Date Released: 11 May 2014
Address by SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor at the annual James Connolly Commemoration 11.00 a.m. Sunday 11th May 2014 Arbour Hill Cemetery
We are assembled here in the year which marks the centenary of the commencement of the Great Imperialist War, to honour the memory of James Connolly who along with Jim Larkin was the towering inspiration for the Irish Labour Movement. We are here to be inspired by his vision of an egalitarian society and by the heroic, selfless, courage he displayed in pursuit of it throughout every day of his life and in his ultimate sacrifice.
Connolly was a revolutionary dedicated to the attainment of a free and independent Ireland. He approached it as an internationalist eschewing the limitations of narrow bourgeois nationalism. His vision embraced the idea of an independent Workers’ Republic within the framework of a wider community of similarly liberated socialist Republics. His perception of “freedom” was constructed around the notion of freedom from want and the freedom of every individual to enjoy the full fruits of their humanity in the cultural as well as the physical sense as distinct from any preoccupation with flags or other emblems of national identity. Ireland, he said, apart from its people means nothing to me.
He outlined this perspective in his prodigious writings and particularly his major theoretical work on “Labour in Irish History” in which he drew a sharp distinction between the concept of freedom for those who are exploited and those who benefit from that exploitation. Connolly subscribed to the analysis of history, which understood clearly the nature and character of the capitalist system as well as the interpretation of all pre-existing history in terms of the struggle between exploiters and exploited.
He was, of course, one of the foremost thinkers in the evolving fermentation of socialist thought in Europe and the USA at the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries which was ultimately to lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the potential, subsequently frustrated, for an entirely new order of human society.
While he was a highly accomplished theoretician, he was equally a man of relentless political and industrial action as Activist, Organiser, Educationalist Strategist and Tactician. To all the array of projects in which he engaged he applied his continually expanding knowledge acquired through exhaustive reading of history and economics, engagement in the practical tasks of industrial organisation on both sides of the Atlantic, exposure to the challenge of building worker solidarity despite the inter-communal divisions of Belfast where he came to organise for Jim Larkin’s incipient ITGWU in 1911 and his extensive experience of industrial conflict and point of production bargaining.
He was possessed of an unwavering belief in the working class as the only class that would not betray Ireland as in doing so it would be betraying itself. In this context, he understood the necessity to build an independent party to spearhead the drive for the concept of “Freedom” that resides beyond the narrow limitations of simple territorial integrity or sovereignty as it would be interpreted by the William Martin Murphys of his time, or of today for that matter. That was why he proposed in 1912 that the Trade Union Movement should establish its own independent party of Labour in anticipation of Home Rule for Ireland.
It was why he always insisted on that Party retaining its independence despite his own collaboration with the most radical and progressive elements in the Republican Movement in the insurrection of 1916. To Connolly, it was no mere nationalist project but the initiation of a revolutionary process ultimately focused on the establishment of the Workers’ Republic, which would serve as the guarantor of the full rights of citizenship for everyone and which would cherish all the children of the nation equally.
To this end, he applied himself to the task of building the Irish Citizen Army and told them to hold on their rifles. Connolly came to 1916 following the crushing defeat of the workers of Dublin during the Great Lockout of 1913 and more particularly in the aftermath of the manner in which the European Social Democratic Movement succumbed to nationalist hysteria and failed to prevent the mass slaughter of workers by workers in the Great Imperialist War.
At one level Connolly’s martyrdom, the Great Imperialist War, the Russian Revolution, our own War of Independence, the Second World War and the subsequent launch of the European Project all happened a long time ago now. Indeed even the failed edifice of the Russian Revolution and the State Socialist project are fading into the dim mists of time. But even as they are, the iron laws of capitalist economics, which Connolly understood so well, remain as prevalent as ever with their inherent capacity for their own destruction and their implications for the very survival of the human species and indeed that of organic life on this planet itself.
The process of globalisation proceeds relentlessly, ever enhancing the power of an endlessly diminishing concentration of corporate entities over peoples, governments and even international institutions, compromising the capacity for real democratic decision making, even on issues such as climate change which imminently threatens the future of humanity. Parallel with this there is the exponential growth of inequality within societies, which Connolly and his contemporaries understood as an intrinsic characteristic of the system. Apart from abhorring its moral vacuity they also subscribed to the prediction that it would ultimately undermine itself by depleting the purchasing power of consumers. This phenomenon was camouflaged by reliance on credit in the USA and some other developed economies during the decades immediately preceding the global systemic collapse of 2008, following wholesale de-industrialisation which resulted in the decline of the middle class.
Ironically, the response of those at the top of the system in Europe in particular, was the promotion of policies which have served only to suppress domestic demand resulting in levels of unemployment and hopelessness especially among the young in several countries which have not been experienced since the 1950s. This, as well as the accompanying assault on public services and the commodification of public provision as well as the most sustained attack on peoples’ rights at work in living memory has spawned the re-emergence of the ugly spectre of pre-war Europe – xenophobic nationalism. This phenomenon is now growing exponentially, threatening the stability of the old continent.
Those in the ascendency offer no response other than intensifying the liberalisation of markets and the systematic dismantlement of what remains of the European Social project so painstakingly constructed by Mitterrand and Delors in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This concept, which was itself a development on the great settlement honed out between capital and labour under the auspices of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in the post war years to ensure cohesion and prosperity, was designed to underpin the ongoing unity and security of Europe. Even before the collapse, neo liberalism (ordo liberalism in its German manifestation) which is little other than a philosophical and political rationale for blinkered, unbridled greed, was already busy eroding it. Blindly ignoring the lessons of history, they determined not to waste a good crisis and to exploit the recession to apply a ruthless shock therapy.
It is no understatement to say they will destroy the European Project altogether if they have not already instilled a destructive dynamic that cannot be halted. It falls to all on the “Left” - Social Democrats, Socialists, Left Republicans and others who see themselves as the custodians of the legacy of Connolly and his contemporaries in the formative years of early 20th Century Europe, sharing an historical perspective and egalitarian outlook, to step up to the mark at this crucial juncture in the formulation of the history of the future. We have no time to lose. The purveyors of strident unbridled free marketeerism and the oppressively irrational response of xenophobic nationalism they have spawned have already established a considerable head start.
We all have a responsibility to build sufficient unity on the rational left to assert the primacy of social solidarity which is the highest expression of our humanity over the reactionary manifestations of unbridled greed, racial prejudice and xenophobia, both within and between countries. While it has always been desirable, it is now absolutely essential, given the dreadful implications for the peoples of Europe of the current course of events.
Facing into the rapidly approaching demographic time bomb, the last thing we need is the policy approach of those at the top of the ECB and the EU Commission over the past few years, which has served only to provide oxygen for those forces which thrive on anti-immigrant prejudice. Equally as some argue that the survival of the Euro, which is key to stability in Europe, will almost inevitably require further pooling of sovereignty, the nonsense of continuing to pursue a policy which fuels xenophobic nationalism will ultimately be viewed from some distant future perspective as absurd in the extreme. The fixation with the one sided austerity, which has destroyed the hopes and aspirations of a whole generation of young people in several countries, is rooted in the pre-occupation with saving those at the top of the banking system by insulating them from the consequences of the requirement to crystalise loss on their balance sheets. This short-sighted approach, which reflects the pre-occupation with quarterly returns, has been blindly pursued in total disregard of the big picture. It reflects the belief that the Labour Movement can now be disregarded and that the measures required can be rammed through on pain of threat of awesome consequences. If it is so, they are focused on the wrong enemy.
Rational social democracy and the organised Labour Movement which seeks the prosperity of all through enlightened fiscal policies, to stimulate growth, jobs and innovation, the development of the social market, social cohesion and the welfare state, as well as equitable distribution of the benefits of output is key to the sustainability of peace and prosperity in Europe. This lies in deepening regulation and intervention to manage the market and insulate individuals, families, communities and societies from its ruthless dynamics and inherent essentially self- destructive characteristics.
The key to the sustainability of Europe is building, developing and expanding the great European Social project of Mitterrand and Delors, not dismantling it. There is no future in a Europe that merely pays lip service to the social dimension while proceeding with policies driven by the dynamics of raw tooth and claw capitalism, relegating democratically elected Governments and Councils to the role of serving as mere ‘committees of the rich’, as Marx would have described them.
Many perceive the European Parliament as less important than the Oireachtas and perhaps justifiably so. However, no elections have been so significant in terms of their implications for the lives of citizens for a very long time, than those about to take place later this month. They will almost certainly determine the direction of things for several years to come. If the dramatic shift to the xenophobic right, which many predict, materialises, then those who regard themselves as being on the centre right will be tempted to follow them down that road, further exacerbating the attack on workplace and social rights as well as support for underdeveloped regions leading ultimately to the dismemberment of Europe. If on the other hand the Socialists and Democrats can maintain their position, it will serve to help shore up what remains of the social dimension and provide a platform to regain lost ground.
Despite the participation of many good and selfless people on the Left, it is only through participation in the Socialist and Democratic Group that it is possible to influence the agenda and direction of policy within the Parliament, simply because the others don’t have the numbers. Therefore, unless we elect Emer Costello, who is a lifelong Trade Unionist, the workers of Dublin will not be represented at a level that actually influences the agenda. That is why we are recommending support for her candidature.
We are also recommending that people transfer their preferences down the line to all the candidates of the “Left”, in order to promote the aspiration of building the kind of alliance that offers the best prospects for the development of an Ireland and of a Europe based on the primacy of the common good and our collective solidarity as human beings, irrespective of the accident of our birth or the colour of the pigmentation of our skin. It is the alternative to barbarism and it is most in accord with the egalitarian vision for which James Connolly lived and ultimately surrendered his life.