The New Worker

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

The Irish socialist who gave the world the Red Flag

New Worker Book Review - 7/6/2002

by Theo Russell

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

Jim Connell, born 1852, died 1929.

The Red Flag has gained a place in the history of the international proletariat second only to the Internationale. A new pamphlet by Andrew Boyd of the socialist history society details the life of the fiery Irish socialist beind the song, Jim Connell.

Connell penned the Red Flag in 1889 on a short suburban train journey to New Cross in southeast London, and it was first published in the journal Justice. Within a week it was being sung in Liverpool and Glasgow.

Many years later, Connell wrote that the song was inspired by the upsurge in trade unionism at the end of the 1880s, the Land League in Ireland, the struggle against tsarism in Russia, and the hanging of the Chicago anarchists in 1887 - the struggles of the international proletariat of his time. It reflected a time of great strides in working class political life, after a quarter century of economic depression when reaction had reigned supreme on the international scene.

Connell was born in 1852 in Kilskyre, County Meath, Ireland. In 1867, a time of political turbulence and land rebellion in Ireland, his family moved to Dublin. Here he first encountered socialist activists, in particular John Landyre - a member of the International Workingmen’s League, the First International. He also joined the nationalist Fenian movement, and claimed to have been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In the footsteps of millions of Irish men and women, Connell then made his way to England and London in search of reliable work. Here he developed his knowledge of politics, economics and science, particularly Darwin’s theories. In a pamphlet entitled Socialism and the Survival of the Fittest, Connell challenged the idea of capitalism being a ‘natural’ system. He contrasted many species in nature, such as bees, who were ‘natural communists’, with capitalism, which protects the unfit and parasitical in the shape of those non-producers, the capitalists themselves.

Connell was to spend the rest of his life in England as a socialist activist, writer and journalist. For 10 years he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation led by Henry Hyndman, an arch-opportunist with the rare distiction of being condemned and despised by Marx, Engels and, later on, Lenin.

The SDF did however support the cause of Irish land reform andself-determination; both Connell and Hyndman were on the executive of the National Land League of Great Britain, which aimed to promote the need for land reform in Ireland amongst the workers in England.

In the late 1890s Connell left the SDF and joined Independent Labour Party, then led by Kier Hardy and the leaders of the ‘new unionism’. The ILP, a reformist party dominated by Fabians, was described by Lenin as "an opportunist party that has always been dependent on the bourgeoisie," but it had some progressive aims, including parliamentary representation for the trade union movement and nationalisation of key industries.

With the outbreak of imperialist war in 1914 the labour and socialist movement in Britain and across Europe was split asunder, the majority of social democratic leaders, including Hyndman, betraying the working class and adopting a jingoist pro-war stance.

Andrew Boyd recounts that Connell was a life-long pacifist, as was Kier Hardie, who argued in public meetings and in parliament for Britain to remain nuetral in the war. But apart from saying that Connell "had always been a pacifist," Boyd has nothing to add about Connell’s position on the war.

, the pamhlet says nothing of Connell’s reactions to the momentous events taking place in Ireland, his home country - the 1916 Easter Rising, the Tan War, and partition in 1921.

According to his daughter Norah Walshe, Connell believed that Soviet Russia was on the right road to socialism and heard "glowing accounts" of Soviet society from his old comrade and friend, the trade union leader Tom Mann, who visited the young Soviet state.

The Red Flag remained the anthem of the Labour Party’s conferences for many decades, but in 1925 the despicable turncoat Ramsay MacDonald attempted to have it dropped. A competition to find an alternative was set up by the Daily Herald, but unfortunately for MacDonald, of the 300 submissions the highly respected judges were unanimous that none "would even run a sporting chance of replacing the Red Flag."

Incredibly, the Red Flag was last sung at a Labour conference as recently as 1999, when MacDonald’s worthy heir Tony Blair and his New Labour colleagues decided it just had to go.

Jim Connell was by all accounts something of a maverick. According to the communist author Wal Hannington, a close friend in Connell’s later life, he was "very much an individualist who would have found it difficult to accept any sort of party discipline," while Norah Walshe said that at times he could be "wild, uncontrollable and impulsive."

Notwithstanding, he was a man who remained true throughout his life to the ideals of socialism, using his many skills to further the cause, and in the process giving us the Red Flag. He died in February 1929 in Lewisham, south London.

Jim Connell was awarded the Red Star Medal by V I Lenin in 1922. His memory is preserved by a plaque at 22a Stondon Park, Lewisham, South London, and a bronze bust in Crosskiel, County Meath, Ireland.

Andrew Boyd’s pamphlet leaves some questions unanswered, but it does provide an excellent image of Jim Connell and his life. As he points out, his greatest monument is of course the Red Flag itself.

Jim Connell, Author of the Red Flag, Andrew Boyd, 2001. Cost £3.50 post free from: Socialist History Society, 50 Elmfield Road, London SW17 8AL; in Ireland (north and south) from: Donaldson Archives, 532 Antrim Road, Belfast BT15 5GH.