Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


James Connolly

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh (ed.)
James Connolly: The Lost Writings
Pluto, London 1997, pp265, £45/£13.99

‘The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.’

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

IT is the unfortunate fate of great political and religious leaders that when they die, their message frequently falls into the hands of their principal followers, who proceed to use it for their own purposes in ways with which the leaders would have disagreed had they remained alive. As Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s excellent introduction demonstrates, Connolly’s writings have suffered from this process with a vengeance. Following his judicial murder by the British authorities in Ireland in 1916, James Connolly’s literary and political legacy passed into the hands of his son-in-law William O’Brien [1], who became leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and also one of the principal ‘labour lieutenants of capital’ (in the time-honoured phrase) in Ireland. As a result, the main collection of Connolly’s writings, which appeared between 1948 and 1951, is an abbreviated version which creates difficulties for anybody trying to attain an overall picture of Connolly’s political development.

We have reason, therefore, to be immensely grateful to Ó Cathasaigh for assembling this collection of some 65 additional writings. Instead of dividing the material according to subject matter, as the ‘official’ collection does, the editor has arranged the pieces in more or less chronological order. As a result, it becomes easier to see how Connolly included in his vision of Socialism the conception of a free united Ireland under working class leadership – a goal which remains to be fought for.

It is by no means only Irish Socialists for whom these writings are of interest. Connolly had first-hand knowledge of the British labour movement, and parts of the collection deal with the deficiencies of H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. The article Parliamentary Democracy (The Workers’ Republic, 22 September 1900) gives a critique of the British Constitution. One of Connolly’s criticisms is:

‘The powers of parliament are... somewhat arbitrary and ill-defined. Every general election is fought on one or two main issues, and on these alone. It may be the franchise, it may be temperance, it may be Home Rule, or any other question, but when parliament has received from the electors its mandate on that one question it arrogates to itself the right to rule and decide on every other question without the slightest reference to the wishes of the electorate.’ (p. 48)

This point was originally made by Rousseau in The Social Contract:

‘The English people imagines that it is free: it is gravely mistaken. It is only so during the election of members of parliament: as soon as they are elected, it becomes a slave, it is nothing. The English people makes such use of the brief moments of its liberty that it deserves to lose it.’

Connolly, however, goes on to deepen our understanding of this lack of freedom:

‘The democracy of parliament is in short the democracy of capitalism. Capitalism gives to the worker the right to choose his master, but insists that the fact of mastership shall remain unquestioned; parliamentary democracy gives to the worker the right to a voice in the selection of his rulers, but insists that he shall bend as a subject to be ruled.’

Capitalist democracy is, in other words, a contradiction in terms: the people do not rule, the capitalists do.

Not surprisingly, in view of the above, we find in the Platform of the Socialist Labour Party of 1903 that Connolly includes a section as follows:

‘Public Ownership: 1. Right of all national and municipal employees to elect their immediate superiors and to be represented upon all public departments directing their industry. 2. Nationalisation and municipalisation of all industries upon the above basis.’

As can be seen from writings by Connolly reproduced up to now, it is the style which he employs that marks him out as a publicist. He constantly grasps the essential feature of a given situation, describes it graphically, and then finishes by drawing the necessary conclusion and ramming it home in an uncompromising fashion – and all this not without a spark of humour if possible. In this way, he contrives to follow his own advice to the Irish TUC:

‘We need to feel in every fibre of our consciousness that all the offices and positions through which civilisation performs its every function are manned, equipped and sentinelled by alert and implacable enemies of our class, and so feeling we must labour to create a public opinion that shall eventually supersede and destroy the public opinion of the master class as the standard by which our patriotism and the value and efficiency of our institutions are to be judged.’ (p. 136)

The more adverse the conditions, the more Connolly seems to be able to rise to the occasion. Most of the second half of the volume, to whit, pages 138–218, covers the period of the First World War. Absolutely typical of Connolly’s response is an article written for The Workers’ Republic, in which he begins by quoting the results of a survey of housing conditions in Dublin as reported in the Irish Times. This revealed that nearly 28,000 of Dublin’s citizens were living in accommodation deemed by the Corporation to be unfit for human habitation. This news reinforces Connolly’s basic Marxist conviction that the main enemy is at home:

‘Therefore we cry aloud that all might hear: War or no war, those slums must be swept out of existence; war or no war, those slum landlords are greater enemies than all the “Huns” of Europe; war or no war, our children must have decent homes to grow up in, decently equipped schools to attend, decent food whilst at school; streets, courts and hallways decently lighted at nights; war or no war, the workers of Dublin should exert themselves first for the conquest of Dublin by those whose toil makes Dublin possible; war or no war, the most sacred duty of the working class of Ireland is to seize every available opportunity to free itself from the ravenous maw of the capitalist system and to lay the foundations for the Co-operative Commonwealth – the Working Class Republic.’ (p. 153)

It is vintage Connolly. The Ulster poet John Hewitt was wrong when he said that Ireland had no equivalent of the Levellers and Diggers. They were there all right, right in front of his nose in his own century: Padraic Pearse was the Irish Lilburne, and James Connolly was the Irish Gerard Winstanley. Of course, the differences are also considerable between these Irish democrats and their English predecessors, but the part played in each national tradition is roughly the same.

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh indicates in the introduction that there remains a great deal more of Connolly’s writings still uncollected, plus all his letters. We look forward to their appearance in print, and, I must say, it is our duty to do all we can to ensure this can be achieved. In conclusion, let me add, for any readers conversant with the Irish language, that Ó Cathasaigh has written a study of Connolly entitled An Modh Conghaileach, which, if this selection and its introduction is anything to go by, should be worth reading.

Chris Gray

Note by ETOL

1. William O’Brien was not Connolly's son-in-law. His daughter, Nora Connolly-O’Brien, who corresponded with Trotsky during the 1930s, was married to another man called O’Brien.

Updated by ETOL: 4.10.2011