‘Twenty-First Century Socialism’ by Jeremy Gilbert,’How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century’ by Erik Olin Wright,’Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance’ by Marius S Ostrowski reviewed by Jules Townshend

Twenty-First Century Socialism

Polity Press, Cambridge, 2020. 148 pp., £9.55 pb
ISBN 9781509536566

How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century

Verso, London and New York, 2019. 157 pp., £12.99 pb
ISBN 9781788736053

Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance

Rowman and Littlefield, London and New York, 2020. 136 pp., £14.95 pb
ISBN 9781786662953

Reviewed by Jules Townshend

About the reviewer

Jules Townshend is Emeritus Professor in Political Theory at Manchester Metropolitan University, …


These three slim volumes can be seen as meditations on socialism for the twenty-first century as it escapes from under the long shadow of different forms of Marxist and social democratic orthodoxy of the previous century. The socialist values of freedom, equality, community and democracy for all may be timeless, but the socialist ‘promise’ differs from generation to generation as events, circumstances and changing theoretical paradigms prompt new energies and insights. Unsurprisingly, all display a strong ecumenical approach in wishing to attract different ethnicities, genders, sexualities and classes to their socialist (or ‘Left’) agenda, embracing people from all walks of life. They avoid revisiting the many past strategic and ideological battles centering on the question of reform/revolution and its associated binaries, perhaps reflecting the recent upsurges of radicalism that supported Podomos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK, which combined social movement activism with electoral politics. These volumes also share a common motivation, their authors wanting to communicate to wider audiences. Yet in their brevity they illustrate the difficulty of avoiding the pitfall of different forms of oversimplification or under-elaboration.

Written in a lively and accessible style with a slight, anarchist twist, Jeremy Gilbert’s Twenty First-Century Socialism is intended for the ‘entry level’ reader. He stresses capitalism’s compulsive need to accumulate and commodify, especially in its neoliberal incarnation. He notes however that there are still non-commodified spaces within capitalism, such as the UK National Health Service, public libraries and cooperatives. By way of contrast he sees socialism as a society in which people work and think together for the common good, and get the full benefits of their cooperation. Key to this is an expansion of non-commodified ‘commons’ with productive resources owned and democratically controlled by society. Nevertheless, Gilbert acknowledges this should be limited. Basic needs such as food might be non-commodified, but there is still room for artisan bread! And even if the file sharing of music became part of the ‘commons’, musicians would still be selling their creations to such platforms. A form of ‘simple’ commodity production would be necessary.

Socialism for the twenty first century, Gilbert argues, is in many ways different from its twentieth century iteration, because capitalism has created new political conditions. Socialists now have to contend with: the climate crisis; the cybernetic revolution, especially platform capitalism, a globalization that has created huge global monopolies, weakening trade union power and the capacity of national governments to implement anti-capitalist reforms; changes in the class structure with the rise of the precariat and a ‘new petite bourgeoisie’; the crisis of representative democracy with the decline of ‘mass society’ and a ‘post-modern’ culture; neoliberalism’s cultural legacy of individual private consumption of ‘everyday hedonism’; the rise of authoritarian populism and the capitalist capture of living and public space in cities, accelerated by the financialised form of capitalism.

As for the proposed socialist programme to deal with all these issues, there are understandably few surprises, involving rolling back the neoliberal revolution, but this time bringing privatized utilities along with banking and digital platforms not merely under public ownership, but under some form of democratic control to promote a ‘creative cooperation and democracy’ (98) that would extend into the public sector of producers and users of state institutions, into the media and other areas, and into the digital universe, with platform cooperatives. Gilbert recognises that this would require strong trade unions and a reduction of working hours, along with Universal Basic Services (UBS) and a Universal Basic Income (UBI), all to encourage democratic deliberation and initiative and worker-friendly automation. Naturally some kind of Green New Deal would be needed, which would be helped by imagining a de-commodified control of space in the city. We can take inspiration from the experiments in workers’ self-management system in the former Yugoslavia, the Mondragon corporation in Spain, and the plans for democratic planning in Allende’s Chile before the coup of 1973.

As for strategy, Gilbert wants to avoid what he sees as the dead ends of twentieth century social democracy (ultimately incorporated into capitalism) and Leninist vanguardism (undemocratic). ‘Only a socialism that is fully democratic, strategically pragmatic, but decisively anti-capitalist in its orientation can avoid all these historical pitfalls’ (117). A bottom-up social movement that could form a government is needed in the communities, workplaces, education and within media outlets, with community organizers and philosophers. Such a movement would have to have influence within political parties, and would have to be a multi-class group, middle class professionals, the ‘new petite bourgeoisie’, but mostly from the working class, including the precariat, all bound together by a shared material interest in a ‘fairer, cleaner, less capitalistic world’ (118). Such a movement has to be based on a multiplicity of organizations – a ‘pluralist ecology’ – unlike twentieth century socialism which was often sectarian.

For those new to radical socialist thinking this is an excellent introduction, fully demonstrating that there is a credible and ethical alternative to the way we live now, in these serious and uncertain times. Many readers might find Gilbert too dismissive of certain aspects of Marx’s (and indeed Lenin’s) thought (incipiently authoritarian) and of liberalism (the ideology of capitalism). Liberalism has a complicated history, which has a potentially socialist side associated with a non-authoritarian version of positive liberty. And its commitment to the rule of law and certain individual rights can be an important correction to authoritarian tendencies in a socialist state, however democratic.

As for Marxist authoritarianism, this too is complicated, beginning with Marx himself who thought his understanding of capitalism would help workers emancipate themselves, thereby avoiding incipiently left wing authoritarianism he associated with the ‘will’ principle in politics. And he applauded the prefigurative self-emancipatory activities of the working class, whether cooperatives or ‘reformist’ activities for example to reduce the working day. Again, Lenin’s thinking, when reduced to an ‘ism’ (starting with Stalin), underestimates the complexity of his pragmatically-based thought. For example, just before he died he passionately argued for the establishment of cooperative forms of production in the Soviet Union. Perhaps more important, in strategic terms is whether the question of the need for some form of revolutionary organisation has completely gone away with the twentieth century. The struggle for socialism is likely to be a bumpy ride of class conflict, with the need to combine electoralism, militant movementism along with self-organising cooperatives. To use a Gramscian phrase, a ‘war of position’ in civil society as proposed by Gilbert might require leadership and organization (however democratic), especially as socialists cannot unilaterally choose the rhythm and dynamics of class struggle as implied by Gilbert. His hope that socialism might be built by sneaking it under the capitalist radar might be overly hopeful.

Wright’s How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century is more at the ‘intermediate’ level, bringing a higher level of analytical sensitivity to the table. Similar ecumenical tendencies are revealed, along with an absence of a Leninist-tinged Marxist orthodoxy. Wright just managed to finish writing this text before he died, and sums up for the lay reader much of his thought about ‘real’ utopias, all without a single footnote, reference, wasted word or sentence! Unsurprisingly, for someone associated with Analytical Marxism (or ‘No Bullshit Marxism’), this book is replete in clear definitions, transparently logical arguments along with necessary provisos. Yet unlike many Analytical Marxists he did not reject the use of dialectical language, especially derived from the category of ‘contradiction’.

In answering the question why be an anti-capitalist, he foregrounds – unlike standard Marxism – the moral arguments connected with equal individual flourishing, freedom, democracy and community, rather than those based on the material interests of class. Contra Marx, the class structures of twenty first century capitalism have become more complex, with a large middle class, occupying a ‘contradictory class location’, which is more likely to be won over to anti-capitalism through moral suasion. In any case people often go against their own interest (Brexit?). There is too a need not merely to oppose capitalism, but to know what might be a desirable alternative to it. He admits that capitalism might not be necessarily opposed to these values, but nevertheless it creates ‘deficits’, whether in the public sphere, undermining democracy through unequal access to political power, or private sphere, undermining democracy through dictatorship in the workplace, or in the community through privatized consumption and competitive individualism.

Wright again departs from Marxist orthodoxy when reviewing five anti-capitalist strategies for bringing about socialism in the twentieth century. Although he finds the ‘dismantling’, ‘taming’, ‘resisting’ and ‘escaping’ capitalism as individually wanting, they can all in their different ways play a part in ‘eroding’ capitalism. However, he rejects the ‘smashing’ strategy, because the evidence demonstrates that a ‘system-level rupture’ did not lead to social emancipation in the twentieth century. Using the metaphor of the eco-system of a lake, he argues (echoing Gilbert) that just as there is no pure capitalism, there are always socialist elements within any actual capitalist system. So the point is to ‘erode’ capitalism, from above and below by using any or all of the aforesaid strategies, apart from the ‘ruptural’. Eventually a socialist ‘ecology’ could predominate.

Strategically crucial is to change the capitalist ‘rules of the game’ in which a UBI would be pivotal. With basic needs met, the opportunities for freely chosen activities would expand enormously. Similar in spirit to Gilbert, Wright wants to dramatically increase the opportunities for cooperative production, requiring public programmes to convert small capitalist firms into coops, specialized credit institutions to support them, along with the provision of land or space and training programmes, and the democratization of capitalist firms. Similarly, he wants a knowledge ‘commons’ with regard to intellectual property rights. Nevertheless, he stresses the experimental nature of the socialist project, when it comes to the mix of public and private ownership, to be decided by democratic deliberation.

Wright recognizes that there is a problem in a sustained democratic experimentalism involving the dismantling and taming of capitalism from above, and resisting and escaping capitalism from below: namely, the capitalist state, which would crush serious anti-capitalist opposition as it did in Chile in 1973. Yet, he suggests that this problem is surmountable because the state apparatuses are internally contradictory (democracy diluting its capitalist character), and the functional demands put on the state are contradictory too, required to save capitalism from itself with unintended consequences, all of which might help symbiotically to ‘erode’ capitalism.

The two large problems that faces the future are capitalist induced climate change and massive unemployment owing to the information revolution. Solving them will require the abandonment of the neoliberal model, requiring massive state involvement in economic planning and infrastructural spending. To cope with unemployment and loss of aggregate demand, Wright proposes an unconditional basic income that would simultaneously bolster capitalism (boosting demand, subsidizing wages and curbing social unrest) and enable people to be more economically and socially creative.

Wright also admits there are problems in constructing an anti-capitalist agency, of creating a ‘web of collective actors anchored in civil society and political parties’ (121), given the culture of privatised consumerism, complex class structures and the rise of non-class based identity politics. To develop such an agency, different types of motivation have to be distinguished, stemming from interests, values and identities. Yet all these in some way can be combined through a recognition that the many have a common interest in the universal value of human flourishing involving an expansion of democracy within civil society or the state, whatever identity might be salient.

In terms of ‘real politics’, Wright recognizes that concrete strategy will always be context-dependent, varying in time and place (139). This however implies that Wright’s strategic conception of ‘eroding capitalism’ might potentially be more problematic than he thought. If reality is always unpredictable and complex, why rule out the possibility of the need for a ‘ruptural’ transformation? Wright does not explore the complex reasons for the failure of this strategic model in the twentieth century, which was far from inevitable. It may be that anti-capitalists only have their opportunity of achieving their goals when capitalist society is experiencing a ‘ruptural’ crisis, and may have to act despite risky and potentially imperfect outcomes. This means that strategy may involve both a ‘war of position’ (eroding capitalism) and a ‘war of manoeuvre’, requiring appropriate organizational forms, pointing in a more (post-) Leninist direction.

By contrast, in Left Unity, Ostrowski avoids the strategic questions that have perennially divided the left. In something of a crie de coeur, he offers an ambitious and ingenious blue-print for the creation of a new left formation, a confederation to unite all sections of the left, including socialists, liberals, greens, anarchists, republicans, regionalists and various ‘identity’ organizations. All ‘progressive’ forces had to respond to the crises in which they are in, with the rise of right wing populism, electoral decline and socio-economic fragmentation. For Ostrowski the failure of the German left to unite and fight Nazism in the 1930s provides the tragic object lesson for those on the left who cannot see the bigger picture. In effect, socialists have to see themselves as part of a larger ‘progressive’ coalition.

Cutting through the different motivational imaginaries, associated with diverse ideologies, Ostrowski proposes an ethical core that would unite those ‘without’ (power, resources, recognition and so on), who form the majority in society, guided by the values of equality, justice, freedom in life choices, pluralism, solidarity and ‘progress’. With this ethical framework, hopefully the left would see what it has in common.

However Ostrowski’s main focus is to avoid the organizational logic that leads to sectarian division. He offers a wealth of practical suggestions to make this happen, ranging from the creation of a new layer of full time ‘left agents’ who would represent all the different ‘withouts’. They would be answerable to a ‘Progressive Congress’ composed of delegates from all left organizations. Decisions made by such a congress would be non-binding on these organizations. To encourage ‘horizontal’ cooperation, rulebooks of all left organizations would have to be amended, so that members from other parties could join. To ensure that the leaderships of left organizations reflected this cooperation there would be mandatory re-nomination and re-selection process, along with a permanent audit and scrutiny commission overseeing their senior ‘left agents’. To further encourage cooperation, a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ has to be established, to arbitrate complaints within and between organizations. Finally a ‘Joint Policy Commission’ within the ‘Progressive Congress’ would be needed to promote left cooperation, along with the development of internal procedures in anticipation of collaboration with other organizations. Such proposals would not only to make the left more politically effective, but would encourage many pre-figurative practices of the type of cooperative society envisaged by the left.

Ostrowski acknowledges that all these organizational developments presuppose changes of mentality within the left, becoming less dogmatic, more self-critical and open to other and new ideas, and more forgiving and forgetting. His hope is that the situation in which the left finds itself at present will make his proposals not seem too fanciful. At an abstract level Ostrowski’s proposals have a certain logic, but given the brevity of the book we get little idea of how they might become embedded in actual political practice. Could his wide-ranging proposals build up some sort of consensus within the left? Many might find his idea of left unity as a good in itself as arguable, that in certain decisive situations leadership is everything, even if it involves division. And there may be honest disagreements that transcend petty, sectarian point-scoring.

The unity offered by the ‘without’ formula may also be difficult to enact because of the different motivational narratives between, for example, liberals and socialists, with only a minority of liberals being anti-capitalist. For many on the left, being an anti-capitalist is the litmus test for ‘left-wingness’, and building up some kind of anti-capitalist hegemony is their raison d’etre. This is for the simple reason that capitalism as a socio-economic system has either a major systemic impact in creating at the very least the predisposing conditions for many of these ‘withouts’ in the first place, or is a major obstacle in overcoming ‘withoutness’.

Other groups within this hypothetical left federation may not agree with this anti-capitalist perspective, prompting much discussion, and thereby inviting the classic quip that socialism involves ‘too many evenings’. Ostrowski’s organizational proposals would also involve a slew of meetings for time-challenged members, diverted from the issues that they care about most in the name of unity, prompting another criticism familiar to socialist activists, of putting the organizational ‘cart’ before the proverbial political ‘horse’.

Yet, although this blueprint for the organizational reconstitution of the left might be over-ambitious, it asks quite rightly for greater generosity of spirit and self-critical reflection within the left as a whole. And some individual proposals are worth consideration if only to encourage more thought about the possibilities for more inter-left cooperation. Yet, rather than a set of ethical principles, or a new left umbrella organization, the future prospects of capitalist-induced climate change with all its socio-economic and political effects may do more to unite the left than anything, and enable anti-capitalism to become the new ‘common-sense’.

Overall, these three contributions in their different ways add to left wing thought, all pointing in a democratic, non-doctrinaire pluralist direction, a long way from the warring certainties of twentieth century socialism. However, ultimately the organizational and strategic questions that preoccupied so many activists of the past century are unlikely to disappear with that century’s passing. Perhaps a sympathetic yet critical re-evaluation of their answers may assume greater significance with the intensification of the global ecological crisis, and its manifold ramifications.

17 April 2021

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