James Connolly, Germany and the First World War: Was Connolly a proto-Lenin?
by Liam O Ruairc
This article will question the thesis that Connolly’s stance on the First World War was similar to that of Lenin’s and argues that he favoured a German victory on socialist grounds. Lenin saw the First World War as a product of the general crisis of capitalism and imperialism and sought to transform the imperialist war into civil war. Connolly’s stand on the first world war as W.K. Anderson notes “frequently been compared with Lenin’s” (W.K. Anderson (1994), James Connolly and the Irish Left, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 63). It is often assumed that Connolly’s position on the question of the First World War was, with only minor if any qualification, similar to that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
C. Desmond Greaves, for instance, argues that “Connolly’s thought ran parallel with Lenin’s… almost phrase by phrase” and only the Irish labour movement together with the Bolsheviks and the Serbian socialists opposed the war (C.Desmond Greaves (1961), The Life and Times of James Connolly, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 353). Bernard Ransom’s study of Connolly’s marxism has argued along similar lines that Connolly’s stance on the First World War was substantially similar to that of Lenin’s (Bernard Ransom (1980), Connolly’s Marxism, London: Pluto Press, 79). Such has been the accepted viewpoint for many studies of Connolly. This has less to do with Connolly’s actual stance on the First World War than using Connolly as a trojan horse to introduce Leninism in Ireland.
Joseph O’Connor related in a letter to the Irish Times (5 August 1976 page 11) the circumstances behind the construction of the ‘Leninist’ Connolly myth:
“I was involved, though somewhat passively, in an earlier cycle of this controversy. It was not conducted publicly but within a limited circle of members of the British Communist Party and some members of the Communist Party of Ireland. There was a general consensus opinion that Connolly’s articles on the 1914 war were, strictly speaking, indefensible in marxist terms. They did not represent the war as an imperialist conflict in which there was no socialist or democratic issue at stake. They represented it as an aggressive war by British imperialism against an industrious and peace loving Germany, described the German Empire as a bastion of enlightened civilisation and implied a Germany victory was much to be desired. In those Stalinist times, nobody thought of adopting a condescending attitude towards an ‘Irish Marxist’. By the common standard of Leninism, Connolly had made a very definite mistake and nobody presented a mistake wasn’t a mistake because it was Irish. Then came the question of what to do about it. Circumstances were more difficult for socialists then than now. Connolly occupied an overlapping position between the dominant nationalism and the very weak socialist movement and this overlap provided an ideological refuge and base for socialists. Were the socialists then to destroy their own base by publicy criticising Connolly for the mistake from which that base derived? A pragmatic decision to evade the issue was reached.. Connolly’s mistaken view of the war was not defended, it was glossed over. Lenin’s view was always stated in the appropriate place and the reader was allowed to gather from various rhetorical devices that Connolly expressed the same view. (A brief exception to this approach was the publication in Britain of a selection of Connolly’s war articles around 1940 as a propagandist support of the relatively pro-German attitude of the CPGB between 1939 and 1941).”
The selection O’Connor refers to is A Socialist and War edited by P.J. Musgrove and published by Lawrence & Wishart, the CPGB publishing house, in early 1941. What is established beyond doubt in this selection of 17 articles on the world war, originally published between August 1914 and January 1916 is that Connolly’s position on the war was essentially different from Lenin’s. This enlightening Lawrence & Wishart did not remain in print for very long. It was suppressed by its publishers within a few months of publication; Operation Barbarossa altering the context of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which had justified the publication in the first place.
What distinguishes Connolly’s analysis from Lenin or Luxemburg’s is that he clearly believed that the war was a result of the crisis of a decaying British capitalism and imperialism as opposed to a general crisis of world capitalism and imperialism. It was the war of “the pirate nation” and “savage Cossacks” against the progressive German ‘state socialism’. There is no doubt that from September 1914 Connolly not only desired a German victory over Britain but also praised Germany as a modern, progressive state containing the “best educated working class in the world, the greatest number of labour papers, the greatest number of parliamentary and local representatives elected on a working class platform, the greatest number of socialist voters – all of this was an infallible index to the high level of intelligence of the German working class as well as their strong and political and industrial position.” This Connolly pointed to the “high civilization of the whole German nation. Upon such a formula Germany laid her success in trade. And her success in war.” Connolly believed that Germany would win the war. He felt that German war successes were due to the country’s “socialized” nature, and he counterposed the image of the “savage Cossacks” of Russia ravishing the daughters of a race at the “head of Christian civilization.” These views are apparent from early in the war. The Germans are a “civilized people who respond to every progressive influence – whereas the Russian empire stretches away into the depths of Asia and relies upon an army largely recruited from amongst many thousands of barbarians who have not yet felt the first softening influence of civilization.” (Irish Worker, 22 August 1914)
A look at the Workers’ Republic, the paper edited and published by James Connolly will clearly prove he supported Germany on socialist grounds. Here are the titles of some of the Workers’ Republic articles published by Connolly on the war (page numbers refer to the 2015 facsimile edition Padraig Yeates (ed), The Workers’ Republic: James Connolly and the Road to the Rising, Dublin: SIPTU (ISBN 978-0-9555823-8-7):
Warsaw welcomes German Troops (28 August 1915, p.138)
German Socialist on the War (18 September 1915, p.162)
The Secret of Germany’s Success (9 October 1915, pp.186-7)
A German Philosopher on the War (6 November 1915, p.219)
The Passionist Fathers on the Disgusting Hypocrisy of English Jingoism (18 December 1915, p.267)
French Socialists and Peace (25 December 1915, p.273)
War and Democracy (1, 15, 22, 29 January and 5 February 1916, pp.280, 297, 308, 312, 323)
Germany 1915 (22 January 1916, p.310)
The Germans in Poland: Freedom in Local Government, Education and Language (5 and 12 February 1916, pp.320, 328)
The German State (19 February 1916, pp.336-337)
Poland for Independence; Giving Back Polish Churches; Irish Brigade in Germany (all 11 March 1916, pp.362-3)
Atrocities by Belgians, Correspondence (18 March 1916, p.369)
Foreign Press and the War, How German Science has conquered the Blockade (8 April 1916, p.393)
German Love for France, German Barbarity? (both 15 April 1916, p.405)
German Catholics and the War (22 April 1916, p.411)
To give the reader a flavour of the nature of those articles, take for example Kaiser and Socialists (4 December 1915, p.248) which is about Anton Friedrich, the first Social Democrat who obtained an interview with the Kaiser “and he shows the ruler in a new light. The author says the monarch has completely changed his views in regard to Socialists and now considers them ‘splendid fellows’, at least most of them…Nobody can expect that the views of the Kaiser are those of a Radical or Socialist, but there is no doubt that he understand the aims of the Radical Left in Parliament far better and has more sympathies for them than the world knows.”
Connolly’s support for Germany was not just ideological. Frank Robbins of the Irish Citizen Army has recounted how Connolly sent his daughter Nora to the German Embassy in the United States with information concerning British military preparations for the Zeebrugge raid that were underway in the Belfast shipyards. (Frank Robbins (1977), Under The Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army, Dublin: The Academy Press, 160)
No mention of all this in the ‘Connolly the Irish proto-Lenin’ books of Greaves and others, but a number of studies have payed close and serious attention to the topic:
Brendan Clifford (2004), Connolly and German Socialism, Belfast: Athol Books
Donal Nevin (2006), James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 521-522
John Newsinger (1986), James Connolly, the German Empire and the Great War, Irish Sword, Number 65, 277-283
John Newsinger (2004), Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement, London: Merlin Press, 127-130
Manus O’Riordan (2006), James Connolly Re-Assessed: The Irish and European Context, Millstreet: Aubane Historical Society
James Connolly was not alone on the international left in supporting a German victory on socialist grounds. Mike Macnair for example has examined the ‘pro-German Marxists’ grouped round the journal Die Glocke in 1915–1919. These authors were leaders of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party before 1914, and prominent anti-imperialist writers in that period, but when war broke out advocated at a ‘German victoryist’ line. Macnair argues that their development shows that the political collapse of 1914 was not just a collapse of the SPD centre but also of a section of its left, and also that anti-imperialist commitments were not a sufficient ‘inoculation’ against collapse.
In some ways the Die Glocke authors were more clear-sighted than other German Marxists, especially on world markets and the role of British imperialism, and like Connolly admired the ‘socialisation’ of ‘German State Socialism’ – see in particular The Secret of Germany’s Success 9 October 1915, pp.186-7 (Mike Macnair (2014), Die Glocke or the Inversion of Theory: From Anti-imperialism to Pro-Germanism, Critique, 42:3, 353-375). On the basis of material examined in the Workers’ Republic the politics of the paper edited by Connolly would have been fairly similar to those of Die Glocke. Connolly argued on 15 April 1916 that “the German Nation is incomparably superior to any nation in Europe” (Notes from the Front, 15 April 1916, p.399). Contrary to the allegations of the Greaves school of falsification, it was not Lenin who appealed to Connolly but rather Lenin’s life-long opponent, the Polish socialist leader Joseph Pilsuldski, who aligned himself militarily with Germany and Austria and against Russia to fight for an independent Poland. Connolly applauded Pilsukdski’s Polish Legion for fighting alongside Germany against Russia as a contingent in the Austrian army (Polish Socialists fight for National Freedom, 15 April 1916, p.402). For this see in particular: Connolly: The Polish Aspect. A Review of James Connolly’s Political and Spiritual Affinity with Jospeh Pilsudski, Leader of the Polish Socialist Party, Organiser of the Polish Legions and Founder of the Polish State, Belfast: Athol Books, 1985, 168pp.
However, some qualifications are necessary. According to Desmond Ryan, Pearse stated the following: “Connolly is most dishonest in his methods. In public he says the war is a war forced on Germany by the Allies. In private he says that the Germans are as bad as the British”. (quoted in: Donal Nevin (2006), James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 628) Even in public, Connolly wrote in the Workers’ Republic that: “The German Empire is a homogenous Empire of self-governing people; the British Empire is a heterogeneous collection in which a very small number of self-governing communities connive at the subjugation by force of a vast number of despotically ruled subject populations. We do not wish to be ruled by either empire, but we certainly believe that the first named contains more of the possibilities of freedom and civilisation than the latter” (Correspondence,18 March 1916, p.369). The article India wants neither British nor German (4 and 11 December 1915, pp.254 and 257) reinforces the “we do not wish to be ruled by either empire” line. The articles American Socialist Predicts All-European Revolution and The Working Class Fight Against the War (15 April 1916, pp.400 and 405) also indicate that on the eve of the Easter Rising Connolly had not abandoned the perspective of international socialist revolution.
The following fact is also relevant. On 12 May 1916 Horace Plunkett arrived in London and he met amongst others Sir Basil Thomson, deputy commissioner of the metropolitan police. Plunkett had a report from a doctor in Dublin Castle and according to Thomson’s diary entry for 11 May, “(Connolly) told the doctor that the Germans were going to win the war; that he liked the Hohenzollerns no better than the doctor did, but when the war was over they would join the German socialists to turn the Hohenzollerns out. The doctor said that Ireland geographically could never be independent of England, to which Connolly replied: ‘In a few weeks, there will be no British Empire'” (The Scene Changes, London, 1939, 284). Attempts to find this report have so far proved unsuccessful and it may have been burned when republicans destroyed Plunkett’s house in 1923. It is the only post-rising socialist reference we have from Connolly (Austen Morgan (1988), James Connolly: A Political Biography, Manchester University Press, 234).
This article proves that Alan Woods’ claim, for example, that “although (Connolly) had no direct contact with Lenin, the two men instinctively adopted the same position from the outbbreak of hostilities” is simply false (Alan Woods (2005), Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution, London: Wellred Publications, 53). Connolly took a pro-German stance, but is was taken on a socialist basis. Until the very end, Connolly remained a socialist. Although he published articles arguing that the Kaiser “understand(s) the aims of the Radical Left in Parliament far better and has more sympathies for them than the world knows”, it is unlikely that he would have agreed with Joseph Mary Plunkett’s plan to bring Prince Joachim of Bavaria over to be the head of a newly-independent Irish state aligned with Germany (cfr: Desmond Fitzgerald, Inside the GPO, Irish Times, 7 April 1966, p.2 and Ernest Blythe, An Irish Monarchy, Irish Times, 15 April 1966, p.12) But far from Connolly’s thought running parallel to Lenin’s, the evidence is that on important areas such as the First World War they fundamentally deviated.
Posted on December 3, 2015, in General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, James Connolly, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on James Connolly, Germany and the First World War: Was Connolly a proto-Lenin?.