On the sixth day of Marxmas, we give to you this article on James Connolly and the Easter Rising. The revolutionary history of Ireland has been a thorn in the side of the British bourgeoisie for hundreds of years.
Born in 1868 into a poor family in Edinburgh, James Connolly was a genuine proletarian. His working life commenced at the age of ten. All his life he lived and breathed the world of the working class, shared in its trials and tribulations, suffered from its defeats and exulted in its victories. Connolly was a self-educated man who became a brilliant speaker and writer. He alone in the annals of the British and Irish Labour Movement succeeded in developing the ideas of Marxism.
On the basis of a careful study of the writings of Marx and Engels, he developed an independent standpoint and made an original contribution. Even more remarkably, he did this without the benefit of direct contact with the other outstanding Marxist thinkers of the time: Lenin, Trotsky or Luxemburg.
From the first, Connolly had to contend with the same problems that blighted the existence of the rest of his class: dire and unrelieved poverty, which at times made it all but impossible for him to feed his family. But nothing could deter him from his chosen path. With unceasing vigour and absolute single-mindedness, Connolly fought for socialism. The programme of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, written by Connolly, was not a nationalist but a socialist programme based upon:
“Establishment of AN IRISH SOCIALIST REPUBLIC based on the public ownership by the Irish people of the land, and instruments of production, distribution and exchange. Agriculture to be administered as a public function, under boards of management elected by the agricultural population and responsible to them and to the nation at large. All other forms of labour necessary to the well-being of the community to be conducted on the same principles.”
Connolly was, first and foremost, a militant workers’ leader. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), under the leadership of Larkin and Connolly, led the stormy wave of class struggle that shook Ireland to its foundations in the years before 1914. Rarely have these Islands seen such a level of bitter class conflict. This affected not only Dublin but also Belfast, where Connolly succeeded in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in struggle against the employers. In October 1911 he led the famous Belfast Textile workers strike and organised the workers of that sector – predominately low-paid and very exploited women.
The wave of strikes was countered by the employers in the notorious Dublin lockout of 1913. Here we saw the real face of the Irish bourgeoisie: grasping, repressive, reactionary. The Dublin bosses, organised by William Martin Murphy, the chairman of the Employers’ Federation and owner of the Irish Independent newspaper, set out to crush the workers and their organisations. The ITGWU replied by blacking Murphy’s newspapers, and he retaliated by locking out all ITGWU members.
The issue of class unity runs like a red thread through all the writings and speeches of Connolly: “Perhaps they will see that the landlord who grinds his peasants on a Connemara estate, and the landlord who rack-rents them in a Cowgate slum, are brethren in fact and deed. Perhaps they will realise that the Irish worker who starves in an Irish cabin and the Scots worker who is poisoned in an Edinburgh garret are brothers with one hope and destiny.” (C.D. Greaves, James Connolly, p. 61.)
Throughout the lockout, Larkin and Connolly repeatedly appealed to the class solidarity of the British workers. They addressed mass rallies in England, Scotland and Wales, which were also the scene of big class battles in the years before the war. The appeal of the Irish workers did not fall on deaf ears. Their cause was enthusiastically supported by the rank and file of the British movement, although the right wing Labour leaders were preparing to ditch the Irish workers as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Despite the solidarity and sympathy of the workers of Britain, the trade union leaders refused to organise solidarity strikes, the only way that victory could have been achieved. In the end, the workers were starved back to work. Bitterly, Connolly noted:
“And so we Irish workers must again go down to Hell, bow our backs to the last of the slave drivers, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal. Dublin is isolated.” (p. 23)
The Citizen’s Army
In the years preceding World War One, the British ruling class was facing revolutionary developments in Ireland and in Britain. In order to head off the danger of revolution, they resorted to the “Orange card”. Lord Carson organised and armed the hooligans of the Belfast slums in the Ulster Volunteers, pledged to resist Irish Home Rule by force. When the Liberal government in London contemplated using the British army in Ireland, they were met with the “mutiny at the Curragh”. Connolly remained firm in the face of the sectarian madness. He organised a Labour demonstration under the auspices of the ITGWU, “the only union that allows no bigotry in its ranks.” In answer to the sectarians and religious bigots, he declared class war, issuing his famous manifesto: “To the Linen Slaves of Belfast”.
In order to protect themselves against the brutal attacks of police and hired thugs of the employers, the workers set up their own defence force: the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA). This was the first time in these Islands that workers had organised themselves on an armed basis to defend themselves against the common enemy: the bosses and the scabs. The latter, it should be remembered, were much more numerous than at the present time, as a result of the widespread conditions of poverty and despair. The two main leaders were Connolly (himself an ex-soldier) and Captain Jack J. White DSO – a Protestant Ulsterman. But Connolly saw the ICA not only as a defence force, but as a revolutionary army, dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism. He wrote:
“An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto, the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained, and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.” (Workers Republic, 30 October 1915)
As we see from these lines, Connolly envisaged the ICA in class terms, as an organisation organically linked to the mass organisations of the proletariat. It was funded out of the subscriptions of the members of the union, and its activities were organised from Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU in Dublin. The Citizens Army drilled and paraded openly on the streets of Dublin for several years before 1916. Here was no secret organisation engaged in the methods of individual terrorism, but a genuine workers’ militia: the first workers’ Red Army in Europe.
Unfortunately, the movement in the direction of revolution in Ireland was rudely cut across by the outbreak of the First World War. In August 1914, despite all the resolutions passed by the congresses of the Socialist International, every one of the leaderships of the Social Democratic Parties betrayed the cause of socialist internationalism and voted for the War. The only honourable exceptions were the Russians, the Serbs – and the Irish. Right from the start, Connolly adopted an unswerving internationalist stance, which was, in all fundamentals, identical with the position adopted by Lenin.
Commenting on the betrayal of the leaders of the Socialist International, he wrote in Forward (15 August, 1914):
“What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future?”
And he reached the same conclusion as Lenin. In answer to the kind of pacifism that was the hallmark of Labour Lefts such as Ramsay MacDonald (at that time) and the leaders of the ILP, he wrote:
“A great continental uprising of the working class would stop the war; a universal protest at public meetings would not save a single life from being wantonly slaughtered.”
Connolly was not just a socialist, not just a revolutionary: he was an internationalist to the marrow of his bones.
The Easter Rising
From the start of the War, Connolly was virtually isolated. Internationally, he had no contact. Outside of Ireland, the Labour Movement seemed to be as silent as the grave. True, there were symptoms of a revival in Britain, with the Glasgow rent strike of 1915. But Connolly feared that the workers of Britain would move too late. The idea of an uprising had clearly been taking shape in Connolly’s mind. The threat that Britain would introduce conscription into Ireland was the main issue that concentrated the mind, not only of Connolly, but also of the petit bourgeois nationalists of the Irish Volunteers. Connolly therefore pressed them to enter a militant alliance with Labour for an armed uprising against British imperialism. In the event, the leaders of the Volunteers withdrew at the last movement, leaving the Rising in the lurch.
Was Connolly right to move when he did? The question is a difficult one. The conditions were frankly unfavourable. Although there were strikes in Ireland right up to the outbreak of the Rising, the Irish working class had been exhausted and weakened by the exertions of the lockout. There were rumours that the British authorities were planning to arrest the leading Irish revolutionaries. Connolly finally decided to throw everything into the balance. He drew the conclusion that it was better to strike first. He aimed to strike a blow that would break the ice and show the way, even at the cost of his own life. To fight and lose was preferable than to accept and capitulate. When Connolly marched out of Liberty Hall for the last time that fateful morning, he whispered to a comrade: “We are going out to be slaughtered.” When the latter asked him: “Is there no chance of success?” he replied: “None whatever.”
Connolly was undoubtedly a giant. His actions were those of a genuine revolutionary, unlike the craven conduct of the Labour leaders who backed the imperialist slaughter – with the enthusiastic support of the Irish bourgeois nationalists. Yet he also made some mistakes. There is no point in denying it, although some people wish to make Connolly into a saint – while simultaneously ditching or distorting his ideas. There were serious weaknesses in the Rising itself. No attempt was made to call a general strike. On Monday 24, 1916, the Dublin trams were still running, and most people went about their business. No appeal was made to the British soldiers.
Only 1,500 members of the Dublin Volunteers and ICA answered the call to rise. The nationalists had already split between the Redmondites – the Parliamentary Irish Group – who backed the War, and the left wing. However, on the eve of the Rising, the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin MacNeil publicly instructed all members to refuse to come out. As so many times before and since, the nationalist bourgeoisie betrayed the cause of Ireland.
The behaviour of the nationalist leaders came as no surprise to Connolly, who always approached the national liberation struggle from a class point of view. He never had any trust in the bourgeois and petit bourgeois Republicans, and tirelessly worked to build an independent movement of the working class as the only guarantee for the re conquest of Ireland. Since his death there have been many attempts to erase his real identity as a revolutionary socialist and present him as just one more nationalist. This is utterly false. One week before the Rising he warned the Citizens Army: “The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well.”
From a military point of view the Rising was doomed in advance – although if the Volunteers had not stabbed it in the back, the Uprising could have had far greater success. As it was, the British used artillery to batter the GPO (the rebel centre) into submission. By Thursday night, after four days of heroic resistance against the most frightful odds, the rebels were compelled to sign an unconditional surrender.
Although the Rising itself ended in failure, it left behind a tradition of struggle that had far-reaching consequences. It was this that probably Connolly had in mind. In particular the savagery of the British army, which shot all the leaders of the Rising in cold blood after a farcical drumhead trial, caused a wave of revulsion throughout all Ireland. James Connolly, who was badly wounded and unable to stand, was shot strapped to a chair. But the British had miscalculated. The gunshots that ended the life of this great martyr of the working class aroused a new generation of fighters eager to revenge Ireland’s wrongs.
The Easter Rising was like a tocsin bell, the echoes of which rang throughout Europe. After two years of imperialist slaughter, at last the ice was broken! A courageous word had been spoken, and could be heard above the din of the bombs and cannon-fire. Lenin received the news of the uprising enthusiastically. This was understandable, given his position. The War posed tremendous difficulties for the Marxist internationalists. Lenin was isolated with a small group of supporters. On all sides there was capitulation and betrayal. The class struggle was temporarily in abeyance. The Labour leaders were participating in coalition governments with the social-patriots. The events in Dublin completely cut across this. That is why Lenin was so enthusiastic about the uprising. But he also pointed out:
“The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats.”
Had the Rising occurred a couple of years later, it would not have been isolated. It would have had powerful reserves in the shape of the mass revolutionary movement that swept through Europe after the October Revolution in 1917. But Connolly was not to know this.
Importance of leadership
Some sorry ex-Marxists criticised the Easter Rising from a right wing standpoint, such as Plekhanov. In an article in Nashe Slovo dated 4 July 1916, Trotsky denounced Plekhanov’s remarks about the Rising as “wretched and shameful” and added: “the experience of the Irish national uprising is over….the historical role of the Irish proletariat is just beginning.”
Unfortunately, this prediction was falsified by history. The tragedy of the Irish working class was that, unlike Lenin, Connolly did not create a revolutionary Marxist party, armed with theory, that would have carried on his work after his death. This was his biggest mistake, and one which had the most tragic consequences. In the same way that the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht later beheaded the German revolution, so the killing of Connolly removed any chance of the Irish working class leading the revolutionary movement against British imperialism. This was a heavy price to pay!
Connolly had created the Irish Labour Party, with a solid base in the trade unions and the working class. In effect, it was the workers of the Irish Citizens Army who had led the Easter Rising, not the petit bourgeois Volunteers. In fact, Sinn Fein played NO role in the uprising, while the Irish bourgeois nationalists openly betrayed it.
Yet, when Connolly was removed from the picture, it was the bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalists who took advantage of the situation to seize control of the movement. Tragically, the leaders of the Irish Labour Party, lacking Connolly’s grounding in Marxism, proved to be hopelessly inadequate to the tasks posed by history. Instead of maintaining Connolly’s fight for an independent class policy, they tail ended the nationalists, standing down in their favour in the general election after the War.
Under the leadership of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalists, the movement was side-tracked into a guerrilla struggle, and then betrayed. Fearful of the prospect of revolution, the rotten Irish bourgeoisie reached an agreement with London to divide the living body of Ireland. All Connolly’s warnings about the treacherous role of the bourgeoisie were confirmed by the terrible events surrounding partition. The legacy of this betrayal is still with us today.
For the last 85 years, the Irish bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalists have demonstrated their complete incapacity for solving the tasks of the Irish national liberation struggle. In 1922, the bourgeois leaders signed the partition of Ireland. This problem cannot be solved on a capitalist basis. For the last 30 years the Provisional IRA have been trying to solve the problem by a senseless campaign of bombing and shooting. These tactics of individual terrorism have absolutely nothing in common with the methods of Connolly and the Citizens Army, which were always based on class politics and organically linked to the proletariat and the mass workers organisations.
What have these methods achieved after 30 years? Over three thousand deaths; the destruction of a whole generation of Irish youth; the splitting of the population of the North into two hostile camps; a terrible legacy of sectarian bitterness. And with what result? Has the border question been solved? Let us speak clearly: After three decades of so-called armed struggle, the cause of Irish reunification is further away today than at any other time. Ignominiously, the leaders of the Provisionals have capitulated for the sake of a few paltry ministerial portfolios. Nothing has been solved for either Catholics or Protestants.
This is the terrible legacy of decades of individual terrorism and the total lack of any class or socialist perspective. True, there was a serious division in the past between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. But now in place of division we have a yawning abyss. Yet none of this would have been necessary if Connolly’s ideas and methods had prevailed.
In his lifetime, Connolly always fought for the unity of the working class above all national and religious lines. By concentrating on class issues, he succeeded in uniting the Catholic and Protestant workers in the struggle against their common enemy – the employing class. That is the only way to get out of the present mess. The only way to solve what remains of Ireland’s national problem is as a by-product of the revolutionary struggle for socialism. That was true in Connolly’s day. And it remains true today. There can be no reunification of Ireland while the working class remains divided along sectarian lines.
The socialist revolution in the North is inextricably linked to the perspective of socialist revolution in the South – and in Britain. In other words, it can only be solved with a proletarian and internationalist policy. There is still a ray of hope in the North of Ireland. Despite everything, the fundamental organisations of the working class – the trade unions – remain united. They are probably the only real non-sectarian mass organisations that still exist. This is the base upon which we can build! That would undoubtedly be the message of James Connolly, were he alive at this time.
Eighty five years later, it is necessary to cut through all the fog of historical fantasy and nationalist mystification that surrounds the events of Easter Week, and see the key role of the proletariat. What a great opportunity was missed with the death of James Connolly! But the new generation must take the lesson to heart. Connolly failed because he did not create – as Lenin created – the necessary instrument with which to change society: a revolutionary party and a revolutionary leadership!
Today we pledge ourselves to defend the heritage of this great Marxist, fighter, and martyr of the working class. We must rescue the ideas of Connolly which have been stolen and distorted beyond recognition by people who have nothing to do with Connolly, socialism or the working class. We must continue the fight for Connolly’s ideas – the only ideas that can guarantee the ultimate victory. We must create the necessary revolutionary organisation, soundly based on the programme, policy and methods of Marxism. And we must understand that such an organisation must be firmly based in the only soil in which it can grow and flourish: the trade unions and the mass organisations of Labour in Ireland, North and South, as well as on the other side of the Irish Sea.
The Easter Rising was a glorious harbinger of what is still to come. The job was left unfinished in 1916. The task now falls upon our shoulders. Armed with the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky – and Connolly – we shall not fail!