They say that people — young people in particular — don’t read books any more. I hope that’s not true, because books have always been powerful weapons in the struggle for socialism, and many of us can look back to a particular pamphlet, novel or collection of essays and say, “that’s what convinced me”.
Many comrades I’ve known said they were won over by Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (which, to my shame, I’ve never read), the poetry of Shelley or the writings of William Morris. For me it was youthful exposure to Orwell (The Road to Wigan Pier, especially) and then, a few years later, Hal Draper’s Two Souls of Socialism.
Sean Matgamna’s Socialism Makes Sense – An unfriendly dialogue may not be quite such a classic, but it serves the same purpose. Like all the best socialist proselytising, it’s entertaining as well as didactic, full of colourful language and rich metaphors. It’s simultaneously accessible (no prior knowledge of socialist theory is assumed), and demanding (it requires careful reading and sustained concentration).
Matgamna has adopted the format of a dialogue between a Marxist (A) and a defender of capitalism (B) for all but the closing pages of the book. It’s not altogether clear whether B is a Tory, a liberal (with a large or small ‘l’) or a fairly right-wing social democrat: he or she may, in fact, be a combination of all of those, but one thing is for sure, she or he is no fool.
Matgamna is unusual amongst leading revolutionary socialist writers in that he’s debated leading right-wing thinkers like Kenneth Minogue and Roger Scruton — characters who are well versed pro-capitalist ideology and whose criticisms of socialism have at least a veneer of sophistication and a sense of history and philosophy.
Quite rightly, Matgamna believes in taking on opposing arguments at their strongest, as put forward by their most eloquent and persuasive representatives, rather than wasting time arguing with self-evident clowns and ignoramuses.
The pro-capitalist B raises half a dozen or so main objections to socialism: the experience of Stalinism, human nature, the (alleged) decline of the working class, democracy, the bureaucracy of state ownership and, finally, the cynic’s ultimate put-down, “What’s in it for me?” (i.e. “Why waste your life on this foolish quest? Why invite me to do the same. Why fight for a cause that may suffer nothing but defeat, in your lifetime, or forever?”)
Matgamna takes these objections seriously, and (assuming that A is in fact the author himself), answers them with arguments that are essentially Marxist, but avoid unnecessary jargon, and without shying away (as some Marxists have done) from such concepts as human nature, reason, enlightenment, respect for individuals and … (yes!) love. Indeed, more than once B accuses A of sentimentality: “Love? Have I suddenly fallen down a rabbit-hole into a sloppy romance for pre-pubescent girls?”
Happily, the book is not without a leavening of humour, as when A notes that a late 19th century British Marxist called Edith Lanchester was committed to a mental asylum for her beliefs (no, that’s not the funny bit) and that her daughter became a well-known actress, Elsa Lancaster; B replies, “Ah, the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ herself. That figures. Bet she was a socialist. Frankenstein too. And the monster as well, maybe?”
The closing pages contain a more conventional exhortation to the reader to commit her or himself to Marxism and the class struggle: The fight for Marxism and for a Marxist labour movement is the fight to prepare the only force capable of taking humanity out of our age of neo-barbarism, the working class, for that task. It is for that task that the Alliance for Workers Liberty exists and fights.”
Matgamna’s impressive little book should certainly persuade some readers to head his call, and as James Connolly put it, “dare to hope and dare to fight.”