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James T. Farrell

A Portrait of James Connolly

III. Connolly’s Democratic Views

New International, Vol.14 No.2, February 1948

Writing about Dublin in the early twentieth century in The Reconquest of Ireland, James Connolly declared:

“It is, indeed, strange that the people of a nation which has known indomitable determination in its struggle for possession of the mere machinery of government should exhibit so little capacity to breathe a civic soul into such portions of the machinery as they had already brought under their control.” [1]

This quotation is but one of many which could be taken from Connolly’s writings in order to suggest the thoroughgoing character of his democratic views. It was Connolly, the Socialist, who explained and developed democratic views perhaps more fully than any Irish political figure of his time. A working-class and trade-union leader, Connolly brought democratic ideas of leadership and democratic conceptions of a rank and file into the Irish rebellion.

The difference between the Fenian Brotherhood of the nineteenth century and the Irish Citizen Army would indicate this. The former was organized along the lines of a secret society, and the reins of control were centered in the leadership. When the Fenians were ready to strike a blow the leadership hesitated in making a decision; the Fenians missed their opportunity and disappeared from history. [2]

We have already noted that before the Irish Citizen Army went through with the Easter Rebellion, Connolly gave every member an opportunity to decide on whether to go along in the struggle or drop out. The Irish Citizen Army, despite its democracy, disappeared from history as did the Fenians. But it left an addition to the legacy of the Fenians and to the entire tradition of the Irish national rebellion—a legacy of democracy in thought and practice.

At the present time many socialists think of democracy mainly in relationship to a democratic party organization and to the ideal of developing a democratic internal life in left party organizations and movements. This is important. But democratic socialist thinking should require a broader interest, and at the same time it should dictate a concern with those small practical details of organizing life which are now viewed in a routine manner, if not with outright cynicism. Socialism should sponsor ideas of a genuine civic consciousness which is preached but not practiced in our own time. Connolly’s remarks in the above quotation reveal his own sense of civic consciousness—of municipal patriotism, if one will.

At the beginning of this essay [see earlier articles], I spoke of the recurrent division in the history of the Irish national revolution, a division on the question: Does the political or the social question come first? Connolly, as we know, belonged to the tradition of Irish rebels who stressed the social question. But his stress was not made merely in large and broad terms. He drew conclusions from his social position which he applied in small matters as well as in large ones. His ideas on civic consciousness derived from his social views. They were expressions of his socialist position.

Connolly valued all rights and liberties too sincerely to want to see them wasted. He observed that after the Irish had gained democratic rights in municipal affairs, they did not use these rights; they demonstrated a lack of civic consciousness. Wanting national sovereignty, they were badly utilizing the voting rights which they had already gained. And Connolly’s discussion and criticism here served as a means for an illuminating socialist discussion of democracy.

Connolly, let me repeat, was most thoroughgoing in his democratic thoughts and ideas. Thus, in writing of ‘the function of public bodies as a governing factor in Irish municipal politics,’ Connolly emphasized that these functions of public bodies should be seen and used not merely as offensive political weapons to be won from an enemy, but also as “effective tools to be used in the upbuilding of a healthier social edifice in which to give effect to the needs of the citizens for associative aids to their individual development and culture.” It is a commonplace to remind readers that Marx’s real starting point was the ideal of a society which would permit the fullest and freest development of the human personality. Such an ideal was central in the mind of James Connolly. He would use every democratic gain as a means of contributing toward the development and culture of the Irish people. All political action was a means to be used in creating a freer society in which the individual could live and develop in dignity. During the First World War he wrote:

“We believe that in times of peace we should work along the lines of peace to strengthen the nation, and we believe that whatever strengthens and elevates the working class strengthens the nation.

“But we also believe that in times of war we should act as in war. We despise, entirely loathe and despise, all the mouthings and mouthers about war who infest Ireland in times of peace, just as we despise and loathe all the cantings about caution and restraint to which the same people treat us in times of war.” [3]

Connolly did not see violence as an end, nor did he love violence as some rebel spirits seem to love it. Likewise, he did not see power as an end in itself. He visioned a nation, a society, a world in which men and women, living with dignity, would be healthier than they are, better fed, better educated, more cooperative.

This vision was neither Utopian nor millennial. He would not compromise with the principles on which this vision, this ultimate aim, was based. But he would not, at the same time, scorn any immediate rights and advantages that could be gained. Immediate democratic gains were means toward greater gains; and they could also become tools for trying to lift the cultural level of the people immediately. In times of peace, he did not scorn means of peace in order to talk of weapons of war which he did not yet possess.

Thus, ideas of civic consciousness and municipal patriotism were no mere platitudes to him. They were integral in his broader social and human attitudes which embodied a clear conception of social responsibility. Thus he wrote that “We require in Ireland to grasp the fact that the act of voting at the ballot box is the one act in which we get the opportunity to give expression to the soul of the race ... The ballot box is the vehicle of expression of our social consciousness.”

Like almost all, if not all, great revolutionaries, Connolly was an educator. And he saw in the practices of democracy a means of educating the people. In effect, his political teaching on democracy served as a way of preparing the people for the exercise of power. Just as he studied revolutions of the past and wrote articles on these in order to teach Irish workingmen how to prepare for the rising which came in 1916, so at an earlier period he tried to teach the Irish masses how to exercise democratic rights, how to use these rights in order to provide for and improve the conditions of their own welfare.

He knew too well the price of liberty to be cynical about any liberties which had already been won. Thus, he wrote in The Re-Conquest of Ireland:

“Assuredly it was within the realm of probability that a people suffering under the smart of intolerable conditions caused by a misuse of political power and social privilege should at the first opportunity set itself to the task of sweeping away such conditions by a public-spirited use of their newly-acquired control of municipal powers.” [4]

But such did not happen when the Irish gained democratic rights.

“If today the cities and towns of Ireland are a reproach to the land and a glaring evidence of the incapacity of the municipal rulers of the country, the responsibility for the failure lies largely with those who in the past had control of the political education of the Irish masses and failed to prepare them for the intelligent exercise of those public powers for which they were taught to clamor.” [5]

And need we emphasize that observations of such a character lead to the basic conclusion which Connolly repeated over and over again—labor must take the lead in the Irish struggle.

In April, 1916, shortly before the Easter Rebellion, he declared: “The cause of Labor is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labor.” [6] And that cause was one to bring dignity into human life. The general welfare, the dignity of man, this was the cause of socialism. It was at the same time the cause of democracy. The democratic tradition of the French Revolution, which was inherited by predecessors of Connolly, Tone, Emmet, the Young Irelanders of ’48, Lalor and Davitt, was absorbed by Connolly.

And no matter what aspect of Connolly’s social and political thinking we take, we see how it was always admirably consistent. However, his was not the formal consistency of a sectarian who disdains all struggles for immediate gains on the ground that such gains will not necessarily mean socialism; nor was it the consistency of a critical theoretician who was never forced to act, to take decisions involving the greatest risks. It was the consistency of a dedicated and devoted man who had committed himself to go the long, hard and dangerous road that is demanded of all who want men really to be free.

At the same time we can see, in Connolly’s consistency, his love of the people. Connolly’s indignation always flared when he learned of injustice, of indignities heaped on the people. And his was an indignation different in quality from that of some contemporary Marxists whose greatest anger seems to come when they discover a theoretical error in the writings of an adversary. Unlike Connolly’s, theirs is an indignation of self-love. It has contributed toward poisoning the streams of modern socialist thought. Connolly’s consistency is a consistency based on love, on a realization of common identity between himself and the workers whom he led. It is this feeling of common identity which further motivates his conception of democracy.

Part 4
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1. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, p.249.

2. Farrell’s Note: See Recollections of an Irish Rebel: The Fenian Movement, by John Devoy (New York: CP Young Co., 1929) for an account of the Fenians, their internal life, and their organizational character.

3. Quoted in Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner, p.242.

4. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, pp.252-53.

5. Ibid., p.253.

6. Quoted in Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner, p.219.

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