James Connolly (1868-1916) Marxist

On the Centenary of the Birth of James Connolly

by C. Desmond Greaves

Marxism Today, June 1968

WHY trouble about centenaries when world history moves with the speed and capacity of a tidal wave? This variant of Henry Ford’s celebrated dictum “History is bunk” could come excusably to the lips of a younger generation which has seen remarkable transformation in its own time. Among the middle or older Socialists there is a widespread sense of living in the early years of a new epoch. Many familiar landmarks have gone. Problems once engaging concentrated attention have been summarily solved by life. Others have sprung up, wearing the cloak of intractability with which new difficulties temporarily fool us. For young and old the question arises, what is the underlying change that determines all these appearances? It is palpably a change affecting imperialism. Hence the centenary of a great anti-imperialist of these islands, who lived and lost his life in the struggle, is immediately relevant.

One can speak broadly of the rise of imperialism from its basis in industrial capitalism to its cataclysmic crisis in 1914-1917. Thereafter came a protracted defence. Almost invariably defeated in every direct confrontation, though not without appalling bloodshed, imperialism survived by maintaining its characteristic economic forms by modified political means (neo-colonialism). Over the past few years it has become plain that that very defensive system has run into its own crisis, and the worldwide effects of the change are manifesting themselves in new mass struggles. The new challenge can only be met by the continuous development of creative Marxism assimilating and interpreting new experiences.

Early Years

The life of James Connolly covered the first of the two periods above distinguished, when history posed as many and as seemingly hard problems as it does today. It was his title to be recognised as a great Marxist that he was able to bring creative as well as critical analysis to bear on them.

James Connolly was born on June 5th, 1868, in a part of the slums of Edinburgh known as “little Ireland”. Reared in grinding poverty, he worked at dead-end jobs until, like most of his generation, he could pass himself off as old enough for the army. After enlistment he was posted to Cork, and spent the following seven years in different parts of Ireland, then in the throes of the great “Land war”. He left the army in 1889, lived for a short while in Dundee before his marriage to a Dublin girl in Perth, and finally settled for the following six years in Edinburgh. It was while he was in Dundee that he joined the Scottish Socialist Federation (the Scottish equivalent of the re-united Social Democratic Federation) and during his stay in Edinburgh he steadily advanced to a leading position in that organisation. After standing for the local council as the first socialist candidate in the City’s history, he was victimised and undertook full-time work for the Edinburgh branch. A trade depression weakened its financial strength, and he found himself unable to make a living. For a while he contemplated emigration to Chile, but decided against it on receiving an invitation from Dublin to become paid organiser for the small Socialist group then established there.

Arriving in Dublin in 1896 he succeeded in convincing the Dublin men that Irish Socialism must of necessity stand for national independence, and the Irish Socialist Republican Party was born. He and his colleagues founded a weekly newspaper, and conducted a campaign against the Boer War which received publicity throughout Europe. Trade depression once more hitting the comrades’ pockets, Connolly undertook lengthy lecture tours in England and Scotland in which he increasingly identified himself with the left dissidents who were critical of the opportunist policy of H. M. Hyndman within the SDF.

Influence of De Leon

On a brief visit to the United States he came under the influence of Daniel De Leon, and on his return worked for the split in the SDF and the establishment of the Socialist Labour Party. Connolly presided over its first congress in Edinburgh and was employed as its full-time organiser for a space of a few months.

Once again, for economic reasons, he was compelled to relinquish the post, and after qualifying as a Linotype operator emigrated to the United States in 1903, sending for his family as soon as he was established.

There, he rapidly came into conflict with the leftist dogmatism of De Leon, who had seemed more sufferable at a distance, the main issues of difference being in relation to wages (De Leon supported Proudhon’s “iron law of wages”), marriage (the Weekly People published articles forecasting the disappearance of the monogamic family), and the church (the SLP toyed with obligatory atheism on the Bakunin model). To these issues was added that of the race associations, De Leon opposing the establishment of distinct organisations for immigrants of various nationalities. Connolly had founded the Irish Socialist Federation.

As a result of these differences Connolly left the SLP and after a period as a full-time worker for the Industrial Workers of the World (the so-called “wobblies”) became a travelling organiser for the Socialist Party of America.

Return to Ireland

As a result of the rising tide of working-class struggle in Ireland led by Larkin, Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910. He became full-time organiser of the Socialist Party of Ireland (a descendant of the ISRP) and later Belfast secretary of the newly founded Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. It was his resolution at the 1912 annual meeting of the Irish TUC which established the Irish Labour Party. Owing to the imprisonment of Larkin the main daily leadership of the great Transport Lock-out of 1913-14 fell on Connolly, and during its process he founded the Irish Citizen Army as a workers’ defence force, subsequently developing it as an independent working-class national revolutionary military force. At the outbreak of the First World War, when Larkin left for America (and could not get back), Connolly became Acting General Secretary of the Union.

Against Imperialist War

Connolly persuaded the leadership of the Irish TUC and Labour Party to adopt the position of the Basle and Stuttgart Manifestos against the imperialist war, and developed a line of policy parallel to that of Lenin but corresponding to the needs of the movement in a dependent nation. Instead of urging the conversion of the imperialist war into a civil war against the capitalist class, he urged its conversion into a national war for liberation from the imperialist oppressor. In this he failed to draw the majority of the working class.

But the Citizen Army joined forces with the left wing of the Irish Volunteers, and Connolly became a member of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

He signed the celebrated Proclamation of 1916 which declared Ireland an Independent Republic, and during the Easter Rising, which began on April 24th, he commanded the rebel forces in Dublin, when a far superior British force was held at bay for a week. Wounded, he was nevertheless propped up in bed for court martial, and, since he could not stand, was shot sitting in a chair on May 12th, 1916.

Such was his life. Its bare rehearsal disposes of the periodic attempts, repeated even today, to represent Connolly as a humanitarian social reformer and “friend of the poor”. He was one of the poor himself, and the refrain to one of his songs summarised his attitude as such. It runs: “We only want the earth.” Of the leftist criticism advanced by Sean O’Casey that Connolly’s participation in the Rising was an abandonment of Socialism, more will be said later, since it must be judged against the development of Connolly’s ideas.

Class Struggle

At the heart of Marxism is the concept of the class struggle, the ceaseless conflict between those who do and do not own the principal means of production. This not only expresses itself in industrial, social and political antagonisms, but permeates every sphere of cultural and intellectual life, and can only end with the victory of the exploited and the end of exploitation. The immediacy with which Connolly embraced this doctrine, the moment it was scientifically presented to him, is a measure of his previous experience in two widely contrasted arenas, namely the slums of Edinburgh and the Ireland of the Land League.

Connolly expressed his understanding of the class principle throughout his life. In its simplest form it showed in his constant trade union activity and Socialist propaganda. The main textbooks of his early years were the Communist Manifesto, Wage Labour and Capital, Value Price and Profit (all of Marx), and the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. He was an avid reader of Justice (to which he contributed) and other socialist periodicals. His starting point was that of the Second International, founded in 1889, the year when he joined the SSF. This was organisationally broad but founded on Marxism. The Edinburgh branch opposed the admission of the anarchists to the London Congress of 1896. Thereafter Connolly took a deep interest in the doings of the International Movement. The ISRP opposed Millerandism and criticised the “Kautsky Resolution” at the Paris Congress of 1900, and his adherence to the Basle and Stuttgart resolutions has already been noted. Like many others, however, confronted by the development of revisionism within the Second International, for a time he sought restlessly for a formula which would be firm enough to maintain Marxist principles and flexible enough to solve the new problems crowding in as a result of the development of imperialism on a world scale. For a time he toyed with syndicalism, his pamphlet Socialism Made Easy (prepared initially for the IWW) showing his most extreme point in that direction. His conflict with De Leon led him slowly to discard the neo-Bakuninist crudities then widely current, and to move in the direction of Leninism. But he never achieved the conception of the “party of a new type” nor did he have the opportunity of presenting systematically his profounder understanding of the state, which appears implicitly in his last writings.

His dictum “less theorising and more fighting” has been misrepresented as approval for narrow practicalism. Practical he certainly was. Throughout the last stage of preparations for the rising he was constantly fighting wage-struggles. But he also theorised plentifully at the same time. His protest was against the barren introspective theorising of the De Leonites, not the fruitful theory which is at once a summary of and a commentary on experience.


At an early stage he applied the principle of proletarian internationalism to relations between the British and Irish peoples. Connolly held that Irish and British working people (with whom he included the peasantry) had common exploiters, whose power to exploit was guaranteed by the British Imperial Government, and that they therefore had a common interest in ending that power.

Thus in his election address in 1894 he wrote:

“The landlord who grinds his peasants on a Connemara estate and the landlord who rackrents them in a Cowgate slum are brethren in fact and deed . . . the Liberal Government which supplies police to Irish landlords to aid them in the work of exterminating the Irish peasantry, also imports police into Scotland to aid Scottish mine-owners in their work of starving the Scottish miners.”

Marx’s letters on the Irish question only became generally known when they were published in Neue Zeit. But Hyndman apart (who advocated partition when Gladstone introduced his 1886 Home Rule Bill), the SDF was solidly pro-Irish and Michael Davitt spoke regularly on its platforms. Sketchley’s pamphlet was a classical presentation of the conception of an alliance of the peoples of the two countries. Before he became a socialist Connolly had been steeped in Irish national tradition, which had its own independent line of internationalist development stretching back beyond Wolfe Tone and the French revolution to Owen Roe O’Neill and the English.

To this principle of the indivisibility of popular interest he appealed frequently during his tours in Britain. The idea occurs in Labour in Irish History, his theoretical masterpiece, and in his writings in Forward. The success of the right-wing trade union leaders (notably J. H. Thomas) in wrecking the solidarity movement of the British workers in 1913-14 bitterly oppressed him and he confessed to “that tired feeling” when he heard their many good reasons why nothing could be done to support the Dublin workers against the employers’ offensive. But nevertheless he attended the Glasgow May Day meeting in 1915 and delivered one of the classical revolutionary speeches of history.

Leadership of the National Movement

Of great influence on Connolly were the debates and discussions on the Irish question which took place in the Edinburgh SDF in the period after the fall of Parnell. The initiative came from John Leslie whose articles in Justice were republished as a pamphlet. The prospect of federal Home Rule and a consequent gradual evolution to complete independence seemed to have been suddenly eliminated. Who was to blame? Leslie developed the idea that the Irish middle class were a reserve of imperialism and not one of the popular forces in Ireland.

I have heard it suggested in Edinburgh (without substantiating evidence) that Leslie took much from Connolly in this, rather than the reverse. It is certainly true that Connolly expounded the doctrine throughout his life, and developed it into one of the central ideas of his Labour and Irish History. What seems most likely, however, is that the ideas of the many Irish in the Edinburgh SDF branch were pooled in the discussion and that Leslie, as the most developed thinker and writer made the running. Certainly, Connolly’s work was a classical presentation of the role played by the property question in Irish history.

National Struggle and Socialist Revolution

Throughout his career in Ireland, and indeed in so far as it was possible in Britain and the USA, Connolly conducted a struggle for a transfer of the leadership of the Irish independence movement from the bourgeois and bourgeoisified-landlord Irish National League and Parliamentary Party, to the working class. It is from this point that Connolly’s thought took its leap of genius which makes him a figure of world importance. For what he derived from the conception of the defection of the bourgeoisie in the new period (which was the epoch of imperialism) was something which he expressed in many different ways, but which today is expressed in the conception that the national liberation struggle has become a part of the socialist, and no longer part of the bourgeois, revolution. This thought was given formal enunciation by Lenin, but repeatedly one finds Connolly foreshadowing conceptions which Lenin (whose writings were unknown to Connolly) presented in fully-developed form.

It was precisely this conception that O’Casey lacked when he criticised Connolly’s participation in 1916. It was because Connolly had it that he was able to interpret the Basle manifesto and join with those who brought Ireland into the international revolutionary struggle. In one of his last articles Connolly writes of the “two stages of freedom”, the first in which capitalists who offer unconditional adherence to the independent Republic will not have their property immediately confiscated, and a second stage when social reorganisation will be undertaken. The Proclamation which is said to have been drafted by Pearse and revised by Connolly and MacDonagh has such clear implications of the sovereignty of the people, that it seems impossible that Connolly cannot have had this conception in mind.

Role of the Trade Unions

Hence arises the further principle that the Irish working class should build up its independent organisations, and strive for the leadership of the national struggle, aiming at all times to imbue that struggle with socialist content.

In the absence of the concept of a “party of a new type”, two organisations were seen as vehicles of this purpose. First there were the trade unions. Connolly was scathingly critical of such “advanced nationalists” as Arthur Griffith who imagined that Irish national freedom could be furthered by crushing the resistance of the locked-out workers of 1913-14. Again and again he urged on his allies of the IRB the supreme importance of the trade unions. He adumbrated the conception of a revolution beginning with sporadic economic strikes and developing into the mass political strike. He was aware of the history of the Russian revolution of 1905, and no doubt drew inspiration from that source. When it was clear that the mass of the workers were indisposed to follow the Executive of the ITUC and LP on the matter of the war, he was thrown back on the ITGWU. When differences developed with its leading committee (which included some moderate men) he was thrown back on the Citizen Army. But the principle never changed.

In this connection may be mentioned his foreshadowing of the conception of neo-colonialism:

“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, your efforts will be vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and industrialists institutions she has planted in this country….”

Socialism and National Independence

Connolly concluded that consequently all forms of socialist policy which did not include the national independence struggle were retrograde, whether in Ireland or in Britain, for they denied to Irish socialism its essential pre-requisite.

He fought this battle long and hard. He fought it against the ILP cosmopolitans over the programme of the ISRP. He fought it against the British labour leaders who talked international socialism one moment and entered into Parliamentary alliances with the INL the next. He fought it in a series of classical polemics in Forward against the “gas and water” socialist William Walker who pointed proudly to that apex of public enterprise the Belfast police band. Walker, who found it quite possible to conceive of socialism under a monarchy, was opposed to the establishment of a distinct Irish Labour Party on grounds of “international brotherhood”.

It was no accident, of course, that Walker left the labour movement for a post under the National Insurance Act. Or that the right-wing trade union leaders, most of the Fabians, and Hyndman’s followers in the SDF all applauded the international fratricide of 1914. Or that Arthur Henderson was a member of the War Cabinet which could have saved Connolly but chose not to do so.

Today we are familiar with this line up. It is the line-up between right and left, and runs like a thread through all working-class history, ever since imperialism was able to split the movement by bribing a privileged section and setting it against the interests of the whole.

The Forces of the National Revolution

Some consequential results of Connolly’s thought may be mentioned in conclusion. These are based on the need for the unity of the alliance of forces needed for the carrying through of the national revolution and the economic reorganisation that follows it.

While publishing a brilliant defence of historical materialism in “Labour, Nationality and Religion” in reply to the strictures upon Socialism offered by a Catholic priest, Connolly consistently refused to be drawn into any form of crude anti-clericalism. In a country where the Catholic religion has been for centuries the religion of an oppressed class, its priests hounded and persecuted, and the faithful to this day blatantly discriminated against in a part of Ireland, this was manifestly absurd.

Likewise, having lived through the Land League days, he stood for “the land for the people” and the subsequent development of co-operation, rather than for the “nationalisation of the land” then popular in Britain.

Of the Irish language he was whole-heartedly for preservation, restoration and development. In a significant article written in America, he equated the physical conquests of imperialism with the cultural and linguistic conquests, and likened cosmopolitan contempt for the language and culture of small and subject nations to the hypocritical justification of robbery on the spurious grounds of internationalism. His book Labour in Irish History in which he shows how the invasion of Ireland first introduced feudal forms of property and paved the way for the invasion of capitalist forms, he described as part of the literature of the Gaelic revival. He was the first to present the material basis for the instinctive wish of every Irishman. For the same reason he sought the development of all forms of native culture, songs, dance, poetry and sport.

But throughout he insisted that Irish socialism should have an international policy in conformity with its national objectives, and derived both nationalism and internationalism from the one principle of democracy.

His Contribution to Marxism

From the above it can be seen that Connolly made a real and lasting contribution to international Marxism, and in particular to Marxism in these islands.

At a time when it is common to hear the so-called “race question” discussed without mention of neocolonialism, it is worth remembering that in Connolly’s day many British workers could not bring themselves to forgive the Irish for what their ruling class had done to Ireland. Anti-Irish riots were well known on the fringe of the Edinburgh ghetto. Some problems which look new, are not so new. But the one thing which will bring all sections together, promote peace, concord, and “integration” in its true and best sense, is the knowledge of a common enemy and of what that common enemy is.

The form imperialism outwardly presents (though not its inward essence) has undergone some changes. But the one enemy remains. Knowledge of that fact, once it becomes the possession of the masses, can lay the basis for solving many problems, both national and international which for the moment wear their most refractory aspect. The life, work and thought of Connolly the Marxist will inspire, stimulate and guide.