James Connolly


Political Action


The Harp, July 1908.
Republished in James Connolly: Selected Political Writings, (ed. Owen Dudley Edwards & Bernard Ransom), New York 1974.

Transcription & HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In our editorial of last month we dealt with the subject of Industrial Unionism, and pointed out that that method of organizing the Working Class provided the only really effective constructive work by which the daily and hourly conflict between the capitalist and the worker could be utilised to generate the steam necessary to carry the Social Revolution through, as well as to provide the forms of administration for the new Industrial Republic. In this issue we propose to say a few words about the structure and functions of Socialist political parties, as such. And as we have not seen anywhere a calm analysis of the different conceptions of political revolutionary action, such as we intend to present, we hope that our readers will extend to us in this instance also the patience and courtesy due and befitting among men and women devoting their lives to the work of emancipation.

The various Socialist parties, the sight of whom contending and attacking each other is so often a source of joy to the capitalist philistine, although they possess a common ideal, and a common concrete object to be worked for do not always possess a common belief in the means by which a political party to attain their end can be created. In this divergence of belief on the question of how to build a revolutionary political party is to be found the real reason for the warring political organisations of Socialism rather than in any divergence of belief in fundamentals. Of course as a rule neither set will admit this; each, with all the zealotry of partisans will rather ascribe the existence of another party to the wicked designs of their opponents; if not to the machinations of the capitalist class. But such wildly reckless statements may be safely brushed aside. Whatever unclean or compromising elements may creep into a movement after it becomes popular it is fair to assume that Socialist parties are at their inception not very likely to attract any but the idea list or genuine revolutionist.

There are two distinct and opposing ideas as to how best to build a political party to do the political work of Socialism, and an understanding of these two ideas will serve to enable the reader to grasp the political situation better than listening to any amount of heated debate on the subject by the partisans of either. These two ideas may be briefly stated thus:

I. That the work of the Social Revolution can only be accomplished by men and women with a clear understanding of the economics of capitalism, that therefore a clear and definite program is the first essential, and in the interest of maintaining that definite program of the party it is imperative to expel out of the said party all speakers, writers, or even members who are not in the strictest harmony with its ‘clean cut’ principles, and

II. That the work of the Social Revolution depends in the last analysis upon the growth of class-consciousness amongst the working class, that therefore the chief task of a Socialist political party is to educate and direct that class consciousness along correct lines, that in order to do so allowance must continually be made for the gradual nature of its development, and for the stages thereof, that therefore it must be made possible for all who have accepted the central principles of common ownership to become members of the party irrespective of their knowledge or lack of knowledge of economics, and that the development of the political struggle of the Socialist movement must be depended upon to clear the minds of the members rather than any process of weeding out.

We think that we are right in outlining these two conceptions of the process of upbuilding a political party as the fundamental, underlying ideas which in practice have produced in the past warring parties of Socialism where harmony was looked for and demanded by the working class. The thoughtful unprejudiced reader wile perceive that here is a more fundamental and at the same time more creditable source of disunity than is to be found in the usual allegations of ‘dictation and despotism’ on the one side, or ‘compromise and confusion’, as freely alleged on the other. On the other hand it must be pointed out that, as was almost inevitable human nature being as it is, each of those parties tended to develop traits which seemed to verify the accusations of their opponents.

Dictation and despotism, interfering with the opinions of members on mere matters of party administration very soon followed upon the heels of the attempts of the first party to purify its ranks by expulsion, and compromise for the sake of getting votes at times treads closely in the wake of toleration and broadminded treatment of unfledged recruits.

In Europe the solution of this problem of uniting the political parties of Socialism has been sought in a unity which embraces both schools of thought and while not concealing their utter divergence provides in press and platform a means for discussion, as members, of the things that divide them, and insists that all must recognize the voice of the majority of the party as supreme. To some this may seem as a virtual surrender of its position by the first party, since it abandons – its insistence upon the duty of a Socialist party to expel all those who are not ‘clear’ upon tactics, or are not orthodox.

Thus the S.L.P. when its officers declared for unity, virtually went on record in favor of submitting all differences between Socialists to a majority vote, and admitted that there was no longer any reason for its existence as a party.

In a sense that is true. It is no doubt a vindication of the policy of toleration advocated by the second party. But this is in many cases traceable to other causes also. It is traceable to the fact that within recent years there has grown up in the Socialist movement a change of opinion relative to the functions of a political party. That change was indicated in our editorial in the June issue. Among many of the adherents of the clear cut policy the conviction has gained ground that the political party which exists for the fight at the ballot box is primarily and essentially an agitational and destructive force, and that the real constructive work of the Social Revolution must come from an economic industrial organization. From this conviction two currents of thought have developed. One, that since the economic organization was the constructive one, political action was unnecessary; another, that since the political party was not to accomplish the revolution but only to lead the attack upon the political citadel of capitalism, there no longer existed the same danger in the unclearness of its membership, nor compelling necessity for insisting upon its purification. In other words that Socialism at the ballot box is the dress parade of the army of Labor, Industrial Unionism is the same army with its service clothes on, ready for work.

From all this it is our belief there will evolve, if there has not in principle already evolved, as the fighting army of the workers of this country:

One Socialist party embracing all shades and conceptions of Socialist political thought.

One Socialist Industrial organization drilling the working class for the supreme mission of their class – the establishment of the Worker’s Republic.

Between these two organizations – the advance guard and the main army of labor – there should be no war, and no endorsement. As travellers to a common goal they should not quarrel, and the dear bought experience of the past has taught us that when political organizations endorse economic, tacitly or otherwise, they always exact a heavy price for their action, just as when economic organizations have endorsed political, it always cost the former their soul and their integrity.

Finally, we give it as our opinion that until the economic organisation of the workers has attained a power in control of the workshop and therefore in the nation, equal to that attained by the capitalist class before they raised the revolutionary standard in England, America and France, working class politics are but preliminary skirmishing, and that therefore the broadest, most tolerant political party of Socialism may be made useful as a teacher as long as it is kept distinct from the industrial organization and therefore unable to hamper the movements of the latter when, as the regular army of organised labor, it forms its line of battle for the final attack.


Last updated on 11.8.2003