Posted by Jim on February 3, 2018
The following is an abridged article written by Jim Slaven of the James
June 5th 2018 will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of James
Connolly in Edinburgh’s Cowgate. This will provide us with an
opportunity to reappraise Connolly’s life and work. Not to merely
commemorate or recall the dates that mark out significant chapters and
events in his life, but rather to meaningfully engage with the man, his
writings and his philosophy.
Like many other working class kids, Connolly (and his brother John)
joined the British Army in a bid to escape poverty and destitution.
After seven years Connolly absconded from the British Army and spent
time in Dundee and Perth (where he married Lillie Reynolds, an Irish
Protestant he had met in Dublin) before Connolly returned to live in
Edinburgh, back in Little Ireland. Connolly took up employment as a
manure carter (as his father had before him) and immersed himself in
political activity with the Scottish Socialist Federation. Quickly
establishing himself as one of the key writers, orators and organisers
in the city. Within a few short years he had twice stood for election in
the St Giles ward in the city. He also became active in the Social
Democratic Federation and in the Independent Labour Party in the city
once it was founded by Keir Hardie.
During this period Connolly studied socialist writings, including those
of Marx and Engels (it is said he taught himself French and German
sufficiently to read texts that were not yet available in English).
Edinburgh during the 1890’s was the hub of socialist activism in
Scotland and a wide variety of political influences were embraced by the
young Connolly. As well as Irish nationalism, the teeming tenements of
Little Ireland and the surrounding area where home to exiles from the
Paris Commune and Fenian movement, Scottish republicans, Chartists and
socialists of varying international hues.
In Edinburgh Connolly was introduced to a wide range of individuals some
of whom influenced him and his thinking greatly. The city was a fertile
intellectual, political and cultural environment for the young Connolly.
Figures such as visionary sociologist and urban planner Patrick Geddes
and anarchist Peter Kropotkin mixed with socialists of various strands.
These included fellow Little Ireland resident John Leslie a poet and
activist, and the likes of Keir Hardie, Eleanor Marx and William Morris.
Another influence was exiled Communard Leo Melliot who famously told an
Edinburgh meeting commemorating the Commune that ‘without the shedding
of blood there is no social salvation’. The influence of the Paris
Commune on Connolly’s political thinking could be seen in the decades
that followed. Throughout his life Connolly commemorated the Commune
After the failure of his cobbler’s shop, and now married with three
young children, Connolly said he was going to buy a mirror to watch
himself starve to death. He even considered leaving Edinburgh and
politics for good and emigrating to Chile. Only the intervention of his
friend and comrade John Leslie dissuaded him. And in 1896 after an
appeal by Leslie he was offered the position of paid organiser with the
Dublin Socialist Club. He accepted and moved to Ireland.
Within days of arriving in Ireland Connolly made his famous statement
that “The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects: it is national and
it is social”. Shortly thereafter this was expounded in more detail in
the manifesto of the newly established Irish Socialist Republican Party
(ISRP). This highlights that these are not ideas Connolly came to later
in life or even in Ireland. These were ideas Connolly arrived in Ireland
with, having developed them in the Irish milieu of the Cowgate.
It was during this period of Connolly’s life that he began to develop
his theoretical writings with the publications of Erin’s Hope. He also
began writing for the journal of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party
in the United States. Although a small organisation the ISRP and
Connolly were leading public protests against Queen Victoria’s Diamond
Jubilee and the Boer War. A war Connolly said was motivated to
facilitate ‘an unscrupulous gang of capitalists to get into their hands
the immense riches of the diamond fields’.
His time in Dublin, like the rest of his life, was marked by severe
poverty. With an expanding family (the Connolly’s now had six children)
and limited job opportunities Connolly decided to emigrate to the United
States in 1903. The following year he was joined by his family, however
his eldest child, Mona, died in a tragic accident as the family prepared
to leave Dublin.
Initially a member of the SLP however Connolly clashed repeatedly with
De Leon and a mutual antipathy was not long in the making. Throughout
his life Connolly forthrightly shared his opinions (and disagreements)
on any issue he chose. De Leon was famous for his intolerance of those
who disagreed with him within the SLP and socialist movement.
While Connolly was in the US the International Workers of the World
(IWW) was formed, known as the Wobblies. Adopting a syndicalist approach
of the One Big Union, Connolly immediately joined and became an
organiser. Throughout his time in the US Connolly travelled extensively
giving speeches and organising. In 1908 Connolly toured the United
States in support of Eugene Debs Presidential campaign. During this
period Connolly continued to write both for papers and more theoretical
works. While in the US he also wrote plays, published a pamphlet of his
songs entitled Songs of Freedom and his popular book Socialism Made
On his return to Ireland in 1910 Connolly was determined to adapt the
IWW’s approach of industrial unionism to Irish conditions and joined the
Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), which had been formed
by Jim Larkin during Connolly’s time in the United States. Connolly
worked as an organiser in Belfast attempting to unite Catholic and
Protestant workers in ITGWU activity. This, and the Catholic Church’s
vociferous attacks on socialism in Ireland, led Connolly to rethink the
relationship between religion and ideology.
As ever Connolly continued to write with Labour, Nationality and
Religion and then Labour in Irish History being published. Labour in
Irish History remains a classic work which reframes Irish history from
the perspective of the working class. This established Connolly’s
reputation as an original thinker, theoretician and Marxist historian.
One of the defining workers struggles between Labour and Capital on
these islands was the 1913 Dublin Lockout when the ITGWU, led by
Connolly and Larkin, faced the owner of the Dublin Tramways, William
Martin Murphy. In Murphy, the workers were up against an immensely
powerful and immensely class-conscious opponent. At one point involving
20,000 workers the sheer scale and ferocity of the lockout shook Irish
society and the British Empire. After British police attacked, and
killed, workers James Connolly concluded the only way for workers to
protect themselves from state violence was to create a worker’s militia.
The Irish Citizens Army was born. This army, of and for the working
class, is recognised as the first of its kind in the world.
After the British union bureaucracy refused to call out their members in
solidarity the lockout was defeated. The struggle of the workers and the
violent state response led many Irish nationalist to conclude any
nationalist movement must have a social dimension. The lockout confirmed
Connolly’s view that only when the Irish people were in control of their
own destiny, without outside interference or impediment, could Irish
workers be free. The pieces were falling into place for revolution. The
question was would an opportunity present itself?
The outbreak of the war in 1914 provided Connolly with an opportunity to
underline his principled approach to political action. As the left
across the world abandoned their previous opposition to the war in
favour of national chauvinism, Connolly held firm. He now found himself
in a small band of principled socialists campaigning against the world
war. His experiences in the British Army left Connolly with an abiding
hatred of militarism and the British military in particular. The
anti-war writing produced by Connolly during this period are among his
very best writing. For Connolly the failure of the vast majority of
socialists to hold the anti-war line and support the war confirmed his
view that Ireland must seize the opportunity for revolution and
independence, both national and social. Britain’s role in a world war
was, for Connolly, an opportunity working class revolutionaries could
not pass up. Ireland was on the road to Easter 1916 and revolution.
Throughout his political life Connolly’s view on Irish independence was
consistent. He viewed Britain’s involvement in Ireland as a disaster. He
identified, however, that a nationalist movement led by the middle class
would be unable to complete the ‘reconquest’ he viewed as essential.
Such a nationalist movement would demand political freedom but would be
unable to demand economic freedom. Firstly, because the bourgeois
nationalist is unable to think outside the logic of the capitalism
system and secondly because their own economic position, privileged
relative to the working class, is a direct result of economic oppression
imposed on the people of Ireland by British colonisation. Connolly’s
solution was simple but revolutionary: the working class must lead the
struggle for political and economic freedom.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of his birth we need to re-engage
Connolly’s life and work with the working class he fought for every day
of his life. To channel his rage at injustice and his determination to
fight for those marginalised, silenced and excluded under capitalism. To
use his love of life and politics and culture and humour to give people
hope and optimism.