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James Connolly: a socialist rebel against the empire

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In the first part of our new series, Dave Sherry looks at how Connolly’s early experiences shaped his politics
Issue 2107
James Connolly
James Connolly

On 12 May 1916, James Connolly was shot by a British army firing squad for helping to lead the Dublin Easter Rising. His execution shocked the labour movement across the world.

Connolly was born in 1868 to Irish immigrants in Edinburgh’s “Little Ireland”. At the age of 14 he enlisted in the British army and spent seven years in Ireland, where he saw imperialism first hand.

In 1889 he joined the Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF), a tiny organisation affiliated to the Second International of the world’s socialist parties.

Cut off from immediate influence within the working class, its role was limited to propaganda.

Britain was rocked by a wave of strikes in the late 1880s. The so-called “New Unionism” inspired previously unorganised, unskilled workers.

But, with a few notable exceptions, the socialist movement dismissed these struggles as futile.

The defeat of the first wave of “New Unionism” after 1891 led many militants to look towards parliamentary reformism.

This benefitted Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party (ILP), the forerunner of the Labour Party. It rejected Marxism and pursued an electoral pact with the Liberals.

Connolly’s SSF joined the ILP but maintained its own organisation with the aim of “educating people in socialist principles”.

By the end of 1893 he had become secretary of the Edinburgh ILP, but his experience moved him sharply to the left.

He resigned to concentrate on building an independent Marxist organisation.

In 1896 he moved to Ireland to work for the Dublin Socialist Society.

His real aim was to build an independent working class party and to link the struggle for socialism with Ireland’s fight for freedom.

Within weeks he’d launched the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) with the declaration, “The national and economic freedom of the Irish people must be sought in the same direction – the establishment of an Irish Socialist Republic.”

Connolly’s argument, that the working class would have to liberate Ireland as part of its struggle for socialism came at a time when the international socialist movement dismissed the idea that the working class could lead such struggles in colonial or “backward” countries.

Connolly’s ISRP affiliated to the Second International and on all the major questions of the day it stood on the far left of the movement.

But by 1903 the ISRP had made no real progress.

Connolly moved to the US where he came into contact with syndicalism – a movement devoted to destroying capitalism through industrial organisation and strikes.

Syndicalists argued that socialism was only possible after the working class had gained control of the economy so they needed to build “one big union”.

At a time when most socialist parties placed their emphasis on simply winning votes, this emphasis on workers’ struggle was refreshing.

In a seven-year spell in the US, Connolly first worked with the Socialist Labour Party.

Later he joined the broader based, reformist Socialist Party of America and became a founding member and key leader in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Between 1905 and 1914 the Wobblies, as the IWW became known, blazed a trail of struggle across the US. They challenged the business unionism of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), which organised skilled workers only and prided itself on its benefits rather than its ability to fight.

The IWW sought victories through strikes rather than negotiation.

Connolly’s experiences in the US led him to write his pamphlet Socialism Made Easy, which puts the syndicalist case.

While Socialism Made Easy rejects reformist politics, it fails to tackle reformism because it assumes it will be eradicated by mass struggle.

In assuming that the working class will take power through industrial trade unionism, it also ignores the state.

The pamphlet predicts that the “one big union” will gradually spread from workplace to workplace.

But this contradicts the experience of the IWW. It grew during strikes and then shrunk leaving nothing behind after the struggle was over. In 1905 the IWW began with 60,000 members but by 1914 it had only 11,000.

The influence of syndicalism, and his broad church approach towards political organisation, would create problems when Connolly set about building in Ireland during the dramatic years between 1910 and 1916.

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