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International Socialism, November 1977


Shaun Doherty

Irish Question


From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


James Connolly – Socialist, Patriot and Martyr
Samuel Levenson
Quartet £2.50

History books written by non-socialists usually give themselves away and Levenson’s biography of Connolly is no exception. The book is about the man ‘as a person and individual rather than as a figure in the history of the Irish working class’ (p.17). Thus are the inseparable separated and the book suffers as a result.

It is, however, scholarly and well researched, with much new material gleaned from William O’Brien’s previously inaccessible library. Levenson provides us with an impressive but limited account of the man who has been hailed as Ireland’s Lenin.

Born in abject poverty in Edinburgh in 1868, Connolly was at the centre of political activity in the ILP and the Scottish Socialist Federation by 1894. He stood for councillor for St. Giles ward in that year and polled 263 votes losing to a liberal and a Tory. At the time he said:

‘The election of a socialist to any public body is only valuable in so far as it is the return of a disturber of the political peace.’

The book charts his moves to Dublin in 1896, America in 1902, back to Dublin in 1910 ending with the rising of 1916 and his subsequent murder. But the masses of facts in the book shed little light on two of the most contentious aspects of Connolly’s life; his failure to understand the need for an independent political party and his confused attitude to the Catholic Church. Levenson does however attempt to establish Connolly’s internationalism against the charges made by the English labour leaders that he sold out the struggle for workers power by embracing the fight to Irish national freedom. He quotes Connolly at Liberty Hall on Palm Sunday 1916:

‘In the event of victory, hold on to your guns, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.’

The account of the rising itself is based on the assumption that Connolly’s impatience outstripped his political judgement but it is the only section that is moving to read. The rest is the dry bones of his life. To put flesh on them there is no substitute for reading Connolly’s own pamphlets, Socialism made easy, Labour, Religion and Nationality, and above all Labour in Irish History. Levenson documents Connolly’s literary output without capturing the fire and the lyricism of his writings. They remain today some of the clearest and most cogent examples of socialist literature. What better summary could there be of Ireland’s struggle than this sentence from Labour in Irish History:

‘The Irish question is a social question, the whole age long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis, into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland.’

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