Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Andy Johnston, James Larraghy, Edward McWilliams, Connolly: A Marxist Analysis, Irish Workers Group, Dublin 1990, pp72, £3.75

James Connolly is not only the most important figure in the history of Irish Socialism, he is also an important figure in the history of the response of revolutionary theory to imperialism. His influence within Irish politics as the claimed patron of the Irish Labour Party, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Workers’ Party, the Communist Party, each of the Trotskyist groups, and the Republican Movement, is the main reason why the Irish Workers Group have published this analysis. This unique position within the Second International as a militant trying to deal with the development of imperialism, not from within the imperialist heartlands but from within a colony, is not so widely recognised.

The work argues that Connolly’s theory was not, as has been claimed, identical to the positions of Lenin and Trotsky. On the contrary, it argues that, despite his many virtues, Connolly proved uncritical of nationalism in his original contribution to Socialist theory, and that this was a serious flaw in a country in which the pursuit of class struggle was deeply bound up with the struggle for national independence.

The strength of this book is not that it makes this claim – which has been made before by many on the left who seek to avoid the national question – but the way in which it draws on a wide reading of Connolly’s scattered work, on the best of existing historiography on Ireland and on a well developed articulation of Marxist theory to explain the problems with Connolly’s Marxism, and the need for Socialists in Ireland to adopt a critical approach to nationalism combined with committed advocacy of national independence.

It shows firstly how the Marxism of the British Social Democratic Federation and Morris’ Socialist League in which Connolly learnt his Marxism not only failed to produce a principled position on Ireland, but failed also to give its members the understanding of Marx’s political economy and historical method, which would have allowed Connolly to work out a position on Ireland.

Theoretically weakened in this way, Connolly turned to the radical wing of Irish nationalism, taking up their romantic argument that private property had always been an alien British intrusion in Ireland, and that the struggle against British rule was really a struggle against capitalism.

The book is at its strongest in answering this claim. Making use of Marx’s studies on pre-Norman Ireland in his Ethnological Notebooks, and Marx’s studies of the period of bourgeois revolution in Ireland (1782-1800), and also using the best available academic research, the book argues convincingly that primitive Communism had long since been replaced by a developing feudalism before the Norman invasion, and that the modern national struggle was initiated by the Irish bourgeoisie in search of an independent road of capitalist development.

These arguments provide a powerful basis not only for the criticism of Connolly, but also for a long overdue Marxist analysis of the development of capitalism in Ireland.

On this foundation the book goes on to examine Connolly’s views on party, state, religion, the oppression of women, and the Protestant working class – central testing areas for any Socialist politics in Ireland.

Here the book deserves some criticism. Originally authors, being somewhat eclectic in their method, and not always maintaining the high standard of analysis the authors have set themselves.

In the chapter on Connolly’s view on women and the family, the book falls into the trap of merely condemning Connolly for failing to match the position of Marx, despite explicitly denying that it wishes to do that (p.107). On religion, Marx’ position is incorrectly portrayed as similar to that of Feuerbach. As a result, the real difficulties of Connolly’s theist position of criticising ‘interference’ by organised religion in politics, while accepting the validity of religion as a language of the oppressed, are not adequately analysed.

The period of intense political activity by Connolly in Ireland from 1910 to 1916 is the real test for this book. It fails to recognise that Connolly, in practice, always emphasised the importance of the minority of educated and organised Socialist activists in initiating successful class struggle. It incorrectly claims that building the ITGWU as a syndicalist ‘One Big Union’ was Connolly’s first priority in this period. On the contrary, Connolly’s first priority was always to build a Socialist Party of Ireland, and then when this party collapsed (during a period in which all Irish political parties were replaced by armed militias), to reorganise the ITGWU’s ad-hoc militia, the Irish Citizens Army, into a disciplined workers’ fighting force.

These errors mean the work is unable to explain Connolly’s role in the 1916 rising, except in the most general terms. This act of Connolly’s has been described by previous writers as Connolly’s abandonment of Socialism, as proof of his Republicanism (i.e. of his commitment to achieving national independence prior to Socialism) and, most absurdly, by C.D. Greaves as evidence that Connolly shared Lenin’s response to the war. All these positions must be rejected.

Connolly believed that with the suspension of Home Rule, the restriction of democratic rights and ‘economic conscription’ into the army, politics were being reduced to military strength. His initiation of the rising was a bold, but misguided, attempt to take advantage of the weakness of the dominant Irish bourgeois party and of Britain’s preoccupation elsewhere, to reverse the collapse of the SPI and the defeat of the ITGWU in the 1913 lock-out. Instead of analysing this, the book is diverted into an examination of the Second International’s position on the war and the varying responses of Lenin, Trotsky and Radek to the rising. This is useful material, but does not amount to a constructive analysis of Connolly’s politics in this period.

What we are left with, then, is a brilliant analysis of Connolly’s theory of Irish history within a less successful assessment of his overall politics. But even this is far superior to almost everything else written on Connolly’s politics and the overall result is a book which is essential reading for any Socialist concerned with Irish politics or with campaigns of solidarity with the struggle against imperialism in Ireland.


Updated by ETOL: 15.7.2003