Monday, April 18, 2016

Funny Peculiar (2016)

Book Review from the April 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Socialism . . . Seriously'. By Danny Katch. Chicago. Haymarket Books. 2015.

Katch has produced what is in many ways an engaging attempt to introduce socialist and anti-capitalist ideas to people who are curious or just vaguely interested. It is a humorous, well-written and produced pocket-sized book that may well serve at least part of its purpose. But there are some flaws – and big ones.

Katch is a member of the British SWP’s sister party in the US and the book is hampered by the type of ideological baggage implied by this. In particular, it fetishes the past from a Leninist point of view and romanticises ‘workers’ struggles’ in the way followers of Lenin and Trotsky are wont to do. This is the case with more recent rebellions like the ‘Arab Spring’ but is more seriously so with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 – an iconic event for the Trotskyist left which defines their very existence but which hobbles their ability to both engage with other workers and develop a revolutionary strategy which doesn’t appear archaic.

Katch does his best to attempt this, but fails miserably. He fetishises workers’ councils (soviets) as the ultimate form of democratic expression for the working class without ever explaining why these arose in Russia and other countries in the first place (backward political development and lack of maturity of bourgeois political democracy). He also – as is the case with most Trotskyists – conveniently forgets to mention that it was the Bolsheviks who smashed the workers’ councils in Russia when they were no longer convenient and did not submit to the iron will of Lenin and his followers. Furthermore, any idea that countries like the US or the UK will in the 21st century spontaneously create soviets as a means of bringing about a socialist revolution sounds fantastical and other-worldly, as indeed it is.

The conception advanced of what socialism is also tends to be confused. There is no clear and consistent sense that it involves the creation of relationships that have rendered the defining categories of capitalism obsolete – ie working for wages, the accumulation of capital out of profits, the production of goods for sale on a market and distribution of goods via prices and money. It usually sounds instead like some sort of hi-tech state-run capitalism planned and administered by workers’ councils and where racism, sexism, etc have disappeared. There is a chapter called ‘Imagine’ where Katch comes nearer to describing a socialist society than most Trotskyists do but he still hedges his bets here, no doubt lest he sound too ‘utopian’.

There is also a slightly odd chapter towards the end on religion where you get the distinct impression he wants to say what socialists think – that religion is a diversion from solving society’s problems and involves beliefs that are not tenable or capable of standing up to scientific enquiry. Yet he clearly doesn’t want to upset the followers of Islam the SWP have been trying to cosy up to for years (on the usual Trotskyist grounds that they think an enemy of an enemy must be a friend). So again he pulls his punches.

All in all, another missed opportunity from a Trotskyist writer probably capable of better.
Dave Perrin

1 comment:

imposs1904 said...

Though they share a common history, and still have some common core positions, I don't think it can be said that the ISO and the British SWP still have a formal international connection with one another. They burnt those bridges years ago.