By Jim Slaven
“Of all the men whom I have ever known or could ever read of in a tome of history, there is not one who brought a cleaner soul, a more disinterested enthusiasm or a courage more undaunted to the service of the working people than did James Connolly” – John Leslie
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.
Of course, on one level we already know James Connolly. After last year’s centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising we might think we have been there and done that. But have we? His execution by the British state for his role in the 1916 Rising has certainly secured his position, right next to Patrick Pearse’s Zeus, in the pantheon of Irish nationalist martyrs. But does that tell us all we need to know about Connolly, his politics and relevance today? Perhaps this focus on his death rather than his life has impeded our understanding of Connolly?
Following his execution James Connolly has enjoyed (or endured) a strange afterlife. In fact, it could be argued subsequent attempts to understand or explain his life and motivations have led to a life lived backwards. Everything begins at the end. All his political writings and actions are viewed through the prism of his participation in the Easter Rising and his subsequent execution.
This reduction of Connolly’s life, and eliding of his revolutionary politics, to fit with a bourgeois nationalist narrative began almost immediately following his execution. For example, WB Yeats is explicit in his poem Easter 1916 that he is placing Connolly among the nationalist dead. His name to be forever placed in a simple list.
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Here Connolly is situated firmly in the nationalist pantheon alongside other executed leaders of the Rising. However, while it could be argued those other leaders of 1916 where motivated primarily by Irish independence the same cannot be said of James Connolly. In this version of Connolly his support for independence is front and centre- to be remembered ‘wherever Green is worn’- but his socialism, feminism, trade unionism and internationalism are missing. We know these aspects of his life exist but like the darkness in a good Eugene O’Neill play they are forever off stage.
Clearly this nationalist version of Connolly was useful to the fledgling Irish Free State during the process of state formation, which followed the counter-revolution and partition. But it is less useful in gaining an understanding of Connolly the theoretician or ‘organic intellectual’. In the 100 years since the Easter Rising almost every political party in Ireland has quoted James Connolly while eschewing his politics at every opportunity. This process could be said to have reached its zenith in last year’s 1916 centenary events when even the banks on Dublin’s O’Connell Street were adorned with pictures of Connolly.
Another poem, this time by one of Scotland’s greatest poets, Sorely MacLean gives us a fuller picture of Connolly, his background and politics.
The great hero is still
sitting on the chair
fighting the battle in the Post Office
and cleaning streets in Edinburgh.
In this poem Connolly’s personal history and proletarian character re-emerge to give us a more rounded image of the man and his motivations. Tellingly though, this stanza comes at the end of a poem entitled The National Museum of Ireland and is written after MacLean had observed the blood-stained shirt Connolly had worn as he faced a British Army firing squad. So again, the starting point is Connolly’s martyrdom.
Sorley MacLean rightly reconnects Connolly with Edinburgh, his home city and the place he lived in longer than any other. The Cowgate that Connolly was born in was a place of abject poverty. Connolly was born at 107 Cowgate which was situated just yards away from the foot of George IV Bridge, one of several bridges built in Edinburgh’s Old Town not to cross stretches of water but to jump over streets and buildings. Alexander Smith, a writer visiting Edinburgh in 1865, just three years before Connolly was born observed,
“The Cowgate is the Irish portion of the city. Edinburgh leaps over it with bridges: the inhabitants are morally and geographically the lower orders. They keep to their own quarters, and seldom come up to the light of day. Many an Edinburgh man has never set his foot in the street: the condition of the inhabitants is as little known to respectable Edinburgh as are the habits of moles, earth worms and the mining population. The people of the Cowgate seldom visit the upper streets.”
Existence in the Cowgate was a near subterranean existence. In the year of Connolly’s birth Edinburgh Corporation published a paper entitled ‘A Report on the Conditions of the Poorer Classes in Edinburgh’ which gives us a detailed insight into the area during this period. The report describes the homes of the working class as ‘dens’, 72% of which are single room units. It covers an area of slums including the Cowgate, High Street, Canongate, Grassmarket. The report shows that, in relative terms, the Cowgate is considerably worse than the rest. For example, while on average across the broader area 47% of the head of households are employed in regular employment, the figure is 15% in Cowgate. And while 62% of children in Cowgate are ‘idle’ (no schooling or employment) the next highest figure is 30%. The Cowgate and surrounding area was also described by The Scotsman during this period as ‘an Irish colony’ and widely known as Little Ireland. Connolly’s parents, John and Mary, were not only working class, they were also immigrants.
The Edinburgh Irish community Connolly was born into was not just one of enduring poverty it was also one reviled by the indigenous population. From the beginning of the nineteenth century the numbers of Irish immigrants arriving in Scotland had been steadily rising. The industrial revolution in lowland Scotland brought with it huge demand for low cost labour to build the canals, railways and road, and work in the factories and mines. The Irish who arrived in Scotland were arriving into host communities with pre-existing ideas of the Irish and Irishness. These ideas were based around specific discourses about racialism, national identity and state formation based not only on centuries of British occupation of Ireland but also underpinned by cultural and scientific racism.
Etienne Balibar has argued that in France the ‘Arab-Islamic’ community tend to suffer a double hit of discrimination. As they are seen in a colonial racist context to be inferior while at the same time their religion marks them out for cultural racism and cast as alien. A similar process has impacted on the experience of the Irish in Scotland. That both racism framing the Irish as inferior, in the context of Britain’s long colonial relationship with Ireland, and racism framing the Irish (Catholic) as alien from the British/Scottish (Protestant) occurred. This overdetermination of exclusion based on religion with exclusion based on race posited the Catholic Irish as a racialized Other in Scotland.
Both these factors, the social and economic conditions in the Cowgate area and the specific racialized location of the Irish in Scotland, had a huge influence on Connolly both as a person and in his later political and theoretical work. Like many other working class kids Connolly (and his brother John) joined the British Army in a bid to escape poverty and destitution.
‘Suddenly, however, there arises the voice of the worker’- Karl Marx
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 annually.
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 Easy.
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.
“Here’s to you, Connolly, my man. Who cast the last torch on the pile” – AE (George Russell)
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 and deserves to be quoted at length.
“A great continental uprising of the working class would stop the war; a universal protest at public meetings will not save a single life from being wantonly slaughtered.
I make no war upon patriotism; never have done. But against the patriotism of capitalism – the patriotism which makes the interest of the capitalist class the supreme test of duty and right – I place the patriotism of the working class, the patriotism which judges every public act by its effect upon the fortunes of those who toil. That which is good for the working class I esteem patriotic, but that party or movement is the most perfect embodiment of patriotism which most successfully works for the conquest by the working class of the control of the destinies of the land wherein they labour.
To me, therefore, the socialist of another country is a fellow-patriot, as the capitalist of my own country is a natural enemy. I regard each nation as the possessor of a definite contribution to the common stock of civilisation, and I regard the capitalist class of each nation as being the logical and natural enemy of the national culture which constitutes that definite contribution.
Therefore, the stronger I am in my affection for national tradition, literature, language, and sympathies, the more firmly rooted I am in my opposition to that capitalist class which in its soulless lust for power and gold would bray the nations as in a mortar.
Reasoning from such premises, therefore, this war appears to me as the most fearful crime of the centuries. In it the working class are to be sacrificed that a small clique of rulers and armament makers may sate their lust for power and their greed for wealth. Nations are to be obliterated, progress stopped, and international hatreds erected into deities to be worshipped.”
The group of international anti-war socialists which included Connolly also included Lenin, Debs, John Reed, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Leibknecht and John Maclean. These leaders often opposed the war for different reasons or from different standpoints. For Connolly’s part, 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.
For Connolly political independence without the economic reorganisation of society was, to paraphrase Connolly, not worth crossing the street for. During his time in Edinburgh Connolly had been influenced by John Leslie’s talks on the National Question, which were later published as The Present Position of the Irish Question. Leslie rejected the idea that “the Alpha and Omega of the Irish Question consists in the hoisting of the green and gold banner above the old Parliament House in Dublin”.
Recognising the economic dominance British Capital would continue to hold over any future capitalist independent Ireland. Especially an independent Ireland led by a bourgeois class which the British themselves had developed and installed. Decades later, this problem Connolly had identified and studied would be expanded to other countries and become the theory of neo-colonialism. In 1897 Connolly would use language similar to Leslie’s to make his point.
“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would 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. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed.”
Connolly viewed the situation of the working class as being like a war, a class war. He often used military terminology and made no apologies for doing so. He had enormous faith in the working class as agents of social change and viewed the idea that working class socialists should defer to the middle class, even in the same organisation, as an anathema. Writing of his theoretical disputes with De Leon and Henry Hyndman, the pro-war leader of SDF in Britain, he said.
“Neither in Great Britain nor America can a working class socialist expect common fairness from his comrades if he enters into a controversy with a trusted leader from a class above them. The howl that greets every such attempt whether directed against a Hyndman in England or a De Leon in America sounds wonderfully alike, and everywhere is but the accents of an army, not of revolutionary fighters but of half-emancipated slaves.”
One of the several disagreement Connolly had with Daniel De Leon in the US was over women’s rights. Connolly had long been an advocate of universal suffrage while De Leon considered support for women’s rights to be reformist at best and a complete waste of time at worst. Connolly objected long and hard to De Leon’s analysis of the issue. Indeed, around this time Connolly seems to have decided the women’s rights should not just be part of a political programme but should be a key part of the socialist movement. For the rest of his life Connolly insisted on showing by deed, as well as word, that the struggle for women’s rights and the working-class struggle could and should advance together within one movement.
Connolly was considerably ahead of his time in this regard. In a message of support sent to English suffragettes in 1913 Connolly writes ‘When the trimmers and the compromisers disavow you, a poor slum bred politician, I raise my hat in thanksgiving that I have lived to see this insurgence of women’. In the same year in a letter to his friend in Edinburgh, John Carstairs Matheson, on the issue Connolly writes, ‘The attitude of most socialists, including the chief socialist press in that matter is just beneath contempt. All glory to the women, say I.’ before adding (as if it needed added!) ‘I am with the militants all the way’. Connolly’s writing on women’s rights briefly broke into public consciousness in 1972 when John Lennon (describing as Connolly as ‘the great Irishman’) cited James Connolly’s writings on the issue as the inspiration for his song ‘Women is Nigger of the World’.
While undertheorized Connolly’s writings on race are also considerably ahead of their time. What Connolly describes as ‘race’ we would consider to be a discussion of ethnicity. Crucially, Connolly attempted to link theories of race with the colonisation of Ireland and the processes of racialisation inherent in imperialism. Through his diaspora experience, in both Scotland and the United States, Connolly identified how questions of race and identity politics could be used by the state and the ruling class to divide the working class. Connolly’s strategy was always to prioritise a multi-racial, class based movement for the transformation of society.
“Scots steel tempered wi’ Irish fire. Is the weapon that I desire“ – Hugh MacDiarmid
One of the tragedies of Connolly’s execution in 1916 is that we will never know how he would have responded to subsequent events. He never lived to see the Bolshevik Revolution or his comrade Eugene Debs get nearly 1 million votes in the 1920 US Presidential election (while imprisoned for his opposition to WW1) or the counter revolution in Ireland which saw the country partitioned and the subsequent ‘carnival of reaction’ that Connolly himself had predicted. And we will never be able to read his writings on these and other events or study his subsequent theoretical development.
In other words, James Connolly cannot give us answers to present questions. His writings are not roadmaps that we can pull off the shelf and use to guide us through our current political problems. They cannot be lifted out of their time and place. Neither are they sacred texts to be dusted down and quoted as political self-justification. Indeed, Connolly, who wrote “We are told to imitate Wolfe Tone, but the greatness of Wolfe Tone lay in the fact that he imitated nobody” would be the first to reject attempts at canonisation.
What we can and must do is learn to think like Connolly. To view the world as Connolly viewed the world. To think through his political philosophy for our political times. One of the many remarkable things about James Connolly was his ability to recognise his historical conjuncture and yet think outwith parameters which were set for him and his class. He could assess the political landscape, understand what needed to be done and articulate solutions which broke moulds.
In the corpus of Connolly’s work it is possible to identify tactical shifts and change of emphasis. This is often suggested by critics as evidence of Connolly’s uncertainty or even of theoretical drift between socialism and nationalism. However, Connolly’s rejection of dogma and teleological theories, such as those advanced by De Leon, should be welcomed. Connolly approached politics in an aleatory manner. Judging every encounter by its revolutionary potential. Stating in 1913 “We ﬁght as conditions dictate; we meet new conditions with new policies. Those who choose may keep old policies to meet new conditions. We cannot and will not try.” Connolly was among the first theorists to adapt Marxist theory from the perspective of the colonised. Later Gramsci, Mao and Fanon, to name but a few, would follow this path in reworking Marxism for their specific environment.
We need to rethink Connolly’s writings from a working class and anti-colonial perspective rather than within a nationalist framework. Machiavelli has written that ‘one must be the People in order to know the Prince’. As Louis Althusser argues ‘there is no other means to be ‘people’ than to become so, through practical experience in the struggle of this people’. In other words, to take the theoretical class standpoint of the proletariat. We can only achieve this through immersing ourselves (our activism and analysis) in the day to day struggles of the working class. There are no shortcuts.
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. Put differently, we need to reinvent politics in Connolly’s image. In 1936 English working class playwright Montagu Slater opened his play Easter 1916, which prominently features Connolly and his family, with the following appeal.
“We present a play about YOU (points to the audience), all of you, sitting there, watching and watching….yourselves. No fiction. No high-falutin inventions more or less convincing, but a plain narrative of things that you know happened and- well- things you make happen. We want a few of you to come on the stage and act.”
This could easily be a call for our generation and our class. The working class need to once again ‘come on the stage and act’. Whether the rebel history of James Connolly and his comrades can inspire us to, if not emulation, then at least organisation, remains to be seen. One things is for certain in the age of global Trumpism there has never been a better time to return to Connolly.
Jim Slaven is a writer, artist and educator based in Edinburgh. A founding member of the James Connolly Society and creator of 107 Cowgate, whose events and tours explore Edinburgh’s history and future from a working class perspective, his work looks at the intersection of race, nation and class.
Jim is Connolly 150 project coordinator. He tweets @JimSlaven
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