James Connolly – An Unpublished Letter

Below is a previously unpublished letter from Connolly to the Edinburgh branch of the Social Democratic Federation. We publish it, together with a commentary and an assessment of Connolly’s political career, as it throws some interesting light on the “Impossibilist revolt” in the SDF which eventually led to the founding of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904.

Memo from Irish Socialist Republican Party.
Central Branch.
To: Sec. Edin. S.D.F

1 November 1901.

Dear Comrade,

I am forwarding herewith a copy of the pamphlet part of this month’s “Workers Republic”. The full paper will be delivered in a few days. I must take this opportunity to congratulate you on the magnificent stand made by the Scotch and more especially the Edinburgh comrades against the present compromising policy of the leaders of the S.D.F. Things may seem to look dangerous for you at present, but time is on your side, and when the English branches really realise the issues at stake and understand your position, the triumph will be yours. I speak with the knowledge of who one having been all through England knows that the only hope of the gang in power is to keep the English comrades ignorant. The present issue of our paper is primarily intended to prevent that hope being realised, by giving the large number of English branches who now take our paper a more clear exposition of this question than Justice has allowed them to have.

I only wish our paper was bigger or that our plant was more suitable for rapid printing than it is at present, but we are poor and we are still short of the cash necessary to supply us with a quick printing machine, but such help as we have we will readily give to you.

I would only say in conclusion to beware of all dodges and devices to drive you out of the S.D.F. Help in the organisation, do not be brow-beaten, nor get disgusted; for the sake of those who are in remain in also, and sooner or later you will find your policy tacitly adopted by the whole body even if they do not admit their indebtedness to you.

For the Revolution

Your old comrade

James Connolly




James Connolly was born in Edinburgh on 5 June 1868, the son of an Irish immigrant labourer. He went to work at the age of ten or eleven and then seems to have joined the British army, being stationed in Cork. In 1889 he left (deserted) and went back to Scotland planning to marry a girl he had met in Dublin. In Dundee Connolly, who must already have had vague radical Irish nationalist sentiments, joined the local branch of the Socialist League. This was a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, in which William Morris was prominently involved. However by this time there was little difference between the Socialist League and the SDF and it was only an accident that Connolly joined the one and not the other. Soon in Scotland the two bodies united to form the Scottish Socialist Federation which in 1895 became the Edinburgh branch of the SDF. It was this organisation which first introduced Connolly to Socialist and Marxist ideas.

But the SDF was not an uncompromisingly Socialist body. It advocated reforms (or “palliatives” as they were then called) as stepping stones towards Socialism and was involved in the general ferment of the time in favour of independent (of the Liberals, that is, and not necessarily Socialist) working-class representation in Parliament and local councils. Connolly himself seems also to have been a member of the ILP as well as being secretary of the Edinburgh branch of the SSF/SDF. In 1894 he had stood as a “Labour” candidate in the local elections. Being an unskilled labourer – and an “agitator” – he found work difficult to get and eventually advertised his services to the “Labour movement” as a paid speaker, lecturer, and organiser. His offer was taken up by the Dublin Socialist Society and in 1896 he and his family left Scotland for Ireland.

In Dublin he was instrumental in forming an Irish Socialist Republican Party similar in character to the SDF. Basically “Labourist”, it also argued some Socialist and Marxist ideas. But it had a programme of palliatives ranging from nationalisation of the railways and a 48-hour week to free maintenance for children and universal suffrage. And it supported the demand for Irish independence. This last was quite in accord with the Social Democratic (though not Socialist) thinking which, when it spoke of “international socialism”, envisaged this as a federation of independent national “socialist republics”; so, on this view, insofar as “the Irish” were to be regarded as a “nation” they were entitled to an independent State – so ran the mistaken Social Democratic argument which Connolly accepted.

He believed that only through the establishment of an Irish “socialist republic” could Ireland really become independent of England, and appealed to Irish nationalist sentiment on this basis. He was of course an implacable opponent of the Irish Home Rule MPs at Westminster, pointing out that Home Rule under capitalism would make no difference to the poverty and misery of the workers of Ireland. In fact up until the turn of the century the activities of the IRSP seem to have been a combination of Labourism and Irish Republicanism, both of which were deviations from straight agitation for working-class political power for Socialism.

But by 1900 the position inside the SDF was changing. Some of the younger members were challenging the autocracy and opportunism of the clique around Hyndman which dominated the organisation. In Scotland they came under the influence of Daniel De Leon and the American Socialist Labor Party which some of them had come across at the Paris Congress of the Second International in 1900. Connolly, who still kept in contact with Scotland, also to a certain extent came under their influence. In 1901 he had done a paid speaking tour in England and Scotland.

The American SLP was on what might be called the extreme left of the Second International. It was completely opposed to compromises with the bourgeois parties and was moving towards saying that the struggle for reforms was futile and that instead socialists should concentrate exclusively on the capture of political power for Socialism via the ballot box. (The SLP’s syndicalism deviation was to occur later, as we shall see) It still, however, had a national rather than world conception of “socialism” (and still does to this day)

In 1899 a French “Socialist” MP by the name of Millerand accepted a post in a bourgeois government There was an immediate storm. At the Paris Congress of the Second International a compromise resolution which condemned Millerand but not the principle of participating in bourgeois governments, was carried in place of one opposing participation on principle. The critics, or “impossibilists” as they were called (since they were supposed to be saying that improvements in working-class conditions under capitalism were impossible and so not worth striving for), also challenged the lack of Party control over Justice which, despite being the SDF’s official organ, was owned and controlled by Hyndman and some of his friends.

Connolly associated himself with the impossibilists and allowed them to use the IRSP paper, the Workers’ Republic, to put their case on this, and other issues. A pamphlet of the pages was later published as the New Evangel which shows the limitations of Connolly’s position at this time. He still had not broken with the idea that a socialist party should struggle for palliatives as well as for Socialism. In fact the following January he stood as a candidate in the Dublin local elections on a programme of immediate demands.

Perpetually short of money, Connolly decided to go later that year on a speaking tour to America to help the American SLP get the Irish vote (yes, despite their stand on reforms, aspects of opportunism survived!). Before he went he arranged to for the press on which the Workers Republic was printed to be used to publish a journal called The Socialist, on paper the organ of the Scottish Council of the SDF but in fact controlled by the Scottish “impossibilists”. In America he spoke all across the country from New York and Buffalo to San Francisco and Los Angeles. He returned to Ireland an SLP man. In January 1903 he again stood for the local council in Dublin. This time, however, there was no immediate demands in his programme, only the advocacy of political power for Socialism via the ballot box – in fact the sort of election manifesto we ourselves could have endorsed.

Meanwhile things were coming to a head in the SDF. At their 1903 Conference in London over Easter the expulsion of the leading Scottish impossibilists, Yates, was confirmed. The other Scottish impossibilists thereupon resigned and in June was founded the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain, with The Socialist as its official organ. Connolly, who was on another paid speaking tour of Scotland at the time (and reversing the opinion expressed in 1901 to stay in the SDF), chaired the first conference of the new party and was appointed its first organiser. However, the new party, like the SDF, had it list of palliatives – a move to delete them was defeated and it was not until 1905 that they were dropped, probably under the influence of the SPGB which never had such a list. By then Connolly was in America but it is probably safe to assume, in view of his subsequent evolution of his political ideas, that in 1903 he had been one of those in favour of the SLP having a reform programme.

The SPGB had been formed in June 1904 by the London “impossibilists”. Right from the start it advocated only socialism and had no reform programme. Among the founding members was Alex Anderson, who before moving to London had been the Secretary of the Edinburgh branch of the SDF.

To complete the Connolly story. In the autumn of 1903 he returned to America hoping to pursue his chosen career as a professional “labour organiser” by getting a job with the SLP. He got no such job, though he remained an SLP member and activist becoming a member of its National Executive Committee. In 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in Chicago. Connolly, as part of the SLP delegation, attended this congress and spoke on their behalf in favour of founding the new organisation. This support for the IWW represented a complete reversal of the previous policy of the SLP and its leader Daniel De Leon. Previously they had stressed the primacy of political action through a class-conscious socialist political party; now they reduced political action to a subordinate, supporting role to the “socialist industrial unions” which were to take and hold the means of production. Connolly accepted this syndicalism deviation from Marxism and also its corollary that the industrial unions were to be the future administration of “socialist” society.

Connolly, however, was beginning to get tired of the sectarianism of the SLP and had already spoken in favour of a merger between the SLP and the more opportunist Socialist Party of America. In March 1907 he helped establish an “Irish Socialist Federation”. This brought him into conflict with the SLP hierarchy and led to his expulsion or resignation (depending on your point of view). Anyway he left, and continued his career as a professional organiser by getting a job with the IWW. The IWW was in reality a militant general union with a revolutionary ideology and, like all unions, (as they must to be effective, of course) recruited members on an open-house principle, i.e. workers of all political views and not just revolutionaries. In January 1908 The Harp was launched as the organ of the ISF and Connolly used it to urge support for Eugene Debs, the SPA candidate in the 1908 Presidential elections. This despite the fact that the IWW, for which he worked, had that year adopted a completely anti-political stance – though this was the occasion on a rare sensible comment from Connolly: asked if this meant he was against the workers taking political action to establish Socialism, he replied that when the time came “it would be impossible to prevent the workers taking it”, a point that could well be borne in mind by today‘s anti-parliamentarians. But he soon moved to a new job in line with his increasingly reformist views, becoming in 1909 a national organiser for the SPA.

When he returned to Ireland in July 1910 he had gone quite reformist. His new job was organiser for the “Socialist Party of Ireland”. This was the at-this-time somewhat moribund successor to the IRSP he had founded in 1896, a self-styled “Marxist” party involved in reformist and Irish nationalist politics. The SPI soon found it couldn’t afford a paid organiser so Connolly moved on to become the Belfast organiser of Larkin’s Irish Transport Workers Union. Here he joined in the campaign to get the Irish TUC to set up an Irish (as, purposely, opposed to the British ) Labour Party, i.e. a non-socialist, trade union party to act as a pressure group in the expected Home Rule Parliament. This was eventually done in 1912.

So Connolly had now embraced Labourism and it is not surprising to find him standing as a Labour (and Irish nationalist) candidate on a completely reformist programme in the Belfast municipal elections of January 1913. Later that year he returned to Dublin to play a leading role in resisting the Great Lock-Out through which the Dublin employers, led by William Murphy, tried to destroy the ITWU. Connolly stayed on afterwards as the acting general secretary. The depth of his reformism at this period can be gauged from reading his Re-conquest of Ireland. This envisages “socialism” being established in Ireland as a gradual process, commencing with “municipal socialism”, a reform of the educational system, etc. A sentimental nationalism (so often found in “patriots” born outside their “native” country, as Connolly was) with talk of the “soul of the Irish nation” is also evident.

When the first world war broke out Connolly can at least be given credit for opposing it, though behind the socialist rhetoric it is possible to detect a more basic Irish nationalism. As the war dragged on Connolly was to get involved in a conspiracy with “pure and simple” republicans to stage an armed uprising with help from Imperial Germany, to try to establish an independent Irish Republic. He began to neglect his trade union duties for military training and put the Irish Citizen Army, originally a self-defence body formed by the ITWU to protect its members from police brutality, at the disposal of the Republicans. The “rising” at Easter 1916 was a fiasco, easily put down by the British army. Connolly was executed for his part in it and so became an Irish National Hero – a sad end for someone who for a while came near to becoming a revolutionary socialist but who later fell back into the bog of careerism, Labour reformism and Irish republicanism.

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