“James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland,” by Priscilla Metscher. (Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 2002), 243 pages.
aftermath of the 101st anniversary of the Easter Rising is a
good time to become (re)acquainted with the views of the great Irish
republican socialist, James Connolly. Though many of today’s
Irish nationalists and “socialists” pay homage to him, they
support parties that collaborate in the partition of Ireland, and
that vote for capitalist austerity measures.
Priscilla Metscher’s well written, amply annotated book implies,
this is worse than ironic. She presents a comprehensive survey
of Connolly’s politics, as they evolved between 1896 and 1916. Each
chapter links his writings and speeches to the momentous events of
Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1868 of Irish immigrant
parents and grew up in the slums of that city. He started to work at
about age 10 as a printer’s devil, then in a bakery, then in a
tiling factory. At 14 he joined the army and was sent to Ireland,
where over the next seven years he saw first-hand the oppression of
the Irish people. Back in Scotland he joined the socialist movement,
standing (unsuccessfully) as its candidate for municipal office in
1894. He knew about the Land League in Ireland, and as a socialist,
realized the importance of British workers’ support for the freedom
struggle in Ireland.
learned that the struggle of the Land League was diverted by adoption
of the single-plank electoral platform of Home Rule, counter
posed to independence from Britain. His remedy was the
organization of a working-class party that would go beyond the
liberal aims of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
a few fellow workers, Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican
Party in 1896. As the name suggests, it set to unite the
struggle for national freedom with the socialist emancipation of the
working class. Its programme proclaimed the need for
nationalization of railways, canals, banks, and the “gradual
extension of the principle of public ownership and supply of all the
necessaries of life” (all quotes are from the book).
1903 Connolly helped to write a manifesto for the Socialist Labour
Party of Scotland, which more clearly expressed the need for a
working-class party, the concept of the class struggle, and the aim
of wresting control of the state from the capitalist class.
immediate demands combined with a vision of profound change involving
workers’ control of industry and a cooperative agricultural
system. Under the slogan “agitate, educate, organize,”
working-class power should be spread by all means, including
elections. But he maintained that the election of a majority of
Socialist Republicans to parliament would not herald the dawn of the
socialist republic. It would, however, represent “the moral
insurrection of the Irish people”: “their desire for separation
from the British Empire,” which could be converted into a military
insurrection by the use of “a small expeditionary force and war
rejected the conspiratorial methods associated with the failure of
the Young Irelanders and the Fenians. He wanted to make republicanism
a public issue, to purge it of “the odor of illegality,” and to
change it from the “politics of despair” into the “Science of
Revolution.” In the process, he tried to convert “advanced
nationalists” to socialism, making a key distinction between
bourgeois liberals and anti-imperialists.
realized that the limits of constitutionalism (legislative reform of
the structure of government) are dictated by the very nature of the
state “created by the propertied classes for their own purposes.”
election of a majority of Irish Socialist Republicans to parliament
would be a preliminary step, but only a step, towards the
“revolutionary reconstruction of society.” The latter is the task
of the working class, in which he included the rural peasantry.
would this be done? “The governing power must be wrested from
the hands of the rich peaceably, if possible, forcibly if necessary.”
Expect the rulers to resist fiercely. Connolly’s answer, like
Malcolm X’s many years later, was simply: by
any means necessary.
ISRP was a tiny propaganda group. Connolly tried to forge it
into a disciplined body, equipping it with a vital tool of education
and organization—the party newspaper. Connolly was the editor
and publisher of the Workers’
used the pages of the WR not
only to present socialist republicanism to the general public, but
also as a weapon against the Home Rule party and the United Irish
League, exposing their capitalist interests in “making terms with
the Imperial government.”
ISRP was internationalist. It held the first public meeting to
protest against the Boer War in 1899. “Every war now is a
capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must
make or perish.” The spectacle of imperialist war reinforced
Connolly’s belief that it was unlikely that the capitalist class as
a whole would yield up its privileges peacefully.
by the slow progress of the ISRP, Connolly emigrated to the United
States in 1903. Over the next seven years, he became an
organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and a
member, and critic, of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party.
SLP was sectarian on political and trade-union issues, quite evident
in its strident propaganda against Catholicism and its dual-unionism
stance. De Leon provoked a split in the IWW, driving the latter
even farther away from campaigning on political issues
and towards anarchism. In 1908, after quitting the SLP,
Connolly joined the Socialist Party of America, attracted by its mass
base and growing left wing, notwithstanding its political
reformism. But the idea of industrial unionism stayed with him,
making him a sharp opponent of the craft unionism of Samuel Gompers
and the American Federation of Labour.
“Socialism Made Easy,” Connolly subordinates the political
struggle for state power to the everyday battle at the work place to
concept of the party is “one Socialist party embracing all shades
and conceptions of Socialist political thought.” But he contradicts
that view by reiterating the vanguard role of the socialist party,
and moreover, by asserting the importance of political action before
major work, “Labour in Irish History,” shows the development of a
national self-consciousness in Ireland, the result of centuries of
oppression and of action against it. With that book, which he
regarded as part of the literature of Gaelic revival, Connolly
set out to map an Irish path to socialism. A free Ireland would take
its distinct place in the world: “the internationalism of
the future will be based on the free federation of free peoples.”
his vision of freedom was impaired on women’s emancipation. While
in the forefront of the fight for women’s suffrage, Connolly
opposed divorce, and rejected any attempt “to identify Socialism
with any theory of marriage or sexual relations.”
to which Connolly returned in 1910 was a scene of sweated labour and
miserable wages. Industrial unrest in 1909 and 1911 led to a
major confrontation in 1913, the Dublin Strike and Lockout. Tens
of thousands joined the struggle, which was met with stiff employer
intransigence and unbridled police brutality. The strikers
implored the British Trades Union Congress to take sympathy strike
action, to isolate Belfast from international trade and commerce. But
the TUC refused, signaling the end of an inspiring chapter.
was quick to point out that the growth of unions and labour
federations did not necessarily mean a great increase in solidarity
and revolutionary spirit; it often led to increased bureaucracy and
alienation of officials from the rank and file.
was also during the Dublin strike that the Irish Citizen Army and the
Irish Volunteers were founded, which paved the way to the Easter
Rising of 1916.
the First World War raged across Europe. At an international
conference of socialists in Zimmerwald in 1915, Russia’s Bolshevik
Party leader V.I. Lenin said, “Turn the imperialist war into civil
war.” Connolly agreed. The suppression of Irish nationalist
papers, plus other restrictions of civil liberties, and the threat of
conscription by the British crown, led him to say, “constitutional
action in normal times … revolutionary action in exceptional times.
These are exceptional times.” He turned to making the Citizen Army
into a disciplined force.
Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland,” the reader meets
the impassioned and impetuous class-struggle labour leader, and
Padraic Pearse, the radical nationalist intellectual, president of
the provisional government of the Irish Republic and
commandant-general of its Citizen Army.
book chronicles the series of unfortunate events that doomed the
Easter Rising, which began April 24, 1916. Connolly, vice
president of the rebel Irish Republic, was injured while defending
its headquarters in the Dublin Post Office. He was captured and shot
in Killmainham Jail by the British.
observed that a revolutionary situation was growing in Ireland, but
was not fully developed. Still, this uprising was no putsch. It
was a true popular rebellion, however premature. The historical
tragedy was that James Connolly and Padraic Pearse were eliminated
just prior to the revolutionary situation that soon emerged in
important political error in Priscilla Metscher’s book is
its claim that Connolly subscribed to a “stages” concept of the
revolution, such as outlined by Lenin in his early “Two Tactics of
Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.” The truth is
that both Lenin and Connolly recognized certain phases of the
struggle, but they rejected any notion of stages in which the
interests of the working class should be subordinated to those of the
capitalists, domestic or foreign. As Russia demonstrated, it was
ushered in the workers’ state that began socialist construction.
his “Re-Conquest of Ireland,” Connolly replaces the term
“Workers’ Republic” with “Co-operative Commonwealth,” which
he defines as “a system of society in which the workshops,
factories, docks, railways, shipyards, etc., shall be owned by the
nation, but administered by the Industrial Unions of the respective
industries.” This is clearly not a blueprint for a bourgeois state.
stood in the way of Connolly’s dream? It was the absence of a
strong, democratically centralized, revolutionary workers’
party, and the lack of a revolutionary socialist-led labour movement.
But that takes little away from the fact that James Connolly was one
of the greatest socialist leaders of the 20th century.
>> The article above was written by Barry Weisleder, and is reprinted from Socialist Action.