Book Review: ‘The Best of Connolly’
‘The Best of Connolly’, edited by P. MacAonghusa & L. O’Reagain Mercier Press, Cork. 10s.
James Connolly is a myth in the Irish labour movement. His name is invoked by so-called communists, Trotskyists, Irish Labourites and Catholics alike. There is even a British MP who claims to stand, after Connolly, for an “Irish Workers’ Republic” (whatever that might be).
This book is a selection of Connolly’s writings which we feel tempted to call “the worst of Connolly” as all of them are nationalistic. Selection is the right word, as an important part of Connolly’s life is ignored. Connolly (1868-1916) was of the same generation as those who set up the SPGB and was himself involved in the so-called “impossibilist revolt” in the ranks of Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation that led to the founding of the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland in 1903 and to the founding in London the next year of the Socialist Party. In fact, the first general secretary of the SPGB, Con Lehane, after he had left our party, became one of Connolly’s political and union associates in Ireland. So, for a period, Connolly was an “impossibilist”. He chaired the first conference of the SLP, was its first paid organiser and wrote in its journal, The Socialist. When he went to America he was active, with Daniel De Leon, in the SLP there. Yet this book, apart from a brief mention that Connolly was among the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, ignores all this. Only in two articles selected here—and then you would still have to know Connolly’s life —do readers get any idea that he was an Industrial Unionist. This doctrine, with its appeal to workers to rely on their supposed “economic power” to “take and hold” the means of production, is dangerous nonsense which, if put into practice, would lead to disaster. But surely this period was an important part of Connolly’s political career. Why do the editors not include any of his writings from this period? Is it perhaps because in some of them he poured scorn on the suggestion that an Irish Republic would ease the lot of workers in Ireland?
In any event, Connolly soon rejected the view that Socialism and nationalism are quite opposed (which they are) and openly described it as “extremist”: He wrote in 1909: that some Socialists
“observing that those who talk loudest about ‘Ireland a Nation’ are often the most merciless grinders of the faces of the poor, fly off to the extremist limit of hostility to Nationalism and, whilst opposed to oppression at all times, are opposed to national revolt for national independence.”
Connolly is a good example of one who, having grasped the principles of socialism, when faced with a backward workers’ movement, shies away from the task of Socialist education and turns to “something now”. In Britain he might have become a leftwing Labour leader or MP. In the political conditions of Ireland he became one of the leaders of a nationalist insurrection — and was executed by firing squad as a result.
Connolly is generally admired for the wrong reasons: for his industrial unionism or for his insurrectionary nationalism. The most that can be said for him is that he did some useful organising work with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and he did oppose the First World War.