Memoir shines a light on the struggle for human liberation

School Strike for Climate in Sydney. Photo: Viv Miley/Green Left. Inset: A Radical Life.

A Radical Life: A memoir by Jim McIlroy
Sydney, 2021
Available from resistancebooks.com

To my knowledge, Jim McIlroy’s memoir is the first by someone from our particular political current: the Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA)/Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and later the Democratic Socialist Party, which helped set up the Socialist Alliance in 2001 and then folded into it completely in 2009.

Almost from the start, Jim has been a prominent figure in our movement. He has been part of the national leadership, a branch organiser and election candidate. He has been active in solidarity work, especially with Venezuela, as the book details.

Jim has long been a prolific writer, especially for the socialist press (or media, as we would say today). He enjoys writing and is very quick and accomplished at it. And, of course, as Jim explains, he has always enjoyed getting the socialist press out to people.

Jim would have to be the all-time champion Green Left seller! I think it is appropriate that the cover photo shows Jim selling the old Direct Action back in 1977.

A collective story

While the story Jim tells is his personal one, it is also a collective one. As Jim notes, he was part of the youth radicalisation of the 1960s and ‘70s. He was one of many who recoiled from the horrors of the Vietnam War and turned to revolutionary socialism and Marxism. And he has never deviated from that course.

Being an active member of a small revolutionary socialist organisation is a strange experience. On the one hand, there is the comradeship of the struggle and the satisfaction that comes from striving for a great emancipatory project.

On the other hand, while on some issues we are with a large part of the population, sometimes even with a majority, our overall project of working to create a big radical party of struggle for fundamental social change makes us a small minority. Australia is a rich imperialist country, we are not risking our lives, but the struggle certainly has its rigours and pressures. Everything is telling you to give up, that you are irrelevant, that socialism is an impossible dream.

In telling his story, Jim shines a light on our collective experience and, if you like, gives some validation to the efforts of all those who have laboured and toiled over the decades to build the organisation and advance the struggle.

Humane and progressive upbringing

In the early section of the book, Jim draws an attractive picture of a world that no longer exists, that is, of growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s in fairly comfortable suburban Melbourne — first in Parkdale (near Mordialloc on the Frankston line) and then from the mid-fifties on, in very outer-suburban Mt Eliza.

Jim draws an affectionate portrait of his family, especially his parents, Cecily and Ian, and credits them with his humane and progressive upbringing. Among other things, they had a leftish-progressive social and work circle that included a number of former members of the Communist Party.

One thing the reader soon notices is that Jim has travelled abroad an awful lot! In 1967 he even travelled with friends by van across Afghanistan — a journey that today would be simply impossible and unthinkable madness. When Jim got back to Australia, Melbourne’s afternoon broadsheet, The Herald, wrote an article on it, centred (with photographs) around Jim’s collection of central Asian hats. (This historic piece is reproduced in the book.)

By my count, Jim has had 10 or more extensive overseas trips and sojourns! Travel broadens the mind, but since joining the movement, Jim’s trips have always been as an activist, talking to people and reporting — primarily for Direct Action or Green Left.

Family is important

The book makes it clear that for Jim his family is extremely important.

Growing up with parents who are committed socialist activists can’t always have been easy for Chantal and Katrina. There is inescapably a tension between family time and all the endless political meetings and activities. But they all got through it and the children have charted their independent path in life. Jim has obviously been a loving dad to Chantal and Katrina and a devoted partner to Coral.

The cover photos show the two poles of Jim’s life: on the front he is selling the party press, on the back is the family quartet, looking very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, all scrubbed up for the portrait.

Inside, the rich selection of photographs helps bring Jim’s story to life and there are plenty of shots showing Jim and family members in various settings.

We were lucky

As the title says, this is about a radical life, a life committed to socialism and human progress. Jim practises what he preaches — all the time.

I think Jim would agree when I say we were both very lucky: We joined a socialist organisation that had an outstanding leader in Jim Percy (who died of cancer in 1992). The SWP provided a rational framework in which people could give of their very best.

The emphasis was always on engagement in the struggle and over time we shed some of our sectarian baggage and tried our best to engage with other left forces moving in a positive direction. Green Left, established in early 1991, was one of the first fruits of this orientation.

Jim’s book is not like a “normal” autobiography. Readers will note that after dealing with his youth, it progressively moves heavily into articles and reports on various aspects of politics — especially building the party and solidarity with Venezuela. Jim was insistent on doing it this way because this is such a large part of his life and passion. Nevertheless, I think there is plenty of content for the general reader.

Friends for more than 60 years

I have known Jim since the 5th grade at Mt Eliza State Primary School and we have been friends for more than 60 years. I became a socialist due to Jim and when I joined the SYA in late 1970 I was naturally extremely keen to have Jim join as well — which he soon did. And, as they say, the rest is history.

For both of us, our involvement in revolutionary socialist politics has been the decisive thing in our lives.

Today, the world is in a deepening crisis. Humanity is on the cusp of an utter catastrophe and a transition away from the profit-driven madness of capitalism and towards socialism is the only solution.

We need more and more young people — and not only them — to take the road that Jim and many others took all those years ago. I hope Jim’s memoir can help inspire some of them to do likewise.

Plenty of gas in the tank!

Of course, Jim is far from finished! There is still plenty of gas in the tank, even if the engine requires a lot more attention than it used to! I for one look forward to a second volume of memoirs and reflections.

Finally, I declare that the book is well and truly launched and if you haven’t already got a copy I urge you to buy one, read it and spread the word.

[Based on remarks at the online launch of A Radical Life: A Memoir by Jim McIlroy, on July 18.]