What the late, great James Connolly got right about socialism and oligarchies

I've written here before to mention that I perform lengthy sets of Irish folk music around St. Patrick's Day*, and there are quite a few of those popular pub songs that include (well-deserved, IMHO) shout-outs to James Connolly, a stalwart champion of workers' rights who was executed by British soldiers after the 1916 Easter Rising. As I get older, I haven't found myself getting more conservative, like the Boomers told me I would; instead, I find myself realizing more and more that James Connolly was right about a damn lot of things.

One of my favorite writings of his — which I find I reference in casual conversation more than I should probably admit — is this piece on the differences between "state monopolies" and "socialism." Originally published in the June 10, 1899 issue of Workers' Republic, this short essay impressively articulates the differences between centralized government control of a society, and what it means to actually put that ownership into collective public hands.

Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism – it is only State capitalism. The demands of the middle-class reformers, from the Railway Reform League down, are simply plans to facilitate the business transactions of the capitalist class. State Telephones – to cheapen messages in the interest of the middle class who are the principal users of the telephone system; State Railways – to cheapen carriage of goods in the interest of the middle-class trader; State-construction of piers, docks, etc. – in the interest of the middle-class merchant; in fact every scheme now advanced in which the help of the State is invoked is a scheme to lighten the burden of the capitalist – trader, manufacturer, or farmer. Were they all in working order to-morrow the change would not necessarily benefit the working class; we would still have in our state industries, as in the Post Office to-day, the same unfair classification of salaries, and the same despotic rule of an irresponsible head. Those who worked most and hardest would still get the least remuneration, and the rank and file would still be deprived of all voice in the ordering of their industry, just the same as in all private enterprises.

Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism – if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials – but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.

Even if you don't agree with Connolly on his preferred vision of the world, I think this is still an important distinction to draw. All too often, modern criticisms of "socialism" are, in fact, criticisms of what Connolly deemed to be "State Capitalism" — a crony, oligarchical class that uses the system to entrench their own profit models, effectively destroying the free market in the name of "capitalism." It was this very approach that enabled Soviet authoritarianism; it's the exact same model that most centrist Americans idealize when they dream of a mixed public-private system.

And that's the added irony when people today express their fear of socialism: they're actually complaining about the very same bureaucratic hellscape that already exists. Whether a socialist-esque system would solve that problem — whether such ideals of public ownership would even be achievable without falling into these very same bureaucratic traps — is certainly up for debate. But we'll never make any progress either way if we can't agree on the meaning of the terms to which our words refer.

Two other thought-provoking takeaways from this Connolly essay:

Schemes of state and municipal ownership, if unaccompanied by this co-operative principle, are but schemes for the perfectioning of the mechanism of capitalist government-schemes to make the capitalist regime respectable and efficient for the purposes of the capitalist; in the second place they represent the class-conscious instinct of the business man who feels that capitalist should not prey upon capitalist, while all may unite to prey upon the workers.


To the cry of the middle class reformers, "make this or that the property of the government," we reply, "yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property."

Bold, brave, and undaunted, James Connolly was there.

State Monopoly vs Socialism [James Connolly / Workers Republic]

Image: Keith Ruffles / Wikimedia Commons (CC 3.0)

*March 14 at Liquid State Brewery in Ithaca, New York, followed by March 17 at Turtle Swamp Brewery in Boston, Massachusetts — provided that coronavirus doesn't ruin all my fun.