National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 8: The party and the working class

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The whole history of revolutionary communism is bound up with the struggle for an effective relationship between the party of the socialist revolutionaries and the mass of the working class. For Marx and Engels, for Lenin, for Trotsky and for each of the Internationals this issue of party and class has been central to political struggle with rival socialist currents.

Confusion on this question is one of the hallmarks of Connolly’s politics. It may be argued that his failure to create a fighting party which would survive after him was the greatest tragedy in his political legacy to socialists in Ireland. Though unquestionably a socialist revolutionary in his own outlook and purpose, his failure to work out and fight for an effective form of political organisation for the Irish working class places him ultimately in the camp of centrism, unable in the last analysis to provide the vanguard of the working class with a means for revolutionary struggle.

That is not to liken him, however, to the centrists of the 1920s and ’30s who tried to find a middle ground, rejecting the degenerated Second International but in practice turning their backs on the revolutionary alternative of Bolshevism. It would be a full year after Connolly’s death before the Bolshevik model of the party (which has nothing in common with the Stalinist travesty) was to be vindicated for revolutionary socialists world-wide. The traditions and movements in which he had to work out his politics led rather to a very eclectic view of how the class struggle should be consciously organised against capitalism. His legacy on this question nevertheless is distinctive.

The two things that stand out in the general popular picture of Connolly’s achievements, besides the 1916 Rising, are his association with Jim Larkin in building the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union into a fighting union of general workers able to mount the heroic struggle of 1913, and secondly, his role in founding the Irish Labour Party. This picture is essentially correct. His most mature conception of ‘party and class’ was the relation of the One Big Union to the Labour Party. This chapter looks at his changing views on the relation of party and class, with particular reference to the trade unions.

What stands out most clearly from any study of his political and trade union activity is his involvement in essentially organisational tasks. Ransom’s thesis, James Connolly and the Scottish Left, shows him in 1893 as secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation, secretary of the Independent Labour Party District Council in Edinburgh, and of the ILP Central Council, also based in Edinburgh. At the same time he was an active member of the Edinburgh Social Democratic Federation and of a general union of carters, a ‘new union’. However, the central focus of his general political development was the SDF. He viewed the SDF as the nucleus out of which a British Marxist party like the German Social Democratic Party would grow. We must therefore briefly look at the conception of party and class held by the SDF leadership, and how it was regarded by Connolly and his closest comrades in Edinburgh.

Two important issues in which the party-class relationship was posed in Britain during Connolly’s early period, were how socialists should relate to the trade unions, and the growing campaign for independent political representation of the working class. On both fronts the SDF leaders and their programme were doctrinaire and sectarian, while their practice was opportunist. They were unsparingly criticised as such by Engels and the forces around him in London, centred on Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling who were intervening in the struggles of the unions, especially the new unions, and striving to win them over in action, step by step, to communism.

There are two notable instances among many where Engels attacked the SDF for sectarianism towards the unions and the working class. The first is in the context of the epoch-making dock strike in the autumn of 1889 whose victory gave an enormous boost to the struggle for the new unions. Engels, inspired by the heroism of the lowest and most downtrodden stratum of London workers, wrote to Laura Marx on 22nd August, 1889:

They are as you know the most miserable of the East End, the broken down ones of all trades, the lowest stratum above lumpen proletariat. That these poor famished broken down creatures who bodily fight amongst each other every morning for admission to work, should organise for resistance, turn out 40-50,000 strong, draw after them into the strike all and every trade of the East End in any way connected with shipping, hold out above a week and terrify the wealthy and powerful dock companies—this is a revival I am proud to have lived to see. And all this strike is worked and led by our people … the Hyndmanites are nowhere in it. (Kapp Y., Eleanor Marx, Vol. 2, pp 333-4).

A look back a few weeks to the SDF’s annual conference of August 5th throws light on its sectarian absence from the struggle. Close after the victory of the gas workers and a few days before the dock strike the Birmingham SDF Conference revised its programme and rules, but the nine-point programme it adopted did not so much as mention trade unions. Only in an addendum of “measures called for to palliate the evils of our existing society” does it stop to mention in a single line that “eight hours or less be the normal working day in all trades”. Of six SDF executive committees set up to deal with all party activities, none dealt with industry.

The second example is in the context of the massive May Day demonstration of 3rd May 1891 in which the new unions showed their drawing power for the London working class in general. Afterwards, the SDF held their own private ‘rally’ at an uncontaminating distance from the main throng having, weeks before, withdrawn in a sectarian manner from the joint demonstration committee in which Engels was prominently represented. Engels’ observation marked down the position of the SDF as ‘that of a sect’ in a letter to Laura Marx on May 4th 1891 in which he noted:

It is very characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race and their peculiar development … that both here and in America the people who, more or less, have the correct theory as to the dogmatic side of it, become a mere sect because they cannot conceive that living theory of action, of working with the working class at every possible stage of its development, otherwise than as a collection of dogmas… recited like a conjurer’s formula or a Catholic prayer. (Eleanor Marx, Vol. 2, pp 474-5).

In fact, Engels had attacked a similar doctrinaire sectarianism on the part of the American Socialist Labour Party in its attitude to the Knights of Labor, a semi industrial-union which had three quarters of a million members as far back as 1886. (Brecher, Strike, New York, 1972, p.28). In the course of a political tour of America by Eleanor Marx and E. Aveling in 1886 at the invitation of the SLP, Engels wrote:

Therefore I think also the Knights of Labor a most important factor in the movement which ought not to be pooh-poohed from without but to be revolutionised from within, and I consider that many of the Germans there made a grievous mistake when they tried, in the face of a mighty and glorious movement not of their creation, to make of their imported and not always understood theory a kind of all-saving Dogma, and to keep aloof from any movement which did not accept that dogma. Our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution and that process involves successive phases. To expect that the American will start with the full consciousness of the theory worked out in older industrial countries is to expect the impossible. What the Germans ought to do is to act up to their own theory—if they understand it, as we did in 1845 and 1848—to go in for any real general working class movement, accept its actual starting point as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original programme: they ought, in the words of the Kommunistischen Manifest: represent the future of the movement in its present. But above all give the movement time to consolidate; do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people’s throats things which, at present, they cannot properly understand, but they will soon learn. (Marx & Engels Selected Correspondence, Progress, Moscow, 1982, pp 376-377).

The second front on which the party-class issue was posed was around the efforts to get an independent mass political party for workers as a class. Engels had faced this issue also in advising the American communists who looked to him for a lead in the 1880s. Writing in 1886to Sorge, one such emigré communist active in the US labour movement, Engels made the following general observation on the struggle for a mass workers’ party:

The first great step, of importance for every country newly entering into the movement, is always the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step had been taken, much more rapidly than we had a right to expect, and that is the main thing. That the first programme of this party is still confused and extremely deficient and that it has raised the banner of Henry George are unavoidable evils but also merely transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop, and they can have the opportunity only when they have a movement of their own—no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement—in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn to profit by them. (Selected Correspondence, pp 373-376).

Engels’ view on this had two basic premises. First it was vital for communists to cut positively with the desire of the worker masses to form a distinct and separate class party of their own encompassing millions of proletarians by supporting and where possible leading it. Second, it was necessary to do this “without giving up or hiding our own distinct position” On the contrary, Engels argued (in the letter cited above) that the best method of arguing the communist programme in struggles by workers for their own party was to help the workers to learn from their own mistakes: “There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one’s own mistakes, to learn from bitter experience. And for a whole class there is no other road …”.

In thus re-elaborating the Marxist attitude in the context of new unions and the fight for a distinct mass workers’ party, Engels’ views were models of concreteness and realism, with no trace of either sectarianism or opportunism. In the last years of his life he applied these ideas in the British context through Eleanor Marx, Aveling and the communist and working class forces gathered around them.

As in its attitude to the unions, so in its attitude to the workers’ party, the SDF took an attitude that was both sectarian and doctrinaire. Thus, the SDF in autumn 1892 defeated a resolution to support the new Independent Labour Party, amending it to preserve an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards the ILP. This sectarian attitude was to be continued more or less towards the Labour Representation Committee of 1900 and eventually the Labour Party which it created in 1906. The outcome was that, at a key turning point in the history of labour in the British state, the thousands of ‘Marxists’ in the SDF had no tactical orientation towards the growing consciousness of the workers. By default they allowed the reformists and centrists of the ILP to take all the laurels for fighting for an independent class party.

Engels and his circle repeatedly stressed the need to bridge the gap between the real movement of the day and the goals of communism. This is what he meant when he underlined the themes of the Communist Manifesto concerning the role of communists, who “represent the future of the movement in its present”. This was aimed against those in the SDF who either held aloof from unanticipated developments in the class struggle or, equally, those who opportunistically situated themselves in the slipstream of the real movement. The SDF, with its programme of “maximum” objectives (for the vague and distant future) orientated to here-and-now events on the basis of a “minimum” list of reformist demands. Their failure to seek a bridge between minimum and maximum programmes deprived them of any cutting edge against ILPers for whom reformism was a principle.

Kapp’s biography of Eleanor Marx draws out the contrast between her Marxism and that of the Hyndmanites:

Eleanor… did not consider shorter hours, higher wages or any other amelioration of workers’ conditions under capitalism either trivial or ends in themselves: for her they had precisely that degree of importance the workers attached to them. In that lay her distinctive contribution. She was zealous to work for any and every practical reform without for a moment losing sight of the revolutionary aim; to agitate for the total overthrow of the system without brushing aside a single immediate demand for which the working class was prepared to fight. This was her interpretation of Marxism. It was unlike that of the SDF whose policy and propaganda were Marxist but whose practice was not. Indeed, the two were divorced; hence, perhaps, the turnover of membership so ironically mocked by Engels. People came in and went out of the SDF as through a revolving door. (Vol II, p.665).

It is not difficult to appreciate that Connolly was not able, alone or with his Edinburgh comrades to mount a theoretical analysis and exposure of the SDF’s sectarianism and to bring this to fruition in an opposition programme. One important reason why Engels’ perspective was hardly accessible to such as Connolly was that Eleanor Marx and Aveling had left the SDF in 1884 as part of the Socialist League, a split regretted by Engels as premature, and these two were the main fighters for the ideas of the aged Engels. Eleanor did not rejoin it until late in 1896, by which time Connolly had left for Ireland. Deprived of their scientific critique of the SDF ‘orthodoxy’, his subsequent political development was to be considerably impoverished, and ultimately would never achieve a genuinely Marxist conception of the relationship of party and class.

He returned to Ireland in May 1896 and by the end of that month he had founded his first political group, the Irish Socialist Republican Party. The ISRP was also characterised by the retention of the basic division between minimum and maximum programmes—its immediate goals were not linked as steps to its ‘final’ goals.

As we have seen, however, he identified or merged social with national revolution. He was putting the national-democratic question in the realm of the maximum programme in this period, thus breaking with the Marxist orthodoxy of the Second International. He overlooked the potential of the national struggle to build a bridge between what was possible under capitalism (the minimum programme) and the destruction of capitalism (the maximum programme). The ISRP’s practice was thus confined largely within the electoralist perspectives of a series of minimum demands for legislative reform, while on the national question nothing more could be done than to passively make propaganda.

Connolly did, however, seek to break with certain of the worst aspects of the SDF leaders. It is important to acknowledge his own record in Scotland of active trade union struggle in the early 1890s. This might have helped him to break out of a purely propagandist role had not his period with the ISRP (1896-1903) fallen between two waves of ‘new unionism’ in Ireland, the first having been effectively wiped out by 1896 and the second taking off while he was in the USA (1903-1910).

By the time he was in Dublin and established as leader of the ISRP, he had already been casting an eye around for allies and co-thinkers as an alternative to continued dependence on the SDF. In Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labour Party in the USA he found what he thought he was looking for. The American SLP which ultimately inspired a split in the SDF and the formation of the British SLP in 1902. Connolly had been drawn to it for a number of reasons, most notably the weaknesses of the SDF which came to the surface on the Irish national question, the Boer War and the principle of no coalition with bourgeois parties. The SDF interpreted in the most limited way their obligation to support Ireland’s right to ‘legislative independence’. Hyndman’s response to the Boer War was to use reactionary anti-semitic rhetoric to divert attention from the responsibility of the British imperialist ruling class. In 1900 the SDF angered Connolly by voting against independent representation for the Irish delegation at the international socialist Congress in Paris. The Hyndmanite SDF also supported the opportunist resolution of Karl Kautsky on the issue of socialist participation in coalitions with the capitalist parties—exemplified in the case of the ‘socialist’ Millerand in France. There are signs too that Connolly may have been conscious of the sectarianism of the SDF’s aloofness from the trade unions.

On many of these issues the SLP(US) appeared to be healthier. It hammered away in its press at the SDF, not without effect. Connolly was a regular recipient of DeLeon’s Weekly People from about 1898. Not only did he help in the formation of the SLP in England but, after bringing the debate into the ISRP, he effectively liquidated his own paper into a joint publication The Socialist, along with the British SLP from August 1902. Following tours of the USA and Scotland during 1902, Connolly proclaimed the ISRP the Irish section of the Socialist Labour Party in 1903. Most significantly of all was the influence of DeLeon on Connolly’s decision to leave for the USA where his conception of party and class was to go through its most significant development.

The Syndicalist Influence

At this time DeLeon’s SLP was not syndicalist, but it did have some roots in the industrial organisation of the American working class, through the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance (STLA). There is every reason to believe that Connolly would have seen this as worthy of emulation, whatever about any subsequent differences. A healthy orientation to trade unions appeared to separate the SLP qualitatively from the SDF tradition. The STLA was reported to have had 30,000 members in 1898 (Seretan, L.G., Daniel DeLeon, The Odyssey of an American Marxist, Harvard, 1979, p.168).

Apart from this, the SLP was modelled after “orthodox” European social democracy; although, as we have seen from Engels’ remarks, it too tended towards doctrinaire sectarianism. Connolly became attracted to it on the grounds that it appeared to be a healthier version of the SDF, not something radically different from it.

Whatever the superficial attractions of the SLP compared with the SDF, it was in fact even more sectarian and doctrinaire than the SDF. Similarly it committed itself exclusively to legalistic methods, within the framework of a minimum-maximum programme without any bridging perspective.

The American SLP had originated in the 1880s and was dominated by DeLeon soon after he joined in 1890 and for the next 20 years. Its doctrinaire rigidity, observed by Engels, had led to serious splits, one in 1899 whose forces soon joined with those of the Mid-West based Social Democratic Party of America to form the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1901.

DeLeon was never to succeed in developing any tactical, concrete and critical relationship with the SPA though the latter grew in strength as the SLP contracted. The SPA ran candidates in presidential elections and won 402,283 votes in 1904, 420,713 in 1908 and 893,000 in 1913 (J.P.Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism).

In the period following Connolly’s admission to the SLP which saw the emergence of the International Workers of the World (IWW, the Wobblies), the SLP was tottering in a seriously demoralised state. This was primarily the product of its own sectarian politics, in particular its radically false conception of the relation of party and class manifest in its theory of dual unionism. This theory repudiated work within the reformist-dominated trade unions and transposed against this the work of the STLA, a ‘union’ creature of the SLP itself, to which Connolly was later to refer justly as merely ‘a ward-heeling club of the SLP’.

At this stage the SLP had not yet adapted to the emergent industrial unionism of the 1900s. Moreover, the SLP maintained an ultra-left disdain for trade union struggles for better wages and conditions, counterposing the idea of a pre-existent politically conscious trade union, the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance.

The SLP, already outdone by the successes of the SPA, was soon suffering erosion on its trade union flank from the forces of revolutionary syndicalism which were now on the ascent and were to crystalize into the IWW in 1905. It was the latter development which forced the SLP to change tactics. By seeking to gain influence in the IWW, DeLeon was to temporarily relieve the dilemma of the doctrinaire SLP—a dilemma eloquently expressed in the plummeting of the membership of its trade union creature from 30,000 in 1898 to 1,450 in 1905.

We have no evidence that Connolly had any disagreements with the SLP’s sectarian dual unionism prior to the emergence of the IWW in 1905. In 1904 he did fire his first shots against the SLP’s ‘iron law of wages’, correctly advocating instead Marx’s Wages, Prices and Profits which acknowledged the validity of the wages struggle by demonstrating that wage rises need not be inevitably neutralised by price rises. But he did not draw out the connections between this revisionism of the SLP and its sectarian dual unionism. Indeed, he was quite taken aback by the implicit rejection of Marx’s views on this question in the SLP.

Prior to the SLP’s encounter with the IWW it looked on the party as the primary instrument of working class emancipation. The party was a political instrument which, in the tradition of the Kautsky-dominated and centrist Second International, would win power, peaceably, through elections. Prior to this the STLA’s role would be to act as a specialist aid in gathering the votes of the US proletariat. It was from this position that the SLP was now to reverse the roles of party and union under IWW pressure. Here is how the new position is described by one recent non-Marxist study:

But the purity of the political movement was not expected to be self-generating. The Union, besides having become the determining variable in the industrial formulation, was also seen to be the repository of virtue, the party being merely the light the union cast into the political realm. Turning the central assumption of the new trade unionism upside down the union would have to provide the compass that would hold the political body on course. It would have to be the disciplinary body of the party, for only through its vigilance could there be any assurance that the political movement would remain true to its purpose. (L. Glen Seretan, p.168).

In effect, then, DeLeon and the SLP ended up with a syndicalist position on party and class in which the industrial unions, co-ordinated into one big industrial union (OBU), were assigned the leading role in proletarian emancipation from capitalism and of building the socialist order which in DeLeon’s scheme would directly replace it. DeLeon continued to share common ground with Kautsky in his implicit rejection of Marx’s and Engels’ understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the essential coercive instrument over the bourgeoisie during the transition from capitalism to socialism:

Industrial unionism is the Socialist Republic in the making; and the goal once reached, the industrial union is the Socialist Republic in operation. Accordingly, the industrial union is at once the battering ram with which to pound down the fortress of capitalism and the successor to the capitalist social structure itself. (Seretan, p.191).

DeLeon further theorised the reversed roles of party and union as follows:

The very nature of the [syndicalist] organisation preserves it from the danger of ‘resting satisfied’, of accepting ‘improvement’ for its ‘goal’, inasmuch as it is forced by economic laws to realise it can preserve no ‘improvement’ unless it marches onward to emancipation. (Seretan, p. 203).

Central to this faith in an automatic economic process pushing the OBU to final confrontation was the theoretical error of the ‘iron law of wages’ which saw wage increases as illusory, always being canceled out by capitalism. The syndicalist version of how the state was to be taken over, and what stamped it as revisionist in the context of the Second International, was the repudiation of insurrection and the belief that the OBU would be able to crowd out the bourgeois state without smashing it, by relying on the effects of industrial action:

The weapon of the social revolution is not the General Strike but the general Lockout of the capitalist usurping class (DeLeon, quoted in Seretan, p.186).


The element of ‘force’ consists not in the military or other organisation implying violence but in the structure of the economic organisation, a structure of such nature that it parries violence against itself, shatters it, and thereby renders the exercise of violence in return unnecessary, at least secondary or only incidental (DeLeon, quoted in Seretan, p.190).

Connolly took aboard several of the principles of DeLeon’s syndicalism. Indeed, in becoming a committed organiser of the IWW he soon came to the point where he felt compelled to break with the sectarian SLP itself. He wrongly assigned to the “OBU” the same place in working class revolution as did DeLeon, a place of overwhelming primacy which reduced the role of the party to that of a passive echo of the syndicalist organisation. By 1908 he was writing:

The finished expression of the natural law of our evolution into class consciousness … is … the appearance of our class upon the political battle ground with all the economic power behind to enforce its mandates … and as political parties are the reflex of economic conditions, it follows that the industrial unions once established will create the political unity of the working class” (Industrial and Political Unity, in The Harp, Dec. 1908).

Putting it even more bluntly he wrote:

Let the great truth be firmly fixed in your mind, that the struggle for the conquest of the political state of the capitalist is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is being fought out and will be fought out in the industrial field. (The Language Movement, in The Harp, April 1908, Socialism and Nationalism collection, p.61).

The ‘inevitability’ of socialism arising out of the logic of economic developments, economism, is another premise which, despite his rejection of the Iron Law, Connolly shares with DeLeon. It is a theme throughout his writings:

On the other hand, that very development also teaches us that until the workers have perfected their economic power sufficiently to control the economic forces, the class actually in control will most relentlessly and scientifically use their political powers to hamper, penalise and, if possible destroy, the workers’ organisations, and thus create a force sufficient for their suppression. My reading of history tells me that in all great social changes the revolutionary class always fails of success until it is able to do the work of the class it seeks to destroy and to do it more efficiently. And when it has so perfected itself that it is able to perform this work, neither gods nor men can stop its onward march to victory (Forward, 1914, in Workers Republic collection, p.161).

And finally, in his Dock Ward Election Address in 1913 he wrote:

... I desire to see capitalism abolished, and a democratic system of common public ownership erected in its stead. This democratic system, which is called socialism, will, I believe, come as a result of the continuous increase of power of the working class. (Workers Republic collection, p.101).

He also shared DeLeon’s perspective of the working class movement neutralising rather than smashing the capitalist state and thus coming to power. In October, 1909, he wrote an article in the International Socialist Review called “Ballots, Bullets or … “, in which, referring to the Zeppelin Balloon, he says:

In facing such a weapon in the hands of our remorseless and unscrupulous masters the gun of comrade Berger will be as ineffective as the ballot paper in the hands of the reformer. Is the outlook then hopeless? No! We still have the opportunity to forge a weapon capable of winning the fight for us against political usurpation and all the military powers of earth, sea or air. That weapon is to be forged in the furnaces of the struggle in the workshop, mine, factory or railroad, and its name is industrial unionism. …. A Supreme Court decision declaring invalid a socialist victory in a certain district could be met by a general strike of all the workers in that district, supported by the organisation all over the country, and by a relentless boycott extending into the private life of all who supported the fraudulently elected officials. Such a union would revive and apply to the class war of the workers the methods and principles so successfully applied by the peasants of Germany … and by those of the Land League in the land war in Ireland in the eighties. …
Finally, after having thus demonstrated the helplessness of capitalist officialdom in the face of united action by the producers (by attacking said officialdom with economic paralysis instead of rifle bullets) the industrially organised working class could proceed to take possession of the industries of the country after informing the military and other coercive forces of capitalism that they could procure the necessities of life by surrendering themselves to the lawfully elected government and renouncing the usurpers at Washington. In the face of such organisation the airships would be as helpless as pirates without a port of call, and military power a broken reed. The discipline of the military forces, before which comrade Berger’s rifles would break like glass, would dissolve and the authority of officers would be non-effectual if the soldiery were required to turn into uniformed banditti scouring the country for provisions. (Workers Republic collection, pp 66-8).

Of course, neither Connolly nor DeLeon were ever pure syndicalists like the IWW. Eclectically, they combined syndicalist practice in the unions with political parties devoted to making propaganda including electoral propaganda. By the time he had parted company with the SLP in 1907, Connolly had established the Irish Socialist Federation and The Harp newspaper for this purpose. However, it was Connolly who proceeded to draw out in practice one inevitable conclusion, the belief that a broad-church party such as the Socialist Party of America, was superior to a doctrinally ‘pure’ one because:

... since the political party was not to accomplish the revolution, but only to lead the attack upon the political citadel of capitalism, there no longer existed the same danger in the uncleanness of its membership nor compelling necessity for insisting upon its purification … it is our belief there will evolve … one socialist party embracing all shades and conceptions of socialist political thought; one socialist industrial organisation drilling the working class for the supreme mission of their class, the establishment of the Workers’ Republic. Finally, we give it as our opinion that until the economic organisation of the workers has attained a power in control of the workshop and, therefore, in the nation equal to that attained by the capitalist class before they raised the revolutionary standard in England, America and France, working class politics are but preliminary skirmishing and that therefore the broadest, most tolerant political party of socialism may be made useful as a teacher as long as it is kept distinct from the industrial organisation and therefore unable to hamper the movements of the latter when, as the regular army of organised labour, it forms its line of battle for the final attack. (The Harp, 1908, in Ransom and Edwards, p.289).

He left the American SLP in 1907 but remained in the IWW. Although the majority of the Wobblies wanted all ‘politics’ to go with DeLeon, he pursued the goal of wedding it to the electorally successful Socialist Party of America as a ‘broad church’ party. In the same period, according to Ransom, his attitude towards Keir Hardie, whose Independent Labour Party had fought for the establishment of a mass Labour Party in Britain, was considerably mollified.

In the same period, and unknown to Connolly, Lenin’s Bolshevik faction among the Russian Social Democrats was struggling to create a revolutionary party which would win into its ranks the most advanced sections of the working class. Lenin would succeed in overcoming the false roads of both the passive propagandist and the broad-church models. He did so by struggling to unite the best militants around a nucleus of professional cadre, based on a scientific and concrete programme, as the heart of the future mass party.

The Labour Party

When Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 he held the view that the OBU was the primary weapon of proletarian revolution. A broad-church party of the one big union, the political echo of the OBU, was needed. This formula was to guide his work in Ireland until shattered by the events of 1913-4 and World War.

It was to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), founded by Jim Larkin in 1908-9 after a split from the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), that Connolly orientated on his return. Here was the likeliest candidate for the role of one big union spreading its wing over all semi and unskilled workers with the goal of gripping every industrial sector.

Working within the ITGWU, he also pursued the “political industrial unionism”, in the tradition of DeLeon. He was to become involved with two existing parties in Ireland, the tiny Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) and the Irish branches of the Independent Labour Party, while actively pursuing the task of building a broad-church Labour Party. In all of these involvements it will be seen that he worked with all the programmatic deficiencies of his unique blend of political action and industrial unionism, applied to Irish conditions.

The SPI had existed since 1904. When he returned in 1910 he wrote its manifesto as part of an attempt to develop it into an effective propaganda party. By this time Connolly had resigned himself to the view that the national question would be solved from above by the British ruling class through the Third Home Rule Bill, thus clearly undermining a central tenet of his theory that capitalism in Ireland would be an impossibility. He saw the SPI as a group which would “seek to organise the workers of this country irrespective of creed or race into one great party of Labour”. (Manifesto of the SPI). The underlying perspective was:

Political organisation at the ballot box to secure the election of representatives of socialist principles to all the elective governing public bodies of this country, and thus to gradually transfer the political power of the state into the hands of those who will use it to further and extend the principle of common or public ownership. (Socialism and Nationalism collection, p.190).

The Independent Labour Party of Ireland ILP(I) was set up at Easter 1912 as a bigger propaganda organisation and a unification of Irish socialists north and south. It was successful in absorbing all Ulster branches of the Independent Labour Party, save for William Walker’s branch in Belfast. Its programme was eclectic—a combination of syndicalism, electoral activity—first local and, after the prospective Home Rule, national. The pivots of its programme were:

1. Organisation of the forces of Labour in Ireland to take political action on independent lines for securing the control of all public elective bodies and for the mastery of all public powers of the state, in order that such bodies should be used for the attainment of [the industrial commonwealth] and:

2. Furtherance of the industrial organisation of wage earners, with a view to securing unity of action in the industrial field as a means to the conquest of industrial power, the necessary preliminary to industrial freedom. (Socialism and Nationalism Collection, p..190.)

Thus in the case of both the SPI and the re-organised ILP(I) Connolly could hardly be said to have in any way echoed Lenin’s endeavour to create the professional cadre nucleus of a conscious revolutionary party, not to mention the programmatic method of Bolshevism. He clearly lacked any conception of the party taking a leading role in in the national independence struggle. In both the SPI and ILP(I) the false hope was cherished that the Home Rule Bill would pass so that their duties were to prepare themselves a party of the unions which take up the working class struggle in the parliament of a Home Rule Ireland.

Even his propaganda for the formation of a mass trade union labour party was deeply flawed. He did not see any necessity to fight to define it as a consciously socialist party. His failure to define and fight for a programme for the envisaged mass party was in stark contradiction to the method advanced by Engels with respect to the US in the 1880s and Britain in the 1890s. Not only had Engels warned against sectarianism but he equally cut against opportunism. The duty of the Marxist was to fight alongside the workers, but for the communist programme. Thus the call for the mass party to be built by the trade unions was supportable as long as the programmatic battle was consistently pursued:

All our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation. (Marx & Engles Selected Correspondence, pp 376-377).

There was already a substantial sentiment within the organised trade union movement in Ireland in favour of independent political representation. Prior to the explosive wave of militancy ushered in by Larkin in the National Union of Dock Labourers in Ireland and then the new ITGWU, socialists had been arguing in the Irish Trades Union Congress for political representation—within the London Parliament. The ITUC was divided between craft union interests tied to northern Unionism on the one hand and to southern Home Rule nationalism on the other. The nationalist majority, content to be represented in Westminister by the Irish Home Rule Party, blocked any affiliation to the Labour Representation Committee. The logjam was broken when the new wave of unskilled militancy propelled Larkin and Connolly into the ITUC as prominent representatives of a powerful new rank-and-file force which threatened to shatter the cosy traditions of class-collaboration maintained by the craft-union leaderships.

However, when Connolly and Larkin, at the Irish TUC conference in Clonmel in 1912, proposed the successful resolution to create a Labour Party, Home Rule seemed a certain prospect. Pro-nationalist trade unionists were no longer being called on to directly challenge the Irish Nationalist Party’s seats in the London Parliament, while the hope of the pro-Union socialists for Irish labour representation in London were undermined. It was accepted that a parliament would soon be restored to Dublin after 112 years of the Union. Nothing in his perspective envisaged the party as other than an electoral front which would only find its full development in the new parliament. Certainly, nothing in the actual resolution gave hope for more:

That the independent representation of Labour upon all public boards be, and is hereby included among the objects of this Congress. (Irish Trade Unions, 1860-1969, McCarthy) XXX

It was this resolution which allowed the ITUC to restyle itself as the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party (ITUC&LP), but not until the 1913 strike had been defeated and the imperialist war looming. A few local seats were contested with trade union support in the name of Labour but no party organs were built. Limited attempts by Connolly and the often unreliable Larkin never developed into a fight to build a party in terms of branches or committed membership or a programme.

The attempt to interest local trade union organs in standing or supporting candidates appears to have been the limited horizon of party work until the post-1916 period. ITUC leaders were increasingly to be heard uttering political pronouncements in the turbulent period after 1916, but not with any revolutionary intent. When the transformed Sinn Féin established its hegemony over the southern masses, the majority in the re-styled ILP & TUC found it more convenient to abstain from the 1918 general elections rather than to take an independent stand on a class programme and in defence of the right of Irish self-determination.

Sadly, even those within the ITUC who did fight in 1918 to independently contest the elections equally failed to offer any alternative programme or strategy that might have opened up class-conscious revolutionary struggle. The general election was intended to fill seats at Westminster but the victory of Sinn Féin enabled them to constitute a revolutionary nationalist assembly of their elected deputies in Dublin and thus open the nationalist guerrilla war that was only ended by the imperialist imposition of the Treaty and Partition. Labour’s fate as a party was to become a loyal opposition in creating and stabilising capitalist parliamentary rule in a semi-colonial southern state.

Despite his overwhelming involvement in trade union organisation since his return from the US, Connolly clearly saw the need for political action. Thus in the period in which the ITUC was at last won to commit itself to political representation, he fought to build the Socialist Party of Ireland, to create socialist activists in it and to educate it in socialist doctrines. He did not operate, however, with any conception of an action programme which would enable the conscious socialists to give political direction to the organised masses of the ITGWU, or the ITUC&LP. Nor did he argue for formal affiliation of socialist groups to the ITUC&LP, though such socialists were in the main active trade unionists. He preferred not to have affiliation procedures which might dilute the movement with non-working-class influences from other quarters. This illuminates why Connolly’s perspectives for socialist and labour movement political activity compartmentalized the conscious socialist minority and the political labour movement.

Again, this division between a propaganda socialist party on the one hand and a party for political action (itself only a reflex of the OBU) on the other was in marked contrast to Lenin’s party building principles. Lenin sought to unify the whole class around a concrete programme of action, a programme hammered out by the most politically conscious militants and given detailed expression and direct application in the field of struggle. Connolly, under the successive influences of the SDF and SLP, compounded by his own confusion of the national and socialist struggles, came nowhere near this method.

Syndicalism led him to rely on the OBU to ensure that the electoral wing of the labour movement would remain faithful to the revolutionary outlook of the minority of propagandists. The OBU would be the ever present sharpening stone generating class consciousness and guiding the political wing. This fatally ignored the inherent limitations of the spontaneously organised trade union movement. Lenin, in contrast, insisted that the party, as a conscious vanguard trained in programme and theory, was required to intervene and direct the spontaneous movement of trade unionism, raising it to the level of a conscious class struggle for workers power.

Over-reliance on the spontaneous process of trade union organisation disarmed Connolly both in the context of the great industrial struggles of 1913-4 and in the more general political context of the Home Rule movement.

His general perspective in this period was marked by an accommodation to the Home Rule bourgeoisie who, he expected, would bring about a Dublin parliament. This was the arena in which the struggles of the Labour Party would take place.

This perspective was to be severely tested. With the outbreak of the Dublin strike and Lockout in 1913 the ‘new unionism’ among the labourers of Dublin was confronted with the employers’ counter offensive, designed to break the back of its new-found strength and organisation. Such counter offensives were to follow the example set in Britain in the early 1890s and in Belfast in the battles of 1907. Prior to the Dublin lockout, there had also been skirmishes in towns such as Wexford and Cork in the intervening years.

These struggles had exhibited the classic “spontaneous” character of all economic (trade union) struggles of the self-organising unskilled and semi-skilled majority of the working class. Whether any such upsurge of militancy could provide the basis for a general mobilisation against capitalism or be isolated and repulsed by the full force of the capitalists with their police, courts and their sponsors in the pulpits, would not have been entirely predictable in advance. Revolutionaries do not merely support such surges forward in their press and leaflets: they intervene on the basis of their programme, ultimately to prepare the working class for the struggle for power. They draw to themselves, on the basis of rounded propaganda for this programme, the most energetic workers thrown up by such struggles and train them in the politics of proletarian revolution. This was the elementary position of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

Moreover, the sphere of active intervention could never be limited merely to the economic struggles. These had to be consciously raised to the level of the political tasks facing the workers as a whole, to which had to be linked the burning political questions of the day—such as the democratic aspirations aroused by the national-democratic movement. This message was at the heart of Lenin’s detailed arguments in What is to be done? (1902).

There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology, to its development along the lines of the Credo programme; for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism ... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy. (p.41).

Again and again he insisted, after Engels and Marx, that the party of communism must intervene to transcend the limitations of pure trade union spontaneity and raise the independent banner of the proletarian revolution.

This applied to Ireland no less than Russia. As Lenin put it, the workers knew how to conduct economic struggle; they learned out of direct necessity. But of socialism they knew little and were open to the vast panoply of propaganda spewed out by the bourgeoisie through their press, politicians and priests. Economism was an error of socialists who contented themselves with telling the militant workers what they already knew, an error of those who did not reach beyond the spontaneous struggle and militancy of the new trade unionists, and who disguised this—as often to themselves as to the workers—as “lending the economic struggle a political character”.

Lenin’s polemic was aimed at intellectuals who were attempting to ‘relate’ to the struggles of workers but who ended up effectively trailing behind them. It is also relevant to any critical appreciation of Connolly’s conception of the relation between economic struggles and the struggle for socialism. For Connolly was himself imbued with the spirit of ‘new-unionism’, from its initial days in Leith in Scotland in the 1890s, though more especially in his later involvement with the rising tide of the IWW and American syndicalism, and eventually, in the growth of the ITGWU in Ireland.

In the struggles of 1913 Connolly was a central leader among the workers, but only as a trade union figure, not as a political militant of the Leninist kind. Yet his was not an apolitical or merely syndicalist perspective, as we have seen. He had an explicit doctrine about the relation between ‘political action’ and the mass industrial organisations, the OBU being their highest expression. The party was to echo the real struggles of the class, an inherently economistic perspective. As a result, the years of proletarian militancy from 1910 to 1914 were politically barren for the Irish working class, despite the gain of asserting the formal political independence of the unions through a Labour Party.

He expected that the Home Rule bourgeoisie would deal with the dominant political questions outside the industrial struggle, specifically the independence question. Yet this was the bourgeoisie against whom the great strike of 1913-4 was being waged. He held to the schema that the political organisation of the working class was to be created within a yet-to-be-realised Home Rule state. These expectations led to various types of political accommodation and blocked the development of the crucial layer of worker-leaders who might have striven politically on all fronts against exploitation and oppression, to contest the bourgeoisie for hegemony in the emerging nation-state and to take the lead in the struggle for the right to self-determination. He failed to forge an organisation of trained socialists capable of intervening in the class and national-revolutionary upsurges that lay ahead.

Defeat for the Dublin working class, the outbreak of war, the rise of Carsonism and the shelving of Home Rule by Britain in 1914, found Connolly woefully caught out. Connolly’s formula for the gradual ascent of labour via the OBU was cruelly exposed as bankrupt. Increasingly he pursued a single-minded engagement with the conspiratorial nationalists of the IRB. Sadly, the forces that had emerged with him in the Lockout—ITGWU militants and the Irish Citizen Army—were not now to be trained as a conscious political nucleus capable of charting a course of independent class action. These precious forces were to be ideologically disarmed and politically liquidated into revolutionary nationalism.