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

Connolly’s challenge to today’s labour movement

Jack O’Connor




In interpreting Connolly’s challenge to today’s labour movement we have the advantage of viewing his thoughts, works and actions through the looking-glass of almost a hundred years of history. James Connolly was executed before the Russian Revolution, before the emergence of Lenin as the pre-eminent figure on the left, before the demise of syndicalism and the Industrial Workers of the World, and before the War of Independence here in Ireland, the Treaty, the subsequent Civil War, the political marginalisation of labour, and the establishment of the reactionary, clerically dominated Irish Free State (which, it could be said, he foresaw in some respects).
      He did not live to see the failure of the revolutionaries in Germany, the collapse of the British general strike in 1926, or the Wall Street crash for that matter. He did not live to experience the Moscow show trials or the gradual decline of the Soviet system into what ultimately became known here in the West as “totalitarianism.” Neither did he experience the emergence of fascism, the Second World War, the subsequent division of Europe, the so-called “Cold War,” or the collapse of the British Empire.
      He did not live to see the so-called post-war consensus, the economic crises of the 1970s, the emergence of neo-liberalism, or the collapse of the Soviet Union; and, although as a Marxist it could be said that he would have envisaged globalisation, he did not experience its particular development over the last twenty years or so. And he did not experience the emergence of the environmental agenda in response to growing scientific evidence highlighting the ultimate contradiction between the onward march of unfettered global capitalism and the survival of the human species.
      I believe we cannot know the conclusions he would have drawn from his analysis of the history of the twentieth century. We can be sure that his shrewd analytical mind, that was already evolving a theory of permanent evolution before his death, would have drawn the lessons of these experiences and developed strategies for the international socialist movement. Certain deductions can probably be derived from his writings and an understanding of a Marxist method of analysis, but any attempt to mechanically rely on quotations from his work would be crude and incorrect in the extreme. He would not have abandoned the class analysis of history, nor the important (although not revolutionary) role of trade unions as workers’ organisations in capitalist society. What is certain is that he would have expected us to make our own history in our own place.
      Twenty-two years have passed since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan attained power and proceeded to spearhead the drive of neo-liberalism, dismantling the post-war consensus in Europe, which I believe would never have come about but for the power of the Soviet Union and the support enjoyed by the Communist Parties in Europe immediately after the war. The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union itself offered many lessons and created new conditions. I believe it finally proved the futility of trying to “build socialism in one country.” I am not as certain that it proves the inefficacy of the command economy concept, but I think it probably does. Until about the middle of the 1970s the growth of the Soviet economy matched, and in some respects surpassed, that of the West; but the key failure to remain abreast of technological innovation was more than simply an accident of history. There were, of course, other factors to do with the availability of resources for research and development, but these also, in some respects, exposed deficiencies in what came to be referred to as the socialist system of production.
      The technological advancements over the past two decades have radically altered the landscape in terms of the organisation of production and, to some extent, even society. Smokestack industries, once the centre of mass organisation of workers and the hub of huge working-class communities, are no longer a dominant feature even in the most industrialised societies. We live in a world in which virtually anything can be made anywhere and sold almost anywhere else within a very rapid time frame. Production has become diverse in terms of location, both geographically and socially. The working class can no longer be viewed as entirely homogeneous in the way that it once was.
      Capital is also different—if not in its nature, certainly in its composition and appearance. In the West we now live in what some describe as “share-owning democracies.” Although the dominant capitalists still determine the levers of power, and the underlying dynamic is still very much in the direction of the growth of monopolies, huge proportions of capital are actually owned by workers and “ordinary people” in the form of individually held shares or, more usually, pension funds. Managers are, more often than not, themselves employees—mere hirelings to manage other people’s capital.
      Indeed, in the context of global capitalism, even workers in the West could attribute some of our standards of living to the exploitation of other workers in Third World countries.
      “Intelligence,” as distinct from physical labour power, is central to the capitalist mode of production in its present form. This applies to a greater or lesser degree in even the most traditional industries and occupations. And around this situation a certain culture of contentment has developed. I believe this to be true notwithstanding the current tensions on the industrial front in this country. But, of course, capitalism is not working: almost one billion of the world’s people are starving, and environmental degradation (perhaps even catastrophe) is a growing threat.
      In the midst of all of this, let us look at the condition of the trade unions. In the United States, union density hovers precariously at 14 per cent of employed workers (only 8 per cent in the private sector), as against 35 per cent in 1955, although about the same number, i.e. 16 million, remain organised. In a recently published review of the state of the trade unions in Europe, significant declines in density were recorded since 1985, e.g. Germany from 40 per cent to 30 per cent, Austria 60 per cent to 42 per cent, Italy 42 per cent to 35 per cent. The level of unionisation in northern Europe (Sweden, Finland, etc.) has been holding steady. In Great Britain the number of union members declined from 12.6 million in 1979 (56 per cent of the work force) to 7.1 million (29.6 per cent) at the end of 1998. There has been some recovery in membership numbers since, but not in union density. In the Republic of Ireland the membership of unions affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions increased from 460,000 in 1990 to 543,000 last year [2000], an increase of 84,000 (or 18 per cent); but, expressed as a proportion of employees, density declined from 52.5 per cent to 38.7 per cent over the same period. (These figures do not include a small number of unions outside the ambit of the ICTU, or members of the Garda Representative Association, etc.)
      In face of the onslaught of neo-liberalist globalisation, the European Trade Union Confederation response has been the promotion of various versions of the “partnership” model. In the Republic of Ireland the model which has been practised since 1987 has produced five national agreements in continuing sequence. Some in Europe describe it as a form of competitive corporatism, for which the essential catalyst is a trade-off between pay moderation and tax reductions designed to create a virtuous circle of economic growth, by means of which to fund the project in the first instance, as well as to address a whole range of macro-economic issues.
      On the positive side, proponents of this approach can highlight an increase in the numbers employed, from 1,151,700 in 1990 to 1,710,300 at the end of 2000, an increase of 558,000 (or 48.5 per cent), with a correspondingly dramatic reduction in unemployment. Real living standards have undoubtedly improved. Calculations in terms of pay, tax and the rate of inflation over the years 1987 to 2001 point to the following changes:

1987–90Programme for National Recovery + 5%
1990–93Programme for Economic and Social Partnership + 5.5%
1993–96Programme for Competitiveness and Work + 6%
1996–99Partnership 2000 + 11.5%
2000Programme for Prosperity and Fairness + 10.5%
2001Programme for Prosperity and Fairness + 12.5% (anticipated)

      Over this period, average industrial earnings increased by 78.7 per cent, as against a cumulative consumer price index increase of 42.2 per cent. At the same time, expenditure on health has increased by 176 per cent, education 96 per cent, and social welfare 44 per cent, making a combined total of 87 per cent in real terms (i.e. based on 1987 prices).
      But, on the other hand, the adjusted share of national income accounted for by labour has fallen from 67.8 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 57.5 per cent for this year [2001]. This compares with a fall in the EU from 71 per cent in 1990 to 67.8 per cent. More recent estimates anticipate a reversal of the trend in the Republic of Ireland this year, as a result of the movement in industrial earnings over the recent past. (Industrial earnings are estimated to increase by 11 per cent this year and 9.8 per cent next year.)
      The real failure is that we cannot show that, for example, our health service is about to become the best in Europe: the public spending to GDP ratio is estimated at about 29 per cent here, as against a European average of 42 per cent. The real crux of the matter has been the thrust of government policy in favour of the US liberal model, as distinct from what is sometimes called the European social model: a rightward economic course camouflaged by the language of social partnership. This has been most evident during the reign of the present government, during which capital gains tax has been cut from 40 per cent to 20 per cent; there have been regular reductions in inheritance taxes; abolition of a probate tax; reductions in the top rate of income tax; and a reduction of corporation tax from 40 per cent to 20 per cent, now en route to a 12.5 per cent rate.
      Also, despite public perception to the contrary, trade unions as institutions have derived no benefit from the process. Indeed it could be said that we have incurred damage as a consequence of the removal of employment or industry-level collective bargaining. In any event, this approach has now reached a critical juncture because of the coincidence of the iron law of the market in relation to the price of labour, a projected decline in the rate of growth, and the impending unviability of the tax reduction/pay moderation mechanism.
      In terms of the alternative strategies available, the obvious option is returning to what was known as “free collective bargaining.” I do not subscribe to the view that this would automatically bring about industrial warfare or a calamitous collapse of the economy. I trust the intelligence of union members; but the removal of the “social partnership aura” could adversely affect the economy. However, my strongest reservation about that course concerns the degree to which it forfeits the prospect of capturing some of the space around the intelligence dimension of modern production processes and influencing the shape of the work environment, and the degree to which organised workers can influence the direction of the enterprises in which they are employed. I am not an advocate of illusionary partnership, but I do not believe the potential of such concepts should be dismissed yet. There is a difference between lip service and a clear, focused initiative, based on clear objectives democratically decided on by the membership.
      On the face of it, James Connolly’s writings would not suggest much sympathy with this position. But then, they were the product of a mind which, despite its genius, never experienced the events to which we have been exposed. What is clear is that he would never have relied on rhetoric as a substitute for strategy. Neither would he ever have allowed day-to-day tactics to cloud conflicting class interests; and he would have emphasised the necessity to nurture solidarity and the importance of promoting social demands as well as wage issues.
      Whatever the bargaining strategy employed, he would have been at the forefront of demands on all trade unions to wake up to the organising task in the face of declining membership density. There are now 800,000 workers who are not in unions. I also believe he would have been at the forefront of demands for developing a focused European dimension and rationalising the trade union movement to the needs of working people in the modern world. The dedicated revolutionary who saw the need to master Italian and develop some working knowledge of other languages in order to function as an organiser during his years in the United States would have pointed an accusing finger at us all regarding our lethargy in providing organisational expression for the growing number of immigrant workers arriving on our shores.
      I believe the challenge presented by Connolly is the challenge of the needs of our time, because the route to remaining effective is directly at variance with the growing “consumerist” and business-type trade unionism that has emerged over the past decade or so. His vision would have entailed the development of an organisational model of trade unionism that could promote a definition of solidarity that extended beyond the work-place, embracing workers as voters, consumers and investors as well. Building organising-unions will entail radical change in the approach that has become our practice over the last quarter of a century. It means, in effect, recruiting our own members again to the notion of solidarity and promoting the ideals and values of the labour movement.
      Globally, a new issue is emerging as international capital increasingly dismisses nation-states and parliamentary democracy: the incubator has become an inhibitor. I believe we are approaching the point where defending parliamentary democracy will become an almost revolutionary task, reliant on the efforts of trade unionists and community movements, underlining the need to consolidate and strengthen the alliance with voluntary groups, environmental activists, etc. Parliamentary democracy cannot be taken for granted. In the mother of all democracies, women under thirty could not vote in parliamentary elections until 1929, and universal male suffrage was only fully established in 1884.
      James Connolly was a gifted visionary, a courageous leader and heroic revolutionary who instilled an awareness of the class analysis of history and committed his life to the organisational and political work required as a consequence of that analysis, in the interest of working people and the oppressed. He would never have attempted to apply a mechanical formula that ignored the lessons of history, nor would he have relied upon rhetoric as a substitute for strategy. Doing his memory justice presents us with the challenge of acting similarly as the complex events of our time unfold.


International Connolly Conference  >  Jack O’Connor