Friday, October 26, 2007

After Socialism. Reconstructing Critical Social Thought (2007)

Book Review from the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

After Socialism. Reconstructing Critical Social Thought. By Gabriel Kolko. Routledge

Kolko writes as a critic of capitalism, but as one who has no time for Marxism, or rather for what he thinks is Marxism. His two chapters on this are irritating as he paints Marx as a crude economic determinist who saw working class action to establish socialism as a mere inevitable reflex action to capitalist conditions. But if this was the case, why was he a revolutionary agitator in the 1840s and again in the 1860s and 1870s? True, he got it wrong in that, contrary to what must have been his expectation, the working class has still not acted to establish socialism. And this has meant that we socialists today are a lot less confident than earlier generations in speaking in terms of socialism being inevitable.

Kolko also criticises Marx for not having much to say on imperialism, war and state intervention. This is true too, but then these only became big issues after his death in 1883, and those in the Marxist tradition (including ourselves but also the likes of Hilferding and Bukharin) did address these questions.

Kolko's real argument is with the two attempts in the 20th century to ostensibly challenge capitalism – Social Democracy and "Communism". The former was led by ambitious parliamentary politicians who ended up merely administering the status quo, and the latter by those who cynically installed themselves in power as a new elite and then paved the way for later members of this elite to transform themselves into ordinary capitalists. According to him (and we can concur) both these have been utter failures and any radical movement against capitalism has to start all over again on a quite different basis. For him, "socialism" is dead and cannot be resurrected. Hence the book's title.

The two chapters in which he describes "capitalist realities" - a world dominated by capitalist corporations run by greedy and self-seeking executives and by governments which do their bidding when not lining their own pockets – are the best.

As to his solution, he proposes a new radical Left party which will be more democratic and more principled than the old Social Democratic parties. But, because he has rejected the sort of overall view that Marxism has of capitalism as a system governed by economic laws, he thinks that problems such as the threat of nuclear war, inequality and poverty can be dealt with piecemeal. In other words, another version of the same old, failed reformism.

Kolko is a historian who has specialised in analysing wars and he thinks that history demonstrates that the best chance of a mass working class movement to overthrow capitalism will be after some war that the ruling class will have foolishly embarked on. He could be right. But let's hope he's not.
Adam Buick