SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 103 - September 2006

The Connolly & religion debate

FOLLOWING Peter Hadden’s article, The real ideas of James Connolly, (Socialism Today No.100, April-May 2006), Scott Herbert commented on Connolly’s approach to religion (Letters, Socialism Today No.101, June 2006).

Connolly’s legacy is not just of historical interest. The struggle to unite Catholic and Protestant workers against sectarianism and the bosses remains a central task for socialists in Northern Ireland. All his political life, James Connolly courageously sought to unite Catholic and Protestant workers, and workers of no religion, to resist the bosses, the bigots and imperialism, and to fight for socialism.

Ireland in the late 19th century and early 20th century was a deeply religious country. The majority of the population were oppressed Catholics, living in rural and urban poverty. The Catholic Church hierarchy, however, was tied to the Establishment. In the late 19th century, its power and confidence grew, reflecting the interests and outlook of a rising, conservative Catholic middle class. This led to pulpit attacks on militant republicanism and also against trade unionism and socialism.

In this situation, Connolly and his supporters tried to build mass class organisations and socialist parties. They were often targeted by clerics and reactionary Catholic organisations, like the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which physically attacked public meetings of Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). Socialists were often denounced from the pulpit when they stood in elections.

The early socialist movement also had to overcome religious sectarianism, mainly in the more industrialised north. Sectarian divisions between Protestants and Catholics were fostered by the bosses, to ‘divide and rule’ workers.

Connolly struggled to unite workers in action, leading strikes and building unions and socialist organisations. He also replied to Church ideological assaults on socialism. In response to Father Kane’s clerical attacks on the foundations of socialism, Connolly wrote Labour, Nationality and Religion (1910). Connolly brilliantly showed the hypocrisies of the Church leaders, who always took the side of the oppressors against the oppressed in the national liberation struggle in Ireland. He also highlighted the Church hierarchy’s defence of private property and capitalism, in contradiction to early Christian teachings.

However, while Connolly defended Marxist historical materialism in Labour, Nationality and Religion and in other writings as a theory that explained history and capitalism, he stopped short of giving a thorough-going scientific view of religion. This would have meant showing the materialist basis of all religious belief. "Man makes religion, religion does not make man", wrote Karl Marx. The founder of scientific socialism explained that the roots of religion can be found in the historic limits of humankind’s understanding of the natural world and by centuries of social oppression. "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world… It is the opium of the people".

When dealing with religion, Connolly tended to compartmentalise Marxism as a tool for analysing economics and politics. While Connolly held to the application of historical materialism to explain successive forms that religion took, he did not apply it to explain the nature of religion.

As to whether Connolly was personally religious, a "devout Catholic" as Scott Herbert wrote, there is conflicting opinions from Connolly’s contemporaries, from historians, and also contradictory evidence from Connolly’s actions. In the only written record made by Connolly about his personal position in relation to Catholicism, he stated: "though I have usually posed as a Catholic, I have not done my duty for 15 years, and have not the slightest tincture of faith left…" (Letter from James Connolly to John Carstairs Matheson, 30 January, 1908).

In the end, it remains impossible to know for sure Connolly’s personal opinions on religious belief, given his inconsistency on the matter, up until his execution in 1916.

Connolly’s personal beliefs, however, are a secondary issue. Much more important was his approach to the question of the socialist party and religion.

Conservative Irish nationalists have long sought to claim the Marxist revolutionary as one of their own. Some described him as a ‘Christian Socialist’. But Connolly specifically criticised Christian Socialism, asking why the socialist movement should allow Church clergy, "the right to interfere in our politics by giving a religious name to an economic and political movement?"

Connolly aimed to build mass socialist parties and he understood that Marxists must do everything possible to involve all workers in the struggle against capitalism, including those who are religious. He correctly concentrated on defending socialism against Church attacks and on exposing the reactionary role the Church hierarchy plays. But along with his one-sided analysis of religion, Connolly also thought the Catholic Church tops were not necessarily hostile to socialist revolution. This led him to believe socialist parties should not discuss religion.

Connolly believed his Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) conformed to the practice of socialist parties internationally, following the German socialists’ Erfurt Programme (1891), when he declared his party should not be concerned with questions of religious belief. Connolly went further and "prohibited discussion of theological or anti-theological questions at its meetings, public or private". (Workers’ Republic, 17 June 1899)

Under the Erfurt Programme slogan, ‘Religion is a private matter’, the German social democrats correctly opposed persecution of Catholics. But from this correct position a distortion of Marxism emerged; that religion is a ‘private matter’ for the party, as a whole. In the 1890s, Frederick Engels opposed this view. He insisted that social democrats regard religion as a private matter in relation to the individual and the state, but the revolutionary party had to defend Marxism against ideological attacks, including those from the Church Establishment. Of course, the revolutionary party must be very sensitive to those who hold religious views, especially in countries where religion has mass influence, and people with religious views can join and participate fully in the party.

In contrast, the ISRP’s position on religion meant the party was ultra-cautious and defensive towards the Catholic Church. Attempts to ban religion from discussion proved impossible. At the same time, the ISRP’s prohibitive policy hindered the development of a core of Marxist cadres.

The Catholic Church, as an institution, would inevitably side with reaction, as was shown in Ireland in the years of revolution and counter-revolution after Connolly’s death. Workers needed a socialist programme to break them from the political hold of the Church leaders.

In making these criticisms of Connolly’s approach to religion, it is necessary to take a balanced view, including his strengths and weaknesses in developing a position in difficult circumstances and in relative isolation from other international Marxist revolutionaries.

In his article (The real ideas of James Connolly), Peter Hadden discusses Connolly’s call for class unity, and his fight to achieve it, despite Connolly insufficiently developing a fully rounded socialist programme to counter genuine Protestant fears of capitalist Home Rule.

Despite these shortcomings, as Peter Hadden points out, Connolly left a tradition of courageous struggle to unite Catholic and Protestant workers against Unionist and Nationalist bosses. Compare this to the sectarian-based, pro-market economy politics of Sinn Fein today, which still claims the mantle of Connolly. No doubt many rank-and-file Sinn Fein supporters, particularly those in the trade unions, genuinely aim to follow in the footsteps of Connolly, to struggle for workers’ unity and socialism. But the Sinn Fein leaders base their support on a nationalist appeal to Catholics, whatever their ‘anti-sectarian’ rhetoric, and, therefore, help to reinforce and deepen sectarian divisions amongst workers. Connolly completely opposed this type of nationalist politics, just as much as he opposed bigoted Unionism. While standing against religious discrimination and injustice, Connolly always appealed to workers on the basis of their class interests and in the fight for socialism.

The real traditions of Connolly can be seen, for example, in Belfast, July 2006, when hundreds of striking postal workers marched up the ‘Protestant’ Shankill Road and down the ‘Catholic’ Falls Road. The Socialist Party (sister party of the Socialist Party, England and Wales) was the only political party with a banner on the march and won applause for its slogan ‘For Worker's Unity’.

This also provides lessons for socialists in Britain, and across Europe, who must oppose discrimination and injustice against Muslims and other minorities, while also appealing to all workers for unity against the bosses’ and their system. This remains one of the main legacies of James Connolly, which socialists in Ireland, and everywhere, should emulate.

Niall Mulholland



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