Socialist Sunday School #56: James Connolly’s “Socialism & Nationalism” (Summary)

ROC DSA Socialist Sunday School #56: James Connolly's Socialism & Nationalism (Summary)

by Mev McMahon

The following summary was presented at ROC DSA’s political education series, Socialist Sunday School #56: “James Connolly’s Socialism & Nationalism,” held March 17, 2024. To participate in future discussions, keep an eye on our social media, or sign up for our mailing list.

A copy of the text is available here: Socialism and Nationalism (1897).

Originally published in 1897, Connolly presciently warned that Ireland would never truly be free from Britain’s colonial power unless they could free themselves from the shackles of capitalism. “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.”

A founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party and a lecturer for the Industrial Workers of the World whilst living briefly in Troy, NY, Connolly would be executed for his role leading the Irish Citizens Army during the 1916 Easter Rebellion.

Connolly opens by acknowledging Irish cultural agencies in their efforts to “save from extinction the precious racial and national history, language and characteristics of our people.”

He warns, however, that nationalism should not merely be a “morbid idealising of the past” but should also formulate a “distinct and definite answer to the problems of the present” and have “a political and economic creed capable of adjustment to the wants of the future.”

The way to do this, according to Connolly, is by “frank acceptance” of a Republic as the end goal. Not a Republic like the ones in France and America, however. He argues that France has become a “capitalistic monarchy” reminiscent of British rule that is antithetical to the spirit of the Revolution and that American citizens still live in financial servitude to British landlords and financers.

Consequently, a Republic in Ireland would need to “at all times serve as a beacon-light to the oppressed of every land, at all times holding forth promise of freedom and plenteousness as the reward of their efforts on its behalf.”

Therefore national aspirations must be paired with uplifting the Irish working class. Instead of
“import[ing] an element of discord into the ranks of earnest nationalist,” the working class would supply “fresh reservoirs of moral and physical strength.” He then compares that strength to the rare Irish military victory at the 1646 Battle of Benburb, during the Irish Confederate Wars that ended Scottish hopes for conquest.

While a Socialist Republic might “alienate all our middle-class and aristocratic supporters,” he argues that “all systems of political administration or governmental machinery are but the reflex of the economic forms which underlie them.” Essentially, the Irish working class has no reason to fight against English political domination if victory would not alleviate their economic distress.

Connolly points out that the “rights of property” are an English import originating in “legalised spoliation and fraud” that needs to be destroyed “root and branch.” Before English colonial rule, all land in Ireland was held in commons. Connolly explains further in “Labor in Irish History” (1910), that

“up to [1649] the basis of society in Ireland […] rested upon communal or tribal ownership of land. The Irish chief, although recognised in the courts of France, Spain, and Rome, as the peer of the reigning princes of Europe, in reality held his position upon the sufferance of his people, and as an administrator of the tribal affairs of his people, while the land or territory of the clan was entirely removed from his private jurisdiction.”

Connolly could not reconcile Irish freedom with “landlord tyranny, capitalist fraud and unclean usury” which were the “ baneful fruits of the Norman Conquest.” He then takes shots at those trying to do so by comparing them to “Strongbow and Diarmuid MacMurchadha.” MacMurchadha was the King of Leinster who, to recover his kingdom after it was deposed by the High King of Ireland in 1167, gained military support from “Strongbow” Richard de Clare, the Anglo-Norman Earl of Pembroke. Thus initiating the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

Connolly reiterates:

“If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle […] England would still rule you […] through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”

“Nationalism without Socialism” would be a “public declaration” that England was successful in its cultural takeover to the point that Ireland “no longer needed an alien army to force [their perverted conceptions of justice and morality] upon us.”

Connolly concludes by saying that he is willing to fight for Irish independence, but he refuses to do so in a way that would “conciliate the privileged classes” because “[…] such action would be neither honourable nor feasible. Let us never forget that he never reaches Heaven who marches thither in the company of the Devil.”

Discussion Questions:

  • What are the similarities and differences between nationalism set in a capitalist framework versus a socialist one? Does nationalism inherently contradict internationalism as some of Connolly’s socialist contemporaries who argued in favor of British rule believed?
  • What effect does the pressure of cultural assimilation have on the path of revolutionary mass movements?
  • What does it mean for an independence movement to “conciliate the privileged classes”? Can this conciliation be completely avoided? If so, How? How does this sentiment translate to ROC DSA’s coalition-building efforts?
  • What lessons can we as contemporary socialists take away from the outcome of the Irish struggle for independence from British colonial rule?
  • What role should socialism play in the quest for self-determination? Are there any contemporary nationalist movements you can think of? What impact, if any, has socialist politics/policies have on these movements?
  • Is St. Patrick’s Day a celebration of Irish independence or Irish assimilation?

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