Struggle Makes Us Human. Learning from Movements for Socialism. By Vijay Prashad. Edited by Frank Barat. Haymarket Books. 2022. 162pp.
‘An incisive and inspiring call to look beyond capitalism and chart a road map for a planet ravaged by pandemic, climate crises, and wars’. This is how this book, made up of a conversation between two long-term left-wing activists, Vijay Prashad and Frank Barat, is described on its back cover. It takes the form of a series of brief questions by Barat on a wide range of subjects followed by answers at some length by Prashad. Subjects include ‘The capitalist use of crisis’, ‘Resistance and rebellion’, ‘The real meaning of unemployment’, ‘History is a series of experiments’, ‘Transition to the future’, ‘Confidence comes from building movements’, ‘The long effect of the fall of the Soviet Union’, ‘Utopia is not a place but a project’. One of its main concerns, as suggested by the book’s title, is to examine and evaluate what are seen by Prashad as ‘movements for socialism’, those having taken place historically and others taking place now. So he traces, for example, in broad brush strokes and largely admiringly, the Haitian Peasant Revolution of 1804, the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution leading to the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, Castro’s Cuba, the Venezuela of Chavez and Maduro, and modern Kerala, referring to them all as ‘pro-people’ movements. But can all or any of these truly be called ‘movements for socialism’?
There is no doubt that some of them at least can only elicit admiration for the attempts they constitute to combat naked oppression and to move the status quo in a progressive direction. But others not so. The Bolshevik state, for example, authoritarian and oppressive from its very beginnings, bore no relation to socialism (a democratically organised stateless and leaderless society of free access to all goods and services). In the same way, Cuba, Vietnam, China and Venezuela, all of which the author is a strong supporter of, are essentially ‘top-down’ regimes integrated into the world capitalism system of markets, trade, money and wages, buying and selling. And they are more oppressive than more ‘liberal’ capitalist states in that they keep a closer check on their populations and in some cases don’t even offer them meaningful elections to vote in. The book puts the poor economic conditions in some of these countries (eg, Venezuela) down to political plotting and economic pressure by the Western powers (‘immense sanctions and hybrid war’), in particular the US. And any view of them as autocratic and oppressive is said to be ‘a fiction of the information war’ against countries which are said to be ‘socialist experiments’. However, whereas the US government may indeed see it in its interests to disparage a country like Venezuela as much as possible, there is still a patent blindness on the part of Prashad and others with similar views, to the manifestly oppressive, kleptocratic nature of the Maduro regime. It cannot just be the influence of America that has caused 6.8 million out of Venezuela’s population of 28 million to flee the country in recent years.
Kerala, on the other hand, a state in Prashad’s native India, governed by a left-wing coalition which the author also lauds, is clearly rather different. It has a government democratically elected and much more representative than places like Cuba or Venezuela, and it has a more advanced capitalist economy than almost anywhere on the Indian sub-continent. Yet the fact that its government is left-wing and may claim to be socialist does not, in any sense, make it some kind of experiment in socialist organisation, or as Prashad would have it, ‘a socialist state project’. At best it is a more advanced, less oppressive and arguably more humane form of capitalist administration than found in most other parts of the Asian continent.
Two sections of this book deal specifically with the future as seen through the author’s lens (‘The Future is Here’ and ‘The Future Will Contain What You Put into It Now’). They talk about ways forward but limit themselves to what can only be described as small beer, suggesting such things as ‘cooperatives’, ‘neighbourhood committees’ and ‘land reclamation’ as well as referring admiringly to the ‘universal housing planning’ of the former USSR and proposing that medicines, food and education should be ‘non-commodified’. A truly utopian wish, this last one, within the framework of capitalism and something again that could only happen in the context of a complete change in the structure of society to free access rather than buying and selling on the market. All the more surprising this, as Prashad is an acute observer and often good at providing incisive commentary into the workings of the capitalism system. His comments on the atomising effects of ‘platform capitalism’ for example, are apt and thought-provoking, as is his analysis of the predatory workings of the IMF and, as a kind of case study, the way in which the mining of copper for iPhones by children in Zambia affects the lives of those children and how that copper then does various commodity journeys around the globe to be transformed into smartphones and packaged for sale. But rather than the ‘impassioned and studied case for socialism’, claimed in ‘praise’ comments from one of the author’s supporters at the beginning of this book, what we have rather are recipes for reformism (‘to defend the gains of modest reforms and even fight for greater reforms’), a suite of proposals for managing capitalism in a less harsh, more worker-friendly way. All this, though referred to as part of the struggle for socialism, is in fact tinkering at the edges and does not get us any closer to the real qualitative transformation needed to establish a society in which all goods and services are truly ‘non-commodified’, ie, freely accessible to all according to need.