Connolly was not only a brave and bold fighting man, he was also a bold and stimulating thinker. One of the reasons which helps to explain why many American Marxists have often been rigid and schematic is that they have not sufficiently grasped the problems of capitalism from the standpoint of a backward country with an undeveloped economy, in contrast to those of an advanced country with a modern economy. Because of this, I think that Connolly should have an especial interest and significance for Americans. He was a Marxist who came from the depressed working class of a backward country, a nation which had not won national sovereignty.
Once we realize this fact, seeming contradictions in his work and his beliefs can be explained. Connolly, besides being a Marxist and a revolutionary leader who came from the working class, was also a nationalist and a believing Roman Catholic. He was born amidst conditions of life which feed discontent: the alternative to discontent in conditions such as those of his childhood is an attitude of submissiveness. Rebellion and discontent became for Connolly the road for the development of his own personality, his individuality.
He was but one of a mass oppressed by capitalism; at the same time, this mass bore most heavily the burden which was imposed as a result of English control of Ireland. As Connolly studied and matured, he came to see that a complicated series of burdens lay on the back of the common people of Ireland: there was more than one oppressor. He was able to understand with lucidity the complicated nature of the problems which were involved in the Irish problem.
Reading his work, or the accounts of his life, one is struck by the fact that there was little subjective blockage in Connolly’s nature. He was direct and simple. He was capable of drawing clear and warranted correlations. He was able to measure actions, large and small, in terms of his ultimate aim – the aim of a democratic and socialist world. His own personal experiences and observations were drawn into his thought; and on the basis of these he was able to grasp facts from his studies with amazing lucidity and to arrive at firm theoretical conclusions.
There was considerable variety of experiences in his own life. He saw at first hand the conditions of life of workers in Ireland, in Scotland, in America. He was clearly aware of differences between Ireland and America. Even before he came to the United States he had studied economics by himself and had written about the differences in methods of agricultural production in Ireland and in the United States. Thus he wrote:
“The agriculture of Ireland can no longer compete with the scientifically equipped farmers of America, therefore the only hope that now remains is to abandon competition altogether as a rule of life, to organize agriculture as a public service under the control of boards of management elected by the agricultural population (no longer composed of farmers and laborers, but of free citizens with equal responsibility and equal honor), and responsible to them and the nation at large, and with all the mechanical and scientific aids to agriculture the entire resources of the nation can place at their disposal. Let the produce of Irish soil go first to feed the Irish people, and after a sufficient store has been retained to insure of that being accomplished, let the surplus be exchanged with other countries in return for those manufactured goods Ireland needs but does not herself produce.
“Thus we will abolish at one stroke the dread of foreign competition and render perfectly needless any attempt to create an industrial hell in Ireland under the specious pretext of ‘developing our resources.’
“Apply to manufacture the same social principle. Let the cooperative organization of the workers replace the war of the classes under capitalism and transform the capitalist himself from an irresponsible hunter after profit into a public servant, fulfilling a public function and under public control.” 
And speaking along the same line, he discussed the proposal to create peasant proprietors instead of a landlord class. He wrote:
“Have our advocates of peasant proprietary really considered the economic tendencies of the time, and the development of the mechanical arts in the agricultural world? The world is progressive, and peasant proprietary, which a hundred years ago might have been a boon, would now be powerless to save from ruin the agriculture of Ireland.” 
The small farmers could no longer compete with the mammoth farms of America and Australia, and he continued by pointing out how the American farmer, with his thousands of acres and his machinery could outsell the Irish farmer in the English market.
Economic backwardness is a phenomenon which needs to be evaluated relativistically. It must be gauged from the standpoint of the world market. At the present time the phenomenon of backwardness is more complicated than it ever was in the past. Advanced countries such as England are being placed in a position that is at least remotely analogous to that of the Irish farmers in Connolly’s time. British workers must work harder and get less than the American workers. This is a consequence of competition on the world market. It is to Connolly’s merit that he grasped this fact and stated it simply and clearly in his very first years as a socialist.
Without the formal academic training of many economists, Connolly saw the relationship of the Irish problem to the problems of the world market. In simple language he was able to state the nature of the impact which the world market made on Ireland, on its farmers and also on its workers. His political nationalism was not turned into an excuse for “economic” nationalism. He wanted Irishmen to be free men, free and proud and dignified: he did not believe in the development of national resources in a backward country at the expense of the moral and social development of the people of that country.
In this sense he may be contrasted with Joseph Stalin. Connolly advocated democratic collectivization as a means of feeding the Irish people and of organizing Irish economy in a rational and just manner. Stalin’s forced collectivization was diametrically opposite to that proposed by the young Connolly.  Connolly here had a very clear insight, one which should be carefully considered by those who have argued that he was too nationalistic to be a socialist. His nationalism was, in reality, consistent with his internationalism. And both were consistently developed not only in political but also in economic terms. 
Connolly absorbed the democratic national tradition of Ireland. When he released the first issue of his paper, The Workers Republic, in Dublin on August 13, 1898, he stated:
“We are Socialists because we see in socialism not only the modern application of the social principle which underlay the Brehon laws of our ancestors, but because we recognize in it the only principle by which the working class can in their turn emerge in the divinity of FREEMEN, with the right to live as men and not as mere profit-making machines for the service of others. We are Republicans because we are Socialists, and therefore enemies to all privileges; and because we would have the Irish people complete masters of their own destinies, nationally and internationally, fully competent to work for their own salvation.” 
Spiritually or intellectually, he was a product of the great French Revolution, of the Irish tradition of rebellion, of the Marxist international movement, and also of the Catholic Church. And, as we have noted, he himself lived the hard life of the workers. He arrived at his ideas by patient and methodical study. And the aim of his thought and activity was to work for genuine freedom. Once when a lady was disturbed by a speech he had delivered, he answered her remarks by declaring: “Revolution is my business.” His total life experience led him forward to revolutionary action. He saw this action as taking place in Ireland. But he linked it with the idea of an international struggle for socialism and democracy.
When away from Ireland he participated in the socialist movement in Scotland and in America. When the First World War broke out, he called for action not only in Ireland but elsewhere. He saluted Karl Liebknecht. And when there was a false rumor that Liebknecht had died, he wrote:
“We cannot draw upon the future for a draft to pay our present duties. There is no moratorium to postpone the payment of the debt the Socialists owe to the cause; it can only be paid now. Paid it may well be in martyrdom ... If our German comrade, Liebknecht, has paid the price, perhaps the others may yet nerve themselves for that sacrifice ... All hail, then, to our continental comrade, who, in a world of imperial and financial brigands and cowardly trimmers and compromisers, showed mankind that men still know how to die for the holiest of all causes – the sanctity of the human soul, the practical brotherhood of the human race.” 
Connolly worked on Labour in Irish History for many years. During this period he was also engaged in many other activities, editing, lecturing, organizing, leading strikes, participating in anti-British demonstrations, traveling from Ireland to America and back to Ireland, and at the same time earning a modest living for himself and his family. This work, along with The Re-Conquest of Ireland, offers an economic and social history of Ireland. Connolly claimed that capitalism was a foreign importation brought to Ireland by the English. With capitalism, feudalism was also introduced into Ireland. The life of the Gaelic clans, where property was owned by the clans, was in consequence broken up. In clan life a rudimentary form of democracy had been practiced. Then he traced the course of the development of capitalism in Ireland, a subject nation. He related this development to the successive struggles for national independence. These struggles he evaluated and interpreted from a socialist standpoint. Early in Labour in Irish History, he quoted, as a premise, the following passage from Marx:
“That in every historical epoch the prevailing method of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, forms the basis upon which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch.” 
He traces the alterations in the prevailing method of production in Ireland through feudalism to capitalism, and he describes the class character of every movement which struggled for Irish freedom. The tradition of social struggle in the Irish national movement is here outlined step by step, generalized, evaluated and in this way ordered in terms of a coherent analysis and doctrine. The lesson which he persistently draws from the analysis of Irish struggle is that the social question is inseparable from the political question.
He reveals that one of the factors involved in the failure of Irish rebellion is the fact that there was always more than one class. This lesson is presented in his first chapter, and it is then illustrated by a series of lucid analyses which are concerned with every important movement for liberation in Irish history. He wrote:
“During the last hundred years every generation in Ireland has witnessed an attempted rebellion against English rule. Every such conspiracy or rebellion had drawn the majority of its adherents from the lower orders in town and country, yet under the inspiration of a few middle class doctrinaires the social question has been rigorously excluded from the field of action to be covered by the rebellion if successful; in hopes that by each exclusion it would be possible to conciliate the upper class and enlist them in the struggle for freedom ... The result has been in nearly every case the same. The workers, though furnishing the greatest proportion of recruits to the ranks of the revolutionists, and consequently of victims to the prison and the scaffold, could not be imbued en masse with the revolutionary fire necessary to seriously imperil a dominion rooted for 700 years in the heart of their country. They were all anxious enough for freedom, but realizing the enormous odds against them, and being explicitly told by their leaders that they must not expect any change in their conditions of social subjection, even if successful, they as a body shrank from the contest, and left only the purest minded and most chivalrous of their class to face the odds and glut the vengeance of the tyrant – a warning to those in all countries who neglect the vital truth that successful revolutions are not the product of our brains, but of ripe material conditions.” 
Connolly’s conclusion to his study affirms the view that labor must take the lead in the liberation of Ireland. It must be the most forward, the most daring champion of both national liberation and social justice in Ireland; it must assemble all discontented Irishmen around it. This is the road to the re-conquest of Ireland. Thus:
“As we have again and again pointed out, the Irish question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland. Who would own and control the land? The people or the invaders?” 
Here in Connolly’s view was “the bottom question of Irish politics.” But:
“It is undeniable that for two hundred years at least all Irish political movements ignored this fact, and were conducted by men who did not look below the political surface. These men to arouse the passions of the people invoked the memory of social wrongs, such as evictions and famines, but for these wrongs proposed only political remedies, such as changes in taxation or transferences of the seat of government (class rule) from one country to another.... The revolutionists of the past were wiser, the Irish Socialists are wiser today. In their movement the North and South will again clasp hands, again it will be demonstrated, as in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united social democracy.” 
Connolly’s basic lines of thought were continued from Labour in Irish History to The Re-Conquest of Ireland. The first sentence of the foreword to this volume expresses its guiding thought:
“The underlying idea of this work is that the labor movement of Ireland must set itself the re-conquest of Ireland as its final aim, that their re-conquest involves taking possession of the entire country, all its powers and wealth-production and all its natural resources, and organizing these on a co-operative basis for the good of all.” 
Following a historical account of the conquest of Ireland, Connolly describes the conditions of life of the Irish masses in the early twentieth century, in Dublin and Belfast; he discusses problems and questions of democracy and of political morale and of morality, quotes statistics and otherwise reveals in a voice of eloquent and passionate indignation the moral and physical consequences of exploitation; he deals with the problems of education, describes the position and fate of women, and analyzes the value and the possibility of the cooperative movement. His book embodies vision and idealism, and at the same time no detail concerning the misery and wretchedness of the masses is too small for his attention. At one point in the book, he states: “For the only true prophets are they who carve out the future which they announce.” 
Connolly here announced a future for Ireland. This ideal future – a socialist commonwealth – was the standard by which he measured the Irish present, and it was the basis of his political faith. In action, he sought to lead Ireland toward the realization of that ideal; in his writing, he sought to implant this faith and this ideal in the minds of Irishmen. He wrote:
“A people are not to be judged by the performance of their great men, nor to be estimated spiritually by the intellectual conquests of their geniuses. A truer standard by which the spiritual and mental measurement of a people can be taken in modern times is by that picture drawn of itself by itself when it, at the ballot-box, surrenders the care of its collective destiny into the hands of its elected representatives.
“The question whether such elected persons have or have not the power to realize the desires of their constituents scarcely enters into the matter. It is not by its power to realize high ideals a people will and must be judged, but by the standard of the ideals themselves.” 
This quotation furnishes a suggestive insight into the thought of Connolly. His thinking was both practical and visionary; it gave energy and direction to a fighting faith and a concept of a free future.
1. Quotation from Connolly’s Erin’s Hope: The End and the Means (1901) in Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner, p. 231.
2. Ibid., p. 232.
3. Farrell’s Note: As Manya Gordon demonstrates factually in her book Workers Before and After Lenin (New York: EP Dutton, 1941), the Russian people as a whole got less food after collectivization than they did before it. Collectivization provided Stalin with a labor supply needed for industrialization. The development of natural resources was implicit in the implementation of the theory of “socialism in one country”; but all this, we know, was done at the expense of the Russian people.
4. Farrell’s Note: A good way of testing Connolly’s clarity would be to contrast his ideas – such as those quoted above – with the ideas of the Irish Stalinist, Brian O’Neill, in The War for the Land in Ireland. Both here and in his book Easter Week, O’Neill pays tribute to Connolly.
Writing in the 1930s, O’Neill dealt with the world agrarian crisis, and he had no trouble demonstrating that the Irish farmer was the victim of the world market and produced at a grave disadvantage in competition because of the development of farming in advanced countries. Attempting to point the way out, O’Neill quoted the passage of Connolly which I have cited above. And the way out proposed by O’Neill is described as that taken by the Soviet Union, with planned economy and collectivized agriculture. As part of his proof O’Neill offered culled statistics from the various Soviet sources, but he did not compare and evaluate them. He may well have been sincere, but from the standpoint of the present it is clear that he depended on the usual bureaucratic generalities and abstractions. The Irish problem was treated as though it were the Russian problem: win a “third-period” revolution on paper and then Ireland could be modeled after the Soviet Union. Without any real relevance to his argument, O’Neill insisted that the increase in the number of tractors and harvesters in the United States from 1910 to 1930 should have permitted American agriculture to double its sowing. This did not happen; American agricultural production increased by only 13.5 percent during this period. Needless to say, I am not an economist or a statistician. But I can see the utter shabbiness of arguments of this kind.
I mention this fact because, when I originally read O’Neill’s book in 1936, it fooled me. And the way that Stalinism fools persons untrained in economics and statistics can thus be suggested. Isolated statistics are used falsely. By a meaningless comparison of abstracted statistics, a false conception of production in the Soviet Union relative to the United States is indicated. We now know that the Irish workers and farmers, bad as was their lot, fared better than did the Russian workers and farmers during the period of forced collectivization. After the famine in Russia in the early 1930s, the Russian government was forced to make concessions: it permitted a certain portion of the agricultural product produced on collective farms to be sold directly on the market. Here is the way O’Neill described this:
“The produce of farms is disposed of in two ways. It can be handed over entirely at a fixed price to the cooperative organizations, to be distributed by them to the consumers, or twenty percent can be sold direct (a method introduced in 1932 to induce the collectives to market more of their produce). The advantages of this latter modification are that larger supplies are available at lower prices due to the more direct path from the producer to the consumer, while the collectives are often able to receive more for their produce. Vegetables grown in the garden may also be sold direct to the consumer, but no middleman is permitted to step into the transaction.” (Brian O’Neill, The War for the Land in Ireland [New York: International Publishers, 1933], p. 173.)
This last sentence is further suggestive. O’Neill introduced this reference to the middleman as an obvious appeal to prejudice and as a rationalization. In general, he gave no clear picture of Soviet agriculture; at the same time he stressed the chaos of capitalist agriculture. He threatened to outdistance American agricultural production with a minimum of percentages. And here is a sample of his general style and method of Stalinizing the tradition of Connolly:
“By 1926 it could be said that agriculture had been saved [in the Soviet Union] ... But hand in hand with this development, there was not only an increased prosperity for small and middle farmers; the wealthiest peasants and the kulaks – the hated gombeen men of the village, who worked their farms by hired laborers and who were often, in addition, shopkeepers, money-lenders or publicans – had their position strengthened, with a corresponding hardening of their capitalist psychology. And while agriculture had been restored, it had not developed on the new social basis, in the sense that while in the towns the means of production were long since socialized, agriculture, in which the ownership of the land and the implements was not centralized, was relatively much more backward.” (Ibid., pp. 171, 172.)
The reader can learn about the real situation which was masked by this double talk by reading Manya Gordon’s study cited above [n.3].
A contrast between Connolly and O’Neill will show the difference between a real socialist and a Stalinized intellectual. In Connolly’s heated passages, there is indignation, indignation over the condition of the Irish masses. Contrast this with the way that O’Neill uses phrases like gombeen men, money-lenders and publicans in order to create Irish enthusiasm for Stalinism, which drove the gombeen men out of Russia just as truly as St Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Also, Connolly studied conditions outside of Ireland in a critical spirit, and in order to draw a lesson from them; O’Neill merely applied Russian solutions to Irish conditions in a literal-minded manner.
5. Quoted in Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner, p. 46.
6. Ibid., p. 239.
7. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, p. 15.
8. Ibid., p. 214.
9. Ibid., p. 214.
10. Ibid., pp. 215–16.
11. Ibid., p. 219.
13. Ibid., p. 251.
Last updated on 21 July 2018