Book Review from the March 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialist Arguments, (eds) D. Coates & G. Johnstone, Martin Robertson, 1983, £5.95
A book all socialists would like to write is one in which the nature of capitalist society is clearly and simply exposed, along with its supporting ideology and mythology. After reading such a book it would be impossible for anyone to listen to a speech by Margaret Thatcher without laughing: it would give everyone effective counter-arguments to racialist rantings: it would stop everyone talking about monetarism and make them consider the abolition of money as a practical alternative: in the face of its relentless logic and wicked humour all of the smarmy apologists for capitalism will be reduced to stuttering incoherence: and so on. Finally it would tear to shreds all of the common arguments against socialism and it would be printed in all languages; becoming the major work that convinced the workers of the need for a peaceful democratic revolution, co-ordinated to bring about a classless, moneyless, world socialist community.
This is not such a book. It is intended to be the first part in a series of "socialist primers" aimed at building "the protective wall of a sophisticated and widely-understood socialist counter-culture" around "the left", prior to winning the battle of ideas among the workers. So the final verdict on this project must await the completion of the series of books; meanwhile some observations can be made.
It is amazing that the editors managed to hold together a group of contributors with such widely differing views. All are united under the slogan of "a socialist alternative to . . .", but for Labour MP Frank Field a socialist alternative to the present fiscal system means a return to tax exemption in place of the personal tax allowance system; while David Coates, after Marx, criticises trade unions for not:
. . . using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system. (p. 78).
All shades on the political left get a showing in this book, from a concern with the most meagre reform of capitalism, to a partial apology for street violence:
In claiming self-defence as a justification for employing force/violence, socialists and black organisation are challenging . . . the general claim by the state to represent the interests of the people as a whole . . . (p. 220).
Statements like that make you feel the authors are walking an intellectual tightrope in their attempts to include as many views as possible in their chapters, for shortly after the last quotation the same author writes:
In and by itself violence can neither achieve nor sustain anything of which socialists can be proud. (p. 225).
But the statements on violence during the revolutionary transformation to socialism, if they are to mean anything at all, must make clear the conditions under which socially sanctioned force may be used against hypothetical obstructive minorities. Gordon Johnstone is finally unable to do this and has to hope that the socialist revolution will be less violent than other social transformations in history.
The reason for this and many other failings in the book is that nowhere do the authors state how socialism could be brought about, except that an overall impression is given of an accumulation of reforms leading to a more "egalitarian" society, alongside inspired work by labour leaders, plus a good deal of state confrontation, with massive expansion of workers' councils, much argument and a little use of democratic procedures.
Some light is shed on this political eclecticism by the editorial introduction:
We have asked our contributors to ensure that they make plain the nature of the disagreements on the left in their particular field, so that no section of the socialist camp need feel alienated by any gratuitous sectarianism . . . (p. 4).
I wonder what parts of this book the left will find most attractive; the penny-pinching reformism, the labour politics or the revolutionary asides? Bob Jessop argues, absurdly, that they should espouse all parts and advocates that a:
three-fold strategy requires socialists to work at a distance from the state, within the state, and against the state. (p. 105).
Crudely put it means we should smash, ignore and reinforce the state — which about sums up my response to this book. The good bits make it worth reading. They may increase as the series goes on and the authors realise that the triple advocacy of reform, bolshevism and revolution just makes a mess of socialist consciousness.
B. K. McNeeney