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In Defence of Connolly

D.R. O’Connor Lysaght

IT WON’T do. It will not do at all. Having just read, belatedly, Brendan Docherty’s ‘James Connolly: His Life and Miracles’ (What Next? No.20, 2001), this writer can say that of the many bad studies of his subject, he has produced the pits. Positively its only virtue is that it provides a stimulus for setting straight in these pages the facts about one who was, with all his faults, the major Marxist theorist in these islands in his time and perhaps since. Others may attempt (may have attempted, even) this task, but, in all modesty, the present writer cannot refuse it.

Whoever Docherty is, his article reads as an slipshod attempt at a study. Clearly, he has restricted his reading of Connolly’s works to the so-called Collected volumes produced by the Communist Party of Ireland which exclude more than half his writings. Secondary backing is supplied by one or two of the biographies (possibly Greaves, probably Morgan) and, if his remarks about Padraig Pearse’s "heresies" are any guide, his argument has been inspired, surprisingly for one so conscious of the dangers of religion, by the Jesuit Francis Shaw's ‘Canon of Irish History’.

With such preparation, it is not surprising that Docherty exposes his ignorance though regular inaccuracies and evasions. While Connolly’s political affiliations in Scotland and America are listed, his Irish political organisations, the Irish Socialist Republican Party, the Socialist Party of Ireland and the Independent Labour Party of Ireland are excluded from this account, although he was secretary of the first-named for longer than his stay in any of the others. Docherty’s one mention of an Irish socialist political group is of an "Irish Socialist Party" unknown to anybody in Connolly’s time or since. He claims Labour in Irish History implies that the working class has no interest in basic democratic reforms, ignoring the chapters on the United Irishmen and Robert Emmett. Connolly is said to have rejected "a democratic party where divergent positions could be examined through discussion"; in fact, his final breach with de Leon was caused, in part, by de Leon’s aversion to such an organisation. He is said to have been "successively" a member of the Socialist Party of America and of the Industrial Workers of the World, when, in fact, he combined membership of both. Docherty says that in 1913 "the workers were viciously attacked by the nationalists in Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood"; they were attacked only by some: others supported the strikers, and these latter included Connolly’s fellow signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. He claims that, as well as Radek, Trotsky called the Easter Rising a "putsch" (he didn’t) and that, after it, the Citizen Army "completely disappeared"; it remained in being until the end of the Twenty-Six Counties Civil War, and revived briefly during the nineteen-thirties. All this would be less significant in an article not limited to slightly more than four and an half thousand words, including diversions concerning Padraig Pearse and the late Princess of Wales.

Many of these distortions connected to Docherty’s need to reinforce his overall skewed argument. It runs like this: Connolly’s early years as an Irish immigrant in Edinburgh, reacting to the pressure from his community, reinforced by the counterpressure from Scottish Protestant bigots, had his socialism distorted by Irish nationalism which meant necessarily adapting to Catholicism ("Irish nationalism and Catholicism are amalgamated in a way which surprises foreign believers"). This led to his rejection of Marxist teaching on religion and the family and, eventually, to his attempt to liquidate the Labour vanguard in Sinn Féin and to his successors refusing to stand against that bourgeois nationalist party in the important general election of 1918. However, they repented of that mistake, abandoned Connolly and followed new, and presumably orthodox Marxist, strategies that have led Irish Labour to the heights of junior partnership in successive bourgeois constitutional coalitions under the leadership of such socialist giants as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Pat Rabbitte.

The essential bias of this argument is obvious. The question has to be asked: how accurate is it and how far based on deeper distortions than those listed? To show the considerable extent of these is not to turn Connolly into an icon, a crypto-Lenin, but it does show that his career deserves more serious credit than Docherty would allow it.

He was handicapped by two factors. In the first place there was a shortage of Marxist material outside Marx and Engels’ native tongue. It is worth noting that in his dispute with de Leon as to family and religion, the argument was centred on Bebel’s work, without reference to Engels’ Origins of the Family that inspired it.

This weakness was common to the English-speaking world, but a second one was peculiar to Connolly. Events made him a political loner. He never attended a Congress of the Socialist International (he was nominated to go to the 1900 Paris Congress but could not do so for want of funds). The only major theorist to oppose him was de Leon. His knowledge of the great debates of the period between Luxemburg and Kautsky, Lenin and Luxemburg, the Austro-Marxists and others was limited; he could follow these only at second hand through reports in publications. He was able to write in 1914 that the best of the Russian Social Democrats had been "drowned in blood" after the 1905 rebellion; this may have been propaganda against illusions in Tsarist Russia’s progressive potential, but he could not have known how the Bolsheviks were working for the same end as he.

Even in Ireland itself, he was politically isolated. The syndicalist assumptions that he learnt in reaction to de Leon’s practice in the Socialist Labour Party and which Docherty mentions only in passing left him unable to build a political cadre capable of understanding and following his lead. In his last months, he enjoyed greater organisational power and prestige than he had ever had before: Acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, member of the Executive of the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party, editor of Workers’ Republic and Commander of the Irish Citizen Army. Yet the one body that might have given him an homogenous political support, the Socialist Party of Ireland, was left in suspended animation. His closest ally and confidant was the Acting Secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, William O’Brien, who would succeed to Connolly’s union job under very different circumstances. This was rather as if Lenin had been able to rely only on Zinoviev. As a result, it is necessary to consider Connolly’s actions as much as his writings particularly in regard to his last months, and to a greater degree than it is necessary to apply this test as far as his great contemporaries are concerned.

Whether Connolly became committed to the Irish national cause as a result of his upbringing in religiously-hostile Scotland, as Docherty asserts, may be true. It is also as irrelevant to the correctness of his approach as the much touted possibility that Marx’s perspective was inspired by Jewish messianism. Connolly had good objective reasons to advocate the breaking of the connection between Britain and Ireland, not least the fact that, after the Liberal Party’s conversion to Irish Home Rule in 1885, it became increasingly clear that the most powerful capitalist interests in the United Kingdom were opposed to the Irish cause. He was aware, too, that that cause had been supported enthusiastically by Marx and Engels. Indeed his position went beyond that of the Second International to anticipate that of the Third.

Docherty does not seem to have heard of the dictum of Lenin and Trotsky that the nationalism of the oppressed nation has a progressive content not possessed by that of the oppressor. He can substitute Switzerland for Ireland in his subject’s "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland ..." and claim it proves the original was gibberish, as if Ireland were a finance capital metropolis like Switzerland. His ignorance helps lead him to one of his most absurd conclusions: that Connolly in preparing nationalist revolt for self-determination against the war effort of a major power was acting like Mussolini who urged his major (if relatively weak) country’s entry to the war to grab land inhabited by members of foreign nations.

Indeed, although James Connolly’s isolation might have made him a nationalist, his perspective was very different from a nationalist one. In his first popular pamphlet, Socialism Made Easy (ignored by Docherty), he wrote: "Under Socialism, states, territories or provinces will exist only as geographical expressions, and have no existence as sources of governmental power, though they may be seats of administrative bodies." It might be objected that this was to be abandoned by him without comment during the war years. Nonetheless, he is recorded in the later period as intervening in a discussion as to the merits of Irish nationalism against internationalism with the question "how can you have the one without the other?" It was not classical internationalism, but not something that could be uttered by a nationalist either.

Certainly, the celtic socialism chapters of Labour in Irish History are not that work’s strongest feature. Nonetheless four points should be made. Firstly, they are in keeping with the analysis of Engels, diffused through the Second International even amongst those who had never read him. Secondly, Connolly acknowledges the inevitability of the decline of tribal socialism, merely remarking on how this was hastened by the English occupation. Thirdly, there is evidence, independent of Connolly and his sources, that the celtic socialist folk memory remained amongst the Irish labourers and peasants and would help inspire them to provide a motive force for their emigrants to play a major role in the founding of the working class movements in the lands they settled. Finally, the celtic socialism vision did worry the Irish Republican government during the revolutionary war against Britain, so that it appointed to head its top economic departments the celtic scholar, Eoin MacNeill, who spent his period in these offices touring the country, making clear the actual compatibility of celtic socialism with the established order.

Connolly might have spent more space in Labour in Irish History on investigating the industrial survival and development of north-eastern Ireland. This failure to do so seems to have been because he did not consider it necessary; he did cover the eighteenth century land agitations there, his work ended with the Fenians at a time when the northern industrial base had been only just established and, perhaps most importantly, he wrote the book at a time when it seemed that the Protestant resistance to Irish self-determination was evaporating. When it became clear that it was as potent as ever, after his return to Ireland, he would examine the problem in a number of articles and in The Reconquest of Ireland. His analyses point to the historic fact that Protestant sectarianism was revived by Belfast’s industrial bosses to divide a defeated working class against itself and tie its majority to their own cause: sectarianism as a productive force. He does not go as deeply as he should have done, but he points the way to the explanation that has yet to be published.

One point that Docherty might have used as evidence for his subject’s nationalist deviation was the fact that, in these islands, and from the time of his first arrival in Ireland, Connolly tended to build Irish parties rather than extend United Kingdom ones. This is, of course, as directly opposed to Lenin’s practice in Russia as was Connolly’s ultimate rejection of the party as activist political vanguard. That Docherty does not use it may be due to ignorance. At the same time, it is doubtful whether an attempt to build a party on a state rather than a national basis could have been more than an aspiration. In Russia, the Tsarist regime was almost as oppressive to the Great Russians as to the minority nationalities. In the relatively benign British state the difference between the majority populations in the two islands was greater. Empire and industry had allowed the rulers to give their employees in England and, to a certain extent in Scotland, crumbs, political and economic, such as were given only grudgingly to the Irish. As the British workers organised, their leaders tended to see Ireland as a backwater to be pulled by them towards socialism. They ignored what Connolly saw, the revolutionary potential in the Irish situation. The British unskilled unions could not see the Irish workers as important enough to justify consistent struggles to establish permanent presences in Ireland until after Larkin had established his Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The political parties were even less enthusiastic. For Connolly to have tried a statewide vanguard party would have been for him to have tried to make bricks without straw.

Connolly’s positions on religion and the family were not sustained by Catholic nationalism. On the first, Docherty’s trump card is his subject’s acceptance of absolution on his deathbed; none of the other major contemporary socialist figures would have done this. All that can be said is that it was a surrender by a desperately sick isolated man facing certain death. Possibly Fr. Albert made it easy for him to conform without abandoning his past history; the far less sympathetic chaplain of Mountjoy Jail did this for Liam Mellows. However, the details remain secret.

In the Socialist Labour Party debate on religion, it is worth remembering that Connolly’s opponent, de Leon, was also out of step with Marxist teaching, though in the opposite direction, as was remarked during the polemic. His anti-Catholicism was extreme, particularly for the struggle in America, going beyond the needs of the secular socialist party. Programmatically, in his insistence on freedom of religious institutions funded by the congregations, Connolly was closer to the Marxist norm. He remained out of step with orthodox Catholicism, too, in his consistent stand in favour of democratic control of education, which was included in the original programme of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, was repeated by him in The Reconquest of Ireland and has still to be achieved in Ireland today.

De Leon’s position on the family and the position of women was formally stronger. Connolly’s view that monogamy would be perfected under socialism was not the common opinion of the Second International. However, as it is not clear what he meant by it being perfected and as socialism has yet to be achieved, it cannot be said that he was wrong. Nor can he be accused of misogyny. He wrote in The Reconquest of Ireland that the contemporary working class woman was "a slave of a slave". Above all, he was consistent, from the Programme of the Irish Socialist Republican Party to the 1916 Proclamation, in advocating full adult suffrage, including votes for women. This may he taken for granted today, but in his time only New Zealand and some western American states allowed that and it was opposed even in the Socialist movement, notably in Britain by the misogynistic Belfort Bax. Connolly’s position may have been theoretically weak; practically, it was far stronger.

Generally, Connolly’s positions on religion and family life might be understood if it is recognised that he saw too dogmatic a stand on them as handicapping this class in its central struggle for economic liberation. No doubt this was an opportunist position, but it must be admitted that it struck a prophetic note. Today, it can be seen that major changes have been made in perceptions of religion and gender relations. At the same time the great sacred cow of private property is stronger than ever and from its pedestal its defecation is threatening the cultural enlightenment that has been won.

That Docherty ignores Connolly’s approach to the basic economic issues is due partly to the bias that causes him to skate over the fact that, on the wages issue, De Leon was in the wrong. Beyond this, Docherty’s silence can be explained by his ignorance of Socialism Made Easy, and the early pamphlet, The New Evangel. Both put forward a perspective of state ownership through the control of the workers. This would not get beyond propaganda until their author went to America, and then effectively until he joined the Industrial Workers of the World. In this earlier period, he perceived the big problem as being the organisation of the unskilled, and the skilled workers’ lack of interest in advancing it. (It may have been a further handicap that the Irish skilled workers were organised in branches of British unions.) It seems to have been the scabbery of the Dublin tradesmen against striking builder’s labourers that caused his alliance with de Leon, who was in a struggle with the skilled workers’ unions in America. In addition it provided him with the insight into the basis for working class Ulster Unionism. By the time he was expressing these, he had returned to Ireland to find an Irish-based organisation of the unskilled, James Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, ready to use his talents as an organiser and eventually as Acting General Secretary when Larkin went to America in 1914.

The negative side of his industrial perspective was his conversion to syndicalist organisation theory as a result of his breach with de Leon. His syndicalism was not anarchistic. In Socialism Made Easy, he advocated the working class movement fighting elections, and would participate in them himself. What was more, he advocated and organised a political party, if only for propaganda purposes, though he would allow such a body to disintegrate after the outbreak of the First World War. Nonetheless his new politics prevented him developing a political organisation like the one he had organised in his first period in Ireland, and gave him the illusion but not the actuality of a following defined by politics as well as organisation.

The World War changed everything, including the strategies of Socialists. Those who opposed it included Connolly. Docherty gets that right, but fails to understand how he continued to oppose it to the end. With the insularity that can beset many critics of the Irish national struggle, the article shows no knowledge of the Socialist International’s resolution passed in 1907 at its Stuttgart Congress and reaffirmed at its subsequent Congresses at Copenhagen and Basle:

"Should war break out nonetheless it is [the workers’] duty to intervene in order to bring it promptly to an end, and with all their strength to make use of the economic and political crisis created by the war to stir up the deepest strata of the people and precipitate the fall of capitalist domination."

It was Connolly and not such a national defencist as Hyndman, Ebert or Plekhanov who was in line with Marxist tradition. What tends to obscure this fact is that to stir up the deepest strata of the people he had to go beyond the Second International and anticipate the Third, in its 1920 Congress motion, directing Communist Parties in oppressed nations to ally with revolutionary nationalists. He recognised that Ireland was the one part of the United Kingdom where the national question provided the stimulus for a major sustained revolution.

How he saw this developing he did not explain. There is a difference between many of his public utterances and his practice. Both must be examined. From the comparison, it is clear that, despite often extremely bloodthirsty and seditious statements, [note] he did not intend to lead out the Citizen Army he commanded in an aggressive blood sacrifice. Under his leadership, the army’s numbers declined considerably and reached perhaps a quarter to a third of its pre-war strength in Easter 1916. This was not his fault, but he did little to stop the losses.

At the same time, he concentrated on building the union of which he was secretary. There can be little doubt that his syndicalism caused him to see this as the probable powerhouse for the revolution. The problem was that he knew that it was politically heterogeneous and suffering from the after-effects of the lock-out. He could not lead it to initiate a struggle; his best hopes were to cause the colonial authorities to do so by attacking it. So he published sedition in his Workers’ Republic more piercingly than if he had been backed with a political cadre and he sought formally peaceful alliances with republicans and Sinn Féiners to handicap the war effort. In October 1915, a major strike in Dublin port showed that the workers were recovering from their setback and his paper became more provocative The following January, the IRB Military Council brought him into its own plans for a rebellion and formed a military alliance with him. (It was only a short-term political alliance. His warning "Hold Your Arms" was heard by the Citizen Army man, John O’Keefe, and the proclamation was not intended as a detailed programme.) He toned down his propaganda to await Easter; it seemed probable that the striking dockers might block the port and bring in their comrades in the resulting clash, but their strike was broken at the beginning of April by Havelock Wilson’s National Seamen and Firemen’s Union. Finally, countermanding orders from the command of the Volunteers limited the Rising to Dublin and an handful of areas around the country. Connolly had to choose between going out to get killed or joining a long list of discredited Irish rebels who had refused to rise after preaching revolution. The latter course would have discredited his movement and he chose the former.

Docherty claims that Connolly’s "legacy was evident in the first elections to the Dáil" when Labour stood down its candidates rather than stand them against the new Sinn Féin, nearly three years after the Rising. In fact Connolly’s legacy had been abandoned within months rather than years of his death. At the Sligo Conference of the Irish TUC and Labour Party the Chairman, Thomas Johnson, gave an address that distanced his movement from Connolly’s action, praising his dead comrade in the same terms as those who had died fighting the Germans, denouncing "the national habit of mind" as the cause of war and making clear that his own sympathies lay with the Entente. He laid down a strategy: "Create a strong party with a practical programme of social reconstruction: with democracy political and social – as an ideal and a method." This seemed reasonable when most of the surviving rebels were imprisoned or on the run, but it would be continued throughout the period of the revived national struggle.

To those who had seen the beginnings of new industrial militancy cut short, with a major union’s headquarters wrecked and its secretary shot, the strategy seemed the height of wisdom. Connolly’s heirs in his union used his increased prestige to win recruits, but avoided copying his example even in a non-military manner. The Citizen Army’s tenancy of the union headquarters was made increasingly restrictive. When William O’Brien entered Count Plunkett’s committee to prepare the way for building a new liberation front, he was forced by his Labour comrades to withdraw, leaving the front to become a single party – the new, mass Sinn Féin. By the time of the 1918 general election Labour had increased in membership, but Sinn Féin was hegemonising the political scene. It offered Labour unopposed seats on condition it entered its planned Dáil. Labour refused the terms and, rather than have its candidates commit political suicide, it withdrew their nominations, leaving itself outside the revolutionary consensus. It can be said quite firmly that this would not have been Connolly’s approach.

Of course, whether or not that approach would have been better can only be imagined. It remains true that it was Johnson’s strategy that kept Irish Labour from taking a leadership role in its country’s national struggle and leaving it in the role of permanent third (occasionally fourth) party in the twenty-six county state and rarely as much as that in the six counties.

Connolly himself remains an icon to be quoted, to have his picture over the fireplace and, for Brendan Docherty, to be denounced. After a century, there is much in his writings that is dated, notably his agnostic views on religion and gender relations and his belief that an all-inclusive industrial union might somehow spontaneously "break the shell of the political state". Yet there is more that is relevant, and perhaps more needed today than a few years ago: his emphasis on the economic basis for socialism, his belief in democratic control, his flashes of insight into the causes of working class division in Ulster, and his recognition that the struggle of an oppressed nation can result in its workers taking state power over the heads of their bourgeoisie. Suppressed by labour bureaucrats and Republican militarists, this still has a resonance in the hidden Ireland of the poor; after Bloody Sunday in 1972 and during the hunger strikes in 1980-1, workers broadened the struggle by seizing their workplaces and blacking British goods, actions in keeping with his original plans for a national rising. That he formulated such a tradition without aid from his contemporaries makes him the greatest socialist theorist in these islands of his time and, perhaps, ever. It is no bad legacy.


Statements in this vein comprise the articles on the "Brit Huns" which cause Brendan Docherty to compare him to Hitler. Naturally, Docherty ignores the point which is that the said Brit Huns were not just British workers in search of jobs but draft dodgers who claimed to support the war whilst driving Irish workers into the British Army. [Return to text]