Connolly’s Works Collected But Incomplete

Connolly’s Works Collected But Incomplete 

[Editor’s Note: This review of “James Connolly: Collected Works”, published by New Books Publications, Dublin, was carried in the “Morning Star” daily on 18 August 1988, a few days before Desmond Greaves’s death on 23 August that year. Some years before that, when Greaves had completed the first volume of the projected three-volume history of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union which the Union Executive had commissioned him to write, he was asked to compile a list of Connolly’s published works for the Union.  This led him to put the items that had been published in various book collections in chronological order, which seemingly no one had done before.  In the course of this task he estimated that only one-third or so of Connolly’s articles had been reprinted and in his memo to the ITGWU  Executive on the matter he strongly  advocated that efforts be made to gather and publish a proper collection of  all of Connolly’s writings. To date, 2024, this has not been done.] 


There is a saying in Lancashire that “there’s nowt so queer as folk.”

The late William O’Brien had long abandoned the principles that he had once shared with James Connolly, but he treasured every scrap of Connolly memorabilia, and kept his dead leader’s main works in print for a quarter of a century.

In 1946 or 1947, through the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, he commissioned historian Desmond Ryan to edit three important collections of Connolly’s newspaper articles. These appeared from 1948 to 1951.

Ryan was not a consistent Marxist – he once said to me, “I’m not really a communist” – but he had been on the “Daily Worker” and had written the first ever biography of Connolly from material collected by his father, the labour historian W. P. Ryan.

The two substantial volumes that comprise the present collection contain the whole of Ryan, with his useful explanatory notes, together with Connolly’s classic “Labour in Irish History”, “The Reconquest of Ireland” and a collection of articles on Insurrectionary Warfare made available by New Books Publications a few years ago.

Michael O’Riordan, president of the Communist Party of Ireland, contributes an Introduction, printed in each volume, which stresses the enormous range of Connolly’s contribution.

Connolly was self-educated but became “historian, economist, student of literature, poet and songwriter, playwright, municipal election candidate, trade union organiser, street orator and a journalist capable of writing and printing his own paper and selling it personally as well.”

Connolly’s importance lies in his understanding of the classical Marxist approach to the national question. 

It is a matter of democracy, and it is democracy that enables people to change social systems to their economic advantage.

This principle is of vital importance today when the ruling classes of Europe are endeavouring to extinguish the legacy of the French Revolution and establish a financial feudalism which will create a “prison house of nations”.

It is not surprising therefore that modern revisionism has marked out Connolly for assault.

A favourite line of attack is the suggestion that by taking part in a national uprising Connolly in some mysterious way abandoned his “socialist principles”.

His socialist principles, like those of Marx and Engels, included the aim of national independence without which the Irish people were powerless to change the social system, just as at present the British people are powerless to establish Socialism without breaking the Treaty of Rome – and they’ll have to steel themselves for a fight in this field.

Far from acquiescing in a capitalist development, Connolly did not believe that the bourgeoisie could be trusted to lead the struggle for national independence.

Looking at Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, who could say he was wrong? 

An immense amount of work has gone into the production of these volumes and they are to be welcomed unreservedly. 

At the same time it is worth remarking that though they are indeed the collected works of Connolly, they are not the complete works.

It is time somebody formed a committee of scholars with the aim of giving us a fully annotated collection of everything that Connolly wrote.