Intellectually I am averse to hero-worship. There are no messiahs politically or spiritually. We, all of us, have to participate in our own liberation or it is not really freedom at all. Freedoms not taken are freedoms on loan; they belong to someone else and exist at their behest. In Gillo Pontecorvo’s remarkable film Burn! William Walker (played by Marlon Brando) through his own white guilt attempts to free Jose Dolores (played by Evaristo Márquez), the leader of a slave revolt Walker has betrayed. Dolores coolly refuses; preferring the gallows to a “freedom” granted from the oppressor. We, individually and collectively, are faced with such a terrible choice as well. James Connolly, like Dolores, refused the bequest of an Empire’s “freedom”.
Heroism elevates the object above us as well. The generalized frailties of what it means to be a human are apart of us all. All of us are hypocrites, failing our own moral codes. All of us do things for selfish reasons. None of us, including Jesus, are Christ. And thanks for that; “purity” is stagnant and allows no dynamism. “Take no heroes, only inspiration” goes the song. That said, I sometimes stand in awe confronted with the contributions and selflessness of those who participate and lead the daunting task of liberation. It is no violation of the truth that only the working class can free itself to recognize exceptional participants of the class in that struggle. James Connolly is one of those exceptional combatants.
Connolly based himself on a method, Marxism, and confronted the world with a searching flexibility that only those with real imagination can accomplish. This is true in all the “sciences”. Only an imagination bold enough to explore what it does not know can find anything out. To simply rely on what others have learned conquers no new territory. James Connolly wanted to conquer new territory.
Connolly may seem confused to some when one looks at his history. A syndicalist of the IWW, a member of De Leon’s M-M-Marxist Socialist Labor Party then of Debs’ Socialist Party. The Congress of Trade Unions and the Irish Socialist Republican Party and then of the Irish Citizens Army. A trade union leader, a political leader and a military leader. For much of the history of the workers’ movement the complexities of marrying the political and social struggles of the working class; how revolutionaries should organize and how those revolutionaries should apply themselves in those struggles were wholly unanswered questions.
It was Lenin’s imagination that delved so deeply into those problems along with the Bolshevik experience that clarified the question to many revolutionaries (both positively and negatively). The authority of that vision was based on the Russian Revolution of October, 1917. Very few of us would have ever sought out Lenin or others of his generation if it had not been for the victory of October. Sadly, Connolly was killed in May of 1916 and unable to integrate his own experiences with that of the Russian Communists.
Berating Connolly for not being a Bolshevik is a little silly. Not just because his death predates the Russian Revolution and we now live long after it (all the actual Bolsheviks passed away many, many years ago), but because what Connolly was wrestling with are issues we still wrestle with. The Bolshevik experience, while resolving some of perceived schisms between politics and action, hardly resolved the contradictions that exist in the real world that accentuate such schisms. How to organize ourselves as revolutionaries and how to make revolutions are not wholly answered questions; nor can they be wholly answered. The world keeps on turning.
Not all of us can say we genuinely participate in history; that we shift the ground beneath our own feet. Connolly played a leading role in events that did change history. We still live with those changes. His gift is that of a revolutionary life well lived. If you struggle for freedom, if you are a socialist it is impossible not to be drawn to him. Nearly all of those who claim Marxism also claim Connolly. Which is also not fair to the long dead comrade.
Perhaps it is the varieties Connolly’s own experiences that lend himself to so much falsification. The sharpness of his mind and pen makes him eminently quotable and quotes are without context. What Connolly fought for was the socialist revolution, he was not content with the wish for one. It is true that Connolly never solved the question that had so animated him: how to organize the class to fight for power. Connolly, however, died a Marxist and a partisan of the socialist revolution. The reality of Easter 1916 is very, very different from the popular image of a botched blood sacrifice by a self-ascribed vanguard led by failed nationalist poets.
The wholesale appropriation by Irish Republicans has done Connolly a great disservice as well. Connolly had no illusions in the National Family; his aim was the international liberation of his class. The resort to arms was a means and not an end. For a Marxist internationalism means supporting the self determination of nations oppressed; and none more so than, if we are members of such a nation, our own. Still false consciousness doesn’t necessarily prevent good songs, nor class consciousness mean good ones. There are some good ones though.
The sheer number of different songs on Connolly is staggering; even for an Irish revolutionary. Some showcase Connolly’s socialism and a few do not. Here’s a few of the good ones. I am sure there are many, many more out there but I limit myself to the easily accessible. Connolly’s death, and not his life, is the subject of many of the songs. May 12 is the day they tied him, wounded, to a chair and shot him. He came from the womb of the class he fought for. He shared in its oppression and lived his entire life as a member and servant of it. James Connolly will always be with us, not because of the death he died, but because of the life he lived.
James McEvoy doing the traditional Wolfe Tones version:
Andy Irvine does “Where is Our James Connolly” better than anyone. Beautiful song along with fine old images:
I take no responsibility for some of the whacked militarist images accompanying this song and I have a feeling Connolly wouldn’t either. “Connolly Was There” sung by Ray McAreavey with the The Wolfhounds
Ray Collins sings “Citizens Army”
Black 47 does my favorite Connolly song. If I had a dime for every time I sang along to this one:
We end with a nicely lubricated Brendan Behan talking and singing about Connolly, imperialism whatever else in the 1950’s
James Connolly, Presente!