Where, o where, is our James Connolly?
On the 12th May 1916, James Connolly entered the pantheon of Irish national heroes. The circumstances surrounding his execution has spawned numerous popular ballads and become embedded in national folklore. In 1966, on the 50th anniversary, and again in 2016, on the centenary anniversary, the Irish establishment celebrated his martyrdom but ignored and downplayed his revolutionary politics. During both series of commemorations Connolly was depicted as an innocuous nationalist with a social conscience. Some detractors even labelled him a socialist apostate, who had at the last minute swapped the red flag for the green. Misrepresentation begot calumny, as the establishment and its media outlets sought to neutralise this great working class leader. So, on the far side of these state manipulated commemorations, it is pertinent to ask, Who was the real James Connolly?
Hammered and shaped on the anvil of human hardship from his earliest years, James Connolly knew too well that inequality is an innate part of the capitalist system. However, his exhaustive study of scientific socialism gave erudite expression to his instinctive sense of social injustice. Undoubtedly, Karl Marx, in Connolly’s words “the greatest of modern thinkers,” helped formulate and shape his thought by illustrating the precise inverse relationship between ruling class wealth and the exploitation of working class labour. Connolly wholeheartedly embraced state ownership over the means of production, distribution and exchange, and he envisaged no role for private capitalism, “a parasite on industry: the working class, a victim of this parasite.”
But this was not a prescription for bureaucratic state socialism. Once an inquisitive trade union activist asked him: “Should we make this or that the property of the government?” Connolly replied: “Yes, but only as a proportion of the workers make the government their property.”
So, what can we derive from this? What was Connolly’s ideal worker’s republic? The 1896 electoral manifesto of the Irish Socialist Republican Party outlined the minimum programme of any socialist-republican government: the nationalisation of the railways, canals and banks; the introduction of a graduated income tax; free childcare and education; public control of education; universal suffrage; a 48-hour week; and public ownership of the economy. It was, by the standards of the time, a progressive charter for change.
Yet Connolly knew the ruling class would not relinquish its power and privilege peacefully: “It would be suicidal to expect them not to slaughter us wholesale when their very existence as parasites was at stake.” Hence the attainment or revolutionary change might require the working class “to use weapons of force to dislodge the usurping class.”
Connolly also authored the first marxist interpretation of Irish history. “History has ever been written by the master class – in the interest of the master class.” So began his great counter-analysis Labour in Irish History .
Connolly’s materialist interpretation placed class struggle and the working class at the heart of the national historical narrative, while exposing the class-limited objectives of bourgeois idols such as Grattan and O’Connell. Without an understanding of class struggle Connolly believed “Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbursts, treacheries, intrigues and massacres.”
Labour in Irish History is an outstanding historical work, written by a man who left school at eleven and scrapped a living as a factory worker, cobbler, journalist, and trade unionist. As Professor Joseph Lee wrote: “Nobody has overcome so many material obstacles to write so illuminating about Irish history. The quality of his insights obliges one to continue to wrestle with him……he asked big questions, which remain of enduring relevance.”
Connolly maintained that liberty for Ireland could not simply mean political independence. Consequently, he asserted that while socialism was not achievable without independence, neither was genuine independence achievable without socialism.
Here lies the origin of Connolly’s coalition with the Irish Volunteer’s on Easter Week. Connolly’s participation in the 1916 Rising was not an aberration, or a betrayal of socialism, or even a last-minute embrace of an advanced nationalist position. It was in fact the consummation of revolutionary theory and praxis, the realisation of a political project which had, for close on a decade, inextricably linked his concept of a worker’s republic with national independence.
While Connolly was angered by the bankruptcy of those European social democrats who endorsed the 1914 imperialist war, he was not discouraged. The banner proclaiming “We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland” adorned Liberty Hall. If only other European social-democratic leaders had Connolly’s courage and determination, imagine how many European workers would have been participants in a continent-wide social revolution instead of being forsaken as cannon-fodder at Verdun or the Somme?
Some within the Bolshevik leadership were dismissive of the 1916 Rising. Trotsky labelled it a “petty-bourgeois putsch”. Karl Radek was equally dismissive. However, Connolly found a formidable ally in Lenin, who wrote: “To imagine that a social revolution is inconceivable without revolts of small nations in the Colonies and in Europe……is tantamount to repudiating social revolution. The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured.”
Nine months after Connolly’s execution, Tsardom fell beneath the first wave of Russian revolutionary fervour. Nine months after that the Red Flag flew triumphant over the Kremlin. How Connolly would have loved to have witnessed those revolutionary events?