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

Researching Connolly

Manus O’Riordan




Researching Connolly is a joy, as I am sure my fellow-contributor Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh will confirm. To carefully turn the pages of old newspapers, or go bleary-eyed if they are on microfilm, or to handle minute-books in Connolly’s own handwriting, assumes a dynamic of its own with the excitement of discovering at first hand what it was that Connolly actually said and not be limited to how he might have been paraphrased, even to the point of misrepresentation.
      Getting the facts right about Connolly’s life and views is of vital importance before any assessment can be made about his historical contribution. The late Jim Prendergast was an Irish International Brigade veteran who, inspired by Connolly, had fought for the Spanish Republic. Through personal experience, Prendergast was to develop a strong antipathy towards C. Desmond Greaves. When the latter’s biography of Connolly was published in 1961 (The Life and Times of James Connolly), a conciliator raised with Prendergast the possibility that he might at least give Greaves credit for that biographical achievement. “Why?” replied Prendergast. “Sure all he bloody-well achieved was to prove that Connolly wasn’t even an Irishman!”
      But Greaves was, of course, right to establish Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh, despite the displeasure of some members of the Connolly family, just as he was to subsequently publish conclusive proof of Larkin’s birth in Liverpool, to the consternation of a couple of members of that family as well. If Greaves went further then any previous biographer in filling in some of the blank pages of Connolly’s life and times, he also created more than a few myths of his own by presenting distorted versions of both Connolly’s own standpoint and that of his opponents in a number of key controversies. I first discovered this when researching Connolly in the United States during the summer of 1970, particularly with reference to Connolly’s disputes with the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) leader Daniel De Leon. But why was it necessary to study the original sources in America, when the former ITGWU general secretary William O’Brien had assembled his own set of originals in Ireland? This was because, for as long as he lived, O’Brien had refused to make his own papers publicly available. It was only later on, into the 1970s, that they could at last be accessed in our own National Library. Since Greaves had complete access to the files of the relevant newspapers, and did not acknowledge any American library as his source, it must be assumed that O’Brien had included him among the privileged few—but perhaps he did not wish to be acknowledged during his own lifetime in any account that might smack at all of Marxism. Greaves, however, did go out of his way to pay effusive posthumous tribute to O’Brien in his later history of the ITGWU, The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Formative Years (1982).
      I must say that I thoroughly agree with Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh in his own sharp indictment of O’Brien for suppressing information about much of Connolly’s politics and for treating Connolly’s writings as “a political football that William O’Brien could take off the field when he felt like it.” (Introduction to James Connolly: The Lost Writings, 1997). The result as regards Connolly’s period in America was that Greaves’s account could go unchallenged for a decade. in his account of the “wages, marriage and the church” controversy between Connolly and De Leon in 1904 the wages section was the only one which Greaves described accurately. Connolly had, indeed, correctly upheld the Marxist theory of wages against the Lassallean “Iron Law of Wages” then being expounded by De Leon. And in doing so he challenged the sheer defeatism of De Leon’s concept of trade union struggle, which proclaimed the futility of wage increases, based on the theory that workers could never improve their living standards under capitalism. But why, then, did Connolly cut so little ice with his fellow party members? A reading of the full controversy will show that it was because Connolly had shot himself in the foot by lashing out too wildly on the other issues. Regarding Connolly’s attack on the serialisation of the book on the feminist question by the German socialist August Bebel, Greaves stated that Connolly was on familiar ground on this question of “free love.” He did not mention that the book in question was acclaimed by a very diverse range of socialists, from Lenin to Connolly’s own close associate Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Instead Greaves presented as representative of the SLP position an isolated phrase from one correspondent that “love should be free”—the one and only letter in the twenty or so that comprised the correspondence that could in any sense be interpreted as advocating “free love.” Far from De Leon himself holding such a position and imposing it on the SLP, I discovered that, if anything, he was an even more enthusiastic champion of monogamy than Connolly and certainly beat Connolly hands down in the flowery language of his enthusiasm.
      As for the religious question, Connolly was, indeed, correct in attacking the specifically anti-Catholic diatribe of the Belgian socialist Emil Vandervelde. But he again overshot the mark when claiming that it was scarcely possible to pick up any issue of the SLP paper of late that was not anti-religious. This charge was demonstrably untrue, as I discovered on reading through the issues for the previous three months. Greaves quoted one correspondent, Twomey, whom he described as “the ex-Catholic, more anti-Christian than the devil,” as saying that the party should not be “mealy-mouthed” in denying theology. But Greaves did not quote the rest of Twomey’s argument, which was a complaint that the SLP paper had never in fact done so. Nor did Greaves see fit to quote De Leon’s own standpoint, which proclaimed: “With Daniel O’Connell, the SLP says: ‘All the religion you like from Rome, but no politics.’”
      Greaves mentioned that Connolly would not have known the standpoint of either Engels or Lenin on how a Marxist party should address religion, but he kept completely secret from his readership the existence of one Frank P. Janke, who expounded a position identical to that of Marxism-Leninism, and did so primarily as a criticism of De Leon himself. Janke argued:
Scientific Socialism is based upon the materialist conception of history. The SLP is a scientific Socialist body, and recognises the materialist conception of history as set forth in the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels. Our entire literature is based on this theory.
      On the other hand, theology or religion denies the materialist conception of history, and teaches that a divine being or power directs, or at least influences, the affairs of mankind. Therefore, how can Comrade De Leon say that the SLP does not concern itself with or attack theology, when at the very basis of scientific socialism we take our stand as against the teachings of theology, and we should not try to pass or smooth the question over. Every member of the SLP should be absolutely clear on this point, else trouble can follow in the future.
      The editor of the “People” should have taken this stand and not the one he did take in his answer to Comrade Connolly.
      But Janke was not finished, for he also argued a point from a principled stand on inner-party democracy: “I wish to criticise—as entirely unfair—the denial of Comrade De Leon to grant Comrade Connolly further space in the People to answer the questions and opinions put forth by the editor.” He pointed out that, in his reply, De Leon had asked Connolly the same question seven times, and he concluded by saying: “I believe that Connolly should be given at least an opportunity to answer the questions which De Leon has put to him. Don’t ask a man questions which demand an answer and then deny him the means to answer them.”
      Considering that the proto-Leninist Frank Janke was also the foremost champion of free speech in the Connolly-De Leon conflict, he should have been singled out for honourable mention instead of being silenced by Greaves. Connolly’s role in that controversy should also have been painted, warts and all, without recourse to creating a caricature of De Leon. Connolly lost in 1904 because he had lashed out too wildly. And yet he had sensed two fatal flaws in De Leon’s political position: not that it was anti-religious but rather that it was chauvinistically American in its prejudices against Irish Catholic immigrants and, worse still, that it was seriously detrimental to effective trade union organisation. When Connolly refought De Leon in the wider arena of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1907 he was on this occasion completely focused. Connolly concentrated on essentials, and this time he won. He made a most significant contribution, thereby enabling the IWW to provide the lessons for the later successes of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in unionising America’s mass-production industries in the 1930s, and for a union directly inspired by both Connolly’s theory and practice to succeed in one particular sector, the Transport Workers of America, founded by Mike Quill and Gerald O’Reilly.
      The next area of extensive research that I conducted on Connolly dealt with his developing position in respect of the First World War. Greaves insisted that the essence of Connolly’s position ran parallel to that of Lenin. A quarter of a century ago I argued that, whatever about some of the internationalist propaganda written during the first six months of the war, or the initial slogan of serving neither King nor Kaiser, Connolly’s position rapidly moved from a declared stance of neutrality to an intensely partisan, pro-German position. He made it clear that among those inspiring him was the Polish nationalist and socialist Józef Piłsudski, who also had allied himself militarily with Germany and Austria and against Russia in order to fight for an independent Poland. I pointed out that as early as August 1915 Connolly was coming out with headlines such as “Warsaw welcomes German troops” and “Secrets of Germany’s success—state socialism.” Indeed in the final issue of the Workers’ Republic a week before the Easter Rising, in an article included in Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s edition, Connolly hailed “the wonderful fight being made by the Germans against odds” and inclined to the conclusion that “the German Nation is incomparably superior to any nation in Europe.” And I maintained my argument on that issue in spite of being threatened by the then general secretary of the ITGWU, Michael Mullen, that he would deprive me of my livelihood if I dared to continue criticising Greaves’s presentation of Connolly.
      The Faustian pact between Greaves and the O’Brienite tradition had a number of consequences for the writing of Irish labour history. In 1982 Greaves’s unashamedly partisan account of the 1923 split in the ITGWU—in which Thomas Foran was canonised, William O’Brien beatified, and Big Jim Larkin damned—did not contribute to the healing of that split. Moreover, the handing over of the ITGWU records to Greaves still left a blank spot in the Connolly biography and a further omission in the ITGWU history itself. It had been the practice of Mullen to reveal to a select few (after first swearing them to keep quiet about it) an original ITGWU document showing that in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising, Connolly had in fact been expelled by the union, of which he was acting general secretary. Whether or not that document still survives I do not know, but it was a disservice to history to have suppressed it. Only by appreciating the full extent of the demoralisation of the Irish labour movement at that critical moment can we also have greater appreciation of the achievements of subsequent years.
      However, a subsequent examination of Connolly’s writings from a different period had a happier outcome, with the publication in 1988 in the Irish Labour History Society’s journal, Saothar, of my article on “Connolly socialism and the Jewish worker.” This revealed that a century ago Connolly was the only Irish politician to ever publish an election address in the Yiddish language. It was addressed to the immigrant and refugee Russian Jewish workers of Dublin, demonstrating Connolly’s appreciation of ethnic diversity before he even left Ireland to experience it to the full in America. In 1988 it may have seemed to be of historical interest and not much else. However, when she unveiled the Connolly Memorial outside Liberty Hall in 1996 President Mary Robinson alluded to it as an example which had great relevance to the changes facing Ireland and the challenges posed by growing ethnic and cultural diversity in the Irish work force. Indeed SIPTU has since followed Connolly’s pioneering example in this regard with the publication of membership application forms in Czech, French, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish, with further work in hand for information packs in these same languages.
      A word on some of the political challenges thrown up by Connolly’s writings. It was always wrong to pretend that Connolly was not pro-German during the First World War. As a Leninist, in 1976 I would have argued that it was also wrong for Connolly to have been so. Now I am not so sure. Connolly held that the greatest disaster that could befall the world would be a British victory in that war. Can we honestly say that he was wrong? Did not that victory produce the viciousness of Versailles, and was not that grist to the mill of Hitler’s rise to power? The “West British” perspective that now dominates the writing of Irish history finds it convenient to telescope the First and Second World Wars. But one should not forget that in the First World War one of the reasons advanced by Connolly for opposing Britain was because it was that side, through its alliance with Tsarist Russia, that was championing those who were then most responsible for mass murders of European Jews. The present-day canonisation of the Redmondite perspective (which also seeks to advance its position by championing brave, honest but misguided labour activists who were deluded by Redmond, such as the poet Francis Ledwidge) could well do with a good counterblast of Connolly’s wartime writings concerning the tens of thousands of Irish workers who were thus led to the slaughter on behalf of British imperialism.
      None of us here can honestly say what Connolly’s position would have been on contemporary politics, and it is, I think, the wrong question to ask. (This is not only because none of us here have yet had the benefit of reading all of Connolly’s writings in their great diversity.) Nonetheless, while avoiding the temptation to invoke him for present-day political advantage, I will succumb to some speculation on a few of the issues that he would have had to confront if he had not been murdered by British imperialism and if he had lived into his eighties. While he would have welcomed and defended the Russian Revolution, he would not, I think, have ever become a communist. Although long a private atheist, Connolly had also long decided to adopt the “Catholic pose,” as he put it himself. This would have been reason enough for him to reject Marxism-Leninism, as he had also rejected the exact same arguments regarding the party and religion when put forward by Frank Janke in the SLP. Being an independent thinker himself, Connolly had also had too much experience of a “socialist pope” in the person of De Leon to just exchange him for another pope, even of the calibre of Lenin, still less Stalin or Trotsky. He would, however, have aligned himself with communists in the 1930s and would have supported Frank Ryan’s fight for the Spanish Republic. He would have been honoured that the James Connolly Unit of the International Brigades wished to pay tribute to him by name—but not in his own lifetime, since he would have disdained the personality cults of either the communist Dimitrov or the social democrat Attlee.
      As for the Second World War, he would have welcomed the Red Army fight-back against the Nazis and the resistance movements in occupied Europe. But, like Frank Ryan, I think he would also have supported de Valera’s policy of Irish neutrality. In the post-war period he would have been personally anti-Soviet, not least because of his identification with Polish independence and the civil rights of Catholics. But he might not have been publicly so, and would have been both nauseated by and publicly opposed to McCarthyism and its O’Brienite variations in Ireland. And if he had lived to be a hundred he would have been again ready to work with communists on anti-imperialist issues and would certainly have accepted Peadar O’Donnell’s invitation to become the patron of the Irish Voice on Vietnam!
      But perhaps what all of us who have in the past approached Connolly with communist spectacles have been most remiss in neglecting are his writings on industrial unionism. We regarded them as rather too syndicalist, and we failed to appreciate the core values and insights they contained concerning industrial democracy and the battle for control of economic development. I am now inclined to think that Connolly would have regarded James Larkin Junior as a worthy heir—but, as he in turn died in 1969, that is as far as I’m prepared to go in such speculation on what Connolly’s perspective might have been in the fifty years subsequent to his murder.
      All the above speculation has, of course, no greater validity than anybody else’s. However, there should no longer be any need to speculate on what it was that Connolly stood for during his life. The point I wish to conclude with is that in order to have a greater appreciation of Connolly we now need to see him in his entirety. And here comes the good news. The formation of SIPTU in 1990 not only healed the old ITGWU-WUI divisions, it also assisted Donal Nevin in producing his monumental achievement, James Larkin: Lion of the Fold (1998). Now he is to do the same for Connolly, and, with SIPTU’s support, this Connolly compendium will be followed by the publication in several volumes of all Connolly’s articles and letters. Connolly once complained that we were being told we should imitate Tone, whereas the greatness of Tone lay in the fact that he imitated nobody. In such a spirit, Donal Nevin will at last enable us to appreciate Connolly’s own originality and greatness to the full.


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