Academicizing Connolly

by C. Desmond Greaves

(Review of Bernard Ransom, Connolly’s Marxism, Pluto Press, London, 1980; Irish Democrat, n.d.)

It would be pleasant to be able to praise this book, for the young man who has written it has good intentions.  His genuine respect for Connolly is shown at the outset when he speaks of his being “an important figure in the history of socialism, as of Ireland;  a great man by any standards … a man from whom we might learn, in the depth of his intellectual challenge, his receptivity of mind, his courage, his humour and tranquillity in adversity and his truly awesome nobility of character.”

Unfortunately however the author lacks the intellectual equipment for the formidable task he attempted. Something more is required than the eclectic ”Marxism” of the University department of politics. And to encompass Connolly’s thought a stronger sense of working class struggle is needed.  To Connolly Marxism was not a philosophy but a guide to action.

Mr Ransom suggests that Connolly undertook to  “hibernicize” Marxism. But it was  not necessary. The conception of an Irish national revolution led by the Irish workers and supported  by the international socialist movement is implicit in Marx’s writings, though whether Connolly discovered it independently is another question. What we have here is a rather superficial account of Connolly’s Marxism, useful as an introduction,  but breaking little new ground and unfortunately not presented chronologically.

And the wretched academic jargon! The test of whether a writer understands his subject is whether he can present his ideas in common or ordinary English. This book needs a translation. The general reader will have to cope with such cant expressions as “schema”, “scientistic”,  “normative”, “seminal”, “rootedness”, “triumphalist”, “machinofacture”, “praxis”, “awesome imponderable”, “nativist”, “class-unconscious”,  ”crypto-secularist”, “prelatist”, “mores” and “immiseration”.  Orange bigotry is called  “Protestant Erastianism”.  Erastus was a Swiss doctor who lived in the sixteenth century and held that the church should be subordinate to the state. What is this to do with Belfast? 

The trouble with the endless metaphorical “isms” of the academic community is that they end by muddling ordinary words. Thus we have “definitive” where “final”  is required,  “exacerbate” where “aggravate” is required. ”Concommitant” (sic) is probably attributable to the printer. In general a simple word will not do. Both Connolly and Clausewitz “adumbrated” their opinions – some shadows!  And Labour in Irish History  is described both as a “commentary” and a “concordance”. I thought a concordance was rather the opposite of a commentary.  Connolly’s great work is credited with a “counterpoint style”.

There are also irritating small factual errors.  The trade union of which Connolly became General Secretary was the ITGWU, not ITWU. The SSF cannot be described as the “local affiliate of the British Social -Democratic body”. Which body?  The Catholic Hierarchy did not  “swing its support to militant nationalism on the decade preceding the first world war.” The ITGWU did not describe itself as the ”One Big Union” until after Connolly’s death, though of course syndicalist ideas were part of the intellectual atmospere of the time.  At the time of Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech and the split in the Irish Volunteers Connolly was already spending part of his time in Dublin.

And there are misunderstandings. Ransom suggests that Connolly desired to introduce a “normative” element into Marxism which was not present already. That is to say he took account of right and wrong. Anybody who reads Marx’s crrespondence will see that it needed no introduction. Again, Ransom writes that Connolly’s “conception of the Irish revolution was not one of  ‘stages ‘ such as might be appropriate to a situation of full backwardness in Russia and the colonized nations of Asia.  He writes of Irish backwardness so presumably this was partial backwardness  not full backwardness.   But the whole thing is nonsense. In his paper the  Workers Republic “of January 15th, 1916, Connolly advocated a revolution which would establish “the first days of freedom”.*

It is also strange to find Desmond Greaves, Owen Dudley Edwards and Manus O’Riordan grouped together as “pioneers”  in Connolly scholarship.  The first pioneer was W.P.Ryan who handed over the results of his researches to his son Desmond Ryan whose book was published in 1924. Mrs Noelle Davies published the next in 1946, just after the war. Then came  R.M.Fox.  Ransom gives the date of publication of  Desmond Greaves’s book as 1972. It was 1961 and the discovery of the date and place of Connolly’s birth was published in the Irish Democrat in 1953. Dudley Edwards’s study was published in 1971 and the author did not claim to be a pioneer. One is aware of no substantial work by Mr Manus O’Riordan, but the author quotes his “Connolly in  America” published in Belfast in 1971  by the Irish Communist Organization. Is this the same thing as the two-nationist ”British and Irish Communist Orgnization? 

Mr Ransom describes the 1916 Rising as a “putsch”. He thus backs Radek against Lenin, who was somewhat contemptuous of this view.

One interesting point raised relates to the syndicalist conception of building the framework of socialist society within the “shell” of capitalist society, This he traces to passages in the third volume of  Marx’s Capital. For a time Connolly subscribed to this view and it is to be found is Socialism Made Easy.  Ransom is probably right, though the passage in no way means what the syndicalists made of it.  But the German edition was published in 1894, and the English not until 1909.  It would therefore appear that Connolly derived the idea from De Leon.

It is a pity that Mr Ransom rushed at this job and brought out a book on Connolly’s Marxism without spending the years of patient study that would be required to do justice to the subject.  He has thus been compelled to take strands of Connolly’s thought and to fit them on to a frame of  his own devising.   It is clear that he thinks Marxism is a philosophy which can be orthodox or heterodox. And he then seeks out the “heterodox” in Connolly.  One does not have orthodox and heterodox in a guide to action.  But at any rate he has made a stab at it, and one must give him credit for doing that.

  • The word “days” was mistakenly rendered  as “stage” in the original article, though that does not alter the point being made.

Socialist Internationalist from beginning to end

by C. Desmond Greaves

(Review of Austen Morgan, James Connolly, A Political Biography, Manchester University Press, 1988;  in The Morning Star, n.d.)

With a total of 892 references, this book certainly possesses the weightiness of scholarship. It is, however, a self-proclaimed polemical work designed (as the blurb succinctly explains) to pose the “unanswered question” of ”why a man who lived as a Socialist died an Irish nationalist”.

The question remains unanswered of course, because its premise is nonsense.  Connolly died, as he lived, a Socialist Internationalist. What is presented for explanation, didn’t happen.

But, in the course of toying with his subject, Austen Morgan contrives to throw more than a peck of dirt on the principle of Irish national independence, from which the forces of transnational capital are in league to wean the Irish people away.

His thesis is essentially that of 1919 Sean O’Casey. When at the outbreak of war Connolly contemplated an Irish national revolution, “Labour lost a leader.”

One would expect, from an author arguing such a case, a careful examination of Connolly’s statements, especially those from the period in which the transition is alleged to have taken place.

But from cover to cover, there is scarcely one brief reproduction of what Connolly actually said, although we are well supplied with what Morgan thinks he meant.

The early chapters concentrate on Connolly’s Socialism, ignoring his consistent stand for Irish independence.  The last chapters describe his “nationalism” during  the “last 20 months of his life”.

The author seems completely unaware of the principle that the emancipation of a small nation is an act of internationalism, as it enables that nation to take its place in the world.

At the outbreak of war Connolly called for a revolution that would lead  to the ”dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world”. It was soon clear this was not going to happen.

The fact that the working class required the experience of war to develop a revolutionary consciousness left Connolly with a need for fresh tactics.

A “one stage” revolution was not in sight. All the talk about “stages theory” is of course redundant.  There is no absolute rule.

Under the conditions of the time Connolly outlined ”two stages of Irish freedom”, which Austen Morgan refers to only to dismiss.

He strikes one as a man with little practical experience of political  activity and seems to inhabit a world of abstractions where there is no such thing as adapting a consistent principle to transformed circumstances.

The selection of facts bolstered by the 892 references is vitiated by misunderstanding. Everything is filtered through an eclectic ideology, a  kind of Establishment Socialism, Marxism without commitment, that petit-bourgeois enfants terribles assume on their way to becoming academic Meistersingers.

There are few gross errors of fact, although some material is presented out of chronology. Poor old Mullery is consistently called Mulray.

And there are some queer words. I would love to know what a “problematic” is.

Some queer sentences too – of the Irish Socialist Republican Party he writes: “When it propagandised on the streets of Dublin it was social revolution that was being proselytised.” Perhaps he engaged Mrs Malaprop as consultant.

At the same time he is capable of the odd lively phrase, and the book is impeccably produced as it should be at the price.  At the outset he describes it as a  “personal project, fundamentally political”. 

That is fair enough. But though I can eat crow, I don’t like it.