A hundred years before I saw the light of morn,
In Edinburgh’s Cowgate James Connolly was born.
The streets of Little Ireland were his home for many years,
From the West Port to St Mary’s Street, you feel him very near.
Footsteps of James Connolly by Gerry Mulvenna
FOR the Irish community in Scotland James Connolly is a familiar figure. His role in the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent execution forever secured his place in Ireland’s pantheon. And quite right too. The fact he was born in Edinburgh gives him a special place in our community’s history.
Following his execution, James Connolly has enjoyed—or endured—a strange afterlife. In fact, it could be argued subsequent attempts to understand or explain his life and motivations have led to a life lived backwards. Everything begins at the end. All his political writings and actions are viewed through the prism of his participation in the Easter Rising and his subsequent execution. But does that tell us all we need to know about Connolly, his politics and relevance today? Perhaps this focus on his death rather than his life has impeded our understanding of Connolly?
Life and work
Next June marks the 150th anniversary of James Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh. He led a truly remarkable life. Before transatlantic flights, telephones or the internet Connolly did not just join the fledgling socialist movement, he instigated much of it. He was responsible for the formation of political parties, trade unions, workers armies and newspapers in Scotland, Ireland and the United States. He was a theoretician, military commander, propagandist, playwright, politician, songwriter as well as father, husband, cobbler, labourer and street cleaner.
Indeed, it is the scope and sheer ambition of Connolly’s writings, interests and activities that allow his significance to be distorted through cherry- picking individual grapes from the vineyard of his life. For that reason, I’ll resist the temptation to quote him at length and instead appeal to readers to view his life and work in totality. James Connolly was by his own description an unrepentant revolutionist. He judged every event by its potential to advance the cause of the economic reorganisation of society. This led him to take ground-breaking initiatives and adopt intellectual positions which often jarred with contemporaries. He cared not a jot, believing the role of revolutionary was to lead not follow.
He was unwavering in his support for women’s rights at a time when that was far from popular, even among socialists. Arguing feminists and socialists were ‘different regiments in the one great army of progress.’ Connolly’s writing on women’s rights briefly broke into public consciousness in 1972 when John Lennon—describing as Connolly as ‘the great Irishman’—cited James Connolly’s writings on the issue as the inspiration for his song Women is Nigger of the World. On religion —where his position is complex and often misunderstood—he rejected the orthodox Marxist view instead embracing a position closer to Feuerbach. While criticising—with some venom — church hierarchies he attempted to find progressive common ground with their congregations.
Socialism and national liberation
The great lesson of Connolly’s political philosophy is that the struggles for socialism and national liberation were not antagonistic but complimentary. He rejected the idea that a nation could be free while workers were enslaved or that workers could be free while their nation was enslaved. Furthermore, he warned nationalists of the scourge of neo-colonialism before the term had been coined. He argued that the working class should not just participate in the national liberation struggles, but be in the vanguard.
Having declared during the Boer War that he ‘would welcome the humiliation of British arms in any conflict,’ it is not surprising that at the outbreak of the 1914 War, Connolly was one of few socialist leaders who opposed it. Dismayed that other socialists did not oppose the imperialist war, Connolly argued it was a great opportunity for revolutionaries in Ireland. This argument echoed Lenin’s call that the only ‘truly revolutionary’ position for workers was to ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war.’ For Connolly this opportunity was not to be passed up and he decided upon a course of action that would change Ireland forever.
The group of international anti-war socialists, which Connolly joined, also included Eugene Debs, John Reed, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Leibknecht and John Maclean. These leaders often opposed the war for different reasons or from different standpoints. For Connolly’s part, the failure of the vast majority of socialists to hold the anti-war line and support the war confirmed his view that Ireland must seize the opportunity for revolution and independence, both national and social. Britain’s role in a world war was, for Connolly, an opportunity that working class revolutionaries could not pass up. Ireland was on the road to Easter 1916 and revolution.
The Easter Rising was a revolutionary action which challenged the Empire at its very core and inspired others from India to Egypt. Connolly’s role was crucial, not just militarily but intellectually. His influence can be seen in the text of the 1916 proclamation which declares the ‘right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ and for a republic which ‘cherishes all of its children equally.’ His execution by the British state has led to a distortion in analysis of his life. Many nationalists focus on his position in the pantheon of Irish martyrs and some socialists often reject his involvement in the Republican uprising as an aberration. Such partial interpretations have hindered a full appreciation of his life and work.
A fitting tribute
James Connolly cannot give us answers to present questions. His writings are not roadmaps that we can pull off the shelf and use to guide us through our current political problems. They cannot be lifted out of their time and place. Neither are they sacred texts to be dusted down and quoted as political self-justification. Indeed, Connolly, who wrote: “We are told to imitate Wolfe Tone, but the greatness of Wolfe Tone lay in the fact that he imitated nobody,” would be the first to reject attempts at canonisation.
While it is right and proper that we should argue for Connolly to be recognised with a permanent memorial in the city of his birth—as he has been in Belfast, Dublin, New York, Chicago and many other places—this should not be an argument only about bricks and mortar. The best tribute to James Connolly would be if we learn to think like Connolly. To view the world as Connolly viewed the world. To think through his political philosophy for our political times. One of the many remarkable things about James Connolly was his ability to recognise his historical conjuncture and yet think outwith parameters which were set for him and his class. He could assess the political landscape, understand what needed to be done and articulate solutions which broke moulds.
2018 must be the point at which we move James Connolly into the centre of political discourse in Scotland. Connolly 150 is a not-for-profit organisation established to promote public awareness of James Connolly as we approach the 150th anniversary of James Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh. We seek to raise awareness through research, events, writing, community engagement and organising. We are open to new and imaginative approaches to Connolly’s life and its relationship to working class and immigrant history in Scotland and beyond.
Connolly 150 is an independent organisation, affiliated to no political party or group. It has been established with the sole purpose of celebrating the life of James Connolly on the 150th anniversary of his birth we can be found at connolly150.com and on social media
Jim Slaven is the co-ordinator of Connolly 150