If the working-class and the employing class have nothing in common, and an injury to one is the concern of all, into how many unions ought the working class to be divided? -- James Connolly 1910.1
The Irish Labour Movement during the years 1896 to 1940 played an important part in the struggle for Irish freedom and the creation of an Irish Republic. During those years one of the most dynamic forces within the Irish Labour Movement was syndicalism - popularly known as Industrial Unionism or the One Big Union Movement. This paper explores how Irish Labour, under the leadership of the revolutionary socialist James Connolly and his followers, attempted to construct a syndicalist labour movement. The paper will also examine how labour's militant syndicalism influenced its identification with and participation in the political and military struggle for independence. The paper concludes that Irish Labour's syndicalism and its participation in the national liberation struggle provided Labour with great opportunities but that these opportunities were not fully realised and were very costly in terms of lives lost, union properties damaged or destroyed and divisions created within the movement. The objective of the Irish Labour Movement was the creation of a syndicalist oriented 'Worker's Republic' and the paper will provide an analysis of why Labour failed to bring about the creation of such a Republic. This examination of Irish syndicalism is centred upon James Connolly, who was the most important leader of the Irish Labour Movement during the early years of the 20th century and whose influence on the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) - Ireland's own One Big Union/Syndicalist organisation - was profound.
James Larkin, a committed Socialist and Syndicalist, founded the ITGWU in December 1908. Larkin, who was 'Liverpool Irish', had been a member of the Independent Labour Party since its formation in 1893 and worked for some years as an organiser for the British based National Union of Dock Labourers. A charismatic and extremely fiery man Larkin led many strikes including the well-known Dockers strike in Belfast in 1907. The ITGWU was the first union in Ireland to adopt a Socialist programme and was avowedly Syndicalist. By 1910 - the year in which the ITGWU leadership helped Connolly to return from America to Ireland and employed him as its Belfast organiser - the Union had managed to win all the important positions in the Irish Trade Union Congress and in 1911 it won effective control of the Dublin Trades Hall Council. As an aggressive Union the ITGWU was involved in many serious industrial disputes including the famous Dublin 'Lockout' in 1913 which lasted for six months. C.D. Greaves in his book The Irish Transport and General Workers Union: The Formative Years, gives a richly detailed account of the early years if the ITGWU (he also produced the first 'modern' biography of Connolly - The Life and Times of James Connolly). Although it was Larkin who founded the ITGWU it was Connolly who had the more profound and long-lasting effect on the Union and thus on Irish Syndicalism and it is on the development of his views on Syndicalism and the effects of his ideas on the Irish Labour Movement that will provide the focus for the remainder of this paper.
James Connolly's first recorded comment on organised labour is contained in a letter to his fiancée written early in 1889:
By the way, if we get married next week I shall be unable to go to Dundee as promised as my fellow workmen in the job are preparing to strike at the end of the month for a reduction in the hours of labour. As my brother and I are ringleaders in the matter it is necessary we should be in on the ground. If we are not we should be looked upon as blacklegs which the Lord forbid.2
A number of attitudes and personality traits can be discerned in those few sentences, the most obvious being that even at this early stage he was prepared to structure his personal life around his political activities. Connolly, aged 21 and having only recently deserted from the army, was already emerging as a 'ringleader' assisting in the preparations for a strike. The aggressive class-consciousness and sense of solidarity with his fellow workmen, apparent in this letter, are characteristics that remained with Connolly throughout his career, and are central in the attempt to understand his response to syndicalism. Connolly's class-consciousness and commitment to organised labour led him to join the Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF), which was an offshoot of Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SSF owed much of its political inspiration to its parent body and it is fair to say that during this period Connolly's political views were shaped by SDF political analysis and objectives. In reference to this period, Ransom has noted that Connolly accepted the view - a view seen as being self-evident by most of the people involved with the British socialist movement - that 'trade unions were incorrigible bulwarks of capitalism and of absolutely no value as an organisational mode for socialist mobilisation'.3
During the early stage of his political development, it is clear that Connolly was an orthodox adherent of the then prevalent social democratic approach of the Second International, accepting a political strategy involving marxist education and political propaganda, working in tandem with gradualist reformist parliamentary parties. In 1896 Connolly emigrated to Ireland to become organiser of the Dublin Socialist Club. Within a few weeks of his arrival in Dublin, he was instrumental in founding and drafting the platform of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). The objectives which Connolly advanced here were very similar to those contained in Hyndman's inaugural manifesto of the SDF, Socialism made Plain (1883). The ISRP manifesto called for the 'conversion of means of production, distribution and exchange into the common property of society to be held and controlled by the democratic state in the interests of the entire community'. In the ISRP political scenario this conversion was to be achieved through the 'conquest by the Social Democracy of political power' in parliament and on all political bodies in Ireland. This 'democratic conquest' of the capitalist state through its elected bodies was seen as being 'the most effective means whereby the revolutionary forces may be organised and disciplined to attain that end' 4 - the end, of course, being a Socialist Republic. The ISRP's importance in Irish Labour History does not rest on its being the first Marxist party in Ireland (the SDF has that distinction) but on its attempt to unite Socialism and Republicanism, its insistence, against the tide of 'internationalism' in contemporary Socialist circles, that the struggle of oppressed nations, such as Ireland, for national independence was an inseparable part of the struggle for Socialism. It was not until the late 1890s that Connolly's political writing began to display attitudes which, while still clearly non-syndicalist, are indicative of a move towards a syndicalist position or at least a political analysis which would have tended to create a sympathetic reaction to syndicalism. As early as August 1898, in the second issue of the Workers Republic, Connolly presented a quotation from the American Gronlund which made the point that 'our present trade unions will be the skeletons of our future social order'.5 In the next issue Connolly expanded upon the future role of organised Labour when he wrote that:
the next step in the intellectual development of the worker will be to consider ... whether there is indeed a useful function performed by the capitalist and landlord class which the organised workers cannot perform without them. Whether the ownership of property cannot be vested in the organised community, and the conduct of industry entrusted to our trade Unions ... We are trade unionists but we are more than trade unionist...the trade unionist wishes to limit the power of the master but wishes still to have masters, the socialist wishes to have done with masters.6
The reference to 'our' trade unions rather than the trade unions or simply trade unions, suggests that the trade unions he has in mind are socialist trade unions - not yet syndicalist in form but certainly moving in that direction. Commenting on Connolly's transition from an orthodox proponent of the mainstream social-democratic marxism of the SDF to a revolutionary syndicalist, Ransom has suggested that Connolly was inspired by his reading of certain sections of Volume III of Marx's Capital. Ransom's evidence appears to be merely circumstantial; he attempts to demonstrate a direct link between Marx's discussion of a post-capitalist economy wherein 'associated labourers' use 'the means of production for their own labour'7 and Connolly's own views on workers control of industry. Ransom's attempt to give Connolly's move towards a syndicalist position a Marxist basis is suspect, especially as it requires the premise that Connolly was capable of reading Marx in the original German (he gives 1894 rather than the correct date 1909 for the first English translation of Volume III), a premise which is I think extremely doubtful.8
If a direct influence of Marx's Volume III on Connolly's move towards syndicalism remains, at best, uncertain, the influence of Daniel De Leon in America is subject to no such doubts. By 1899 Connolly and his ISRP had forged close links with De Leon's Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and Connolly was clearly influenced by De Leon's promotion of 'dual unionism'. Dual unionism in essence involved the establishment of a separate union structure based on 'industry' rather than craft, these industrial unions being - in contrast to craft unions - class conscious and committed to Socialism. In De Leon's schema the Socialist Industrial Unions were to be subordinate to the revolutionary Socialist Party; thus in America De Leon's SLP controlled the Industrial Unions through a subsidiary organisation called the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance.
In light of the acrimonious relationship which developed between Connolly and De Leon in later years, it is worth noting that De Leon's theoretical work, while undoubtedly influential on Connolly's political development, did not lead him in any fundamentally new direction. De Leon's work, which was in any case largely derivative from earlier anarcho-syndicalist sources,9 simply helped Connolly to focus his own radical but somewhat unconnected ideas on craft unionism, workers' control of industry and the future shape of socialist society. Connolly recognised that De Leon's 'One Big Union' concept (known in America as Industrial Unionism and in a more developed and radical form in Europe as syndicalism) offered both a concrete structure and an ideology which provided a logical extension of his own, much more tentative thoughts on organised labour and revolution. Connolly was excited by De Leon's central concept, seeing it as a potentially effective new direction for the revolutionary socialist movement (there is no evidence that he was aware of French syndicalist theorists). Connolly's intellectual debt to De Leon was substantial but was not of the magnitude to inspire a master-pupil type of relationship, indeed from the outset Connolly rejected many of De Leon's ideas and never at any time displayed the slightest hesitation in expressing opposition to what he felt to be theoretical errors. This fact was in time to lead to great bitterness between the two men.
In 1902 Connolly toured America under the auspices of the American SLP. He addressed many large and enthusiastic audiences and was most impressed by the size and influence of the SLP He was also gratified to have a number of his articles published by the SLP newspaper The Weekly People. Despite his enthusiasm for the SLP, Connolly did have reservations. He was not overly impressed by De Leon either as a socialist leader or as a man - in part this was due to De Leon's autocratic style, but in fairness to De Leon it should be said that Connolly's ingrained and aggressive class-consciousness rendered him incapable of accepting middle-class leadership of socialist organisations. At another level, Connolly disagreed with some of De Leon's political views, particularly the view that labour struggles aimed at improving working conditions were inherently futile. When he returned to America as a 'permanent' resident in 1903, Connolly wasted little time before addressing himself forcibly to the task of correcting De Leon's 'mistakes'.
Connolly's return to America as an emigrant within a year of his lecture tour came about as a result of financial problems and personal antagonisms within the ISRP (some of which stemmed from his initial absence in America). The fragmentation of the party was a great blow to Connolly. In the months between his break with the ISRP and his emigration, Connolly undertook an extended lecture tour in Scotland under the auspices of the SDF. During this tour Connolly was instrumental in founding the Scottish Socialist Labour Party (a breakaway from the SDF) and was appointed by the fledgling party as its national organiser.11 The Scottish SLP was, as the name suggests, modelled on the American SLP. The manifesto of the new party was clearly syndicalist, excluding trade union officials and opposing all 'pure and simple' 12 - in other words non syndicalist - trade unions. This very negative view of trade unions certainly reflected Connolly's own position that trade unions attempted to 'better our lot as slaves, but never a suggestion on the point of how we might proceed to abolish OUR STATUS as slaves, and elevate ourselves instead to the dignity of free men'.13
On his arrival in America in 1903, Connolly immediately joined the American SLP. He was to remain a member of the Party for some four years. His years in the SLP were characterised by his championing of a number of inter-party challenges to some of the party's policies. His major criticism was directed at De Leon's theory, a theory which De Leon erroneously attributed to Marx, that workers could not improve their working conditions even temporarily by industrial action because of the existence of an 'Iron Law of wages'.14 This economic 'Law' put forward by De Leon (as well as by earlier socialists) was based on the assumption that an inevitable rise in prices followed a wage increase and always negated the positive effect of the increase. Connolly argued that De Leon's view was contrary to Marx's actual position on the matter and in fact resulted from a misinterpretation of Marx. There is no doubt that in this instance Connolly was correct. De Leon appears to have confused the German socialist Lasalle's economic views with those of Marx. De Leon's views if accepted by the labour movement would have led to extremely isolated industrial organisations - for Connolly this would have been a disaster, for while he had no time for trade unions as such, he placed the greatest importance on working class militancy. Commenting in 1900 on the subjection and robbery of the working class, Connolly noted that the working class perpetually rises in protest against the incidental details of the robbery, organises to reduce the stealings of the Masters and ever and anon throws down its tools and enters on a bloodless insurrection against the conditions of its servitude. These protests, these organised movements, these unarmed insurrections of labour, these strikes are the inevitable accompaniment of the capitalistic system of society - they are the salient proofs that the socialist alone knows what he is talking about when he declares that the normal condition of society is not peace, but war; That the Class War is the one, great fact in the modern world.15
John Lyng, who is described as a 'close friend and collaborator with Connolly in Ireland and the USA', has reported that even during his membership of the SLP Connolly would work alongside a craft union organisation if this meant that he could help the general struggle of the workers and furthermore that he was 'always ready and willing to lend a hand to any section of the working class. No matter what the intellectual level of the man - as long as he was striking a blow against capitalism Connolly stood with him. He was out to organise the working class, not a sect.'16
Connolly also challenged a number of other SLP policies notably the party's assertion that the industrial arm, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, was subordinate to and less important than the political arm. Connolly argued that the industrial movement was of primary importance, believing as he did that socialists must take control of the daily fight in the work place and organise it in a revolutionary manner with a revolutionary purpose and direction.17 Although by this stage in his career Connolly was investing primary importance to industrial rather than political organisation, he was nonetheless always careful to caution against underestimating the importance of political action.
Personal relations between Connolly and De Leon deteriorated rapidly during Connolly's determined and none too subtle onslaught on those policies of the SLP which he thought to be in error. The arguments between the two men became very bitter. Towards the end of Connolly's period in the SLP, De Leon went so far as to accuse him of being a 'Jesuit agent'.18 The substantial political differences which separated the two men were compounded by a suspicion on De Leon's part, perhaps not altogether groundless, that Connolly was after his position as party leader, and a strong distaste on Connolly's part for middle-class leadership of socialist organisations. Connolly's bitterness towards De Leon, his sense of hurt and his class-conscious analysis of the SLP hierarchy are evident in a letter written in mid 1904:
neither in Great Britain nor America can a working class socialist expect common fairness from his comrades if he enters into a controversy with a trusted leader from a class above them. The howl that greets every such attempt whether directed against a Hyndman in England or a De Leon in America sounds... wonderfully alike, and everywhere is but the accents of an army, not of revolutionary fighters but of half - emancipated slaves.19
In 1906 Connolly became involved with the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was an organisation very much to Connolly's taste, centering as it did on the One Big Union organisational schema and operating with a superbly militant - indeed some might argue recklessly adventurous - revolutionary socialist agitational and propagandist drive. In its manifesto the IWW called for the creation of 'one great industrial union embracing all industries - providing craft autonomy locally, industrial autonomy internationally and working class unity generally'. The IWW openly declared that it was 'founded on the class struggle' and the 'recognition of the irrepressible conflict between the capitalist class and the working class'.20 Clearly these principles were close to Connolly's heart. In the first issue of The Harp Connolly described the IWW as 'the only real economic organisation truly worthy of the name union' and went on to suggest that when the IWW 'launches its own political party it will put an end to all excuse for two Socialist parties and open the way for a real and effective unification of the revolutionary forces'.21 Connolly was of course well aware of the IWW's anti-political stance and thus of their opposition to founding a political party. He believed that the nature of the struggle would eventually force the IWW to recognise the necessity of extending their organisation into the political sphere.
De Leon was very influential in the early years of the IWW. Unfortunately he attempted to use the IWW to continue his quarrel with Connolly over the 'wages' question. The end result of this continuing disagreement was that Connolly resigned from the SLP in 1907. Never a man to forgive and forget, Connolly was instrumental the following year in ensuring that the IWW convention rejected not only De Leon's economic theories but also his right to remain a member of the IWW. This convention voted to drop the IWW's contact with political parties and indeed declared itself as being opposed to all politics.22 Connolly was pleased with the 1908 IWW convention as De Leon's debacle was gratifying to him on both political and personal grounds. Yet the IWW's hard anti-political line, pointing as it did to a move towards anarcho-syndicalism, was one which he tried to avert and continued to oppose within the IWW after the convention. Connolly's position on 'politics versus syndicalism' was relatively straight forward. He considered that '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 being fought out every day for the power to control industry.'23 Nevertheless, he argued that it was 'incumbent upon organised labour to meet the capitalist class on every field where the latter can operate to our disadvantage.'24 Connolly gave primary importance to the labour movement's industrial wing but rejected the anti-political stance propounded by many syndicalists.
During his last few years in America, Connolly was extremely active, working within both the IWW and as a National Organiser for the Socialist Party of America (which he had joined on leaving the SLP). During this period he also founded the Irish Socialist Federation (ISF) and edited its journal The Harp. In 1910 Connolly transferred publication of The Harp to Dublin and in an article confidently entitled 'Introducing the "Harp" and a new Labour policy for Ireland' described his organisational plan as follows:
It shall be our purpose in the "Harp" to work for a reorganisation of the forces of organised labour in Ireland - THE ORGANISATION OF ALL WHO WORK FOR WAGES INTO ONE BODY OF NATIONAL DIMENSIONS AND SCOPE, UNDER ONE EXECUTIVE HEAD, EELCTED BY THE VOTE OF ALL THE UNIONS, AND DIRECTING THE POWER OF SUCH UNIONS IN UNITED EFFORTS IN ANY NEEDED DIRECTI0N.25
In 1910 he returned to Ireland at the invitation of the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI). During his absence James Larkin had founded the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU). This union, organised along syndicalist lines and extremely militant, was greatly admired by Connolly. Writing to an Irish comrade shortly before his return to Ireland, Connolly informed him that if he were back in Ireland one of his first priorities would be the formation of an 'Irish Workers' Union', his aim being to 'combine all Irish unions gradually into one body'. He described Larkin's Union in his letter as the 'most promising sign, because it is already founded on the lines others should follow'. That Connolly was enthused and excited by this new syndicalist development in Ireland is evident in his statement that 'if things were properly handled on these lines the whole situation in Ireland might be revolutionised'.26 Connolly never founded his proposed Irish Workers' Union but soon after his return to Ireland he did become Belfast organiser of the ITGWU and by 1914 had risen to the position of acting Secretary-General of the Union.
Connolly's adherence to a syndicalist-oriented revolutionary strategy is best understood in terms of his passionate conviction that the working class was involved in a class war. He supported the Industrial Union strategy of placing the union over and above the 'Party' because, in his own experience (for many years he had tried to create an effective, disciplined vanguard type Communist Party without success) revolutionary socialist parties tended to be weak and relatively insignificant, whereas labour, when organised industrially and given class conscious, revolutionary socialist leadership, seemed to be a weapon capable of waging and ultimately winning the class war.
In reading Connolly's comments on industrial unionism, one is struck by the military framework within which he understood and reacted to the 'class war'. For Connolly class war was no intellectual abstraction, it was a living reality, a reality what is more, which governed his life. Writing in the International Socialist Review in 1910 Connolly argued:
Industrialism is more than a method of organisation - it is a science of fighting. It says to the workers: fight only at the time you select, never when the boss wants to fight. Fight at the height of the busy season, and in the slack season when the worker is one in thousands upon the sidewalk absolutely refuse to be drawn into battle. Even if the boss insults you and vilifies your union and refuses to recognise it take it lying down in the slack season but mark it up in your little notebook.27
A military perspective permeates Connolly's writings on what he referred to as 'the act and science of fighting the battle of labour'. Connolly counselled the working class to study the tactics and strategy of their class enemies who, he asserted, 'employ spies in war, they mass armed forces with orders to shoot to kill, they capture and imprison pickets'. Workers, he argued, should not involve themselves in strikes which would lead to mere endurance tests, battles which he termed 'simply a trial of strength between a full purse and an empty stomach'. In a similar vein he recommended that there should be no hesitation in ending a strike which was no longer winnable: 'a general in command of an army does not consider it a point of duty to expend his last cartridge and lose his last man ... if his experienced eye tells him that this position is untenable... he retires at the first opportunity ... and rearranges his forces for another battle'.28
Connolly was no mere theoretician. Following the violence inflicted on workers during the course of the Dublin Lockout in 1913 he was the driving force behind the ITGWU's decision to form the Irish Citizens Army. The ICA laid claim to be Europes first 'Red Army' but in 1913 it was largely defensive and carried staves rather than guns. When Larkin went to America in 1914 Connolly took complete control of the ICA and turned it into an armed military force and a major participant in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Connolly combined this pragmatism, with the attribution of an almost mystical ability on the part of Industrial Unions to transform individuals and ultimately the whole society. Writing in 1908 he asserted that:
The power of his idea to transform the dry detail work of trade union organisation into the constructive work of revolutionary Socialism and thus make of the unimaginative trade unionist a potent factor in the launching of a new system of society, cannot be overestimated. It invests the sordid details of the daily incidents of the class struggle with a new and beautiful meaning, and presents them in their true light as skirmishes between two opposing armies of light and darkness.29
Writing about labour struggles in 1915, Connolly had clearly maintained his very elevated view of their importance and meaning 'all those striving for better wages and better conditions, all those squabbles over half-pennies and pennies per hour, squalid and sordid as they seem, are nevertheless in their essence beautiful and spiritual strivings of imperfect human souls for the cleansing of the environment in which they are placed'.30
Syndicalism is often disparaged by orthodox Marxists as an anarchist, opportunist or ultra-leftist deviation. Of course Marx and Engels devoted a great deal of attention to combating the anarchist theories of Stirner, Proudhon and Bakunin; and syndicalism has suffered from being linked - often unfairly - with anarchist tendencies.31 Connolly never at any stage had any sympathy for anarchism. Writing in Justice in 1893, he referred to anarchists as 'men whose whole philosophy of life is but an exaggerated form of that Individualism we are in revolt against'.32 There is not a single instance in any of Connolly's writings or recorded statements which could be used to substantiate a charge of anarchism. For Connolly and for many socialists of his generation, syndicalism was simply the practical application of Marxism.33
Connolly's syndicalism is best understood within the context of his aggressive, class-based hatred of capitalist society. He was a man of intense passions. His commitment to his class and his hatred of its oppressors was absolute. He considered himself to be a war leader and as such attempted to devise tactics and strategies best devised to fight and win the class war. Syndicalism impressed Connolly as the organisational scheme which best concentrated the offensive power of organised labour. He rejected those aspects of mainstream syndicalist theory which tended, in his opinion, to diminish the revolutionary potential of the movement. Two major examples of such rejection have been mentioned above - the anti-political bias of the IWW and the 'general strike' scenario which was so close to the heart of most syndicalists. Connolly was a committed syndicalist from the late 1890s till his execution in 1916: he never wavered in his basic adherence to a syndicalist oriented revolutionary movement and indeed a future socialist society constructed around a syndicalist industrial-political base. In essence, Connolly's syndicalism was based on the straightforward premise that workers should 'take hold of the daily fight in the workshop and organise it in a revolutionary manner, with a revolutionary purpose and direction'.36
We can now turn to an examination of organised labour in Ireland, particularly the syndicalist inspired ITGWU, in the years after the Easter Rising and Connolly's execution. The ITGWU itself saw the Rising as having been a blessing for the nation and for the Union:
The events of Easter Week were replete with tragic suffering and cruel losses, among which the death of the author of "Labour in Irish History" [Connolly] looms large, but from a political point of view, the wonderful renaissance of national sentiment which followed more than justified the prescience of the dead leaders. From the Union point of view, the immediate losses have been more than offset by the ultimate gain. Easter Week saved the Union. It cancelled out the reaction from 1913, and removed bitter prejudices which had blocked its progress. It linked up the Labour Movement with the age-long aspirations of the Irish people for the emancipation from political and social thraldom, and formed a natural moratorium under cover of which it was able to make a fresh start on better terms with increased membership.37
The ITGWU can perhaps be forgiven for presenting such a triumphalist view of the Labour Movement's role in post-rising Ireland. Unfortunately, with the benefit of hindsight, we must now present a somewhat less positive analysis. It has been noted earlier that Connolly's revolutionary strategy centered upon the syndicalist oriented Irish Transport and General Workers Union and its military arm, the Irish Citizen Army. In the period immediately following the Rising for some time it appeared that his proposed revolutionary vehicles would cease to exist. Indeed, an ITGWU publication later noted that 'in the dark days that followed the Rising the Union seemed broken and bleeding'.38 But the Union was to experience a remarkable revival in its fortunes. A combination of political and economic factors - the most important of which was the publics identification of the Union with the national struggle and in particular with the increasingly hallowed name of Connolly its martyred leader - ensured that the Union's star was on the ascendant.
At the time of the Rising the ITGWU had approximately 5,000 members organised into ten branches; it had substantial debts and to its credit had exactly 96 pounds in its account.39 The Rising itself led to the death and imprisonment of many members, including a large proportion of its leading lights, and to extensive destruction of the Union's headquarter's, Liberty Hall. Despite these major disruptions, the Union increased its membership to 12,000 by the Autumn of 1917 and registered a further 2,000 members by the end of the year. A Union census in mid 1918 listed almost 44,000 members, a figure which by the year's end reached just under 68,000, the Union by that time having some 210 branches.40 This phenomenal rate of increase was not maintained, yet despite fluctuating fortunes due to economic and military disruptions, the Union could still claim that when James Larkin 'returned to Ireland in April 1923 the Union had 100,000 members in 350 branches spread all over Ireland, and had a credit Balance of over 140,000 Pounds'.41
It is clear that Connolly's proposed revolutionary vehicle had not merely survived the difficult post-Rising years but was a thriving and expanding Union, being by far the largest and most powerful Union in the country. For the men who re-established the ITGWU and supervised its tremendous expansion, Connolly was not merely a revered hero-leader from the pages of the Union's history, nor simply a powerful icon to be used in attracting recruits to the Union, his syndicalist teachings remained a living force within the Union, providing it with its whole theoretical basis. The question arises, however: did the ITGWU maintain its syndicalist, and more particularly its revolutionary syndicalist, Connolly-inspired, organisation and objectives? In many countries the years following World War One saw syndicalism waning as a political and industrial movement. One reason for this decline was the fact that many erstwhile syndicalists transferred their allegiance to 'Sovietism' after the success of the Revolution in Russia.42 The progress of the syndicalist ideal in Ireland in the main, revolved around the development of the ITGWU.
In August 1916 the ITUCLP conference was held in Sligo. This Congress, the first major all-Ireland labour meeting since the Rising, was a sad and somewhat confused affair. A number of the most influential labour leaders, including W. O'Brien and T. Foran, had only recently regained their freedom after periods of internment in Britain on account of their non-military nationalist activities.43 Despite the presence of the surviving leaders of the labour movement, the Congress failed to take a clear stand on many - indeed, one might argue, on any issues. In his chairman's address, Thomas Johnson expressed the most fulsome praises to Connolly's memory, telling Congress that having had 'intimate knowledge of him, and after careful study of his public speeches, his private conversations, and his written work, I say that never was there a man who more thoroughly saturated himself with the hopes, the aspirations, and the sufferings of the working class'.44 Yet syndicalism is amongst the notable omissions and evasions which characterised Johnson's keynote speech, a speech considered important enough to be published in pamphlet form, 'by order of the Congress', by the National Executive of the Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party, under the title The Future of Labour in Ireland. His high regard for Connolly and his teachings notwithstanding, there is no hint in Johnson's speech of anything which could be construed as syndicalist sentiment nor indeed of any other revolutionary strategy.45
Within the ITGWU, however, syndicalism was by no means dead. On 1 July 1918 the Executive Committee of the Union published a pamphlet entitled The Lines of Progress, the preface of which unequivocally states that the pamphlet 'accepts in advance and aims at applying to our wants the theory of THE ONE BIG UNION, the dream of James Connolly's life'. The preface then goes on to assert that:
The greatness of Connolly's intellect, the reality of his convictions, the heroism of his death have seized the attention of an Ireland awakened to the forced economic truths by the pressure of the present world-war. We, who reap where he and Jim Larkin have sown, are deeply concerned to take advantage of the present popularity and growth of the Union to put our organisation thoroughly into line with this, the only scientific solution of the labour question that has ever been put before the country. We must therefore see to it that the present and future development of this Union shall be based on a system which will need no alteration when at length THE ONE BIG UNION has been accepted by Irish labour as the effective instrument it needs to achieving its final emancipation from the bondage of wage slavery.46
The main body of The Lines of Progress sets out a simple and straightforward OBU organisational schema, very much along the same lines as Connolly's exposition in The Axe to the Root (sometimes published under the title Socialism Made Easy).47 Indeed, in an edition of The Axe to the Root published by the ITGWU in 1921, the Union's introduction states explicitly that 'The plan, the methods and the aims of the ITGWU are those set forth in this, the most popular of James Connolly's works, and goes on to conclude that the work was 'but one portion of the legacy of thought and example Connolly has bequeathed to us. It is our duty to work out in action the principles for which he lived and died.'48
In December 1917 the first issue of Irish Opinion: The Voice of Labour, which later became the official organ of the ITGWU, appeared. The whole front page was devoted to a reprint of one of Connolly's articles.49 Indeed it was a rare occurrence for an issue of this paper, or indeed any labour paper, to appear without a reprint of one of his articles, short quotations subtracted from his writings or at least some reference to his life and work. Given the ITGWU's commitment to syndicalism, it is not surprising that in publications over which it had some influence, Connolly's name and writings were constantly used to promote syndicalist objectives. In January 1918, for example, an article appeared in Irish Opinion, which, after making the point that capitalists organised themselves into One Big Union, went on to assert that "the ideal of James Connolly was One Big Union" for all Labour in Ireland, and we shall strive to bring that ideal to fruition. It is worth striving for, as within such a Union the power of the worker can be truly focussed.'50 Thomas Foran was in a combative mood in the next issue, and stated that the ITGWU's 'enemies', who 'boasted that the absence of Larkin and the death of Connolly had killed the Transport Union', were in error because in point of fact the 'militant spirit of their leaders had been bequeathed to everyone of the rank and file'.51
It was not only 'militant spirit' which Connolly had bequeathed the Union, although certainly in the eyes of some members, the ITGWU had been 'made sacred by his lifeblood bravely offered up for Ireland'.52 In August 1918 in an article entitled 'The Programme of Labour' a writer - probably Cathal O'Shannon - made the point that:
If Irish Labour is to be aroused to self consciousness a widespread distribution of literature must be undertaken and nothing better can be found for the start of definite effort than that admirable credo by James Connolly on the front page recently. The Transport Union has ordered 10,000 reprints with their own imprint, and we have no doubt they will want more.53
Clearly Connolly's syndicalist-orientated writings were perceived to be of major educational and propaganda importance by the leaders of the Irish Labour movement and more particularly by the leaders of the ITGWU, many of whom had a long standing commitment to syndicalist strategies. This assessment of the importance of Connolly's writings was not based on mere sentiment or nostalgia but on a hard-headed analysis of the effectiveness of Connolly's written work in promoting syndicalist ideas. Indeed, one commentator noted in September 1918 that it was 'largely through the writings of the late James Connolly' that the 'importance of industrial control is becoming more understood in Labour circles'.54 Although it would be true to say that educational and propaganda work in Ireland in favour of the 'One Big Union' movement was almost exclusively based on promoting Connolly's brand of syndicalism - indeed the OBU was often referred to as 'Connolly's ideal' in contexts which suggested that the OBU strategy was Connolly's own personal invention 55 - there were some attempts to break out of this somewhat restricted and parochial pattern. On a few occasions the 'Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World' was published in the Labour press 56 and on one occasion the Watchword reprinted a chapter of Justus Ebert's book The IWW in Theory and Practice.57
Whilst maintaining its commitment to OBU industrial development, the ITGWU and indeed to some extent the Irish labour movement as a whole went through a period of intense sympathy with and support of the Russian Revolution and the new Soviet Government. This infatuation with Bolshevism was reflected in meetings organised to express support for the Revolution and a good deal of pro-soviet writing, including translations of articles by Soviet leaders, published in the labour press.58 The first and in some ways most impressive pro-Soviet meeting took place in Dublin early in 1918 when 'an enormous crowd' attended a meeting held in the Mansion House to 'congratulate the Russian people on the triumph they had won for democratic principles'. With O'Brien in the chair, Union officers O'Shannon, Foran and Coates amongst the platform speakers,59 and an audience which we can safely assume had a sizable ITGWU component, it is hardly surprising that Coates evoked a sympathetic response when he said - only half in jest - that they should 'transform the Viceregal Lodge into the head office of the Irish Transport Workers'. O'Shannon successfully proposed the major resolution, that the 'people of Dublin were at one with the Bolsheviks' and that the 'Russian interpretation of the democratic principle was the only one that would be acceptable to the people of Ireland'. O'Shannon's resolution went on to assert that 'political freedom would not suffice for this country, and that what they wanted was a social revolution'.60
Given the interest in, and level of support for, Soviet ideas, it was perhaps inevitable that some sections of the Labour movement would attempt to emulate the Russian Soviet example. Soviets, mostly short lived, were established in a number of places including Limerick, Broadford, Knocklong, Bruree and Arigna.61 The most important and well documented of these attempts to establish Soviets was the Limerick Soviet established in April 1919. For a few years prior to the establishment of the Soviet in Limerick, the town had been a noted centre for left-wing activities; indeed, the area had for a time been served by a colourfully radical and cheerfully aggressive Labour paper called The Bottom Dog - a fact which may have played some part in later developments in the city. The Bottom Dog reprinted a number of Connolly's writings and often contained exhortatory comments regarding the example Connolly had set by his leadership in 1916.62 Some local Labour activists had a closer connection with Connolly than through his writings. An article in Irish Opinion in February 1918 entitled 'Connolly's Ideal for Limerick' noted that the Secretary of the ITGWU no. 3 Branch had told an ITGWU meeting that 'as one who had fought in Dublin, he believed in Connolly's ideal, that a free Ireland must mean freedom for Irish workers'.63
A general strike was declared in Limerick on April 13th 1919, sometimes referred to as the 'permit strike' as it was called in response to a military ruling that permits would be required to enter or leave the City. On the previous day the Voice of Labour published an article, most probably written by O'Shannon, but certainly reflecting the opinions of the whole ITGWU leadership. The following comments were made on the 'Soviet idea':
We give it as our deliberate and carefully thought-out opinion that the best and most effective answer Ireland can give to MacPherson and the Government he represents is the establishment here and now of Soviets in Ireland... To-day the Soviet idea is sweeping westward over Europe... The Soviet has shown itself the only instrument of liberation in Europe... Ireland's best and most effective answer is the immediate establishment of the Soviets, the instruments which will bring about the dictatorship of the Irish proletariat.64
There can be no doubt that the leadership of the ITGWU had played a substantial part in promoting the Soviet idea to the workers in Limerick and that the influence of Connolly's ideas and example exerted a considerable influence on the radical direction which the strike took. The strikers' newspaper, The Workers Bulletin, which proudly proclaimed that it was 'Issued by the Limerick Proletariat', noted that 'James Connolly has not died in vain. His spirit is with the workers of Limerick today, and we shall not forget.' The same issue proclaimed that 'To the memory of our great Martyr - James Connolly - we pay the greatest tribute that workers can, viz:- by carrying on the struggle against tyranny and oppression.'65
Despite promises of extensive support, the Limerick strikers found that the ILPTUC leaders were slow to come to the scene of the strike, and that when Tom Johnson did appear, representing the ILPTUC, the promised assistance consisted almost entirely of verbal and moral support. The ILPTUC failed to provide the financial and logistical support necessary to sustain the strike and was unable to agree upon the calling of a national general strike in support of the Limerick strike. The strike effectively collapsed on April 24th when the Roman Catholic Bishop of Limerick and the Mayor of Limerick sent a joint letter to Limerick Trades Council requesting its immediate abandonment.66 Although this intervention was clearly responsible for the timing of the strike's end the lack of support, the national labour movement had ensured that the strike was a lost cause long before the final blow was dealt.
In the aftermath of this failure, the Voice of Labour somewhat optimistically noted that 'one result of the Big strike being handled efficiently by a central committee is a lesson in unity and action and a decided impetus for the OBU ideal.67 In fact the reverse was the case: the failure of the strike, and more particularly the failure of the national leadership of the labour movement to offer effective support to the strikers, was generally recognised. At the 1919 Congress of the ILPTUC, T. Foran (President of the ITGWU) described the Limerick strike as a 'very perfect illustration of the inadequacy of the present methods' and went on to argue that 'if they had had the One Big Union, decisions would have been more satisfactory at Limerick'.68
The 1919 Congress in fact devoted a large part of its time to discussing how best to organise such a One Big Union in Ireland. One speaker noted that 'there were few present who did not recognise that the One Big Union was the desirable goal and that it was inevitable some day'.69 In the light of the fact that other attempts by workers to establish Soviets continued to be denied real support by organised Labour, it is arguable that the concentration on organisational problems was largely a reluctance to face the fact that the leadership's support for the Soviet ideal and for the establishment of Soviets in Ireland was a purely theoretical commitment. In practice the leaders of Labour lacked the resolve and indeed the nerve to effectively support the radical, even potentially revolutionary, actions of sections of the rank and file.
On two occasions the ITUC called for and successfully directed general strikes, an anti-conscription one-day strike in April 1918 and a two-day general strike demanding the release of republican political prisoners in April 1920. Other major industrial campaigns falling short of full general strikes included the Motor Permits and Munition Transport strikes in 1920. All of these had in common the fact that they were organised around a specific issue and clearly limited in their scope and objectives. Following Connolly's opposition to the general strike, and their own inclinations to avoid large scale open-ended confrontational situations, the leadership of the labour movement rejected the classic syndicalist vision of the general strike as a revolutionary vehicle for the destruction of capitalism. It is also noteworthy that all the major political strikes owed more to the struggle for national independence than to socialist objectives. Many years later, William O'Brien, in reference to the 1935 tram and bus strike in Dublin, expressed his long-held view on more ambitious general strikes when he stated that general strikes were 'foolish' unless a 'revolutionary situation had arisen'.70
James Larkin returned to Ireland in April 1923. He had been in America since 1914, during which time he had spent some years in prison after being found guilty of criminal sedition. During his years outside Ireland, Larkin had retained his position - and wage - as General Secretary of the ITGWU, the Union he had founded in January 1909. An immensely attractive and inspirational man, Larkin displayed throughout his life an unquenchable and undeviating (although often misdirected) commitment to the working class struggle. In many ways a larger than life figure, a legend in his own time - and unfortunately in his own mind - Larkin's faults, his egotism, his tendency to play fast and loose with facts and figures and his poor administrative skills, were to prove extremely destructive to the ITGWU and indeed to the Irish labour movement as a whole.71 As early as 1909 a Belfast delegate to the ITUC, speaking in opposition to the ITGWU's request for affiliation stated that he 'knew Larkin's ability as an organiser, but he also knew that unless he was boss he would always be an opponent'.72 These were prophetic words.
During Larkin's absence, his sister Delia, who had at one time been in charge of the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU), had perhaps given the ITGWU's leadership a foretaste of things to come, when, after becoming estranged from both the IWWU and the ITGWU, she devoted her not inconsiderable energies and invective to attacking the ITGWU. In July 1919 the fiery Miss Larkin was quoted as having said that 'if justice were done there would not be lamposts enough in Dublin to hang the scoundrels who were running Liberty Hall'. Commenting on this somewhat intemperate attack, a Union spokesperson noted 'we do not believe Miss Larkin made such a statement, but her colleague Mr. Michael Mullen did' and went on to reflect that 'The Transport Union knows how hard it is to fight on the industrial or agricultural field when it is attacked on the flank by professing friends'.73
Delia Larkin's enmity was merely an annoyance to the ITGWU leadership. The enmity of its General Secretary, a man worshipped by large sections of the Dublin working class and an object of particular devotion to the Dublin-based old guard of the Union, was a threat of a very different order. Before Larkin left for America, he had been very much an autocrat at Liberty Hall; he had made all the decisions and in effect acted as a one-man Union executive. On his return to Ireland he found a radically altered situation. When he left Ireland the Union had a few thousand members, huge debts and lacked even a rudimentary democratic structure. In the intervening eight years the Union had enlisted almost 100,000 members, accumulated substantial financial resources and established a democratic organisational structure. Although 'nearly five thousand enthusiastic admirers' greeted Larkin when he returned to Dublin, it would be fair to say that the crowd's enthusiasm was by no means shared by the men who had assumed the leadership of the ITGWU since his departure.74
The details of the acrimonious, and occasionally violent split, which occurred between Larkin and his supporters, and the 'new guard' at the ITGWU has been well documented and need not be recounted in detail here.75 Suffice to say that both sides were intransigent and that although the anti-Larkinite leadership, which easily held control of the Union, had the best arguments (and more importantly had the 'numbers' to defeat and eventually to expel Larkin), Larkin also had some cause to feel aggrieved particularly after he discovered the fact that union officials had surreptitiously withheld 7,500 pounds from him during the 1913 Lockout.76 Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, the end result was clearly a great blow to the ITGWU and indeed to organised labour as a whole. After his expulsion from the ITGWU, Larkin precipitated lengthy, expensive and very damaging legal actions and also founded a new OBU - The Workers Union of Ireland - a Union which attracted a substantial number of the ITGWU'S Dublin-based membership. Although never approaching the ITGWU's strength or power, the WUI was a constant thorn in its side. The ITGWU, Ireland's own OBU organisation had produced an unwanted offspring in the form of a rival OBU - a fact most damaging in its attempts to make successful propaganda in favour of Irish labour as a whole organising into the OBU. The ITGWU itself admitted that its 'internal crisis' had left it 'with somewhat diminished power and prestige'.77
Throughout the struggle for the leadership of the ITGWU, the Union 'new guard' (or, to be more precise, William O'Brien) made masterly and ruthless use of Connolly's name and reputation. O'Brien had become Connolly's literary executor by default after the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington in 1916, and he had no compunction about using his privileged access to Connolly's private correspondence - including his private assessment of Larkin and his character - to discredit Larkin. Even Connolly's wife Lillie was brought into the fray.78 The front page of the ITGWU's pamphlet 'Some Pages From Union History' provides good example of O'Brien's tactics. Under the heading 'Connolly's Opinion of Larkin,' the following extracts from Connolly's private letters regarding Larkin are printed: 'The man is utterly unreliable - and dangerous because unreliable'; 'He must rule or will not work'; 'He is consumed with jealousy and hatred of anyone who will not cringe to him and beslaver him all over'.79 Connolly's personal opinions of Larkin during the years when they worked together combined with detailed comparisons of Larkin's years as an active leader of the ITGWU and Connolly's leadership after Larkin's visit to America - comparisons, one need hardly add, which reflected very badly on Larkin - were used as weapons in the successful effort to oust Larkin from the ITGWU. Ownership of Connolly's personal papers clearly was a factor of great advantage to O'Brien during the Larkin dispute.
Until 1930 the labour movement enjoyed an unusual and in syndicalist terms, potentially very valuable unity. The Irish Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress were united within one body the ILPTUC. Up until 1918 this organisation had been called Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party, but the order of precedence was thereafter reversed due to a 'growing realisation of the need for effective political organisation'. 80 At the 1924 ILPTUC, William Norton moved a resolution calling for the establishment of a special Committee to 'consider and report on the desirability of separating the Industrial and Political sides of the movement into two independent and autonomous bodies'.81 This committee was established and it reported its findings to a Special Congress early in 1930. The Committee reported in favour of the separation of labour's political and industrial arms. In Norton's statement supporting the resolution he used Connolly's name and reputation to back his argument: 'I cannot help feeling', he asserted, 'having regard to all he has written that James Connolly were he alive today, would be the first to endorse the proposals now being submitted to Congress. He would have seen that the needs of today demand something more efficient than the needs of yesterday.'82 After a brief debate, Norton's motion was put and carried unanimously. An amendment by members of the Irish Women Workers Union designed to retain 'the essential unity of the two organisations' was defeated.83 It is hard to see this organisational division as anything other than a step away from the unified labour movement which was the essential goal of the whole OBU syndicalist strategy.
A special Trade Union Conference in April 1936 set up a Commission of Inquiry into Trade Union Organisation. The inquiry's terms of reference centered upon a review of the desirability and feasibility of 'the amalgamation of groups of Unions analogous to or associated with special industries or occupations' 84 - in essence an inquiry into Industrial Unionism. It was February 1939 before this Commission presented its report to a 'conference of Trade Union representatives'. Despite its lengthy gestation the report highlighted the deep divisions within the movement and failed to reach any definite conclusions. Of the twelve people appointed to the Inquiry, William O'Brien and four others - one of whom had deep reservations 85 supported a 're-casting of the whole Trade Union Movement' into industrial groupings; another group of five fronted by Samuel Kyle felt that the O'Brien proposals were 'much too far reaching' and that 'the suggestion that the entire Trade Union Movement in Ireland should be scrapped and that there should be substituted ten Industrial groups is quite unworkable'.86 The leader of the Labour Party, William Norton, in his own one-man report stated that while he 'ardently' supported the 'principle of Trade Union amalgamation', he felt that it would be a 'disaster if an effort is made to attempt a large scale grouping of unions before the necessary psychological atmosphere has been created'.87 The final member of the Commission, not included in either of the three memoranda presented, did not make any formal presentation of his opinion and thus in effect supported the status quo.88
Due to O'Brien's position within the trade union movement and his experience and expertise in such matters, he managed to get his minority memorandum presented as the majority position when a Conference was held to discuss the Commission's Inquiry in Dublin in February 1939. But despite all of O'Brien's influence and political skills, he failed to force through his blueprint for union re-organisation. The fact that one of his old enemies, P.T. Daly, was in the Chair at the Conference did nothing to improve O'Brien's chances of success, nor his temper. When it eventually became clear that all chance of success for his memorandum had vanished, an angry and disappointed O'Brien withdrew from the meeting in protest against one of the Chairman's rulings.89 Whatever else may be said about O'Brien, there can be no doubt that he remained true to, and tried to actively pursue, the syndicalist ideas which Connolly had taught him during the early years of the ISRP.
O'Brien's failure to achieve a major restructuring of Irish Trade Unions along Industrial Union lines - 'the lines of progress' - is an appropriate note on which to conclude this paper. The OBU movement in Ireland was a powerful and at times persuasive force within the labour movement, yet, in the final analysis it was a failure in its own terms. The ITGWU is of course the central factor in any assessment of Irish syndicalism. Arguably its very size, dwarfing as it did all other unions, was in itself a threat, the union being perceived to be a poacher of other union's members and as being staffed by empire builders rather than an inspirational and attractive force. This perception of the ITGWU as an aggressively expansionist rather than idealistically committed organisation was not helped by the leadership of the ITGWU using the term OBU rather loosely, the term being used to describe both the ideal as an objective for the labour movement as a whole, and as a description of the ITGWU. This suggested to some trade unionists outside the ITGWU that the OBU objective was simply the ITGWU pursuing a monopolistic control over Irish labour. Problems also existed within the ITGWU. The Larkin split and its bitter aftermath was extremely damaging but probably even more damaging was the fact that many, probably most, ITGWU members saw the union as 'a mere wagegetting machine' 90 rather than as an organisation committed to a revolutionary OBU economic and political strategy.
Under the leadership of Connolly, a man who had been proud to state that his 'business was revolution' 91 the ITGWU had been a radical and potentially revolutionary organisation; under the leadership of William O'Brien whose business was business - union business but business nonetheless - the union lost much of its political vision and passion for although the union leadership cannot be accused of lacking intellectual commitment to the OBU - O'Brien, O'Shannon and the other leaders were dedicated to Connolly's teachings and were moreover men of real ability and courage, they lacked the revolutionary fire, the wild opportunism which might have allowed their beliefs to be translated into concrete form.
This paper is based on chapters 3 and 11 of my book James Connolly and the Irish Left, Irish Academic Press, Dublin 1994.
1. Harp, Vol. 3, No.12, Feb 1910, p.3.
On Lygon Street *
A little tattered and worse,
I climb the steps
As I ascend I recall
The great appear great
*The Trades Hall (Trade Union) Council Building in Melbourne, Australia, stands on Lygon Street.
On Lygon Street *
A little tattered and worse,
I climb the steps
As I ascend I recall
The great appear great
*The Trades Hall (Trade Union) Council Building in Melbourne, Australia, stands on Lygon Street.