Book Reviews

Reformist essays

An Inheritance for Our Times. Principles and Politics of Democratic Socialism. Edited by Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker and Michael J. Thompson. OR Books, 2020. 412pp.

This book announces itself as ‘a reader that includes essays in the form of both personal accounts and intellectual arguments from activists and theorists advocating a democratic socialist outlook’. The essays, 30 in number, are written mainly by American academics, but the language used by most is not overly academic making it a fairly readable collection and with a political range far wider than just the USA.

The editors’ introduction sets the scene trenchantly: ‘The mass-consumption society erected over the course of the twentieth century for the purpose of generating never-ending surplus for the few and political quiescence for the many has metastasised into a global form of life’. The society they are talking about here of course is capitalism and most of the contributions that follow are directed at proposing ways in which capitalism can be improved on or replaced by something better, usually referred to as socialism.

The trouble is, as we all know, there are many ‘versions’ of socialism and most of the contributors, however well intentioned, propose ‘socialisms’ that most Socialist Standard readers would not recognise as the society of common ownership and democratic organisation that the Socialist Party has put forward over the 117 years of its existence. What the essays mainly argue for is a variety of more or less radical reshapings of capitalism but not its abolition with the establishment of a moneyless, marketless system of production and distribution based on ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’. So though framed in terms of, for example, the replacement of ‘production for profit with production for social need’, when looked at closely what is usually envisioned is a ‘fairer’, more ‘equal’ form of the money system.

So while in his essay ‘Essential Socialism’, Fernando Gasparin argues correctly that struggles over reforms are, in Rosa Luxemburg’s words, ‘a labour of Sisyphus’ and that ‘each reform successfully rolled up the hill can roll back down again’, this does not prevent him arguing that ‘socialism needs a constitutional provision providing for public democratic control of banks and financial institutions’. Nor is it uncommon in the collection to find references to socialism coexisting with the market, as in the chapter by David Schweickart entitled ‘Marxist Market Socialism’. In another chapter, ‘Socialism and the Democratisation of Finance’ by Fred Block, there is reference to ‘a democratised financial system’ as part of the ‘regulatory apparatus of socialism’. Most of the contributors find it difficult to envision the stateless society that socialism must be. For Lester Spence, for example, in his essay entitled ‘The Democratic Socialist Imaginary’, ‘democratic socialism’ is defined as ‘a state form that combines public ownership of the means of production with a form of government based on popular elections and popular means of creating government policy and state institutions’. Elsewhere the currently popular concept of a guaranteed basic income figures strongly, as do other ‘socialist’ ideas such as ‘worker cooperatives’ and the ‘model’ of Scandinavian social democracy.

On the positive side, there seems at least to be general agreement among contributors that what happened in Russia in 1917 and developed from that was a bogus, or at least distorted, version of socialism (‘state domination, a hierarchically organised command economy, ruthless industrialization, antidemocratic political institutions’, as one writer puts it) and that those groups on the Left who still see some virtue in Lenin’s Bolshevik takeover and put the failure of the Soviet system down to Stalin prevailing over Trotsky are also barking up the wrong tree. And in a number of these essays, the modern-day supporters of Lenin and Trotsky who still insist on the need for a vanguard party to lead workers to overthrow capitalism are given short shrift. In his chapter, ‘What is Socialism?’, Stephen Bronner explains how Leninist ‘democratic centralism’ can only lead to authoritarian rule by a minority. Smulevicz-Jucker (‘Democratic Socialism contra Populism’) sees Leninism as calling for ‘an elite party leadership to determine the working class’s true interests’.

A number of writers too remind us that Marx, regardless of how his writing has been used and abused over the last 150 years, did not see socialism (or communism, and we are reminded that the words were used interchangeably by Marx) as state ownership but as common ownership, entailing the abolition of the wages system and free access to all goods and services. Rohini Hensman, in her ‘Marx and Engels on Socialism’, correctly points out that in Marx’s concept of socialism ‘all class divisions will have been abolished… Products will not be sold as commodities, and there will be no money. Labour time will be minimised and free time will be maximised. Since capitalism is global, it follows that socialism would be global too’, and ‘Marx and Engels repeatedly make it clear that there will be no state in a socialist society’.

Support for this vision seems to be present in some of the essays in this collection. For example, Barbara Epstein, in ‘What Socialism Means’, states: ‘Socialism refers to the goal of an economically egalitarian society based on cooperation rather than on competition and the exploitation by some of the labour of others.’ Peter Hudis (’Democratic Socialism and the Transition to Genuine Democracy’) reminds us of Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum that ‘there is no socialism without democracy and no democracy without socialism’ and makes it clear that socialism needs ‘a global transformation’. Yet that writer, like others who seem to express support for this view of socialism, tend in the end to fall back on ‘in the meantime’ or (as one writer puts it) ‘incremental progress’ reformist prescriptions of one kind or another. This ‘in the meantime’ mentality (which is in fact a prescription for never getting to socialism) is well encapsulated by Hudis himself when he states: ‘Democratic socialism requires involving masses of people in a political project that fights for and secures needed reforms while focusing on the long-term need to transcend capitalism.’

In the midst of all this, however, the book does contain some strikingly pithy insights into the pathology of capitalism and also into the essential features of socialism. Examples are: Lester Spence’s description of schools as ‘spaces designed to inculcate market behaviour in parents, students, staff and administration’; Wilson Sherwin’s (‘Less Work For All! Reclaiming a Forgotten Socialist Aspiration’) characterisation of an increasingly brutal workplace as ‘hustle culture’; Steve Fraser’s standout piece in the collection (‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’) where he states: ‘No matter what its form, capitalist democracy commodifies its world and first of all its human inhabitants. They live as vessels of labour power and as empty receptacles of the goods and services and delusions of consumer culture’; and finally Smulewicz-Zucker quoting Kautsky’s description of socialism as ‘the abolition of every kind of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race’.


Evolution explained

The Blind Watchmaker. Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. By Richard Dawkins. Audiobook narrated by: Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward.

This is an audio version of Dawkins’s well-known book, narrated by Dawkins and his wife, actor Lalla Ward. The watchmaker idea belongs to the 18th-century theologian William Paley, who argued that just as a watch is too complicated and functional to have sprung into existence by accident, so too does this apply to all living things with their far greater complexity. Charles Darwin’s discovery that challenged the creationist argument through natural selection – the unconscious, automatic, blind, yet essentially non-random process Darwin discovered – is brought to life in this book.

Dawkins and Ward provide a highly engaging read of Dawkins’s critique of creationism. The audiobook follows an updated edition of the book from 2006 and provides intricate explanations, by way of witty examples, of why random, infinitesimal gene changes over millions of years have produced us and the world we live in. Dawkins’s writing contains a self-deprecating, dry sense of humour that comes to life as he reads the book aloud. Alternating voices between Dawkins and Ward provides a nice listening contrast while also setting apart examples, clarifications, and segments of greater detail. Dawkins and his wife live in a world that is perhaps more scientific on a daily basis than most of us, so the book takes great care to vary the delivery of information for greater emphasis and easy understanding.

Dawkins’s goal in The Blind Watchmaker was to remove any doubt that anything but scientific fact is behind the origin of the universe. Just because something – like human beings or the universe – is complex does not mean that it cannot be explained. Dawkins works hard to help listeners understand the smaller-than-microscopic changes that evolved through staggering amounts of time. To paraphrase the author, do not draw conclusions from your own inability to understand something. The truth of Darwinism comes in its acceptance of physics, probability, and the unending march of time. The author (and speaker) helps listeners out by using examples that are easy to grasp: for example, the evolution from wolves to domesticated dogs. Or how echolocation in bats clearly shows the evolution of a trait necessary for survival of a species.

It is an altogether interesting read that particularly comes to life when listened to in audio format. Highly recommended for anyone who would like to learn more about the origins of the universe and the existence of life on Earth.


A ‘New Phase’ of Capitalism

Share the Wealth: How to End Rentier Capitalism. Philippe Askenazy. Verso £16.99. Translated by Gregory Elliott.

As the subtitle suggests, this focuses on one kind of capitalism, the rentier variety, based on the receipt of rents. Askenazy adopts a broad definition: ‘rents are advantages that can be extracted on an ongoing basis by certain economic actors … via economic, political or legal mechanisms potentially open to influence by them.’ The list contained in the ellipsis in our quotation contains not just capitalists but also wage-earners, so it is clearly a very broad definition. The original French edition had the title Tous rentiers!, suggesting that everyone is a rentier.

As an initial example, pharmacists in France are paid about three times as much as their UK counterparts, since the French government has very strict regulations about where new pharmacies can open, and disallows pharmacy chains such as Boots. So the extra income derived from the lack of competition in France is an instance of rent. For a case more in keeping with the profits of companies, consider the cost of medicines, some of which are a thousand times more expensive in the US than in France, owing to the power of US pharmaceutical companies in enforcing patent and property rights there. More generally, in the US the top one percent’s share of national income is now back to the level at the start of the last century.

Real estate prices in London and Hong Kong far outstrip other cities, even New York and Tokyo. This is an example of propertarianism, whereby income derives from two kinds of property: land and real estate, and knowledge (the latter being exemplified by the medical patents mentioned earlier). This is part of the ‘new phase’ of capitalism that Askenazy claims to have identified: rents from property rights and rents from the labour of the ‘unproductive’. But it is not entirely clear what is meant by this last point (other than how low many people’s wages are), though the author does argue that employment is being increasingly divided into low-wage and relatively high-wage types, with medium-wage jobs being cut and people with degrees more and more finding themselves in low-paid jobs; this is known as job polarisation.

In addition, it has to be asked to what extent rentier capitalism is really a new development, and whether it is truly a different kind of capitalism. The book sometimes seems to imply that ‘ordinary’ exploitation by the extraction of surplus value no longer exists or has had its scope much reduced. But after all, capitalists have always benefitted from ‘economic, political or legal mechanisms’ to enforce and increase their profits. And Askenazy offers no real ideas on how to end capitalism, rentier or otherwise, beyond strengthening trade unions, which may help workers defend their wages and conditions but cannot transform the system.


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