“The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go.”- James Connolly
You are unlikely to hear this quote being given when broadcaster Joe Duffy makes the case for James Connolly to be selected as the greatest Irish person in the RTE series. If you do you will probably be told that Connolly’s firm anti-capitalist socialist outlook may have been okay for his time but has little relevance in today’s world.
Yet, as unemployment soars and workers’ rights are savaged, while banks and speculators are bailed out to the tune of billions the socialist ideas of James Connolly and the lessons of his role as a workers leader have never been more relevant. The various shades of political opinion that have sought to claim his mantle including sections of the Irish capitalist establishment, most notably Fianna Fail, and the right wing leadership of the workers movement have always sought to ignore Connolly’s legacy.
Connolly was born in the slums of Edinburgh in 1868 to emigrant parents who fled the horrors of the Irish famine. Poverty forced him to leave school at the age of ten and he ended up joining the British army at the age of fifteen but left when he saw the realities of British imperialist oppression in Ireland. On his return to Scotland he became active in the socialist movement and began to study the key works of Marxism. From this point on until his execution in 1916 he immersed himself in building the workers and socialist movement, referring to the latter in his pamphlet Socialism Made Easy as being “the great anti-theft movement”.
As a committed socialist fighter Connolly understood that the working class needed fighting militant trade unions to defend their interests given the irreconcilable divisions between workers and a capitalist class that sought to brutally maximise profits at its expense. Needless to say that despite its occasional rhetoric and speechifying, such an outlook has been lost on the present leadership of the trade union movement in Ireland.
From 1903 to 1910 Connolly lived in the United States where he became an organiser for Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union that sought to break from the tradition of craft unionism and seek to organise the broad mass of unskilled workers. Upon his return to Ireland he became an organiser with the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) which under the leadership of Jim Larkin had began the same process as the IWW.
In August 1913 the capitalist class sought to break the growing influence of the ITGWU through an employers’ lock out. In this major class battle Connolly founded the Irish Citizens Army as a workers defence force against brutal attacks by police and scabs. He, along with Larkin, sought to build on the tremendous solidarity that was shown by workers in Britain during the lockout by putting pressure on the leadership of the British TUC (Trade Union Congress) to call decisive solidarity action with workers in Dublin.
A key lesson of Connolly’s life was his understanding that the organisation of workers in fighting trade unions had to be married to the fight for independent political representation for the working class. In 1912 Connolly proposed that the Irish TUC establish a Labour Party. Along with building a broad based party such as this he was also an active member in the Socialist Party of Ireland, a party that overtly stood for the overthrow of capitalism and for a socialist society to replace it.
Throughout his life Connolly was a prolific writer who sought to develop a Marxist understanding of Irish history. He recognised that a united Irish working class could only end the political and economic oppression of British imperialism by fighting for a socialist Ireland. As an organiser for the ITGWU in Belfast, Connolly united Protestant and Catholic workers in common struggle including organising anti-sectarian demonstrations under the banner of the union.
If you can, then vote for James Connolly as Ireland’s greatest – but the most important tribute you can pay to him is join in the building of a powerful workers movement on this island and internationally that can fight for a socialist world.