The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Where, O where, is our James Connolly?

Paul Maguire • Forum Magazine, April-May 2006

On 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 change.

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 [1910].

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 and massacres".

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 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 events?



















Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

11 April 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Shed No Tears for the Donaldson Family
Geraldine Adams

Buried in Secret
Anthony McIntyre

The Donaldson Dilemna
Bill Ashe

Motive for Murder
Mick Hall

Victim or Pawn?
Dr John Coulter

Agent of the Peace Process
Anthony McIntyre

Happy Easter
John Kennedy

Where, O Where, Is Our James Connolly?
Paul Maguire

Nice One, Tony
John Kennedy

Putting on the Poor Mouth
Seaghan O Murchu

Spare Us the Cures from Quacks
Dr Seamus Kilby

Profile: Antoine Sfeir
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated:

Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech


Irish Republicanism and Islam


Real human rights - without any religious blackmail


Resisting Censorship


and more...

Freedom of Speech index

4 April 2006

Interview with Michael McKevitt
Forum Magazine

Catching the Monkey
Anthony McIntyre

Policing the Status Quo
Mick Hall

John Kennedy

T.W.A.T and the problem with Leopard spots
Eamon Sweeney

Bigotry Imperils the Union
David Adams

'Fury over British PM bigot remarks'
Michaél MhaDonnáin

Then Why Is My Colour On Your Flag?
Derick Perry

Exorcise the Ghosts to Revive the Party
Dr John Coulter

How the Irish Screwed Up Civilisation?
Seaghan O Murchu

Play Ball
John Kennedy

Cumann Frithdheighilte Na h-Eireann - An outline
Fionnbarra O'Dochartaigh

Irish Prisoner Suffering Extreme Medical Neglect in English Prison
Paul Doyle

Profile: Maryam Namazie
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Expression: No Ifs and Buts
Maryam Namazie

Manning the Firewalls
Anthony McIntyre

Ulster Muslims' Fury at Web Cartoons
Elham Asaad Buaras

Freedom of Speech index



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices