Connolly and Easter Week: A Rejoinder to John Newsinger

by C. Desmond Greaves

Science & Society, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer, 1984), pp. 220-223

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” – Thomas Jefferson

In his recent article, “James Connolly and the Easter Rising,” in Science and Society (Vol. XLVII, No. 2 [Summer 1983], pp.152-177) John Newsinger argues that by participating in an insurrection aimed at establishing an independent Irish Republic, the leader of Irish Labor “subordinated his socialist politics to the exigencies of a Republican putsch.”

He supports his argument with a somewhat selective sketch of Connolly’s life and work (not without inaccuracies), and suggests that whereas in 1897 he had “roundly condemned the insurrectionary policy of Irish republicanism as altogether disastrous,” in 1916 he embraced the very thing. Hence, “Connolly’s socialism has to be numbered among the victims of the Rising.”

The argument appears to run:

1. Connolly’s socialism was in effect anti-republican, or at least non-republican.
2. It was incompatible with insurrectionism.
3. Therefore in 1916 Connolly contradicted his previous life.

Opening a centenary meeting in London Connolly’s son began, “My father was a Marxian socialist.” Moreover his Marxism was classical. The classical position was stated clearly by Engels on May 14, 1872, when he replied to an Englishman anxious to discourage the spread of Irish IWA clubs in Britain:

In a case like that of the Irish, true internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinct national organisation, and they were under the necessity to state in the preamble to their rules that their first and most pressing duty as Irishmen was to establish their own national independence.

This was the view taken back to Ireland by Connolly in 1896, and he had to convince the Dublin socialists of it, and persuade them to establish an “Irish Socialist Republican Party.” His criticism of current republican policy he made as a republican. In the passage from Shan Van Vocht quoted by Mr. Newsinger, Connolly says, “If you remove the English army tomorrow… unless you set about the organization of the socialist republic… England will still rule you.” This, indeed (and not asserting the inseparability of national liberation and socialism, as Mr. Newsinger suggests), justifies claiming Connolly as an original Marxist thinker. He anticipated what is now known as neo-colonialism.

Nothing in this passage suggests that Connolly was prepared to accept the presence of the British army while he busied himself with talking about socialism – which in any case could not be achieved until the British left the Irish free to choose their own social system.

As for Connolly’s continued interest in republicanism, he described his major work, Labour in Irish History, as part of the literature of Irish Ireland. His early criticism of Fenian insurrectionism was moreover directed not against physical force as such, which, as he put it, might or might not be necessary, but against failure to define the social objectives for which force might or might not be used.

Did Connolly offer any opinion as to the circumstances in which insurrection would be necessary or justified? He did. In essence those circumstances amounted to the prospect of a revolutionary crisis. He was for the ballot in normal times, for insurrection in abnormal. Such abnormal times were ushered in by the outbreak of war in August 1914. Space does not suffice for me to set out fully the evolution of Connolly’s thought in the two years of world crisis that presented him with more problems than the whole of the rest of his life. I have given my account of it in Chapter 8 of my History of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Connolly based his strategy on the Basel and Stuttgart resolutions of the Second International. Their purpose was to utilize the war crisis for the overthrow of capitalism. In my young days people used to say, “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war.” In an occupied country like Ireland, such a war must necessarily in the first instance be a war for national independence.

Connolly was deeply distressed at the way the world’s socialist parties (with the honorable exceptions of the Russian, Serbian and American) disgraced themselves by encouraging the fratricidal slaughter. But he hoped that the example of the Irish, who were among those who did not disgrace themselves, would influence the course of European events. In a famous passage he wrote of “armed battling on the streets” – for example, to retain Irish food in Ireland, and, with his socialist internationalism unimpaired, he concluded:

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 holder will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war-lord.

Of course events disappointed him. The continental revolution did not begin until 1917. He hoped for a time that an Irish example would stimulate the English. Then he found that the temporary prosperity caused by the war had begun to demoralize the mass of even the Irish workers. His greatest disappointment came when he realized that his union, the ITGWU, of which he was acting secretary, weakened by the industrial struggles of 1913-14, was not up to the effort of seizing docks, shipping, railways, etc., and so leading a revolution.

When in January 1916 the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided on a Rising at Easter they contacted Connolly and sought his cooperation, which he gave. The story of Connolly being kidnapped by the IRA military committee has been long discredited and it is surprising that Mr. Newsinger should repeat it.

So little had Connolly’s fundamental thinking altered (his immediate political tactics are of course another matter) that he could on April 6th 1916, two weeks before the insurrection, write:

The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered.

But in another article he developed the conception that socialism in Ireland would have to be achieved in two stages: the first a national, and the second a socialist “stage of freedom.” This is reminiscent of Lenin’s “two tactics.”

As for his final interview with his daughter, she had misremembered the details when she wrote her book. Connolly had referred not to socialists but to socialist papers. He was right. None of them understood. But socialists in a number of places held protest meetings after his execution.

Of the Rising itself, Lenin wrote:

Whoever calls such an uprising a “putsch” is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of picturing to himself a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

His conclusion was simply that the Irish had risen too soon.

Without prejudice to Mr. Newsinger’s scholarship I think your readers might with advantage be made aware of a number of small errors of commission – those of omission being a matter of opinion.

My life of Connolly was published in 1961, not 1972. Connolly, the acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, cannot be described as “an unpopular trade union militant.” There was no man named Mulray associated with Connolly. The name was Mullery. He lived not four miles from where I am writing and I was often in his house. The name is given correctly in my biography but Mr. Newsinger fastens the error on me, though he presumably got it from Samuel Levenson. A military committee was indeed set up in 1915, but ceased to function following the arrest of Sean MacDermott. The committee that planned and executed the Rising was established at the IRB meeting in Clontarf Town Hall in January 1916.

Finally, Mr. Newsinger’s suggestion that Connolly was “pro-German” reflects precisely the jingoistic hysteria of the First World War, which, though I was a child, I remember well. In opposing this Connolly showed the sort of courage that would in our day characterize any man who said one solitary good word for Russia. Whether one should go with hysteria or attempt to calm it is a matter for moral judgment.

(Liverpool, England)