12 May marks the centenary of the state murder of working class hero James Connolly. Chris Bambery reflects
On 12 May 1916 a British army lorry drove into the yard of Kilmainham jail in Dublin with a prisoner strapped to a stretcher. It was lowered to the ground and the prisoner, unable to stand, and, as was generally believed, was brought to a chair to which he was tied. It now seems he could not stay in the chair so he was tied to a stretcher which was then propped up against a wall, possible with the help of the chair. A British firing squad then shot him.
The prisoner was the revolutionary socialist and trade union organiser, James Connolly, a central leader of the 1916 Easter Rising and a signatory to the proclamation declaring an Irish Republic free of British colonial rule. Connolly had been shot in the leg during the fighting and the wound had turned gangrenous.
Fourteen others sentenced to death by British military courts martials had already been executed but the British prime minister, Herbert Asquith, sensing the damage the executions were doing in Ireland and abroad, ordered them ended. But Dublin’s main employer, William Martin Murphy, clamoured for Connolly’s killing and the execution was carried out despite Asquith’s pledge. Three years earlier Murphy and other Dublin bosses had locked out their employees, demanding they cease membership of Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The lock out was a bitter struggle lasting months and ending only because hunger and the lack of solidarity action by British trade unions forced the Dublin workers back. The hatred Murphy held for Connolly is tribute to his qualities as a working class fighter.
Ever since his execution many on the left have questioned why Connolly became involved in what they regarded as a nationalist uprising. Some argued Connolly had switched from being a socialist to a nationalist.
Yet few looked at his long held position on the left of the international socialist movement, the Second International. That dated back to when he first became a socialist in his home town of Edinburgh prior to his move to Dublin. When the British Labour Party was being formed by Keir Hardie and others, Connolly argued that:
It’s not a Labour party the workers need. It’s a revolutionary party pledged to overthrow the capitalist class in the only way it can be done by putting up barricades and taking over factories by force. There is no other way.
When he stood for Edinburgh Corporation in 1894, Connolly declared that “the election of a socialist to any public body is only valuable insofar as it is the return of a disturber of the public peace”. After moving to Dublin to organise a socialist party there, he wrote: “The Irish working class must emancipate itself and in emancipating itself must perforce free its own country.”
Connolly connected the fight for national liberation with the fight for socialism, and saw the working class as being the only force capable of securing these joint goals.
Connolly once told an Irish-American audience in New York City that:
I represent only the class to which I belong and that is the working class. The Irish people like the people of this and other capitalist countries are divided into the master class and the working class and I could not represent the entire Irish people on account of the antagonistic interests of these classes.
As he explained in his key work, Labour in Irish History, the Irish capitalist class “were tied by a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism”.
Unlike the bulk of the leaders of the Second International he opposed imperialism and colonialism and defended the right of those under the colonial heel to fight back. He had opposed socialists joining capitalist governments, and the growing believe in the Second International that socialism must come gradually through reforms won in parliament. Other leaders, who claimed to be orthodox Marxists, held that socialism was inevitable and that they just had to wait on its arrival.
Connolly believed socialism had to be won through class struggle. His stress on working class action led him to become an organiser of the Industrial Workers of the World in the USA. It believed in direct action and that socialism could be won through a revolutionary general strike.
That position had great strength in stressing that workers must fight and achieve their own liberation, but it also had its weaknesses. Firstly, even the most militant trade union has to negotiate and there is always a pull towards compromise. Secondly, trade union officials inevitably see the key thing as maintaining the union machinery and in being able to negotiate with the employers. This sets them apart from the rank and file. Thirdly, when workers win confidence soars, but when workers suffer major defeats it falls.
Back in Ireland Connolly helped organise the militant Irish transport and General Workers Union but he first saw it undermined in Belfast by religious sectarianism and then defeated after the employers in Dublin locked out their workers.
Connolly did not reject building a political party but saw it as secondary: concerned with education, propaganda and elections. He helped found the Irish Labour Party but it was not his central field of activity. Far away in war torn Europe the exiled Russian revolutionary Lenin was beginning to see that building parties which aimed to represent all the working class, as the Second International saw its goal, meant that, outside of revolutionary periods, they were subject to the pull of the majority of the working class who were pulled by the hegemonic ideas and beliefs of capitalism.
What was needed was to organise those workers who rejected capitalism and wanted revolution so they could then win hegemony inside the working class for a revolutionary strategy. Connolly would be shot prior to Lenin’s ideas becoming available following the 1917 Russian Revolution. No one can say where Connolly would have stood, but his son Roddy rallied to the new, revolutionary Third or Communist International.
To understand Connolly’s role in the Easter Rising it’s important to grasp the key events which convinced him a rising was needed. Connolly saw the Easter Rising as not just a blow against the British Empire but against the horror of the First World War and as a way of helping revive working class opposition to it.
Four days after Britain declared war Connolly had written in the Irish Worker that Ireland’s enemy was British colonialism and that the war had to be opposed:
Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world. But pending either of these consummations it is our manifest duty to take all possible action to save the poor from the horrors this war has in store.
The article included a blistering attack on John Redmond, leader of the Irish National Party, for pledging support for Britain’s war and promising the Irish Volunteers would serve in the British army.
Across Europe the leaders of the Second International backed their respective states as they declared war on each other. Connolly reacted in horror:
What then becomes of all our resolutions, all our protests of fraternisation, all our threats of general strikes, all our carefully built machinery of internationalism, all our hopes for the future? Were they all as sound and fury, signifying nothing?
He believed a blow could be struck against war in Ireland and that might spread:
Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.
He was also out to stop the partition of Ireland, something the Irish National Party had agreed to in 1914. He warned:
Such a scheme... the betrayal of the national democracy of Industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it lasted.
Partition did indeed unleash a “carnival of reaction” – north and south. In 1916 Connolly was not just fighting for Irish independence but for an Irish Workers Republic. He clearly warned independence by itself was not sufficient:
If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle., unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts will be in vain. England will still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.
As he prepared the Irish Citizens Army, originally formed a workers defence force during the 1913 Dublin lock out, for the Easter Rising he told them:
In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.
But the other leaders of the ITGWU were not as militant, or as anti-imperialist, as Connolly, and the Labour Party abstained from the growing fight for independence which followed the Rising. They all accepted that national liberation must come first, and only then could the task of social and economic freedom be addresses, accepting Sinn Fein’s argument that “Labour must wait", and thereby standing Connolly’s approach on its head.
The allies Connolly found in 1916 among the radical republicans – Padraig Pearse, Tom Clarke, Thomas McDonagh and others – were not socialists but they were sympathetic to the working class (they’d backed the workers in the 1913 Lock-out) and radical democrats, accepting the Irish Republic would be based on women’s suffrage, for instance.
The post-Rising leadership of the republican movement was far less radical. Eamon de Valera could talk radical but from the first was prepared to follow the line from Maynooth, the headquarters of the hierarchy. Michael Collins had little interest in any radical agenda. As a physical force member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood his aim was to get Britain out of Ireland. He would sign and defend the Treaty in 1921 because it gave the new Free State an army which he seemed to believe could be used to overcome partition at some point.
Sinn Fein became the Republican Party but it still contained its old leader, Arthur Griffith, who had opposed the rising and was not committed to creating a republic. Worse, sensing the way the wind was blowing, the party benefitted from an influx of previous supporters of the Irish National Party. Many looked to the creation of a new state to provide jobs in the civil service and judiciary from which they had previously been barred. They were none too fussy what sort of state it was.
In 1918 Sinn Fein grew dramatically because it took the lead in opposing the introduction of conscription. In this period it was taking place in land seizures by landless labourers, understanding it needed to build popular support. The Democratic Programme adopted by Dail Eireann, the parliament set up after Sinn Fein’s landslide election victory in late 1918, echoed the 1916 Proclamation in its promise of a new Republic which would nurture the welfare of its citizens.
With the labour movement standing aside working class support channelled itself into backing Sinn Fein, but in the course of 1920-21, confident of its popular support, it was keen to reassure the middle and upper classes concerned with the rising tide of strikes, land seizures and workplace occupations.
The militarisation of the struggle meant that increasingly republicans disdained popular unrest and argued not just that the IRA’s military campaign took precedence but for national discipline.
The majority of Sinn Fein were happy to accept a compromise settlement which created an Irish state shorn of six Northern counties and which remained part of the British Empire. The republican opposition resisted militarily but did not encourage social unrest, despite the fact their support was based among the urban working class and the rural poor. Outgunned they went down to defeat in a civil war which was in reality a counter revolution.
For the first decade of its existence the newly created Irish Free State was a neo-colony of Britain. As British capitalism declined and Irish governments sought to, first aid industrialisation, and then to woe foreign investment, American in the main, British dominance was broken. But Ireland remained a business friendly state, dominated until recently by two pro-business parties and by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
It was, and is, a far cry from Connolly’s vision of a free Ireland. Partition created a one party state in Northern Ireland, with the Unionists ruling uninterruptedly until the Stormont parliament was abolished in 1972. They institutionalised discrimination against the Catholic population, employed internment without trial in every decade of their rule and ensured the armed police force was 100 per cent loyal.
While Protestant and Catholic workers were encouraged to see each other as enemies they both suffered lower wages and higher unemployment than in Britain. Connolly hoped rebellion could stop partition and the deepening of division within the Irish working class.
Today Connolly speaks more than ever to disaffection with the state of Ireland. In the Republic the centenary of the 1916 Rising could not have come at worst time for the ruling class. The state had been shaken by a mass rebellion against the imposition of water rates. That was the driving force behind the election of six representatives of the radical left People Before Poverty-Anti Austerity Alliance to parliament in February’s election, where the outgoing coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour took a drubbing. The centenary celebrations could not ignore Connolly and his radical message and the tide of grassroots events showed there was a mood for a new rebellion, albeit one without arms.
In Northern Ireland Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party jointly run a state in the interests of the corporations, pursuing a neo-liberal agenda with zeal. The return to armed struggle supported by dissident republicans is a dead end. Connolly’s stress on the self-activity of the working class offers a way out and a way of breaking sectarianism.
Connolly deserves to be remembered and honoured as an international socialist who still speaks to us today.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound: books that made me a socialist
- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win