National liberation and the socialist project

Liam O Ruairc reviews Priscilla Metscher's 'James Connolly and the reconquest of Ireland' Marxist Educational Press/NST, University of Minnesota, 2002, pp256, £10 pbk

James Connolly (1868-1916) is one of Ireland’s most important and controversial historical figures. The founder of Irish Marxism, his legacy has been claimed by republicans and socialists alike, and not just in Ireland: he is still a major influence on some sections of the Scottish left, and even Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party claims Connolly as its “founder”! Surprisingly, over the last 10 years, his ideas have not been much discussed by the left. This is why Priscilla Metscher’s sympathetic study of his life and thought has to be welcomed.

The book gives an orthodox outline of Connolly’s major theoretical contribution. His principal achievement is to have understood the relation between nationalism and socialism in Ireland, between the national question and the class struggle. Many socialists saw (and still see) the national struggle as a diversion from class struggle and as being incompatible with socialism. Connolly’s fundamental teaching is that the struggle for national liberation is not opposed to the struggle for socialism, but an integral and necessary part of it. This is why “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered” (J Connolly Collected works Vol 2, Dublin 1988, p175).

Connolly rejected any subordination of the working class to bourgeois nationalism: “As a socialist I am prepared to do all one man can do to achieve for our motherland her rightful heritage - independence; but if you ask me to abate one jot or title of the claims of social justice in order to conciliate the privileged classes, then I must decline” (ibid Vol 1, pp307-308). For him, “The socialist of another country is a fellow patriot, as the capitalist of my own country is a natural enemy” (ibid Vol 2, p41).

Connolly’s teaching is not simply that socialists should participate and take a stance on the national question, but that they should actively seek to give it political leadership. This is the classical strategy of the national democratic revolution under the hegemony of the working class. On the basis of a concrete analysis of social forces in Ireland, Connolly concluded that “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland” (ibid Vol 1, p25). The working class is the only class that will be able to lead the national liberation struggle to a successful conclusion. All other social classes will capitulate and sell out at some stage because they are not prepared to risk their wealth and power. The genuine motor of the national liberation struggle is the proletariat: “Ireland cannot rise to freedom except upon the shoulders of the working class, knowing its rights and daring to take them” (ibid Vol 1, p455).

However, it is also true that Connolly argued for a strategic alliance with other classes. A successful revolution could in the specific conditions of Ireland only come about through an alliance of all anti-imperialist forces: “We are prepared to cooperate with all … even should the aim they set for such organisation be far less ambitious than our own. We invite the cooperation of all who will work with us toward that end” (ibid Vol 2, p248) But, while Connolly recognised that national liberation required the support of different social forces, he insisted that the working class had to organise itself independently to ensure that the struggle would not be degraded by the narrow concerns of the Irish capitalist class.

So it is incorrect to argue that in 1916 Connolly had capitulated to bourgeois nationalism. On the evening of April 16 1916, Connolly informed members of the Irish Citizens Army: “In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are for economic as well as political liberty” (CD Greaves Life and times of James Connolly London 1961, p403).

The working class cannot wait until after independence to fight for its own separate interests. Labour cannot wait. The separation of the movement for independence from the struggle for socialism always results in an outcome against the interests of the masses. Although the fight for national freedom takes a logical priority, in that it represents an attack on the most immediate and most tangible manifestation of domination, it cannot be chronologically separated from the struggle for social liberation. To postpone the objective of socialism to a distinct ‘stage’ in the future invites a form of independence which is necessarily on the terms favouring vested interests.


Metscher offers a substantial analysis of Connolly’s interpretation of sectarianism and of the divisions within the working class - a subject very relevant today. For Connolly, protestant workers are “slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own” (ibid Vol 1, p386). By contrast, catholic workers are “rebels in spirit and democratic in feeling because for hundreds of years they have found no class as lowly paid or as hardly treated as themselves” (ibid). Sloganising abstractly around “working class unity” in the Six Counties is not progressive because it fails to confront the reactionary nature of loyalism, and practically condemns the most oppressed sections of the working class to subordinate their democratic revolt and interests to the backwardness of the loyalist labour aristocracy.

Connolly’s position has been heavily criticised, and Metscher brilliantly outlines the nature of the polemic: “Connolly underestimated the difficulties involved in convincing the protestant workers of their objective interests. The phenomenon of Orangeism was, and is, very complex, and Connolly examined it on the ideological level only, understanding it as religious sectarianism” (p113).

Historians like Henry Patterson and Peter Gibbon have attacked Connolly for pointing out that the Orange ideology is a creation of the ruling class. For them, it cannot be explained as simply a product of unionist ideological hegemony: it is a relatively autonomous expression of protestant working class interest within the formation of Ulster society in the 18th and 19th century. However, they neglect “to consider the historical fact that Orangeism, which undoubtedly arose from certain traditions within the protestant section of the working class, was also the outcome of a deliberate policy of divide and conquer” (ibid). It was, for example, openly used as a weapon to suppress the United Irishmen in the 18th century.

As an alternative to the undialectical arguments of Patterson and Gibbon, Metscher points out that Orangeism is simultaneously part of protestant working class culture and a weapon directed against the objective interests of the protestant workers by dividing the working class - “and Connolly was keenly aware of this danger” (p117). She concludes that “even had Connolly been able to fathom the full complexities of Orangeism, it is questionable whether he could have achieved more than he did in the Belfast of his times” (ibid). Connolly also clearly understood the dangers of partition and had warned that partition “would mean a carnival of reaction both north and south and would set back the wheels of progress” (J Connolly Collected works Dublin 1988, Vol 1, p393). Subsequent history proved him absolutely right on that point, but Metscher unfortunately does not discuss this matter further.


One of Connolly’s major theoretical contribution was his discussion of the relations between socialism and religion. His views on that matter are fairly original and atypical. The reason why Connolly engaged with the subject is that a great proportion of the Irish working class was influenced by the Roman catholic religion. The catholic hierarchy was trying to keep workers away from socialism by saying that socialism and the christian religion were incompatible and antagonistic. The priests pointed out that socialism, especially in its Marxist form, was intrinsically bound up with materialism and atheism; so it is impossible for workers to be socialist and christian at the same time.

Connolly struggled ideologically against this position, and tried to demonstrate to the workers that they could be socialists and good catholics at the same time. His position was a version of the old adage, ‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to god what is god’s’. For Connolly, socialism is concerned solely with political, social and economic issues; all other matters are beyond its scope: “Socialists are bound as socialists only to the acceptance of one great principle - the ownership and control of wealth-producing power by the state, and that therefore totally antagonistic interpretations of the Bible, or of prophecy and revelation, theories of marriage and of history may be held by socialists without in the slightest degree interfering with their activities as such or with their proper classification as supporters of the socialist doctrine” (J Connolly Collected works Dublin 1988, Vol 2, pp383-384).

Socialism deals with facts explainable by reason; religion has to do with theological matters and faith. Religion is totally outside the realm of socialist discussion; it is a private affair: “Socialism, as a party, bases itself upon its knowledge of facts, of economic truths, and leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public, or to its individual members if they so will. It is neither freethinker, nor christian, Turk nor Jew, buddhist nor idolater, Mohammedan nor Parsee - it is only human” (ibid Vol 2, p238). There is an absolute separation between socialist and religious issues, so there should be no necessary conflict between socialism and religion.

Metscher is surprisingly weak and succinct in her discussion of Connolly’s position. She notes that his writings on religion “not only illustrate how keenly aware Connolly was of the significant role that catholicism could play in the Irish road to socialism; they also show Connolly’s extreme sensitivity to the religious feelings of the catholic worker” (p128). Some socialists have criticised Connolly for making too many concessions to religion, but Metscher does not discuss those objections. She could also have contrasted Connolly’s attitude to the catholic church with that of Rosa Luxemburg in Poland.

Sexual politics

The book is far better in discussing Connolly’s position on sexual questions. Sexual relations, according to Connolly, are - like religion - beyond the bounds of socialism: “I personally reject every attempt, no matter by whom made, to identify socialism with any theory of marriage or sexual relations.” (J Connolly Collected works Dublin 1988, Vol 2, p238). Metscher is right to criticise him: “It is unfortunate that he should have relegated gender relationships to the private sphere. He was doubtless right in asserting that the abolition of the capitalist system would solve the economic side of the woman question”, but to him “the question of marriage, of divorce, of paternity, of the equality of woman with man are physical and sexual questions”.

Connolly “did not see that gender relationships are basically social relationships, which in turn are tied up with traditional patriarchal concepts of the family and of women’s role within the family. Thus, he failed to understand divorce as a fundamental democratic right. He saw the emancipation of women basically as economic and political emancipation. Connolly’s statements on marriage and divorce were certainly a step behind the ideas of democratisation of gender relationships advocated by the early Irish socialist, William Thompson, for example” (pp157-158).

The author outlines the different phases of Connolly’s career as an activist, as well as explaining their historical context. Connolly was the first to see the necessity of organising a genuinely Irish socialist party that recognised the needs of the Irish people as distinct from Britain. In 1896, he formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). He was able to secure independent Irish representation at the international conference of socialist parties in Paris in 1900. Metscher shows that the ISRP programme may perhaps have lacked the political sharpness of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, for example, but on one point was more advanced than any other party in the British Isles: whereas other parties pursued a “colonial socialist policy” of home rule for British colonies and dependencies, the ISRP clearly stood out against British imperialism and for national self-determination.

The party was very weak, mainly based in Dublin, with no real influence among industrial workers and just a few dozen members. It nevertheless played a role in the centenary celebrations of the 1798 insurrection, the protest against the Queen Victoria jubilee and the Boer War. When Connolly emigrated to the USA in 1903, his experience had led him to believe that a political party had little value as an organisational mode of mass mobilisation. Being on the left of the Second International, however, he understood that trying to create socialism gradually through parliamentary measures led to an impasse.


In the USA, Connolly was very impressed by syndicalism through the theory and practice of the American socialist, Daniel De Leon. Syndicalism is a socialist current that seeks to overthrow capitalism and the state by primarily, if not purely, industrial organisation and struggle. If political parties and action lead to reformism, to destroy capitalism the working class must concentrate on the industrial battlefield. Syndicalism seeks to mobilise all grades of workers in a single revolutionary trade union organisation, the “one big union”. Although Connolly still advocated the use of political action and organisation, he relegated them to a secondary position.

Thus in his ‘Socialism made easy’, Connolly downgrades the political struggle: “The fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle; it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is the battle being fought every day for the power to control industry” (P Berresford Ellis James Connolly: selected writings London 1973, p159). Political action is important, but only as an accompaniment to action in the workshop. Metscher notes that, “despite his ardent advocacy of industrial unionism, Connolly never rejected political action. It was to occupy his attention more and more after his return to Ireland” (p138).

Unfortunately though, Connolly never placed the party (be it the ISRP or its successor, the Socialist Party of Ireland, founded in 1909) at the centre of his attention. His main energies went into the trade union (the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, founded 1908), not the party. Connolly formed political parties, but failed to attach central importance to them. His failure to establish a vanguard party resulted in a situation where there were no trained and experienced revolutionary leaders to take his place. Political class consciousness does not spontaneously grow from trade union consciousness, and industrially organised workers will not spontaneously result in politically organised workers.

History proved that the mass strike would not spontaneously transform itself into a political insurrection. The 1913 mass strike in Dublin did not lead to a mass political insurrection. The insurrection happened at Easter 1916, but without broad mass involvement. The merging of the two could only be organically mediated by a party. 1913 showed the irruption of the working class onto the Irish scene, but simultaneously showed the weakness of the political organisation of that class. Ireland at that time possessed the objective conditions for revolution, but the subjective conditions lagged far behind.

The point is that the organisational theories of Connolly meant that, once he was killed, the full revolutionary potential of the labour movement began to degenerate without anything to prevent it doing so. The working class in Ireland, famed for its militancy, became prey to the leadership of opportunists. The fact that the Socialist Party of Ireland was a loose, centrist organisation and the very all-embracing nature of the ITGWU meant that the workers’ movement had no ideologically trained vanguard to resist the replacement of Connolly and Larkin by opportunists like William O Brien. The Citizen Army, under the new leadership of James O Neill, became an uninfluential group which eventually ceased to exist for all practical purposes.

All this was not unconnected to the influence syndicalism exerted on Connolly; indeed syndicalism provided fertile ground for opportunism to flourish. He had the right political analysis, but was unable to draw the correct organisational conclusions from it.


However, Connolly nevertheless was the most far-sighted socialist in the British Isles in regards to the military organisation of the working class. The Irish Citizen Army was founded in 1913 to give protection to the workers during the Dublin lockout. Hailed as the first Red Army in Europe, it was highly significant: “An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as part of their armies led by their masters, never as members of an army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, their propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future” (J Connolly Collected works Dublin 1988, Vol 2, pp92-93).

Connolly understood the importance of arming the masses and creating workers’ militia, but the Citizen Army was conceived as the armed wing of the ITGWU, in the same way as the Socialist Party was its political wing. That limited its political potential.

Nevertheless, the Citizens Army managed to play a decisive role once World War I started. Connolly hoped that the working class in the different European countries would revolt against the war: “Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world” (J Connolly Collected works Dublin 1988, Vol 1, p415).

Unfortunately, this did not happen. But that did not discourage James Connolly from preparing for the insurrection against those “vulture classes” in Ireland, hoping that this might inspire and help a similar process in other countries: “Starting this, Ireland may yet set a torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord” (ibid Vol 1, p416).

When the war started, this “should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution” (ibid Vol 2, p55). In this process, the Citizens Army had a leading role to play: “Holding such views, we have at all times combated the idea of war; held that we have no foreign enemies outside of our own ruling class; held that if we are compelled to go to war we had much rather fight that ruling class than any other, and taught in season and out of season that it is the duty of the working class in self-protection to organise its own force to resist the force of the master class” (ibid Vol 2, p50).

While Connolly was calling for the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war, Metscher explains that he never developed Lenin’s position of revolutionary defeatism. Connolly thought that a victory of Germany over Britain would be the lesser of two evils, and wrote a number of pro-German articles: “Undoubtedly, much of what Connolly wrote during this period was directly propagandistic, aimed at combating British jingoism and anti-German fever - hence his insistence that Britain was the main enemy of the Irish people - but his arguments concerning the imperialist nature of the war lack the perspicacity and directness which are evident in Lenin’s articles of the same period” (p184).

Priscilla Metscher’s book is a useful work. She clearly shows the originality and strengths of Connolly, without failing to be uncritical. However, it is disappointing that she does not discuss the contemporary relevance (or irrelevance) of Connolly’s thought for the 21st century. In the absence of such discussion, it gives the impression that he is simply a figure of historical interest. Connolly deserves more than that.