Book review: The ABCs of Socialism, Edited by Bhaskar Sunkara, Illustrated by Phil Wrigglesworth, Verso Books, 2016
The ABCs of Socialism is a short book published as a collaboration between Verso Books and Jocobin magazine, which “is released online and quarterly in print to over 15,000 subscribers” according to the book’s preamble. The introduction notes that the Bernie Sanders campaign has put the word ‘socialism’ back into popular consciousness in the United States, and states that “our inbox is flooded with emails asking basic definitional questions about socialism.” The intro goes on to say that “we don’t have all the answers, but this book was made to tackle some of them.”
The ABCs is arranged in short chapters, each of which is intended to address a key question, with titles such as “Is Socialism a Western Concept?”, “Socialism Sounds Good in Theory, But Doesn’t Human Nature Make It Impossible to Realize?” and “Aren’t Socialism and Feminism Sometimes in Conflict?” Each chapter is written by a separate author, which allows the book to showcase a range of opinions over what socialism is or could be, and taken together the chapters engage with many of the key debates one is likely to encounter in a discussion of socialism. The book has a “notes” section of blank pages at the back, enabling the reader to track their own thoughts on the topic, as well as URLs linking to articles from the Jacobin online archive for further reading on each chapter. This last feature is an excellent addition, given how necessarily short the chapters have to be in a small primer like this.
The book has some strong sections, particularly Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s chapter on the role of socialists in combatting racism (“What About Racism? Don’t Socialists Only Care About Class?”). Taylor points out that “Capitalism is an economic system based on the exploitation of the many by the few” and that “because of the gross inequality it produces, capitalism relies on various political, social, and ideological tools to rationalize that inequality while simultaneously dividing the majority, who have every interest in uniting to resist it.” Taylor argues that racism is “only one among many oppressions intended to serve this purpose” of divide and rule, and references Marx arguing that “in the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
Taylor also directly addresses the argument that “because African-Americans and most other nonwhites are disproportionately poor and working class, campaigns aimed at ending economic inequality alone would stop their oppression.” She argues that racialized populations are oppressed not only by their poverty but also by their identity as racialized groups, and that there is no direct correlation between economic expansion and a decrease in racialized inequality. She goes on to note that racism does not express itself in solely economic terms, and that therefore struggles against racial profiling, police brutality, housing and educational inequality, etc. are key aspects of building a movement capable of overcoming the divisions sown among working people and challenging capital. She notes that “winning ordinary whites to an antiracist program is a key component” of building such a movement.
Erik Olin Wright’s chapter entitled “But At Least Capitalism Is Free and Democratic, Right?” and Danny Katch’s chapter “Would Socialism Be Boring?” are also recommended.
These strengths aside, the book also has some serious omissions. In Michael A. McCarthy’s chapter “Don’t the Rich Deserve to Keep Most of Their Money?” McCarthy discusses tax policy at length and argues that progressive redistributive taxation is “both a means to redress structural inequalities and the primary way we can expand and extend freedom to as many people as possible” prior to the realization of a socialist society. Nowhere in his discussion, however, is there explicit reference to the thing which creates value, and thus also all profits, which is the living labour of human beings. Marx used this labour theory of value to argue that profits (which he called surplus value) were simply the difference between what the employer pays the worker and the value of what the worker’s labour created. Grasping this central dynamic makes the answer to other questions posed by the book clearer.
In his discussion of “Why Do Socialists Talk So Much About Workers?” Vivek Chibber never clearly defines what is meant by “workers.” Is it the stereotype of a manual worker, usually male, in coveralls with lunch pail? Is it a female call centre employee? A high school teacher? A junior lawyer? Chibber never specifies, which is frustrating, particularly as he argues correctly that workers are the key social group that must be mobilised in order to fight against capital. If one defines a worker as anyone who is compelled by their lack of wealth to sell their labour power, their ability to work, then one sees that the large majority of the world’s population are workers who are exploited by capitalism. This describes an objective relationship between workers and the macro process of wealth-creation, rather than a definition based on subjective factors such as the ideas people have of themselves or their preferences or consumption habits. In an introductory primer such as this, who we mean when we say “worker” needs to be made very clear. When socialists talk about the working class, it should be very explicit that we’re talking about the large majority of the world’s population.
These are very minor complaints, however, compared to two major absences. The book lacks any explicit discussion of the role of the state in capitalist society, and any explicit discussion of the nature of the former USSR. Alyssa Battistoni’s chapter on the environment refers to the USSR, but leaves murky exactly what she believes the Soviet regime to have been. Battistoni appears to think it was some sort of version of socialism, as she contrasts the USSR with capitalism, in a section worth quoting in its entirety:
“But if you point out that it’s not humanity in the abstract but capitalism that we should hold responsible, you’ll hear a familiar retort: socialism is bad for the environment too! Production in the Soviet Union also ran on fossil fuels, degraded agricultural land, polluted rivers, and deforested vast expanses. It’s true that the USSR’s environmental record doesn’t inspire much confidence. But that doesn’t mean that capitalism can solve our environmental problems.”
It’s unclear from this if Battistoni believes the USSR to have been socialist or not, but it does seem fair to say that she believes it was something other than capitalist. However, the USSR and its satellites were not socialist in any way. They did not feature working people collectively running the economy. They were economies that still functioned on the basic dynamic of capitalism, that of exploiting the labour of working people to accumulate surplus value, in competition with other accumulators of capital (in this case, the market-based capitalist states of North America and western Europe). The fact that the economies of the Stalinist states were not run by private investment decisions made in a marketplace, but rather by decisions made by a planning bureaucracy, does not mean that their essential dynamic was not the same as that of the market capitalism that existed elsewhere.
Moreover, the command economies of the postwar Stalinist states of eastern Europe were imposed by Russian military power, not created by the activity of working people themselves in those societies, fighting in their own interests. If socialism can be created in this way, then should socialists support wars of aggression waged by so-called “socialist” states against those identified as non-socialist, such as the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979? Of course not. Socialists need to be very clear on this question. If we conceive of the USSR as in any way socialist, even in a hideously debased form, we doom ourselves to defending an autocratic regime that used the language of liberation and workers’ power to justify the very opposite of those things.
The book also lacks any clear discussion of the role of the capitalist state. Several contributors appear to think that the capitalist state can be taken over and used to help create socialism, or that some social democratic governments were somehow “socialist,” at least a little bit. Joseph M. Schwartz’s chapter on dictatorship cites the Allende government in Chile in the early 1970s, the Manley government in Jamaica in the same period, and the recent governments in Bolivia under Evo Morales and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez as examples of “a rich history of experiments in democratic socialism in the developing world.” Nowhere in the chapter is the term “democratic socialism” defined, and nowhere does Schwartz provide a coherent explanation of how such an undefined state of being can be realized.
Schwartz asks the question “how to move beyond capitalist oligarchy to socialist democracy?” but by way of answer remarks only that, by the late 1970s, corporate profitability was squeezed by gains made by labour, feminist, environmental and anti-racist movements and thus, understanding that capitalists would retaliate through political mobilization, outsourcing and capital flight, “socialists pushed for reforms aimed at winning greater public control over investment.” To blame social movements for the crisis of profitability at the time seems perverse, particularly as there is no mention or analysis of the roles played by the 1970s energy crisis, the 1973 collapse of the Bretton Woods system of financial exchange, the massive cost of the Vietnam War to the US economy or increased competition from West Germany and Japan in Schwartz’s picture. In addition, Schwartz dodges the question that he himself poses about strategy, mentioning the disinvestment that occurred in Sweden and France in the early 1980s as capitalists moved to undermine and defeat reforms instituted in those countries, and then simply moving on to say that “socialists across the world face the daunting challenge of how to rebuild working-class political power.” He’s right about the challenge, but nowhere does Schwartz address the possibility that the organized revolutionary activity of working people fighting in their own interests might be sufficient to both defend reforms and to create a society that meets human needs rather than corporate profit.
The ABCs of Socialism offers a broad range of opinion with regards to socialism and many of the key questions that might be asked of someone identifying as a socialist. This very breadth of opinion, however, renders the book theoretically inconsistent and thus confusing. Some chapters suggest that socialism consists of reforms that can be won through pressuring existing institutions and politicians, while others clearly argue, as Erik Olin Wright does, that “if freedom and democracy are to be fully realized, capitalism must not merely be tamed. It must be overcome.” The book provides a potentially interesting starting point for a conversation or debate about building a better world, and succeeds in its stated mission of answering some questions about socialism, though by no means all. Those looking for concrete analysis and strategy, however, will find the book lacking.