Book Review from the April 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod. Legend £5.99.
Here is an unusual novel, and not just because one of the major characters is the son of life-long members of the Socialist Party. It is a political science-fiction novel (like MacLeod's previous book The Star Fraction), with scenes ranging from recent student politics to a future "anarcho-capitalist" Mars.
Let's look as some of the passages relating to the Socialist Party. At one point the narrator meets his parents at that old Socialist stomping-ground, Speakers' Corner:
" . . . they were doing a respectable trade in a pamphlet. In between keeping half an eye on the demo and chatting to whichever of them wasn't in full flow, I flipped through 'Is a Third World War Inevitable?': its cover as lurid as any peace-movement propaganda, its contents a frosty dismissal of two centuries of peace campaigns—all of which had failed to prevent (where they hadn't actively endorsed) increasingly destructive wars."
This presents a reasonable description of the pamphlet in question, and gives a good idea of MacLeod's basic attitude to the Socialist Party: poking gentle fun at us, but in a basically friendly way. Elsewhere, the same character recalls some of his childhood memories:
"The Russians were in my mind a vague, vast menace. They had done something unpleasant and unfair to a friend of my father's, an old gentleman whose photograph was framed above the fireplace: Karl Marx. The Russians had distorted him. Whatever that was, it sounded painful."
A chance finding of the Russia today pamphlet Soviet Millionaires in a bookshop leads to the observation that "It hadn't stayed in circulation long, not after the SPGB had seized on it as irrefutable proof that behind the socialist façade the USSR concealed a class of wealthy property-owners."
In an article in the science-fiction journal Matrix, MacLeod has discussed his political activities and ideas. He was for many years a Trotskyist, but also acknowledges that he was influenced by "thinking about the implications of the 'non-market socialism' associated with the few but persistent propagandists of the Socialist Party of Great Britain". And he mentions with approval William Morris's idea of Socialism as "a world-wide classless, stateless, moneyless society", using language rarely found outside the pages of the Socialist Standard. It is plain, too, that he now has little time for the traditional left.
However, he also refers to having learned from the so-called libertarians, professed advocates of capitalism with a "free" market and a minimal state. These are the ideas that have influenced the Martian society depicted here, though it still has room for authoritarian legal structures but "privatised" ones, so perhaps that's OK.
MacLeod describes The Stone Canal as "a communist novel about libertarians", but frankly its communist/socialist viewpoint is not explicit enough for this. Despite his apparent sympathy for the Socialist Party's view of the world, he has not written a communist/socialist novel. But he has written a highly-interesting one that may get some readers interested in knowing more about us. Read it—and hope that in future novels he may write more about the moneyless, classless society he states he wants.