1916: James Connolly and Permanent Revolution

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21/05/2016 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing


We have just celebrated the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and commemorated the executions of the 16 leaders, 14 in Dublin, one in Cork and Rodger Casement in London in August. Amongst the most fought over question amongst Marxists is was James Connolly right to participate in the Rising at the head of the Irish Citizen’s Army? Nationalists seek to portray him merely as an Irish patriot and deny his socialist internationalism. Stalinist seek to paint him as a two-stage revolutionists; he had abandoned the goal of the socialist revolution and now sought only a nationalist victory like they have done since they rejected Leninism in 1924. We will seek to show that neither of these interpretations is correct; Connolly remained true to the cause of international socialism, and, despite the limitations of his understanding of Marxism, he was striving towards an understanding of the essence of Lenin’s April Theses and Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution.

Was James Connolly an Irishman or a Socialist first?

This question was posed in the Irish Opinion—The Irish Labour journal on 15 December 1917 as a question frequently asked “in country districts”. The journal carried a stout defence of the Bolsheviks on p. 31 and on p. 33 a powerful defence of Connolly. He was, the author D.R says, “the spirit of the revolution incarnate” who proudly proclaimed that “I stand for constitutional agitation in times of peace and for revolution in times of war”.

Connolly’s last words‎ to his daughter Nora before his execution on 12 May 1916 were “The Socialists will never understand why I am here, they all forget I am an Irishman”. Who were those socialists, what they stood for and how they reacted to the 1916 uprising and the subsequent Tan War from January 1919 to December 1921 and the Civil War from February 1922 to May 1923 we might wonder. Geoff Bell reveals the sorry details in his new book Hesitant Comrade, reviewed on p.17.

And thought a hundred years of political and theoretical struggle has ensued since then it is certain that his actions are as little understood or supported by most of those claiming the mantle of socialism and Marxism now as they were then. In fact during the great leftist upsurge that swept Ireland and the world from 1916 to 23 we might argue he was better understood then than he is now. Of course we can expect as little sympathy, understanding or solidarity action now as then from the pro imperialist labour movement reformists, left and right and those leftist pro-imperialist groupings and their political ancestors whom Geoff Bell exposes so well. Trotsky referred to them as “British social-imperialists of the Hyndman type – downright blood-thirsty hooligans” in condemning their attitude to 1916.  But there are others who we might expect to do better.

So why did Connolly lay emphasis on his Irishness in that terrible circumstance? Surely a socialist and a revolutionist should have shunned the politics of bourgeois nationalism and concentrated on liberating the working class in Ireland and Britain against the capitalists and not embark on a foolish and unwinnable uprising with the representatives of the Irish class enemy? He defended his stance in writings and speeches from his return to Ireland in 1910. In the course of these he developed at least in outline the correct theory of Permanent Revolution, that only the working class could lead the national struggle to victory and that it needed to process that struggle through to the Workers Republic for it to survive.  It is true that in identifying capitalism as a foreign import into Ireland by Britain, in not seeing the differences between working class and peasants, not seeing the emergence of the working class in Ireland from the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a new and therefore revolutionary class with its own separate interests quotes like “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour” allowed much diversity in his interpretations.

But as far back as 1898 he correctly identified the combined tasks of national liberation and socialism in Ireland:

“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 you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole army of commercial and individual institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. (…) Nationalism without Socialism – without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy.” (Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism, p25)

Connolly clearly saw the need for both strike struggles and armed defence of that struggle; he formed the Irish Citizens Army precisely to defend workers on strike against their bosses and the Dublin Metropolitan police during the 1913 Lockout. They were only armed ‎with hurley sticks and other non-lethal weapons then, as was the practice during the Irish theatre of the industrial militancy known as the Great Unrest that swept Britain and Ireland from about 1910 to the outbreak of  WWI. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, resorted to the use of the army and navy in Wales, Liverpool and elsewhere during that great outburst of anger by the working class against the capitalism that had brought them to such poverty and humiliation with the collaboration of their own trade union leaders in the period of ‘class peace’ that spanned the end of New Unionism of the 1890s to 1910.

But the ICA armed themselves with rifles thereafter, particularly after the Curragh Mutiny of February 1914 indicated that the British state would always side with treasonous Orangemen and British Army officers against Ireland’s right to self-determination. Whilst the leaders of the Orangemen and the Curragh Mutiny were rewarded with places in the House of Lords and with promotions Irish nationalists were executed and hanged for their treason in 1916.

But Ireland was different despite its greater deprivation or more correctly because of it. Its militancy ‎was certainly as powerful but because of the peculiarities of its historical development its trade unions were saddled with a union bureaucracy in the north that were even more wedded to the defence of Empire than their British counterparts. An aristocracy of labour based on Loyalist Protestant workers in skilled engineering jobs, descendants of planted Scottish and English colonists from the early decades of the 17th century. These remained infected with a supremacist ideology against nationalist Catholic workers and they were the dominant majority of the province of Ulster, which was then the most industrialised part of Ireland.

Following the defeat of Ireland’s bourgeois revolution in 1798 the divide and rule tactics of the Empire encouraged and promoted discrimination against the native Irish peasants in the whole of Ireland at first and then against nationalist/Catholic workers when industrialisation took off in Belfast and other places in the north of Ireland from the middle of the 19th century.  Periodic riots to enforce this and fightback by nationalist against this took place in Belfast and elsewhere. The years 1857, 1864, 1872 and 1886 saw serious riots. I believe my own grandfather, an RIC constable, was sent north from his station in Cork city to quell the latter.

So when Jim Larkin and later James ‎Connolly led Ireland’s Great Unrest they faced different problems. The Larkin-led militancy began earlier, in 1907, and from the beginning they were confronted with a dual aspect problem; the loyalty of Protestant workers to the Empire in defence of their own privileges and the loyalty of the British trade union bureaucracy and their Irish agents to that same Empire as the source of their privileges also. But the latter had a far smaller base of loyal collaborators in Britain itself, the struggle for the New Unionism from about 1888 had shifted class consciousness on a syndicalist basis significantly to the left, but they were enormously strengthened by that base in Ulster. So when Randolph Churchill famously played the Orange Card  in 1886 against Gladstone’s Home Ruler Bill he, and later imperialist divide and rule practitioners, found ready allies in the trade union bureaucracy and later in Labour party leaders.  The divide and rule tactic was so often the most important tactic for the survival of the Empire back then and it is still is internationally at crucial junctures for all imperialism today.

Of course Larkin was apparently spectacularly successful in overcoming the prejudices of Loyalist workers up to the 1913 Dublin Lockout ‎and even in 1919 the legacy of that struggle survived in the great Belfast strike of that year. But the strike itself was not in an all-Ireland context; workers will often fight for sectional privileges whilst absolutely rejecting collaborating with their own fellow workers whilst a supremacist, aristocracy of labour mentality is undefeated. And so it transpired in July 1920 with the terrible pogroms against nationalist workers in the shipyards and elsewhere where some 11, 000 were driven out of their workplaces by their fellow workers with their murderous metal projectiles called Belfast Confetti, which slaughtered 53 of them.  Connolly knew it was coming.

In the newspaper Forward, on 2 August 1913 he spelled out why you must fight reaction to the death and not conciliated and seek to make a deal acceptable to it. There are many today, the Socialist Party and others, who would do well to ponder on his words in his article North-East Ulster:

… It also serves to illustrate the wisdom of the Socialist contention that as the working class has no subject class beneath it, therefore, to the working class of necessity belongs the honour of being the class destined to put an end to class rule, since, in emancipating itself, it cannot help emancipating all other classes.

… But as no good can come of blaming it, so also no good, but infinite evil, can come of truckling to it. Let the truth be told, however ugly. Here, the Orange working class are slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own. In Catholic Ireland the working class are rebels in spirit and democratic in feeling because for hundreds of years they have found no class as lowly paid or as hardly treated as themselves.

At one time in the industrial world of Great Britain and Ireland the skilled labourer looked down with contempt upon the unskilled and bitterly resented his attempt to get his children taught any of the skilled trades; the feeling of the Orangemen of Ireland towards the Catholics is but a glorified representation on a big stage of the same passions inspired by the same unworthy motives. An atavistic survival of a dark and ignorant past!

In his article Labour and the Proposed Partition of Ireland, published in the Irish Worker on 14 March 1914 he made the following commentary:

And now that the progress of democracy elsewhere has somewhat muzzled the dogs of aristocratic power, now that in England as well as in Ireland the forces of labour are stirring and making for freedom and light, this same gang of well-fed plunderers of the people, secure in Union held upon their own dupes, seek by threats of force to arrest the march of idea and stifle the light of civilisation and liberty. And, lo and behold, the trusted guardians of the people, the vaunted saviours of the Irish race, agree in front of the enemy and in face of the world to sacrifice to the bigoted enemy the unity of the nation and along with it the lives, liberties and hopes of that portion of the nation which in the midst of the most hostile surroundings have fought to keep the faith in things national and progressive.

Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both 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 whilst it endured. To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us.

If we take our lead today from Connolly’s correct revolutionary instincts of those years and, whilst not confining ourselves to his limited understanding of Marxism, due in large part to the unavailability of the core works, [3] we will not only support the battles of Republican POWs in Ireland for their democratic and political rights but recognise the ‘carnival of reaction’ that the partition of the Irish nation consolidated and fight for the ending of that too. For a Workers Republic, a united socialist Ireland and an anti-imperialist united front with those who genuinely want to go at least part of way towards that goal.

Just a few weeks before the Uprising Connolly addressed the Irish Citizens Army in language that demonstrated irrefutably that his understanding of the combined tasks was not a ‘two stage’ theory of national liberation now so the workers must wait. No; it was the revolution in permanence/April Theses of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky:

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.” (Greaves, Life and Time of James Connolly, p403)


[1] Trotsky: On the events in Dublin (this links provides two articles by Trotsky and one by Lenin on 1916).


[2] On February 22, 1886, Conservative Party politician Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill, gave what many consider one of the single most destructive speeches in Irish history, inciting militant loyalists at Ulster Hall in Belfast. “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right,” he proclaimed to a crowd before he even arrived at Ulster Hall

[3] Whilst we may criticise Connolly for his backwardness on the oppression of women and his tendency to conciliate German imperialism what do we make of the following scurrilous attack on him in the journal What Next?, reprinted in Revolutionary History:

“Those pacific and internationalist sentiments were interspersed with praise of the German Empire, and racist stereotypes of Russians. An article “Diplomacy”, published in Workers’ Republic on 6 November, praised the “peace loving” German Emperor, who was an innocent victim of Allied conspiracies. Connolly’s evolution resembled Mussolini’s, a member of the pro-war minority in the Italian Socialist Party and a fellow believer in the invigorating qualities of a bloodbath, rather than Liebknecht’s, whose dogmatic Marxism prevented him from playing his part in the war effort.”

The author, Brendan Docherty, describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic”.  Shocking lies from a lickspittle apologist for British imperialism like the early Labour leaders described by Bell: James Connolly: His Life and Miracles, What Next? No.20 2001 http://www.whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/Back/Wnext20/Connolly.html 


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