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Connolly And Republican Socialist Organisational Strategy
Liam O Ruairc • June 12, 2003

The question of organisational strategy is of decisive importance. Connolly understood that the working class had to be organised industrially, politically and militarily, that is through a trade union, a political party and an army. But he weighted the respective importance of each of those areas differently.

In 1896, James Connolly formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party. Connolly was trying to create an Irish version of the German social democratic party. The ISRP was conceived as a typical Second International political organisation: a propagandist group seeking to achieve a workers’ republic by electoral means. It should be noted that for many years, Connolly was an evolutionary as opposed to a revolutionary socialist. In 1897, he specifically dissociated himself from insurrectionary socialism and called for the use of the “slower, but surer method of the ballot box” to achieve “the peaceful conquest of the forces of Government in the interests of the revolutionary ideal” (CW1, 315-316). For its time, the programme of the party was the most advanced of all socialist organisations in the British Isles. One of the problems was perhaps that it was too advanced for its times. This is one of the reasons why the party never took off. The party remained weak and politically insignificant, as well as divided by internal disputes. When Connolly emigrated to the USA in 1903, his experience had shown that a political party had little value as an organisational mode of mass mobilisation. Being on the left of the Second International, he also understood that trying to create socialism gradually through parliamentary measures led to an impasse. In the USA, Connolly was very impressed by syndicalism through the theory and practice of the American socialist Daniel De Leon.

Syndicalism is a socialist current that seeks to overthrow capitalism and the state by primarily if not purely industrial organisation and struggle. If political parties and action lead to reformism, to destroy capitalism the working class must concentrate on the industrial battlefield. Syndicalism seeks to mobilise all grades of workers in a single revolutionary trade union organisation, the “One Big Union”. This “One Big Union” was conceived by Connolly as the prime vehicle for the national and economic struggle of the Irish working class. The Union was conceived as the means through which the workers would exercise their rule under socialism in the same way the capitalists exercise their rule through parliament. Through his experience of the Industrial Workers of the World in the USA, syndicalism impressed Connolly as the organisational scheme which best concentrated the offensive power of the class struggle. For Connolly, syndicalism seemed the answer to the failure of the ISRP.

“The fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is the battle being fought out every day for the power to control industry” (SW, 159) The practical conclusion from this idea is that Connolly’s priority was to build the One Big Union and no longer the party, because “the conquest of political power by the working class waits upon the conquest of economic power, and must function through the economic organisation.” (SW, 163) Although heavily influenced by syndicalism, Connolly was not anti-political or hostile to the idea of a political party, but they were assigned only a complementary role. In 1914, he wrote: “The only force available to the worker is economic force, the capture of political power when it does come will come as a result of the previous conquest of economic power, although that conquest can be and should be assisted by the continual exercise of political action.” (CW1, 339). All this rests upon the assumption of the relative self-sufficiency of workers organised in the trade union movement and that political class consciousness could spontaneously rise from trade union consciousness.

But political class consciousness does not spontaneously grow from trade union consciousness, and industrially organised workers will not spontaneously also mean politically organised workers. History proved that the mass strike would not spontaneously transform itself into a political insurrection. The mass strike happened in 1913 (Dublin 1913), but did not lead to a mass political insurrection. The insurrection happened in Easter 1916, but without broad mass involvement. The merging of the two could only be organically mediated by a party. 1913 showed the irruption of the Irish working class on the Irish scene, but simultaneously showed the weakness of the political organisation of that class. Ireland at that time possessed the objective conditions for revolution, but the subjective conditions lagged far behind. Unfortunately, Connolly never placed the party (be it the ISRP or its successor, the Socialist Party of Ireland founded in 1909) at the centre of his attention. His main energies went into the trade union (the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, founded 1908), not the party. Connolly formed political parties, but failed to attach central importance to them. His failure to establish a vanguard party resulted in a situation where there were no trained and experienced revolutionary leaders to take his place.

Connolly was the most far-sighted socialist in the British isles in regards to the military organisation of the working class. The Irish Citizen Army was founded in 1913 to give protection to the workers during the Dublin lock-out. Hailed as the first Red Army in Europe, it was a very significant phenomenon.

An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as part of their armies led by their masters, never as members of an army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now with arms in their hands, their propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future. (CW2, 92-93)

Connolly understood the importance of arming the masses and creating a workers’ militia. The Citizen Army was always a stalwart of the ITGWU and was able to use its Liberty Hall as a base. Connolly conceived it as the armed wing of the trade union, in the same way the Socialist Party was its political wing. That limited its political potential.

The point is that the organisational theories of Connolly meant that once he was killed, the full revolutionary potential of the labour movement began to degenerate without anything to prevent doing so. The working class in Ireland, famed for its militancy became prey to the leadership of opportunists. The fact that the Socialist Party of Ireland was a loose centrist organisation and the very all-embracing nature of the ITGWU meant that the workers’movement had no ideologically trained vanguard to resist the replacement of Connolly and Larkin by opportunists like William O Brien. The Citizen Army, under the new leadership of James O Neill, became an uninfluential group which eventually ceased to exist for all practical purposes. All this was not unconnected to the influence syndicalism exerted on Connolly, indeed syndicalism provided fertile ground for opportunism to flourish. Connolly had the right political analysis, but was unable to draw the correct organisational conclusions from it.

It is interesting to compare the organisational strategy of the Republican Socialist movement to that of Connolly. Traditionally, because of the war situation in the Six Counties and the weight of the physical force tradition, the Army played the central role, the party was often nothing but a “political wing” of that Army, and the trade unions played little or no role. This is the exact opposite of Connolly. The IRSP is not the political wing of the trade union movement, or the INLA its military wing! But as objective conditions changed, and through experience and analysis like that of Ta Power, our movement modified its approach in regards to organisational strategy. The Army is on ceasefire and adopted a defensive role, so that leaves much more room to build the party and our influence in the trade union movement. It is time our movement assesses what should be our priority in the industrial, political and military organisation of the Irish working class.




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