James Connolly insisted that socialists had to support independence for Ireland, but that workers had to lead the fight if it was to mean real liberation, writes Phil Chilton
Despite the peace process that has followed the cease fire between the Irish Republican Army and the British army in 1997, Northern Ireland remains a state dominated by sectarian politics.
Sectarian divisions affect where you live and where you go to school.
There are now 88 so-called “peace walls” in Belfast, separating working-class loyalist from republican areas, most of them built after the cease fire.
Today there are more walls dividing Protestant and Catholic communities than at any point during the Troubles, the period of armed conflict that began in the late 1960s.
Some 90 per cent of social housing estates in Northern Ireland are segregated.
Leading figures have evolved from guerrilla fighters to mainstream politicians in Sinn Fein, and today former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly alongside his previously sworn enemy, Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson. But they are united in implementing a neo-liberal agenda of budget and job cuts.
Meanwhile in the south, the “Celtic Tiger” boom in the 1990s that was supposed to be the success story of European neo-liberalism has given way to recession and attacks on jobs and union rights.
James Connolly (1868-1916) was a socialist revolutionary who stood unambiguously for emancipation—social, economic and national.
While he never lived to see the outcome of Ireland’s independence struggle, he warned of the dangers of dividing Ireland between a reactionary sectarian northern statelet that remained a part of Britain and a southern republic that, while achieving independence, embraced parochial conservatism and crony capitalism.
Although Connolly died 94 years ago his ideas still have relevance for socialists today.
National liberation and socialism
Ireland is a country that has been shaped by imperialism. For hundreds of years Irish people struggled against British colonial domination. James Connolly, Ireland’s pre-eminent Marxist, stated “politically, Ireland has been under the control of England for the past 700 years, during the greater part of which time the country has been the scene of constant wars against her rule upon the part of the native Irish.”
At the turn of the 20th century Connolly was unique among Marxists in Britain and Ireland. His Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) manifesto openly declared that “the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, the socialist and the national, were not antagonistic but complimentary”.
The linking of national liberation with socialism was an innovative theoretical step. At their worst many Marxists at the time saw the struggle for national liberation as a distraction, a problem that would be taken care of when the advanced industrialised nations achieved socialist revolution. At best, English Marxists supported the parliamentary campaign for Irish home rule which would grant Ireland only a subordinate legislature, with strictly curtailed powers, under the authority of the British crown.
Connolly’s originality was that he placed the Irish working class firmly in the vanguard of the struggle for national liberation. Connolly declared that, “[t]he Irish working class must emancipate itself, and in emancipating itself it must, perforce, free its country.”
The liberated Ireland that Connolly envisaged was one free not only from the shackles of British imperialism but also from the exploitative relations of capitalism. In one of his most famous quotes Connolly asserted,
“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 would be in 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 individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”
But it was not just “English” capitalists that Connolly railed against. Irish capitalists too incurred his wrath.
“But who are the Irish people? Is it the dividend-hunting capitalist with the phraseology of patriotism on his lips and the spoil wrung from sweated Irish toilers in his pockets; is it the scheming lawyer—most immoral of all classes; is it the slum landlord who denounces rackrenting in the country and practices it in the towns; is it any one of these sections who to-day dominate Irish politics? Or is it not rather the Irish working class—the only secure foundation on which a free nation can be reared.”
Ireland’s real freedom could only be won by the activity of workers and national liberation would sweep away not only English capitalists but Irish exploiters too. National liberation therefore was inextricably bound up with social emancipation.
Between 1903 and 1910 Connolly spent time in the United States of America. He became committed to a syndicalist politics, believing that militant industrial action in the workplace, guided by “one big union” covering all workers, would sound the death knell of capitalism. Syndicalism (or industrial unionism as it sometimes known) saw the working class as the key agent for revolutionary change. Connolly called industrial unionism a political “science of fighting”.
Lightning strikes and solidarity action were the means by which revolutionary workers would seize the initiative. “The interests of one were the interests of all, and … no consideration of a contract with a section of the capitalist class absolved any section of us from the duty of taking instant action to protect other sections when said sections were in danger from the capitalist enemy.”
The idea was that the working class would gradually gain control of industry, workplace by workplace and thus transform society: “In the light of this principle of industrial unionism every fresh shop or factory organised under its banner is a fort wrenched from the control of the capitalist class and manned with the soldiers of the revolution to be held by them for the workers.”
When Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 he brought this brand of revolutionary politics with him.
Connolly quickly become involved with Ireland’s own would be “one big union”, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), as its Belfast organiser. The ITGWU was hated by Ireland’s bosses for its industrial militancy. Prior to the formation of the ITGWU, for example, a lockout in Belfast in 1907 was met with action by dockers and carters, uniting Protestant and Catholic workers.
In 1913, William Martin Murphy, newspaper baron, tram company owner and one of Ireland’s richest men, determined to smash the ITGWU, locked out his workers. Dublin’s other bosses, urged on by Murphy, joined the lock-out, demanding that workers repudiate their union membership.
The Dublin lockout was a bitterly fought industrial struggle, involving 20,000 workers. Violent clashes between workers and the police were frequent. In one incident the Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charged demonstrating workers, killing two. In response, the workers’ movement formed a militia, the Irish Citizens Army (ICA), to protect strikers.
Thousands of English railway workers struck in support of the strikers, but the British TUC withdrew all official support and the Irish workers were eventually defeated. The defeat was a major blow to Connolly’s syndicalist political strategy and it took years for the ITGWU to recover.
“If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you.
“We defy you! Do your worst!”
(James Connolly—suppressed war time editorial, 1914)
When the First World War broke out in 1914 Connolly was one of the few European socialists who stood firmly in opposition. But the lockout had smashed the ITGWU and in 1914 it was only just beginning to rebuild. Connolly despaired at the betrayal of socialist parties in Europe and Britain as one by one they supported their nation’s war effort.
Desperate to strike a blow against imperialism, he was increasingly drawn towards Irish republicans who were planning an insurrection to take advantage of England’s preoccupation with the war.
In 1916 Connolly joined with Irish republicans in the Easter Rising. The Rising was poorly organised and only about 1000 rebels, including the full complement of the ICA, led by Connolly, turned out to face the British garrison. They proclaimed the Irish Republic, holding central Dublin for a week but inevitably went down to defeat.
Fourteen of the rebels were executed by the British. Unable to stand due to a gangrenous wound received in the fighting, Connolly was shot on May 12, 1916. The execution was carried out by British soldiers but William Martin Murphy, Connolly’s Irish capitalist adversary during the lockout, howled for his blood, grimly confirming Connolly’s analysis that Irish capitalists were as much the enemy as British imperialism.
Connolly’s participation in the Easter uprising has coloured the interpretation of his politics ever since. During the War of Independence against Britain (1919-1921) Irish nationalists invoked the memory of Connolly while conveniently forgetting his Marxist politics and the importance he placed on the working class.
Those who succeeded Connolly to the leadership of the Irish working class had no inclination to place the workers in the vanguard of the liberation struggle. While many of the guerrilla fighters who opposed British imperialism were workers, the working class was never mobilised as a class in the fight for national liberation.
In the early 1970s Irish republicanism would again revive the political strategy of armed struggle in Northern Ireland, again citing Connolly, and again failing to mobilise the Irish working class.
In 1922, after the War of Independence, twenty six counties in the south of Ireland gained a measure of independence. Six counties in the northeast however maintained their union with Britain. The division of the country had its origins in the differing interests of Irish and British capitalism. The more industrialised northeast was more firmly tied to the British Empire that provided the market for Belfast’s ship yards and manufactured goods.
Southern Irish capitalists preferred a regime of protection that would shield their fledgling enterprises from the competition of British industry. Both north and south, however, used religious prejudice to bolster working class support for their cause. In the south nationalist rhetoric was traditionally imbued with a strong Catholic symbolism. In the northeast, where Protestants were a majority, the pro-British ruling elite claimed to be defending “Protestant liberty” from the authoritarian rule of the Catholic Church.
When Ireland was partitioned, in 1922, two sectarian states were created. In Northern Ireland there was, in the words of its first Prime Minister, a “Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State”. In the newly formed southern regime the Catholic Church was hugely influential. An incoming southern government in 1948 could go so far as to send a telegram to the Pope pledging, “devotion to your august person as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ”.
Connolly had been murdered before Ireland’s partition but he had warned that partition, “would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.”
Regrettably Connolly was right. In the southern Republic of Ireland a craven Labour Party has never held government except in coalition with nationalists. Until 1995 divorce was prohibited, contraception was illegal until 1979 and abortion is still illegal unless it threatens the mother’s life. Northern Ireland was created as a gerrymandered sectarian state that entrenched one party rule (the Unionist party—loyal to the union with Britain). The Catholic minority in the north was blatantly discriminated against.
As a result a civil rights campaign erupted in the late 1960s. The Northern Ireland state’s brutal response led to a 30 years civil war with the Provisional Irish Republican Army fighting the British army and Loyalist paramilitary death squads.
The conflict in Northern Ireland has now largely been brought to a close by a negotiated “peace process”, but for all the bloodshed what has been delivered is a Northern Ireland assembly where both sides agree on a neo-liberal agenda that will see ordinary working class people, Protestant and Catholic, worse off. This is what Connolly warned of. Partition and sectarianism drove a wedge firmly through the working class and paralysed any kind of thoroughgoing class-based perspective.
Connolly’s Marxism is certainly not without its problems. His syndicalist politics led him to underestimate the need for a resolute revolutionary organisation outside of the “one big union”. In his despair after the smashing of the ITGWU and the outbreak of the World War he capitulated to a nationalist politics that substituted the armed action of a small band of republicans for the mass activity of the working class.
Despite this however Connolly is a revolutionary whose ideas still resonate. Connolly made the connection between the struggle against imperialism and social emancipation, a link that remains relevant today—and not just in Ireland. He was a determined fighter for liberation who put the working class at the centre of its own destiny. And Connolly knew full well, “the capitalist class is a beast of prey, and cannot be moralised, converted, or conciliated but must be extirpated.”