a job.

Then came the turn which threw him for the first time completely into Irish politics. The Dublin Socialist Society invited him to become its paid orgariser. He accepted.

By May 1896 he was ready to transform the group into the Irish Socialist Republican Party. From the start, the ISRP distinguished itself by declaring for an independent Irish Republic. Even the SDF declared only for Home Rule for Ireland and many socialists considered it a betrayal of 'socialist internationalism' to bother at all with the question of oppressed nationalities.

Following Marx rather than the shallow 'Marxists' of his time, Connolly blended the plebian revolutionary tradition of the United Irishmen and the Fenians with revolutionary socialism. He declared: "Only the Irish working class remains as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland "

Often he expounded his ideas on this question:

"The development of democracy in Ireland has been smothered by the Union [the Act of Union of 1801 of Britain and Ireland]. Remove that barrier, throw the Irish people back upon their own resources, make them realise that the causes of poverty, of lack of progress, of arrested civil and national development are then to be sought for within and not without, are in their power to remove or perpetuate, and 'ere long that spirit of democratic progress will invade and permeate all our social and civil institutions." (Workers Republic, 1899)

"The Socialist Party of Ireland [the I S R P's successor] recognise and most enthusiastically endorses the principles of internationalism, but it recognises that that principle must be sought through the medium of universal brotherhood rather than by self extinction of distinct nations within the political maw of overgrown empires." (Forward, march 1911)

And: "We desire to preserve with the English people the same political relations as with the people of France, of Germany or of any other country. The greatest possible friendship, but also the strictest independence... Thus, inspired by another ideal, conducted by reason and not by tradition, the ISRP arrive at the same conclusion as the most irreconcilable nationalists. " (1897)

But: "Having learned from history that all bourgeois movements end in compromise, that the bourgeois revolutionaries of today become the conservatives of tomorrow, the Irish socialists refuse to deny or to lose their identity with those who only half understand the problem of liberty. They seek only the alliance and friendship of those hearts who, loving liberty for its own sake, are not afraid to follow its banner when it is uplifted by the hands of the working class, who have most need of it. Their friends are those who would not hesitate to follow that standard of liberty, to consecrate their lives in its service, even should it lead to the terrible arbitration of the sword. "

These words were written 19 years before Easter 1916.

Connolly at the same time struggled against the middle class Home Rule party. He mocked at those who saw mere independence as a panacea.

"If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the Green Flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through the whole army of commercial-industrial institutions she has planted in the country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would rule you to your ruin."

A social as well as a national revolution was necessary: "A system of society in which the workshops, factories, docks, railways, shipyards etc. shall be owned by the nation...seems best calculated to secure the highest form of industrial efficiency combined with the greatest amount of individual freedom from despotism..."

But he qualified this: "State ownership and control is not necessarily socialist—{f it were, then the army and the navy, the police, the judges, the jailers, the informers and the hangmen would all be socialist functionaries as they are all state officials—but the ownership by the state of all the lands and material for labour, combined with the cooperative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be socialist... To the cry of the middle-class reformers, 'Make this or that the property of the government'. we reply— 'yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property'. " (Workers Republic, 1899)

Arguing thus, fighting for working class independence from Home Rulers and Nationalists alike, Connolly was by no means a 'millennial socialist'. He fought for limited gains and against sectarian socialists who refused to do so.

"Of course some of our socialist friends, especially those who have never got beyond the ABC of the question, will remind me that even in a republic the worker is exploited, as for instance in France and the United States. Therefore, they argue, we cannot be Republicans. To this I reply: The countries mentioned have only capitalism to deal with. We have capitalism and a monarchy... "

This, too, was his approach to the national question: we have capitalism and national oppression. Connolly would have had no time for the 'pure' nationalists today. Neither would he have time for those who, with the slogan 'For Connolly's Workers, Republic' on their lips, declare that the reunification of Ireland even under capitalism, the removai of part of the double oppression of the workers of Ireland, is of no interest to socialists. Connolly was no 'Connolly sectarian'.

Connolly's ISRP never had more than 100 members, though at certain times it was influential beyond its membership. During the Boer War its antigovernment, pro-Boer press was smashed by the police.

Industrial unionism

In 1903 Connolly went to the United States on a lecture tour. Shortly afterwards he moved there with his family. He worked in the American Socialist Labour Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. He had been one of the guiding spirits of a group of SDF members who had split off the same year to found a British SLP on the model of the American party.

Though eventually it was to become rigidly sectarian, Daniel De Leon's SLP was at that time producing trenchant criticism of the existing trade union and socialist organisations. De Leon was among the first to castigate the increasingly conservative and cautious trade union bureaucrats as 'labour lieutenants of capitalism'. He also saw how feeble were the big socialist parties of Europe, with their dominant parliamentarianism. Both the one-sided trade unionists and the equally one-sided parliamentary socialist parties seemed to De Leon to rule out any chance of working class revolutionary action. Just how right he was, was shown by the collapse of the labour movement in 1914, when the World War broke out and most socialists supported their own governments.

De Leon tried to answer the problem he himself posed by arguing that the working class needed to build up a real social strength inside the womb of capitalism, just as the capitalist bourgeoisies had done in the womb of feudalism. He proposed the creation of an infrastructure composed of industry wide unions, capable of both seizing and running industry. And he saw the need to build on both the political front and the economic front, towards a strategy of taking power. De Leon was groping theoretically for the specific working class organisational form of industrial and social self-rule. History was to provide her own answer: the workers' soviets thrown up in Russia in 1905 and in Europe after 1917.

Of De Leon, Lenin was later to say that, despite certain sectarianism, he was the only man since Marx to add anything to Marxism. But, as too often happens, the De Leonites combined many correct ideas with a sectarian practice which rendered thdr ideas impotent.

Connolly remained with the De Leonites for some years, eventually breaking with them. But while shedding much of the political harshness and intolerance of the SLP he retained a belief in 'industrial unionism'. Until 1910 he was an organiser for the IWW—the great syndicalist trade union movement of mainly migrant workers in America.

In l910 he returned to Ireland, armed with the ideas of industrial unionism, to begin a period of mass activity which saw the Irish working class rousing itself for the first time into militant action.

The Irish Transport and General Workers Union

Connolly returned from the USA to a changing Ireland. Jim Larkin had been at work for three years organising the dockers, carters and other trades misnamed 'the unskilled'.

The 'new' general unions which grew in Britain after the match-girls'
Gas-workers' and dockers' strikes of 1888 and 1889 had been feeble in Ireland. Now labour was stirring itself again in Britain and in Ireland as well.

In Britain, where the general unions were already in the grip of self-serving officials, the labour upsurge created a rank and file 'unofficial' movement. In Ireland a 'new model' union was being built: the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union.

Connolly became an organiser for the ITGWU. A chastened Connolly, reflecting perhaps his experience in the American SLP, he had written before leaving the USA:

"Perhaps some day there will arise a socialist writer who in his writings will live up to the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, that the socialists are not apart from the labour movement, are not a sect, but are simply that part of the working class which pushes on all others, which most dearly understands the line of march. ''

Yet he remained a 'De Leonite' in his basic conceptions: the workers must build industry-wide unions, which would act together against the capitalist class. As the organisational strength and class consciousness of the workers grew, it would be reflected in the ballot box, until finally a sort of dual power in society existed with the militant workers organising and mobilising, to confront and finally expropriate the capitalists. Should the capitalist state attempt to use repression its limbs would be paralysed by the industrial power of the workers —and bloodshed would be minimal.

Whether the workers, once a majority wanted socialism, were to be helpless before the bosses' state, or the bosses helpless before the workers, would be determined by the industrial strength and cohesiveness of labour.

Both Connolly and Larkin saw their trade union work—and the ITGWU itself—in this revolutionary syndicalist light. But Connolly was no narrow anti-political syndicalist. He became a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland, the successor of the ISRP, as the other plane of the labour army they were mobilising. He helped found the Irish Labour Party in 1912.

As ITGWU organiser in Belfast from 191 I Connolly came up against the division in the working class which is still rampant today. In 1907 Larkin had allied with Protestant radicals (who had split from the Orange Order to form the Independent Orange Institute) and had briefly succeeded in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in Belfast. But the rising tide of anti-Home Rule agitation (during which the original Ulster Volunteers were organised) swamped what was a promising beginning of working class unity. Connolly got to the heart of the problem when he wrote, in 1913:

"Let the truth be told, however ugly. Here the Orange working class are slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own. In Catholic Ireland the working class are rebels in spirit and democratic in feeling because for hundreds of years they have found no class as lowly paid or badly treated as themselves. At one time in the industrial world of Great Britain and Ireland the skilled labourer looked down with contempt upon the unskilled and bitterly resented his attempt to get his children taught any of the skilled trades; the feeling of the Orangemen of Ireland towards the Catholics is but a glorified representation on a big stage of the same unworthy motives."

[This is true. Yet it is only a part of the truth. It ignores the entwining of such attitudes with the distinct—British— national identity felt by the Protestant population.]

Connolly, however, didn't just denounce and castigate the Orange Order. Some of his most bitter comments were directed at the Home Rule party.

"The English Socialists have failed utterly to fathom the character of the capitalist Home Rulers of Ireland. Their failure arises from their inability to understand the difference between 'rebelly' talk and serious revolutionary purpose. Even in a Nationalist sense they are absolutely lacking. They easily succeed in fooling the so-called 'hard headed ' English working man, but they never succeed in fooling the Socialists of Ireland. The latter know their men too well they know in what an inferno of reaction they have succeeded in keeping the domestic affairs of Ireland, such as education and municipal housing and sanitation, and they see them ever in league with the most merciless exploiters of labour on the island. " (The Harp (USA, September 1909)

"I have always held, despite the fanatics on both sides, that the movements of Ireland for freedom could not and cannot be divorced from the world-wide upward movements of the world's democracy. The Irish question is part of the social question, the desire of the Irish people to control their own destinies is a part of the desire of the workers to forge political weapons for their own enfranchisement as a class.

"The Orange fanatic and the Capitalist-minded Home Ruler are alike in denying this truth; ere long, both of them will be but memories, while the army of those who believe in that truth will be marching and battling on its conquering way. " (Forward, 12 July 1913)

Connolly looked to a future unity of all Irish workers in struggle against capitalism for the Workers' Republic. "In their movement the North and South will again clasp hands, again it will be demonstrated as in ’98 [1798] that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united social democracy. "

In contrast with the North, the workers in the South, led by Larkin, were making big advances. The standard of living of the newly organised rose substantially. So did their confidence. They had found a new weapon — class solidarity. No trade, no workplace, was isolated in its struggle. The policy of sympathetic strike action was applied by the union, with tremendous success.

And of course the employers hit back. Led by William Martin Murphy, 400 Dublin employers organised to break the union. The famous Dublin Labour War of 1913-14 followed. Those workers who refused to sign a document repudiating the union were locked out. But all the union's members stood firm.

For eight months the bitter war dragged on. Before it ended strikers had been batoned to death by police. Larkin and Connolly (recalled from Belfast to help) had been arrested, and the Citizen Army, the strikers' militia that grew to become the first Red Army in Europe had been organised to fight back against the cops.

After eight months the labour war ended. The workers were not defeated —the union remained intact. But it was not a victory either: after that the union was more cautious and less able to bring full pressure to bear on the bosses. Connolly blamed the semi-defeat on the isolation of Dublin—on the fact that the British trade unions had merely given financial help while withholding the decisive aid of direct industrial action which they had it in their power to give. This failure of solidarity was a big blow to Connolly.

However, as late as November 1913 he had written: "We are told that the English people contributed their help to our enslavement. It is true. It is also true that the Irish people contributed soldiers to crush every democratic movement of the English people...Slaves themselves the English helped to enslave others; slaves themselves, the Irish helped to enslave others. There is no room for recrimination. "

But after the strike Connolly had less confidence in the immediate revolutionary potential of the English workers, seeing them as tied too tightly to their imperialist ruling class. The support of the British labour movement for the 1914 war reinforced him in this bitter conclusion.

With the end of the strike in 1914, Larkin went to the USA (where he remained until 1923) and Connolly took charge of the union and the task of rebuilding its strength and confidence. And the Citizen Army was maintained and strengthened as labour's independent armed force. This was made possible by the fact that northern Unionists and the Green Tories also had their 'private' militias: the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers.


When the English Liberals and the Irish Home Rule Green Tories, in face of a virtual rebellion by the Unionists and their Ulster Volunteers, agreed to the partition of Ireland, Connolly wrote the most tragically prophetic words he ever penned:

"The proposal to leave a Home Rule minority at the mercy of an ignorant majority with the evil record of the Orange Party is a proposal that should never have been made, and...the establishment of such a scheme should be resisted with armed force if necessary...Filled with the

belief that they were after defeating the imperialist government and the Nationalists combined, the Orangemen would hove scant regard for the rights of the minority left at its mercy.

"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 division more intense and confusion of ideas and parties more confounded...

"The betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured... AII hopes of uniting the workers, irrespective of religion or old political battle cries will be shattered, and through North and South the issue of Home Rule will be still used to cover the iniquities of the Capitalist and Landlord class. I am not speaking without due knowledge of the sentiments of the organised labour movement in Ireland when I say we would much rather see the Home Rule Rill defeated than see it carried with Ulster or any part of Ulster left out. "

With the outbreak of war the issue was shelved 'for the duration' and the Home Rulers became recruiting agents for Britain. Their Irish Volunteers split, with a minority adopting a revolutionary nationalist stand.

Connolly now recalled—publicly— the Irish truism that Ireland could only hope for a successful rebellion against Britain while Britain was at war. And he vowed not to miss the chance to strike at the Empire. In August 1914, to avert the expected threat of a wartime famine, of high prices in the towns, he advocated guerrilla resistance, strikes and sabotage to keep enough food in Ireland to feed the people.

The article ('Our Duty in this Crisis') ended on a note which showed that he did not see it as merely an Irish struggle: "Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shriveled on the funeral pyre of last war lord."

He began to plan an insurrection. After initial conflict, an alliance was entered into with the nationalist volunteers of Padraig Pearse. The Communist International was later, in 1920, to encourage communists, where genuinely revolutionary nationalists existed, to join with them—'to strike together, while marching separately'. Connolly's well-known remark to some Citizen Army men before the Rising: "The odds are a thousand to one against us, but in the event of victory hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached", shows he had a similar conception to that of the International.

The Easter Rising

As early as 1910 Connolly had come close to an understanding of the theory of permanent revolution, which then may have had some grip on Irish realities. (Today it's an empty catchphrase used by people who know nothing of what the theory of permanent revolution is). In the foreword to his book 'Labour in Irish History', he wrote:

"In the evolution of civilisation the progress of the fight for national liberty of any subject nation must perforce keep pace with the struggle for liberty of the most subject class in that nation, and ..the shifting of economic and political forces which accompanies the development of the system of capitalist society leads inevitably to the increasing conservatism of the non-working class elements and to the revolutionary vigour and power of the working class. "

The Irish bourgeoisie "...have a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism... Only the Irish working class remains as the incorruptible inheritors of the fgh' for freedom in Ireland. "

If Irish labour between 1916 and 1923 had adopted this perspective, maintained its political independence and assumed the leadership of the Irish national revolution, at the same time fighting for its own class goals, then history could have taken a very different turn. To examine why it didn't is to explore the great weakness of Connolly: the inadequacy of his understanding of the organisation needed to fight for socialism and to fight for socialist hegemony in national revolutionary movements.

He had understood that labour's real strength is industrial. But he had lost sight of, or perhaps never fully grasped, the fact that the potential social strength of labour, however militant on economic issues, would only be real to the degree that it was ideologically prepared, educated and class independent; and in turn that this must be expressed in a political organisation which knew its own mind and had the structure and sinews to act as a revolutionary force—a party like Lenin's party.

Connolly's S P I was (whose leaders were expelled when the party was reorganised as the Communist Party of Ireland in l921) an old-fashioned and ramshackle affair, over-recoiling from De Leonite 'purism'. The compromisers, the Lib/Labs, the 'Mensheviks', were not outside it, looking in —some of them were its leaders as they were also of the ITGWU.

After 1916 they set themselves up as a bureaucracy within the ITGWU and betrayed socialism by timidly trailing after the bourgeois leaders who had seized control of the national struggle.

This was the flaw in Connolly's design. Not seeing it, he felt no inhibitions. Relentlessly he pressed for an armed rising, out-daring even the nationalist idealists around Pearse. From his writings we can understand the attitude adopted then.

In 1910, in 'Labour in Irish History', Connolly had told the endless story of the lost chances and the botched risings that succeeded each other like monotonous days of mourning and depression in Irish history. Bitterly he wrote—and the bitterness attested to his determination to do better himself if the chance came. Nor did he believe that there was such a thing as a ripe revolutionary situation. Revolutionary action would make it ripe.

"An epoch to be truly revolutionary must have a dominating number of men with the revolutionary spirit—ready to dare all and take all risks for the sake of their ideas... Revolutionaries who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived and they have every shoestring in its place and every man has got his gun and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionaries nor disarray their plans—such revolutionaries only exist in two places: on the comic opera stage and on the stage of Irish national politics." (November 1915)

The plan finally agreed on was for simultaneous risings in a number of areas. But at the eleventh hour the titular head of the Volunteers called off the Easter Sunday maneouvres, which were planned as a cover for the rising. Faced with this catastrophe, expecting to be rounded up, believing that European peace was imminent and that, through their failure to act, Ireland would miss the chance of an independent voice at the coming peace conference, the leaders in Dublin had to make their choice.

Connolly had already, in 1914, indicated what his choice would be in such a situation . He had written: "Even an unsuccessful attempt at socialist revolution by force of arms, following the paralysis of the economic life of militarism [by a general strike], would be less disastrous to the socialist cause than the act of socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers. "

After Easter 1916.

On Easter Sunday 1916 their choice lay between one kind of defeat or another. Either a defeat in battle, that might help rouse the forces for a new struggle. Or defeat without a fight, which would bring discouragement and demoralisation in its wake as so often before in Irish history.

Connolly and Pearse decided to fight. They went out to try and start that fire Connolly had written of at the outbreak of the war. For a week they defended in arms the 32 County Irish Republic, one and indivisible, which they had proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916. Before they surrendered, the centre of Dublin was in ruins.

They died before British Army firing squads, together with the other leaders of the Rising, after summary Court Martial. Connolly, grievously wounded, was court-martialed in bed and shot propped up in a chair.

They did indeed light the fire of revolt, which Connolly had spoken of, but it was not to be controlled by men of their persuasion nor to lead to their goal. The middle-class leaders of the Irish national revolution first misled it and then betrayed it to British imperialism

And today, the bonds and debentures the capitalists and their war-lords, still exist. In Ireland they rule — for themselves and also for international and British capitalism. The Southern Irish capitalists, wrapped in the Green trappings of 'traditional' Nationalism and perpetually 'honouring' — in hollow, gruesome mockery—the 'men of 1916', still oppress the workers of Ireland with exploitation, poverty, unemployment and forced emigration.

Connolly's name is that of a national hero, while his ideas are either suppressed or heavily toned down. As if foreseeing it, he himself once said of the great Irish Jacobin Wolfe Tone: "Apostles of freedom are ever idolised when dead but crucified when living."

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