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Irish socialist and liberation fighter


Published Jul 9, 2006 10:14 PM

This is the second part of a talk by Bryan G. Pfeifer, a contributing editor of Workers World, to the May 13-14 WWP conference on Preparing for the Rebirth of the Global Struggle for Socialism, held in New York. It has been edited for publication.

James Connolly

James Connolly was an ardent anti-imperialist and thoroughgoing internationalist. Connolly opposed the Boer War waged by the British in Southern Africa in the late 1890s and all imperialist wars, invasions and colonialism in any form.

In 1909 he wrote in The Harp, Connolly’s Irish newspaper in the U.S., “The universe is about tired of this British Empire and I, for one, hope that the natives of India will, ere long, drive it from their shores into the sea.”

From the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Connolly, as acting general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), led anti-conscription campaigns mobilizing poor workers, farmers and peasants in Ireland to fight against the British Empire on their own soil instead of joining the British imperialist army.

Connolly came to the same position as V.I. Lenin: turn the imperialist war into a civil war. Armed with this ideology, Connolly, his union and the ISRP mobilized Irish workers, farmers and peasants to take advantage of Britain’s overreach and inter-imperialist rivalries during the war. He advocated that the working class and its allies should train their weapons—and use them if necessary—on their real enemy, the British colonialists, and any others including Irish capitalists intent on exploiting and crushing the Irish masses’ quest for a workers’ republic.

Connolly simultaneously advocated revolutionary defeatism for the workers in Britain and other oppressor nations such as the U.S., France and Germany. Con nolly’s position was that the British workers shouldn’t kill fellow workers to further enrich their own ruling class. They should instead use every means available to defeat their own ruling class in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles in the oppressed nations while respecting the self-determination of oppressed nationalities.

Here Connolly was reflecting and carrying on the long-standing tradition of the Irish masses’ internationalism and their historic role as one of the largest oppres sed people’s diasporas, with a deep-rooted hatred for colonialism in any form.

Many examples of this abound, but notable were the émigrés in the 1800s from Ireland who were conscripted into the U.S. Army. Many joined the St. Patrick’s Brigade, dropped their U.S. uniforms and joined Mexicans fighting against the U.S. These actions resonate today. Irish and Mexican immigrants could be seen hoisting each other’s homeland flags in the glorious upsurge of the immigrant rights struggle.

In the current period, one of numerous examples is the U.S. accusing and arresting Irish revolutionaries for allegedly militarily supporting the FARC in Colombia.

1916: ‘The Rising’

Connolly and his comrades steadfastly refused to allow the Rising to become a battle for political freedom alone. The Easter Proclamation from the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic—the Poblacht na hÉireann—to the people of Ireland clearly stated the fight was for both political and economic freedom: an Irish Workers’ Republic.

The Rising failed for three major reasons.

First, there was no Leninist-type party.

Second, a large segment of British workers and their leaders failed to engage in revolutionary defeatism. In other words, they failed to grasp that the Rising was in their best interests and that their British capitalist, imperialist bosses were the same ones subjugating the Irish masses.

But, most importantly, the delay and equivocation on the part of Irish Volunteer leader and president Eoin MacNeill dealt a severe blow to the Rising. Because Connolly and other revolutionaries were aware of his anti-labor orientation, his opposition to staging the rising during the war, and his middle-class origins, Mac Neill was not initially informed that the Rising was to take place on Easter Sunday.

Nonetheless, MacNeill learned of the original Rising date and published notices in newspapers and sent messengers throughout Ireland rescinding the order for Volunteers to participate in the Rising. This sowed much confusion between the mostly nationalist-oriented Volunteers and the Citizen Army. But since the Citizen Army’s position was to not hold back under any circumstances, they set out on Monday to establish an Irish Workers’ Republic. The precious day’s delay allowed the British and Irish capitalists to learn of the Rising, regroup and defeat it.

Lessons of the Rising include mobilizing workers for armed liberation. The Citizen Army was formed for self-defense in response to the bosses and their goons’ violence against workers and allies during the 1913 Transport and General Workers strike. The bosses eventually locked out the workers, almost starving them and their loved ones. Only a strategic retreat organized and led by Connolly and James Larkin saved the union. During these battles the workers’ learned many lessons for 1916 and beyond.

Connolly’s tireless efforts to overcome sectarianism and other divisions created and encouraged by British and Irish capitalists to keep wages low and working conditions horrendous proved fruitful. By the time of the Rising, many workers and their allies had already realized their common working class interests. They regarded religion as a private matter, but one that had been used by their class enemies to divide them.

The participation of women in the Rising was most starkly represented in the Easter Proclamation declaring equal rights for all, men and women. Some historians of the Rising claim that of about 1,600 participating in the Rising, over 200 were women, many armed and holding key military posts.

Connolly throughout his life was well known for supporting feminism and for his stellar actions in regard to the woman question. In this he has been hailed by many Irish Republican women, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mairead Farrell and Constance Markievicz, with whom he fought side by side in 1916. When some men involved in the Rising stated they wouldn’t fight with women, Connolly replied that the struggle would go forward with the women, then.

In his pamphlet, “The Re-Conquest of Ireland,” first published in 1915, Connolly wrote in the chapter, “Woman,” “The worker is the slave of capitalist society. The woman worker is a slave of that slave.”

Added Connolly, “In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women, who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off. Whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground.”

Connolly’s legacy:
The unfinished revolution(s)

Ireland today, like many countries, is still oppressed by imperialism, even though the latest form of the Republican armed struggle brought Britain to its knees. This imperialist country is now playing a junior partner role to U.S. imperialism in Ireland, although this is fluid.

U.S.-based corporations control the vast majority of finance capital in Ireland. These transnational corporations rely on a high-tech, highly educated and relatively low-cost work force. Furthermore, by being in Ireland, U.S. corporations—with the U.S. repressive state apparatus as a partner—can move commodities into the European Union more easily.

The Pentagon uses airbases in Ireland, particularly Shannon airport, for stop overs en route to Iraq and also, some claim, for extraordinary renditions. The U.S. fully pays for British troops and weapons in the occupied six counties under the guise of NATO. This is similar to the U.S. funding Israel to subjugate the Palestinians.

Alexander Haig, former U.S. secretary of state and ex officio commander of the NATO forces from 1974 to 1979, was careful to remind the imperialists periodically that if Ireland became socialist, it would be the Cuba of Europe, particularly because of its key nearby trade routes and geopolitical position.

As Connolly declared in his time, the main obstacle in the path of an Irish socialist republic is British and U.S. imperialism.

The Irish masses in Ireland and in other imperialist-controlled countries internationally are waiting for more upsurges like the anti-war movement, the multinational immigrant rights upsurge, the civil rights movement around Katrina/Rita, the LGBT movement and labor upsurges like UNITE HERE’s Hotel Workers Rising struggle in the U.S.

The Irish masses, the Iraqis and all colonized peoples need a boost of unity and solidarity, particularly from the working class in the U.S.

Permanent socialist revolution internationally, particularly in the U.S., is still the goal of revolutionaries in the Connolly tradition today and must be won for the sake of all humanity, specifically the working class and oppressed.

As Connolly wrote in his pamphlet “Socialism and Nationalism,” “Let us … organize for a full, free and happy life for all or for none.”

Ed Childs, Jan Cannavan and Catherine Donaghy contributed to this report.

Reference works for this series include: “Ireland and the Irish Question: A Collection of writings by Karl Marx & Frederick Engels”; “Irish Republican Women in America: Lecture Tours, 1916-1925” by Joanne Mooney Eichacker; “James Connolly: A Full Life” by Donal Nevin; “James Connolly and the United States: The Road to the 1916 Irish Rebellion” by Carl and Ann Barton Reeve; “James Larkin: Lion of the Fold,” ed. Donal Nevin; “No Ordi nary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923” by Sinead McCoole; “Portrait of a Rebel Father” by Nora Connolly O’Brien; “Prison Writings” by Bobby Sands; “Socialism Made Easy,” “Socialism and Nationalism” and “Labor in Irish His tory” by James Connolly; “The Life and Times of James Connolly” by Des mond C. Greaves and www.marxists.org.