This year’s anniversary of James Connolly’s execution occurs amidst a triple crisis of capitalism: a global health pandemic, an economic depression and a climate emergency. Author of the James Connolly Reader, Shaun Harkin, argues Connolly’s political ideas and socialist vision have never been so relevant.
Connolly joined the socialist movement in Scotland in the 1880s and organised for workers power there, in Ireland and in the United States, throughout his life. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels shaped his thinking and the political strategies he pursued. He founded the Irish Socialist Republic Party in 1896 with the goal of ending British rule and capitalism through the establishment of a workers republic.
The First World War
The 1916 Rising was very much a response to the eruption to World War I, and Connolly understood it as a crisis of capitalism. In the preceding decades, the great powers scrambled to carve-up the globe to put it under their control in order to exploit people, grab resources and gain geostrategic advantage. This competition intensified and eventually erupted in an industrial war.
Connolly condemned the war from the outset as one that would slaughter millions, set-back human progress and destroy civilisation. Amid the calls for patriotic ‘national unity’, he called for the workers of Europe to rebel against the war.
“It is not as clear as the fact of life itself that no insurrection of the working class; no general strike; no general uprising of the forces of Labour in Europe, could possibly carry with it, or entail a greater slaughter of socialists, than will their participation as soldiers in the campaigns of the armies of their respective countries? Every shell which explodes in the midst of a German battalion will slaughter some socialists; every Austrian cavalry charge will leave the gashed and hacked bodies of Serbian or Russian socialists squirming and twisting in agony upon the ground; every Russian, Austrian, or German ship sent to the bottom or blown sky-high will mean sorrow and mourning in the homes of some socialist comrades of ours. If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class, and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?”
From 1914 Connolly did everything he could to oppose the war. John Redmond and Edward Carson, the leaders of Nationalism and Unionism in Ireland, pressured tens of thousands of workers to sacrifice their lives in the war effort. Out of the 200,000 that followed their command close to 50,000 were killed. Connolly blasted those who treated workers as mere cannon fodder in a war fought on behalf of elites.
Connolly successfully campaigned to win the Irish trade union movement to oppose the war and worked to unite socialists, trade unionists, republicans, feminists and artists into the broadest possible opposition to the war effort.
He concluded a rising in Ireland could be the catalyst for a European revolution that could end the great slaughter, bring down empires and overturn capitalism. By 1915, as the reality of death, deprivation and war profiteering became clear, support for the war in Ireland and across Europe had plummeted.
Connolly believed Europe had become ‘ripe for revolution’. On this he was absolutely right. Revolution brought down the Tsar in Russia in February 1917 and the Bolshevik-led insurrection in October created the world’s first workers state. This was followed by revolts and revolutions throughout the world.
Two years fafter the Rising, Ireland was engulfed by its own revolutionary upheaval as hundreds of thousands participated in workplace occupations, land seizures, mass boycotts and a military campaign against Empire. Revolution in Ireland challenged British rule but also the entire political, social and economic order. Many were inspired by Connolly’s vision of a Socialist Workers’ Republic.
Much of Connolly’s theoretical and political contribution, as well as his practical organising efforts remain relevant today for the socialist and working class movement. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, three aspects of Connolly’s politics need to be highlighted.
First of all, Connolly believed trade unions could be tremendously important in empowering workers in workplaces and across industries. Connolly described unions as the most effective vehicles for working class people to challenge poverty. In the United States where he lived from 1903 to 1910, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World. The ‘Wobblies’ spearheaded a new form of trade unionism that encouraged the use of militant tactics and aimed to create a Socialist Industrial Republic.
When he returned to Ireland Connolly became an organiser for the Irish Transport and Workers General Union, the ITGWU. The ITGWU was a new union formed by Jim Larkin and its strategy was shaped by militant tactics pursued during the successful 1907 Belfast Dock Strike that brought together Catholic and Protestant workers. Connolly was the Ulster organiser for the ITGWU and describes the importance of ‘direct action’ in winning demands for Belfast dock workers in 1911:
“We have just had, and taken, the opportunity in Belfast to put into practice a little of what is known on the Continent of Europe as ‘Direct Action’.
Direct Action consists in ignoring all the legal and parliamentary ways of obtaining redress for the grievances of Labour, and proceeding to rectify these grievances by direct action upon the employer’s most susceptible part – his purse. This is very effective at times, and saves much needless worry, and much needless waste of union funds.
Direct Action is not liked by lawyers, politicians, or employers. It keeps the two former out of a job, and often leaves the latter out of pocket. But it is useful to Labour, and if not relied upon too exclusively, or used too recklessly, it may yet be made a potent weapon in the armoury of the working class.”
In the face of workers being pressed back into unsafe workplaces and with the threat of austerity looming, trade unions can play a central role defending working class communities. To do that effectively, they will need to shift from a strategy of seeing government and employers as partners to the type of political and insurgent trade unionism employed by Connolly.
Unions, Connolly argued, should defend workers in their day to day demands but should also be at the forefront of organising for revolutionary change. This model of trade union focuses on the self-activity of workers themselves in their workplaces in building solidarity, power and the capacity to take action.
The second aspect of Connolly’s politics that should be underscored is his opposition to partition. Connolly opposed partition on the basis it would divide the working class movement, set back the struggle for progress across the entire island and allow elites on either side of the border to manipulate nationalism and sectarianism to keep working class communities impoverished. How true this proved to be.
In the response to the Covid-19 threat, the border has surfaced as a reactionary obstacle to a rational and practical public health response. We have two diverging and contradictory strategies on the island that make absolutely no sense and increase the risk posed by the virus. With many people living and working either side of the border and with so much of the island’s economy, energy and health systems already integrated, it makes no sense to have different policies.
The Dáil and the Stormont Executive have managed only a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ in relation to cross-border coordination but this falls far short of what is actually needed. We need a fully integrated public health strategy and an all-Ireland national health service.
Socialism, Not Capitalism
Finally, Connolly’s vision for a Socialist Ireland is crucial today. Governments everywhere have called for ‘national unity’ in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. Instead, however, the response to the crisis has exposed for millions the way capitalism works for the elites but not the vast majority.
In Socialism Made Easy, Connolly wrote:
“When our investing classes purchase a share in any capitalist concern, in any country whatsoever, they do so, not in order to build up a useful industry, but because the act of purchase endows them with a prospective share of the spoils it is proposed to wring from labor.
Therefore, every member of the investing class is interested to the extent of his investments, present or prospective, in the subjugation of labor all over the world.
The wage worker is oppressed under this system in the interest of a class of capitalist investors who may be living thousands of miles away and whose very names are unknown to him. He is, therefore, interested in every revolt of labor all over the world, for the very individuals against whom that revolt may be directed may – by the wondrous mechanism of the capitalist system – through shares, bonds, national and municipal debts – be the parasites who are sucking his blood also.
That is one of the underlying facts inspiring the internationalism of labor and socialism.”
The essential and key workers now praised by the political establishment are the same workers who they’ve demonised and undervalued for decades with low wages and weakened conditions. The crisis has exposed how important workers are to the functioning of society – but also their treatment by employers and governments. For good reason, many have said they will refuse to go back to the ‘normality’ of the pre-crisis period.
The crisis has also exposed the inefficiency of the ‘private market’ versus the efficiency of the public sector. Once again, we find establishment politicians praising the NHS and other public services – but these are the same people who have spent decades trying to destroy the public sector to make way for privatisation. Privatisation, whether of care homes or leisure services, has never been about ‘efficiency’. It has always been about creating tremendous wealth for a tiny few by pushing down wages, undercutting access to services for all and weakening the power of trade unions.
On a global level, the crisis has exposed class inequality, the uselessness and craven profiteering of the richest and most powerful people in society. Socialism, instead of the anarchy of capitalist production, aims to empower the majority of people through democratically decided planning and cooperation from workplaces through communities both locally and internationally.
As Connolly argued, ‘the time for patching up the capitalist system is long past. It must go!’ Connolly dedicated his life to the struggle against imperialism, oppression and exploitation. He believed a more equal Ireland and world could be forged by uniting the struggles of all workers into revolutionary action. As we mark Connolly’s execution, we should redouble our efforts to fight for a Socialist Ireland and socialist world.