Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Haymarket Books
ISBN 97816466467

Reviewed by Geoffrey Bell


Geoffrey Bell is author of ‘The Easter Rising and the British left’, in Dal Lago, Healy and Barry (eds), 1916 in global context: an anti-imperial moment (Routledge, 2018).

Why is James Connolly still worth reading? Why do most parts of the contemporary Irish progressive movement still claim his inheritance?

The first answer is his relevance. The societies in which Connolly agitated and organised—Scotland, the USA and Ireland—remain deeply socially divided and unequal. Connolly explains why this is so, then and now, and how to change it: he is very postdatable.

Second, there is his participation in the 1916 Rising, the wisdom of which is still debated among socialists, as indeed it was at the time.

We also read him because he writes so well. Whether in his polemical journalism, his conversational musings or his more theoretical works, he explains and postulates with a persuasiveness that makes it difficult for a reader to do other than nod in agreement and ask themselves, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’.

Or one can also read Connolly to try and settle in one’s own head the controversies that have always surrounded him. What really drove him to participate in the Rising? Whatever happened to his syndicalism? How practical did he believe that this call for Protestant and Catholic working-class unity in the North of Ireland really was? What religious faith did he have?

Let’s take one of these issues, and again one that has contemporary relevance—his writing on the North. While never retreating from the hope of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers, he also acknowledges that this might not be the most practical priority. He stated more than once that the key to changing Irish society lay with the Catholic poor. Others, however, have different interpretations, suggesting a complexity to Connolly that is yet another reason for reading him.

There is also his exceptionalism—his attempt to synthesise an Irish, Catholic, Gaelic and Fenian tradition with that of international Marxism as it was interpreted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is this, above all, which gives Connolly a unique place in Irish and Marxist political thought and shows him as an original thinker who treated Marxism as a guide rather than an instruction. His two great theoretical works, Labour in Irish history and Labour, nationality and religion, both illustrate this: he always encourages his readers to think beyond their preconceptions, whether Marxist, religious or everyday. It is perhaps easy to pick holes in these pieces here and there, but they are both fascinating and the last thing they should be is ignored.

This makes it regrettable that this collection does not include Labour, nationality and religion, or even an excerpt from it. A previous Connolly collection saw its editor, Peter Berresford Ellis, say that this was Connolly’s ‘major theoretical work’. Obviously, Shaun Harkin does not agree. Not only does he omit it but when he does refer to it in his introduction he oversimplifies it and reduces it to an attack on the Catholic Church. It is much more than that. In it Connolly uses Marxist methodology while often basing his arguments on what he insists are Catholic or Christian principles. One can understand why a Marxist of the 21st century might find this a bit embarrassing, but that is no reason to exclude a work that is both intellectually stimulating and central to a comprehensive understanding of Connolly.

Other omissions include Connolly’s articles on Germany after the outbreak of the war, notably ‘The German and the British Empire’ and ‘The war upon the German nation’. These have been criticised for being too sympathetic to Germany, and again one can see why today’s socialists might wish to ignore them. Harkin does refer to the politics of these in his introduction, but again it would be preferable to allow Connolly to speak for himself, if for no other reason than that they are important pieces in the jigsaw of his enlistment in the Rising.

Perhaps the other most notable omission is ‘What is a free nation?’, which explains much about Connolly and 1916 but also contains what some socialists might today consider heretical thoughts. These include Ireland being ‘the handiwork of the Almighty’ and Connolly’s apparent embrace of blood sacrifice when he talks of ‘the supreme act of self-sacrifice … to die if necessary that our race might live in Freedom’.

These are annoying omissions. The account offered of his life story has others, including his rows with Larkin, his role in founding the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland and the evidence that he died a good Catholic, making confession.

Having said that, the book is reasonably priced and does contain much of what is important in Connolly. Nevertheless, there is no getting away from the fact that it is not such a representative sample of his thinking as it could or should be. Rather, it smacks too much of being the editor’s favourite hits.

What is mistaken about this approach is that we also read Connolly, or at least this reviewer does, to seek to engage with him and ultimately to seek inspiration. The more his life or words are shaped to meet an editor’s own views, the less engaging and less inspiring he can become.


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