A few days from now is an anniversary no Socialist Worker reader should let pass unremembered. On 12 May 1916, the British Army executed the Irish revolutionary James Connolly.
Connolly was already severely wounded following his participation in the Easter Rising – an attempted insurrection in Dublin two years into the First World War that aimed at triggering a general rising across Ireland against British colonial rule.
Yet, in a chapter out of the almanac of imperialist savagery that speaks to our epoch too, Connolly, unable to stand, was strapped to a chair and executed by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham prison. As if to underline the crime, he had been falsely accused at his trial of himself mistreating prisoners.
Connolly’s real crime in the eyes of the establishment was to strike a blow in Britain’s oldest colony against the rapacious imperialist order that was flooding the trenches of Europe with the blood of millions of her sons.
As he said of the Rising, “We went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. We believed that the call we then issued to the people of Ireland was a nobler call, in a holier cause, than any call issued to them during this war, having any connection with the war.”
The brutality meted out to the rebels – 16 of the key leaders were summarily executed – generated a tide of sympathy for them that went way beyond the 1,600 who had taken part in the rising, which remained isolated in the centre of Dublin.
Connolly’s legacy has cascaded down the generations – though not without sharp contestation. Perhaps the most affectionate tribute was from the Communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid who said of Connolly, born in Scotland to Irish parents, that he was “Scottish steel, tempered in Irish fire”. (As a Scotsman of Irish descent, I declare my interest!)
But what is striking today is how much Connolly and the events of 90 years ago speak to our times and across borders. I was taken aback by the response to a speech I gave at the European Social Forum in 2004.
A list of great radicals and progressives elicited bursts of cheering from a young audience, drawn from across Europe – some from beyond. Connolly’s name received among the loudest cheers – as loud as for those you might have thought were better known figures to a European audience.
One reason is the contemporary reality of imperialism and occupation – updated, to be sure, but imperialist nonetheless. With it goes the dehumanisation of the occupied and the vilification of those who resist.
The Irish rebellion was slandered, in terms that will be familiar to all of us today, as “irrational bloodlust” driven by some kind of religious martyrdom complex.
The difference with the resistance in Palestine and Iraq is that back then it was some supposed trait of Catholicism that was invoked to obscure the very rational and this-worldly reasons why people should take up arms against colonialism.
Another reason is that the question that Connolly addressed in many speeches and articles – the relation between anti-imperialist struggle, social justice and socialism – is also posed in today’s world.
What’s remarkable about the proclamation of a republic by the Easter rebels is how modern it sounds, and how unrealised it remains:
“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve [to cherish] all the children of the nation equally, oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
A third reason is the political project Connolly tried to forge – binding into a coalition militant trade unionists, socialists, different strands of the struggle against imperialist domination and other progressive forces.
Now there are debates over how successful he was in doing so. A full examination of them is beyond the scope of this short article.
As with all pivotal figures and moments in radical history, I’d suggest you read about it, discuss it and consider yourself what bearing it has on today’s movement.
One thing is clear – Connolly and the Rising accelerated the pace of radical change, despite their tragic fates, and both were about how to forge an actual progressive force, rather than a theoretical, purist ghost.
It was Lenin, who knew a thing or two about social change, who mocked those who dismissed Connolly’s practical and strategic efforts:
“Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.
“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe is to repudiate social revolution.
“So one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism,’ and another, somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be a social revolution! Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”