New early letters: creating James Connolly

This post continues the short series on James Connolly’s early life and influences with some previously unrecognised writings from the early 1890s.

Conventionally, Connolly biographies have him deserting the British Army in 1889, returning to Scotland and living first in Dundee before then returning to Edinburgh and marrying Lily Reynolds by around 1891. The reason why he was living in Dundee is not clear (no offence to Dundee). Despite the imprecise factual basis for the details of his life before 1893, we can at least date his arrival in Dundee through some private correspondence mentioning current events to Lily in April 1889. We also know, from their marriage records on 30 April 1890, that he was living at 22 West Port, Edinburgh. Typically Connolly’s brother John is said to have already been active in socialist politics when he (James) deserted and that James followed his elder brother’s path into political activism, taking over from him as secretary of the Socialist Democratic Federation in 1893 (this is the general outline often given by biographers).

At this point that narrative appears to be at odds with what can be identified in contemporary newspaper reports. The first clear sight of John Connolly in politics is in 1893 when he was dismissed from his post as a ‘scavenger’ by Edinburgh Council. This followed his involvement in industrial action over working hours. In the subsequent references to it in the press (over May-June 1893), Edinburgh Council report that he had been sacked previously by the head of the Council’s Cleaning Department for some unstated infraction and was re-employed without the head of Department’s knowledge. Seemingly his visibility during the strike brought his re-employment to the head’s attention and he was sacked again. His infraction could, of course, be his socialist activism but John Connolly does not appear to be named as involved in socialist activities in contemporary press reports. A John Connolly was arrested and charged with rioting in Greenock during a railway strike in 1890 but it is unclear if it is the same John Connolly.

The aftermath of that railway strike does give us our first glimpse of James Connolly the political activist, though. At a public meeting of the ward Labour committee in South Bridge in Edinburgh, in February 1891, James Connolly put a resolution to the floor and spoke against his local MP. This seems to be his the earliest public address and writing by him, albeit relatively brief.

This is from The Scotsman, 17 Feb 1891:

Public meeting under auspices of Ward Labour Committee in Labour Hall, South Bridge, Edinburgh to comsidr parliamentary representation. John McKenzie of the Edinburgh Trades Council, was in the chair and noted the poor attendance. James Connolly, carter, moved this resolution:

Resolved that the meeting record its most emphatic conviction that Mr William McEwan, the present member of Parliament for the Central Division of the City of Edinburgh, is no longer, if he ever was, a fit and proper person to represent the working classes of the Division in Parliament ; that it recognise in his letter to the Chairman of the Central Liberal Association a conspicuous absence of any comprehension whatever of what was really involved in the late struggle between the railway companies and their employees ; that the recent railway strike has been productive of at least one unmixed good – viz., the shattering of the superstition that in our present industrial society, based upon monopoly on the one hand, and wage servitude on the other, there is, or ever can be, any true identity of interest between capital and labour ; that recognising this fact, this meeting pledges itself to secure, if possible, the return to Parliament for the Central Division of Edinburgh of a labour candidate at next general election : and that for the candidate it be made an indispensable condition of his candidature that he fully and freely recognises the antagonism of interests between the monopolizers of the means of production and distribution and the wage workers, or, in other words, that he expresses his belief in the existence of the class war.

The report goes on to say that Connolly stated that the resolution expressed the conviction of every honest man in the locality on the matter. Mr John Smith, a mason, seconded the motion. John Leslie, a labourer, also supported the motion and drew attention to how McEwan was also an apologists, if not supporter, for the Plan of Campaign in Ireland which ‘in policy and practice, was illegal.’ The latter point was to highlight McEwan’s inconsistency in opposing industrial action in Scotland on the grounds it was illegal, while supporting ‘illegal’ land agitation in Ireland. This is perhaps a nod towards McEwan trying to build electoral support among Edinburgh’s Irish community. Did Connolly sense the Irish in Edinburgh were being played for their votes? When Connolly himself began to get involved in electoral politics in Edinburgh in 1893-1894 he identifies himself as Irish during hustings, no doubt trying to do the same and elicit support from the Irish community.

It is possible that Connolly’s primary motivation in moving the resolution was that the John Connolly arrested over the railway strike was indeed his brother. This could be the origin of the stories about his brother John getting him into politics. Certainly John Leslie, who also spoke on his resolution, was to be a long time collaborator of Connolly’s and was instrumental in getting him into politics. Leslie was Connolly’s predecessor as secretary of the Social Democratic Federation. Notably the SDF openly derided the Liberal’s (McEwan’s party’s) claim to speak for labour interests.

Leslie may be related to the George Leslie who was involved in the 1872 Lamplighters strike. Like John Connolly, he is hazily sketched out in various biographies and is hinted to have been a Ribbon man. It may be that the ‘John’ that biographers feature in some episodes in Connolly’s life in the mid-1890s is occasionally mixes John Leslie and John Connolly up or blends them together. Certainly he was an active socialist by at least 1889 when he first begins to feature in the press as secretary of the Social Democratic Federation. During protests and clashes with the authorities in Dundee over ‘free speech’ Leslie was asked to come from Edinburgh and being some ‘sinews’ to support the protests. Intriguingly this was at the end of March 1889, just as James Connolly arrived. Was Connolly one of Leslie’s ‘sinews’? Leslie’s action in Dundee appeared to be to calm matters down rather than have an outright confrontation with the authorities.

Connolly’s next identifiable writing appeared as a published letter on 8 August 1891 in the Dundee Weekly News. It was followed by further letters in October. The ideological position he gives aligns fairly neatly on that of the SDF.

The next appeared on 24 October 1891 (Dundee Weekly News).

Sir – the meaning of Socialism is not in the least obscure, and it is only the misrepresentations of our enemies which make it so. Common property is the means of production and distribution – i.e. the land and instrument of labour – is Socialism as accepted by all schools of Socialistic thought. The industries of the country to be held and managed by the workers, and production and distribution of all goods to be arranged to supply the wants of all, instead of, as at present, to make a profit for a few – all classes of labour to be equally rewarded. The labour of the architect requires greater skill, but it is also less protracted and disagreeable, and performed amid pleasanter surroundings than the labour of the hod-carrier, and without the labour of the hod-carrier the most sublime conceptions of the architect would remain mere valueless drawings on paper. A colliery manager is absolutely useless without the labour of the colliers, and the labour of the collier is of little use to dwellers in cities without the coal-heavers, who bring the coal to our doors. All are equally necessary; therefore all should be equally rewarded. – I am, etc, JAMES CONNOLLY

With a further letter on 31 October 1891 (Dundee Weekly News).

Sir – Labour is the source of all wealth. Capital itself is produced by labour, and is useless without labour, and capital in private hands is simply the stored up unpaid labour of the workers kept back by a capitalist fraud. Wages are only a part of the fruits of labour, the remainder is retained by the capitalist in the name of profits, and is utilised by him to create fresh capital and enable him to live in clover off the labour of others. The two cases I have quoted are instances of this general rule, which remain unaltered whether the dividend is 20 or 4 per cent. The fact that capitalists often fail does not alter the amount wrongfully taken from the workers. What one loses another gains. If capitalist A fails it is simply because B, C, D, E and F, his rivals in business, have taken his trade from him, and will therefore receive greater profits, because of the ruin of their rival. The matter is of as little interest to the workers, as a class, as the similar question of how thieves divide their plunder can be supposed to be to the unfortunate victims from whom it was stolen – I am, etc, JAMES CONNOLLY

Collectively, the letters show Connolly’s articulate grasp of socialism and confident voice. As far as we know, Connolly left school very young, but the fluent writer visible in his 1889-1890 letters to Lily Reynolds and these early letters suggests an education and reading well beyond ten years of age. Without his actual military records, we must assume some of that education was while serving in the British Army. His socialistic convictions also seem well developed by 1891, suggesting he was no mere arriviste, calling to mind his capacity to advise Kier Hardie on the Irish socialist scene in 1893. As with Peter McBride and John Connolly, John Leslie is a significant figure to help understand Connolly’s political formation. About which we still know so little!

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