Uniting the Dublin socialists

Submitted by Matthew on 4 May, 2016 - 12:02 Author: Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson continues a series on the life and politics of James Connolly.


When Connolly arrived in Dublin in May 1896 he had his work cut out for him. The situation for the working-class was even worse than in Edinburgh. Overcrowding and tuberculosis were rife, and the city had the fifth highest recorded death rate in the world.

To make matters worse, despite the creation of the Irish Trades Union Congress (ITUC) in 1894, the labour movement had largely been untouched by the wave of New Unionism across the water. It was dominated by cautious craft unions based in luxury goods industries. An estimated 20% unemployment rate made it difficult for the unskilled to organise, and the hostility of the craft unions added to their problems. An attempt to form a branch of the Independent Labour Party in Dublin had foundered. Some supporters of the reformist Fabian society could be found, but it was the Dublin Socialist Society that bravely kept the red flag flying in difficult conditions.

Connolly’s first task was to unite the various socialists in one organisation. Accordingly, the Dublin Society Society immediately became the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), and held its first meeting in the snug of a pub on Thomas Street on 29 May 1896.

The ISRP was a very young organisation, with most of its members younger than Connolly, who himself was not yet thirty. One contemporary paper commented that it had more syllables than members and consisted of “a Scotto-Hibernian and a long boy”, the latter referring to the tall young member, Tom Lyng.

The party soon began a programme of weekly meetings and established small branches in Cork and Belfast. Following an appeal to socialists abroad to join in solidarity, Eleanor Marx’s partner Edward Aveling was amongst the first to sign up. Connolly wanted to found the party on an explicitly revolutionary socialist basis. He set out to win the battle of ideas with existing currents in the socialist movement movement — in December 1896 in addressed the Fabians in Dublin on “Why we are Revolutionists”. The reformist state socialism of the Fabians, he argued a few years later, would “emasculate the working class movement, by denying the philosophy of class struggle, weakening the belief of the workers in the political self-sufficiency of their own class, and by substituting the principle of municipal capitalism, and bureaucratic state control for the principle of revolutionary reconstruction involved in Social Democracy.”

Connolly’s clear commitment to working-class self-emancipation and democracy was pronounced, and anticipated his later embrace of revolutionary syndicalist ideas. In 1899, he polemicised against those who mistook moves towards state intervention by capitalists as in any way “socialistic”. “State ownership and control”, wrote Connolly, “is not necessarily Socialism — if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials — but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism... 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.’”

In 1898 the ISRP adopted a programme along orthodox Second International lines. Much like the Social Democratic Federation’s 1883 programme “Socialism made Easy”, it contained a number of “minimum demands” such as nationalisation of banks and industry, graduated income tax, a shorter working week, free education and universal suffrage. It also contained the “maximum” demand of socialism — “private ownership by a class of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange is opposed to [the democratic principle] of justice, and is the fundamental basis of all oppression, national, political and social.” In common with the other Second International parties, socialism was to be achieved by the “conquest… of political power in Parliament” though Connolly would write in July 1899 that if the will of the majority for socialism is blocked by the ruling-class then “the party which represents the revolutionary idea is justified in taking steps to assume the powers of government, and in using the weapons of force to dislodge the usurping class or government.”

While British socialists, to Connolly’s frustration, were content to limit themselves to calling for “legislative independence” for “colonies and dependencies”, the ISRP, in contrast, declared that “the subjection of one nation to another, as of Ireland to the authority of the British Crown, is a barrier to the free political and economic development of the subjected nation, and can only serve the interests of the exploiting classes of both nations.” The ISRP called for an Irish Socialist Republic, and full separation from the British Empire. This was an Irish socialist party, with a programme for Irish conditions.

Adopting the slogan “educate, agitate, organise”, the ISRP had a propagandistic function, conducting educational classes, open-air meetings and producing literature. The party gave lectures on such topics as “the Paris Commune”, “Socialism and State Capitalism”and “The works of George Bernard Shaw”. In 1898, with a £50 loan from Keir Hardie, the ISRP established Ireland’s first Marxist newspaper, The Workers’ Republic. The first issue was produced by P T Daly, later secretary of the Dublin Trades Council and a left-wing Irish republican. An advertisement in the SDF’s paper Justice announced it as a new journal advocating “an Irish Republic, the abolition of landlordism, wage-slavery, the cooperative organisation of industry under Irish representative bodies.”

Initially intended to be a weekly, the newspaper soon ran into difficulties. Some Belfast socialists mistrusted its republican content and failed to rally around when the paper’s northern distributor was denounced by a Catholic bishop. When the Workers’ Republic was reissued in May 1899, Connolly took over much of the editing and technical work himself, and joked darkly that the first series was “so weekly it almost died”, whereas the second would only appear “whenever it was strong enough to get out.”

After the Local Government Act of 1898, introduced as part of the Tory attempts to “kill Home Rule with kindness”, established household suffrage for the municipalities and local governing bodies, the road was potentially open for Labour and socialist candidates to break through. In January 1899, the ISRP ran E W Stewart in North Dock Ward in Dublin. Stewart received 448 votes (12% of the total). It cannot have helped that the party’s meagre resources confined its campaigning to open-air meetings, while the Evening Telegraph refused to publish its advertisements. Meanwhile figures in the Trades Council had established the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) to run labour movement candidates. Connolly welcomed this as “the most important step yet taken by organised workers in Ireland.” In the Workers’ Republic Connolly made the orthodox Marxist distinction that “the trade unionist wishes to limit the power of the master but still wishes to have masters [while] the socialist wishes to have done with masters”, but was hopeful that the trade union candidate, “if he be true to his class when elected, will find that every step he takes in the Council in furtherance of the interests of his class, must of necessity take the form of an application of socialist principles.”

While the ISRP failed to break through, the LEA returned several members to Dublin Corporation. Unfortunately, though undoubtedly a step forward, the experience of the LEA representatives demonstrated all too clearly that organisational independence of the working class is not enough unless accompanied by a programme of political independence from all ruling-class parties.

Connolly wrote in September 1899: “No single important move in the interest of the worker was even mooted, the most solemn pledges were incontinently broken, and where the workers have looked for inspiration and leadership, they have received nothing but discouragement and disgust… The Labour Lord Mayor of the Dublin Labour Party declared that he would represent no class or section and thus announced beforehand that those responsible for his nomination only sought to use the name of Labour as a cover for the intrigues of a clique…”

The Irish labour movement was still dominated by the craft unions and an often corrupt relationship with the Home Rule MPs. This partly explains the ISRP lack of emphasis on trade union struggles in this period. It was to take the growth of class struggle in the next decade to put the question of a trade union-based labour representation on the agenda once again.

For the 1902 municipal elections, Connolly was selected to run for the Dublin Corporation, this time for Wood Quay ward as a representative of the United Labourers’ Union, though reserving the right to make his own socialist propaganda. Wood Quay ward, as Manus O’Riordan has written, was home to much of the small Dublin Jewish population, which was increasing rapidly in these years as refugees fled Tsarist anti-Semitic pogroms in eastern Europe. Numbering only 352 in 1881, within a decade it reached 1057 and by 1901 was at 2169. For the election Boris Kahan, secretary of the East London Jewish Branch of the Social Democratic Federation, produced a Yiddish-language leaflet calling on Jewish workers to vote for Connolly because “the Socialists are the only ones who stand always and everywhere against every national oppression. It is the socialists who went out onto the streets of Paris against the wild band of anti-Semites at the time of the Dreyfus case. “In Austria and Germany they conduct a steady struggle against anti-Semitism. And in England , too, the Socialists fight against the reactionary elements who want to shut the doors of England against the poorer Jews who were driven to seek a refuge in strange land by the Russian government’s brutality and despotism…

“Jewish workers! No matter how small your numbers as you can achieve much. Do your duty and work earnestly had in hand with your Irish brothers. Canvass for votes, vote yourself and persuade others to vote on the 15 January for the Socialist candidate, James Connolly.”

Connolly won a respectable 431 votes against his United Irish League opponent PJ McCall, who won 1434 votes after a dirty and divisive campaign. The party was subjected to vilification from the Church who, said the ISRP, invoked “all the terrors of religious against all those who voted for Mr. Connolly.”

The following year Connolly reminded the electors “how the paid canvassers of the capitalist candidate — hired slanderers — gave a different account of Mr Connolly to every section of the electors. How they said to the Catholics that he was an Orangeman, to the Protestants that he was a Fenian, to the Jews that he was an anti-Semite, to others that he was a Jew, to the labourers that he was a journalist on the make, and to the tradesmen and professional classes that he was an ignorant labourer; that he was born in Belfast, Derry, England, Scotland and Italy, according to the person the canvasser was talking to.”

Connolly wrote in 1901 with Second International-style optimism “we confidently await the day when the ever-increasing pressure of capitalist society shall bring the workers into our ranks and the destinies of the nation into our hands.” But this could not disguise the fact that the ISRP was increasingly isolated, and suffering from a crisis of morale that would eventually tear it apart a few years later. One area in which the ISRP would make more of a mark was with its involvement in the cutting-edge of the new, radical and anti-imperialist Irish republican politics which flourished in the period of the Gaelic Revival in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Connolly’s attempt to develop a socialist approach to this movement, and a synthesis of socialism and nationalism, will be considered next time.

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