Book Reviews

Revolution in the 21st Century. A Rough Guide to Revolution for Academics and Activists. By Jack Grassby, TUPS book, Newcastle, 2003

This is basically an up-dated version of Jack Grassby’s previous book, A Socialist’s Guide for the 21st Century, reviewed in the July 2001 Socialist Standard. In this he sets out, mainly for politics students, the range of approaches adopted by political activists.

First, there are those who think that the present social, economic and political system  capitalism, based on class ownership of the means of production and driven by production for profit  is basically OK but needs improving in one way or another. Some want “more capitalism”, i.e. less social interference in the market and profit-making (Grassby calls them the “Anti-Socialists”) while others want to move in the direction of more communal responsibility for people (Grassby calls them the “Non-Socialists” or “social democrats” such as Blair, ex-President Clinton and the Lib Dems in Britain).

Secondly, there are those who think that the present system should be replaced by another system they call “socialism” (variously defined, but all involving social control of production). Some believe that such a new system could be introduced gradually through a series of reforms voted by a democratically-elected government (Grassby calls them the “Evolutionary Socialists” or “gradualists” or “reformists”, as exemplified by Old Labour). Then, says Grassby, there are the “Revolutionary Socialists” who argue that socialism can only be established after a decisive break during which the present ruling class are deprived of power –  a “revolution”.

Grassby divides this group into those who hold that such a revolution has to be the work of a conscious majority and can be achieved essentially peacefully by making use of existing elective institutions (he gives us as the typical, indeed the main, example) and those who hold that it has to be the work of an enlightened minority, a political vanguard, leading the workers in what will inevitably be a violent show-down with the state (here, his typical example is the SWP). He also discusses the anarchists but doesn’t classify them as a separate approach, presumably because, depending on their views, they can be fitted into one of other of the three categories above (reformists, democratic revolutionists, vanguardists).

He does, however, introduce a fourth group who he calls the “New Socialists” (even though most of them don’t call themselves socialists, “anti-capitalists” being as far as they are prepared to go): the amorphous group of those who don’t see any single alternative to capitalism but many possible alternatives, including some which retain money and markets, all of which are seen as equally valid; in fact, for them, the goal is not that important, it’s what you do now that is.

Despite the fact that they reduce “socialism”, as has the Labour Party when it pretends to have something to do with this, to “socialist values” that can be achieved within capitalism, Grassby’s sympathies go to this last group, or rather it is in them that he sees the future hope for socialism. Certainly, at the moment, this is the approach that probably most of those radically dissatisfied with the worst features of capitalism are inclined to adopt. But even he recognises that pursuing single issues is ultimately a dead-end, an endless uphill struggle like trying to run up a downward-moving escalator. And, we would add, both he and they are wrong to imagine that there are many possible alternatives to capitalism.

At this particular historical juncture, due to the productive system that has developed, there is only one possible way forward for humanity: a world-wide society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources. This is not to say that, on this basis, alternative structures are not possible. Of course they are , and no doubt in different parts of the world these structures will reflect the different traditions and preferences of the people living there. That would be a consequence of the democracy that socialism necessarily involves. Socialism is not a blueprint as to all aspects of the alternative society to capitalism, only a definition of what its basis has inevitably to be.

Grassby is over-impressed with “post-modernism” which he seems to identify with philosophical scepticism and moral relativism, but these have existed since Ancient Greek times. Post-modernism, if it is to mean anything (not that it is clear that it is), surely, must have something to do with “modernism”, i.e. the view that emerged, at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century the Age of Reason, that there are universal human values and which advanced the project of universal human emancipation, a project inherited by early socialists such as Marx. It is this that post-modernism rejects, and shows itself to be, not as Grassby thinks the basis for a theory of 21st century revolution, but an expression of  capitalism’s current intellectual bankruptcy.

Grassby has also been taken in by “socio-biology”, the theory of biological determinism thought up by EO Wilson, the specialist in ant behaviour. Grassby argues that “the Marxist view that the post-capitalist society will operate altruistically, without money, prices or wages, demands a uniform standard of human behaviour not consistent with the sociobiologist’s description” and “would require universally altruistic human behaviour without greed, selfishness, prejudice or power”.

It is not clear where in Marx or any other socialist writer, Grassby gets this idea that socialism requires “universally altruistic human behaviour”, i.e. that everybody should put everybody else’s interest before their own, but probably from the biological determinist opponents of socialism such as Wilson and Steven Pinker who he quotes. But in fact socialism doesn’t require everyday human behaviour to change much from what it is today, essentially only the accentuation of some of the behaviours which people exhibit today (friendliness, helpfulness, cooperation) at the expense of others which capitalism encourages (violence, competitiveness and acquisitiveness).

Of course humans are biologically capable of aggressive as well as non-aggressive behaviour, of being narrowly self-centred as well as of showing concern for others that’s what being biologically capable of a wide range of behaviour, a key feature of “human nature”, means. But that’s not the same as saying that humans have a “biological predisposition” (through a gene or combination of genes) for aggression, domination or greed or, for that matter, for non-violent, co-operative or altruistic behaviour. Because we are “biologically programmed” for flexible behaviour, humans are capable of both types of behaviour depending on the circumstances in which we were brought up or find ourselves in.

So, while Grassby’s book may provide some useful material for students’ essays on politics, they should be wary on relying on it for their essays on philosophy. And they are advised, if they want avoid bad marks, to refer to John Stuart Mill as “Mill” rather than “Mills”.

One further correction. Grassby says that the SPGB has “its roots in the Labour Representative Committee established in 1900” which was the forerunner of the Labour Party. This is a misunderstanding. We were a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation which was indeed present at the 1900 conference which established the, to give it its proper name, Labour Representation Committee. But in 1901 the SDF disaffiliated from the LRC and it was after this, in 1904, that the Socialist Party broke away.  So, we have never had any links to the Labour Party.

Dance of the Dialectic. By Bertell Ollman. University of Illinois Press, 2003

For Socrates it was teasing out the threads of an argument by asking questions. In Hegel’s philosophy it was the development of the idea through history. With Marx and Engels, however, there is some dispute as to what their version of the dialectic means, or even if they were both talking about the same thing. This apparent confusion is compounded by Plekhanov’s term “dialectical materialism”, a phrase not used by Marx or Engels, yet this was designated the official philosophy of state capitalist Russia in the years after the Bolshevik revolution.

Ollman is in no doubt that Marx and Engels were talking about different aspects of the same thing. For Ollman, their dialectic has two main features. Firstly, it is a philosophy of internal relations. Capitalism is a system constituted by its social relations of production, and a change to one relationship will have consequences for the whole system. This philosophical viewpoint tries to understand that process. Secondly, it is a method of abstraction. The key social relationships of capitalism (e.g. value, commodity, class) depend upon, but are not reducible to, material objects. They can only be comprehended as abstractions but they are nonetheless real and can affect our lives profoundly when they mean that profit-making takes priority over human needs. To some it may seem that this explanation is very different from how the dialectic is often understood. According to Ollman:

“Dialectics is not a rock-ribbed triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that serves as an all-purpose explanation; nor does it provide a formula that enables us to prove or predict anything; nor is it the motor force of history. The dialectic, as such, explains nothing, proves nothing, predicts nothing, and causes nothing to happen. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world”.

Ollman goes into considerable detail in what is likely to be the standard work on this subject for many years to come.



Narratives of British Socialism. By Stephen Ingle. Palgrave MacMillan, 2002 ISBN 03333510836

‘Narratives of British Socialism’ is an attempt by a layman to demonstrate the meaning and value of literary criticism to an untypical audience.  The author is himself a political scientist, writing for students of political science, and trying to justify why they should make a serious study of the realm of ephemera, fairy-dust and make-believe.

Coming from without the paid-up priesthood of literature in the universities, Stephen Ingle bravely adheres to the unfashionable view of the value of literature lying in its capacity to grasp truth.  It has certainly been a long time since literary realism was held in any esteem by the hooded minions of cloistered academe, so caught up are they in the contortions of their own cleverness which they seek to find reflected in the works they read.  This text instead betrays the discipline and attention required of a practical breathing social science.

That said, it does also rely on the infamous ‘test of time’ for assessing the merit of works for consideration: a test that objectifies the work, and conceals the social and critical responses to it that enabled it to survive the Darwinian war of belle lettre against belle lettre.  The test of time necessarily means suspending judgement on the contemporary, rather than being able to assess and enjoy the fray.  

This is indicative of the character of the criticism within the work.  It is far more a conspectus of canonical leftist writers than a deeply critical excursion into their works, and certain interpretations of works considered are highly debatable – for instance ignoring the contempt with which Orwell dealt with the proletarian characters in Animal Farm and 1984, or the way those works also dealt with contemporary Britain as well as foreign totalitarianism.

As a conspectus, though, it provides an invaluable list of authors, Wells, Tressell, Shaw, Orwell, etc. who made up the pantheon of left-wing authors.  In this, even if it does not compete with the flair of such professional critics as Žižek – who claims that Bond movies are the greatest example of Socialist (Stalinist)‎ Realist film making – it achieves its aims of opening such literature to new students.

Its critical short-comings, in this context, represent a strength, opening up the debate for the student to follow on their own rather than being awed by the cleverness of the author.   The discussion ends with an examination of the weight such literary reading still carries in the workers’ movement. In a strictly practical manner this is assessed through a history of surveys of Labour MP’s, which shows the decline of reading of certain authors – or, indeed, in general, among the younger generation of politicians.

The ending of the book is dismal, with its noting on the lack of a contemporary literary mode of coalescing the vision of the workers movement, and the lack of consequent inspiration in leftist politics.  We can hope this is just leftism having run its course, and a new genuinely socialist vision will emerge soon to fill the void.

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