“He was also for something. He was for socialism”

Submitted by SJW on 19 September, 2018 - 1:03 Author: Michael Johnson
The James Connolly Reader by Shaun Harkin (Haymarket).

Shaun Harkin has produced a timely and useful addition to the profuse and growing literature on James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary Marxist and socialist republican leader.

Published in May 2018 to mark the 150th anniversary of Connolly’s birth in dire poverty to working-class Irish parents in Edinburgh, the book begins with a long introduction by Harkin, which sets out the context in which Connolly operated, how his politics were shaped by both his lifelong attachment to his class and his serious commitment to Marxist ideas. 

Harkin highlights how Connolly, as a ceaseless fighter against exploitation and oppression, “was also for something. He was for socialism,” defined democratically by Connolly not simply as state ownership and control but “the ownership by the state of all the lands and materials for labor, combined with the cooperative control by the workers…” 

This is a lesson for a left all-too-often defined by a relentless negativism shorn of any positive vision of the future, and which has insufficiently cast off the deadweight of Stalinism that tarnished the name of socialism by associating it with viciously anti-working-class police states. 

Harkin’s introduction takes us briskly from Scotland, where Connolly started his socialist apprenticeship as a propagandist for the Socialist League in Dundee and the Scottish Socialist Federation in Edinburgh, to Dublin, where Connolly established the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896.

As Harkin correctly points out, though Marx and Engels had long been interested in Ireland, and supportive of the Fenian movement, from a working-class perspective their interest was primarily in Ireland as a lever for revolution in Britain. Connolly’s concern, however, was to build a socialist working-class movement in Ireland itself. 

Account is given, too, of Connolly’s time in the United States, as an activist first in the De Leonite Socialist Labor Party, which he combined with his role as an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World, and later in the left-wing of the more broadly-based Socialist Party of America. 

Upon returning to Ireland, Connolly worked as an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Belfast, and was instrumental in trying to prepare the labour movement politically (through the establishment in 1912 of the Irish Labour Party) for the prospect of a Home Rule parliament, which seemed a likely development in the years before the outbreak of war in 1914. 

Harkin is a member of the US International Socialist Organization and the Irish Socialist Workers Network (formerly the Irish SWP) and its electoral project, People Before Profit, and it is this tradition which shapes the politics of the introduction.

His analysis of the Easter Rising is, understandably, closer to that of Kieran Allen’s The Politics of James Connolly than the Stalinist orthodoxy of C Desmond Greaves, for whom the Rising fitted part of a “stages-theory”, in which national liberation had to be won before, and separately, from the struggle for socialism, in alliance with an Irish “national bourgeoisie.” 

One could quibble with the extent to which, by contrast, Connolly’s vision was a form of “permanent revolution” (it arguably lacked the depth of the materialist analysis of the social structure and class forces on which Trotsky’s strategy for Tsarist Russia and semi-colonial formations such as China were based) but the phrase certainly captures the spirit of Connolly’s approach more so than Greaves’s Popular Front politics projected awkwardly and tendentiously backwards on to the past. 

Harkin defends the Rising, I think rightly, on largely anti-imperialist grounds, while insisting that Connolly’s “concessions to the type of republican conspiratorial militarism he had long counseled against” cannot be understood outside of the defeat of the ITGWU in the 1913 Dublin Lockout and the wider collapse of the Second International, which left Connolly “in uncharted theoretical, political and strategic territory.” Connolly’s sense of urgency lies in the opportunity provided by the war to strike at the British Empire, and his bitter awareness of past opportunities missed or squandered. 

Harkin is forced to deal with some areas in a somewhat transitory fashion, and analysis is squeezed out by the imperatives of narrative. However, he provides a frame for reading the original works by Connolly which follow.

Connolly’s writings should be read in the context in which they were written, as political interventions into the ideological and strategic questions facing the working-class movement of his day. 

The collection contains a good balance of Connolly’s longer works (Erin’s Hope: the Ends and Means, Labour in Irish History, the semi-syndicalist Socialism Made Easy and a chapter on women’s oppression from The Re-conquest of Ireland) with shorter articles, covering everything from the Irish revolutionary tradition and anti-imperialism to industrial unionism and  the Dublin Lockout, the Home Rule crisis and the Rising.

Presented largely in chronological order, the pieces allow the reader to chart the development of Connolly’s thought over time.  One gets a sense, too, of the different movements Connolly was involved in from the range of journals in which the articles originally appeared.

Though there is little new for those already closely acquainted with Connolly’s works, this new Reader is welcome given that existing selections, such as those by P. Beresford Ellis or Bernard Ransom and Owen Dudley Edwards, have long been out of print.

Suggestions are given at the back of the book for further reading. Most are sound, though I would add David Howell’s A Lost Left: Three Studies in Socialism and Nationalism, which contains useful material on Connolly in a comparative perspective; and credit is rightly given to the Marxist Internet Archive for making accessible a good range of Connolly’s writings online. 

If you have not read any Connolly, this is not at all a bad place to start. 

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.