Review: Socialism in the 21st century by Hannah Sell

Socialism in the 21st century by Hannah Sell

From the The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales section of the CWI.

Extract and ordering info.

Brimming with optimism for socialism

WHETHER YOU are a first time reader of The Socialist or a longstanding member of our party, this book is for you.

Perhaps you have just bought this paper for the first time and are wondering what socialists have to say for themselves. Maybe you are a new party member and want to learn more about our ideas.

Or perhaps, as a longstanding member, you are looking for a tool to help you explain our ideas simply, to recruit someone, or help a new member get to grips with what our party is all about.

As Hannah begins the book by saying: "If you were to judge purely by the media, parliament, or the education system, you would decide that socialism is a spent force."

Yet masses of young people on anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations are against capitalism, and many are seriously looking for an alternative. Some consciously think of themselves as socialist and may already be reading Marx and Trotsky.

Many more want to know about socialism, others are looking at a whole range of ideas. Some think maybe they can mix and match between the different options.

In the workplaces, amongst all those hundreds of thousands of workers now taking or planning strike action – many for the first time – large numbers are also looking for explanations and alternatives to New Labour and their right-wing trade union leaders.

They see the Socialist Party and others on the Left and want to know who we are, and what socialism is about. But they want an explanation – not just agitation – about how and why capitalism is a rotten system; what socialism is and how it might work; how it can be achieved. And they want all this in an accessible form. Hannah’s book fits the bill.

Fight for socialism

This book offers a devastating attack on conditions of life in Britain and the world today and is full of useful facts which demonstrate the barbarity of the capitalist system.

But this book is much more than that. Page by page, in everyday language, an argument is constructed which leaves you with one irresistible conclusion – we need to organise to fight for socialism.

The book is not long, deliberately so, and there are lots of issues that it cannot cover. But a wealth of important issues are here: globalisation and the current world economic crisis; the post-war boom, Keynesianism and neo-liberal policies; the transformation of New Labour into a big business party, the need for a new workers’ party and how it could come about; racism, sexism and environmental issues.

The chapter on ’Could things be different?’ grabs the imagination with what would be possible if the world’s resources and the potential inherent in technology were used in a planned and rational way.

"For most of human history it has not been possible to satisfy even the most basic human needs. Now… the potential exists to eliminate want forever. The barrier to achieving this is the capitalist system itself."

Change the world

Hannah Sell

BUT HANNAH doesn’t just assert that capitalism is the problem. The chapter ’Marx was right’ is an accessible explanation of why we say this. It explains how the working class is exploited and that the interests of the working and ruling classes are diametrically opposed.

It also goes into the basic contradictions in capitalism, in particular that the working class cannot buy back all they produce, leading to periodic crises of over-capacity and over-production.

There is an excellent section on the working class, explaining that, despite changes in its composition, the working class is stronger now than in Marx’s day. The issue now is about consciousness and confidence, affected by the collapse of Stalinism.

’How could socialism work?’ deals with socialist democracy, the immediate gains that would be possible and, longer term, the kind of society that could be built on the basis of a socialist plan.

The chapter deals very well with the fear many people have about use of force in changing society, and also the worries about a bureaucracy.

The chapter ’Is there an easier way to change the world?’, in particular, is a real tour de force. Hannah takes up the main ideas prevalent in the anti-capitalist movement.

Sensitively she explains how simply attempting to create islands of socialism or alternative lifestyles will not change the world: "It is clearly unviable to imagine that their [the world’s richest companies’] resistance to fundamental change could be overcome merely by the good example of local co-operatives and communes. There is no alternative but to disempower the capitalist class by removing its control of the economy and state."

Equally, attempting to reform capitalism will not work. "No matter how hard people fight, or how many progressive laws are passed, capitalism will never be a ’fair’ system…. At every opportunity, the bosses will attack the living conditions of working people to increase their own profits…. the idea that they can be controlled and made to act in a ’fair’ way is more utopian than ever."

The chapter is superb on the central role of the working class in changing society, on why people need to be organised and the role of a revolutionary party.

It gives a succinct, moving account of the Russian revolution, Stalinism and Trotskyism, essential for many people today who are sceptical about socialism because of misinformation about what happened in Russia.

As I neared the end of this book, the list in my head of all the people I should buy it for was getting longer.

You can’t help but feel that no-one could possibly finish this book without deciding that they have become a socialist while reading it.

Of course, as Hannah explains, it will take a bit more than reading one small book to convert most people to socialist ideas and action: "The mass of people accept new ideas, not because they read about them in books and newspapers, but on the basis of their own experience."

But this book will be a great help in that process.

Above all it is brimming with optimism. "Socialist ideas have been developed over centuries in the course of humanity’s fight for a better life. Today they remain the only viable alternative in an increasingly unstable and brutal capitalist world. It is this reality that ensures that socialism is not a spent force but the wave of the future."

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September 2002