Conspiracy, not class

James O’Toole. The Irish State And Revolution. Ireland: Red Network, 2021.

The black and white front cover of the book

The main argument of The Irish State and Revolution is that when it comes to Irish capitalism, the vanguard party is the solution. The author James O’Toole supports this conclusion with a potted history of Ireland since partition and an analysis of the actions of various Irish left-wing parties and trade unions. He believes that corruption is the real story of the southern Irish state, with caution and betrayal as the defining narrative of the Irish labour movement since the execution of James Connolly in 1916.

In spite of (or maybe because of?) this corruption and inertia, the capitalist system in Ireland has been weakened according to O’Toole, and the purpose of the book is to ‘help to weaken it further by educating and empowering those working-class people who are busy building movements to take it all down’. In terms of strategies for revolution and what a post-capitalist Ireland would look like, the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet Russia loom large, providing a somewhat deterministic template for Ireland’s present and its future (of which more later).

It is a dense read, coming in at 385 pages and around 135,000 words. This is no criticism. There are very few publications out there that give a left-wing analysis of contemporary Ireland – fewer still that sketch out a post-capitalist alternative – and O’Toole should be acknowledged for having provided both.

Given its objectives, however, It is surprising, to say the least, that the book does not actually provide an analysis of capitalism in Ireland. Instead, O’Toole focuses on the Church, the army, an Garda Síochána, political parties, and aspects of the civil service in order to make the argument that Ireland is run by a golden circle that uses the guards and the church to keep working-class people down while making corrupt deals with each other.

While this has elements of truth to it (although O’Toole over-generalises and over-simplifies), it does not explain Irish capitalism, nor does it cast light on its dynamics. It has more in common with conspiracy than class, which is why the right-wing use such rhetoric so often. Shane Ross has written a number of books on corruption and the golden circle, as have Matt Cooper, Elaine Byrne, and David McWilliams, among others. They all use the corruption/golden circle motif for the same reason: to offer up an excuse for the failings of Irish capitalism while leaving its structural class dynamics alone.

Credit: Wikimedia.

They know that if we got rid of all political corruption in Ireland in the morning, it would not alter one bit the power of corporations or their accumulation of capital. The capitalist system of exploitation would carry on as before because corruption, as defined by the right (and as used by O’Toole here), is a corruption of the rules that capital already sets for itself. It would not lead to a shorter working week, a higher minimum wage, decent health care, and childcare, or a public housing programme worthy of the name. Nor would it end or alter Ireland’s position as a tax haven – a position that is perfectly legal under Irish law as well as under European law, as expressed by the General Court of the European Union in its Apple ruling.

It is not what is illegal that defines the dynamic of capitalism in Ireland, but what is perfectly legal under the rules it makes for itself. Those rules are not formed via corruption, despite what the right will argue, but by the outworking, over time, of the political, social, and economic capitalist system in this state. A fundamental understanding of that system is necessary in order to combat it and O’Toole, for the most part, declines to provide one here.

Instead, he falls back on histories provided by right-wing economists and the myth of the Whitaker/Lemass ‘revolution’ to give a standard mainstream interpretation of the development of the Irish state since partition. There is no real discussion or analysis of finance and banking; of Ireland’s links with sterling (via the City of London) and with the euro; of the cattle industry and the economic class relations that grew out of it – relations which continue to dominate Irish agriculture – nor of the role played in Irish capitalism by key state institutions such as the courts, the Revenue Commissioners, the Central Bank, the IDA, the Department of Finance, and the Office of an Taoiseach.

Money, finance, industry, agriculture, key state institutions, foreign exporters, and middlemen – these are the bread and butter of any Marxist reading of the Irish state, but O’Toole eschews them for a populist reading framed by corruption stories and the role of the police and the church.

Photo of a spray painted image no Dublin street. There is an image of the Apple company logo and text saying "Paying no tax since 2003"
Credit: William Murphy / Flikr.

Even here, O’Toole waters down what should be a structural analysis of the role of the church in Ireland to one based on personalities. He tells us that in 1936 John Charles McQuaid, a Holy Ghost Father from Blackrock College and future archbishop of Dublin, ‘made sure the constitution had clauses against divorce and abortion’, later telling us that ‘Archbishop McQuaid wrote the constitution with Éamon de Valera’.

However, the special relationship with the State that the Catholic Church secured in the 1937 constitution was not dependent on McQuaid’s input. It was not the case, as O’Toole seems to suggest, that if de Valera had not consulted with McQuaid that we would have had a different constitution. There may have been a different use of words, but the Church’s influence over social matters and the security of constitutional privilege would have still been there.

We know this is the case because one of the main architects of the 1937 constitution was John Hearne, a highly conservative legal advisor to the government who worked on the first draft with significant input from the Order of Jesuits.  He was there to represent the interests and ideological outlook of his class – a task he achieved. In fact, the wording surrounding the special position of the Catholic Church in the Constitution came from the Jesuits, not McQuaid. I mention this only to highlight the class nature of the Irish constitution. The focus on McQuaid downplays this dynamic. This is standard practice for Irish mainstream historians – who are as adverse to a class analysis as the Wicked Witch of the West is to water – but it is highly unusual for a Marxist reading of Irish history.

A woman holds a poster which reads "separate church from state" at a demonstration in Dublin.
Credit: The Workers’ Party of Ireland | Facebook.

O’Toole devotes a chapter apiece to the police and the army. His analysis of an Garda Síochána is possibly the strongest part of the book, highlighting the regressive and class-bias nature of the justice system in Ireland, as well as providing ideas for much-needed reform of laws around addiction and mental health. The dedication of an entire chapter to the Irish army seems excessive until it is seen as to why O’Toole has done so. He sees the rank and file of the army as the future defenders of revolution. ‘If the revolution looks like it could win’ he writes, ‘then the appeals from working-class people to join the revolt can find an echo, as they did in Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918, and Portugal in 1974’.

It is at this point that the book moves into its major theme: revolution in Ireland and the necessity of a vanguard party. O’Toole takes as his starting point the ‘Labour Must Wait’ argument first put forward by George Gilmore in 1966 and adapted by the right-wing UCD historian Michael Laffan in 1985. De Valera had called on the Irish labour movement in 1917 to break with British-based unions and not to engage in industrial action that might weaken the focus of the independence movement. Given the wave of strikes and occupations that swept Ireland from 1917 to 1923, it is fair to say that de Valera’s call went unheeded. Nevertheless, the myth persists that the Irish labour movement ‘stood down’ during the revolutionary period. O’Toole argues this was the case, while at the same time providing evidence of the general strikes, factory and creamery occupations, and the huge rise in trade union membership and activity that took place. By any stretch, that is a strange kind of waiting. But O’Toole doesn’t seem to be concerned with the facts on the ground so much as making the argument that whatever hurdles were faced by the Irish working class, a vanguard party would have overcome them. That is not analysis, but speculation.

There is nothing to be gained by ‘what if’s’ in history: we can no more predict the past than we can the future. For example, in order to make the case for a vanguard party swinging the Irish revolution towards socialism, O’Toole says that ‘the working class could have led a revolt of workers and small farmers that could have taken power as part of a Europe-wide wave of revolution’ and that ‘Once in the driving seat the working class could have traded with the more advanced socialist nations to progress our economy’. He includes Germany in his list of advanced socialist nations, temporarily forgetting that Germany did not go socialist but instead executed the socialist leaders of the 1919 revolution. His temple of “what if’s” for Ireland history is built upon the bricks of “what if’s” in European history. This is a parlour game and should have no place in a materialist analysis.

Having said that, O’Toole is right in pointing out the conservative leadership of the Irish labour party and trade union movement from the revolutionary period onwards. His antidote to this, once again, is vanguardism, ‘a guiding organisation’ that will act as a revolutionary leadership. This is not the first time (nor will it be the last) that an argument is made for a vanguard party. It lies in the realm of strategy and tactics, and there are many variants on the theme. The nature of what that ‘guiding organisation’ will deliver takes up the final part of the book.

O’Toole begins his vision of a socialist Ireland with a startling statement.  ‘Capitalism has created the infrastructure of socialism’ he writes, ‘That infrastructure just needs to be liberated from its subordination to the capitalists’. In other words, it is the ownership of the output of capitalism that is the greatest issue, according to O’Toole, and not the internal dynamics of the system itself.  This might explain O’Toole’s lack of engagement with the gendered, racial, and environmental dynamics that are hotwired into the capitalist system itself. These social relations cannot be nationalised away. There is no state ownership solution to climate change. Racism, social reproduction, and environmental destruction are not adjuncts to the capitalist mode of production, they are constituent elements that are lost in the analysis when capitalism is seen purely as a struggle between wage labourers and factory owners over ownership of profit. That is a core element of course, but so is monopoly rent for example or care work that is unpaid yet extractive. There is more to capitalism than the making of pins.

By taking as gospel the writings and actions of Russian revolutionaries from over a hundred years ago – essentially using them as ahistorical templates for all socialist revolution thereafter – O’Toole side-lines all other dynamics within Marxism in the past hundred years. This is a real loss as the energy that has fuelled race, gender, and environmental Marxist analysis has come from political activists themselves. It was the rigidity of the Stalinist/Trotskyist polarity within western Marxism that led in no small part to works by Audre Lorde, Cecil B. Robinson, and Selma James, among others. Since 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union, these threads within Marxism have been able to breathe more freely. Yet none of this is reflected in The Irish State and Revolution, which still dances to the beat of a Bolshevik drum.

O’Toole’s vision of socialist democracy is predicated on local and workplace circles that will elect delegates to a national workers’ assembly of delegates that will then run Irish industry. He gives one example, that of fast-food restaurants, that is worth quoting in full:

‘McDonalds has 84 restaurants in the 26 counties, Abrakebabra has 35, while Supermacs has 118 stores.. A revolution happens and workers occupy those outlets – electing a workers’ circle to run the industry – this circle relates to a national workers’ assembly of delegates from local and workplace circles. We keep the outlets but change the signs to something snazzy and related to the revolution. We keep the distribution but source healthier ingredients and plan a better menu. The workers in the fast-food outlets negotiate a plan for their industry with the national assembly – when everyone has had their input we could move to distributing healthy meals to workers on a national basis through an already-established infrastructure… On the basis of the already-existing infrastructure and corporate planning that exists in the industry, we can move to efficient distribution of a basic meal for all working people. It’s not rocket science.’

What is post-capitalist about adopting capitalist forms of infrastructure and corporate planning? Why is a national chain of fast-food restaurants, centrally coordinated by a national assembly thrice removed from the shop floor, the ideal and sole model to be utilised? O’Toole’s reasoning is that ‘capitalism already contains major elements of planning in order to survive. What they refuse to plan is the economy as a whole. There is no appreciation of the fact that capitalism is not just output but the dynamics of the machine itself. Again, O’Toole’s vision of socialism is limited to state ownership with elections every few years.

In terms of banking, O’Toole’s plan is to end the current credit union system and ‘centralise all banks and financial institutions into one state bank under workers’ democratic control’ and ‘immediately freeze and inspect all of the accounts of the rich’. No mention is made of leaving the euro or establishing a separate currency, so it appears that our central bank would remain part of the ECB and the eurozone. Later on he says that 22.9 percent of Irish imports are aircraft, not realizing that these are paper imports only – they are part of the Leprechaun economics that inflate Ireland’s GDP. I mention these only to highlight the issue with analysing Irish capitalism through personalities and tales of corruption – rather than undertaking an actual analysis of the dynamics of Irish capitalism itself.

When it comes to the patriarchal and gendered nature of capitalism, O’Toole says that ‘Under socialism, women would have won full equality in every aspect of life and we would have an education system that taught young people about consent and sex in an open and honest way’. This sentence is the sum of O’Toole’s engagement with the issue. Literally more time is put into discussing the menu at MacDonalds.

An image of a McDonalds meal

In terms of protecting the revolution, O’Toole would ‘send out emissaries and persuaders to talk to the working classes in other countries and argue for their support’, meaning that ‘if a major power decided to militarily intervene, strikes by workers in that country could prevent the expedition from leaving’. Not to berate the debating skills of Irish socialists, but I’m not sure even they could persuade the entire working class of Britain or France or the US to engage in a general strike as an act of solidarity to plucky old Ireland. Are we supposed to take this seriously? That the army personnel of the various NATO airfields and naval bases across Europe and the US will subject themselves to court-martial offences because an Irish socialist emissary sends them an email or buys them a pint? Who is having these conversations?

To have thought long and hard about the role of Abrakebabra in a post-capitalist Ireland, but not cooperatives, credit unions, the commons, race, gender, or even climate change, reveals (I would suggest) a bit of an ideological and theoretical blind spot on the part of O’Toole. We know how the menu at McDonald’s will be treated after the revolution but what about childcare? Transport? Education? Will we develop non-profit-seeking forms of productivity? Or will we (as O’Toole argues) merely nationalise the profit generated by capitalism’s patriarchal and racist modes of production and exploitation that in Ireland are organised within a neo-colonial logic?

This book is a missed opportunity. Although not every reference or fact stood up when I checked, enough did to demonstrate that O’Toole had done the research and had put in the work to produce what could have been a real contribution to our understanding of Irish capitalism and its relationship with the state. Instead, O’Toole provides a highly reductionist and out-of-date approach, and for me, this is the book’s biggest failure. It is stuck in a time warp of British Marxist thinking from forty years ago, the blind spots of which are all too evident in its pages. At the same time, it relies on right-wing histories of, and commentary on, Irish capitalism to produce an analysis that is more conspiracy than class in its conclusions. It could have been so much more, and that’s a pity.