James Connolly’s vision never realised

Connolly’s tragedy was that his vision of a workers’ republic largely died with him in 1916, as the new independent Ireland became shaped by nationalist and conservative forces

Portrait of James Connolly by Mick O’Dea

At the heart of the 1916 rising was a Marxist revolutionary socialist, James Connolly. This inconvenient truth was largely hidden from the Irish population for many decades. Nationalist Ireland preferred to portray Connolly as a Vincent de Paul-type figure who was “concerned” about poverty.

The distortion of Connolly's beliefs began soon after his execution. Countess Markievicz, for example, wrote a pamphlet (James Connolly and Catholic Doctrine) in which she stated 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, including those celebrating British working class solidarity during 1913. Even as late as 1968, when left-wing ideas were in vogue across Europe, 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".

Connolly was born into a working class family and grew up in an Irish slum in Cowgate, Edinburgh. Poverty drove him into the British army at the age of 14 and he was sent to serve in Ireland. When he heard that his regiment was being transferred to India, he deserted and returned to Scotland. There he became active in the socialist movement and from a very early stage stood on its revolutionary wing.


When the miners' leader, Keir Hardie, was forming the British Labour Party, 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 election in 1894, Connolly dismissed talk of trying to reform the system from within. On the contrary, he wrote 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”.

In 1896, he responded to an advertisement seeking a socialist organiser in Dublin and took up the position. He then set about forming the Irish Socialist Republican Party.

Throughout his life, Connolly kept in touch with the international Marxist movement. This was organised through the Second International, a grouping of socialist parties mainly based in Europe.

By the early 20th century, the seeds of a social democratic strategy of reforming rather than overthrowing capitalism was growing within it. Overall, the Second International had a mechanical view of how society was transformed, believing that changes in the economic base of society made socialism inevitable. Socialist activity was, therefore, primarily about propaganda and preparation for elections rather than instigating militant working class action.

Connolly was a rebel who stood on the left of the Second International. He opposed the participation of French socialist Alexandre Millerand in a coalition government with right-wing forces. He also took a more revolutionary attitude towards parliamentary democracy.

Connolly argued that the “democracy of parliament is in short the democracy of capitalism. Capitalism gives the worker the right to choose his master but insists that the fact of mastership shall remain unquestioned: parliamentary democracy gives to the worker the right to a voice in the selection of his rulers but insists that he shall bend as a subject to be ruled.”

He insisted that socialism did not simply mean state ownership, but suggested that “it implies above all things the co-operative control of workers of the machinery of production”. Without this grassroots workers’ control, “the public ownership by the state is not socialism – it is only state capitalism”.

These views initially led Connolly to engage with a narrow-minded version of revolutionary socialism that he encountered in De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party in America. Connolly had emigrated to the US after the collapse of the small Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1903.

However, he soon broke with this insular organisation and became an organiser with the Industrial Workers of the World, which was a militant union. This was inspired by syndicalist ideas that had developed in a number of countries in the aftermath of the first Russian Revolution of 1905. The IWW believed a general strike was the best way to end capitalism and usher in socialism. Connolly embraced this outlook and sought to create “One Big Union” which would impose workers’ control over the capitalist class in each factory where they gained strength. It would then, he hoped, organise a general strike to lock out the employers.

In his 1909 pamphlet, Socialism Made Easy, he explained what would happen next: "Would you confiscate the property of the capitalist class and rob men of that which they have, perhaps, worked a whole life to accumulate?

“Yes sir, and certainly not. We would certainly confiscate the property of the capitalist class but we do not propose to rob anyone. On the contrary, we propose to establish honesty once and forever as the basis of our social relations. The socialist movement is indeed worthy to be entitled The Great Anti-Theft Movement of the Twentieth Century.”

Connolly later came to believe in the need for a broad left socialist party. When Home Rule for Ireland appeared to be in sight, he proposed the formation of a Labour Party– but he died before this project came to full fruition.

Connolly also broke from the orthodoxy on the Second International in his approach to Irish national freedom. The dominant grouping within it suggested that as the working class movement in the colonies was weak – mainly due to the lack of industrial development – they would have wait until the socialist movement in the metropolitan countries would bring change.

Connolly disputed this and boldly proclaimed that Irish freedom and socialism were interlinked. He wrote his classic book, Labour 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 investments binding them to English capitalism".

The working class, he argued, were 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. This would, its nationalist advocates suggested, bring about an Irish republic in which socio-economic relations would remain the same.

Instead, Connolly argued that the struggle for Irish freedom needed to culminate in a workers’ republic, and he advanced two main reasons why was necessary.

If the working class were to really mobilise for Irish independence, Connolly suggested that they would not stop, having achieved 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 made the following reply:

“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 property 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 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 partition 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,

“When the Sinn Feiner,” he wrote, “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.”

In August 1914, the first World War broke out and eventually led to 17 million deaths. Connolly saw the war as a product of an imperialist order that had grown out of a profit-driven system.

He was resolutely opposed to the way the future leaders of Europe’s labour parties supported their own respective country’s war efforts. He summed up his own attitude by stating that “the signal of war ought to have been the signal of rebellion . . . when the bugle sounded the first note for actual war, their notes should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution”.

He was determined to act, to foment an insurrection. He wanted to strike a blow both for Irish freedom and to undermine the imperialist and capitalist world order. He thought that a revolt in Ireland against the British Empire would have a ripple effect around the world. Connolly’s problem was that the labour movement had been crushed in the 1913 Lockout and had neither the political or organisational coherence to embrace his vision.

His impatience led him to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He became one of main instigators of an uprising. He cajoled, mocked and urged the IRB to take on the road of insurrection.

Eventually, after an apparent “kidnapping”, he reached agreement with its leaders on practical plans.

In Connolly’s mind, there was not the slightest intention of taking part in a “blood sacrifice”. He regarded all such talk as that of a “blithering idiot” and regarded the first World War as the field where this talk was acted out.

Even while joining with his IRB allies, Connolly urged his supporters to “hold on to their guns” because they were fighting for a different Ireland.

Connolly was executed with British guns, but it is often forgotten that Ireland’s employer class also wanted rid of their most dangerous enemy.

Connolly was one of the last to be executed, and there were cries for clemency. But William Martin Murphy’s press campaigned for his execution warning that “too great a leniency” would be taken as evidence of government weakness.

Connolly’s brilliance as a revolutionary was to link the fight for Irish freedom with a plan to uproot capitalism – to strive not just for a republic, but a Workers’ Republic.

His tragedy was that his vision largely died with him, and the newly independent Ireland was shaped more by the ideas of Arthur Griffith.

Griffith opposed the rising, but his concept of a free-market society that showed little concern for trade union rights won out after the counter-revolution of 1922. Connolly’s vision has yet to be realised.

Kieran Allen teaches in the school of sociology at University College Dublin and is the author of 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition