The James Connolly Reader

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(439)

The legacy of James Connolly, Ireland’s pre-eminent Marxist revolutionary, has been appropriated and sanitised by every political tradition including the Irish state to such an extent that his historical role has often been obscured. Shaun Harkin’s selection of Connolly’s writing shines a penetrating light through this fog and allows him to speak for himself.

In his excellent introduction Harkin interweaves the biographical details of Connolly’s life as a socialist activist in Scotland, Ireland and the United States with the development of his political ideas. He rescues Connolly from the myth-making following his execution by the British after the 1916 uprising, enabling readers to engage with his ideas and political activism at first hand.

He quotes George Dangerfield (author of classic history The Strange Death of Liberal England) as describing Connolly as “one of the great figures in modern Irish history: a passionate intellectual, a master of polemical prose, a profound revolutionary socialist.”

It is his qualities as a writer and his role as a socialist polemicist that have largely been ignored or downplayed since his death. This selection of his work provides a remedy to this neglect.

As Eamonn McCann puts it in his blurb for Harkin’s book, “Connolly wielded words like a scimitar, slicing through the thickets of lies to get to capitalism’s noxious heart.” His major theoretical work Labour in Irish History is included in its entirety. With echoes of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, Connolly argues that “the progress of the fight for national liberty of any subject nation must, perforce, keep pace with the progress of the struggle for liberty of the most subject class in that nation”; that middle class nationalists in Ireland “have a thousand economic strings…binding them to English capitalism” and were therefore incapable of leading a successful struggle for national liberation.

He prophetically warned against the kind of all-class alliance that was articulated by Sinn Fein: “with its economic teaching socialists have no sympathy, as it appeals only to those who measure a nation’s prosperity by the volume of wealth produced in a country, instead of by the distribution of that wealth among its inhabitants.”

As an organiser in Belfast Connolly wrote lyrically about the nature of sectarianism: “The Irish Catholic was despoiled by force. The Irish protestant was despoiled by fraud. The spoliation of both continues today under more insidious but more effective forms, and the only hope lies in the latter combining with the former in overthrowing their common spoilers and consenting to live in amity together.”

The Dublin lockout of 1913 was a watershed for Connolly and as an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) he issued a defiant riposte to the forces of the state and the “Green” bosses seeking to break the union:

“Against all this the ITGWU has taught that that they who toil are the only ones that do matter, that all others are but beggars upon the bounty of those who work with hand or brain and that this superiority of social value can at any time be realised…by the combination of the labouring classes.”

The defeat of the workers in 1913 was followed by the outbreak of the imperialist war in 1914 and these two events shaped Connolly’s final years.

Connolly was horrified at the capitulation of nearly all the sections of the Second International to the imperialist interests of their own ruling classes. The prospect of workers engaging in mass slaughter of one another was a betrayal of the principles of internationalism and workers’ solidarity.

Connolly responded, “What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protest of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future? Were they all as sound and fury signifying nothing?”

He believed that the onset of imperial war should be the signal for social revolution: “The signal of war ought also to have been the signal for rebellion, that when the bugles sounded the first note of actual war, their notes should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution.”

Recognising the dramatically changed circumstances Connolly threw all his energies into the Irish Citizens Army which had been formed as a defence force during the lockout, but which now prepared to initiate a military rising as a revolutionary vanguard.

Connolly was heartened by the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s commitment to strike at British rule and he joined their military council in January 1916 in preparation for the Easter Rising.

Harkin’s book is invaluable to any students wishing to engage with Connolly’s writings, and by framing them in a concise and balanced biographical introduction, he links them to Connolly’s dramatic political contribution as a union organiser, revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist.

It should be read alongside Kieran Allen’s critical analyses The Politics of James Connolly (Bookmarks 1990) and 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition (Pluto 2016).