Two Introductions to Socialism

Reviewing two introductions to contemporary socialism by Erik Olin Wright and Jeremy Gilbert, Rowan Fortune looks at what are the most viable strategies and social formations for building an anticapitalist struggle today.

17 July 2020


There are many books that summarise the meaning of socialism or anticapitalism in our times. I have recently read two, which encapsulate the ideas (from the Green New Deal to the links between social democratic parties and extraparliamentary movements) that emerged during our most recent period of left activity—that of Tsipras, Corbyn, and Sanders, a phase of struggle that has reached its impasse. Erik Olin Wright, who sadly passed last year, and Jeremy Gilbert, a leading light of the British internationalist left, contributed works that both belong to and push against this period.

Wright’s How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century uses ‘capitalism to designate both the idea of capitalism as a market economy and the idea that it is organized through a particular kind of class structure.’ Wright advocates market-socialism. For him, it is class structure (forms of ownership) and not markets per se that define capitalism. He stresses that capitalism ‘is an inequality-enhancing machine as well as a growth machine.’ Therefore its characterised by ‘poverty in the midst of plenty.’ His aim is to retain the plentifulness, but abolish the poverty.

Invoking ethical socialism, Wright talks of two motivations in ‘diverse forms of struggle within and over capitalism: class interests and moral values.’ Ultimately, he regards values as a better motive force, as people ‘act against their class interests not because they do not understand those interests, but because other values matter more’. The values Wright wishes to invoke are the French revolutionary ones of liberté, egalité, fraternité, as we will also see in Gilbert, but with other examples such as from Bernard Crick and Michael Newman, whose books were both titled Socialism.

Wright tries to theoretically and empirically demonstrate that such values are valuable to socialism because they are inherently opposed to capitalist social relations, which

generates and perpetuates unjust forms of economic inequality; it narrows democracy and restricts the freedom of many while enormously enhancing the freedom of some; and it cultivates cultural ideals that endorse individual competitive success over collective welfare.

A Pluralistic Strategy

Throughout the book, Wright aims to overcome something like what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism (the sense that capitalism is the horizon of human history and historical possibly). He does this by offering an alternative

that avoids both the false optimism of wishful thinking and the disabling pessimism that emancipatory social transformation is beyond strategic reach.


He outlines five (often overlapping) approaches to anticapitalism (a modified form of which can be found in Graham Jones’s quite different book of anticapitalist strategy, The Shock Doctrine of the Left). They are smashing, dismantling, taming, resisting and escaping. Wright argues that smashing will ‘tend to unravel into such chaos that revolutionary elites, regardless of their motives, will be compelled to resort to pervasive violence and repression’. With dismantling he invokes the ghosts of early and Latin American social democracy, an ‘extended period in which both capitalist and socialist relations coexist’, which by itself has failed too, underestimating capitalism’s dynamism. Although it will be principally advocated here, Taming also has its drawbacks; mitigating capitalism’s harms but missing ‘the underlying tendency of capitalism to cause harm’. Moreover, he admits that neoliberal globalisation has made the approach harder.

Wright acknowledges that ‘it is easy to see the appeal of the classic revolutionary idea that the dominance of capitalism can only be broken by a rupture in the power relations that sustain that dominance.’ Still, he maintains that there is reason to hope taming can work. To argue for it, he stresses the viability of capturing the capitalist state, since firstly ‘the apparatuses that make up the state are filled with internal contradictions; and second, the functional demands on the state are contradictory.’ Democracy is fundamental, however, as the more ‘robustly democratic the forms of decision-making and accountability, the less purely capitalist the class character of a state apparatus.’

Resisting, i.e. direct action, protests, etc. ‘seeks to affect the behavior of capitalists and political elites’ and is the sine qua non of anticapitalist struggle. And escaping, setting up alternatives (workers coops, utopian communes, prefigurative change), is seen as useful to puncturing capitalist realism’s assumptions. Neither of these approaches seizes state power, however, and this—it is argued—limits them. For Wright, it is necessary then to have a ‘strategic complex of resisting, taming, dismantling and escaping capitalism in order to erode, over the long term, its dominance.’ Only smashing is outright rejected.

From Theory to Practice

The suggested approach has not yet formed, but Wright argues that ‘impulses in this direction can be found in political parties that have close ties to progressive social movements, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.’ Moreover, eroding ‘might also resonate with youthful currents within some established center-left parties—for example, Bernie Sanders’s supporters in the Democratic Party during the 2016 American presidential election or the Corbyn forces within the British Labour Party.’

Although ‘anything approaching a comprehensive blueprint’ is impossible, Wright also offers what he calls ‘a partial inventory of the key building blocks of democratic socialism.’ He does this in a series of policies that all assume state power and backing. For example, he recommends combining cooperatives with an unconditional basic income (UBI), for public programmes to convert companies into coops with supportive credit institutions, development initiatives and training.

UBI is particularly crucial. Wright cites Marx’s idea of ‘the double separation of workers—their simultaneous separation from the means of production and from the means of subsistence.’ UBI, he argues, ‘reunites workers with the means of subsistence, even though they remain separated from the means of production; it thus directly modifies the basic class relations of capitalism.’ This goes beyond similar arguments put forward in Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, where UBI is seen as a way of saving a humane capitalism, and sees it instead as a route out of capitalism entirely. Although Wright does not tackle the substance of left scepticism about UBI.

Collective Actors

At the end of the book, attention is turned to the kind of collective actors whose agency might erode capitalism. ‘Collective actors’, argues Wright, ‘are critical for emancipatory social transformation.’ From this, he identifies the ingredients of such actors as ‘identities, interests and values as overlapping bases’ and explores each. Identity provides for the ‘solidarity needed for sustained collective action’, while the question of ‘which interests should be given the greatest attention’ is a key problem. Finally, values are ‘a robust source of identity’ and, if ‘integrated into more or less systematic bodies of thought’ become ideologies:

Emancipatory ideologies combine explanations for how the world works, account for what alternatives are possible, and affirm values.

This comes down to advocating a kind of social democratic consciousness rising, which has not been a strong suit of social democratic parties. The difficulty, Wright believes, is in a ‘gulf between private lives and public involvement’. This is connected to problems of time, consumerism, market competition, individualism and so on. In the past, the left’s answer was in civic associations. And despite his early insistence on values, Wright is keen to stress that class structures remain ‘at the very heart of the strategic configuration of eroding capitalism’ and their fragmentation under neoliberalism presents a serious dilemma.

Non-class based identities are therefore also a kind of problem, both in terms of resisting necessarily hostile identities (racism, nationalism) and learning to ‘navigate the complexity of these multiple, intersecting identities that share common underlying emancipatory values but nevertheless have distinct identity-interests.’ (For example, racial, sexual and gender minorities.) On this second point, those of us who believe in a more revolutionary approach share this difficulty with gradualists such as Wright, and much more could be said elsewhere. Gilbert stresses this too, as we shall see.

A New Socialism?

Arguing ‘that a twenty-first-century socialism is the only reasonable solution to the various crises and problems that the world faces’, Jeremy Gilbert’s Twenty-First Century Socialism often agrees with Wright in its analysis, but argues from the other direction: i.e. from problems to socialism rather than from socialism to the problems it faces. It is divided into three parts covering the current crisis, the world context and the kind of socialism that might meet this overall situation. However, first Gilbert offers definitions of his core concepts: capitalism and socialism.

Unlike Wright, Gilbert does not pause to consider a kind of socialism in relation to markets, but offers a looser definition of it as being ‘the belief that the quality of human life can be improved if people are enabled and encouraged to cooperate for the common good, rather than being forced to compete among themselves for access to resources, power and status.’ That is, socialism is a form of democratic cooporation; it is also the absence of capitalism. And as with Wright, Gilbert identifies socialism with a certain reformulation of liberté, égalité, fraternité, which is expanded on in the book.

Capitalism is split into two definitions. First, it is a ‘system for the production
and distribution of material goods (what Marx calls a capitalist mode of production),’ and, additionally, a ‘social order built around that economic system (what some theorists have called a capitalist social formation).’ Important here is a ‘situation in which private individuals or corporations are allowed to use any means available to them—short of openly violent coercion—to accumulate vast profits from the sale of commodities,’ and do so irrespective of harms. It is then a set of behaviours and a system that emerges from those behaviours.

Although this book is keen to provide fixed definitions, it is also keen to provide a historical context. So again, as with Wright, Gilbert does not believe that the postwar Keynesian consensus is socialism nor that neoliberalism is a synonym for capitalism or even the same as earlier forms of prewar liberalism. His periodisations rest on historical differences within capitalism and responses to capitalism. For example, whereas ‘liberals tend to assume that being a self-interested, competitive entrepreneur is the natural state for human beings, neoliberals know that it isn’t.’ For them, this is something to be achieved through ‘state and corporate power’. Neoliberalism is the management of capitalism along a certain ideological line.

During the 80s, the book argues that ‘the worldwide labour movement suffered catastrophic defeats, as globalisation and the cybernetic revolution ripped the ground out from under them.’ Moreover, the end of ‘Soviet communism made it look, to many people, as if the game of history were at an end and the only winner was capitalism.’ Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, the idea that history had concluded with liberal capitalism, was in this reading an ideological accomplishment of neoliberalism, its objective from the outset.

However, because of continued resistance to increased alienation and exploitation, a new stratum of society was required. Gilbert somewhat agrees with David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs about the systemic necessity for a new class of professional managers to both disguise the fractures of neoliberalism, and to enforce its vision of human nature, although he does not go so far as Graeber in arguing that the current period represents a break with some kind of traditional capitalism.

Gilbert’s brief history gives emphasis to social movements and forces rather than individual actors. And the socialism proposed is not achieved chiefly via the goodwill or accomplishments of an elite, but the victories of workers. Discussing the NHS, for example, he doubts that in lieu of ‘his base in the South Wales coalfields’ a politician such as ‘Bevan would have been able to push through his programme of implementing the fully socialist NHS’. Socialism should therefore seek ‘to disaggregate concentrations of wealth and power, working to disperse power and distribute resources more equitably in many different social situations.’ Democracy is at the core of this conception of socialism.

However, in the context of a neoliberal, networked world, Gilbert also argues that the nature of power from below is different from that of Bevan’s time: ‘No human society on record has come close to accepting the diversity of lifestyle, personal philosophy, religious practice or sexual identity that most of us now regard as normal.’ If the socialism of the twentieth century ‘promoted a culture of strict conformity in order to foster a sense of unity among the people’, nowadays socialism must unite around commonalities ‘while treating the diversity and plurality of its constituencies as a positive strength, to be welcomed and encouraged.’ This is in response to what Gilbert characterises as postmodernity.

Postmodernism in this account is tied to what is dubbed the cybernetic revolution and globalisation, if not also the historic defeats of labour. Because of networking and transportation, capitalism now circumnavigates national polities and localised labour organisation; here, globalisation is a tool in the arsenal of neoliberalism, one ‘always intended to weaken the capacity of national governments and national populations to regulate the behaviour of capitalists’. Although neither Gilbert nor Wright give up class as a critical point of analysis, they often depict the conflict between socialists and capitalists as a conflict of values.

The Middle Stratas

Gilbert is keen to stress the dual nature of humanity under neoliberalism. Often liberated from old forms of oppression, but alienated and lacking in a means to display a vital social solidarity. ‘Neoliberalism’, he insists ‘says that people are happier this way—consuming, competing, pursuing their private interests.’ However, in reality they rely on ‘platform technologies and a vast range of drugs to try to make themselves feel better, to feel some connection with other people and the wider world.’ Although it is not stated flatly, the suggestion is that alienation is a greater problem under neoliberalism than during earlier forms of managing capitalism.

Significant to socialism is the class composition of neoliberal, developed societies such as the US or UK, where ‘middle classes are a larger, more variegated collection of subgroups (or class fractions) than ever before,’ with ‘complex sets of political and cultural allegiances.’ Gilbert outlines three subgroups of the middle strata, starting with a ‘traditional petite bourgeoisie of medium-sized business owners and of corporate middle management[, which] remains the bedrock of political reaction’. Conversely, ‘public sector professionals constitute a distinctive group that shares absolutely nothing with them’ and are typically left.

The most critical group of the ‘middle class’ (in terms of forming a new political consensus) is what Gilbert calls the ‘new petite bourgeoisie’ (overlapping with what Paul Mason might call the network) of (especially tech-based) entrepreneurs and freelancers:

They place a high value on personal freedom and on the ability to pick and choose between isolated parts of different cultures that appeal to them: they listen to reggae in the car, but certainly do not embrace Rastafarianism; they do yoga on a Saturday, but certainly do not become tantric devotees; they get married in traditional style because they find the ceremony picturesque, but never go to church again, and so on. They tend to be culturally individualistic, but also to rely heavily on public services, especially if they have families. They liked Thatcher’s and Reagan’s celebrations of entrepreneurial culture but disliked their nationalism, their warmongering, their emphasis on traditional ‘family values’. They were enthusiastic about Blair and Clinton during the heady days of the 1990s tech boom, but today they are probably very worried about climate change and aware that governments allied with big business are unlikely to do anything about it. They tend to avoid joining unions, and any political rhetoric that seems to be ‘anti-business’ will be anathema to them. But they are probably sympathetic to attempts to limit the power of banks and major corporations, as long as smaller businesses are seen to be supported and valued. Perhaps they like the idea of belonging to a coop, although they almost certainly don’t. They love their computers, their smartphones and their social media platforms.

It is this class that must be won over, Gilbert insists, so that socialists can work to overcome eleven contemporary challenges: ‘climate change, the cybernetic revolution, globalisation, changes to the class structure, the crisis of representative democracy, the reality of postmodern culture, the rise of platform capitalism, the legacy of neoliberalism, the resurgence of the authoritarian right and the capitalist capture of the cities.’ Gilbert sees class formations, then, as a political process.

Such an understanding of class—whether or not one agrees with the particulars of Gilbert’s case—could well be welcomes as escaping an idea of class as a form of static identity. Of particular interest, and following from this point, is Gilbert’s willingness to take the contemporary far right seriously as amongst the threats the left must tackle, a threat that emerges out of the class forces of neoliberal capitalism.

Culture War

Twenty-First Century Socialism interprets the problem of the far-right holistically, factoring not only the impact of neoliberalism to the social consensus, but how it interacts with new technologies; for instance, how ‘apps have been used to spread right-wing conspiracy theories’ even if they have also helped progressive campaigns. Perceptively, Gilbert writes that ‘bloggers, YouTubers and meme artists of the alt-right use platform technologies to circulate, amplify and embellish [their] beliefs for audiences of millions.’

Following from that point is the broader one that after the cultural-revolution ‘socialism cannot be authoritarian in nature, relying on a culture of conformity, as twentieth-century socialism so often did.’ Rather, it must aspire to a model closer to that dreamt by nineteenth century anarchism, libertarian strands of early social democracy or Salvador Allende’s Chile, before it was brutally crushed by Augustus Pinochet’s counterrevolution, ‘the violent suppression of democratic, technologically sophisticated socialism.’ Gilbert is here arguing for an anti-authoritarian anticapitalism, one that honours rather than crushes human versatility and diversity.

Gilbert privileges the role of power from below, but he still insists that ‘parties are necessary for fighting elections.’ The question of organisation is then quite quickly resolved in the form of electoralism and gradualism, which is tied to a policy orientated approach to politics (which he shares with Wright). Still, the problem both authors have in still centring electoralism, however much also recognising its pitfalls, is that it is an approach that has already been unsuccessful, and while it remains dominant, its time is running out; that is, we have only a decade, for instance, to answer climate change. It also remains the case that the culture war has no more been tackled by social democracy, than it has by revolutionary socialists.

A Spectre is Haunting Gradualism

Wary of the politics of Marxist Leninism, Gilbert shares an anarchist critique of it. But he does not share the anarchist’s confidence in non- electoralist projects to overcoming capitalism. Still, anarchists, left-communists and others might raise an eyebrow about his claim that ‘attempts to transition to socialism too rapidly have often been made at the expense of real democracy’. Did Russia or China become autocratic because they transitioned too quickly or, as the Marxist Humanist Raya Dunayevskaya (for instance) argued, fatally stalled as material conditions and internal counterrevolution overcame them?

Both of these authors are aware of the stakes and problems that beset their approach. Gilbert, for example, notes that ‘many social-democratic reforms have been reversed or turned into new opportunities for capital accumulation’. But this, however modified, is the route he recommends, one that means ‘avoiding or neutralising the hostile attention of capitalist powers’, winning elections and remaining anticapitalist. The tradition of Kautsky requires more of a defence if it is to be the one we tactically adopt even after the failures of Sanders and Corbyn.

The liberté, égalité, fraternité formulation in particular seems unhelpful. In a letter to August Bebethat, Engels’s wrote that this notion of equality is ‘a one-sided French concept’, justified in its own time and place, but that ‘signified a phase of development, but which[...] ought now to be superseded’. Basing socialism on values risks repeating the errors of the utopian socialists in placing abstract, reified ideals over a living movement. It could be argued that it is a strength of Marxian economics that it forgoes such approaches, even if Marxism does not ignore such things as cultures and values. Ethical socialism has traditionally not reinforced a class analysis, it has eclipsed it.

Other objections might also be raised at the particular conceptions of socialism being proposed, especially Wright’s market socialism that does not abolish the wage system and therefore presumably leaves intact the motivation to create surplus value that was critical to Marx’s understanding and critique of capitalism. It is a critique that in its implications might require revisiting the strategy of Smashing (or revolution), although that goes beyond the bounds of this review.

These two books are, nonetheless, serious contributions to a literature informed by Marxism. These authors take on the need to build a class struggle and rightly champion the contributions of the oppressed to that necessity. In the coming years, in the UK context as elsewhere, these struggles will likely be at the forefront of whatever strategy anticapitalists take on (gradualist or revolutionary); we should all now see the necessity of such struggles to building up the agency of workers towards any feasible anticapitalist project. Rowan Fortune is a West London activist and student of utopia; his anthology of utopic fiction, Citizens of Nowhere, demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance.

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