National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 5: Fighting shy of religion

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Little serious attention has been paid by Marxists to Connolly’s analysis of religion, and in particular to his attitude to the Catholic Church in Irish society.

Where the subject has been touched upon, with few exceptions the conclusions reached have been uncritical or mildly critical on certain apparently minor weaknesses seen to have no real importance, (e.g. Ransom—Connolly’s Marxism). Non-Marxist writers have, on the other hand, hailed Connolly for “blending” in one way or another the ideas of socialism and Christianity. In the latter school is the extended essay The Mind of an Activist—James Connolly (Gill & MacMillan, Dublin, 1971) in which Owen Dudley Edwards even characterises Connolly as a “Christian Socialist”.

The importance of analysing Connolly’s position on religion goes beyond the general issue of his grasp of philosophical materialism. He had to address, in day-to-day agitation and propaganda in Ireland, the specific concrete features of a proletariat and society in which mass religious consciousness and ecclesiastical power were central. Such an analysis, therefore, also has a practical application in to-day’s ideological struggle to build a revolutionary communism movement in Ireland.

An examination of Connolly’s own early background shows that his transition from an orthodox Catholic family life to socialism was in important respects constricted. Born to a Catholic emigrant Irish labouring family in Edinburgh in 1868, Connolly was educated in a Catholic school and the evidence suggests that, at the earliest, he stopped practising Catholicism in the early 1890s. At the time of his marriage in 1892 to Lillie Reynolds, a member of the Church of Ireland, he wrote to her about the need to abide by the then relaxed Ne Temere decree of the Catholic Church which required an undertaking from the non-Catholic partner to raise the children of the marriage as Catholics. While Connolly recognised that this would involve a “distasteful job” for Lillie—to meet with the local curate—he went on to add, in a letter to her:

… surely you will not grudge speaking for a quarter of an hour to a priest, especially as the fulfillment of these promises rests with ourselves in the future, though I’d like you to keep them. (Levenson, James Connolly—A Biography, London, 1973, p. 26).

His involvement with the socialist movement was deepening around this period and apparently his Catholicism diminished in the ensuing years. This is evident in a letter to Matheson in 1908 in which he wrote:

For myself, though I have usually posed as a Catholic, I have not gone to my duty for 15 years, and have not the slightest tincture of faith left. I only assumed the Catholic pose in order to quiz the raw free-thinkers, whose ridiculous dogmatism did and does dismay me, as much as the dogmatism of the Archbishop. (Reeve C. & Reeve A.B., James Connolly and the United States, New Jersey, 1978, p.242).

The picture is not entirely clear. Following his return from the USA, according to the memoirs of his daughter Nora, he went to mass with her in Belfast—on one such occasion only to be vilified by the priest in the pulpit. It is virtually certain that Connolly accepted the last rites from the Capuchin, Father Aloysius, as he awaited his execution in Kilmainham jail on 12th May 1916.

As an apprentice to socialism in the 1890s Connolly was subject to a variety of influences. In chapter one, we referred to the Reverend John Glasse, Connolly’s tutor and a minister of the Church of Scotland. In fact, Connolly did not adopt Glasse’s “Christian Socialist” position—that is to say, he avoided defining socialism as the political fulfillment of practical Christianity. In an article in The Harp, in April 1909, he expressed his own position:

Every time we approach a Catholic worker with a talk on “Christian Socialism” we make this a religious question, and on such a question, his religion teaches him that the clergy must say the last word. Why should we go out of our way to give the clergy the right to interfere in out politics, by giving a religious name to an economic and political movement? (Reeve & Reeve, p.242).

The fact that Connolly was not a Christian Socialist does not, however, imply that his attitude to Christianity, or religion generally, was scientific. The very ambiguity about his own personal commitment to Catholicism at different points in his life should itself raise a question. Even if we take literally his letter to Matheson it still begs the question regarding Connolly’s attachment to the substance, morality and ethics of Christianity. We know from accounts of his political career in Edinburgh that Connolly was very intolerant of any attempt to introduce atheist and secularist ideas into the Scottish Socialist Federation. At the 1895 winter meetings of the SDF, according to Ransom, Connolly attacked various exponents of free thought on the grounds that assaults on religion and “morality” had no place in the socialist movement. At a later date he would refer to atheism as an “excrescence” on the socialist movement. There is some reason to doubt that Connolly was merely a man of his time in this. Irish immigrant workers in Britain were not at all drunk on religion! As Ransom points out:

The near ghetto living conditions of the Scottish Catholic workers of Irish descent that we have already noted in the Lanark coalfield naturally gave rise to advanced labour and socialist ideas which were deeply anti-clerical and secularist in content. (Ransom, B., James Connolly and the Scottish Left—PhD thesis, 1975).

We must, therefore, turn our attention firstly to the intellectual setting in the Scottish wing of the SDF, particularly its grasp of Marxism, as part of the task of unravelling Connolly’s ambivalent attitude to religion. As we have shown, one of the main weaknesses of the SDF’s Marxism was precisely the lack of a firm grasp of historical materialism. The SDF based itself solely on texts dealing with the narrower ground of political economy. Consequently there was considerable confusion over the issues of religion, Church and state, the family and ideology generally. The Scottish Socialist Federation tended to treat ethical issues in a timeless manner. For two of Connolly’s mentors, Haldane Smith and Gilray, all things “immoral” were born out of “competitive Nazareth” of capitalism itself and the SSF insisted in its own ranks on a commitment to “Truth, Justice and Morality”. From this point of view, morality was defined in absolute and ultimately subjective-idealist terms instead of historically.

The concept of materialism, for Connolly’s mentors, was often understood in the pejorative sense—i.e. as greed, lust etc., while the concept of morality was set against it. In the 1840s Marx and Engels had originally defined their revolutionary communist position against just such abstract appeals to eternal moral standards as these. In Anti-Duhring, written in the mid 1870s, Engels reaffirmed their historical materialist view that no such eternal and ahistorical standards exist. Marxists recognise that people’s ideas reflect their social and economic circumstances and therefore that moralities rise and fall in accordance with class interests. This was not a harmless error on the part of the Scottish Socialist Federation. By accepting the falsehood that socialism expresses abstract general ethical laws rather than the interests of the working class they were immediately vulnerable to the ethical norms established by the bourgeoisie, and to the preaching of the clergy which supports these norms with “eternal” truths about god’s will, social peace, respect for established authority and other-worldly justice. The SSF outlook thus embodied a potentially crippling weakness.

In the same period as Connolly was subject to this influence, the leaders of the SDF, in particular Belfort Bax, were involved in controversy about the range and application of Marx’s method of historical materialism. In an interesting parallel with the Edinburgh socialists, Bax believed that historical materialism as a method could not comprehend and explain the interaction of the economic basis of society with all the social, political, ideological and intellectual superstructures. But Bax was wrong to ignore that Marxist historical materialism specifically understood the reciprocal effects of culture and ideology in the total movement of historical forces. Marx and Engels did allow for this but regarded such effects as ultimately subordinate to the underlying material conditions. Furthermore, for Marx and Engels, even cultural, artistic and religious phenomena have complex roots in material conditions of human existence in the broadest sense. Bax correctly rejected the crude economic reductionism common in the Second International, which denied that politics, religion, culture (the ‘superstructural’ factors) had any reciprocal influence on the material economic reality (the ‘base’). However, he did not accept that the superstructural factors themselves were ultimately determined by the base:

I allow fully that the peculiar form of a movement, be it intellectual, ethical or artistic, is determined by the material conditions of the society in which it asserts itself, but it will also be equally determined by the psychological elements and tendencies from which it is produced. [emphasis added] (B. Bax, ‘The Materialist Conception of History’, Neue Zeit, 1896-7, Vol.15, no.21).

The logic of this position is that irreducible or unpredictable psychological factors have played a role in history on a par with the development of the forces of production and independent of them. This is a dualist position. In this perspective, whole areas of social psychology are not accessible to materialist analysis and critique. Moreover, the spheres of culture and religion do not have material foundations located in the history and development of class society. Thus it is also an idealist position.

This eclecticism is echoed in certain assumptions of Connolly. For him religion was “unknowable” and outside the legitimate interest of socialism and Marxism. The latter, he argued, were concerned with the facts of economic life in a limited sense. Religion was, for him, a separate matter, essentially neutral in the class struggle. Thus, writing in 1901, Connolly clearly implied that socialists may passively ignore religion and its advocates in their propaganda:

Socialism, as a party, bases itself upon its knowledge of facts, of economic truths, and leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public. (The New Evangel, New Books, Dublin, 1972, p.31).

Such a position, we believe, is fundamentally wrong and proved to be a crucial weakness in Connolly’s political career. Marxists do not exclude any forms of social consciousness from the range of their analysis and, as far as religion is concerned, cannot afford to be in the least indifferent. Marx frequently exposed religion to criticism because it was a shroud of illusions by means of which the oppressed masses learned to accept their social condition as a natural destiny, the will of God, etc. To “pluck the religious flowers from the chains of oppression” was the first step toward revealing the chains themselves and hence toward consciously breaking them! Connolly, as we shall see, was clearly outside that tradition.

One of the difficulties about Connolly is the use he made of terminology often used by Marx and Engels to distinguish between themselves and purely anti-religious atheists and freethinkers.

However, the root of the confusion is that when Marx and Engels referred to vulgar materialists they meant people who had not fully developed their materialism; that they remained incapable of applying the materialist method to society and social consciousness as it develops historically, and that consequently they generally regressed into forms of idealism, eclecticism or agnosticism. Connolly, by contrast, attacked “vulgar materialists” for going too far in the criticism of religion! In his view, scientific socialists “neither affirm nor deny” religious beliefs. This amounted to an agnostic position at the very best, but in practice, in spite of Connolly’s wish to steer clear of religious controversy, he was forced time and again to express some view on the matter. As early as 1895 in Scotland he took up the cudgels against any speakers who defended free thought (or “free love”) at SDF gatherings. Later in the USA he had to do so again against De Leon and subsequently he never could escape debate on the subject.

The dominant theme in Connolly’s writings on religion is, on the one hand, his refusal to recognise religion as an expression of class society—the “inverted world consciousness, because consciousness of an inverted world” as Marx put it, and on the other his adamant assertion that atheism and materialism are the expression of the capitalist class alone. Hence he always attempted to distance socialism from atheistic materialism and to shun any criticism of religion. This position included rejection of the 18th century French materialists. The following extract, from 1908, which refers to the French revolutionary period, is typical of this deeply unscientific position:

To the free-thinkers and rebels of those days and the professional free-thinkers of today have not advanced much beyond that mental stage—God and the Church were nothing more than the schemes of a designing priesthood intent on enslaving and robbing the credulous masses ... That many otherwise excellent comrades have brought such ideas over into the camp of socialism is also undeniable. But that they are also held by an even greater number of enemies of socialism is truer still. And it is in truth in the camp of the enemy such ideas belong, such ideas are the legitimate children of the teachings of individualism and their first progenitors both in England and France were also the first great exponents of the capitalist doctrines of free trade, free competition and free labour. (Roman Catholicism & Socialism, in The Workers Republic collection, 1951, p.58).

This is a grossly erroneous formulation on the question of materialism’s history and yet another example of Connolly’s failure to roundly comprehend the progressive character of the bourgeois revolution. It is completely at odds with the sentiments expressed by Engels in his 1892 introduction to Socialism Utopian and Scientific, where he wrote:

About the middle of this century, what struck every cultivated observer ... was what he was bound to consider the religious bigotry and stupidity of the English respectable middle class. We at the time were all materialists, or at least advanced free-thinkers. ... In order to find people who dared to use their intellectual faculties with regard to religious matters, you had to go amongst the uneducated, the “great unwashed” as they were called, the working people, especially the Owenite socialist. (Engels, Anti-Dûhring, Peking edition, 1976, p.430).

Behind these different observations lies a fundamental difference of method and analysis. Connolly claimed that the capitalists brought atheism and irreligion forward as the means of stamping the hallmark of capitalism on the oppressed and exploited classes of capitalism.

In fact the bourgeoisie opposed the Church and religion in a wholly progressive struggle to bring down feudalism which was crowned with religion and under which the Church was the dominant landowner. The rise of bourgeois manufacture and trade also forced the progress of science beyond the flat-earth obscurantism of the Church and the narrow provincial oppression it sanctified.

Historically, Connolly’s account of religion and the bourgeois revolution runs counter to the facts. A serious study of the real social and revolutionary struggles that underlay the 16th century German Reformation and the rise of Calvinism in Holland and Britain, and the l8th century French revolutionary attack on religion shows that, at the very moments when these bourgeois revolutionary struggles appeared to mobilise from below a threat to the bourgeoisie themselves, this class sought compromises with the Church and religion. Even in the Great French Revolution, bourgeois materialism and deism gave way to the restoration of religion when the Revolution was brought to a halt by the bourgeoisie. The reason is summed up in the cynical words of Napoleon Bonaparte:

There can be no society without inequality of wealth, and inequality cannot exist without religion. When someone is dying of hunger while the next man has more than he can eat, there is no way he can accept the difference unless there is an authority there to tell him: It is God’s will; there must be rich and poor in the world. But after this, and for all eternity, things will be divided differently. (Quoted in D. Guerin, Class Struggle in the First French Republic, Pluto, London, 1977, p.43).

Here too, lies much of the explanation for the regression to religious stupidity in 19th century English bourgeois thought, something which was all the more significant for Engels since he and Marx appreciated that the progenitors of modern materialism—Bacon (1561-1626), Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704)—were all English. Precisely the consolidation of capitalism required the enlistment of religion against the threats of “the great unwashed”. Moreover, Engels, far from sharing Connolly’s dismissal of the French materialists, referred to them as that “brilliant school of French materialists who made the 18th century ... a pre-eminently French century, even before the French Revolution”. (Anti-Duhring, p.430). As materialists they were historically progressive in the 18th century Enlightenment struggle against religion, in which they gave a lead to the whole world.

Connolly’s hostility toward atheism is, therefore, a product of his own failure to become a genuinely Marxist materialist, and internally connected with this—indeed at the bottom of it—his failure to fully break out of his original Catholicism. His views on Henry Grattan are illuminating in this respect.

It will be seen that Mr. Grattan was the ideal capitalist statesman; his spirit was the spirit of the bourgeoisie incarnate. He cared more for the interests of property than for human rights or for the supremacy of any religion. His early bent in that direction is seen in a letter he sent to his friend, a Mr. Broome, dated November 3, 1767, and reproduced by his son in his edition of the life and speeches of his father. The letter shows the eminently respectable anti-revolutionary, religious Mr. Henry Grattan to have been at heart, a free-thinker, free-lover, and epicurean philosopher, who had early understood the wisdom of not allowing these opinions to be known to the common multitude whom he aspired to govern. We extract:- “You and I, in this as in most other things, perfectly agree; we think marriage is an artificial, not a natural institution, and imagine women too frail a bark for so long and tempestuous a voyage as that of life ... I have become an epicurean philosopher; consider this world as our ‘ne plus ultra’, and happiness as our great object in it ... Such a subject is too extensive and too dangerous for a letter; in our privacy we shall dwell upon it more copiously. (LIIH, New Books, p.39).

His attitude to “free thought” was that, like “free love”, it merely expressed the destruction of morality by capitalism, morality which he viewed in abstraction from its class basis.

For the most part, Connolly sought to avoid any discussion of religion in the party on the grounds that religion was concerned with the unknown and the unknowable. Thus, in 1901, he wrote:

The Socialist Party of Ireland prohibits the discussion of theological or anti-theological questions at its meetings, public or private ... They as a party neither affirm or deny these things but leave it to the individual conscience of each member to determine what beliefs on such questions they shall hold ...

This is the main reason why socialists fight shy of theological dogmas and religious generally: because we feel that socialism is based upon a series of facts requiring only unassisted human reason to grasp and master all their details, whereas religion of every kind is admittedly based upon “faith” in the occurrence in past ages of a series of phenomena inexplicable by any process of mere human reason. (The New Evangel, pp 29-30).

The implication of these statements is that religion is of no consequence to the struggle for socialism. The only sense in which one could attempt to uphold such a view would be by arguing that religion is class-neutral. In one of the few places where he ever attempted to offer any material or historical explanation for religion, he expressed precisely this view. Reviewing the pamphlet Roman Catholicism and Socialism, by one of his Irish-American and Catholic comrades, Patrick J. Cooney, he argued that religion is merely the means whereby humanity struggled to express its understanding of the natural world:

In the light of this modern conception of the conditions of historical progress, religion appears as the outcome of the efforts of mankind to interpret the workings of forces of nature, and to translate its phenomena into terms of a language which could be understood.

Quoting from the pamphlet under review, he continued:

The point to be noted in this: The different stages of development of the human mind in its attitude towards the forces of nature created different priesthoods to interpret them, and the mental conceptions of mankind as interpreted by those priesthoods became, when systematised, Religion. Religions are simply expressions of the human conception of the natural world; these religions have created the priesthoods. Only he who stands upon the individualistic conceptions of history can logically claim that priesthoods created religion. Modern historical science utterly rejects the idea as absurd. (Workers Republic collection, p.59).

In this analysis, Connolly overlooked the principal component of a Marxist analysis—namely the social roots of the “inverted social consciousness” of religion, i.e, the social division of labour into classes. At most, his argument puts religion down to the undeveloped state of human consciousness, the “pre-scientific” age of human thinking. This is at odds with Marx’s own analysis, though, ironically, it bears some fleeting resemblance to the position of Ludwig Feuerbach, whom Marx criticised in the 1840s as part of the process of elaborating the materialist conception of history. Feuerbach, a radical materialist and seminal influence on the young Marx, remained eclectic, combining elements of materialist atheism with a static notion of the human individual—all in abstraction from the history of class societies and their modes of production.

More seriously, whereas Feuerbach solidly identified the need to confront and do battle with the illusions of religion because it alienated humanity from its own creativity and its capacity to mould nature to its own needs, Connolly failed to see this characteristic of religion. Indeed, he failed to pursue even the lines of thought which he drew from Cooney’s pamphlet. He contented himself with the “economic” arguments of Marxism and identified clearly, as the class enemy, only the capitalist as employer. Religion and its institutions he believed to have no essential bearing on this matter and he considered any attempt to bring the subject of religion into socialist debate and criticism to be “an impertinence” and an “absurdity”. This was an expression of economism on the theoretical level—the attempt to steer clear of “non-economic” issues as though they were inessential in the class struggle.

Marx, in contrast to this narrow focus on immediate economic facts, recognised the implications of social revolution for religion. In the development of historical materialism in the 1840s Marx and Engels surpassed the critics of religion of the time—the Bauers, Feuerbach and others. In doing so they did not abandon the criticism of religion but, having taken it as their starting point, proceeded to put it on a scientific footing. They did this by criticising and outlining a programme for overthrowing the very foundations of religious obscurantism—class society and exploitation. The following quote from Marx’s 1844 Introduction to his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state captures the thrust of the argument:

The basis of irreligious criticism is: man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside this world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society produce religion, an inverted world consciousness because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic is a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification ... The struggle against treligion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. (Marx and Engels on Religion, Progress, Moscow, 1976, p.38).

By “inverted world” Marx meant the world created by a society whose real nature is exploitation of the masses by a ruling class. On this foundation rests the division of labour within the ruling class between its practical exploiters and its ideologists whose world view—religion and ideology—sanctifies the existing social order. In another scathing reference to religion Marx argued that the role of the clergy was to make out that the roots of oppression were not the social mode of production but merely a consequence of external nature. That is why the major mass religions promise a “hereafter”—an imagined world of happy rewards which is conditional upon acceptance of the existing social order and which thus acts as a lightning conductor for the anger of the oppressed and exploited.

In various analyses of Connolly and religion, especially that of Reeve & Reeve (1977), it has been argued that his position closely paralleled that of Marx, Engels and Lenin in adopting a “sensitive” approach to the religious beliefs of the masses, the peasantry and the proletariat. However, their sensitiveness was rooted in concrete, historical, materialism; they defended atheistic propaganda as an essential element of party work. Lenin quite rightly attacked those who contemptuously dismissed the religious superstitions of peasants and workers as mere backwardness, but not because he was indifferent to such illusions. Rather, he argued, consistently on the basis of Marx and Engel’s position, that since class oppression was the most important source of religion among the masses—the “sigh of the oppressed creature” in Marx’s words—therefore the class struggle would, by revealing the active power of the mobilised workers and peasants to themselves, contribute profoundly to ending the thrall of religion. In this light, anti-religious propaganda had to be subordinated to the concrete tasks and goals of socialism. But was this to say that general anti-religious propaganda was ruled out? Lenin answered this question unequivocally:

Does this mean that education books against religion are harmful and unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task—the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters. (Lenin on Religion, Progress, Moscow, 1978, p.22).

This conclusion is plainly at odds with Connolly’s ban on party members propagating atheism or even bringing any discussion of it into the party. These contrasting approaches to propaganda rest on opposed analyses of the roots of religion. Lenin, in criticising “bourgeois progressists” and “radicals” and “bourgeois materialists”, did not suggest that they went too far. On the contrary, in suggesting that “the ignorance of the people” was the basis of religion these critics, argued Lenin, were locked into a superficial and ultimately idealist view:

It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries these roots are mainly social ... the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism... (Lenin on Religion, p.21).

It is this social basis that was omitted in Connolly’s attempt to offer a “materialist” account of religion. Yet this is the very key to the Marxist critique of bourgeois free-thinkers and atheists. Connolly’s attacks on them amounted to nought because he continued to view religion as class-neutral.

Whenever Connolly tried to defend the ban in the socialist party on any discussion of religion, he claimed that he was consistent with the Marxist orthodoxy of the Second International.

This is in conformity with the practice of the chief socialist parties of the world, which have frequently, in Germany for example, declared Religion to be a private matter, and outside the scope of socialist action. (The New Evangel, p.30).

Here is reproduced the opportunist posture to which the 1891 Erfurt Programme of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) so easily lends itself. This programme stated that “religion is a private matter”. It did not explicitly say that it was therefore “outside the scope of socialist action”. Even in its original form, and in spite of the fact that it was written against the background of Bismarck’s “war on religion”—the Kulturkampf—Engels was unhappy that it was open to opportunist interpretation. As Lenin wrote:

This point in the Erfurt Programme has come to be interpreted as meaning that we Social-Democrats, our Party, consider religion to be a private matter, that religion is a private matter for us Social-Democrats, for us as a party. Without entering into a direct controversy with this opportunist view, Engels in the nineties deemed it necessary to oppose it resolutely in a positive, and not a polemical form. To wit: Engels did this in the form of a statement, which he deliberately underlined, that Social Democrats regard religion as a private matter in relation to the state, but not in relation to themselves, not in relation to Marxism, and not in relation to the workers’ party. (Lenin on Religion, p.20).

Quite plainly, Connolly took exactly the opposite position in pressing the view that the party must “fight shy” of disputes with religion. The position itself follows directly from a failure to appropriate what was distinct and progressive in the bourgeois democratic revolution—namely the complete separation of Church and State (and Church and School). Such demands would be vitally important in developing a combined programme for a country like Ireland where the democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution overlaid the strategic task of the socialists. This was and remains all the more important given the role of Catholic and Protestant churches in providing part of the ideology and machinery of class rule for nationalist and unionist wings of the Irish bourgeoisie. Yet in his writings there is the clear lack of such a theme which should have been at the centre of socialist activity.

The call for separation of Church and Church, as a bourgeois democratic demand, is only one side of the issue as far as socialists are concerned. Socialists must go further because, even should the bourgeoisie establish state power and enforce such demands, capitalist society itself perpetuates religious obscurantism as a means of prettifying and sanctifying the obscenities of oppression it brings in its train. Marx explained how “freedom of conscience” in relation to the state—while it is the end of the matter for consistent bourgeois democrats—was by no means the end of the religious question for socialists:

Man emancipates himself politically from religion by banishing it from the sphere of public law to that of private law ... The endless fragmentation of religion in North America, for example, gives it even externally the form of a purely individual affair ... But one should be under no illusion about the limits of political emancipation. The division of the human being into a public man and a private man, the displacement of religion from the state into civil society, this is not a stage of political emancipation but its completion; this emancipation therefore neither abolishes the real religiousness of man, not strives to do so. (On the Jewish Question, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart, London, p.155).

Thus, alongside the need for socialists to take up the ‘unfinished business’ long reneged upon by the bourgeoisie, it is essential to counter the influence of a “welter of religious diversity” which surfaces in the “private” arena of social life by virtue of capitalist class oppression. Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875, distinguished clearly between the right to freedom of religious expression—from the interference of the state—and the need for socialists to be aware of the limits of “freedom of conscience”—that capitalism claims to offer:

‘Freedom of Conscience!’ If one desired at this time of the Kulturkampf to remind liberalism of its old watchwords it surely could have been done only in the following form: Everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in. But in this connection the worker’s party at any rate ought to have expressed its own awareness of the fact that bourgeois “freedom of conscience” is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of consciousness, and that for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion. But one wishes not to transgress the “bourgeois” level. (in L.S. Feuer, Mark & Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, London, 1969, pp 171-2).

Although, as we see here, Marx attacked bourgeois free-thinkers, he did so not because they offended against religion but because once bourgeois society succeeds in separating Church and state it has reached its limit as regards religion. Capitalism cannot eradicate religious consciousness precisely because its own social conditions require the consolation of religion. Thus bourgeois freedom of conscience is not real liberation of the human conscience but the futile struggle for that freedom within the restrictions of the blind social forces of the capitalist market.

Marx pointed out how the separation of exploitative economic public life from private life in the family and community gave religion a new footing rooted in the property relations of the capitalist mode of production. He understood how the petty antagonisms between capitalists and clergymen were a necessary product of capitalist society as a whole, notwithstanding which, religion remained the “solemn complement” of capitalist oppression because it sanctified existing conditions while appearing to restore humanity to a sense of self-esteem.

Despite the victory of the bourgeoisie historically over the pre-capitalist systems which gave rise to the immense power of organised religions, religion continues to play a reactionary role within the capitalist system. The “Christian Socialist” programme which seeks to make religion, on the whole, a progressive force against capitalist exploitation and inequality is a delusion. It is camouflage for an outlook and institutions which, overall, are wedded to the maintenance of ruling class authority, a camouflage arising among lower clergy forced to adopt a radical posture in local conditions of extreme oppression in order to maintain their influence. Liberation theology expresses a modern form of such.

Wherever the capitalists rely on religious castes and religion to bolster their class rule, the struggle against capitalism requires that socialists should educate the working class in the spirit of militant anti-clericalism. Socialists must educate the vanguard to a consciousness of the fact that exploitation and oppression are the material basis of the continuing hold of religion on the masses.

By interpreting the Erfurt Programme in the worst possible way on the “privacy” of religion, Connolly confirmed his inablility to grasp the social foundations of religion. His consequent censorship of party discussion of religion severely impoverished the fight for socialism in Ireland. It would have been bad enough in a developed capitalist country where the role of the churches was less important to the bourgeoisie. In Ireland it was disastrous. He openly denied any contradiction between scientific socialism and religion, although he was himself a living embodiment of those contradictions. The tragedy is that, although he was drawn into polemics with Irish—usually Catholic—clergymen on this issue, his approach always evaded the substance of the matter. This legacy still dogs the progress of Marxism in Ireland.

While, in general, Connolly sought to rule out questions of religion and the private life from the socialist programme and to limit this programme to the economic “straight fight” against private property, he was also quite prepared to enlist any interpretations of a socialist nature that could be procured from Biblical sources. Likewise, he had no reservations about taking into account the national peculiarities of religion arising out of Irish history. Of course, Marxism must treat religion concretely in different periods and countries, but in Connolly’s case the reasoning contained important flaws, allowing secondary features to predominate. Connolly, even in his polemics with the Jesuit Father Kane, started by distinguishing between the “intelligent Catholic” who at different times disobeyed the clergy and hierarchy, and the hierarchy themselves who strayed from “true religion”. He believed that “true religion” was compatible with the “reformers and revolutionaries” down the centuries and, by extrapolation, with the socialists of today. In Irish history specifically this analysis identifies members of the Catholic hierarchy time and again as allies of the Crown against the interest of the oppressed Irish. But he avoids laying the same charge against Irish Catholicism, the Church as a whole, or religion generally.

The reason is twofold. First, he believed that religion was essentially a good thing—the expression of humanity’s innate morality. Secondly, he believed that Irish Catholicism in the minds and hearts of the plebeian masses, by virtue of its history, is not a reactionary force but a revolutionary-democratic one. The former element in his reasoning lies at the root of his backwardness on divorce and other democratic rights which the Church defines as moral evils, a view he more or less accepted. The second element was to repeatedly intrude into his political perspectives and ultimately weaken his ability to assert the vital interest of the working class in destroying reactionary Catholic social power.

This view of Catholicism in Ireland is inseparable from his central thesis about Irish history. He viewed pre-Norman Ireland, in which the Christian Church was deeply rooted, as a “communal and democratic” society. (In fact it was a developing feudal society, see Chapter 3). Thus, Irish Catholicism is implicitly construed as distinct from its European counterpart—which he accepts was based on feudalism. In The Re-conquest of Ireland he portrays this original Ireland as:

a country in which the people of the island were owners of the land upon which they lived, masters of their own lives and liberties, freely electing their rulers, and shaping their castes and conventions to permit the closest approximation to their ideals of justice as between man and man. (The Re-conquest of Ireland, New Books, Dublin, 1972, p.1-2).

Because his overriding political perspective contrived to root Irish “socialism” in this ancient supposedly “democratic” Irish tradition “true” Irish Christianity could not but be accommodated in his perspective for restoring that ancient communism in a Workers Republic. Not long before publishing the Re-conquest of Ireland, he wrote:

Catholicism, which in most parts of Europe is synonymous with Toryism, lickspittle and loyalty, servile worship of aristocracy and hatred of all that savours of genuine political independence on the part of the lower classes, in Ireland is almost synonymous with rebellious tendencies, zeal for democracy and intense feelings of solidarity with all strivings of those who toil. (Catholicism, Protestantism and Politics, in Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table, Cork Workers Club, 1975, p.25).

Contrast his view of what he took to be Irish Protestantism:

... the Protestant elements in Ireland were, in the main, plantation strangers upon the soil from which the owners had been dispossessed by force. ... The Protestants were bound to acquire insensibly a hatred of political reform and to look upon every effort of the Catholic to achieve political recognition as an insidious move towards the expulsion of the Protestants ... The Catholics, for their part, and be it understood I am talking only of the Catholic workers, have been as fortunately placed for their political education as they were unfortunately placed for their political and social condition. (Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table, pp 25-26).

He continued in this vein, arguing that every gain for oppressed Catholics involved a gain for their oppressed Protestant counterpart. Therefore, he lamely deduced that, with Home Rule and the “entrance of Catholicity into a mere numerical voting power”, there would be no attempt to “impose fetters” upon others that we ourselves have worn” and as to the future, under Home Rule, the tale to tell “will be a hopeful one”

This approach among other things ignored the actual class nature of Irish Catholicism in his own time and before. This locked him ideologically into a Catholic-patriotic discourse and, in practice, into accommodating to Irish bourgeois anti-colonialism. He strove to draw the Protestant peasant and worker into this perspective—nowhere more artfully than in the Re-conquest where he attempted to spell out how “the Catholic was dispossessed by force, the Protestant dispossessed by fraud”. But it remained a perspective of necessary stages which deferred the proletarian programme (especially as Connolly expected the Third Home Rule Bill of 1912 to succeed), and disastrously so, given the need to fracture the unionist alliance and break its hold on the Protestant section of the proletariat if even that first “stage” was not be be aborted in the eventual “carnival of reaction”.

In the closing pages of Re-conquest his weakness on Catholicism becomes an important element in his adaptation in practice to the limited horizon of anti-colonial bourgeois patriotism. He writes later:

The Gaelic League realises that capitalism did more in one century to destroy the tongue of the Gael than the sword of the Saxon did in six; the apostle of self-reliance among Irish men and women finds no more earnest exponents of self-reliance than those who expound it as the creed of Labour; the earnest advocates of co-operation find the workers stating their ideals as a co-operative commonwealth; the earnest teacher of Christian morality sees that in the co-operative commonwealth alone will true morality be possible and the fervent patriot learns that his hopes of an Ireland re-born to national life is better stated, and can be better and more completely realised, in the labour movement for the Re-conquest of Ireland. (pp 64-5).

The fact that Connolly should assume that the Gaelic League, the Sinn Fein protectionists, the agricultural co-operativists, the “earnest” preachers of religion and “Christian morality” and the peasantry would identify implicitly with the struggle for socialism is an ironic measure of the degree to which he had adapted to these forces. To the extent that Connolly relied upon such cultural wellsprings for programmatic inspiration the prospect of breaking any sections of the Protestant proletariat from unionism receded more and more. He could do even less to break the Catholic section of the proletariat from the banner of bourgeois Catholic nationalism, to defend the independence of the Red from the Green.

Connolly’s perspective lacked any foundation in a concrete historical materialist analysis of Catholicism in Ireland in the 19th century. In such an analysis the contrast with the oppressed Catholicism of the Penal Law days would have begun to reveal the modern class character of Irish Catholicism.

The goal of Catholic Emancipation, resolved legally in 1829, retained a progressive content as a bourgeois-democratic demand into the 19th century. But, in the rapprochement of the Catholic Church and British colonialism in 1795, Catholic control in education was granted in return for support for the Act of Union and the suppression of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Subsequently, Catholic primary-school education and growing sectarian division developed on the basis of a cautious bourgeois national reform of the tithe payments to the established Protestant Church, and repeal of the Union etc. In the pre-Famine period of the 19th century the Church acted as the mass organiser and spiritual police of the peasantry. It played this role as the agent of a growing Catholic bourgeois interest, initially led by Daniel O’Connell.

The rise of the Repeal movement after 1841 depended crucially on the seal of approval given to O’Connell by the Archbishop of Tuam, John McHale who took the ground from under the left wing of the bourgeoisie, soon to emerge as Young Ireland, in a period of profound social and political crisis.

In no period, therefore, can the Catholic Church ever be identified as representing the interests of the poor, the middle tenantry or of the rural proletarian or cottier masses.

After the Famine of 1845-8 the hand of the Church on the movement of bourgeois reform was strengthened. With the decimation of the most oppressed tenants and cottiers the mass base of Catholicism became more homogeneous. Middle-sized tenants ceased to subdivide their land-holdings. The family structure that still obtains in Irish farming society began to be consolidated. The Church acted to bolster this development with renewed emphasis on sexual abstinence, puritanism, deferred marriages and abstinence from alcohol.

Thus the shaping of social morality evolved in close connection with the changes in property relations in the post-Famine period. The role of the Church, its increasing devotionalism and repressive moral tone and teachings, served to control the often militant tenantry and their aspirations and subordinate them to the numerically weaker but politically decisive interests of the growing capitalist class in the south. Until the land war broke out in 1879 the Catholic hierarchy and clergy had succeeded in holding back any independent peasant mobilisation. At the same time it virulently opposed and hounded the revolutionary nationalist Fenians.

In these ways the Church acted as the agency of mass control and incorporation, delivering the support of the tenants to the Irish capitalist class in a controlled way. Even in the land war of 1879-82, the Church involved itself under pressure only in order to hold the movement back. It grew hugely in its influence and power. It already controlled the national system of education organised along sectarian lines. It won for itself ever growing control of intellectual and ideological life with the growing proliferation of new Church buildings, monasteries, seminaries and schools in the second half of the century. So strong was its position by the 1860s that Cardinal Cullen felt confident that the offer of joint “Establishment” of the Catholic Church alongside the Church of Ireland was less attractive than the complete disestablishment of the Protestant Church.

Here was the growth of an intimate alliance between a weak, conservative nationalist bourgeoisie and a powerful Irish Catholic Church. This embryo of a ruling class, aspiring to eventual Home Rule, could not fail to foresee, in the sectarianism that it endorsed, the seeds of terrible reaction. But even the most far-sighted of Irish bourgeois nationalists was unwilling to fight to avoid this. Nourished from its foundations in deference to the independent caste power of the hierarchy, the very survival of the nationalist bourgeoisie remains intrinsically intertwined with the Church to this very day.

Had Connolly addressed the social character of Irish Catholicism in this way he would have to have radically revised his political conclusions about it. Instead, as he told his Scottish comrade, Tom Bell, he believed that in Ireland a Catholic education produced rebels—a view ironically still held by Republicans in the North in the divided school system. On this basis he believed he was reconciling his Marxism with Catholicism. whereas in reality he was denying vital elements of the democratic programme which Marxists championed everywhere.

In the Irish context this meant leaving unchallenged, among the vanguard of the working class, entrenched religious ideologies that were to powerfully serve the ruling class in smashing any challenge to its property, and which would even contribute to aborting the national struggle through the partition of the nation and the further consolidation of clerical power.

It also meant failing to recognise the potential reservoirs of passive mass support for the most conservative sections of the nationalist movement in town and country. The Catholic Church played a key role for a century in systematically consolidating the political authority of the Catholic bourgeoisie over a peasantry and working class by its deeply conservative outlook.

True, Connolly castigated the Church for turning against Parnell over his affair with Kitty O’Shea and for thus dethroning the most successful leader of the bourgeois Home Rule movement. But he drew no general political conclusions from it. He failed to uncover the essential relationship between bourgeois interest and Catholic power and ideology. Thus his references to the political “rise of Catholicity to a numerical majority” fatally glossed over a fundamental danger to both the democratic and socialist programmes, the virtual certainty that an unopposed Catholicism would copperfasten its intellectual and moral domination over the rising “nation”.

The furthest point of conflict with Catholicism beyond which he refused to go was to claim that its principles were perverted by self-interested capitalists and mammon-serving bishops. Thus in Labour, Nationality and Religion, faced with the clear hostility of the Church to socialism, he can do no better than ineffectually use ‘true’ religion against the Church:

Men perish but principles live. Hence the recent efforts of ecclesiastics to put the Socialist movement under the ban of the Catholic Church, despite the wild and reckless nature of the statements by which the end was sought to be attained, has had a good effect in compelling Catholics to examine more earnestly their position as laymen, and the status of the clergy as such, as well as their relative duties toward each other within the Church and toward the world in general. One point of Catholic doctrine brought out as a result of such examination is the almost forgotten, and sedulously suppressed one, that the Catholic Church is theoretically a community in which the clergy are but the officers serving the laity in a common worship and service of God, and that should the clergy at any time profess or teach doctrines not in conformity with the true teachings of Catholicity it is not only the right but is the absolute duty of the laity to refuse such doctrines and to disobey such teaching. ... Whenever the clergy succeeded in conquering political power in any country the result has been disastrous to the interests of religion and inimical to the progress of humanity. (Labour, Nationality and Religion, New Books, Dublin, 1972, p.4).

This approach, sometimes hailed on the Irish left as a brilliant pedagogic approach to Catholic workers, conceded more to religion than it gained for socialism. It might, perhaps, for some militants, reconstruct their relationship to Catholicism, but it would ultimately leave intact their vulnerability to religion and the clergy, not free them from it.

To summarise, Connolly’s position on religion started from the inadequately grounded Marxism of the SDF. He did not believe it possible to critically understand religion from a Marxist standpoint and failed to acknowledge its roots in class society. He banned the discussion of religion within the ISRP and took the wrong meaning from the Erfurt Programme on the attitude of the party to religion. Lacking any general method of understanding religion and ideology, he treated Irish Catholicism as essentially democratic and communal in its historical roots and general orientation. This blinded him to its insidious role in consolidating the strength of the rising native bourgeoisie and the sectarian divisions between the Protestant and Catholic sections of the working class.