James Connolly is best remembered for his leading role in the 1916 Easter
Rising in Dublin and his subsequent execution, strapped to a chair, by
a British firing squad. He had, however, considerable experience of the
socialist and trade union movements in Britain, the US and Ireland going
back to the previous century. David Lynch's fine book is a detailed study
of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) between 1896 and 1904, which
occupied a crucial phase of Connolly's early career. He was instrumental
in founding the organisation in Dublin in 1896 and it effectively collapsed
with his departure for America in 1903.
Although it never had more than 80 members, the ISRP still deserves serious study. It provides a marvellous example of a small band of socialists battling against considerable odds in a hostile environment to build a mass movement. In the end the odds were to prove too great, but in the course of the struggle the party, largely through the efforts of Connolly, made an important theoretical breakthrough regarding the relationship between the struggle for socialism and the struggle for national liberation. Connolly provided an enduring Marxist strategy for socialists in colonial countries.
The ISRP was inevitably a product of its times, of the pre-1917 socialist movement. It practised a politics that derived from the German SPD in general and the British Social Democratic Federation more particularly. This involved an orientation that was electoralist and propagandist, winning over converts who would then vote socialism into existence. Trade union activity and strikes were not regarded as central to the struggle. Only by electing socialists to parliament could capitalism be replaced, and trade union battles were, from this point of view, very much a sideshow. This view was widespread on the left and was shared at the time by leading figures such as Jim Larkin, a socialist activist in Liverpool. Today this attitude, quite correctly, seems positively outlandish, but it is worth remembering that the theoreticians did not overthrow it, working class practice did. The great international upsurge in working class struggle that was presaged by the 1905 revolution in Russia was to dramatically change the environment in which socialists worked. Connolly was to encounter this upsurge in the US where he was to become an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World.
More problematic was the ISRP's attitude towards the Catholic church. Connolly insisted that the party had no position on religion, no truck with anti-clericalism and should ignore clerical attacks. This caused some problems, particularly in Cork, and Connolly's position was much too defensive. What has to be remembered, however, is the immense authority of the church at this time. This was a church that did not assert its control through the police or the courts, but through popular support. This made the work of socialists more difficult than in those countries where the church was irrelevant as in Britain or where it was hated as in Spain.
Most important though was the ISRP's anti-imperialism and the political challenge it posed to the advanced nationalists. For my money Lynch does not devote enough attention to Connolly's critique of physical force republicanism, but that aside he provides an extremely useful account of the theoretical leap that Connolly accomplished, something as important today as when he conceived it. Of course the extent to which Connolly lived up to his theoretical breakthrough in 1916 is another matter.
Once again this is a fine book, essential reading for anyone interested in the Irish struggle and the left.
John Newsinger, "Socialist review", June 2005