ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, September 1998


Shaun Doherty

Will the real James Connolly please stand up?


From International Socialism 2:80, September 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


James Connolly
The Lost Writings
introduced and edited by Aindrias Ó’Cathasaigh
Pluto Press 1997, £13.99

James Connolly, Selected Writings
introduced and edited by Peter Berresford-Ellis
Pluto Press 1997, £12.99

The publication of selections of Connolly’s writings could not be more timely. To make sense of the current attempts at political accommodation in the North of Ireland it is essential to re-examine the history of resistance to Britain’s involvement in the country as a whole. Central to that re-examination are the life, writings and political legacy of James Connolly, Ireland’s pre-eminent Marxist.

Connolly had predicted that the partition of Ireland proposed by the British prime minister, Asquith, in 1914 and agreed by the leaders of the Irish Nationalist Party, Redmond and Devlin, would be ‘a betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it endured’. [1]

Partition of the six counties of Ulster and the creation of the Northern Irish state eventually occurred in 1921, five years after Connolly’s execution following the 1916 rebellion. The legacy of partition has been the creation of a sectarian state within which the Nationalist minority has been systematically oppressed and discriminated against and the working class as a whole divided on material and religious grounds. Political conflict has endured with varying degrees of intensity for the whole of its existence. Since 1968 that conflict has taken the form of a mass civil rights campaign, the deployment of British troops and military repression, the subsequent emergence of the Provisional IRA and a campaign of armed Republican resistance, sustained sectarian attacks by Loyalist murder gangs, and most recently a fragile ceasefire and an attempt to arrive at a political settlement through a ‘peace process’. Throughout the whole of this period the political leaders of the Unionist majority have been intransigent in their opposition to progress or any attempt to circumscribe their positions of power and privilege. Indeed, it could be argued that this intransigence is testimony to their inability to offer Protestant workers any vision of a better future let alone any significant material benefits. In these circumstances it is in their interests to fan the flames of sectarian conflict. Connolly would have taken little comfort from the accuracy of his prescient analysis:

Let us remember that the Orange aristocracy now fighting for its supremacy in Ireland has at all times been based on a denial of the common human rights of the Irish people; that the Orange Order was not founded to safeguard religious freedom, but to deny religious freedom and that it raised this religious question, not for the sake of any religion, but in order to use religious zeal in the interests of oppressive property rights of the rack-renting landlords and sweating capitalists. [2]

Northern Ireland’s industrial strength of 1921, with its shipyards, heavy engineering and linen industries, has long since disappeared. But the political monsters unleashed by Britain to police it nearly 80 years ago live on. Although they represent a movement that is rapidly fragmenting and an ideology in acute crisis, Ulster Unionist politicians will continue to obstruct any kind of political progress and are still using the Orange card to keep workers divided. The way they have whipped up sectarianism at Drumcree and elsewhere with the spurious justification of protecting Protestant ‘culture’ and ‘civil liberties’ is testimony to their historical role. Connolly’s description 84 years ago could not have been more relevant than it is today.

At the same time, however, the strategy being adopted by the Provisional IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, in the current phase of the struggle stands in sharp contrast to the positions adopted by Connolly on all of the central issues. Militant Republicanism has dominated the resistance to the British presence since 1971, but neither its strategy of armed struggle nor its pursuit of an elusive ‘peace process’ is able to deliver a solution. They themselves recognise that a military victory is not possible and that their unarmed strategy is dependant on alliances with ruling class political parties in Britain, the United States and Southern Ireland.

In a document circulated by the Republican leadership in 1994 they make this quite explicit:

The strategic objectives come from the prolonged debate, but are based on a straightforward logic: that Republicans at this time and on their own do not have the strength to achieve the end goal. The struggle needs strengthening most obviously from other Nationalist constituencies led by the SDLP, Dublin government and the emerging Irish-American lobby. [3]

This approach has led to the adoption of the Mitchell principles which accept de facto the continuation of partition. Indeed, the pursuit of the US lobby led them to court Clinton himself at the time when he was contemplating a bloody carnage in the Gulf. Their policy has also led to an acceptance and consolidation of the divide between Nationalist and Loyalist communities which negates the possibility of an appeal to their common class interests.

It would be stretching imagination beyond any reasonable limits to claim that the Republicans of today have inherited the mantle of Connolly-Connolly who organised among Catholic and Protestant workers alike and led them together against the employers, Connolly the principled revolutionary who stood out against the imperial slaughter of the First World War alongside Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Connolly the implacable opponent of reformism who castigated the French socialist Millerand for entering into a coalition government in 1899 that included Gallifet, the butcher of the Paris Commune.

One of the greatest benefits of engaging with Connolly’s own writings is the light they shed on the struggle today and the extent to which they expose any resistance which does not put the working class at the centre of the stage. Pluto has re-issued the Berresford-Ellis collection first published by Pelican in 1973. The Pelican edition was the first introduction to Connolly’s writings for many of us who had become involved in the most recent phase of the Irish struggle following the civil rights movement of 1968. The Ó’Cathasaigh selection is an attempt make available some of the extensive body of Connolly’s work that has been hidden in the National Library of Ireland. No edition of Connolly’s collected works has yet appeared. Both books should be warmly welcomed, but Berresford-Ellis in the Introduction to his volume exemplifies a crucial problem.

Connolly’s writings are an important part of his political legacy. Although not primarily a theoretician, Connolly was an outstanding propagandist and polemicist and one of the most effective popularisers of socialist ideas. Both these volumes provide valuable examples of his work, but the way these examples are selected and introduced is problematic. Just as different political traditions have fought over Connolly’s corpse, every attempt to publish his writing has reflected the political stance of its editors. Some have sought to portray him as a Catholic socialist and others have sought to use those extracts from his work which supported their political agendas at the expense of Connolly’s own. Berresford-Ellis is no exception. He takes an uncritical attitude to Connolly and implies that his involvement in 1916 was the fitting culmination of his political life.

In his Preface to the 1997 edition of Selected Writings Berresford-Ellis laments the lack of a comprehensive collection of Connolly’s writings and presents a brief summary of the published assessments of his political contribution. He quite rightly identifies attempts to appropriate Connolly for ‘revisionism’ and singles out Austen Morgan’s James Connolly: A Political Biography. [4] Morgan argues that Connolly lived as a socialist, but died an Irish Nationalist and that his death was a denial of his life’s work. Morgan used this assessment to provide left cover for his rejection of Irish Republican resistance and his apologia for British involvement in Ireland. But Berresford-Ellis attempts to appropriate Connolly for the opposite tradition, the tradition which has sought to prioritise the Nationalist struggle over any other and has seen any analysis based on class as subservient to it. This form of the ‘stages’ theory is the mirror image of Morgan’s. It is most famously articulated in C. Desmond Greaves’ The Life and Times of James Connolly. [5] It argues that the struggle for the socialist transformation of Ireland has to await its national liberation. In his Preface to the 1985 edition of The History of the Irish Working Class Berresford-Ellis writes, ‘In Ireland today, as in previous centuries, the mainspring of socialism is in the national struggle’. [6]

This starting point leads to an inevitable distortion of Connolly’s life and work, but ironically also results in an uncritical assessment of it. If the ‘mainspring’ is the national struggle then the tendency will be to prioritise Nationalist politics at the expense of the socialist objective. Or to put it in the words of Éamon de Valera, one of the Republican heroes of 1916 who subsequently became Fianna Fail prime minster, ‘Labour must wait.’

In any evaluation of Connolly’s work there needs to be a clear understanding of the tension between his lifelong commitment to working class struggle and his relationship to the fight for national liberation. This tension is not just theoretical. The historical developments during the last three years of his life shaped his attitude considerably. From 1889 he had been a socialist and trade union organiser in Scotland; in 1896 he moved to Ireland and formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party; in 1903 he left for the US where he became involved with the Socialist Labour Party and subsequently became an organiser for the International Workers of the World; finally he returned to Ireland in 1910. In 1911 he became organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Belfast and then its general secretary in 1913.

Dublin 1913 proved to be a watershed. The lockout of the Dublin working class as the employers fought to prevent the unionisation of workers and to stem the increasing influence of Connolly’s union ended in defeat for the workers. The solidarity shown by rank and file workers in Britain was outweighed by the capitulation of their union leaderships and the TUC-backed campaign of scabbing.

This defeat was followed in 1914 by the outbreak of the First World War. Connolly was in a small minority of the international socialist organisations in opposing the war and the ITGWU campaigned against conscription. He believed that the war presented revolutionaries with an opportunity, particularly in Ireland, to strike a blow against the biggest imperial power in the world: ‘Starting thus, Ireland may yet set a torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord’. [7] In order to follow through this belief he formed an alliance between his Irish Citizens Army and the Nationalist Irish Volunteers that led to his central role in the armed uprising of Easter 1916.

The relationship between these three momentous events exposed the weaknesses as well as strengths of Connolly’s politics. The conclusions he drew from the defeat of 1913 and the outbreak of war the next year undoubtedly contributed to his involvement in the Easter rising. Out of the defeat of working class struggle and the carnage of war he became increasingly drawn to the idea of armed revolt against Britain in alliance with the forces of Nationalism. He hoped that such a revolt would not only challenge British rule in Ireland but would inspire workers’ resistance to the war throughout Europe.

In order to understand this relationship it is necessary to adopt a critical evaluation of Connolly’s approach to the national question. Here we part company with Berresford-Ellis. Connolly’s alliance with the Nationalists in 1916 had its roots in his analysis of the historical role of bourgeois nationalists. In his most important and insightful book, Labour in Irish History, Connolly contrasts the role that workers’ struggles have contributed to the fight against British imperialism with the dominant oppositional politics of Irish Nationalism.

In his introduction to the 1987 Bookmarks edition of Labour in Irish History [8] Kieran Allen argues that Connolly’s view that capitalism in Ireland could not achieve prosperity by establishing a manufacturing system in a world market led him to a blind spot where Republican views on economic development were concerned. Because he believed that the struggle for Irish independence led to an assault on capitalism itself, he did not recognise the extent to which even militant Republicans could contribute to capitalism’s survival. Instead he argued that if militant Republicans broke with the constitutional Nationalists they would be inevitably drawn towards socialism.

The best example of how there could be a pull in the opposite direction, how there could be two way traffic on the bridge between Republicanism and socialism, is provided by James Stephens, one of the co-founders of the Fenians in 1858. Even though he was a socialist and a member of Marx’s First International, so wedded was he to the notion of an all-class alliance to free Ireland that he regarded any attempt to raise social issues within the Fenian movement as lunatic. Socialism was simply a matter of personal preference. The unity of the Nationalist movement was what mattered to the exclusion of all else.

The beauty of Labour in Irish History is the way in which Connolly exposes this notion. Nationalists like Sarsfield, Grattan and O’Connell all feared the masses more than the British. Any movement from below that threatened their own class position and material wealth was to be vehemently opposed. Consequently the Irish bourgeoisie had a record of cowardly betrayal which Connolly ultimately traced to their weak manufacturing base and their need to take more drastic measures than they were prepared to against the landed aristocracy and all those dependent on Britain for protection. He describes the Act of Union with Britain in 1800 being made possible ‘... because Irish manufacture was weak and consequently had not an energetic class with sufficient public spirit and influence to prevent the union’. The constitutional Nationalists argued the opposite. If only they had their independence then the economy would flourish.

The weakness of the book, however, lies in Connolly’s distinction between the old Home Rule tradition of constitutional Nationalism and militant Republicanism. Fintan Lalor and John Mitchel are hailed as revolutionaries even though the former defended the rights of private property and the latter was horrified when the workers began to take the initiative in the French Revolution of 1848. His failure to understand the common ground within which the traditions of constitutional Nationalism and militant Republicanism were rooted had tragic consequences not only in the years following his death, but for the struggle today.

I have set out this argument at some length because Berresford-Ellis makes an intemperate attack on Allen’s Introduction and a shameful comment on Trotsky’s attitude to the 1916 rebellion. He expresses his delight at the Bookmarks publication of Labour in Irish History, but has his delight tempered by:

Kieran Allen’s introduction, which tried to claim that Connolly was really a Trotskyist at heart. As Trotsky singularly failed to grasp the meaning and significance of the 1916 uprising in which Connolly fought and gave his life, one might accuse Allen of having a cruel sense of humour. Allen disagreed with Connolly’s principal teachings and urged his readers to ignore them. One wondered why he had bothered to write the introduction to the work at all. [9]

To start with the last point first. It was precisely because Allen wanted to highlight the whole of Connolly’s work and not just those sections of it which appeared to justify the Republican embrace that he not only wrote the Introduction referred to above, but also wrote The Politics of James Connolly (Pluto 1990), a political biography that highlights Connolly’s contribution to the revolutionary tradition in Ireland. In fact, the Introduction to Labour in Irish History pays tribute to Connolly’s achievement in laying the foundation stone for a revolutionary socialist strategy in Ireland and argues that his insights place him head and shoulders above many later left wing theorists who have sought in vain to find allies among progressive sections of the Irish upper class. The idea that Allen tries to claim Connolly for the Trotskyist tradition is refuted by the conclusion to The Politics of James Connolly: ‘Although Connolly cannot be claimed for any particular Marxist tradition, he belonged primarily in the revolutionary camp’. [10] The strength of Allen’s contributions is that they pay Connolly the respect of critical analysis and depart sharply from the hagiographical tones of Greaves and Berresford-Ellis.

There is indeed a connection between Connolly’s insights in Labour in Irish History and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. They both argued that only the working class could be relied upon to fight consistently against imperialism. Connolly puts it explicitly: ‘... only the working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.’ Particularly in a backward country with a weak bourgeoisie the working class could be crucial. But an insight, however valuable, is not a fully developed theory, and key elements in Trotsky’s theory are missing from Connolly, in particular his argument that the struggle could only be successful if it led to the establishment of a workers’ state. Connolly mistakenly implies that if only constitutional Nationalism is rejected a more militant Republicanism might become the vehicle for social advance. A consequence of this belief was his failure to establish an enduring socialist organisation independent of Republicanism.

Secondly the allegation about Trotsky’s attitude towards 1916 is quite wrong. Indeed, in his own Introduction to Selected Writings Berresford-Ellis quotes Trotsky’s response to Plekhanov’s ‘wretched and shameful’ remarks about the harmful effects of the uprising. It is true that Trotsky did not have as sophisticated a position as Lenin and he thought that 1916 represented the end of the national uprising and ushered the proletariat onto centre stage. But he was as unequivocal in his defence of the uprising as he had been critical of the British trade union bureaucracy’s role in the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Lenin’s more accurate formulation describes the situation in Ireland as follows: ‘For to imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices ... to imagine that means repudiating social revolution ... Whoever expects a “pure” revolution will never live to see it’. [11] Both Greaves and Berresford-Ellis mistakenly use this quote to justify the cross-class Nationalist alliance within which socialist aspirations would be subordinated to the struggle for national liberation. But Lenin was not articulating a carefully thought out strategy for the revolutionary struggle in Ireland; he was rightly making a principled internationalist statement of support for an anti-imperialist revolt which many other prominent socialists had repudiated.

Lenin himself was won over to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in the months leading up to the October insurrection in Russia and no one could accuse him of having illusions in what 1916 had achieved. Indeed he argued, ‘The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats’. [12]

Lenin had also conducted a polemic in his April Thesis against the ‘old Bolsheviks’ who retained a schematic belief in the need for a bourgeois democratic revolution to be completed before a proletarian revolution. He argued that the actual experience of the struggle in Russia after the February revolution demonstrated an ‘interlacing’ of one struggle with another and the creation of a situation of ‘dual power’. Alongside the Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie another government had emerged, the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. [13] Any notion that he was downplaying the importance of workers’ involvement and socialist objectives in anti-imperialist struggles is nonsensical.

It is also important not to lose sight of the fact that Connolly’s involvement in 1916 did not mean that he had abandoned his belief that the working class was the key to the successful emancipation of Ireland. He was realistic about the chances of success, but he knew that even if the uprising was to triumph there would be other struggles ahead. In a speech to the Irish Citizen’s Army he spelt it out:

The odds are 1,000 to one against us. If we win we will be great heroes; but if we lose we will be the greatest scoundrels the country has ever produced. In the event of victory hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.

Greaves and others describe his alliance with the Volunteers as a sign of his growing political maturity and an advance on his position of Labour in Irish History. They argue that he espoused the notion that an alliance with the national bourgeoisie was now essential for Irish freedom. But nowhere does he abandon the belief that the working class was the sole inheritor of the fight for Irish freedom, nor does he ever adopt the stages theory and accept that the outcome of the uprising would be a bourgeois capitalist republic. It is more likely that the aftermath of working class defeats drove Connolly into a closer accommodation to Republican politics than he would have liked. Indeed in Erin’s Hope as early as 1897 Connolly had written, ‘No revolutionist can safely invite the cooperation of men or classes whose ideals are not theirs and whom, therefore, they may be compelled to fight at some future critical stage of the journey to freedom.’

Berresford-Ellis argues that this view was later revised in favour of Lenin’s formulation quoted above, but as I have already argued this sleight of hand is an attempt to justify both his and Greaves’ view that the Irish revolution would have to come in stages.

So what of Connolly’s legacy? Every shade of political opinion in Ireland has tried to claim him as one of their own. His revolutionary politics have invariably been watered down or conveniently forgotten. He is remembered for his leading role in the 1916 uprising, the final act of his life, and not for all that went before it. His irrevocable commitment to working class struggle, his internationalism and his implacable hostility to reformism are all conveniently sidelined. Part of the reason for this is that he did not bequeath a political organisation that could carry through his political vision in the years after his death. Those who fought alongside him in the unions accepted de Valera’s dictum that the aspirations of workers had to be subordinated to the development of an independent Irish state even to the extent of supporting Fianna Fail, an openly capitalist party. Indeed, the Irish Citizen’s Army dissolved itself into the Dublin brigade of the IRA led by Oscar Traynor, an ally of de Valera. Those who fought alongside him for national liberation accepted something less than freedom in the wake of Ireland’s partition in 1921 in the Treaty which established the Southern Irish state.

It wasn’t as if Connolly had no desire to build a socialist organisation that could survive his death. All his life he had been involved in creating or seeking to sustain socialist parties, but his understanding of their role was flawed. His period in the US had seen him influenced by the syndicalist tradition which elevated the importance of militant trade unionism above the need for building an independent political party. Connolly regarded political struggles as an echo of industrial struggles and not as something that required their own specific organisational form.

The defeat of the Dublin workers in 1913 brought into sharper relief Connolly’s view that militant Republicans would automatically be drawn to socialist politics during the course of the struggle for national liberation. However, the lack of an independent political voice meant that the class interests of workers were subordinated to the class interests of the national bourgeoisie in the emerging Southern Irish state. The partition of Ireland and the creation of the Northern state divided workers along religious lines and led to decades of discrimination and oppression against the Catholic minority. Connolly’s vision of a united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers, North and South of the border did not have the organisational vehicle to become a reality.

This article has focused on the debate arising out of the introductions to these collections, but it is illuminating to highlight some of the examples that make Connolly’s writings so compelling. In Labour, Religion and Nationality he engages in debate with the Jesuit priest Father Kane who used the pulpit to denounce the increasing levels of organisation and political consciousness among the Dublin workers. In his Lenten discourses in 1910 he denounced socialism for leading to the rule of the mob. Connolly’s response undermines the impact of the ‘insult’ by taking it as a compliment and throwing it back in the face of the cleric. In one of his most powerful passages he gives voice to the role of the masses in history:

There was a time stretching for more than 1,000 years, when the mob was without power or influence, when the entire power of the world was concentrated in the hands of the kings, the nobles and the hierarchy. That was the blackest period in human history ... Then the mob started on its upward march to power-a power only to be realised in the socialist republic. In the course of its upward march the mob has transformed and humanised the world. It has abolished religious persecution and imposed toleration on bigots of all creeds; it has established the value of human life; softened the horrors of war as a preliminary to abolishing it; compelled trial by jury; abolished the death penalty ... and today is fighting to take children from the factory and the mine and put them in school.. in this civilising, humanising work the mob had at all times to meet and master the hatred of kings and nobles and there is not in history a record of any movement for abolishing torture, preventing war, establishing popular suffrage, or shortening the hours of labour led by the hierarchy ... All hail to the mob, the incarnation of progress! [14]

Echoing Marx on the self-emancipation of the working class, he celebrates the self-activity of the masses in transforming the world in the face of undying opposition from the ruling elites. Writing in The Workers’ Republic he ridicules Keir Hardie’s attempts to portray the Irish Home Rule Party as progressive by illustrating how it had opposed every single attempt by Hardie himself to draw attention in parliament to the plight of workers. If it was so profoundly reactionary in the House of Commons, how could its strategy for Ireland be any different?

Connolly’s writings have an astonishing breadth of reference. Some, like his attacks on Celtic mysticism and pan-Nationalist alliances, have a clear resonance for today’s struggle. He accuses the Celtic myth makers of an ‘unprogressive desire to escape the responsibility of investigating phenomena by placing their source beyond the reach of human activity’. Others have a more internationalist flavour whether celebrating the anti-war stance of the Russian socialists or discussing the general prospects for revolution in Europe. In an article on the struggle in Germany written at the start of the war in 1914 he writes, ‘To me, therefore, the socialist of another country is a fellow patriot, as the capitalist of my own country is a natural enemy.’ In a biting assessment of the British Social Democratic Federation he concludes that ‘there was a revolutionary activity and fight once in the SDF, but their leaders, Hyndman, Quelch and Burrows, have led it as a lightning conductor leads lightning – into the earth to dissipate its energy.’

For these and countless other sharply written insights, Connolly’s own writings repay their readers and arm them with arguments for the struggle. For making a selection of his work accessible both these collections are welcome. But neither pay Connolly the respect due to his thoroughgoing commitment to revolution by providing a critical assessment of his life and work. For that Allen’s political biography is indispensable.


1. Labour and the Proposed Partition of Ireland, Irish Worker, 14 March 1914.

2. Ibid.

3. Quoted in E. Mallie and D. McKitterick, The Fight for Peace (Heinemann 1996).

4. A. Morgan, James Connolly: a Political Biography (Manchester University Press 1988).

5. C.D. Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (Lawrence & Wishart 1988).

6. P. Berresford-Ellis, A History of the Irish Working Class (Pluto 1985).

7. Irish Worker, 29 August 1914.

8. J. Connolly, Labour in Irish History (Bookmarks 1987).

9. Quoted in P. Berresford-Ellis, Selected Writings: James Connolly (Pluto 1997), p. ix.

10. Quoted in K. Allen, op. cit., p. 170.

11. C.D. Greaves, op. cit., p. 36.

12. Quoted ibid., p. 37.

13. See T. Cliff, Lenin, vol. 2 (Pluto 1975), p. 127.

14. P. Berresford-Ellis, op. cit., p. 8.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 25.4.2012