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(en) Ireland, WSM, Red and Black Revolution #8 - The ideas of James Connolly - the single most important figure in the history of the irish left

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Date Thu, 30 Dec 2004 08:25:16 +0100 (CET)

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James Connolly is probably the single most important figure in the
history of the Irish left. He was an organiser in the IWW in the USA but in
Ireland is best known for his role in building the syndicalist phase of Irish
union movement and for involving the armed defence body of that union,
the Irish Citizens' Army in the 1916 nationalist insurrection. This left a
legacy claimed at one time or another not only by all the Irish left parties
but also by the nationalists of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.
Connolly is one of those historical figures who can seem to have been both
everything and nothing. People claim him for a myriad of political
ideologies, many of which are irreconcilably opposed to one another. At
times it can seem like he was little more than a confused revolutionary
who was never sure what he was for or what he was against. Connolly held
diverse opinions, (many of which I, unfortunately, will not have the space
to go into here). At the same time his analysis is unique in that it
possessed remarkable depth and clarity. Because of this, quotes can found
in his work to enable almost anyone to claim him as an advocate of almost
any political cause. In this article I will attempt to look at the long
neglected anarchistic aspects of Connolly's thought and ask the question
was Connolly a libertarian?

Connolly was, of course, not an anarchist. He advocated parliamentary
action, at times advocated a form of State Socialism and considered
himself a nationalist. These positions are contradictory to anarchist


First and foremost James Connolly was a Socialist. And when asked to
elaborate on his Socialist theory, he would always advocate Revolutionary
Syndicalism. Readers of James Connolly may react by saying that almost
nowhere in Connolly's work can any mention of Syndicalism be found.
This is simply because Connolly preferred to use the term 'Industrial
Unionism' to Syndicalism.

Leninists are very found of claiming that Connolly was only a syndicalist in
his innocent youth and by the time of the Easter rising (his role in which
secured his place in history) he had abandoned syndicalism. C. Desmond
Greaves, the author of the definitive biography of James Connolly The Life
and Times of James Connolly, wrote that by the beginning of 1916 'no
more than a faint echo of syndicalism remained'1. This is quite strange
seeing as that in Connolly's last major work the pamphlet The
Re-Conquest of Ireland, published on the 14th of December 1915,
Connolly fervently advocates Syndicalism or as he calls it 'Industrial
Unionism'. Connolly writes:

The principle of complete unity upon the Industrial plane must be
unceasingly sought after; the Industrial union embracing all workers in
each industry must replace the multiplicity of unions which now hamper
and restrict our operations, multiply our expenses and divide our forces in
face of the mutual enemy. With the Industrial Union as our principle of
action, branches can be formed to give expression to the need for effective
supervision of the affairs of the workshop, shipyard, dock or railway; each
branch to consist of the men and women now associated in Labour upon
the same technical basis as our craft unions of today.

Add to this the concept of One Big Union embracing all, and you have not
only the outline of the most effective form of combination for industrial
warfare to-day, but also for Social Administration of the Co-operative
Commonwealth of the future.

A system of society in which the workshops, factories, docks, railways,
shipyards, &c., shall be owned by the nation, but administered by the
Industrial Unions of the respective industries, organised as above, seems
best calculated to secure the highest form of industrial efficiency,
combined with the greatest amount of individual freedom from state
despotism. Such a system would, we believe, realise for Ireland the most
radiant hopes of all her heroes and martyrs.

This is syndicalism pure and simple, and no amount of historical
acrobatics can change the fact that Connolly was a life long Socialist and a
life long Syndicalist 2.


As I mentioned earlier Connolly called himself a nationalist. This has
enabled generations of Irish nationalists from every side of the political
spectrum to lay claim to Connolly's legacy.

Because nationalism is the dominant ideology of capitalism and has
profoundly affected every one of us who lives under capitalism, thinking
about it objectively is quite a challenge.

Nationalism is the ideological justification of the nation-state. It imagines
that capitalists and the working class share a common political interest; it
imagines that the oppressed and their oppressors, the exploited and their
exploiters share a common political interest just because they share the
same nationality! It advocates the strengthening/creation of a nation-state
to protect this common interest. It seems strange that Connolly, as a
socialist, would identify himself with this ideology.

I believe Connolly's mistake was that he never made the distinction
between national liberation and nationalism. Libertarian socialists are, in
all circumstances, opposed to oppression. Libertarian socialists, therefore,
defend all liberation movements, whatever their form. As such, libertarian
socialists should (although they often don't) defend national liberation
movements. Where people are being oppressed due to their nationality, all
socialists and all progressive people in the world should defend their right
to fight this oppression. But does not mean we seem them as a solution.
Although racial liberation movements are rarely racist and sexual
liberation movements are rarely sexist, unfortunately, most national
liberation movements are nationalist, and as they campaign against
oppression of one kind they advocate that of another, namely the
oppression of the nation-state. Libertarian socialists must be at all times
conscious of this complexity, Connolly unfortunately wasn't.

Connolly was a nationalist of sorts, but he never believed a national
revolution could act as a substitute for a social revolution. He harshly
ridiculed those that did in his pamphlet Socialism Made Easy when he

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

Now, isn't that worth fighting for?

And when you cannot find employment, and, giving up the struggle of life
in despair, enter the Poorhouse, the band of the nearest regiment of the
Irish army will escort you to the Poorhouse door to the tune of St. Patrick's

Oh, it will be nice to live in those days...

Now, my friend, I also am Irish, but I'm a bit more logical. The capitalist, I
say, is a parasite on industry...

The working class is the victim of this parasite - this human leech, and it is
the duty and interest of the working class to use every means in its power
to oust this parasite class from the position which enables it to thus prey
upon the vitals of Labour.

Therefore, I say, let us organise as a class to meet our masters and destroy
their mastership; organise to drive them from their hold upon public life
through their political power; organise to wrench from their robber clutch
the land and workshops on and in which they enslave us; organise to
cleanse our social life from the stain of social cannibalism, from the
preying of man upon his fellow man.

Clearly Connolly did not believe in ignoring class division in the name of
nationalism, nor did he think he needed to, due to his unique theory of
what a nation is. He wrote a mere sixteen days before the Easter rising:

We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the
rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding
capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman - the
hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future
depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation
upon which a free nation can be reared.

The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the
cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour
seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny,
supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour
seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the
people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation
all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in
view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the
spoiling of his fellows.

As can be seen, Connolly believed that the true Irish nation is the Irish
people; he once said, "Ireland without her people is nothing to me."4 He
believed the Irish nation did not include capitalists. It is clear that for
Connolly the Irish nation and the Irish working class (in the broadest sense
of the term) were synonymous. However, by this logic George W. Bush is
not an American and the Queen of England is not English. But that is not
the only inconsistency in Connolly's nationalism.

First of all, when Connolly says 'Ireland for the Irish', what does he mean?

Does he mean Ireland for those that live in Ireland? Surely not, many
people who live in Ireland aren't Irish. There are many people living in
Ireland that would identify themselves as American or British or Canadian
or Chilean or Chinese etc. So, unless Connolly thought that these people
are Irish but they just don't know it, this is not the correct interpretation of
his slogan.

Does he mean Ireland for those that identify themselves as Irish? I'm
confident he doesn't. I'm sure Connolly would find the idea of workers not
being given equal rights because of their national identity detestable. It
seems to me that Connolly hasn't fully thought out what he is saying.

Some might say that this is an unfair criticism. They might argue that it is
only in recent times that a lot people living in Ireland aren't Irish, a
phenomenon Connolly had no experience of. And they'd have a point but
not a very strong one.

Connolly was a migrant. He grew up an Irish man in Scotland and spent 8
years in America, living in Ireland for only 12 years. Connolly should have
appreciated that the nation-state cannot be the form of workers

However, when a nation is being politically oppressed that nation is
politicised and a national liberation movement emerges. Ireland at the turn
of the twentieth century was a nation is the grip of a national liberation

On the one hand Connolly believed that in the Ireland of his day you had
British imperialist capitalism and on the other hand you had the Irish
fighting against imperialism and for a new way of living. Connolly believed
that that new way of living must be socialist, and he believed that all the
forces fighting capitalism and imperialism in Ireland should unite and
struggle together.

In Labour in Irish History, his greatest work, he writes that the working
class are 'the inheritors of the Irish ideals of the past - the repository of the
hopes of the future'5. Socialism being the hope of the future.


Connolly was a great advocate of left unity. He believed that to create
Socialism all the people struggling for a new social system should work
together and offer one another support and solidarity. Even if such a union
diluted the political message of Revolutionary Syndicalists like himself, he
believed that

'the development of the fighting spirit is of more importance than the
creation of the theoretically perfect organisation; that, indeed, the most
theoretically perfect organisation may, because of its very perfection and
vastness, be of the greatest possible danger to the revolutionary movement
if it tends, or is used, to repress and curb the fighting spirit of comradeship
in the rank and file.' 6

Connolly believed that the struggle for socialism, for the co-operative
commonwealth, for a workers' republic, for the re-conquest of Ireland; for
the new social system, should be conducted on every front. He saw the
revolutionary potential in all autonomous working class organisation. He
gave his full support to the co-operative movement and argued that it was
part of the same struggle as syndicalism. He even went as far as
supporting the Irish language movement. Despite rather cynically
observing that 'you can't teach a starving man Gaelic' 7, Connolly
appreciated the fact that the Irish language movement was a movement 'of
defiant self-reliance and confident trust in a people's own power of
self-emancipation' 8.

Of course Connolly's main concern was with the most rapidly growing
section of the Irish population, the industrial working class. He argued that
the industrial working class (wage-earners) should unite in Industrial
Unions. He said:

"The enrolment of the workers in unions patterned closely after the
structure of modern industries, and following the organic lines of industrial
development, is par excellence the swiftest, safest, and most peaceful form
of constructive work the Socialist can engage in. It prepares within the
framework of capitalist society the working forms of the Socialist Republic,
and thus, while increasing the resisting power of the worker against
present encroachments of the capitalist class, it familiarizes him with the
idea that the union he is helping to build up is destined to supplant that
class in the control of the industry in which he is employed. The power of
this idea to transform the dry detail work of trade union organisation into
the constructive work of revolutionary Socialism...It invests the sordid
details of the daily incidents of the class struggle with a new and beautiful
meaning." 9

He argued strongly against craft unionism, that is when workers are
divided into unions by craft despite working in the same industry, and
struggling against the same bosses. He points out that if only one section
of the workers in a workplace go on strike the strike will be ineffectual, and
argues that all workers in a workplace need to be in the same union. He
also points out how craft unionism creates and encourages craft snobbery.
Examples of craft snobbery would be when, office workers sneer down at
office cleaners, or middle managers doing the same to those below them,
or manual workers dismiss the grievances of intellectual workers. Connolly
argues that all crafts should be united, and workers should be organised
industry by industry in One Big Union.

As well as believing in a united social struggle Connolly believed in the
need for a united Socialist force with in that struggle. He almost always
treated the socialist movement as if it was a homogenous whole, which it
of course is not. After a century of 'socialists' such as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot,
Trotsky and Lenin on the one hand and the likes of Blair and Schroeder on
the other, we know better than to feign unity where there is none.


Connolly never lived to see the poverty of 'social-democracy' nor did he
live to see the barbarity of Leninism. He never saw how quickly people
abandon their principles once placed in a position of power. In part
because of this, although a Syndicalist, he was never an

In 1908 there was a split in the IWW (the 'Industrial Workers of the
World', a mainly American organisation to which Connolly devoted much
time and energy). The split was essentially between the Marxist Daniel De
Leon and his followers and the Anarcho-Syndicalists. It is well worth
noting that Connolly sided with the Anarcho-Syndicalists and against the
Marxist Daniel De Leon.

De Leon was a major influence on Connolly, he considered himself a De
Leonist for many years. However, while in America, Connolly was
repulsed by the sectarianism and dogmatism of De Leon. De Leon argued
that to achieve socialism the working class should elect a socialist party
backed by a strong Industrial Union into parliament so as to create a
socialist government, he believed that by doing this the working class
could control the State and usher in Socialism. He believed that the
working class should elect his 'Socialist Labor Party', a party that he
believed was the only true socialist organisation in America. He believed
that socialism could be achieved through the ballot box, provided the ballot
was backed by a strong industrial union. He wrote: "The might of the
revolutionary ballot consists in the thorough industrial organisation of the
productive workers organised in such a way that when that ballot is cast
the capitalist class may know that behind it is the might to enforce it." 10

To Connolly this seemed bizarre, why create industrial unions capable of
enforcing a revolution and capable of being the organisational loci of a
socialist society and then not use them? Why create a revolutionary
movement capable of revolution and then expect it to wait for 'the
revolutionary ballot'? Connolly thought this was ridiculous. He believed

"The fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only
the echo of the battle. The real battle is the battle being fought out every
day for the power to control industry, and the gauge of the progress of that
battle is not to be found in the number of votes making a cross beneath the
symbol of a political party, but in the number of these workers who enrol
themselves in an industrial organisation with the definite purpose of
making themselves masters of the industrial equipment of society in

That battle will have its political echo, that industrial organisation will have
its political expression. If we accept the definition of working-class political
action as that which brings the workers as a class into direct conflict with
the possessing class AS A CLASS, and keeps them there, then we must
THE BALLOT-BOX. Such action strips the working-class movement of
all traces of such sectionalism as may, and indeed must, cling to strikes
and lock-outs, and emphasizes the class character of the Labour

As you can see Connolly was no anarchist but instead advocated a kind of
reversed De Leonism. De Leon argued that the party must usher in
Socialism, and the role of the Industrial Union was to support the party.
Whereas Connolly argued that the Industrial Union must usher in
socialism, and the role of the party was to support the union. This is an
important distinction.

De Leon was arguing for a revolution that involves seizing control of the
State, a revolution lead by politicians. Connolly was arguing for a
revolution that gives immediate power to new form of social organisation,
a revolution lead by the workers themselves. De Leon was arguing for a
political revolution that could lead to a social revolution. Connolly was
arguing for a social revolution straight out.

Connolly dismissed the idea that socialism could be ushered in by seizing
State control. He didn't think that the political institutions of today could
be used to achieve socialism. He wrote:

"The political institutions of today are simply the coercive forces of
capitalist society they have grown up out of, and are based upon, territorial
divisions of power in the hands of the ruling class in past ages, and were
carried over into capitalist society to suit the needs of the capitalist class
when that class overthrew the dominion of its predecessors.

The delegation of the function of government into the hands of
representatives elected from certain districts, States or territories,
represents no real natural division suited to the requirements of modern
society, but is a survival from a time when territorial influences were more
potent in the world than industrial influences, and for that reason is totally
unsuited to the needs of the new social order, which must be based upon

Social democracy, as its name implies, is the application to industry, or to
the social life of the nation, of the fundamental principles of democracy.
Such application will necessarily have to begin in the workshop, and
proceed logically and consecutively upward through all the grades of
industrial organisation until it reaches the culminating point of national
executive power and direction. In other words, social democracy must
proceed from the bottom upward, whereas capitalist political society is
organised from above downward..."

"Under Socialism, States, territories, or provinces will exist only as
geographical expressions, and have no existence as sources of
governmental power, though they may be seats of administrative bodies..."

"As we have shown, the political State of capitalism has no place under
Socialism; therefore, measures which aim to place industries in the hands
of, or under the control of, such a political State are in no sense steps
towards that ideal; they are but useful measures to restrict the greed of
capitalism and to familiarize the workers with the conception of common
ownership." 12

As can be seen Connolly was no 'Social Democrat',13 he was an avid
socialist, dedicated to the achievement of socialism. Nor, as can be seen
from the above quotations, was he a state socialist. However, this must be
said with reservation. Connolly did write:

"Socialists are bound as Socialists only to the acceptance of one great
principle - the ownership and control of the wealth producing power by the
state." 14

This is clearly a state socialist claim. It is, however, directly contradicted
by another thing he wrote:

"State ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism - if it were, then
the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers,
and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State
officials - but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for
labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land
and materials, would be Socialism." 15

To explore Connolly's understanding of the State fully would extend
beyond the remit of this article as it would require an in depth
consideration of the differences between the Marxist and Anarchist
understanding of the State. It should suffice to say that both anarchists and
Marxists agree with Connolly's claim above that the State is 'simply the
coercive forces of capitalist society...' 16

It would, of course, be ridiculous for me to claim that Connolly was an
anti-statist, he wasn't. I merely want to point out that Connolly's idea of
the Workers' Republic was not the same as the 'Socialist Republics' that
existed in any of the world's Leninist countries. Nor was it the same as the
'Irish Republic' of today.

Connolly advocated a 'co-operative commonwealth'. A society in which all
productive property is owned in common and managed by democratic
co-operatives, which in turn are organised along co-operative lines,
industry-by-industry, region-by-region. Connolly demanded a real 'Social
Democracy' as opposed to the sham 'Political Democracy' we have today.
He wanted all of society to be run and organised democratically for the
benefit of all of society.


Readers may be quick to note that Connolly's mistakes are the same as
those that have plagued the Irish left ever since his death, and they would
be right. His incoherent opinions concerning the national question were
parroted ceaselessly until the seventies when they began to be questioned
by a number of socialist groups. And his acceptance of the flawed Marxist
theory of the state is only beginning to be questioned. These mistakes have
resulted in disastrous policies often advocated by the revolutionary left;
policies that have varied from advocating Stalinism (Communist Party) to
advocating/participating in terrorism (IRSP) . His mistakes have also
provided a shield for the impotent 'labour must wait' policies of the
reformist left in Ireland.

It is often queried why Connolly fought in 1916 when he knew that they
were 'going out to be slaughtered'17 and when he knew that a national
revolution could not easily be turned into a social revolution? There is a
widespread anecdote that he told the socialists fighting in 1916 to hold
onto their guns because after the rising they may well have to fight against
those they had just fought beside. The simple answer is he thought that a
national revolution needed to be a social revolution in order to succeed.
Ireland couldn't be free until the working class of Ireland was free. And
because of that, he felt that a national revolution could lead to a social
revolution. Quite clearly the social revolution never happened but it very
nearly did.

It is worth remembering that both the influence of Connolly and the part
that Labour played in the Irish National Revolution ensured that the
Democratic Programme of the Irish Republic, agreed at the first sitting of
the first D·il (Irish Parliament) on January 21st 1919, read:

We declare in the words of the Irish Republican Proclamation the right of
the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland...we declare that the
nation's sovereignty extends ..[to] all its resources, all the wealth and all
the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, ... declare it is the duty
of the Nation that every citizen shall have opportunity to spend his or her
strength and faculties in the service of the people. In return for willing
service, we, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen
to an adequate share of the Nation's labour...

It shall also devolve upon the National Government to seek ... a standard of
Social and Industrial Legislation with a view to a general and lasting
improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and

We declare and we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the
principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all...

If this seems radical the draft democratic programme was more so. It
included the passage:

It shall be the purpose of the Government to encourage the organisation of
the people/citizens into Trade Unions and Co-operative Societies with a
view to the control and administration of the industries by the workers
engaged in those industries.18

These passages from one of the founding documents of the Irish Republic
give an indication of the revolutionary intentions of many republican
activists during the Irish National Revolution, a revolution that involved
widespread working class militancy with Soviets being declared in Cork
and Limerick and workers frequently seizing their workplaces. All this
when 5 years previously the seeds of a socialist movement scarcely existed
in Ireland!

This shows how close Ireland came to the Social Revolution that Connolly
dreamed of and gave his life for. This revolution can't be achieved by
means of a lobby, or a parliament or a coup d'etat. This revolution will only
be achieved when the ordinary people of the world, us, the working class,
get up off our knees and take back what is rightfully ours; namely,

by Oisin Mac Giollamoir

This article was first published online at indymedia.ie
This article is from Red & Black Revolution (no 8, Winter 2008)
Read more articles from this issue

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