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We need to talk about James Connolly

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James Connolly

James Connolly

James Connolly

last week saw another intervention in the argument about the 1916 Rising in the form of a "Citizen's Initiative for 2016" that looks to "reclaim the vision of 1916". Those involved have a big problem: what will they do with James Connolly?

More so than his fellow signatories, Connolly's reputation as a radical humanist remains largely intact today. To those who know his writings though, this fact remains cause for some wonderment.

Baldly stated, Connolly was a fundamentalist and a fanatic who has little to teach contemporary Ireland. On the relationship between nationalism and unionism, Connolly was a warmonger who preached confrontation. At an important moment in the Home Rule argument, he professed himself "quite confident that were the forces of the Crown withdrawn entirely, the Unionists could or would put no force into the field that the Home Rulers of all sections combined could not protect themselves against with a moderate amount of ease".

Connolly also more or less admitted that he had no real analysis at all of the Ulster problem. Though a well-read man by the standards of the day, his writings show him to have been profoundly anti-intellectual, especially if we define intellectual to denote a capacity for abstraction, irony and contradiction. He could not analyse any major problem without recourse to one of two answers: disparities in wealth or deception.

Who caused the Great War? "A dozen men."

Why did so few of the Dublin poor accept his teachings? They were confused, Connolly believed, by "newspaper-rigged public opinion".

Why did people become Home Rule parliamentarians rather than members of a Citizen Army-controlled soviet? "For the sake of £400 a year they become Imperialists; for the sake of large travelling expenses and luxurious living they become lying recruiters."

Where did modern unionism come from? Not from the great debates of the Reformation or the English Civil War, but from a yearning for material advantage. Connolly believed that "as the price of its surrender of its national soul, as the price of its hatred of national freedom", Belfast "obtained every kind of legislative sanction it desired for its municipal activities".

Unionism, in this idiom, became not so much a creed as a guarantee of warm houses. (No wonder he thought he could smash them in the field if the British stood aside). It is also important to remember that Connolly's oft-trumpeted solidarity with the poor was conditional on they being the right kind of mendicant.

A champion of the miller, the docker and the assembly-line drone, Connolly went out of his way to dehumanise the soldier and the policeman, as if they were not wage slaves themselves. He seems to have been something of a peeping-tom when it came to Irish-born soldiers. He knew all their courting spots, "the corner of O'Connell Street and Bachelor's Walk" being an area of particular interest to him in his journalism.

It is hard to read Connolly's relentless attacks here without projecting forward to the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's critique of that brand of revolutionary fervour that aspires to nothing higher than a constable's fractured skull. (Addressing the privileged student radicals in Paris in 1968, Pasolini spat in their eyes and pledged sympathy for the police - "because they are the sons of the poor").

It is interesting to note as well that Connolly was not exhausted by the demands of this kind of sexual invigilation. He had plenty more in the locker for deployment against other careworn elements, such as the dependents of these soldiers. These he likened to "criminals" who were to be found haunting post offices "waiting for the receipt of the blood money which the British Government allows them in return for the limbs and lives of their husbands".

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One wonders today how a committed socialist could forget the basic Marxist concept of "material conditions" when construing the motivation of these people - that is to say, the idea that pure material deprivation accounts for a fair amount of how people behave.

It seems that his race hatred for what he, at various stages, called "the Brit-Hun" was sufficiently strong here to overpower his duty to the under-class, regardless of their politics.

Any comprehensive Connolly critique would also have to extend to his sympathy with German imperialism, his admiration for John Mitchel and his oft-stated belief that his socialism was superior to any and all American, French, British and German variants.

To spend any time in Connolly's company today is to feel, all over again, the noble truth inherent in Vaclav Havel's famous warning about the way historical parallels "are used to distract our attention from the living, human, moral and political dilemmas of the time, for, if we were to solve or deal with these, we would be making our own national history and ultimately giving it some kind of meaning".

Ought we here today not aspire so high and contemplate a culture that leaves Connolly behind?


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