Not Just a Nice Idea

Issue section: 

Review of 'Socialism: A Very Short Introduction', Michael Newman, Oxford University Press £6.99

'A Very Short Introduction' says it all - capturing a broad subject within roughly 150 pages. It is well written and enjoyable to read. The author broadly defines 'socialism' as any idea or movement committed to an egalitarian society, solidarity and cooperation, an 'optimistic faith' in human nature and a belief in conscious human agency.

The first chapter describes the progression of socialist ideas from the Utopian socialists of the early 19th century, through Proudhon and Marx, to the split between the Second and Third Internationals following the First World War. The second chapter critically examines Sweden and Cuba as 'positive' case studies of 'social democracy' and Stalinist 'Communism'. Here Newman diagnoses some recognisable limitations of these socialisms from above: the failure of Swedish social democracy to make inroads into private ownership, the weak foundation of Cuban 'socialism' on a 'charismatic' but undemocratic governance, and the onslaught on any 'socialist' progress by an increasingly 'globalised' capitalism. He generalises these findings to make conclusions about the absolute necessity for socialism to be democratically structured while making uncompromising inroads into capitalist relations of property and power. Furthermore, he argues for 'overwhelming reasons, both ethical and practical, that 21st-century socialism must be internationalist' (even though this will be 'difficult').

Many of the arguments are powerfully backed by statistics, and Newman uses these to good effect in demolishing the idea that capitalism is in any way 'meritocratic', or making the world more equal (the richest 1 percent of the world's population receive as much income as the poorest 57 percent, whereas the income of the richest 25 million Americans is equivalent to that of the world's poorest 2 billion people). The book is genuinely convinced of the need for socialism 'with equality as a "core value" as a basis for greater democracy. However, it is not without its contentious viewpoints.

The book emphasises socialism as a 'top-down' intellectual exercise or 'good idea', with its concrete political reflection in regimes such as Sweden and Cuba. This view is bound up with Newman's ambivalent attitude to Marxism. While recognising that Marx remains 'unsurpassed' in his analysis of capitalism and its structure, he claims that Marx had little to say on morality, women and the environment. He later argues that Marxism and democratic values are of limited compatibility - Marx's arguments became 'powerless' against their usage by brutal Stalinist regimes acting in Marx's name. Newman repeats the very tired caricature of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as 'elitists' advocating the intellectual manipulation of workers, and that Stalinism was a linear consequence of the Russian state structure created to handle the Russian Civil War. The possibility that the Stalinist regime could only have arisen after the crushing of a mass workers' movement, rather than simply 'powerless arguments', is never considered.

These arguments follow the logic of Newman's most serious contention - that Marx's most fundamental error was relying on the proletariat to overthrow capitalism. For Newman, the proletariat has become too 'fragmented' and opposed to socialism to ever be a serious contender. Although he recognises that constructing socialism as a necessary alternative to capitalism needs to be 'conscious', he is vague about any 'agency' in spreading socialist ideas: 'There is no clear answer to this question, nor any certainty that socialism will advance.'

The book goes from a strong and positive endorsement of socialist ideas in opposition to recent Fukuyama/neo-liberal trends to conclusions vague at best and thoroughly implausible at worst. It ends up advocating a radical reformist socialism operating within democratic institutions under capitalism, with elements of an 'autonomist' critique of Marxism arguing for 'diversity' in socialist movements. This is a book that I would argue should be taken seriously, even though many viewpoints need to be debated.