National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 1: Apprenticeship to Marxism

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

In 1889 when James Connolly was recruited to socialism in Edinburgh, both Marxist and non-Marxist trends were represented in the newly formed Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF) to which he adhered.

In its attempt to overcome the organisational fragmentation of Scottish socialism the SSF had drawn together members and sympathisers from two competing Marxist strands—the Socialist League of William Morris and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

The SDF was founded by Harry H. Hyndman, J. L. Joynes and others. Its Marxism was modelled on the example of the German Social-Democratic Party. The Socialist League started as a split from the Federation in 1884 but its tendency towards abstract propagandism—and ultra-left abstention from parliamentary elections—led to general disillusion among its members of whom many drifted back into the SDF in the 1890s.

Other ideological tendencies at this time in Scottish socialism (and particularly in Edinburgh) were the Christian Socialists and the non-Marxist Keir Hardie group, embryo of the Independent Labour Party established in 1893-4.

Still other trends derived from the various land agitation groups in Scotland during the previous decade—the Irish ‘land war’ of 1879-82 was fresh in the memory of many Irish immigrants in the working class wards in Edinburgh including Cowgate where Connolly himself had been born in 1868. Another influence was the short but militant wave of New Unionism of 1888-9 which swept through Leith and Edinburgh just when Connolly became an activist. And last but not least was the influence of the Home Rule movement in the Irish immigrant community, intense in the 1880s, against which the Scottish Socialists were obliged to define a socialist attitude to Irish independence.

The development of the Edinburgh Marxist movement was hampered by the limited availability of English translations at that time. The first volume of Das Kapital, translated in 1886, was the main source of orthodoxy for the SDF. The Communist Manifesto was also widely available from the mid 1880s, as was Wage-Labour and Capital (translated by J.L. Joynes), a dramatic indictment of capitalism written by Marx but a very early work dating also from 1848.

Given this narrow literary base, it is not surprising that British ‘Marxism’ tended to be confined to Marx’s political-economic theories and his theory of history as popularised in the Manifesto.

The economic dominance of Britain as “workshop of the world” in the second half of the 19th century improved the working conditions of a large section of the proletariat in tandem with British imperialist expansion. The ideology of reformism thus emerged strongly—the notion that capitalism could be gradually reformed towards socialism without resort to revolution. This accommodation to bourgeois society greatly strengthened the hold of the Liberals on the mainly craft-dominated trade unions and of Fabianism in sections of the intelligentsia.

In order to maintain their independence from Liberalism, therefore, the founders of the SDF were compelled to formally adopt Marx’s ideas about the roots of exploitation being inherent in the capitalist mode of production itself, that capitalism can never be reformed to eliminate exploitation: it must be overthrown.

It was a ready-made and powerful weapon against Liberal and Fabian rivals, but the SDF was unable to apply Marx’s ideas in a living way. In 1894 Engels, sorely disappointed with what they had done to Marxist theory, commented: “The SDF … has managed to transform our theory into the rigid dogma of an orthodox sect. (Letter to Sorge in Marx & Engels: Selected Correspondence, Progress, Moscow, 1982, p.449).

For most of the SDF Marxism provided a general theoretical justification for socialism and for the belief in its inevitability. The rudimentary knowledge of Marx’s work was, however, not underpined by his materialist method, his deeply critical approach to all aspects of social life. The SDF, no less than the Socialist League, though as a result of short term opportunism rather than ultra-leftism, had little understanding of how to develop and apply Marx’s principles tactically in the context of partial or day-to-day struggles. Engels demonstrated this practically in two significant periods of working class upheaval, the unemployment agitation of 1886-87 and the rise of the first wave of unskilled “New Unionism” in 1889-90. With a tiny band of comrades acting independently of both the SL and SDF factions Engels successfully related to the militants and leaders of both movements, particularly the new union leaders.

Stephen Spender, in his recollections published in 1927, sheds some light on the version of Marxism which was prevalent among the SDF membership:

[I] learned as a result of my study of the Marxian system that man is entirely a creature of external circumstances; that social and economic evolution takes its own course regardless of man’s will or desire, and that he cannot broadly affect it in any way, at least consciously; and that the contradictions in the system would continue to deepen until the great mass of disinherited workers would discover the power of numbers, rise up in their myriads, violently expropriate the handful of expropriators and establish the Socialist Commonwealth. (Henry Collins, The Marxism of the SDF, in Essays in Labour History, Vol. 2, 1972, (ed.), A. Briggs, p.68).

This is the kind of schematic determinism that gave rise to sharp protests from Marx and Engels at different times, that socialism is inevitable and will evolve in its own good time. It completely overlooks the role of conscious revolutionary action, strategy and tactics: after all if everything is predetermined “regardless of men’s will or desire” then political tasks hardly take on much importance.

Socialism and Materialism

In the 1890s, while Connolly was embarked on his intellectual apprenticeship, some of the limits of the old truisms of Marxism as then understood were coming under scrutiny in SDF circles. The attempts by various individuals in the SDF and its SSF periphery in Scotland to rethink their socialist philosophy, however, were fraught with difficulty, not least because they were peripheral to the debates within the Second International (established in 1889), especially in its German-speaking sections.

Belfort Bax, exceptional in this regard for a member of the SDF, contributed to the critique of historical materialism in the 1890s in the German language journal of the International. Bax was one of the most cultured among the SDF leaders, closer to William Morris than to Harry Hyndman, and had been to Germany in the 1870s and studied some of the German philosophers preceding Marx. His was a limited criticism, however, aimed at highlighting the mechanical materialist view of social history in which conscious human agency and action were denied in favour of unconscious economic forces. Bax went back to Kant and argued (as did some Austro-Marxists in this period) that there were many spheres of social life and culture which simply were not amenable to materialist study. He put forward a social theory based on independent subjective and objective factors. He rejected the idea that the objective material basis was primary over subjective conditions, over political and ideological institutions.

The dangers of reducing the Marxist method to economic determinism had been well understood by Engels. It was a problem he returned to frequently. In 1890, for example, he wrote:

We make our history ourselves but in the first place under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not a decisive one. (Marx & Engels Selected Correspondence, p.394)).

Engels here recognises that while the economic basis is decisive, political and ideological forces and institutions interact with it, posing a range of concrete problems to be tackled in developing the class consciousness and political armoury of the workers’ party. Logically it demands the application of historical materialism to key national, religious, agrarian and other historically specific questions likely to arise in the course of party building and struggle in any particular country.

The net result of Bax’s theorising was, on the contrary, to give equal and independent importance to both the economic side and the cultural, social and political ‘factors’. This invited socialists to agree on economic analysis but not on important social and ideological questions. In the latter spheres, analysis was very arbitrarily based on gathered impressions and criticisms inconsistent with Marxism. For example, developments in science, mathematics and aesthetics were, in Bax’s view, decidedly unconnected with and in no way dependent on economic development. While undoubtedly a reaction to the cramping effects of economic reductionism in his own environment, Bax’s position easily toppled over into arbitrary eclectic views, and ultimately sundered all connection between base and superstructure.

This unscientific approach led Bax himself into some very odd views. As a libertarian closely aligned with the Morris wing, he railed against religion with little real comprehension of its social roots in class society and its functions in keeping the proletariat anaesthetised. He even held the reactionary view that women were innately more conservative than men and consequently feared the extension of the franchise to them!

Connolly was certainly no libertarian. His upbringing in a working class Catholic family left its mark long after he himself ceased to be a believer. Ironically, however, he did share with Bax the view that many spheres of social life are not knowable by way of a materialist analysis, particularly religion. So, where Bax might have offered a psychological explanation of such beliefs, Connolly concluded that the socialist party must “fight shy” of such questions on the grounds that they are not germane to the struggle for socialism. (See chapter 5.)

He continually sought to limit the scope of Marx’s dialectical method and to partially reject the materialist view of history as applied to culture and ideology. This is evident in the controversy with Daniel DeLeon in 1904-5. Subsequently, as Ransom points out, when dealing with Father Kane’s Lenten Pastorals in 1910, Connolly resorted pragmatically to the standpoint of the Catholic religion and highlighted what he regarded as Kane’s departure from the truest Church doctrines. It was a method fundamentally flawed and riddled with contradictions. (B. Ransom, Connolly’s Marxism, Pluto, London, 1980, p.27).

Connolly’s position on religion is an important measure of his overall grasp of materialism. When Connolly attacked “vulgar materialism” he differed radically from what Marx and Engels attacked with the same term. He was in effect attacking atheism, which Marx, Engels and the majority of the leaders of Social Democracy internationally professed. In his view the problem with vulgar materialism was that it purported to explain godly things without resort to theology. With Marx and Engels, on the contrary, vulgar materialism offered unsatisfactory accounts of religion for the want of a consistent historical and sociological analysis.

Was Connolly, then, a Christian Socialist in these politically formative years?

A more immediate influence on Connolly in the early 1890s was his tutor in Marxian economics, the Rev. John Glasse, a minister in the Church of Scotland. A close ally of William Morris, in the 1880s he was independently editor of the Christian Socialist.

Glasse, like Bax, contested the all embracing rigid determinism—“that socialism is inevitable”—which passed for Marxism, and preferred to view Marx as an economic theorist whose ideas could be integrated into his own left wing theology. Glasse thus set out to persuade the Church of Scotland to take up socialist ideas in order to fulfil its religious mission. He explained:

The object of my paper was to persuade the ministers and members of the Church of Scotland that they were not worthy of their privileges or position unless they resolved in the spirit of the prophets and of Jesus, and work along with Socialists in breaking every yoke and letting the oppressed go free. (Cited in Ransom’s PhD thesis, James Connolly and the Scottish Left, Edinburgh University, 1975).

Glasse was thus clearly identifiable as a Christian Socialist since he actively mixed the two ideas. Connolly sought only to promote socialism while avoiding the struggle against religion. Thus, while he conceded much ground to the Church, it would be wrong to call him a Christian Socialist.

At its foundation in 1889, the Scottish Socialist Federation avoided programmatic statements but demanded of its members a commitment to fight for “Truth, Justice and Morality” (Ransom, 1975). This high moral tone was aimed at retrieving the unity of socialism after years of tactical and doctrinal division in the SDF/SL of the ’80s. As such, it may not have been without some positive value, but the commitment to such apparently absolute ethical values may also reflect the influence in the movement of people who still borrowed from religious rhetoric for their propaganda. Not untypical was Gilray, a co-founder of the SDF, who suggested that capitalism simply bred “immorality” as a “competitive Nazareth”. The dubious appeal of this language betrays a tardy sense of history and a reluctance to acknowledge the progress and ideals that the bourgeois revolution had brought with it, such as individual freedoms, national self-determination, separation of moral and religious matters from the state. As we illustrate in later chapters, Connolly was all too prone to understand morality in a similarly absolute way, a fact which was to hamper his political activity.

The adherence to abstract notions of truth, justice and morality reflected the SSF’s lack of a revolutionary or dialectical understanding of the flux and relativity of the social world in general. The effect of this extended towards the treatment of the national question which was brought into focus around the issue of Irish Home Rule. Connolly, following key influences in the SSF, was to separate nationalism from its bourgeois roots in a bid to appeal to the Irish masses.

Existing in the “Celtic fringe”, among masses of immigrant Irish unskilled workers, the Scottish left in Edinburgh had become very sensitive to the need to win the support of the Irish in local ward elections. Although the SDF centre in London maintained an acceptably ‘orthodox’ approach to the Irish national question, supporting political and legislative independence, this generally amounted to uncritical accommodation to bourgeois Home Rule nationalists in the ‘constitutional’ tradition. While Connolly sympathized deeply with the nationalist movement, he did not trust the Irish bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, he did not share the Marxist understanding that the struggle for national independence was inherently a product of, and a striving for, capitalist development. Certainly, he was correct to observe the untrustworthiness of the Irish bourgeoisie in solving even its own tasks of national independence and democracy. But without a class analysis of nationalism itself, how was he to critically analyse the petit-bourgeois Fenian tradition whose revolutionary methods would appear to pit it against the bourgeoisie? This failure to subject the national question as such to the rigour of Marxist historical materialism was to have far-reaching consequences for the future political fate of Connolly.

Limits to Economic Development

While the Marxism of the SDF lacked philosophical consistency and was largely limited to the political economy of capitalism, the theory of capitalism expounded by the SDF was not rigorously Marxist. It involved important misunderstandings derived from other trends in economics against which, ironically, Marx had developed his own ideas. A key influence in the SDF came via exiles from Germany who subscribed to the ideas of Ferdinand Lassalle. It was not unusual for socialists in the English speaking world at the time to heartily expound Lassallean doctrines in the mistaken belief that they were repeating the ideas of Marx.

Lassalle’s teachings were very influential among German workers in the 1870s through the General Workers’ Union. But Marx had dealt them a sharp blow in 1875 in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, unfortunately not then translated into English. Among these ideas was the so-called “iron law of wages”. This rested on Malthus’s theory of population and argued that it was impossible to improve wages under capitalism or to raise them above subsistence level, in real purchasing power.

This “iron law” had been attacked by Marx in two lectures to the International Working Men’s Association, the First International, in 1865. These talks were first published in English as Value, Price and Profit in 1898. Connolly evidently read this pamphlet and defended its key idea in a debate with DeLeon in the USA in 1904. However, in its Lassallean form, the “iron law” brought other flawed theoretical baggage with it, specifically “underconsumptionism”, which shaped Connolly’s theories of economic crisis and of the development of capitalism in Ireland, with negative results.

The underconsumptionist theory of crisis was first stated clearly by Sismondi in 1819-20. He argued that “defective demand” in the market place was the root cause of the capitalist crisis. The idea was taken up by Rodbertus in Germany some thirty years later; who in turn was influential with Lassalle and Dühring. In this context, the theory was closely connected with the “iron law of wages”. The argument was that the “iron law” meant the absolute immiseration of the working class which led to a lack of demand for commodities and hence a crisis pushing prices below the value of commodities, finally squeezing profits.

Marx, while he acknowledges the presence of bouts of collapsing demand and other bottlenecks, never accepted this as a basis for his own theory of the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism. His theory was rooted in his “most important law of political economy”, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall even while commodities are sold at their value. This happens because of the rising “organic composition” of capital, the increasing proportion of capital in machines and materials as against living labour in production. Since this capital simply transfers its original exchange value to commodities, only living labour actually adds new value to a product. The creation by the labourer of exchange value over and above his or her own wages is thus the key to profits. As the proportion of living labour declines, the rate of surplus value extracted from labourers (profit) falls behind the rate of accumulation of capital. It was this conclusion which enabled Marx to offer a consistent account of both the historic role of capitalism in accumulating the means of production and also the periodic crises it brought. However large profits might remain, a fall in the rate of profit, if not offset, inevitably brings about the collapse of further investment and hence of accumulation and production.

In underconsumptionist theories of crisis the breakdown is located in the process of realising the value of commodities in the market. In Marx’s theory it is assumed that realisation, whatever its many problems, nevertheless takes place. The source of the crisis is in the sphere of production itself. In fact, Marx, in Volume II of Capital (again, not widely read or understood outside German speaking countries) was adamant about the gulf between his and underconsumptionist theories of crisis:

It is sheer tautology to say that crises are caused by the scarcity of effective consumption, or of effective consumers. The capitalist system does not know any other modes of consumption than effective ones, except that of ‘sub forma pauperis’ or of the swindler. That commodities are unsaleable means only that no effective purchasers have been found for them, i.e. consumers (since commodities are bought in the final analysis for productive or individual consumption). But if one were to attempt to give this tautology the semblance of a profounder justification by saying that the working-class receives too small a portion of its own product and the evil would be remedied as soon as it receives a larger share of it and its wages increase in consequence, one could remark that crises are always prepared by precisely a period in which wages rise generally and the working-class actually gets a larger share of that part of the annual product which is intended for consumption. From the point of view of these advocates of sound and “simple” common sense, such a period should rather remove the crisis. It appears, then, that capitalist production comprises conditions independent of good or bad will, conditions which permit the working-class to enjoy that relative prosperity only momentarily, and that always only as a harbinger of a coming crisis. (Capital, Vol. II, Lawrence & Wishart, 1977, pp 414-5).

Engels added his view in the preface to the same volume of Capital and specifically attacked the theory of crisis advocated by Rodbertus:

Rodbertus’s explanation of commercial crises as outgrowths of underconsumption of the working class may be found in Sismondi … However, Sismondi always had a world market in mind while Rodbertus’s horizon does not extend beyond the Prussian border. (Capital,Vol. II, p.18).

Unfortunately while Marx and Engels were carefully criticising these mistakes of the German Party since the 1870s, these very ideas were gaining ground in the embryonic British Marxist movement. Harry Hyndman, the founder of the SDF, mentions in his biography that Myer, an exiled German socialist, taught him a good deal about Rodbertus’s and Lassalle’s ideas during the 1880s and that Hyndman was an ardent admirer of Lassalle thereafter! (See Tsuzuki’s introduction to England for All by H. Hyndman, 1971 and his biography, H.M.Hyndman and British Socialism, Oxford, 1961). J.L. Joynes, author of the influential and aptly titled pamphlet A Catechism of Socialism in the mid 1880s also extolled the “iron law of wages”. (H. Collins The Marxism of the SDF). Collins also refers to the prevalence of the underconsumptionist fallacy:

Another SDF member, John E. Ellman, who later turned to syndicalism, expressed a common enough view at the time when he wrote of the lack of effective demand under capitalism, aggravated by technological unemployment giving rise to a situation in which socialists might confidently wait for the capitalist system to break down under its own weight. (Social Democrat, April 1889, cited in H. Collins).

In general those socialists who have mistakenly reduced Marx’s theory of crisis to “underconsumptionism”, lack of “effective demand” etc., fail to understand the historic mission of the capitalist epoch, the extension of the forces of production. Their focus on the market and the purchasing power of workers for necessities, and of capitalists, landlords etc. for luxuries, displaces the problem from the sphere of production to that of realisation. Their accounts ignore the extent and centrality of production of goods for consumption within the sphere of production itself, the “effective” demand for new means of production due to the frenetic accumulation of capital itself. Capitalist development does not exhaust a fixed market because its own needs continually create and expand new markets.

The political conclusions which flow from underconsumptionist theories are many and varied. The bourgeois economist Maynard Keynes rested his whole argument for state intervention to manage the boom/slump cycle on the notion of boosting effective demand. Hyndman, too, oscillated between the possibilities of crisis management and belief in the impossibility of curing crisis under capitalism.

Another variant of the theory, when applied within national boundaries, as Engels noted above of Rodbertus, was that the home market is inherently too small to absorb the output of native capitalism. From this it was suggested that export markets were compulsory if a native capitalism were to develop. This superficial view of the “home market” tended to perceive the growth of capital only in its extensive and geographical aspect, and not in its intensive, truly historic dimension in expanding the means of production.

This form of underconsumption argument was most classically put forward by the Russian Narodniks, or Populists, as they set out to show in the 1880s and 1890s that the development of capitalism in Russia was impossible due to the “limits of the home market”. One of these, Nikolaion, thought himself a Marxist but actually followed Sismondi in suggesting that the beginnings of capitalism would, after immiserating the vast peasantry as potential consumers, make it impossible to find a market at home. Hence, Nikolaion argued for a special Russian road by-passing capitalism through a “peasant socialism” centred on reviving the collective mode of peasant administration (the mir).

First Plekhanov and later Lenin developed a critique of these theories as argued in Russia. Lenin, in his foundation work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, showed in 1899 that capitalism creates its own home market, particularly by creating a demand for the means of production. He rebutted the mistake of the Narodniks, specifically in their claim that it was not possible for Russian capitalism to realise surplus value, to sell its commodities at their value, without resorting to foreign markets:

Marx fully explained the process of realisation of the product in general and of surplus value in particular in capitalist production, and revealed that it is utterly wrong to drag the foreign market into the problem of realisation. (Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Progress, Moscow, p.69).

It is clear from the excerpt below and other writings on the market question that Connolly held views which were not only within the SDF tradition of underconsumptionism but very similar to the variant put forward by the Russian Narodniks:

Socialists point out that the capitalist system depends upon the maintenance of the equilibrium between the producing and the consuming power of the world; that business cannot go on unless the goods produced can find customers; that owing to the rapid development of machinery this equilibrium cannot be maintained; that the productive powers of the world are continually increasing whilst the virgin markets of the world are continually diminishing; that every new scientific process applied to industry, every new perfecting of machinery increases the productivity of labour, but as the area of the world remains unaltered the hope of finding new markets for the products of labour grows less and less; that time may come when all the world will be exhausted for the wares of commerce and yet invention and industrial perfectionism remain as active as ever; that then capitalism—able to produce more in a few months than would supply to customers for years—will have no work for its workers, who, constituting the vast majority as they do, will have to choose between certain starvation or revolt for Socialism. (Father Finlay, S.J.,and Socialism, 1899, in Workers Republic collection, Dublin 1951, pp 41-2).

Like other Edinburgh Marxists of Irish extraction he felt the pressure to relate to the immigrant Irish and break them away from their constitutional bourgeois nationalist leaders. This pre-disposed him to the theory that Irish capitalists could not develop Ireland economically on the grounds that no available market existed since other capitalist powers had glutted the world with “unsaleable” goods. Connolly tended towards the view that colonies had been reduced merely to foreign markets of dominant capitalist states. The wars between Britain and Russia over Chinese colonies were characterised as resolving the issue of which industrial nation shall “have the right to force on John Chinaman the goods which his European brother produces but may not enjoy”. (The Roots of Modern War, 1898, in Labour and Easter Week collection, Dublin, 1966, pp 25-26).

The logic of this argument was that national independence struggles were intrinsically directed against the needs of the colonial powers for foreign markets. It led him to the populist conclusion that revolutionary nationalists and the Irish peasantry would be impelled, having won national freedom, towards by-passing capitalism.

In fact Connolly argued that given the “glutted” state of the world market it would be impossible for an independent Ireland to industrialise. In his widely read pamphlet, Erin’s Hope (1887), he dismisses completely the aspirations of the Home Rule bourgeoisie for a native manufacturing base—incidentally paying no heed to the actually existing industrial base in North-East Ulster—and goes on to argue, in a manner almost identical to the Populists attacked by Lenin:

To establish industry successfully today in any country requires at least two things, neither of which Ireland possesses and one of which she never can possess. The first is the possession of the wherewithal to purchase machinery and raw materials for the equipment of her factories, and the second is customers to purchase the goods when they are manufactured. (Selected Political Writings, O.D Edwards & B. Ransom (ed.), London, 1973, p.178).

In Imperialism and Socialism he repeated the need for foreign markets for the development of indigenous capitalism in Russia. Conquering the Chinese market, he argued schematically, would give Russian capitalism the impetus it needed to break down the monarchist tyranny of the semi-feudal Tsar and establish the conditions under which the working class could come into being.

Whatever about Russian capitalism successfully developing on the basis of finding an external market to take its “overflow”, this, said Connolly, could not be so in Ireland, there being no foreign markets to exploit:

Go to the factory towns, to the shipbuilding centres, to the coal mines, to the trade unions, on to the Stock Exchange of England, the Continent of Europe and America, and everywhere you will hear the same cry: ‘The supply of cotton and linen goods, of ironwork, of coal and of ships, of goods of every description is exceeding the demand; we must work short time, we must reduce the workers’ wages, we must close our factories—there is not enough customers to keep our machinery going’. In face of such facts the thoughtful Irish Patriot will throw rant aside and freely recognise that it is impossible for Ireland to do what those other countries cannot do, with their greater advantages, viz, to attain prosperity by establishing a manufacturing system in a world-market already glutted with every conceivable kind of commodity. (Edwards & Ransom, pp 179-80).

This general line of argument was aimed at persuading the “thoughtful Irish Patriot” that there was no possibility of establishing a free and independent capitalist Ireland.

While he was clearly at odds with Lenin’s method of analysis in the Development of Capitalism in Russia, the claim has been made that his approach foreshadowed the method of that other great Marxist classic on the prospects for development in Russia, Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution. There is no substance to the claim.

During the 1905 Revolution Trotsky formulated his view that the bourgeoisie would be incapable of carrying out its historic tasks in Russia; that only the proletariat could complete the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, but in doing so the workers would consciously establish their own class power, supported by the peasantry, and open the road to international socialism as the condition for genuine economic development.

The contrasts with Connolly’s method are profound. Like Lenin, Trotsky proceeded from a rigorous analysis of the Russian economy and social formation, a task for which Connolly was never equipped in relation to Ireland. The myth of underconsumptionism played no part in Trotsky’s view of the impotence of the national bourgeoisie. They could not be trusted to create carry out the democratic revolution against the Tsar because they correctly feared the threat to their property and privileges from their own masses. For Trotsky the international organisation of production by capitalism across national boundaries had made it possible for the expected proletarian revolution in backward Russia to usher in an epoch of international socialist construction, for there was every prospect that the German and other working classes should soon join in overthrowing their own capitalists. The key conclusion was that the working class should play the leading role in the national democratic revolution, preserving the strictest political independence of the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie, and rallying the poor peasantry to a workers’ dictatorship.

On the contrary, Connolly’s wishful thinking about a separate national economic development in Ireland led towards coalescence, both theoretical and practical, with revolutionary nationalists and their utopia of an economically autarchic Ireland. By arguing that there was an insurmountable obstacle to realising a bourgeois democratic revolution he nurtured the illusion that “real” patriotism in Ireland would by its very logic lead to a socialist outcome because capitalist development would be impossible.

This outlook originally served to differentiate him and his close mentors in Edinburgh from the Home Rulers as rival champions of national independence for Ireland. In future years it would continue to inform his orientation to the Irish working class and rural masses. But its populist roots were to blind him to the intrinsic capitalist limits of even the most militant nationalist tradition. In both his economic theory of the market problem and in his exceptionalist road to the Irish Workers Republic, Connolly adopted the very populism that Lenin and the Russian Marxists made it their first task to combat.


The Scottish Socialist Federation had come into being in 1888-89 in order to overcome the organisational fragmentation of Edinburgh socialism, which resulted mainly from the split between the Social Democratic Federation and the smaller Socialist League. The SSF included former SL and SDF sympathisers and members, as well as Glasse and other Christian Socialists. As a result it borrowed different features of these two but remained independent of the SDF even after the demise of the SL in 1895. In the interim it became closely involved with the ideologically non-Marxist Independent Labour Party of Keir Hardie which had become a national organisation in 1883. Hardie’s Independent Labour Party aimed to put forward working class candidates in elections on a platform of labour and local government reforms.

Along with John Leslie, also of Irish descent, Connolly was active as a founding figure in the Edinburgh branch of the ILP in 1892-3. He had become a key organiser in the SSF in the same period and not only worked quite happily alongside Hardie in the ILP but himself ran for election in the St. Giles ward in Edinburgh on two occasions. Although he ran as a “socialist” rather than Independent Labour Party, his platform was the same—municipal reforms.

The relationship between the SSF and the ILP was generally amicable. The SSF had found a periphery for its propaganda activity and its lectures on socialism. The ILP, for its part, benefited from the hard work and dedication of Connolly and comrades in its day-to-day activities. Joint membership was common for SSF members.

At one level, this appeared to be a shining example of what was absent in the relationship between William Morris’s propagandists in the Socialist League and the parliament-oriented SDF from 1885 to 1890. In that period, Morris had in his own words wished “to keep alive a body of Socialists of Principle who will refuse responsibility for the action of the parliamentary portion of the party” (Thompson E.P., William Morris - Romantic to Revolutionary, New York, 1955, p.532). In refusing “responsibility” Morris merely ended up not holding the SDF accountable for what it said and did. The subsequent disillusionment of Morris and the SL’s own failure to grow led him to conclude that the League did not have anything “to do” when the propaganda about socialism was duly preached. (Y.Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol. II, Virago, London, 1979, pp 366-7). His return to the SDF involved no marked transcending of the combination of SL sectarianism and SDF opportunism.

Similar political confusions were to be found at the root of both the SL-SDF split and the SSF-ILP collaboration. The differences between the SL and the SDF were never really clarified or resolved publicly or politically. There was a left-right division, to be sure, but in the end the SL returned, chastened, to the main organisation.

Between the SSF and the ILP in Scotland, a cleavage began to emerge over the issues of party discipline and a united political line in the ILP. Leslie resigned in 1893 from the ILP, unable to get the kind of discipline he believed was needed. After this Connolly continued to act as bridge builder between the two bodies for a time. By 1894 the ILP was drifting further to the right. Consequently, in 1895, the SSF re-affiliated as the Edinburgh branch of the Social Democratic Federation.

Two main influences—the SDF itself and the successful SPD in Germany—provided the models for a political programme for the Edinburgh socialists. The SDF based itself on Hyndman’s Socialism Made Plain, published in 1883. This manifesto anticipated the more general model drafted jointly by Kautsky and Bernstein and adopted by the German SPD. It dealt with the ultimate goals separately from immediate reforms i.e. ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’ programmes. Both Hyndman’s and the SPD’s programmes avoided references to Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat. Moreover, Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt Programme, The Class Struggle, stated that the working class would merely “make use of its mastery over the machinery of government to introduce the socialist system of production”. He further widened the gap between immediate tasks and final goals when he added “The Social-Democratic Party can make positive propositions only for the existing social order”, i.e. reforms within capitalism.

In the SSF these orthodox positions were admixed with the tradition of the defunct Socialist League which emphasised abstract propaganda for the socialist maximum. Only the last remnants of the anarchists still opposed all parliamentary tactics. They got little sympathy in the 1890s and a delegation from Edinburgh to the 1893 Congress of the Second International was instructed to oppose the admittance of anarchists to the International.

SSF politics were thus based on a division between minimum demands and maximum goals. This allowed the organisation to canvass around the minimum demands which formed the election platforms of ILP candidates. That the ILP did not, at the time, stand for the final goals of nationalising all means of production and exchange was not a problem. It enabled the SSF to justify its separate existence as the upholder of final goals, as the preachers of socialism. In time, this naïve alliance was bound to fall apart.

By the time Connolly set out for Dublin in 1896, his initial political formation was complete. He had undoubtedly gained a wide range of experience as propagandist, party organiser and trade unionist. His political ideas, however, bore the hallmark of the SDF/SSF, fundamentally weak in philosophical terms, and flawed in its grasp of the political economy of capitalism. Such an intellectual legacy provided a weak basis for grappling with a colony whose long history of oppression and uneven development had consolidated the grip of anti-working class ideologies—religion, loyalism and nationalism—among the masses.