2000s >> 2008 >> no-1250-october-2008

Book Reviews

Hungry for Socialism

Hunger. By Raymond Tallis. Acumen, 2008.

Raymond Tallis, a physician turned philosopher, has delivered a thoughtful if slightly anarchic book in The Art Of Living series. In 164 pages he discusses several different concepts and manifestations of hunger. Starting with the nature and evolution of biological hunger in animals and humans, he goes on to trace how the pleasure of meeting nutritional needs has spawned for humans a multitude of other pleasures.

The author looks at how the hunger for food develops into what he calls hunger for others. There comes, for at least some people, the hunger for meaning and significance. Tallis’s final chapter “asks how we might manage our individual and collective hungers better so that we shall be less possessed by them and more concerned with the suffering of those to whom even subsistence is denied”.

The author makes several references to Marx, mainly on the fetishism of commodities and humans producing their own means of subsistence, but he nowhere expresses a hunger for revolutionary change. He does, however, take issue with another philosopher, John Gray, for whom planet earth has been doomed by the arrogance of human beings (“Homo rapiens”). Tallis points out that when humans regard their species as no more than animals they are inclined to treat one another even worse than hitherto.

As the author notes, the world we live in demands that we consume many things beyond our bodily needs. It is “a world where many have little or nothing to eat while many more are eating far too much and are in hot pursuit of a multitude of secondary and elective hungers”. Tallis doesn’t talk about a socialist future but he does say a few words about utopia: “The central presupposition of utopian [is] that our hungers will somehow serve our fellow men and not set one against another, that there are fundamental desires that will drive us to work for the common good.”

We drink to that!



Anti-war Morris

Crossing the ‘river of fire’ : the socialism of William Morris. By Hassan Mahamdallie. Redwords. 2008. £7.99

This is an SWP take on William Morris. Reasonably accurate, it emphasises (as might be expected from the SWP, at least in its current period) Morris’s anti-war and anti-imperialism stance. And Morris’s statement in the January 1887 issue of Commonweal does bear repeating:

“Meantime if war really becomes imminent our duties as socialists are clear enough, and do not differ from those we have to act on ordinarily. To further the spread of international feeling between workers by all means possible; to point out to our own workmen that foreign competition and rivalry, or commercial war, culminating at last in open war, are necessities of the plundering classes, and that the race and commercial quarrels of these classes only concern us so far as we can use them as opportunities for

fostering discontent and revolution; that the interests of the workmen are the same in all countries and they can never really be the enemies of each other; that the men of our labouring classes, therefore, should turn a deaf ear to the recruiting sergeant, and refuse to allow themselves be dressed up in red and be taught to form a part of the modern  killing machine for the honour and glory of a country in which they have only a dog’s share of many kicks and a few halfpence, – all this we have to preach always, though in the event of imminent war we may have to preach it more emphatically.”

For most of his active period as a socialist Morris was an “impossibilist” in that he favoured a policy of “making socialists” and “education for socialism” rather than seeking working class support on the basis of reform demands. Committed as they are to reformist agitation, the SWP find this an embarrassment just as much as E.P. Thompson did in both his CP and post-CP days. Mahamdallie argues that the correct tactic for Morris and the Socialist League would have been to do what the SWP does today: to get involved in the non-socialist, day-today struggles of workers with a view to directing them. He also claims that in 1890 Morris realised the “dreadful mistake” he had made in not doing this.

But did Morris admit this? His November 1890 resignation statement from the Socialist League (which had been taken over by bomb-throwing anarchists) “Where Are We Now? “does not say this. It says rather that he still thought he was right, but that as the working class seemed to have chosen a different path, so be it; that was their choice.

To be frank, Engels thought that Morris was wrong and preferred the reformist ILP to both the Socialist League and the SDF as a step towards the formation of genuine mass socialist party. But who was right? Morris or Engels? The ILP led to the Labour Party, which has been and gone, and we are still no nearer to socialism. The urgent need is still, as Morris insisted, campaigning for socialism not reforms.




Build It Now: Socialism for the 21st century. By Michael Lebowitz. Monthly Review

One criticism often levelled at books written by advocates of socialism is that they are over-theoretical, emphasizing in minute detail elements of capitalism that first have to be understood in order to grasp the essentials of the alternative but that they don’t get to the nitty-gritty of the practical elements required in order to reach the goal. This leaves readers suspended, in agreement about all the negatives of capitalism, but wondering how on earth this behemoth can be overturned, how anti-capitalism can be turned into socialism.

Lebowitz approaches the topic from a different angle, explaining the ethos of socialism at every opportunity and points out, reflecting Marx’s words, that socialism is actually not the goal but simply the means to an end – the end being the full development of human potential. He refers frequently to the three elements crucial to this overall human development – economic, political and social transformation – arguing that this has to be a work in progress; that there cannot be only one route when taking into account the diverse economic, political and cultural situations around the world.

Some of the chapters were originally speeches he gave to workers’ organisations in Venezuela where, in 2004, he was an adviser in the Ministry for the Social Economy. There is a discussion of lessons learned from Yugoslavia’s experiences in self-management in the mid-1900s; some analysis of neoclassical and neoliberal economics (he is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver); his judgement of why social democracy failed to deliver on its early promises (he was provincial policy chair of Canada’s social democratic Party, the NDP, 1972-5); plus his views on socialism as a process.

As socialists we recognize that as socialism requires a majority mandate the first task is human development, the “education” of the masses to the logic of socialism. It is also the case that, as there is no blueprint for socialism as such, we can imagine that the detailed structures of socialism in the different parts of the world (which won’t have to be exactly the same) will become clearer the nearer we approach it. But Lebowitz envisages a transition when there will still be a government which would still have much work to do convincing hard and fast capitalist supporters, changing attitudes that will persist (patriarchy, racism, discrimination), and removing barriers (in health, education, living standards) which currently prevent the reaching of an equitable society.

His criticism of social democracy is that, when in government, it has been unwilling to mobilize people on behalf of such policies: “the central flaw in social democracy  proposals for endogenous development is that they break neither ideologically nor politically with dependence upon capital” because to do so would necessitate “incorporating the mass of population that has so far been excluded from their share of the achievements of modern civilisation” and at the same time would unleash a host of enemies in the form of the international monetary institutions, imperial power and their forces of subversion plus those who monopolize the wealth and the land. Social  Democracy’s greatest failing, he says, was its core belief that the only practicable policy was that tinkering with details, reforming piecemeal in the hope of putting a more humane face on capitalism, its failure to offer an alternative logic based on human beings to the logic of capital.

The logic of capital versus the need for human development is a thread that winds through each of the chapters which culminate with his observations on how the “Bolivarian revolution” (which he sees as the beginning of a possible transition to socialism) is developing, warts and all. His conclusion is that “there is nothing inevitable about whether the Bolivarian Revolution will succeed in building that new society or whether it will lapse into a new variety of capitalism with populist characteristics. Only struggle will determine this.”

“A new variety of capitalism with populist characteristics” would seem to be an apt description of Venezuela under Chavez, even if Lebowitz presents the best case that can be for the opposite view.


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