Book Review: ‘Non-market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’

The thin red line

Non-market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries –  Palgrave Macmillan, paperback – 7 Aug 1987 by Maximilien Rubel (Editor), John Crump (Editor)

Faced with a social system which creates problems faster than its politicians can make promises, responses range from the stupidly complacent, to those whose self-righteous radicalism leaves no time for actually solving the problems they shout about. Would-be “leaders” the world over, rush to defend the indefensible. Political parties compete to run a system of organised poverty and obscene contradictions, which has built weapons to destroy humanity while millions starve. Most political debate is as irrational as the system of class division and profit which, in one form or another, it seeks to defend. It is therefore very refreshing indeed when a glimmer of social sanity shows itself through this dense fog of doublethink.

Just such an encouraging and exciting event took place late last year, with the publication of a book which is of significance. Until now, those historians who claimed to deal with the “labour movement” or the opposition to capitalism have focused, almost entirely, on the opportunists who have come to power by riding on the back of social discontent and perverting the idea of social freedom, through the Labour Party, the Communist Party or the Trotskyist fringe. Those who have upheld a clear and principled socialist alternative in the face of fierce hostility have all too often been relegated to a contemptuous footnote  in small print, if they were mentioned at all.

Now the record has been set straight. Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries is a fascinating and compelling account which deals exclusively with those who have seen through the nonsense of the profit system and who have stood clearly for the abolition of capitalism in any of its forms, whether private or state controlled and its replacement by a system of production for use, with human needs being met through free access to all goods and services. Socialist ideas are explained in a historical context which makes them all the more powerful and urgent. Moreover, it is demonstrated that capitalism really does “produce its own gravediggers”, as various groups at different times and places have independently reached (and continue independently to reach) the same conclusion – that since the problems of the working-class majority cannot possibly be solved through the reform of the capitalist system, therefore it must be replaced.

Following the pattern used in each of the chapters of the book, let us first set out the background and central idea put forward in this work, before summarising the content and moving on to weigh up its strengths and weaknesses as a book. Non-Market Socialism, edited by Maximilien Rubel and John Crump, published by Macmillan and available in paperback at £8.95, arose out of a conference of discussion and debate which took place in York in September 1984. The revolutionary basis on which the book develops is made clear from the formal dedication on the very first page, which states

    “This book is dedicated to the men and women of the thin red line of non-market socialism who have kept alive the vision of socialism as a society of personal freedom, communal solidarity, production for use and free access to goods.”

Socialism defined

In Chapter Two, written by John Crump (who for some time was a member of The Socialist Party), four key features are outlined, as a definition of socialism which is to be used throughout the book. These are that:

    “Production will be for use and not for sale on the market.

    Distribution will be according to need and not by means of buying and selling.

    Labour will be voluntary and not imposed on workers by means of a coercive wages system.

    A human community will exist and social divisions based on class, nationality, sex or race will have disappeared.”

Crump them goes on to elaborate excellently on all the implications of such a revolution in social relationships, dealing very clearly with all the common myths of “human nature” which have sometimes been used to obstruct such discussion. He also explains the historical emergence of the “Social Democratic” and Leninist movements which distorted and confused this fundamental concept of the socialist alternative. The way in which the Russian Revolution of 1917 established a regime of state capitalism is also clearly stated, with quotations from the Socialist Standard from that period to demonstrate how socialists were able to make such an analysis even then. Also in Crump’s chapter, the whole notion of a “transitional society” between capitalism and socialism is explored and rejected.

At this stage, the central thesis and claim of the book is explained. This is that there have been various movements which have stood openly for the socialist alternative as defined above, the five most significant such “tendencies” to be dealt with in detail in subsequent chapters. While agreeing on their object or aim, these movements have been in conflict over how to achieve that goal and over various other points of detail. Crump argues that such differences constitute a “periphery” which, at the present time, is less important than the “core” idea of defining socialism, introducing workers to this and encouraging them to adopt it as the only practical alternative to the exploitation of the capitalist system. We will consider this general thesis in more detail below but let us first take a look at the contents of the other chapters.

A background survey which explores the nineteenth century origins of socialist idea is provided by Maximilien Rubel, a recognised authority and scholar of Marx, based in Paris, who has been in close contact with The Socialist Party. Rubel takes as his starting point the 1848 Communist Manifesto’s list of categories of “Socialism” and finds there some early progenitors of both the modern idea of “market socialism” (of course, a contradiction in terms) and of the non-market alternative. He seeks to rescue from relative obscurity and rehabilitate into their deserved place of recognition such early socialist thinkers as Wilhelm Weitling or Flora Tristan and many others. In contrast to “vulgar materialism”, Rubel presents the need for socialism as an “ethical imperative”: a term whose use has been debated in the columns of the Socialist Standard when Rubel has corresponded with us on that issue. Finally, and with great eloquence, he demolishes the very damaging claims of the Bolsheviks to have established “socialism” in Russia, with their perversion of “Marxism” into a distorted religious ideology.

In a chapter on “Anarcho-Communism”, Alain Pengam develops further the rich heritage and background of ideas from which the modern socialist movement has developed, by focussing on those early anarchists who embraced most clearly the idea of abolishing property relationships. Déjacque, for example, wrote in 1858 that social revolution means that “Commerce . . . this scourge of the 19th century, has disappeared amongst humanity. There are no longer either sellers or sold” (p.64). Kropotkin is also extensively quoted on the need for the abolition of the wages system. Beyond this, however, Pengam struggles in vain to find any substantial threads of such a tradition extending into the twentieth century, referring for example to the military defeat during the Mexican Revolution of those anarchists who sought in vain to establish agricultural co-operative communes there.

World Socialist Movement

This brings us to Chapter Four, on “Impossibilism”, which is written by Stephen Coleman and focuses on The Socialist Party itself. In a postscript to the book it is pointed out that the Socialist Party of Great Britain, “with a record of over eighty years’ unbroken commitment to non-market socialism” is an exception to the general rule, whereby other groups proclaiming allegiance to the ideas of non-market socialism have tended to be rather more fleeting in their organisational existence. Coleman makes it quite clear in his chapter how and why that consistency of both organisation and principle has been achieved by The Socialist Party.

The formation of The Socialist Party in 1904 is described, as is the formation of its similar predecessor, the Socialist League in 1884, both as breakaway groups from the Social Democratic Federation. From the League, William Morris is quoted on the need to “put an end for ever to the wage-system” so that everyone could have “free access to the means of production of wealth” (p. 85). There is also a brief description of the ideas of Daniel De Leon and of the Socialist Labour Party, with their notion of the need for “labour vouchers” in a socialist society clearly dealt with.

Coleman then goes on to produce an excellent, sweeping survey of the history and ideas of The Socialist Party and its companion parties in other countries, referred to as the World Socialist Movement. This is of great historical significance in itself, since until now we have been faced with an overwhelming silence from labour historians in relation to the unique and inspiring record of The Socialist Party, in putting forward a consistent case for socialism in a way which is now properly documented and described in this chapter. In fact, the only other book previously published dealing with The Socialist Party was produced in 1975 under the title of The Monument, and consisted of a series of (often inaccurate) anecdotes, failing to deal at all seriously with the development of socialist ideas.

The work in question, on the other hand, sets this record straight. Using a wide assortment of examples, ranging from India to Canada, Britain and elsewhere we see how socialism was positively put and reformist compromise consistently opposed throughout the upheavals of these years. We read how both world wars were actively opposed, and how the Socialist Standard has been published every month without fail, despite the difficulties that have been involved.

A careful reading of Coleman’s chapter also shows that there are two false assumptions which emerge elsewhere in the book. First, in his introductory chapter Crump claims that The Socialist Party is separate from the other traditions referred to because it has a “parliamentary strategy” which is “anathema to the other currents of non-market socialists”. In fact, it would be more accurate to state the emphasis of Socialist Party material has been democratic, concerning on the need for socialism to be established by a conscious majority, since means must harmonise with ends. Coleman contrasts the “parliamentarianism” of the reformists, which involves sending representatives to Parliament to run capitalism, with the socialist policy in which a socialist majority mandates recallable delegates in order to dismantle the state machine, from a position of control. Coleman tells the story of the socialist speaker who referred to socialism coming not just through the ballot box, but through the “brain box” and points out that

    “it is clearly those who insist that ballot boxes and parliaments can play no part in the establishment of socialism and assert that socialism can only be established via industrial organisation alone, who are being dogmatic and historically fetishised in their thinking about the revolution.” (p.94)

Second, one might think from reading the introductory sections of the book that the various tendencies considered differ fro one another only in their ideas about how socialism is to be achieved. It is clear however, from looking at the closing section of Chapter Four in comparison with other chapters, that there is another important difference which distinguishes The Socialist Party in particular from those other tendencies. This is that The Socialist Party is alone in remaining organised on a significant scale and politically active in Britain today.

Possible exceptions to this, it might be argued, would be found under the heading of “Council Communism”, which is dealt with in Chapter Five by Mark Shipway. It is, however, stated in the Postscript that “it is doubtful whether any ‘orthodox’ council communist groups exist today”. Of the organisations which are then listed, the International Communist Current has been found in debate with The Socialist Party to adhere to a fundamentally Leninist position and the group Wildcat, of which Shipway is a member and which is reviewed critically in the December 1987 Socialist Standard, state that “we struggle in favour of strikes, riots and all other acts of rebellion against capitalism”, which hardly suggests credibility in terms of democratic organisation.

Council Communism

Shipway presents an historical account of the emergence of the Council Communist movement in the wake of the First World War, quoting extensively from Anton Pannekoek. Unlike other tendencies dealt with, the Council Communists were generally more preoccupied with a detailed discussion of how the revolution would take place –  as far as they were concerned, through the setting up of workers’ councils to rival the capitalist state – rather than focusing, in any detail, on what end result was to be achieved through this process. In the course of his analysis, Shipway accepts the somewhat suicidal notion of workers forming their own militias to rival the capitalist armed forces (p.117), refers somewhat confusingly to “periods of revolutionary turmoil” (p.108) and quotes approvingly the need for a party to “win the trust of the masses” (p.124). He states, rather hopefully, that Council Communist intervention in working class struggles “should” be based on nothing less that the final goal of communism, while recognising that this has not generally been the case. (p.124). Further, support is given to Pannekoek’s emphasis on theories of economic breakdown (p.120) and to his rather obscure and vanguardist references to building up the “spiritual power” of workers (p. 122).


In Chapter Six, Adam Buick presents a detailed view of “Bordigism”, the movement named after the Italian Marxist Amadeo Bordiga, who died in 1970 after a great literary and political output. After an historical explanation of the succession of parties influenced by Bordiga’s thinking, culminating in the International Communist Party, among others, Buick goes on to show how Bordiga’s concept of socialism was explicitly based on the abolition of the market system and of all property relationships, including those of state capitalism.

By quoting extensively from Bordiga himself, Buick methodically and clearly demonstrates just how emphatically capitalism in all its manifestations was understood and rejected by Bordiga. Many good examples of this are given, perhaps one of the simplest being that “where there is money, there is neither socialism nor communism, as there isn’t, and by a long way, in Russia” (Bordiga, 1959, quoted on p.139).

Buick also explains the paradox, that alongside this very clear revolutionary concept of the socialist alternative, the Bordigists have remained élitist in terms of political strategy, believing that socialist understanding on the part of the working class majority could be developed after, rather than before, socialism is brought about. This, again, relates to the underlying thesis of the book, because whereas Bordigist means of obtaining their goal can be seen in this chapter to stand at odds in many ways with their goal, it is argued by Crump in Chapter Two that this is “peripheral”, since workers who are educated by Bordigism into revolutionary ends can themselves prove the Bordigists wrong in practice about the means required to bring this about. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that means often determine ends rather than the other way round and that of course ultimately the two cannot be separated. Buick implicitly recognises this fact by showing how the Bordigist conception of socialism itself is “non-democratic” and “technocratic”, involving not full participation in the control of production but the appointment of experts to make decisions in the best interests of others – an angle which would perhaps be regarded with more cynicism by many workers in the 1980s than in former decades. Also, despite these reservations, there is clearly validity in Crump’s point that Bordigism, together with the other movements considered, has definitely played a positive part in introducing workers to the idea of the abolition of the wages system and its replacement with a system of production for use.


Finally, the movement of “Situationism” is dealt with in Chapter Seven, again by Mark Shipway. The Situationist International was a small group based in France which produced a substantial amount of literature between 1957 and 1973 and which became widely known, out of all proportion to its numbers, as a result of the May 1968 “Events” in Paris. They were explicit in their opposition to modern capitalism, which they called the society of the “Spectacle”, because of the passivity and alienation it produced and in their support for socialist revolution. Shipway clearly explains their theories of consumerism, with key texts by Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, finding roots in Marx’s theory of alienation and weaknesses in that Situationist was based rather narrowly on conditions in the post-war boom in France. What also emerges, however, is that they developed some very important cultural and psychological insights into capitalism which complement much of the more traditionally political and economic analysis focused on in the rest of the book. Finally, Shipway ends the book with a comment on reformism which appears rather at odds with the rest of the book:

    “Of course it would be ideal if every time workers went on strike it was for the abolition of the wages system. But while this is not the situation in which revolutionaries presently find themselves, neither is it a reason for ignoring or abstaining from any struggle which starts out on the basis of ostensibly reformist demands.” (p.169)

It is worth pointing out in relation to this that each author was separately responsible for his own chapter and clearly some have been more clear on such issues than others. A good reason, for example, why revolutionaries must abstain from struggles which start out “on the basis of ostensibly reformist demands” is suggested in a very clear passage by Crump in Chapter Two, in which he explains that there can be no halfway house between the two “all-or-nothing” options of world capitalism and world socialism:

    “the means of production must either function as capital throughout the world (in which case wage labour and capitalism persist internationally) or they must be commonly owned and democratically controlled at a global level (in which case they would be used to produce wealth fro free, worldwide distribution) . . . the changeover from world capitalism to world socialism will have to take the form of a short, sharp rupture (a revolution), rather than an extended process of cumulative transformation.” (pp.54,55)

In conclusion then, the detailed chapters on the five main tendencies which have supported the idea of “non-market socialism” suggest that the original thesis was to some extent a victory of hope over reason. In terms of practical and active organisation in 1988, and particularly in Britain, the organised movement for socialism is somewhat more unitary than this volume might suggest. Also in terms of developing a practical strategy for establishing socialism which takes due account of the importance of both majority consciousness and democracy and which recognises the need to relate means to ends, then again the “thin red line” is perhaps thinner than we might wish it.

Despite such reservations, those who have collaborated in the production of this book have effectively broken a silence of decades. We hope this will also generate further discussion and debate among that growing number of individuals and groups who have come to reject capitalism, in all its forms, and seek to develop a non-market alternative. It is a strong vindication of Marx’s Materialist Conception of History that from a variety of times, places and backgrounds within capitalism workers have reached similar conclusions about the need to establish a new social system capable of meeting the needs of all. The fact that workers now continue to seek such answers shows that non-market socialism is both practical and urgent. Those who wish, then, to further their understanding of the movement for socialism are recommended to get hold of this book. In continuing such discussions, we are helping to ensure that the “thin red line” does not remain so thin in the immediate future.

Clifford Slapper

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