Tuesday, May 09, 2017

James Connolly

Born a mile or so from where I was brought up, James Connolly was indeed a complex, complicated and contradictory figure but I have no trouble describing Connolly as a Marxist - but I would have to qualify it by adding that he was a very mistaken one.
Connolly's ideas were not fixed and they did evolve... He was also a member of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League (which merged to form the Scottish Socialist Federation), SLP of America and then the Socialist Party of America. He was one of the founders of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, then the Irish Socialist Federation and next,  the Socialist Party of Ireland and later the Irish Labour Party.
He of course then died “Commandant-General Connolly of the Dublin Division of the Irish Republican Army”.
Connolly contended that religious faith and nationalist politics were compatible with the objective of establishing socialism. The creation of the Irish Republic has demonstrated all too clearly that a nation run by priests and armed by police and soldiers little different from the British variety is no step forward for the working class. All that Connolly's mistaken association of the concepts of nationalism and socialism has done has been to add to the confusion in working-class minds about what socialists really stand for. In practical terms, it has served to alienate the non-Roman Catholic, non-nationalistic Irish workers (many of them active in the trade unions) from anything they imagine to be socialist politics.
Yet he could write:
“Ireland as distinct from her people is nothing to me; and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland’ and yet can pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and suffering and the shame and the degradation wrought upon the people of Ireland: aye, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women without burning to end it, is a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’”. 'The Coming Generation' 1900
He thought that the Catholic Church for its own opportunistic reasons would come on-side
"...the man who imagines that in the supreme hour of the proletarian struggle for victory the Church will definitely line up with the forces of capitalism, and pledge her very existence as a Church upon the hazardous chance of the capitalists winning, simply does not understand the first thing about the policy of the Church in the social or political revolutions of the past. Just as in Ireland the Church denounced every Irish revolutionary movement in its day of activity, as in 1798, 1848 and 1867, and yet allowed its priests to deliver speeches in eulogy of the active spirits of those movements a generation afterwards, so in the future the Church, which has its hand close upon the pulse of human society, when it realises that the cause of capitalism is a lost cause it will find excuse enough to allow freedom of speech and expression to those lowly priests whose socialist declarations it will then use to cover and hide the absolute anti-socialism of the Roman Propaganda. When that day comes the Papal Encyclical against socialism will be conveniently forgotten by the Papal historians, and and the socialist utterances, of the von Kettelers, the McGlynns, and McGradys will be heralded forth and the communistic utterances of the early fathers as proofs of Catholic sympathy with progressive ideas. Thus it has been in the past. Thus it will be..."
He certainly wasn’t anti-political action and an anti-parliamentarian declaring after the IWW 1908 deletion of the political clause “just try and stop the workers taking it” He expanded this:
"I am inclined to ask all and sundry amongst our comrades if there is any necessity for this presumption of antagonism between the industrialist and the political advocate of socialism. I cannot see any. I believe that such supposed necessity only exists in the minds of the mere theorists or doctrinaires. The practical fighter in the work-a-day world makes no such distinction. He fights, and he votes; he votes and he fights. He may not always, he does not always, vote right; nor yet does he always fight when and as he should. But I do not see that his failure to vote right is to be construed into a reason for advising him not to vote at all; nor yet why a failure to strike properly should be used as a gibe at the strike weapon, and a reason for advising him to place his whole reliance upon votes."
He did indeed oppose the First World War but began to express certain pro-German sentiments during it. For instance, in the speech above in October 1914 he was reported as saying that "Germany was fighting for the commerce of the seas and for the means of building up a sane civilisation in Europe" and, a month later, wrote that "in this attack upon Germany it [the Irish working class] sees an attack upon the nation whose working class had advanced nearest to the capture of the citadels of capitalism" (Irish Worker, 21 November 1914).
The labour movement and working-class unity were the real victims of the 1916 Dublin Rising by subordinating their class interests to the nationalist interests of the capitalist. After one week of fighting, the 1916 Dublin Uprising was bloodily suppressed. Lacking any real basis of support, the insurgents did not have the slightest chance of victory. Connolly was wrong when he thought that it would ignite the class movement in Europe. The idea that any group of workers can be incited into action by heroic example and martyrdom is a false one. We have the 1921 March Action and the 1923 uprising in Germany for further proof of that.
Why he allied himself with the very nationalists who had opposed him during the Dublin Lock-out and with such a dangerous romantic as Patrick Pearse is all speculation. Was it the disillusionment of the failure of the 2nd International to stop the war that spurred him to make a blood sacrifice as some call the suicidal uprising (there is, of course, a contrary argument that if it had gone to plan it could very well have succeeded, but that’s another debate).
But we can see the futility fo the working class in Ireland.
There have been 29 general elections to the Dàil, Ireland’s parliament, since independence. Ireland’s Labour Party have won precisely none. When socialism goes up against nationalism in a country where all civic politics is about the nation, then Labour doesn’t stand a chance. Eamon de Valera’s specific strategy – was to smother the Labour movement in the embrace of Fianna Fáil. His nationalist party talked the language of social democracy with enough rhetoric to rob Labour of a distinctive voice, while never delivering the goods. Connolly used his charismatic authority as a party leader, and a trade union organiser, to drag his men behind him. He ignored criticism from the other leaders of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union because his sights were set on action, no matter how futile. A large section of the of the workers’ movement was destroyed and into the vacuum stepped in bourgeois opportunists ready to lavish praise Connolly, in order to divert the working class struggle.
Those who advocate alliances between the workers’ organisations and pro-capitalist political parties on the basis of Connolly’s participation in Tthe 1916 rising should heed the consequences. Connolly himself ignored his own advice. On January 22, 1916 he made a statement:
“The labour movement is like no other movement. Its strength lies in being like no other movement. It is never so strong as when it stands alone.”
Post-war Ireland saw the Limerick Soviet in the south and, in the north, the Belfast 40-Hour Strike where “Bolsheviks and Sinn Feiners” were leading astray many “good loyalist protestants” to the dismay of the Orange Lodge, where the composition of the strike committee was a majority of Protestant, but the chairman was a Catholic. Sectarianism was being challenged. Working class militancy had entered the Shankill Road and Sandy Row. The National Union of Railwaymen in a resolution at a conference in Belfast stated:
“without complete unity amongst the working classes, (we should not allow either religious or political differences to prevent their emancipation) which can be achieved through a great international brotherhood the world over, no satisfactory progress could be made.”
Instead of a Connolly to seize the opportunity for working class unity and solidarity, we had De Valera declaring “Labour must wait”, the interests of the nation must come first (read “the interests of the capitalists”). It was to be national unity, not class unity. By pressing their interests the workers were said to be “endangering” the unity of the republican forces! On the land where the tenants were seizing the estates only to find themselves held back by Sinn Fein and the IRA, who even went to the lengths of carrying out evictions in order to break the back of the land-seizure movement.
I think Connolly made a wrong decision in 1916, but that does not question his sincerity, only hisjudgmentt. Who can say what contribution Connolly could have made if he had lived. But as Sean O’Casey concluded, the decision to commit the Citizens Army to a rising called by class enemies was a betrayal.

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