James Connolly: National liberation and socialism

Tribute to James Connolly by MyLittleTripod.

By Doug Enaa Greene

[See the video of this talk below.]

December 14, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- "My business is revolution."[1] These words of the Irish socialist James Connolly succinctly sum up the main focus of his life. James Connolly is one of the towering socialist figures of our time. Connolly’s commitment to socialism and internationalism saw him work as labour organiser in Scotland, the United States and Ireland.

Connolly was also a stalwart member of the left wing of the Second International along with Lenin, Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. However, Connolly is most well known for his central role in the struggle of Irish independence, especially in leading the Easter Uprising of 1916. The revolt failed and cost Connolly his life, but it was the spark that led to the end of British rule in the 26 counties of southern Ireland.

Due to his martyrdom, Connolly remains a national hero in the Irish Republic, which conveniently erases any mention of socialism when he is discussed. Although there were weaknesses in his theories of socialism, Connolly stands as the reference point on the Irish left for linking the struggle for national liberation with that of socialist revolution. His most important lesson in this regard was that those who privilege one over the other or delink the two, they ultimately betray both.

To the embarrassment of some Irish patriots, James Connolly was not born in Ireland. Rather, he was born in 1868 in the slums of Edinburgh, Scotland, to Irish parents, who along with thousands of others, had emigrated there following the Great Famine. The Connolly family were labourers and they were terribly poor. Due to this poverty, Connolly left school at the age of 10 and entered the workforce to help support his family. However, the pay was so little that Connolly and his elder brother John eventually joined the British army at 14 which offered more money. Connolly had to lie about his age to enlist.

Connolly spent the next seven years in the army, stationed in rural Ireland. When his regiment returned to Scotland, in preparation for its deployment to India, Connolly deserted. Another reason for Connolly’s desertion was that he had also fallen in love with an Irish woman, Lillie Reynolds, whom he married in 1890. Lillie would remain dedicated and devoted to Connolly for the rest of his life. Together, the two of them would have a family that consisted of six children – two of whom, Nora and Roddy, who would enter radical politics.

During these years, Connolly worked in a number of trades, including a failed stint as a cobbler. He also became a socialist and quickly entered the mix of radical politics, joining the Scottish Socialist Federation and working with the Independent Labour Party, which was formed in 1893. Connolly's socialist involvement quickly took up a most of his time. Although not formally educated, he was a self-directed learner, he spent hours studying Marxist ideas and developing himself as an organic intellectual of the working class.

Very quickly Connolly proved himself to be a talented writer, a captivating speaker and a skilled organiser. He ran for election in a local city council as a socialist in 1893, receiving a fair number of votes. However, Connolly's showing and his advocacy of socialism caused him to lose a public job working in sewage disposal. Still, in 1895 he was elected as secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation.

Yet Connolly, due to his background, always focused on events in Ireland. And in 1896, he moved to Dublin as a paid organiser for a socialist club there. He worked with the Dublin club to publish several newspapers such as Erin's Hope, Workers' Republic and the New Evangel. He also founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896 – which was a revolutionary party on the far left of Irish politics and in the Second International.

This party was unlike any other socialist organisation founded in Ireland. Before Connolly, Irish socialists were scattered, disconnected and reviled by official Irish society. The early Irish socialists also compounded their isolation with sectarian behaviour and ignoring and downplaying the importance of national liberation – focusing more on either reformist measures or abstract revolution. Most Irish socialists of this era advocated an abstract internationalism that condemned all nationalisms as equally reactionary and saw the movement for Home Rule and independence as largely an affair of the capitalist classes. Irish socialists appeared more concerned with emulating English socialists than being concerned with the day-to-day struggles and aspirations of the Irish workers and farmers.


While Connolly would always have words of condemnation for the bourgeois leadership of independence, he put forward a position of linking the struggle for national liberation with that of socialist revolution. For Connolly, an internationalist position meant there could be no equal sign between the nationalism of the Irish and that of the British – between the nationalism of oppressed and of the oppressors. The former was to be resolutely supported and socialists should strive to achieve leadership of the national liberation movement in order to carry it forward to socialism.

In the first public manifesto of the Socialist Republican Party, Connolly laid out the linkage of social revolution and national liberation as follows:

The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects: it is national and it is social. The national ideal can never be realised until Ireland stands forth before the world as a nation, free and independent. It is social and economic, because no matter what the form of government may be, as long as one class owns as private property the land and the instruments of labour from which mankind derive their substance, that class will always have it in their power to plunder and enslave the remainder of their fellow-creatures.[2]

Connolly emphasised that there could no socialism or freedom when one nation oppressed another:

The subjection of one nation to another, as of Ireland to the authority of the British Crown, is a barrier to the free political and economic development of the subject nation, and can only serve the exploiting classes of both nations.[3]

Thus, Connolly argued for the right of oppressed nations to self-determination as essential to the realisation of socialism. In fact, the struggle of oppressed nations and classes to free themselves by any means, including armed revolt, was considered just and legitimate by Connolly:

The war of a subject nation for independence, for the right to live out its own life in its own way may and can be justified as holy and righteous; the war of a subject class to free itself from the debasing conditions of economic and political slavery should at all times choose its own weapons, and hold and esteem all as sacred instruments of righteousness.[4]

On the other hand, the imperialist wars of the capitalists and their repression against the working class were unjust and illegitimate from a socialist position. These wars were to be opposed by all socialists and ultimately to be used as an opportunity to spark a revolutionary civil war. Any socialist who compromised on this, in the eyes of Connolly, was a traitor to the cause.

Yet Connolly recognised that there were other national bourgeois forces, such as the Irish Parliamentary Party, who were quite ready to fight for independence but didn't care about the rights of the working class. These forces feared the popular energies of the exploited classes of Ireland and were more inclined to make a deal with the British, leaving the basic structures of colonial and capitalist domination intact in order to maintain their power.

Many other republican forces, while perhaps sympathetic to socialism, believed that the struggle for social transformation had to wait until after independence was achieved. In other words, the workers should not attack wealthy “nationalist” capitalists or landlords who had good positions on independence, but didn't want their property rights challenged or to pay decent wages to workers.

Connolly poured scorn on the nationalists who loved Ireland, but didn't care for the people living in it:

"Let us free Ireland,” says the patriot who won’t touch Socialism. Let us all join together and cr-r-rush the br-r-rutal Saxon. Let us all join together, says he, all classes and creeds. And, says the town worker, after we have crushed the Saxon and freed Ireland, what will we do? Oh, then you can go back to your slums, same as before. Whoop it up for liberty![5]

Ultimately Connolly offered this warning about what would happen if the national struggle in Ireland did not lead to socialism. These words have become justly famous and they are worth quoting in full:

If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the Green Flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule through her capitalists, her landlords, financiers, and through the whole array of commercial and industrial institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that freedom whose cause you betrayed.[6]

Connolly’s warning came to pass in Ireland and in other colonies across the world where socialists and communists did not have a leading role.

The Irish Socialist Republican Party’s other positions were in line with other socialist parties – a minimum program of reforms benefiting the working class, running in elections on a socialist platform, opposition to monarchs and kings in favour of a republic, and building trade unions. The party was also involved in organising demonstrations against Queen Victoria when she visited Ireland in 1900, which included ta funeral procession of those murdered by the British Empire.

Although the police attempted to disrupt the protest, a coffin was successfully dumped in a river while Connolly cried out: “To hell with the British Empire!” In line with its internationalist and anti-colonial convictions, the ISRP also organised against the Boer War.

However, the ISRP was not a very organised party. The party had trouble raising funds  (including from its own members). It was difficult to schedule meetings when many public places were closed to it. Furthermore, many of its important meetings were sparsely attended. The various party newspapers were chronically short of funds. There were various factions in the party as well.

United States

The party didn’t pay Connolly regularly, their main organiser, and there was dissatisfaction with his leadership. This caused Connolly to leave Ireland and seek work in the United States in order to support his family and to lecture on politics and philosophy. While in the USA, Connolly took a number of jobs, including working as an insurance salesman. He also joined the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP) led by Daniel De Leon. The SLP was a small orthodox Marxist party and its leader, Daniel De Leon, was a brilliant and prolific writer and theoretician, but he was incredibly dogmatic and his organisation was divorced from the masses.

Connolly quickly found himself in conflict with De Leon on a number of questions. For one: the SLP propaganda was anti-Catholic in such a narrow sectarian way that it resembled many nativist sentiments in the United States. By repeating a thinly disguised nativism masked as anti-Catholicism, the SLP did not attract Irish-American workers. While Connolly was not a believer, he thought the main thrust of socialist criticism against the Catholic Church should be directed against the anti-socialist and pro-capitalist positions of the clergy rather than their theology.

A second dispute revolved around the “iron law of wages”. Proponents of the iron law of wages in the SLP denied the role of economic action on behalf of the working class because a rise in wages meant a rise in prices, and in the end workers wouldn’t benefit from a rise in wages. This meant that strikes and trade unions were considered useless. Connolly, basing himself on Karl Marx, argued that a rise in wages doesn't necessarily mean a rise in prices. Rather, he claimed that the laws regulating wages are extremely complex, vary in different circumstances and that a rise in wages can in fact stimulate demand.

Furthermore, Connolly said that this dogmatic position disregarded the role of unions in working-class struggle and that workers have been able to wring concessions and higher standards of living from employers when they unite and strike. Connolly's favourable view of the Industrial Workers of the World and syndicalism led to sharp disagreement with De Leon. In 1908, Connolly resigned from the SLP, calling it an elitist, sterile and sectarian organisation. He joined the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, becoming a paid party organiser in 1909.

Connolly affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union dedicated to class struggle and to organising all workers regardless of sex, race, nationality or skill. Connolly travelled around the United States, doing union organising, speaking and writing for the IWW. In 1908 Connolly also wrote one of his most famous and accessible pamphlets upholding a syndicalist vision of socialism – Socialism Made Easy.

Connolly accepted the basic elements of syndicalism which sought to organise revolutionary trade unions of all workers, stage a general strike and organise a cooperative commonwealth. Syndicalism was a major force not only in the United States, but in Europe as well -- including in France, Scotland, Italy and Ireland. Syndicalists were overwhelmingly focused on industrial action by the proletariat, but ignored or downplayed the importance of independent political action by the working class. Syndicalists were reacting against what they perceived, correctly as it would turn out, as the reformist and non-revolutionary practices of the mainstream socialist parties, which were all about electing candidates and reform, not reform.

Connolly summed up his syndicalist position as follows:

It is this, that 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 out every day for the power to control industry and the gauge of the progress of that battle is not to be found in the number of voters making a cross beneath the symbol of a political party, but in the number of these workers who enroll themselves in an industrial organization with the definite purpose of making themselves masters of the industrial equipment of society in general.[7]

Connolly did not deny the need for a working-class political party, he organised a few more upon his return to Ireland. However, the central focus of his politics was on industrial action. And while there was a certain revolutionary intransigence to this position, he downplayed the role of a party as an organised political force to channel the energies of the proletariat for the revolutionary seizure of power.

Following Connolly’s death, there was no revolutionary organisation in Ireland to carry on his socialist ideals and play an independent political role, and ultimately the Irish workers paid dearly for this error both during and after the war for independence.

While Connolly was politically active in the United States, he never felt quite at home there and he wrote to a comrade back in Ireland that his emigration was “the great mistake” of his life. There was also the development of a more favourable political situation in Ireland that drew him back home.

Connolly's old party, the ISRP managed to survive in his absence and fused with other socialist groups to form the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) in 1904. The SPI had its own problems such as sectarianism, difficulty putting out its own paper and distance from the trade union movement.

The party also had to contend with the development of the radical bourgeois nationalist party, Sinn Fein, which attracted dissatisfied nationalists who were opposed to the parliamentary path toward Home Rule advocated by moderate nationalists. Connolly found most of Sinn Fein's economic and political ideas to be reactionary, but he thought socialists should try to find common ground with it on the question of independence.

At the same time, the British parliament was growing closer to granting Home Rule to Ireland, at the same time this exacerbated tensions among the Loyalist minority in Ulster, who were determined to remain part of the British Empire.


There was also the development of radical syndicalism in the Irish labour movement known as “Larkinism”, after the charismatic and fiery union leader James Larkin. Larkin's arrival in Belfast in 1907 to organise dock workers saw Irish trade unionism take on a very radical edge. Larkin focused not on just organising the skilled and educated workers, but the uneducated and unskilled. A new sense of solidarity and power came across the working class. And Larkin did what few were able to do in Northern Ireland – unite Protestant and Catholic workers in a common cause. The Belfast strike was a failure, but it showed the potential of the new unionism and Larkin remained undeterred.

In 1909 Larkin, who had success organising workers in Dublin and Cork, spearheaded the creation of the Irish Transport Workers' Union, which eventually became the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU). Although the union was initially focused on transport workers, Larkin pressed for one big union and committed the union to challenge capitalist power. The ITGWU ended up adopting a program that declared that a state of war existed between the workers and capitalists in Ireland and they would not shrink from the implications of that fact, as we shall see.

This was the general political situation that Connolly encountered when he returned to Ireland in July 1910. He immediately went to work organising for the Socialist Party and the ITGWU in Belfast. Connolly organised among the dockworkers and linen workers, many of whom were women, who received poverty wages and were ignored by the craft unions. He was able to organise these workers in an inspiring strike against the employers using the tactics he learned in the USA.

At the end of 1911, Connolly also organised in Wexford to aid workers who had been locked out by the capitalists. The workers in Wexford were constantly being attacked by the police and formed their own “Workers' Police” for protection – a forerunner to the Irish Citizen’s Army which Connolly would later organise.

During the years leading to World War I, Connolly was active not just as a union organiser, but as a writer. For instance, when in the USA, he wrote a book, Labor in Irish History, a Marxist interpretation of Irish history. He also engaged in debates with prominent Irish reformist socialists such as William Walker – who wanted to subordinate the Irish workers' movement to that in Britain and to focus wholly on bread and butter issues.

Connolly also led the initiative for the foundation of the Irish Labor Party in 1912. The party was to be based in the trade unions and focus on immediate reforms, but Connolly believed in organising a revolutionary nucleus within it. He also organised anti-sectarian demonstrations in the North under the ITGWU flag as anger against Home Rule and sectarianism developed among the Loyalists.

In 1913 a big test came for Larkin and Connolly's union when Dublin employers, who were “nationalists”, locked out thousands of workers to crush the ITGWU. Both Connolly and Larkin organised mass and militant resistance to the employers, spreading solidarity actions across Ireland and into Britain. The right-wing British unions failed to back the Irish workers though. After six months of struggle, the Great Lock Out ended as the workers went back to work in defeat.

During the strike, the workers who were faced with continual attacks from scabs and police, organised their own militia – the Irish Citizen's Army. Its members drilled in the use of arms, adopted their own flag, the Starry Plough, and openly defended their union headquarters at Liberty Hall and the broader interests of the working class. Connolly said of the Citizen's Army:

An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.[8]

Lenin described it as “Europe's first Red Army”.


I'd like to make a little digression and discuss Connolly’s positions on two issues: the Loyalists in Ulster and partition. These are issues would take on much greater prominence following Connolly's death when Ireland was dismembered and a British-ruled sectarian state was created in the occupied six counties in the north. In 1914, the British parliament finally passed a bill granting Home Rule for Ireland – effectively making it a dominion within the empire. In other words, Ireland would gain a partial independence, British interests would be unmolested, the upper classes would effectively change their accents to Irish and the sanctity of private property would remain.

However, the Loyalists in the six counties of Ulster were granted an exemption from Home Rule, meaning they could remain part of Britain and not be under the control of a southern Irish parliament. The Loyalists feared that they would be forced anyway to be under Catholic domination and so they formed their own paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteers to fight Britain should London attempt to force them out of the empire.

The British parliament planned to disarm the paramilitaries, but the British officers said they would refuse to carry out orders to stop the Loyalists. The refusal of the officers was also supported by high-ranking right-wing officials within the British government. Ultimately, the British government backed down from its planned disarmament of the volunteers, which only encouraged the Loyalists and incensed Irish radicals, republicans and nationalists. Furthermore, it should be said that while the British army was not used in Ulster, it was routinely being used to break strikes in Britain, always on the side of the employers.

Connolly was opposed to plans for partition, saying:

The recent proposals ... reveal in a most striking and unmistakable manner the depths of betrayal to which so-called nationalist politicians are willing to sink. [It is a} betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement, and paralyse all advanced movements while it endured. To it, Labour should give its bitterest opposition; against it Labour in Ulster should fight, even to the death if necessary, as our fathers fought before us ... Such a scheme would destroy the labour movement by disrupting it. It would make division more intense and confusion of ideas and parties more confounded.[9]

This is exactly what came to pass following Connolly's death – the partition of Ireland, the creation of a conservative capitalist state in the south and a sectarian apartheid state in the North while the Irish labour and radical movement was crushed and isolated.

In regards to his position on Protestant workers -- Connolly always argued for the unity of Catholic and Protestants. He believed that the two groups should join together for socialism and against bigotry and sectarianism, and imperialists. Socialists had a special task here -- Connolly ultimately believed that Irish liberation from Britain would benefit Protestant workers as well as Catholic ones. However, Connolly refused to compromise on his advocacy of national liberation for fear of alienating Protestant workers because in the end that would be a betrayal of socialism and internationalism, and a capitulation to the backward views of many Protestants who supported British imperialism.

Nor was Connolly arguing for replacing one sectarian state for another, but rather to set up a single Irish socialist republic with equal rights for all. It was not the duty of the oppressed Irish Catholics to water down their opposition to the empire or for freedom in order to maintain Protestant privileges. Rather, those privileges were tied up with the maintenance of imperialist and the sectarian divisions that Britain created in Ireland and needed to be combated. Protestant Irish workers, to be revolutionaries and show solidarity with their fellow Catholic workers, needed to join ranks in support of independence and in solidarity with the oppressed layers fighting for national liberation.

World War I

Home Rule, however, was not implemented due to the outbreak of World War I. After years of rising imperialist tensions, Britain was now fighting Germany in a long bloody struggle. Connolly was stunned at how the majority of Irish nationalists rallied to the Union Jack to prove their loyalty, providing Irish cannon fodder for the killing fields of Europe. He was also stunned at how the European socialist parties, in their majority, supported the war, showing all their internationalist resolutions to be nothing more than hot air.

Connolly's position was that the workers of the world should turn the imperialist war into a civil 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 system that the 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.[10]

He also believed, in line with an age old Irish republican expression, that “England's problem is Ireland's opportunity” and that with the empire distracted by the war, a decisive blow could be struck for national liberation and socialism. Connolly's was not the only group that wanted to stage a first strike. The Irish Volunteers, composed of radical nationalists from the middle classes, were also planning their own insurrection. Connolly remained largely aloof from them since he saw their economic ideals as conservative and believed they lacked the will for decisive action. The Volunteers, such as Patrick Pearse, were concerned by Connolly's fiery rhetoric and his plans for, what they considered, premature action. The Volunteers decided to squash any rash action and they co-opted Connolly into their organisation with plans to act together in Easter 1916.

Connolly had cooperated with the less socially radical nationalists in the past, saying:

... even when he is from the economic point of view intensely conservative, the Irish Nationalist even with his false reasoning, is an active agent in social regeneration, in so far as he seeks to invest with full power over its own destinies a people actually governed in the interests of a feudal aristocracy.[11]

The nationalists who joined with Connolly were not universally conservative on economic issues, there were divisions among them – some such as Pearse displayed a vague sympathy for socialism.

Despite all their differences, it was in the interests of both groups to bring down British rule. Yet Connolly knew that even if the uprising succeeded, the workers needed to press the struggle much farther than the bourgeois nationalists were willing to go:

The odds are 1,000 to one against us. If we win we will be great heroes; but if we lose we will be the greatest scoundrels the country has ever produced. 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 out for economic as well as political liberty.[12]

Connolly argued that under no circumstances were the workers to surrender their guns or political independence to their allies, even if they had to work together in a united front for the time being.

Easter Uprising

There is a myth propagated that the Easter Uprising was launched, knowing that it would be a failure in advance, to serve as “a blood sacrifice”, a noble death to inspire the Irish to rise. Yet this myth is dispelled by the facts. The insurrectionists went into battle with the intention of winning. Connolly made an extensive study of revolutionary warfare and street-fighting tactics. The conspirators managed to procure arms, even reaching out to the Germans for support. There was planning for an uprising not just in Dublin, but other armed actions across Ireland.

There was rising anger against the British as well, which threatened to boil over. The British were threatening to introduce conscription. The moderate nationalists had promised results by legal action, but now they were urging Irish men to enlist for the Crown. The war was killing thousands daily in the trenches. Still, independence was no closer. For Connolly, the time for half-measures, indecision and pessimism was over. "Our curse is our belief in our weakness. We are not weak, we are strong. Make up your mind to strike before your opportunity goes."[13]

On April 24, 1916, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read aloud at the General Post Office in Dublin after insurgents took control. The rebels managed to take control of large portions of central Dublin, including the Four Courts and the city hall. Connolly was commandant of the Dublin Brigade, effectively the leader of the Republican forces. However, the British reacted quickly, bringing in artillery and soldiers to cordon off Dublin and pound the rebels into submission.

Connolly had believed that the British would not use artillery to destroy private property, a grave miscalculation. Most of the population watched from the sidelines. Dublin remained isolated, although a few minor uprisings occurred in the provinces. After six days, the Easter Uprising was put down and the rebels surrendered.

Connolly and the other insurgent leaders were quickly tried and sentenced to death by the British. Connolly was badly wounded in the fighting and his leg was infected, making it impossible for him to stand. On May 12, he was tied to a chair and shot. At his court-martial, Connolly remained unbowed and defiant, declaring:

We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British government has been asking them to die for in Belgium ... I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth and to seal it with their lives if necessary.[14]

To many of Connolly's socialist contemporaries, his death was a contradiction. In the words of one biographer, they thought it was incomprehensible "why a man who lived as a socialist ... died an Irish nationalist"? Most British socialists were puzzled save for the Scottish socialist and nationalist John Maclean. Yet there was no contradiction or abandonment of socialism by Connolly in dying to free Ireland. Connolly had always linked the struggle for national liberation to socialist revolution. Rather than betray socialist internationalism, he had shown the truest fidelity to the revolutionary ideal by fighting to free an oppressed people from imperialist slavery.

Among international revolutionaries, many of those of who condemned all nationalisms as equally reactionary and bourgeois dismissed the Easter Uprising as a putsch and petit-bourgeois. Yet Lenin argued against this, while arguing the rising occurred prematurely before an all-European revolt, he recognised its revolutionary significance, stating:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate 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.[15]

Lenin spat on those who declared the Easter Rising a putsch, saying:

The term “putsch,” in the scientific sense of the word, may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interests...expressed itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty-bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of the press, etc. Whoever calls such a “putschist” is either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of picturing a social revolution as a living thing.[16]

Lenin and Connolly both recognised that the nationalism of the oppressed was a progressive force, and that revolts against imperialism needed to be supported by communist revolutionaries.


In terms of his legacy, Connolly was not just one of the first socialists in an colonial country to take up arms to overthrow the coloniser, but he tried to build the type of revolutionary movement that could link national liberation to socialist revolution. The questions, alliances, tactics, strategies and theories that Connolly had to deal with in Ireland would be faced by other socialists in different forms, in national liberation struggles throughout the colonial and semi-colonial world, such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, Carlos Fonseca and many others.

In Ireland, following Connolly's death, his dream of an all-Ireland Socialist Republic was unrealised.

During the years of the Irish war for independence and civil war, his leadership was sorely missed. While the IRA's war effort get most of the credit for driving the British to the bargaining table, we should not forget that the Irish working class launched radical actions in support of the national liberation struggle – general strikes, factory seizures, sabotage of the occupation forces and even the proclamation of soviets. However, there was no revolutionary working-class party in Ireland to channel this energy and to put forward a socialist program and banner. Rather, the working-class leaders who followed Connolly subordinated the struggle of the labour movement to that of the bourgeois nationalists. As a result, Ireland was partitioned between the British-ruled North and the conservative neocolony in the south.

However, Connolly's name and ideal remain a source of inspiration for all sections of the Irish republican, socialist and communist movements. Too many times, Irish leftists have forgotten that one cannot subordinate the national liberation struggle to the politics of social revolution; this path ends up as social reformism that accepts the partition of Ireland. Rather, the struggle in Ireland, both north and south, must fuse the struggle for national liberation with that of socialism. To privilege one over the other is to betray both. As Connolly said:

We cannot conceive of a free Ireland with a subject working class; we cannot conceive of a free working class in a subject Ireland.[17]

[Doug Enaa Greene is a member of the Kasama Project and an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint, Green Left Weekly, Open Media Boston, Cultural Logic and Red Wedge magazine. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is the author of a fothcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui from Haymarket Books.]


[1]Quoted in James D. Young, Socialism Since 1889: A Biographical History (London: Pinter Publishers, 1988), p. 75.

[2]James Connolly, “Irish Socialist Republic,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1908/03/irsocrep.htm [Accessed July 10, 2014].

[3]James Connolly, “Irish Socialist Republican Party,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1896/xx/isrp.htm [Accessed July 10, 2014].

[4]James Connolly, “A Martyr for Conscience Sake,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1914/08/martyr.htm [Accessed July 10, 2014].

[5]James Connolly, “Let Us Free Ireland!” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1899/xx/freeirld.htm [Accessed July 12, 2014].

[6]James Connolly, “Socialism and Nationalism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1897/01/socnat.htm [Accessed July 12, 2014].

[7]James Connolly, “The Future of Labour,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1908/sme/futrlabr.htm [Accessed July 13, 2014].

[8]James Connolly, “For the Citizen Army,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1915/10/forca.htm [Accessed July 11, 2014].

[9]James Connolly, “Industrial Unity and Political Division in Ireland,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1914/03/iupoldiv.htm [Accessed July 8, 2014].

[10]James Connolly, “Our Duty In This Crisis,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1914/08/dtycrsis.htm [Accessed July 10, 2014].

[11]James Connolly, Socialism and Irish Nationalism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1897/xx/scirenat.htm [Accessed July 13, 2014].

[12]Quoted in C. Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (New York: International Publishers, 1961), p. 403.

[13]James Connolly, “Connolly's Speech on the Outbreak of War,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1914/09/wrsotbrk.htm [Accessed July 14, 2014].

[14]James Connolly, “Last Statement,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1916/05/laststat.htm [July 14, 2014].

[15]V. I. Lenin, “The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/x01.htm [July 14, 2014].


[17]James Connolly, “Economic Conscription I,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1915/12/econscr1.htm [Accessed July 14, 2014].