The execution of James Connolly after the 1916 rebellion by British forces guaranteed him a place in the pantheon of Irish nationalist heroes. Schools, hospitals, and train stations have been named after him. One of the best known Irish ballads describes him as “a brave son of Ireland.” Yet the song that best captures the spirit of the man, came from an Irish-American band, Black 47:
My name is James Connolly—I didn’t come here to die
But to fight for the rights of the working man
And the small farmer too
Protect the proletariat from the bosses and their screws.
So hold on to your rifles, boys, and don’t give up your dream
Of a Republic for the working class, economic liberty.
A new collected edition of Connolly’s writings recently published by Haymarket Books contains an excellent introduction to his life by Shaun Harkin. Like Connolly himself, Harkin has been an active social- ist on both sides of the Atlantic, serving as a member of the editorial board of this magazine, International Socialist Review, before returning to his native Derry where he stood as the People Before Profit candidate in the Westminster election in 1917.
This new collection of articles also accurately captures the real legacy of James Connolly, which has suffered from two main distortions: The first is a crude nationalist attempt to obliterate any reference to Connolly’s Marxism. This began soon after his execution when another hero of the 1916 rebellion, Countess Markievicz, wrote a pamphlet—James Connolly and Catholic Doc- trine—in which she claimed that “Socialism is what he stood for but it was the socialism of James Connolly and nobody else.”
The Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which Connolly founded, suppressed some of his writings, which could have clarified his real thinking. Even as late as 1968, when left-wing ideas were in vogue across Eu- rope, the historian Owen Dudley Edwards made the astounding claim that Connolly was “one of the best and most enlightened apologists the Catholic Church has since the industrial revolution.”
However, Connolly’s legacy also suffered distortion from his own fol- lowers. This partially arose because an early biography—which became a ref- erence point for many—was written by a member of the Communist Party, Desmond Greaves. It was sympathetic to Connolly’s Marxism but presented him as a somewhat impatient socialist who did not understand the subtleties of the “stages theory” in underdeveloped countries. According to this ap- proach, socialists needed to work with a progressive nationalist bourgeoise to first achieve Irish independence before moving on to a fight for socialism. This approach was also music to the ears of the Irish republican move- ment. Traditionally, Irish republicanism has tilted left in its rhetoric to win support from the working class. It presented Connolly as the key figure- head both for his participation in an armed struggle, and because he ap- peared to link the economic demands of workers to a fight to end British control. But even the most left-wing republican was careful to warn against “impatience.” Ireland, it was claimed, must first be united through a strategy of progressive alliances with right-wing nationalists. This “pan-nationalist strategy” is currently pushing the former IRA fighters to promote the pos- sibility of entering coalition government with the most corrupt, right-wing party, Fianna Fail.
Harkin’s introduction unearths the real legacy of Connolly by showing how he was grappling towards a version of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. He illustrates how Connolly broke from the orthodoxy of the Second International in his approach to Irish national freedom. This had suggested that as the working-class movement in the colonies was weak— mainly due to the lack of industrial development—it would have to wait until the socialist movement in the metropolitan countries was successful before change could come to the colonies.
Connolly disputed this stages approach and boldly proclaimed that Irish freedom and socialism were interlinked. He wrote his classic book, La- bour in Irish History (1910), to illustrate this principle by showing how the wealthy Irish “were tied by a thousand economic strings in the shape of in- vestments binding them to English capitalism.”
The working class, he argued, was the “incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish freedom.” He opposed the idea of a “union of classes” which would unite rich and poor in a fight for Irish independence.
Instead, Connolly argued that the struggle for Irish freedom needed to culminate in a workers’ republic, and he advanced two main reasons why this was necessary. If the working class was to really mobilize for Irish indepen- dence, Connolly suggested that they would not stop at achieving a capitalist republic. They would go further and fight for social as well as national freedom.
To the objection that a fight for a socialist republic would frighten off potential allies, he repied:
It may be pleaded that the ideal of a Socialist Republic, implying, as it does, a complete political and economic revolution would be sure to alienate all our middle-class and aristocratic supporters, who would dread the loss of their prop- erty and privileges.
What does this objection mean? That we must conciliate the privileged classes in Ireland! But you can only disarm their hostility by assuring them that in a free Ireland their privileges’ will not be interfered with. That is to say, you must guarantee that when Ireland is free of foreign domination, the green- coated Irish soldiers will guard the fraudulent gains of capitalist and landlord from ‘the thin hands of the poor’ just as remorselessly and just as effectually as the scarlet-coated emissaries of England do today.
On no other basis will the classes unite with you. Do you expect the masses to fight for this ideal?
The other reason Connolly advocated a socialist solution to Ireland’s national question was because of the sectarian divisions inside the working class itself. Connolly witnessed these divisions firsthand in July 1912, when Carson’s violent opposition to “home rule” led to pogroms in Belfast. Three thousand workers were expelled from their jobs, a fifth of them were dubbed “rotten Prods” because of their socialist or liberal sympathies.
Connolly vigorously opposed Orange supremacism and was adamant in defending the right of Ireland to home rule. He also warned against par- tition arguing that it would produce “a carnival of reaction” that would help “the Home Rule and Orange capitalists and clerics to keep their rallying cries before the public as the political watch cries of the day.”
But while opposing loyalism and the partition of Ireland, Connolly wanted to openly appeal to Protestant workers. The way to do this, he thought, was not to placate the reactionary sentiments of the Orange Order but to show how its sectarianism divided workers. He thought that only the prospect of a socialist Ireland could hold any appeal to Protestant workers.
There was, quite simply, no future for Protestant workers in a capitalist Ireland under the green flag. As Connolly argued,
When the Sinn Feiner speaks to men who are fighting against low wages and tells them that the Sinn Féin body has promised lots of Irish labour at low wages to any foreign capitalist who wished to establish in Ireland, what wonder if they come to believe that a change from Toryism to Sinn Feinism would simply be a change from the devil they do know to the devil they do not.
All of this is of some relevance for today. The Irish radical left has achieved a toe-hold within the official politics of the country. People Before Profit has three members of parliament in the South and one in the Stormont Assem- bly. It has been at the center of a great battle to prevent the privatization of water and is now fighting to win free safe and legal abortion.
One reason for its political coherence in a partitioned country where the catch cries of Orange and Green conservatives still smothers working-class consciousness, is that it traces its wider political framework to the ideas of James Connolly. His ability to combine opposition to partition and imperi- alism with an outright advocacy of revolutionary socialism is the inspiration behind the left today.
That legacy has helped to ensure that when the radical left emerged af- ter decades of defeat, its political core drew on a revolutionary rather than a left-reformist tradition. That is what primarily distinguishes it from other “broad parties” of the radical left in Europe. Shaun Harkin’s book is an im- portant addition to strengthening that wider project today.