History: James Connolly voted onto 100 “Greatest” people

James Connolly (1868-1916), the Irish socialist revolutionary, Marxist thinker and working class martyr, has been included amongst ’100 Greatest Britons’ in a BBC online poll, the results of which were published recently.

BBC online poll

James Connolly voted onto 100 ’Greatest’ people

Over 30,000 people took part in the survey, which was conducted for a forthcoming BBC television series that will eventually whittle down the list to the ’top ten Great Britons’.

Connolly can be included in the survey because the BBC decided that, "nominations included anyone who was born in the British Isles, including Ireland; or anyone who lived in the British Isles, including Ireland, and who has played a significant part in the life of the British Isles."

This type of online poll is of course not the most rigorous of scientific indicators. The ’Greatest Britons’ list is quite an eclectic mix, including modern day ’pop stars’, royals, ’war heroes’ like Churchill, and also scientists, engineers and inventors.

Nevertheless, alongside the nomination of Tony Benn, the ex-Labour Left MP, and protest artists, such as John Lennon, the inclusion of a historic figure like James Connolly is significant. Clearly this outstanding revolutionary strikes a chord with working people and youth today. Connolly is well known in Ireland (although his life and ideas are often distorted beyond recognition by a wide variety of class interests and ideologies hostile to socialism and the working class), so he would always figure high in a similar poll run by the Irish broadcasting services, for example. But the BBC poll would also indicate that Connolly is renowned and admired amongst internet-users in Britain as well.

It is not surprising Connolly is an inspiring symbol to many people today, given his heroic struggle against oppression and class injustice and the mighty class battles in which he played a central role in at the turn of the last century. A summary of his life will illustrate the enormous contribution he made to the Irish, British, US and international workers’ movement.

The contribution of James Connolly

James Connolly was born in 1868, in Edinburgh and into great poverty. His parents were Irish exiles from the Great Famine and James grew up in the slums of Irish immigrants.

Relentless poverty meant that at ten years old Connolly was forced to work in the printing trade. Like many working class people before and since, he joined up to the British army in a bid to improve his conditions. He served in Ireland, where the experience of British oppression at first hand fired a lifelong indignation against imperialism. Connolly subsequently deserted the army.

After returning to Scotland, Connolly took up various manual jobs and was active in local socialist circles. He studied Marxist ideas and soon displayed brilliant speaking, organising and writing talents – an incredible achievement given that Connolly was a self-educated man. In 1893 he stood for the local council in Edinburgh and received a respectable vote, which quickly convinced the local authorities to sack him from his job as a ’carter’ (sewage disposal). He became Secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation in 1895.

Connolly always maintained a deep interest in events in Ireland and was able in 1896 to leave with his young family to take up the post of paid organiser with the Dublin Socialist Club. He published Erin’s Hope (1897) and The New Evangel (1901) during this time, works that argued for national liberation of Ireland and for the unity of the Catholic and Protestant working class in a struggle for socialism. He founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party, which played an important role in the development of the Irish labour movement.

Unable to maintain his young family on irregular and pitiful wages, and after clashes with reformist tendencies in the ISRP, Connolly reluctantly returned to Scotland. He played a central role in setting up the Socialist Labour Party, but they could not afford to pay him an organiser’s wage. He then set sail for the US in 1902. He took up a post as an organiser for the American Socialist Labour Party on the east coast. However he soon became involved in a polemical dispute with one of its leaders, Daniel de Leon, and despaired at the party’s sectarian isolationism. Afterwards, Connolly became a worker for the International Workers of the World (IWW-’The Wobblies’), which was established in 1905. He set up the Irish Socialist Federation in 1907, to help bring Irish workers into the growing US labour movement, and also worked as an organiser for the Socialist Party of America.

Labour in Irish history

He published ’Socialism Made Easy’ while in the States, which has become a classic exposition of socialist ideas. In 1910, Connolly’s major work, ’Labour in Irish History’, a socialist analysis of Ireland over the centuries, was produced. As the title signifies, Connolly saw the struggle to end national oppression in Ireland inextricably linked to the struggle for social and economic emancipation.

The book poured scorn on the weak and corrupt bourgeois leaders of the Irish national movement, who had shown in history that they were more afraid of the aroused Irish working masses than they wanted to be rid of the domination of British capital. The Irish bosses and middle classes had betrayed he fight for national liberation, Connolly forcefully argued, and only the modern working class could lead the fight for independence. He went on to say that achieving real, lasting liberation meant re-organising society, for a ’workers’ republic’, with a socialist economy. Otherwise, the island would be still dominated by imperialism, not directly by armed force, but by big business and the big banks and finance houses, and Irish workers would remain exploited, by foreign capital and by the local bosses. This perspective was later borne out with the creation of the 26-county Irish state in the early 1920s. The ’Free State’ was burdened by imperialism and remained economically and socially backward and underdeveloped, leading to millions emigrating.

Connolly longed to be directly involved in the Irish labour movement and was able eventually to return to Ireland in 1910. He took up a post with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). This came at an important time, as the Irish working class was growing and unskilled workers were becoming increasingly organised. Under the leadership of Connolly and James Larkin, another giant of the Labour movement, the ITGWU was to the fore in the mighty class battles that shook Ireland prior to the First World War.

Connolly was also heartened by the fact that many socialists were also now at last working together in the Socialist Party of Ireland. In 1912, he helped form the more broadly based Independent Labour Party, and successfully proposed that the Irish TUC establish a Labour Party.

In the North, in Belfast, Connolly helped lead a Textile workers strike in Belfast in 1911, when mainly Catholic and Protestant female workers fought the bosses over atrocious pay and conditions. He also organised anti-sectarian demonstrations under the ITGWU banner, during the rise of sectarian conflict around the question of ’Home Rule’ for Ireland.

The biggest battle came in 1913, when Dublin employers who wanted to smash the militant ITGWU locked thousands of workers out of work. A mighty battle ensued, with Connolly and Larkin organising mass resistance by the city’s workers and spreading solidarity action throughout Ireland and also in Britain where they received a great response from rank and file workers. The right wing leaders of the British TUC however refused to organise solidarity strike action, dealing a deadly blow to the Dublin struggle. After six months, the locked out workers were starved back to work.

One of the revolutionary legacies of 1913 was the creation of the Irish Citizen’s Army (ICA), headed by Connolly. The ICA was an armed force of the workers’ movement, established to defend workers from the police and scabs. The ICA had nothing in common with the individual terror methods later employed by the IRA. Connolly saw the ICA as an open section of the organised workers’ movement. Its HQ was Liberty Hall, the offices of the ITGWU, and the force was maintained by the subscriptions of union members.

The big class movements in Ireland were tragically cut across by the outbreak of World War One. Along with Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, Luxemburg in Germany and a handful of other socialists internationally, Connolly opposed the imperialist bloodbath and stood for workers internationalism. Most of the social democratic parties, despite years of pledges to the opposite, supported ’their’ nation in time of war. They acted as recruiting sergeants for the ’Great War’ bloodbath, which saw the loss of millions of young working class lives.

Easter 1916

Isolated, fearful that a renewal of class struggle across Europe would take too long and alarmed that the British authorities would introduce conscription in Ireland, Connolly decided it was necessary to take decisive action that he hoped would set a revolutionary blaze on the continent, ending the war and the rule of the bosses, Kings, Kaisers and Czars. He entered an alliance with the middle class nationalist Irish Volunteers and pushed for an uprising against British rule. A section of the Volunteers reneged at the last minute and Connolly’s ICA forces were left with the support of more radical nationalists, including leaders like Padraig Pearse.

The conditions for an uprising were very unfavourable; the working class was spent after the lockout and disorientated by the war. The ’moderate’ nationalists were even calling for Irish workers to join up to fight in the trenches. Connolly nevertheless decided it was better to take the fight to the British forces, to make a supreme sacrifice if necessary, so as to provide an example for the oppressed to follow.

Connolly undoubtedly acted from the most noble and self-sacrificing of motives: just compare his commitment to the cause of the working class to that of the social democratic leaders who supported the war and the careerist Labour leaders ever since! Nevertheless, Connolly made serious mistakes in entering his alliance with the radical nationalists in 1916. During Easter week, 1916, when the rising was launched at Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO) and other places in the city and throughout the country, no appeal was made for a general strike. The vast majority of workers were spectators on events. Connolly also made too many concessions to programme, as can be seen from the text of the insurgents’ ’Proclamation’.

Connolly however was quite clear about the class character of the nationalists he fought alongside, and also about their separate goals. He always stood for the building of independent organisations of the working class and taught workers never to trust the middle class leaders of the nationalist movement. A few days before Easter week, he told the ICA, "The odds are a thousand to one. Burt if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well."

After a few days of heavy British artillery bombardment, the GPO was given up and the uprising was defeated. Seeking vengeance, the authorities quickly moved to execute the leaders. Connolly was shot, strapped to a chair because of wounds received during the fighting. Gone was the greatest leader of the Irish working class and one of the foremost Marxists anywhere in the world.

But Connolly’s hopes of his sacrifice acting as a trigger across Europe were not totally misplaced. Easter week became a rallying cry for all those opposed to the war and social injustice. Lenin responded enthusiastically to the courage and hope shown by the Dublin workers. Both he and Trotsky sharply criticised those ’Marxists’ internationally who condemned out of hand the uprising as a ’putsch’.

Lenin also pointed out the limitations of the rising: "The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats".

Within two years, the mood changed against the war across Europe, as the casualties mounted at the front and conditions worsened at home. In Russia, the situation was especially dire and this sparked off revolutionary events and because of the existence of a disciplined and experienced revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, the working class was able to take power in 1917.

Although Connolly had formed and built up small socialist parties, he had not devised a party along the lines of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, which could maintain his class independence and Marxist ideas. The leadership of the Labour movement after Connolly’s death was weak, lacked his Marxist understanding and acquiesced to the interests of the radical nationalists who came to dominate the revolutionary struggles that erupted in Ireland from 1918 onwards. The other giant of the working class, Jim Larkin, had left for the US after the 1913 defeat and was persecuted for his ’communist activities’ by the US authorities. The ’leadership’ of the Labour movement in Ireland fell to reformist figures like William O’Brien, who despite his public allegiance to Connolly, was not prepared to fight to overthrow capitalism and to fundamentally change society. This was to prove disastrous for the working class.

’Labour must wait’

The betrayal of the working class was summed up in the infamous phrase, ’Labour must wait’, when the Labour Party stood back and allowed Sinn Fein, a radical nationalist party, to contest the 1918 general election (although Sinn Fein had played no part in the Easter week events). Sinn Fein won a majority of seats and declared a provisional government. Conservative individuals like Eamonn de Valera and Michael Collins came to dominate the national and social struggle begun by workers and poor farmers from below.

This policy by the Labour movement leaders was complete anathema to the ideas of Connolly. He would never have countenanced a separation of the social and economic struggle from right to fight for self-determination, as all his writings and actions made abundantly clear. Indeed, the combination of these struggles organically arose from conditions in Ireland. During the War of Independence there were strong left movements, and even revolutionary movements, such as the short lived Limerick Soviet in 1919. Moreover, the national liberation movement was by no means homogenous. Outstanding leaders like Liam Mellows advocated socialist revolution in opposition to the pro-capitalist wing.

The guerilla struggle for independence had widespread support and the British authorities concluded they had to cut their losses. As the rebel forces became exhausted, a deal was struck with Collins and others that led to the partition of the island, with a separate Protestant majority state created from six counties in the North. British imperialism at this stage still needed important strategic and economic bases in the more developed north. This provoked the "carnival of reaction" that Connolly had long warned about. The setting up of the Unionist run state was accompanied by vicious pogroms against the Catholic minority and labour movement activists. A short and brutal civil war in the 26-county southern state ensued, which the pro-Treaty forces won. Two impoverished, Church dominated states were carved out of the living body of Ireland. With the victory of sectarianism and the bosses’ system the cause of the working class was set back for years.

Resurgence in popularity of Connolly

Connolly’s legacy was not destroyed by the triumph of reaction, however (although plenty of efforts were made in this direction by the ruling classes). There were sporadic and important workers’ struggles North and South from the 1930s onwards that inevitably evoked his name (for example, the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike of unemployed Catholic and Protestant workers in Belfast). But without a capable Marxist leadership at the head of the mass workers organisations, including the Southern Irish Labour Party and Northern Ireland Labour Party, sectarian forces were able to exploit the situation and divide workers.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a big resurgence in the ideas of Connolly. In the North, the Civil Rights Movement exploded and many young workers looked in Connolly’s works for a way forward. In the South, the Labour Party swung to the Left, and Connolly became more popular again.

Unfortunately, the potential big opportunities for the working class were lost. The civil rights movement faced brutal repression from the Unionist state and attacks from Unionist bigots, but rather that put forward a clear socialist programme to win over poor Protestant workers, the struggle for civil and social rights was misled by right wing nationalists. The situation deteriorated drastically. Sectarian riots shook Belfast. To protect their interests the British government sent in the army, which soon was used against the Catholic minority. This resulted in outrages such as Bloody Sunday, which saw the army shoot dead scores of civil rights protesters in Derry city. Despairing of ’politics’ Catholic youth flooded into the IRA, to ’hit back’. Many believed they were fighting for some sort of socialist Ireland and were ’following’ in Connolly’s tradition. But the Provos’ decades long policy of individual terror, of a secret army using the bomb and bullet to achieve unity of the island, could only antagonize Protestant workers and send many into the arms of reactionary Unionist bigots such as Ian Paisley. Connolly, on the other hand, had always based his actions on the mass workers’ movement and sought to build workers’ unity against oppression and for a socialist future. He would never have supported the completely counterproductive actions of the IRA and other republican paramilitaries: which makes the fact that their deeds, including sectarian killings, were often committed in Connolly’s name, all the more galling.

In the South, the promise of the radical period in the 1960s and early 1970s was also squandered. Connolly had always opposed the workers’ organisations sharing power with the parties of the ruling class, but this did not stop the right wing Labour leadership in the South entering into disastrous coalitions with the bosses’ parties.

Despite the setbacks over the period of the ’Troubles’, the working class in Ireland will again and again turn to Connolly’s legacy. Today, Connolly continues to have a huge influence. It seems everyone wants to claim him. The main railway station in Dublin is named after the great revolutionary. Both pro-peace process republicans and dissident republicans maintain they are following in his footsteps. The comment Connolly made about Theobald Wolfetone, the Protestant leader of the 1798 rebellion against British rule, "Apostles of freedom are forever crucified while living and sanctified when dead", applies just as much to him since 1916.

At the same time, in the last decade or so, many academics have attacked Connolly and his ideas. Most often those denigrating Connolly are ex-’Marxists’, who are keen to expurgate their own pasts. But this revisionist tendency also reflects the last thirty years of defeats, the surge of sectarian reaction and the downturn in class struggle internationally following the collapse of the Stalinist states (1989-1991). Some who claim to be on the Left join with the professors in these attacks: they want to project the failure of their own ideas on Connolly. Others on the Left ’defend’ Connolly and then go on to shoe-horn him into their own ultra left or sectarian outlook.

Of course there is no place for a cult of personality and or hero worship approach in a serious evaluation of any great Marxist, including the life and times of James Connolly. This method is always wrong and will not help us understand his contribution. As Connolly was fond of saying, the new generation of socialists should emulate the great Marxists of yesteryear not unthinkingly imitate them. In other words, it is necessary to examine the actions and ideas of past outstanding figures, such as Connolly, in their living context and evolution, to enable an enriching of the movement today.

Certainly there is scope for a rigorous, in-depth analysis of Connolly’s role, which would take into account his enormous achievements and also his mistakes, but this is not the place to carry out this work. At any rate, the best way to appreciate Connolly is to read his writings. The ITGWU and the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) have published his main books, like Labour in Irish History. Yet there is still a wealth of Connolly’s writings unpublished and unseen by the wider public. This is quite extraordinary given that Connolly was not just an activist and workers’ leader, par excellence, he was also a prolific writer, and an outstanding essayist and polemicist, who wrote many books, articles, essays, tracts and maintained voluminous correspondence.

According to Aindrias O Cathasaigh, the editor of the book, ’The Lost Writings – James Connolly’ ((Pluto Press, 1997) which themselves throw new light on the dynamic of Connolly’s thought) the CPI and Labour movement careerists like William O’Brien (Connolly’s literary executor "by default") played a role in consciously suppressing many of Connolly’s archives for decades or only publishing certain articles to further their own interests. The CPI no doubt found his revolutionary and internationalist appeal too hard to swallow, especially regarding the national question, during the many cynical twists and turns in Soviet foreign policy following the triumph of Stalinism over Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the 1920s and 1930s. O Cathasaigh writes that hundreds of Connolly’s writings remain unpublished in the National Library in Dublin, along with all his letters. Publishing the remaining works of James Connolly is an important task for the Irish workers’ and socialist movement.

Continuing Connolly’s traditions

In Ireland today, the Socialist Party (CWI section) proudly works to maintain the fighting traditions of James Connolly. The party has a long record of fighting for workers’ unity in the North against sectarian division, in the unions, in the communities and amongst youth. Moreover, the Socialist Party has deepened the Marxist approach towards the national question in Ireland, which is much more complex and explosive than in Connolly’s day.

The Socialist Party puts forward a socialist solution, calling for the struggle against the bosses, the sectarian-based political parties and for a new society as the way to overcome the deep sectarian divisions. The party stands for a socialist Ireland, as part of a voluntary socialist federation of Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland.

In the South of Ireland, the Socialist Party emulates Connolly’s example of building a fight-back against the boss’s parties. Socialist Party MP, Joe Higgins, acts as "a tribune for the working class", as Connolly had advocated socialists should do when elected to parliament (Connolly contested local seats a number of times and saw the electoral field as a necessary way to promote socialist ideas). Joe is unique amongst deputies in the Dail (Irish parliament): he lives only on the wage of an average skilled worker and puts the rest back into socialist and community campaigns.

Part of the struggle of socialists in Ireland today is to reclaim Connolly from all those that want to mangle and distort his ideas. In the pages of the Socialist Voice, paper of the Socialist Party, and in the party’s theoretical magazine, Socialist View, readers will find the tradition of Connolly, alongside the other great Marxist teachers, such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

There can be no doubt that interest in Connolly will rise once again, as the new generation look for a way out of capitalist crisis and sectarian deadlock. The results of the BBC online poll would indicate this is already taking place. Both in Ireland and internationally youth will look to Connolly – Marxist fighter, thinker and mass leader – and find a brilliant guide.

To read many of Connolly’s works, visit the James Connolly Internet Archive

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August 2002