This article, written by Jim Slaven, is taken from the James Connolly Foundation website.
James Connolly was born in Edinburgh in 1868. He led a truly remarkable life. Before transatlantic flights, telephones or the internet Connolly did not just join the fledgling socialist movement he instigated much of it. He was responsible for the formation of political parties, trade unions, workers armies and newspapers in Scotland, Ireland and the United States. He was a theoretician, military commander, propagandist, playwright, politician, songwriter as well as father, husband, cobbler, labourer and street cleaner.
Ground breaking initiatives
Indeed it is the scope and sheer ambition of Connolly’s writings, interests and activities that allow his significance to be distorted through cherry picking individual grapes from the vineyard of his life. For that reason I’ll resist the temptation to quote him at length and instead appeal to readers to view his life and work in totality. James Connolly was by his own description ‘an unrepentant revolutionist’. He judged every event by its potential to advance the cause of the economic reorganisation of society. This led him to take ground-breaking initiatives and adopt intellectual positions which often jarred with other socialists. He cared not a jot. Believing the role of revolutionary was to lead not follow.
He was unwavering in his support for women’s rights at a time when that was far from popular, even among socialists. Arguing feminists and socialists were ‘different regiments in the one great army of progress’. On religion, where his position is complex and often misunderstood, he rejected the orthodox Marxist view instead embracing a position closer to Feuerbach. While criticising (with some venom) church hierarchies he attempted to find progressive common ground with their congregations.
The great lesson of Connolly’s political philosophy is that the struggles for socialism and national liberation were not antagonistic but complimentary. He rejected the idea that a nation could be free while workers were enslaved or that workers could be free while their nation was enslaved. Furthermore he warned nationalists of the scourge of neo colonialism before the term had been coined. He argued that socialists should not just participate in the national liberation struggles but be in the vanguard. There are of course numerous examples of this phenomenon over the last century from Africa to Latin America.
Having declared during the Boer war that he ‘would welcome the humiliation of British arms in any conflict’ it is not surprising that at the outbreak of the 1914 war Connolly was one of few socialist leaders who opposed the war. Dismayed that other socialists did not oppose the imperialist war Connolly argued it was a great opportunity for revolutionaries in Ireland. This argument echoed Lenin’s call that the only ‘truly revolutionary’ position for workers was to ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war’. For Connolly this opportunity was not to be passed up and he decided upon a course of action which would change Ireland forever.
James Connolly’s life will always be viewed through the prism of the 1916 Easter Rising. In a revolutionary action which challenged the Empire at its very core and inspired others from India to Egypt, Connolly’s role was crucial not just militarily but intellectually. His influence can be seen in the text of the 1916 proclamation which declares the ‘right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ and for a republic which ‘cherishes all of its children equally’. His execution by the British state has led to a distortion in analysis of his life. Nationalists focus on his position in the pantheon of Irish martyrs and socialists reject his involvement in the republican uprising as an aberration. Such partial interpretations have hindered a full appreciation of his contribution.
While it is right and proper that we should argue for Connolly to be recognised with a permanent memorial in the city of his birth, as he has been in Belfast, Dublin, New York and many other places. This should not be an argument only about bricks and mortar. The most fitting memorial to Connolly will be the end of the British state and the establishment of a socialist republic. The current constitutional and political juncture offer an opportunity to rescue Connolly from the political margins, recognising his life and work as an example which guides us towards the ‘reconquest’. As Scotland’s greatest poet, the Gael, Sorley MacLean said:
The great hero is still
sitting on the chair,
fighting the battle in the Post Office
and cleaning streets in Edinburgh