James Connolly Memorial Lecture
Dublin, 12 May 2006

The man looking over our shoulder

Eugene McCartan

General Secretary, Communist Party of Ireland

I titled this talk “The man looking over our shoulder.” Many activists still look to Connolly’s ideas for inspiration. His political insights remain relevant; each generation continues to look back for ideas and political guidance from this man executed this day ninety years ago. This talk will not deal with all the minutiae of Connolly’s life, or his life’s work, for to do so would take a number of lectures to explore the richness of his contribution, the range of areas of struggle that he contributed to, the scope of his writings on a very wide range of issues. What I will attempt to deal with in tonight’s talk are some of what I see as the central themes and periods in Connolly’s short but packed life, to draw a pen picture of the life and times of James Connolly.
      I believe that James Connolly has left our labour movement a legacy which we have yet to fulfil. In the Ireland of today—and not just in Ireland but right across the developed capitalist world—the use of such terms as “working class” or speaking of politics in class terms is very much frowned upon. Students can pass through college and even study politics and come out not having studied or dealt with politics in terms of class or class relationships. We have industrial relations lecturers and mountains of literature written pointing out that capitalism has overcome class difference and that we have moved into a more enlightened period, where capitalism has learnt from the past and wishes to seek co-operation and not conflict, and that the working class itself has disappeared, that workers are now all middle class. To talk of class is like the old granny or granda sitting asleep in the corner of the sitting-room and your parents telling you to tiptoe past them and not waken them just in case they might embarrass the visitors to the house by what they might say or do; for to talk about politics in terms of class you are seen as someone who is only jealous of those who had made it up the greasy pole.
      One of the first lessons to be learnt from reading James Connolly is that you can’t discuss politics or history except in terms of class and class forces and class struggle.
      So who was James Connolly? What shaped his political development? Why would a man born in Scotland be willing to give his life to the cause of the Irish working class?
      Thanks to Desmond Greaves we know that Connolly’s parents came from County Monaghan and emigrated to Scotland, and that he was born in the Cowgate district of Edinburgh in 1868. That was less than twenty years after the Great Hunger, or the genocide of the Irish peasants by British colonialism.
      He grew up in one of the most impoverished districts of that city, which was populated in the main by Irish immigrants. Cowgate was known as “Little Ireland,” where 14,000 Irish people lived in overcrowded slum tenements and in absolute poverty. His father worked for the local council, shovelling up horse manure, and was involved in a “scavengers’ strike” which won a wage increase to 15 shillings a week. Connolly had two brothers, John and Thomas; James was the youngest in the family.
      Connolly left school at around eight years of age, first working in the offices of the Edinburgh Evening News. At ten years of age he worked in a bakery. So we can see that Connolly’s early childhood was marked by poverty, living in slum tenements, with poor food, hard work, and long hours, for little in return. He had little formal schooling. His understanding of Ireland, its history and struggle for national freedom, was no doubt shaped by his family and the people around him. He had an uncle who was an old Fenian.
      He joined the British Army at fourteen years of age under a false name and served in Ireland from 1882 in the King’s Liverpool Regiment, serving in Cork and possibly a number of other barracks in the country. With only a few months left to serve, Connolly went absent without leave and deserted the army in late 1888 or 89—possibly because his regiment was going to be sent to India. While in Ireland he met his future wife and lifelong comrade, Lillie Reynolds, from a Protestant Wicklow family.
      Scotland—as was the rest of Britain—was undergoing tremendous changes. The British Empire had expanded across the globe, and its tentacles of exploitation and domination controlled large parts of the globe. We also had the development of capitalism in Germany and the United States as well as revolutionary upheavals coming from France. It was also the period of revolutionary struggle like the Paris Commune in 1871. The Communist Manifesto had only been published in German, and the First International—the International Workingmen’s Association—was attempting to give leadership to the emerging workers’ struggles and embryonic trade unions.
      Figures for the time show that of the 24 million people living in Britain, three-quarters were manual labours, and 15 per cent were skilled workers. In the 1870s only half a million workers were organised in trade unions, mainly skilled workers.
      This was also a period of a huge growth and expansion of the productive forces and a massive shift of populations from the land to the cities, with farm labourers moving to the towns and cities, becoming industrial labourers. The mills of the north of England were jammed to the rafters with Irish peasants, working and living in terrible conditions.
      So Connolly’s early political development was shaped by three key struggles: firstly by the bitter struggles of workers to organise themselves to join a trade union, to defend themselves and advance their wages and conditions, secondly building up their own political organisations, emerging to give political expression and representation to the burgeoning working class.
      The Socialist League, founded in 1888 by William Morris and Eleanor Marx, was the first organisation that Connolly joined, being a revolutionary break from the Social Democratic Federation. Later on both Connolly and Larkin became members of the Independent Labour Party, founded by Keir Hardie in 1893. In was in the 1890s, as a member of the Scottish Socialist Federation study groups, that Connolly received his grounding in Marxism; he even learnt enough French and German to be able to read Marxist classics, like the Communist Manifesto and Capital, which had not yet been published in English.
      The third factor would have been the impact and the experience of events back home in Ireland and the role of the Irish Parliamentary Party in supporting the Liberal government and the campaign for home rule in the British House of Commons. Connolly himself would have known of the ideas and the struggle of the Irish Land League. We need also to keep in mind that the memory and experiences of the Great Hunger, the Young Irelanders’ rising (1848) and the Fenians would have been a reality to many Irish people whom Connolly would have come into daily contact with in Scotland.
      Connolly was greatly influenced by a man called John Leslie (whose mother was from Ireland), a major figure in the emerging Scottish labour movement. Leslie delivered a series of talks to the Edinburgh Branch of the SSF during the winter of 1892/93 on the Irish question, which had a profound impact upon the young Connolly. Also at that time in Edinburgh, Connolly would have come into contact with people who had actually taken part in the Paris Commune; this would have given him the opportunity to learn about the experience of the Commune from actual participants in that great workers’ struggle.
      Connolly was a very active member of the Edinburgh Trades Council. He was not some dry theoretician but someone who applied what he learnt and equally learnt from his direct experience of workers’ struggles. He developed into a formidable public speaker and wrote many articles for numerous workers’ papers in Scotland and England.
      Connolly was invited to come to Ireland by the Dublin Socialist Club. He arrived in Dublin in May 1896 with his wife, Lillie, and three daughters, to live in one room in Charlemont Street. He established and became the organiser for the Irish Socialist Republican Party. At the first meeting, held in Thomas Street, less than ten people attended. The name of the party itself shows that Connolly was aware at that early stage of the importance of the national struggle in Ireland and that he was not going to Ireland to establish a branch of one of the many groups and parties then existing in Britain, some of which already had branches in Ireland, particularly in Belfast. Irish workers were mainly organised in British trade unions, which were overwhelmingly craftsmen, deeply imbued with economism and craft chauvinism and had a very limited vision of the role of labour.
      In developing the political programme of the ISRP Connolly brought to bear his experience of workers’ struggles in Scotland and England, his understanding of socialist theory and politics, and a knowledge of Ireland’s freedom struggle, applying all this experience rooted in the concrete material conditions that he found in Ireland in the mid-1890s. He clearly understood that history, traditions and the nature of the struggle were different in Ireland, separate and distinct from those pertaining in Britain. He also recognised that workers needed their own voice, a paper to express their view and ideas about society, to reflect their experience and demands. He borrowed £50 from Keir Hardie to buy a printing press and founded the Workers’ Republic, with the first edition coming out on 14 August 1898, to provide a clear and independent militant voice for the Irish working class.
      The manifesto of the ISRP asserted as its policy:
That the agricultural and industrial system of a free people ought to be a reflex of the democratic principle by the people for the people, solely in the interests of the people.
      That the private ownership by a class of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange is the fundamental basis of all oppression, national, political and social.
      That the subjection of one nation to another, as of Ireland to the authority of the British Crown, is a barrier to the free political and economic development of the subjected nation, and can only serve the interests of the exploiting classes of both nations.
      That the national and economic freedom of the Irish people must be sought by the establishment of an Irish Socialist Republic and the consequent conversion of the means of production into the common property of society, to be held and controlled by a democratic state in the interests of the entire community.
      That the conquest by the Social Democracy of political power in Parliament, and on all public bodies in Ireland, is the readiest and most effective means whereby the revolutionary forces may be organised and disciplined to that end.
      Right throughout his life Connolly remained committed to the basic principles contained within this manifesto. All his political energy was dedicated to achieving those goals. It was the most advanced political programme of any party in these islands. This was also the first presentation of his idea that the struggle for national independence is inseparable from the struggle for socialism. So what Connolly did was to bring the republican concept into the era of imperialism: that the working class must lead the struggle for national independence and socialism.
      This was at a time when most socialists from oppressed nations were condemned for their “nationalism,” while socialists from the imperialist countries did not recognise their own chauvinism and pro-imperialist positions. He developed the understanding that sections of the capitalist class in an oppressed country would collaborate with the oppressor class of the dominant country to oppress their fellow-citizens in their own class interest; that they would rather build a strategic alliance, albeit as junior, dependent partners, with the colonial powers than interfere with their own economic interests; that their class relationship and power was of greater importance to them than that of the nation.
      This was a significant step forward and placed him at odds with the Parnellite home rule faction and the Liberal-Labour politicians of the day in Britain. This had clearly put the responsibility upon the labour movement to lead the struggle for national independence. He had given clarity to the apparent contradiction between labour and nationalism, exposing the naked self-interest of section of the Irish home-rulers, who in essence wanted a greater say and benefits from the British Empire itself and not the dismantling of that empire. They wanted more of the spoils of colonialism; they desired to be junior partners in exploitation, whether in Ireland, India, or anywhere else.
      The Irish capitalist class, while engaging in ruthless exploitation within the framework of British institutions, was at the same time paying lip service to the national demand for independence. Connolly and the ISRP staked their claim that they were determined to build a new political pole, with labour at its heart, which other progressive forces, including those committed to national independence, to cultural, literary and language revival, and suffragist forces, could gravitate towards, thereby isolating the home-rulers.
      In an article in the Shan Van Vocht entitled “Nationalism and socialism,” Connolly put forth his view that
traditions may and frequently do provide materials for the glorious martyrdom, but can never be strong enough to ride the storm of a successful revolution. If the national movement of our day is not merely to re-enact the old sad tragedies of our past history, it must show itself capable of rising to the exigencies of the moment. It must demonstrate to the people of Ireland that our nationalism is not merely a morbid idealising of the past, but is also capable of formulating a distinct and definite answer to the problems of the present and a political and economic creed capable of adjustment to the wants of the future.
      Connolly argued that the struggle must be for a republic that should be “a beacon-light to the oppressed of every land.” He went on to state:
If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the Green Flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and industrialist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that freedom whose cause you betrayed.
      Here Connolly exposed the roots or the seed base from which grew a set of economic, political and cultural relations between those formerly colonised countries and the former colonial powers, what we would come to call neo-colonialism in the mid-twentieth century.
      Connolly wanted to expose those sections of imperial opinion who were flirting with home rule who regarded it as a means of holding on to their dominating role in Ireland, economically and strategically, while appearing to grant self-governance. Connolly was exposing, then as in the past, the fact that as Britain had relied upon the landlord class to maintain its power and control, it was transferring that reliance to the capitalist class, and especially its mercantile sections—that is, those forces linked to the new imperialist phase of capitalist development.
      Now that Connolly had set out his political ideas and declared his intention to push the labour movement to the fore in the struggle for national independence, he organised or took part in a number of events that pushed the ISRP and himself from relative obscurity to centre stage of the political struggle and alerted those radical elements within the national independence forces that he had something entirely new to say about the goals and indeed the very nature of the fight for national freedom.
      As preparations to celebrate the famine queen, Queen Victoria’s “diamond jubilee” were being made throughout Ireland, and in particular in Dublin, the ISRP was also beginning its own preparations to use those celebrations to establish its presence, issuing a “Republican Manifesto” in May and holding a public meeting at which Maud Gonne spoke under the banner Down with Monarchy! Long live the Republic! The presence of Maud Gonne on this platform meant that it attracted the attention of individuals and organisations with whom she operated in nationalist cultural circles, thereby giving Connolly the opportunity to establish wider connections with these forces.
      The national convention of the ’98 Commemoration Committee was to take place on the day of the jubilee celebrations in Dublin. Connolly had planned to stage a demonstration against the jubilee celebrations, and it would take the form of a black coffin with British Empire painted on it. The demonstration would be led by a workers’ band. Black flags, made by Maud Gonne, with facts about the famine embroidered on them, were carried. Maud Gonne had also secured a window (because she had the money to do so) in Parnell Square, from which a lantern slide show could be shown to counter all the windows full of jubilee celebration paraphernalia and the jubilee lanterns hanging from every street. Connolly had also secured the co-operation of Dublin Corporation workers to dim the bright lights and have electrical faults occur at strategic points to black out the jubilee lanterns.
      When the demonstration marched past the building where the ’98 Committee was meeting, proceedings were suspended to see what was going on. There they witnessed a handcart with a coffin on board being pushed by members of the ISRP down Dame Street with the workers’ band playing the Dead March. Members of the ’98 Committee joined the demonstration, which was attacked by baton-wielding DMP mobilised from Dublin Castle. The protesters managed to reach O’Connell Bridge, where hand-to-hand fighting was fierce. Connolly realised that this was as far as they would get. Ever the man for the strategic moment, he ordered that the coffin be dumped in the Liffey, and he got the crowed to take up his words: “Here goes the coffin of the British Empire. To hell with the British Empire!” Connolly was arrested, and spent the night in jail.
      Later that night the city was almost in darkness, and the great public illuminations to mark the jubilee were invisible, thanks to the Corporation workers, while a large crowd gathered to watch the lantern display organised in co-operation with Maud Gonne in Parnell Square. The gathering was savagely attacked by the DMP, resulting in one woman being killed. The angered crowd then made their way down O’Connell Street, smashing every window that contained jubilee decorations. The myth of loyal Dublin had been blown apart; the demonstration had captured national and international headlines; Connolly had stamped his mark.
      Two months later another royal visit presented Connolly with yet another opportunity to rally broad nationalist and republican forces behind his leadership. The ISRP planned to hold meetings in Foster Place—not to protest about the visit but to mark the landing of the French in Killala during the 1798 Rebellion. All ’98 Committees were invited to give their support. They were unable to hold the meeting at Foster Place and moved it to the ISRP rooms in Middle Abbey Street, which was attacked by the DMP and broken up. They attempted to hold the meeting a number of times, but each attempt met with violent repression.
      Connolly had ensured that the world’s press was on hand to witness these events, and the world heard about disloyal Dublin once again. Not one home rule journal protested against the violence of the police; but all Dublin was talking about this band of rebels with a difference. As Desmond Greaves put it, Connolly “had wiped the false smile from the face of Royalty and shown behind it the reality of imperialism.”
      Connolly wanted to influence the politics and direction of the centenary celebrations being organised by the ’98 Commemoration Committee, so he set about organising the re-publication of the most important extracts from the actual writings of the United Irishmen. He also set up the Rank and File ’98 Club, which then affiliated to the Dublin Executive Committee. The application was accepted, and Connolly had a seat at the table—another platform from which to articulate his ideas and win wider support for the labour perspective. The ISRP was going to use the Rank and File ’98 Club to promote an understanding of the true aims of the United Irishmen. Connolly was not going to allow himself or the labour movement to be excluded from this important anniversary. He saw in these celebrations an opportunity to draw inspiration from the radical social demands and experience of the United Irishmen, which had been excluded from the official or accepted historical version of the social forces and the nature of the ’98 Rebellion.
      Connolly’s strategy of pushing the labour movement into the leading role was beginning to take shape. He believed he had exposed and discredited the home-rulers and that he was beginning to build an alliance with the more progressive national democratic forces. Connolly was attempting to ensure a deeper understanding of crucial historical moments in Irish history, like the ’98 Rebellion, linking them to current political struggles that Ireland then faced. He was rooting his political strategy in the deep revolutionary traditions of the Irish people and rescuing the lessons of history.
      Having established his commitment to the struggle for national independence and his political credentials, Connolly then began to argue for a new political party of all socialist, democratic and republican forces to challenge the home-rulers’ dominance of representation in the British Parliament and to build links with the British working-class forces. This strategy fell on deaf ears, so leaving the home-rulers in their politically dominant position. This was a strategic error for Irish democratic and republican forces, which they would soon realise to their cost. The other part of that alliance that Connolly wanted to build was between Irish progressive forces and the British labour movement, which at that time supported the position of the home-rulers in the British House of Commons.
      As Connolly engaged in a political struggle against the home-rulers in Ireland he also engaged in the battle of ideas within the British labour movement. In January 1898 he replied to his critics in Britain in regard to his militant republicanism and his strong criticism of the supporters of home-rulers within the British labour movement when he wrote:
The Home Ruler stops short of Home Rule, not because he is cosmopolitan or a believer in human brotherhood, but because he is so little a democrat that to him the British Empire is an ideal system everywhere except in Ireland, and the sole aim of his political activity is to reproduce in Ireland all the political and social manifestations which accompany capitalist supremacy in Great Britain.
      Connolly attacked social chauvinism vehemently and uncompromisingly. Social chauvinism arose within the working class because of the fact that imperialism was able to buy off a section of the workers and make them political accomplices in the exploitation of the empire. This is still a reality today with the gross exploitation of the underdeveloped world, child labour being used to make clothes and other consumer items for sale in the developed capitalist countries, their agriculture being skewed to provide cash crops for our markets while agriculture for the domestic market is pushed aside, resulting in famine, food shortages, and food dependence. The Irish economy was equally distorted during colonial times, and still is. Our economy was developed to meet the needs of the British market, not developed to meet the needs of the Irish people. We have sections of our people today who support the war in Iraq because they have control over “our oil” and we need to maintain our life-style at all costs; they see their objective interests lying with the interests of imperialism.
      Connolly had been arguing for a united front of all those who opposed the different home rule factions. The failure to achieve this had consequences down the line. As the ’98 Committee began to grow and spread across the country, the home-rulers realised that they had to get on board, take it over or risk being outmanoeuvred and isolated. They chose Belfast as their base for fighting back, using Catholic sectarianism as their springboard. They called a meeting of all the committees in the Belfast area, without the consent of the National Committee, one of the main speakers being the arch-Catholic bigot Joseph Devlin, who was later elected an MP in 1902.
      They used sectarianism to bully their way onto the National Committee, eventually forcing a split in January 1898 and establishing the “Centennial Association,” which included people like Joseph Devlin and William Martin Murphy, thereby regaining the leadership of the national forces. Connolly and the ISRP attempted to broaden the base of their ’98 Clubs to pick up those forces disillusioned with events surrounding the ’98 Committee. Many subsequently joined the ISRP, a small but revolutionary party.
      Aside from the ’98 celebration, the ISRP took up the struggle in relation to the Boer War, in opposition to British imperialism’s war against the Boers. This war was prosecuted by the British in its efforts to hold on to what was then called the Transvaal, now South Africa. Connolly formed the Irish Transvaal Committee, and one of their main successes was to virtually stop recruitment to the British Army to fight in the Transvaal. Anti-conscription campaigns would come back into play during the First World Inter-imperialist War in 1914–18.
      While Connolly’s main priority was developing the necessary political forces in Ireland, he was no narrow nationalist but placed the struggle of the Irish working class in a clear internationalist context. As the labour movement continued to grapple with the new emerging phase of imperialism, deep fissures emerged within the international working-class forces between revolution and reformism, between those who wanted to be assimilated into and benefit from the imperial structures and those who struggled for radical change and for socialism. The revolutionary forces viewed reforms as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.
      Connolly’s broader view of politics was a reflection of his working-class internationalism. The ISRP sent two delegates to the International Socialist Congress in Paris in 1900. There they took a stand on the left wing of the international movement. The battle was over the participation of a faction of the French Socialist Party in the French Government. The Irish delegation, along with Bulgaria, voted unanimously against the compromise motion, which was mildly critical of Millerand, who was a minister in the French Government—a government that included people who had been involved in the savage suppression of the Paris Commune. The Irish delegates took the position of the independent role of the working class and against imperialism and for non-participation in reactionary governments. Connolly was always on the revolutionary wing of the international working class.
      Throughout 1900 and 1901 the ISRP struggled to pay its way, to raise sufficient funds to pay the printing costs for the Workers’ Republic—never mind paying wages to Connolly. Connolly had agreed to come to Dublin on the promise of £1 per week, which never materialised.
      Times were very tough for the whole Connolly family. One of the first jobs that Connolly managed to get in Dublin was as a labourer on the main drainage scheme being built by Dublin Corporation. The family had to sell or pawn the last of their belongings to buy food and clothing, which Connolly needed before he could start work. We need to remember that Connolly and his family sacrificed a lot in his lifetime of political and trade union activity. Very rarely did he or his family rise above acute poverty. It must be borne in mind that sometimes Connolly made decisions based upon the ability of an organisation to give him and his family the means to survive.
      Connolly left Ireland to go to the United States, leaving on a speaking tour in 1902 and raising a significant amount of money to relaunch the Workers’ Republic and make the party more financially secure, sending home the money raised. On his return to Dublin he discovered that the money raised had been almost squandered to pay debts run up when a bar had been opened in the party room in Middle Abbey Street. No doubt this had a major impact on Connolly, who saw this as a gross act of indiscipline and a betrayal and no doubt influencing his decision to return to the United States in 1903.
      Lillie and her five children arrived in the United States in 1904; but on the eve of the departure the family suffered a tragedy when Mona, aged thirteen, died from severe burns, which delayed their departure for a few days, with Connolly frantically waiting on the other side for his family, unaware of the events that had occurred back in Dublin. This was a huge tragedy for the family and was deeply shocking to Connolly when they arrived on Ellis Island without Mona.
      The Connolly family while in Dublin moved from one tenement to another, living in one room, going hungry on many occasions. Connolly’s daughter Nora recounts her father reading and writing only by the light of the fire, keeping going until the fire burned out, when it was too dark to do anything more. The experience of the Connolly family was not unique but was replicated in thousands of homes in Dublin and all the main towns and cities of Ireland every single day. It is clear that he could not have done what he did without the support of Lillie, his loyal friend and comrade, and the support of his children.
      The years Connolly spent in the United States were important lost years for the Irish labour movement. It retreated from the leading role secured for it by James Connolly in the late 1890s. For the purpose of this talk I will not deal much with his time in the United States—not that I don’t think it is important but rather because I want to continue the thread of his actions and the political positions that he adopted to ensure that the Irish working class played a leading role in the struggle for national freedom, that the working class would be firmly at the table and not locked outside the door in any future settlement. I will just point out that Connolly spent seven years in the United States, working for both the Socialist Labour Party and the IWW as well as having many temporary jobs, such as selling insurance. He was also secretary of the Building and Construction Workers’ Industrial Union. He had been drawn into the IWW because he had become disillusioned by the dogmatic and degraded theorising of the SLP; the party had ceased to be a vehicle for action and was bogged down in economic determinism. He had constant political run-ins with De Leon, who was the dominant and overbearing leader of the SLP.
      He travelled the country, crisscrossing it as an organiser for the IWW. One of the dominant influences within the American labour movement at that time was syndicalism, which had some impact on Connolly’s thinking while in the United States. For those who don’t know what syndicalism is, it is the idea that trade unions rather than a political party would be the vanguard of the working class, which would take power as a result of a general strike and would then administer the state and the economy. This current derives from a lack of understanding of the class nature of the state. Marxists do not believe that the state is neutral in the day-to-day running of a capitalist country, or that it is some benign arbitrator within society between the various contending social forces, but that it is in fact the central instrument of class rule by the ruling economic and political elites, to ensure their class interests; that the state is an active force in the interests of defending capital and is hostile to the working class.
      We need to keep in the mind that this was at a time when the working class was only finding its feet, so to speak, in regard to politics and the role of trade unions. Syndicalism had made little impact within the European labour movement; it was more a reflection of the inexperience of the movement and the composition of the working class at that time. The greatest influence within the European workers’ movement was reformism and social chauvinism.
      In one funny but telling incident, when Connolly was speaking at a university in the Mid-West the man looking after him asked if he had ever been to university, and Connolly replied, “Yes, once. I carried cement.” When they got to the college library, Bohn (I think his name was) was amazed to see Connolly take down books from the shelves dealing with Irish history and other issues and explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the different authors. Connolly was what the great Italian communist Gramsci would later describe as an organic intellectual. (There is a difference between an intellectual and an academic.)
      Through living in the United States, Connolly kept abreast of Irish affairs, writing articles for both Irish and British labour papers. He also wrote a pamphlet that was a mass seller entitled Socialism Made Easy. He also founded the Irish Socialist Federation in March 1907 and established the Harp, the official organ of the ISF. Also, Labour in Irish History was serialised in the Harp, later published in book form in 1910 in Dublin. It had taken more than twelve years to take its final shape.
      Back home in Ireland a new force had emerged on the scene. The founding of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1908 was a major step forward for the working class. Connolly was excited by this development, which no doubt prompted thoughts of returning home.
      In 1909 Connolly argued for a united front with all those forces that he had pulled together against the jubilee and the Boer War, from Griffith’s Sinn Féin right across to the Irish Socialist Party and Independent Labour Party (which had been founded in 1907). The remnants of the ISRP agreed with this strategy, but other left forces disagreed.
      He returned to Ireland at the invitation of William O’Brien with the promise of a wage to keep his family going. The year before he left America to come back home Connolly was earning about $21. This was probably the best and most financially secure period enjoyed by Connolly and his family in their entire lives. He stated that he would return to Ireland only if Lillie agreed. As he put it himself, he did not want his family to do “any more staving.”
      On his return he was straight back into speaking at public meetings up and down the country, to gatherings of two hundred to more than two thousand workers, from Cork to Belfast. This led to building a network of members and contacts and eventually to the convening of a delegate conference of the Socialist Party of Ireland in September 1910, at which Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was elected president, with Connolly becoming Belfast organiser. Once again the promised wages never materialised, leaving him very bitter and angry.
      It was during his time in Belfast that Connolly challenged the sectarian divisions within the working class. Even at the height of the Carson and Covenant movement Connolly held meetings challenging sectarianism and arguing against the course being pursued by Carson and other reactionary forces. Connolly tackled sectarianism both Catholic and Protestant. He was courageous in his stand on this matter.
      He attempted to engage in numerous debates with a number of political groupings and branches of British socialist parties. He saw little point in not talking to these people, because he felt it was very important that you engage with all sections of the working class. He believed that the partition of Ireland would “freeze” relations and sectarian divisions within the north. He argued against the use of sectarianism, pointing out that sectarianism was more easily started than stopped, that it narrowed the scope and scale of the potential unity and alliances that were needed if the working class was to have any effective say in society, that it was in their own class interests to break the sectarian cycle.
      Given Connolly’s financial situation in Belfast, O’Brien and others pressed Larkin to give Connolly a job as organiser for the ITGWU in Belfast. He was soon organising the women mill workers and deep-sea dockers. (The cross-channel dockers were mainly Protestants and members of the SFU, based in London.)
      Connolly was acutely aware of the terrible conditions endured by women workers, particularly in the mills of Belfast and other areas where women worked long hours for very low pay, returning home to carry the main burden of rearing children. He was ahead of many leaders of the labour movement at that time and was a strong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, both in Ireland and Britain. In his pamphlet The Re-Conquest of Ireland Connolly devoted a section to the condition and status of women in Ireland, particularly working-class women. He exposed the unequal economic, social and cultural relations between men and women.
The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave. In Ireland that female worker has hitherto exhibited, in her martyrdom, an almost damnable patience. She has toiled on the farms from her earliest childhood, attaining usually to the age of ripe womanhood without ever being vouchsafed the right to claim as her own a single penny of the money earned by her labour, and knowing that all her toil and privation would not earn her that right to the farm which would go without question to the most worthless member of the family if that member chanced to be the eldest son.
      Unless women were kept in subjection, and their rights denied, there was no guarantee that field would be added unto field in the patrimony of the family, or that wealth would accumulate even although men should decay. So, down from the landlord to the tenant or peasant proprietor, from the monopolist to the small business man eager to be a monopolist, and from all above to all below, filtered the beliefs, customs, ideas establishing a slave morality which enforces the subjection of women as the standard morality of the country.
      None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom the women’s army forges ahead of the militant army of Labour.
      Ireland, from Cork to Belfast, was seething with revolt and social strife. A major lock-out in Cork in 1908 was used by the Dublin employers as a template for its struggle in 1913. In 1912 there was a lock-out in Wexford of the foundry workers, as well as numerous other major industrial disputes. The Transport Union was having a major impact and had begun to inspire hope and give courage to the tens of thousands of unskilled and unorganised workers throughout Ireland. During the Wexford lock-out a “Workers’ Police” was established to protect the locked-out workers from attack. This would be the first workers’ defence force recorded in Ireland.
      Connolly learnt many lesson from the struggle in Wexford. The struggle of the workers galvanised the whole community behind them, from the GAA to small shopkeepers and important sections of the middle classes. Connolly realised that the labour movement could build a broad alliance and allies among other social forces within Irish society. This was a significant break from the crass narrow views that De Leon advocated in the United States. Connolly had been sent from Belfast to Wexford to find a solution to the dispute, which he did. Connolly was a masterly tactician: he knew when to fight and how to retreat with your army intact even if you suffered setbacks.
      After settling the Wexford dispute, Connolly rushed back to Belfast to pick up the threads of political work, just one month before the Home Rule Bill was to be introduced. Connolly, like Pearse and Griffith, welcomed the Home Rule Bill as an instalment—a very modest one at that—on the road to independence. This support was given to head off unionism and partition. Connolly brought together the three British parties with branches in Belfast (William Walker refused to go), mainly from the Protestant community, to a national delegate conference at which they all agreed to form the Independent Labour Party of Ireland. This was after Connolly convinced them that if home rule went through, as seemed likely, then labour needed to have a voice in any new legislature. This they agreed.
      But the situation changed when the unionist counter-offensive began. Then the question was not whether there would be a Home Rule Act but what would be the content of that act. The bill was announced in the Autumn of 1911 and introduced in April 1912, provoking a constitutional crisis, which had not ended when war broke out in 1914. When the contents of the bill were published it exposed the Redmondites. It was a very hollowed-out bill, with the majority of power still being retained by London. There was also a built-in bias against urban centres, giving rural areas—the power base of the Redmondites—a distinct advantage. Connolly rejected it.
      Later, in 1912, Connolly moved a proposal at a congress of the ITUC in Clonmel that they establish an Irish Labour Party. The Labour Party still largely remained an aspiration until after the Cork congress a year later.
      The UVF was founded in January 1912, followed in September by an announcement that the Ulster Unionist Council was preparing to set up a “Provisional Government” to ensure that Dublin’s writ would not cover the nine counties of Ulster. Then followed a violent campaign of intimidation to silence any critics within the Protestant and business community. So also began the importing of arms into the north by unionism, directing terror not just against Catholics but also against the labour movement.
      Yet still Connolly had to run a union, organise and support strikes, and continue to struggle against sectarianism. He was powerless as events took their inevitable course because of the balance of forces now gaining ground. Partition now appeared inevitable; and this course of events contributed to pushing Connolly to the GPO.
      Given the climate, the Dublin bosses wanted to strike a killing blow to organised labour and at the same time to weaken and retard any possible political opposition from that quarter to the political events now unfolding in relation to home rule. In August 1913 the bosses locked out their workers, and one of the bitterest industrial struggles in Irish history took place, with the ITGWU, led by Larkin and Connolly, on one side and William Martin Murphy and the employers on the other. That heroic struggle polarised Irish society. The workers were supported by Roger Casement, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, and Éamonn Ceannt, with Arthur Griffith supporting the bosses and the lock-out.
      In November 1913 the Citizen Army was born to protect strikers and prevent evictions and to stop paid thugs breaking up union meetings. This event was not just significant for the lock-out but would provide the vehicle with which Connolly later on would sit at the table with the leaders of the Volunteers planning the Easter Rising.
      Throughout his political life Connolly worked and argued for an alliance of Irish progressive forces—republicans, progressive nationalists, and the labour movement—with the most progressive sections of the British labour movement, and to build an alliance with the Labour Party in the House of Commons as a means of breaking the stranglehold of the Irish Parliamentary Party. But after the experience of the lock-out and the complete sense of betrayal felt by Connolly with the role played by the leading elements of the TUC in Britain and Labour politicians in relation to the events in Dublin, he gradually came to the realisation that the dominant elements within the labour movement would not come to the aid of the Irish working class. He also knew that at the grass-roots level the Dublin working class received widespread support within the British working class. Connolly had yet come to understand the impact of imperialist ideology on sections of the working class within the imperialist countries.
      The Home Rule Bill was once again introduced in the British Parliament in 1914, and passed, which in effect gave the unionists a veto over any future developments in relation to home rule. The implementation of the act was then deferred because of the outbreak of war. This act sowed the seeds of partition and was the basis for the Treaty of 1921. Redmond, as head of the Volunteers, declared his allegiance and stated that the British government should withdraw the army from Ireland and that the Volunteers and the UVF would guard Ireland, in the interest of the empire.
      This period saw the coming together of a number of events that inevitably propelled Connolly down the path he took in 1916. The Socialist International split over support for the war, with many of the leaders going over to defend and to encourage their respective working class to fight for their respective ruling class. This was a position bitterly criticised by Connolly in the Workers’ Republic, where he stated:
if these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class, and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their own brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?
      Connolly was in favour of using the war, as indeed was Lenin, as an opportunity to strike a blow against the ruling classes throughout Europe and open the road to socialism. So Connolly was being propelled by two important currents, one national and the other international, to end the slaughter in Europe and strike a blow for Irish freedom.
      The vehicle that Connolly chose was the Citizen Army. Connolly knew that elements of the Volunteers were preparing to take advantage of England’s difficulties to organise some form of revolt. He had the ILPI and the Transport Union as vehicles, but they were limited. Connolly’s way to that table was the Citizen Army. He was an extremely strategic thinker and knew how to play his limited hand very well. His strategy was to impose the cause of labour on the agenda of those forces preparing for rebellion. He was determined to ensure that the labour movement should be there to influence and help shape the course of events and the outcome in its favour. He was not prepared to wait or take a secondary role. 1916 therefore was not some adventurist military action but the inevitable outcome of a series of events both at home and in Europe.
      Connolly was unfortunately proved right. Many on the left, then as now, did not and do not understand why he made the decisions that he did in 1916. The British left at the time were deeply imbued with social chauvinism; ultra-leftism was a factor among those in Europe who criticised the events in Dublin. It was left to Lenin, the great Russian workers’ leader, to present the situation in the right historical and social context.
      What James Connolly stood for was the conviction that the working class must take a leading role in the struggle for national freedom and independence; that the social and economic goals of the working class must be what guide the nation—that it as a class must constitute the nation. Connolly pointed out that the ruling class, the class of big business, would always place their class interests above the nation, that the interests of the majority would always be sacrificed in the interests of the minority.
      Connolly brought the republican concept of national liberation into the era of imperialism and argued that we cannot separate the attainment of national freedom from social emancipation, that they are both part of the same process. As he put it himself, “only the Irish working class remain the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish freedom.” He argued that we could not build socialism or a socially just society while Ireland was still part of the British Empire, and that Irish freedom was a prerequisite, the only basis on which the struggle for socialism could be built. He did not see nor did he erect some “Chinese wall” between these two goals: they were part of a seamless process.
      One of Connolly’s weaknesses was that he did not completely understand the nature of state power in the era of the political and economic power of monopoly capitalism, the era of imperialism, that the state under capitalism is an instrument for class power and the enforcement of the dominant economic forces.
      Today our nation faces new challenges. The “carnival of reaction” so accurately predicted by Connolly has taken a heavy toll upon our people, both north and south. In the South women and children have borne the brunt of a confessional state for nearly all of the life of this state. Partition locked sectarianism not just in economic and social terms but into the very fabric of government in the North.
      Today the Irish ruling elite are junior partners of and subservient to EU and US imperialist interests—a position denied them by British imperialism. British imperialism itself is not as it was ninety years ago: it has become a junior partner, unable to decide which imperialist camp to join fully.
      Given the role being played today by the Irish elites, wedded as they are to and benefiting from imperialist exploitation globally, is this not what Connolly stated would happen and what he opposed, what he argued would happen if Redmond and the home-rulers got their way?—that the Irish capitalist class would always betray the interests of the nation.
      So the national question today is more complex than ever. The defence of Irish neutrality is part of the national question. The winning back of powers from the European Union and changing the very character of the European Union itself is a central element in the national question, because this is a fight against monopoly capitalism. To fight against sectarianism in the North is part of the national question. There is no such thing as “our sectarianism is not as bad as theirs.” Sectarianism was fostered by an alien power for its own strategic reasons; it can only be and must be undone by the Irish people themselves.
      To be consistent with Connolly we need to be consistently anti-imperialist, we need to be standing along with the oppressed and not the oppressor.
      Connolly’s legacy is to build the unity of the working class, to provide the working class with its own vision of the future and the world around us, to work to build and develop class consciousness. This takes time and perseverance, and there are no short-cuts. Can the left and republican forces rise to the challenge today?


James Connolly Education Trust  >  Eugene McCartan