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Book Reviews: 'Why You Should be a Socialist'

Infantile Disorders

'Why You Should be a Socialist', by John Strachey. Gollancz, 2d. 1938.

'Why You Should be a Socialist', by Paul Foot. Socialist Worker, 35p. 1977.

Strachey's pamphlet sold over 300,000 copies before the war. It is not difficult to see why. It was simply-written and readable, and the early chapters gave some enlightenment about the class division in society, wages and capitalist production.

According to Strachey’s biographer Hugh Thomas, he was assisted in his bigger works by Palme Dutt and Emile Burns of the Communist Party, and it shows in curious ways in this pamphlet. Its easy, popular and slightly condescending style derives from Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, from which Strachey quotes. When it comes to the more detailed explanations, it wobbles between theories of various kinds. Crises occur because the workers cannot buy back what they produce; consuming power could be increased by higher wages, but that would eat into the rate of profit and stop the system working. Therefore the capitalists export their capital, and this leads to the “collision of empires” which causes wars . . .  help! One imagines Strachey mopping his brow after a session with the pundits two, wishing he really understood it, and going home reading the Blatchford he’d kept hidden in his pocket.

But what was it you had to believe in to Be a Socialist? Russia, of course. Strachey introduces it stealthily. Socialism means, he says, state ownership, public corporations and regulated wages. Then phrases creep in: not what will or would happen, but what does happen in “socialist society”, changing at last to “the existing socialist country, the Soviet Union”. After that it is all clear for a chapter in praise of Russia (opened by quoting “a great American writer”, Lincoln Steffens—“I have seen the future, and it works”).

Paul Foot’s pamphlet cost forty-two times as much as Strachey’s did. It is well produced, illustrated with cartoons, vigorously written, but not as instantly readable; whereas Strachey wrote as a teacher anxious for simple things to sink in, Foot writes as a talker who is hard to stop. Like Strachey, when he is slating the existing state of capitalism he has some good material, and his pamphlet provides plenty of facts and quotations.

However, the fundamental difference between the two is the clarity of their messages. Strachey’s message was naive, but it came over clearly to the reader who got to the end: state management as they have in Russia is the answer, so support Russia and try to get their system here. No such plain conclusion emerges from Foot’s pamphlet. The reader may have his sympathy engaged by parts of it; he is told he must get into “every little battle”; but what is the object of the campaign? Nobody seems to be able to say coherently.

Socialism is said to have three principles—the social ownership of the means of production, equality, and “a workers’ democracy”. The first two can mean everything or nothing, depending on how they are conceived, but the third is incomprehensible. “Workers” exist as a category only when there is some other category, by implication employers. There are also to be tenants (implying landlords) and consumers (i.e. buyers, implying sellers), and a government which guarantees social welfare and imposes a maximum income. In the armed forces the officers will be elected instead of appointed, likewise judges; and the jury system will be extended so that “laying down punishment” is done more democratically.

Not only has none of this anything to do with Socialism—it implies an almost frightening lack of vision of what Marx’s “human society” should be like. The muddled details could come from a nineteen-twenties Labour Party pamphlet attempting to show a benevolent, regulated capitalism. Incidentally, if democracy is “indispensable”, as Foot says, he may care to explain in a future exposition why members of his Socialist Workers’ Party disrupt other people’s meetings.

The most revealing touch is where Foot refers to Strachey as “one of the finest socialist intellectuals”. Yet Strachey was wrong and abandoned his views; Foot, who rejects Russia, agrees that Strachey was wrong. So in another forty years a third Why You Should be a Socialist may sing Foot’s praises while quashing what he says now. But there is a justification for the title of these two pamphlets. Both demonstrate why you should be a Socialist and ignore all this twaddle.

Robert Barltrop