Ireland in the early 20th century was a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and James Connolly was central to it. Historian Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh charts James Connolly’s unique political perspective and argues that he provides crucial lessons for the struggles of today.
Referring to the veneration of Wolfe Tone by nationalist Ireland, James Connolly wryly commented that ‘apostles of Freedom are ever idolized when dead but crucified when living’. Connolly may as well have been predicting his own subsequent canonisation, but he himself counselled against the tendency to wield a romanticised version of the past to blunt the struggle for human freedom in the here and now. As he wrote, again of Tone: ‘We who hold his principles believe that any movement which would successfully grapple with the problem of national freedom must draw its inspiration not from the smouldering records of the past, but from the glowing hopes of the living present, the vast possibilities of the mighty future.’ To that end, this brief assessment of working class radicalism after the Easter Rising aims not to add to the sanctification of Connolly, but to locate him clearly within the historical process, so that – in pursuit of the mighty future he sought – the good is not interred with his bones.
Connolly and the defeat of the sans-culottes
Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh to rural Ulster immigrants owned its origins to the spread of market forces across Ireland, a process rapidly accelerated by the Famine. The ideology that his parents carried from Monaghan to Scotland reflected the historical experience of the Irish poor, perhaps best captured in Engels’s bitter criticism of Daniel O’Connell’s unwillingness to mobilise the Irish sans-culottes. Writing to Marx in June 1843, he vowed that with ‘two hundred thousand Irishmen’ could ‘overthrow the entire British monarchy’. Connolly spent much of his energy criticising O’Connell’s constitutional nationalist successors, aiming to counter their conservative hold through the reorientation of the popular radicalism embedded in large swathes of Irish (and indeed British) society.
The aftermath of the Famine saw the consolidation of ‘a dominant Irish Catholic subculture’ whose own interests were closely tied to those of the British empire and its apparatus in Ireland. This class – deeply implicated in the colonial project – cherished the imperial ‘values that ratified and reinforced capitalist institutions and processes, such as private property, “free market” competition, and individual acquisitiveness’. This ‘West British’ tendency still holds enormous sway within the twenty-six counties, in spite of rhetorical flourishes of Fianna Fáil, the so-called republican party.1
There was a glaring contradiction in the way constitutional nationalism had to position itself in Ireland however: given the depth of grievances among Irish workers and the poor, it was periodically forced to resort to mass mobilisation. This was ‘despite the fact that [its own] programme entailed the creation of an Irish bourgeois state’ that would institutionalise ‘lower-class Catholics’ social marginalization, immiseration, and emigration.’2 Connolly’s analysis in Labour in Irish History constituted a clarion call to subvert this process. The embodiment of the organic intellectual, Connolly fused the popular ideology of the Irish rural poor, which ‘oscillated between visions of a pastoral Gaelic commonwealth and the radical, half-assimilated ideals of the French Revolution and the United Irishmen’ with the socialism of the Second International to produce a potent new fusion of syndicalism and anti-imperialism.3 In the language of George Rudé, Connolly rearticulated radical republicanism through the fusion of inherent popular ideology and derived Marxism.4 He intuitively understood the nature of ideology; his own popular writing reflected many of the insights made famous by his Italian contemporary, Antonio Gramsci.
As Kerby Miller outlines, the post-Famine consolidation of the ‘shoneen’ class meant that, by the second half of the 19th century, mass emigration and Irish poverty were ‘really more attributable to profit-maximization among Catholic commercial farmers and rural parents…than to the machinations of Protestant landlords or British officials.’5 This class rode to hegemony on the back of a Land War, which relied on the very rural precariat that their dominance had driven to near liquidation. As the Fenian social radical, Matthew Harris, noted, the alliance of the small and large farmer in the Land League represented ‘the union of the shark and the prey’. 6 Millions of Engels’s sans-culottes from the subsistence sector of rural Irish society (smallholders, cottiers, and landless labourers) crowded into the slums of New York, Liverpool or Cowgate in Edinburgh.
In this respect, ‘faith and fatherland’ Catholic nationalism rested upon on a century-long conveyor belt of emigration.7 This vicious social cycle survived the revolutionary period. Indeed, Connolly’s involvement in the Easter Rising and the wartime pause in emigration meant that for a brief period the Irish rural and urban working class possessed the opportunity, ideology and determination to challenge their fate.
1916 & the Co-operative Commonwealth
Some commentators point to Connolly’s successors within the Irish labour movement as genuine heirs to his legacy. But while Connolly was centrally involved in co-founding the Irish Labour Party, this constitutes a significant misreading. Connolly consistently railed against reformism and opportunism: his position mirrored Rosa Luxemburg’s contemporary critique, which argued that the ‘theory’ or ‘the principles of scientific socialism’ imposed ‘clearly marked limitations to practical activity’. In 1894, Connolly stated that ‘the election of a Socialist to any public body at present, is only valuable in so far as it is the return of a disturber of the political peace.’ In other words, unlike those who oversaw the early formation of the Irish Labour Party, Connolly was a revolutionary. His approach was reflected in his famous statement in 1915: ‘We believe in constitutional action in normal times; we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times.’8 Indeed, this echoed Gramsci’s own conception of the war of position versus the war of manoeuvre.
Against this, his successors in the Irish Labour Party & Trade Union Congress [ILPTUC] believed in constitutional action all the time. During the crucial revolutionary juncture, the labour leadership combined rhetorical extremism with practical quietism, calling four general strikes in four years, but ‘all of a token nature or on issues related to the national question’. As Emmet O’Connor rightly concluded, these strikes demonstrated Labour’s strength, but ‘acted as substitutes for revolutionary initiative.’ We will never know if genuine revolutionary leadership might have changed history. We do, however, know that the ILPTUC’s conservatism precluded any successful outcome for the Irish working class.9 Emmet Stagg perhaps best characterised the Irish Labour Party as ‘the political wing of St Vincent de Paul’.10
Connolly’s other significant contribution sought to place the Irish working class ‘as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.’11 Others have written more eloquently on his sustained critique of bourgeois nationalism, but it is essential to reiterate that throughout his public life Connolly championed internationalism, promoted the cooperative control of production and encouraged the emancipation of women. His tactics changed according to circumstances, but his principles demonstrated a consistency that many of his academic critics notably failed to maintain in their own lifetimes. Therefore, in the period after Easter 1916, the possibility of a mighty future emerged in the demand for the Workers’ Republic. Kieran Allen rightly concludes that ‘it only became an aborted revolution because no political force emerged which could fuse national and social demands.’12 The tragedy is that while a viable political outlook had substantial support, a vehicle for transforming thought to action did not. As Peadar O’Donnell recounted, when it came time to organize a national movement for independence, ‘Nobody noticed that Connolly’s chair was left vacant, that the place Connolly purchased for the organised labour movement in the independence struggle was being denied’. Yet Connolly had bequeathed an ideological legacy that resonated with the hopes and beliefs of the Irish poor. As Emmet O’Connor has commented:
By sanctifying solidarity, syndicalism harnessed the powerful conformism in Irish society to turn an employment structure that normally would cripple collective action into a force for militancy. It was not just a matter of tactics, but of morals.13
In essence, the cataclysm of the imperialist war provoked an organic crisis in which the subordinate elements within Irish Catholic society – whether syndicalist urban and rural proletarian, or petit-bourgeois Gael – sought to subvert the dominance of constitutionalist Catholic Ireland. They aimed to set the country on a more egalitarian and radical trajectory based on a combination of strands from within existing republican discourse. In fact, the proletariat – Catholic, Protestant and those of no religion – pre-empted the emergence of Sinn Féin, which despite its rhetorical egalitarianism, represented a lower middle-class, separatist response to the global crisis. Again, as O’Connor had pointed out in relation to the upsurge in trade union militancy in 1981-19, ‘the emergence of sabotage and violence preceded the independence struggle by two years and its form was determined primarily by the “pioneering” and localized character of trade unionism’. Indeed, an unprecedented ‘spirit of syndicalism’ washed over the landless and rural poor, generating waves of trade union militancy, even in the supposedly ‘Black North’, where there was a ratio of one labourer to every farmer.14 Connolly had helped foster this syndicalist perspective and with another child of Ulster’s sans-culottes, Jim Larkin, had led an unprecedented eight-month struggle during the 1913 Lockout. In the half decade of the First World War, Ireland pulsed with a revolutionary syndicalist ‘spirit that once electrified vast sections of the labour movement’.
In short, Ireland witnessed an ‘upsurge of social revolutionary impulses that paralleled the rise of republicanism’, with eighty soviets – mostly in Munster – founded in 1922 alone. As O’Connor conclusively demonstrates, ‘by pitting political will against economic logic, southern workers altered the course, but not the direction, of class conflict.’ The counterrevolution, the imposition of partition and the weakness of indigenous labour in the context of continued mass emigration meant that ‘never since has the working class confronted the rationale of capitalism so profoundly or so extensively.’15 The same historian identifies another fundamental reason for this regression: the abandonment of syndicalism. ‘[I]ts successor tendencies, both reformist and revolutionary, turned outward for redemption, away from native experience to eternal models of politics’, be they British or indeed Russian.16
Rather than a parochial defence of indigenous tradition against the international experience, this reflects the idea of the working class coming to the fore within the democratic movement of the country. In his prison notebooks, Gramsci argued that ‘there has to be a more complex synthesis of class objectives with themes that have arisen out of the original and unique history of each country’. Only when dominant interests are welded to the ‘national-popular will’ can the ‘ideas and aims of the revolutionary class . . . become deeply rooted among the people’. This takes place through a ‘process of criticism of the existing ideological complex’, which makes possible a change in the strengths of the ‘old ideologies’. What was ‘previously secondary… becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex.’ That is, combining the needs and goals of working-class people with the country’s historical fabric opens up a space to challenge, and dislodge, the ruling ideas of the day.
The reader will hopefully realise that this is precisely what Connolly intuitively understood and hoped to achieve within Ireland’s colonial context. It is what anyone intent on social revolution must do within the ideological framework of the country’s revolutionary tradition.
The carnival of reaction consolidated by partition on both sides of the British-imposed border brought an end to the social revolution. Despite the fine rhetoric and aspirations within the Dáil’s Democratic Programme, no room existed within the Free State to cherish all the children of the nation equally. Indeed, Kevin O’Higgins dismissively described the Programme as ‘mostly poetry’.17 This vicious counter-revolution re-imposed Shoneen and Orange capitalism, but the contradictions of the previous century persisted. Connolly’s ghost still haunts the gombeen republic and its northern, sectarian twin. Interestingly, rather than poetry, Leo Varadkar wrote that the Democratic Programme deserved re-reading, observing that it contained laudable aspirations not yet achieved.18 Not only does this speak to the residual force of social radicalism within the national-popular will, but it exposes the contradictions and hypocrisies within the neo-liberal republic that Varadkar’s Blueshirts currently governs. Therefore, when we next hear that there is no alternative, we should respond that TINA died with Thatcher and that another world is possible. To accept the turgid common sense of the golden circle and the neo-liberal European Union is to renounce liberty and our own capacity to promote a humanist future.19
Ireland is no longer impoverished yet, since 2008, 300,000 young people have left our shores. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the neo-liberal rulebook as a confection. When the political establishment attempt to return to business [capitalism] as usual, we must rediscover the indigenous revolutionary socialism of Connolly and abandon nationalism. We will be told that we should be sensible, moderate and that we cannot achieve a co-operative commonwealth. If our history has taught us anything, it is that the very instant of this cerebral compromise marks the death of a struggle before it even commences.
The counter-revolution heralded the marshalling of ‘green-coated Irish soldiers’ to guard ‘the fraudulent gains of capitalist and landlord from “the thin hands of the poor” just as remorselessly … as the scarlet-coated emissaries of England.’20 The failed social revolution condemned generations of Irish people to poverty and economic exile. Yet the same experience provides salutary lessons – proving our capacity for radical agency, revealing the dynamism of an indigenous democratic socialism and teaching us that only one objective or guiding principle can guarantee a mighty future for ourselves and the future generations: Our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth.
Feargal Mac Bhloscaidh has a blog here where he writes on radical history in English and in Irish.
- Kerby A. Miller, Ireland and Irish America: culture, Class, and Transatlantic Migration (Field Day, 2008), p. 84.
- Miller, Ireland and Irish America, p. 85.
- Miller, p. 86.
- George Rudé, Ideology and Popular Protest (Pantheon, 1980).
- Miller, p.80
- Fergus Campbell, Land and Revolution in the West of Ireland (Oxford, 2005), p. 25.
- Miller, p. 89.
- The Workers Republic, 4 December 1915.
- Emmet O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland (Cork, 1998), p. 44; p. 188
- O’Connor, Syndicalism, p. 187
- Labour in Irish History, July 1910
- Kieran Allen, 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Legacy (Pluto, 2016)
- O’Connor, Syndicalism, p. 31
- O’Connor, Syndicalism, pp 33-4
- O’Connor, Syndicalism, p. 110
- O’Connor, Syndicalism, p. 154.
- J. J, Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge, 1989), p. 127.
- Irish Times, 25 Jan. 1919
- Rousseau, Social Contract, Book I, chapter IV.
- James Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism (1897).