Review: A Rebel’s Guide to James Connolly by Seán Mitchell.

Socialist Worker 388

Seán Mitchell’s A Rebel’s Guide to James Connolly is a timely and welcome addition to what has been a popular and useful series exploring the lives and ideas of key Marxist figures throughout history. It will undoubtedly leave the reader with a thirst to know more about Ireland’s most famous Marxist, and is an excellent point of introduction for anybody interested in the life and ideas of James Connolly. It should be a welcome addition to every socialist’s bookshelf.

This centenary year has witnessed a renewed interest in the lives of the protagonists of the 1916 Rising. Very often however, the lives and ideas of the women and men of the Rising are obscured by nationalistic tropes, or forced to fit predetermined ideas about the worthy martyred dead. James Connolly has certainly been the victim of such political mystification.

Mitchell, in his introduction, asserts that the reason Connolly has been claimed by every shade of political opinion is precisely because his ideas are rarely discussed. In this volume he aims to ‘rediscover these ideas’ as well as Connolly’s ‘unique contributions to the international socialist movement,’ and he certainly achieves this goal.


The writing style is lucid and well paced.  Chapters deal with the main events of Connolly’s life and explore how these various events influenced and drove the Scottish born Marxist’s political thought and practice. Mitchell succinctly outlines how Connolly’s political theory was rooted in practice, and that he was neither an aloof intellectual, nor a rebel without political direction.

All too often, authors of biographical texts become overawed by the image of their subject and, as a result, attempt to justify each and every one of their actions and opinions as though their fallibility might invalidate their every word or achievement. Mitchell does not fall into this trap and must be commended on this point. His approach is refreshing in its frankness. He has not attempted to write a hagiography and does not shy away from critiquing certain of Connolly’s views or political positions. This is most notable in his discussion of syndicalism (pp. 20-22) and on Connolly’s portrayal of the United Irishmen and Fintan Lawlor along with his belief in the inevitable progression from republicanism to socialism (pp. 28-30).


Perhaps the most important aspect of Mitchell’s account is that he places Connolly within an international context. In his examination of Connolly’s time in the USA, and his connection with socialists in Britain and further afield, Mitchell correctly demonstrates that Connolly was neither insular nor parochial. Rather, he understood the cause of socialism as being an international one. This aspect of A Rebel’s Guide to James Connolly is most welcome this year when so much focus on one brief period of Connolly’s life and his death has the potential to distract from his wider internationalist revolutionary message.

Seán Mitchell’s book will no doubt re-ignite a renewed interest in James Connolly both here in Ireland and abroad. I highly recommend it.

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