Welcome to another instalment of Pro-life Political Perspectives, an ongoing series in which people of various political positions make the case for how opposition to abortion fits into their political worldview. The views of the writers in this series are not those of the Minimise Project as a group: over time we hope to feature people writing from wildly different and even opposed political outlooks.
Today, blogger Máirtín responds to criticism of his previous post on James Connolly.
It was interesting to see this writer’s blog post, James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn (10 May 2020), draw criticism from Fergal Twomey of the Connolly Youth Movement (CYM) in a recent article, titled Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads, on CYM’s website.
Twomey’s article is concerned with too many issues for it to engage with any one issue in a comprehensive or particularly convincing way. Put simply, it tries to tackle too many topics to tackle any adequately. After over 2,500 words liberally spent on matters such as supposed Irish ‘Strasserite anti-capitalism’, historical revisionism as Irish government policy and the media reach of particular Irish left groups, Twomey reveals that his article’s ‘purpose … is to debunk [the] claims’ of ‘melted cheeseheads’ that James Connolly was ‘a right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-abortion, bible-bashing marlboro-smoking gun-toting cowboy’. It is unclear what Twomey means by ‘melted cheesehead’, a term used at a tiresome rate throughout his piece and left unexplained, except for an embedded link to a no longer functioning video on the Sunday World’s Facebook page purporting to show former Taoiseach Brian Cowen being described as such in 2015. No doubt the relevance of the term as employed in Twomey’s piece was lost on more than one reader.
While there are strong grounds for critiquing the many passionate points-of-view that appear throughout Twomey’s article, such as his non-engagement with the general historiography on Connolly, the purpose of this piece is to reply to the loud, but skin-deep criticism that Twomey aims at James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn.
Getting the basics wrong: ignoring the Minimise Project and its Pro-Life Pledge
Twomey decries James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn as a ‘particularly far-fetched article which interlaces out-of-context Connolly quotes with wild supposition as to his thoughts on abortion.’ Without any analysis of the arguments made in this writer’s blog post, Twomey simply writes that ‘[wild supposition] is the level of reach that they require in order to attempt to claim Connolly’. Twomey uses ‘they’ in a broad-brush manner to mean, it would appear, ‘the Aontú melted cheeseheads’, Gript.ie and the National Party, rather than the blog post’s actual publishers, the Minimise Project.
The fact that the Minimise Project’s website features blog posts on police violence in the US, and on the harm caused to people in prolonged spells of direct provision, and interviews that have given a platform to crisis pregnancy organisations that support homeless and other vulnerable women was entirely ignored by Twomey. It is among that content that James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn stands. The Minimise Project’s Pro-Life Pledge may have escaped Twomey’s notice. The pledge contains a commitment on the part of the Minimise Project to ‘reject racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and religious bigotry, and all unjust discrimination’. It is important to highlight that, especially considering Twomey’s zealous framing of the pro-life position as an appendage to what he describes as an ‘anti-homeless, anti-worker, anti-migrant, anti-woman tendency’.
Connolly used ‘unborn’ as a metaphor – does that mean he couldn’t have been pro-life?
The nearest Twomey approaches actual engagement with James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn is to deem it ‘speculation … hinged entirely on metaphorical and literary use of language in [Connolly’s] pamphlets’. In response, two points should be made.
Firstly, James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn explicitly noted the metaphorical nature of Connolly’s reference in Forward to the unborn in the context of his dispute with William Walker regarding the Irish national question. The other four instances, covered in the blog post, where Connolly referred to the unborn, were not metaphorical. Even those most determined to deny the humanity of the unborn human cannot deny that when Connolly denounced the use of artillery against colonised peoples in ‘Can warfare be civilised?’, he counted ‘babes yet unborn’ as innocent victims alongside ‘women and old men’. (1) That CYM, presumably using a mysterious metric unbeknown to the rest of us to determine one’s humanity, may not count the unborn as human does nothing to take away from the fact that the man whose name that organisation bears unambiguously did.
Secondly, it is puzzling to think that Connolly’s use of ‘unborn’ in metaphorical terms on one occasion somehow undermines the case that Connolly recognised the unborn human as a human being, something which Twomey appears to suggest. Connolly’s use of ‘unborn’ as a metaphor can only but speak to his favourable disposition towards the unborn in literal terms. As argued in the blog post, it would make little sense for Connolly to use the unborn human as a representation for his nascent Labour Party if he did not share an instinctive sense of empathy for the unborn.
Connolly’s description of an unborn human being strangled in its mother’s womb hardly makes it likely that he held concealed pro-choice views (for those unfamiliar with the abortion debate, pro-choice advocates rarely talk in terms of the unborn being strangled). (2) Nor is it plausible, considering Connolly’s recognition of the unborn as human, that Connolly would have been ‘celebrating the victory’ of removing the unborn’s right to life from Bunreacht na hÉireann or that he ‘would have been canvassing and agitating tirelessly’ for the same, as Twomey asserts. In the next breath, Twomey accuses others of engaging in fantasy, projection and mental gymnastics. Maybe this is what CYM means by melting heads.
Connolly never mentioned abortion, but somehow he was pro-choice?
Twomey writes, ‘Connolly never articulated a position on abortion, or else they would be all over that in an instant to justify their own backwards and anti-woman ideology’. There’s two points to make here.
Firstly, this writer agrees that there appear to be no writings by Connolly that give a view on abortion itself, nor does there seem to be any account of him ever discussing abortion. James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn illustrated Connolly’s explicit recognition of the humanity of the unborn human. Recognition of the unborn as human and the question of abortion are separate, but intimately related matters. Connolly recognised the unborn’s humanity across the span of his time as a political figure, from 1897 (the year after the ISRP’s creation), when he argued for the enshrinement of rights for the unborn beyond the right to life, specifically a right to share in the fruits of the soil (3), to 1915, when he decried imperial gunboats’ bombardments of civilians that resulted in the indiscriminate killing of both unborn and born humans.
James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn, on the basis of Connolly’s undeniable recognition of the unborn as human beings entitled to rights and protection, concludes, through logical deduction, that ‘on balance, it is reasonable to think that Connolly would … be on the unpopular, but principled pro-life side of the abortion question’. The blog post further notes that as Connolly ‘didn’t share the modern left’s stance on prostitution or divorce (especially on the matter of support for divorce being made a pre-requisite for one to be considered a socialist), it is reasonable to think that he would not, at the very least, have shared the modern left’s rigid take-no-prisoners line on abortion’. Both Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads, appearing to be written without any self-awareness that might be conjured up by a reading of Connolly’s 1904 ‘Wages and other things’ letter to The People, and news that CYM is moving in the direction of taking a position of support for the legalisation of prostitution (4), strengthen that assessment.
Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads’ non-engagement with actual arguments
Secondly, the opportunistic framing of the pro-life position as ‘backwards and anti-woman’ illustrates a total and contented ignorance of pro-life thinking. It is fine to disagree strongly with a position or point-of-view, but pro-choice advocates, as much as pro-life advocates, would do themselves, others and the issue-at-hand much more service if they engaged on a good faith basis that considered the actual positions underpinning the opposing viewpoint rather than create and denounce a straw-man caricature for the purposes of avoiding actual engagement. It is important to engage with the other side’s strongest argument.
Engaging with an opponent’s strongest point and showing where it is flawed and bested by a counter-point is necessary to not allow an opponent’s point to remain standing. In the case of James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn, the strongest and primary argument was that Connolly recognised the humanity of the unborn human and felt an affinity with the unborn. Twomey does not try to challenge that other than to deem Connolly’s references to the unborn as ‘metaphorical and literary’ (even though Connolly clearly referred to the unborn more often than not in literal terms), illustrating two assumptions on Twomey’s part: (a) That Connolly’s use of the ‘unborn’ as a metaphor somehow reduces the weight of the case that Connolly really saw the unborn as part of the human family; (b) That Connolly’s use of unborn in a literal sense would add considerable weight to the case for Connolly as having recognised the unborn as individual humans – an assumption that actually undermines Twomey’s position because Connolly did refer to the unborn literally.
Addressing the predictable (once again): chains and fetters
Following in the footsteps of Trotskyite Councillor Shaun Harkin, editor of the James Connolly reader, Twomey deploys Connolly’s ‘[n]one so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter…’ from The re-conquest of Ireland (1915), as the basis for his claim that Connolly would have campaigned for and celebrated ‘Repeal’. James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn addressed that quote and the associated claim, arguing that as Connolly believed in the inherent humanity of the unborn, it would have been extremely unlikely that he would have envisaged an unborn human as a fetter in the same way that prostitution, alcoholism, domestic abuse etc. certainly were and remain.
Furthermore, as pointed out by Twomey, there’s no record of Connolly having addressed the specific issue of abortion. Given that abortion was not unknown in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (it was illegal in all states during Connolly’s life), it makes one wonder why Connolly, if he really saw protection of the unborn as an unjustified burden on mothers, never voiced those views, especially considering how willing and ready Connolly was to put forward his views on a wide range of matters. That notable feminists in the early 1900s, like Alice Paul, opposed abortion further undermines the bid to claim that because Connolly voiced support for challenging oppression faced by women, he must have held concealed pro-choice views. Nor was anti-abortion feminism confined to the US. During Connolly’s lifetime, Russian feminists were split on the question of abortion and a supporter of its legalisation there, Maria Pokrovskaia, conceded that it was an ‘abnormal and brutal’ practice. (5)
The USSR’s undermining of bodily autonomy and some questions for CYM
Even if we were to ignore Connolly’s own recognition of the unborn as human, it is far from inconceivable that Connolly, as a socialist, would have held anti-abortion views. For example, the USSR banned abortion by decree in 1936. (6) Sixteen years earlier, the RSFSR (from which USSR emerged) was the first state to legalise abortion and it did so on the basis that economic hardship under Tsarism left women without the material means to raise their newborns (which contributed significantly to illegal abortions), not on the basis of the liberal notion of bodily autonomy. (7) Even the decree that legalised abortion acknowleged it to be an ‘evil’ and envisaged that improvements in material conditions promised by socialism would remove the ‘need’ for the availability of abortion. (8) Mark Savage made the point that the 1920 decree showed that ‘the socialist state intended to remedy [the] socio-economic conditions that caused women to have abortions and thus extinguish the justification for abortion’. (9)
In 1936 abortion was made illegal once again except in situations where the mother’s health was it risk. Abortion remained illegal until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death. (10) The justification for the Soviet Union’s ban on abortion included the point that abortion was no longer ‘needed’ because of improved conditions for women in the post-Russian Revolution context. (11) The decree by the USSR’s Central Executive Council and Council of People’s Commissars declared: ‘Only under conditions of socialism … is it possible seriously to organize the struggle against abortions by prohibitive laws as well as by other means.’ (12)
As far as the Bolsheviks were concerned, abortion was clearly something to be struggled against. The decree explained the earlier legalisation of abortion by stating, ‘rebelling against abortions as a social evil, Lenin considered the mere legislative banning of abortions clearly inadequate to combat them.’ (13) Conscious of Lenin’s position, including his view of abortion as a ‘social evil’, the 1936 decree included six reasonably detailed sections on pro-active measures aimed at providing material support for mothers and families to complement the abortion ban. Interestingly, increased fees for registering a divorce for ‘the purpose of combating a light-minded attitude towards the family and family obligations’, were also introduced by the same decree. (14)
CYM seems to believe that the question of abortion does not relate at all to whether it is ‘needed’. Rather CYM relies on a bodily autonomy argument that posits individual choice as the only relevant factor in the ethics of abortion, a stance critiqued in James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn and in Pro-choice ideology and the Irish left: Coherent? as more suited to a neoliberal worldview. It would be interesting to know what CYM makes of the USSR’s ban on abortion. In particular, it would be useful to see CYM’s answers to the following questions:
- Given the importance that CYM seems to place on bodily autonomy, does CYM believe that the USSR acted unforgivably by restricting bodily autonomy in a bid to ensure that the state’s population levels did not drop below a level that would have damaged the state and its communist project?
- If abortion is such a make-or-break issue in CYM’s eyes and if support for abortion access is such an integral part of having a communist or even general left-wing outlook, as Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads suggests, does CYM consider the USSR to have, at the very least, taken a flawed turn between 1936 and 1955?
- Considering Connolly vs the Melted Cheeseheads’ framing of the anti-abortion position as part-and-parcel of an ‘anti-homeless, anti-worker, anti-migrant, anti-woman tendency’ does CYM believe that an anti-abortion position is inherently incompatible with communism or left-wing politics generally, bearing in mind the USSR’s abortion ban?
Twomey’s failure to acknowledge Connolly’s recognition of the unborn’s humanity is part of a wider skewed portrayal of the 1916 leader
Twomey falls far short of his aim to ‘settle in detail’ matters related to Connolly, especially where Connolly’s view of the unborn is concerned. The poor quality of the treatment of Connolly and the unborn (or ‘Connolly vs. the unborn’ as the topic is described by Twomey) is far from being an outlier in the article. Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads portrays a caricatured James Connolly, not a rounded sense of the real man. For example, Twomey quotes Connolly’s remark to John Carstairs Matheson that ‘I have not gone to my duty for 15 years, and have not the slightest tincture of faith left’ (15), but does not date the remarks (1908), thereby leaving the impression that this was Connolly’s final and most important word on his relationship with Catholicism. Further, Twomey neglects to mention Jack Carney’s description of Connolly based on their time together in 1913, which shows a more religious Connolly. Carney wrote, ‘Connolly was a practising Catholic … His Catholicism, unlike that of Jim Larkin’s, was an acceptance of the orthodox. He never questioned the religious role of the Church.’ (16)
Nor does Twomey mention Connolly’s final request to his Church of Ireland wife Lillie – ‘I want you to go under instruction in the Catholic Faith, and then, if you feel you can do so, be received into the Catholic Church.’ (17) Lillie converted to Catholicism in August 1916. (18) Lillie’s recounting of James’ acknowledgement to her that ‘he had not always been an exemplary Catholic’ (19), his self-description as Catholic in the 1911 census and the fact that he died a Catholic puts paid to the absurd notion, promoted by Twomey, that it is at each individual’s discretion as to whether one ‘classif[ies] Connolly as a Catholic or not’. Connolly’s friend and Irish Citizen Army (ICA) comrade Constance Markievicz followed Lillie and became a Catholic in June 1917. (20) As pointed out in James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn, Markievicz cited her opposition to England’s ‘immorality and divorce laws’, as well as that country’s ‘love of luxury, love of wealth, love of competition’, as part of her reasoning for rejecting the 1921 Treaty. (21) The second-highest ranking ICA member to be executed in 1916, its Chief of Staff, Michael Mallin, wrote in his final letter that ‘[Ireland] must not forget she is Catholic – she must keep her Faith.’ (22) Mallin and Markievicz held top positions in the ICA. They were highly trusted by Connolly, they were not passing acquaintances.
Michael Mallin (1874-1916), Chief of Staff, Irish Citizen Army
Constance Markievicz (1868-1927), Lieutenant, Irish Citizen Army, and Minister for Labour, 1919-1922
So, while Connolly certainly was willing to, and did, forcefully tackle the clergy on issues such as imperialism, it is clear that he had no fundamental objection to a future for the Catholic Church in Ireland or an aversion to Catholics who were more devout than he was. Twomey says that any ‘attempt to claim [Connolly] as a dogmatic prelate, railing against abortion and degeneracy, is pointless’. There is little evidence of any current or past effort to portray Connolly as a ‘dogmatic prelate’, and for good reason – he wasn’t one, underscoring the straw-man tactic adopted by Twomey. There is however merit in pointing out where positions held by Connolly, such as his recognising the unborn as human, do not chime with the positions held by a broad sweep of the Irish left in our time, especially by those who seek to claim his legacy and name, not least because it does some justice to the man and his integrity.
Conclusion: Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads tells us more about CYM than it does about Connolly
Twomey’s caricatured, one-dimensional, straw-man Connolly does a disservice to the real man and takes away from Connolly’s own personality and politics. There was more nuance in Connolly than Twomey allows for. Rather than approaching Connolly’s politics in the round, Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads amounts to making Connolly and his legacy more controllable for ends that CYM has in mind, whether that is in relation to abortion or other matters. Twomey identifies CYM’s ‘task of wedding education with propaganda’. If Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads is anything to go by, for CYM the latter takes considerable priority over the former. Just as Shaun Harkin’s commentary on the 1916 martyr pursues, consciously or otherwise, the ‘objective of shoehorning Connolly into a role that People Before Profit (PBP) has prescribed for him i.e. James Connolly as designed by PBP’, as outlined in James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn, Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads amounts to a more blunt effort to do the same for CYM. It is clear that Connolly as designed by CYM differs little, if at all, from Connolly as designed by PBP. One may wonder if that gives clues about the future political direction of the Irish youth organisation historically most connected to orthodox communism.
CYM’s parent organisation, the Communist Party of Ireland, can be credited for having previously kept some distance from the kind of identity politics/every-issue-under-the-sun bandwagoning that is a hallmark of Trotskyite groups. However, it is evident that CYM, presumably fearing a failure to attract potential members whose conception of leftwing politics is founded on the inclinations of the Democratic Socialists of America, and deciding not to be completely outdone by its ‘Permanent Revolution’ rivals, is now clambering up the woke tree behind the Socialist Workers Network (People Before Profit) and the various factions of the fractured Socialist Party (Solidarity). Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads is further evidence of that development. James Connolly’s function for CYM is to be on call as cover for that group’s positions even when its positions diverge from or clash with Connolly’s, or demand logically incoherent jumps from what he said and wrote.
(1) James Connolly, ‘Can warfare be civilised?’, The Worker, 30 January 1915.
(2) James Connolly, ‘Socialist Symposium on Internationalism, and some other things’, Forward, 1 July 1911.
(3) James Connolly, Erin’s hope: the end and the means (1897).
(4) ‘When sex workers win, all women win’, 4 June 2020 [accessed via https://cym.ie/2020/06/04/when-sex-workers-win-all-women-win/%5D states: ‘CYM passed a motion [at its 2020 Ard Fheis] to form a working group in order to research, develop our analysis, and create educational resources around the topic of sex work and sex workers’ rights.’ It is not unreasonable to predict that this working group will recommend that CYM supports the legalisation of prostitution or similar measures.
(5) Linda Harriet Edmondson, ‘Feminism in Russia: 1900–1917’ (doctoral thesis, 1981), 261.
(6) Decree on the Prohibition of Abortions, 27 June 1936 [accessed via: http://www.revolutionarydemocracy.org/archive/abort.htm%5D.
(7) Decree on Women’s Healthcare, 18 November 1920 [accessed via: http://www.soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/the-new-woman/the-new-woman-texts/on-the-protection-of-womens-health/%5D.
(8) Sasha Talaver, ‘When Soviet women won the right to abortion (for the second time)’, 8 March 2020 [accessed via: http://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/03/soviet-women-abortion-ussr-history-health-care%5D.
(9) Mark Savage, ‘The law of abortion in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China: women’s rights in two socialist countries’, Stanford Law Review, 40:4 (April 1988), 1038. What passes for the ‘Left’ in Ireland and in the wider Anglo-American sphere today cannot fathom how abortion or the justifications for it might possibly merit eradication. Instead every abortion, to quote one relatively well known pro-choice advocate, ought to be celebrated as a ‘small victory’.
(10 Amy E. Randall, ‘ “Abortion will deprive you of happiness!”: Soviet reproductive politics in the post-Stalin era’, Journal of Women’s History, 23:3 (2011), p. 14.
(11) Talaver, ‘When Soviet women won the right to abortion’.
(12) Decree on the Prohibition of Abortions, 27 June 1936.
(15) James Connolly’s letter to John Carstairs Matheson, 30 January 1908, partially quoted in Donal Nevin, James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’ (2005), 679.
(16) Letter by Jack Carney, 1 May 1948, quoted in Donal Nevin (ed.), James Larkin: Lion of the Fold (1998), 400 and in Nevin, James Connolly, 688.
(17) Lillie Connolly provided an account of her last meeting with James to her friend Annie M.P. Smithson. That account features in Smithson’s Myself and others: an autobiography (1944), 151-2.
(18) Nevin, James Connolly, 688.
(19) Smithson, Myself and others, 151-2.
(20) Nevin, James Connolly, 688.
(21) Dáil Éireann Treaty debate, 3 January 1922.
(22) Michael Mallin’s letter to his wife Agnes, 7 May 1916, quoted in Piaras F. Mac Lochlainn, Last words (1990), 122.
The Workers’ Republic
James Connolly’s pamphlets
Erin’s hope: The end and the means (1897)
Labour, religion and nationality (1910)
The re-conquest of Ireland (1915)
Dáil Éireann debates
Constance Markievicz speech, Treaty debate, 3 January 1922
Decree on Women’s Healthcare, 18 November 1920 [accessed via: www.soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/the-new-woman/the-new-woman-texts/on-the-protection-of-womens-health/]
Decree on the Prohibition of Abortions, 27 June 1936 [accessed via: www.revolutionarydemocracy.org/archive/abort.htm]
Michael Mallin to Agnes Mallin, 7 May 1916
James Connolly to John Carstairs Matheson, 30 January 1908
Connolly family census return, Census of Ireland, 1911 [accessed via: http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Dublin/Pembroke_West/Lotts_Road__South/10339/%5D
Randall, Amy E., ‘ “Abortion will deprive you of happiness!”: Soviet reproductive politics in the post-Stalin era’, Journal of Women’s History, 23:3 (2011), 13-38
Savage, Mark, ‘The law of abortion in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China: women’s rights in two socialist countries’, Stanford Law Review, 40:4 (April 1988), 1027-1117
Soloman, Susan Gross, ‘The demographic argument in Soviet debates over the legalization of abortion in the 1920s’, Cahiers du Monde Russe (1992), 59-81
Harkin, Shaun, The James Connolly Reader (2018)
Mac Lochlainn, Piaras F., Last Words (1990)
Nevin, Donal, James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’ (2005)
Nevin, Donal, Jim Larkin: Lion of the Fold (1998)
Smithson, Annie M.P., Myself and others: an autobiography (1944)
Edmondson, Linda Harriet, Feminism in Russia: 1900-1917 (doctoral thesis, 1981)
Online Articles/Blog Posts
Talaver, Sasha, ‘When Soviet women won the right to abortion (for the second time)’, 8 March 2020 [accessed via: www.jacobinmag.com/2020/03/soviet-women-abortion-ussr-history-health-care]
‘Connolly vs. the Melted Cheeseheads’, 16 July 2020 [accessed via www.cym.ie/2020/07/16/connolly-vs-the-melted-cheeseheads/]
‘James Connolly, socialist republicanism and the unborn’, 10 May 2020 [accessed via www.theminimiseproject.ie/2020/05/10/pro-life-political-perspectives-james-connolly-socialist-republicanism-and-the-unborn/]
‘When sex workers win, all women win’, 4 June 2020 [accessed via www.cym.ie/2020/06/04/when-sex-workers-win-all-women-win/]
Revolutionary Democracy, www.revolutionarydemocracy.org
Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, www.soviethistory.msu.edu
Connolly Youth Movement, www.cym.ie
The Minimise Project, www.theminimiseproject.ie