Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist, theoretical and documentary repository of the ICL, incorporating Women & Revolution Workers Vanguard, biweekly organ of the Spartacist League/U.S. Periodicals and directory of the sections of the ICL ICL Declaration of Principles in multiple languages Other literature of the ICL ICL events

Subscribe to Workers Hammer

View archives

Printable version of this article

Workers Hammer No. 195

Summer 2006

Class struggle, Labour betrayal and the fight for Irish independence

James Connolly

A Marxist appreciation

(Spartacist League Dayschool)

The article below is an edited version of the presentation given by comrade Edward Welles of the Spartacist Group Ireland at a dayschool in London on 15 April on James Connolly and the Easter Rising of 1916. The presentations also included a report on the struggles of workers and students in France against attacks by the government (see page 12) and an account by comrade Julia Emery of how votes for women were won, examining the role of the Suffragettes and the impact of the Russian Revolution.


Hello, comrades. The events that will be covered in this talk are of critical importance for revolutionaries in Ireland and Britain, who seek to fight for workers revolution on both sides of the Irish border and both sides of the Irish Sea. In particular, it is important to emphasise that the experience of the Russian Revolution provided the answers to the problems that class-struggle fighters like James Connolly, James Larkin and John Maclean grappled with, and it is the programme of the Russian Revolution for the dictatorship of the proletariat that we take as our model today.

James Connolly is best known for having led the Easter Rising of 1916. This event is being officially commemorated this weekend by the Irish capitalist state which, since its inception, has been brutally repressive against Republican nationalists, against the working-class, women and Travellers. The state commemoration is an attempt by [Irish Taoiseach] Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail Party to make sure that Sinn Fein are not the only ones claiming to be the rightful heirs of the 1916 Rising.

Irish workers also look to James Connolly, as well as James Larkin, as socialist leaders of working class struggle. Photos of the Irish Ferries demonstrations last December showed trade unionists passing under Larkin’s statue in Dublin, evoking the spectre of “Larkinism”, that is to say, of militant class struggle against the capitalist order. Meanwhile, the Irish Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy, as well as reformist left groups such as the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, try to claim the legacy of Connolly in order to pass off their own particular types of Labour reformism as some kind of “socialism”. In the case of the Irish Labour Party and the union bureaucracy, this most commonly takes the form of the argument that the interests of the working class must be subordinated to the “national interest”.

Connolly’s life was one of dedicated service to the international working class. Connolly was also part of the left wing of the Second International and shared many of the weaknesses of pre-WWI left social democracy. The real tragedy is that he did not live to see the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 or to encounter the politics of the Third International, especially on the national question and on the necessity for a party of proletarian revolutionaries to carry through the programme of workers revolution. We stand on the shoulders of class fighters like Connolly and Maclean but seek to use the Bolshevik method of Lenin and Trotsky to build a party capable of achieving the socialist society to which they devoted their lives.

Connolly was primarily a revolutionary syndicalist who relentlessly pursued the class struggle against the bourgeoisie. He was an internationalist and one of the foremost leaders of the working class in these islands. His dedication to the principles of the class struggle made him an ardent opponent of the union bureaucracy and the craft-unionist “aristocracy of labour” which dominated the trade unions in Britain (as well as in the United States). Connolly and Larkin’s fights against these union misleaders came to a head over the 1913 Dublin lockout. A small but privileged layer, composed mainly of skilled workers, benefited from the privileged position of Britain as the oldest, most powerful imperialist power. Competition between the imperialist powers for a redivision of the world led directly to the inter-imperialist carnage of WWI, which showed that the choice facing the working class was socialism or barbarism.

The politics of the British Labour Party and union leaders consisted of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie. Connolly was in the opposite camp from the social-chauvinists; he was also part of a left-wing opposition to the “socialist” tendency in Britain headed by the virulently chauvinist and pro-imperialist Henry Hyndman, leader of the Social Democratic Federation. But Connolly was not able to draw similar conclusions as Lenin, whose conception of building a revolutionary vanguard party through a split from the social-chauvinists and opportunists was unique at this time. However, before WWI Lenin also regarded the experience of the Bolshevik Party as exceptional and applicable only to the Russian situation. This changed with WWI, after the majority of the parties of the Second International supported their “own” bourgeoisies on the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914. The experience of the imperialist war and the October Revolution showed that the Bolshevik model in fact supplied the strategy and tactics for the imperialist epoch.

Connolly’s lack of a conception for a revolutionary party was his greatest weakness. In part he recoiled from the model of a disciplined party following his experience in Daniel De Leon’s American Socialist Labor Party. At the same time, Connolly’s politics were influenced heavily by De Leon as well as by the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World in the US. But he had other problems which Lenin’s party addressed, notably the question of national oppression. Connolly was a tenacious fighter against the national oppression of Ireland and an advocate of independence. Following Marx, he argued that the subjection of one nation by another could only harm the interests of the working class of each nation. The early programme of his Irish Socialist Republican Party had a fairly advanced position, calling for an Irish Socialist Republic. Bear in mind that outside Belfast, Ireland was then a heavily agrarian society. Connolly’s position should be contrasted to the programme of Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, which was merely for “legislative independence” for the colonies, ie, a form of “Home Rule”.

Marxists and the national question

Connolly also opposed the Irish Parliamentary Party, the mainstream nationalist party in Westminster. It advocated a peaceful transition to “Home Rule” as part of a deal brokered with the British Liberal Party, which of course never materialised. Connolly was trying to grapple with the national question in the context of the Second International but he was unaware of Lenin’s debates with Rosa Luxemburg on the question of self-determination and, executed after the 1916 Rising, Connolly did not live to see the Comintern deal with these issues. He tended to see an inherently socialistic element in Irish nationalism, and didn’t really see the petty-bourgeois nature of Irish republican nationalism: he tended to think that consistent nationalists would be forced to adopt a socialist programme. For us, as for Lenin, Marxism and nationalism are fundamentally counterposed. As we wrote in our Theses on Ireland (1977):

“Thus, while revolutionists struggle against all forms of national oppression, they are also opposed to all forms of nationalist ideology. It is a revision of Leninism to claim that the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ is progressive and can be supported by communist internationalists.”

Whatever weaknesses there were in Connolly’s theoretical understanding of the national question, his unquestionable strength was his determined, lifelong battle for the interests of the working class.

The Bolsheviks, basing themselves on the work of Marx and Engels on the Irish question in England, were able to apply a Marxist approach in the context of Tsarist Russia, which was a prison house of oppressed nations. Their position was that the proletariat of the oppressor nation must fight for the right of secession for the colonies that its “own” nation oppresses, while socialists in the oppressed nation must place particular emphasis on the need for unity between the proletariat of the oppressed nation and the proletariat of the oppressor nation.

We uphold this tradition today and apply it to Ireland. Opposition to British imperialism in Ireland is a litmus test for revolutionaries here and we call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. This is not in itself a revolutionary demand but it must be the beginning for a revolutionary perspective. The Orange statelet is based on Protestant ascendancy and the oppression of Catholics, and we regard the Good Friday Agreement and the imperialist “peace process” as a fraud which is based on the continuing oppression of Catholics and the presence of the British Army. Northern Ireland is a situation of interpenetrated peoples, where both the Protestant and Catholic communities lay claim to the same territory. Within the framework of capitalism the exercise of self-determination by one community must necessarily be at the expense of the other. We are opposed to the nationalist perspective for a united capitalist Ireland, as the forcible incorporation of the North into the southern clericalist state would involve a reversal of the terms of oppression against the Protestant community.

Our demand is for an Irish workers republic as part of a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles, which leaves open the question of where the Protestants will fall: we recognise that the nature of the Protestant community in the North has not yet been determined in history. We also call for an anti-sectarian and programmatically-based workers militia to combat Orange and Green terror and imperialist rampage in the North. Our perspective does not underestimate the difficulties but sees the necessity for the intervention of even a small number of revolutionaries into the actual points of class unity that emerge in the North that can lay the basis for building a Bolshevik party. We are for the building of workers parties dedicated to the programme of workers revolution to end British imperialist rule, the Orange statelet and the Irish clericalist state. We believe that a party capable of such a task must be a tribune of the people — fighting for women’s liberation, full citizenship rights for all immigrants, while opposing racism and homophobia.

We look to the tradition of Lenin’s Comintern which put forward an internationalist perspective. This is in contrast to the Second International which had pro-imperialist policies, clearly expressed in 1914 when the German social democracy, the French Socialists and the British Labour Party all supported their own ruling classes in the war. The Third International was built in the struggle for a break with the politics of social democracy. It championed the right of oppressed nations to self-determination and was built on the understanding that only through the construction of revolutionary parties could the working class achieve state power.

The Second International and revolutionary syndicalism

James Connolly in Dublin and John Maclean in Glasgow represented the best traditions of revolutionary opposition to the bourgeoisie in these islands. John Maclean was jailed for his militant internationalist opposition to WWI, and in recognition of his courageous and principled stand he was made Soviet Consul in Glasgow in early 1918. Although Maclean survived longer than Connolly, after April 1916 he spent long periods of his remaining seven and a half years in prison. He was inspired by and sought to emulate the Russian Revolution but never acquired the experience of working in a Leninist party.

Revolutionary syndicalism was in part a reaction against, and a left opposition to, the reformism of the Second International. In Britain it was also a reaction against the conservative craft unionism of the main union leaders. The classic syndicalist call was for “One Big Union” and syndicalism tended to look at the general strike as the decisive weapon. The Bolsheviks, drawing on the experience of the 1905 Russian Revolution, understood that what was necessary was state power. The primary distinction between Leninism and revolutionary syndicalism was the need for a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class that was prepared to fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat. At its Second Congress in 1920, the Communist International went to some lengths to win to Bolshevism the syndicalists and others who opposed social chauvinism and pursued the class struggle in WWI. James P Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism who was won to Bolshevism from the Industrial Workers of the World, described how Lenin approached the syndicalists:

“All that hodgepodge of ultra-radicalism was practically wiped out of the American movement in 1920-21 by Lenin. He did it, not by an administrative order backed up by police powers, but by the simple device of publishing a pamphlet called ‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

Cannon continues:

“The ‘Theses and Resolutions’ of the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 also cleared up the thinking of the American communists over a wide range of theoretical and political problems, and virtually eliminated the previously dominating influence exerted by the sectarian conceptions of De Leon and the Dutch leaders.”

The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)

No such process took place in Britain.

Another weakness Connolly had was over the question of religion and the family. He had a dispute with De Leon over this in the US, where Connolly was in the wrong. It is useful to consider that Marxists in Britain and Ireland in Connolly’s time had access to a very narrow range of Marxist texts. The main text they had was Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Engels; they had the first volume of Capital and the Communist Manifesto but they didn’t have much else. Coming from Edinburgh and Dublin, Connolly had adapted somewhat to the pressures of social conservatism, especially the Catholic church. He was certainly for such progressive causes as women’s suffrage and organising women into trade unions. But he essentially regarded questions of religion, sexuality, and so on, purely as matters of individual conscience about which socialists had nothing to say, and he viewed with suspicion those who he thought were introducing these questions into the labour movement in the service of liberal reform. I would emphasise though that the pressures coming from the Catholic church in Ireland were very great. Irish Cliffite Kieran Allen aptly described Connolly’s position in the following way:

“In so far as the clergy involved themselves in politics they should be attacked as politicians. Otherwise the question of religion should be avoided entirely. This is why Connolly stated that the ISRP ‘prohibits the discussion of theological or anti-theological questions at meetings, public or private’.”

The Politics of James Connolly (1990)

Of course, this is rich coming from a member of the Socialist Workers Party, which championed a host of clerical-backed counterrevolutionary forces against the Soviet degenerated workers state and which today carries out the most grotesque adaptations to religious reaction, especially to Islamic forces. On the question of religion, we agree with Lenin’s Bolsheviks that, while religion should be a private matter in relation to the state, it is not a private matter in relation to Marxism or to the revolutionary party.

The “great labour unrest”

The “great labour unrest” refers to a massive wave of class struggle that rocked British imperialism from around 1911 to 1914, when it was stopped abruptly by the outbreak of war and the surge of chauvinism that accompanied it. At this time British imperialism was being squeezed by her rivals abroad, notably Germany and the United States, while facing three major problems on the domestic front: massive working-class unrest; the struggle for extension of the franchise to women; and the growing demand for Home Rule for Ireland. The latter sparked widespread hysteria among the Ulster Unionists. The British Tories deliberately fanned the flames of Unionist bigotry and mobilised the House of Lords against the Liberal government while the officer corps of the army staged a mutiny at the Curragh camp in County Kildare, declaring that the army would not enforce Home Rule against the Unionists. This highlights the fact that parliamentary democracy is nothing but a disguise for the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie centred on its armed forces. Home Rule had long been viewed as an inevitability, but it now became clear that this wasn’t going to be decided in the Houses of Parliament.

In 1901 the British trade unions faced a massive attack on their right to exist, in the form of the Taff Vale decision. Largely in response to this, the union bureaucracy created the Labour Party. But by 1910-11, many workers had become disillusioned with Labour and looked towards syndicalism, represented in London by Tom Mann. Mann was influenced by the French syndicalists and in turn influenced Ben Tillett, then leader of the London dockers. Syndicalism took hold quite widely in Scotland and among miners and railwaymen in South Wales, as well as in the London docks where there was a major strike in 1913. In 1914, as a result of the wave of militancy, the Triple Alliance of the three most powerful unions in the country — the dockers, miners and railwaymen — was formed.

The “new unionism” of the early twentieth century gave great impetus to the class struggle by organising unskilled and semi-skilled workers into large general unions, which was politically explosive. Larkin’s transport union in Ireland was one such union. It had been founded after the defeat of the Belfast dock strikes of 1907, when Larkin, as an organiser for the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers, had led a very militant strike of Protestant and Catholic workers in Belfast, which was betrayed by the union leadership in Britain and suppressed by the deployment of the British Army.

Lenin saw the significance of “Larkinism” and the organisation of unskilled workers, noting that:

“The Irish proletariat, awakening to class-consciousness, is pressing the Irish bourgeois scoundrels engaged in celebrating their ‘national’ victory. It has found a talented leader in the person of Comrade Larkin, Secretary of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union. Larkin is a remarkable speaker, a man of seething Irish energy, who has performed miracles among the unskilled workers — that mass of the British proletariat which in Britain is so often cut off from the advanced workers by the cursed, petty-bourgeois, liberal, aristocratic spirit of the British skilled worker.”

— “Class War in Dublin”, 29 August 1913

The conflict between the militant syndicalists and the more conservative union leaderships came to a head over the Dublin lockout of 1913, which pitted the working class of Dublin not against the British colonial overlords but against the Irish bourgeoisie. This kind of class polarisation was much more difficult to achieve in Ireland after partition when the Irish Labour Party and TUC mired the working class in collaboration with the bourgeoisie.

The Dublin lockout of 1913

The lockout started on 2 September 1913 when around 25,000 workers were locked out by 400 companies in an attempt to destroy the transport union. The bosses were led by William Martin Murphy of the Independent newspaper and the Dublin police rampaged through the city, targeting union members and running riot in working-class areas. Two union members, James Nolan and James Byrne, were clubbed to death in the street and soon you had scabs firing pistols in the streets with impunity while strikers were thrown in jail on the most trivial of charges. It was in this context that the Irish Citizen Army was formed, to defend pickets against attack.

One famous episode during the lockout gives you a sense of the kind of pressures that Connolly and Larkin had to deal with. It arose over the proposal to send children of locked-out families to Britain to be looked after during the dispute. This proposal was vehemently denounced by the priests, who would rather have the children starve in Dublin than be sent to the homes of working-class families in Britain, who might even have been Protestants or atheists — God forbid! [Laughter] Women were physically prevented from sending their children either to Britain or Belfast by baying mobs of priests and other reactionary scum, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who were backed by the police. And some women who proposed sending the children away were arrested for “kidnapping”, while priests persuaded some parents to give perjured evidence against them.

The lockout was of central significance to the workers movement in Britain. The workers in Dublin desperately needed solidarity strikes by British workers, which could have stopped rail and sea traffic to and from Dublin. There was certainly massive sentiment for this from the rank and file of the British unions: railwaymen in Liverpool began to black all Dublin traffic very early in the dispute, and soon between 13-14,000 workers were locked out or on sympathy strikes across England. One hundred and fifty thousand pounds — an enormous sum at the time — was raised among workers in Britain. The main obstacle to solidarity strikes was the British union leadership and Larkin and Connolly fought tooth and nail against these traitors, demanding sympathy strikes and not just financial support.

Larkin was soon imprisoned for leading the union and Connolly launched a campaign to free him. A great rally was held in London on 1 November, the speakers including Connolly and Sylvia Pankhurst (who was actually expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union because of her support for the Dublin working class). Larkin was very popular with the unskilled workers in Britain and soon tens of thousands of British workers began to take up the demand for a general strike demanding his release.

Larkin was released after only 17 days in prison and he embarked on a famous tour of Britain that became known as his “fiery cross” crusade. This was an attempt to spark a revolt by the rank and file of the unions in Britain in defiance of their leaders. Larkin denounced the Labour Party leaders who, he said, “were standing in their road, and they would have to be pulled out of the road. They were about as useful as mummies in a museum. The weapon that was wanted was the sympathetic strike used in a scientific manner.” He said of Havelock Wilson, the leader of the Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, and Labour’s Philip Snowden, “I am not going to allow these serpents to raise their foul heads and spit out their poison any longer”, and denounced the union leaders who “had neither a soul to be saved nor a body to be kicked” [laughter] (quoted in James Larkin, by Emmet Larkin, 1965).

Larkin’s powerful appeals got a wonderful reception among the union ranks and resulted in further wildcat solidarity strikes, including among 30,000 railwaymen. This forced the British Trades Union Congress to call a special conference, at which the fate of the Dublin workers was sealed. Everyone knew what to expect from the right-wing union leaders. But the supposed “left” Ben Tillett, who had spoken on all the platforms next to Larkin, now came out as the worst traitor of all. Tillett proposed a motion denouncing Larkin’s attacks on the British union leaders, which opened the floodgates for a torrent of invective against Larkin.

Nevertheless the Dublin workers were determined to fight it out, even in the face of wholesale scabbing by British workers, especially in the Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union. Pickets were attacked by cops and armed scabs, and a 16-year-old girl, Alice Brady, was shot dead on picket duty. But despite their heroism and sacrifice, on 18 January 1914 the transport union told workers to go back to work on whatever terms they could secure. The last workers returned in mid-March.

The outbreak of WWI

The role of the Labour traitors in the lockout prefigured their role in WWI. Those who had sabotaged solidarity action, like Ben Tillett and Labour’s Arthur Henderson, declared in favour of the imperialist war effort in 1914. Henderson later achieved infamy as a member of the government that ordered Connolly’s execution and is credited with leading cheering in Parliament when the executions in Ireland were announced.

Initially, there was a wave of chauvinist enthusiasm for the war across Europe including in Britain. Many thousands of Irish workers signed up to serve in the forces of the British Empire, including many members of the transport union. Connolly and Larkin denounced the war from the outset and tried to formulate a practical programme of opposition to it. Connolly called for Irish workers to take action, hoping this would spark a Europe-wide conflagration against the war. In Scotland, John Maclean raised the standard of socialist internationalism against imperialist militarism. But the outbreak of war and the ascendancy of jingoist sentiment made the years of 1914 to 1916 very difficult for Connolly. He was rightly fearful also over the prospect of partition, which Connolly foresaw would lead to a “carnival of reaction”. In 1914, he described with prescience what partition would mean:

“All hopes of uniting the workers, irrespective of religion or old political battle cries will be shattered, and through North and South the issue of Home Rule will be still used to cover the iniquities of the capitalist and landlord class. I am not speaking without due knowledge of the sentiments of the organised Labour movement in Ireland when I say that we would much rather see the Home Rule Bill defeated than see it carried with Ulster or any part of Ulster left out.”

— “The Exclusion of Ulster”, 11 April 1914

The accumulation of defeats, betrayals and the reactionary climate of these years took a toll on Connolly and there was a shift in his internationalist perspective. Particularly in the months before the Rising you can see a real despair about the prospects of British workers revolting against their own rulers. Which isn’t to say he adopted a nationalist perspective.

In honour of the 1916 Rising

This nationalist bent obviously came to inform his thinking leading up to the Easter Rising. At the same time, Connolly remained the head of the Irish Citizen Army and was general secretary of the transport union after Larkin went to America, and did important work to bring the union back into solvency after the lockout. Having observed the prostration of the Second International and the trail of Irishmen going off to be butchered in the trenches, Connolly felt desperate to act against the war. At the same time his early avowals of internationalist solidarity with Karl Liebknecht were followed by statements which viewed the victory of German imperialism as a lesser evil.

What Connolly didn’t have was Lenin’s understanding that war is the mother of revolutions. Lenin too had seen the collapse of the Second International, and initiated an uncompromising struggle to build a new international and to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war. The programme of revolutionary defeatism was a key plank in the programme of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and was central to the struggle for the Third International. The key political task was to bring proletarian leadership to the struggle for national liberation. Connolly’s enormous political abilities could have been brought to bear in the work of forging a Bolshevik-type party that alone could provide such leadership.

Connolly’s writings investing the Irish national struggle with an inherent socialist character did take on a more pronounced flavour. He began to orient towards the petty-bourgeois nationalists in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers. For several months before the Easter Rising Connolly entered a political bloc with a wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in which he made serious adaptations to their nationalism and religiosity. The 1916 Proclamation which Connolly signed was a bourgeois-nationalist document, steeped in religious piety, beginning as it did, “Irishmen and Irishwomen: in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.”

The leaders of the Rising had a plan for a national uprising which, through various shortcomings, blunders and betrayals, went seriously awry. Centrally, they were counting on a shipment of German weapons which was captured by the British off the coast of Kerry. Of course the chances of the rebellion succeeding, even if all had gone to plan, are another matter. In any case, the insurrectionary leaders wanted to strike a blow for Irish independence and against the British Empire. The Rising began on Monday 24 April 1916, in the teeth of British imperialism at war, with the aim of creating an independent Irish republic. Around 150 men and women of the Irish Citizen Army were joined by around 700 of the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist force influenced by the old Fenian conspirators of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They occupied several important buildings in the city, but the only real question was how long it would take the British to amass a force adequate to put down the Rising. By the end of the fighting, the British outnumbered the rebels by 20 to one. After attempting to storm the rebel positions, in the process of which they incurred serious losses, the British changed tack and began to bombard their headquarters in the General Post Office. They crushed the rebellion within five days.

Once the Rising had taken place, it was imperative for Marxists to take a side in its defence, as an elementary expression of support for Irish independence and the defence of an oppressed nation. There is an important distinction to be made between participating in something and having a position in defence of it. The Rising was suppressed with brutal ferocity by British imperialism. Much of central Dublin was reduced to rubble and hundreds of people were killed. Over the course of the next two weeks the British embarked on a series of executions of its leaders. When 14 had been killed, it was widely thought that would be the end. But no, the Independent newspaper, mouthpiece of William Martin Murphy (commonly known to the Dublin working class as William “Murder” Murphy) who had led the bosses during the lockout, howled for Connolly’s blood. On 12 May Connolly was executed in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol; he had suffered a leg wound in the fighting and so he was shot while tied to a chair.

Those who do not defend the Rising are guilty of a capitulation to the imperialist order. In The discussion on self-determination summed up (1916) Lenin described it as “the touchstone of our theoretical views” on the national question. He polemicised against Trotsky as well as Karl Radek, who described the Rising as a putsch and criticised it on the spurious pretext that the national question was now redundant as an issue for mobilising the masses in Europe. Lenin argued:

“We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat’s great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilise every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify and extend the crisis. If we were, on the one hand, to repeat in a thousand keys the declaration that we are ‘opposed’ to all national oppression and, on the other, to describe the heroic revolt of the most mobile and enlightened section of certain classes in an oppressed nation against its oppressors as a ‘putsch’, we should be sinking to the same level of stupidity as the Kautskyites.”

For Lenin, the events in Dublin were part of the struggles unleashed by the war which revolutionaries should seek to use. He understood that under imperialism, national oppression would become more of a focus for struggle, not less. Any socialist worth his salt had to defend the Rising and this obviously drew a hard line against the various social-democratic apologists for imperialism. Lenin argued that it was the misfortune of the Irish rebels that “they rose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature”.

The Rising was a herald of the struggles to come, including colonial risings against imperialism. Lenin also noted that “it is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians”. Within 18 months, the Russian Revolution shook the world, although of course Connolly could not have known that was going to take place. The Easter Rising can be compared to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 as a giant historic landmark of the struggles that were about to break loose. The soldiers who destroyed slavery in the course of the second American revolution — the Civil War — marched to the tune of “John Brown’s body”. The Easter Rising and its brutal suppression provided the inspiration for a generalised revolt against imperialist rule in Ireland. It is the same forces of bourgeois reaction and their reformist lackeys that today seek to disappear the examples of John Brown and Easter 1916.

Socialist Party in the tradition of William Walker

By way of contrast to our position, I want to talk briefly about the Socialist Party. Historically their tendency has opposed the call for immediate withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. Moreover they have held that the path to socialism lies through the passing of an Enabling Act in the British Parliament. Well, recently they published an article on Connolly (Socialist View, Spring 2006) which attacks Connolly for making statements “which could be read as supporting the idea that independence would give a boost to the struggle for socialism”, and they lament that the programme Connolly developed on the national question was “one-sided and, as such, would not reassure the mass of Protestants”. Behind this lies a not very well-concealed adaptation to anti-Catholic prejudice. They also lecture Connolly — who spent years organising Protestants and Catholics in trade unions — for not knowing how to unite Protestants and Catholics in Belfast! Really, what the Socialist Party hates about Connolly is his persistent opposition to British imperialism, to Orange reaction and to Protestant ascendancy.

The Socialist Party stands much closer to the tradition of a gentleman named William Walker, a very prominent Belfast trade unionist and member of the ILP in the 1900s who capitulated quite openly to Orangeism. He became the object of Connolly’s ire for his opposition to Home Rule, to Irish independence and to equality for Catholics and also for his belief that the Irish labour movement should have no separate party but should be subordinate to the British Labour Party. Now this might sound familiar to anyone who knows the Socialist Party: Walker’s retorts to Connolly were invariably to denounce him as a nationalist and to insist that the ILP was building municipal socialism in Belfast, rhetorically asking “how many of you are there, what have you done, and what are you going to do that the ILP cannot do?” Connolly correctly noted that the standard of Walker was “not the sacred banner of true Internationalism, but is instead the shamefaced flag of a bastard Imperialism!” (quoted in James Connolly, Donal Nevin, 2005).

Class struggle in the war of independence

The years after Connolly’s execution saw a resurgence of anti-British sentiment in Ireland, notably over the executions after the Rising, the continuing deferral of Home Rule, the threat of conscription and the bloodbath in Europe. The bourgeoisie began to take an anti-British stance and Sinn Fein became a prominent force, winning a majority of seats in the 1918 election. This was combined with a resurgence of working-class militancy which was inspired by the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary upsurge across Europe after the war. The transport union experienced a revival, with nearly 70,000 members by the end of 1918, and the number of strikes went through the roof. This marked the beginning of the war of independence of 1919-21. It was met with vicious repression by the British military forces which included the notorious “Black and Tans” [irregular military units] and auxiliaries who made widespread use of collective punishment, torture and assassination against the civilian population, perhaps best exemplified by the burning of Cork.

In the cities and towns in the South, the proletariat was active during the war of independence. In addition to the Limerick Soviet, there were land seizures and workers protests, often organised by returning Irish-Americans with experience in the revolutionary syndicalist IWW. April 1920 saw a hunger strike by over 100 nationalist and trade union prisoners; a two-day general strike throughout the South secured their unconditional release. The Irish Labour Party and TUC played a truly treacherous role in these years. Although they had refused to call for Connolly’s release after the Rising or to condemn his execution, labour misleaders like William O’Brien and Thomas Johnson now used the authority of Connolly, and their one-time connection to him, to justify their own betrayals.

Labour became the loyal opposition to the Catholic Irish bourgeoisie, agitating for anti-conscription strikes against the British authorities, which had the backing of Sinn Fein and the Catholic hierarchy, while refusing to oppose the nationalists or even to stand candidates in the 1918 general election. Later, the Labour Party and TUC supported the wretched Treaty, despite the fact that it strengthened communalist divisions among the proletariat in the North. After independence they worked hand in glove with Eamon de Valera — who was to become long-time taoiseach and later president of the clericalist state — and his Fianna Fail party, establishing a framework of class collaboration that persists to this day in the form of so-called “social partnership” with the bosses.

The Belfast strike of 1919

Belfast was key to a revolutionary perspective for Ireland in these years, as home to the industrial proletariat in Ireland. It was of strategic importance because this was where British imperialism built its ships and it had engineering. There was an important class axis between Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool. The obvious problem in Belfast was that class consciousness was poisoned for a long period by the sectarian division. The 1919 strikes that took place in Belfast and Glasgow’s “Red Clydeside” were part of a wave of class struggle across Europe, Britain and Ireland in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It is not an exaggeration to say that the October Revolution and the early Soviet government were a beacon to the workers and oppressed of the world. The necessary task was the forging of a revolutionary party with a perspective to take state power, which was the key lesson of October 1917.

In Glasgow and Belfast, growing resentment over the wartime privations came to a head at the end of the war over demands for a shorter workweek. In January 1919 in Belfast, workers in the power stations, gas works and shipyards went out on strike and within days the strike committee had complete control of the city. The same month there was a massive strike in Glasgow. The majority of the Belfast strikers were Protestant, and while the strike was in the ascendancy, sectarian divisions were reduced. Significantly, the head of the strike committee, Charles MacKay, was a socialist of Catholic background. This was a very real opening for the sectarian divide to be transcended and could have given a tremendous impetus to the struggle for an Irish workers republic. The political situation was relatively open: in the 1918 general election, Sam Kyle, a socialist in the ILP and supporter of Home Rule, got 23 per cent of the vote standing in Belfast’s heavily Protestant Shankill on a platform for an independent socialist Ireland!

The 1919 strike in Belfast was by far the most significant strike in the wave of militancy that swept Ireland during the independence struggle and its defeat was a crushing blow to the unity of the workers movement throughout Ireland. Days before troops were moved into Belfast, troops had also been positioned in Glasgow’s George Square, against a huge demonstration of striking workers. There was a big question about whether the troops would attack the workers if ordered to do so, but this was never tested. The strike leaders were arrested on the demonstration and jailed; the national leadership of the engineering union in London disowned the Glasgow and Belfast strikes which were then settled separately. The Dublin labour bureaucracy did not support the Belfast strikes, which was criminal. The Protestant bosses in Belfast played the “Orange card” to defeat the strike, but the “Green card” was also used to divide the working class. During the Belfast strike, Lord French, the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, decided to release some Sinn Fein leaders from prison in the hope that their conservative nationalism would help drive a wedge between Protestant and Catholic workers. He explained:

“I did not however, consider that the time was ripe for an actual move in the direction of an immediate release of prisoners until the strikes in the North occurred and a very dangerous crisis was at hand which might plunge the whole country in disaster.”

— quoted in Conor Kostick, Revolution in Ireland (1996)

This period also saw a series of militant struggles in the South, such as the “Limerick Soviet”, when the town of Limerick was shut down by a general strike in opposition to British military repression. This strike was sold out by the personal intervention of Labour leader Thomas Johnson. Partly following the example of British workers who had refused to load munitions destined to be used by counterrevolutionary forces against the Soviet Red Army, in early 1920 dockers and rail workers in Ireland refused to transport arms or personnel for the British Army. The Miners Federation in Britain voted to “down tools” to force the withdrawal of British troops but the union leadership managed to prevent this.

The massive wave of strikes that exploded in Britain in 1919 was derailed by the leaders of the Triple Alliance, Robert Smillie, JH Thomas and Robert Williams, when prime minister Lloyd George called their bluff. The famous encounter was related by Aneurin Bevan, in which Lloyd George told these union chiefs that the government was at their mercy and they had the power to bring it down if they wanted to:

“‘But if you do so,’ went on Mr Lloyd George, ‘have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,’ asked the Prime Minister quietly, ‘have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?’ ‘From that moment on,’ said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were’.”

In Place of Fear (1952)

This was a classic betrayal by the leaders of the most powerful unions in Britain. It graphically showed the vital necessity of building a revolutionary party capable of struggling for state power.

The Irish Civil War

British forces had been repeatedly menaced by effective guerrilla struggle led by Michael Collins and in the middle of 1921 the British government was forced to offer a truce to the Irish nationalist leaders, followed by negotiations that led to the Treaty. The British knew that the nationalist leaders Collins, Griffith and Eamon de Valera would preserve the capitalist order. Collins signed the Treaty in December 1921. Its conditions were humiliating — offering an Irish state of 26 counties in the South, which meant accepting partition and remaining subordinate to the British Crown.

Many nationalists felt betrayed that this Treaty had been foisted on them after so much hard-fought struggle. Some took up arms against the Treaty, which led to a bitter civil war. It was not fought primarily over partition, but over the minimal terms offered by the British. The dissident nationalist “anti-Treatyites” were brutally suppressed by the new Irish state under Michael Collins. Armed and instructed by the departing British forces, supported by the church and the big capitalists and based on the most reactionary social forces, the new state was ruthless against these opponents of its rule, killing 77 people by summary execution and jailing over 15,000 Republicans. The anti-Treaty forces seized the Four Courts in Dublin but were dislodged and fought a guerrilla struggle in which Collins himself was killed.

The civil war lasted from June 1922 to May 1923, in the ebb-tide of the working-class upsurge. It was necessary for Marxists to fight intransigently against the Free State repression of the anti-Treaty forces, which was part of the “blooding” of the new bourgeois state. During the civil war, Marxists would have fought for the unity of the working class North and South, Protestant and Catholic. The Labour leaders in the South supported the new bourgeois state and the Free State army’s brutal repression during the civil war. The imprint of this civil war remains today. While he was hounding Republicans last year, interior minister Michael McDowell made it known that both his grandfather and great-uncle were involved in repression of Republicans during the civil war.

In Moscow in December 1922 the Fourth Congress of the Communist International forthrightly condemned the executions of Republicans. They also denounced the treachery of the Labour Party that supported the executions: “the action of the majority of the Labour Party, headed by Johnson, in supporting the executions, is the most criminal betrayal these traitors to the working class have yet perpetrated”. The resolution also sent fraternal greetings to the “struggling Irish national revolutionaries” whom it predicted would “soon tread the only path that leads to real freedom — the path of Communism”. The term “national revolutionaries” obscures the dividing line between communism and nationalism, and the leaders of the nascent Irish Communist Party who attended the Fourth Congress latched onto such weaknesses as an excuse for a political adaptation to nationalism. They even offered pages of their newspaper to the nationalist forces led by de Valera.

The nationalist perspective of the dissident Republicans offered no way forward. While they drew their support from poorer layers of society, their perspective was counterposed to a class orientation which would have sought to unite Catholic and Protestant workers especially in the North. Therefore we think that calling for a military victory to the anti-Treatyites in the civil war would have been a betrayal of the working class, especially in the North, where the nationalists organised a boycott of Protestant shops and businesses, and the military campaign often targeted civilians. The political bankruptcy of the anti-Treatyites became clear in later years when their leader de Valera became the father of the clericalist, anti-woman, anti-working-class Irish state.

So to conclude. James Connolly did not live to see the Russian Revolution, and it is of course impossible to know whether he would have made the transition to become a Bolshevik. However, the Communist International’s Marxist perspective on the national question would have been a powerful weapon to win people like Connolly to Communism. Bolshevism could have provided him with a template for how to organise a revolutionary party in Ireland. Connolly was essentially a fighter for the international working class, and in spite of his flaws and problems, we honour him. We base ourselves on the lessons of the Russian Revolution, and the experiences of the Bolshevik Party, the early Communist International, and stand for the rebirth of the Fourth International. Rather than using Connolly’s authority to justify some form of opportunism, as our opponents do, we look to the most advanced conceptions of modern scientific socialism as the way forward for workers revolution.

Workers Hammer No. 195

WH 195

Summer 2006


Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

Down with Labour's racist "war on terror"!


France: Workers, students defeat CPE

No to a new popular front! For a Socialist United States of Europe!


Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

Mumia honoured in France


Class struggle, Labour betrayal and the fight for Irish independence

James Connolly

A Marxist appreciation

(Spartacist League Dayschool)


The Bolshevik school of experience

(Spartacist League Dayschool)