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Connolly And The First World War: Political Lessons for Today

“The socialist of another country is a fellow patriot, as the capitalist of my own country is a natural enemy.”
- James Connolly, CW2, 41

Liam O Ruairc • 02.06.03

Today Republican Socialists are faced with the question of the war in Afghanistan. More than 85 years ago, with the outbreak of the first world war, James Connolly was faced with similar problems. And a century ago, he already had been involved in an opposition campaign to the Boer War in South Africa. What parallels and lessons can we learn from his experience? It is true that the current war in Afghanistan is not comparable to the first world war. But the political strategy Connolly devised to oppose an imperialist war is still relevant at the beginning of the 21st century. In the summer of 1914, Connolly witnessed the betrayal both of the Second International and of the bourgeois nationalism of John Redmond: both joined the war cabinets. James Connolly organised against this betrayal. Today, we have the political parties in Leinster House throwing neutrality away, and many on the left (for example Clare Short and Christopher Hitchens) back the war in Afghanistan. Republican Socialists after September 11th also oppose the generalised drift towards and capitulation to militarism. A look at Connolly’s writings on the topic show how preoccupied he was by the introduction of new repressive laws, censorship etc after the outbreak of the war. The present “war against terrorism” has provided an excuse for a whole array of repressive legislation. But beyond the parallels between Connolly’s times and ours, it is above all from Connolly’s correct political strategy that there are things to be learned.

Conflict is the paradigm of the political, and one of its basic axioms is the necessity to distinguish between “friends” and “enemies”. As G. Bush said some time ago, “either you are for us or you are against us”. Republican Socialists have no sympathy whatsoever for reactionary feudal warlords like Bin Laden, and have clearly shown their opposition to US imperialism. But we must see who the main enemy is. In his times, Connolly put the blame of the first world war solely on the shoulders of the British Empire, whereas at the time Germany was perceived as being the “bad one”. In so doing, he might be accused to have underestimated considerably the role of German imperialism. Connolly has even been accused by some of having been pro-German. But Connolly’s comments were propagandistic in nature, aimed at combating jingoism and anti-German feelings. Connolly constantly reminds us to look at the main enemy. Hence, his insistence that British imperialism was the main enemy of the Irish people, not Germany. Similarly, Republican Socialists concentrate their anti-war propaganda on the US offensive in Afghanistan, whereas many in the public perceive that the “bad ones” are the Muslims. It would be absurd to accuse us of being sympathetic to the Talibans; the point Republican Socialists are trying to make is that the real terrorists are not the poor Afghans being bombed day and night, or the “suspect community” of poor Muslims in Britain and other Western countries - the real terrorists are sitting in Downing Street and the White House. Concentrating criticising Bin Laden or the Talibans would only reinforce the latent racism and jingoism.

For Connolly, war is barbaric - it is difficult to disagree with him when we see the effects of things like “cluster bombs” in Afghanistan. “We have held and do hold that war is a relic of barbarism only possible because we are governed by a ruling class with barbaric ideas; we have held and do hold that the working class of all countries cannot hope to escape the horrors of war until in all countries the barbarous ruling class is thrown from power.” (CW2, 50) Thus Connolly understood that war is linked to a specific form of social organisation, and that today any consistent anti-war activity should simultaneously be anti-capitalist. Without abolishing capitalism, it is impossible to abolish war. This is something Republican Socialists should explain to people hostile to the war in Afghanistan who are not yet Socialists.

But Connolly also recognised the qualitative differences between different type of wars: it is necessary to distinguish between reactionary imperialist wars in the interests of the ruling classes and the progressive wars for national and social liberation.

The war of a subject nation for independence, for the right to live out its own life in its own way may and can be justified as holy and righteous; the war of a subject class to free itself from the debasing conditions of economic and political slavery should at all time choose its won weapons, and hold and esteem all as sacred instrument of righteousness. But the war of nation against nation in the interest of royal freebooters and cosmopolitan thieves is a thing accursed.” (CW2, 46).

Like Connolly who judged wars on their class content, Republican Socialists must distinguish between reactionary type of wars (for example US attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, war in Chechenya, the former Yougoslavia, etc) and progressive wars (liberation struggles over the world). When the first world war erupted, Connolly was faced by an imperialist war, a war socialists had to oppose at any price. On what had to be done, he arrived at the same strategic conclusions than Lenin: the task of Republican Socialists is to transform the imperialist war into a civil war against the imperialist ruling classes. When the war started, this:

should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution ... (CW2, 55) ... Holding such views we have at all times combated the idea of war; held that we have no foreign enemies outside of our own ruling class; held that if we are compelled to go to war we had much rather fight that ruling class than any other, and taught in season and out of season that it is the duty of the working class in self-protection to organise its own force to resist the force of the master class.(CW2, 50)

It is not the Talibans or Bin Laden who are causing problems in Ireland today, but the British and Irish ruling classes -this is what Republican Socialists should make the working class aware of. Republican Socialists should aim to transform the “war against terrorism” into a war against the terrorists sitting in Westminster, Stormont, Leinster House and the White House. It is not worth sending men dying in far away place such as Afghanistan:

If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live? (CW2, 40)

Connolly hoped that the working class in the different European countries would revolt against the war:

Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.(CW1, 415)

Unfortunately, this did not happen. But this did not discourage James Connolly to prepare for the insurrection against those “vulture classes” in Ireland, hoping that this might inspire and help a similar process in other countries: “Starting this, Ireland may yet set a 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 warlord.” (CW1, 416) Objective and subjective conditions are not yet ripe for such a “civil war” in Ireland, and the war in Afghanistan certainly does not have the same impact and importance in Ireland today as the first world war had. But Republican Socialists will nevertheless work very hard in pursuing Connolly’s strategy in the 21st century.




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