June 5th 2018 will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of James Connolly in Edinburgh’s Cowgate. This will provide us with an opportunity to reappraise Connolly’s life and work. Not to merely commemorate or recall the dates that mark out significant chapters and events in his life, but rather to meaningfully engage with the man, his writings and his philosophy.
Like many other working class kids, Connolly (and his brother John) joined the British Army in a bid to escape poverty and destitution. After seven years Connolly absconded from the British Army and spent time in Dundee and Perth (where he married Lillie Reynolds, an Irish Protestant he had met in Dublin) before Connolly returned to live in Edinburgh, back in Little Ireland. Connolly took up employment as a manure carter (as his father had before him) and immersed himself in political activity with the Scottish Socialist Federation. Quickly establishing himself as one of the key writers, orators and organisers in the city. Within a few short years he had twice stood for election in the St Giles ward in the city. He also became active in the Social Democratic Federation and in the Independent Labour Party in the city once it was founded by Keir Hardie.
During this period Connolly studied socialist writings, including those of Marx and Engels (it is said he taught himself French and German sufficiently to read texts that were not yet available in English). Edinburgh during the 1890’s was the hub of socialist activism in Scotland and a wide variety of political influences were embraced by the young Connolly. As well as Irish nationalism, the teeming tenements of Little Ireland and the surrounding area where home to exiles from the Paris Commune and Fenian movement, Scottish republicans, Chartists and socialists of varying international hues.
In Edinburgh Connolly was introduced to a wide range of individuals some of whom influenced him and his thinking greatly. The city was a fertile intellectual, political and cultural environment for the young Connolly. Figures such as visionary sociologist and urban planner Patrick Geddes and anarchist Peter Kropotkin mixed with socialists of various strands. These included fellow Little Ireland resident John Leslie a poet and activist, and the likes of Keir Hardie, Eleanor Marx and William Morris. Another influence was exiled Communard Leo Melliot who famously told an Edinburgh meeting commemorating the Commune that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no social salvation’. The influence of the Paris Commune on Connolly’s political thinking could be seen in the decades that followed. Throughout his life Connolly commemorated the Commune annually.
After the failure of his cobbler’s shop, and now married with three young children, Connolly said he was going to buy a mirror to watch himself starve to death. He even considered leaving Edinburgh and politics for good and emigrating to Chile. Only the intervention of his friend and comrade John Leslie dissuaded him. And in 1896 after an appeal by Leslie he was offered the position of paid organiser with the Dublin Socialist Club. He accepted and moved to Ireland.
Within days of arriving in Ireland Connolly made his famous statement that “The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects: it is national and it is social”. Shortly thereafter this was expounded in more detail in the manifesto of the newly established Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). This highlights that these are not ideas Connolly came to later in life or even in Ireland. These were ideas Connolly arrived in Ireland with, having developed them in the Irish milieu of the Cowgate.
It was during this period of Connolly’s life that he began to develop his theoretical writings with the publications of Erin’s Hope. He also began writing for the journal of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party in the United States. Although a small organisation the ISRP and Connolly were leading public protests against Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the Boer War. A war Connolly said was motivated to facilitate ‘an unscrupulous gang of capitalists to get into their hands the immense riches of the diamond fields’.
His time in Dublin, like the rest of his life, was marked by severe poverty. With an expanding family (the Connolly’s now had six children) and limited job opportunities Connolly decided to emigrate to the United States in 1903. The following year he was joined by his family, however his eldest child, Mona, died in a tragic accident as the family prepared to leave Dublin.
Initially a member of the SLP however Connolly clashed repeatedly with De Leon and a mutual antipathy was not long in the making. Throughout his life Connolly forthrightly shared his opinions (and disagreements) on any issue he chose. De Leon was famous for his intolerance of those who disagreed with him within the SLP and socialist movement.
While Connolly was in the US the International Workers of the World (IWW) was formed, known as the Wobblies. Adopting a syndicalist approach of the One Big Union, Connolly immediately joined and became an organiser. Throughout his time in the US Connolly travelled extensively giving speeches and organising. In 1908 Connolly toured the United States in support of Eugene Debs Presidential campaign. During this period Connolly continued to write both for papers and more theoretical works. While in the US he also wrote plays, published a pamphlet of his songs entitled Songs of Freedom and his popular book Socialism Made Easy.
On his return to Ireland in 1910 Connolly was determined to adapt the IWW’s approach of industrial unionism to Irish conditions and joined the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), which had been formed by Jim Larkin during Connolly’s time in the United States. Connolly worked as an organiser in Belfast attempting to unite Catholic and Protestant workers in ITGWU activity. This, and the Catholic Church’s vociferous attacks on socialism in Ireland, led Connolly to rethink the relationship between religion and ideology.
As ever Connolly continued to write with Labour, Nationality and Religion and then Labour in Irish History being published. Labour in Irish History remains a classic work which reframes Irish history from the perspective of the working class. This established Connolly’s reputation as an original thinker, theoretician and Marxist historian.
One of the defining workers struggles between Labour and Capital on these islands was the 1913 Dublin Lockout when the ITGWU, led by Connolly and Larkin, faced the owner of the Dublin Tramways, William Martin Murphy. In Murphy, the workers were up against an immensely powerful and immensely class-conscious opponent. At one point involving 20,000 workers the sheer scale and ferocity of the lockout shook Irish society and the British Empire. After British police attacked, and killed, workers James Connolly concluded the only way for workers to protect themselves from state violence was to create a worker’s militia. The Irish Citizens Army was born. This army, of and for the working class, is recognised as the first of its kind in the world.
After the British union bureaucracy refused to call out their members in solidarity the lockout was defeated. The struggle of the workers and the violent state response led many Irish nationalist to conclude any nationalist movement must have a social dimension. The lockout confirmed Connolly’s view that only when the Irish people were in control of their own destiny, without outside interference or impediment, could Irish workers be free. The pieces were falling into place for revolution. The question was would an opportunity present itself?
The outbreak of the war in 1914 provided Connolly with an opportunity to underline his principled approach to political action. As the left across the world abandoned their previous opposition to the war in favour of national chauvinism, Connolly held firm. He now found himself in a small band of principled socialists campaigning against the world war. His experiences in the British Army left Connolly with an abiding hatred of militarism and the British military in particular. The anti-war writing produced by Connolly during this period are among his very best writing. For Connolly the failure of the vast majority of socialists to hold the anti-war line and support the war confirmed his view that Ireland must seize the opportunity for revolution and independence, both national and social. Britain’s role in a world war was, for Connolly, an opportunity working class revolutionaries could not pass up. Ireland was on the road to Easter 1916 and revolution.
Throughout his political life Connolly’s view on Irish independence was consistent. He viewed Britain’s involvement in Ireland as a disaster. He identified, however, that a nationalist movement led by the middle class would be unable to complete the ‘reconquest’ he viewed as essential. Such a nationalist movement would demand political freedom but would be unable to demand economic freedom. Firstly, because the bourgeois nationalist is unable to think outside the logic of the capitalism system and secondly because their own economic position, privileged relative to the working class, is a direct result of economic oppression imposed on the people of Ireland by British colonisation. Connolly’s solution was simple but revolutionary: the working class must lead the struggle for political and economic freedom.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of his birth we need to re-engage Connolly’s life and work with the working class he fought for every day of his life. To channel his rage at injustice and his determination to fight for those marginalised, silenced and excluded under capitalism. To use his love of life and politics and culture and humour to give people hope and optimism.
⇴Jim Slaven is a writer, artist and educator based in Edinburgh. A founding member of the James Connolly Society and creator of 107 Cowgate, whose events and tours explore Edinburgh’s history and future from a working class perspective, his work looks at the intersection of race, nation and class.