Writing by Rufus Pickles. Illustration by Hazel Laing.
At the height of the British Empire and as the long nineteenth century drew to a close, a young and impressionable James Connolly moved with his newly wedded sweetheart Lillie Reynolds to settle down in Edinburgh with a young family. Being no friend of empire, he had deserted his British army regiment while serving in Ireland a few years earlier in 1888, purportedly at the prospect of being sent across the globe to India. Shortly after settling in the city, Connolly became involved with the nascent Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF), a Marxist outfit affiliated with Britain's first socialist party, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF was the home of a number of other renowned English-speaking radicals of the era, including William Morris, George Lansbury and Eleanor Marx. It was in the context of the Edinburgh Federation’s municipal Marxism and city electoral campaigns that Connolly found his political voice and where the currents of his highly influential brand of nationalist ideology started to come together.
Much like Scotland in 2021, Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century was a thorn in the side of the British establishment. Just as the SNP mop up Westminster constituency seats today on the national question of greater self-determination or independence for Scotland, the Irish Parliamentary Party of Connolly’s day had an iron grip over Irish politics. Nationalism first came to Connolly’s attention through a former Irish nationalist and Edinburgh secretary of the SSF, John Leslie, who gave a series of talks to city branch meetings on the interconnectedness of Ireland’s national and social questions in 1892 and 1893. If Irish nationalism was about fighting for greater political control and self-determination, then what about Irish worker’s control over their labour and their nation’s wealth? Leslie pointed out that if self-determination was to be meaningful for the great swathes of Ireland’s lower classes then they couldn’t leave the national struggle to Ireland’s bien pensant ruling economic elite whose conception of greater self-determination was much more in keeping with the political status-quo.
It is here where Connolly stepped boldly into the theoretical fray and produced a groundbreaking synthesis between nationalism and Marxism. Moving with his family to Dublin in search of work in 1896, he accepted a position as an organizer for the Dublin Socialist Society. Shortly afterwards he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), which sought to craft a new nationalism with Leslie’s concerns in mind. Influenced by Marx’s claim that ‘the economic dependence of the workers on the monopolists of the means of production is the foundation of slavery in all its forms, the cause of all social misery, modern crime, mental degradation and political dependence,’ the ISRP saw capitalism as just as great a threat to the freedom of the Irish people as the coercive Crown authority of the British state. With characteristically stirring and romantic language, Connolly began the ISRP’s manifesto with a quote from the French revolutionary and republican Camille Desmoulins: ‘the great appear great to us only because we are on our knees; let us rise.’ This harking back to the French Revolution was no coincidence, as Connolly’s breakthrough was to use the language of republicanism and democracy to meld together the competing national and economic questions. The principle of ‘by the people for the people and solely in the interests of the people’ could only be realized by national liberation from British rule and economic liberation from the owners of land and capital.
Over a hundred years later, Connolly’s writings have lost none of their relevance and especially not for the national question currently enveloping Scotland. If his homeland appears on the cusp of change now, with polls consistently favouring independence and the SNP continually hegemonic, his warnings of the ‘patriot who won’t touch socialism’ seem as prescient as ever. Nicola Sturgeon’s party may stake a claim to the mantle of progressivism and social justice with tax reforms, welfare spending and austerity mitigation, but they are not immune to the realities of class politics.
No amount of wrapping Scottish politics in the saltire can eradicate the deep class divides of Scottish society, even within its own independence movement. On the right there’s a bourgeois nationalism that Connolly would have grimly recognised in the form of the founding partner of the corporate PR firm Charlotte Street Partners, Andrew Wilson. Publishing the ‘Sustainable Growth Commission’ back in 2018, Wilson believes in a neoliberal independent Scotland at the behest of financial capital and straitjacketed with fiscal conservatism. On the left there’s the Scottish Socialist Party, the Scottish Green Party and the member-led thinktank Common Weal, all of which are affiliates of the Radical Independence Campaign.
Within the SNP itself an increasing divide is opening up between a managerial leadership being lobbied by landlords, agribusiness, oil and banks, and left membership groups. The latter comprises the SNP Common Weal Group and SNP Socialists and have much in common with the Labour Party’s grassroots Momentum. The Yes movement ultimately has a choice similar to the Irish nationalists of Connolly’s day. In his enduring words: ‘unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers.’