12th May 1916, James Connolly entered the pantheon
of Irish national heroes. The circumstances of his
execution spawned numerous popular ballads and became
embedded in national folklore. In 1966, on the 50th
anniversary of the Rising, nationalist Ireland once
again embraced his martyrdom but ignored and recoiled
from his revolutionary politics. Attention focused
on Pearse, while Connolly was innocuously depicted
as a nationalist with a social conscience. Some
even labelled him a socialist apostate, who at the
last minute swapped the red flag for the green.
Misrepresentation begot calumny, as the Irish establishment
sought to neutralise this great working class leader.
So, it is pertinent to ask, on the 90th anniversary
of the 1916 Rising, Who was the real James Connolly?
Hammered and shaped on the anvil of human hardship
from an early age, James Connolly knew only too
well that inequality is an innate part of the capitalist
system. However, his indepth study of scientific
socialism gave erudite expression to his instinctive
sense of social injustice. Undoubtedly, Karl Marx,
"the greatest of modern thinkers", helped
formulate his thought by illustrating the precise
inverse relationship between ruling class wealth
and the exploitation of working class labour. Connolly
wholeheartedly embraced marxism and advocated state
ownership over the means of production, distribution
and exchange, with no role for private capitalism,
"a parasite on industry: the working class,
a victim of this parasite".
But this was not a prescription for bureaucratic
state socialism. When asked by an inquisitive trade
union activist "Should we make this or that
the property of the government?" Connolly answered
"Yes, but only as a proportion of the workers
make the government their property".
So what can we derive from this? What was Connolly's
ideal worker's republic? The 1896 manifesto of the
Irish Socialist Republican Party outlined the minimum
programme of any socialist-republican government:
the nationalisation of the railways, canals and
banks, the introduction of a graduated income tax,
free childcare and education, public control of
education, universal suffrage, a 48-hour week, and
public ownership of the economy. It was, by the
standards of the time, a progressive charter for
Yet Connolly always suspected the ruling class would
not relinquish their power and privilege peacefully.
"It would be suicidal to expect them not to
slaughter us wholesale when their very existence
as parasites was at stake". Hence the attainment
of revolutionary change might require the working
class "to use weapons of force to dislodge
the usurping class".
Connolly also authored the first marxist interpretation
of Irish history. "History has ever been written
by the master class - in the interest of the master
class". So began his great marxist counter-analysis
Labour in Irish History .
Connolly's materialist interpretation placed class
struggle and the working class at the heart of the
national historical narrative, while exposing the
class-limited objectives of bourgeois idols such
as Grattan and O'Connell. Without an understanding
of class struggle Connolly believed "Irish
history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless
chaos of sporadic outbursts, treacheries, intrigues
Labour in Irish History was an outstanding historical
work, written by a man who left school at eleven
and scrapped a living as a factory worker, cobbler,
journalist and trade unionist. As Professor Joseph
Lee wrote "Nobody has overcome so many material
obstacles to write so illuminating about Irish history.
The quality of his insights obliges one to continue
to wrestle with him...he asked big questions, which
remain of enduring relevance".
Connolly maintained that liberty for Ireland could
not simply mean political independence. Consequently,
he asserted that while socialism was not achievable
without independence, neither was genuine independence
achievable without socialism.
Here lies the origin of Connolly's coalition with
the Irish volunteers in Easter Week. Connolly's
participation in the 1916 Rising was not an aberration,
or a renunciation of socialism, or even a last-minute
relapse into advanced nationalism. It was in fact
the consummation of revolutionary theory and praxis,
the realisation of a political project which had,
for close on a decade, inextricably linked his concept
of a worker's republic with national independence.
While Connolly was angered by the bankruptcy of
those European social-democrats who endorsed the
1914 imperialist war, he was not discouraged. The
banner proclaiming "We serve neither King nor
Kaiser but Ireland" adorned Liberty Hall. If
only other European social-democratic leaders had
had Connolly's courage and revolutionary commitment?
Imagine how many European workers would have been
participants in a continent-wide social revolution
instead of being forsaken as canon-fodder at Verdun
or the Somme?
Some within the Bolshevik leadership were dismissive
of the 1916 Rising. Trotsky labelled it a "petty-bourgeois
putsch". Karl Radek was equally skeptical.
However, Connolly found a formidable ally in Lenin:
"To imagine that a social revolution is inconceivable
without revolts of small nations in the Colonies
and in Europe...is tantamount to repudiating social
revolution. The misfortune of the Irish is that
they rose prematurely, when the European revolt
of the proletariat had not yet matured".
Nine months after Connolly's death, Tsardom fell
beneath the first wave of Russian revolutionary
fervour. Nine months after that the Red Flag flew
triumphant over the Kremlin. How Connolly would
have loved to have witnessed these revolutionary