“The Relevance of James Connolly in the 21st Century”
Dublin, 20–22 April 2001

Connolly and the struggle for socialism

Eugene McCartan




When James Connolly came to Dublin at the invitation of a group of socialists, he set about establishing the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), the first Marxist party in Ireland. He pulled together the scattered and disparate Marxist elements in the country and built a single organisation: a revolutionary party of the working class. The key element was his belief that Irish socialism should and must be based upon the traditions and experience of Irish people and upon a party rooted in class struggle. The essential unity of the ideas of socialism and national independence (as has been stated before, the two sides of the same coin) is at the heart of Connolly’s contribution to progressive and socialist thought.
      From the very beginning, Connolly stated and articulated the view that the “two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, the socialist and the national, are not antagonistic but complementary.” That had also been Marx’s position. This view was not shared by all, nor even the majority, of Connolly’s socialist contemporaries, many of whom were influenced by, or members of, offshoots of British craft unions and British socialist organisations. That dynamic political position remained at the core of James Connolly’s political strategy up until his death. It is our belief that it still remains one of Connolly’s key legacies to the Irish socialist and national independence movements.
      Connolly held that national independence was a prerequisite of the socialist revolution. He reached the conclusion that they were two interlinked phases of the one democratic reorganisation of society, each requiring economic changes. They were part and parcel of the one process, one depending upon the other, and neither could be fully accomplished without the completion of the other. It is within this developed political strategy of the inescapable interdependence of social and national emancipation for the Irish people, and particularly the Irish working class, that one sees why Connolly built his alliances and took part in the Easter Revolution.
      We know that there were three main currents running through the socialist movement at that time. Firstly, there was Connolly’s own socialist republicanism, which regarded national independence as a primary goal. The other two were variations of each other, opportunistic and economistic.
      Belfast socialists who capitulated to sectarianism were the second current. They ignored the struggle for national freedom and the establishment of Irish democracy and wanted to get on with “real politics” and concentrate on bread-and-butter socialism and the trade union movement. But this position left the working class, and in particular the Protestant section, leaderless and in the bind of looking for social advance from London and the empire. Finally, the same tendency in Dublin admitted the importance of the national liberation struggle but tried to present the socialist tasks separately, as if the two had no connection. This position, which became the dominant political viewpoint within the labour movement after the death of Connolly, handed over the leadership of the national struggle to the bourgeoisie.
      The position adopted by Connolly is still today the source of much debate and argument about which comes first. But it is not a question of either one or the other: they are interdependent.
      Capitalism is a society run primarily in the interests of the owners and controllers of capital, who therefore decide the main lines of society’s development. The dominant sections of modern capital are transnational rather than national. Nowadays, as monopoly capitalism supersedes competitive capitalism and a few hundred giant transnational firms control half the manufacturing output of the world, capitalism is the main enemy of democracy.
      It is through this concentration of resources that capitalism is able to set the political and economic agenda: through its dominance and control over the popular mass media (one could describe it as global thought control), and through the assault of the transnational corporations and financial institutions on the nation-state (the principal vehicle evolved by nations for imposing social controls on capital). The democratic right of a people within a given nation-state to decide how the wealth of that society should be shared or distributed is being denied.
      The ability of national governments to intervene has been severely restricted. All the major global institutions have been designed to ensure maximum profits for the corporations and minimum democratic control and regulation. The deepening crisis will, therefore, have major consequences for working people across the world.
      The current phenomenon of globalisation is a natural development in the growth of modern capitalism and its drive for maximum profits through unrestricted access to and control of markets. This process, originally described by Marx and Lenin, has spread across the globe and brings with it the cyclical crises inherent within the capitalist system. The large global corporations are becoming more powerful, eroding the regulatory powers of nation-states and trampling on the rights of working people, further restricting their ability to determine their own destinies. The foreign policies of the dominant powers are subordinated to the needs of transnational capital, and their armed forces are its global enforcers.
      The international spread of capital is transforming and changing the role of national governments and nation-states. It is restricting national governments’ function of intervening to regulate economic activity, in favour of institutions developed and controlled by transnational capital, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. However, as the role of the individual states is being curtailed in the sphere of economic life, their coercive function remains vital to protect the interests of monopoly capitalism.
      Modern transnational capital has outgrown the nation-state, but it could just as well be said that the nation-state has outgrown big capital. Why? Because transnational capital is nowadays so subversive of democracy that the struggle to establish or defend national democracy becomes part and parcel of the struggle for socialism. National governments can be either liberal-democratic or anti-democratic, depending on what is required in the given circumstances and conditions.
      James Connolly’s legacy to today’s socialists and to the labour movement in general is the imperative that they must be to the fore in championing democracy; they must be the best and most consistent fighters against imperialism, sexism and racism and for national independence and democratic accountability in public life. This, I believe, is the classic socialist position, that national independence and socialism are in effect two stages of the one democratic struggle to change and transform society, each of which entails economic changes. Democracy, both at a national and international level, is the essential battleground for the left at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The struggle for democratic reform, both political and economic, must be fought at national and international level. It will be a key arena of struggle in the coming decades, as monopoly capitalism continues to push for the removal of all national and international obligations and controls.
      At present the leaders of the mainstream socialist, labour and social democratic parties are betraying the working class throughout Europe by supporting the main political project of European transnational capital—the European Union. The majority of Europe’s labour and social democratic parties are almost totally at one with the main demand of the most powerful sections of European monopoly capitalism (now transnational), which is to subvert, undermine and subsume national independence and democracy and support the drive towards the consolidation of an EU superstate.
      In Connolly’s day there were those who believed that socialism would be brought about by turning the British empire into some form of socialist empire or, at the very least, by creating a socialist republic of these islands, under one governmental centre (i.e. London). Today we have a similar scenario, with those who argue that social justice and advance towards socialism can best be (or can only be) achieved within the wider political and economic formation of the European Union.
      It is my belief that, just as we could not move towards socialism without first securing national independence from the British empire, we cannot now move towards socialism without addressing the fundamental question that is the project of constructing a new technocratic superstate in the European Union. I do not believe that there is some form of benign European monopoly capitalism which is less aggressive and less exploitative than US imperialism. It is a matter of degree and only reflects their relative strengths, economically, politically, financially, and militarily, at this historical moment in time.
      For working people in Europe, and particularly for Irish workers, it is not a choice between two different economic systems or strategies, one more caring than the other. It is not a choice between Brussels and Berlin, on the one hand, and Boston and Chicago, on the other. The Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties have built-in monetarist policies and strategies. The strategy of European monopoly capitalism is to create a level playing-pitch with US monopolies. That is why we have the constant attacks on the advances won through hard and bitter struggles by workers across Europe over many decades. Over the next decade the question will not be a choice between two capitalisms but rather how much can workers defend and hold on to.
      Imposing social controls on transnational capital requires the co-operation of independent nation-states that are ruled by political interests who see the necessity for such controls. That old problem of the nature of the state and whose interest it serves (the essential class character of the state) arises. As the largest transnational firms (and, in particular, finance capital) are global in operation, this calls for new forms of international co-operation that transcend regional groupings such as the European Union.
      The struggle for thoroughgoing democratic reform, both political and economic, leading ultimately to radical transformations, must still be conducted at national level. But, given the global character of monopoly capitalism, democratic and class resistance at the level of the nation-state is no longer sufficient. Struggles being carried on in each country must be combined and co-ordinated to a greater extent than before at regional and global levels. We see the development of the broadest democratic and anti-imperialist alliance as crucial to the survival of the planet and the defeat of monopoly capitalism. Measures to control transnational capital through international bodies such as the United Nations must be advanced (e.g. agreement on an international tax—the Tobin tax—on the financial transactions of such firms, as a way for redirecting resources to the underdeveloped world).
      While Connolly, like Marx and other socialist writers, developed a critique of capitalism that we can draw upon, they left no blueprint for the construction of socialism. But we know that socialism is a society where production and distribution are organised rationally for the satisfaction of human need, where there is the fullest democracy and relations between people are profoundly humane, and where inequality is done away with.
      Connolly, like Marx, took in the broad sweep of history when making judgements. That is another lesson we can learn: to think historically. It took capitalism centuries to develop and overcome feudalism; is it not naïve to expect socialism to spring fully grown from the womb of history in our time? Moreover, capitalism has developed in a very uneven way, with periods of setback as well as advance. With that historical perspective we can see that setbacks can occur, and capitalism in some form will be with us for a very long time.
      Socialism calls for the social control of capital in the interest of those who produce it: working people. But today, more than one billion people subsist on less than one dollar a day, and nearly three times as many survive on less than two dollars a day. More than 250 million of the world’s children work in sweatshops; more than nine million children in the underdeveloped world die of preventable diseases every year; and fewer than four hundred of the world’s richest individuals have a combined income greater than the total income of the world’s three billion poorest people.
      Clearly, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. Our planet and we as a species need socialism more than ever. The transnational corporations and their incessant drive for maximum profits continue to exploit and exhaust resources and destroy the environment in order to satisfy consumer demands in the developed world.
      Capitalism reproduces itself both materially and ideologically. Part of the ideological spin-off of the so-called “Celtic Tiger” is that the old capitalist lie that “everyone can make it to the top” has been given a new lease of life among working people. The reality of capitalism dispels these illusions. Human relations are reduced to commodity relations, and this affects all aspects of social relations. Real, lasting progress for working people can only come about as a result of conscious collective effort, based on co-operation and mutual solidarity.
      Despite the cynical view that anyone who is not prepared to trample over others on their way to the trough is either foolishly naïve or consumed with jealousy at the “success” of others, we are not about the politics of envy but rather the politics of democracy, inclusion, and social justice. Capitalism elevates greed, selfishness and self-obsession to the level of ideology and portrays them as abiding values. By its very “dog eat dog” nature it is fundamentally incapable of producing a society based on civilised standards. As capitalism continues to fragment society into individual consumers in the global supermarket of capitalism’s products and services, the left can provide a focal point for the demand for social solidarity and social cohesion.
      At the moment, capitalism appears to rule supreme. Yet all around the planet people are engaged in resistance and struggle. The globalisation of capitalism must be met by the globalisation of the movement against capitalism. The left has to become the conscience of society by developing and promoting an alternative vision of society. It must become the natural home and rallying point for all those who are engaged in the relentless day-to-day struggles against the consequences of capitalism.
      At the present time the best way for the labour movements (particularly in Europe) and for socialists and the left to win support is to become the champions of national democracy and independence in the face of the assault by transnational capital. The political way forward for the left in western Europe is to oppose the strategy of transnational capital: the destruction of national democracy through European integration and the establishment of an EU superstate. The challenge for the left is therefore to transform itself into a national contingent in an international campaign to defend national democracy and the nation-state. While in Connolly’s day the social was dependent on the national, today internationalism has become an essential element in our political struggle. I would prefer to call this anti-imperialism.
      We need to end the sectarian squabbles that have characterised much of the left’s debates and struggles. We have to keep in mind that, small as the left has been and is in this country, we have made a difference to the lives of working people. Sometimes it seems that sectarianism intensifies as one section of the left appears to make progress, particularly if in the electoral arena. I do not believe that socialism will be brought about by any one party but rather by the mobilising of the broadest possible forces, from women, young people, environmentalists, trade unionists, small farmers, and small business people.


International Connolly Conference  >  Eugene McCartan