James Connolly (1868-1916) is one of the outstanding figures in the history of the socialist movement. Born of Irish parents in Scotland, Connolly was active as a leading participant in the labour and trade union movement in both Ireland and America, where he helped organise the ‘Wobblies’ In Easter 1916 he commanded the insurrectionary forces in Dublin, for which action he was executed by firing squads at he order of the British authorities.
His work, Labour in Irish History (1910) is a Marxist analysis of events in Ireland since the 17th century, in particular the struggles of the common people. He shows the weakness of past revolutionary movements in Ireland and gives a perspective for future struggle. By literary merit alone, Connolly’s work stands as a masterpiece of historical writing. For workers active in the labour movement today Connolly’s book is a socialist classic full of lessons for the present fight. For those who wish to understand the situation in Ireland now, it is indispensable reading.
Connolly’s thesis expounded in the book is that since the end of the 17th century with the break up of the ancient Irish clans, who held property (in particular land) in common, a feudal and capitalist system was imposed on Ireland from abroad.
Connolly recognises of course that private property in the means of production would have developed naturally in Ireland even if it had remained independent but ‘coming as it did in obedience to the pressure of armed force from without, instead of by the operation of economic forces within, the change has been bitterly and justly resented by the great mass of Irish people, many of whom still mix with their dreams of liberty a longing for a return to the ancient system of land tenure – now organically impossible.’
The central question for the movement of the Irish people has been the question of social and economic emancipation. Those who have put to one side the class issues in Irish politics and have called for national unity in the fight to free Ireland from England have served to lead astray and betray not only the cause of the Irish masses but the very national struggle itself.
“Hence the spokesmen of the middle class, in the press and on the platform, have consistently sought the emasculation of the Irish national movement, the distortion of Irish history and, above all, the denial of all relation between the social rights of the Irish toilers and the political rights of the Irish nation. It was hoped and intended by this means to crate what is termed ‘a real national movement’, i.e. a movement in which each class would lay aside their contentions, would unite in a national struggle against the common enemy – England.
“Needless to say, the only class deceived by such phrases was the working class. When questions of ‘class’ interests are eliminated from public controversy a victory is gained for the possessing, conservative class, whose only hope of security lies in such elimination.”
And further: “Every such conspiracy or rebellion has drawn the majority of its adherents form the lower orders in town and country. Yet under the influence of a few middle class doctrinaires, the social question has been rigorously excluded from the field of action to be covered by the rebellion in the hope that by such exclusion it would be possible to conciliate the upper classes ad enlist them in the struggle for freedom.
“The result has in nearly every case been the same. The workers, though furnishing the greatest proportion of recruits to the ranks of the revolutionists, and consequently of victims to the prison and 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”.
This Connolly shows the cowardice and treachery of the so-called ‘liberal’ capitalists. If they made an appeal for Irish freedom it was because they felt their interest as capitalists threatened by English commercial power.
In pointing this out Connolly demonstrates the workings in Irish history of a general historical law discovered by Marxists and proven by the bloody experience of the world working class. In 1848 the wave of national and social revolutions that swept Europe was derailed by the going over to the side of absolutist reaction of the middle classes as soon as the working class (in however a confused manner) came out with their own demands and so put in question the continuation of private property.
In Russia before the revolution, Leon Trotsky, polemicising against the opportunists in the Russian labour movement, showed how the liberal bourgeoisie was tied hand and foot to the Tzarist regime and showed how the working class and its leadership would be forced, even in backward Russia, to take power and to implement socialist measures so that even the demands of democratic freedom could be achieved. This theory of the ‘Permanent Revolution’ has been further vindicated by events in the ‘Third World’ since World War 2.
The experience of Spain in the 1930s and Chile in 1973 is a further grim reminder of the treachery of the most ‘radical’, ‘progressive’ capitalists. The workers parties in Spain will ignore these lessons at their peril.
Connolly goes onto show the international nature of the class struggle, how the interests of an Irish worker are separate from the interests of an Irish capitalist but are akin to the interests of an English worker and vice versa.
He shows the leading role played by Irish socialists (such as Fergus O’Connor) in the development of the English labour movement. He shows how exiled and transported Irishmen took the ideas of socialism to the new world.
This work of Connolly’s stands as a condemnation of the present leadership of the Irish Labour Party (which Connolly helped to found). Whereas Connolly preached class struggle, the Labour leaders form a coalition with Fine Gael, the reactionary party of big business. Whereas Connolly fought for socialism the Labour leaders carry out unemployment measures to save the bosses system.
By Bill Joyce, originally printed in Militant Irish Monthly, June 1976