On 12 May 1916, a fatally wounded James Connolly was brought by military ambulance to Kilmainham Jail and was later that day carried by stretcher to the stonebreakers’ yard of the prison. Unable to stand to face a firing squad as a bullet had shattered his ankle and leg during the fighting of Easter week, he was strapped to a chair and shot. Due to the severity of his injuries doctors advised that he would only survive another one or two days at most, but the British authorities, seeking their proverbial pound of flesh, signed the execution order.
Connolly was the last of the leaders of the rising to be executed. Roger Casement was hanged three months later, on 3 August. The circumstances surrounding his execution helped fuel the mounting public anger in Ireland against the brutal callousness displayed by the British government in the aftermath of the Rising. In all, 15 were executed in the first two weeks of May for their participation in the rebellion.
The British government and military establishment were not alone in their cold-blooded contempt and class hatred for Connolly. Two days before his execution an editorial appeared in the Irish Independent, next to a picture of Connolly, calling for ‘’…the worst of the ringleaders [to] be singled out and dealt with as they deserve.’’1 The paper’s proprietor, William Martin Murphy, leader of the 404 bosses that had locked out Dublin’s working class in 1913, was effectively campaigning for his execution. It was only after Connolly’s execution that Murphy’s paper called for clemency.
Naturally, in the years that followed the ruling class in the South were forced to conceal this contempt for Connolly. Along with the six other signatories of the 1916 proclamation he was elevated to the status of a national hero and his name in the subsequent decades, following the creation of the southern state, would be given to schools, hospitals and one of Dublin’s central train stations. Many of its leaders and main political parties unashamedly sought to claim his mantle.
This helped to underline a point once made by Connolly that the “Apostles of Freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when living.”2
Connolly wrote this in reference to the United Irishman leader, Wolfe Tone, but it aptly sums up the hypocritical distortion of his own legacy. During his life he was jailed and vilified by the capitalist class in Ireland and condemned from the pulpit by the Catholic Church.
Of all the signatories of the 1916 proclamation it is Connolly who has been the most revered by working-class people in the past century. In 2010, a poll commissioned by RTE entitled “Ireland’s Greatest” found that Connolly was regarded as the fourth most important Irish person to have ever lived, the only leader from the Rising to be included in the top five.3 Interestingly, a similar survey conducted by the BBC entitled “100 Greatest Britons” found that Connolly (who was born in Edinburgh) came in 63rd place.4
He is not only identified with the Rising itself, but alongside Jim Larkin, is greatly associated with the titanic battles that helped to shape the Irish workers’ movement in the early twentieth century, culminating in the 1913 Lockout, in which Connolly played a central role against the onslaught of Dublin’s capitalist class. This included the founding of a workers’ militia, the first of its kind in Europe, in the form of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) in November of that year. The ICA was set up to deal with the brutal repression by the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and the scabs brought in to assist Dublin’s bosses. Its founding was yet another example of his contribution to the Labour movement.
His actions and writings illustrate that he was unequivocally on the side of the working class, the poor and the oppressed in their struggle for political and social emancipation. He was an organiser with the socialist and trade union movement in Scotland, Ireland and the US. He fought for the unity of the working class and strove to cut across sectarianism and all forms of division fostered by the system of imperialism and capitalism in Ireland and further afield. As a socialist and Marxist he had a developed understanding and confidence in the power of the working class and its role in the struggle to change society. Like Larkin, his actions as a workers’ leader were deeply informed by this viewpoint.
He championed the cause of the Suffragettes in Britain and the Irish Women’s Franchise League in the struggle for voting rights, a key battle at the time. One suffragette, Louie Bennett, who later became secretary of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, described him as being:
“…one of the best suffrage speakers I have ever heard and a thorough feminist in every respect; he taught the Transport Union of Dublin to support women workers’ struggle for political rights.”5
Despite his limited formal education, leaving school at the age of ten, Connolly was a prolific writer. He helped to found and edit several papers and, incredibly, learned to speak French, German and Italian over his lifetime.6 The Irish-American socialist and trade union organiser, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, described one of her first encounters with James Connolly:
“Connolly and I spoke again in 1907 at an Italian Socialist meeting early one Sunday morning…I asked Connolly: ‘Who will speak in Italian?’ He smiled his rare smile and replied, ‘We’ll see. Someone, surely.’…Then we returned to the platform and Connolly arose. He spoke beautifully in Italian to my amazement and the delight of the audience who ‘viva’d’ loudly.”7
He sought to popularise, in as accessible a form as possible, the ideas of socialism and to give a socialist analysis of Irish history and society. In much of his writings, and indeed in the songs and poetry that he composed, he eloquently and passionately railed against the exploitation and oppression inherent within the capitalist system and unashamedly made the case for radical, anti-capitalist and socialist change.
When looking at the history of the southern state, Connolly’s writings on the consequences of the failure to achieve independence on a socialist basis should ring true to working-class people in the South:
“Whoop it up for liberty!
After Ireland is free, says the patriot who won’t touch Socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you won’t pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic.
Now, isn’t that worth fighting for?”8
The history of the Magdalene Laundries, industrial schools, mass unemployment and emigration, the enormous dominance of the Catholic Church and, more recently, the vicious regime of austerity, all testify to the deeply anti-working class and regressive nature of a state founded on the rule of a backward capitalist class. This is not to mention the failure of capitalism to resolve the national question on this island.
There are many reasons why we should celebrate the life of James Connolly. He displayed enormous self-sacrifice to advance the cause of working-class people and brought enormous talents and energy to the building of a new movement to bring about the liberation of humanity from the system of capitalism that still blights our world today. His life must be looked at in all-sided manner – in his achievements, heroism, mistakes, and the world that helped shape the life of this revolutionary socialist.
The formative years
James Connolly was born in the slums of Cowgate in Edinburgh, where a sizeable Irish migrant community resided, on 5 June 1868. Both his parents were born in Ireland and arrived in Britain as part of the post-Famine wave of migration, as did the families of the two other great socialists that would play a decisive role in Ireland’s history, Michael Davitt and Jim Larkin. The newly arrived migrants acted as a source of cheap labour for the industrial cities and “satanic mills” of British capitalism and were used to undercut the wages and conditions of British workers.
The combination of the memory of the national oppression suffered by Ireland at the hands of British imperialism, and the discrimination, grinding poverty and exploitation they faced in Britain at the time, helped mould a radical political consciousness amongst this new working class. Ultimately it was these experiences that helped Davitt, Larkin and Connolly to draw revolutionary socialist conclusions about society.
Connolly’s father, John Connolly, worked as a manure carter, a trade that James and his older brother John would later briefly go into. The Connolly family lived in abject poverty. After finishing his formal education, James worked in a series of manual jobs before being economically conscripted into the King’s Liverpool Regiment at the age of 14. His brother joined the Regiment at a similarly young age and was sent to serve in India.
Connolly served in Ireland at the height of the “Land War” against landlordism. Prior to his enlistment in the army he, like many working-class people in Britain, Irish and non-Irish alike, had been inspired by the struggle of the Land League which had, under the leadership of Michael Davitt, united Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers in struggle against a common class enemy. He had, by one account, “devoured” the publications of the League.9
The Land War had concluded with the signing of the “Kilmainham Treaty” between Charles Stewart Parnell and William Gladstone. Nonetheless, land agitation, and the state repression that went with it, continued during the 1880s with the “Plan of Campaign.” Added to this, the “Irish question” more generally in this period gained more prominence in Britain with the growth in support for the idea of Home Rule or limited self-government for Ireland.
Little is known of Connolly’s time in the British army in Ireland, but the experience of being a “soldier of the crown” in the context of growing class struggle in the countryside and state repression must have been a politicising one. Months before he was to be formally discharged, Connolly deserted the army and returned to Scotland in 1889.
Joining the socialist movement
It was here that he became active in Scotland’s socialist movement, eventually joining and becoming active within the Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF). If the movement against landlordism in Ireland was to have an impact on the young Connolly, so too would the growing movement of working-class self-organisation in Scotland, Britain and throughout Europe.
The late 1880s in Britain had seen the emergence of “new unionism” through the founding of organisations such as the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) and the National Union of Gasworkers and General Workers. These unions began to organise the previously unorganised, low-paid and unskilled workers, and their emergence marked a break with the idea of “craft unionism.” Major strikes took place, such as the as the famous London matchgirls’ strike in 1888, as well as important industrial battles on London’s docks. The strike movement of 1888-1889 spread to Scotland with strikes developing in Leith and Edinburgh.10 In 1892, the socialist Keir Hardie founded the Independent Labour Party, which marked the first step towards the formation a new political party for the working class in Britain.
1889 saw the foundation of the Socialist or Second International in Paris that sought to unite the socialist and workers’ parties that were beginning to grow and expand throughout Europe. The following year, the first May Day protests to mark International Workers’ Day were held and throughout this period the struggle for the eight-hour day came to the fore.
Connolly quickly immersed himself as an organiser with the SSF. Although much of the works of Karl Marx were unavailable in English at the time, he and his comrades read, studied and discussed The Communist Manifesto and Capital as well as a variety of socialist pamphlets.11 He developed his skills as an orator, stood in a local election in October 1894 and became a regular contributor to the paper Labour Chronicle.12
In 1896, Connolly was offered the position of organiser for the Dublin Socialist Club for a nominal wage of £1 a week. The club was small, numbering only thirty or so members. Soon after his arrival he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). The founding manifesto of the party contained in its opening statement the words of the French revolutionary, Camilles Desmoulins, later to become the rallying cry of the workers’ movement in Ireland: “The great appear great because we are on our knees, let us rise.”
The ISRP stood for a clear socialist programme, with the aim of the “Establishment of AN IRISH SOCIALIST REPUBLIC based upon the public ownership by the Irish people of the land, and instruments of production, distribution and exchange.”13
The party was founded in the absence of a strong and developed workers’ movement outside of the north-east of Ireland. Such would only develop with Larkin’s arrival to Ireland and the development of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) a decade later. Nonetheless, under Connolly’s leadership the party did engage in important work to try to extend its influence and scope. In 1898 Connolly founded the paper Workers’ Republic to spread his socialist message. The Dublin that Connolly arrived in was one where the working class lived in horrendous poverty, with over 20,000 families living in one-bedroom tenements.
The ISRP supported and participated in the Labour Electoral Association initiated by the Dublin Trades Council to stand in the first local elections held in Ireland and Britain in 1898.14 His willingness to support such an initiative illustrated Connolly’s general disdain for political sectarianism. He was willing to reach out to broader sections of the working class who had yet to develop a pro-socialist outlook, and to support an initiative which did not have a developed anti-capitalist, socialist programme. Later Connolly stood as a candidate for the ISRP in the Wood Quay ward in 1902 and 1903. In the first election he stood, Connolly, reflecting his internationalism and solidarity with oppressed workers, published a leaflet in Yiddish aimed at the small Jewish Community living there at the time. In it he wrote:
“You ought to vote for the Socialist candidate and only for the Socialist candidate. The Socialists are the only ones who stand always and everywhere against every national oppression. It is the socialists who went out onto the streets of Paris against the wild band of anti-Semites at the time of the Dreyfus case.”15
The ISRP’s internationalism was not confined to elections. Connolly helped to organise demonstrations against the Boer War. The party participated in the 1900 Congress of the Second International, sitting at the Congress as the Irish affiliate, although unfortunately Connolly himself was unable to participate in it for financial reasons. A key debate within the International at the time was the decision of the French socialist, Alexandre Millerand, to participate in a government with capitalist parties. Connolly and his comrades rightly regarded this as a betrayal of the interests of the working class. Going into government with such parties invariably meant compromising with capitalism and accepting the logic of the economic system and therefore the policies that these parties stood for.
During the debate at the Congress the delegates from the ISRP supported a motion condemning the decision of Millerand to participate in this government. This stood in contradistinction to the position adopted by Karl Kautsky, the so-called “Pope of Marxism”, who put forward a motion condemning Millerand, not for entering the government, but simply for doing so without the official sanction of the Socialist Party.16 Kautsky’s motion failed to spell out the political and principled reasons why a socialist organisation should not coalesce with parties of the enemy class, but simply regarded Millerand’s position as a procedural error rather than an out-and-out betrayal.
In 1903, Connolly took the decision to migrate to the United States, having already done a speaking tour there the year prior. Reflecting the complications of this period the ISRP was beset by internal difficulties and soon began to disintegrate. He had played a pioneering role in building the first socialist organisation in Ireland, but it was also in this period that Connolly began to develop a Marxist analysis and working-class perspective on the colonial oppression suffered by Ireland.
National oppression & economic exploitation
“The struggle for Irish Freedom has two aspects: it is national and it is social.”17 These were Connolly’s words in a statement issued on behalf of the ISRP upon its foundation and it summed up the kernel of the thoughts that he was to develop in the next decade and a half on the nature of Ireland’s subjugation by British imperialism. In his various writings, he sought to outline the necessity of linking the struggle for Irish freedom with the need for the socialist transformation of society.
Ireland was Britain’s oldest colony. In the course of the nineteenth century this colonial relationship not only brought about horrendous oppression and the denial of Ireland’s right to independent statehood, but also Ireland’s economic strangulation. This was a primary feature of imperialism in the latter half of the nineteenth century as the major European powers sought to gain spheres of influence, in the form of new colonies, in Africa and much of Asia.
After the Act of Union of 1800 much of Ireland’s manufacturing, with the exception of the north-east of the island, was decimated as a result of the removal of protective trade barriers that existed under the old Irish parliament of the previous century. In analysing this decline, Karl Marx observed that, “Every time Ireland was about to develop industrially, she was crushed and reconverted into a purely agricultural land.”18
The manufacturing base of the country was destroyed, thus eliminating any potential competitor for British capitalism, and farming shifted from tillage to pasture in the aftermath of the Famine. After these developments, Ireland would serve two important purposes for the ruling class in Britain. Marx noted that, “In 1855-66, 1,032,694 Irishmen [had been] replaced by 996,877 head of livestock (cattle, sheep and pigs).”19 Those Irish people who were forced off the land would serve as a pool of cheap labour for Britain’s cities. On the other hand, Ireland became Britain’s proverbial “bread basket” and would provide raw agricultural products, mainly meat, to feed these same cities.
Ireland’s colonial status and economic subservience and backwardness contrasted with what was taking place in much of Western Europe in this period. Beginning with the French Revolution of 1789, Europe witnessed a series of what Karl Marx called bourgeois or capitalist democratic revolutions. Broadly speaking this meant the overthrow of feudalism as an economic and political system, the unification of countries into independent nation-states and their modernisation and industrialisation.
These revolutions reflected the ability of the capitalist system, notwithstanding the horrors it was capable of producing, to play a progressive role in the development of society. This was shown with the enormous development in science and technique in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The rebellion of 1798 led by the United Irishmen reflected a desire by the Irish bourgeoisie, or a section of it at least, to carry through such a revolution in Ireland and to create an independent secular republic. However in the course of the nineteenth century no section of Irish capitalism was capable of playing, or willing to play, such a role.
In his 1897 pamphlet, Erin’s Hope: The End and the Means, Connolly outlined the inability of Irish capitalism to develop society and to compete on the world market in the context of the emergence of imperialism:
“Remember that for all those countries the great difficulty is to find customers, that the old-established firm in the business – viz., the British Empire – finds that her customers cannot keep her mills and factories going. Remember all this, and then tell me how poor Ireland, exhausted and drained of her life-blood at every pore, with a population almost wholly agricultural and unused to mechanical pursuits, is to establish new factories, and where she is to find the customers to keep them going. She cannot create new markets.”20
Ireland’s capitalist class had arrived on to the scene of history too late. For Connolly the force that would play the role of liberating Ireland from the domination of British imperialism was;
“…the Irish working class which has borne the brunt of every political struggle, and gained by none, and which is to-day the only class in Ireland which has no interest to serve in perpetuating either the political or social forms of oppression – the British connection or the capitalist system [.] The Irish working class must emancipate itself, and in emancipating itself it must, perforce, free its country.”21
Labour in Irish History
In 1910, Connolly wrote his key work, Labour in Irish History, in which he elaborated his view about the role that working people had played and would play in the struggle against British rule in Ireland and contrasted it with the baleful part played by Ireland’s propertied classes. In the foreword to the book he explained the material basis for Irish capitalism’s subservience to its English counterpart. He noted that Irish capitalists had:
“bowed the knee to Baal, and [had] a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism as against every sentimental or historic attachment drawing them toward Irish patriotism.”22
And that only “the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”23
A notable example given by Connolly of the treacherous role the Irish capitalist class played in the struggle against British rule was the period of Grattan’s parliament in the late eighteenth century. In 1778 the Irish Volunteers were formed to respond to a threatened invasion of Ireland by France and soon grew to 80,000 in number. It was used by the Irish Parliament, then sitting in College Green, to demand “Free Trade or else.” However, when a convention of the Volunteers met and demanded popular representation to the Irish parliament itself, the representatives of the Irish bourgeoisie took fright and sought to disarm the Volunteers.24 Connolly described how:
“…the Irish capitalist class dreaded the people more than they feared the British Government; and in the crisis of their country’s fate their influence and counsels were withdrawn from the popular side.”25
Ultimately, they were unwilling to carry out a revolutionary struggle against the British government, fearing it would jeopardise their economic and political power.
Connolly pointed to the fact that it was the working class of the Liberties in Dublin who were to play a primary role in the 1803 Rebellion led by Robert Emmet. One of those who helped suppress the rebellion was none other than “The Liberator”, Daniel O’Connell, later to be a MP and leading representative of the southern Catholic capitalist class.26
Connolly argued that because the Irish working class were the key force in the struggle to end colonial domination, the struggle for national liberation needed to be intertwined with the struggle for social liberation. Ultimately working people were driven by a desire not only for change in who would govern Ireland politically, but also by an aspiration toward ending the horrendous conditions that confronted them in their daily lives – as seen in the grinding poverty that existed in cities like Dublin at the time. He wrote that:
“The workers, though furnishing the greatest proportion of recruits to the ranks of the revolutionists, and consequently of victims to the prison and the scaffold, could not be imbued en masse with the revolutionary fire necessary to seriously imperil a dominion rooted for 700 years in the heart of their country. They were all anxious enough for freedom, but realising the enormous odds against them, and being explicitly told by their leaders that they must not expect any change in their condition of social subjection, even if successful, they as a body shrank from the contest, and left only the purest-minded and most chivalrous of their class to face the odds and glut the vengeance of the tyrant – a warning to those in all countries who neglect the vital truth that successful revolutions are not the product of our brains, but of ripe material conditions.”27
This was something the middle-class leaders of movements in the 19th century, such as the Young Irelanders, had failed to do. He illustrated the timidity of its leaders such as William Smith O’Brien, who were not willing to engage in a struggle against imperialism that would ultimately mean challenging the “right” to private property. He wrote how O’Brien:
“wandered through the country telling the starving peasantry to get ready, but refusing to allow them to feed themselves at the expense of the landlords who had so long plundered, starved, and evicted them; he would not allow his followers to seize upon the carts of grain passing along the roads where the people were dying of want of food; at Mullinahone he refused to allow his followers to fell trees to build a barricade across the road until they had asked permission of the landlords who owned the trees; when the people of Killenaule had a body of dragoons entrapped between two barricades he released the dragoons from their dangerous situation upon their leader assuring him that he had no warrant for his (O’Brien’s) arrest; in another place he surprised a party of soldiers in the Town Hall with their arms taken apart for cleaning purposes, and instead of confiscating the arms, he told the soldiers that their arms were as safe as they would be in Dublin Castle.”28
In his writings, Connolly brilliantly outlined the critical material factors that were necessary for a struggle against British imperialism to be brought to a successful conclusion. As such his ideas about the role of the working class in changing Irish society were informed by his role in politically organising it as an independent force.
The ideas of Leon Trotsky
Although lacking the same clarity and precision, Connolly’s analysis of the national question in Ireland echoed the writings of the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution first developed his theory of permanent revolution.
Trotsky explained the inability and unwillingness of Russia’s capitalist class and its political representatives to challenge the economic, social and political structure of Tsarist Russia. To do so meant leading a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the Tsarist regime, implementing widespread land reform, industrialising the country, giving the right to self-determination to the Russian state’s oppressed national minorities and introducing other democratic rights including universal suffrage and the election of a constituent assembly or parliament. Like Ireland’s capitalist class, they were fearful of the revolutionary movement of the working class and other oppressed classes within society. Having being mobilised into struggle, these oppressed classes would begin to demand a real and significant improvement in their livelihoods. The Russian capitalists were also economically tied to the landlord class and to French and British imperialism, whose economic domination of the Russian economy stunted its real development.
In such works as Labour in Irish History, Connolly implicitly rejected what would later become known as the “stages theory” developed by the leadership of the various Communist Parties globally after they moved in a Stalinist direction, including the small Communist Party of Ireland. The latter held that it would be necessary first to resolve the national question and establish an independent Ireland before the struggle for socialist change could take place. They thus echoed the aphorism of “Labour Must Wait” adopted by the leadership of the labour movement in Ireland between 1918 and 1923.
For those who dogmatically asserted this theory, Connolly’s writings became something of an embarrassment. In his biography of Connolly, the author and Communist Party member, C. Desmond Greaves felt it necessary to write:
“In asserting working class leadership of the national struggle, he defined in Ireland what was subsequently recognised as a tendency during the epoch of imperialism, namely for a section of the capitalist class in a subject nation to compound with its oppressors. But it was not for many years that he appreciated that not all capitalists will necessarily do this.”29
There is no evidence to suggest Connolly had ever believed that a progressive section of Irish capitalism or its representatives would play a key role in the struggle against British imperialism, including in the period running up to the Rising. At worst, although some of the middle-class 1916 leaders were sympathetic to the labour movement and aided the 1913 struggle, he may have at times overstated the pro-worker credentials of middle-class radical nationalists such as Patrick Pearse.
Some of Connolly’s assertions regarding Irish history did have their flaws. He overstated the degree to which “primitive communism”, an economic system where there was no private ownership in property or wealth, existed in Ireland prior to its full conquest by England in the seventeenth century.
Despite this, it must be recognised that he was one of the first Marxists to take up the question of how socialists should relate to the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. This was an issue that many of the leaders of the international socialist movement failed to address at the time. Many of those who did address it did so in an abstract manner that downplayed its importance. His analysis on this question was a pioneering one and a testament to his ability to apply, in a real way, the ideas of Karl Marx to the circumstances he faced.
In the concluding lines of Labour in Irish History, Connolly wrote: “In their movement the North and the South will again clasp hands, again will it be demonstrated, as in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united Social democracy.”30
He recognised that if the working class was to carry out its historic mission of defeating capitalism and imperialism in Ireland, the sectarian division fostered by both would need to be challenged. In the context of growing sectarianism during the Home Rule crisis he actively sought to cut across the division within Belfast – where he was an organiser with the ITGWU. He formed a “Non-Sectarian Labour Band” as a response to the sectarian bands and music of the Orange Order and Ancient Order of Hibernians. In October 1911, the band paraded through Belfast to raise money for mill workers, predominately women, who were on strike at the time.
In July 1912 Connolly organised an anti-sectarian labour demonstration against the backdrop of Catholic workers and Protestant trade unionists, the so-called “Rotten Prods”, being expelled from the workplaces of Belfast.31 Building working-class unity in such adverse circumstances is again illustrative of Connolly’s brilliance and courage as a workers’ leader.
When plans were put on the table for the partition of Ireland, Connolly was emphatic in his assessment of this threat to the Labour movement:
“[it] 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.”32
As well as putting forward the slogan of a socialist republic in Ireland and independence from Britain, a key factor that would maintain and cement working-class unity was the ability to recognise the fears of Protestant workers regarding the question of a Home Rule parliament and their fear of capitalist independence generally. Such fears meant that they would at different stages be drawn behind the emerging political movement of unionism.
In the aftermath of the passing of the first Home Rule Bill in 1912 and at the beginning of the subsequent crisis Connolly wrote:
“Therefore, we declare to the Orange workers of Belfast we stand for the right of the people in Ireland to rule as well as to own Ireland, and cannot conceive of a separation of the two ideas, and to all and sundry we announce that as Socialists we are Home Rulers, but that on the day the Home Rule Government goes into power the Socialist movement in Ireland will go into opposition.”33
While it was correct for Connolly to oppose national oppression and to support the right of independence for Ireland, the above quote illustrates that he did not develop a sufficient understanding of the fears that Protestant workers had regarding the consequences of the implementation of Home Rule. As Peter Hadden wrote:
“Connolly stood for class unity and fought to achieve it, but this fine ambition in itself was not enough to break the sectarian mould. He never properly examined the reasons why big sections of the Protestant working class were prepared to fall in behind the Lords and Ladies of Unionism. If he had looked more closely he would have seen that Protestant workers had real fears about what might happen under a Home Rule parliament and would have understood that it was necessary for socialists to put forward ideas to counter those fears.
The greater Belfast area was the industrial hub of Ireland at the time. The heavy industries that had developed were part of an industrial triangle whose other two points were Liverpool and Glasgow. Protestant workers had developed strong ties of struggle with workers in these cities especially. Their fear was that in a Home Rule parliament, run in the interests of the smaller businesses in the south who favoured protectionist measures, their ties with the labour movement in Britain would be broken and their jobs would be threatened as their industries were cut off from their export markets.
Likewise Connolly displayed similar problems on the question of independence. Connolly was correct in advocating an Irish Socialist Republic, but this too was posed in a one-sided manner. When Marx spoke about the struggle for Irish independence, meaning independence on a capitalist basis, he added the rider that after independence “may come federation.” Connolly’s material leaves this idea to the side.
While fighting to place the labour movement, with its goal of a socialist republic, at the head of the struggle for independence, it would have been better if Connolly had also argued to maintain the links with the British working class and had put forward as the ultimate objective the idea of a voluntary socialist federation of Ireland and Britain.”34
A democratic socialist Ireland would guarantee the rights of all minorities and genuine equality between national groups. Such a programme could break the Protestant working class from supporting Unionism. The working class of the North East, given the level of industrialisation there and its numerical weight, was critical if a successful socialist revolution were to take place. Therefore, allaying the fears of the Protestant working class was absolutely critical.
A workers’ leader & socialist organiser
Connolly had a steadfast confidence in the working class and the power it possessed to rid the world of capitalism and to organise society along socialist lines. It was not only in his words but in his deeds, namely as a socialist and workers’ leader, that he sought to raise the consciousness of working-class people of their ability to transform society. As a revolutionary socialist he was instinctively repelled by the ideas of those reformists who preached compromise with the capitalist class and sought to work within the framework of their system. He chastised these reformist leaders in his work Socialism Made Easy:
“Let us be practical. We want something pr-r-ractical.
Always the cry of hum-drum mediocrity, afraid to face the stern necessity for uncompromising action. That saying has done more yeoman service in the cause of oppression than all its avowed supporters…
Moral – Don’t be ‘practical’ in politics. To be practical in that sense means that you have schooled yourself to think along the lines, and in the grooves those who rob you would desire you to think.”
Upon his arrival in the US, Connolly became active within the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), led by Daniel De Leon. The ISRP had developed connections with the SLP and received copies of its paper, Weekly Worker. Connolly was initially attracted to the SLP on the basis that it was on the left of the Second International.35 However Connolly soon clashed with De Leon over the latter’s rigid, sectarian and dogmatic political methods.
In 1905, Connolly became an active, energetic organiser with the newly-formed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies. Under the slogan of “One Big Union” it sought to organise unskilled and skilled alike, not just for the immediate improvement of workers’ conditions but also for the overthrow of capitalism itself. It was during this period that he also founded the Irish Socialist Federation (ISF) and established a socialist paper, The Harp, aimed at Irish migrant workers in the US. Having become estranged from the SLP and De Leon, he soon became active in the Socialist Party of America which was beginning to garner significant support among workers.
Class struggle in Ireland
During Connolly’s period in the US the workers’ movement in Ireland began to make enormous strides. In 1907, Jim Larkin arrived in Belfast as an organiser with the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) and played a central in the famous dockers’ and carters’ strike that had united the city’s Protestant and Catholic working-class population in an explosive struggle against its bosses. The leadership of the union was fearful and suspicious of his militancy, and Larkin was soon expelled from the NUDL and in January 1909 he founded the ITGWU.
Like the IWW, it was based on organising previously unorganised and unskilled workers into a large general union. Craft unions in Ireland up until this point had largely been small, narrow and sectional and had failed to organise those lower-paid and casualised workers. It had grown to 30,000 by the eve of the 1913 Lockout. The ITGWU used the method of the sympathy strike in order to harness effectively the collective power of the working class in the context of strikes in small workplaces, which predominated outside of the north-east of Ireland. Larkin and Connolly both understood that only by utilising this power could victories be won. Membership of the union grew significantly.
Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 and at Larkin’s request became an organiser with the ITGWU in Belfast. However, the growth of sectarianism in the period and the fact that there was an already much better-established labour movement in the city meant that the union did not make the same headway as it did in the rest of Ireland. Nonetheless, Connolly was able to organise women workers in the mills, who were some of the lowest-paid workers in Belfast. From this the Irish Textile Workers’ Union (ITWU) came into existence, becoming an affiliate of the ITGWU. In October 1911, the ITWU lead a strike of these women workers against their terrible working conditions.
Connolly’s role as a leader of the ITGWU was not confined to Belfast. In August 1911, workers in three foundries in Wexford were locked out by the bosses in an attempt to break the ITGWU, foreshadowing what would take place in Dublin two years later. The dispute was to result in the police killing a worker in a baton charge. In response, a “Workers Police”, a forerunner of the Irish Citizen Army, was formed. Connolly arrived in Wexford in January 1912 as the dispute entered its fifth month. The following month the dispute, in Connolly’s words, resulted in a “drawn battle.” While the ITGWU was not officially recognised, the Irish Foundry Workers Union was. This was, for all intents and purposes, the ITGWU by another name.
In May 1912 at a conference of the Irish Trades Union Congress (TUC) Connolly moved a motion, seconded by Larkin, calling for the formation of a labour party in Ireland. Both men hoped that it would became a voice for the developing industrial struggles. Like the Labour Electoral Association of 1898, his support for the formation of such a broad-based party of the working class reflected a non-sectarian attitude. Linked with the building of a labour party, Connolly had also established the Socialist Party of Ireland in 1910.
The following August, with southern Irish capitalism determined to destroy the threat of militant trade unionism, the great 1913 Lockout began. In all 404 bosses, headed by William Martin Murphy, locked out 25,000 workers after the latter refused to either resign their membership from or repudiate the ITGWU. Connolly was to play a central role in leading the fightback of the union. Early on in the dispute he was arrested and spent a week in prison, only to be released after going on hunger strike. He spoke at a mass rally in the Albert Hall in London during Larkin’s incarceration alongside prominent speakers such as suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst. Like Larkin, he understood that winning support from the ranks of the British labour movement would be critical to defeating Murphy and his ilk. This would include taking industrial action to black any goods going to and from Dublin.
State repression became a prominent feature of the Lockout, resulting in arrests, hundreds of severe injuries and the killing of four workers over the course of five months. In response to this Connolly, alongside Jack White, founded the Irish Citizens Army, which was to give vital protection from the violence of the state and scabs that were brought into the city.
In December 1913, Connolly and Larkin attended the conference of the British TUC and tabled a motion requesting industrial action in support of the Dublin workers. However, the conference, none of whose delegates had been elected or mandated, voted against this and the following month the workers in the city began to return to work. Given the absence of solidarity action, the ITGWU would not be in a position to defeat the bosses.
The ideas of Syndicalism
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw the explosive growth of the socialist and workers’ movement internationally. Broadly speaking there began to emerge two trends. On the one hand the leadership of the newly established social-democratic parties began, sometimes in words but more often in deeds, to accommodate themselves with the existence of capitalism. This meant a narrow focus on parliamentary activity and a belief that socialism could come into existence through slow and gradual implementation of reforms without having to decisively challenge the ruling class in revolutionary struggle.
In response to this conservatism, a section of working-class militants and socialists internationally became attracted to the ideas of Syndicalism. Syndicalists either rejected or placed little emphasis on the building of a political party for the working class. Their key focus was on the question of immediate working-class self-activity and the building of mass revolutionary unions.
The IWW, for which Connolly was an organiser, was one union that adopted the approach of Syndicalism. They called for “One Big Union” to unite all workers in a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. The IWW espoused the idea that all individual strikes were battles in a wider war; that workers should refuse to cross picket lines or handle goods from struck enterprises (this is called “sympathetic action,” also known as the “blacking” of goods or “hot-cargoing” in the US). In this way strikes in one sector such as the docks would tend to spread to other sectors and become more general confrontations with the bosses. This is precisely the strategy Larkin followed in leading the 1907 Belfast dockers’ and carters’ strike, and subsequently in building the early ITGWU under the “One Big Union” slogan.
The end goal and key weapon for Syndicalists in achieving the overthrow of the capitalism would be the use of the revolutionary general strike, and it argued that if workers indefinitely downed tools the edifice of the system would come crashing down. Politics and the building of political parties was viewed as a diversion from this.
The emergence of Syndicalism constituted a healthy desire to seek a revolutionary alternative in the face of a growing conservatism on the part of the leadership of the parties of the Second International. It reflected an aspiration toward re-affirming Marx’s aphorism that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”36 Another strength it possessed was its emphasis on militant and generalized action, in a period when the working class was going on the offensive.
However, there were important drawbacks in the methods and ideas of Syndicalism. First was its rejection of political organisation and the need for a party for the working class. Such organisation and a party flowed from the necessity of the working class, and particularly its most politically conscious and militant sections, to be organised around a revolutionary socialist programme. This programme would sum up and generalise from the experiences of working-class people and from the lessons of working-class struggle as a whole. This would mean not only taking up immediate issues facing workers such as a shorter working week or higher pay, but also meant dealing with key questions at the time such as the struggle for votes for women, opposing imperialism and colonialism, and linking these questions with the need for socialist revolution.
In order for the capitalist system to be defeated it was not enough to challenge it as an economic system via industrial struggle. Although this was very important, it was crucial to challenge capitalist ideology and the increasingly militarised capitalist state. The outbreak of the First World War and the power of the ruling class to stir up jingoist sentiments showed the need for a political struggle against the system and for the building of an organisation with roots in the working class that would consciously promote the necessity of internationalism and socialism in the face of such on an ideological onslaught. Interestingly, some Syndicalists, such as those in France, buckled underneath the pressure of the regressive nationalist mood that developed with the outbreak of the war.
The emphasis on the general strike as a form of struggle that would, in and of itself, bring down the system, was one-sided and simplistic. The example and experience of the revolutionary general strike of May 1968 in France, when ten million French workers suspended society in mid-air, is proof of this. While power lay in the hands of the working class and a period of “dual power” came into existence between them and the old order, a revolutionary struggle for change was not brought to a successful conclusion and French capitalism remained in existence. Fundamentally, the question of what class would run society in the long term was posed, but unfortunately not answered, in the absence of revolutionary socialist leadership that could have united the working class around a socialist programme and strategy for change. The French Communist Party, which was in the leadership of the strike and had a mass base amongst the working class, ultimately saved the De Gaulle regime and capitalism in France.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the necessity for a revolutionary socialist party in an Irish context flowed from the necessity to challenge both the Unionist establishment in the north, the variations of nationalism in the south and a highly militarised British state apparatus. It meant uniting all sections of the working class on the Island of Ireland around a party based on the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and socialist analysis and programme that Connolly had begun to develop in his writings. Not only would the working-class membership of such a party be educated in these ideas but it would actively seek to build a base for them amongst the wider working class by involving itself in their day-to-day battles to improve their lot. By building such a base it could strategically prepare and position itself for the moment when revolutionary struggle would develop, as happened in Ireland from 1918 to 1923.
Connolly & revolutionary organisation
Connolly was partially influenced by the ideas of Syndicalism and was drawn to its revolutionary appeal, particularly after he saw the forward strides made by the IWW due to its militant tactics. He had grown dismayed at the rightward shift and reformism of the leadership of the British workers’ movement in particular, which was to have disastrous consequences in the 1913 Lockout, and was burnt by the narrow sectarian approach of De Leon. However, the fact that he had played a critical role in the establishment of the Labour Party and had founded the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) shows that he did not embrace these ideas in their entirety. It would be wrong to state boldly that he was a Syndicalist, as some have done. In a sense, he saw a dual task of building a party that generally gave representation to workers in the form of the Labour Party, and on the other hand building a party that would have a more developed socialist programme in the form of the SPI.
However, he did not grasp the importance of building a party of like-minded revolutionaries, as outlined above. The SPI’s role was largely confined to propaganda work and it did not engage in broader mass work as a way of sinking roots in the working class. Reflecting the role he saw it playing, he did not argue for it to be an affiliate organisation of the Labour Party when it was established, as happened with other socialist organisations when the British Labour Party was founded. If the SPI had affiliated to a vibrant, federative labour party in Ireland it could have had a broader audience for its ideas.
Like other revolutionaries at the time such as Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, Connolly’s lack of understanding of the decisive role of a revolutionary party must be understood in its historical context. None of them had yet to witness, or in Connolly’s case would live to witness, the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Therefore, they were not able to draw the key lessons of the role played by the Bolshevik Party in leading the world’s first socialist revolution.
1914: A turning point
In March 1914, the last of Dublin’s locked-out workers returned to Jacobs’ biscuit factory, bringing to an end the courageous resistance of the city’s working class to the bosses’ attempt to break “Larkinism.” While the bosses had failed to crush the ITGWU, the outcome of the dispute was a temporary blow to the advance of the workers’ movement. It was one keenly felt by both Connolly and Larkin. Both were embittered by the treachery displayed by the leadership of the British TUC during the dispute. Connolly summed up the sense of betrayal felt by the workers of Dublin when he wrote:
“And so we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal.”37
In the following months plans were put forward by the British government for the “temporary” exclusion of six out of the nine counties of Ulster (Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Down, Antrim and Armagh) from being governed by a future Home Rule parliament based in Dublin. Not for the first time the British ruling class would put Ireland, in Connolly’s words, on “the dissecting table.” The sense of reaction and counter-revolution was added to when on 20 March there was a mutiny by senior British Army officers in the Curragh barracks in County Kildare against the imposition of Home Rule in Ireland.
However, the main catastrophe for the socialist movement, and the event that was to be the most politically disorientating for Connolly, came in August of 1914 with the outbreak of war in Europe. The war itself came as no major surprise to Marxists such as Connolly. In the years running up to the conflict there was growing militarisation and tension between the major imperialist states of Europe. This tension had its roots in a fundamental conflict over which country’s capitalist class would have control and dominance over the world’s markets and the colonies of Africa and Asia. Essentially it was a reactionary and regressive capitalist war for power and profit.
His writings on the First World War were searing in their denunciation of a war between Europe’s capitalist states:
“We have held, and do hold, that war is a relic of barbarism only possible because we are governed by a ruling class with barbaric ideas; we have held, and do hold, that the working class of all countries cannot hope to escape the horrors of war until in all countries that barbaric ruling class is thrown from power…”38
Betrayal of Second International
The Socialist International had on several occasions voted to oppose the outbreak of war. At its conference in Basel in November 1912 it resolved that, for their constituent parties:
“In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”39
Far from intervening “in favour of its speedy termination,” the leadership of the parties of Europe’s socialist movement quickly capitulated to their own respective ruling classes in words and in actions – for example, by voting for war credits in parliament. Their de facto acceptance of the capitalist system in the period running up to 1914 meant the acceptance of one its key institutions: war.
Their actions destroyed the Socialist International as an organisation of working-class solidarity. In the words of the anti-war revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, it was now nothing but a “stinking corpse.” She, along with Karl Liebknecht, Lenin, Trotsky and Connolly himself, were among the handful of leaders of the working class and socialist movement internationally who were willing to take a principled stand against the barbarism that would unfold on the western and eastern fronts. Connolly summed up his approach to what should take place to end the mutual slaughter of working-class soldiers in the newly-dug trenches:
“Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.”40
These words clearly illustrated Connolly’s internationalism and anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist outlook. However, the immediate outbreak of the war did not give way to the development of an anti-war sentiment within society, or in turn to a revolutionary upheaval that would shake Europe’s ruling classes to their core. This would come later. Initially, a wave of national chauvinism and jingoism swept the continent as millions of workers were conscripted.
Having joined the socialist movement in 1889, Connolly viewed the struggle for socialist change as being an international one and in the quarter of century until 1914 it appeared that this struggle was advancing with the development and growth of the parties of the working class across Europe. Now he watched in dismay as, overnight, this movement was destroyed by the betrayals of its leadership. He wrote:
“And now, like the proverbial bolt from the blue, war is upon us, and war between the most important, because the most socialist, nations of the earth. And we are helpless!
What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully-built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future?”41
In the aftermath of its outbreak, the small forces of anti-war socialists in Europe began to meet, discuss and regroup. These included Lenin and Trotsky, who organised anti-war meetings such as those in Zimmerwald in Switzerland in September 1915. They analysed the nature of the war and began to develop a perspective for the revolutionary outbursts it had the potential to produce.
They had witnessed how the defeat of Tsarist regime at the hands of Japan had helped fuel the outbreak of revolution in Russia a decade earlier, in January 1905. They understood that the initial wave of jingoism brought about by the war would give way to an anti-war sentiment as the death toll and horrors of war blighted the lives of people. Tragically, Connolly did not participate in these discussions and remained politically isolated in Ireland. This isolation only added only to his sense of disorientation and increasing frustration.
The war & Ireland
Unlike in Britain, military conscription was not introduced in Ireland at the beginning of the war. However, in both the North and South tens of thousands joined up to fight on the Western front. Not only was the war backed by the representatives of northern capitalism in the form of the Unionist Party, but Home Rule leader John Redmond called on the forces of the Irish Volunteers to join up and support British imperialism’s war effort.
Many of those workers who were blacklisted in Dublin for their role in the Lockout were economically conscripted into the army. The sight of this, and the dragging-out of the war itself over the coming months and years, clearly impacted Connolly’s outlook. He argued for the necessity of some kind of rebellion, to strike a blow against the capitalist and imperialist order in Europe:
“Even an unsuccessful attempt at social revolution by force of arms, following the paralysis of the economic life of militarism, would be less disastrous to the socialist cause than the act of socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers in the cause.”42
The desperation and growing sense of despondency felt by Connolly was compounded by the fact that the workers’ movement in Ireland and in Europe was at a low ebb. Membership of the ITGWU had shrunk to 5,000 from a high of 30,000 at the beginning of the Lockout. Louie Bennett described how Connolly was “deeply embittered” in this period. This was only exacerbated by talk of introducing military conscription into Ireland in 1915. The desire for a rebellion in Ireland led him to contemplate seriously the idea of the small forces of the ICA going out alone against the might of the British Empire. Over the course of 1915 he wrote a series of articles on street-fighting based on the experiences of the revolutions in Europe in the nineteenth century in the pages of the Workers Republic.
He began also to look towards the forces of the Irish Volunteers, who had not heeded Redmond’s call, and within that the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Fearing that Connolly would launch a unilateral uprising against British rule the IRB organised a secret meeting with him in January 1916 to plan a rising in Easter of that year. His willingness to participate in such a rising reflected a genuine desire to make a stand against the war and imperialism. However, the basis on which he participated in the rising was mistaken on a number of points.
The “ripe material conditions” that he had rightly regarded as being the basis on which a revolutionary struggle against imperialism and capitalism was needed had not yet matured in Ireland. The mood had yet to turn decisively against the war among broad sections of the working class. Nor was the need to break decisively with British rule widely understood. The fact that during the Rising he did not call upon transport workers, organised in the ITGWU, to take action to prevent the transportation of British soldiers indicates that he probably recognised this himself.
In the run-up to the rising Connolly also put forward ambiguous and contradictory positions and made unnecessary political concessions to the forces of militant nationalism that he would fight alongside.
There is no evidence to suggest that he had abandoned his socialist outlook. At the same time, however, the fact that it was the green flag as opposed to the red that was hoisted above Liberty Hall in the weeks running up to the Rising is illustrative of a reluctance on his part to put forward a clear socialist position (The ICA’s starry plough flag was, however, placed on top of the hotel owned by bosses’ leader and architect of the 1913 Lockout William Martin Murphy during the rising). This would manifest itself during the Rising itself when he simply put his name to the “Proclamation of the Republic” as opposed to putting forward a separate statement outlining his vision of a socialist Ireland. Tragically, this would allow his legacy and the ideas he stood for to be distorted by the leaders of the national movement such as Eamon DeValera.
Connolly could even have put forward the programme that he had outlined in the Workers Republic in January 1916 when he was considering launching a rebellion based solely on the small forces of the ICA. The programme pointed to the need for the capitalist class to be expropriated in the aftermath of British imperialism being defeated and independent Ireland established:
“All the material of distribution – the railways, the canals, and all their equipment will at once become the national property of the Irish state. All the land stolen from the Irish people in the past, and not since restored in some manner to the actual tillers of the soil, ought at once to be confiscated and made the property of the Irish state. Taken in hand energetically and cultivated under scientific methods such land would go far to make this country independent of the ocean-borne commerce of Great Britain. All factories and workshops owned by people who do not yield allegiance to the Irish Government immediately upon its proclamation should at once be confiscated, and their productive powers applied to the service of the community loyal to Ireland, and to the army in its service.”43
A heroic figure
James Connolly is a giant in the workers’ movement in Ireland and personifies the best traditions of the working class and socialist movement globally. He played a decisive and critical role in its development and consistently linked the building of this movement with the need to break with capitalism. He understood that working-class people would never prosper or benefit in an Ireland run by a ruling class of big farmers and major property-owners.
Connolly further understood the need for conscious organisation by the working class, a viewpoint he eloquently summed up with the words: “For the only true prophets are they who carve out the future which they announce.”44
These words have salient lessons for today. Over 100 years after Connolly’s death we are still faced with the necessity of ridding humanity of a capitalist system that has ravaged our planet with inequality, poverty and war. We must organise to build a socialist movement that becomes what he called the “great anti-theft movement,” learns from the actions of his life and studies his unique contribution to the ideas of socialism and Marxism.
The building of such a movement is the most fitting monument we can build to this towering and courageous figure of Irish and world history.
James Connolly was Commandant General of the Dublin Division, Army of the Irish Republic and Vice President of the “Republic” declared in the Proclamation. When he continued his duties in the GPO after being wounded, Pearse, technically the most senior leader of the Rising, commented that Connolly remains, “still the guiding brain of our resistance.” However, Connolly was also the most dynamic force pushing for and ensuring that a rising actually happened.
James Connolly was a Marxist and believed in the necessity of socialist change in Ireland and internationally. Connolly himself accurately described the important but also limited goal behind the Rising in his last statement written on 9 May 1916, just three days before his execution.
“We were out to break the connection of this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. We believe that the call we then issued to the people of Ireland was a nobler call, in a holier cause, than any other call issued to them during this war.”
As well as outlining how the Rising came about, this chapterwill in particular attempt to explain how James Connolly came to be a dominant force in a national revolt that had little real prospect of success and whose objective – the breaking of the political link between Ireland and Britain – was significantly less than the socialist transformation of society that he stated was necessary throughout his life.
The national question and the emergence of the working class as an organised force, were the key and interconnected factors that dominated early twentieth century Ireland. The cornerstone of the national question was the oppression of the mass of people in Ireland by British Imperialism and capitalism: nationally, socially and politically. In addition people were also cruelly exploited by Irish capitalists and landlords. However, there wasalso a significant religious division among working-class people. This division between Protestant and Catholic was originally connected to the plantation policy by English governments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their age-old tactic of divide and rule. British Imperialism stoked up religious division among ordinary people when it suited as a ploy to split the opposition they faced, all the better to rule and exploit Ireland and the people themselves.
By the early twentieth century, the revolutionary national movement of the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion or the more plebeian movements of Robert Emmett, and to a certain extend the Fenians, were but a distant memory. In general the Irish nationalist movement, dominated by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) led by John Redmond, had become conservative and Catholic in character. This meant that for many in the North-East, particularly Protestants whose livelihoods were intimately connected to the economy of Britain and the industrial centres of Scotland and North-West England, there were suspicions of the nationalist movement and serious concerns about what Irish independence or Home Rule would actually mean for them. They feared that they could become economically disadvantaged and a discriminated-against minority as theIPP primarily represented the interests of the southern Catholic capitalist class.
The emergence of the Irish working-class movement (which by its nature tended to unite Protestant and Catholic workers around their common material interests as workers) onto the scene of history posed a potential solution to this division and national conundrum. As shown in previous chapter, James Connolly felt this development marked a critical change and held the view that British Imperialism could be defeated, but only if the new working-class movement, both Protestant and Catholic, led a mass struggle against capitalism and British Imperialism for socialist change. Unlike before, now a force existed that could potentially unite the mass of people under a banner for national freedom precisely because it also promised to break with capitalist exploitation and offered a real future.
For Connolly, the national struggle had become synonymous with the working-class struggle for socialist change. He viewed the fight against national oppression and for Irish independence as clearly very important and progressive, but also that it was limited. He often poured scorn on ‘patriots’ and nationalists, and just a few years before the Rising he famously dismissed any ‘independence’ that maintained capitalism as not worth fighting for.
In Workshop Talks published in 1909 he wrote, “After Ireland is free, says the patriot who won’t touch socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you won’t pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic. Now, isn’t that worth fighting for?”
Connolly’s approach was to adopt positions, including on the national question, based on a belief in the working class as the force for change. As Connolly often expressed his views in quite stark terms, the contrast between his views here and then his alliance with the IRB only a few years later is also quite striking. The basis of this change can be found in developments in 1914 thathad a profound effecton Connolly’s outlook.
Setbacks and growing dismay
The last of the workers involved in the great Dublin Lockout didn’t return to work until March 1914, such was their defiance. In an immediate sense the outcome of the Lockout was a cruel defeat. Those workers who could went back to work on the basis of having to leave the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). Others were blacklisted into even worse poverty. The bosses had the whip in hand and used it to intensify exploitation.On a deeper level, however, the nature of the struggle that had been waged served to transform attitudes and establish a fighting tradition deep in the psyche of the emerging workingclass. In the years that followed this re-emerged with a vengeance and helped tip the balance in favour of the working class.
While the bosses had won this round, they were also horrified by the resistance that the working class had displayed to their attacks and starvation tacticsduring the Lockout. It wasn’t fully apparent at the time but the battle had actually loosened their tight grip on power. When circumstances allowed, starting in 1916, not only did the ITGWU recover quite dramatically, it was also clear that a deep class hatred of the bosses had taken root, along with support for militant tactics and solidarity action among workers.
Nevertheless, in 1914 the outcome felt like a cruel and bitter defeat. The working class had given so much, and could have won if only the leadership of the British Trade Union Congress had lifted its finger to organise some solidarity action. Many in the ranks were more than willing, but when the leadership of the British unions refused to support solidarity action at the TUC congress in December 1913, the dye was cast for the workers in Dublin. Connolly was deeply affected by this betrayal. The lack of broad solidarity action was solely the responsibility of the leaders of the TUC and Connolly’s bitterness towards them was completely understandable. However, it is likely that Connolly was also disappointed that the ranks didn’t prove capable of challenging and overturning the role of the union bureaucracy.
In his biography of Connolly, C. Desmond Greaves cites that in the summer of 1915 Connolly, in an ironic tone, congratulated the working class of Wales for “waking up” in regard to a successful struggle they had undertaken. However, Connolly’s words show that by then he had developed an overly negative assessment: “We fear they are crying out too late; the master class are now in possession of such impressive powers as they have not possessed for three-quarters of a century.” In another article in the Workers’ Republic in September 1915, he said that the British working class were, “the most easily fooled working class in the world.”
In such trying circumstances it can be extremely difficult to maintain a balanced understanding and perspective. Connolly was clearly fearful of what the future held and he undoubtedly went back and forth in his own mind on many issues. For instance, there are examples of articles where he displays an incredible sensitivity as to how economic conditions could force men who had fought during the Lockout to sign up tothe British Army. However, in an article from February 1916 entitled,“The Ties that Bind” Connolly wrote, “For the sake of the Separation Allowance thousands of Irish men, women and young girls have become accomplices of the British Government in this threatened crime (further denial of Irish freedom and rights) against the true men and women of Ireland.”
The actual setbacks for the working class and the TUC’s betrayal also clearly undermined Connolly’s confidence in the capability of the working class to be the decisive force for change. As the general secretary of the ITGWU, Connolly organised and fought as best as he could day in and day out to defend the rights of the working class, right up to the eve of the Rising itself, but clearly he began to question if major class battles and a struggle for socialist change was off the agenda for an historic period.
While the consequences of the Lockout’s defeat were still unfolding in 1914, the whole of Europe was gripped by a new crisis. On 28 June,the Austrian royal prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot and killed in Sarajevo. In just over a month, like the proverbial bolt from the blue, the world was at war. Before the First World War would finish, 70 million people would be mobilised and more than 16 million would be killed. It was the outbreak of the world war and the refusal of the international socialist movement to resist it that had the biggest effect on Connolly and led him to become very fearful of what the future held.
Outbreak of war and betrayal
The existence of webs of military alliances involving the different powers in Europe facilitated the mushrooming of tensions between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand into a multi-nation conflict. However, the war didn’t happen by accident or just because of the assassination of a lesser royal.
The First World War was an imperialist conflict fought in the context of increased capitalist economic competition, the saturation of markets and stagnation. In the main it was between British and emerging German Imperialism to see which one would get the “right” to dominate and further exploit the other nations of Europe and their respective colonies. The extensive military alliances and the fact that arms spending had increased in Europe by 50% since 1908 illustrate how economic and military tensions had been building for years.
With a small number of honourable exceptions, including Connolly and the Bolsheviks in Russia, the international socialist movement instead of opposingthe inter-imperialist war, shamefully supported the rulingclassesof their own nationsin the conflict and endorsed the fighting between workers from different countries in the interests of the imperialists. The anti-war resolutions of international socialist congresses in Stuttgart in 1907, Copenhagen in 1910 and Basle in 1912 all came to nothing.This betrayal by the parties of the Socialist International and the European trade union movement was as much of a body blow to Connolly as the outbreak of war itself. Connolly’s deep fears for what the world war could lead to brought him to the conclusion that he had to dedicate himself wholly to do all he could in Ireland to oppose it and British Imperialism’s war effort.
Connolly feared that the war would see the slaughter of not just the working class on an industrial scale, but also of the flower of the European socialist movement and therefore set the struggle back for many, many years. He also feared that Britain would win the war and believed that the result would be a decisive strengthening of British Imperialism and heightened exploitation by it of the markets and resources of other countries, including a further consolidation of its rule and domination of Ireland, i.e. a new reactionary phase of capitalist dominance.
The war was a serious defeat for the working-class and socialist movements. It dwarfed the defeat in the Lockout but at the same time it re-enforced the negative sentiments or perspectives that Connolly had formed as a result of it. While publicly continuing to argue for class struggle and socialist change, increasingly Connolly’s actions indicated that he believed that the prospects for the potential for a working-class movement against the war had “receded out of sight”.[i]
In a sense, Connolly was a victim of his own hopes in revolutionary syndicalism. He was knocked when there wasn’t widespread industrial action from below throughout Europe against the war, given the anti-war resolutions and manifesto’s and the substantial support in different countries for “revolutionary unionism” (syndicalism) which supported the idea “that when the bugles sounded the first note for actual war, their notes should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution.”[ii]
Wars, along with revolutions, are the most momentous and profound events that can occur and affect every aspect of society. Pre-existing resolutions, unless backed up by a strong and living movement that acts as a leadership to the working class, were never going to be enough to withstand the drive of the different capitalist powers into war. Manufactured pretexts to justify the war, like defending the rights of small nations, the whipping up of jingoism and the support of the population for the ordinary soldiers of their own country in a conflict are real issues that would have to be countered and fought anew regardless of past resolutions.
The war showed that the parties of the Socialist International had degenerated from revolutionary internationalism to reconciliation with capitalism and its wars. Over a period of years, the main socialist parties became increasingly incorporated into the capitalist establishment and state and in practice had a reformist outlook. In reality it would have been extremely difficult to prevent a war that was materially rooted in the economic contradictions of capitalism at the time. But there wasn’t a strong enough revolutionary movement or party in any European country that was capable of successfully standing against the momentum for war and the sell-out of social democracy.
Connolly was undoubtedlyshakenby these developments andhe resolvedrelatively quickly that his hopes and perspective for social revolution against war were not going to materialise. Notwithstanding that, he felt it was imperative that the war be challenged but he also knew there was little basis for a mass revolt from the working-class movement at that time.
He was correct to be open to co-operation with the Irish Volunteers and the IRB in resisting Britain’s war effort, including organising against recruitment drives and the threat of conscription. However, so desperate was Connolly to resist the war that he was also open to having an alliance with the IRB for the purpose of an insurrection against British Imperialism’s war effort. Connolly’s preference was for a rising that had a mass working class and socialist character, but as he didn’t believe that was possible, he was prepared to look elsewhere in order to maximise the impact of a rising. As the months passed and the horrors of the war became even more apparent, his resolve for some form of rising only intensified.
War: “the mid wife of revolution”
Sadly Connolly was isolated from the other revolutionaries internationally who also stood out against the war. The Bolsheviks in Russia led by Lenin were as desperate as Connolly to strike a blow against the imperialist war but they were capable of collectively analysing developments, and their assessment led them to the view that mass opposition to the war would develop that would not only create the basis to stop the war but also produce revolutionary uprisings.
In the summer of 1915 Lenin wrote a pamphlet entitled Socialism and War. In it he outlined the following assessment of perspective and tactics:
“The war has undoubtedly created a most acute crisis and has increased the distress of the masses to an incredible degree. The reactionary character of this war, and the shameless lies told by the bourgeoisie of all countries in covering up their predatory aims with “national” ideology, are inevitably creating, on the basis of an objectively revolutionary situation, revolutionary moods among the masses. It is our duty to help the masses to become conscious of these moods, to deepen and formulate them. This task is correctly expressed only by the slogan: convert the imperialist war into civil war; and all consistently waged class struggles during the war, all seriously conducted “mass action” tactics inevitably lead to this. It is impossible to foretell whether a powerful revolutionary movement will flare up during the first or the second war of the great powers, whether during or after it; in any case, our bounden duty is systematically and undeviatingly to work precisely in this direction.”[iii]
With these powerful words Lenin embraced the negative features in the situation but put them in the more fundamental and general context of the crisis that capitalism was facing. Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood the dangers contained in the war but they also understood that the war – as it was linked to an organic crisis in capitalism internationally – was also likely to create a series of revolutionary opportunities.
There was no guarantee as to when this might happen. Lenin held out that there was a possibility that the current conflict could cease quite quickly, but only to be replaced by another one soon enough. However, what is clear is that he and the Bolsheviks understood that the war posed serious dangers for capitalism too and that it was likely that there would be movements against the war and the conditions that the war was creating in the relatively near future. Crucially Lenin insisted, that even if it wasn’t clear when such movements might occur, it was vital that revolutionaries stand their ground and stick to their principles and prepare for such mass working-class radicalisation and revolts, as that is the only way to ensure the success of the socialist revolution. This would in turn be the only way to stop capitalist wars and really transform the lives of the working class, the small farmers and the poor. As it turned out, on the basis of this perspective and careful preparation, in a little over two years the Russian working class led by the Bolshevik Party took power and that revolution and its impact globally was key to ending of the First World War itself.
It is extremely unfortunate that Connolly was isolated internationally and didn’t have direct contact with the likes of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, as perhaps their analysis and position may have had an impact on him and help correct the mistake he made in mainly seeing the dangers and not the revolutionary opportunities that the war would ultimately bring. That mistake inanalysis and perspective in turn led Connolly to put all his energies into one defiant act, the Rising.
History was to prove that the mass radicalisation and struggle that the Bolsheviks believed would happen also developed in Ireland, particularly between 1917 and 1920, something which Connolly didn’t think likely or possible. In a sense, even within Ireland Connolly was isolated in that he didn’t benefit from having a genuinely Marxist organisation or party, similar to the Bolsheviks, where the issues could be debated and clarified in order to formulate the clearest perspectives and best strategies and tactics.
The Irish Volunteers split
The Irish Volunteers were established in 1913 on the initiative of members of the IRB who saw in the rise of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 a chance to launch a broad military movement in the south in response. The outbreak of the war caused a split in the Irish Volunteers in September 1914.During thatsummer John Redmond, leader of the IPP, used his position of influence to issue an ultimatum that whichever people he nominated must be incorporated onto the executive of the Irish Volunteers. Most of the members of the IRB, which was working inside the Volunteers in a clandestine fashion, opposed this but the ultimatum was acceded to by the executive of the Volunteers, which had a broader and more moderate composition. This put the IRB at a serious disadvantage and tensions rose.
The actual split came about because Redmond came out in favour of the British war effort and acted as a recruiting agent for the British Army. Of the estimated 150,000 members of the Volunteers, the vast bulk went with Redmond and became known as the National Volunteers. Just over 13,000 opposed Redmond’s policy and stayed with the Irish Volunteers, which was lead by prominent academic and moderate nationalist Eoin MacNeill. The IRB had control of many vital positions in the new Irish Volunteers.
Less than a month after the war was declared, leaders of the IRB decided in principle that there should be a rising during the war, if two conditions pertained. These were that Britain tried to impose conscription on Ireland and that German troops would be involved in a rising.
While the IRB secretly took senior and influential positions, they also allowed more moderate elements, like MacNeill, to take the public leading positions. Formally MacNeill was President of the organisation. With their secretive tactics they hoped to operate unhindered behind the scenes to connect with and influence others in the Volunteers. They hoped to be able to use their positions to get the Volunteers to participate in an armed uprising at the right time, regardless of what view MacNeill as leader adopted or what other moderates might say or do.
Connolly agitates for action
Connolly became general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) just before Larkin left for America on 24 October 1914 – for what was to be a fundraising tour but turned out to be a visit that lasted seven years! While Connolly engaged in a reorganisation of the union and remained very involved in industrial affairs, he increasingly honed in on the need for an armed rising.
Initial connections between Connolly and members of the IRB developed in September 1914. His relations with the IRB/Volunteers over the next year and a half went through the gamut of possible relations – suspicious, supportive, critical, hostile, encouraging, contemptuous and friendly – depending on the time and what he considered to be their attitude to a rising. Resolved that there had to be a rising against the capitalist war– against British Imperialism and its war effort – and with the knowledge that the trade union and socialist movement was not a likely support base for such an initiative, Connolly consciously elevated the issues around national freedom and identity in his propaganda and agitation in order to win support for a rising.
If before Connolly had indicated that the national and labour questions where synonymous in a way which incorporated the national question into the struggle for socialism, he was now inclined to pose it the other way around. This was not because he suddenly changed his actual position – putting the achievement of national liberation above the goal of socialist change – but because he reasoned that in the circumstances, such an approach would solicit more possible recruits for a rising. He also directly targeted agitation towards the ranks of the Volunteers and the IRB against undue delaying and fora stand being made. In fact he engaged in a continuous public polemic against the inaction and conservatism of the Irish Volunteer and IRB leaders and encouraged the ranks to challenge it. This sometimes created deep hostility and consternation among the leaders of the Volunteers and IRB. Connolly also went about convincing the Irish Citizens Army and some others in the unions of the need to make an alliance with the more militant sections of nationalism in order to prepare a rising.
The Irish Volunteers held a congress on 25 October 1914. At least on the surface it seemed from this conference that they adopted a more hesitant and cautious approach from what leaders of the IRB had initially indicated. The secrecy under which the IRB operated meant it was difficult to be clear of exactly where they stood, as opposed to the Volunteers and MacNeill. Tensions between Connolly and the nationalist movement intensified as he was impatient but also because he feared they may be pulling back from the idea of a rising at all.
State repression in December intensified and this hit the publication of both socialist and nationalist newspapers. The Irish Neutrality League, a new public propaganda banner in which the IRB, Connolly and some others in the unions co-operated together, wasn’t able to function under the repression and it lapsed. As 1915 dawned and then as it wore on, to Connolly it didn’t seem as if the IRB/Volunteers were making serious preparations for a rising. In fact a Military Council had been established in May to look into and plan a possible rising.
When the old Fenian, Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa, died in New York at the end of June 1915, Tom Clarke (who was an essential organiser of the Rising in the IRB) insisted that his body be sent back to Ireland as he saw that this could be used help ferment support for an action. Connolly and the ICA co-operated in the preparations for the funeral and in the parade and celebrations on day itself. At the same time Connolly used the occasion to try to maximise the pressure on all the leaders of the IRB/Volunteers. He remained suspicious of the intentions of the IRB in part because they continued to allow Eoin MacNeill, who didn’t support a rising, to remain unchallenged as the Volunteer’s leader.
On 31 July Connolly wrote in the Workers’ Republic:
“O’Donovan Rossa represents to us a revolutionary movement the least aristocratic and the most plebeian that ever raised itself to national dignity in Ireland…magnificent must have been the courage, splendid the idealism of the men and women who with the awful horror of the famine of Black ’47, and inglorious ’48, still in their minds were yet capable of rising to the spiritual level of challenging the power of England in 1865 or 1867. They were giants in those days! Are we pigmies in these?”
At another time commenting on the Volunteers leaders, Connolly likened them to people who, “all their lives sung the glories of the revolution, when it rose up before them they ran away appalled.”
The ICA and Volunteers
Later in 1915 and reflecting his concerns and impatience, Connolly made it known that he was prepared to lead the ICA out on its own if the Volunteers continued to dither. Clearly this was in part designed to maximise the pressure on the Volunteers and IRB, but it couldn’t have been considered to be an idle threat either, given Connolly’s desperation. In the Workers’ Republic of 30 October 1915 he wrote:
“The Irish Citizens Army will only co-operate in a forward movement. The moment that forward movement ceases it reserves to itself the right to set out of the alignment, and advance by itself if needs be, in an effort to plant the banner of freedom one reach further towards its goal.”
Connolly had called on all those who were not willing to be active and to drill to step back from the ICA in order to allow those who were prepared to be active to step forward. Then in late 1915 it is reported that Connolly discussed individually with each member of the ICA as to whether they were prepared to engage in an armed rising as just the ICA, without the Irish Volunteers. That he received universally positive responses illustrates that his propaganda and agitation had been successful, but also spoke of the force of his personality and his authority within the ICA.
Some of the key leaders in the IRB wanted and were pushing for a rising too. However, as far as Connolly was concerned, there was hesitationand a lack of sureness and seriousness. He exerted huge pressure on the IRB over an extended period of time and on 16 January 1916 the Supreme Council of the IRB made the decision to hold a rising on a specific date in the coming months, regardless of whether their previously stated conditions existed or not. Three days later, on 19 January 1916, they urgently requested an immediate and secret meeting with Connolly. No one in the ITGWU or from Connolly’s family knew where he was; he had simply disappeared. That was the start of the famous three-day of discussions where the plans for a rising were outlined and discussed with Connolly. He re-emerged late on Saturday evening having come to agreement with the IRB. A rising would be held on 23 April, i.e. Easter Sunday 1916.
Regarding his three days of unscheduled absence, Connolly said little. He did however comment that it represented a “terrible mental struggle” for him. It wouldn’t really make sense that Connolly would have struggled over the idea of joint action with the Volunteers, as that is what he had been trying to goad them into for over a year. It is more likely that before he agreed to the plan and the date that he reflected on whether he could wait another three months, but perhaps particularly on whether he could trust the IRB/Volunteers to actually follow through or would they delay or get cold feet and put it off.
He is likely to also have reflected on how many of the 13,000 members of the Volunteers would the IRB actually deliver. Connolly was open about his desire for a rising, he agitated and recruited for it quite openly. The IRB took the opposite approach. They kept their plans secret from the Volunteers. Pearse, as Director of the Military Organisation would issue orders for parading and manoeuvres to take place over the Easter holiday weekend. Then, when whatever number of the Volunteers turned out on the evening of Easter Sunday, they would be informed that it wasn’t a parade or a drill but was in fact an actual rising.
This approach meant that considerable uncertainty would exist right up until the last minute as to the numbers that may be involved, which in turn could materially affect exactly how the rising might go – how long it could withstand the British military. While the IRB had dropped the conditions they had felt necessary for a rising,on their behalf Roger Casement was in negotiations with the German state in order to get some support. A shipment of arms and ammunition was agreed and scheduled to arrive off the west coast just before the time of the rising.
What Connolly really stood for
In 1916 Connolly continued to put forward a class and socialist viewpoint, but this was increasingly interspersed with appeals for people to rise up that were centred on the need for Irish freedom alone, even more than a year previously. Often the same articles or speeches contained contradictory points or comments, for example stating the importance of the independence of the working-class movement while quickly advocating an alliance with nationalism. There is no doubt that Connolly and his anti-capitalist and socialist argumentation had a considerable impact on a number of the leaders and members of the IRB, pushing them some way towards the left. Others in the IRB, including some of the key leaders of the Rising, remained economically and socially conservative.
Over an extended period Connolly made statements and arguments that served to imply that Irish nationalism or an Ireland, free from Britain’s political control, would be innately pro-working class. This was in stark contrast to the general position he put forward over many years in which he showed the serious limitations of nationalism. In an article entitled “Economic Conscription” in the Workers’ Republic just before Christmas 1915 he stated:
“We cannot conceive of a free Ireland with a subject working class; we cannot conceive of a subject Ireland with a free working class. But we can conceive of a free Ireland with a working class guaranteed the power of freely and peacefully working out its own salvation.” Later in the same article he wrote, “nationalists realise that the real progress of the nation towards freedom must be measured by the progress of its most subject class.”
The reason Connolly put forward such argumentation has been explained earlier, but it is still a mistaken approach. Instead of raising people’s consciousness about what needs to be done to actually achieve real change, such an approach can cause confusion and create illusions in forces that don’t represent the working class, and who can quickly turn and begin attacking the interests of working-class people. Previous to this, Connolly would oppose and fight national oppression but would also criticise “patriots” and nationalists. He did this because he thought Home Rule or an independent state was likely at some point and so these criticisms were a warning to the working class that the struggle must continue.
In contrast, in the period before the Rising he was trying to agitate on issues of nationality and was willing to bend the stick because he felt that that was the best way to increase the numbers involved in a rising, given that class struggle and the working class movement was at such a low ebb. That Connolly, in reality, did not believe an independent state was a possible outcome from the coming rising,also probably meant that he felt freer to forgo warnings about the dangers of nationalism. C. Desmond Greaves reports that a week before the Rising, after a lecture on street fighting and in the context of informing the members of the ICA of the Rising, Connolly said:
“The odds are a thousand to one against us. If we win, we’ll be great heroes, but if we lose we’ll be the greatest scoundrels the country has ever produced. In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.”
This comment (and the factthat Connolly ensured that the Starry Plough flag of socialism flew over William Martin Murphy’s Imperial Hotel during the Rising itself) shows that he maintained his basic position, but tellingly this statement was not made publically, just to the ICA. However, some in the ICA and the ITGWU had issues with the evolution of Connolly’s political position, his alliance with the IRB and his willingness to participate in a rising on the basis that he did. In Emmet O’Connor’sBig Jim Larkinbiography, it is reportedthat in late 1915 from America, aware of the possibility of a rising, Larkin sent a message to Connolly “not to move”. Activist and playwright, Sean O’Casey, also resigned from the ICA because he was opposed to the connection with the IRB, the Volunteers and nationalism.
In April 1916, the plan to raise the green flag over Liberty Hall in the weeks before the Rising wasn’t initially accepted in the ITGWU. It was opposed strongly at a meeting thatresulted in a second meeting. There the opposition continued even though Connolly indicated that he would resign as general secretary of the union if agreement couldn’t be reached. Ultimately a break was called in the meeting thatallowed for some private discussion and this resulted in the objection being withdrawn.
It is one thing to recognise that a stand against British Imperialism and for Irish freedom was progressive and a step forward. It is another thing to put your name to a document that, in the case of The Proclamation, you know is likely to become an important and historic document but which has no class or socialist analysis or content.
Some see The Proclamation as an aspirational document but it is all depends on your interpretation and where you are coming from. Ordinary people may see it as a promise of democratic rights and equality. It implies there is no class division or different class interests when it calls for the “establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland.”But while it aspires to the “common good”, there is nothing in it that would have challenged the existing model of private ownership of wealth. Given that private ownership inevitably leads to gross inequality, the people who would benefit most from the vagueness in The Proclamation would be the already existing rich and powerful, who Connolly had previously criticised mercilessly.
Although Connolly had a lifetime of socialist activity behind him, including often publicly stated socialist aims and objectives, this did not suffice in explaining to the wider working class his role and that of the ICA going into and during the Rising . It was a significant mistake that Connolly and the ICA did not produce and then disseminate their own public statement and programme during the Rising on the independent interests and goals of the working class and the need for socialist change. This lack of clarity and confusion has allowed all sorts of political forces that are in reality opposed to Connolly’s socialism to claim his mantle and distort his role.
Plans for the Rising go awry
Inorder to manoeuvre Volunteer President and Chief of Staff Eoin MacNeill to go along with the rising when it was to be publically declared, a Sinn Féin member of Dublin Corporation read out a document at a meeting on Monday 17 April that he said had come from Dublin Castle. This document said that the British Administration in Dublin was about to launch a major crackdown against the Volunteers, including arrests. This document, which some commentators say was likely the work of Military Council member Joseph Plunkett, may actually have raised the suspicions of MacNeill and other moderates, like Bulmer Hobson, who was actually a leading member of the IRB but didn’t agree with the idea of a rising.
Clearly they had a sense that something was afoot and on Tuesday 18 April, five days before the Rising, MacNeill and Hobson confronted Patrick Pearse at his home as to whether a rising was about to take place. In the course of the exchanges Pearse confirmed their fears.MacNeill then issued a countermanding order, cancelling all parades and manoeuvres for the coming Easter weekend that Pearse had already called. IRB leaders discussed with MacNeill and appealed to him, on the basis that a rising was going to go ahead in any case, not to act in a way that diminished it. He agreed to withdraw his countermand and so it seemed the plan was back in place.
However, when the word came through that the boat, The Aud, with the German arms shipment, had been scuttled by its captain as it was about to be apprehended by the Royal Navy, MacNeill changed his position again. On the night before the Rising was due to take place he sent orders around the country cancelling all mobilisations for the weekend. He also took out ads in Sunday papers to the same affect.
Amid this chaos, the Military Council whohad planned the Rising met in Liberty Hall on Sunday morning. They made the decision that the Rising would still go ahead. Instead of the original plan of 6.30pm on Sunday evening, it would now begin at noon on Monday 24 April, less than a day’s delay. They attempted to get word out as widelyas possible, but in the circumstances, mixed messages and confusion were inevitable.
It was fortunate that they didn’t delay any longer. If they had they would undoubtedly have been arrested as at the same time as the Rising started, word came toDublin Castle from London authorising their request to move against the rebels as the British state had information that a rising was imminent. If the Military Council had delayed even a few hours, their plans are likely to have been completely cut across.
William O’Brien witnessed the final preparations at Liberty Hall just before the Rising on Easter Monday morning:
“When I arrived there about 10am all was bustle and excitement. Large numbers of Volunteers and Citizen Army men were continually passing in and out. Quantities of ammunition and bombs were been taken out of the premises and loaded into cars and trucks…I went downstairs to get my bicycle. I found difficulty in getting it out owing to the large number passing out through the front door. While I waited an opportunity Connolly passed down the stairs and shook hands without speaking. As I cycled across Abbey Street I saw the Irish Republican troops breaking the windows of “Kelly’s for Bikes,” and dragging bicycles and motor-cycles across the street to form a barricade…The fight was on.”
[i] “Revolutionary Unionism and War (1915)”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1915/03/revunion.htm
[iii]Socialism and War:The Attitude of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party Towards the War