The twentieth century was marked by growing dissatisfaction with capitalism, with its uneven allocation of resources between the ruling elite and the working class. To defeat the unfair capitalistic system, community leaders in various countries began to search for a better social order, which led to the development of labor internationalism. Labor internationalism can be described as “a politics from below,” which implies that the working class should be directly involved in politics rather than merely accept the political decisions made by the ruling elite (Lambert & Webster, 2006, p. 279). One community leader supporting the idea of labor internationalism was James Connolly, whose purpose in life was the liberation of the Irish people from the capitalist oppression and the rule of the British Empire. This paper aims to analyze how one of Connolly’s writings, “In Praise of the Empire,” helps to shed light on the values of labor internationalism.
The Empire as the Primary Capitalist
Although Connelly was a strong advocate of the liberation of the Irish people, he was not born in Ireland. His birthplace was Edinburgh, Scotland, from where he and his family, along with many other refugees, were forced by poverty to migrate to Ireland. Connelly had a deep understanding of the struggles of the working class because, coming from a poor family, he had to see and experience famine, unemployment, disease, and impoverished and overcrowded living conditions. As a result, he devoted his life to the fight against oppression, exploitation, and imperialism. One of his aims was the defeat of the British Empire and the establishment of the Irish republic because he believed that empires and colonialism originated from capitalism competition and class society (Harkin, 2018). The destruction of the empire was an essential step on the way toward social justice and the liberation of the working class.
The idea of the viciousness of the British Empire is prominent in Connolly’s “In Praise of the Empire.” At the beginning of the text, Connolly (1915) wrote that, in his admiration for the British Empire, he was not “exercising the slave’s last privilege – that of sneering at his masters” (para. 1). This quote, as well as Connolly’s further discussion of how the British Empire took advantage of the resources of its dominions, demonstrates that Connolly equated British subjects with slaves. The British Empire is depicted as the main capitalist and oppressor that served as an example to capitalists of a lesser scale. Like a capitalist employer, the British Empire used the resources of its dominions for its benefit, preventing “their development as self-supporting entities” and forcing them to “remain dependent customers of English produce” (Connolly, 1915, para. 4). Thus, the relationships between the British Empire and its dominions, described in Connolly’s “In Praise of the Empire,” serve as a prototype of the relationship between capitalists and the working class. This was the relationship that labor internationalists aimed to destroy for the sake of the freedom of the working class.
Capitalism and the War
Connolly’s “In Praise of the Empire” sheds light on labor internationalists’ view of war. According to Harkin (2018), labor internationalists believed that capitalism was the economic system that benefited from war and thus was to be blamed for generating war. For example, Connolly wrote that “Every war is now a capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must make or perish” (as cited in Harkin, 2018, p. 64). Thus, capitalist countries engaged in a war to gain more resources and make more profit, but all the gains were made at the expense of the working class. In “In Praise of the Empire,” Connolly (1915) described the outcomes of the British conquests: “In the name of a superior civilization it has crushed the development of native genius, and in the name of superior capitalist development it has destroyed the native industries of a sixth of the human race” (para. 6). Hence, labor internationalists opposed the war because it benefited capitalists but devastated the lives of ordinary people.
The text under review also mentioned another aspect of labor internationalism related to the disapproval of the war. This aspect is what Connolly called “economic conscription,” that is, the policy of forcing men to join the army by creating unfavorable economic conditions for them (Harkin, 2018, p. 16). In “In Praise of the Empire,” Connolly (1915) mentioned soldiers that were “reeling discomfited and beaten before the trenches of Turk and German” (para. 8). Soldiers were people of the working class who had to fight battles of capitalists against their will. This was because jobs were controlled by the rich, so if the rich needed people to fight in a war, they fired men eligible to serve in the army, thus making them choose between joining the military and starving (Harkin, 2018). This practice was against labor internationalists’ belief in social justice, and it was another reason why Connolly and his companions wanted to get rid of capitalism and imperialism.
The Crucial Role of the Working Class
In labor internationalism, the working class was considered the only social class capable of replacing the capitalist system with socialism. The working class was the most numerous of all social classes, but it obtained the least share of the wealth generated by capitalism, and it was considered unfair (Harkin, 2018). However, the main reason why the working class was regarded as the only class capable of the revolution was its incorruptibility (Harkin, 2018). All classes that possessed property, including the ruling elite ad the middle class, were interested in preserving the capitalist system to keep their wealth. Connolly (1915) reflected this idea in “In Praise of the Empire” by stating that the property-owning classes “bend their energies towards drugging, stupefying and poisoning the minds of the workers – sowing distrust and fear amongst them” (para. 13). The oppression of the working class was necessary for the ruling elite to prevent workers from revolting and fighting for their rights. Therefore, involving the property-owning classes in the struggle for freedom of the working class was impossible since it would endanger the success of the revolution.
Since it was the responsibility of the working class to overthrow the capitalistic order, Connolly emphasized the importance for workers to be aware of their role in the fight for their rights. Connolly (1915) believed that “it is the worker who is convinced of the power of the capitalist, who believes that ‘the big fellows are sure to win,’ it is he who keeps labour in subjection, defeats strikes and destroys Trade Unions” (para. 11). Hence, without the change in the workers’ mindset and their realization of their power, the revolution that would put an end to capitalism was not possible. Consequently, labor internationalists recognized the need to organize the working class and free it from an illusion that workers were powerless while the ruling elite was invincible.
The Importance of Internationalisation
In “In Praise of the Empire,” one can notice a reference to another important aspect of labor internationalism, namely, the internationalization of the labor movement. Labor internationalists aspired to create a world without boundaries, in which workers from every country would be united (Bellucci & Weiss, 2020). Connolly, for example, was convinced that “the first duty of the working class of the world is to settle accounts with the master class of the world—that of their own country at the head of the list” (Harkin, 2018, p. 55). Taking Ireland and England as an example, he claimed that the working classes in these countries were set against each other even though they had a common problem, i.e., the oppression by the ruling elite (Harkin, 2018). This hostility among different countries prevented workers from seeing the problem of oppression and, consequently, taking action to deal with it. The text “In Praise of the Empire” shows how Britain used international support to achieve its capitalistic goals: “The British Empire never fought a white European foe single-handed, never dared yet to confront an equal unaided” (Connolly, 1915, para. 9). If capitalists turn to international allies to exert their pressure on their subjects, then the working class all over the world should also unite in the struggle for their rights.
Connolly was a significant public figure in the history of labor internationalism. His writing “In Praise of the Empire” sheds light on such aspects of labor internationalism as the fight against capitalism and the importance of the working class and internationalization in overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism. Labor internationalists believed that only the working class was able to change the social order and that, to make this change successful, it should involve workers from all over the world.
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Connolly, J. (1915). In praise of the empire. Workers’ Republic.
Harkin, S. (Ed.). (2018). The James Connolly reader. Haymarket Books.
Lambert, R., & Webster, E. (2006). Social emancipation and the new labor internationalism: A Southern perspective. In B. S. Santos (Ed.), Another production is possible: Beyond the capitalist canon (pp. 279-320). Verso.