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Connolly, socialism and syndicalism

Leo Keohane writes: Thank you for reviewing my book – Captain Jack White, Imperialism, Anarchism and the Irish Citizen Army. I do feel however that Tom Wall’s perceptive piece, while generally positive, missed the point I was attempting to make about White’s political philosophy.

What I would like is the opportunity to reiterate what Jack White was about and how relevant he is to present ruminations in the glutfest. The main thrust of my argument is that he was an ardent supporter of Connolly and what Connolly was –a syndicalist. Check on any papers around this time and you will find that is how Connolly is described; in fact most historians would not disagree.

Where the crux lies is in the continuing and ubiquitous error of regarding syndicalism as just another form of the political philosophy of socialism. Syndicalism, in brief, is the belief that society should be run, not by a central authority, but by a loose federation of communes. That is, syndicalism is quite simply anti-statist; socialism, in contrast, believes a state is required to regulate the various interests in society.

There are two questions (objections maybe) that arise here. One, the loose federation of communes that syndicalism advocates are mainly trade unions (syndicalisme – French for trade unionism). This, in view of today’s bureaucratic hierarchical structures, suggests possibly something very dystopian indeed: would every aspect of the community, from industry to education to health, be run by “point of order, comrade” members? I would suggest however that the unions of that time were less rigid and offered the possibility of the working class being in charge of the reins of society.

The second objection would be a retort that the term socialist was also used to describe Connolly everywhere (even Jack White, in his autobiography, occasionally describes him as such). The word socialism is generally used to describe a range of left-wing views, from Marxism to a mild type of Fabianism. In this sense syndicalism, although quite distinct, if not actually antithetical, could be incorporated into the general canon; it would side with Bakunin the anarchist who rejected Marx’s notion that a state would be required temporarily until the inequities of society were resolved.

What all of the above leads to is this – Connolly was neither Catholic nor nationalist, nor even socialist, although he would have had some sympathy, for various reasons, for all three. He was a most radical activist who believed and attempted to put in place a genuine revolution. Not the resulting “independence” of a society, as White would have seen it, whose only distinction from the ancien regime was a matter of nomenclature (Murphy instead of Ponsonby Smythe) combined with an almost statutory deference to pidgin Irish and the Catholic Church. No, what Connolly envisaged was, not just the Brits out, not just a socialist state nor equality for women but the overthrow of the entire socio-economic structure of the Western world.