Arthur MacManus

Book Review

James Connolly
His Life and Work

Source: The Communist Review, May 1924, Vol. 5, No. 1.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Jas. Connolly, by Desmond Ryan.
Cloth, 5/-
Paper 2/6
Lab. Pub. Co.

I SUPPOSE it will be a very long time indeed before Connolly has his true place in history accorded to him, due undoubtedly, as Desmond Ryan himself claims in his new book recently published on James Connolly, to the “partisan claims on his corpse.” This, in a way, constitutes in itself a remarkable tribute to Connolly. The self-sacrificing character of the man’s whole life and work, his optimism in moments of darkness and when things looked very black indeed, and his valour, fortitude and courage in action, these have impressed themselves deep down on the affection of the mass of the people of Ireland. It is, therefore, natural that sects and movements should hasten to claim him as their own. But how any historian can accord their claims even a moment’s reflection, surpasses me.

Here is a man whose whole life was unquestionably devoted very definitely to work in, and on behalf of, the revolutionary working class movement; whose studies in this direction had been so profound as to place him as one of the outstanding international figures of our movement; whose activities had been so essentially working class, as to have him recognised in many lands as a great revolutionary leader of working class struggle. And yet, because he finds himself fighting side by side in an incident which lasted only a few weeks, with men of other professions and faith, his corpse has become the subject for “partisan claims.” For cool effrontery, there is not much in history to equal this. Even the author himself, despite his protest, falls a victim to it, and commits the same error as those against whom he complains. He also would claim Connolly’s corpse, and it is amazing to note that he claims it for the Irish Free State! Well, I shall be pardoned for endeavouring to re-claim Connolly from the body-snatchers, and back to the movement of Connolly’s own choosing, the revolutionary working class movement.

It is true that he was associated with the rising of 1916. It is also true that this rising was of an essentially Nationalist character. It is true that during the fighting his recorded moments of joy or sadness, were of the character of a great Irishman doing battle for his country, and it is also noteworthy, that, when he was dying he is said to have observed to his daughter, “The socialists will never understand why I am here; they will all forget that I am an Irishman.” Upon the basis of the above truths rests the whole misunderstanding, and misrepresentation of Connolly. Of much more significance, however, is how Connolly came to be there at all, and to anyone who understands the working class movement, and understands Connolly’s place and life’s activity in that movement—more particularly Connolly’s leadership of the Irish workers in the eventful years beginning with 1914—there exists no problem at all.

His attitude, as I have previously contended, was politically, thoroughly clear throughout. In all his writings and speeches, Connolly had endeavoured to make clear first, that the working class struggle was in itself an international struggle, and that, in this, the workers of every country had a common bond; he had also repeatedly made it clear that workers living in subjected nations had a national struggle as well as a class struggle. This, he himself clearly defined as follows (I quote from Ryan’s book):

“§The war of a subject nation for independence, for its right to live its life in its own way, may and can be justified as holy and righteous, the war of a subject class to free itself from the debasing conditions of economic and political slavery, should at all times choose its own weapons and esteem all as sacred instruments of righteousness, but the war of nation against nation in the interest of royal freebooters and cosmopolitan thieves, is a thing accursed.”

Consquently when he, in his dying moments, complains that the “Socialists . . . . . will all forget that I am an Irishman,” he was speaking at a moment when the Socialist movement had not reached an understanding of the significance of struggling subjected nations. He was speaking at a moment when the leading International Socialists of the various countries could see no difference between Connolly fighting for, and defending, Ireland against Britain, and they themselves entering their several Cabinets to defend and participate in the prosecution of what Connolly termed a “war of freebooters and theives.”

Time will record Connolly as the first Irishman to give the Irish struggle its real and true historic significance. He is the first who say it all the time as a revolutionary struggle, but he is also the first to apprecite the national struggle as an essential part of this revolutionary struggle. Connolly, by his actions, did for Western revolutionary Socialism what Lenin and his confreres of the Russian Communist Party achieved completely for the international revolutionary movement. He represents outstandingly that type of revolutionary working class fighter living in a subjected nation, which the British revolutionary movement would do well to cultivate and encourage in the leadership of the people, in such places as India, Africa, Egypt, and throughout the British colonies and Crown Dominions.

At best, speculations are idle and worthless, but the claim made by Desmond Ryan that Connolly would have accepted the Free State “even as an appreciable step” raises a very important point in Irish history which seems to have been completely overlooked or ignored. I refer to the attempts being made in 1922 to discover some real political programme for the working class of Ireland, and have in mind, particularly, the remarkable articles issued by Liam Mellows from prison. These articles had practically a world-wide publicity as lending a new significance to the Irish struggle. I remember that the individuals most closely concerned and connected with Mellows in the advancement of this programme were Joe McKelvie, Tom Barrie, and, to a lesser extent, Rory O’Connor. I also remember that as a reprisal for the shooting of Deputy Hales, the Free State Government decided to select for execution four of the Republican leaders, who were then in prison. Was it merely a coincidence, that the four selected happened to be the four who were pushing forward this political programme, and who had publicly associated themselves with it? Would Connolly have seen nothing significant in this? And would he have remained passive and unmoved when such a declaration of programme was made by Mellows or would he have turned that ever-watchful eye of his and ever-ready pen to extract what was good, and reject trenchantly what was bad, in such a programme? Can he be seen by any stretch of imagination to be leading the Irish Labour Party and completely ignoring such a significant programme? And what is more important, can he be seen leading the Irish Labour Party and having nothing to say when these four men were taken out and executed? As I have said, all speculation is idle, but a protest must be made against any attempt to represent Connolly doing anything of the sort.

This book of Desmond Ryan’s is, on the whole, a very useful production indeed, and is remarkable in that it is the first book on Connolly which endeavours to do justice to his activities as a working class fighter. Much more, however, will have to be said, and with emphasis, before Connolly is revealed in his true character. Politically, there was nothing in the whole of his known activities and actions which was illogical, and his execution by the British Government, long, long after the atmosphere justifying reprisals or examples had passed away, and when he was already then a dying man, was much more the act of a conscious imperialist government disposing of a dangerous revolutionary than an incident in any national struggle between England and Ireland.