Review: Bigger Book: Smaller Connolly
D.R. O’Connor Lysaght
28th October 2005
James Connolly: a Full Life, by Donal Nevin, Gill and MacMillan,
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
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
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
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 “
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’
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
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
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
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
More importantly still, significant subject matter is split. The end of the City of
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
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.