James Connolly and the politics of free unions

James Connolly & marriage
A socialist looks at marriage: James Connolly and the politics of free unions
Theresa Moriarty
On 9 April 1904, the Weekly People, journal of the Socialist Labour Party of America, led the
front page with 'a discussion initiated by James Connolly’, entitled 'Wages, Marriage and the
It was a calculated challenge by Connolly, who had only settled in New York some months
earlier. He was taking on Daniel De Leon, one of the foremost Marxists in America, and Bebel
one of the leading figures of German Social Democracy.
Connolly described publications such Bebel’s Women Under Socialism, as 'an excrescence on the
movement' and wrote of ‘its quasi-prurient revelations of the past and present degradation of
Years later in Ireland, James Connolly was regarded as the ‘most thorough going feminist among
all the labour men’ by Ireland's women’s suffrage paper.2 He championed working women
repeatedly in his writings and admired the militants of the women's suffrage movement, ‘heart
and soul’.3 He brought these sentiments together in a chapter on 'Women' in his final polemic in
1915, the Reconquest of Ireland. He insisted that the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic
included Irish women as equal citizens.4
This paper traces how James Connolly’s dismissal of the best read socialist text on women was
not simply a current objection to De Leon’s new translation of Woman, nor the publication of
‘judicious extracts from its pages’. His objection goes much deeper, as his language makes clear,
and to the essence of his socialism - and his feminism.
James Connolly was a short, stocky man who bore the physical legacy of a childhood reared in
the extreme poverty of the dark thoroughfare of the Cowgate that clings deep below the rock of
Edinburgh, where he was born in 1868, the son of Irish immigrants, and raised as a Roman
Catholic. He held a series of unskilled jobs from the age of ten, including seven years in the
British Army. He joined the Edinburgh Socialist League in 1890. He became secretary of the
Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF) in 1892, which became a branch of the Social Democratic
Federation in 1895.
By then Connolly was a popular public speaker, he reported Edinburgh's socialist activities for
Justice, the national weekly newspaper of the SDF, and wrote a column on local politics in
Edinburgh's socialist monthly, the Labour Chronicle. He stood twice as a socialist in local
elections before 1896.
The Edinburgh comrades held summer outdoor meetings in the East Meadows, on Sunday
evenings. In winter they drew indoors, into large public halls to listen to invited speakers, along
with weekly business and education programmes.
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James Connolly & marriage
A short-lived Edinburgh Working Women's Federation met in 1895 on Thursday nights for
‘reading and discussions’ in the SSF clubrooms, and hosted a public meeting about women's
trade unions.
The travelling socialist lecturers were frequently women, matching the rising interest among
socialists about working women’s organisation. Connolly would have met Enid Stacy, Caroline
Martyn, Katherine Conway and Eleanor Marx who all addressed large meetings in Edinburgh in
these years.
The socialist press carried more discussion on the Women’s Question, as it was addressed then.
These ranged from industrial matters, to reviews of a growing body of socialist literature. There
was little unanimity among socialists as they explored the contesting claims of women and
socialists, and their relationship to each other. There was a desire to envisage the future in works
like Ralph Bellamy’s Looking Backward, or William Morris’ News from Nowhere. Others tried
to bring socialism into daily life, especially in their rejection of ‘bourgeois marriage’.
James Connolly took a strong public stand in 1896 when Edinburgh took up the themes of
socialism, marriage and family. The ILP journal reported that the Rev Mr. Jackson continued as
before to give an undue place to the speculations of some Socialist writers as to what the
marriage relation might be under Socialism’. Comrade Connolly criticised Jackson’s approach to
Socialism, at the close of the meeting to ‘loud applause’. 5
When Edith Lanchester spoke on ‘Socialism and the Family’ to an Edinburgh SDF meeting on
there was a similarly withering report. It was ‘the largest audience that season’. She arrived with
some notoriety, after a court case the previous October that freed her from a private asylum for
the insane, where her father and brother had put her, under the authority of an insanity certificate
that gave the cause of this university graduate’s malady as ‘over education’. Her middle class
family objected to her living openly with James Sullivan, a factory worker and secretary of a
London branch of the SDF. Her daughter’s autobiography explained, ‘As they did not believe in
marriage and as a declaration of freedom, they let it be known in no uncertain terms that they
were going to live together’.6
‘Comrade’ Connolly, who chaired her Edinburgh meeting, ‘explained that Socialism had no
connection with speculations on family life and was no wise responsible for the opinions of
individual socialists on that subject’, before she spoke. Her lecture was not ‘deep or interesting or
It consisted mainly of frequent repetitions of the obvious enough fact that our competitive
system had made family life difficult, and in some cases impossible, and of the opinion
that family life would in the future, and irrespective of blood relations, group itself round
the essential element of affection, and not be compulsory when that was a wanting. Miss
Lanchester, in spite of the chairman’s opening remarks used the phrase “We Socialists”
far too much; she ought really, to speak for herself only. There were but few questions
and no discussion at the close.7
Caroline Martyn’s report of Edith Lanchester’s talk in Glasgow the following night is very
different in tone. She recorded Lanchester’s argument about ‘the unfairness and inequality of the
existing law, and especially emphasised the unnatural character of legislation which permits the
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James Connolly & marriage
father to take charge of a child in preference to the mother’. Martyn described Lanchester as,
‘Determined, but quite modest and unassuming’, and emphasised her principles and consistency.
Perhaps Martyn wrote in the knowledge of Lanchester’s Edinburgh reception.
If Connolly did not write the Edinburgh reports they certainly reflected his sentiments. They
demonstrate that Connolly did not shrink from a forceful statement of his views in socialist
debate, and how long standing his views were already before he engaged with Bebel in 1904,
when Daniel De Leon’s translation of Women Under Socialism was published.
In Connolly’s first thrust against De Leon on wages he cites Marx as his authority. But he
eschews any such reference the second section of his argument. The ‘very large number of
members’ [of the SLP] who disagree with Connolly’s belief in monogamic marriage are simply
wrong. His own belief in it is rooted in an optimism that civilisation was moving forward to
'perfection and completion', not to its destruction.
He scrupulously mentions the printing of extracts from Women in the People as the cause of his
complaint, finding fault with De Leon, its editor. But he makes it clear that he disapproves of its
Connolly argues the abolition of capitalism could only solve the economic side of the Women
Question, and those questions of marriage, divorce, paternity, and equality of women were
physical and sexual issues, and would still be hotly contested in a Socialist Republic. Only the
economic 'element of disagreement' would be removed by socialism. Men and women would still
be unfaithful to their vows, and the intellectual equality of the sexes would still be in dispute.
He feared it would be a weapon in the enemy’s hands, without any corresponding advantage to
the socialist movement. In a slighting admission that it did contain valuable propaganda, this was
‘absolutely nullified by its identification with a debateable physiological question on which the
party as a whole has never be consulted, and could not be.
He opposed the suggestion in De Leon’s preface that Bebel’s book could attract women to the
socialist movement. Connolly thought its popularity due to its 'quasi-prurient revelations’, which
he would correct later in a further letter which the editor would not publish, ‘Let me make it
stronger and say indecency’.
I question if you can find one woman who was led to socialism by it, but you can find
hundreds who were repelled from studying Socialism by judicious extracts from its pages.
Connolly would shortly meet one such woman. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, his good friend and
comrade from the Bronx remembered two books,
which helped to catapult me into socialist activities. One was the Vindication of the Rights
of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft; the other was Women and Socialism by August Bebel.
There are testimonies in many languages by women so inspired through reading Bebel.
James Connolly believed socialism was a strictly economic argument. He explained in reply to
his critics,
But if I am asked how are we to know a non-essential principle, I reply that any principle
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James Connolly & marriage
which we would not feel it to be our duty as a Socialist to establish by force of arms if
necessary is non–essential. Such principles are those theories of Marriage and Religion.
James Connolly confronted such an ‘essential principle’ in the bid for an Irish Republic in GPO
in Dublin, 1916.
Weekly People, 9 April 1904. All quotes from Connolly’s article come from William O’Brien Papers, Ms 13929.
Irish Citizen, November 1911.
James Connolly, Belfast, to John Carstairs Matheson, Scotland, 6 June 1913.
RM Fox, Rebel Irishwomen, Dublin, 1967 edition, p. 73.
Labour Leader, 18 January 1896
Elsa Lanchester, Elsa Lanchester Herself, New York, 1983, p. 2. Elsa became a well known actor, married to
Charles Laughton.
Labour Leader, 15 February 1896.
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