James Connolly, imperialism and anti-imperialism

JamesConnollyby Liam O Ruairc

Born in 1868 in Edinburgh of poor Irish parents, James Connolly is one of Ireland’s most important and controversial historical figures. He is known as Ireland’s foremost marxist thinker and activist, the working class leader who effected a union of socialist and nationalist forces in a radical anti-imperialist front. In 1896 he founded in Dublin the Irish Socialist Republican Party “to muster all the forces of labour for a revolutionary reconstruction of society and the incidental destruction of the British Empire” (Connolly 1973, 167), and remained committed to that aim until his death. Financial difficulties forced him to emigrate to the United States between 1903 and 1910 where he worked as an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as the Wobblies). After his return to Ireland, he became the Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union from 1911 to 1913, was then deeply involved in the great Dublin lock-out of 1913-14 and had a key role in organising the Irish Citizen Army – a workers’ defence force.

Connolly was an outspoken opponent of Irish involvement in the First World War. A convinced socialist revolutionary, he was at the forefront of the struggle against the British Empire and allied with the revolutionary Irish nationalists to organise the 1916 Easter Rising. One of the signatories of  the Proclamation of the Republic, he was appointed vice-president of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic and commandant-general of its army. Wounded in the Rising, he was shot in a chair by the British authorities on 12 May 1916. Throughout his life, Connolly was a prolific writer, and maintained a constant stream of books, pamphlets articles and speeches. His work is almost exclusively centred on Ireland and was elaborated largely in isolation from the international socialist movement and for that reason is not well known globally.

Connolly developed a number of innovative theoretical positions regarding the relationship between marxism and anti-imperialism; positions heretical to both conventional forms of Irish nationalism and the form of socialism espoused by the Second International prevalent during his life time. He was among the first to combine the politics of anti-imperialist nationalism with international marxism in the colonial arena. His fundamental teaching is that the struggle for national liberation from imperialism is not opposed  to the struggle for socialism but an integral and necessary part of it. This is why, in his view, “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered” (Connolly 1988, 175).  Why are the two interdependent?

To those who were purely nationalists, Connolly argued that an independent Ireland without socialism  would simply find itself subject to English neo-colonial rule: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers. . . Nationalism without Socialism. . . is only recreancy” (Connolly 1987, 307). In this respect Connolly foreshadows and anticipates Fanon’s revolutionary anticolonial nationalism and its critique of the limitations of a purely political nationalism.

If national liberation is meaningless without socialism, socialism is impossible in Ireland without national liberation. To socialists who opposed taking a stance on the national question, Connolly pointed that it was inconsistent to be “opposed to oppression at all times” but also “opposed to national revolt for national independence”. While Connolly understood why socialists could be suspicious of nationalism, he was insistent that the workers movement “must rest upon and draw its inspiration from the historical and actual conditions of the country in which it functions” and opposed “abstract ‘internationalism’. . . which has no relation to the real internationalism of the Socialist movement” (Connolly 1987, 369-370).

Connolly clearly understood that anti-imperialist nationalism and international marxism were not identical but only complementary. He viewed the two not as separate stages, but as distinct aspects of the same process. Breaking the chains of Empire and national liberation are a “first requisite” (Connolly 1988, 175) for building a socialist society in Ireland. Although the fight for national freedom takes a logical priority, in that it represents an attack on the most immediate and most tangible manifestation of imperialism, it cannot be chronologically separated from the struggle for social liberation. To postpone the objective of socialism to a distinct ‘stage’ in the future invites a form of independence which is necessarily on the terms favouring vested interests.

Connolly is little acknowledged in the pantheons of postcolonial theory and subaltern history, but leading postcolonial theorist Robert Young argues that rightfully he should be  given central importance within the history of anti-imperialism and its theoretical traditions: “Connolly was the first leader in a colonized nation to argue for the compatibility of nationalism and socialism, in doing so producing a position which would not only inspire Lenin and through him lead to the Third International, but which would subsequently become the defining characteristic of the triumphant tricontinental Marxism of the national liberation movements, including that of Fanon, but also that of Mao, Cabral and Guevara. This tricontinental Marxism, generally but misleadingly known as Marxist nationalism, could be better described, after Engels, as nationalist internationalism. . . It was not a question of choice between nationalism and internationalism, but rather, as Fanon was also to argue, an anti-colonial nationalism within an internationalist framework of cross-cultural solidarity” (Young 2001,305).

James Connolly has also been acknowledged as one of the first marxist to have developed an anti-imperialist form of historiography, in works such as Labour in Irish History (1910), to theorize the history of subaltern social groups. For David Lloyd, Connolly is among the first to produce a critical rethinking of Marxism according to the specificity of colonial history and from the standpoint of the colonized, his work bearing a remarkable similarity conceptually and theoretically to the writings of Peruvian marxist José Carlos Mariategui (Lloyd 2003, 357).

The particularity of the Irish experience of colonization required an understanding of the process of historical change different from those customarily found in conventional capitalist and Marxist teleologies of development. While nowhere near as theoretically sophisticated as it is to be found in the contemporary scholarship that has appeared after the emergence of the South Asian Subaltern school of historiography, Connolly’s work at the very least anticipates such projects: “Connolly’s attempt to theorize (historical) materialism from the standpoint of the colonized represents a decisive moment in the genealogy of the critical theorization of colonization and decolonization throughout the world, as well as presenting a crucial gloss of how what now goes by the name of postcolonial theory might be understood within Ireland” (Dobbins 2000, 634)

Hostile critics like Stephen Howe object that Connolly “played no role in the general debates of the international socialist movement before 1914, including those on imperialism; and there is no sign in his writings that he was even aware of the theories of imperialism developed by Rosa Luxemburg, Rudolf Hilferding, Nikolai Bukharin or, nearer to home, J.A. Hobson. Nor is there any indication that he. . . was aware even of the existence of anticolonial nationalist thinkers outside Europe” (Howe 2000, 62). Austen Morgan writes that  contrary to what is often claimed “Connolly’s support for Irish statehood did not make him an advanced critic of imperialism in the late 1890s “, tracing just twelve references to overseas dependencies in Connolly’s writings, almost all ephemeral, and suggests that these “did not breach a Eurocentric and indeed racist view of world politics. . . The people of the ‘non-civilized’ world are totally missing in Connolly’s writings” (Morgan 1988, 37, 210).

 However, Connolly’s trenchant analyses such as “The Coming Revolt in India” (1908), “The Friends of Small Nationalities” (1914) or “What is a Free Nation?” (1916) indicate that he was unusual in his time in seeing Irish politics within the context of the global panoply of British and European imperialism (Young 2001, 305). Connolly always argued that “the movements of Ireland for freedom could not and cannot be divorced from the worldwide movements of the world’s democracy” (Connolly 1973, 150). He anticipated later critical approaches in his insistence that Ireland should be regarded in relation to India, Egypt and other regions of the British Empire due to a shared experience of imperialism. Connolly’s “In Praise of Empire” (1915) for example claims the British Empire “stifles the ancient culture of India, strangles in birth the new-born liberty of Egypt, smothers in the blood of ten thousand women and children the republics of South Africa, betrays into the hands of Russian despotism the trusting nationalists of Persia, connives at the partition of China, and plans the partition of Ireland” (Connolly 1987, 84). In his article “The Fighting Race” (1898), Connolly also held that the Irish were not simply victims of colonization but might also profit from occasional complicity with imperialism through their participation in the British or American military.

Since his execution in a chair by a British firing squad in 1916, Connolly’s legacy has been subject to intense disputes. These have revolved around whether he failed to understand rural Ireland or the politicial significance of the country’s uneven industrialisation, to what extent he was a syndicalist who neglected to build the revolutionary party, whether he made too many concessions to catholicism,  or was right or wrong as a socialist to take part in the 1916 Easter Rising. But his ideas on the relation between anti-imperialist nationalism and international marxism have been credited for arriving independently at the same conclusions as Lenin on the national question and the relation between the democratic and socialist revolution or prefiguring postcolonial theory.


James Connolly (1973) Selected Political Writings, London: Jonathan Cape

James Connolly (1987), Collected Works: Volume One, Dublin: New Books Publications

James Connolly (1988), Collected Works: Volume Two, Dublin: New Books Publications

Gregory Dobbins (2000), “Whenever Green is Red: James Connolly and Postcolonial Theory”, Nepantla, 1 (3), 605-648

Stephen Howe (2000), Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press

David Lloyd (2003), “Rethinking National Marxism: James Connolly and ‘Celtic Communism’”, interventions, 5 (3), 345-370

Austen Morgan (1988), James Connolly: A Political Biography, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988

Robert J.C. Young (2001) Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell, 



Posted on December 9, 2015, in Historiography and historical texts, Internationalism, James Connolly, Political education and theory, Revolutionary figures. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on James Connolly, imperialism and anti-imperialism.

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