From the start of the War, Connolly was virtually isolated. Internationally, he had no contact. Outside of Ireland, the Labour Movement seemed to be as silent as the grave. True, there were symptoms of a revival in Britain, with the Glasgow rent strike of 1915. But Connolly feared that the workers of Britain would move too late. The idea of an uprising had clearly been taking shape in Connolly's mind. The threat that Britain would introduce conscription into Ireland was the main issue that concentrated the mind, not only of Connolly, but also of the petit bourgeois nationalists of the Irish Volunteers. Connolly therefore pressed them to enter a militant alliance with Labour for an armed uprising against British imperialism. In the event, the leaders of the Volunteers withdrew at the last movement, leaving the Rising in the lurch.
Was Connolly right to move when he did? The question is a difficult one. The conditions were frankly unfavourable. Although there were strikes in Ireland right up to the outbreak of the Rising, the Irish working class had been exhausted and weakened by the exertions of the lockout. There were rumours that the British authorities were planning to arrest the leading Irish revolutionaries. Connolly finally decided to throw everything into the balance. He drew the conclusion that it was better to strike first. He aimed to strike a blow that would break the ice and show the way, even at the cost of his own life. To fight and lose was preferable than to accept and capitulate. When Connolly marched out of Liberty Hall for the last time that fateful morning, he whispered to a comrade: "We are going out to be slaughtered." When the latter asked him: "Is there no chance of success?" he replied: "None whatever."
Connolly was undoubtedly a giant. His actions were those of a genuine revolutionary, unlike the craven conduct of the Labour leaders who backed the imperialist slaughter - with the enthusiastic support of the Irish bourgeois nationalists. Yet he also made some mistakes. There is no point in denying it, although some people wish to make Connolly into a saint - while simultaneously ditching or distorting his ideas. There were serious weaknesses in the Rising itself. No attempt was made to call a general strike. On Monday 24, 1916, the Dublin trams were still running, and most people went about their business. No appeal was made to the British soldiers.
Only 1,500 members of the Dublin Volunteers and ICA answered the call to rise. The nationalists had already split between the Redmondites - the Parliamentary Irish Group - who backed the War, and the left wing. However, on the eve of the Rising, the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin MacNeil publicly instructed all members to refuse to come out. As so many times before and since, the nationalist bourgeoisie betrayed the cause of Ireland.
The behaviour of the nationalist leaders came as no surprise to Connolly, who always approached the national liberation struggle from a class point of view. He never had any trust in the bourgeois and petit bourgeois Republicans, and tirelessly worked to build an independent movement of the working class as the only guarantee for the re conquest of Ireland. Since his death there have been many attempts to erase his real identity as a revolutionary socialist and present him as just one more nationalist. This is utterly false. One week before the Rising he warned the Citizens Army: "The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well."
From a military point of view the Rising was doomed in advance - although if the Volunteers had not stabbed it in the back, the Uprising could have had far greater success. As it was, the British used artillery to batter the GPO (the rebel centre) into submission. By Thursday night, after four days of heroic resistance against the most frightful odds, the rebels were compelled to sign an unconditional surrender.
Although the Rising itself ended in failure, it left behind a tradition of struggle that had far-reaching consequences. It was this that probably Connolly had in mind. In particular the savagery of the British army, which shot all the leaders of the Rising in cold blood after a farcical drumhead trial, caused a wave of revulsion throughout all Ireland. James Connolly, who was badly wounded and unable to stand, was shot strapped to a chair. But the British had miscalculated. The gunshots that ended the life of this great martyr of the working class aroused a new generation of fighters eager to revenge Ireland's wrongs.
The Easter Rising was like a tocsin bell, the echoes of which rang throughout Europe. After two years of imperialist slaughter, at last the ice was broken! A courageous word had been spoken, and could be heard above the din of the bombs and cannon-fire. Lenin received the news of the uprising enthusiastically. This was understandable, given his position. The War posed tremendous difficulties for the Marxist internationalists. Lenin was isolated with a small group of supporters. On all sides there was capitulation and betrayal. The class struggle was temporarily in abeyance. The Labour leaders were participating in coalition governments with the social-patriots. The events in Dublin completely cut across this. That is why Lenin was so enthusiastic about the uprising. But he also pointed out:
"The misfortune of the Irish is that they have risen prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can of themselves merge at one effort without reverses and defeats."
Had the Rising occurred a couple of years later, it would not have been isolated. It would have had powerful reserves in the shape of the mass revolutionary movement that swept through Europe after the October Revolution in 1917. But Connolly was not to know this.
Importance of leadership
Some sorry ex-Marxists criticised the Easter Rising from a right wing standpoint, such as Plekhanov. In an article in Nashe Slovo dated 4 July 1916, Trotsky denounced Plekhanov's remarks about the Rising as "wretched and shameful" and added: "the experience of the Irish national uprising is over....the historical role of the Irish proletariat is just beginning."
Unfortunately, this prediction was falsified by history. The tragedy of the Irish working class was that, unlike Lenin, Connolly did not create a revolutionary Marxist party, armed with theory, that would have carried on his work after his death. This was his biggest mistake, and one which had the most tragic consequences. In the same way that the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht later beheaded the German revolution, so the killing of Connolly removed any chance of the Irish working class leading the revolutionary movement against British imperialism. This was a heavy price to pay!