Friday 31 August 2007

The Plough Vol 04 No 19

The Plough
(Web site
Vol. 4- No 19
Friday 31st August 2007

E-mail newsletter of the Irish Republican Socialist Party

1) Editorial

2) James Connolly’s strategy and the 1916 Easter Rising

3) Connolly and ‘blood sacrifice’

4) Letters


In this edition we reprint articles on James Connolly. The articles were first printed in the Weekly Worker a publication of the “Communist Party of Great Britain” ( ) and were written by a former member of Sinn Fein (provisional) Philip Ferguson. James Connolly was and still is the most influential Marxist in Irish revolutionary politics. These articles are an articulate and influential response to those who would revise and write out of history the essential revolutionary core of Connolly or dismiss him as irrelevant. Irish republicans and socialists when in doubt as to what direction we should take in the struggle should go back to Connolly and on to socialism!

James Connolly’s strategy and the 1916 Easter Rising

James Connolly and his revolutionary circle saw the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 as making rebellion in Ireland not only possible, but an imperative necessity. “I will not miss this chance,” Connolly declared when war broke out.[1] <#_ftn1> In September he asked, “Would it not be better for all capable of bearing arms to resolve to fight and if need be to die for freedom here at home rather than be slaughtered for the benefit of kings and capitalists abroad.”[2] <#_ftn2> Connolly was also no doubt aware of the problems which beset the British administration in Ireland at the opening of the war.

Indeed, the Irish Times argued just before war broke out that the state of Ireland “Is desperately critical. The Administration is helpless and discredited.”[3] <#_ftn3> As Young, who is hostile to the Connolly perspective, notes,
“From the outbreak of the First World War, Countess Markievicz and James Connolly were waiting their opportunity to initiate a nationalist-cum-socialist revolt. When the opportunity came in April 1916, they did not hesitate to confront the might of British imperialism.”[4] <#_ftn4>

Far from being goaded into the Easter Rising,
“Countess Markievicz and James Connolly had decided upon the efficacy of a nationalist uprising in August 1914.”[5] <#_ftn5>
It should be noted that this was James Larkin’s perspective as well. Along with calling on workers to fight for Ireland alone, he declared “England’s need is Ireland’s opportunity”,[6] <#_ftn6> that “the guns must be got, and at once”[7] <#_ftn7> and that Ireland “had now the finest chance she had for centuries.”[8] <#_ftn8> Larkin also organised anti-war protests and told a rally of 7000 in Dublin that the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, the militant union led by Connolly and himself, was prepared to help land weapons in Ireland. The Dublin Trades Council, following the killings the evening of the Howth gun-running on July 26, adopted a motion from ITGWU leader O’Brien which included the view that “the only effective manner of dealing with this latest action of the Government is for the people to meet force with force.”[9] <#_ftn9>

Most importantly, from the viewpoint of revolutionary socialists such as Larkin, Connolly and Markievicz, the war and John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party’s role in supporting it while acquiescing in the shelving of Home Rule, provided militant labour with the opportunity to push past the bourgeois nationalists and unite all the progressive forces behind the radical working class movement.
The forces led by Connolly (and earlier by Larkin also) sought to detach the republicans from the bourgeois nationalist Redmondites within the Irish Volunteers and then the left-republicans from the timid elements around Irish Volunteers’ leader (and university professor) Eoin MacNeill. When Redmond pledged the Volunteers to Britain at Woodenbridge in September 1914, Larkin described him as “The Irish Judas” and suggested he should be strung up.[10] <#_ftn10> The following month, Larkin headed one of his editorials, “Redmond Eats His Own Vomit”.[11] <#_ftn11> The Irish Independent Labour Party launched an “Appeal to the Irish Working Class” asking them to remember they belonged to the same class as the workers of the rest of Europe, urging a revolutionary defeatist position on the basis that a British defeat would assist the struggle for Irish freedom. As the actress Maire nic Shublaigh, an early activist in the radical republican women’s group Inghinidhe na hEireann noted in her autobiography, the suspension of Home Rule “raised a storm of protest” and Redmond’s decision to back Britain despite this ensured “The young men were outraged.”[12] <#_ftn12> In effect, the IPP sell-out opened the way for the initiative on the national question to pass to the militant labour and republican groupings. Connolly was determined not to let the opportunity pass.

In May, Connolly had written,
“We believe there are no real Nationalists in Ireland outside of the Irish Labour Movement. All others merely reject one part or another of the British Conquest - the Labour Movement alone rejects it in its entirety and sets itself to the reconquest of Ireland. . .”[13] <#_ftn13> Barely two months into the war he declared “a fight to the finish” with the Redmondites, noting “For some of us the finish may be on the scaffold, for some in the prison cell, for others more fortunate upon the battlefields of an Ireland in arms for a real republican liberty.”[14] <#_ftn14> He was, however, optimistic, writing to Larkin six days later, on October 9, “We are at present in a very critical stage for the whole of Ireland as well as for the Labour movement. One result of this is that we have an opportunity of taking the lead of the real Nationalist movement. . .”[15] <#_ftn15> This was the heart of Connolly’s strategy up to the Rising, a strategy in which his closest co-workers were Markievicz and Michael Mallin, fellow members of the Army Council of the Irish Citizen Army, the workers’ militia which arose out of the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913-14.

Although sharing the view that Connolly moved away from socialism to nationalism, Young notes the “nationalist-cum-socialist” nature of the rebellion envisaged by Connolly and Markievicz. In fact, Connolly from the beginning perceived the rebellion as having a wider significance than simply an attempt at national liberation for one oppressed people (as important as that was). Through an insurrection, “Ireland may yet set the 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 war lord,” he wrote as war was declared on the continent.[16] <#_ftn16> Connolly began, relates O’Brien, his ITGWU colleague, to seek out allies “with the view to combined action in preparation for an insurrection.”[17] <#_ftn17> The logical place to find them was in a section of the Irish Republican Brotherhood since, as Strauss has noted, that group’s “left-wing approached the position of the militant labour movement.”[18] <#_ftn18> Thus it was not just anybody at hand whom Connolly sought out for an alliance.

Strauss’ point about the convergence of the politics of the IRB’s left, exemplified by Pearse, Clarke and the other Easter Proclamation signatories, with the labour radicals is especially important and largely ignored by critics of Connolly. The alliance between Connolly and the republicans is usually seen as being a convergence around nationalist separatism, or Connolly’s subordination to it. Yet this overlooks the large degree of convergence on issues of domestic Irish politics. Both the republicans and Connolly regarded the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which wielded immense power in the Parliamentary Party, as an excrescence in Irish political life.[19] <#_ftn19> Both regarded the bourgeois nationalist IPP itself as, if anything, worse than the British government since the Parliamentary Party was the enemy within - the main organisation in nationalist Ireland without which British rule could not have been maintained on any stable basis. Again, Connolly and the republicans agreed that fundamental changes in the social and economic structure were necessary and could only be carried out in an independent country.

Even before the Dublin labour dispute the IRB’s paper, Irish Freedom, had run articles making clear that they sided with the plebeian masses. One article, headed “The economic basis of a revolutionary movement” by “Northman”, maintained that labour and republicanism “rest upon the same foundation, they are but different manifestations of the same principle and would form a natural and mutually helpful alliance.”[20] <#_ftn20> The class sympathies of the republicans were also evident during the 1913-14 labour struggle, with all the future republican signatories of the 1916 Proclamation siding with the workers. During the dispute, for instance, Irish Freedom, in a front-page article, described the police as “Irish Cossacks” and, following the clashes in O’Connell Street, accused them of “the killing of two citizens of Dublin and the wounding of about six hundred.” Of the workers, the paper said, “If they claim the right to conduct a strike against their employers, no reasonable man can object.” If the police and military were used to suppress them, the workers “must act after consideration and deep thought. But they cannot punish the police brutes with empty hands against batons, or stones against bullets. We have often advised the people of Ireland to arm themselves, and we shall press upon them the wisdom of this course upon every against bullets.” (Sic)[21] <#_ftn21> In a column in the same issue, Pearse, backing the workers, likened the Dublin employers to Marie Antoinette and her alleged “Let them eat cake” comment about the starving poor. “Poor Marie Antoinette did not quite grasp the situation in France,” Pearse noted. “In the end the situation grasped her and hurried her to the guillotine.” Another proclamation signatory, Eamonn Ceannt, had even lectured on several occasions for Connolly’s Socialist Party.[22] <#_ftn22>

The extent of this convergence between the Connolly militant labour current and the republican militants is clearly apparent in Pearse’s final and most developed political tract, The Sovereign People, in which he builds upon the ideas of Lalor, the most socially revolutionary of all the republican figures of the 1800s and a hero of Connolly’s, and at last deals with “the material basis of freedom”. In this work Pearse makes clear his view that

“no private right to property holds good against the public right of the nation” and that the nation must
“exercise its public right so as to secure strictly equal rights and liberties to every man and woman within the nation”.[23] <#_ftn23> Pearse view of equal rights in relation to women extends to participation in the government itself. He remarks,

“in order that the people may be able to choose as a legislation and as a government men and women really and truly representative of themselves” they would be wisest to adopt “the widest possible franchise - give a vote to every adult man and woman of sound mind. To restrict the franchise in any respect is to prepare the way for some future usurpation of the rights of the sovereign people.”[24] <#_ftn24>

Pearse had only been a republican for several years at the time, was only in his mid-30s and evolving rapidly politically.

All of this undermines Austen Morgan’s claim that the people with whom Connolly united in 1916 were “a group of five, later six, petty-bourgeois cultural nationalists, most of whom had only recently embraced physical force, a conspiracy with the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie.”[25] <#_ftn25> Far from having “the pretensions of a national bourgeoisie”, Pearse, Clarke, Plunkett, MacDiarmada, Ceannt and Plunkett wanted to destroy the power of the national bourgeoisie - whose party was the IPP - and gave their lives, like Connolly, as much to that as to the ridding of Ireland of British rule.[26] <#_ftn26>

All through the period up to the Rising, Connolly never lost an opportunity to impress upon the republican militants his view that the working class was the driving force for national liberation and that anyone proposing to win Ireland’s freedom could not succeed unless they recognised this. He never lost sight of where his group stood - “we belong to the working class of Ireland, and strive to express the working class point of view”[27] <#_ftn27> - while pressing his point that the Irish Citizen Army was
“the only body that, without reservation, unhesitatingly announces its loyalty to the republican principle of National Freedom of which the Fenians stood.”[28] <#_ftn28>

One of Connolly and Markievicz’s first steps to build an alliance with the republican militants following the outbreak of war was a meeting on September 8 in the library of the Gaelic League in Parnell Square. It was attended by all seven future Easter Proclamation signatories, veteran republican John MacBride, O’Brien and several others. Connolly advocated that they begin preparations for an insurrection and suggested the setting up of two subcommittees to assist this: one to make contact with Germany for military support and one to organise open propaganda and recruit to the secret movement.[29] <#_ftn29> A possible fruit of the September 8 meeting was a decision made by the IRB. According to O Broin, sometime between September and November 1914 the IRB decided to stage an insurrection before the war was over.[30] <#_ftn30> This would suggest that the IRB decision would have been made after the meeting at which Connolly proposed this course, pointing up the key role played by him in initiating the insurrection.

The open organisation agreed on at the September 8 meeting, meanwhile, was established as the Irish Neutrality League, including Markievicz and Connolly, O’Brien and Foran from the labour movement, the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, republican figures Sean T. O’Kelly, Sean Milroy and J.J. Scollan, and Sinn Fein’s Arthur Griffith.[31] <#_ftn31> It was primarily a group of leaders, without a general membership and although it organised meetings and produced leaflets for a couple of months British military restrictions made it impossible for the League to continue.[32] <#_ftn32> However, it may have been that Connolly had decided the time was right to move on to a more militant flouting of the authorities. It is clear that Markievicz and Connolly were already thinking along such lines before the INL was even launched. For instance, plans were laid for Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers members to seize the Mansion House on the night of September 24 and hold it for twenty-four hours in order to prevent Asquith and Redmond from holding their advertised recruiting meeting in the building the following day. Although the plan had to be abandoned due to the strength of British forces, the militants won a victory elsewhere that day. The IV’s original executive repudiated Redmond’s nominees as, four days earlier, Redmond had promised the Volunteers’ support to Britain during the war. The expulsion of the Redmond group led to a split in which the Parliamentary Party took the vast bulk of the membership, reducing the organisation to maybe 12,000 members. Connolly was delighted.

On October 10 he declared the “fight against Redmondism and Devlinism is a fight to save the soul of the Irish nation” and exhorted the Irish Volunteers to throw everything into the fight against Britain’s war effort and the IPP’s betrayal, and to adopt “the daring appeal of the Revolutionist.”[33] <#_ftn33> Two weeks later he declared that if Britain tried to introduce conscription in Ireland through the Militia Ballot Act or any other measure, the ITGWU and ICA “have our answer ready.” Resistance “must of necessity take the form of insurrectionary warfare. . . barricades in the streets, guerrilla warfare in the country.”[34] <#_ftn34>

The split with the Redmondites[35] <#_ftn35> , so desired by Connolly, had not left the revolutionaries in control, however. Leaders such as MacNeill and the ubiquitous Hobson were far from sharing the views of the militant republicans and socialists. Connolly continued to try to drive a wedge into the Volunteers, to detach the militants from MacNeill and Hobson and pull them towards his militant socialist/labour current.

In May 1915 the republican militants took a further step forward, setting up a military committee, comprising Ceannt, Pearse and Plunkett with the latter reputedly being the military expert; Clarke and MacDiarmada joined later in the year, Connolly in January 1916 and MacDonagh later again.[36] <#_ftn36> During this period Clarke was IRB Supreme Council secretary, MacDonagh treasurer and Denis McCullough president.

Mid-1915 also saw a new initiative of the Connolly forces. An anti-conscription committee was formed, with Markievicz and Connolly occupying central roles. In August Connolly claimed,

“We saved the lives of thousands, held together thousands of homes, and amid all the welter and turmoil of a gigantic and unparalleled national betrayal we presented to the world the spectacle of the organised Irish working class standing steadfastly by the highest ideals of freedom, so that the flag of Labour became one with the standard of national liberty.”[37] <#_ftn37> In October the Dublin Trades Council, at the initiative of Transport Union delegates, passed a resolution calling upon workers to join the ICA and IVs as the best way of preventing the introduction of conscription. Discussions also took place between the trades council and Volunteers in relation to a campaign against economic conscription. “Connolly insisted that if the organized workers were to pledge their support for a certain policy, the Irish Volunteers should also be pledged to back that policy with military support should that be necessary,” recalls O’Brien, but MacNeill would not agree.[38] <#_ftn38>

During this period recruitment in Ireland fell off noticeably. Between August 1914 and August 1915, Britain succeeded in recruiting 80,000 from Ireland. Over the following twelve months this declined to a mere 12,000. Most recruits came from Ulster. The lowest rates were in Connaught and Munster (the south and west), where the land struggle had been strongest. Only 10.7 percent of the relevant age group from Ireland served in the British Army, compared to 24.2 percent in England and Wales and 26.9 percent in Scotland.[39] <#_ftn39>

Connolly and Markievicz also upped the ante, with the Citizen Army increasingly appearing on the streets with weapons. In July they even led it in a mock attack on Dublin Castle. Meanwhile every hesitation by the IV leadership was met with fiery denunciation, as when they gave in to a British order that one of their chief organisers Captain Robert Monteith (who also had a reputation as a labour sympathiser) leave Dublin.[40] <#_ftn40>

Connolly also made clear that ICA collaboration with the Volunteers was conditional, stating “However it may be for others, for us of the Citizen Army there is but one ideal - an Ireland ruled, and owned, by Irish men and women. . . The Citizen Army will only co-operate in a forward movement. The moment that forward movement ceases it reserves for itself the right to step out of the alignment, and advance by itself if needs be, in an effort to plant the banner of Freedom one reach further towards its goal.”[41] <#_ftn41> This message was not directed at MacNeill, as Connolly had no illusions about an alliance there, but at the republican militants. His strategy was to continue to pull - and, where necessary, push - them forward until their alliance with MacNeill was no longer sustainable and broke up. At that point, Connolly would have been able to draw them to his own group, in effect uniting around the militant labour forces all the most radical republican elements.

Indeed, Connolly lost no opportunity to drive a wedge between the revolutionary republicans and the timid elements around MacNeill. For instance, on November 4, 1915 Pearse gave a public talk reviewing the different political tendencies at the time of the rather farcical attempt at rebellion in 1848. Connolly described it as a “brilliant lecture”[42] <#_ftn42> and effectively used Pearse’s arguments against MacNeill - and, by extension, against the republican militants clinging to their alliance with MacNeill.

As Pearse had in the lecture, Connolly drew the conclusion from 1848 that “The British Government would not wait until the plans of the revolutionists were ready. It has not held Ireland down for 700 years by any such foolish waiting. It struck in its own time, and its blow paralysed the people.”[43] <#_ftn43> In a blow at both MacNeill and the IRB, Connolly went on to criticise those who talked of “premature insurrection” and provoking the government, arguing

“Revolutionists who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived, and they have every shoe-string in its place, and every man has got his gun, and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionists nor disarrange their plans - such revolutionists only exist in two places - the comic opera stage, and the stage of Irish national politics. We prefer the comic opera brand. It at least serves its purpose.”[44] <#_ftn44>

It might be further noted that at the same time Connolly was drawing in the most militant and politically-advanced elements of the women’s movement. While a number of former Inghinidhe na hEireann activists had already been integrated into the ICA, and IWFL member Kathleen Lynn had been made medical officer, holding the rank of lieutenant, in December 1915 Connolly took on a number of radical suffragists to do ITGWU organising work.[45] <#_ftn45>

The other aspect of Connolly and Markievicz’s strategy was to continue to challenge the authorities and push the limits of what they could get away with. It seems to me that there were three main elements to this.

Firstly, they were preparing their followers for the insurrection through a process of toughening them up. Insurrection is not a business for the faint-hearted and Connolly and Markievicz wanted a reliable and hardened force. In early 1916, for instance, Connolly summoned each member of the ICA individually into his office and asked them if they were prepared to fight in a rebellion, and alongside the Volunteers.[46] <#_ftn46>

Secondly, they were showing ordinary Irish people, who had long been taught to think of themselves as inferior and powerless, that the authorities were not omnipotent, that they could be challenged and that they only maintained their power as long as people acquiesced in their own oppression. This attitude was summed up in the motto Connolly took from Desmoulins, a French revolutionary of the eighteenth century:
“The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!”

Thirdly, the ICA’s activities made the British think twice about what they did since any repressive actions they planned would be met with force. These three elements were closely related to each other. For instance, whenever armed ICA members prevented the British from taking some action, it would raise the self-confidence of the workers’ militia and have a positive effect on public opinion. O’Brien has commented, for example, the ICA “attends all our Labour meetings and you would be surprised at the changed attitude of the police in consequence.”[47] <#_ftn47>

While the Volunteers’ leadership usually capitulated when challenged by the authorities, as in the Monteith case, the ICA evinced another spirit. For example, following a police raid on Markievicz’s house, remarks O’Brien,
“the police came to the Countess and wanted her to register as an alien! Being married to a Russian the Countess is technically a Russian subject but she told the police, more forcibly than politely, that ‘she was an Irishwoman and before she would register as an alien she would see the police in hell.’”[48] <#_ftn48> On another occasion in early 1916, when police called at her house to check she would not break an order banning her from speaking at a meeting in Tralee, she warned them to keep away from her home as no-one there liked them and, besides, they made “grand big targets”.[49] <#_ftn49> Connolly, who faced constant difficulties producing a newspaper, finally moved a printing press into Liberty Hall and placed an armed guard on it. Markievicz, who did guard duty as one of her first soldierly works, relates, “Our instructions were, if raided, to fight to the last cartridge.”[50] <#_ftn50> This might have been some shoot-out given that she “had an army rifle, a ‘Peter’ and a small Browning. My comrade also was well supplied.”[51] <#_ftn51> On another occasion, March 24, 1916, when the British attempted to remove copies of The Gael, they faced an armed Markievicz, apparently fingering her automatic, while Connolly pulled out a revolver, saying “Drop them or I’ll drop you.”[52] <#_ftn52>
This spirit had, in fact, been manifest following the suppression of the Irish Worker on December 4, 1914. Connolly managed, however, to bring out a two-page leaflet headed Irish Work, in which he argued that repression was growing, and the more tame people were the more emboldened the authorities would be.
He declared to the authorities,
“our cards are all on the table! If you leave us at liberty we will kill your recruiting, save our poor boys from your slaughter-house, and blast your hopes of Empire. If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you. We defy you! Do your worst!”[53] <#_ftn53>
It seems to me that Connolly was continually trying to limit the ability of the British to implement their initiatives, until he could reach the point at which Ireland would be ungovernable by anything like ordinary means. In such a situation conditions would be ripe for an insurrection.

The Easter Rising, I would conclude, was not simply a nationalist or even radical nationalist insurrection. It marked the success of the militant labour forces in “taking the lead of the real Nationalist movement”.[54] <#_ftn54> Unforeseen circumstances, including the capture of the Aud and MacNeill’s countermanding orders, ensured that the rebellion was far more limited in scope than the revolutionaries had intended. O’Brien recounts, for instance, that the plan was to hold a continuous line forming a loop through the centre of the city, but the necessary numbers ended up not being available due to MacNeill and Hobson’s actions.[55] <#_ftn55> Markievicz’s articles and Lee’s provide convincing arguments that the leaders hoped for a better outcome and had their preparations proceeded as planned a far more significant fight may well have been possible and the leaders may have been able even to escape.

The Rising did, however, show the political weakness of the republican militants as aspiring revolutionaries. Their secret, conspiratorial politics locked them up inside the IRB and, in the Volunteers, in a crippling alliance with MacNeill. Other options were open to them. For instance, fighting openly for the leadership of the Volunteers at the time MacNeill capitulated to Redmond may have put them in a much stronger position in the long-term. Even if, as is likely, they had ended up with only a small fraction of the Volunteer membership it could not possibly have been less than the small force of maybe 2000 they were left to lead out on Easter Monday following MacNeill’s countermanding order. If they had have broken with MacNeill in mid-1914, they could have even united their forces with the ICA, which would have given a major boost to the overall revolutionary movement. The failure of the republican militants to transcend revolutionary nationalism and develop a class-based revolutionary perspective left them, like the IWFL feminists, unable to achieve their progressive goals. In the case of the republicans, the failure was paid for with their lives.

In the case of militant labour, the Rising represented its achievement of the leadership role for which Connolly, Markievicz (and Larkin before his departure to the US in October 1914) had organised. In fact, one of the most interesting features of the period up to the First World War and the Rising was the way in which Labour was the dominant force in anti-establishment politics.

When partition was mooted, it was not the IRB or Sinn Fein which mobilised opposition on the street but the ITUCLP. It was also organised labour which was represented in local government throughout the country, not Sinn Fein and the IRB. Even in Dublin it was Labour and not the anti-parliamentary nationalists who formed the main opposition to the Irish Parliamentary Party/United Irish League machine which ran the city. The main voice of labour, the Irish Worker, had ten to fifteen times the circulation of the SF paper and of Irish Freedom, the revolutionary paper backed by the IRB. The labour movement could mobilise thousands on the national question, provided security for suffrage marches and meetings, and took up other political questions while the IRB and Sinn Fein could mobilise almost no-one under their own banners. In addition, the best of the republicans, such as those grouped around Irish Freedom, were being drawn to the side of labour and increasingly becoming influenced by socialist ideas.

An alternative perspective for Irish labour has been posited by a number of present-day left-wing social and labour historians, including Morgan, Young and Keogh. Yet had the ITUCLP been blessed with their presence as party strategists and stuck to bread-and-butter issues, as they suggest, it is likely the party would have been annihilated. No party which aspired to lead the working class could avoid taking a stand on the number one political issue of that period in Ireland: Irish independence.

Taking a stand on the national question, women’s rights and other political and social questions was essential if the working class was going to take the lead in society as a whole. It is because they did this that the radical labour forces prior to 1916 were able to reach the early stages of challenging the IPP as the dominant party of the Irish people and the Unionists for the allegiance of that section of the working class still attached to the Union with Britain. Subsequently, Labour fell back and was replaced by Sinn Fein, because the post-1916 Labour leaders, like the revisionist critics of Connolly, lacked any revolutionary perspective and were basically what Connolly had once described as “gas and water socialists”. In the vacuum that opened up, the mantle of national liberation, which Connolly had united with the cause of labour, passed to the reorganised republican forces. These had a much more socially conservative leadership than in the period of Pearse and Clarke, but were prepared to fight Britain for independence.

The result of the destruction of the Connolly perspective within the labour movement was, ultimately, the settlement of 1921. For the masses of Irish people, that settlement, which included partition, brought about exactly the ‘carnival of reaction’ on both sides of the border which Connolly had foreseen.

The failure of the revolutionary left to integrate the national and class questions at each decisive point since 1916, meanwhile, has ensured its isolation during periods of mass struggle. Today, there is a profound need to recover the Connolly perspective in the context of an overall partyist project if there is to be any serious advance in the struggle for Irish national liberation and socialism.[56] <#_ftn56>

Philip Ferguson

[1] See Connolly’s ITGWU colleague William O’Brien’s “Introduction” in the collection of Connolly’s writings, Labour and Easter Week, p1.

[2] Irish Worker, September 5, 1914.

[3] Irish Times, July 27, 1914.

[4] James D. Young, “James Connolly, James Larkin and John Maclean: the Easter Rising and Clydeside Socialism”, in Robert Duncan and Arthur McIvor (eds) Militant Workers: Labour and Class Conflict on the Clyde 1900-1950, Edinburgh, John Donald, 1992, p161.

[5] Ibid. Emphasis in original.

[6] Irish Worker, August 8, 1914.

[7] Irish Worker, August 1, 1914.

[8] Irish Worker, August 29, 1914.

[9] Irish Worker, August 1, 1914.

[10] Irish Worker, September 26, 1914.

[11] Irish Worker, October 17, 1914.

[12] The Splendid Years: Maire nic Shubhlaigh’s story of the Irish National Theatre as told to Edward Kenny, Dublin, James Duffy and Co, 1955, p159.

[13] Irish Worker, May 30, 1914.

[14] James Connolly, “Redmond Cannot Deliver the Goods”, Irish Worker, October 3, 1914. Reprinted in Socialism and Nationalism.

[15] The letter, written at the time of Larkin’s departure for the United States, appears in O’Brien, Forth the Banners Go, p242. John Newsinger has neatly summarised militant labour’s position, writing “The Irish Worker’s opposition to the war was accompanied by an urgent resolve to take advantage of the crisis to ditch Redmond and the Nationalist Party, capture the leadership of the Volunteer movement, and use it to secure national independence while Britain was embroiled on the continent.” (John Newsinger, “’In the hunger-cry of the nation’s poor is heard the voice of Ireland’: Sean O’Casey and politics, 1908-1916”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol 20, 1985, p94.)

[16] James Connolly, “Our Duty in the Present Crisis”, Irish Worker, August 8, 1914. Reprinted in Socialism and Nationalism.

[17] William O’Brien, “Introduction”, in James Connolly, Labour and Easter Week, p1.

[18] Emil Strauss, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy,London, Methuen, 1951, p221. He also notes the IRB’s right-wing, typified by Hobson, was “in many respects almost indistinguishable from the Sinn Feiners under Griffith.”

[19] Connolly’s view of the AOH is succinctly put in “Mr John E. Redmond, his strength and weakness”, Forward, March 18, 1911, where he states it “has spread like an ulcer throughout Ireland, carrying social and religious terrorisn with it into quarters hitherto noted for their broadmindedness and discernment.” It had “organised the ignorant, the drunken and the rowdy and thrown the shield of religion around their excesses” and represented “the organised ignorance of the community placing itself unreservedly at the disposal of the most insidious and inveterate enemies of enlightenment.”

[20] Irish Freedom, January 1913.

[21] Irish Freedom, October 1913. Presumably they meant to say something like “upon every occasion they are up against bullets.”

[22] O’Brien refers to this in Forth the Banners Go, Dublin, Three Candles, 1949, p259.

[23] The Sovereign People is reprinted in Pearse’s Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin, Talbot Press, 1952, pp331-72. The quote comes from p336.

[24] Ibid, pp342-3, emphasis in original.

[25] Austen Morgan, James Connolly: a political biography, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1988, p19.

[26] Irish Freedom, for instance, declared in a July 1914 editorial, “(A)fter the British government the Irish Parliamentary Party in its later years has been the most evil force in Ireland.”

[27] Workers Republic, July 15, 1915.

[28] From Connolly’s tribute to O’Donovan Rossa, “The Man and the Cause!”, Workers Republic, July 31, 1915. Reprinted in Labour and Easter Week.

[29] O’Brien, p270.

[30] O Broin, Revolutionary Underground: the story of the IRB, 1858-1924, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1976, p156. O Broin says the decision was made in the autumn. Remembering that he is referring to autumn in the northern hemisphere I have put the date between September and November.

[31] O’Brien, p270.

[32] Ibid, p271.

[33] James Connolly, “A Forward Policy for the Volunteers”, Irish Worker, October 10, 1914. Reprinted in Socialism and Nationalism.

[34] James Connolly, “The Ballot or the Barricades”, Irish Worker, October 24, 1914. See also “The Hope of Ireland”, Irish Worker, October 31, 1914 and “Rally for Labour”, Irish Worker, November 14, 1914. All reprinted in Socialism and Nationalism.

[35] The Redmondites set up a new, much larger group, the National Volunteers. This group soon faded away however, many of them ending up fighting for Britain in the European conflagration.

[36] O Broin, p166-7.

[37] James Connolly, “Wee Joe Devlin”, Workers Republic, August 28, 1915. Reprinted in Socialism and Nationalism.

[38] O’Brien, see p275-6.

[39] See J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: politics and society, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p23 and J.M. Winter, “Britain’s ‘lost generation’ of the First World War”, Population Studies, vol 31, no 3, 1976.

[40] See Connolly’s biting “Trust Your Leaders!”, Workers Republic, December 4, 1915. Reprinted in Labour and Easter Week.

[41] James Connolly, “For the Citizen Army”, Workers Republic, October 30, 1915. Reprinted in Labour and Easter Week.

[42] James Connolly, “Ireland - Disaffected or Revolutionary”, Workers Republic, November 13, 1915. Reprinted in Labour and Easter Week.

[43] Ibid. .

[44] Ibid.

[45] This is reported in Workers Republic, December 18, 1915.

[46] Frank Robbins, Under the Starry Plough: recollections of the Irish Citizen Army, Dublin, Academy Press, 1977, p55.

[47] O’Brien, p253.

[48] Ibid, p252-3.

[49] Marreco, The Rebel Countess, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967, p196.

[50] Constance Markievicz, “1916”, The Nation, April 23, 1927.

[51] Ibid.

[52] O’Brien, p279.

[53] James Connolly, “Courtsmartial and Revolution”, Irish Work, December 19, 1915. Reprinted in Socialism and Nationalism.

[54] See, fn 11.

[55] O’Brien, p283.

[56] For a useful recent defence of Connolly, see:

Dublin 1916 and the ‘blood sacrifice’

Philip Ferguson gives his view on some common criticisms of James Connolly

In the early 1900s the national question affected every movement for social change in Ireland. For the labour movement, particularly those who sought to lead it in a revolutionary direction, the national question posed the greatest challenge. If the goal of the working class, in the view of the revolutionaries, was a social revolution and the establishment of a workers’ republic, how should the political question of British rule in Ireland be approached? Was the road forward for the workers in Ireland, a colonial possession of an imperial power, the same as that in Britain? What was the relationship between economic and political issues? Was the job of revolutionaries simply to provide an analysis of capitalism and/or counsel workers to be more militant in struggling for better wages and conditions? Was a working class-based or, at least, working class-led, revolution possible? Given the weakness of the working class - due to the historical underdevelopment of capitalism in Ireland and the sectarian divisions which stemmed from this underdevelopment - were there other social forces which could be drawn to the workers’ side in a struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society? The response of Irish revolutionary socialists at the time, above all James Connolly, has been a point of debate ever since. In particular, the rise of historical revisionism has led to the resurrection of the theme that Connolly abandoned socialism and became primarily a radical nationalist in the last year or two of his life, the period between the outbreak of World War I and the Easter rising. In essence, the critique of Connolly is based on the revisionists’ hostility to Irish republicanism and their sympathetic attitude to the ‘modernising’ mission of British imperialism.

On the left, revisionism is based on a failure to understand Connolly’s project as a coherent, consistent and revolutionary whole.1 We are supposed to believe that Connolly - who was nothing if not hard and practical - was so unhinged by the capitulation of the European socialist parties to their own bourgeoisies in World War I that he decided to join them and capitulate to a variant of Irish bourgeois nationalism. Their general failure to understand the centrality of the national question to social revolution in oppressed nations, and their profound lack of sympathy with revolutionary projects, especially in Ireland, coupled with failures of scholarship - in the form of factual errors and invented quotes - leaves the ‘left’ and ‘right’ revisionists’ reading of the course followed by Connolly and his comrades fundamentally flawed.

Connolly and revisionists

The idea of Connolly abandoning socialism can be traced back to Sean O’Casey. Before he became a famous playwright O’Casey was a railway worker and a member of the army council of the early Irish Citizen Army. He left following an unsuccessful attempt to force Constance Markievicz out of the workers’ army and, under the pen-name of P O’Cathasaigh, wrote a history of the ICA, in which he alleged Connolly forsook socialism for nationalism.2 This idea is repeated in JD Clarkson’s Labour and nationalism in Ireland and Sean O’Faolain’s petty and vindictive biography of Markievicz.3 In more recent times it has become an article of faith among leftwing revisionists, including those who consider themselves Marxists. In fact their hostility to all forms of Irish nationalism has led this particular ‘Marxist’ school to abandon also Marx, Engels and Lenin’s views on Ireland.4

O’Casey’s view never gained much currency until the renewal of armed conflict in Ireland at the start of the 1970s. Even then, a revisionist assault on Connolly took some time. This is partly because Connolly’s own writings and his labour movement activities show him as a practical and down-to-earth figure, less vulnerable to attack than the nationalist hero Pearse, sections of whose writings, particularly his earlier work, were full of easily-ridiculed nationalist romanticism. It was far easier to present Pearse as a dreamer, away with the Celtic mists and mythologised happy clan life of the Gael, and out of touch with the real Ireland and real Irish people of his time.

With today’s liberal middle class in the south having favoured some degree of social reform and having felt that the system had failed not only themselves but also the poor, they were also less inclined to assault Connolly in the way they were Pearse. Since the southern state had for decades wrapped itself in a particularly reactionary catholicism and (falsely) claimed to be following Pearse in this, the rejection of the social and political power of the church by southern liberals was, not altogether unsurprisingly, therefore accompanied by a rejection of Pearse, now seen as a catholic reactionary rather than the advanced social thinker that he actually was.

Ironically, it was as the republican movement - particularly Irish Republican Army activists in prison5 - began to study Connolly more seriously and this became reflected, on paper for some years, in the Sinn Féin programme, that the liberal middle class began to abandon their sympathy for him. It could also be argued that the assault on nationalism and on Pearse was essential for preparing the ground for the assault on Connolly. After all, if all Irish nationalism was reactionary and if Pearse was a reactionary fanatic, Connolly’s involvement with such people and his participation in the Easter rising would discredit him at least by implication of the company he chose. With such doubts cast upon Connolly, the ground was ripe for a full-scale revisionist rewriting.

Austen Morgan’s ‘Marxist’ political biography sees Connolly as abandoning socialism after World War I broke out. Although he views Irish nationalism as marring Connolly’s politics at different times throughout the socialist leader’s life, he argues that the defeat of the workers in the Dublin lock-out of 1913 and the collapse of the Second International in 1914 led to the collapse of Connolly’s socialism.

When the cause of class appeared to be hopeless, Connolly retreated into the cause of nation and became a leading figure of the republican-nationalist milieu. It was as a nationalist rather than a socialist that Connolly participated in 1916, in Morgan’s view. Moreover, had Connolly survived, “it would have been as a senior officer of the IRA, into which the ICA had dissolved itself, and a potential leader of Sinn Féin”.6 Along with Connolly’s activities, various of his articles are cited as proof of the contention that he abandoned socialism for nationalism. Morgan also dismisses the 1916 rising as “a putsch”.7

This characterisation was also made at the time by elements of the socialist movement in Europe. One Marxist who had a different view was Lenin, who attacked opposition to self-determination as a form of opportunism. In his article on the 1916 rebellion, he wrote: “Whoever calls such an uprising a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of picturing a social revolution as a living thing.”8 Morgan has obviously read this article, since he quotes from it to falsely claim that in it the “Irish Citizen Army was dismissed as ‘backward workers” with “their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors”9 .

In fact, Lenin never mentioned the ICA anywhere in his article. What he did say, in the two paragraphs following the sentence of his I quoted above, is:

“For to imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against landlord, church, monarchical, national and other oppression - to imagine that means repudiating social revolution. Very likely one army will line up in one place and say, ‘We are for socialism’, while another will do so in another place and say, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be the social revolution! Only from such a ridiculously pedantic angle could one label the Irish rebellion a ‘putsch’.

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution really is.”10

The reason for the distortion by Morgan is clear: Lenin is attacking - in fact ridiculing - the very position which Morgan articulates seven decades later. Morgan goes on to claim that “Marx and Engels had not even theorised an Irish national revolution”; that Lenin’s comments on the rising “cannot be taken as an endorsement of a putative socialist theory of the Irish revolution”; and that nothing much can be inferred in relation to Ireland from any of Lenin’s writings on the national question.11

Morgan also alleges: “Much has been made of the Leninist position on the national question, though the specificity of Ireland as a colonial part of the leading metropolitan power in Europe during the first world war is rarely recognised, and Lenin never seriously dealt with the problem of strategy for socialists in ‘oppressed nations’.”12 Here we have a whole set of Morgan’s factual errors.

In contrast to Morgan’s claims about Lenin’s lack of theory on the national question in its various forms, Lenin regarded Russia as an imperialist power and “a prison house of nations”. Ireland therefore was not alone in being a colonial part of a metropolitan, or imperialist, power. Most of the peoples of the Russian empire were in the same position! The Bolsheviks were vitally concerned about this question and championed the right of subject nations to self-determination against the Russian empire. Lenin polemicised on this issue against fellow revolutionaries such as Luxemburg and against those whom he regarded as opportunists and centrists within the Second International.

After the revolution, self-determination was one of the main questions which concerned the Communist International, as shown by both the records of its congresses and its attempts to organise around the issue. In fact so concerned were Lenin and the Bolsheviks about this, and especially about chauvinism on the part of leftists in countries such as Britain, that when the Communist International drew up its rules of membership it included the following

“A particularly marked and clear attitude on the question of the colonies and oppressed nations is necessary on the part of the Communist Parties of those countries where bourgeoisies are in possession of colonies and oppress other nations. Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International has the obligation of exposing the dodges of its ‘own’ imperialists in the colonies, of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies, of cultivating in the hearts of the workers in their own country a truly fraternal relationship to the working population in the colonies and to the oppressed nations, and of carrying out systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppressors of colonial peoples.”13

Morgan, however, leaves the impression that Marx, Engels and Lenin had little to say on these subjects and that nothing much can be inferred from what they did say. In fact, they condemn the view now put forward by Morgan and by the left economists who make up the major section of the British and Irish far left today.

Revolutionary defeatismIn an attempt to undermine Connolly’s revolutionary Marxist status, FA D’Arcy draws the following distinction between Lenin and Connolly: “Lenin consistently called on socialists and workers to turn the imperialist war on all sides into a civil war, whereas it is beyond question that Connolly sincerely and insistently called for a German triumph. Connolly’s prescription did not consider the likely fate of the Irish socialist and labour movement in the event of an imperial German invasion and victory.”14

Lenin, however, did not see Connolly’s position as at all inconsistent with his own and fully supported the Easter rising.15 Moreover, Lenin’s position of revolutionary defeatism meant that he regarded a Russian defeat at the hands of Germany as preferable to a Russian triumph.16 Most importantly, Connolly was attempting to do just what Lenin most favoured: turning the imperialist war into a war on one’s own imperialist government. The imperialist government which ruled Ireland was the British government, not the German government, so it was against Britain that Connolly directed his fire, both figuratively and literally. The ILP(I) appeal, for instance, clearly favours the defeat of Britain.17

Marxists in Britain, such as the Socialist Labour Party (of which Connolly had been the most important founder) and Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation - both strong supporters of the Easter rising and Irish freedom - also preferred a British defeat, since this was seen as opening up greater possibilities for revolutionary advance than a British triumph.18 By exactly the same token and for exactly the same reasons, Marxists in Germany - such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg - favoured the defeat of their own ruling class.

Morgan goes to the extreme of claiming that Connolly “became a Germanophile, and collaborated with a wartime imperialist state”19 - rather like saying that Churchill became a Stalinist for collaborating with the Soviet Union during World War II or that Lenin was a “Germanophile” for making use of a German sealed train to return to Russia in early 1917. In fact, like Lenin, Connolly recognised that it is good tactics for revolutionaries to take advantage of inter-imperialist conflicts and get arms and any other support they can from the enemy of the imperialist power against which they are trying to organise their revolution.20

Morgan’s alternative course to Connolly’s supposed abandonment of socialism for nationalism is that he “should have maintained his original course after August 1914, involvement in the ILP(I), ITGWU and Labour Party being touchstones of an independent proletarian position”.21 Yet Connolly had already discovered the futility of economism. For instance, he described the view that Belfast workers could be influenced by the same approach as workers in Britain, as “a doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity”.22 Belfast was “the happy hunting ground of the slave-driver and the home of the least rebellious slaves in the industrial world” - the protestant workers being “slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own”.23

There was no way around this problem, certainly not by pretending there was no national question. Moreover, ignoring the national question for fear of alienating unionist workers would have meant alienating the nationalists who were the majority of the population in Ireland. The problem has been summarised by Emil Strauss, who notes: “Belfast’s shipyards and textile mills were integral parts of the British industrial system ...” This privileged position would be lost in an independent Ireland. It was simply a hard fact of history that “the interests of Belfast were diametrically opposed to those of Dublin and Cork. Within the social framework of the time there was no escape from this dilemma.”24

Connolly understood that the dilemma could not be escaped from, and could only be dealt with by pursuit of the national question - that is, by uniting workers around the goal of taking the lead of the struggle for national liberation. Moreover, in this he prefigured the positions of the Third International in relation to the role of revolutionary workers’ vanguards in the oppressed nations.25

Connolly and ‘blood sacrifice’

A crucial element of the revisionist approach to 1916 has been the idea that the rebels were fixated upon a ‘blood sacrifice’. They are said to have been determined to shed their blood for Ireland, seeing this as a redeeming of the country’s honour. In the case of Pearse, redemption through the shedding of blood is often said to have outweighed any political consideration. The ‘blood sacrifice’ is also taken as a catholic ritual, in which the Easter rising acted the part of Calvary and the leaders that of Christ.26 This is used to further the argument that irrationalism is at the heart of Irish resistance to British rule. Foster, for instance, sees the IRB’s decision, when World War I broke out, to prepare for a rising as “a reaction almost Pavlovian in its dogmatism”,27 while the 1916 leaders “relied on an emotional and exalted Anglophobia”.28 But the rising was based on fundamentally rational premises, as is clear from an investigation of the rebels’ actual course of action, particularly Connolly’s.

On November 4 1915 Pearse gave a public talk reviewing the different political tendencies at the time of the rather farcical attempt at rebellion in 1848. Connolly described it as a “brilliant lecture”29 and effectively used Pearse’s arguments against Irish Volunteers’ leader Eoin MacNeill - and, by extension, the republican militants clinging to their alliance with him. As Pearse had in the lecture, Connolly drew the conclusion from 1848 that “The British government would not wait until the plans of the revolutionists were ready. It has not held Ireland down for 700 years by any such foolish waiting. It struck in its own time, and its blow paralysed the people.”30

In a blow at both MacNeill and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Connolly went on to criticise those who talked of “premature insurrection” and provoking the government, arguing: “Revolutionists who shrink from giving blow for blow until the great day has arrived, and they have every shoe-string in its place, and every man has got his gun, and the enemy has kindly consented to postpone action in order not to needlessly hurry the revolutionists nor disarrange their plans - such revolutionists only exist in two places - the comic opera stage, and the stage of Irish national politics. We prefer the comic opera brand. It at least serves its purpose.”31 Early in the new year, he declared: “While the war lasts and Ireland still is a subject nation we shall continue to urge her to fight for her freedom ... the time for Ireland’s battle is now, the place for Ireland’s battle is here.”32

Firstly, then, Connolly was not committed to a grand sacrifice. In the same article in which he referred to Ireland’s battle being “here” and “now”, for instance, he made clear that if Britain was not at war an attempt at armed revolution would be suicidal madness. Before the revisionist floodtide made fashionable and dominant the view that the 1916 rising was a grisly blood sacrifice, JJ Lee, for example, accepted that neither Connolly nor the IRB militants had intended to throw away their lives in some exalted and bloody martyrdom. The 1916 leaders, he noted, “accepted the possibility of a blood sacrifice, but only as a contingency plan, not as the main objective of all the preparations of the five preceding years.”33

Had the 20,000 rifles and accompanying ammunition on the Aud not been captured off the Kerry coast on the eve of the rising, “a protracted struggle might have ensued, with the possibility of increasing public support as fighting progressed”.34 Furthermore the odds at Easter 1916, while certainly not ideal, “were incomparably the best likely to occur for a very long time by IRB criteria”.35

Some accounts note the way in which the 1916 rebels went behind MacNeill’s back and/or repeat his argument that a rising was morally unjustified unless it was defensive and/or had a reasonable chance of success. This argument was, in effect, answered by Connolly as above. Lee has argued along similar lines, asking: “If MacNeill deemed the circumstances of 1916 hopeless he was in effect saying that a rising would never be justified, so what was the point of acquiring arms in the first instance? And as the government would presumably choose to disarm the Volunteers when it considered the circumstances most propitious, the prospect of resistance would presumably be even less promising than a surprise Volunteer initiative.”36

Moreover, new evidence suggests that MacNeill knew and had agreed to the rising, while disdaining to take part himself. In the 1940s and 1950s, witness testimonies were taken of people who had participated in the rising or had been observers of the events of that Easter week. The testimonies were sealed for decades and not finally opened to the public until 2002. So far, the only book which has been published based on these accounts is Annie Ryan’s Witnesses.37 Several witness statements which appear in her book indicate that MacNeill had been informed of the intentions for a rising, and agreed to it, although he subsequently prevaricated and had to be visited and staunched up several times. In the end, he got cold feet and issued the countermanding orders that appeared in the press on Easter Sunday. The rebels had little choice but to go ahead or end up ridiculed and discredited and, quite possibly, in British custody.Thus, as Lee notes, the decision to go ahead with the rising “was partly a defensive one prompted by the belief that Dublin Castle was about to arrest the leaders, as it had swooped on the Fenians in 1865”.38 Only at this stage “did the issue of a blood sacrifice arise. The leaders accepted the challenge, but they did not welcome it”.39

Secondly, this view tallies with Markievicz’s own account, which appears to have been ignored in all the historiography dealing with the rising. In an article several months before her own death, Markievicz stated Connolly “wanted to fight with a chance of winning, of course, but he was ready to go out and fight and die, as Robert Emmet died, as he believed that Ireland’s only hope of ultimate freedom lay in keeping the tradition of fighting alive by raising the flag of revolt each time England was in difficulties”.40

Four years earlier, at the end of the civil war, she had also dealt with the events of Easter Sunday, writing scathingly of MacNeill: “All the weary years of preparation, all the fevered months of organisation, enlisting and drilling were made to no avail by the stroke of a pen from a weakling.” The alternative was to go ahead with as little hope of success as Emmet. “Postponement,” she noted, was impossible. With a traitor alive, who had intimate knowledge of them and their intentions, they knew that at any moment he might carry his betrayal further and give all the information he had to the enemy. His friend and adviser in treachery was under arrest by the Volunteers; he could not be held for long, and was a menace either way.”41

A month later, Markievicz wrote again of the time “when professor Eoin MacNeill and Mr B Hobson had treacherously acted a coward’s part, secretly through the IRB, and publicly through the daily papers ...” Connolly, she said, knew MacNeill’s action had taken away any chance of success “or even of holding out for long enough to create that public opinion that might have saved his life and the lives of the other leaders.

“Postponement of the rising had by now become quite impossible - too many people had begun to smell a rat. Therefore this ‘call off’ had created a situation out of which there were only two ways: the one way was to abandon all thoughts of a rising; the other was to go on with it, though, for the leaders, it was going out to certain death.”42

1. For an outline of Connolly’s strategy see my article in Weekly Worker June 28.
2. P O’Cathasaigh (Sean O’Casey) The story of the Irish Citizen Army Dublin 1919. See also S O’Casey Drums under the windows London 1945 and C Desmond Greaves Sean O’Casey: politics and art London 1979.
3. JD Clarkson Labour and nationalism in Ireland New York 1924; Sean O Faolain Constance Markievicz or the average revolutionary London 1934. At the time O Faolain was shifting from republicanism to respectability and a hatchet job on Markievicz was part of the price of his ticket. Far superior accounts of Markievicz are contained in Diana Norman Terrible beauty: a life of Constance Markievicz London 1987; and Anne Haverty Constance Markievicz: an independent life Dublin 1988.
4. See, for instance, Ellen Hazelkorn ‘Capital and the Irish question’ Science and Society Vol 44, No3, 1980; ‘Some problems with Marx’s theory of capitalist penetration into agriculture: the case of Ireland’ Economy and Society Vol 10, No3, August 1981; ‘Reconsidering Marx and Engels on Ireland’ Saothar No9, 1983; and ‘Why is there no socialism in Ireland? - theoretical problems of Irish Marxism’ Science and Society Vol 53, No2, 1989. Paul Bew, another member of the ‘revisionist Marxist’ school, takes the line of this school to its logical conclusion, seeing British imperialism as a progressive and positive force in Ireland. In relation to the north, he concludes a short commentary in Capital and class No28, spring 1986, by urging Britain “to employ the institutions of direct rule to modernise, reform and democratise from above” (p15). Bew went on to become an advisor to Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble and his services have recently been rewarded by a British peerage (see, for instance, A Johnson, ‘Lord Bew of the Stickies: academic Marxist bags peerage’,
5. A useful example of the socialist thought being developed in the prisons in the 1980s is Questions of history by Irish republican prisoners of war. The book grew out of discussions in the H-blocks of Long Kesh/the Maze prison. Published by Sinn Féin education department, Dublin 1987.
6. A Morgan James Connolly: a political biography Manchester 1988, p202. Actually Morgan is factually wrong about the ICA dissolution. The organisation continued to exist until the end of the civil war.
7. Ibid p197.
8. Lenin’s article on the rising appears in O Dudley Edwards and F Pyle (eds) 1916: the Easter rising Dublin 1968, pp192-95. The quote is taken from pp192-93.
9. A Morgan op cit p11.
10. O Dudley Edwards and F Pyle op cit p193.
11. A Morgan op cit pp201-03. The quotes are taken from p202.
12. Ibid p203.
13. ‘Theses on conditions of admission to the Communist International’ in Theses, resolutions and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980, p94.
14. Review of Morgan’s Connolly biography in Irish Historical Studies Vol 27, No106, p181.
15. This is clear from Lenin’s article in Dudley Edwards and Pyle op cit.
16. See, for instance, VI Lenin, ‘Socialism and war’ CW Vol 21, Moscow 1964, pp295-338.
17. See my article, ‘Connolly’s strategy and 1916’ Weekly Worker June28.
18. Raymond Challinor details the development of the SLP and includes chapters on British Marxists’ attitude to World War I and to the Irish national struggle in Origins of British Bolshevism London 1977.
19. A Morgan op cit p199. A recent example of this kind of assault on Connolly is B Docherty, ‘James Connolly: his life and miracles’ What Next? No20, 2001; for a refutation, see DR O’Connor Lysaght, ‘In defence of Connolly’,
20. Connolly did write several articles in which he contrasted Germany and the German empire favourably to Britain. Given the Irish experience of British rule, this is, at least in part, understandable. What he wrote about Germany was, nonetheless, politically wrong. Several daft articles in the given context of the time, and Ireland’s experience of British rule, hardly make him, however, a “Germanophile”. This kind of exaggeration is a favoured weapon of the revisionists. The idea seems to be to create as much smoke as possible so people will think there is at least some fire. Or, the more mud they throw, the more chance that at least some will stick.
21. A Morgan op cit p199. While Morgan argues that Connolly should have maintained involvement in the ILP(I) in contrast to the course he actually pursued, he seems not to have noticed that the ILP(I) supported Irish national self-determination.
22. J Connolly, ‘North-East Ulster’ Forward August 2 1913.
23. Ibid.
24. E Strauss Irish nationalism and British democracy London 1951, p179.
25. One of the odd things about the economistic left which abhors Connolly’s involvement with the radical republicans - ie, with revolutionary nationalists in the Leninist sense of the term - is that such people often favour voting for bourgeois Labour parties which administer imperialism and have no problem with Lenin’s advice to British communists in the early 1920s to affiliate to the Labour Party. Yet the idea of forming a national liberation alliance with revolutionary nationalists in the course of anti-imperialist struggle in the early 20th century is regarded as some kind of capitulation to bourgeois nationalism or ‘national corporatism’. Go figure!
26. See, for instance, RF Foster Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, London 1988, pp477-79. R Dudley Edwards Patrick Pearse: the triumph of failure London 1977 has it as a recurring theme, but for the most extreme and bizarre version, see S Moran Patrick Pearse and the politics of redemption: the mind of the Easter rising Washington DC 1994.
27. RF Foster op cit p461.
28. Ibid p480. “Anglophobia” is another favoured charge of the revisionists against Irish anti-imperialists. Needless to say, the British rulers of Ireland are never charged with Hibernophobia.
29. J Connolly, ‘Ireland - disaffected or revolutionary’ Workers Republic November 13 1915.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid. Here Connolly also prefigures Lenin’s criticism of critics of rebellions such as 1916.
32. J Connolly, ‘What is our programme?’, Workers Republic January 22 1916.
33. JJ Lee The modernisation of Irish society, 1848-1918 Dublin1973, p152.
34. Ibid p154.
35. Ibid.
36. Ibid.
37. Annie Ryan Witnesses: inside the Easter rising Dublin 2005. She has followed this up with Comrades: inside the war of independence Dublin 2007.
38. JJ Lee op cit p156.
39. Ibid pp154-55.
40. C Markievicz, ‘James Connolly as I knew him’ The Nation March 26 1927.
41. C Markievicz, ‘1916’ The Nation April 23 1927. MacNeill’s “friend and adviser” who was under Volunteer arrest was Bulmer Hobson, still officially a leader of the Volunteers. See also Leon O Broin Revolutionary underground: the story of the IRB 1858-1924 p173. Hobson wrote in the Irish Times, May 6 1961: “I felt I had done my best to stop the rising. There was nothing more I could do ...”
42. C Markievicz, ‘Tom Clarke and the first day of the republic’ Eire May 26 1923.

Dear Editor,
Philip Ferguson’s article ‘Connolly’s strategy and 1916’ (June 28 ) is one of the finest, best researched and Marxist essays on the struggle of 1916 I’ve ever read. Well done!
However, I think it’s important to note something else about the uprising. The cause of its failure was not just the inability to crack through the MacNeill’s of Ireland to reach the Irish masses. The military strategy itself was fraught with problems, which were perhaps not in evidence until the uprising was crushed. The biggest of these was the idea that seizing and trying to hold a stationary position (the general post office) against the much better armed and larger British army would be possible. In reality, that was a militarily insane idea.
David Walters San Francisco
Win and lose
David Walters (Letters, July 5 ) is very generous in his assessment of my article, ‘Connolly’s strategy and 1916’ (June 28 ). I also think the point he makes about the military aspect of the Easter rising is a fair one, although I think calling the rebels’ strategy of stationary positions “insane” is going too far.
It’s always vital to contextualise things and in 1916 the concept of fixed positions was the dominant military perspective. It was only as a result of the experience of 1916 that the Irish anti-imperialists realised that this was a hopeless way of fighting a modern imperialist army.
Remember, however, that Connolly actually gave lectures on street fighting, so he did expect the rebels to be doing more than simply sitting in the general post office and elsewhere awaiting bombardment.
The revolutionary leaders expected to turn out much larger numbers, despite MacNeill’s countermanding orders. They expected to have a very powerful ring of positions around the city centre that would hold off the Brits for quite some time, certainly long enough for risings elsewhere in Ireland to be triggered.
The unlocking of the 1916 witness statements a couple of years ago hopefully provides a treasure trove of research for those of us interested in understanding more of the actual nitty-gritty of the rising. So far only one book has been published on the basis of the 1916 statements and its author, Annie Ryan, says that there is much more material in these statements than she could fit in that book.
Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that, unfortunately, sometimes - indeed, too often - our side just happens to lose. It’s not always the result of sell-outs and crap strategies. Indeed, up until the revolution, we will probably lose far more often than we will win.
Philip Ferguson New Zealand

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