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Review: Bigger Book: Smaller Connolly

D.R. O’Connor Lysaght

28th October 2005

James Connolly: a Full Life, by Donal Nevin, Gill and MacMillan, Dublin, €29.99.

In the heady days of the nineteen-seventies, this reviewer remembers making himself slightly unpopular when he replied to a boast about the numbers of pictures of James Connolly displayed with the remark that if half of those who flaunted them had actually read the man something would happen. The spirit of this remark has been proven correct by subsequent events; its letter has to be corrected. For revolutionaries to read Connolly is by itself inadequate, if only because he made a number of crucial mistakes. An authoritative guide to his life and works is needed. Sadly, such a work has still to appear.

This is not for want of attempts to produce it. In his introduction to the latest addition to the number, Donal Nevin lists eleven biographies and monographs on his subject and this reviewer knows of two that he omits. This work, the fourteenth, has a number of claims to be considered as a contender for the title of definitive biography. It is written by one who was the only general secretary of the Irish TUC/CTU since Thomas Johnson to be considered a serious intellectual. (It is difficult to imagine Peter Cassells or David Begg attempting such a task, let alone succeeding.) The title is promising and accurate. Not only did Connolly live a full life but it is his fullest Life yet: as big as any two of the others and, at 750 pages,unlikely to be exceeded.

This reviewer found a number of positive aspects in it. It is very well illustrated . The early chapters bring to life Connolly’s early years in Edinburgh; though C. Desmond Greaves provides more detail on the politics, Nevin gets the feel of the period. In fact, Nevin scores well in describing Connolly’s persona. He brings home the personal, as distinct from the political incompatibility between Connolly and Daniel de Leon and the fact that Connolly was, in his way quite as difficult a collaborator as James Larkin, albeit for often better reasons. He makes it clear, too, that Connolly did not order the shooting of looters during the Rising. 

Most importantly, in the political sphere, this book brought home to this reviewer the tragedy of Connolly’s career: how it jumped from the lax economistic Marxism of Scottish Labour and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) through the incipient sectarianism of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) to the more pronounced sectarianism of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), before recoiling into the centralised Syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), without ever quite being able to find the balance that Lenin was developing in the Russian Bolsheviks. This failure cost Connolly not only his life but the immediate possibility of any mass organisation understanding his strategy.

This asset might seem to neutralise most criticisms of this biography. The trouble is that its lesson is not likely to be learnt by a reader coming new to Connolly. This reviewer could learn it because his reading of this work reinforced by his knowledge of Connolly’s works and period, including evidence that Nevin ignores. The biography does not mention the Dublin building labourers’ strike of 1896, where the skilled unions of the Dublin Trades Council scabbed and created the justification for Connolly’s turn to the SLP and its dogmatic hostility to “pure and simple” trades unions. Although Nevin summarises at length nearly all Connolly’s published works, including Revolutionary Warfare, he ignores The Axe to the Root, the most complete statement of his organisational theory. Because of this gap, with its differentiation between the agitational initiative of all organised workers and the propaganda of the Socialist Party, the new reader will be confused by Connolly’s insistence that Congress organise politically while he was simultaneously a member of the ILP of Ireland. Nor will he notice Connolly’s abandonment of the propaganda group (by then, the Socialist Party of Ireland, or SPI) during the last year of his life.

This overall failure is symptomatic of a method that produces other failures more specific but also as misleading. At the end of the book, there is a section entitled “Revolutionary Thinker”, but it examines in detail only one part of its subject’s thought: his attitude to religion. For a serious assessment of Connolly’s theory, the reader would be advised to overlook this in favour of WK Anderson’s James Connolly and the Irish Left.

Nevin’s technique is to be compared with that of C. Desmond Greaves in his Connolly biography. One weakness of Greaves may have been inevitable; he was trying consciously to present not just Connolly but Ireland to a mainly British audience, minimising accordingly not only Connolly’s but other characters’ failings such as Maude Gonne’s anti-Semitism (In contrast, Nevin is very clear on this.). To this, he added a political failing; he was determined to portray Connolly, not only without warts, but as approaching, at the end of his life, his own British brand of Stalinised Communism. Since Connolly was not on this course (save, perhaps, organisationally, as an SLP supporter), Greaves resorted to the intellectual bullying of an apparatchik, asserting the correctness of his views dogmatically.

Nevin’s way is different. Except in one instance, the reader must delve into the text to deduce how he sees any issue. At this book’s launch, it was praised by John Bowman as allowing the reader to decide on the issues. Greaves is dogmatic; Nevin is agnostic.

To be successful, such an approach requires superhuman qualities of research material backed by a clearly ordered narrative. The first quality might be expected in a book of 750 pages, until it is recognised that it is padded by sometimes interesting but usually irrelevant data. Not only is much space filled with the pieces mentioned. There are chapters on “Recollections” and “Assessments” of the subject.Potted biographies are included in the text about Connolly’s priestly adversaries in the Labour, Nationality and Religion dispute. Also given there are the facts thatConnolly’s ITGWU colleague, James Flanagan, was the grandfather of RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan (P.534), a potted biography of Fianna Fail T.D. and playwright, John McCann (P.590), and the fact that the novelist Nevil Shute was the son of the master of the GPO(P.641). Admittedly, this is balanced by omissions of facts about characters far more relevant. Though Connolly’s Lancashire comrade Dan Irving gets a deserved biographical footnote, no such honours are accorded others as (or more) central to the story. The reader is not told of the subsequent career of. Connolly’s close friend and correspondent, John Carstairs Matheson. Nor are there footnotes mentioning the fates of his Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) comrade, Robert Dorman (later Northern Ireland Labour’s first senator), of Helena Molony (the second woman to preside over the ITUC), of Harry Gosling (British Labour’s first Minister of Transport) or of Michael McKeown (who would return to his original Redmondite vomit in the 1920s, being specific in his defence of “faith and fatherland” against working class opponents). His open foes, the Liberal trade union leader, James Havelock Wilson, J.H.Thomas and Councillor Michael Hennessey of Queenstown (a Treatyite deputy in the 1920s) are similarly neglected. Above all, no biographical details are given of such individuals crucial to Connolly’s career as William O’Brien and Thomas Foran.

Thes omissions may be dismissed as minor. This is not the case with the presentation. Quite simply, the editing is abominable. The work reads as if it were Nevin’s previous publication, James Larkin, Lion of the Fold, a collection of articles by different hands. Indeed, some of the chapters are written as if by a badly-co-ordinated joint effort, particularly in Part V “America, 1903-1910”. On page 227, the reader is told that, on its launch in 1896, the SLP’s Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance “had an initial membership of about 15,000”, doubling “within three years”, but that “by 1898 it was reduced to a few thousand” and regarded as “a sectarian and impotent letterhead organisation”. On page 276, the reader is told “the circulation of The Harp was never higher than 2,000”: on pages 281-282, that “subscriptions to The Harp amounted to over 3,000”. Connolly is reported attending a meeting of a body called the General Executive Board that leads, in turn, the IWW (P.258) and the SLP (P.261).

On top of the arbitrary choice of biographical data, there is duplication in the case of supporting characters. The non-issue of the identification of Jack Mulray of the ISRP and the Irish Socialist Federation, with himself as Jack Mullery or Mullary is discussed in three footnotes. Connolly’s Scottish comrade, George Yates is described in two.

All this is minor compared to the almost non-existent time scheme. What exists is limited to the overall Parts. Within them, the chapters are divided by subject matter quite rigorously. In Part IV, “The Irish Socialist Republican Party” is treated separately from its paper, “The Workers’ Republic”, as both are treated separately from the chapters on the party’s agitations and its electoral activities. Part V has separate chapters on the “Industrial Workers of the World”, the “Irish Socialist Federation” and the “Socialist Party of America”, as if Connolly were not involved in them at the same time. Part VI contains separate chapters on the “Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union” and “Industrial Unionism”.

All this could be dismissed as caused by incompetent authorship and/or editing. Other passages lead to a less favourable conclusion. There is reason to believe that Nevin is less agnostic than peddling a political agenda that he cannot justify openly. As the Congress general secretary, he was skilled at keeping together very contradictory forces, uniting them on the less than lowest common denominator of social partnership with the employers and their state. He is as experienced in lowering the ante as Connolly and Larkin were in raising it.

Interestingly, his confusions are less in the industrial sphere than might have been expected. There would seem to be two reasons for this. In the first place, it is easy to dismiss the age of William Martin Murphy to history; even though the behaviour of IBEC in the Irish Ferries dispute makes it clear that his spirit survives, there is no frontal attack on the ITGWU’s successor SIPTU, if only because the bosses don’t consider it necessary. Secondly, Connolly’s revolutionary strategy, indeed, any possible revolutionary strategy in Ireland of his time involved necessarily a national dimension targeting Britain, then the metropolitan power occupying the whole of Ireland. What is more, although the ingredients in any Irish revolutionary mix have changed since then, the national question continues to be necessary to it, and in a potent form as has been shown since 1969.

So the one matter on which Nevin strips off his show of impartiality is that of the Ulster Protestants. He asserts firmly that Connolly displayed a “lack of understanding of the real position in Ulster and [a] naive approach to the political crisis looming there” after 1910 (P.527). He makes no attempt to spell out what Connolly’s approach should have been, but he refers uncritically to Joe Lee’s view (P.700) that his subject sought “refuge in the blind ally of ‘false consciousness’”. It would seem that he would not agree that Connolly’s “naivety” lay in his under-estimation of the malevolence of the British ruling classes, nor that his understanding of “the real position in Ulster” was defective only in that he failed to analyse its development in detail after 1798. Rather, it would follow that, in this, Nevin’s ideal is his predecessor, Thomas Johnson who maintained what might be described charitably as a minimalist approach to the Irish national issue.

This suspicion is reinforced by Nevin’s approach to Connolly’s last eighteen months, when he was acting-secretary-general of the ITGWU and commander of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) during the First World War. For this period all this book’s weaknesses are most apparent. Small but significant data is ignored. The resolution of the Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International is ignored, yet, far more than the vast majority of members of that imploded international, Connolly was seeking to follow its directive to make “use of the economic and political crisis created by the war to stir up the deepest strata of the people and precipitate the fall of capitalist domination.” No mention is made of John O’Keefe’s “Easter Week and Connolly” which includes the original primary report Connolly’s “Hold Your Arms” directive and his remark on the difference between nationalism and internationalism: “how can you have one without the other?” Connolly’s son Roddy made several relevant statements about the Rising, most notably that his father expected to be able to move his troops out of Dublin (clearly in line with his Revolutionary Warfare articles); only one, personal, piece of information is quoted here. Nora Connolly O’Brien’s account of her father’s last days is taken entirely from her Portrait of a Rebel Father. A more detailed version appears in William O’Brien’s papers including an attack on PT Daly for deserting the ICA a few weeks before the revolt. It may be a forgery by Daly’s enemy, or, as Daly’s friend, Nora may have excluded it from her book. The latter is more likely; O’Brien preferred to suppress truth rather than invent falsehood (He was more subtle than his disciples.) If true, it reveals that Connolly went “out to be killed” only as a lesser evil to exposing as a poltroon himself individually, and Labour collectively.

The time frame is more skewed than ever. Connolly’s anti-war activity is separated from chapters on his task as “Successor to Larkin” and summarising The Reconquest of Ireland, before one dealing with the ICA that goes back to his call to establish it in November 1913, but ignores his lack of involvement before he succeeded Sean O’Casey as its secretary after war had started. Then it is back to separate chapters on anti-war propaganda (“The Time is Ripe”) and activity (“Banners of Revolt”) on anti-imperialist propaganda and then, finally, to “Preparations for Insurrection”. Such a schema fractures the presentation of Connolly’s thought-processes.

More importantly still, significant subject matter is split. The end of the City of Dublin Steampacket Company strike is given two versions separated firmly from each other. On pages 536-537, the accurate one, based on the Workers’ Republic reports (and on those on the enemy’s Irish Independent) explains the conclusion as the result of scabbery by Havelock Wilson’s National Seamen and Firemen’s Union. The other (PP.578-579), implied from an incomplete file in the Irish National Archives, suggests that Connolly himself ended the dispute. That he might have wanted it to continue into the Rising and block the port of Dublin is never considered.

From all this disorder, a rather sinister new order appears to emerge. In the chapter, “Industrial Unionism”, it has been stated (P.422) that, with the outbreak of war, Connolly’s “energies were now to be diverted (sic) to the pursuit of national freedom.” The same chapter ends (p.423) with the statement that “syndicalism had no impact whatever on the evolution of British socialism”, making no mention of its real and decisive impact on Irish socialism after Connolly’s death. The fact that Connolly insisted on being made acting-secretary of the ITGWU in Larkin’s place is mentioned elsewhere only in an organisational context. Remarkably for one who tries to record the size of the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance and the numbers subscribing to The Harp, Nevin makes no statements on the respective sizes of the union of which he was acting-secretary or of the ICA under his command. In fact, the first increased, perhaps doubled in numbers, the second declined. Ignoring this allows Nevin (P.632) to quote Greaves’ disappointing history of the ITGWU that by January 1916, Connolly “had every reason to be a sadly disappointed man” and his negative evaluation of his union’s situation.

This encourages the reader to believe that Connolly was serious in stating his readiness to rise in the winter of 1915-1916.This does not appear in his correspondence with Winifred Carney. It is true, too, that any intelligent person planning a revolt, with a force of about 300 does not shout about it.It is at least more likely that Connolly wrote his incendiary articles in The Workers’ Republic to provoke the British occupiers and the Irish Volunteers into actiondrawing in the mass of the workers headed by the members of the ITGWU.

This combination of evasion and confusion presents Connolly as a madder version of that Padraic Pearse whom he termed a blithering idiot. Indeed, Nevin seems to justify the caricatures of Connolly as a deserter from socialism to republicanism by Sean O’Casey (only the more favourable of whose descriptions he presents) and of the republican Brian O’Higgins (which he does not quote). His analysis is closer than he might like to that of the Unionist St John Ervine who could describe Connolly (apparently without irony, though himself a World War veteran) as “an average Labour leader… [who] could think only in terms of mass murder.”

Nevin’s political failure more than negates his personal achievement in giving more humanity to one shown too often as an icon. In fact, this humanisation reinforces his effective debunking of Connolly as a theoretician, despite many admiring quotes given here. The new reader will conclude that Connolly was wrong to come out in Easter Week and probably wrong to rebel at all. The older reader will suspect that Nevin intended to produce that conclusion. 

This suspicion is hardened by the fact that when this book was launched the guest of honour was Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The definitive life of Connolly will be one for which Ahern will not only not be invited to the launch but for the launch of which he would not want to be invited. Such a work is still awaited.



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