Book Review from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Why the Dalai Lama Is a Socialist: Buddhism and the Compassionate Society'. By Terry Gibbs, (Zed Books £12.99)
He isn’t, of course, but that does not mean this book is without value. The eye-catching title aside, there is relatively little here about the Dalai Lama, and the book is really about how some forms of Buddhism (which is often described as a philosophy rather than a religion) make similar-seeming claims to Marxism.
The Dalai Lama has in fact described himself as ‘half-Marxist, half-Buddhist’, but all the ‘Marxist’ part of this seems to mean is being concerned with equality and the condition of the majority. Some Buddhist views, it is claimed, deal with topics such as alienation and ideology that are important topics within Marxism too. Buddhism argues that people experience themselves as alienated and see nature and other people as things to be manipulated. Alienation, Gibbs suggests, is an inevitable result of living in a class society and, among other things, it motivates people’s consumption habits, such as always wanting the best and latest version of some gadget. Workers are deluded, in Buddhist terms, and have a false consciousness in Marxist terms (though Gibbs seems unaware that Marx never used the term ‘false consciousness’). But it is not clear that the Buddhist perspective adds anything, or that Marxism and Buddhism are really that similar, other than superficially.
There is a brief acknowledgement that Buddhist movements have contributed to suffering, but no reference to, for instance, the slaughter of muslim Rohingyas in Burma. A useful discussion deals with coltan, a mineral found in smartphones, which is produced in appalling conditions in Central Africa.
As for the kind of society that should replace capitalism, Gibbs is not at all clear, though a reference to ‘socialist Cuba’ is hardly reassuring. She also advocates a sustainable social system: ‘Such a global society would be marked by democratic processes that affirm mutuality, horizontality and respect as well as recognize our interdependence as the various cultures, races, religions, species and ecosystems sharing this planet.’ A guiding principle of this system would be ‘big C compassion’, which seems to mean being engaged with other humans, non-human animals and the rest of nature; perhaps this is what described also as a ‘sense of universal responsibility’.
As this last point suggests, this book is all a bit vague, and it is clear that Buddhism involves a number of different versions, many of them extremely mystical. Moreover, there is more to creating a truly democratic and sustainable society than showing compassion, whether with a big or little ‘c’.