James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland

by Priscilla Metscher


  1. Connolly and the Founding of the Irish Socialist Republican Party
  2. The Political Writings of James Connolly, 1896–1903
  3. The Role of the ISRP in Radical Politics in Ireland, 1896–1903
  • PART II. CONNOLLY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1903–1910 The Situation in the United States
  1. Connolly as Organizer of the IWW and Its Propaganda Leagues
  2. Industrial Unionism and Socialist Activity
  3. Catherine Clinton
  4. Connolly’s Labour in Irish History
  1. The Situation in Ireland on Connolly’s Return
  2. Belfast and Its Problems
  3. Connolly and Religion
  4. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Dublin Strike and Lockout in 1913
  5. The “Woman Question” in Ireland
  1. Preparing for Revolution
  2. A Socialist and War
  3. The Easter Rising: A Critical Assessment
  4. Pearse and Connolly: Unity toward an Irish Republic
  5. Connolly’s Mature Concept of an Irish Socialist Republic
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The conquest of Ireland had meant the social and political servitude of the Irish masses, and therefore the reconquest of Ireland must mean the social as well as the political independence from servitude of every man, woman and child in Ireland.

James Connolly 1

As socialists we have ever taught that National Freedom could not be won by a population resigned to industrial slavery; and as believers in National Freedom we have ever taught that the real re-conquest of Ireland necessarily implied the redemption of the Irish worker from the slavery of the capitalist system.

Preface Cont...

James Connolly 2

Most historians who have written on James Connolly would agree that he was one of the outstanding figures of the British/Irish labor movements at the turn of twentieth century. When it comes to assessing his actual contribution to labor history, opinions vary. Connolly’s political career corresponded to the life span of the Second International, and his writings reflect both the strength and weaknesses in the left wing of the International. One controversial issue at the time that still occupies us at the present day was the question of the right of nations to self-determination. Whereas the major European states had resolved their national questions by the beginning of the century, Ireland was still a colony with an unresolved national question. Connolly was aware that any socialist strategy in Ireland must necessarily take into account the status of Ireland as a colony; socialists must realize that “a socialist movement must rest upon and draw its inspiration from the historical and actual conditions of the country in which it functions and not merely lose themselves in an abstract ‘internationalism’ (which has no relation to the real internationalism of the socialist movement).” 3

Concerning this very point of the national question, the mainstream tradition of Irish historical scholarship, as developed since the 1930s, has, under the guise of “value-free” interpretation, sought to “revise” the Irish historical experience. This, as Brendan Bradshaw points out, is nothing more than a negative bias where “a corrosive cynicism is brought to bear in order to minimize or to trivialise the significance of transcendent aspirations or dynamisms.” 4 This “revisionist” approach is particularly apparent in the “iconoclastic assault” upon the “so-called apostolic succession of national heroes,” depicting such figures as Tone, Davis, Pearse, and Connolly “as politically inept and intellectually confused ideologues.” 5

With reference to Connolly, Austen Morgan’s recent book, James Connolly, A Political Biography is an excellent example of this kind of historiographic revisionism. From the outset Morgan poses the question “why a man who lived as a socialist . . . died an Irish nationalist,” his conclusion being that on this account labor in Ireland lost a leader. Morgan works on the assumption that Connolly had feet in two very different movements: “international socialism”’ (being alien to Ireland) and “militant nationalism” (canceling out the idea of internationalism).

He bases his thesis on his own interpretation of Connolly’s writings, scarcely providing any original quotations. He judges Connolly from the high chair of academia, or as Bradshaw so aptly puts it, places him in the dock and conducts the case for the prosecution. 6 He judges Connolly as not measuring up to something that he never aspired to be a professional intellectual and theoretician of the labor movement and also takes him to task for failing to write on certain issues. 7

Preface Cont...

In contrast to this lack of sensitive response to material at hand, Bradshaw pleads for a more imaginative and empathetic approach in dealing with historical subject matter. Concerning socialist historiography, I think this comes close to E. P. Thompson’s “socialist humanist” approach. Empathy is essential the ability to “listen” or to “tune in” to people in the past without imposing a moralizing tone from above. 8

In an attempt to assess Connolly’s contribution to socialism and the national question the difficulty again seems to lie in the point of approach. A significant recent work on Connolly is Helga Woggon’s well-researched book, Integrativer Sozialismus und nationale Befreiung: Politik und Wirkungsgeschichte James Connollys in Irland. It begins with an abstract model, “integrative socialism,” understood as a special form of socialist politics within a situation of national or colonial dependence that derives socialist concepts from national tradition and tries to fuse them with that tradition. 9 Her conclusion that “integrative socialism” in Ireland was bound to fail as it was not a suitable basis for practical political strategy in the labor movement derives from her understanding of socialism and nationalism as traditionally and basically two contradictory forces in Ireland. Together with Eric Hobsbawm, she sees Connolly as making concessions to nationalism at the expense of socialism: “With the aid of ‘hibernicized Marxism’ he wanted to create a social revolutionary movement out of nothing and transform nationalism in a socialist manner.” 10

To my mind, however, it is not a concept of “hibernicized Marxism” that emerges from Connolly’s writings, and that he demonstrated in his political activities in Ireland. The significance of the term socialist republicanism has, I think, often been overlooked, for the emphasis is undoubtedly on the word “republicanism.” Connolly understood socialism in Ireland as carrying on and developing the tradition of republicanism established by the United Irishmen:

Wolfe Tone 11 was abreast of the revolutionary thought of his day, as are the Socialist Republicans of our own day. He saw clearly, as we see, that a dominion as long rooted in any country as British dominion in Ireland can only be dislodged by a revolutionary impulse in line with the development of the entire epoch. 12

The concept of a socialist republic was in keeping with the democratic ideals of past republicans, including United Irishmen, Young Irelanders, and Fenians. 13 Connolly emphasized, “A socialist republic is the application to agriculture and industry; to the farm, the field, the workshop, of the democratic principle of the republican ideal.” 14 Does the nonrealization of the establishment of such a socialist republic under the given historical circumstances in Ireland make the concept any less legitimate? At a time when the national question has once more assumed an important role in Europe and beyond, James Connolly’s stand on the question of socialism and nationalism is indeed relevant.


1. James Connolly, The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin and Belfast: New Books Publications, 1972), x.

2. James Connolly, ed., Socialism and Nationalism (Dublin, 1948), 209.

3. Ibid., 87. In 1926, in an article in the Communist International, just ten years after the Easter Rising, Schüller points to Connolly as a foremost revolutionary Marxist thinker of his times. To him it was essential to combine the national revolutionary struggle in Ireland with the class struggle of the Irish working class. Connolly, according to Schüller, was not a nationalist in the narrow sense, but, on the contrary, was active both in theory and practice as a Marxist Internationalist (George Schüller, “Jim Connolly and the Irish Rising of 1916,” 88).

4. Brendan Bradshaw, “Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland,” Irish Historical Studies (Nov. 1989): 343.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. “The people of the ‘non-civilized’ world are totally missing in Connolly’s writings, appearing only rhetorically in nationalist references to the British Empire” (Austen Morgan, James Connolly, A Political Biography [Manchester Univ. Press, 1988], 210).

8. See Richard Johnson, “Critique: Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese, Socialist Humanist History,” History Workshop 6 (autumn 1978), 85.

9. Helga Woggon, Integrativer Sozialismus und nationale Befreiung: Politik und Wirkungsgeschichte James Connollys in Irland (Göttingen/Zürich, 1990), 11.

10. Ibid., 21.

11. Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–1798), one of the founders of the largely Protestant-based Society of United Irishmen, sought to build a democratic republican movement that would embrace both Protestants and Catholics in a united struggle for Irish independence. His goal was an independent democratic Ireland with a secular state free from clerical influences. During the Irish Rising of 1798, he led a French force in an abortive landing in Ireland, was captured by the British, and sentenced to be hanged. He cut his own throat on the morning of the day he was to be hanged, dying several days later on 19 November 1798.

12. Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism, 40–41.

13. See, for example, James Connolly, Labour and Easter Week (Dublin, 1966), 74.

14. James Connolly, The Workers’ Republic (Dublin, 1951), 50–51.

James Connolly and Socialist Republicanism

Connolly and the Founding of the Irish Socialist Republican Party

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh in 1868 of Irish immigrant parents and spent his early life in the slums of that city. 1 He started work at the age of ten or eleven, working as a printer’s devil until a factory inspector discovered his real age and he was sacked, then in a bakery, and later in a tiling factory. At the age of fourteen he enlisted in the first battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, and in July 1882 he was sent to Ireland. 2 His biographer Desmond Greaves estimates that he served with the battalion until its return to Aldershot, England, in February 1889. It is possible that during that period Connolly got some insight into the conditions of oppression of the Irish people, which were to occupy him so much in his later political career. On his return to Scotland, Connolly became active in the Scottish labor movement, joining the Edinburgh branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and by 1892 was an extremely active member of the Scottish Socialist Federation. 3 He had his political baptism in Scotland, where, in November 1894, he came in third out of four candidates when he stood as a socialist for St. Giles ward in the Edinburgh municipal elections.

As a member of the Irish immigrant community in Edinburgh, Connolly was acquainted with the struggle of the Irish people for national self-determination. He was familiar with the activities of the Land League in Ireland and as a socialist realized the importance of British workers’ support of the fight for freedom in Ireland. At the outset of his political career, Connolly came under the influence of John Leslie, a native of “Little Ireland” in Edinburgh, poet, socialist propagandist, first secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation 3, and later secretary of the of the Edinburgh branch of Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party (ILP). 4 Leslie published a series of articles in Justice, organ of the SDF, between 24 March and 5 May 1894, under the title “Passing Thoughts Upon the Irish Question.” Shortly afterwards the articles appeared in pamphlet form with the title The Present Position of the Irish Question. The pamphlet is important in that it underlined the relationship between the struggle of the working people for a better life and the fight for Irish freedom. Above all, it convinced Connolly of the necessity of an independent organization of the working class in Ireland. Quoting from Fintan Lalor to underline the fact that the national question is basically a social question, Leslie deals briefly with the Fenian movement, maintaining that although it was “the first spontaneous movement of the Irish democracy,” 5 it nevertheless “had no more than a small conception of the great truth without which democracy is but a bottle of smoke, a fraud, a delusion and a snare,” for nationality alone is not freedom. 6 The history of the Land League is, according to Leslie, the story of how the Irish people’s revolutionary struggle for land was successfully diverted into the mere political channel by “the adoption of the single-plank platform of Home Rule.” 7 Summing up the present situation, Leslie explains that he does not believe “that the Alpha and Omega of the Irish Question consists in the hoisting of the green and gold banner above the old Parliament House in Dublin,” or that the Irish Parliamentary Party represents the interests of the Irish working class. 8 The Irish working class should organize its own working-class party. 9

James Connolly took up this challenge on being offered the job as full-time organizer of the Dublin Socialist Club in 1896.10 He saw it as his prime task to establish a genuinely Irish socialist party that recognized the needs of the Irish nation as distinct from Britain. In an introduction to the U.S. edition of his article “Erin’s Hope,” published in 1909, Connolly explains why the name “Irish Socialist Republican” was adopted for the new party:

The Irish Socialist Republican Party was founded in Dublin in 1896 10 by a few workingmen whom the author had succeeded in interesting in his proposition that the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland the Socialist and the National were not antagonistic, but complementary, and that the Irish Socialist was in reality the best Irish patriot, but that in order to convince the Irish people of that fact he must first of all learn to look inward upon Ireland for his justification, rest his arguments upon the facts of Irish history, and be the champion against the subjection of Ireland and all that it implies. That the Irish National question was at bottom an economic question, and that the economic struggle must first be able to function freely nationally before it could function internationally, and as Socialists were opposed to all oppression, so they should ever be foremost in the daily battle against all its manifestations, social and political. 11
Connolly and Socialist Republicanism

In its inaugural manifesto, the ISRP laid down as its object:

Establishment of An IRISH SOCIALIST REPUBLIC based upon the public ownership by the Irish people of the land, and instruments of production, distribution and exchange. Agriculture to be administered as a public function, under boards of management elected by the agricultural population and responsible to them and to the nation at large. All other forms of labour necessary to the wellbeing of the community to be conducted on the same principles. 12

This was to be achieved by “the conquest by the Socialist Democracy of political power in Parliament, and on all public bodies in Ireland.” 13 The insistence of the ISRP on “the conquest by the Social Democracy of political power” through the ballotbox was in keeping with the primary importance Marxists in the Second International attached to the workers’ parties gaining control of the national legislatures by electoral organization and propaganda. 14 At the Zurich Congress in 1893, for example, a resolution was passed that made the meaning of “political action” clear:

By “political action” is meant that the working-class organisations seek, in as far as possible, to use or conquer political rights and the machinery of legislation for the furthering of the interests of the proletariat and the conquest of political power. 15

Previously Marx and Engels had worked out a “revolutionary model” for the working class of the bourgeois democratic republics of the nineteenth century (including the constitutional monarchies with a strong middle class, such as England). The struggle for bourgeois democracy as a prerequisite for the success of socialist revolution is underlined in the Communist Manifesto. In such “advanced” states, the proletariat should constitute itself as a political party and by means of the existing democratic institutions (such as elections to parliament) win control of the democratic majority by the conquest of political power and, having reached the position of hegemonic force in the state, carry out the necessary revolutionary changes in society. 16 It is this model that the Marxists of the Second International generally adopted. Marx believed in the possibility of achieving the socialist revolution by peaceful means, but only if the bourgeoisie refrained from employing counterrevolutionary measures to annul the majority decision. 17 The situation in feudal absolutist states, he considered, demanded different strategy and tactics. In such cases, the primary concern was the carrying out of the bourgeois revolution, during the course of which the proletariat, in alliance with the democratic petty bourgeoisie, would come to power, and during a process of “permanent revolution” would assert its hegemonic position by violent suppression of the previous ruling classes. 18 The remnants of feudal absolutism as well as bourgeois society could then be finally destroyed within a relatively short period. 19

This latter “revolutionary model” was taken up by V. I. Lenin and developed for the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in his article “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.” Lenin understood the establishment of a democratic republic to be the necessary prerequisite for the victory of the socialist revolution in Russia, which under the conditions of feudal absolutism could only be possible by using revolutionary force. 20 The bourgeois revolution would not be able to go beyond the capitalist economic structure of society, but the more radically democratic this revolution, the greater would be the benefit to the working class and the easier the task of completing the socialist revolution. Only the proletariat, together with the peasants and urban petty bourgeoisie, would be capable of winning a decisive victory over czarism and of erecting the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” that, he believed, would lay the foundations for the revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism. 21

In the program of the ISRP, the achievement of socialism by constitutional means is underlined, but the question of national self-determination and its role in the establishment of socialism in Ireland a question of prime importance for an oppressed nation is not developed. Greaves remarks that as far as the immediate program of the ISRP is concerned, and also the phraseology it adopted such as “the forces of Democracy,” the influence of the SDF manifesto of 1883, “Socialism made plain,” can be discerned. 22

Founding of the Irish Socialist Republican Party

The immediate program was as follows:

1. Nationalization of railways and canals.

2. Abolition of private banks and money-lending institutions and establishment of state banks, under popularly elected boards of directors, issuing loans at cost.

3. Establishment at public expense of rural depots for the most improved agricultural machinery, to be lent out to the agricultural population at a rent covering cost and the management alone.

4. Graduated income tax on all incomes over £400 per annum in order to provide funds for pensions to the aged infirm and widows and orphans.

5. Legislative restriction of the hours of labour to 48 per week and establishment of a minimum wage.

6. Free maintenance for all children.

7. Gradual extension of the principle of public ownership and supply of all the necessaries of life.

8. Public control and management of National Schools by boards elected by popular ballot for that purpose alone.

9. Free education up to the highest university grades.

10. Universal suffrage. 23

It is interesting to compare this program to the earlier Communist Manifesto. The closeness is striking, although the program of the ISRP is more detailed in certain points with a specific relevance to the Irish situation, such as points 3 and 8. The program set out in the Communist Manifesto is a general one for the most developed countries. It would have to be altered in accordance with the conditions in the individual countries. 24 The measures in the program refer to the situation after the proletariat has risen to the position of hegemonic force in the state. 25 The function of the ISRP program, on the other hand, was twofold: 1) as a means of organizing the forces of democracy for the coming struggle, and 2) as a palliative: reform measures to alleviate “the evils of our present social system,” Thus there is not a clear division between immediate demands in the present struggle and those measures that could effect a revolutionary change in society; a distinction is not made between reform and revolution as is the case, for example, in the draft program of the Russian SocialDemocratic Workers’ Party. 26

One point in which the ISRP program formed a striking contrast to SDF policy was the national question. Whereas the SDF pursued the policy of “Home Rule” for the British colonies and dependencies, the ISRP clearly spoke out against British imperialism in support of self-determination:

The Irish Socialist Republican Party holds . . . that the subjection of one nation to another, as of Ireland to the authority of the British Crown, is a barrier to the free political and economic development of the subjected nation, and can only serve the interests of the exploiting classes of both nations. 27

From this point of view, as Greaves maintains, “the programme of the I.S.R.P, was thus more advanced than that of the most advanced party in Britain.” 28 The ISRP program may have lacked the political sharpness of that of the Russian SocialDemocratic Workers’ Party, 1895–96: 29 the very minimum has been inserted into the ISRP program. There is no mention of the economic situation of the Irish working class, nor of the nature of the class struggle in capitalist society on the economic as well as on the political level. The radical democratic principle of “by the people, for the people, solely in the interests of the people” is inserted side-by-side with the socialist principle of the rejection of private ownership, by a class, of the land and instruments of production, distribution, and exchange as “the fundamental basis of all oppression, national, political and social” 30 and both are clearly seen within the context of the struggle for national independence.

In 1903 Connolly assisted in drawing up a manifesto for the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) of Scotland. In comparison with the ISRP program, this manifesto is more decisive in its formulations concerning the role of the working class in effecting its own emancipation. The manifesto expresses the need for a working-class party, recognizing the concept of the class struggle. Stressing that the efforts of the working class must be directed towards gaining control of the political state and wresting power from the capitalist class, it also puts forward a program of “immediate demands,” including the introduction of the eight-hour working day, abolition of child labor, universal adult suffrage, and a national referendum on foreign affairs. 31 On its own, the ISRP program hardly provides us with sufficient material to understand fully Connolly’s ideas on an Irish socialist republic. His political writings of that period, however, do throw considerable light on the subject.


1. These condensed biographical details are taken from C. Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1972).

2. Ibid., 26.

3. Ibid., 45–48.

4. Ibid., 39.

5. John Leslie, The Present Position of the Irish Question (Dublin and Belfast, 1969),

5. Originally published 1894.

6. Ibid., 6.

7. Ibid., 9.

8. Ibid., 2.

9. Ibid., 13, 17.

10. Greaves, James Connolly, 70.

11. James Connolly, James Connolly: Selected Political Writings, ed. Owen Dudley Edwards and Bernard Ransom (London: Cape, 1973), 166.

12. James Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism (Dublin, 1948), 184.

13. Ibid., 186.

14. See G. D. H. Cole, The Second International, part 1, vol. 3 of A History of Socialist Thought (London, 1970), 11.

15. Ibid., 26.

16. Dieter Kramer, Reform und Revolution bei Marx und Engels (Cologne, 1971), 162.

17. Ibid., 157.

18. Ibid., 156.

19. Ibid., 161.

20. Vladimir I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, in vol. 9 of Collected Works, (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 112.

21. Lenin, Two Tactics, 56.

22. Greaves, James Connolly, 77.

23. Ibid., 76.

24. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in vol. 6 of Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 504–5.

25. Ibid.

26. Vladimir I. Lenin, “Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party, in vol. 2 of Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972): 102–4.

27. Greaves, James Connolly, 77.

28. Ibid., 78.

29. Ibid.

30. Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism, 185.

31. See R. M. Chewter, The History of the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain from 1902–1921, with Special Reference to the Development of Its Ideas, B. Litt. Thesis, Oxford Univ., 1965.

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