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Review: Three books on Connolly
by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght
7 July 2012
Emmet O'Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, 1824-2000. UCD Press, 2011, E.28.00.
Donal Nevin, ed. James Connolly: Political Writings 1893-1916. SIPTU, 2011, E.30.
Donal Nevin, ed. Writings of James Connolly: Collected Works. SIPTU, 2011, E.20.
At the end of last year, there were published two works of Irish working class history that help expand the common knowledge of the subject. The new and expanded edition of O'Connor's Labour History gives the reader a valuable verview of the subject from the early years of the parliamentary union.The two volumes of Connolly's writings include important contributions from the author some of which have never been published for the general reader (his play, Under Which Flag? is one example), many of which have not been republished since their first appearance and a number of which have been republished only in a wide variety of magazines and pamphlets. This gives the reader a better idea of Connolly's theoretical development than was provided previously.
O'Connor's book interprets that and more. Besides giving a useful factual overview as a beginning to understanding the development of the broad Irish labour movement it contains many particularly useful narratives, especially in the earlier chapters. It gives a valuable account of the labour movement before the famine, though its attempts to separate the trade and the political organisational attempts tend to handicap understanding of labour's overall process in these years. O'Connor is also excellent describing the manner in which Ulster's rural sectarianism was transported to the urban labour market. His definition of "Larkinism" hits the nail on the head. He us all too accurate in his dismissal of the Democratic Programme of the first Dail as "neither democratic nor a programme". Later on, he provides valuable information on the fall of the Republican Congress. Few will disagree with his diagnosis that Labour's weakness has been prolonged by what he terms the illusion of "modernisation" (or adaptation to the prevailing international bourgeois ideology), and the "implosion of socialist thinking on the north".(P.296) The problem is that they are not the whole story, the total of which must include this book's political weakness. Ideologically, it belongs to a method termed "Socialist Republican". In most countries, this would be a tautology; a consistent socialist must be a republican, though, in practice, many have funked challenging the highest form of state hierarchy. In Ireland, the term means more: active support by any effective means for the self-determination of the whole Irish nation as an independent democratic entity. This is all to the good, but it is only the beginning of wisdom. Socialists are internationalists. Both they and intelligent republicans of all sides of the spectrume know that they need friends abroad to achieve their aims (non-socialist republicans are inclined to be less careful in their international relations than their left allies.). The difference between socialists and socialist republicans comes when the question is raised as to what these aims must be. Socialist internationalism does not mean supporting the internationalism of the bosses, represented today, most obviously, by the European Union (and yesterday by the British Empire), it does mean recognising that Ireland's political, social and economic problems cannot be solved fully within Ireland even with the aid of socialised methods of production, distribution and exchange. It remains true that, as Marx wrote, Ireland has to achieve independence to make progress; it is even truer today that, as Marx wrote too, independence may be followed by confederation, in fact, it must be followed by a genuine socialist form of such entity. The cover blurb to this new edition of Emmet O'Connor's work states that he "argues that events in Ireland can only be understood in an international context". He does this very well, at times, particularly in his account of the Republican Congress. In other matters, he is inclined to understand the context narrowly as relating only to relations within these islands. The influence of the Socialist International's Stuttgart Resolution on war in justifying Connolly's role in 1916 is ignored entirely. So, too is Larkin's relationship with the Red International of Trade Unions as a factor explaining his attacks on his fellow ITGWU leaders in 1923.
More importantly, even this book's handling of labour relations within these islands produces major flaws in its overall approach. O'Connor regrets the creation of the Irish TUC as being a British model unsuited to Irish conditions; he considers the land and labour leagues to have provided a form more viable to this island.and linked to the Irish Party at Westminster. Yet such affiliation was itself a copy of a British model: that of the Lib-Labs. Redmond's boast (P.66) that his party was a true labour party anticipates Lemass'claim on behalf of Fianna Fail. It is difficult to see how a labour force united entirely within the land and labour leagues could have developed a fully labourist, let alone a socialist approach to Ireland's problems. The experiences of Dublin and Limerick are instructive. Both returned strong local Labour Parties to their corporations in the first local elections under full household suffrage. In Dublin, the party split two years later and the remains were digested by the Redmondites so well that its surviving councillors were at one with the bourgeois majority in supporting the employers in 1913. In Limerick, Labour won overall control of the corporation arousing unfulfilled hopes that would contribute to the popular demoralisation that produced the anti-Jewish boycott. O'Connor does make some pertinent specific criticisms of the British model's application to Ireland. However the answer to these was not the structure of the land and labour leagues affiliated to the Home Rulers, but in the early attempt by James Connolly to build a genuinely independent Irish socialist party. Connolly's initiative failed both for reasons outside his control (the aftermath of the failure of the new unions to organise in Ireland) and within it (his sectarian approach to the original craft-based structure of labour, whether leagues or congress: ironically a bias inherited from his British experiences.) Nonetheless, his class would have benefitted had his project persisted.
Above all, O'Connor's bias is shown in his account of the splits in party and congress in the 1940s. It is not that he leans heavily on Charles McCarthy's self-serving Trade Unions in Ireland; the timescale of his work makes secondary sources indispensible and McCarthy is, unfortunately, the major authority on that disaster. What is objectionable is that O'Connor does not seem to question McCarthy's analysis: to ask what O'Brien's trade union reforms would have meant practically for the power structure of the movement, or note how far the splits were essentially to the right of the bodies divided. For him, they are to be seen as springing from the issue of organisational efficiency. This bias causes him to label the ITUC as "more conservative" than the schismatic Congress of Irish Unions and to credit the post-war initiatives of the Fianna Fail Government with stimulating the increase in union membership after 1945, (P.293), ignoring the fact that this increase had its roots in the industrial expansion of the thirties when it was regulated by legislation only on the farms. It is not that he is wrong to favour Irish-based unions against British-based ones; all being equal, they are more desirable. What is wrong, and it was Bill O'Brien's cardinal mistake, is to see union reorganisation on national lines as the categoric imperative to be achieved even at the cost of the workers' freedom of organisation and in collusion with the capitalist state and the most committed right wing union leaders. (In addition, as has been noticed, it tended to deepen the rift between workers north and south.) None of these objections seem to have been considered by O'Connor any more than they were considered by Bill O'Brien and the Congress of Irish Unions. Their common schema is one of reformist socialist republicanism in which nationalism is counterposed to class militancy as being superior. Such an attitude was not that of Larkin who hesitated to form an Irish-based union until it was clear that the British based National Union of Dock Labourers was incapable of organising Irish workers. It was not that of Merrigan, whose choice of the Amalgamated Transport Union was dictated by the scabby behaviour of the Irish union's official. Nor, as his 1914 writings on industrial unionism show, was it the attitude of Connolly.
On this last, Donal Nevin has done socialists
a service in following his publication of Connolly's
For all that, these two volumes are the greatest breakthroughs in the study of Connolly's writings since Ryan's. They are not only as yet the fullest collection published of Connolly's works, but, also, the collection most revealing of his thinking, just as, with all its blemishes, Nevin's biography gives the reader a sense of the man himself. The omissions in it are matched by long awaited revelations, notably UnderWhich Flag? and his lecture notes on medieval communist insurrections. As it is not clear when, if ever, the complete collection will appear, these volumes of Connolly's works will sustain and help expand knowledge of his theory, its strengths and weaknesses, the strengths being particularly relevant today.
So, too, should the student of labour history read O'Connor's book. The facts are there and facts are the straw for the bricks of interpretation.
The danger is that all publications
will be seen as the last words on their subjects. There can never be last
words on these. Even more certainly, if there were, these books do not
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