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

The Politics of James Connolly

Priscilla Metscher

James Connolly was undoubtedly one of the outstanding figures of the British and Irish labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century, not only with reference to his political praxis but especially concerning his political thought. What I would like to do is to present you with an overall picture of the evolution of his political thought, taking into consideration the circumstances under which he wrote. I will talk first about his early socialist ideas, which correspond to the period of his political activities in Ireland from 1896 to 1903. The second period corresponds to his stay in the United States from 1903 to 1910, in which he came into contact with and himself further elaborated ideas on industrial unionism. The last phase, in which I consider he came to a mature concept of socialism, is the period from 1910 to the Easter Rising, a period in which his political activities were once more concentrated on Ireland. Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two questions which occupied Connolly throughout all phases of his political career: the questions of religion and women’s emancipation. In doing so, I shall try to pursue what Brendan Bradshaw terms the “empathetic approach,” that is, trying to understand what Connolly did and wrote from the perspective of the times and the circumstances under which he lived, and not judging him on the grounds of being something which he never aspired to be—a professional intellectual.
      Connolly’s political career corresponded roughly to the life-span of the Second International (1889–1914), and his writings reflect both the strength and weaknesses in the left wing of the International. I would like particularly to draw attention to the fact that Connolly was what Antonio Gramsci termed an “organic intellectual.” He did not come from an academic background. Actually, he was one of the first theoreticians of the labour movement to come from the working class. He had to leave school at an early age to help support the family financially, so his education was mainly autodidactic. It was gained through long hours of reading in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. His education in socialism was derived from the writings published by the British Socialist movement—the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP)—and from the works of Karl Marx which were available in English translation at that time. Capital, for example, appeared in English in 1887.1
      Connolly’s thought was formed in the first instance by his activities and experiences in the British, Irish and American labour movements; in fact his work as organiser in political and trade union organisations left him little time to write. The main function of his writings was propagandistic: the aim was to develop the political consciousness of the working class and to aid political action. So, much of his writing, in the Workers’ Republic for example, is militant, rhetorical and agitational in tone. Much was written in political situations that required quick answers. As Desmond Greaves comments, “He was not primarily a theoretician. He lacked the philosophical equipment for the fine analysis of concepts.”2 This is certainly not meant to belittle what he wrote, but, taking all this into consideration, I think it underlines the point that, under the circumstances, it is indeed remarkable that Connolly achieved so much.
      There is another aspect connected with Connolly’s political thought, one which is often overlooked. It is true that Connolly had his political baptism in the British socialist movement, being a member of the SDF and Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF) prior to his arrival in Ireland. He was, moreover, aware of the international implications of socialism. This had much to do with his later activities in the American labour movement. At the same time he could also draw on another source in Ireland, on a specific Irish form of socialism. It was not the case that Connolly came to Ireland to convert the Irish workers to socialism. Socialism existed in Ireland some time before Connolly’s arrival in Dublin in 1896. That he was aware of this is indicated in the dedication of a whole chapter of Labour in Irish History, his major work, published in 1910, to the early Irish socialist William Thompson, whom Connolly calls “the forerunner of Karl Marx.” According to Connolly, Thompson predated Marx “in his insistence upon the subjection of labour as the cause of all social misery and in his analysis of the true definition of capital.”3 He quotes the following passage from Thompson’s An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness, Applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth, published in 1824:
As long as the accumulated capital of society remains in one set of hands, and the productive power of creating wealth remains in another, the accumulated capital will . . . be made use of to counteract the natural laws of distribution, and to deprive the producers of the use of what their labour has produced.4
In Connolly’s estimation, Thompson’s position “in the development of socialism as a science lies . . . midway between the utopianism of the early idealists and the historical materialism of Marx,”5 for, although Thompson recognised class war as a fact, “he did not recognise it as a factor, as the factor in the evolution of society towards freedom. This was reserved for Marx, and in our opinion is his chief and crowning glory.”6
      Connolly was influenced substantially by the writings of the radical Young Irelander James Fintan Lalor, published in the Irish Felon. In Labour in Irish History, Connolly says: “The palm of honour for the clearest exposition of the doctrine of revolution, social and political, must be given to James Fintan Lalor of Tenakill, Queen’s County.”7 Connolly was greatly impressed by Lalor’s analysis of the land question in Ireland and his demand that “the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland . . .” “I hold and maintain,” Lalor says, “that the entire soil of a country belongs of right to the entire people of that country, and is the rightful property, not of any one class, but of the nation at large . . . I acknowledge no right of property in a small class which goes to abrogate the rights of a numerous people. I acknowledge no right of property in eight thousand persons, be they noble or ignoble, which takes away all rights of property, security, independence, and existence itself, from a population of eight millions, and stands in bar to all the political rights of the island, and all the social rights of its inhabitants.”8 As Connolly points out, “Lalor, like all the really dangerous revolutionists in Ireland, advocated his principles as part of the creed of the democracy of the world, and not merely as applicable only to the incidents of the struggle in Ireland against England.”9 This stands in contrast to other Young Irelanders, such as John Mitchel.
      In Labour in Irish History, Connolly draws our attention to the close connections between Fenianism and labour agitation in Ireland. He observed that “the cities where this movement was strongest, where the workers had made the strongest fight and class feeling was highest were the places where Fenianism developed the most.” “It is notorious,” he said, “that Fenianism was regarded with unconcealed aversion, not to say deadly hatred, by not merely the landlords and the ruling class, but by the Catholic clergy, the middle class Catholics, and the great majority of the farming classes. It was in fact only amongst the youngest and most intelligent of the labouring class, of the young men of the large towns and cities engaged in the humbler walks of mercantile life, of the artisan and working classes that it found favour.”10 We know that individual Fenians were members of the First International or International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) and of the support given by the IWMA to the Fenian amnesty movement. That Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels supported the Irish struggle for self-determination could also be mentioned in this respect.
      The Irishman and former Fenian Michael Davitt was to a certain extent a forerunner of Connolly in the field of labour politics in Ireland. Davitt’s name is primarily connected with the Land League activities of the 1880s and his attempt to combine the national question (in the form of home rule) with the social question (the land question). His most clearly formulated ideas on land nationalisation are to be found in his Leaves from a Prison Diary, where he advocated a national proprietary as a solution to the economic problems of both Britain and Ireland. After the suppression of the Land League, Davitt’s labour activities included the foundation of the Irish Democratic Labour Federation in 1890 as a means of organising the agricultural labourers. The federation advocated co-operation between the workers of Great Britain and Ireland.11 After his rift with Parnell, Davitt is mostly associated with labour politics in Britain. Connolly assesses critically Davitt’s role in allying himself with the anti-Parnellite faction but conceives of him “as an unselfish idealist.”12 Although he died in 1906, just before the foundation of the British Labour Party, Davitt was a prime force in the support for its foundation and stands out as a pioneer of independent labour politics.
      Prior to Connolly’s arrival in Dublin, the colonial status of Ireland was visible within the ranks of labour in the 1880s and 1890s. The majority of trade unions were British-based, and Irish socialists either belonged to branches of British socialist organisations, such as the SDF, ILP, and Socialist League, or were organised in associations (the Dublin Socialist Club, the Dublin Socialist Union, the Dublin Socialist Society) which had strong contacts with British socialist organisations. On being appointed by the Dublin Socialist Society as their paid organiser in 1896, Connolly considered it his prime task to establish a genuinely Irish socialist party which recognised the needs of the Irish nation as distinct from Britain. Thus the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) was founded as an independent national workers’ party, in the interests of the Irish working class. In his introduction to the American edition of his article “Erin’s Hope,” published in 1909, Connolly explains why the name Irish Socialist Republican was adopted for the new party:
The Irish Socialist Republican Party was founded in Dublin in 1896 by a few working-men whom the author had succeeded in interesting in his proposition that the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland—the Socialist and the National—were not antagonistic, but complementary, and that the Irish socialist was in reality the best Irish patriot, but that in order to convince the Irish people of that fact he must first of all learn to look inward upon Ireland for his justification, rest his arguments upon the facts of Irish history, and be the champion against the subjection of Ireland and all that it implies. That the Irish National question was at bottom an economic question, and that the economic struggle must first be able to function freely nationally before it could function internationally, and as Socialists were opposed to all oppression, so they should ever be foremost in the daily battle against all manifestations, social and political.13
Here, I think, lies the key to Connolly’s revolutionary strategy and to the formulation of that strategy: (1) that the fight for socialism in Ireland must be linked to the struggle for national liberation, and (2) that the Irish socialist was the continuing force of the revolutionary republican tradition. At this point, Connolly was convinced that the Irish working class alone was capable of continuing the revolutionary republican tradition and of uniting the principles of republicanism and socialism. He uses the theory of the class struggle in his analysis of the situation in Ireland. The Irish question, he wrote, was basically an economic question: “No matter what form of government may be, as long as one class owns as private property the land and instruments of labour from which mankind derive their substance that class will always have it in their power to plunder and enslave the remainder of their fellow-creatures.”14 In the manifesto of the ISRP, Connolly laid down the object of the party: “The establishment of an Irish Socialist Republic based upon the public ownership by the Irish people of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange.”15 This meant, he said, “the consequent conversion of the means of production, distribution and exchange into the common property of society, to be held and controlled by a democratic state in the interests of the entire community.”16 The very fact that Connolly underlined the necessity of combining the liberation struggle with a revolutionary change in property relationships shows how aware he was of the consequences of separating the struggle for independence from the fight for socialism. In the Workers’ Republic he wrote, referring to the consequences:
England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions in this country and watered down with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. Nationalism without socialism—without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin—is only national recreancy.17
      The establishment of an Irish socialist republic could, according to Connolly, only be brought about by the Irish working class as leading force. For this purpose, the British labour movement must be treated as a separate, independent entity. Ireland could not be liberated by the working-class movement of the oppressing nation, but by the Irish people alone. For Connolly, the relationship between socialism in Ireland and Great Britain should be based upon “comradeship and mutual assistance,” should be “fraternal and not organic and should operate by exchange of literature and speakers rather than attempts to treat as one two peoples of whom one has for 600 years nurtured an unending martyrdom rather than admit the unity or surrender its national identity.”18
      Connolly draws our attention to the republican tradition founded by the United Irishmen. In an article in the Workers’ Republic (5 August 1899) entitled “Wolfe Tone and His Admirers,” he speaks of the Irish socialist republicans fighting for “the realisation of that freedom for which the United Irishmen fought.” In a later article (23 June 1900) he writes of socialist republicans adhering to “the high ideal of national freedom sought for in the past,” going beyond it “to a fuller ideal we conceive to flow from national freedom as a natural and necessary consequence.” The 1798 centenary celebrations gave Connolly the chance to present, in a series of ’98 Readings, “the principles and ideas which animated the men of ’98.” He succinctly points out that the United Irishmen, far from wallowing in the glorious memories of the past, “unweariedly insisted upon the necessity of a change for the sake of the present.” “They,” he said, “turned the attention of the people, not to the “glorious past,” but to the shameful and hateful present, to the pregnant and fateful future.”19 Organisationally, the ISRP followed the line of contemporary British socialist parties. The main work was seen as propagandist, of educating the Irish working class in the principles of socialism, hence the concentration of the members on open-air meetings, evening lectures, and election campaigns. The ballot box was, Connolly believed, the only effective means whereby the Irish working class could conquer the forces of government and establish a socialist republic.
      The programme of the ISRP consisted of both palliative measures (e.g. graduated income tax, legislative restriction of the hours of labour to 48 per week, etc.) and radical measures which aimed at a revolution in property relationships (e.g. nationalisation of railways and canals, abolition of private banks and money-lending institutions, etc.). It is not clear, however, which measures are conceived of as being only possible after the establishment of a socialist republic. In an independent Ireland, the socialists, having won a majority in the elections, would conquer political power and consequently master the military and police forces of the state, “which would then become the ally of revolution instead of its enemy.”20 Here, the state is seen as an executive power only, with the military and police as its mere instruments.
      At this stage in his thought, the question of alliance with other democratic forces had not yet been posed. Connolly had not yet realised the potential within the national democratic forces in the country. In 1897 he wrote: “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 stage of the journey to freedom . . . The freedom of the working class must be the work of the working class.”21 The context in which this was written must be borne in mind. Connolly was acutely aware of the fact that in the past, all revolutionary movements of the Irish people had been betrayed by middle-class leadership, and he was concerned about wresting the Irish working class from the influence of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He nevertheless realised that the “Irish Nationalist, even with his false reasoning, is an active agent in social regeneration, in as far as he seeks to invest with full power over its own destinies a people actually governed in the interests of a feudal aristocracy.”22 That Connolly was prepared to work together with other anti-imperialist forces is demonstrated in his political activity of the period. Much of the work of the ISRP was based on anti-British propaganda, which brought Connolly and other members into contact with active nationalists, such as Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith. Connolly’s aim at this time was to try and convince nationalists that they could only effectively bring about a change in Ireland by becoming socialists themselves.
      Connolly was convinced that the progression of capitalism would bring about favourable conditions for the transition to socialism. In 1899 he wrote:
The same economic development which will create the necessity for revolt will also provide the conditions in so far as it will have forced out of business the multitude of small capitalists, and replaced them by huge Companies, stores, and Trusts—huge aggregations of Capital under one head, a unification of industry, requiring only the transference of the right of ownership from the individual to the democratic community to bridge the chasm between capitalism and socialism.23
      Connolly believed that the further development of capitalism would finally render the capitalist system unworkable. Considering the fast rate of industrial growth in the advanced industrial states at the end of the nineteenth century, he came to the conclusion that the discrepancy between “the producing and consuming powers of the world” would lead to the destruction of capitalism, for “the productive powers of the world are continually increasing while the virgin markets of the world are as continually diminishing.”24 Thus, “the workers must choose between starvation and revolt for socialism.”25 The exhaustion of world markets would deal the final death-blow to the capitalist empires. Looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century, we know, of course, that the subsequent development of capitalism was by no means as linear as Connolly foresaw. His optimism in this point lies in the fact that he could not have foreseen, at the beginning of the twentieth century, how the intensified exploitation of colonies and the underdeveloped countries would lead to a prolonging of the life of monopoly capitalism. Connolly believed that “the advance of nations industrially underdeveloped into the capitalistic stage of industry is a thing highly to be desired, since such an advance will breed a revolutionary proletariat in such countries and force forward there,” as he says, “the political freedom necessary for the speedy success of the socialist movement.”26
      The international perspectives of Connolly’s thought must be mentioned in any assessment of his early political ideas. He was aware that the struggle of the Irish people for national independence, democracy and socialism was not an isolated struggle but one which was embedded in a universal struggle for freedom. In 1900 he wrote: “I am . . . a believer in the brotherhood of all men, in the international solidarity of labour, and in the identity of the interests which everywhere link together the oppressed of the earth.”27 At an early stage, Connolly recognised the identity of interests of the international working class and of all suppressed peoples. While many contemporary socialists in Britain and Ireland were still occupied with a struggle against capitalism within national limits, Connolly had already recognised the beginning of a new phase of national and international class struggle. This insight led him to understand the true character of modern warfare, i.e. warfare at the turn of the twentieth century.
      The Boer War (1899–1902) gave Connolly sufficient opportunity to reflect on the roots of modern war. In articles in the Workers’ Republic, 1898–99, he makes his own position quite clear: “The influence which impels towards war today is the influence of capitalism. Every war now is a capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must make or perish.”28 Reflecting on the South African war, he maintains that the British government declared war on the South African Republic “for the purpose of enabling an unscrupulous gang of capitalists to get into their hands the immense riches of the diamond fields . . . the modern state is but a committee of rich men administering public affairs in the interest of the upper class.”29 The outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 was an event which drew the advanced nationalists and socialists in Ireland together in a common campaign against British aggression in the Transvaal and enlistment into the British army. The very first meeting of protest against the war was held by the ISRP in Foster Place, Dublin, on 27 August 1899. The resolution drafted by Connolly and passed at the meeting condemned British imperial policy in the colonies, denouncing specifically “the interference of the British capitalist government in the internal affairs of the Transvaal Republic as an act of criminal aggression.” It was hoped that the Boers would defend the young republic “by force of arms if necessary.”30 Connolly supported Boer opposition to Britain also for pragmatic reasons: loss of markets to England would precipitate economic crisis there, which would in turn give, he believed, an impulse to revolutionary thought, help to develop capitalism in backward countries, and thus prepare the economic conditions necessary for the establishment of socialism.31
      It is not only British activity in South Africa which Connolly condemns. He is equally vehement in his attack on British imperialism in India and Egypt. He sees Britain’s role as a “prolonged criminal enterprise” in the interests of “speculating capitalists.” Although aware of the implications of modern imperialism generally, Connolly is particularly concerned with British imperialism, as it belongs to the realm of his immediate experience. He insists, however, that his hostility to the British Empire does not arise in the first instance from the fact of the “national and racial subjection” of the Irish by Britain but is the result of “economic studies” and an understanding of the class struggle. Thus, he makes a distinction between his position as an Irish socialist and what he calls the “anti-British sentiment of a chauvinist Irish patriot.”32 That both should develop the same hostility to British imperialism, albeit from different sources, is a matter which should cause all Irish socialists to rejoice, he suggests, for it makes socialist propaganda “all the easier by this none too common identity of aim established as a consequence of what we esteem the strong and irreconcilable hostility between English imperialism and socialism.”33
      Connolly is quite adamant in his position on war. As he explains, “there are no humane methods of warfare, there is no such thing as civilised warfare; all warfare is inhuman, all warfare is barbaric.”34 He does, however, contrast imperialist wars for the aggrandisement of the capitalist class to the struggle of the smaller nations for self-determination in the epoch of imperialism. “War,” he wrote,
may be forced upon a subject race or subject class to put an end to subjection of race, class, or sex. When so waged it must be waged thoroughly and relentlessly, but with no delusions as to its elevating nature, or civilising methods . . . The war of a subject nation for independence, for the right to live out its own life in its own way may and can be justified as holy and righteous . . . But the war of nation against nation in the interest of royal freebooters and cosmopolitan thieves is a thing accursed.35
      The second stage in Connolly’s political development, roughly from 1903 to the outbreak of the First World War, has been described by Desmond Greaves as “broadly syndicalist.” In the later stages of his political development Connolly did not give up his earlier concepts entirely to replace them with others. What we can ascertain is a shift in emphasis. The concept of the control of power through the ballot box is now replaced by theories of industrial unionism which arose through Connolly’s experiences in the American labour movement. As a result of financial difficulties, Connolly and his family moved to the United States in 1903, where they stayed until 1910. During that period he worked, among other things, as organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the Wobblies. Briefly, industrial unionism was the answer of the American semi-skilled and unskilled working class to the power of the trusts. It was the object of industrial unionism to create industrial mass unions, which would encompass all the workers of a particular industry, regardless of their qualifications. The political goal of the movement was to create a socialist form of society through the use of industrial rather than political action. Connolly’s controversy with the American socialist Daniel De Leon emphasised the extent to which they differed on the question of strategy. The De Leonists pursued a policy of “dual unionism,” the building up of a militant trade union organisation outside the American Federation of Labour, which they termed “the bulwark of capitalism.” Connolly was aware that this policy would lead to a split in the labour movement and would isolate the socialists from the mass of the working people. He, on the other hand, developed the strategy of “digging from within” the American Federation of Labour.
      Connolly’s concept of industrial unionism gave greater priority to the economic struggle: “The struggle for the conquest of the political state of the capitalist is not the real battle, but only its echo,” he said. The industrial union is the core of the new social order. The political state is to be replaced by the industrial republic. “Under a Socialist form of society the administration of affairs will be in the hands of representatives of the various industries of the nation; the workers in the shops and factories will organise themselves into unions, each union comprising all the workers at a given industry; that said union will democratically control the workshop life of its own industry.”36 Political organisation and agitation are not completely rejected, but they now play a secondary role. Generally speaking, at this stage Connolly understood that the transition to socialism would be accomplished by economic forces which would automatically bring about political changes. He never completely abandoned certain basic elements of syndicalist thought. This is shown later in his idea that the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), as a military and industrial organisation, should play a leading role in the struggle for national independence. In the course of time he modified his syndicalist concepts, and in articles written later we find, side by side with syndicalist statements, others in which Connolly stresses the political organisation of the working class as essential in the period of class struggle.
      In 1914, in his article “Changes,” although claiming that he is “heart and soul an industrial unionist,” he also claims that in a social revolution the working class must be capable of taking over the political apparatus from the bourgeoisie.37 In the programme of the Independent Labour Party of Ireland (ILPI) drawn up by Connolly in 1912, certain syndicalist concepts are present: the objective of the party is the founding of an industrial commonwealth based on the common ownership of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange, to be brought about by political and industrial means. In The Re-Conquest of Ireland, written in 1915, Connolly uses the term “co-operative commonwealth.” It is interesting that in his choice of terms Connolly should go back to William Thompson and the early socialists. His concept, however, is somewhat different, in keeping with the development of the age. The ILPI was founded as “the political weapon of the Irish working class,” but it aimed at a broad party base. In the manifesto it declared that it “is open to all men and women irrespective of their past political affiliations, who desire to see the working class of their country organised upon the political field.”38
      In addition, Connolly developed the concept of an Irish Labour Party, with its base in the trade unions, whose main function would lie in the field of immediate reforms. Generally speaking, he aimed at an organisational trio: the ITGWU as union organisation for industrial direct action; the Labour Party for parliamentary action; and a socialist party (ILPI) for the ideological sector.
      There is an indication shortly before the outbreak of the First World War that Connolly’s understanding of the relationship between nationalism and socialism was becoming clearer. This can be seen in his changing attitude to the question of home rule. In the early days of his political career he identified the political aims of the Irish Home Rule Party with the political concept of home rule itself. In 1901 he said:
Home Rule in all its phases is now but a cloak for the designs of the middle class desirous of making terms with the Imperial Government it pretends to dislike. It is but capitalist liberalism, speaking with an Irish accent. As such it is the enemy of every effort at working-class emancipation.”39
      In 1913, while still condemning the Home Rule Party as the enemy of the Irish working class, Connolly appreciated the important consequences for the Irish workers if they made the question of home rule part of their own political policy. Connolly made it clear that home rule was not the final solution to the Irish question but only the first step: “To all and sundry we announce that as socialists we are Home Rulers, but that the day the Home Rule Government goes into power the Socialist movement in Ireland will go into opposition.”40 Connolly vehemently opposed any plans for partition which would separate Ulster from the rest of Ireland. In 1914 he said: “The betrayal of the national democracy of Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it endured.”41
      After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the British government conveniently shelved the question of home rule, and Connolly turned to developing a strategy which could deal with the new situation. His stand at the beginning of the war was clearly the position of the left wing of the Second International, as laid down at the Basel Congress of 24–25 November 1912. There it had been resolved that the international working class should prevent war by all means at its disposal. However, in the event of the outbreak of war, the situation was to be used to bring about the downfall of the capitalist class in Europe. Connolly knew that the appeal to a false sense of national pride, the call to loyalty to Britain and the British Empire, was deliberately provoked by the ruling class in the interest of finance capitalism. It was obvious to him what such a war would mean to the Irish working class: “You are asked,” he said, “to stop and consider what this war will mean to the working class of this . . . country . . . War will mean more unemployment and less wages . . . Remember, all you workers, that this war is utterly unjustifiable and unnecessary . . . We have no foreign enemy except the treacherous government of England.”42 Connolly’s practical proposal was that the labour movement should stop the export of agricultural produce from Ireland “until provision is made for the Irish working class.”43 He believed that labour in Ireland could set an example to socialists in the other European countries which could lead to the establishment of socialism in Europe. By insisting that the Irish movement for independence was in its own right a factor making for the overthrow of European capitalism, Connolly anticipated the left-wing resolution at the Zimmerwald Conference, 21 September 1915, by one year. This resolution maintained that the emancipation of the oppressed nations as well as the enslaved classes should be the work of proletarian class struggle.44
      It is important to bear this in mind when examining Connolly’s role in the Easter Rising, since, for him, the Irish struggle for self-determination was part of the general struggle to overthrow European capitalism. Connolly’s understanding of the significance of national liberation movements in the epoch of imperialism as a factor making for the overthrow of capitalism is derived from the specific Irish experience. One could say, perhaps, that Connolly’s writings on the subject gave flesh and blood to the more theoretical articles of Lenin on the national question. Although written with a particular experience in mind, Connolly’s writings nevertheless have a general application in indicating how socialism can be established within the context of national independence.
      At the present time, it is interesting to call to mind the main points that Lenin developed. What characterises the epoch of imperialism, he said, is the typical and unavoidable phenomenon of the outbreak of democratic wars and revolts in the suppressed nations. Thus, the socialist revolution is not only or mainly the struggle of the revolutionary working class in the industrial countries: it is the struggle of all oppressed colonies and nations against international imperialism.45 For Lenin, there was no contradiction between the democratic right of a suppressed nation to secede and the socialist principle of centralisation and proletarian internationalism. In his article “The Question of the Self-Determination of Nations” he points out that by supporting the demand of the suppressed nations for independence, socialists are, in fact, working in the objective interest of the international working class, as the fusion of nations can only come about on a truly democratic basis, which would be impossible without the realisation of self-determination. The fusion of nations can only come about through a transitional period guaranteeing freedom for the suppressed nations of the world.46 To this question Lenin adds an interesting footnote, namely that the demand for the right to self-determination of nations does not commit socialists to support every demand for national self-determination. After the right to freedom of secession comes the question as to the advisability on economic and political grounds.47 In other words, the right of the suppressed nations to self-determination must not become an abstract dogmatic principle. This right to self-determination and the role of the national liberation movements in the struggle for socialism was by no means a clear issue within the International.48
      Lenin was of the opinion that as long as socialists in the oppressing nations failed to understand that the right of nations to self-determination and separation was essential, their own struggle for freedom against oppression would remain hopeless.49 From his own experience in Ireland, James Connolly maintained that as long as the British people supported British government policy towards Ireland, they were guilty of maintaining suppression:
We are sick of the canting talk of those who tell us that we must not blame the British people for the crimes of their rulers against Ireland. We do blame them. In so far as they support the system of society which makes it profitable for one nation to connive at the subjection of another nation they are responsible for every crime committed to maintain that subjection.50
Putting it even more bluntly, Connolly suggested that insurrection in Ireland and throughout the British dominions might be required “to teach the English working class they cannot hope to prosper permanently by arresting the industrial development of others.”51 He was determined that Ireland must strike before the end of the war: England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. Connolly explained his strategy thus:
We believe that in times of peace we should work along the lines of peace to strengthen the nation, and we believe that whatever strengthens and elevates the working class strengthens the nation. But we believe that in times of war we should act as in war.52
In 1915 he wrote that out of the experience of the Dublin strike and lock-out of 1913 “is growing that feeling of identity of interests between the forces of real nationalism and labour.”53 Members of the Supreme Council of the IRB, the radical republican movement from Fenian days, were not averse to an alliance with Connolly and the labour movement. According to Connolly, the Irish working class was to be the decisive force in the struggle: “Is it not well and fitting,” he asked, “that we of the working class should fight for the freedom of the nation from foreign rule, as the first requisite for the free development of the national powers needed for our class? It is so fitting.”54 The Green Flag of Ireland hoisted above Liberty Hall, the citadel of the organised working class, symbolised the relationship between nationalism and socialism.
      Connolly stressed that the Irish Republic must rest on a mass basis, “the common ownership of all Ireland by all the Irish,” but the character of the future republic was unclear. To what extent were the advanced nationalists to participate in the government of the country? On one point, however, Connolly was clear: the republic which would be set up in “the first days of freedom” was only the first step along the path of emancipation. Addressing the Irish Citizen Army shortly before the Easter Rising, he stated: “In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.”55
      Connolly was forced in the end to agree to a rising which was politically much less advanced than that which he himself had conceived. There was the absence of a strong socialist party. The Irish TUC was loosely organised and incapable of accomplishing wide-scale industrial action to help pave the way for armed insurrection. The Irish rising had occurred before the situation in the other European countries was ripe for revolution, and so, in 1916, it was fated to remain an isolated event. Had it occurred two years later, with a revolution in Russia, the outcome could have been very different.
      Any survey of Connolly’s political thought would be incomplete without considering two important issues about which he wrote and voiced his opinion, issues which are as relevant to socialists today as they were in Connolly’s day. The reason I have left them to the end is that they do not fit in with any particular phase in his political development but were issues which occupied him throughout his political career. I mean the questions of religion and women’s emancipation.
      Connolly consistently pursued the historical materialist concept of religion, defining it as “the outcome of efforts of mankind to interpret the workings of the forces of nature and to translate its phenomena into terms of a language that could be understood . . .” “Religions are,” he said, “simply expressions of the human conception of the natural world.”56 Connolly’s stand was that “socialism is a political and economic question and has nothing to do with religion.”57 He disagreed with those socialists who attacked the theology of the Catholic Church. For him, the attacks should be directed at individual clergymen when they uttered “economic absurdities” concerning socialism.58 He was aware that any direct connection between atheism and socialism would only alienate the majority of Catholic workers from the cause of socialism, hence his insistence on the humanist foundation of socialism. “Socialism is neither Protestant, nor Catholic, Christian, nor Freethinker, Buddhist, Mahometan, nor Jew; it is only HUMAN.”59 Connolly deliberately sought dialogue and controversy with Catholic priests who attacked socialism. In his article “Labour, Nationality and Religion,” he takes examples from Irish history to show that the Catholic hierarchy made use of its power by allying with the ruling class. “Whenever the clergy succeeded,” he writes, “in conquering political power in any country the result has been disastrous to the interests of religion and inimical to the progress of humanity.”60 The church, in other words, had become alienated from original Christian teaching. For Connolly, Christianity and socialism were not diametrically opposed. In this respect he quotes from St Ambrose, who wrote: “Nature furnishes its wealth to all men in common . . . the earth [has] become the common property of all . . . Only unjust usurpation has created the right of private property.”61 Although a “mere labourer,” intellectually Connolly was a match for the Jesuits, well versed in his knowledge of ecclesiastical history as well as the history of Ireland. This can be seen, for example, in his “debate” with Father Kane, where he is quick to draw attention to anachronisms. Kane’s quotation from Aristotle concerning socialism and socialist principles is shown by Connolly to be absurd: “To quote Aristotle as writing about socialism is like saying that Owen Roe O’Neill sent a telegram to the Catholic Confederation at Kilkenny in 1647, or that George Washington crossed the Delaware in a flying machine.”62 As far as the future of Christianity and the Catholic Church in a socialist Ireland was concerned, Connolly was optimistic. When the church realises, he argued, that the cause of capitalism is a lost cause, it will play along with socialism.
      Connolly is careful to make a distinction between the church as institution and individual Catholics who, refusing to accept the church’s “bull-dozing,” “stand by their rights as citizens, while observing their duties as Catholics.”63 He was convinced that Catholicism could not be kept out of the debate on socialism in Ireland. On the contrary, both priests and Catholic laity who actively supported labour were a positive asset to the foundation of a socialist Ireland.
      Speaking of Connolly during the Dublin strike and lock-out of 1913, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper Irish Citizen, stated:
Mr. James Connolly . . . is the soundest and most thorough going feminist among all the Irish labour men . . . He has done more, by speech and writing, than any other man to bring about that strong feeling of sympathy for the suffragist cause which now exists among the Irish Labour Party.64
Connolly took a very firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. In fact he saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland. “Of what use to such sufferers can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood.”65 The Independent Labour Party of Ireland, founded in Dublin in 1912 at the instigation of Connolly, made “complete political and social equality between the sexes one of the first planks in its platform.”66
      Connolly’s demand for social and political rights for women stemmed from his belief in the close connection between the suppression and exploitation of women and the establishment in Ireland of “a social and political order based upon the private ownership of property.”67 “The system of private capitalist property in Ireland,” he wrote, “as in other countries, has given birth to the law of primogeniture under which the eldest son usurps the ownership of all property to the exclusion of the females of the family.”68 This, as Connolly explained, was not the case in the older Gaelic system of society. There is a striking similarity to William Thompson’s remarks on women’s exploitation in his Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery, first published in 1823. “Thompson,” he said, “advocated as a necessary preliminary to socialism the conquest of political representation as the basis of the adult suffrage of both sexes.”69
      Connolly was, above all, concerned about the situation of women from the labouring classes, for, as he pointed out, “the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.”70 He recognised her double burden: not only is she a wage-earner, completing each day’s work, but also, he says, “she becomes the slave of the domestic needs of her family.” He held this up against those “who prate glibly about the ‘sacredness of the home’ and the ‘sanctity of the family circle’.”71 “The daughters of the Irish peasantry,” he writes, “have been the cheapest slaves in existence.” Regarded by the peasant as tools to work the farm, their position of inferiority within the community was reflected in the whole moral atmosphere of the countryside. “In every chapel, church or meeting-house,” Connolly writes, “the insistence was ever upon duties—duties to those in superior stations, duties to the Church, duties to the parents.”72 In The Re-Conquest of Ireland he paints a dismal picture indeed of the plight of the Belfast mill girls. When they went on strike in 1911 it was to Connolly they came, seeking his advice. The situation in Dublin and among the sweated home-workers was no better. Women from rural areas were forced to emigrate and seek work abroad. “It is humiliating to have to record that the overwhelming majority of those girls were sent out upon the conscienceless world, absolutely destitute of training and preparation and relying solely upon their physical strength and intelligence to carry them through.”73 Connolly believed that the women alone would achieve their own emancipation: “None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter.”74 Where possible, he encouraged women to take on political responsibility. His own daughter Nora recounts how she made her first public speech at her father’s instigation.75
      Connolly did not write any longer articles on the question of women’s emancipation. What he wrote was not in the form of a carefully thought out theory. Much was a polemical response to what the Catholic clergy, such as Father Kane, and to what other socialists, such as the American Daniel De Leon or the German August Bebel, wrote, especially on the questions of socialism, marriage, and divorce. Connolly speaks of, for example, “the divorce evil of today” as arising out of the capitalist system.76 He did not see that gender relationships are basically social relationships, which are in turn tied up with traditional patriarchal concepts of the family and woman’s role in the family. Thus he failed to understand divorce as a fundamental democratic right. But—let us be honest—just how many socialists at that time did see the implications of gender relationships? Connolly’s statements on marriage and divorce were a step behind the ideas of democratisation of gender relationships advocated by William Thompson and other early socialists, but by the time Connolly became active in politics a decline of feminist impulse had occurred within socialism. Women’s issues were pushed to the periphery, to be tackled once the primary battle of capitalist exploitation had been won. His views on certain feminist issues may have been narrow, judging by today’s standards, but far from rejecting feminism, as was the case with contemporary socialist leaders in Britain, Connolly insisted that women’s emancipation must be an integral part of any socialist programme.
      Several factors contributed to the development of Connolly’s socialism: the Irish experience, the writings of Thompson and Marx, industrial unionism. His thought in many ways reflects the most important issues that occupied the international working class of the period of the Second International. Above all, Connolly has given us an outstanding and valuable contribution to a socialist understanding of the national question. Desmond Greaves assures us that
Connolly typified all that was best within the revolutionary wing of the International. He was one of the first working-class intellectuals. He was one of the most tireless and dedicated socialist workers who ever lived.77
      As a footnote, I would like to add the following. I would agree with the Australian scholar Bill Anderson that by far the best way to pay homage to Connolly’s memory is to publish a critical edition of his work, complete and annotated. This is something which after all these years we still do not have. This, I believe, would be of inestimable value not only to the Irish but also to the international labour movement.

      1. See A. L. Morton and George Tate, The British Labour Movement (London, 1973), p. 163.
      2. C. Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London, 1972), p. 29.
      3. Connolly, Labour in Irish History (Dublin, 1973), p. 70.
      4. Op. cit., p. 70–71.
      5. Op. cit., p. 73.
      6. Op. cit., p. 74.
      7. Op. cit., p. 116.
      8. Priscilla Metscher, Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland (Frankfurt, 1986), p. 97.
      9. Labour in Irish History, p. 117.
      10. Op. cit., p. 129.
      11. See Metscher, Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland, p. 226.
      12. Op. cit., p. 227.
      13. Op. cit., p. 271.
      14. Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 75.
      15. Op. cit., p. 77.
      16. Loc. cit.
      17. Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism (Dublin, 1948), p. 25.
      18. Connolly-Walker Controversy. See Connolly’s Suppressed Articles, vol. 3 (Connolly Books, 1969), p. 10–11.
      19. Connolly, ’98 Readings (1897).
      20. Socialism and Nationalism, Dublin, p. 30.
      21. Connolly, Erin’s Hope: The End and the Means (Dublin and Belfast, 1968), p. 10–11.
      22. Socialism and Nationalism, p. 34.
      23. Connolly, Workers’ Republic (Dublin, 1951), p. 42.
      24. Op. cit., p. 41.
      25. Loc. cit.
      26. Connolly, Labour and Easter Week (Dublin, 1966), p. 35.
      27. Socialism and Nationalism, p. 32.
      28. Labour and Easter Week, p. 25.
      29. Op. cit., p. 27.
      30. Op. cit., p. 30.
      31. See op. cit., p. 35.
      32. Op. cit., p. 36.
      33. Loc. cit.
      34. Op. cit., p. 51.
      35. Op. cit., p. 54 and 46.
      36. Connolly, Socialism Made Easy (Dublin, 1968), p. 29 and 22.
      37. Workers’ Republic, p. 161.
      38. Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 279.
      39. Erin’s Hope, p. 44.
      40. Socialism and Nationalism, p. 108.
      41. Op. cit., p. 111.
      42. Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 354.
      43. Socialism and Nationalism, p. 133.
      44. See Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 353.
      45. See Lenin, Werke (Berlin, 1961), vol. 30, p. 144.
      46. See op. cit., vol. 21, p. 421, and vol. 23, p. 64.
      47. See op. cit., vol. 19, p. 522.
      48. See Lenin’s debate with Rosa Luxemburg on the national question.
      49. See Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1974), vol. 21, p. 294.
      50. Labour and Easter Week, p. 163.
      51. Socialism and Nationalism, p. 172.
      52. Labour and Easter Week, p. 138–139.
      53. Op. cit., p. 124.
      54. Ibid.
      55. Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 403.
      56. Workers’ Republic, p. 28–29.
      57. The Connolly-De Leon Controversy (Cork, n.d.), p. 9.
      58. See loc. cit.
      59. Workers’ Republic, p. 264.
      60. Op. cit., p. 194.
      61. Workers’ Republic, p. 193.
      62. Workers’ Republic, p. 220–221.
      63. Owen Dudley Edwards and Bernard Ransom, James Connolly: Selected Political Writings (London, 1973), p. 137.
      64. Irish Citizen, 6 September 1913.
      65. Connolly, The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin and Belfast, 1972), p. 45.
      66. Irish Citizen, 8 June 1912.
      67. Re-Conquest of Ireland, p. 45.
      68. Op. cit., p. 43.
      69. Labour in Irish History, p. 69.
      70. Re-Conquest of Ireland, p. 41.
      71. Op. cit., p. 44.
      72. Op. cit., p. 42.
      73. Loc. cit.
      74. Op. cit., p. 41.
      75. R. M. Fox, Rebel Irishwomen, p. 53.
      76. See Workers’ Republic, p. 237.
      77. Life and Times of James Connolly, p. 431.

International Connolly Conference  >  Dr Priscilla Metscher