The team behind Jacobin magazine have produced a great set of short simple essays tackling questions often asked about the politics of the socialist left titled The ABCs of Socialism. As with any book with multiple authors — this has 13 in total — there are differences in style, emphasis and political conclusions (which I will address later). Nonetheless the book is remarkably consistent and reads well.
The whole book, despite its incomprehensibly ridiculous (tall, thin) shape, could easily be read in a couple of hours. I enjoyed two chapters in particular. ‘Will socialists take my Kenny Loggins records?’ tackles the question of private versus personal property. And ‘Why do socialists talk so much about workers?’ gives a clear account of why the working class are the motive force in the successful transformation of society. There is no equivocation on this point, no faith in amorphous “masses” or “people power”. Other chapters cover whether socialism will be boring, eurocentrism, feminism, the environment and questions of democracy and dictatorship.
The book is a product of the renewed interest in socialism in the US, particularly since the movement around Bernie Sanders. It is also a measure of the success of Jacobin. The US context in the book may slightly baffle UK readers.
In the US the existence of public services and institutions as evidence of an “already existing socialism” does not inhabit the public sphere and right-wing libertarian thought does. It is striking that the book is unequivocally for a class-struggle democratic vision of socialism, but some important questions are left unanswered, or, as with the issue of Stalinism, with contradictory answers. This may be because of lack of space or because of differences between authors.
As noted by Todd Chretien in his review for the US Socialist Worker, the book is light on what revolution actually means. In his chapter Jonah Birch draws a clear line between the violence of the state and ruling class and “the violence of the oppressed”. But in another chapter Joseph M Schwartz, the vice-chair of the Democratic Socialist of America, takes a swipe at the Bolshevik revolution. He appears to lump together the revolution of 1917 and its gains with the Stalinist counter revolution of the late 1920s. He uses criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg and Victor Serge to attack the Bolsheviks.
But Luxemburg’s criticisms were not an argument against revolution! And Serge joined the Bolsheviks and was a part of the revolution that Schwartz implies should not have happened!.
Another chapter suggests that Mao, Kwame Nkrumah, Che Guevara and Amilcar Cabral could all have reasonably called themselves socialists, “whatever their differences.” And David Icke and L Ron Hubbard could call themselves scientists? This does nothing to help bring clarity to the left that the authors intend. In contrast, the final chapter ‘Will Socialism be Boring?’ by Danny Katch, an ISO member, correctly (in my view) and unambiguously defends the great strides made by the Bolsheviks and defends the role of Lenin and Trotsky in one of the defining periods of global working-class history.
The book is a good primer for more detailed works, and could quite easily be read alongside Can Socialism Make Sense? edited by Sean Matgamna which draws out in greater detail many of the same questions about socialism. That book also provides the reader with further reading and some texts of historic importance.
The ABCs of Socialism provides a list of further reading from Jacobin, and not all just short articles, alongside each chapter. That’s a nice touch and will assist the Jacobin reading groups now operating in over 70 cities.
• Order the book here
Joseph Schwartz writes that "Revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Victor Serge criticized early Soviet rule for banning opposition parties, eliminating experiments in workplace democracy, and failing to embrace political pluralism and civil liberties. If the state owns the means of production, the question remains: how democratic is the state?"
They both did this, no? Serge's criticisms were later than Rosa's of course. But they both made such criticism even as they defended the Bolshevik revolution itself and remained opponents of right-wing social democrats and the anti-Bolshevik Kautskyist "center."
Luxemburg and Serge's criticisms of some of the Bolsheviks' tactical choices in the maelstrom of an unprecedented situation cannot be extrapolated into criticisms either of the 1917 revolution in totality or the idea of revolution itself.
I haven't read the Jacobin book, but if social-democrats (is that what Schwartz is? I don't know) are instrumentalising Luxemburg and Serge in the service of a reformist critique of revolution, even if they recognise that Luxemburg and Serge were themselves unambiguously "revolutionaries", that is very disingenuous indeed.
Also, to read that the book hails Mao as someone who should be acknowledged as a representative of any type of legitimately "socialist" politics is disappointing. Why not Stalin too, then?
So I can't speak to that. I've known Joe Schwartz a long time. His intent wasn't to make a reformist critique of revolution but of what he sees as unnecessary authoritarianism. One could legitimately argue about that.
DSA as a whole is somewhere between the leftmost wing of social democracy and what "Draperite" Christopher Phelps once called (in a different context) "the rational wing of revolutionary socialism." In a country with no mass socialist movement, not even a pathetic reformist social-democratic party, this not-wholly-desirable broadness is probably inevitable if one wants to have an organization of more than 1,500 people. (DSA has 8,000 or so and is growing. Of course, the US has 315+ million people so it's a drop in the ocean.)