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The legacy of James Connolly

We gather in this hallowed place at the graves of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. We pay tribute to their memory and their sacrifice in confronting the power of the British Empire in seeking to achieve a united and independent country: the Irish Republic.

Among them is James Connolly, the greatest of Irish Marxists. For many decades the establishment attempted to conceal his specific contribution and, by naming public buildings after him, sought to sanitise him into a safe icon. But the unique contribution he made in his lifetime and his influences today are a tribute to the extraordinary character of the man.

Connolly’s short life was an eruption of intellectual brilliance amidst the gruelling daily tasks of organising, mobilising, and agitation. Self-taught, he was at once a trade union organiser, a social agitator, a Marxist theoretician, a military tactician, an advocate of women’s suffrage and women’s rights, an original historian and working-class intellectual, a journalist who edited, printed and sold workers’ papers, a man of ideas and culture, a revolutionary soldier who commanded the Citizen Army—all this by a man born into hardship in an Edinburgh slum, living a life on the bread line and always finding it difficult to support his family.

His life’s experience also saw his talents realised in the labour movements in Scotland and the United States. No wonder that the last words to his wife, Lillie, before his execution were, “But hasn’t it been a full life!”

The Irish Revolution

As we remember the great events of one hundred years ago, and as commemorations are being planned—the Great 1913 Lock-Out and Strike, 1916, the Tan War, the first Dáil, the Civil War, etc.—I suggest that we include them all under the term “the Irish Revolution.” Because that is what it was: the most concerted attempt at the reconquest of Ireland.

If we compare it to a river—a force of the risen people—then we can acknowledge that there were many diverse streams that fed into it and propelled it onwards. These streams included the Gaelic revival, the growth of autonomous women’s-consciousness organisations, the politicisation of the advanced separatists, and the contribution of militant labour and socialist ideas.

But of course the streams were also polluted by the William Martin Murphys and the bourgeois nationalists, until they gained supremacy and dammed the river with the counter-revolution of 1922–23.

Connolly was central to the Irish Revolution; as Desmond Greaves writes in his brilliant biography, “Connolly engraved socialism indelibly on the national life of Ireland.”

What Connolly means to us

When Connolly lived, the ideas and practice of socialism were sharply debated throughout Europe in the middle of intense class battles and repression. As Marx and Engels had left behind their analysis of capitalism and the socialist alternative, the growing workers’ movement had to translate them into day-to-day strategies and tactics.

In Ireland, Connolly was faced with the added problem of how to project a socialist objective in a country under the domination of imperialism. It was not an easy task: the leading Marxist thinkers in western Europe were influenced by the imperial environment they operated in, while further afield, in eastern Europe, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were only beginning to study this question alongside other urgent debates about reformism and revolution. Lenin’s study Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism did not appear until 1916. Even the great and heroic Rosa Luxemburg argued against the self-determination of her native Poland from the Tsarist Empire.

So Connolly had to clarify his ideas, arguing against Walker in Belfast, who advocated an Ireland evolving to socialism in harmony with progressive development in Britain—an Orange road to socialism. Later, in Dublin, he had to contend with an insular view that the national question was a distraction from the primary task of building workers’ unity for socialism—what might be called O’Casey socialism.

Above all, he fought against those in the labour movement who shackled the aim and vision to economic issues, to be solved within the existing system. Connolly called it gas-and-water socialism.

All these tendencies exist today in modern forms and in fact dominate thinking even with many on the left.

For Connolly, socialists had to grapple with the debates that dominated the day—home rule, i.e. constitutional nationalist, or separatism in the Fenian sense—as well as promote the ideas of socialism, itself not easily defined, between reform and revolution. His thinking evolved towards the thesis that for the working class the struggle for national independence and the socialist objective were not separate but complementary: “they were two stages of the one democratic reorganisation of society, each involving economic changes which it was the function of political change to promote,” as Desmond Greaves has written.

Connolly said that “the Irish working class are the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.” They were not the only inheritors, but they were incorruptible, which is why he insisted, drawing from his classic study Labour in Irish History, that the middle and upper-class elements would bend before the might of empire and fear of the plebeian masses demanding social rights.

Connolly was to be a forerunner of what became the accepted position of all Marxist organisations in colonial countries: that the road to socialism lay through national liberation. In the first stage of that process allies should be sought among broad democratic forces in order to shorten that journey. The stronger the working-class content in the national movement the better the chance of defeating imperialism and its native agents in the bigger bourgeoisie.

The tragedy of the Irish Revolution after Connolly was precisely that the labour movement discarded his thinking and allowed the leadership to pass to middle-class elements. The merchant class, in the tradition of home rule, dammed the river of the revolution with the Free State counter-revolution of 1922–23. The carnival of reaction that Connolly had warned of was installed on both sides of the border.

The continuity of ideas

Connolly imbued the two Irish socialist parties he is associated with—the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Socialist Party of Ireland—with his Marxist world view. He did not live to see the logical inheritors of these formed into a communist party, but it was the recipients of his direct influence who created it.

The continuity of ideas was reflected in the personal connection. Instrumental in the first Communist Party were veterans such as his own son, Roddy, Walter Carpenter, and Seán McLaughlin. The latter was made commandant by the wounded Connolly as they tried to regroup and break out of Moore Street in 1916. He went on to fight, as did other communists, in the Civil War on the republican side. Seán McLaughlin’s life story has at last been rescued from obscurity in a recent biography by Charlie McGuire.

The transmission of ideas by personal involvement is one of the essential factors in sustaining a political organisation of the working class. Another is fidelity to the central values and strategies that have been proved and tested in both national and international arenas of struggle.

To maintain the generations it needed to be fed by militants, grounded in trade unions and working-class activities, and constantly seeking self-education. And above all is the study and evaluation of the analysis and projections of the greatest of the Marxist theoreticians of the calibre of Marx, Engels, Gramsci, and of course Connolly.

Thus the Marxist view is organic: transmitted by ideas and people dedicated to interpreting a proven worldwide philosophy to the specifics of the national characteristics. It cannot be artificially created. Without being sectarian, it participates in and initiates joint activities with all who genuinely want to promote improvements for short-term gains or radical social changes.

But, like Connolly, it is obliged to engage in open debate and criticism with those whose ideas and activities hinder clarity and positive outcomes, whether from a far-left, anti-national or reformist viewpoint.

It recognises that in a changing world and domestic society its own projections and strategies are open to criticism and review. There is no such thing as infallibility: theories, tactics and strategies are designed by fragile human beings. The criticism and reviews mentioned have to have an open and democratic structure that make it continuous and sustainable.

That is the value of the scientific methods of Marxism that Connolly acknowledged. He was good at adopting precise slogans with profound meaning, as when he wrote on the heading of the workers’ papers he produced, reproduced on the paper of the Republican Congress: “We cannot conceive of a free Ireland with a subject working class.”

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2011-07-05 16:13:17.
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