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Kieran Allen

James Connolly and the 1916 Rebellion [A]

(Spring 1985)

From International Socialism 2 : 26, Spring 1985, pp. 118–122.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

John Newsinger’s fine article on Jim Larkin, Syndicalism and the 1913 Dublin Lockout in International Socialism 2 : 25 was marred by its conclusions. He claims on a number of occasions that the Easter Rebellion of 1916 was a ‘blood sacrifice’. It is on this basis that he criticises James Connolly’s involvement in the rebellion. Connolly, he claims, ‘embraced the messianic conception of revolution as redemption’. And in writing the final epitaph on Connolly he charges that, ‘after a lifetime of socialist activity he despaired of the working class and took up the doctrine of blood sacrifice’.

Revolutionary socialists have many criticisms to make of Connolly – but we do so from the clear standpoint of being on the same side as Connolly in the struggle against imperialism. John Newsinger’s conclusions, unfortunately, take him in the direction of the revisionist school of Irish history that has been propounded by the notorious reactionary Conor Cruise O’Brien.

British readers may need some introduction to Conor Cruise O’Brien. He was one of the leading ministers and intellectuals in the Coalition government in Southern Ireland in the mid-seventies. In his role as a minister he was one of the most active proponents of repression against present day republicans. However, in his spare time as an ex-socialist intellectual, O’Brien called for the waging of vigorous ‘cultural struggles’ to establish a new hegemony over the latent republicanism of the South. Central to this ‘cultural struggle’ was a re-interpretation of Irish history and in particular the 1916 Rebellion. O’Brien argued that the rebellion was no more than a deliberate ‘blood sacrifice’ initiated by one mystic militant, Padraig Pearse. The method was wonderfully simple: a selective set of quotations from Pearse was used to interpret the motives of those who fought as being nothing other than an irrational enactment of the blood redemption first practiced by Jesus Christ. Newsinger, in his talk of ‘blood sacrifice’, ‘messianism’ and ‘redemption’ unfortunately re-echoes some of those themes.

The contrast with Lenin’s writings on the subject could not be more striking. Lenin analysed the 1916 rebellion in the following terms, in order to refute allegations from Karl Radek that it was no more than a putsch. He wrote:

The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interests...manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices to repudiate social revolution. [1]

The politics of the Easter Rebellion was indeed dictated by the urban petty bourgeoisie. The leadership of the Irish national movement had passed into the hands of that class only two decades previously. The Land Acts of the late 19th century had produced some sort of a solution to the agrarian question that had traditionally been the source of the Irish nationalist movement. Isolated from the countryside, organised around a variety of cultural revivalist organisations, the petty bourgeois intellectuals were peculiarly weak. In their weakness, they were more open than most to ‘all the prejudices’ normally associated with that class. Many of them looked back to a pre-feudal Ireland with its supposedly classless utopia.

But it is one thing to criticise those prejudices – and the appalling concessions that Connolly made to them. It is a different matter to argue that the rebellion itself and Connolly’s role within it was no more than an irrational outburst that can be dismissed with reference to a ‘blood sacrifice’. Lenin’s method was completely different. As a living revolutionary, as against a ‘hardened doctrinaire’, he recognised the depth of the prejudices involved in the rebellion but insisted that objectively the movement was still a blow against imperialism.

The point has a contemporary relevance. In 1969 when the Provisional IRA were first formed, they proclaimed themselves an openly ‘anti-communist’ movement. In their first issue of An Phoblacht they lauded Barry Goldwater as a man with some good ideas on where to put ‘communists’. One of the reasons for the ‘anti-communism’ was that they had split from a supposedly Marxist organisation, Official Sinn Fein (now the Workers Party), which argued for confining the struggle in the North to a policy of reform. Many socialists in Britain and Ireland were confused by the split and denounced the Provos as no more than a totally reactionary force. What they failed to recognise was that, despite the depth of those prejudices, the Provos were objectively engaged in a struggle against imperialism. The task for revolutionaries was to combat the reactionary ideas of the Provos (just as we combat their more left nationalist ideas today) from a standpoint of being firmly on their side in the battle against imperialism. Those who separated the supposedly ‘irrational’ prejudices of the Provos from their objective role in the struggle against imperialism ended up marching into the hands of the reformists.

None of these points are meant as an excuse for Connolly’s politics in 1916. They are merely meant to clear the ground by recognising the rebellion for what it was – a blow against imperialism. It is simply factually incorrect to claim that Connolly embraced any of the notions of blood sacrifice. In fact he denounced some of Pearse’s statements on the subject as those of a ‘blithering idiot’. [2] Nevertheless, Connolly’s role in 1916 threw the tiny forces of the Irish revolutionary left into confusion for decades afterwards. Why, then, did he act as he did?

In this brief reply, we can refer to three simple points. Firstly, throughout his life Connolly misunderstood the nature of the republicanism that was being re-born amongst the petty bourgeoisie. Like many revolutionaries since, he failed to recognise how sections of this class could act independently and win a base for their ideas amongst the working class. Connolly’s criticisms of the nationalist movement were directed in the main to the official constitutional leaders of the Home Rule party. Thus, instead of polemicising against republicanism in the same manner as Lenin had done with the Narodnik tradition, Connolly sought to emphasise what republicans and socialists had in common. In 1908, in an article on the newly formed Sinn Fein, Connolly wrote:

It teaches the Irish people to rely upon themselves, and themselves alone. So far, so good. That is the part of Sinn Feinism I heartily agree with. We can wish the Sinn Feiners good luck. [3]

Connolly’s approach to Sinn Fein was one of recognising that there would be friction between it and the small socialist movement – rather than implacable political hostility. The extent of his misjudgement can be envisaged when we remember that this article was written only five years before the lockout of 1913 when the leader of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, took a vicious pro-employer stand.

Secondly, not only was Connolly soft on republicanism, he also failed to build a party around his own relatively confused ideas. His belief in syndicalism – in the all-conquering power of industrial unionism – combined with his experience in socialist sects in America, led him to argue against the formation of an independent revolutionary socialist organisation. He summarised his position in a letter in 1909 by saying: ‘In short I believe that our proper position is in the general socialist or rather Labour Movement as friendly critics and helpers rather than in separate organisations, as hostile critics and enemies’. [4] The absence of an independent force organised around Connolly’s ideas forced him to always call on others to act and initiate. In times of peace this took the form of pressurising the Irish Trade Union Congress to set up a Labour Party for electoral purposes. In times of war it meant a turn to the republican movement – pressurising and cajoling them into the 1916 rebellion.

Thirdly, it must be remembered that Connolly on his return to Ireland lived through a period of profound defeat. In 1912 he saw the rise of the far right Ulster Volunteer Force and their defeat of the mild mannered Home Rule Bill. In 1913 he witnessed the defeat of the Lockout and with it some of his own ideas on the power of industrial unionism. In 1914 Connolly, isolated in Ireland, unaware of any serious socialist opposition to the war effort, witnessed the miserable collapse of the Second International.

These three factors form the background to Connolly’s role in 1916. It is a tribute to Connolly that he was determined not to sink into passivity and despair at the outbreak of the war. He was determined to do something. But what was he doing? He was certainly try to free Ireland. But he was also hoping that this blow could set of fa spark of revolt throughout the British Empire and thus reawaken the socialist movement.

Four days after the declaration of the war he wrote in the Irish Worker: ‘Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following their example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.’ And in concluding his article on the role of a blow struck in Ireland, he wrote: ‘Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the 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 war lord.’ [5]

The strength of Connolly is that he maintained some vestiges of internationalism in opposing the real ‘blood sacrifice’ of the First World War when almost every other socialist organisation had sunk into the arms of national chauvinism. His weakness is the weakness of his overall politics. Without a party he was forced to call on the republicans to act. (It was Connolly who initiated the call for the rebellion by openly denouncing the cowardice of the republicans.) Without a clear view of the need for political opposition to the republicans, he submerged himself in a nationalist movement, the class basis of which he never understood. Without an understanding of why Irish workers came to suffer the massive defeats that they did, he moved in the direction of militarism and a Blanquist type insurrection that occurred before the inevitable opposition to the war effort was rekindled with conscription.

Connolly cannot be dismissed as a latter-day born-again mystic who was engaged in a blood sacrifice to atone for the soul of Ireland. His ideas have to be taken much more seriously. They are still a meeting point and a source of ambiguity between revolutionary socialists and left republicans. Unfortunately, John Newsinger’s dismissal of Connolly does not help to sort out the ambiguities in Connolly’s politics. It rather gives the impression of hostility to his involvement in the struggle for Irish independence.


1. Quoted in Lenin and the Irish Question (Repsol Ltd), p. 30, emphasis in the original.

2. Quoted in C. Reeve and A.M. Reeve, James Connolly in the United States.

3. Sinn Fein and Socialism, The Harp, April 1908.

4. Letter to Matheson, 10 June 1909 (unpublished).

5. [Our Duty in This Crisis], Irish Worker, 8 August 1914.

Note by ETOL

A. The title given on the cover and on the contents page is James Connolly and the 1916 Rebellion; however, the title given in the article itself is James Connolly and the 1916 Revolution. As in Irish histories the event is always referred to as a “rebellion” or a “rising”, we have chosen the former title.

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Last updated: 29 March 2016