In the first of our series looking at significant revolutionary figures, Chris Bambery asks what Irish republican James Connolly can tell us about the link between national liberation struggles and the fight for socialism
Connolly was a revolutionary socialist and trade union organiser in Scotland, where he was born of Irish parents, the United States and Ireland. He participated in the great debates of the international socialist movement at the beginning of the last century, standing on its revolutionary wing.
He would end his life being driven into the yard of Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail, strapped to a chair because of an ankle wound which had become gangrenous. Set down he was propped up and then shot dead by a British army firing squad. His sentence of execution, handed down by a military tribunal, was for his leading role in the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, when republicans and Connolly’s socialist Irish Citizens’ Army had taken over the city centre, declared an Irish Republic free of British colonial rule, and defied an Empire which had to use artillery to blast them into submission.
Connolly saw the rising as a blow against British colonialism but also against the ongoing slaughter of the First World War, one which might encourage working class rebellion against that slaughter. And those were the reasons that the Russian revolutionary leader, Lenin, cited in his defence of the rebellion.
Connolly had begun studying the Irish question in his home town of Edinburgh, where he was born in the city’s small Irish migrant ghetto. He joined a gifted group of socialists there who helped him develop a Marxism which was not mechanical in seeing the victory of socialism as inevitable. As socialist parties across Europe adapted to parliamentary politics he argued socialism had to be fought for and won from the capitalist class and state.
Influenced by the American Industrial Workers of the World he came to believe in a struggle that centred on building “one big union” which could launch a revolutionary general strike. After a spell in Ireland he crossed the Atlantic to become an IWW organiser before returning to organise the Irish Transport Workers Union.
Connolly argued that the Irish capitalist class, weak as it was, was too tied to global capital and too feared of its own working class to ever fight for national liberation.
The importance of Connolly is that he understood that as a socialist you had to combine the fight for national liberation with the fight for social and economic freedom. Too often socialists simply champion the latter while nationalists and Irish republicans have concentrated on achieving national freedom.
In Ireland, the republicans fought British control of Northern Ireland for three decades but having had to accept they could not defeat the British state – and the British state realising it could not totally defeat them – compromised and came to terms with their old enemy. For most of the last three decades Sinn Fein has been in government in Northern Ireland, in coalition with Theresa May’s chums, the Democratic Unionists, implementing austerity measures.
In the Irish Republic they are in opposition and adopt a more radical stance but have not ruled out going into coalition with neo-liberal parties supposedly more sympathetic to Irish unity.
The division of Ireland has created a state in Northern Ireland with low wages, high unemployment and entrenched sectarianism. In the Irish Republic corporations benefit from low taxes but workers pick up that tab and suffer from inadequate welfare provision.
This is what Connolly meant when he warned that the partition of Ireland “would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South.”
His stress that the fight for national liberation can only be fully achieved under socialism remains as relevant today as it did then.
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