Labour in Irish History revisited

Ireland convulsed by economic crisis and savage austerity cuts – Time to reconnect with Connolly’s socialist ideas James Connolly was a great Marxist thinker and workers’ leader in Ireland, Scotland and the US. He was executed by the British state for his key role in the 1916 Easter rising in Dublin. Since then, Connolly’s ideas of international, working-class unity and socialism have been distorted by those wishing to link him with their banner. 2010 marks the centenary of the publication of his landmark book, ’Labour in Irish History’. As Ireland today undergoes economic crisis and savage austerity cuts, North and South, it is time to reconnect Connolly to the ideas he put forward in this his most important book.

At a Sinn Féin-sponsored meeting in London, held in February 2010 and entitled, ’Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda’, the name of the Irish Marxist, James Connolly, was referred to by several speakers, as was the general aspiration for ‘socialism’. Even a representative from the nationalist, middle-class SDLP stated: “James Connolly’s assertion that ‘the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour’, can become the words on which a new Ireland is borne”.

Notwithstanding the passing references to Connolly, the main thrust of Sinn Féin’s position is to argue: “Together with economic, demographic, social and political trends, there is a strong argument that Irish unity is a realistic and feasible objective within a meaningful timescale”. The Sinn Féin leadership believes this can be achieved by involving all parts of Irish society, including big business, by entering coalition governments with right-wing parties, like Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil or pro-market Labour, and by appealing to the big powers of Britain and the US.

Already ’power-sharing’ in the North, Sinn Fein agreed a budget package in December 2010, along with their partners in the Assembly Executive, the Democratic Unionist Party, that will see a huge £4 billion worth of public spending cuts.

This approach is a million miles away from that of James Connolly, who was a Marxist – a revolutionary socialist and internationalist. All his adult life, Connolly resisted imperialism and sectarianism. He fought for the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers and for socialism. Following Connolly’s role in the 1916 Dublin Easter rising, all shades of Irish nationalism and republicanism claim him as their own, often distorting his ideas to justify their political positions. Yet Connolly was withering towards the nationalists’ call for a pan-class struggle to end British imperialist rule in Ireland, which is echoed today by Sinn Féin.

Labour in Irish History was Connolly’s single most-important publication. In it, he applied the ideas of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, whom he called “the greatest of modern thinkers and first of scientific socialists”, to Ireland, particularly their view that class struggle is the locomotive of history. Without this understanding, Connolly remarked, “Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbreaks, treacheries, intrigues, massacres, murders, and purposeless warfare”.

Although a century old and not without weaknesses, Labour in Irish History can still guide workers and youth today in the struggle to overthrow capitalism in Ireland and internationally, particularly in the neo-colonial world.

Echoes of Trotsky

CONNOLLY POINTED OUT that Irish history had always been written by the “master class” in the interests of that class. He aimed to attend to the neglect of social issues by official historians. Labour in Irish History was also written to challenge the nationalist myths about the Irish struggle for freedom from British rule. Connolly showed how the Irish capitalist class was always prepared to abandon and betray the struggle for liberation if its fundamental economic and social interests were threatened. He warned radical nationalists that their policy of a ‘union of classes’ would lead to disaster. He argued that Irish independence would bring little real freedom and progress for the majority of the Irish people unless it included a fundamental change to the social system.

In his earlier pamphlet, Erin’s Hope (1897), Connolly drew the conclusion that the Irish working class was “the only secure foundation on which a free nation can be built”. This view was amplified and developed in Labour in Irish History. “The shifting of economic and political forces which accompanies the development of the system of capitalist society leads inevitably to the increasing conservatism of the non-working-class element, and to the revolutionary vigour and power of the working class”, the author asserts in his introduction. The Irish middle and propertied classes “have a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism”. Connolly concludes that “only the Irish working class remains as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland”.

These words echoed the ideas of Leon Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. Trotsky explained that the native capitalist class in the less-developed countries and colonial world came late on to the scene of history. It was too weak as a class to follow the example of the bourgeoisie in the established capitalist countries and lead movements to remove the remnants of feudalism and establish independent nation states. These tasks fell to the working class which, in taking power, would carry through the unfinished tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, going over uninterrupted to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution. Connolly and Trotsky, therefore, shared the fundamental belief that it is the working class which must achieve independence. In the process, it will pass on to the struggle to establish socialism.

But there were important differences. Not least, Trotsky had the huge advantage of the experience and lessons of the 1905-07 Russian revolution. This exposed the cowardly and inconsistent role of the Russian bourgeoisie in the struggle against tsarist rule and showed the high levels of militancy and self-organisation of the Russian workers. This provided the basis for Trotsky’s book, Results and Prospects (which became known as the Permanent Revolution), written in 1906.

Working in relative isolation from the other outstanding Marxist thinkers of his day, such as Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, and without direct access to Trotsky’s writings, Connolly’s analysis did not attain the full scope and precision of Trotsky’s permanent revolution. Nevertheless, on the basis of studying the ideas of Marx and Engels, Connolly made an original contribution.

Labour in Irish History was an important counter argument to the mechanistic and stages approach that was dominant in the socialist Second International. Its leaders, such as Karl Kautsky, who were based on a one-sided reading of Marx, argued that socialism would have to await the development of full economic conditions in each individual country. The colonial world, therefore, would have to wait for socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. In Labour in Irish History, Connolly departed from this prevailing orthodoxy and argued that the bourgeoisie in Ireland was not willing or capable of leading a struggle for independence and the working class would have to put itself in the leadership of the fight to remove British imperialist rule.

Connolly’s achievement is all the more impressive when taking into account the very difficult circumstances under which he produced Labour in Irish History. He dedicated the small book with the words: “To that unconquered Irish working class this book is dedicated by one of their number”. Indeed, Connolly was born into terrible poverty in Edinburgh, the son of unskilled Irish immigrants. At ten, Connolly was forced to work in the printing trade. Aged 14, he joined the British army, serving in Ireland for seven years before deserting. Connolly’s subsequent “full life”, as a socialist organiser, agitator, propagandist, orator and thinker, as well as an outstanding union leader (in Britain, Ireland and the US), was carried out under conditions of great privation for him and his family.

On Labour in Irish History’s publication, the Scottish socialist newspaper, Forward, said it should be in every socialist library. Irish Freedom, the journal of the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), carried a favourable review, strongly recommending the book. Even establishment newspapers, such as the Irish Times, Freeman’s Journal and the Daily Herald acknowledged the power of Connolly’s work on its publication in 1910. But the journal of Arthur Griffiths’ Sinn Féin party dismissed the socialist interpretation of Irish history, attacking its “method… lack of perspective… dogmatism…and rhetoric”. (Sinn Féin, 3 December 1910)

Early Irish history

AFTER CONNOLLY’S LEADING role in the 1916 uprising and summary execution by the British state, nationalists of all stripes were quick to place Connolly in the pantheon of nationalist martyrs. At the same time, they sought to distort and rubbish his Marxist ideas. They specifically objected to Connolly’s definition of early Celtic society as a form of ‘primitive communism’ before its demise at the hands of the Anglo-Norman feudal system. In Labour in Irish History, Connolly anticipated the opinion of these commentators: “Imbued with the conception of feudalistic or capitalistic social order, the writers perpetually strove to explain [ancient] Irish institutions in terms of an order of things to which those institutions were entirely alien”.

Connolly showed that the clan system was a system of what Marxists call ‘primitive communism’. The basis of society rested upon communal ownership of land, with production almost entirely for consumption by the producing community. It was a society without private property or hereditary wealth. As Connolly knew from his wide studies, this was the nature of pre-feudal society, not just in Ireland but across Europe and the Americas. In 1869, Engels referred to the clan system in Ireland as a “feudal-patriarchal system”. Although, in 1884, after the publication of important new research on ancient Ireland, he wrote that “the soil [Ireland] had been collective property of gens of clans…” (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)

Connolly pointed out: “Communal ownership of land would undoubtedly have given way to the privately owned system of capitalist-landlordism, even if Ireland had remained an independent country”. But coming as it did “in obedience to the pressure of armed force from without, instead of by the operation of economic forces within, the change has been bitterly and justly resented by the vast mass of the Irish people…”

Connolly describes the start of ‘modern’ Irish history with the close of the Williamite wars in 1691. This was the struggle between William, Prince of Orange, and King James of England for the English throne. Connolly rejected the opposing sectarian green and orange historical versions of this period – which resonate to this day. He stated that “never, in all the history of Ireland, has there been a war in which the people of Ireland had less reason to be interested either on one side or the other”. The Jacobite leaders were “Catholic gentlemen and nobles who were, one and all, men who possessed considerable property to which they had no more right or title than the merest Cromwellian or Williamite adventurer”.

With the eventual victory of William. Connolly wrote: “The question of political supremacy having been finally decided, the yoke of economic slavery was now laid unsparingly upon the backs of the labouring people”. By the end of the 17th century, the conquest of Ireland was complete. English colonialism imposed a subservient and largely toothless parliament based on a sectarian and class-biased franchise.

In revolt

IN A CHAPTER, Peasant Rebellions, Connolly notes that “before long the Protestant and Catholic tenants were suffering one common oppression”. This led to the creation of rural secret societies across Ireland, such as the Whiteboys and Oakboys, and the Steelboys, in Down and Antrim, who were made up mainly of Presbyterians and other ‘dissenters’. The “dispossessed people strove by lawless acts and violent methods to restrain the greed of their masters, and to enforce their own right to life”, wrote Connolly, but: “Government warred upon these poor wretches in the most vindictive manner: hanging, shooting, transporting without mercy…” Meanwhile, the ‘Patriots’ either ignored this social injustice or, in one infamous example in 1763, a member of the Irish House of Commons, “fiercely denounced the government for not killing enough of the Whiteboys”.

Connolly goes on to make withering criticisms of nationalist heroes, such as Henry Grattan, who is associated with winning an independent Irish parliament. Connolly shows that Grattan was a representative of an emerging Irish capitalist class, “his spirit was the spirit of the bourgeoisie incarnate”, and he “dreaded the people more than they feared the British government”. Grattan opportunistically leaned on the Volunteer militia (initially formed in response to a rumoured French invasion in 1778) to win constitutional and free-trade reforms from the English parliament in 1782. Yet the ‘prosperity’ promised by the leaders was “purely capitalistic prosperity”. When the rank-and-file Volunteers called for popular representation in parliament, all the “aristocrats, glib-tongued lawyers and professional patriots” betrayed them and Grattan denounced the Volunteers as an “armed rabble”.

In contrast, Connolly celebrates the 1798 revolution of the United Irishmen and the 1803 uprising led by Robert Emmet. The Society of United Irishmen was at first an open organisation, campaigning amongst the masses for a republic inspired by the 1789 French revolution. Connolly commends the bold revolutionary, Theobold Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, and other leaders of the United Irishmen, who fought as democrats and internationalists, calling for full enfranchisement irrespective of religion, and who sought “a successful prosecution of a class war…” They fought for a social and political revolution, and understood that the “Irish fight for liberty was but a part of the worldwide march of the human race”. Tone and other leaders allied themselves to “the revolutionists of Great Britain as well as those of France”.

British repression forced the United Irishmen underground and the movement forged an alliance with France against aristocratic England. French ships and soldiers were sent to Ireland to assist an uprising in 1798 but a number of factors, including the betrayal by the “men of property”, saw all attempts fail and the rebels suffered terrible reprisals.

Connolly describes the 1803 uprising led by Emmet, another Protestant, as even more democratic and internationalist than 1798 and, most importantly, more working class in character. Indeed, the most important fighting on the night of the uprising, Connolly noted, took place in an area of Dublin inhabited by shoemakers, tanners and weavers.

Nineteenth century reaction

FOLLOWING THE DEFEATS of 1798 and 1803, Connolly describes Ireland and Europe in the first part of the 19th century in thrall to a “period of political darkness, or unbridled despotism and reaction”. But in another chapter, The First Irish Socialist: A forerunner of Marx, Connolly also sheds light on the largely forgotten but highly influential early socialist, William Thompson, from County Cork. Thompson was “an economist more thoroughly socialist in the modern sense than of his contemporary Utopian Socialists”. He anticipated Marx’s economic analysis, in particular, Marx’s argument that the ultimate source of profit is the unpaid labour of the working class.

The ‘Great Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell, the 19th century leader venerated by nationalists, is lacerated by Connolly as a reactionary bourgeois. O’Connell at first relied on the organised trades in his campaign for the repeal of the Union but, afterwards, he “ceased to play for the favour of organised labour and gradually developed into the most bitter and unscrupulous enemy of trade unionism Ireland has yet produced…” Connolly cites O’Connell’s opposition to legislation shortening the hours of child labour in factories in 1838, as a supporter of the Whig government in the Westminster House of Commons. As well as that, Connolly condemns O’Connell’s traducing of the revolutionary traditions of 1798, when he sowed sectarian divisions by seeking to link the nationalist movement to the Catholic church.

Again boldly breaking with the received wisdom of nationalist Ireland, Connolly assails the Young Irelanders, who he describes as a watered-down version of the 1848 revolutionary movement in Europe. One of the Young Irelander leaders, William Smith O’Brien, condemned land workers in revolt who cut down trees to make barricades, in the middle of the great famine of 1847-48, because he was “rabidly solicitous about the rights of the landlord as were the chiefs of the English government”.

The famine, which killed millions and led to the emigration of millions more, was held to be the fault of a potato blight. Connolly pointed out: “There was food enough in the country to feed double the population were the laws of capitalist society set aside and human rights elevated to their proper position”. Connolly believed that the anger and desperation engendered by the famine meant that workers in town and country were prepared to revolt, and would have been enjoined by the English Chartists, who were arming. But the Young Ireland leaders were split between the ‘moderates’ like Smith O’Brien and the militants, such as John Mitchell and James Fintan Lalor, who understood that the revolution must have “social and political aspects”.

Connolly brings Labour in Irish History to a conclusion by placing the modern working class centre stage. He describes the growth of trade unions and working-class agitation. He noted that every great rebellion or attempted revolt was prefaced by “a remarkable development of unrest, discontent, and class consciousness” amongst the working masses. The Fenian Brotherhood, established in 1857, gained support from workers in cities and towns during a period of rising prices of food and other necessities.

On republicanism and Home Rule

NOT SURPRISINGLY, CONNOLLY’S interpretation of Irish history has come under criticism from all quarters. Professor David Howell (A Lost Left: Three Studies in Socialism and Nationalism, 1986) and other commentators believe that Connolly tended to be too uncritical of radical nationalism and republicanism. Howell makes his criticisms in a somewhat abstract, one-sided manner, and without fully taking into account the concrete conditions in which Connolly was attempting to develop a small socialist movement in colonial Ireland in the 1890s. Nevertheless, some of Howell’s criticisms hold a certain amount of truth.

Howell refers to Connolly glossing over attacks by the Irish radical nationalist, John Mitchell, against the 1848 insurrection in Paris and his support for the slave-owning confederacy during the American civil war. Howell also criticises Connolly for failing to mention that, while James Fintan Lalor championed tenant farmers, he offered nothing for the property-less.

Although Connolly does mention Mitchell’s reactionary positions in other writings, it is the case that, in Labour in Irish History, he omits to bring the same clear materialist analysis to his study of militant republicanism as he does to bourgeois and ‘constitutional’ nationalism.

While Connolly warns throughout Labour in Irish History about the disastrous consequences of nationalism’s tendency to seek a union of classes, there is some ambiguity on his part about early Irish republicanism. Wolfe Tone is regarded, correctly, as an outstanding revolutionary, bringing together Catholic and Protestant poor. But he is not clearly characterised as a representative of the bourgeoisie, albeit the most progressive wing. The relationship between Fenianism and the growth of class agitation is investigated but Connolly does not put the politics and methods of the Fenian movement itself to close scrutiny.

As well as struggling to build a strong independent workers’ movement, Connolly sought to find common ground between socialists and radical nationalists. In doing so he tended to emphasis the popular appeal of republicanism amongst the poor masses while not adequately subjecting radical nationalism’s origins and development to a thorough Marxist criticism.

Howell also critcises Connolly for failing to discuss the Protestants in the north-east and their opposition to Home Rule which, Howell claims, “indicated a substantial difficulty for any Irish route to socialism”.

It was not until after the publication of Labour in Irish History that the Home Rule crisis was to reach a critical pitch, in 1912-14. At the time, the proposal by the government in Westminster to grant limited Home Rule to Ireland led to huge opposition among Unionists and from a section of the British ruling class, threatening civil war. Nevertheless, neither in Labour in Irish History nor in his other writings did Connolly adequately examine the reasons why big sections of the Protestant working class adopted a strong anti-Home Rule position.

Connolly led important strikes in the north, courageously standing up against the bosses and bigots on both sides of the sectarian divide. But he did not fully analyse the outlook and consciousness of Protestant workers. The fears of Protestant workers that a Home Rule parliament would work mainly in the interests of the smaller businesses in the South, and that jobs in the heavily industrialised north-east would be threatened by Home Rule protectionist measures, were very real and needed to be answered with socialist policies.

The Easter rising

OCCASIONAL AMBIGUITY IN Connolly’s writings on the character of radical nationalism was compounded by his role in 1916. Some on the left have used this to argue that the national struggle for independence is a ‘stage’ towards socialism and to justify alliances with nationalists to achieve this. This was not at all Connolly’s real position. Along with Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, Luxemburg in Germany, John McClean in Scotland and a handful of other socialists internationally, Connolly opposed the imperialist bloodbath of the first world war and stood for workers’ internationalism.

Connolly correctly states In Labour and Irish History that “revolutions are not the product of our brains, but of ripe material conditions”. But in the lead up to Easter 1916, Connolly ignored his own good advice. His impatience was borne out of his isolation, and the fear that a renewal of class struggle across Europe would take too long and that the British authorities would introduce conscription in Ireland. Connolly concluded that it was necessary to make an alliance between his Irish Citizen’s Army (ICA – initially formed as a workers’ defence force during the 1913 Dublin lock-out which Connolly helped to lead) with the middle-class nationalist Irish Volunteers and Irish Republican Brotherhood, and to push for an uprising against British rule. He hoped that an uprising would “set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord”.

Connolly undoubtedly acted from the most noble and self-sacrificing of motives. Nevertheless, he made serious mistakes in entering his alliance with the radical nationalists in 1916. During Easter week, no appeal was made for a general strike. The vast majority of workers were spectators on the events. Connolly also made too many concessions to programme, as can be seen from the text of the rebels’ 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. But 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”.

The ideas of both Connolly and Trotsky were to be vindicated by events: positively in the case of Russia, negatively in Ireland. In Russia, as Trotsky had predicted in his theory of the permanent revolution, the working class, led by the Bolsheviks, overthrew the tsarist regime in October 1917. The shockwaves of socialist revolution spread across Europe. Ireland, too, was convulsed by these events. A favourable opportunity opened up for the working class to take power.

Tragically, Connolly was dead, executed by the British in 1916 – cheered on by Irish bosses. The Irish working class was without their outstanding leader. Connolly had spent his life heroically trying to build socialist organisations but, unlike Lenin, he did not construct a conscious revolutionary socialist organisation that could carry on and develop his work and legacy.

Two repressive states

AFTER CONNOLLY’s DEATH, Irish labour leaders submitted to Sinn Féin’s dictum that “Labour must wait”. They handed over the leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle to middle-class nationalism. The potential for socialist revolution was lost and movement ended in partition and defeat for the working class. “A carnival of reaction both North and South”, as Connolly had correctly predicted, that “set back the Irish labour movement”.

Two sectarian, repressive and impoverished states were created, North and South. The last two decades or so of the ‘peace process’ have not seen the underlying problems solved. The truth is that the entire peace process has been mainly about cementing sectarian division, to carve up power, not to genuinely share power. The political parties on each side of the sectarian divide thrive on and maintain sectarian division. ‘Irish unity’ or a ‘united’ Ireland is further away than ever before!

All the main parties in the Dáil (the parliament in the Irish republic) and the assembly (the government in Northern Ireland) are wedded to the dictates of big business. In these times of capitalist crisis, working people face a future of rising unemployment, huge social cuts and attacks on working conditions. The Northern Ireland Executive has announced £4 billion worth of cuts, on top of drastic cuts already made in public services. Sinn Féin ministers are responsible for privatising all ‘new build’ at schools in Belfast and have proposed privatising public transport. The ConDem coalition British government is enforcing unprecedented cuts. Sinn Fein may verbally oppose “British Tory cuts” but they have indicated they are quite willing, along with the DUP, to carry them out. The resulting increased poverty and unemployment will only foster sectarian divisions and instability.

Many decades ago, Connolly warned about the character of administrations that accept governing within the confines of capitalism: “…governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class” (Irish Worker, 29 August, 1915). He would have completely opposed the brutal anti-working class cuts policies practised by coalition governments today in Ireland, North and South, including by nationalist and republican parties that seek to invoke his name.

On 18 November 2010, as the IMF and European Central Bank arrived in Dublin to set new draconian austerity cuts in exchange for a new huge loan to stop bank defaults in Ireland spreading to European banks, the Irish Times, a journal of the Irish bourgeoisie, wrung its hand and asked: “…is what the men of 1916 died for: a bailout from the German chancellor with a few shillings of sympathy from the British chancellor on the side. There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund…”

The same newspaper vociferously opposed the 1916 Easter Rising and demanded that the British military authorities dealt with its leaders, including, of course, James Connolly. Ironically, and from an opposite class standpoint, Connolly long ago warned against the consequences of winning national ‘independence’ without making fundamental social and economic change:

“If you remove the English army to-morrow 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…” (J Connolly, ‘Socialism and Nationalism’, 1897).

We only need add that today it is not only a question of the economic influence of banks and boardrooms of Britain but also of the big multinational companies and financial institutions and banks of Europe and globally that reveal the limits of independence on a capitalist basis for southern Ireland.

The only way to transform the lives of working people over all Ireland and to solve the national question is as an integral part of the struggle for a fundamental change of society, for a socialist society. In Labour in Irish History, Connolly traced the instinctive urge for working people in Ireland to link their struggles with those of working people in Britain and beyond and, in doing so, to cut across national and religious division. For socialists today, that means calling for the working classes of these islands to link up their struggles, to jointly resist governments’ cutbacks and to fight for a voluntary and equal socialist federation of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. To achieve this, the working class in Ireland, North and South, needs its own political voice, as do workers in Scotland, England and Wales. This was also Connolly’s position. He successfully moved the motion at the 1912 Irish Trades Union Congress that marked the creation of the Irish Labour Party (which today is no longer a workers’ party).

No other figure in Irish history is so distorted beyond recognition as Connolly. In marking Labour in Irish History on its 100th anniversary, we must aim to rescue the real socialist ideas of Connolly. These are the basis on which to build a mighty working-class opposition to cuts, and to the capitalist system.

[The article above is an edited and extended version of an article first published in the May 2010 issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)]

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