In 1900, the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) scored a victory when the Paris Congress of the Second International recognised its delegates, E.W. Stewart and Tom Lyng, as representing a separate national group from the British socialist organisations.
Amongst the delegates supporting this stance — against the British SDF — were those from Daniel De Leon’s American Socialist Labour Party (SLP), whose struggle against reformism and opportunism in the socialist movement was admired by the Irish socialists.
One major issue of controversy at the 1900 conference was the decision in 1899 by the French socialist Alexander Millerand to accept a post in Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau’s coalition for “Republican Defence” at the height of the Dreyfus Affair. In doing so, Millerand took a seat around the table alongside General de Gallifet, who had been the butcher of the Paris Commune in 1871 and now served as Minister of War.
The issue became an international dividing line. In attempt to heal the division, Karl Kautsky, the outstanding theorist of German Social Democracy, put forward a compromise motion which condemned class collaboration but added: “Whether in a particular case, the political situation necessitates this dangerous experiment [of entering capitalist governments] is a question of tactics and not principle.”
Lenin sarcastically dismissed the compromise motion as being made from “Kaoutcouch” (“caoutchouc” being India rubber, known for its elasticity). As George S Yates, the only SDF member to oppose Millerand, put it: “A big wave of opportunism is passing through the ranks of the international socialist party.” Yates would soon found the British SLP, with Connolly’s enthusiastic support.
Connolly and the IRSP also opposed the Kautsky resolution, with Connolly writing in the pages of the SDF paper Justice that in entering a capitalist government, “Millerand could still logically claim to be considered a good socialist, differing only in tactics from the socialists of the world, who agreed with him in principle.” He urged acceptance of the principle “that the revolutionary proletariat should, through its delegates, accept no governmental position which it cannot conquer by its own strength at the ballot box.”
When Connolly soon afterwards undertook a lecture tour in Britain in 1901, he was well-received in Scotland but received a cold welcome in England, where Hyndman and Harry Quelch had opposed Connolly’s stance on Millerand. One of the main opponents of “Millerandism” was John Carstairs Matheson, a teacher from Falkirk, who led what the SDF leadership denounced as the “unholy Scotch current”.
Quelch suppressed their views in Justice, so oppositionists wrote for De Leon’s Weekly People, which was widely circulated in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The following year, with Connolly’s help, Matheson founded the The Socialist as an organ of the Scottish De Leonites, and it was printed on the ISRP presses in Dublin.
In 1902, the SLP’s National Secretary in the US, Henry Kuhn, wrote to the ISRP asking if they would send a speaker for a national tour. Connolly was already known in socialist circles in the US, and the SLP had printed the ISRP Manifesto and Connolly’s Erin’s Hope. Connolly agreed to go, hoping to raise funds and increase subscriptions to the Workers’ Republic.
The tour lasted three and a half months, and took in New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York on the east coast, before moving through the Mid-West to California, Arizona and Colorado, and Canada.
The first date was on 15 September, when Connolly was officially greeted at the Cooper Union in New York. Asked by one reporter – used to well-worn tales from Ireland – where his ancestors were from and whether they had any castles, Connolly replied: “I have no ‘ancestors’. My people were poor and obscure like the workers I am speaking to now.”
Visibly affected by the enthusiastic cheers welcoming him to America, Connolly made clear to his audience: “I represent only the class to which I belong…I could not represent the entire Irish people on account of the antagonistic interests of these classes, no more than the wolf could represent the lambs or the fisherman the fish.”
The tour was a success and, despite some logistical frustrations, Connolly supported the SLP’s election campaign and proclaimed it “a real revolutionary movement.”
After the high of his American tour, Connolly returned to Ireland to find the ISRP in a perilous state. Much of the money he raised from the tour had been spent plugging the deficit in a licensed bar that party members had opened on the premises, the paper was appearing irregularly, and inadequate financial accounts had been kept in Connolly’s absence.
Against this backdrop, Connolly’s vote in the 1903 municipal elections was down, despite backing from the United Labourers Union and Griffith’s United Irishman. In frustration and anger, Connolly resigned and accepted a five month speaker tour from the Scottish District Council of the SDF. He would later come back but lasting damage in relations had been done.
Back in Scotland, Connolly worked closely with Matheson and a young socialist called Tom Bell, who later became the first national organiser of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
Bell recalled Connolly from this period, writing that his “quiet, reticent disposition concealed the store of knowledge he had acquired from extensive reading and wide travel. But, provoked into discussion or debate, he would rout opponents with incisive and merciless logic… A proletarian of proletarians, he had none of that snobbery and pretentiousness that mar so many of our leaders. He was… devoted and self-sacrificing for the cause of the workers’ emancipation from capitalist slavery.”
Around this time, the SDF in London warned that Matheson’s paper The Socialist must change its critical tone or cease publication. Matheson was expelled and used the May issue of the paper to announce a conference the following month to found a new party in Edinburgh. The final showdown came at the SDF’s conference in Shoreditch. When party members in Glasgow got the telegram to say that the De Leonites had been routed, they painted out the letters “SDF” from the local headquarters, renaming themselves temporarily as the Glasgow Socialist Society.
In the wake of the split, the SDF organ Justice wrote that “prompt action of the SDF in dealing effectually with those malcontents who are bent upon following the lead of the German-Venezuelan Jew Loeb, or ‘de Leon’, to the pit of infamy and disgrace, is regarded with much satisfaction on this side.”
In June 1903, Connolly hit back in The Socialist that the SDF was “directly appealing to racial antipathies and religious prejudices” and that the attack on De Leon accurately reflected “the mental conditions and methods of the men in charge of [Justice].” If De Leon was “a German-Venezuelan-Jew, or a Cockney-Irish-Scotsman, or even, horror of horrors, an Anglo-Saxon, what is it to us or to Socialists generally?”
Of the SDF, he added that “this is no new trick of its policy. We all remember how, when the late Boer war was being launched upon this country, Justice, instead of grasping at the opportunity to demonstrate the unscrupulous and bloodthirsty methods of the capitalist class, strove to divert the wrath of the advanced workers from the capitalists to the Jews; how its readers were nauseated by denunciations of ‘Jewish millionaires’, ‘Jewish plots’, ‘Jew-controlled newspapers’, ‘German Jews’, ‘Israelitish schemes’, and all the stock phrases of the lowest anti-Semitic papers, until the paper became positively unreadable to any fair-minded man who recognised the truth, viz, that the war was the child of capitalist greed, and inspired by men with whom race or religion were matters of no moment.”
But as yet the split in the SDF around The Socialist newspaper had no name. At the June conference in Edinburgh to found the new party, Connolly was blunt: “It does not matter what you call yourselves: you’ll be dubbed the Socialist Labour Party anyway.”
Struggling to find the means to support his family, and doing up to a dozen meetings a week for the new Scottish SLP, Connolly decided to move to the US.
Bell recalled that: “We were all filled with emotion when he sailed from the Broomielaw one September night, in the Irish boat, to go to Dublin, in preparation for emigration to New York.”
On his arrival, the SLP’s The Weekly People published a first-page interview with their newly-arrived comrade, and Connolly could rightly have expected a warm reception, having played a key role in the formation of a new section of the party in Scotland.
De Leon, however, greeted him coolly and the SLP did nothing to help Connolly settle and find work. Perhaps this was due to the collapse of the ISRP. In any case, Connolly’s relations with De Leon only worsened.
The major conflict with broke out between the two men in 1904 started with a casual letter from Connolly to The Weekly People, but some of the issues it raised would rumble on until his complete separation from the SLP four years later.
On 23 March, Connolly wrote a letter entitled “Wages, Marriages and the Church” while living with his cousins in Troy in New York state. Stating that he was proud to be a member of the SLP, he nevertheless had encountered positions put forward by party comrades that he disagreed with.
On the issues of marriage and the church, Connolly’s views are open to serious dispute. In both cases, Connolly demonstrates a tendency to reduce Marxism to a narrowly economic doctrine, not a materialist analysis of society as a whole. Objecting to the SLP’s serialisation of August Bebel’s classic Woman and Socialism, Connolly wrote that the book was “an attempt to seduce the proletariat from the firm ground of political and economic science on to the questionable ground of physiology and sex.”
For him, “the abolition of the capitalist system will, undoubtedly, solve the economic side of the Woman Question, but it will solve that alone. The question of marriage, of divorce, of paternity, of the equality of woman with man are physical and sexual questions, or questions of temperamental affiliation as in marriage, and were we living in a Socialist Republic would still be hotly contested as they are to-day.”
This approach established an arbitrary firewall between the supposedly economic base of society and apparently “private” spheres such as the family, sexuality and the institution of marriage. The implication is that the latter are not necessarily questions for socialists. De Leon was right to respond that this view “denies the controlling influence of material conditions upon any and all social institutions”, quoting Lewis Morgan’s view that the “monogamian family owes its origin to property.”
In a similar vein, Connolly complained that “it is scarcely possible to take up a copy of The Weekly People of late without realising from its contents that it and the party are becoming distinctly anti-religious. If a clergyman anywhere attacks Socialism the tendency is to hit back, not at his economic absurdities, but at his theology, with which-we have nothing to do,” concluding that the SLP “is a political and economic party, seeking the conquest of public power in order to clear the way for the Social Revolution. Let it keep to that. It is a big enough proposition.”
As De Leon wrote back to Connolly, it is one thing to respect individuals’ private views but another “to allow clergymen to extend the jurisdiction of ‘theology’ over terrestrial and civic matters, as they endeavour to do. To allow them to, and not ‘hit back,’ and hard, too, at such clerical usurpations over a domain that is purely civic, would be to allow them to walk into our encampment, take possession, and non-suit the cause of Socialism…”
In some of his arguments, Connolly was echoing the 1891 “Erfurt Programme” of the German socialists, which declared religion a private matter.
Indeed, in 1901 Connolly wrote in The New Evangel pamphlet that the ISRP “prohibits the discussion of theological or anti-theological questions at its meetings, public or private. This is in conformity with the practice of the chief Socialist parties of the World, which have frequently, in Germany for example, declared Religion to be a private matter, and outside the scope of Socialist action.”
However, in 1909 Lenin was to comment on this interpretation of the “Erfurt Programme” in a Russian context, writing in The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion that in reaction against ultra-lefts who wished to proclaim a one-sided “war on religion”, some socialists “managed to give rise to a new distortion of Marxism in the opposite direction, in the direction of opportunism. This point in the Erfurt Programme has come to be interpreted as meaning that we Social-Democrats, our Party, consider religion to be a private matter, that religion is a private matter for us as Social-Democrats, for us as a party…[Engels] deliberately underlined that Social-Democrats regard religion as a private matter in relation to the state, but not in relation to themselves, not in relation to Marxism, and not in relation to the workers’ party.”
Writing four years earlier, in Socialism and Religion, Lenin declared: “So far as the party of the socialist proletariat is concerned, religion is not a private affair.
“Our Party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs.”
On the question of wages, however, Connolly was in the right. Having heard the view expounded by an SLP agitator that trade union wage struggles were pointless as higher wages would always be cancelled out by an increase in prices, Connolly wrote that:
“The theory that a rise in prices always destroys the value of a rise in wages sounds very revolutionary, of course, but it is not true, and, furthermore, it is not part of our doctrine.
‘If it were, it knocks the feet from under the [SLP’s trade union front] Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance and renders that body little else than a mere ward-heeling club for the SLP.”
Undoubtedly Connolly had Marx’s Value, Price and Profit (published only in 1898) on his side in this dispute. There, Marx was explicit that “the value of labor itself is not a fixed but variable magnitude…the fixation of its actual degree is only settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labour.”
De Leon was only able to “prove” otherwise by tendentious misreading and misleading edits.
In fact, his view was closer to the “iron law of wages” propounded by the nineteenth century German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, who saw trade union action as a distraction from the ultimate goal of socialist revolution.
For Connolly, this dispute had a real practical importance, and a theoretical error in this area could lead to sectarian isolation from the working-class and its everyday class battles. His original letter, he said, “was an attempt to free [the STLA] from the incubus of a false doctrine, and enable it to take a real live part in the struggles of the workers.”
Connolly shared De Leon’s views that industrial unions would be crucial in building up workers’ strength under capitalism, and would provide the structures for a socialist society. However, he also recognised that short of this, the working class “perpetually rises in protest…organises to reduce the stealings of the Masters, and ever and anon throws down its tools, and enters on a bloodless insurrection against the conditions of its servitude…that the Class War is the one, great fact in the modern world.”
His IRSP comrade John Lyng recalled that even while sharing the SLP’s dismissive view of “pure and simple” non-revolutionary trade unionism, Connolly “was always ready and willing to lend a hand to any section of the working class. No matter what the intellectual level of the man — as long as he was striking a blow against capitalism Connolly stood with him. He was out to organise the working class, not a sect.”
As important as the theoretical controversy in angering Connolly was the way in which De Leon dealt with the issues. Unwilling to answer Connolly’s argument, De Leon denied him access to the paper, promising that the relevant documents would be circulated at the upcoming national convention. Even this was not forthcoming, for De Leon simply read out Connolly’s position with his own one-sided commentary and, through these methods, had no difficult in winning the day.
Nevertheless, Connolly continued to hold to his position while maintaining an uneasy truce with De Leon until 1907. The two men were still united in their views on industrial unionism, a semi-syndicalist approach to revolutionary socialism, and opposition to the class-collaborationism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
At this time, in 1904, Connolly was working in Troy for Metropolitan insurance. He lost this job when economic conditions worsened and workers could no longer afford the premiums. Moving to New York, he found a job working as the Troy representative for the Pacific Mutual Life insurance company. Shortly afterwards, a strike of young women in the AFL Starchers’ Union broke out in Troy. Connolly, unwilling to collect premiums from the striking workers, and spending much of his time instead raising strike benefit, soon lost this job too and was forced to move to Newark, New Jersey.
Soon afterwards, however, he would throw himself into an exciting and militant new movement in the American labour movement: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).