Issue 272 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Ian Birchall reviews a new book on anti-capitalism by Alex Callinicos
'Another world is possible' is the most popular slogan of the anti-capitalist movement. In his new book Alex Callinicos contributes to the debate about how we get there. As usual, Alex has read all the important books and articles which many of us haven't got round to. For the busy activist and the beginner who wants to know what the arguments are all about, this book is invaluable.
The tone is refreshingly fraternal. If the new movement is to escape destructive sectarianism, we must learn how to disagree without denouncing. Alex summarises the positions of his rivals, briefly but fairly, before developing his own criticisms.
After showing that Marxism remains the best way of understanding the modern world, Alex poses two questions--where are we going and how do we get there? He insists that only revolution can bring about the changes we need, quoting the chilling words of Susan George on how the system's dynamic will lead to the extinction of humanity: 'In my view they couldn't stop even if they wanted to, even for the future of their own children.' Capitalism is driven by the search for profit--this can be modified by mass action, but it will reassert itself. As Tony Cliff used to say: 'If you are allergic to petrol, don't drive a car.'
The only social group with the power and motivation to destroy capitalism is the working class. Alex shows that despite the defeats of workers over the last quarter of a century, and the decline of manufacturing in some older industrial countries, the power of those who provide the goods and services we all need remains untouched.
These are familiar arguments on the left, and Alex restates the Marxist case clearly and concisely. He is on trickier territory when he tries to define the socialist goal. Many socialists have evaded this question, afraid of the shameful label of 'utopian'. Before 1917 speculation about the future society flourished on the left, with contributions from such thinkers as William Morris, August Bebel, Emile Zola and the Bolshevik science fiction writer Alexander Bogdanov. The rise of Stalinism imposed a single model of socialism on the left--even the tiny anti-Stalinist left defined itself by its competing analyses of Russian society. Now the need to define our goal returns. Alex therefore wisely insists that socialism requires a moral basis. All attempts to exclude the moral element from Marxism have seen it return by the back door. People will only be motivated to fight by the sense that socialism is a morally superior way to live.
Alex proposes four values that underlie any socialist society: justice, efficiency, democracy and sustainability. He is well aware that such values are slippery things, whose meaning changes easily. David Beckham doubtless thinks it is 'just' that he should be one of the richest people in the world because he is good at kicking a football. Solidarity is one of the most treasured values of the working class movement--but as I write my television is prattling about restoring 'solidarity' between Nato states. Here justice is defined as the principle that all 'individuals should be provided with the resources they require to secure equal access to the advantages they need in order to live the life they have reason to value'. This is a starting point rather than one of the new 'Ten Commandments', but it is clearly something capitalism cannot provide.
Alex also confronts the question of socialist planning. Now we are free of the notion that the repressive, inefficient economy of Stalinist Russia had anything to do with planning, we need to ask what real socialist planning would look like. Using the work of Pat Devine, he proposes a model for a planned economy combining centralised coordination with maximum decentralisation.
There is also a note on diversity, an important problem to which Alex will hopefully return. Diversity is central to any model of socialism--long ago Socialist Worker printed a brilliant cartoon by Phil Evans in which a group of identical, identically clothed workers shuffled reluctantly through the factory gate--the caption read: 'Under socialism they'd make us all the same.' Alex welcomes the call by Marcos of the Zapatistas for 'a world in which there is room for many worlds'. Yet it is also necessary to affirm universal principles. Socialism can tolerate enormous cultural variety, but it needs agreed standards. A socialist society will have no problem with heavy metal fans or advocates of the Latin Mass; it has no place for serial killers or sweatshop owners.
Finally Alex attempts a new transitional programme. This contains demands which have come up in the anti-capitalist movement (the cancellation of Third World debt, the Tobin Tax, a shorter working week, redistributive taxation, the abolition of immigration controls, etc). But what is meant by 'transitional'? When Trotsky drafted his Transitional Programme in 1938 he believed (plausibly but wrongly) that 'every serious demand of the proletariat...reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state'. Today we have crisis and no major reforms in prospect, but capitalism, a tough old beast, is not about to collapse. It would be foolish to imagine there is any simple demand it cannot concede.
But if we push the system hard enough it will resist. Take redistributive taxation. Capitalism can live with this--it has done so and will do so again if there is mass pressure. But when taxation really bites into our rulers' profits and lifestyles they will fight back. Chile 1973 is the classic example; the Countryside Alliance shows it could happen here. The moment cannot be predicted, but when they resist we must respond with mass mobilisation. That is the point at which revolution can be born. An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto is a vital and timely weapon in our struggle today.
An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto by Alex Callinicos, normal price £13.99, is available from Bookmarks for £12.50.