November 2013        

James Connolly and 1916

In this period of commemorations there seems to be a concerted attempt to write James Connolly out of history, or to play down his role in the 1916 Rising, implying that he had abandoned socialism for the time being and handed leadership of the revolutionary movement over to nationalists.
     Despite the fact that public buildings, such as a major train station and a public hospital, were named after him, the fact that one of the founders of the Republic was a socialist and Marxist has become an embarrassment to official Ireland. It is easier to sanitise Connolly by claiming that he abandoned socialism in 1916 and became a nationalist than to examine his role in 1916.
     The Irish Citizen Army has been practically written out of the official version of 1916. Part of this version of 1916 is the attempt by the establishment to trivialise 1916 as a whole and to treat the whole event as a romantic gesture of revolt by a bunch of poets that was futile from the beginning—Pearse’s so-called “blood sacrifice.”
     At the recent Desmond Greaves Summer School, Dr Priscilla Metscher pointed out that Connolly was the first self-educated Marxist theorist from the working class. He spent as much time as he could in investigating and studying the material conditions about which he wrote.
     Connolly was operating in a pre-internet age, and the transmission of information was not as immediate as it is now. Yet by 1916 he had reached the same analysis of the Irish situation as that outlined by Lenin in “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”—namely to take leadership of the revolutionary forces or else be led by the reactionary forces.
     The passing of the Government of Ireland Act showed that the British administration in Ireland was about to move to a different phase. Finance capital would in future determine the relationship with Ireland. The constitutional nationalists, led by Redmond, were willing and eager to go along with this new relationship, where in effect the Irish bourgeoisie would govern in place of the British administration, but nothing else would change, had it proceeded as planned.
     The decision to defer home rule because of the Great War led Redmond to a position where supporting the war would show the Catholic Irish to be as loyal as the unionists. It also showed that home rule under Redmond would have been little more than a change of administration. A more radical group around Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke and the IRB were not willing to delay until after the war and wanted to go further, to have complete separation, but had not determined the precise form the government would take.
     Following the 1913 Lock-out, the Irish Citizen Army was established as a defence force for strikers against attacks by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Unlike the Irish Volunteers, the Citizen Army used British ex-servicemen, such as Captain Jack White and Michael Mallin, to teach marching and drilling—all part of the basics of military discipline for a conflict situation. The Volunteers, for nationalistic reasons, did not use ex-servicemen; consequently, during 1916 there was often confusion in Volunteer ranks.
     Shortly after the formation of the Citizen Army, Connolly saw its potential as a revolutionary army and began to see it as a force to be used in a blow at British imperialism. He studied previous insurrections and battles, such as the Alamo in Texas, the Moscow Insurrection of 1905, insurrection in the Tyrol, revolution in Belgium, revolution in Paris in 1830 and 1848, and the Battle of Lexington in the American Civil War.
     Connolly’s analyses of these battles were published in 1915 in the Workers’ Republic. In effect, in these articles Connolly laid out the tactics to be used in the conduct of urban guerrilla warfare. Although no actual plan of the 1916 Rising has survived or has been discovered, it is clear from a study of both Connolly’s writings and the buildings actually occupied that Connolly had laid out a comprehensive plan for the Rising, which was the one that was followed to a large extent. The fact that it did not have greater military success was probably because not all the Volunteers turned out, because of confusion over orders, the failure to take key buildings, delays and difficulties in communications, and the fact that most of those involved were inexperienced and were facing professional soldiers.
     In general, however, 1916 was a success, in that it laid the foundation document for the Republic in the Proclamation. By holding out as long as they did the revolutionaries showed the British establishment that a serious attack had been made on the British Empire, as acknowledged by Lenin. Easter Week 1916 also laid the basis for the subsequent guerrilla war. The fact that the British committed a war crime by murdering soldiers who had surrendered only temporarily postponed the guerrilla war.
     It is hardly surprising that the present establishment seek to belittle Connolly’s memory and his writings.

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