Happy Birthday, James Connolly

Born on this day in 1868, the republican socialist James Connolly was Ireland's most famous revolutionary. Over a century after he was killed by the British, his writings on imperial violence and the capitalist degradation of human life are more relevant than ever.

James Connolly (1868–1916).

“It is well to be discontented, to have a heart hot with hatred of injustice, but it is also well to have a hopeful spirit, and to appreciate all manifestations of social activity, organized and unorganized, that indicate the stirring of the human conscience under capitalism.”

Penned in 1908, these words by Irish republican leader and Marxist revolutionary James Connolly leap forth from the past, incisive and pointedly true. Writing for the Harp — the newspaper of the Irish Socialist Federation, which he edited — Connolly took square aim at the “decrepitude and imbecility” of capitalism, championing a “proper hatred” of the degrading conditions under which people lived and suffered.

Over a century later, Connolly’s fervently internationalist strain of socialism has never resonated more. As we teeter on a new global depression, in the midst of a pandemic and climate emergency, while protests against racial injustice rage across America, his words continue to expose the unholy mess of capitalism and its inherent contradictions. Looking back at his writings, it’s almost as if he were writing for today.

“Learning Marxism Before He Could Read”

Born in Edinburgh on June 5, 1868 to poverty-stricken Irish parents, James Connolly’s name carries with it a certain semi-mythological sway in contemporary Irish society. Having devoted his life to the fight to free Ireland not just from the clasp of centuries-old British imperialism, but also capitalist exploitation, his role within the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent execution by firing squad was what historian John Newsinger called “the inevitable crowning conclusion to a lifetime’s political endeavor.” It ensured that his vision would long outlast those alive to witness the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the official declaration of an Irish Republic in 1949.

Connolly was against the wall from the start. Reared in the slums of Edinburgh’s Cowgate district, then known as “Little Ireland,” economic hardship versed him in what he later called “the aspirations, the fears and the hopes, the loves and the hatreds engendered by the struggle.” With economic conscription forcing him to join the British Army at age fourteen — a seven-year experience that sealed an inveterate loathing of the British armed forces — freedom and socialism became one and the same pursuit for Connolly. As Irish historian Owen Dudley Edwards later put it, the adversity of his formative years ensured that he “learnt Marxism before he could read.”

Spanning articles, pamphlets, poems, plays, and songs, Connolly’s vast written oeuvre offsets any one-dimensional notions of him simply as a national martyr. Rather, they focus on a much more pressing mire: the essential obsolescence of capitalism, on a global scale. Today, the antagonism of the system, driven, as ever, by an unworkable profit motive, becomes increasingly sharper with each mounting crisis. Connolly was up on this fact more than a century ago. Self-educated from a young age, he knew that the machinations of the system that oppressed so many of his time would persist far into the future — unless, that is, there was mass, revolutionary change.

Workers of the World

By the time an invitation to work as an organizer by the Dublin Socialist Club lured him to the Irish capital in 1896, Connolly had fully committed to the cause. As well as joining the Socialist League, a left-wing breakaway from Britain’s Social Democratic Federation, the Edinburgh-born revolutionary also acted as secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation, for which he stood for election. But it was the move to Dublin that cemented Connolly’s single-minded endeavor. Helping to establish the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), whose primary objective was “the incidental destruction of the British Empire,” he spearheaded the initial phase of Ireland’s most revolutionary social movement.

Battling poverty and frustrated by the slow progress of the ISRP, Connolly emigrated to the United States in 1903, where he lived until 1910. It was a heady period of activity that irrevocably molded him as a radical socialist with international purview. With the ISRP ticking over back home, reaching the outer world via the country’s first Marxist newspaper, the Workers’ Republic, Connolly helped to organize the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and became a member — and later critic — of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party. Whether writing, lecturing, or campaigning, in America, he sharpened the tools that he needed to do his best work. Connolly biographer R. M. Fox summed it up when he said, “he had gone away from Ireland a propagandist and returned a leader of men.”

A Decent House

Upon his return to Ireland in 1910, Connolly’s revolutionary industrial unionism, comparable to Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, was well-traveled and defined. As well as penning the searing Labour, Nationality and Religion, and his historical analysis of Marxism, Labour in Irish History, he became a vital organizer for James Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU).

The first trade union to cater to both skilled and unskilled workers throughout Ireland, the ITGWU fought for workers’ rights to unionize during the 1913 Dublin Lockout, a period of industrial revolt that served as a prelude to the insurrectionary Easter Rising of 1916.

Informed by the militant direct action of the IWW, the unions’ activity was a seismic development for Irish workers. Increasingly intent on justice by any means possible, Connolly advocated workers’ self-defense in what he later called the “war to which a mad ruling class would plunge a mad world.” With violent clashes between workers and the police frequent, his position on rebellion became crystal clear: if it ensures needs are met, unions should double up as quasi-combat organizations dedicated to the destruction of capitalism and the state.

Social Distancing

Many years on, the mass dispossession of workers amid the spread of COVID-19 is but one crisis exacerbated by the laws of capitalism. As well as tipping the global economy over a cliff’s edge, governments’ willingness to trade lives in pursuit of profit has meant millions are working in unsafe conditions. With many public and health services systematically underfunded in efforts to allow private interests to exploit people’s central needs, it’s an echo of systematic corruption that Connolly knew only too well. Yet while the pandemic has exposed the extant crisis, it’s not exclusive to our times. Reflecting upon social distancing and tuberculosis in 1915, Connolly posed a question that feasibly could have been asked last month:

“The medical authorities issue minute and detailed instructions to the people as to how the illness may be avoided. But what use is it to teach people about the evil of overcrowding when their wages will not permit them a decent house?”

With COVID-19 revealing the true key workers and how private markets manipulate vital industries in times of crisis, inequality has been broadly exposed. Were he alive to see it, Connolly surely would have rallied for the two states of Ireland — the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland — to tackle the crisis in tandem. With the former still grappling with the fallout of one of the deepest recessions in the eurozone back in 2008, and the latter recovering from a health crisis of its own, a clear public message and an integrated health strategy has, as elsewhere, been sorely lacking.

Having affirmed the need for the nationalization of railways, canals, banks, as well as the “gradual extension of the principle of public ownership and supply of all the necessaries of life” in the program of the ISRP, Connolly recognized that propagating an infinite growth system on a finite planet was simply unfeasible. Though he could never have foreseen the extent to which it threatens life as we know it, a century on, it’s clear that the only way to avert environmental cataclysm is via strictly socialist means, from sweeping renewable energy use to an overhaul of transport networks. These famous words of Connolly’s from 1907 yearn for a reasonable — and very familiar — desire:

“Some men, faint-hearted, ever seek
Our program to retouch,
And will insist, whene’er they speak
That we demand too much.
’Tis passing strange, yet I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.”

All Hail to the Mob

The profoundly important protests that have swept across America over the last couple of weeks are indivisible from the blight of capitalism. Rather than taking a stand over the racially motivated police murder of George Floyd and many other black Americans like him, leaders are at war with peaceful protests and property destruction.

Such is the face of American capitalism in 2020. Having witnessed the awful treatment of the Irish people at the hands of the British Army, Connolly knew something of the catalysts of such resistance. Between being involved in a series of protests against British imperialism, printing articles on guerrilla warfare, regularly attacking so-called Irish volunteers for their inactivity, and the Easter Rising, his active defiance of injustice grew more pronounced by the year. At the tail end of 1914, he wrote in the stirring, two-page pamphlet Irish Work:

“If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and perhaps, raise a force that will destroy you. We defy you. Do your worst.”

As he saw it, those who protested in the name of progress had the power and right to change the world. On the streets, the seeds of a new, all-inclusive regeneration of civilization could be sown. Replying to a priest who denounced workers’ politics as “the rule of the mob,” he fiercely defended the masses’ rights. Following the knowledge of its numbers and power, “the mob,” Connolly said, “starts upon its upward march to power — a power only to be realized in the Socialist Republic. In the course of that upward march the mob has transformed and humanizes the world.” He added:

[The mob] has abolished religious persecution and imposed toleration upon the bigots of all creeds; it has established the value of human life, softened the horrors of war as a preliminary to abolishing it, compelled trial by jury, abolished the death penalty for all offenses save one, and in some countries abolished it for all. All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!

Not least in his latter years, Connolly’s allegiance to progress was avidly internationalist. A firm believer in the global solidarity of labor, he kept in touch with the international Marxist movement throughout his life and made untold contacts across Europe, as well as Australia, the United States, and Canada. Despite his ambitions of writhing Ireland from the clasp of imperialism, progress always came down to advocating for the dispossessed, wherever they resided. Writing in Forward! in 1914, he said:

I make no war on patriotism; never have done. But against the patriotism of capitalism — the patriotism which makes the interest of the capitalist class the supreme test of duty and right — I place the patriotism of the working class, the patriotism which judges every public act by its effect upon the fortunes of those who toil.

Not merely a brilliant thinker, but also an ardent doer, Connolly’s twin pursuit of Irish freedom and socialism ultimately combined in just this — the particular “patriotism of the working class.” Though often deified for his republicanism, this was but one facet of his far-reaching vision of a full-scale workers’ republic. He urgently stressed the broader point in Labour, Nationality and Religion: “The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go. We reject the firebrand of capitalist warfare and offer you the olive leaf of brotherhood and justice to and for all.”

When he pondered the “stirring of the human conscience under capitalism” in his 1908 piece for the Harp, Connolly’s tone was one of cautious optimism. Writing at the peak of his polemical powers in the Workers’ Republic seven years later, on the cusp of the Easter Rising, Connolly — writer, orator, campaigner, husband and father, revolutionary thinker, patriot, soldier, and worker — was much less equivocal. “We believe in constitutional action in normal times,” he wrote. “We believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times. These are exceptional times.”

Over a century on, these words continue to pose a question that haunts the disenfranchised right across the world: If not now, when?