James Connolly - An Industrial Worker of the World
Updated: Jan 8
May 12th, 2020 marks the 104th Anniversary of the murder of Irish Revolutionary James Connolly. The Easter Rising lasted for nearly a week starting on April 24 of that same year.
Unfortunately, it was the British occupational forces that eventually won the day, and Connolly was thrown into prison to await execution, alongside many of what would have been fellow leaders in a blooming worker’s republic if all the stars aligned. A giant in both the Irish Republican movement and the International Socialist Movement, Connolly’s writings, actions and lived experiences continue to shape what we as a union must do.
James Connolly with other IWW speakers addressing the masses in Union Square, New York on May Day in 1908.
Today across the country many denominations of anti-capitalist groups take the lessons of history and it’s an imperative that the IWW do the same. Connolly’s experience with the IWW comes long after becoming radicalised to the cause; After a stint in the British Army and helping build a socialist movement in Ireland and Scotland; economic necessity compelled him to find work in the United States, around Newark. He travelled the waters of the American Socialist movement and got stuck in with the SLP and the union movement of the area. His activities during this time aligned with the founding of the IWW, which Connolly took to like a duck to water.
While he still supported parties like the ISRP, he kept his Syndicalist views throughout his time as a revolutionary, which was evident both when he became a full-time organiser for the IWW and later when he returned to Ireland. This synthesis of positions were sown during his time wading through the American syndicalist movement, which allowed ideas from all corners of thought to mingle freely through the minds of the workers. This freedom of expression was what led to the IWW being formed, with its unique method of organising people and its emphasis on mass mobilisation and strikes. These developments in James Connolly’s beliefs made him a strong advocate for left unity with a serious dislike of sectarianism; something he unfortunately found amongst many comrades once he returned to Dublin.
Farewell To Connolly: 1910 Poster
However, by his return he wasn’t the same man as he was a few short years before. His transformation from well-meaning electoral activist to a militant organiser brought him to the new syndicalist union, ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers Union) which was inspired by Larkin and others’ admiration for the IWW. The union’s focus on both skilled and unskilled workers was one of the reasons Connolly moved back to Ireland, and the result of the lockdown helped lay down the principles of industrial unionism and the need for some level of defence, found in the form of the Irish Citizen Army; one of the forces that took part in the Easter rising mentioned above. Connolly was radicalised not by the pamphlets or texts of intellectuals before him.
Like many of us his early life and young adulthood was enough to give him the feeling that something was deeply wrong. When he was drawn to anti-capitalist action, he knew from experience that blindly following one doctrine to the ends of the earth wouldn’t get anyone far and that a “diversity of tactics” was needed. This was what led him to hold views that many people on one end or the other view his approaches as contradictory, rather than complementary. James Connolly however knew that all of us wanted the same thing in the end, and that it would take the effort of the entire working class to achieve it, one way or the other.
Irish Citizen Army assemble outside Liberty Hall
Throughout his involvement for socialism, from struggling financially and contesting parliamentary seats, to building a mass movement with the capability of challenging the might of an empire, it would be wise for us in the IWW to learn lessons from Connolly’s many achievements in both unionising fellow workers and working with comrades who may follow different modes of organisation. As a union we are home to Anarchists of different stripes, Marxists of different cloths, Feminists who have to work extra hard to remind their male colleagues on the importance of equality and liberation. Ecologists who lay across the spectrum and people with no defined ideology except a wish to strengthen working class power.
Our mission today, just as it was when Connolly drew breath, is to organise the unorganised and to instil the militant anti-capitalist message in the existing left structures. We must have the confidence and open mindedness to do this quickly if we want to save as much of our world as possible from climate catastrophe.
Early IWW poster calling on workers to Join IWW
The current crisis of a global pandemic and the established classes reaction to it, shows clearly both the extremes to which they’ll go to stay in power and the fragility of their own position. This makes things like utter contempt of the workers from British social democrats and backdoor deals from American market liberals unsurprising. The combined punches of Covid-19 and somewhat related economic crash, followed by an unfolding climate crisis informs us that the current way of doing things is long past its sell-by-date. Yet political leaders are willing to sacrifice a large portion of the world's population to keep their standard of living intact. In contrast we are finally seeing a wave of action being taken by workers across the world to stop themselves being fed through this gauntlet of capital.
Industrial actions, wildcat strikes and rent strikes are widespread across America as well as acts of working class solidarity and mutual aid groups have sprung up across the so-called UK and Ireland. Everywhere we are witnessing an increase in union membership, especially the IWW. The fact that we’re seeing many workers take the extra step in realising a need to move beyond capitalism should give heart to those falling into dejection and despair.
The adoption of lockdown policies and social distancing, even when flawed and milquetoast, has seen a drop in annual carbon emissions that match the Paris targets of 1.5 degrees, showing us that radical change is possible. It's up to us to push further and recreate a militant working class, one that's even stronger than those who have gone before us; lessons from James Connolly continue to show the way. In the words of Connolly himself, ‘For our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth!’
Oscar Coles, IWW