James Connolly / Daniel De Leon

The Connolly-DeLeon Controversy


Cork Workers’ Club




(To enable readers to understand the context and significance of the debate we have included this introduction, which was written on behalf of the Cork Workers’ Club for their pamphlet edition of the dispute.)

Although the controversy between James Connolly and Daniel DeLeon occurred outside Ireland, its inclusion as a booklet in this series is justified because it gives us a clearer insight into the views of Connolly on the subjects discussed than has hitherto been available. The controversy, which took place shortly after Connolly’s arrival in the United States, makes clear that his position on the questions involved was of long standing. In this sense it is of particular value to an understanding of some of the principles and policies which guided the Irish Socialist Republican Party under his leadership from 1896 to his departure for the U.S. in September 1903.

Shortly after Connolly arrived in the U.S. where he joined the Socialist Labour Party, he became involved in a dispute with the party leader Daniel DeLeon. On 9 April 1904, a discussion letter sent in by Connolly appeared in The People, organ of the S.L.P. Titled, Wages, Marriage and the Church it sought to resolve differences in interpretation of party policy and principles which Connolly considered existed between himself and some members of the party.

The first difference concerned Wages and came to his attention while lecturing to an S.L.P. audience in Schenectady, N.Y. At this meeting he presented what he always understood to be the Marxist theory of wages, only to be assailed by the party members present as to the usefulness of agitating for wage-increases. They considered wage-increases useless on the grounds that immediate and automatic price increases cancelled out their effect. Coupled with this experience was his reading of meetings where an S.L.P. organiser rejected Marx’s views on wage-increases, saying that Marx wrote in advance and without anticipation of the present day combinations of capital.

In dealing with the Wages Question in his discussion letter, Connolly only presented the basic elements of the Marxist position. But as he also expressed a willingness to defend his position, it is evident he intended to elaborate in a further letter. In fact it is worth noting that of the three subjects he sought to have discussed, he was later to say in an unpublished statement, “I believe the question of Wages and Prices to be the only of the three which could even by the utmost straining of language be considered vital ...” Using stronger language in the same statement he said: “any principle which we would not feel it our duty as Socialists to establish by force of arms if necessary is non-essential. Such principles are those theories of Marriage and Religion. On these, therefore, I claim the fullest and most absolute freedom of opinion. On the question of Wages and Prices my attitude is different.”

The second difference arose out of the exposure given by The People to the book Woman by August Bebel. The English translation with a preface by DeLeon, was serialised and advertised in The People. Connolly, who opposed Bebel’s views on marriage, considered that close identification with the book would leave them open to the type of campaign conducted by Martha Moore Avery and her crew against the S.D.P. in Massachussetts.

His difference on religion came to a head with the publication in The People of an article by Emile Vandervelde under the heading, Socialism or the Catholic Church. Because of its increasing political influence on the side of reaction in Europe, Vandervelde viewed the Catholic Church as though it were shortly to become the main enemy of the working class. Connolly considered the article to be “not a reasoned appeal to the working class, but an appeal to free-thinkers to look to Socialists to fight their battles for them.” Disapproving of the publication of the article, he also expressed concern at what he detected to be a growing tendency within the party to attack theology when clergymen attacked Socialism, rather than deal with their usually absurd statements on economics. He favoured dealing with them from “a strongly entrenched position based on demonstrable facts,” rather than indulge in arguments “over a question of the next world-a question that were we to argue for another century could not be proven or disproved on one side or the other.” Connolly felt the S.L.P. showed a tendency to move away from their established policy on religion, a policy derived from the German Erfurt Programme of 1891. This policy which declared religion to be a private matter was also supported by the I.S.R.P. and was enunciated by Connolly in his pamphlet, The New Evangel, 1901. The following extract from this pamphlet will be of assistance to the reader in understanding Connolly’s interpretation of this international Socialist stand on religion at that time:

The Socialist Party of Ireland prohibits the discussion of theological or anti-theological questions at its meetings, public or private. This is in conformity with the practice of the chief Socialist parties of the World, which have frequently, in Germany for example, declared Religion to be a private matter, and outside the scope of Socialist action. Modern Socialism, in fact, as it exists in the minds of its leading exponents, and as it is held and worked for by an increasing number of enthusiastic adherents throughout the civilised world, has an essentially material, matter-of-fact foundation. We do not mean that its supporters are necessarily materialists in the vulgar, and merely anti-theological, sense of the term, but that they do not base their Socialism upon any interpretation of the language or meaning of Scripture, nor upon the real or supposed intentions of a beneficent Deity. They as a party neither affirm or deny those things, but leave it to the individual conscience of each member to determine what beliefs on such questions they shall hold. As a political party they wisely prefer to take their stand upon the actual phenomena of social life as they can be observed in operation amongst us to-day, or as they can be traced in the recorded facts of history ... Socialists fight shy of theological dogmas and religions generally: because we feel that Socialism is based upon a series of facts requiring only unassisted human reason to grasp and master all their details, whereas Religion of every kind is admittedly based upon ‘faith’ in the occurrence in past ages of series of phenomena inexplicable by any process of mere human reasoning.

The Erfurt policy on Religion did not receive the support of the newly founded Bolshevik Party. Lenin, writing in Novaya Zhizn, 3 Dec. 1905, said:

We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e. to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated.

Having said this, Lenin proceeded to say that an explanation of the party’s programme should necessarily include an explanation of the true historical and economic roots of the religious fog. But like James Connolly, Lenin too had his priorities. He went on to advise:

But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development.

In a reply to Connolly’s letter – both the letter and the reply appeared in the same issue – Daniel DeLeon defended the S.L.P. organiser on the Wages Question, denied the tendency to attack theology and generally supported the content of both Bebel’s Woman and the Vandervelde article. Taking up the points made by DeLeon, Connolly replied, only to be denied publication by DeLeon. Although Connolly was muzzled, DeLeon continued to publish letters from others relating to the issues. As many as twenty letters were published, mostly echoes of DeLeon’s criticisms. Nor did DeLeon himself remain silent; he continually butted-in with editorial footnotes to readers letters. This undemocratic action of not allowing Connolly the right of reply was most unfortunate for him, more so since he had given only the briefest outline of his position on wages in his opening letter.

Denied access to The People, Connolly wrote to his comrade J. Carstairs Matheson, editor of the British S.L.P. organ, The Socialist, requesting that he publish an article of his answering DeLeon. Since he held the view that his position in the dispute was consistent with a correct interpretation of party policy and principles and since DeLeon, in his role as editor of The People gave voice to such policy and principles, he simply wrote the article answering DeLeon “out of his own mouth.” This was done by introducing into the article several statements made by DeLeon in the columns of The People in the previous few years all of which supported Connolly’s present position and contradicted DeLeon’s. The article was “veiled ... so that none but the readers of The People will see that it is really an answer to DeLeon’s charge.” It appeared in the June issue under the heading Wages and other things.

Towards the end of May the tide of criticism had so turned against Connolly that his own Section in Tray, N.Y. decided to put him on trial to ascertain his position towards party policy and principles. In his defence he presented the Section with a lengthy statement, the contents of which won their support. They also decided to forward it to the National Executive with the request that it be published in The People. Like his earlier reply the statement was denied publication.

On 2 July, the National Convention met at the Grand Central Palace, where according to The Weekly People:–

DeLeon explained the origin and development of the discussion and presented all the documents in the matter, including those which had not been published, pointing out from their incorrect and misleading contents why those unpublished had been allowed to remain so up to now. (W.P. 9/7/04)

Writing to his comrade, J. Carstairs Matheson, Connolly commented:

Dan played a smart trick at the Conference. Of course I could not be present ; was not a delegate, and had my nose too close to grindstone of exploitation to attend, anyway. So, Dan read my correspondence, paragraph by paragraph adding his own criticisms in between, so that the delegates could not discern where I ended an my quotations began, and had lost sight of one sentence before he began to read the one that pointed its moral. As a result he had no difficulty in tearing me to pieces and thus succeeded by this trick – worthy of a shyster lawyer – in preventing publication of the letters, and in preventing the delegates and the party at large from having the opportunity of studying and calmly reviewing the evidence in cold print. It was a ‘great victory’.

The National Convention upheld DeLeon’s handling of the affair; nonetheless Connolly continued in membership still holding to his own views on Wages, Marriage and the Church. Three years later when an anti-Marxist wage theory was being discussed in the Industrial Union Bulletin, organ of the Industrial Workers of the World, Connolly wrote restating his position of 1904. Although the discussion on wages had been going on for months, Connolly’s letter was the one that angered DeLeon. Choosing not to confront Connolly in the columns of the Industrial Union Bulletin, he wrote instead to an S.L.P. member of the I.W.W. General Executive Board, Rudolph Katz, criticising the paper’s editor for “his woeful ignorance on economics by publishing such stuff.” However, he did indicate his willingness to answer Connolly on condition that Katz persuade the editor to request him to do so. It appears no such request was made, because no letter of DeLeon’s appeared. In any event DeLeon had decided on another course of action. When the General Executive Board of the I.W.W. met in New York on 22 Dec., 1907, Connolly put forward a plan to bring in 12,000 New York longshoremen, then independent, into the I.W.W. The action was hampered by DeLeon who induced the Board to go into secret session to try Connolly on the charge that his articles on economics constituted heresy. After some discussion the Chairman of the session, ruled the charges to be out of place before a G.E.B. meeting. Not content to leave the affair rest, DeLeon, shortly afterwards published in The People, an account of the charges he had laid against Connolly.

In this booklet we publish, Connolly’s discussion letter, DeLeon’s reply, Connolly’s article in The Socialist, his defence statement, and relevant extracts from his letters to J. Carstairs Matheson. We have also included the Vandervelde article, Socialism or the Catholic Church. The letter Connolly sent in reply to DeLeon’s comments we could not trace. However, it is unlikely it contained anything that didn’t later appear in Connolly’s defence statement. We have confined the material in this booklet to that concerning the controversy of 1904; we see no point in including the reiteration of positions on wages that occurred in 1907/8.


Last updated on 28.3.2005