5th June 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of James Connolly, in Cowgate in Edinburgh. During his lifetime, Connolly would play an important role in the development of Marxist organisations in Scotland, Ireland and the United States, and make an immense contribution to Marxist theory through his theoretical and other works, including his masterpiece, Labour in Irish History.
The Workers’ Party is proud to stand in the secular, democratic, internationalist, and revolutionary tradition of James Connolly.
The world James Connolly was born into was a world marked by gross inequality, political and economic power concentrated in the hands of a grasping ruling class, and imperialism and war. It was an era when workers toiled for long hours in filthy and dangerous factories, mines, and shipyards, where the life of a worker was considered cheap by politicians, business owners, and financiers – in short, by the capitalist class. Trade unions were only decriminalised in the United Kingdom the year before Connolly’s birth, and workers were excluded from meaningful political rights. Poverty, ill-health, a short life expectancy, and oppression. These were the prospects that faced the young James Connolly, and this was the world he set out to replace, and to build a future of economic, social and political equality and democracy: a socialist future.
Connolly’s development as a Marxist was a result of his own life experiences as well as his determination to read about the world around him, to understand how and why it had come to be the way it was, so that he could understand how to change it. He found that answer in the dialectical materialist analysis offered by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Connolly believed strongly that education was vital to liberation: this explains his commitment to developing his understanding and application of Marxist theory, and his writing of theoretical works, polemical pamphlets, and newspapers all designed to raise the class consciousness of workers in every country he lived in.
But Connolly was not just a thinker, he married theory with praxis. Connolly’s personal life and political activism were marked by the deepest commitment to the socialist struggle, and a willingness to shoulder any task, no matter how large or small. He involved himself in every type of workers’ organisation, with the aim of giving workers a voice, fighting for workers’ rights, and effecting the change he saw was necessary. He took on a leading role in trade unions, political parties, and ultimately the Irish Citizen Army, but always with the same goal. The goal of achieving power for the working class, and using that power to liberate the people from all oppression.
Connolly’s understanding of the multifaceted nature of oppression can be seen in his understanding that the worker’s wife was the slave of a slave, and that socialism required gender equality. Connolly stayed loyal to his cause, no matter what the challenges were, from personal poverty to the forces of the state and the bourgeoisie, nationalist and unionist, in the Lockout of 1913.
Having been born into the age of empire, Connolly watched in horror as the world was plunged into unprecedented slaughter by the First World War, as the imperialist powers fought one another over the power to exploit the riches of the colonies. Like Lenin and a small number of others, he was sickened by the sight of Europe’s Social Democrats betraying their principles, swapping the peaceful internationalism dictated by socialism for nationalist violence, and embracing the imperialist war.
It was his opposition to imperialism, to imperialist war, and to empire, including the role of the British empire in Ireland, that set Connolly on the road to the General Post Office at Easter 1916. He sought to establish an independent Irish Republic, a Workers’ Republic, and hoped that his example would help stimulate Europe’s workers to return to their senses, and oppose the war, the politicians who had led them into it, and the whole system that had made it inevitable. His participation in the Rising was both to strike a blow for the freedom of the Irish working class and a symbol of his commitment to the unity of the workers of the world.
Connolly thus married the most progressive aspects of the Irish and international revolutionary republican traditions, as the United Irishmen had before him. Connolly had studied Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen deeply, and he realised that, as he said himself, their greatness lay in the fact that they imitated nobody. The United Irishmen forged their own ideology and their own methods, and aimed at liberating the men and women of no property from the oppression of aristocracy and feudalism.
We in the Workers’ Party approach Connolly in the same spirit as he approached the United Irishmen. We admire him for his bold and imaginative application of the analytical method of Marxism to the problems of his day, for his fearless pursuit of the interests of the working class, and for his clear-eyed focus always on the ultimate goal – the conquest of economic, social, and political power by the working class. Connolly was by no means perfect, he made mistakes like anyone else. It achieves nothing to elevate him to a mythical status or to turn his writings into holy writ that cannot be challenged. As Marxists, we must retain the method he used, and apply it to our own times.
The best way to honour Connolly’s legacy is to confront and adapt to the conditions in which we find ourselves while retaining a principled focus on building a democratic, secular and socialist Ireland, on placing power in the hands of the working class.
On behalf of the Ard Comhairle of the Workers’ Party, 5th June 2018.