James Connolly: Irish Revolutionary Hero & Marxist

Prakash Karat

THE people of the Republic of Ireland have observed the centenary of the historic Easter Uprising which took place in 1916. This uprising was a landmark in the struggle of the Irish people against British imperialism for independence. It was a catalytic event which eventually led to the armed struggle which culminated in the Irish Free State being set up in 1921 with dominion status in the British Empire. The Easter Uprising saw 1500 armed volunteers occupy the General Post Office and other buildings in the heart of Dublin and proclaiming the Free State of Ireland. Taken unawares, the British authorities mobilised the army and a five day conflict ensued. 450 rebels and civilians died and thousands were injured before the rebels surrendered.

The uprising was led by Patrick Pearse, Tom Clark, James Connolly, Sean MacDermott and others. They were remarkable men fired by patriotic zeal. Pearse was a poet, writer and a nationalist. But the most significant and remarkable figure was James Connolly. He was an Irish socialist, trade union leader and a committed Marxist. His role in the working class movement and his contributions to developing a Marxist understanding of the national question transcended Ireland. However, since he was executed by the British in the aftermath of the uprising, which occurred before the Russian Revolution of 1917, his role is not so well known in places like India. James Connolly was born in a poor Irish family in Edinburgh, Scotland. He became a worker at a young age and began organising the workers. By studying the writings of Marx and Engels, he developed a Marxist worldview.

He joined the Independent Labour Party and later became a leader of the Scottish Socialist Federation. He moved to the United States where he became a founder of the Socialist Party of America and an activist of the Industrial Workers of the World which had a syndicalist orientation.

Returning to Ireland in 1910 he became the secretary of the Irish Socialist Republican Party. He was also a leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. It was this union which led a wave of class struggles in the years before the First World War.

But Connolly was not merely a trade union leader. He had independently developed a Marxist outlook and in 1910 wrote that “The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go”. Being a militant working class leader in a European colony of the British Empire, Connolly worked out his approach to the national question which was remarkably similar to Lenin’s understanding. He understood that the fight against British imperialism and for the national self-determination of the Irish people was part and parcel of the class struggle for socialism. He broke with those socialists who insisted on an “internationalist” approach which negated the need for Irish independence from the British Empire. Connolly had no direct contact with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But his stand on the First World War where most of the Social Democrats lined up behind the bourgeoisie of their own countries, was against the war waged by the imperialist bourgeoisie of different countries. In this he was closely aligned to the position of the Russian Social Democrats led by Lenin.

Connolly was also a trail blazer with regard to the women’s question. His writings on women’s equality and the struggle for women’s emancipation stand out for its clarity and prescience. In an essay on the women’s question, he wrote “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave”.

Though Connolly with his Irish Citizens Army, a workers militia which was set up to defend the workers from the violent onslaughts of the capitalists and the British authorities, joined with a section of the nationalists, the Irish Republican Brotherhood to stage the Easter Uprising, he well knew that the struggle had just begun and Irish freedom would only become meaningful when capitalism was overthrown. He warned “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 will be in vain. England will still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs”.

Connolly was virtually the Commander-in-Chief of the armed volunteers who fought heroically in the Easter Uprising. He was seriously wounded in the battle. When the rebels decided to surrender Connolly was arrested along with all the other leaders of the revolt. The British court martial sentenced all the leaders of the revolt including the seven who signed the proclamation of independence to death by firing squad. The execution of the leaders began on May 5. Connolly was taken out on the 12th of May to be executed. Because of his serious wounds he was unable to stand up to face the firing squad. He was strapped to a chair and executed. The manner in which he was executed aroused indignation all around and he became a revolutionary hero.

Lenin while hailing the uprising also noted, “The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats.”

The uprising did not get popular support when it happened. But the cold blooded execution of the leaders resulted in a wave of sympathy and awakening of national consciousness. Three years after the uprising, a guerilla war for independence began which ended in 1921 with the Irish-British agreement which led to the formation of the Irish Free State with dominion status. The struggle went on till Ireland became a republic in 1937.

In India, the Irish struggle for independence had a considerable impact on those who wanted a more militant struggle for independence. Eamon de Valera, the Irish nationalist leader and the Sinn Fein inspired a number of revolutionary nationalists in India. VV Giri, who became president of India and was a trade union leader had studied in the University College, Dublin between 1913 and 1916. He was influenced by the Sinn Fein and was sympathetic to the Easter Uprising which led to his deportation from Ireland. The Easter Uprising and the subsequent guerrilla struggle inspired the revolutionary groups in Bengal. The Chittagong Armory Raid led by Surya Sen was modeled after the capture of the General Post Office in Dublin.

But what we need to know more about and study is the life and work of James Connolly. His views on religion, nationality and class are especially important for Indian Marxists. Ireland was partitioned by the British when it got dominion status. Out of the 32 counties, six which were Protestant dominated in the North East were kept in the United Kingdom. The Irish division was a forerunner of the British Plan for the Indian partition. Connolly strove hard to bridge the religious sectarianism by class politics and uniting the workers whether they were Catholic or Protestant. His views on the Church and how a working class party should deal with religious faith are also relevant to the Indian situation.

In the history of the international working class movement and the struggle for socialism, James Connolly will always be remembered as a great Irish revolutionary and outstanding Marxist.

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