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James Connolly: His Life and Miracles

Brendan Docherty

ARTHUR SCARGILL presents his Socialist Labour Party as the successor to the party of the same name founded by James Connolly in 1903. Nearly a century later Connolly’s legend endures.

"But where can we draw water"
Said Pearse to Connolly,
"When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be
There’s nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree"
(W.B. Yeats)

As Pearse believed that Ireland needed a blood sacrifice, he could not have claimed he was misrepresented. In the poem, James Connolly agrees, but in reality he was less consistently bloodthirsty, and was at first distressed at the slaughter of World War One. When he was executed after the 1916 Dublin Rising, many who knew him as a socialist activist since 1888 were amazed. He anticipated their surprise, saying, "they forget that I am an Irishman", although of course he wasn’t. Many socialists dropped their internationalism during the war when they remembered that they were French, German or whatever. Connolly, like Kropotkin, was unusual only in identifying with an adopted nation.

Connolly was born in Edinburgh to working class Irish parents in 1868. Scots nationalism did not then exist, but if it had he would not have been eligible to join, as the Protestant bigots who flourished there then as now, did not accept that Catholics were real Scots. As late as the 1920s the Church of Scotland wanted to restrict Catholic Irish immigration. We know little about Connolly’s early life. He left school at the age of ten, so it is unlikely that he learned to do much more than read and write there. Catholic schools saw their main task as inculcating the faith, and as in Scotland most of the faithful were of Irish origin, Irish nationalism and Catholicism are amalgamated in a way which surprises foreign believers. Connolly would certainly have learned of the British crimes against his ancestors. Catholics were a smaller minority in Edinburgh than in the heartlands of Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where the Protestant presence is less oppressive. Connolly worked at a couple of dead end jobs before he joined the army in 1882 at the age of fourteen, leaving in 1889 having served part of his time in Ireland. We do not know if he liked military life, although he deserted on deciding to marry.

Once back in Edinburgh, Connolly worked as a carter, and was active in the Socialist League and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) as an indefatigable street speaker and a candidate in municipal elections. Socialist activity made it hard to obtain or retain work, and by the early 1890s he had a wife and three daughters to support. An advert in the SDF journal, Justice, asking that employment be found for an able propagandist, produced a reply from the Dublin Socialist Club, so in 1896 he left to become its secretary. He seems never to have regretted leaving Edinburgh: few people do, unless they are moving to Dunfermline.

Shifting positions
In the SDF Connolly became an opponent of Hyndman’s opportunism and a leader of the "Impossibilist" tendency, which produced both the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which were stronger in Scotland and London respectively. The revolt against Hyndman’s leadership was certainly healthy, but unfortunately Connolly, who became the SLP’s national organiser, adopted the sectarian ideas of the American socialist Daniel De Leon (the party’s name came from the American SLP). The influence of De Leon led Connolly to make a tour of the United States in 1903, and to emigrate there in 1904.

Connolly soon fell out with De Leon: alas! close contact with an admired leader often has that effect. The sharpest disagreements were over religion and the position of women. De Leon took the accepted Marxist view that socialism involved women’s emancipation, and had translated Bebel’s influential work Woman. Connolly was horrified, as he thought that Bebel’s book was obscene, that the topic should not be discussed, and that to treat monogamy as a product of social conditions was degrading to women. Religion and the family lay outside the scope of socialist activity, which should be confined to economic questions: religion was a purely private matter. As Connolly’s concept of socialism ruled out most aspects of human relationships outside a very narrowly defined economic framework, it would be compatible with multiple forms of oppression. The church could continue to terrify and oppress the faithful as long as it allowed socialists to expound their economic doctrine.

Connolly also engaged in a polemic where he defended the Marxist position on wages and trade unions against the Lassallean doctrine of the iron law of wages which prevailed in the SLP. He gradually lost faith in the party and resigned in 1908 to join the, populist, Socialist Party of America (SPA). The SPA was a broad church, very different from the closed sectarian world of the SLP, but Connolly seems to have made the transition easily, just as he had done when making previous sharp political turns. He was sometimes employed as an organiser by the SPA, but this was interspersed with factory work, collecting insurance contributions and peddling. He was never able to provide his family with a comfortable and secure income, came to regret his decision to emigrate, and returned to Ireland in July 1910.

He became an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, where he was soon plunged into the bitter class struggle of the 1913 Dublin lockout, during which he was imprisoned and was released only after going on hunger strike. There was considerable sympathy for the locked out workers on the British mainland, with solidarity action, but the trade union bureaucracy withheld real support. There were food collections and arrangements were made to send children to England where they could be protected from the rigours of the conflict. The Catholic bishops were outraged, seeing the action as a threat to the children’s souls. The workers were viciously attacked by the nationalists in Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and the employers’ offensive was successful. Connolly was left with a lasting hatred of the British trade union leaders, but was soon reconciled with the nationalists and the church.

Was Connolly a Catholic?
The question "Is the Pope a Catholic?", is usually followed by "Do bears shit in the woods?", yet Connolly wrote to a friend in 1908 claiming not to have been a practicing Catholic for fifteen years, saying that he posed as one in order to challenge the dogmatism of freethinkers. He was a non-believer, who thought that religion was good for other people, a common position for an educated bourgeois, but an unusual one for a socialist activist. The whimsical and perverse reason he gave for his "pose" can hardly be taken seriously, but there is no evidence that he was a practicing Catholic. Although deathbed conversions of unbelievers are a staple part of clerical folklore, Father Aloysius, the friar who claimed that Connolly had confessed and taken communion from him before being shot, was probably telling the truth. Once he had adopted Catholic nationalism and abandoned secular politics, reconciliation with the church would have made sense.

Connolly’s problem was not religious belief, but a failure to confront the power of the church. He was probably typical of most labour leaders of his time in not believing in God, but being afraid of priests. In Scotland he strongly objected to discussing religion, morality or marriage and in the Irish Socialist Party discussion of religion was banned even at internal meetings. Those positions were not general in the socialist movement of that period, where many recruits had experienced oppression by priests and pastors long before they understood anything about economic exploitation. No understanding of capitalist development is possible without a study of religion, which Connolly’s dictates would prohibit. In Scotland religious hatreds were, and are, deeply rooted, and often a public discussion on religion would be foolhardy, but refusing to discuss it means capitulating to reactionary forces. Admittedly, in 21st century England where Ecstasy is the opium of the people, Blair’s plans to promote it are unlikely to prosper.

Connolly as theoretician
Connolly’s reputation as a theoretician is based mainly on three works: Labour in Irish History and Labour, Nationality and Religion, both published in 1910, and The Reconquest of Ireland, published in 1915.

The first of these is written in a clear, lively style from the perspective of working people. Upper and middle class nationalists are castigated for ignoring or opposing workers’ and peasants’ interests, thereby ensuring their own defeat. His denunciation of Daniel O’Connell, the "Liberator", is particularly scathing, so he cannot be accused of subordinating the interests of the lower orders to those of the upper and middle class. Indeed, he overdoes his criticism, as it gives the impression that non working class movements, concerned with democratic reform and civil liberties, are of no concern to working people. He combines this with an utterly romanticised view of the clan system which he thought expressed the real genius of the Irish race. Only a Connollyite would now argue that pre-conquest Irish society was not exploitative and class-divided. Most nationalists believe their land was just and happy before the invaders brought vice, oppression and inequality. If all evil comes from outside, native exploiters are guilty only to the extent that they accept foreign ideas. That feature of Connolly’s theory was to lead him to join O’Connell’s 20th century followers.

The oddest thing about Labour in Irish History is that it ignores the north east, where industry and the labour movement were strongest. Perhaps the book should have been titled "The Gael in Irish History". Imagine a history of Scots labour which left out the industrial belt around the Clyde, Lanarkshire and the mining areas in Fife and Ayrshire. Romantic Scots historians do just that, preferring the misty highlands, but no economic or labour historian would do so.

Labour, Nationality and Religion is a reply to a course of Lenten lectures attacking socialism, by the Jesuit Father Robert Kane. It castigates the Catholic hierarchy’s attitude to the nationalist and labour movement, and its heartlessness towards the poor. A Protestant or secular reader might think Connolly was attacking the church, but that was not so. The bishops are criticised for perverting the church’s true message and for attacking loyal Catholics, who died on the scaffold with a prayer on their lips. That may be of little interest to those unfortunates with only second hand knowledge of the faith, but it must have been very convincing for those it was aimed at. He observes, rightly, that the Irish practice of priest worship is a heresy, but it is unlikely that he would have agreed with the Belgian priest I met who, on being asked when the Irish became Catholics, replied that it had yet to happen.

Connolly’s concentration on refuting Kane on his own terms of Catholic orthodoxy was undoubtedly effective, as any hint of disbelief would have destroyed his credibility. Connolly emphasises the piety of the "Irish Race". It would be wrong to equate his terminology with that of consistent racists, but clearly some of the island’s people are more Irish than others. His attack on the confiscation of church lands at the Reformation implies that capitalism is Protestant. The criticism of the church hierarchy is unrealistic, as they have to safeguard the firm’s assets, and so would have been foolish to bet on radical nationalism until it looked like winning. Once it showed it could challenge the Protestant establishment, the hierarchy gave it their blessing.

The Reconquest of Ireland has an even more idealised vision of Ireland before English rule. Then, "the people of the island were owners of the land upon which they lived, masters of their own lives and liberties" … and so forth. This can be regarded as harmless nonsense, comparable to the belief of some English radicals that all had been well until "the Norman yoke" destroyed the freedom of true born Englishmen. Nationalists generally believe that their country was free and egalitarian before it was subjugated by foreigners.

Connolly’s internationalism
In 1914 Connolly became the effective leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, when Larkin left for a tour of the United States. His first reaction to the war was dismay that the Socialist International did nothing to translate its long held anti-war position into activity to oppose it. Yet, as an advocate of German victory he was involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s contacts with the German government.

Some who argue that his pro-German line was a later development, and a product of despair, cite an article published in August 1914 in the Glasgow Forward, responding to a false rumour that Karl Liebknecht had been murdered for refusing military service, where he identified with Liebknecht, not his supposed killers. A week before, in the same journal, he regretted that French and German soldiers, fellow socialists, were killing each other, and on 2 October an obituary of his friend Keir Hardie in Workers’ Republic was affectionate and respectful.

Those pacific and internationalist sentiments were interspersed with praise of the German Empire, and racist stereotypes of Russians. An article "Diplomacy", published in Workers’ Republic on 6 November, praised the "peace loving" German Emperor, who was an innocent victim of Allied conspiracies. Connolly’s evolution resembled Mussolini’s, a member of the pro-war minority in the Italian Socialist Party and a fellow believer in the invigorating qualities of a bloodbath, rather than Liebknecht’s, whose dogmatic Marxism prevented him from playing his part in the war effort.

Apologists for Connolly’s chauvinism argue that he was inconsistent and that an agitational journalist, writing frequent articles, cannot be expected to show the consistency of a scholar, but it is more likely that Connolly intended to deceive and that his pacifistic articles were tailored to Forward’s internationalism. Hyndman apart, no social democrat approaches Connolly’s chauvinism. Consider his article "The Slackers", published in the Workers’ Republic on 11 March 1916, which attacks Scots and English workers who had come to Ireland to escape conscription. Those "curs" and "Brit Huns" were attacked for cowardice and for stealing jobs from Irishmen.

Everyone is familiar with the racist arguments against Blacks or immigrants, which accuse them of scrounging off social security and stealing British people’s jobs, while simultaneously occupying hospital beds. It is useless to ask a racist if he would rather an immigrant worked or was unemployed, as what he objects to is their existence. Hitler uses that technique in Mein Kampf, where he describes how a Jewish employer exploited German workers, while in an ingenious division of labour his communist brother urged them to ruin Germany’s economy by going on strike.

A polite reply from a reader in Glasgow suggested that the workers Connolly attacked had moved to Ireland, where many of their parents came from, to avoid being called up and were behaving sensibly and properly. Connolly’s vile and dishonest response, published on 25 March, made it clear that the "curs" were guilty whether they fought in the army or worked in Scotland, England or Ireland. This was one of his last political statements, as he was shot on 12 May. It would be wrong to judge a life by a couple of articles just because they were almost his last, but you may need a sick bucket nearby when reading them. Many of the "curs" would be Scots Catholics, with as much claim to be Irish as himself, who might be expected to prefer Dublin to Belfast. Connolly’s tone resembles that of a country gent pontificating about the poor and the immigrants from a secure foundation of comfort and ignorance. Yet he, who had experienced privation as a soldier, a deserter and a worker, in Scotland, Ireland and the United States, should have known better. His support for German imperialism, reiterated in an article, "Forces of Civilisation", in Workers’ Republic on 8 April, is prudently omitted from his collected works.

The Rising
Connolly, having abandoned socialism for nationalism, found the instrument he needed in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), originally formed as a workers’ defence force in 1913, during the great Dublin strike and lockout. It had been hostile to the Irish Volunteers, many of whose supporters had been employers viciously opposed to the workers during that dispute. The Volunteers refused to debate with the ICA or let it hire their meeting halls, although Countess Markiewicz favoured unity. Sean O’Casey, Connolly’s predecessor as secretary of the ICA, disagreed and in the summer of 1914 proposed that, in view of her close connection with the Volunteer movement, she be asked to resign from the ICA’s Council. When his proposal was rejected, O’Casey himself resigned and was replaced by Connolly, thereby clearing the way for a de facto fusion of both organisations. O’Casey’s remark that "Jim Connolly had stepped from the narrow byway of Irish Socialism onto the broad and crowded highway of Irish Nationalism" is accurate.

The Volunteer leaders became alarmed at Connolly’s drilling, which involved theatrical night marches and feigned attacks on Dublin Castle that had no relevance to the eventual fighting but were highly effective as a substitute for political activity. The sequence of events between Connolly’s taking over the leadership of both the ICA and the union, after Larkin left for the United States in October 1914, is confused. Connolly claimed to have been kidnapped by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the real leadership of the Volunteers, and co-opted to their organisation. The kidnap story is implausible, but Connolly did join the IRB. He also hung a banner proclaiming "we serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland", together with the green flag, at the union headquarters, Liberty Hall. Some union members objected to such a blatant subjection of trade union principles to anti working class forces, but Connolly had his way.

The Rising, which began on 24 April 1916 with the occupation of the General Post Office, was crushed in a week. The authorities were taken by surprise, in spite of Connolly’s showy and dramatic manoeuvres, which had so alarmed the Volunteer leaders. Some soldiers’ wives, calling to collect their allowances, were the first to realise that something was amiss, but were easily repelled. Neither nationalist nor imperialist historians bother to record the names of those uneducated and unspiritual creatures, or tell if they ever got their money. The Proclamation of Independence was not directed at the likes of them.

From the first day the main working class participation took the form of looting, as people took the opportunity to attack commercial premises, in a justifiable but hazardous attempt at economic redistribution. Both Pearse and Connolly were horrified that such mundane, sordid activities should sully the sacred national cause and sent a detachment to attack them with batons. The Provisional Government considered shooting the looters, but lacked the resources to do so. Pearse was too spiritual a soul to appreciate that the lower orders had material needs. In The Plough and the Stars, Sean O’Casey gave a sympathetic account of those events, the only aspect of the Rising which fitted Lenin’s description of insurrection as a festival of the oppressed. The few provisions obtained was the main benefit the working class got from the Rising.

More than 300 civilians were killed, some by the rebel forces, but many more by the military, notably by the navy shelling the centre of Dublin. The prosperous suburbs fared better, as such areas usually do: God loves their inhabitants more than he does slum dwellers, probably because of their greater piety. Most of the rebels who survived the fighting, minus the fifteen who were executed, were home by the end of the year.

By then there were no political differences between the ICA and the Volunteers, both under Connolly’s command, so the IRA is right to claim that it was formed from the merger of both bodies with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In contrast, the story retailed by Connolly hagiographers, that he had told ICA members to hang on to their guns, in case they should need to defend themselves against their temporary allies is absurd. Connolly and Pearse had very different political histories, but by Easter 1916 it would have been impossible to wedge the proverbial credit card between them. Connolly signed the proclamation of the Irish Republic, written by Pearse, a document with no socialist or reformist content and reeking of kitsch religiosity.

The ICA remains an enigma, as it was neither a specialised defence force controlled by the unions, nor a political vanguard. O’Casey’s attempt to establish its independence from hostile class forces failed and after the Rising it completely disappeared. Its members were more working class than the Volunteers, as were the soldiers they fought against.

Connolly, who had been named Vice President of the Provisional Government, and most of the other leaders were court martialed and shot. Militarily the Rising was a disaster, but as every Catholic schoolchild knows, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". Revulsion at the executions turned Catholic opinion against the Crown, and persuaded the hierarchy that a more nationalist posture was advisable. The rest of the story is too well known to need retelling. Nevertheless, however effective Pearse’s "blood sacrifice", it is a heretical notion, so unbelievers are not justified in blaming it on the church. Christ, by giving up his own life, made all other blood sacrifice unnecessary, so those who continue to immolate either cattle or humans are misguided. Pearse’s doctrine has the same relationship to Catholicism as Connolly’s has to Marxism.

The Rising was indeed a mad adventure devoid of socialist content, although Connolly’s devotees employ a quotation from Lenin to suggest otherwise: "To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts of small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution." Lenin concludes that it was wrong to describe the Irish rebellion as a putsch.

The passage is used as a sacred text with the implication "that if it is good enough for V.I. Lenin it should be good enough for us", but Lenin had no first hand knowledge of the events. Peasants, unable to form their own national organisation, have often been led by intellectuals, and Lenin probably thought the IRB resembled the Russian Social Revolutionaries. In fact the rebels represented a very specific social stratum: teachers, lawyers and journalists – urban professionals, neither bourgeois nor working class. Three of the signatories of the Independence Declaration were poets who, preoccupied with the literary merits of their document, understandably forgot to include the appropriate attacks on landowners and the church.

Both Trotsky and Radek did describe the Rising as a putsch and recognised that the movement was based on the urban petty bourgeoisie, not the "peasants" (hardly an accurate designation of Ireland’s rural population in 1916). The leaders of the Rising were excessively pious, so there was no question of rebelling against, or even standing up to, the church. When De Valera, the main leader of the Rising to survive, came to power, religious freedom was curtailed and the church’s power was strengthened. Lenin and Trotsky had to speculate on the nature of the rebellion on the basis of fragmentary information, but we who enjoy the advantage of hindsight need not. The rebels eventually won and modern Ireland is their creation.

We need not speculate on Connolly’s role if he had survived, any more than that of Princess Diana if it had not been for her tragic car accident. Connolly might have followed the trajectory of his closest ally, Countess Markiewicz, who became minister of labour in the first republican government and died a firm supporter of De Valera. He might have been an asset to Ireland’s new rulers in their task of getting the labour movement to subordinate its own interests to the task of national construction, but there was no shortage of volunteers for that job. The Princess might have become a charitable worker and recovered from her ordeal at the hands of a dysfunctional family, but speculation is pointless because both owe their fame to the dramatic nature of their demise.

Genesis of a cult
Death is now recognised as a good career move for pop stars, but in 1916 few could have predicted the growth of a Connolly cult. Yet a few years later it was the bewilderment of Connolly’s socialist friends which appeared strange, not his participation in the Rising.

Like most socialist leaders, he surrendered to patriotism in 1914, so his reputation as an internationalist is based on the accident of geography which caused him to be shot rather than be given a Cabinet seat. Until 1914 he was a trade union leader and a prolific journalist, differing from other socialists in trying to reconcile socialism with nationalism and Catholicism. With the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalin, nationalism and internationalism were deemed compatible and religion became OK. In death Connolly blossomed as a major theoretician, and became both a nationalist and a socialist martyr, roles which his devotees see as being compatible, not as clashing like Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Generations of hagiographers have laboured over Connolly’s image, but have failed to match the charm of traditional accounts of Saint Francis or Saint Patrick. Now that Irish nationalism has little need for him, the main worshippers at Connolly’s shrine are Stalinists in England, although a few survive in his native Edinburgh.

If Connolly had died before Easter 1916 he would appear as a footnote in history, not a cult figure. His early ideas were fairly typical of the Second International, where emancipation was to be achieved through trade union activity and abstract socialist propaganda in a broad party which avoided ideological discussion. In Edinburgh, Ireland and America his tremendous efforts produced very limited results. He was successively a disciple of Daniel De Leon, a syndicalist, and a member of the reformist Socialist Party of America. His aversion to a democratic party where divergent positions could be examined through discussion make the claim that he was an Irish Lenin somewhat exaggerated. Unsurprisingly, he produced devotees but left no successor.

He rejected Marxist and democratic principles on religion and the position of women. As socialism was defined as a state-controlled economy, it was compatible with the persistence of oppression, and the absence of freedom, civil liberties and human emancipation. He would probably have liked Stalin’s Russia, supplemented by a concordat with the Vatican. His aphorisms remain popular: Mao Zedong and Confucius are his only rivals as coiners of pithy sayings. Think of "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland and the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour", and then try substituting "Switzerland" for "Ireland" to see what gibberish it is. Connolly has had a limited influence on the Irish labour movement, not surprisingly given his inconsistency and his final capitulation to alien class forces. His political legacy was evident in the first elections to the Dáil where the Irish Labour Party left the field clear to Sinn Féin, the party supported by the Volunteers and the IRB. However, while Connolly’s identification with the nationalist forces was never revoked, the Labour Party subsequently recovered its electoral independence, so that the 1916 Popular Front was neither permanent nor fatal.

"Connollyism" is sometimes resurrected by left republicans searching to escape from armed struggle and sectarian violence, although adherence to it requires muddled sentimentality and a gullible attitude to Connolly’s works and actions.