James Connolly, Irish nationalism and the socialist republic

Submitted by Matthew on 18 May, 2016 - 12:26 Author: Michael Johnson

Building on the ideas of John Leslie (of the Social Democratic Federation) in his 1897 pamphlet Erin’s Hope, Connolly claimed that the essence of the national question in Ireland was a battle over “fundamentally different ideas on the vital question of property in land”. Between, on the one hand, a supposed Irish “primitive communism” and, on the other, an “alien social system” of private ownership.

Drawing on the contemporary anthropological works of Lewis Morgan, which had also influenced Friedrich Engels, Connolly argued that a form of “primitive communism” had survived in Ireland much longer than in other European countries, and was only destroyed by the British when the clans were dispersed after the break-up of the Kilkenny confederation in 1649. As with Leslie, this view allowed Connolly to puncture the pretensions of the tepid Home Rulers, whose simple concentration on forms of government was portrayed as superficial. It also opened out the possibility of an alliance between socialists and radical nationalists.

Socialists, Connolly wrote, could “join with the Irish patriot in his lavish expressions of admiration for the sagacity of his Celtic forefathers who foreshadowed in the democratic organisation of the Irish clan the more perfect organisation of the free society of the future.”

Conversely, due to the dual political and social character of the national question, Connolly argued that if “the national movement of our day is not merely to re-enact the old sad tragedies of our past history, it must show itself capable of rising to the exigencies of the moment. It must demonstrate to the people of Ireland that our nationalism is not merely a morbid idealising of the past, but is also capable of formulating a distinct and definite answer to the problems of the present and a political and economic creed capable of adjustment to the wants of the future.”

For Connolly, this meant proclaiming its aim as an Irish Republic. Not a corrupt capitalist republic as in France or the plutocratic republic found in United States. Rather, it involved “linking together of our national aspirations with the hopes of the men and women who have raised the standard of revolt against that system of capitalism and landlordism” in a Workers’ Republic.

In one sense, this is an innovative attempt for Connolly, leader of an extremely marginalised socialist propaganda organisation, to place socialism full-square in the middle of the Irish nationalist revival movement. Indeed, modern socialism is seen as the culmination of centuries of struggle between Ireland’s communal inheritance and a “feudal-capitalist system of which England was the exponent in Ireland.” In this sense, the ISRP can be seen as part of, and an intervention into, the new nationalist movement. Indeed, later, in 1910, Connolly was to write in the foreword to his Labour in Irish History that his book “may justly be looked upon as part of the literature of the Gaelic revival.”

Like the cultural revivalists, Connolly was, for his own purposes, reaching deep into Irish history to root his socialism in the Irish revolutionary tradition. However disputable as “history”, Labour in Irish History and Erin’s Hope can be seen as “living books”, in the sense Antonio Gramsci understood Machiavelli’s The Prince: “not a systematic treatment, but a “living book”, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Connolly’s historical analysis was intended to destroy the myths of Irish middle-class Catholic history, reveal the class lines within the national movement, and forge a proletarian world-view as a spur and a guide to action. Connolly’s approach, too, was a creative attempt to explore a more multilinear approach to social development than was found in most contemporary Marxism with its notions of pre-ordinated “stages” of development, through which all nations must pass. Analytically and politically, however, it had problems.

As David Howell has written, Marx held out the hope of Russia in the 1870s developing into communism on the basis of its peasant communes, dependent on support from working-class revolutions in western Europe. Such communes did still exist in Russia (through as Plekhanov, and then Lenin, were to argue, they were already dissolving into capitalism), and their existence made Marx’s view plausible.

Yet in Connolly’s case for Ireland “involved no institutional inheritance — only a historical memory with a substantial accretion of myth.” Connolly himself admits this when he writes that the “clans are now no more and could not be revived, even if it were desirable to do so, which is more than questionable, but the right of ownership still lives on.”

Connolly’s view of Irish “primitive communism” is now discredited, with the discovery of a hierarchical form of native Irish feudalism predominating before the Norman Conquest and even the existence of slavery. Perhaps admitting that the argument for an inherited cultural pre-disposition towards communal property is weak, Connolly seeks to supplement it with economic claims to make an objectivist case that an independent capitalist Ireland is impractical, and that therefore socialism offers “the clue of the labyrinthine puzzle of modern economic conditions.”

Connolly makes an underconsumptionist argument, in which it is possible to detect the possible influence of the SDF’s Ernest Belfort Bax, to the effect that Ireland “cannot create new markets. This world is only limited after all, and the nations of Europe are pushing their way into its remote corners so rapidly that in a few years time, at most, the entire world will have been exhausted as a market for their wares.”

In Erin’s Hope and contemporary article of Connolly’s on the Irish Land Question, he also dismisses the possibility of capitalist agriculture in Ireland, arguing that: “Every perfection of agricultural methods or machinery lowers prices; every fall in prices renders more unstable the position of the farmer, whether tenant or proprietor; and every year — nay every month — which passes sees this perfection and development of machinery going more and more rapidly on. We are left no choice but socialism or universal bankruptcy.”

And while Connolly in the same period can be seen defending a more orthodox Marxist view that socialism is “the legitimate child of a long, drawn-out historical evolution, and its consummation will only be finally possible when that evolutionary process has attained to a suitable degree of development,” he sometimes argues another case for Ireland in his writings on nationalism.

As Andy Johnston, James Larragy and Edward McWilliams have pointed out, the specifically Irish socialism outlined in Erin’s Hope at times resembles “a strongly autarckic programme for an isolated national system of production.”

Moreover, there is a strong implication running throughout Connolly’s arguments on socialism and nationalism that, if legislative independence is an illusory, and a capitalist Ireland seemingly impossible, any true nationalist will logically develop socialist conclusions.

For example, when leading separatist nationalist Arthur Griffith backed an ISRP candidate in 1902, Connolly wrote optimistically that: “We have always maintained that every honest friend of freedom would sooner or later find themselves in accord with us. The support now spoken proves this.”

Yet Griffith was in no sense socialist. His vision was for an independent capitalist Ireland, not a socialist republic. Drawing on the work of the nineteenth century German protectionist economic Friedrich List, alongside political independence Griffith advocated economic self-sufficiency protected by high tariffs to develop Irish industry.

When Connolly does criticise the revolutionary nationalist tradition, it is often on tactical questions, such as the commitment to conspiratorial methods above mass politics, rather than for their non-working-class basis.

Connolly’s catastrophist and dichotomous view of “socialism or universal bankruptcy” also neglected the growing conservative Catholic rural bourgeoisie which was consolidating itself in this period, as a result of the British Tory Land Acts, which provided loans for tenants to buy out the landlords.

As Henry Patterson wrote in The Politics of Illusion, this view “failed to anticipate the space which existed in Catholic Ireland for a nationalism that was not as obesely bourgeois as that of the Irish Parliamentary Party and yet in no sense socialist — a space which the revivified Sinn Fein organization would fill in the afternoon of 1916… There would prove to be a space for a revolutionary nationalism with conservative social content.”

While Connolly’s radical excavation of Irish history was intended to build a working-class socialist movement, it was double-edged in that it did not sufficiently distinguish the working-class view from other forms of republicanism. It provided later raw material for a revived Irish populism in the form of left-republicanism, which sought to enlist the working-class in the service of nationalist aims. But this was in the future.

Connolly’s schema for Ireland co-existed in his mind with a sharp working-class socialism and a warning that “no revolutionists can safely invite the co-operation of men or classes, whose ideals are not theirs, and whom, therefore, they may be compelled to fight at some future critical stage of the journey to freedom.”

“It may be pleaded”, he wrote, “that the ideal of a Socialist Republic, implying, as it does, a complete political and economic revolution would be sure to alienate all our middle-class and aristocratic supporters, who would dread the loss of their property and privileges. “What does this objection mean? That we must conciliate the privileged classes in Ireland!..

“As a Socialist I am prepared to do all one man can do to achieve for our motherland her rightful heritage — independence; but if you ask me to abate one jot or tittle of the claims of social justice, in order to conciliate the privileged classes, then I must decline.”

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.