Imperialism, Connolly and Lenin – some comments

OliversArmyChapt004Pic14by Philip Ferguson

Liam O Ruairc, with his usual attention to detail, has produced an interesting and useful discussion on Connolly and Germany from the opening of WW1 to the Rising. Liam has, I think, proven that some of Connolly’s writings during this period present Germany as being more progressive or less reactionary than Britain. At the same time he has shown that Connolly was not, as suggested by Austen Morgan (and others), a Germanophile. Liam has shown that Connolly remained opposed to German imperialism and looked forward to its being brought down by the German working class while rather glossing over Germany’s record in public.

Liam has also challenged the idea that Connolly was a kind of Irish Lenin and that certain writers, mainly (but certainly not exclusively) of the CPGB and CPI variety (eg C. Desmond Greaves), smuggled that connection in as a way of justifying their own two-stage politics in relation to Ireland. Liam suggests that Connolly and Lenin also had different attitudes to the First World War and that, although Connolly was no Pilsudski, he did have a few positions in common with the right-wing Polish social-democrat leader.

I think there are some problems with the Connolly/Lenin and Connolly/Pilsudski connections.

Firstly, I agree with Liam about Greaves and those closely associated with him. Greaves had a view of the struggle in Ireland which was both stagist/reformist and naive. For instance, in relation to the civil rights movement, neither Greaves nor those who took up his ideas in the Official Republican Movement saw that the mere assertion of civil rights would result in a murderous unionist/loyalist backlash and that British imperialism would side unequivocally with the reactionaries. Stagism wasn’t simply an academic argument; it was a life-and-death issue in Ireland as it actually existed in the late 1960s. The Provisional Republican Movement was proven completely right on the dangers of running down the armed side of the movement at that time; I would also argue that Costello understood the dangers and agree with his (Costello’s) own point that he stayed too long in the Officials and probably should have left in 1972. Hindsight, of course, is a great thing.

Greaves and his co-thinkers also showed a very limited understanding of British imperialism and its institutions, including the British Labour Party.  They thought British imperialism could be pressured into playing a progressive role in Ireland and that the British Labour party was an important vehicle for this.  Connolly, of course, had no such illusions.

I also think there was a very important difference between Lenin and Connolly, one that Connolly was wrong on and which had huge repercussions for the struggle for national, social and economic liberation in Ireland. Lenin understood the importance of a revolutionary political organisation and was the key individual in shaping the Bolshevik Party. Connolly, however, separated organisational and political questions in the sense of not building a vanguard organisation, let alone one that could survive his death.

He led a large, radical trade union, which contained political elements of an anti-capitalist workers movement, but he only built a small workers’ militia that adhered to socialist-republican politics. The ICA did not survive the Rising. Yes, I know there was a group that still called itself the ICA during both the war for independence and the civil war, and it even re-emerged in the mid-1930s, at the time of Republican Congress. But I’m talking about the ICA in a real and meaningful sense. After the Rising what was left of it became a number of individuals, most prominently Markievicz and a number of other women. But they were simply swamped by the Volunteers and Sinn Fein and became swept up in the great wave of the pan-nationalist front that was the national independence movement after the reorganisation of SF and the Volunteers in late 1917. The working class lost any independent class voice and thus tailed along behind the pan-nationalist front.

Although Markievicz articulated a working class viewpoint during the Treaty debates, it was far too little and far too late – and, afterwards, she continued to follow the diabolical de Valera.

Moreover, Connolly actually passed the militant Transport Workers Union on to an awful reformist, O’Brien, even though he must’ve been aware that O’Brien hadn’t a revolutionary bone in his body. And by the time Larkin arrived back in Ireland, the O’Brien clique was in complete control of the union, and the 1913-23 revolutionary period was pretty much over.

This must be one of the key lessons for 21st century socialist-republicans: the importance of a political vanguard organisation, one that can survive defeats and the loss of any leadership.

Lastly, to turn to the war and the positions of Lenin and Connolly. Actually, here there was a great deal of similarity.  More, I think, than Liam recognises. Lenin favoured the defeat of the ruling class of the imperialist empire of which he was a citizen – the Russian empire. Connolly favoured the defeat of the ruling class of the imperialist empire of which he was a citizen – the British empire.  Same position.

It is also necessary to take into account that Russia was imperialist but Ireland was a colonial possession of imperialist Britain. So there’s a degree to which the comparison is not like with like. This applies even more in the case of German left-social democrats.

The Die Glocke people capitulated to their own ruling class. They were part of the mass capitulation of German social democracy to German imperialism. A comparison with Connolly would only be valid if Connolly capitulated to the imperialist power that he was living under. But, of course, he didn’t capitulate. He totally opposed it politically and fought and made the ultimate sacrifice trying to overthrow it. In other words, Connolly’s position was the opposite of the Die Glocke people.

Liam’s article is a useful reminder that all the greats, Connolly included, made some mistakes and we can’t simply replicate their politics and actions if we hope to win. What we should do is look at them in their actual contexts, learn from them (both positively and negatively) and try to stand on their shoulders. We should be able, then, to start ahead of where they started, to take the banner of liberty further than they were able to in their time – hopefully to victory but, if not, at least forward for those who come after us to take the victory.

For that to happen we need more in the way of frank and open informative, educational and comradely discussions and debates among revolutionaries. And by revolutionaries, I am not talking about gas-and-water ‘socialists’ but people who understand the interconnectedness of the class and national questions in Ireland and who act on it as Connolly did in his time.

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Posted on December 5, 2015, in Constance Markievicz, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish Citizen Army, James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Officials, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. thanks! Will comment on this at some stage

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