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Albert Gates

James Connolly, Irish Socialist Rebel

(June 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 5, June 1942, pp. 138-143.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.

One of the greatest figures of the international socialist movement and yet one of the least known, is James Connolly, who was, until his execution, the organizer and leader of the Irish socialist movement. The lives and works of the Continental and American socialist leaders and thinkers are rather well known to the old and new generations of revolutionary socialists. This is indeed a paradox, for James Connolly was one of the most talented of the socialist theoreticians of the new century. Unlike so many socialist thinkers, his theoretical work was not an end in itself, but corresponded to the requirements of the Irish labor and independence movements, i.e., to concrete revolutionary aims. It is not strange, therefore, that this great leader should have met his death in a rôle, regarded as romantic by those whose lives are completely intellectualized and cloistered, of commandant of the Irish Citizen Army, which he helped to organize for the concrete task of seizing power in Ireland and proclaiming the Irish Republic free and independent from British imperialism.

The life of James Connolly is not easy to assay, for the general pattern out of which judgment is drawn in analysing and describing the lives of other outstanding revolutionary socialists is, in this case, greatly complicated by the specific peculiarities of the country which gave birth to him. American and European socialist leaders grew up and developed in a bourgeois milieu of fully developed capitalism. At the turn of the century, the main processes of national unification in Europe were completed. Even the backward countries of the Continent were drawn into the vortex of bourgeois economy and became entirely dependent upon the welfare, the ebbs and flows of capitalism. Despite the intense nationalism engendered by the era of imperialism, it is possible to speak of European capitalism as connoting one sector of that universal order.

The reaction of the masses to the bitter exploitation which accompanied the rising power of industrial and finance capitalism led directly to the formation of the economic and political organizations of struggle of the proletariat and peasantry. Thus, by the year 1900, socialist and trade union organizations made their appearance in all of the advanced countries of the world. Certainly the trade union movement had already made its mark, and in most European countries the trade union movement, heavily indebted to the efforts of the socialist movement to establish it, remained under socialist influence.

While part of the general process of industrialization was visited upon Ireland, it was complicated, altered, influenced and diverted by the singular fact that Ireland was a colonial country, under the heel of British imperialism, for over seven hundred years. As a predominantly peasant country, it had experienced the ravages of an industrialization introduced by a foreign power, but in agriculture and industry the overlords were interlopers from the center of the empire, England.

As a Young Socialist

James Connolly was born near Cloves, County Monaghan, in Northern Ireland, on June 5, 1870. [1] His proletarian family migrated to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1880 in the hope of improving their economic position. It was there that Connolly first began to work in the printing trade. Under age (he was scarcely more than ten) and undersized, he and his conniving boss would outwit government inspectors by having him placed on a box, which permitted him to peer over the type cases, giving the illusion of height and age. A more wily inspector caused his discharge and he thereafter became a baker’s apprentice, an occupation which he dreaded. The early morning hours and long days of labor made him always dream and hope that the bakery would burn before his day’s work began. From the baking trade he drifted into a mosaic tiling factory to learn another type of work.

During the entire period of his early youth and adolescence, Connolly was an indefatigable student who educated himself. He studied languages, history and economics and at an early age became active in the Scottish socialist movement. John Leslie, the Scottish socialist, greatly influenced the young Irishman and it was he who prevailed upon Connolly to return to Ireland to organize an Irish socialist movement. In 1896, at the age of 26, James Connolly, with his newly married wife, arrived in Dublin, where he was to embark on a career of socialist agitation and organization destined to culminate in the great Easter Rebellion of 1916.

A Resumé History of Ireland

Before one is able to evaluate the life and rôle of James Connolly it is an indispensable requirement to trace, no matter how briefly, the historical development of Ireland. Only by such a review will one be enabled to understand the “peculiarities” of Connolly’s ideas, his writings and his deeds.

Ireland was the oldest colonial possession in the world, having been subjected by the British as early as the 12th century. English domination of the island was not accomplished at once. The Irish clans were a fighting people and for more than 500 years they resisted the occupation of their island by the Norman and Anglo-Saxon marauders. But each successive revolt was brutally suppressed. The struggles became weaker and weaker, while the power of the invader grew. Finally, in 1798, the last great revolt was crushed. In 1801 the forced union of England and Ireland was “legally” established under the Crown.

The multiplying decades of the 19th century witnessed the painful spoliation of that beautiful country by British landlordism. The communal lands of the Irish peasants were long ago destroyed. The land, which for many centuries had belonged to the people, was now in the hands of foreign landlords, native landowners who made their peace with the invader and who helped him in his conquest, and the Catholic Church, which played its usual insidious rôle in support of the enslavement of a people which had followed its religion. (It was Connolly’s opinion that the Church had hoped by this union to bring about a return of Catholicism to England. It therefore supported any and all indignities heaped upon the Irish people.)

The economic reasons behind the terrifying exploitation of the Irish peasantry is to be found in the profitability of cattle raising and breeding in the latter half of the 18th century. It was this single fact which led the British conquerors to uproot the many-sided agricultural production of the Irish peasant and to reduce it to a secondary position in the island’s economy. Ground landlords fenced in small farms to form large grazing farms, including the commons. Small farmers lost their means of existence. (See M. Beer, History of British Socialism, vol. 1.) This annihilation of the Irish peasantry gave rise to a multitude of organizations, all basing themselves on the necessity of unending struggle against England, for the restoration of the farming lands to the peasants and for the restoration of Irish independence.

The destruction of the farm lands in favor of grazing pastures usurped by the rich gave rise to the formation of the “Whiteboys.” This organization, which existed until about 1830, employed violence in the struggle against the great landlords, tearing down the fences which had marked off the lands of the conquerors. They had hoped to reestablish the peasant ownership of the land.

There, in brief, is the background to the situation which brought about a change of relations between a section of the Irish Protestants and Catholics. More and more they joined hands in a common struggle against England. They were influenced by the radical movement in England, by the American War of Independence and by the French Revolution. The Protestant Irish furnished many thinkers and leaders for the insurrectionary struggle against England. In October 1791, they formed the United Irishmen, sent messages to Rousseau, Thomas Paine and Locke, contacted the London Corresponding Society and conspired with the French government to free Ireland. But their insurrection failed, too.

For the next fifty years, the Irish continued to struggle against hopeless odds. But the destruction of then- agriculture, the exploitation and impoverishment of the entire population in order to enrich the British, led to successive famines and physical deterioration of the race. As in Britain, during the “industrial revolution,” the British ruling classes and progenitors of the present British aristocracy were interested in only one thing: profit. The treatment of the Irish people left the world aghast.

World Interest in Ireland’s Plight

It was not merely a question of the brutality of English rule in Ireland. The movement of liberalism, which made its appearance under various guises, the new labor organizations, the socialists, at the head of whom stood Marx and Engels, were all interested in the struggles of the Irish people for their liberation, as a social question of paramount importance for all the peoples of the world. This is not difficult to understand, for England, the most powerful industrial nation in the world, was setting the pattern for future imperialist conquest as it set the pace for industrial exploitation.

The chartist movement of England was also involved in the movement for Irish freedom. While there was no chartist movement in Ireland, with its poor and backward proletariat, it was that country which gave chartism its greatest orator in Feargus O’Connor, and in “most trenchant writer” in Bronterre O’Brien. These individuals focused the attention of the British workers on the Irish question. The intensity of the struggle for the island’s freedom led to the second national petition of the chartist movement, issued April 12 to May 12, 1842, and signed by 3,313,758 workers. The document declared:

Your petitioners complain of the many grievances borne by the people of Ireland and contend that they are fully entitled to a repeal of the legislative union. (History of British Socialism, by M. Beer; vol. 2, p. 130)

Only the Scottish and London delegates opposed the inclusion of a demand for repeal of the forced union upon Ireland.

Marx and Engels on Ireland

Friedrich Engels, who visited Ireland several times to gain a first-hand knowledge of conditions on the Island, wrote a great deal on the nature of the British conquest. He described the effect of British exploitation of the Irish people in stirring detail and won Marx’s deep interest in the question which, during their lifetime, was constantly brought before the British labor movement and the First International.

In a letter to Marx dated May 23, 1856, Engels graphically described the painful conditions in Ireland in the following way:

Gendarmes, priests, lawyers, bureaucrats, squires, in pleasing profusion and a total absence of any and every industry, so that it would be difficult to understand what all these parasitic growths found to live on if the misery of the peasants did not supply the other half of the picture.

Ireland may be regarded as the first English colony and as one which because of its proximity is still governed exactly in the old way, and here one can already observe that the so-called liberty of English citizens is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarme in any country, and the drink-sodden expression of the Prussian gendarme is developed to its highest perfection here among the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.

The country has been completely ruined by the English wars of conquest from 1100 to 1850 (for in reality both the war and the state of siege lasted as long as that). How often have the Irish started to try and achieve something, and every time they have been crushed, politically and industrially. (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Correspondence, 1846–1895)

In contrast to the host of “friends” of Ireland, Marx and Engels approached the question of her liberation from a class point of view. They saw the struggle for Irish freedom as an integral part of the struggle against capitalism, against all forms of exploitation, as part of the liberative struggle for the emancipation of all humanity and as a forerunner in the struggle for socialism. On the basis of their observations, the founders of scientific socialism knew that the Irish would continue to fight for freedom no matter how many defeats they suffered. It was this conviction which led Marx to say in a letter of November 2, 1867, to Engels:

I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. I now think it is inevitable. (Marx-Engels, Correspondence, p. 228.)

Several weeks later we find Marx, still occupied with the Irish question, writing to Engels on the needs of the island and saying:

The next question is, what shall we advise the English workers? In my opinion they must make the repeal of the Union (in short the affair of 1783, only democratized and adapted to the conditions of the time) into an article of their pronunziamento ... What the Irish need it:

(1) Self-government and independence from England.

(2) An agrarian revolution. With the best will in the world the English cannot accomplish this for them, but they can give them the legal means of accomplishing it for themselves ... (Marx-Engels, Correspondence, p. 229)

Marx and Engels endeavored to orient the British working class movement to struggle for Irish freedom, without which they could not hope to achieve their own emancipation. On November 29, 1869, writing from London, Marx said to his friend Kugelmann:

I have become more and more convinced – and the only question is to bring this conviction home to the English working class – that it can never do anything decisive here in England until it separates its policy with regard to Ireland in the most definite way from the policy of the ruling classes, until it not only makes common cause with the Irish but actually takes the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801 and replacing it by a free federal relationship. And, indeed, this must be done, not as a matter of sympathy with Ireland, but as a demand made in the interests of the English proletariat. If not, the English people will remain tied to the leading-strings of the ruling classes, because it must join them in a common front against Ireland. Every one of its movements in England itself is crippled by the disunion with the Irish, who form a very important section of the working class in England. The primary condition of emancipation here – the overthrow of the English landed oligarchy – remains impossible because its position here cannot be stormed so long as it maintains its strongly entrenched outposts in Ireland. (Marx-Engels, Correspondence, pp. 278–279)

A further illustration of how keenly Marx regarded the Irish question, especially when considering the question of freedom o£ the English workers, is his letter to Engels of December 10, 1869. He wrote:

As to the Irish question ... The way I shall put forward the matter next Tuesday [meeting of the general council of the International] is this: that quite apart from all phrases about “international” and “humane” justice for Ireland – which are to be taken for granted in the International Council – it is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland. And this is my most complete conviction and for reasons which in part I cannot tell the English workers themselves. For a long time I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always expressed this point of view in the New York Tribune, Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general. (Marx-Engels, Correspondence, pp. 280–281)

The Arrival of Connolly in Ireland

No great progress was made in the liberation of Ireland during the 19th century. There was no lack of struggles, however. Sinn Feinianism, despite heroic campaigns against British imperialism, was defeated at all decisive turns of the struggle. The Feinian organization [2], a petty bourgeois “socialistic” movement, vainly sought the establishment of a republic and the overthrow of the tenant system. The story is the same when one examines the history of the Irish Land League. Their self-sacrificing battles were unavailing. No small reason for these defeats, although by no means the principal one, was the absence of a clear social doctrine around which these purely nationalist movements could grow and join their struggle to those of other oppressed peoples against common exploiters.

The first effort to turn the Irish people in other directions was made by James Connolly. As a Marxian socialist he sought to combine the nationalist aims of the Irish people with socialist theory, toward economic, political and social emancipation. Thus, he came to Ireland in 1896 with the single purpose of establishing a socialist organization to accomplish the freedom of the Irish people.

Immediately upon his arrival on the island he proceeded to form the Irish Socialist Republican Party. Note the name he gave to the party. It was his way of surmounting the obstacles which a socialist organization inevitably encounters in a country where nationalism is the dominant spirit. As he often said, he sought a union of genuine nationalism to socialist theory and practice on the ground that they were compatible under Irish conditions. The program of the Irish Socialist Republican Party written by him with the above in mind, he summarized as follows:

The establishment of an Irish socialist republic based upon the public ownership by the people of Ireland of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange. Agriculture to be administered as a public function, under boards of management elected by the agricultural population and responsible to them and to the nation at large. All other forms of labor necessary to the well-being of the community to be conducted on the same principles. (The Irish Labor Movement, by W.P. Ryan, p. 166)

The demands he appended to the program, and which exclusively applied to Ireland, are not unlike those propagated by the Fourth Internationalist movement of the present era.

In organizing an Irish socialist movement, he began a campaign against the “politicians” and “nationalists” who were conservative on the question of property and who opposed every effort of the proletariat to improve its economic and social position. Realizing the tremendous obstacles which pure nationalism created in the building of the party, he always insisted on posing the social as well as the nationalist aspects of Ireland’s struggle – its completely dual character. In an introduction to Erin’s Hope, reprinted in the Harp Library, he summarizes his view of the Irish question in the following words:

The ISRP was founded in Dublin in 1896 by a few workingmen whom the writer had succeeded in interesting in his proposition that the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland – the socialist and the national – were not antagonistic but complementary, and that the Irish socialist was in reality the best Irish patriot, but in order to convince the Irish people of that fact he must rest his arguments upon the facts of Irish history and be champion against the subjection of Ireland and all that it implies. That the Irish question was at bottom an economic question and that the economic struggle must first be able to function freely nationally before it could function internationally, and as socialists were opposed to all oppression, so should they ever be foremost in the daily battle against all its manifestations, social and political. (Ibid., p. 169)

The First Appearance of Socialism

The early years of the Irish socialist movement were extremely difficult. In this sense, the organization merely experienced the same problems of poverty, isolation and opposition which always characterized the history of other socialist movements originating under identical conditions.

Connolly was its single functionary. He was its theoretician, political director, agitator and writer. As a pioneer movement, all menial tasks of party organization fell upon his shoulders. But these he accepted with infectious cheerfulness and discharged them all with high spirit.

In pursuit of the single aim of establishing a Marxian socialist party and yet combining its theories with the revolutionary traditions of Irish nationalism, he based himself upon the experiences and struggle of Wolfe Tone and James Fintan Lalor. But always the appeal was directly to the Irish working class as the one section of the Irish people which could lead the struggle for freedom.

During the Boer War, the party, under Connolly’s leadership, opposed British imperialism and announced its support of the Dutch settlers. On the occasion of Queen Victoria’s visit to Dublin in 1900, he sought to address the people in the streets, attacking Her Majesty’s government. Despite arrest, he maintained an anti-imperialist agitation in the columns of the Workers Republic, the organ of the Irish Socialist Republican Party which first appeared in 1898.

The issuance of the paper was a difficult task. Beginning in 1898, it ran for eleven numbers and then stopped. Publication was resumed in 1899 and it continued irregularly until 1903, when it ceased altogether. Its final reappearance came in 1915, the crucial years of the Irish struggle, and the final issue was the eighty-fifth in its lifespan.

The backwardness of Ireland and the problems it created in building a socialist movement was strikingly described by Connolly in his introduction to the American edition of Erin’s Hope. But its accomplishments were unmistakable:

It is no exaggeration to say that this organization and its policy completely revolutionized advanced politics in Ireland. When it was first initiated the word “republic” was looked upon as a word to be only whispered among intimates; the socialists boldly advised the driving from public life of all who would not accept it. The thought of revolution was the exclusive possession of a few remnants of the secret societies of a past generation and was never mentioned by them except with heads closely together and eyes fearfully glancing round; the socialists broke through this ridiculous secrecy and in hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature scattered through the country announced their purpose to muster all the forces of labor for a revolutionary reconstruction.

Life in the United States

In 1903, Connolly was invited to the United States for a lecture tour. The fortunes of the party in Ireland were indeed low and he had hoped through his tour to win interest and support from the American socialist movement and the militant Irish who migrated to the New World. His return to Ireland was short-lived. The progress of the movement was indeed slow and discouraging. When disintegration followed and Connolly found himself blacklisted throughout Ireland, he decided to take his family to the United States.

While in the United States he worked as an insurance agent in Troy and factory hand in Newark. But these jobs were merely interludes until he could once again resume his full-time work for socialism. His activity and agitation for socialism always led to a search for new means of employment. In the fluid state of the political movement of the American working class, he, like so many others, was a member of the IWW, the Socialist Labor Party and finally the Socialist Party. In 1908 he moved to New York City to take up his duties as the organizer of the Irish Socialist Federation and editor of its paper, The Harp. Each new venture meant additional problems of moving his family, which now included three daughters and one boy. But there were no family difficulties, for it seemed that everyone in the Connolly household was as much concerned with the building of the movement and Jim’s activities as he himself.

Internationalist though he was, the problem of the Irish revolution was to him paramount. Even his work among the American Irish bore the influence of the problems of the homeland. In his advice to them, he wrote in The Harp, in 1908:

We propose to show all the workers of our fighting race that socialism will make them better fighters without being less Irish; we propose to advise the Irish who are socialists now to organize their forces as Irish and get again in touch with the organized bodies of literary, educational and revolutionary Irish; we propose to make a campaign among our countrymen and to rely for our method mainly on imparting to them a correct interpretation of the facts of Irish history, past and present; we propose to take control of the Irish vote out of the hands of the slimy seoiníní, who use it to boost their political and business interests, to the undoing of the Irish as well as the American toiler.

There is a great similarity in the conduct of Connolly during his stay in the United States and that of the Bolsheviks in exile. While he carried on a literary and speaking campaign to advance the socialist movement and industrial union, ism in America, his real interest was Ireland and the development of the Irish revolution. As a matter of fact, Connolly never once regarded his migration to the United States as anything permanent. And when the labor movement in Ireland began to manifest a new restlessness, when new forces made their appearance, when the objective situation became more tense, his return to Ireland was only a matter of days.

Connolly’s Return to Ireland

Again, in 1910, the Connolly family was on the move; they returned to Dublin. The Harp was transferred with them and now Connolly found a sub-editor in old Jim Larkin and their cooperation marked one of the brightest periods in Irish history.

Upon his return to Ireland, Connolly embarked on a new tactic of cooperation with any militant nationalists for Irish freedom, whether or not they were socialists. The single thought behind this tactic was the realization of the need for the involvement of all elements of the Irish nation for the coming revolution which he regarded as inevitable!

He now organized the Irish Socialist Party and became a member of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which Jim Larkin had established. In this period, Connolly regarded the unionization of the Irish working class as indispensable to the accomplishment of the Irish liberation and together with Larkin insisted that this unionization must be carried out on an industrial basis. Membership in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union was open to all who toiled and it was this single fact which was responsible for the rapid growth of militant trade unionism. From that moment, the tide of the class struggle moved on unabated.

The growth of the union struck fear in the hearts of the Irish bourgeoisie, whose existence was based upon cooperation with England. They were determined to smash the proletarian organizations lest they become so powerful that nothing could impede their road to power. In the several years since Connolly’s return, he carried on an uninterrupted agitation for the Irish rebellion, not merely as a struggle for nationalist liberation, but as a social revolution. It was this singular fact that led the Dublin employers in 1913 to combine their resources and strength for the purpose of destroying the Transport and General Workers Union. If they could succeed in this, “Connollyism,” i.e., Larkin’s militancy and Connolly’s doctrine of industrial unionism, would be rendered helpless. [3]

The Offensive of the Bourgeoisie

The Dublin employers announced a lockout against the working class of the city. In retaliation the union declared a strike against the employers. The importation of strike-breakers was a direct demonstration that the bosses were determined to starve the organized workers into submission in a situation where the liquidation of the union and the dismissal of its leaders were demanded.

Connolly was no cloistered theoretician of Irish independence. He was an active participant in the strike and shortly afterward was arrested. As a protest against the action of the employers and their government, Connolly went on a hunger strike. This act had the effect of gaining widespread sympathy and support, finally reaching the shores of England and enlisting the aid of the workers there.

The real culprit behind the Dublin employers was the British government. It understood the deep significance of Connolly’s activities and saw in the union the material source for the realization of Irish independence. That is why the rulers of Ireland were always so vicious and adamant in any struggle involving the working class. Connolly had with some degree of success taught the most advanced elements of the Irish people that then: struggle for independence was linked to the class struggle, that every act in behalf of an improvement of the position of the working class would hasten by the degree of that improvement the independence of their country. So that, even though the workers suffered a defeat in struggles of 1913, they were prepared by those battles for the more fateful days of 1916.

The Formation of the Irish Citizen Army

At a time when war threatened Europe’s peace, with England being inevitably drawn into the conflict and occupied with the problem of defending its empire, and out of the strike which had fired the determination of the workers to struggle, there arose the Irish Citizen Army. The formation of the army on March 22, 1914, under the ideological leadership of James Connolly, marked a turning point in modern Irish history. The twofold purpose of the army was heralded throughout the island: it was to defend the workers, the people, against the brutality of the bosses, landlords and the British; it was to organize the armed struggle for independence!

The Irish Citizen Army began at once to grow. At its head stood Connolly, the Countess Markievicz, W. Partridge, P.T. Daly, Sean O’Cathasaigh [4] and the venerable Captain White, who directed its military training. The army could be seen daily in Croydon Park taking its drills and marching through Dublin’s streets. Its headquarters was at Liberty Hall, which housed the Transport and General Workers Union.

In the midst of a revolutionary internal situation which threatened to assume proportions of a social upheaval, the First World War broke out on the Continent. The war did not come as a surprise to Connolly and his closest followers. But he was sadly affected by the manner in which the Socialist International, of which he was an adherent, betrayed its principles of proletarian internationalism and class solidarity. The wretched conduct of the parties of the International, wherein the leadership of the national sections, in a frenzied wave of social patriotism, rallied to the support of their imperialist governments, drove Connolly deeper into the Irish movement.

Connolly remained, nonetheless, an impeccable revolutionary internationalist. His life in this period served as an answer to the craven reformists in all countries. His attitude toward the war was acute and was stated in simple terms. He regarded the war as imperialist and deplored the bloodbath of the proletariat. If one must die, he would say, it would be better to die for a new world than in the trenches of an imperialist war in the interests of tyrants and profiteers.

On August 15, 1914, in the article A Continental Revolution, he counseled the Irish people to continue the fight for independence, to utilize Britain’s involvement in the hostilities to secure this freedom. One can observe from his writings a feverish haste to quickly achieve this freedom. All his writings were now devoted to orienting the Irish people toward a struggle for power. In the above mentioned article he wrote:

I make no war on patriotism, never have done. But against the patriotism of capitalism – the patriotism – which makes the interest of capitalism the supreme test of right and duty – I place the patriotism of the working class, the patriotism which judges every public act by its effect on the fortunes of those who toil. That which is good for the working class I esteem patriotic ... I regard each nation as the possessor of a definite contribution to the common stock of civilization, and I regard the capitalist class of each nation as being the logical and natural enemy of the national culture which constitutes that definite contribution. Therefore, the stronger I am in my affection for national tradition, literature, language and sympathies, the more firmly rooted am I in my opposition to that capitalist class which in its soulless lust for power and gold would bronze the nation as in a mortar.

And this was not mere rhetoric. He meant every word he wrote. He brilliantly explained his political program from week to week and from month to month, until the dash of arms became the reality which determined who would rule his nation. On August 22, 1914, in Forward, he wrote:

The war of a subject nation for independence, for its right to live its own life in its own way, may and can be justified as holy and righteous; the war of a subject class to free itself from the debasing conditions of economic and political slavery should at all times choose its own weapons and esteem all as sacred instruments of righteousness; but the war of nation against nation in the interest of royal freebooters and cosmopolitan brigands is a thing accursed.

The brilliance of his dialectics stood out in a world of confusion and chaos. His work and his writings matched the efforts of the small band of internationalists in Switzerland who were also engaged in the great struggle for liberation from capitalism and imperialist war. But the heroism of Connolly is all the more remarkable in that his development and work took place in isolation from his ideological comrades in Switzerland and other parts of Europe. Yet their writings, thoughts and actions were identical. This is not difficult to understand since they all proceeded from the same set of principles, the theories of Marxism.

As a man of action Connolly was able to translate theory into practice and, more important than that, to apply to the specific conditions under which he lived, the most trenchant thoughts of Marx and Engels. Having already characterized the war in Europe as imperialist, he proceeded to concretize his analysis for the purpose of directing the Irish labor movement toward the insurrectionary struggle for national liberation. Thus he wrote:

The true revolutionist should ever call into action on his side the entire sum of all the forces and factors of political and social discontent.

We believe that in times of peace we should work along the lines of peace to strengthen the nation ... but we also believe that in times of war we should act as in war.

Moreover, he viewed the Irish Revolution, not as an isolated act of an oppressed people, but as a forerunner and as part of the international, colonial and class revolution for freedom. He wrote:

Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not bum out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture are shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.

Both 1914 and 1915 were preparatory years for what Connolly regarded as a certainty: the military struggle for national independence. The fortunes of the Irish Citizen Army were varied. The class conflict became more intense as the war worsened the economic conditions of the people as a whole and the tremendous dissatisfaction of the people, arising from their poverty, stood out in sharp contrast to the well-being of the Irish upper classes and their English overlords. The army continued its drilling for battle. Arms were procured. Under Connolly the aim of the movement was made public: The union and the army were preparing to seize power, to establish the republic and proclaim the separation of Ireland from England, to set up the United Irish Republic.

The Inevitability of a Clash

But the Irish people were not alone in their preparations. The ruling classes, in their desperate fright, called upon the British for aid and this aid came in the form of armed battalions with superior weapons. As Easter 1916 approached, a clash was inevitable! Here the movement was faced with a choice: Either surrender without a struggle and thus postpone the fight for national independence for many decades or prepare for the struggle, no matter what the consequence might be, in the hope that the commencement of the fight for freedom might impel such a momentous conflict as would result in freedom for Ireland.

Connolly fully understood the dilemma which confronted his movement. He knew that the failure to fight would result in the disintegration of the entire movement for liberation. A split in the Volunteers, the conservative middle class military organization for Irish independence, made possible collaboration with its militant majority under the leadership of P.H. Pearse. In the few days of doubt, Connolly supplied the leadership and reminded the population of what he had written in his three-act play which explained why it was necessary for the movement to fight. He wrote:

The Irish Citizen Army in its constitution pledges its members to fight for a republican freedom for Ireland. Its members are, therefore, of the number who believe that at the call of duty they may have to lay down their lives for Ireland, and have so trained themselves that at the worst the laying down of their lives shall constitute the starting point of another glorious tradition – a tradition that will keep alive the soul of the nation.

The fateful week of Easter 1916 had arrived. The ruling classes had gone over to the offensive, seeking to wipe out the Citizen Army and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Jim Larkin, who was in the United States to raise funds and material support for the army, was prevented from returning to Ireland by the authorities. It is not difficult to surmise at whose request this refusal was granted. But the situation would not wait. The question was no longer: shall we fight or retreat? In the situation where surrender meant annihilation, only one course remained: wage the fight in the hope of victory, or, at worst, keep alive the revolutionary traditions of the Irish struggle for independence. The choice was not difficult to foresee. Connolly was keenly aware of the historic import of the situation and in his position of commandant called for the mobilization of the army, mapped the campaign for the occupation of Dublin and began to rally the workers to paralyze the efficiency of the ruling class to resist.

Bourgeois Desperation and the Easter Rebellion

The battle broke out with the army under Connolly seizing various parts of central Dublin and occupying the main post office. [5] For one week the Dublin proletariat kept up its heroic fight against overwhelming military odds. Remnants of the army were being rounded up and finally the British surrounded the post office, which housed the squadrons under Connolly’s command. The fight was a bitter one. Many of his closest friends and collaborators had given up their lives in this monumental demonstration against class and national oppression. And Connolly, too, was critically wounded and suffering from the excessive loss of blood. Constant shelling and the desire to save his men compelled him to surrender.

The aftermath was dreadful to behold. The bloody British tyrants proceeded to wreak their vengeance on the small band of faithfuls. All the leading personalities were sought out and indicted for taking arms against His Majesty’s government. And while some amnesties were granted, the real leaders, especially Connolly, were doomed. World-wide protests in behalf of the revolutionists were unavailing. Special intercessions in behalf of Connolly were rejected. The royal government demanded his life and his life it took. On Easter Sunday 1916 the wounded Connolly, unable to stand or walk, was wheeled out in a chair to face his executioners. [6] This great and good man was serene and composed in the knowledge that even though he lost, the battles were not over and victory would yet come.

And so the riflemen took aim at this glorious proletarian martyr as he sat in a chair, propped up to make the aim easier and his death certain. At the command of the executioner, the Irish people lost their greatest figure of the twentieth century and the world socialist movement was deprived of one of its most engaging theoreticians and leaders.

* * *

In Defense of the Irish Martyrs

A great deal has been written on the Irish rebellion deploring the road taken by Connolly. To many it is unthinkable that such an astute person could have gone into the battle against insurmountable odds. Yet they do not truly understand Ireland, its revolutionary traditions, nor needs of the world movement of proletarian emancipation. For there is no doubt that the Easter Rebellion was one of the decisive elements which led to the subsequent spurious independence granted to Ireland, an independence which divided the island on religious grounds (actually to preserve British interests).

In his analysis and defense of the Irish Rebellion, Lenin demonstrated that the immaturity of the revolt was an immaturity based on the fact that the European proletariat failed to respond to the lead given it by Connolly and his movement. But beyond that Lenin very aptly places the Rebellion in its proper historical place. In the article, The Results of the Discussion on Self-Determination, contained in the book, Against the Stream, he wrote:

Those who can term such a rising a putsch are either the worst kind of reactionaries or hopelessly doctrinaire, incapable of imagining the social revolution as a living phenomenon ... The misfortune of the Irish lay in the fact that their rising was untimely, since the rising of the European proletariat was not yet ripe. Capitalism is not so harmoniously constructed that separate sources of risings can suddenly unite without failure of overthrow. On the contrary, the difference in time, the difference and dissimilarity in the place of the risings act as a guarantee for the greatness and depth of the joint movement; it is only by untimely, partially and consequently unsuccessful attempts at revolutionary risings that the masses will again experience, learn, assemble their forces, recognize their true leaders, the socialist proletarians, and thereby prepare the joint attack; just as isolated strikes, town and national demonstrations, mutinies in the army, peasant uprisings, etc., prepared the general attack in 1905.

That Connolly understood the meaning of Lenin’s position is clear from the manner in which he prepared the Irish rebellion and explained its relation to an impending European revolution. Certainly there was something peculiarly Irish in the determination with which he pursued his single aim. As an admirer and interpreter of James Fintan Lalor he must have known of and accepted Lalor’s defense of the many defeated Irish rebellions when the latter wrote:

Any man who tells you that an act of armed resistance – even if offered by ten men only – even if offered by men armed only with stones – any man who tells you that such an act of resistance is premature, imprudent or dangerous – any and every such man should at once be spurned and spat at. For, remark you this and recollect it, that somewhere, and somehow, and by somebody, a beginning must be made and that the first act of resistance is always, and must be ever, premature, imprudent and dangerous. Lexington was premature, Bunker’s Hill was imprudent, and even Trenton was dangerous.

I have tried, in this brief sketch, to compress a study of the life of James Connolly. Mindful of its many shortcomings, it is hoped that it may serve toward a better acquaintance with one of the truly heroic figures of the international working class movement in the struggle for socialism.

Footnotes by ETOL

Unfortunately there are a number of factual errors in this account of James Connolly’s life. The first proper biographies of Connolly only appeared in the 1960s – before that most of the information available on Connolly was largely anecdotal.

1. “Cloves” should probably be “Clones” and Co. Monaghan is in the northern province Ulster, but has never been part of the political entity known as “Northern Ireland”. Connolly’s birth certificate shows that he was born in the Cowgate district of Edinburgh on June 5, 1868. On the census returns for 1901 and 1911 Connolly gives his place of birth as Co. Monaghan. This may be because he had deserted from the British Army and wanted to conceal the connection between himself and the former soldier.

2. Gates is here confusing the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as the Fenians, with Sinn Fein. The IRB was a secret society founded by James Stephens in 1858 and dedicated to the establishment of an independent democratic republic in Ireland. Sinn Fein was a political party founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905. Initially it aspired to the creation of a dual monarchy on the Austro-Hungarian model. After the 1916 rising it became the vehicle for the independence struggle. During Connolly’s lifetime it was a relatively small organization and Connolly was quite hostile toward both Griffith and Sinn Fein.

3. The unionization campaign in Dublin was actually known as “Larkinism”. When he arrived back in Ireland Connolly was actually based in Belfast as organizer of the Irish Transport & General Workers Union, which has been founded by Larkin in 1909 during Connolly’s period in America. Connolly only came to Dublin after the Dublin Lockout had already started when Larkin had been arrested. Larkin was already a promoter of industrial unionism before Connolly’s arrival back in Ireland.

4. Better known today as the socialist playwright Sean O’Casey.

5. The bulk of the participants in the rising came from the Irish Volunteers. Connolly was appointed commander of the Irish Republican Army which consisted of both the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers.

6. Connolly was executed on May 12th, 1916 – the last of the leaders to be shot. Initially the rising had been planned for Easter Sunday, April 23rd, 1916, but actually started on the following day.

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Last updated on 28 December 2014