Book Reviews: ‘Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism’, ‘Stalin Ate My Homework’, ‘How to be Idle’

Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism. By Keiran Allen. Pluto Press. 233 pages.

Professor Keiran Allen is a senior lecturer in Sociology at University College Dublin and his book purports to offer Marxism as an alternative form of social organisation to a sick and increasingly socially vile capitalism.

Marx delineated the social mores and behavioural culture that dominated and dominates our lives in capitalism, debunking the myths and superstitions originating in a class-structured society. Allen begins his work with a brief history of Marx’s life and times followed by an examination and, in some ways, clarification of his key theories, his theory of value and his Materialist Conception of History.

I found Allen’s exposition of Marx’s concept of alienation engagingly relevant to life in contemporary capitalism where the obscenities of extreme riches and poverty represent ubiquitous fare in the media. This is an increasingly relevant and often neglected area of Marxism in a world where the old traditional ‘moral’ values and the idea of a harsh Universal Policeman are disintegrating and where the vision of real social reform has been replaced by the visible political effluence of wealth-corrupted politicians.
Unfortunately what Allen offers as a Marxian antidote to the ongoing crisis of capitalism is all his own work.

In the Leninist tradition (he is a leading member of the Irish section of the SWP) he sees the working class, the vital element in the revolutionary transformation of capitalism, as being unfit for purpose; unable to rise to a full comprehension of social freedom and capable only of reacting to the leadership of an informed revolutionary elite. And, like Lenin, he thinks socialism is an indefinite condition, a form of political sticking plaster that may be applied by state regulation to the harsher sores of capitalism to make it less painful. Given his insubstantial perception of socialism it is not so surprising that he has discovered little islands of it out there existing among the turbulent oceans of world capitalism.

So what is this Marx being offered by Professor Allen as an alternative to capitalism?

Well, first we will have the Revolution – internecine warfare and those nasties that normally engender hatred and division but, guided by the revolutionary elite will, according to Allen, create working-class solidarity and a new (but, it transpires, not very new) social order.
The farmer will still own his field (p.180) and you’ll still be able to spend your money in the cafes and local shops but if you work for some of the big companies your new boss will be the state There will still be a need for wages’ departments and banks but if you are on the minimum wage you will have the satisfaction of knowing that the pay of those above you in the pecking order be restricted to a maximum of, say, four or five times what you get (p.192)

So, just as after the last Bolshevik Revolution, we will be a society of equals – but some will be more equal than others.

Uncle Joe and Young Alexei

Stalin Ate My Homework. Alexei Sayle. Sceptre. £8.99

It is often said that stand-up comedians are the product of a troubled childhood and in Alexei Sayle’s case that meant growing up as a half-Jewish, atheist, Scouse Marxist. Or at least a Marxist of sorts, because Sayle was brought up in Anfield in Liverpool the son of active Communist Party parents (his father, Joe, was an active trade unionist in the National Union of Railwaymen and incidentally a key witness in the famous Hanratty murder trail).

Sayle’s childhood was certainly unusual. Most Liverpudlian children of his age holidayed in places like Blackpool or Llandudno: his parents took him all over the former Eastern Bloc instead, often as guests of the local ruling Communist Parties. Sayle says he became a Young Communist as a matter of kinship and faith because his parents were Communists, but in his mid teens and while still at school something clicked intellectually too:

‘Once you understand Marx all the apparent chaos of human existence resolved itself into a coherent and comprehensive pattern . . . You can imagine, armed with this philosophy, how full of myself I now became. Even when I hadn’t had the secret of human history in my grasp I had been a mouthy little bastard in class. Now I was unstoppable.’ 

As those who have seen his act will appreciate, Sayle went from being a mouthy little bastard in class to being a mouthy big bastard on stage, and an entertaining one at that. On the way he also had a spell as a Maoist, joining the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) for a while.

His time as a teenage Maoist is where this engaging autobiographical account ends and it is hoped that there is to be a sequel covering his development as one of the original ‘alternative’ stand-up comedians in the UK.

The Right to be Idle

How to be Idle. By Tom Hodgkinson. Penguin.

Here is a handbook for any would-be socialist wondering what life could really be like in a post-capitalist society. Of course it’s not possible to be living a socialist way of life in a non-socialist world, but this book is full of the pleasures to be had from a way of living totally different from the one we see all around us now. Hodgkinson has an insightful grasp of the iniquities of the capitalist system, its stranglehold on working conditions and its tight control of most areas of our lives. He succinctly identifies many of its outstanding features and, with his own particular brand of humour, hands out lots of good advice for the work-weary, enabling us to open our eyes and see more clearly the life we should be living. Are we to live an onerous life created for us by this current controlling system or should we choose how we build and live our own individual lives? Do we live by our rules or theirs?

One clue to Hodgkinson’s outlook on being an idler is found in a description of his routine: he works in the morning, reading and writing; spends the afternoon in the garden chopping logs and suchlike; and gives the evening over to eating, drinking and talking. ‘When work is freely chosen and creative, then it’s not really work at all.’ He claims not to know much about Marx, but having thought that work was at the centre of his philosophy’ he now says he is beginning to understand that Marx’s motivation came from ‘the boredom and misery caused by the Industrial Revolution and by his own dream to replace that system with something more humane.’  

The first step to being idle is to understand our 250 years of indoctrination into the work ethic – a topic Hodgkinson expands on. Understanding that this work ethic is based on guilt enables us to get rid of that guilt and get on with the dreaming. ‘Dreams are not about money – they are about you and about your quality of life and imagination.’  

Co-founder of the ‘Idler’ magazine ( and the Idler Academy, Hodgkinson has spent nearly twenty years attempting (working hard?) to perfect the art of idling. He draws on the work of a host of writers, poets, philosophers and sociologists to support his ideas:  Paul Lafargue, Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Tom Paine, Oscar Wilde and Lao Tzu, to name but a few.

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