Portrait  |  James T. Farrell  |  Trotskyist Writers  |  ETOL Home Page


James T. Farrell

A Portrait of James Connolly

V. The Link Between Connolly’s Catholicism and Marxism

New International, Vol.14 No.4, April 1948

R.M. Fox in his biography James Connolly: The Forerunner (which has led me to write this essay), remarks:

“He [Connolly] was a man of great individuality, combining an acceptance of the Marxian view of economics and of history – as a record of social struggles – with the Catholic outlook which emphasized the value of the human soul. Connolly is not by any means the first man to realize the revolutionary implications of Christianity. If a man is simply a bubble of gas, a product of chemical action, he may be used as a machine or as cannon fodder without any question of the degradation of humanity. But once admit his possession of a soul and the case against human degradation becomes infinitely stronger.” [1]

Here it is clear that Fox is seeking to explain the fact that Connolly was both a Marxist and a Catholic. And while this explanation is, in a sense, true to the spirit of Connolly, it is, I think, unnecessary.

The revolutionary implications of Christianity need to be seen historically. The Christian idea of the immortality of the soul – even though it be the soul of a slave – was, in the humane sense, an advance over the ideas of the pagan world. The concept and the practice of charity, the ideas of love and of brotherhood of Christ and of the early Christians – these also should be seen as attitudes which signified moral progress.

But even so, we shouldn’t regard the pagan world and pagan ideas in a monolithic sense. It is a well-known fact that the Greeks laid the basis for western civilization. Also, prior to the rise of Christianity, the ideas of the Greek materialists had already been exhausted, and the main streams of Greek thought had been given their course by Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. Lange, the nineteenth-century scholar, in his History of Materialism, points out that when the great progressive ideas of an age wear out, become exhausted, insight and observations are then linked up with regressive ideas, so that inasmuch as human beings do constantly have good insights, they tend to believe that these are necessarily related to regressive ideas, if these regressive ideas are the dominant ones of an age.

Lange here was criticizing Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; he defended the early Greek materialists. One of his arguments was that materialism had produced a high conception of morality. This is true for all ages. Philosophical materialism – as distinguished from the crude materialism of money-grubbing – has given voice to the most noble moral sentiments and ideals, and it stands in no need of apologizing before the bar of anti-materialist criticisms. Many examples could here be cited, but I shall merely refer to the nobility of expression of Lucretius.

At the same time that we realize this fact, we need also to see that Christianity and its contributions to western civilization cannot be taken merely on the level of philosophical discussion and criticism, as the anti-materialists so often tend to take it when they attack materialists. Socially, Christianity made a major contribution to civilization. It advanced a broader idea of the dignity of man. This relates to the positive side of Christian ethics. The negative side is to be seen in the doctrine of Christian meekness.

Christianity cannot, then, be seen as a unified and strictly logical and intimately consistent body of ideas. And our consideration of Christianity here is not a philosophical one. The above remarks have been made merely in order to try to clarify issues.

Just as Christianity registered an ethical advance for mankind, so did the philosophy of political democracy. The best of Christian ethics was absorbed by democracy. There is a direct connection between the idea of the equality of the soul of man and the ideas of such great democrats as Thomas Jefferson. Thus: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; and among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At the same time, we should observe that mankind has advanced in the realm of ideas much more than it has in the realm of overt action. In all ages, we can observe that, on the one hand, there is a wide and frightening difference between the ethical conceptions of conduct of the noblest thinkers of the age, and, on the other, the gross realities of day-to-day living. The entire history of civilized mankind is a history of exploitation, slavery, cruelty, war and injustice.

I have quoted from Swift’s Modest Proposal concerning conditions in Ireland in the seventeenth century, and I have, mainly with references from Connolly’s own writings, given additional quotations which indicate the injustices from which the Irish people have suffered. Readers of this essay will be sufficiently familiar with the story of the injustices in advanced capitalist countries, in the past and in the present, so that I need not document these facts here. Suffice it for me to point, in modern America, the freest and the richest country in the world, to the phenomenon of Jim Crow, of lynchings in the South, and of the slums of all of our major cities.

At the present time, various Christian and especially Catholic thinkers deal with the phenomenon of modern injustice, cruelty and slavery from the standpoint of Christian moral precepts. They argue on this basis that inhumanity in capitalist countries flows from the principle of bourgeois liberalism, and that the inhumanity of Stalinism [2] flows from the principles of socialism as a continuation of bourgeois liberalism. Later on, I shall have more to say on this point. Here I shall only suggest to the Christian critics of liberalism, socialism and materialism that they consider the history of men in society since the advent of Christianity. I shall offer merely passing reminders to them.

On the opening page of the first volume of Henry Charles Lea’s great scholarly work, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, we can read:

“History records no such triumph of intellect over brute strength as that which, in an age of turmoil and battle [the twelfth century and the early thirteenth], was wrested from the fierce warriors of the time by priests who had no material force at their command, and whose power was based alone on the souls and consciences of men. Over soul and conscience this empire was complete. No Christian could hope for salvation who was not in all things an obedient son of the Church, and who was not ready to take up arms in its defense; and, in a time when faith was a determining fact of conduct, this belief created a spiritual despotism which placed all things within reach of him who could wield it.” [3]

And Lea also writes of the priest:

“Not only did the humblest priest wield a supernatural power which marked him as one elevated above the common level of humanity, but his person and possessions were alike inviolable ... The man who entered the service of the Church was no longer a citizen. He owed no allegiance superior to that assumed in his ordination.” [4]

Here we can see some of the historical factors which served as a basis for the Inquisition. And Lea shows that the development of the Inquisition “was ... a natural – one may almost say an inevitable – evolution of the forces at work in the thirteenth century ...” Lea documents statements such as these with the most minute detail. He shows that the Inquisition was a development of the social struggles of the times. The punishment of heretics, the burnings at the stake, the tortures, all of this was part of a complicated historical evolution in the process by which Rome emerged triumphant over local interests. Writing of the rise of the mendicant orders – one of which was founded by the great and lovable St Francis – he concludes that even though their work was not lost “they soon sank to the level of the social order around them.” [5] This social order was marked by cruelty, pitilessness, misery. Heresies, called forth by the wretchedness of the poor and by their desire to find the early Christ, were mercilessly crushed. Out of such social conditions, the Inquisition was founded.

The life of mankind goes on, as it were, on both the material and the moral level. The written history of mankind reveals to us, in a confused way, the growth of moral ideas which are, however, constantly contradicted by actual practice. Moral realities and moral statements do not harmonize. And yet moral and ethical ideas do have their influence. They have given even a sense of dignity to slaves, to the poor and ignorant. The story of the growth of moral ideas is as elevating as the story of their repudiation and betrayal is in practice odious and frightening.

The continuity in ideas and ethical conceptions in our society is one which stands in the background of Connolly. From Christianity he absorbed its moral values, and in his mind there was no apparent contradiction between his Catholicism and his socialism. This is, I think, an important point to keep in mind if we study his life.

In the previous parts of this essay, I have indicated that there were circumstances in the history of Ireland which easily led Irishmen to see the Reformation differently than did European Continentals. On the European continent, the Reformation was a major revolutionary development leading to the breaking of the chains of spiritual despotism. Early voices of the Reformation, such as Martin Luther, were spiritually revolutionary and socially conservative. The Reformation was part of the complex historical development which saw the rise of capitalism.

As Tawney says in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, “The storm and fury of the Puritan revolution has been followed by a dazzling outburst of economic enterprise ...” [6] This economic enterprise, with all the suffering entailed, led men a step nearer to that emancipation of which they still dream and from which they are still so far away. But Ireland, as we have already noted, was part of the underside of this development. As Fox states, the Reformation was to Connolly “the capitalist idea appearing in the religious field.” He quotes Connolly:

“As capitalism teaches that the social salvation of man depends solely upon his own individual efforts, so Protestantism, echoing it, taught that the spiritual salvation of man depends upon his own individual appeal to God.” [7]

Fox further remarks on this conclusion of Connolly’s that capitalism is the parent, the Reformation is the child, and that it is irrational to condemn only the child.

In Connolly’s mind, ideas of the dignity of the individual and of community were linked together. “We are all members of one another,” he declared in The Reconquest of Ireland. And in his conclusion to this same book he declared:

“The objective aimed at is to establish in the mind of the men and women of Ireland, the necessity of giving effective expression, politically and socially, to the right of the community (all) to control for the good of all, the industrial activities of each, and to endow such activities with the necessary means.” [8]

Here is one of the ways in which Catholicism was tied in with his thinking. He linked up ideas of community and conceptions of the dignity of the individual. The link, historically, in the chain of political and moral ideas in Connolly’s mind was political democracy. [9] This is important. He absorbed, largely through his Irish predecessors like Lalor and others as well as from Marx, the political ideas of the Great French Revolution.

He did this as an Irishman. The differences in the historical experiences of the Irish and of the English and the continental Europeans here tell in the whole outline of Connolly’s ideas. To him, individualism was moral and it was also political – political democracy. As a moral doctrine, it found its source in his feelings and beliefs as a simple Catholic. He believed in the equality of souls. The ideas of community flow into the ideas of the nation. The struggle for a free Ireland was, for Connolly, the idea of a free Irish community. Among the Irish, the race is often seen as a family. The Irish nation, the Irish community, the Irish as a family, these ideas touch on one another. [10]

Connolly’s ideas about the Irish nation and his views on democracy are similar to the view of the nation as the republic of virtue held by the earlier French revolutionaries, particularly the Jacobins. In the Abbé Sieyes’ pamphlet – The Third Estate – What Is It? – which was so influential in the Great French Revolution, the author’s emphasis was on the legal and political arguments which would justify and show the rights of the third estate to constitute itself the nation. In their thinking, Jacobins like Robespierre and Saint-Just went a step further than this. They envisioned the nation not only in terms of popular will and sovereignty but also in terms of the individuals who would be the members of the nation.

In their thinking, one finds an austerity suggestive of Protestantism. And the dignity of man, to them, was not associated with Catholic thinking. Reason and republicanism provided them with their basic premises. To them, the foreign foe was outside the country. The enemies within were the aristocrats. This suggests a difference in the outline of their political ideas as compared with the outline of political ideas in the mind of Connolly, who was, in a sense, one of their heirs.

Speaking of religion and theocracy in his Esprit de la Révolution, Saint-Just expressed the opinion that if Christ were reborn in Spain – in the time of the French Revolution – he would be crucified again by the priests, on the ground that he was a factious man who, under the signs of charity and modesty, meditated the ruin of church and state. He argued that a reign of virtue, patience and poverty would be a danger to monarchy, and also that the Christian churches had lived most purely in countries that had become republican. He thought that the people of Spain – a Catholic country – would be the last to conquer their liberty, and he contrasted Spain with England where the hand of the priests did not lie heavy on the people as it did in Spain. Historically, of course, Saint-Just is a predecessor of Connolly. But he serves as a good concrete illustration, nonetheless, to suggest more clearly the historical features of Connolly’s own thought.

France was the cradle of modern liberty in Europe. The progressive features of national ideas, of ideas of the nation, come from France. The French Revolution would inevitably have influenced the Irish, as it did, and its political features and ideas would be absorbed by the Irish. The Irish did not pay a price for the French Revolution; they did for the earlier English Revolution – the price of the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland. From France, the Irish could get ideas of the politics of liberty; from England, they got the economics of capitalism. Along with the latter came the Puritan invader with gun and cannon.

A man as deeply sincere as Connolly, a self-educated Irish working lad, a man devoted to the struggle of his own people like Connolly, most obviously would not see the Reformation as a Continental would see it. The so-called peculiarities in historical developments register not only in social and economic relationships, but also in the outlines of the thought of men and in their feelings. Connolly’s own thought was one such register of the peculiarities of Irish history.

R.M. Fox quotes an article of Connolly’s in which he replied to a priest, Father MacEarlen, who had criticized socialist thought. In this reply, Connolly wrote:

“I admit unquestioningly the obligation resting upon the Holy See to recognize the de facto Government and the de facto social order in any given country or age. But side by side with, part and parcel of, that admission, and not to be divorced from it, I insist upon the right of the individual Catholic to disregard that obligation and to be a reformer of, or a rebel and reformist against, the Government which the Holy See is compelled by its international position to recognize.

“Without this right, Catholicity would be synonymous with the blackest reaction and opposition to all reforms. As an example Ireland is illuminating. For the greater part of seven centuries, the de facto Government of Ireland has been a foreign Government imposed on the country by force, and maintained by the same means. The Holy See was compelled by its position to recognize that government, but the holiest and deepest feelings of the Catholics of Ireland were in rebellion against that government, and, in every generation, the scaffold and the prison and the martyr’s grave have been filled in Ireland with devout subjects of the Holy See, but with unrelenting enemies of the de facto government of Ireland. The firm distinction in the minds of Irish Catholics between the duties of the Holy See and the rights of the individual Catholic has been a necessary and saving element in keeping Ireland Catholic, and he, by whatever name he calls himself or to whatever order he belongs who would seek to destroy that distinction, or make acquiescence in the political obligations of the Papacy, a cardinal article of Catholic faith, is an enemy of the faith and the liberties of our people.” [11]

And also in the same article, he declared:

“As individual Catholics, we claim it as our right, nay, as our duty to refuse allegiance to any power or social system whose authority to rule over us we believe to be grounded upon injustice.” [12]

Connolly then fused in his thought Christian and democratic ideas of the past. He was not, however, fighting the battles of the past, but those of his own present. As he indicated, he considered these to be battles against injustice. He believed in economic justice, and he wrote: “Socialism is neither Protestant nor Catholic, Christian nor Freethinker, Buddhist, Mohammedan, nor Jew; it is only human.” [13] It was his idea of what was human, of human dignity, which was central in all of his thinking.

Top of the page


1. Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner, pp.131.

2. Farrell’s Note: In passing let me observe that Stalinism has even abrogated those rights which man had in feudal society. Morally it represents a backward swing of history which goes beyond the abrogation of the rights of man attained through the rise of political democracy and bourgeois liberalism.

3. Farrell’s Note: It is my opinion that Aquinas’ conception of God can be correlated with spiritual despotism: “God is not only His own essence ... but also His own being ... God is the first efficient cause ... There can be nothing caused in God, since He is the first cause ... God is absolute form, or rather absolute Being ... God is His own existence.” These and many other sentences could be culled from Aquinas to show that God, as conceived by this scholarly saint, is completely and totally independent of man and of all the laws of matter. He is utterly sufficient unto Himself, a principle above all principles. God, demonstrated as a self-evident existence and proved by the principles of Aristotelian logic, is so above humanity that I would consider Him here to be unapproachable. Face to face with God as He is verbalized in the cold pages of Aquinas, humanity becomes totally dependent. I would suggest that the interested reader compare Aquinas on God with Augustine, who was a poet and an artist as well as a theologian. The conception of God as a logical principle, in my opinion, offers the best possible source for, and rationalization of, spiritual despotism.

4. Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, 3 vols. (New York: Harper, 1888), 1:2.

5. Ibid., 1:304.

6. R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926) p.197.

7. Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner, pp.133.

8. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, p.333.

9. Farrell’s Note: Connolly also wrote in The Reconquest of Ireland, “As Democracy enters Bureaucracy takes flight.”

10. Farrell’s Note: An interesting illustration of this is to be seen in Frank O’Connor’s great short story Guests of the Nation. This story, told in the first person, recounts how members of the IRA, during the Black and Tan struggle, hold two Limeys as hostages. They become fond of the Limeys, who, in turn, regard these Irish boys as friends. Then the Irish lads are ordered to execute their prisoners. The human sentiments of the narrator are wrenched as a result of the execution. Heretofore he had felt that “disunion between brothers seemed to me an awful crime.” These are the words with which he translated national spirit into personal emotion. This feeling was, however, shaken by the execution of these English guests of the nation.

11. Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner, pp.135-36.

12. Ibid., p.135.

13. Ibid., p.132.

Top of the page

Marxists’ Internet Archive  |  Encyclopedia of Trotskyism  |  Document Index Page

Last updated on 4.9.2005