Almost one hundred years later we cannot blindly accept all that Connolly wrote as gospel because we cannot know how he would have interpreted all that has occurred since he sacrificed his life in the cause of Labour and of Ireland. But we would be well advised to stick with the principles he gave us. One of those is an unwavering belief that the working class was the one class that never betrayed Ireland for the simple reason that it would be betraying itself. Definitions of that class may vary but we can take it to mean all those who earn a living by working for another by hand or by brain, directly or indirectly – as well as the hundreds of thousands currently locked out of the labour market.
Connolly also believed that the capitalist system contained the seeds of its own destruction. Like the vast majority of his contemporaries he grossly underestimated the complexity, the resilience, the ingenuity and even the ruthlessness of that system. But he was perfectly right in identifying its inherent instability, where greed and the ‘invisible hand’ of the market were elevated to a belief system that could subvert the institutions of states and undermine the social solidarity values on which civilised societies rest, with all the attendant human costs. That was the analysis that motivated him to co-found the Labour Party exactly 100 years ago this month.
He was wrong in thinking that the outbreak of the First World War would lead ‘to a conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord’. But he was not that wrong. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires were all swept away and the British Empire mortally wounded by the conflict. Europe did teeter on the verge of a continental wide revolution and this part of Ireland achieved the substance of sovereignty.
We tend to think of opposition to that war today purely in terms of the stance taken by the Bolsheviks. But the Socialist International in 1914 was much broader than the Bolsheviks. Karl Liebnecht and Rosa Luxembourg in Germany, Jean Juares in France and George Lansbury in England were also among those who took a principled stand against the blood lust of Europe’s competing imperialisms. Indeed Juares, Liebnecht and Luxembourg would pay with their lives for their principles.
We are still in the early stages of rebuilding the European socialist project as a democratic mass movement which can defend the interests of our citizens and offer the only long term alternative to the in-built chaos of the capitalist system, now made immensely stronger and more dangerous by globalisation. Indeed the collapse of the old Soviet regime and its satellites in Eastern Europe led to a massive increase in the strength of neo-liberalism with a resurgence of reactionary nationalism on the Continent and the addition of millions of low paid workers thoroughly disillusioned with socialism, to the Single Market.
Then as if drunk with victory those who assumed ascendancy in Europe after Mitterand and Delors had left the stage, blindly ignoring the lessons of history, dismantled financial regulation, leaving it to the men with the ‘Midas Touch’. The tragic consequences of their recklessness are surpassed only by their one sided austerity remedy which is designed to rectify the mess they have created on the backs of the working people of Europe. Apart from the inherent unfairness of it, it is patently failing exactly as we always said it would. They have managed to drive a growing and critical mass of the population of several countries beyond the point where they have nothing to lose. And now the very existence of the democratic system itself is threatened.
We are living through an unique historical moment in which the Labour movement in Ireland is faced with a particularly formidable challenge. It has to defend the living standards of working people as best it can in a Government dominated by a centre right party, clear up the worst excesses of the mess left by the casino capitalists and their client politicians and, above all, give hope to working people that there is a better future ahead.
This is not a new challenge for the Labour Party. Connolly himself was very much a junior partner in the Easter Rising, yet the Proclamation was largely crafted by himself and Padraic Pearse. Similarly in 1919, the Democratic Programme of the First Dail was written by Thomas Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal O’Shannon. While some elements of the Programme were rewritten by the dominant, socially conservative elements in Sinn Fein, the substance of the document remained. Its integrity was preserved so that it became a promissory note on the Irish Revolution. That note has never been fully cashed.
We want to acknowledge Labour’s courageous decision to go into Government in the very worst of times when staying out would have been much easier. We know that budget 2012 would have levied almost a billion Euro more on the backs of working people were it not for Labour’s participation. Moreover we also recognise the Party’s critical role in the reinstatement of the statutory mechanisms to protect 300,000 of the lowest paid workers in the state after they had been annulled by the High Court and the progress towards the transposition of the agency workers directive. And as we approach the centenary of the Great Dublin Lockout we know it is no coincidence that the current programme for Government is the first in the history of our state which commits to legislate for the right to Collective Bargaining which is enjoyed by workers in virtually every other country in Europe except ours.
However there is an obligation on Labour, even in these austere times to offer hope in place of despair. There is an urgent requirement for an investment stimulus plan for jobs and growth. The victory of Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate in the French Presidential election on the back of a massive reaction to the suicidal one sided austerity approach must be maximised in Ireland above any European state. By presenting the Irish people with a substantial investment programme on a sufficient scale to create tens of thousands of jobs and rebuild our infrastructure, we can offer them a reason for voting in favour of the Fiscal Compact with some confidence that we can return to funding ourselves and get ahead of its structural deficit rule.
Hope, like confidence, is an intangible quality but both need to be built and sustained on tangible programmes. It is an enormous challenge in the current political and economic climate for Labour, as a minority party in Government. But the Party has met similarly difficult challenges in the past and needs to rise to the occasion again. Like Connolly, it must fashion its message in a way that people cannot alone understand but believe as well.
May is traditionally a month when we celebrate as well as commemorate our legacy. There would be no more fitting way of doing so this year than ensuring Ireland has a credible plan for recovery rather than simply the deferral of an economic death sentence. We confidently look to Connolly’s Party to make it happen because we know that if Connolly’s Party cannot do it; it cannot be done.