Marxist plotting an Irish revolution
In the wake of mass movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey, a Dublin socialist tells Patrick Freyne that revolution here is possible
James O’Toole, author of Revolution, A Beginner’s Guide . ‘No working class person would use the word ‘proletariat’. So I really wanted to make these words accessible to people from my own background.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley
James O’Toole, author of Revolution, A Beginner’s Guide. ‘No working class person would use the word ‘proletariat’. So I really wanted to make these words accessible to people from my own background.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley
At 99 degrees, writes James O’Toole, water might be warm, but it’s still water. One more degree and it becomes something new. So it is with revolution. These world-changing events, he writes, might appear to happen suddenly, but the conditions were there in advance.
A familiar face at strikes and demonstrations, O’Toole wants to dismantle the State. His book, Revolution, A Beginner’s Guide, was launched last Thursday at an event at Cassidy’s Hotel in Dublin called, “Is Revolution Possible in the 21st Century?” and it clearly analyses revolutions past and present from contemporary Egypt to 18th-century France.
It is a jargon-free Marxist narrative that sees revolution as an inevitable consequence of capitalism, the police as brutalised tools of reaction, welfare as a form of social control and crisis as opportunity. O’Toole might believe in the overthrow of government but he’s a polite, friendly chap. He was once a busker.
“I used to busk on Grafton Street,” he says. “I wasn’t really political then, more apathetic. I knew there was stuff wrong. I’d grown up in Fatima Mansions and worked some dead-end jobs. I got into music and busking as a way to finance being in a band. I would have thought that real change wasn’t possible, that there was nothing you could do. I think sometimes when people feel like that, it reflects their own lack of confidence in themselves.”
His politicisation started in the late 1990s in South Africa. “I’d studied animation and there was a prospect of getting a job in animation in South Africa,” he explains.
Living in slums
“Apartheid was gone and there were parties of both colours in parliament, but there were still masses of people living in slums. I began wondering was there a systemic reason why there are poor people and rich people.
“Even when you changed the colour of people in parliament there seemed to be something deeper going on.”
Back on Grafton Street he happened upon a Socialist Workers Party stall outside River Island protesting against sweatshops. “I didn’t know what left wing meant or what right wing meant. Growing up in Fatima Mansions the Christian Brothers didn’t really teach me much in terms of politics.
“[The SWP] said they were socialists. I thought ‘Stalin, wasn’t he a socialist?’ but then I met the guy for a coffee and we talked for eight hours in Bewley’s on Grafton Street.”
He’s been a member of the party since and has been involved with strikes, demonstrations and lock-ins – it’s revolution as a way of life. And it’s one he seems to have completely embraced, barring two years when, demoralised by the anti-war movement, he went back into music.
“Once the crisis hit in 2008,” he explains, “I threw my mental focus back into activism. There are young people in Fatima and Ballymun and Ballyfermot who, with funding being cut, will never have the opportunity to play music. So it didn’t feel right for me to do it.”
In recent years he was convinced by friends to write this book.
“I had this weird reverse snobbery about intellectual pursuits, which is really about a lack of confidence coming from Fatima Mansions.
“But with that snobbery all you’re really saying is, ‘I don’t have the confidence to stand up and give my views because they might be knocked down’.
“You’re so used to people not listening to what you say. And that’s how the class system works. Everyone looks down on everyone else. So when we moved to Crumlin I’d be slagged for being from Fatima Mansions. People would slag the black guy. The effeminate kid at school would get beaten up.”
This lack of confidence, he says, is why the Irish people are so compliant. But he thinks attitudes are changing. He says his own father, a retired soldier, went from conservative beliefs to more radical ones.
How things work
The book is aimed at ordinary people. “I’m trying to explain how things work,” he says. “You read Marxist descriptions of how societies change and all you hear are terms like ‘historical materialism’ and ‘superstructure’ and ‘ideology’.
“It’s funny because some of these academic tracts are supposedly all about the proletariat and the working class but no working class person would use the word ‘proletariat’. So I really wanted to make these words accessible to people from my own background.”
Can committed revolutionaries like O’Toole have any impact? He points to grass-roots movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey. The book launch was preceded by some words from Turkish socialist Memet Uludag. O’Toole says there have been 29 general strikes in Greece and recalls a conversation with a Turkish activist. who said: “For years we’ve had meetings in one working class suburb and no one came, but today walking down to the demonstration, everyone was looking out their windows, opening the doors, showing support and saying ‘Are you going down there?’.”
O’Toole would like to see that happening in Ireland. He would like to see protest movements like that formed against the property tax coalescing into something bigger. He’d like to see a general strike. He’d like to see a society in which ordinary people take part in making the big decisions that affect their lives.
It sounds exciting but it also sounds vague. “There’s no exact blueprint because the revolution is democratic,” he writes.
O’Toole knows that most Irish people aren’t ready for revolution, but he’s patient.
The conditions need to be right. Then it only takes one more degree.