J. T. Murphy

Book Review

James Connolly

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. VI, No. 6, June 1924
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

James Connolly: His Life, Work and Writings
By Desmond Ryan. With an Introduction by H. W. Nevinson
The Labour Publishing Company
Paper, 2s. 6d.; Cloth, 5s.

SOME day a Marxist must write the life of James Connolly. We shall never get a true appreciation of Connolly’s place in Irish history and the revolutionary Socialist movement of Britain and America until someone armed with the guiding philosophy of his life has turned it upon his work and appraised his thoughts and actions accordingly.

Desmond Ryan has brought together “a record of facts, opinions and recollections of James Connolly” which will be exceedingly helpful to whoever undertakes the work, but in so far as he attempts to place Connolly he enters into the same partisan claims which he condemns in others. “One inclines upon the whole,” he says, “to define his probable attitude as that of the official Irish Labour Party,” begins an argument to justify his claim, and suddenly drops it as “perhaps a profitless conjecture.” I doubt this. The controversy and speculation have a significance which, if properly appreciated, would do much to indicate the right line of approach to an understanding of Connolly.

Why the rival claims for the soul of Connolly? Why the quotation and counter-quotation to justify the support or non-support of action? Why still more Connolly’s own dying exclamation: “The Socialists will never understand why I am here”? Does not the answer lie in the fact that Connolly is among the few great figures of the international working-class movement which belong to the transition from the epoch of imperialist expansion to the epoch of social revolution, that he felt himself surrounded by reformism, narrow nationalism, doctrinaire socialism, none of which had been brought face to face with the task of revolution? I think McManus struck the key to the situation when he observed that Connolly was “the one Socialist that he had ever met who judged every public situation or political crisis with an eye upon revolutionary possibilities.” Where were the others to be found at that time? Certainly we do not find them in the British Isles or America. We are compelled to turn our eyes eastwards and bring him into alignment with the small Bolshevik group led by Lenin. Desmond Ryan says: “Broadly speaking James Connolly must be classified as a workers’ Republican and Communist. The doctrines and methods that the Russian Revolution has since familiarised were his. He would certainly have been at one with Lenin in destruction and construction alike.”

Ryan is right in this, but the trouble is that Ryan himself does not understand Leninism and consequently cannot apply it to the understanding of Connolly. He does not understand the great changes that were coming in the ranks of Marxists, the cleavage that was imminent when those who had been transforming Marxism into an apology for reformism were to be separated from those who grasped Marxism as the philosophy of revolution. Nor does he understand the difference between those who marched with Lenin under the banner of Communism and those who marched under the leadership of De Leon, most of whom at least kept much of their revolutionary powder dry and saved themselves in the hour of international crisis from becoming the abject creatures of imperialism such as Kautsky, Vandervelde and the reformists of the Second International. He writes with a mind which seems to be a long way back amidst the old controversies between nationalism and internationalism, industrial unionism and the ballot box, talking about peaceful periods and war periods. And yet these are only incidentals to an appreciation of Connolly’s position. Connolly’s place in history is among the heralds of a new epoch, and he must be placed and understood accordingly.

Ryan vividly sketches his struggles. Born in Ulster in the same year as Comrade Lenin, “Connolly was ‘dragged up’ like most proletarian boys. . . . Of his parents we know little beyond the fact that the father was a labourer. . . . In 1880 Connolly’s family became exiles and arrived in Edinburgh, where his father obtained work as a corporation dustman. James became a printer’s devil in the office of the local Evening News. He was then under legal age, but his employer for a year defeated the law . . .” Then the sack. “But he was lucky enough to find work soon afterwards in a bakery . . . later . . . two years in a mosaic tiling factory. . .” The company of his uncle, an old Fenian, kept vivid in his memory the glamour and agony of the national struggle. Mitchel, too, he read, and much Irish history. Brooding, intense, silent, outwardly cold and inwardly aflame, a spirit of adventure called him to new scenes. Leaving Edinburgh at eighteen, Connolly was in turn tramp, navvy and pedlar, spending a roving and eventful life in different parts of Britain. He was married in Perth at the age of twenty-one. “An accident to his father recalled him to Edinburgh. His parent was permanently disabled, and James Connolly took up his work as dustman in the cleansing department of the corporation. . . . But many tomes of ancient and modern history had he handled, the revolutionary phases of Irish history in particular . . . Marx, Engels . . . Association with British Socialists, Morris, Hyndman, Leslie . . . Then to Dublin in 1896 as Socialist agitator, and to start the Irish Socialist Republican Party and edit its organ The Workers’ Republic. Revolt against the Boer war . . . Anti-Jubilee Empire Demonstration . . . writing Labour in Irish History . . . . representative of the Irish S.P. at the International Socialist Congress in 1900 . . . In at the split of the S.D.F. in 1903, and the formation of the Socialist Labour Party in line with De Leon. Later in that year he departed for America. Back again in 1910. . . . The Organisation of the I.T.W.U. . . . The great industrial revolt of 1913. . . . The final martyrdom after Easter week, 1916.”

Here was no complacent trade union leader, but a working-class warrior with heart aflame. What could be the use of talking about the philosophy of gradualism to this man steeped in revolutionary lore and compelled to do battle at every step? Once the goal of social revolution becomes his consuming aim, and he has grasped the Marxist method of reading history, his evolution towards Leninism becomes a certainty as the years sweep us onward towards the great crisis of 1914. His divergence from the Kautskys lies in the revolutionary purpose. They had no revolutionary purpose, but turned Marxism into a fatalism which saw Socialism emerging through the gradual transformation of capitalism. What to them was a paralysing blow was to Connolly the great opportunity. Ryan’s account of the effect of the imperialist war on Connolly reads like Zinovieff’s account of its effect upon Lenin. “His whole being cried out against it, and where Lenin called for the transformation of the imperial war into the civil war of the classes, Connolly called the subject nation of Ireland to war upon the Empire.”

We shall continue in season and out of season to teach that “the far-flung battle line” of England is weakest at the point nearest its heart, that Ireland is in that position of tactical advantage that a defeat of England in India, Egypt, the Balkans or Flanders would not be so dangerous to the British Empire as conflict of armed forces in Ireland, that the time for Ireland’s battle is now, the place for Ireland’s battle is here.

Both watchwords were fundamentally sound in relation to the war on imperialism. Both nice with tireless energy pursued their tasks, but there is a difference in the means of operation. Both agreed in that they must call into operation the sum total of the forces they could muster against the imperialist, but one had a highly developed party as an instrument to gather the forces and maintain the proletarian hegemony, the other had no such revolutionary party understanding the rôle of the proletariat in a predominantly agricultural country. Lenin was farther ahead than Connolly, and with the Bolshevik Party not only led the workers as the vanguard of the mighty revolutionary movement of workers and peasants, but crystallised and expressed the experience that he world should see and hear and read and understand. Connolly had not such a party. He appealed to the I.T.W.U. and to the citizen army. He led his recruits to the very forefront of the national struggle, and by that act stamped upon the pages of Irish history the rôle of the proletariat of Ireland in its war of liberation: but, although he created the impression that he would not hesitate to turn against some of his colleagues in the national war if they would not proceed to carry out the Socialist measures for which he fought, I do not find any clear defining of the rôle of the proletariat or his aims as that of the dictatorship of the proletariat or what part a revolutionary party must take in relation thereto. His deeds proclaim the answer, and one feels convinced that had Connolly not been murdered by the Asquith-Henderson combination, and had he lived to see the Russian Revolution and the emergence of the Communist International, he would have completed his writings in full accord with the declarations of the Communist International.

It is this incompleteness which gives rise to the claims of partisans. Ryan speaks of his departure from “his original Marxism” when in reality he was manifesting a firmer grip of its essentials in contrast to the formal expression passing in the name of Marxism whether via Kautsky or De Leon. This was the case on more than the struggle of subject nations. He grasped the essentials of working with the peasantry and of using the co-operatives whilst the followers of De Leon were concentrating on industrial unionism and the ballot box. He learned his industrial unionism in the industrialised countries of England and America, but he had to apply his philosophy in an essentially agricultural country dominated by a powerful nationalist spirit because of its subjection to England. Fearlessly he faced these problems which did not press upon the De Leonists of Britain and America, and as he grappled with them he felt the big differences that lay between him and his old associates. That is why he exclaimed, “The socialists will not understand why I am here.” Could he have seen the succeeding years, welcomed the Russian Revolution and felt the quaking foundations of capitalism, he would also have heard an answering cry—the revolutionary socialists do understand, and greet James Connolly as one of the valiant few who by their deeds rescued Marxism from sterility and led the way into the epoch of social revolution.

J. T. M.