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Imagine - A socialist vision for the 21st Century?
HANNAH SELL reviews Imagine, a socialist vision for the 21st century by Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan.
IMAGINE HAS received favourable reviews from many on the Left. It graphically describes the inequalities of capitalism and shows the need for a socialist alternative. As such it's an important read. Many readers, especially those new to socialist ideas, will learn much from Imagine.
The book's authors, Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan, were until recently, members of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI, the international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated). Regrettably, after a three-year discussion within our ranks, the ISM majority (in which Imagine's authors play a leading role) chose to abandon the ranks of the CWI (for a fuller explanation see The Socialist, Issue 189).
Despite this book's excellent anti-capitalist agitation and propaganda, unfortunately it also reveals how far the authors have moved from the CWI's programme and methods.
Not only do they fail to refer once to the organisation in which they spent so much time; they also express ideas that represent a serious divergence from the ideas of Marxism in general and specifically of the CWI.
In the CWI we have always supported, and fought for, every reform, every improvement in the lives of working-class people, that can be won from the capitalist class. However, we also always link the struggle for day-to-day improvements in pay, conditions, the welfare state and so on, to the need for a fundamental change in society.
We explain that is only on the basis of overthrowing capitalism that working-class people's lives could be permanently transformed. For example, one of the Socialist Party's key demands is for the nationalisation under democratic working-class control and management of the top 150 multinationals that constitute around 70% of the British economy.
In other words we call for the nationalisation of the decisive sectors of the economy. Unfortunately, this kind of clear Marxist programme is absent from Imagine.
Linked to this is the fundamental question of how the working class can successfully overthrow capitalism. We explain the need for the working class to build an organisation, a mass party, with the necessary programme and determination to lead the struggle to change society. The authors of Imagine have abandoned this task.
In the past, although in a popularised form, Tommy and Alan would have put forward these basic ideas. Imagine does not.
The authors laudably aim to popularise socialist ideas for a new generation. However, popularisation is no justification for the imprecise, and frequently incorrect ideas that surface throughout the book.
In reality, on a number of issues, Alan and Tommy have let themselves be influenced by many of the concepts that are currently 'fashionable' in society.
What lies behind most of these concepts is the after-effect of the barrage of propaganda against socialism that the capitalists launched in the 1990s after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe.
This barrage resulted in a widespread feeling that socialism was no longer possible, and that any attempt to organise to achieve socialism would lead inevitably to bureaucracy.
Although this mood is starting to change, its effects are still being felt. Alan and Tommy's bending to this pressure means that, while they argue an impassioned case for socialism, it is a far more confused, contradictory, and often mistaken case, than they themselves would have argued in the past.
AN ARTICLE of this length cannot take up all the points of disagreement we have with Imagine. Nonetheless, it is necessary in this review to outline some of the political deficiencies in the book.
Firstly, throughout the book the importance of information technology, and particularly the Internet, is dramatically overemphasised. For example, Alan and Tommy declare that "the Internet has become the first international bastion of free speech and free thought.
"It is transforming the balance of power between the powerful and the powerless. Without the Internet, the Mexican government would long ago have militarily crushed the Zapatistas."
Socialists should use every available means to spread our ideas. The Internet is one such means, and it's extremely useful, dramatically increasing the speed with which information can be transmitted. Nonetheless, it is only a tool in the hands of living forces; which are made up not of computers, but of people.
Big business uses the Internet for its own means. We have to try and use it for ours; that is to build a movement of the working class and the oppressed to overthrow capitalism. But it will be that movement's strength on the ground, not in cyberspace, that will determine its success or failure.
What's more, under capitalism there are definite limits to the degree that we can use information technology. The majority of the world's population still have to walk over two miles to reach a telephone, nor do they have electricity. They certainly don't have access to the Internet! Even in Britain, it's still a minority of working-class families that are on-line.
Perhaps most worryingly, the authors seem to believe that the Internet is beyond the control of big business. Yet everyone who uses the Internet relies on service providers such as Virgin or AOL; the vast majority of whom are owned by multimillionaires.
There is no doubt that, if they considered that the capitalist system was threatened, these people would be prepared to sabotage protests organised through their companies.
Yet, while Imagine invests the Internet with powers it can never possess, it writes off more 'old-fashioned' means of spreading socialist ideas. For example it says: "Only the seriously rich possess the capital to produce a high-quality daily newspaper.
"It also requires access to the distribution network, which is controlled by a few big companies such as John Menzies in Scotland. In addition, newspapers and magazines are reliant on advertising revenues, which in turn shapes the content and political slant of the publication.
"The Internet, by contrast, is open to everyone," they say.
THIS IS an amazing statement. Of course all the 'mainstream' press (The Sun, The Mirror, The Guardian etc) are owned by the seriously rich, and this is undoubtedly reflected in their political content. This has always been true under capitalism.
But one of the key tasks of socialists has been to create newspapers which put a different point of view, that argue the case for socialism and are written by, and for, the working class. Such newspapers cannot rely on big business distribution networks, advertising revenues and all the rest.
They have to be written, printed and distributed by working-class people. This requires workers' organisations.
In Britain at the moment there is no daily socialist paper that is written and distributed on this basis. The Socialist, for example, is as yet only a weekly paper. But this doesn't mean that such an achievement is impossible.
As the ideas of socialism gain ground in the coming years our aim is to produce a daily Socialist. Alan and Tommy obviously also believe that socialist ideas will become increasingly popular - but the implication in their book is that a high-quality socialist daily newspaper is impossible to achieve.
Yet the Scottish Socialist Party, despite what some of its leaders say now, could find themselves moving towards a daily paper.
If we're going to succeed in the far greater task of changing society, we must be capable of producing not just one, but many, socialist dailies.
Later in the book Alan and Tommy describe their vision for a socialist Scotland. Unfortunately their vision is somewhat vague. Rather than raising the clear programme of the CWI they write: "A Scottish Socialist government could at least begin to move in the direction of socialism by taking over key sectors of the economy". This is an inadequate and woolly formulation.
They go on to say: "Where practically possible, socially owned enterprise could be broken down into smaller sub-units to enable closer scrutiny by the wider public. Social ownership could also include community-owned and municipally owned enterprises."
This is followed by: "Another form of social ownership that could be encouraged thr-ough the provision of cheap loans and other incentives would be workers' co-operatives. Repeated studies have shown that when employees run and own their own companies, they work harder and more efficiently."
This last statement is startling. It implies that isolated "workers' co-operatives" would be more efficient than state ownership of industry with democratic workers' control and management at every level of industry and society.
It is also very worrying that they don't refer anywhere, in their lengthy comments on a socialist economy, to the need for a national plan to co-ordinate production to meet the needs of the whole population.
THE SECTION of the book dealing with the Soviet Union, unfortunately, also shows the authors' lack of a clear conception of the role of workers' democracy.
Karl Marx described the working class as the '"gravediggers of capitalism". He understood that the working class, because of its specific relation to the means of production, had the critical role to play in overthrowing capitalism and building a new society.
He was proved correct by the Russian Revolution in October 1917, when capitalism was successfully overthrown for the first time. The working class made up only 10% of the population; yet they played the critical role in the revolution. Despite their small numbers it was the working class that led the mass of the poor peasantry.
Later, because the Soviet Union was left isolated by the failure of attempts to overthrow capitalism in Germany, Hungary and other countries, a vicious bureaucracy came to power, based around Stalin, murdering tens of thousands in the process.
Tommy and Alan explain that under Stalinism "genuine socialist dissidents suffered imprisonment, torture, exile and execution for daring to demand democratic rights." But not once, throughout their lengthy comments on the subject, do they explain the role of the working class in the Soviet Union in general, or specifically the role of workers' democracy in checking the rise of the bureaucracy.
There's no space to comment here on many other critical issues. For example, the authors of Imagine clearly don't see the need for a clear Marxist mass international party, such as we're aiming to build in the CWI, which fights to change society worldwide.
They wish to return to the failed example of the First International! Nor do Tommy and Alan agree that it was fundamentally the lack of a clear revolutionary party that led to the defeat of the struggle for socialism in the 20th century.
Their only comment on why the Russian Revolution was left isolated and therefore degenerated is that "outside Russia, the forces opposing capitalism lacked the strength, cohesion and determination to win."
This is misleading - the working class of Germany, in particular, was numerically far stronger than the working class of Russia. In many countries (Germany, Hungary and Spain to name a few), the working class were extremely determined - they gave their lives by the thousand to try and change society.
Certainly they lacked cohesion. But this was because, unlike Russia's working class, they lacked a mass party and a leadership that was as determined as they were and had an understanding of how to fight for socialism. If we're to succeed in changing the world in this century we must absorb this lesson.
Imagine is an interesting read but it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, equip a new generation of socialists with the ideas that they need to successfully change society.
"We call for the nationalisation of the decisive sectors of the British economy under democratic working-class control and management. Unfortunately, this kind of clear Marxist programme is absent from Imagine."
"In reality, on a number of issues, Alan and Tommy have let themselves be influenced by many of the concepts that are currently 'fashionable' in society."
Imagine: A socialist vision for the 21st century by Tommy Sheridan & Alan McCombes
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In The Socialist 9 February 2001: