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Paul O’Flinn

Disappointing scuttle

(December 1981)

From Socialist Review, 14 December 1981-22 January 1982: 11, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Socialism in a Crippled World
Christopher Hampton
Penguin £4.95

I really would like to review this book warmly. Its heart is in the right place. It hates capitalism, it hates Stalinism, and it wants people to be free. Reading it was an old-fashioned pleasure in many ways: no structuralist gobbledygook, lots of hot indignation at the injustices of the twentieth century, and an invigorating insistence that socialism will need to be built out of Blake and Shelley and Dickens as well as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. But.

That ‘but’ comes because socialism needs more than hot indignation and a love of Blake’s lyrics, and it’s a ‘more’ that the book doesn’t and can’t supply. What, for example, is socialism?

At moments the text hints it might be found in the policies of the Labour Party – we’re told of the ‘great period of socialist transformation’ under the 1945 Labour government, even though a few pages earlier the author notes that the Labour Party ‘is committed to maintaining a financial and fiscal system that encourages divisiveness and self-interest.’ Then again, it might be Bolshevism, warmly praised in Chapter 2 – but dismissed ‘beyond all argument’ in Chapter 8.

Because the text never arrives at any sharp sense of what socialism means and involves, it’s forced into eccentric movement like some sort of electric crab.

Again and again, it scuttles to and fro between despair at Western capitalism and revulsion at the mess of the Soviet Union; in successive chapters it hobbles backwards through history from T.S. Eliot to Dickens to Shakespeare, lurches forwards to Blake, trips sideways to Shelley, leaps on to Auden and then topples backwards again to William Morris.

As the search for something to stick a claw into and stop the world spinning for a moment gets more frantic, the piles of unanswered rhetorical questions get bigger and bigger – two whole pages of them in Chapter 9, for example, and they are still coming thick and fast in the last chapter. And the hectoring, empty repetitiveness of the style gets more and more irritating. For example:

‘Tragedy ... represents a struggle for survival against the forces of negation, evil, darkness, terror, death, oblivion, and it moves towards catastrophe, obliteration, the defeat of the spirit.’

Why is this? Why is a book clearly written by a generous, sensitive man in the end a mess, a bedraggled bag of symptoms rather than a genuine prescription for cure?

The answer can be found if you look at the text’s sense of who it is that is oppressed and who it is therefore that will liberate themselves with socialism.

This group is variously described as ‘us’, ‘humanity’, ‘community’, ‘commonwealth’, ‘mankind’, ‘individuals’ and so on; except in the odd quote from Marx, the book for the most part avoids anything as vulgar as class analysis so that it never faces the question of the role of working-class organisations – parties, trade unions – in building socialism. Similarly, the persistent use of ‘man to mean ‘men and women’ is not just a verbal flaw that someone on the left ought to avoid – it betrays the fact that the text never even glances at feminism and its part in arriving at socialism in a crippled world. And the same is true of blacks. And the unemployed. And so on.

Granted these absences, what socialism comes to mean in the book is a state of mind. Socialism happens when we get our heads straight, so the author ransacks literature from Shakespeare to Brecht, carelessly abstracting from different societies and different times all the decent, kindly, progressive thoughts he can find. No wonder he was so well reviewed in The Guardian.

Socialism, the text implies, comes not from working-class struggle but is the prerogative of a few heroic individuals who have somehow escaped media manipulation and accumulated (he right insights. And so we shift from gazing reverently at faded photos of Marx in Chapter 1 to see if they can tell us the old boy’s secret, to agonizing in Chapter 2 that maybe the Russian revolution would have been saved if only Lenin had been well enough to address the Twelfth Party Congress.

I’m not enjoying this so I’ll stop. If this review sounds sour and querulous it’s because I’m disappointed – disappointed because a text which promises so much in the end delivers nothing.

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