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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Connolly On Religion, Women And Sex

Liam O Ruairc

One of Connolly’s major theoretical contributions was his discussion of the relations between socialism and religion. Connolly’s views on that matter are fairly original and atypical. The reason why Connolly engaged with the subject is that a great proportion of the Irish working class was influenced by the Roman Catholic religion. The Catholic hierarchy was trying to keep workers away from socialism by saying that socialism and the Christian religion were incompatible and antagonistic. The priests pointed out that socialism, especially in its Marxist form, was intrinsically bound with materialism and atheism; so it is impossible for workers to be socialist and Christian at the same time. Connolly struggled ideologically against this position, and tried to demonstrate to the workers that they could be socialists and good Catholics at the same time. Connolly’s position was a version of the old adage “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. For Connolly, socialism is concerned solely with political, social and economic issues, all other matters are beyond its scope:

Socialists are bound as socialists only to the acceptance of one great principle - the ownership and control of wealth-producing power by the state, and that therefore, totally antagonistic interpretations of the Bible, or of prophecy and revelation, theories of marriage and of history may be held by socialists without in the slightest degree interfering with their activities as such or with their proper classification as supporters of the socialist doctrine. (CW2, 383-384)

Socialism deals with facts explainable by reason, religion has to do with theological matters and faith. Religion is totally outside the realm of socialist discussion, it is a private affair:

Socialism, as a party, bases itself upon its knowledge of facts, of economic truths, and leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public, or to its individual members if they so will. It is neither Freethinker, nor Christian, Turk nor Jew, Buddhist nor Idolater, Mohammedan nor Parsee - it is only human. (CW 2, 238)

There is an absolute separation between socialist and religious issues, so there should be no necessary conflict between Socialism and religion. Although Connolly would often attack particular representatives of religion for their political stance (see for example CW2, pp.371-382) he never attacked religion as such. He attacked the clergy for speaking on non-theological matters which were beyond their competence, but also criticised some socialists (such as Daniel De Leon) for their polemics in favour of atheism.

Did Connolly make too many concessions to religion? Connolly’s views on religion have some relative justifications, but also relative limits. They have some justification as one can be a socialist and at the same time believe in God (think of Liberation Theology for example). And the attitude of some sectarian socialists that atheism should be a central article of faith would alienate many people who would otherwise be in agreement with socialism. As Connolly puts it, many Christians have been 'repelled from socialism by the blatant and rude atheism of some of its irresponsible advocates' (CW2, 234). However, Connolly’s assertion that religion is totally outside the scope of socialist discussion is also relatively wrong. For example, it would be unthinkable for Socialists to remain neutral - on the basis that religion is beyond the scope of socialism - on issues such as excision or forced marriages in the Muslim religion, the refusal by Jehova’s Witnesses to give blood transfusion to children on the verge of dying, or the efforts of the religious right to put creationism on par with evolution in the school curriculum. No one can imagine a Socialist society coexisting with the religious practices of the Talibans. On that basis, Connolly was relatively mistaken.

Some have claimed that Connolly was a “left-wing Catholic” or was trying to conciliate Marxism and religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Connolly wrote:

For myself, though I have usually posed as a Catholic, I have not gone to my duty for 15 years, and have not the slightest tincture of faith left. I only assumed the Catholic pose in order to quize the raw freethinkers, whose ridiculous dogmatism did and does dismay me, as much as the dogmatism of the Archbishop. In fact I respect the good Catholic more than the average free-thinker. (Letter to John Matheson, 30 January 1908)

If Connolly’s analysis of religion was that of orthodox Marxism (see CW pp.236-237), his “pose” was very atypical for a Marxist leader.

Connolly’s views on religion parallel his analysis of women, marriage and sexual morality. He had a clear awareness of women’s oppression: 'The worker is the slave of the capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave' (CW1, 239). Connolly had an absolutely consistent and unequivocal record of co-operation with the militant feminist movements of the time and fully supported the women’s liberation movement.

In its march towards freedom, the working class must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom, the women’s army forges ahead of the militant army of labour. But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground. (CW1, 244)

The task of women’s liberation had close ties with the liberation of the working class and national liberation. However, Connolly also argued that sexual relations were not to become an issue within the movement, it would only concentrate on social, economic and political issues. Certain socialist attitudes towards conventional views of monogamy and marital morality seemed shocking in those days were criticisms of marriage sounded like encouraging sexual libertarianism. So sexual problems/ issues, like religion, were declared by Connolly to be beyond the scope of socialist discussion. Here again, Connolly was relatively mistaken. This limited the theoretical understanding of women’s oppression (something that can be seen from Connolly’s reaction to August Bebel’s book on the woman question). More importantly, Republican socialists must take a clear stance in favour of a woman’s right to chose, the availability of things like contraception and for the rights of homosexual/lesbian people. These are issues that are far too important than to be beyond the scope of socialism.

The IRSP cannot argue today like Connolly a century ago that issues relating to sex or religion 'ought to have no place in our programme or in our party' (CW2, 238). Those are important issues that affect the working class. Connolly was wrong to put 'sex, religion, vaccination, vegetarianism' (CW2, 238) on the same level. The availability of contraception, an end to the oppression of homosexuals, or fighting religious cults that prey on the working class are issues that are far more significant than vegetarianism. But it can be said in Connolly’s defence that those were issues that were not as important as they are today. However, there are no excuses for Republican socialists for not taking a principled stance on them now.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



I have spent
many years of my life
in opposition, and
I rather like the role.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

Index: Current Articles

23 May 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Fair Trial
Bernadette McKevitt


Anthony McIntyre


Connolly on Religion, Women and Sex

Liam O Ruairc


Gareth O Connor
Joe Dillon


To the Citizens of Europe
Davy Carlin


A New Morning
Annie Higgins


19 May 2003


Disappearing the Truth
Anthony McIntyre


The Undesirables
Pedram Moallemian


Shadowy Forces

Eamonn McCann


The Adventures of
Steak Knife
Brian Mór


The Death of Cu Chulainn
Brian Mór


Henri Lefebvre - French Marxist Humanist
Liam O Ruairc


What They Say
Annie Higgins




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