31 August 2002
BBC online poll: James Connolly voted onto 100 'Greatest' people
James Connolly (1868-1916), the Irish socialist
revolutionary, Marxist thinker and working class martyr, has been included
amongst '100 Greatest Britons' in a BBC online poll, the results of which were
Over 30,000 people took part in the survey, which
was conducted for a forthcoming BBC television series that will eventually
whittle down the list to the 'top ten Great Britons'.
Connolly can be included in the survey because the
BBC decided that, "nominations included anyone who was born in the British
Isles, including Ireland; or anyone who lived in the British Isles, including
Ireland, and who has played a significant part in the life of the British
This type of online poll is of course not the most
rigorous of scientific indicators. The 'Greatest Britons' list is quite an
eclectic mix, including modern day 'pop stars', royals, 'war heroes' like
Churchill, and also scientists, engineers and inventors.
Nevertheless, alongside the nomination of Tony Benn,
the ex-Labour Left MP, and protest artists, such as John Lennon, the inclusion
of a historic figure like James Connolly is significant. Clearly this
outstanding revolutionary strikes a chord with working people and youth today.
Connolly is well known in Ireland (although his life and ideas are often
distorted beyond recognition by a wide variety of class interests and
ideologies hostile to socialism and the working class), so he would always
figure high in a similar poll run by the Irish broadcasting services, for
example. But the BBC poll would also indicate that Connolly is renowned and
admired amongst internet-users in Britain as well.
It is not surprising Connolly is an inspiring symbol
to many people today, given his heroic struggle against oppression and class
injustice and the mighty class battles in which he played a central role in at
the turn of the last century. A summary of his life will illustrate the
enormous contribution he made to the Irish, British, US and international
[Return to Contents]
James Connolly was born in 1868, in Edinburgh and
into great poverty. His parents were Irish exiles from the Great Famine and
James grew up in the slums of Irish immigrants.
Relentless poverty meant that at ten years old
Connolly was forced to work in the printing trade. Like many working class
people before and since, he joined up to the British army in a bid to improve
his conditions. He served in Ireland, where the experience of British
oppression at first hand fired a lifelong indignation against imperialism.
Connolly subsequently deserted the army.
After returning to Scotland, Connolly took up
various manual jobs and was active in local socialist circles. He studied
Marxist ideas and soon displayed brilliant speaking, organising and writing
talents - an incredible achievement given that Connolly was a self-educated
man. In 1893 he stood for the local council in Edinburgh and received a respectable
vote, which quickly convinced the local authorities to sack him from his job as
a 'carter' (sewage disposal). He became Secretary of the Scottish Socialist
Federation in 1895.
Connolly always maintained a deep interest in events
in Ireland and was able in 1896 to leave with his young family to take up the
post of paid organiser with the Dublin Socialist Club. He published Erin's Hope
(1897) and The New Evangel (1901) during this time, works that argued for
national liberation of Ireland and for the unity of the Catholic and Protestant
working class in a struggle for socialism. He founded the Irish Socialist
Republican Party, which played an important role in the development of the
Irish labour movement.
Unable to maintain his young family on irregular and
pitiful wages, and after clashes with reformist tendencies in the ISRP,
Connolly reluctantly returned to Scotland. He played a central role in setting
up the Socialist Labour Party, but they could not afford to pay him an
organiser's wage. He then set sail for the US in 1902. He took up a post
as an organiser for the American Socialist Labour Party on the east coast.
However he soon became involved in a polemical dispute with one of its leaders,
Daniel de Leon, and despaired at the party's sectarian isolationism.
Afterwards, Connolly became a worker for the International Workers of the World
(IWW-'The Wobblies'), which was established in 1905. He set up the Irish
Socialist Federation in 1907, to help bring Irish workers into the growing US
labour movement, and also worked as an organiser for the Socialist Party of
[Return to Contents]
He published 'Socialism Made Easy' while in the
States, which has become a classic exposition of socialist ideas. In 1910,
Connolly's major work, 'Labour in Irish History', a socialist analysis of
Ireland over the centuries, was produced. As the title signifies, Connolly saw
the struggle to end national oppression in Ireland inextricably linked to the
struggle for social and economic emancipation.
The book poured scorn on the weak and corrupt
bourgeois leaders of the Irish national movement, who had shown in history that
they were more afraid of the aroused Irish working masses than they wanted to
be rid of the domination of British capital. The Irish bosses and middle
classes had betrayed he fight for national liberation, Connolly forcefully
argued, and only the modern working class could lead the fight for
independence. He went on to say that achieving real, lasting liberation meant
re-organising society, for a 'workers' republic', with a socialist economy.
Otherwise, the island would be still dominated by imperialism, not directly by
armed force, but by big business and the big banks and finance houses, and
Irish workers would remain exploited, by foreign capital and by the local
bosses. This perspective was later borne out with the creation of the 26-county
Irish state in the early 1920s. The 'Free State' was burdened by imperialism
and remained economically and socially backward and underdeveloped, leading to
Connolly longed to be directly involved in the Irish
labour movement and was able eventually to return to Ireland in 1910. He took
up a post with the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU). This
came at an important time, as the Irish working class was growing and unskilled
workers were becoming increasingly organised. Under the leadership of Connolly
and James Larkin, another giant of the Labour movement, the ITGWU was to the
fore in the mighty class battles that shook Ireland prior to the First World
Connolly was also heartened by the fact that many
socialists were also now at last working together in the Socialist Party of
Ireland. In 1912, he helped form the more broadly based Independent Labour
Party, and successfully proposed that the Irish TUC establish a Labour Party.
In the North, in Belfast, Connolly helped lead a
Textile workers strike in Belfast in 1911, when mainly Catholic and Protestant
female workers fought the bosses over atrocious pay and conditions. He also
organised anti-sectarian demonstrations under the ITGWU banner, during the rise
of sectarian conflict around the question of 'Home Rule' for Ireland.
The biggest battle came in 1913, when Dublin
employers who wanted to smash the militant ITGWU locked thousands of workers
out of work. A mighty battle ensued, with Connolly and Larkin organising mass
resistance by the city's workers and spreading solidarity action throughout
Ireland and also in Britain where they received a great response from rank and
file workers. The right wing leaders of the British TUC however refused to
organise solidarity strike action, dealing a deadly blow to the Dublin
struggle. After six months, the locked out workers were starved back to work.
One of the revolutionary legacies of 1913 was the
creation of the Irish Citizen's Army (ICA), headed by Connolly. The ICA was an
armed force of the workers' movement, established to defend workers from the
police and scabs. The ICA had nothing in common with the individual terror
methods later employed by the IRA. Connolly saw the ICA as an open section of
the organised workers' movement. Its HQ was Liberty Hall, the offices of the
ITGWU, and the force was maintained by the subscriptions of union members.
The big class movements in Ireland were tragically
cut across by the outbreak of World War One. Along with Lenin and Trotsky in
Russia, Luxemburg in Germany and a handful of other socialists internationally,
Connolly opposed the imperialist bloodbath and stood for workers
internationalism. Most of the social democratic parties, despite years of
pledges to the opposite, supported 'their' nation in time of war. They acted as
recruiting sergeants for the 'Great War' bloodbath, which saw the loss of
millions of young working class lives.
[Return to Contents]
Isolated, fearful that a renewal of class struggle
across Europe would take too long and alarmed that the British authorities
would introduce conscription in Ireland, Connolly decided it was necessary to
take decisive action that he hoped would set a revolutionary blaze on the
continent, ending the war and the rule of the bosses, Kings, Kaisers and Czars.
He entered an alliance with the middle class nationalist Irish Volunteers and
pushed for an uprising against British rule. A section of the Volunteers
reneged at the last minute and Connolly's ICA forces were left with the support
of more radical nationalists, including leaders like Padraig Pearse.
The conditions for an uprising were very
unfavourable; the working class was spent after the lockout and disorientated
by the war. The 'moderate' nationalists were even calling for Irish workers to
join up to fight in the trenches. Connolly nevertheless decided it was better
to take the fight to the British forces, to make a supreme sacrifice if
necessary, so as to provide an example for the oppressed to follow.
Connolly undoubtedly acted from the most noble and
self-sacrificing of motives: just compare his commitment to the cause of the
working class to that of the social democratic leaders who supported the war
and the careerist Labour leaders ever since! Nevertheless, Connolly made
serious mistakes in entering his alliance with the radical nationalists in
1916. During Easter week, 1916, when the rising was launched at Dublin's
General Post Office (GPO) and other places in the city and throughout the
country, no appeal was made for a general strike. The vast majority of workers
were spectators on events. Connolly also made too many concessions to
programme, as can be seen from the text of the insurgents' 'Proclamation'.
Connolly however was quite clear about the class
character of the nationalists he fought alongside, and also about their
separate goals. He always stood for the building of independent organisations
of the working class and taught workers never to trust the middle class leaders
of the nationalist movement. A few days before Easter week, he told the ICA,
"The odds are a thousand to one. Burt if we should win, hold onto your
rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not
only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well."
After a few days of heavy British artillery
bombardment, the GPO was given up and the uprising was defeated. Seeking
vengeance, the authorities quickly moved to execute the leaders. Connolly was
shot, strapped to a chair because of wounds received during the fighting. Gone
was the greatest leader of the Irish working class and one of the foremost
Marxists anywhere in the world.
But Connolly's hopes of his sacrifice acting as a
trigger across Europe were not totally misplaced. Easter week became a rallying
cry for all those opposed to the war and social injustice. Lenin responded
enthusiastically to the courage and hope shown by the Dublin workers. Both he and
Trotsky sharply criticised those 'Marxists' internationally who condemned out
of hand the uprising as a 'putsch'.
Lenin also pointed out the limitations of the
rising: "The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely
when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured. Capitalism is
not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of
themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats".
Within two years, the mood changed against the war
across Europe, as the casualties mounted at the front and conditions worsened
at home. In Russia, the situation was especially dire and this sparked off
revolutionary events and because of the existence of a disciplined and
experienced revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, the working class was able to
take power in 1917.
Although Connolly had formed and built up small
socialist parties, he had not devised a party along the lines of Lenin's
Bolsheviks, which could maintain his class independence and Marxist ideas. The
leadership of the Labour movement after Connolly's death was weak, lacked his
Marxist understanding and acquiesced to the interests of the radical
nationalists who came to dominate the revolutionary struggles that erupted in
Ireland from 1918 onwards. The other giant of the working class, Jim Larkin,
had left for the US after the 1913 defeat and was persecuted for his 'communist
activities' by the US authorities. The 'leadership' of the Labour movement in
Ireland fell to reformist figures like William O'Brien, who despite his public
allegiance to Connolly, was not prepared to fight to overthrow capitalism and
to fundamentally change society. This was to prove disastrous for the working
[Return to Contents]
The betrayal of the working class was summed up in the
infamous phrase, 'Labour must wait', when the Labour Party stood back and
allowed Sinn Fein, a radical nationalist party, to contest the 1918 general
election (although Sinn Fein had played no part in the Easter week events).
Sinn Fein won a majority of seats and declared a provisional government.
Conservative individuals like Eamonn de Valera and Michael Collins came to
dominate the national and social struggle begun by workers and poor farmers
This policy by the Labour movement leaders was
complete anathema to the ideas of Connolly. He would never have countenanced a
separation of the social and economic struggle from right to fight for
self-determination, as all his writings and actions made abundantly clear.
Indeed, the combination of these struggles organically arose from conditions in
Ireland. During the War of Independence there were strong left movements, and
even revolutionary movements, such as the short lived Limerick Soviet in 1919.
Moreover, the national liberation movement was by no means homogenous.
Outstanding leaders like Liam Mellows advocated socialist revolution in
opposition to the pro-capitalist wing.
The guerilla struggle for independence had widespread support and the British authorities concluded they had to cut their
losses. As the rebel forces became exhausted, a deal was struck with Collins
and others that led to the partition of the island, with a separate Protestant
majority state created from six counties in the North. British imperialism at
this stage still needed important strategic and economic bases in the more
developed north. This provoked the "carnival of reaction" that
Connolly had long warned about. The setting up of the Unionist run state was
accompanied by vicious pogroms against the Catholic minority and labour
movement activists. A short and brutal civil war in the 26-county southern
state ensued, which the pro-Treaty forces won. Two impoverished, Church
dominated states were carved out of the living body of Ireland. With the
victory of sectarianism and the bosses' system the cause of the working class
was set back for years.
[Return to Contents]
Connolly's legacy was not destroyed by the triumph
of reaction, however (although plenty of efforts were made in this direction by
the ruling classes). There were sporadic and important workers' struggles North
and South from the 1930s onwards that inevitably evoked his name (for example,
the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike of unemployed Catholic and Protestant workers in
Belfast). But without a capable Marxist leadership at the head of the mass
workers organisations, including the Southern Irish Labour Party and Northern
Ireland Labour Party, sectarian forces were able to exploit the situation and
In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a big
resurgence in the ideas of Connolly. In the North, the Civil Rights Movement
exploded and many young workers looked in Connolly's works for a way forward.
In the South, the Labour Party swung to the Left, and Connolly became more
Unfortunately, the potential big opportunities for
the working class were lost. The civil rights movement faced brutal repression
from the Unionist state and attacks from Unionist bigots, but rather that put
forward a clear socialist programme to win over poor Protestant workers, the
struggle for civil and social rights was misled by right wing nationalists. The
situation deteriorated drastically. Sectarian riots shook Belfast. To protect
their interests the British government sent in the army, which soon was used
against the Catholic minority. This resulted in outrages such as Bloody Sunday,
which saw the army shoot dead scores of civil rights protesters in Derry city.
Despairing of 'politics' Catholic youth flooded into the IRA, to 'hit back'.
Many believed they were fighting for some sort of socialist Ireland and were
'following' in Connolly's tradition. But the Provos' decades long policy of
individual terror, of a secret army using the bomb and bullet to achieve unity
of the island, could only antagonize Protestant workers and send many into the
arms of reactionary Unionist bigots such as Ian Paisley. Connolly, on the other
hand, had always based his actions on the mass workers' movement and sought to
build workers' unity against oppression and for a socialist future. He would
never have supported the completely counterproductive actions of the IRA and
other republican paramilitaries: which makes the fact that their deeds,
including sectarian killings, were often committed in Connolly's name, all the
In the South, the promise of the radical period in
the 1960s and early 1970s was also squandered. Connolly had always opposed the
workers' organisations sharing power with the parties of the ruling class, but
this did not stop the right wing Labour leadership in the South entering into
disastrous coalitions with the bosses' parties.
Despite the setbacks over the period of the
'Troubles', the working class in Ireland will again and again turn to
Connolly's legacy. Today, Connolly continues to have a huge influence. It seems
everyone wants to claim him. The main railway station in Dublin is named after
the great revolutionary. Both pro-peace process republicans and dissident
republicans maintain they are following in his footsteps. The comment Connolly
made about Theobald Wolfetone, the Protestant leader of the 1798 rebellion
against British rule, "Apostles of freedom are forever crucified while
living and sanctified when dead", applies just as much to him since 1916.
At the same time, in the last decade or so, many
academics have attacked Connolly and his ideas. Most often those denigrating
Connolly are ex-'Marxists', who are keen to expurgate their own pasts. But this
revisionist tendency also reflects the last thirty years of defeats, the surge
of sectarian reaction and the downturn in class struggle internationally
following the collapse of the Stalinist states (1989-1991). Some who claim to
be on the Left join with the professors in these attacks: they want to project
the failure of their own ideas on Connolly. Others on the Left 'defend'
Connolly and then go on to shoe-horn him into their own ultra left or sectarian
Of course there is no place for a cult of
personality and or hero worship approach in a serious evaluation of any great
Marxist, including the life and times of James Connolly. This method is always
wrong and will not help us understand his contribution. As Connolly was fond of
saying, the new generation of socialists should emulate the great Marxists of
yesteryear not unthinkingly imitate them. In other words, it is necessary to
examine the actions and ideas of past outstanding figures, such as Connolly, in
their living context and evolution, to enable an enriching of the movement
Certainly there is scope for a rigorous, in-depth
analysis of Connolly's role, which would take into account his enormous
achievements and also his mistakes, but this is not the place to carry out this
work. At any rate, the best way to appreciate Connolly is to read his writings.
The ITGWU and the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) have published his main
books, like Labour in Irish History. Yet there is still a wealth of Connolly's
writings unpublished and unseen by the wider public. This is quite
extraordinary given that Connolly was not just an activist and workers' leader,
par excellence, he was also a prolific writer, and an outstanding essayist and
polemicist, who wrote many books, articles, essays, tracts and maintained
According to Aindrias O Cathasaigh, the editor of
the book, 'The Lost Writings - James Connolly' ((Pluto Press, 1997) which
themselves throw new light on the dynamic of Connolly's thought) the CPI and
Labour movement careerists like William O'Brien (Connolly's literary executor
"by default") played a role in consciously suppressing many of
Connolly's archives for decades or only publishing certain articles to further
their own interests. The CPI no doubt found his revolutionary and
internationalist appeal too hard to swallow, especially regarding the national
question, during the many cynical twists and turns in Soviet foreign policy
following the triumph of Stalinism over Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition in
the 1920s and 1930s. O Cathasaigh writes that hundreds of Connolly's writings
remain unpublished in the National Library in Dublin, along with all his
letters. Publishing the remaining works of James Connolly is an important task
for the Irish workers' and socialist movement.
[Return to Contents]
In Ireland today, the Socialist Party (CWI section)
proudly works to maintain the fighting traditions of James Connolly. The party
has a long record of fighting for workers' unity in the North against sectarian
division, in the unions, in the communities and amongst youth. Moreover, the
Socialist Party has deepened the Marxist approach towards the national question
in Ireland, which is much more complex and explosive than in Connolly's day.
The Socialist Party puts forward a socialist
solution, calling for the struggle against the bosses, the sectarian-based
political parties and for a new society as the way to overcome the deep
sectarian divisions. The party stands for a socialist Ireland, as part of a
voluntary socialist federation of Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland.
In the South of Ireland, the Socialist Party
emulates Connolly's example of building a fight-back against the boss's
parties. Socialist Party MP, Joe Higgins, acts as "a tribune for the
working class", as Connolly had advocated socialists should do when
elected to parliament (Connolly contested local seats a number of times and saw
the electoral field as a necessary way to promote socialist ideas). Joe is
unique amongst deputies in the Dail (Irish parliament): he lives only on the
wage of an average skilled worker and puts the rest back into socialist and
Part of the struggle of socialists in Ireland today
is to reclaim Connolly from all those that want to mangle and distort his
ideas. In the pages of the Socialist Voice, paper of the Socialist Party, and
in the party's theoretical magazine, Socialist View, readers will find the
tradition of Connolly, alongside the other great Marxist teachers, such as
Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.
There can be no doubt that interest in Connolly will
rise once again, as the new generation look for a way out of capitalist crisis
and sectarian deadlock. The results of the BBC online poll would indicate this
is already taking place. Both in Ireland and internationally youth will look to
Connolly - Marxist fighter, thinker and mass leader - and find a brilliant
To read many of Connolly's works, visit the James Connolly Internet Archive at http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/
Niall Mulholland, CWI