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Connolly: National Liberation, Socialism, Partition


Liam O Ruairc

Connolly’s major achievement is to have grasped the relation between nationalism and socialism, between the national struggle and the class struggle. A lot of socialists saw (and still see) the national struggle as a diversion from class struggle and as being incompatible with socialism. Many Republicans struggled against British imperialism, but with no references to the struggle for a Socialist Ireland. For them the class struggle had no relevance or was a diversion from the national struggle. Connolly set to explain to Republicans and Socialists the intrinsic links between the two issues. “I have spent a great portion of my life altering between interpreting Socialism to the Irish and interpreting the Irish to the Socialists.” (CW1, 349) wrote Connolly. In the American edition of Erin’s Hope, he stated that “the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland -the socialist and the national- were not antagonistic but complementary”. To Republicans, he explained that they would only realise their aims through a socialist revolution. Imperialism is not about flags and emblems, it is about a certain socio-economic organisation, and without a radical social reorganisation of Irish society, the national struggle would end up being mere national recreancy. To Socialists who ignored the national question, he pointed that it would be impossible to build a socialist society in Ireland so long as the country was entangled in relations of economic and political subordination to the British Empire. Breaking the chains of imperialism and national liberation are a "first requisite" (CW2, 175) of socialism. Connolly’s fundamental teaching is that the struggle for national liberation is not opposed to the struggle for socialism, but an integral and necessary part of it. This is why “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered.” (CW2, 175). Socialism is impossible in Ireland without national liberation, and national liberation would be meaningless for the working class without socialism.

Connolly correctly grasped the relation between the national democratic revolution and the socialist revolution. It has been argued that Connolly viewed national liberation and socialism as being two rigidly separated stages: first the national liberation stage, where socialism is not on the agenda until British withdrawal; and once Ireland is free - and not until then, arrives the second stage where the struggle for socialism can begin. It is wrong to attribute such a view to Connolly. He viewed the national democratic revolution and the socialist revolution not as two separate stages, but as two distinct aspects of the same process. The national liberation struggle has to be fought on an explicitly socialist basis.

It is important to stress that Connolly was not some “left-wing nationalist” who tried to do some eclectic synthesis between nationalism and socialism. For Connolly, nationalism and socialism were not identical, but only complementary. He clearly knew that there was nothing intrinsically progressive about Irish nationalism, and was aware that there were areas of tension between the two; he only supported it in so far as it had a democratic content. Connolly addressed himself not the broad "nationalist" constituency, but the most advanced and progressive section of the Irish independence movement - the Republican tradition. National “freedom” is not above classes and their struggles, Connolly gave a class content to Irish Republicanism. Each social class has its own definition of "freedom" and its own view about the nature of "the Republic". National freedom and the Republic would only have a concrete content if it was for the freedom of the working class and the Workers Republic.

We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish ? Not the rack-renting slum-owning landlord; not the sweating profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyers; not the prostitute pressman - the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.” (CW 2, p.175)

Connolly rejected bourgeois nationalism, and rejects any subordination of the working class to bourgeois nationalism:

As a socialist I am prepared to do all one man can do to achieve our motherland her rightful heritage -independence; but if you ask me to abate one jot or title of the claims of social justice in order to conciliate the privileged classes, then I must decline. (CW1, 307-308)

On the basis of a concrete analysis of social forces in Ireland, Connolly concluded that “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.” (CW1, 25). The working class, because it has "nothing to loose but its chains" is the only class who will be able to lead the national liberation struggle to a successful conclusion. All the other social classes will capitulate and sell out at some stage because they are not prepared to risk their wealth and power. The genuine motor of the national liberation struggle is the working class. “Ireland cannot rise to freedom except upon the shoulders of the working class knowing its rights and daring to take them.” (CW 1, 455) However, it is also true that Connolly argued for a strategic alliance with other classes. A successful revolution could in the specific conditions of Ireland only come about through an alliance of all anti imperialist forces: ''We are prepared to co-operate with all … even should the aim they set for such organisation be far less ambitious than our own. We invite the co-operation of all who will work with is toward that end.” (CW2, 248). But such an alliance had to be under the leadership of the working class. The place of any other class in the alliance would have to be subordinated to the working class (this is very clearly stated in his articles on Sinn Fein). So it is incorrect to argue that in 1916 Connolly had capitulated to Bourgeois nationalism. On the evening of 16 April 1916, Connolly informed members of the Irish Citizens Army: “In the event of victory, hold onto your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are for economic as well as political liberty.” (CD Greaves, p.403).

How relevant are Connolly 's teachings in this early 21st century? Connolly's views on the relation between national liberation and socialism have been subsequently validated by the revolutionary struggles in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Angola and so many other countries in the world. Socialist revolutions there were the outcome of national liberation struggles. However, there have been a number of Marxist critics like Eric Hobsbawm or Tom Nairn who dismiss on different grounds the idea that national liberation is still a relevant issue. But the "internationalism" of those critics remains purely abstract, as their national chauvinism renders them blind to national oppression. With the war in the North over the last thirty years, a current of the left in Ireland - represented by the Workers Party or critics like Paul Bew and Henry Patterson - has argued that socialists have to choose between nation and class. For them, "national liberation" is just a species of territorial irredentism with no democratic content; what is at stake is workers' unity versus Irish unity. The priority is to unite the Protestant and Catholic working class, not to solve the divisive national question. But they are wrong to see national liberation as territorial irredentism. Connolly had warned that partition “would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South and would set back the wheels of progress” (CW1, 393). The struggle against partition is not opposed to the struggle for socialism, but an integral part of it. It has a democratic content because, far from being a question of territorial irredentism, it is about opposing the "carnival of reaction". Connolly also understood the futility of sloganising around "workers unity" in the North given the reactionary nature of Loyalism. Protestant workers "are slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own" . By contrast, Catholic workers "are rebels in spirit and democratic in feeling because for hundred of years they have found no class as lowly paid or as hardly treated as themselves" (CW1, 386). Sloganising abstractly around "working class unity" in the Six Counties is not progressive because it fails to confront the reactionary nature of Loyalism, and practically condemns the most oppressed sections of the working class to subordinate their democratic revolt and interests to the backwardness of the Loyalist labour aristocracy.

Republican Socialists today are the most consistent followers of James Connolly's teachings on national liberation and socialism, the national democratic revolution and the socialist revolution. But our challenge is to take up the analysis where Connolly left. Circumstances have changed since Connolly's times and our task is to develop Connolly's teachings into the 21st century.




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Index: Current Articles

9 June 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Money's Worth
Terry O'Neill


Connolly: National Liberation, Socialism and Partition
Liam O Ruairc


Pauperizing the Periphery
M. Shahid Alam


Democracy, eh?

Davy Carlin


Polluting People's Lives

Barbara Muldoon


The Gags of Prejudice
Anthony McIntyre


5 June 2003


Irish State Collusion with MI5
Eamonn McCann


Use of Loyalty
Mick Hall


Victimisation of Victims
Christina Sherlock



Newton Emerson


Heat, Not Necessarily Light

Anthony McIntyre


The Party's Fool

Karen Lyden Cox

Targetting Iran
Michael Youlton




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