In Defence of Connolly
D.R. O’Connor Lysaght
10 April 2007
Below we reprint a critique of the legacy of James Connolly by Brendan Doherty and a response by Raynor Lysaght. The critique is rather old, but it is some time since Connolly has been defended and there is a growing need to reassert his importance to Irish Socialism. Further information at http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Index.htm
James Connolly: His Life and Miracles
ARTHUR SCARGILL presents his Socialist Labour Party as the successor to the party of the same name founded by James Connolly in 1903. Nearly a century later Connolly’s legend endures.
"But where can we draw water"
As Pearse believed that Ireland needed a blood sacrifice, he could not have claimed he was misrepresented. In the poem, James Connolly agrees, but in reality he was less consistently bloodthirsty, and was at first distressed at the slaughter of World War One. When he was executed after the 1916 Dublin Rising, many who knew him as a socialist activist since 1888 were amazed. He anticipated their surprise, saying, "they forget that I am an Irishman", although of course he wasn’t. Many socialists dropped their internationalism during the war when they remembered that they were French, German or whatever. Connolly, like Kropotkin, was unusual only in identifying with an adopted nation.
Connolly was born in Edinburgh to working class Irish parents in 1868. Scots nationalism did not then exist, but if it had he would not have been eligible to join, as the Protestant bigots who flourished there then as now, did not accept that Catholics were real Scots. As late as the 1920s the Church of Scotland wanted to restrict Catholic Irish immigration. We know little about Connolly’s early life. He left school at the age of ten, so it is unlikely that he learned to do much more than read and write there. Catholic schools saw their main task as inculcating the faith, and as in Scotland most of the faithful were of Irish origin, Irish nationalism and Catholicism are amalgamated in a way which surprises foreign believers. Connolly would certainly have learned of the British crimes against his ancestors. Catholics were a smaller minority in Edinburgh than in the heartlands of Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where the Protestant presence is less oppressive. Connolly worked at a couple of dead end jobs before he joined the army in 1882 at the age of fourteen, leaving in 1889 having served part of his time in Ireland. We do not know if he liked military life, although he deserted on deciding to marry.
Once back in Edinburgh, Connolly worked as a carter, and was active in the Socialist League and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) as an indefatigable street speaker and a candidate in municipal elections. Socialist activity made it hard to obtain or retain work, and by the early 1890s he had a wife and three daughters to support. An advert in the SDF journal, Justice, asking that employment be found for an able propagandist, produced a reply from the Dublin Socialist Club, so in 1896 he left to become its secretary. He seems never to have regretted leaving Edinburgh: few people do, unless they are moving to Dunfermline.
In the SDF Connolly became an opponent of Hyndman’s opportunism and a leader of the "Impossibilist" tendency, which produced both the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which were stronger in Scotland and London respectively. The revolt against Hyndman’s leadership was certainly healthy, but unfortunately Connolly, who became the SLP’s national organiser, adopted the sectarian ideas of the American socialist Daniel De Leon (the party’s name came from the American SLP). The influence of De Leon led Connolly to make a tour of the United States in 1903, and to emigrate there in 1904.
Connolly soon fell out with De Leon: alas! close contact with an admired leader often has that effect. The sharpest disagreements were over religion and the position of women. De Leon took the accepted Marxist view that socialism involved women’s emancipation, and had translated Bebel’s influential work Woman. Connolly was horrified, as he thought that Bebel’s book was obscene, that the topic should not be discussed, and that to treat monogamy as a product of social conditions was degrading to women. Religion and the family lay outside the scope of socialist activity, which should be confined to economic questions: religion was a purely private matter. As Connolly’s concept of socialism ruled out most aspects of human relationships outside a very narrowly defined economic framework, it would be compatible with multiple forms of oppression. The church could continue to terrify and oppress the faithful as long as it allowed socialists to expound their economic doctrine.
Connolly also engaged in a polemic where he defended the Marxist position on wages and trade unions against the Lassallean doctrine of the iron law of wages which prevailed in the SLP. He gradually lost faith in the party and resigned in 1908 to join the, populist, Socialist Party of America (SPA). The SPA was a broad church, very different from the closed sectarian world of the SLP, but Connolly seems to have made the transition easily, just as he had done when making previous sharp political turns. He was sometimes employed as an organiser by the SPA, but this was interspersed with factory work, collecting insurance contributions and peddling. He was never able to provide his family with a comfortable and secure income, came to regret his decision to emigrate, and returned to Ireland in July 1910.
He became an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, where he was soon plunged into the bitter class struggle of the 1913 Dublin lockout, during which he was imprisoned and was released only after going on hunger strike. There was considerable sympathy for the locked out workers on the British mainland, with solidarity action, but the trade union bureaucracy withheld real support. There were food collections and arrangements were made to send children to England where they could be protected from the rigours of the conflict. The Catholic bishops were outraged, seeing the action as a threat to the children’s souls. The workers were viciously attacked by the nationalists in Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and the employers’ offensive was successful. Connolly was left with a lasting hatred of the British trade union leaders, but was soon reconciled with the nationalists and the church.
Was Connolly a Catholic?
The question "Is the Pope a Catholic?", is usually followed by "Do bears shit in the woods?", yet Connolly wrote to a friend in 1908 claiming not to have been a practicing Catholic for fifteen years, saying that he posed as one in order to challenge the dogmatism of freethinkers. He was a non-believer, who thought that religion was good for other people, a common position for an educated bourgeois, but an unusual one for a socialist activist. The whimsical and perverse reason he gave for his "pose" can hardly be taken seriously, but there is no evidence that he was a practicing Catholic. Although deathbed conversions of unbelievers are a staple part of clerical folklore, Father Aloysius, the friar who claimed that Connolly had confessed and taken communion from him before being shot, was probably telling the truth. Once he had adopted Catholic nationalism and abandoned secular politics, reconciliation with the church would have made sense.
Connolly’s problem was not religious belief,
but a failure to confront the power of the church. He was probably typical
of most labour leaders of his time in not believing in God, but being afraid
of priests. In Scotland he strongly objected to discussing religion, morality
or marriage and in the Irish Socialist Party discussion of religion was
banned even at internal meetings. Those positions were not general in the
socialist movement of that period, where many recruits had experienced
oppression by priests and pastors long before they understood anything
about economic exploitation. No understanding of capitalist development
is possible without a study of religion, which Connolly’s dictates would
prohibit. In Scotland religious hatreds were, and are, deeply rooted, and
often a public discussion on religion would be foolhardy, but refusing
to discuss it means capitulating to reactionary forces. Admittedly, in
21st century England where Ecstasy is the opium of the people, Blair’s
plans to promote it are unlikely to prosper.
Connolly’s reputation as a theoretician is based mainly on three works: Labour in Irish History and Labour, Nationality and Religion, both published in 1910, and The Reconquest of Ireland, published in 1915.
The first of these is written in a clear, lively style from the perspective of working people. Upper and middle class nationalists are castigated for ignoring or opposing workers’ and peasants’ interests, thereby ensuring their own defeat. His denunciation of Daniel O’Connell, the "Liberator", is particularly scathing, so he cannot be accused of subordinating the interests of the lower orders to those of the upper and middle class. Indeed, he overdoes his criticism, as it gives the impression that non working class movements, concerned with democratic reform and civil liberties, are of no concern to working people. He combines this with an utterly romanticised view of the clan system which he thought expressed the real genius of the Irish race. Only a Connollyite would now argue that pre-conquest Irish society was not exploitative and class-divided. Most nationalists believe their land was just and happy before the invaders brought vice, oppression and inequality. If all evil comes from outside, native exploiters are guilty only to the extent that they accept foreign ideas. That feature of Connolly’s theory was to lead him to join O’Connell’s 20th century followers.
The oddest thing about Labour in Irish History is that it ignores the north east, where industry and the labour movement were strongest. Perhaps the book should have been titled "The Gael in Irish History". Imagine a history of Scots labour which left out the industrial belt around the Clyde, Lanarkshire and the mining areas in Fife and Ayrshire. Romantic Scots historians do just that, preferring the misty highlands, but no economic or labour historian would do so.
Labour, Nationality and Religion is a reply to a course of Lenten lectures attacking socialism, by the Jesuit Father Robert Kane. It castigates the Catholic hierarchy’s attitude to the nationalist and labour movement, and its heartlessness towards the poor. A Protestant or secular reader might think Connolly was attacking the church, but that was not so. The bishops are criticised for perverting the church’s true message and for attacking loyal Catholics, who died on the scaffold with a prayer on their lips. That may be of little interest to those unfortunates with only second hand knowledge of the faith, but it must have been very convincing for those it was aimed at. He observes, rightly, that the Irish practice of priest worship is a heresy, but it is unlikely that he would have agreed with the Belgian priest I met who, on being asked when the Irish became Catholics, replied that it had yet to happen.
Connolly’s concentration on refuting Kane
on his own terms of Catholic orthodoxy was undoubtedly effective, as any
hint of disbelief would have destroyed his credibility. Connolly emphasises
the piety of the "Irish Race". It would be wrong to equate his terminology
with that of consistent racists, but clearly some of the island’s people
are more Irish than others. His attack on the confiscation of church lands
at the Reformation implies that capitalism is Protestant. The criticism
of the church hierarchy is unrealistic, as they have to safeguard the firm’s
assets, and so would have been foolish to bet on radical nationalism until
it looked like winning. Once it showed it could challenge the Protestant
establishment, the hierarchy gave it their blessing.
In 1914 Connolly became the effective leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, when Larkin left for a tour of the United States. His first reaction to the war was dismay that the Socialist International did nothing to translate its long held anti-war position into activity to oppose it. Yet, as an advocate of German victory he was involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s contacts with the German government.
Some who argue that his pro-German line was a later development, and a product of despair, cite an article published in August 1914 in the Glasgow Forward, responding to a false rumour that Karl Liebknecht had been murdered for refusing military service, where he identified with Liebknecht, not his supposed killers. A week before, in the same journal, he regretted that French and German soldiers, fellow socialists, were killing each other, and on 2 October an obituary of his friend Keir Hardie in Workers’ Republic was affectionate and respectful.
Those pacific and internationalist sentiments were interspersed with praise of the German Empire, and racist stereotypes of Russians. An article "Diplomacy", published in Workers’ Republic on 6 November, praised the "peace loving" German Emperor, who was an innocent victim of Allied conspiracies. Connolly’s evolution resembled Mussolini’s, a member of the pro-war minority in the Italian Socialist Party and a fellow believer in the invigorating qualities of a bloodbath, rather than Liebknecht’s, whose dogmatic Marxism prevented him from playing his part in the war effort.
Apologists for Connolly’s chauvinism argue that he was inconsistent and that an agitational journalist, writing frequent articles, cannot be expected to show the consistency of a scholar, but it is more likely that Connolly intended to deceive and that his pacifistic articles were tailored to Forward’s internationalism. Hyndman apart, no social democrat approaches Connolly’s chauvinism. Consider his article "The Slackers", published in the Workers’ Republic on 11 March 1916, which attacks Scots and English workers who had come to Ireland to escape conscription. Those "curs" and "Brit Huns" were attacked for cowardice and for stealing jobs from Irishmen.
Everyone is familiar with the racist arguments against Blacks or immigrants, which accuse them of scrounging off social security and stealing British people’s jobs, while simultaneously occupying hospital beds. It is useless to ask a racist if he would rather an immigrant worked or was unemployed, as what he objects to is their existence. Hitler uses that technique in Mein Kampf, where he describes how a Jewish employer exploited German workers, while in an ingenious division of labour his communist brother urged them to ruin Germany’s economy by going on strike.
A polite reply from a reader in Glasgow suggested that the workers Connolly attacked had moved to Ireland, where many of their parents came from, to avoid being called up and were behaving sensibly and properly. Connolly’s vile and dishonest response, published on 25 March, made it clear that the "curs" were guilty whether they fought in the army or worked in Scotland, England or Ireland. This was one of his last political statements, as he was shot on 12 May. It would be wrong to judge a life by a couple of articles just because they were almost his last, but you may need a sick bucket nearby when reading them. Many of the "curs" would be Scots Catholics, with as much claim to be Irish as himself, who might be expected to prefer Dublin to Belfast. Connolly’s tone resembles that of a country gent pontificating about the poor and the immigrants from a secure foundation of comfort and ignorance. Yet he, who had experienced privation as a soldier, a deserter and a worker, in Scotland, Ireland and the United States, should have known better. His support for German imperialism, reiterated in an article, "Forces of Civilisation", in Workers’ Republic on 8 April, is prudently omitted from his collected works.
Connolly, having abandoned socialism for nationalism, found the instrument he needed in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), originally formed as a workers’ defence force in 1913, during the great Dublin strike and lockout. It had been hostile to the Irish Volunteers, many of whose supporters had been employers viciously opposed to the workers during that dispute. The Volunteers refused to debate with the ICA or let it hire their meeting halls, although Countess Markiewicz favoured unity. Sean O’Casey, Connolly’s predecessor as secretary of the ICA, disagreed and in the summer of 1914 proposed that, in view of her close connection with the Volunteer movement, she be asked to resign from the ICA’s Council. When his proposal was rejected, O’Casey himself resigned and was replaced by Connolly, thereby clearing the way for a de facto fusion of both organisations. O’Casey’s remark that "Jim Connolly had stepped from the narrow byway of Irish Socialism onto the broad and crowded highway of Irish Nationalism" is accurate.
The Volunteer leaders became alarmed at Connolly’s drilling, which involved theatrical night marches and feigned attacks on Dublin Castle that had no relevance to the eventual fighting but were highly effective as a substitute for political activity. The sequence of events between Connolly’s taking over the leadership of both the ICA and the union, after Larkin left for the United States in October 1914, is confused. Connolly claimed to have been kidnapped by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the real leadership of the Volunteers, and co-opted to their organisation. The kidnap story is implausible, but Connolly did join the IRB. He also hung a banner proclaiming "we serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland", together with the green flag, at the union headquarters, Liberty Hall. Some union members objected to such a blatant subjection of trade union principles to anti working class forces, but Connolly had his way.
The Rising, which began on 24 April 1916 with the occupation of the General Post Office, was crushed in a week. The authorities were taken by surprise, in spite of Connolly’s showy and dramatic manoeuvres, which had so alarmed the Volunteer leaders. Some soldiers’ wives, calling to collect their allowances, were the first to realise that something was amiss, but were easily repelled. Neither nationalist nor imperialist historians bother to record the names of those uneducated and unspiritual creatures, or tell if they ever got their money. The Proclamation of Independence was not directed at the likes of them.
From the first day the main working class participation took the form of looting, as people took the opportunity to attack commercial premises, in a justifiable but hazardous attempt at economic redistribution. Both Pearse and Connolly were horrified that such mundane, sordid activities should sully the sacred national cause and sent a detachment to attack them with batons. The Provisional Government considered shooting the looters, but lacked the resources to do so. Pearse was too spiritual a soul to appreciate that the lower orders had material needs. In The Plough and the Stars, Sean O’Casey gave a sympathetic account of those events, the only aspect of the Rising which fitted Lenin’s description of insurrection as a festival of the oppressed. The few provisions obtained was the main benefit the working class got from the Rising.
More than 300 civilians were killed, some by the rebel forces, but many more by the military, notably by the navy shelling the centre of Dublin. The prosperous suburbs fared better, as such areas usually do: God loves their inhabitants more than he does slum dwellers, probably because of their greater piety. Most of the rebels who survived the fighting, minus the fifteen who were executed, were home by the end of the year.
By then there were no political differences between the ICA and the Volunteers, both under Connolly’s command, so the IRA is right to claim that it was formed from the merger of both bodies with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In contrast, the story retailed by Connolly hagiographers, that he had told ICA members to hang on to their guns, in case they should need to defend themselves against their temporary allies is absurd. Connolly and Pearse had very different political histories, but by Easter 1916 it would have been impossible to wedge the proverbial credit card between them. Connolly signed the proclamation of the Irish Republic, written by Pearse, a document with no socialist or reformist content and reeking of kitsch religiosity.
The ICA remains an enigma, as it was neither a specialised defence force controlled by the unions, nor a political vanguard. O’Casey’s attempt to establish its independence from hostile class forces failed and after the Rising it completely disappeared. Its members were more working class than the Volunteers, as were the soldiers they fought against.
Connolly, who had been named Vice President of the Provisional Government, and most of the other leaders were court martialed and shot. Militarily the Rising was a disaster, but as every Catholic schoolchild knows, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". Revulsion at the executions turned Catholic opinion against the Crown, and persuaded the hierarchy that a more nationalist posture was advisable. The rest of the story is too well known to need retelling. Nevertheless, however effective Pearse’s "blood sacrifice", it is a heretical notion, so unbelievers are not justified in blaming it on the church. Christ, by giving up his own life, made all other blood sacrifice unnecessary, so those who continue to immolate either cattle or humans are misguided. Pearse’s doctrine has the same relationship to Catholicism as Connolly’s has to Marxism.
The Rising was indeed a mad adventure devoid of socialist content, although Connolly’s devotees employ a quotation from Lenin to suggest otherwise: "To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts of small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution." Lenin concludes that it was wrong to describe the Irish rebellion as a putsch.
The passage is used as a sacred text with the implication "that if it is good enough for V.I. Lenin it should be good enough for us", but Lenin had no first hand knowledge of the events. Peasants, unable to form their own national organisation, have often been led by intellectuals, and Lenin probably thought the IRB resembled the Russian Social Revolutionaries. In fact the rebels represented a very specific social stratum: teachers, lawyers and journalists – urban professionals, neither bourgeois nor working class. Three of the signatories of the Independence Declaration were poets who, preoccupied with the literary merits of their document, understandably forgot to include the appropriate attacks on landowners and the church.
Both Trotsky and Radek did describe the Rising as a putsch and recognised that the movement was based on the urban petty bourgeoisie, not the "peasants" (hardly an accurate designation of Ireland’s rural population in 1916). The leaders of the Rising were excessively pious, so there was no question of rebelling against, or even standing up to, the church. When De Valera, the main leader of the Rising to survive, came to power, religious freedom was curtailed and the church’s power was strengthened. Lenin and Trotsky had to speculate on the nature of the rebellion on the basis of fragmentary information, but we who enjoy the advantage of hindsight need not. The rebels eventually won and modern Ireland is their creation.
We need not speculate on Connolly’s role if he had survived, any more than that of Princess Diana if it had not been for her tragic car accident. Connolly might have followed the trajectory of his closest ally, Countess Markiewicz, who became minister of labour in the first republican government and died a firm supporter of De Valera. He might have been an asset to Ireland’s new rulers in their task of getting the labour movement to subordinate its own interests to the task of national construction, but there was no shortage of volunteers for that job. The Princess might have become a charitable worker and recovered from her ordeal at the hands of a dysfunctional family, but speculation is pointless because both owe their fame to the dramatic nature of their demise.
Genesis of a cult
Death is now recognised as a good career
move for pop stars, but in 1916 few could have predicted the growth of
a Connolly cult. Yet a few years later it was the bewilderment of Connolly’s
socialist friends which appeared strange, not his participation in the
Generations of hagiographers have laboured over Connolly’s image, but have failed to match the charm of traditional accounts of Saint Francis or Saint Patrick. Now that Irish nationalism has little need for him, the main worshippers at Connolly’s shrine are Stalinists in England, although a few survive in his native Edinburgh.
If Connolly had died before Easter 1916
he would appear as a footnote in history, not a cult figure. His early
ideas were fairly typical of the Second International, where emancipation
was to be achieved through trade union activity and abstract socialist
propaganda in a broad party which avoided ideological discussion. In Edinburgh,
Ireland and America his tremendous efforts produced very limited results.
He was successively a disciple of Daniel De Leon, a syndicalist, and a
member of the reformist Socialist Party of America. His aversion to a democratic
party where divergent positions could be examined through discussion make
the claim that he was an Irish Lenin somewhat exaggerated. Unsurprisingly,
he produced devotees but left no successor.
Connolly has had a limited influence on the Irish labour movement, not surprisingly given his inconsistency and his final capitulation to alien class forces. His political legacy was evident in the first elections to the Dáil where the Irish Labour Party left the field clear to Sinn Féin, the party supported by the Volunteers and the IRB. However, while Connolly’s identification with the nationalist forces was never revoked, the Labour Party subsequently recovered its electoral independence, so that the 1916 Popular Front was neither permanent nor fatal.
"Connollyism" is sometimes resurrected
by left republicans searching to escape from armed struggle and sectarian
violence, although adherence to it requires muddled sentimentality and
a gullible attitude to Connolly’s works and actions.
In Defence of Connolly
D.R. O’Connor Lysaght
IT WON’T do. It will not do at all. Having
just read, belatedly, Brendan Docherty’s ‘James Connolly: His Life and
Miracles’ (What Next? No.20, 2001), this writer can say that of the many
bad studies of his subject, he has produced the pits. Positively its only
virtue is that it provides a stimulus for setting straight in these pages
the facts about one who was, with all his faults, the major Marxist theorist
in these islands in his time and perhaps since. Others may attempt (may
have attempted, even) this task, but, in all modesty, the present writer
cannot refuse it.
With such preparation, it is not surprising that Docherty exposes his ignorance though regular inaccuracies and evasions. While Connolly’s political affiliations in Scotland and America are listed, his Irish political organisations, the Irish Socialist Republican Party, the Socialist Party of Ireland and the Independent Labour Party of Ireland are excluded from this account, although he was secretary of the first-named for longer than his stay in any of the others. Docherty’s one mention of an Irish socialist political group is of an "Irish Socialist Party" unknown to anybody in Connolly’s time or since. He claims Labour in Irish History implies that the working class has no interest in basic democratic reforms, ignoring the chapters on the United Irishmen and Robert Emmett. Connolly is said to have rejected "a democratic party where divergent positions could be examined through discussion"; in fact, his final breach with de Leon was caused, in part, by de Leon’s aversion to such an organisation. He is said to have been "successively" a member of the Socialist Party of America and of the Industrial Workers of the World, when, in fact, he combined membership of both. Docherty says that in 1913 "the workers were viciously attacked by the nationalists in Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood"; they were attacked only by some: others supported the strikers, and these latter included Connolly’s fellow signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. He claims that, as well as Radek, Trotsky called the Easter Rising a "putsch" (he didn’t) and that, after it, the Citizen Army "completely disappeared"; it remained in being until the end of the Twenty-Six Counties Civil War, and revived briefly during the nineteen-thirties. All this would be less significant in an article not limited to slightly more than four and an half thousand words, including diversions concerning Padraig Pearse and the late Princess of Wales.
Many of these distortions are connected to Docherty’s need to reinforce his overall skewed argument. It runs like this: Connolly’s early years as an Irish immigrant in Edinburgh, reacting to the pressure from his community, reinforced by the counterpressure from Scottish Protestant bigots, had led to his socialism being distorted by Irish nationalism which meant necessarily adapting to Catholicism ("Irish nationalism and Catholicism are amalgamated in a way which surprises foreign believers"). This led to his rejection of Marxist teaching on religion and the family and, eventually, to his attempt to liquidate the Labour vanguard in Sinn Féin and to his successors refusing to stand against that bourgeois nationalist party in the important general election of 1918. However, they repented of that mistake, abandoned Connolly and followed new, and presumably orthodox Marxist, strategies that have led Irish Labour to the heights of junior partnership in successive bourgeois constitutional coalitions under the leadership of such socialist giants as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Pat Rabbitte.
The essential bias of this argument is obvious. The question has to be asked: how accurate is it and how far based on deeper distortions than those listed? To show the considerable extent of these is not to turn Connolly into an icon, a crypto-Lenin, but it does show that his career deserves more serious credit than Docherty would allow it.
He was handicapped by two factors. In the first place there was a shortage of Marxist material outside Marx and Engels’ native tongue. It is worth noting that in his dispute with de Leon as to family and religion, the argument was centred on Bebel’s work, without reference to Engels’ Origins of the Family that inspired it.
This weakness was common to the English-speaking world, but a second one was peculiar to Connolly. Events made him a political loner. He never attended a Congress of the Socialist International (he was nominated to go to the 1900 Paris Congress but could not do so for want of funds). The only major theorist to oppose him was de Leon. His knowledge of the great debates of the period between Luxemburg and Kautsky, Lenin and Luxemburg, the Austro-Marxists and others was limited; he could follow these only at second hand through reports in publications. He was able to write in 1914 that the best of the Russian Social Democrats had been "drowned in blood" after the 1905 rebellion; this may have been propaganda against illusions in Tsarist Russia’s progressive potential, but he could not have known how the Bolsheviks were working for the same end as he.
Even in Ireland itself, he was politically isolated. The syndicalist assumptions that he learnt in reaction to de Leon’s practice in the Socialist Labour Party and which Docherty mentions only in passing left him unable to build a political cadre capable of understanding and following his lead. In his last months, he enjoyed greater organisational power and prestige than he had ever had before: Acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, member of the Executive of the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party, editor of Workers’ Republic and Commander of the Irish Citizen Army. Yet the one body that might have given him a homogenous political support, the Socialist Party of Ireland, was left in suspended animation. His closest ally and confidant was the Acting Secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, William O’Brien, who would succeed to Connolly’s union job under very different circumstances. This was rather as if Lenin had been able to rely only on Zinoviev. As a result, it is necessary to consider Connolly’s actions as much as his writings particularly in regard to his last months, and to a greater degree than it is necessary to apply this test as far as his great contemporaries are concerned.
Whether Connolly became committed to the Irish national cause as a result of his upbringing in religiously-hostile Scotland, as Docherty asserts, may be true. It is also as irrelevant to the correctness of his approach as the much touted possibility that Marx’s perspective was inspired by Jewish messianism. Connolly had good objective reasons to advocate the breaking of the connection between Britain and Ireland, not least the fact that, after the Liberal Party’s conversion to Irish Home Rule in 1885, it became increasingly clear that the most powerful capitalist interests in the United Kingdom were opposed to the Irish cause. He was aware, too, that that cause had been supported enthusiastically by Marx and Engels. Indeed his position went beyond that of the Second International to anticipate that of the Third.
Docherty does not seem to have heard of the dictum of Lenin and Trotsky that the nationalism of the oppressed nation has a progressive content not possessed by that of the oppressor. He can substitute Switzerland for Ireland in his subject’s "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland ..." and claim it proves the original was gibberish, as if Ireland were a finance capital metropolis like Switzerland. His ignorance helps lead him to one of his most absurd conclusions: that Connolly in preparing nationalist revolt for self-determination against the war effort of a major power was acting like Mussolini who urged his major (if relatively weak) country’s entry to the war to grab land inhabited by members of foreign nations.
Indeed, although James Connolly’s isolation might have made him a nationalist, his perspective was very different from a nationalist one. In his first popular pamphlet, Socialism Made Easy (ignored by Docherty), he wrote: "Under Socialism, states, territories or provinces will exist only as geographical expressions, and have no existence as sources of governmental power, though they may be seats of administrative bodies." It might be objected that this was to be abandoned by him without comment during the war years. Nonetheless, he is recorded in the later period as intervening in a discussion as to the merits of Irish nationalism against internationalism with the question "how can you have the one without the other?" It was not classical internationalism, but not something that could be uttered by a nationalist either.
Certainly, the Celtic socialism chapters of Labour in Irish History are not that work’s strongest feature. Nonetheless four points should be made. Firstly, they are in keeping with the analysis of Engels, diffused through the Second International even amongst those who had never read him. Secondly, Connolly acknowledges the inevitability of the decline of tribal socialism, merely remarking on how this was hastened by the English occupation. Thirdly, there is evidence, independent of Connolly and his sources, that the Celtic socialist folk memory remained amongst the Irish labourers and peasants and would help inspire them to provide a motive force for their emigrants to play a major role in the founding of the working class movements in the lands they settled. Finally, the Celtic socialism vision did worry the Irish Republican government during the revolutionary war against Britain, so that it appointed to head its top economic departments the Celtic scholar, Eoin MacNeill, who spent his period in these offices touring the country, making clear the actual compatibility of Celtic socialism with the established order.
Connolly might have spent more space in Labour in Irish History on investigating the industrial survival and development of north-eastern Ireland. This failure to do so seems to have been because he did not consider it necessary; he did cover the eighteenth century land agitations there, his work ended with the Fenians at a time when the northern industrial base had been only just established and, perhaps most importantly, he wrote the book at a time when it seemed that the Protestant resistance to Irish self-determination was evaporating. When it became clear that it was as potent as ever, after his return to Ireland, he would examine the problem in a number of articles and in The Reconquest of Ireland. His analyses point to the historic fact that Protestant sectarianism was revived by Belfast’s industrial bosses to divide a defeated working class against itself and tie its majority to their own cause: sectarianism as a productive force. He does not go as deeply as he should have done, but he points the way to the explanation that has yet to be published.
One point that Docherty might have used as evidence for his subject’s nationalist deviation was the fact that, in these islands, and from the time of his first arrival in Ireland, Connolly tended to build Irish parties rather than extend United Kingdom ones. This is, of course, as directly opposed to Lenin’s practice in Russia as was Connolly’s ultimate rejection of the party as activist political vanguard. That Docherty does not use it may be due to ignorance. At the same time, it is doubtful whether an attempt to build a party on a state rather than a national basis could have been more than an aspiration. In Russia, the Tsarist regime was almost as oppressive to the Great Russians as to the minority nationalities. In the relatively benign British state the difference between the majority populations in the two islands was greater. Empire and industry had allowed the rulers to give their employees in England and, to a certain extent in Scotland, crumbs, political and economic, such as were given only grudgingly to the Irish. As the British workers organised, their leaders tended to see Ireland as a backwater to be pulled by them towards socialism. They ignored what Connolly saw, the revolutionary potential in the Irish situation. The British unskilled unions could not see the Irish workers as important enough to justify consistent struggles to establish permanent presences in Ireland until after Larkin had established his Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The political parties were even less enthusiastic. For Connolly to have tried a statewide vanguard party would have been for him to have tried to make bricks without straw.
Connolly’s positions on religion and the family were not sustained by Catholic nationalism. On the first, Docherty’s trump card is his subject’s acceptance of absolution on his deathbed; none of the other major contemporary socialist figures would have done this. All that can be said is that it was a surrender by a desperately sick isolated man facing certain death. Possibly Fr. Albert made it easy for him to conform without abandoning his past history; the far less sympathetic chaplain of Mountjoy Jail did this for Liam Mellows. However, the details remain secret.
In the Socialist Labour Party debate on religion, it is worth remembering that Connolly’s opponent, de Leon, was also out of step with Marxist teaching, though in the opposite direction, as was remarked during the polemic. His anti-Catholicism was extreme, particularly for the struggle in America, going beyond the needs of the secular socialist party. Programmatically, in his insistence on freedom of religious institutions funded by the congregations, Connolly was closer to the Marxist norm. He remained out of step with orthodox Catholicism, too, in his consistent stand in favour of democratic control of education, which was included in the original programme of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, was repeated by him in The Reconquest of Ireland and has still to be achieved in Ireland today.
De Leon’s position on the family and the position of women was formally stronger. Connolly’s view that monogamy would be perfected under socialism was not the common opinion of the Second International. However, as it is not clear what he meant by it being perfected and as socialism has yet to be achieved, it cannot be said that he was wrong. Nor can he be accused of misogyny. He wrote in The Reconquest of Ireland that the contemporary working class woman was "a slave of a slave". Above all, he was consistent, from the Programme of the Irish Socialist Republican Party to the 1916 Proclamation, in advocating full adult suffrage, including votes for women. This may he taken for granted today, but in his time only New Zealand and some western American states allowed that and it was opposed even in the Socialist movement, notably in Britain by the misogynistic Belfort Bax. Connolly’s position may have been theoretically weak; practically, it was far stronger.
Generally, Connolly’s positions on religion and family life might be understood if it is recognised that he saw too dogmatic a stand on them as handicapping this class in its central struggle for economic liberation. No doubt this was an opportunist position, but it must be admitted that it struck a prophetic note. Today, it can be seen that major changes have been made in perceptions of religion and gender relations. At the same time the great sacred cow of private property is stronger than ever and from its pedestal its defecation is threatening the cultural enlightenment that has been won.
That Docherty ignores Connolly’s approach to the basic economic issues is due partly to the bias that causes him to skate over the fact that, on the wages issue, De Leon was in the wrong. Beyond this, Docherty’s silence can be explained by his ignorance of Socialism Made Easy, and the early pamphlet, The New Evangel. Both put forward a perspective of state ownership through the control of the workers. This would not get beyond propaganda until their author went to America, and then effectively until he joined the Industrial Workers of the World. In this earlier period, he perceived the big problem as being the organisation of the unskilled, and the skilled workers’ lack of interest in advancing it. (It may have been a further handicap that the Irish skilled workers were organised in branches of British unions.) It seems to have been the scabbery of the Dublin tradesmen against striking builder’s labourers that caused his alliance with de Leon, who was in a struggle with the skilled workers’ unions in America. In addition it provided him with the insight into the basis for working class Ulster Unionism. By the time he was expressing these, he had returned to Ireland to find an Irish-based organisation of the unskilled, James Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, ready to use his talents as an organiser and eventually as Acting General Secretary when Larkin went to America in 1914.
The negative side of his industrial perspective was his conversion to syndicalist organisation theory as a result of his breach with de Leon. His syndicalism was not anarchistic. In Socialism Made Easy, he advocated the working class movement fighting elections, and would participate in them himself. What was more, he advocated and organised a political party, if only for propaganda purposes, though he would allow such a body to disintegrate after the outbreak of the First World War. Nonetheless his new politics prevented him developing a political organisation like the one he had organised in his first period in Ireland, and gave him the illusion but not the actuality of a following defined by politics as well as organisation.
The World War changed everything, including the strategies of Socialists. Those who opposed it included Connolly. Docherty gets that right, but fails to understand how he continued to oppose it to the end. With the insularity that can beset many critics of the Irish national struggle, the article shows no knowledge of the Socialist International’s resolution passed in 1907 at its Stuttgart Congress and reaffirmed at its subsequent Congresses at Copenhagen and Basle:
"Should war break out nonetheless it is [the workers’] duty to intervene in order to bring it promptly to an end, and with all their strength to make use of the economic and political crisis created by the war to stir up the deepest strata of the people and precipitate the fall of capitalist domination."It was Connolly and not such a national defencist as Hyndman, Ebert or Plekhanov who was in line with Marxist tradition. What tends to obscure this fact is that to stir up the deepest strata of the people he had to go beyond the Second International and anticipate the Third, in its 1920 Congress motion, directing Communist Parties in oppressed nations to ally with revolutionary nationalists. He recognised that Ireland was the one part of the United Kingdom where the national question provided the stimulus for a major sustained revolution.
How he saw this developing he did not explain. There is a difference between many of his public utterances and his practice. Both must be examined. From the comparison, it is clear that, despite often extremely bloodthirsty and seditious statements, [note] he did not intend to lead out the Citizen Army he commanded in an aggressive blood sacrifice. Under his leadership, the army’s numbers declined considerably and reached perhaps a quarter to a third of its pre-war strength in Easter 1916. This was not his fault, but he did little to stop the losses.
At the same time, he concentrated on building the union of which he was secretary. There can be little doubt that his syndicalism caused him to see this as the probable powerhouse for the revolution. The problem was that he knew that it was politically heterogeneous and suffering from the after-effects of the lock-out. He could not lead it to initiate a struggle; his best hopes were to cause the colonial authorities to do so by attacking it. So he published sedition in his Workers’ Republic more piercingly than if he had been backed with a political cadre and he sought formally peaceful alliances with republicans and Sinn Féiners to handicap the war effort. In October 1915, a major strike in Dublin port showed that the workers were recovering from their setback and his paper became more provocative The following January, the IRB Military Council brought him into its own plans for a rebellion and formed a military alliance with him. (It was only a short-term political alliance. His warning "Hold Your Arms" was heard by the Citizen Army man, John O’Keefe, and the proclamation was not intended as a detailed programme.) He toned down his propaganda to await Easter; it seemed probable that the striking dockers might block the port and bring in their comrades in the resulting clash, but their strike was broken at the beginning of April by Havelock Wilson’s National Seamen and Firemen’s Union. Finally, countermanding orders from the command of the Volunteers limited the Rising to Dublin and an handful of areas around the country. Connolly had to choose between going out to get killed or joining a long list of discredited Irish rebels who had refused to rise after preaching revolution. The latter course would have discredited his movement and he chose the former.
Docherty claims that Connolly’s "legacy was evident in the first elections to the Dáil" when Labour stood down its candidates rather than stand them against the new Sinn Féin, nearly three years after the Rising. In fact Connolly’s legacy had been abandoned within months rather than years of his death. At the Sligo Conference of the Irish TUC and Labour Party the Chairman, Thomas Johnson, gave an address that distanced his movement from Connolly’s action, praising his dead comrade in the same terms as those who had died fighting the Germans, denouncing "the national habit of mind" as the cause of war and making clear that his own sympathies lay with the Entente. He laid down a strategy: "Create a strong party with a practical programme of social reconstruction: with democracy political and social – as an ideal and a method." This seemed reasonable when most of the surviving rebels were imprisoned or on the run, but it would be continued throughout the period of the revived national struggle.
To those who had seen the beginnings of new industrial militancy cut short, with a major union’s headquarters wrecked and its secretary shot, the strategy seemed the height of wisdom. Connolly’s heirs in his union used his increased prestige to win recruits, but avoided copying his example even in a non-military manner. The Citizen Army’s tenancy of the union headquarters was made increasingly restrictive. When William O’Brien entered Count Plunkett’s committee to prepare the way for building a new liberation front, he was forced by his Labour comrades to withdraw, leaving the front to become a single party – the new, mass Sinn Féin. By the time of the 1918 general election Labour had increased in membership, but Sinn Féin was hegemonising the political scene. It offered Labour unopposed seats on condition it entered its planned Dáil. Labour refused the terms and, rather than have its candidates commit political suicide, it withdrew their nominations, leaving itself outside the revolutionary consensus. It can be said quite firmly that this would not have been Connolly’s approach.
Of course, whether or not that approach would have been better can only be imagined. It remains true that it was Johnson’s strategy that kept Irish Labour from taking a leadership role in its country’s national struggle and leaving it in the role of permanent third (occasionally fourth) party in the twenty-six county state and rarely as much as that in the six counties.
Connolly himself remains an icon to be quoted, to have his picture over the fireplace and, for Brendan Docherty, to be denounced. After a century, there is much in his writings that is dated, notably his agnostic views on religion and gender relations and his belief that an all-inclusive industrial union might somehow spontaneously "break the shell of the political state". Yet there is more that is relevant, and perhaps more needed today than a few years ago: his emphasis on the economic basis for socialism, his belief in democratic control, his flashes of insight into the causes of working class division in Ulster, and his recognition that the struggle of an oppressed nation can result in its workers taking state power over the heads of their bourgeoisie.
Suppressed by labour bureaucrats and Republican militarists, this still has a resonance in the hidden Ireland of the poor; after Bloody Sunday in 1972 and during the hunger strikes in 1980-1, workers broadened the struggle by seizing their workplaces and blacking British goods, actions in keeping with his original plans for a national rising. That he formulated such a tradition without aid from his contemporaries makes him the greatest socialist theorist in these islands of his time and, perhaps, ever. It is no bad legacy.