As war fervour continues to be ramped up, Kieran Allen looks at James Connolly’s views on war: His staunch opposition to imperialism and the First World War, his belief that war was an inevitability under capitalism, and his argument that a rebellion in Ireland could lead to a wider revolt against the war.
The invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a barrage of pro-war propaganda. Armchair generals urge greater NATO intervention and have little hesitancy in contemplating the prospect of nuclear war. They call for ever more sanctions on Russia, telling the population it is their patriotic duty to bear the costs.
The parallels with World War One in 1914 are striking. Then and now it was the weaker imperial power than began a new era of global conflict. In 1914, it was Austria who made the first moves. Today it is Russia, a country with a commodity driven economy and a GDP that is one tenth that of the USA.
In Ireland, James Connolly was the foremost opponent of that war. His first instinct was to challenge the propaganda of his own side and this meant opposing the Home Rule Party led by John Redmond. These focused on the plight of Belgium and spoke about how this little Catholic nation was being overrun by Germany. Connolly opposed the invasion of Belgium but indicated that it was used by Britain to justify its own imperial ambitions. He wrote:
‘England has simply made a catspaw of Belgium, has deliberately tempted Belgium from her neutrality, and having committed that brave little kingdom to the fight has cold-bloodedly left her towns, cities and territories to be defended by her own unaided efforts.’
Initial enthusiasm for war was high in Ireland and there was a substantial enlistment in the British army, with about 57,000 joining by the end of 1914. Some of this was driven by sheer poverty as the wives of soldiers received a significant ‘separation allowance’. But there was also a certain excitement that this was a key moment of history which lifted life out of the ordinary.
Connolly pointed to the real consequences of war. He described in the most graphic way the horrors of bloodletting and slaughter. But he also pointed to its consequence in the home front:
“It already means that increased prices will be demanded for all food and household necessities. In every bite of food you eat you will be compelled to pay for the war; and as you are already poor and have at the best of times a struggle to live the war will mean hunger and misery to thousands – less food on their tables, less clothes on their backs or beds, less coal for their fires, less boots and shoes on their children’s feet and their own.”
Shortly after the war broke out, Connolly worked with Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who was a pacifist, Arthur Griffith, a right wing Sinn Féiner and Countess Markievicz to found the Irish Neutrality League. It sought to counter the efforts of John Redmond to recruit Irish people into the British war effort. It attacked ‘commercial conscription’ whereby companies forced men aged between twenty and thirty five into the British army under threat of dismissal. Connolly became its President and hosted a major public meeting in opposition to the war.
Connolly, however, went much further than his allies in defining the war as a direct outcome of the capitalist system. In this he joined a small group of socialist revolutionaries whose analysis of war shapes the outlook of socialists to this day. He wrote:
“We have held, and do hold, that war is a relic of barbarism only possible because we are governed by a ruling class with barbaric ideas; we have held, and do hold, that the working class of all countries cannot hope to escape the horrors of war until in all countries that barbaric ruling class is thrown from power; and we have held, and do hold, that the lust for power on the part of that ruling class is so deeply rooted in the nature and instinct of its members, that it is more than probable that nothing less than superior force will ever induce them to abandon their throttling grasp upon the lives and liberties of mankind.”
Connolly located the specific causes of war in the emergence of Germany as a major commercial rival to Britain. Britain’s early start in industrial development combined with its coal resources and its geographical isolation from continental wars meant that it could dominate the economies of Europe. However, by the early twentieth century this was challenged by Germany. As a late developer, that country had invested more heavily in sectors such as the chemical industry and had a more sophisticated apprenticeship system. As its productivity increased, Britain – like the US today – used its military superiority to gain extra economic leverage. At times, Connolly’s writings appeared somewhat soft on German imperialism but he also made it clear that he opposed both imperial powers.
Within the minority of socialists who opposed the war, there were two main camps. Keir Hardie in Britain and Karl Kautsky in Germany promoted an anti-war pacifism that suggested that it could end by pressurising their rulers to enter an international peace conference. When this did not appear possible, they argued that their respective governments should adopt limited war aims. Hardie also called for a moral refusal to serve in the armed forces. What both had in common was a belief that you could oppose war without fighting capitalism.
James Connolly was aligned with a small number of revolutionaries who argued that ending war could only be achieved by the overthrow of capitalist rule. The varying figures in each country expressed this sentiment in slightly different ways. Lenin and the Bolsheviks adopted a policy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ urging workers to fight a class war instead. Karl Liebknecht in Germany argued that ‘the main enemy is at home. and that ‘the main enemy of the German people is in Germany—German imperialism, the German war party, and German secret diplomacy’. Connolly put it more bluntly, writing that ‘The signal of war ought to have been the signal of rebellion…when the bugle sounded the first note of actual war, their notes should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution’.
He was more than aware that Ireland was a small country on the edge of Europe but his thought that a rebellion in Ireland could be the spark for a European wide revolution against the war:
“Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.“
Connolly’s distinctive revolutionary approach to war placed him at odds with members of this own party, the Independent Labour Party (Ireland). After his experience with the tiny and political sectarian Socialist Labour Party, Connolly had concluded that it was necessary to build a broader radical left party – hence his decision to join the ILP(I). However, at the first meeting of the ILP(I) in Belfast after war declared, it became clear that some of its members supported the war. Tom Johnson, the future leader of the Irish Labour Party backed the Allied cause, arguing that it was ‘better for the growth of liberty and democratic ideals’. This pro-war grouping prevented Connolly holding public meetings against the war.
The isolation of Connolly was a major factor in his decision to align with republicans in the way he did for the 1916 rebellion. He was determined to act, to carry though on his programme of revolution to both end war and achieve Irish independence.
Today there are very few people who will justify the horrors of the first world war. But as we enter the dark days of war mongering, it is important to note that not only are the wars ‘the mothers of revolutions’ but that revolutions are also the way wars are ended. The Russian revolution of 1917 ended that country’s participation and the lesser known German revolution of 1918 stopped that country’s last offensive.
Connolly’s message that war is a product of capitalism and that the overthrow of that system is necessary could not be more relevant today.
The more obvious parallel with the times of James Connolly is that he fought alongside non-socialists against an empire, using German weapons but without giving ground to the German agenda. There is a major problem with comparing Ukraine 2022 to Austria 1914, which is it means abandoning the Ukrainian left and trade unionists who are calling for our help in fighting off the invasion. If you took this analysis seriously, you would not support them because they are proxies for imperialism. Yet (see for example https://ukrainesolidaritycampaign.org/ ) they are opponents of NATO and Zelensky, while quite rightly joining in the popular movement to resist the Russian invasion.