To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of James Connolly, Shaun Harkin (author of the James Connolly Reader) guest edits Rebel for a day. Below Shaun takes a look at the politics of this great socialist.
James Connolly was an exemplary working class rebel.
He had grown up in poverty in Edinburgh and spent seven years as a private in the British Army in Ireland before he first participated in working class struggles in Scotland. He was in his early twenties when he read Marx and became a revolutionary socialist. The Communist Manifesto gave his class anger theoretical direction but also hope. Socialism equalled hope. Hope that poverty and empire could be ended and replaced with something better. From then on, the goal of socialism, the ‘workers’ republic’ as he defined it, was at the core of all his political efforts and struggles in Scotland, in Ireland and in the United States.
All those who oppose socialism have tried to bury or distort Connolly’s commitment to it. His vision of socialism should be an inspiration to us all today. Cynics have attempted to dismiss or ignore his goal of a society without capitalism, without militarism and without oppression. The rule of capitalists, imperial tyrants and kings would be replaced by working class majoritarian democracy. The working class would rule from below and lead a blitz on exploitation and inequality to eradicate it from our lives. Connolly called this the ‘socialist republic’ and applied it universally.
Linking the Struggles
The notion workers, women or all others struggling for justice and equality should ‘wait’ and put their demands and aspirations on hold for some abstract future moment was utterly alien to him. Those very immediate demands were the key to changing society and giving the downtrodden, the exploited and the dispossessed confidence, courage and hope. Passivity from below, he argued, only encouraged tyranny from above. When those forced on their knees moved for justice they felt their chains all the more sharply. Rebellion awakened the mind and opened up new horizons. For Connolly, the spark of rebellion and fightback must be encouraged at every opportunity; not managed and guided into safe channels unfeared by the chainers. Self-activity and collective confrontation of injustices brought working class communities to life and gave all involved self-belief, collective confidence and organisation. This is what it meant to be a rebel. This is how rebels would be formed. This is how a rebel working class movement could be built.
Leading women’s equality campaigners of his day described Connolly as a feminist for his strident support for their demands. He supported the women’s rebellion and argued women themselves had the right to decide what constituted a ‘fetter’ on their lives to be removed. Woman must have the right to vote, the right to organise a union, the right to participate actively in the Irish Citizen Army and the right to be treated as an equal human being in a free Ireland. Rebellious women, he insisted, should expect the enthusiastic backing for their struggles from the entire working class movement in anticipation of destroying the whole ‘citadel of oppression’.
The entire point of Connolly’s magnificent Labour in Irish History was to demonstrate how Irish elites, great Green nationalist patriots, would betray the Irish working class in its struggle for freedom and self-determination. He vehemently opposed the idea the working class movement should temper its demands so as to not alienate the nationalist upper middle-class and Irish wealthy class. He was for sharpening the division between the haves and have-nots at every opportunity. He was in complete opposition to the courting of support from those above by those below. The working class would lead the struggle against empire and capitalism simultaneously. No working class demand would be put back in order to appease a big employer or landlord.
For Connolly, the 1913 Dublin Lockout was a precursor to the coming class war between the Irish labouring majority and the Irish political and employer elites in the expected Home Rule Ireland. Every strike carried the seeds of revolution. A one-day strike could become an all-out strike. An all-out strike a general strike. A general strike an insurrection. “Our demands most moderate are” he said, “we only want the earth”.
As a leader of the Transport Workers Union, Connolly was deeply impacted by the heroism and courage of the Dublin working class in 1913. In their struggle and sacrifice the seeds of a new society were evident. The working class would, he insisted, establish a new society based on equality, cooperation and friendship, not because they were individually better than those in other classes but because their conditions of life would leave them no choice. The individual desire for equality and freedom could only be accomplished through the collective struggle of a risen working class. The risen people would establish a new civilisation free from empire, monarchy, exploitation and oppression.
In Belfast, Connolly witnessed the toxic effects of sectarianism on impoverished working class communities. Nevertheless, he analysed the historical roots of division in Ireland’s most industrialised city and worked towards the potential for working class struggle and heroism there too. The Orange drum, Connolly believed, would not stop the coming unity of the North’s working class. Support for empire and bigotry among the Belfast working classes had to be challenged but every issue that could lead to potential unity in struggle should be sought out too. It would be no easy task but risen people, united in their social and economic demands, could break from institutions and ideas that had dominated their communities for generations and forge a new working class consciousness. In 1907 Belfast had been rebel city and it would be again.
Connolly opposed Ireland’s partition and called for the labour movement to do everything in its power to stop it. His opposition wasn’t based on some sentimental notion about the ‘nation’ but because of the impact it would have on the living Irish working class and its struggle for self-emancipation. He described partition as a ‘carnival of reaction’ because it would cement division within the Irish working class. The workers of the South would be tied to support for Green capitalists. Workers of the North would be tied to Orange capital. Elites on either side of the border would be strengthened and the working class movement for socialism weakened by division. Permanent partition would be used permanently by elites on either side to remind their respective ‘wage-slaves’ of where their allegiance should lie. Partition gave Nationalist and Unionist elites the pulpit and the baton to instill law and order in their house. Every 12th of July was designed to raise sectarian tensions, terrify the Catholic minority, and tie the Protestant lower orders to their betters in industry, in military brass and in palaces. The Catholic Church would guilt urban and rural labour into acceptance of their station.
From the beginning of the Great War in 1914, Connolly agitated for a rising. He agitated for a great working class rising across Europe against empire and the irrational economic system generating the unprecedented slaughter of working class lives and ruin of the continent’s great cities. The imperial war that sent workers to kill other workers for the benefit of capitalists, financiers, kings and kaisers should be turned into a civil war of the have-nots against those sending them to certain death. He called for Continental Revolution from below. For Connolly, the rising in Ireland could set off the chain of rebellion across Europe destroying imperialism and ushering in socialism. None of Connolly’s plans for 1916 in Ireland were based on martyrdom or conciliation with some form of ritual nationalism he had spent his life opposing. In April 1916 he made clear his objective: “We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy.”
British Army rifles murdered Connolly for his role in the 1916 Rising but Irish elites led the agitation for his execution. The 1913 Dublin Lockout gave them a glimpse of the future Ireland Connolly envisaged and they hated it. They would not be ruled by Connolly’s working class mob. They wanted an independent Ireland where their privileges and powers were extended and protected. They looked jealously at the power and prestige of their British counterparts across the water and they wished to emulate it. The example of Dublin in 1913 terrified the British ruling class too. A risen Dublin could be a risen Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. The Irish working class and Connolly had to be contained.
The best tribute we can pay Connolly today is organising to make his vision a reality: “The day will come, and perhaps like a bolt from the blue, when the frontiers will not be sufficient to prevent the handclasp of friendship between the peoples. But that day will come only when the kings and kaisers, queens and czars, financiers and capitalists who now oppress humanity will be hurled from their place and power, and the emancipated workers of the earth, no longer the blind instruments of rich men’s greed will found a new society, a new civilisation, whose corner stone will be labour, whose inspiring principle will be justice, whose limits humanity alone can bound.”