FEW on the left would question that there is a need for quick and dramatic political change socially and ecologically and Richard Swift is to be commended for posing big questions relating to that imperative and attempting to provide answers in this book.
Capitalism cannot be reformed out of existence and global problems require global answers. Wherever we stand ideologically, alternatives to it to date have had pretty serious shortcomings and, while the last few years have thrown up inspiring and successful struggles and we’ve seen the emergence of a broadly defined consciousness hostile to the 1 per cent elite, the creation of a united and revolutionary movement remains a distant goal.
Hence the need to present a visionary 21st-century socialism that’s democratic, inclusive and participatory and which draws lessons from the past and present.
Swift ably demonstrates how many features of modern-day life that we all take for granted as natural and immutable are nothing of the sort, how mainstream narratives have completely distorted what many of us mean by the term human nature and how short is the timespan of capitalism compared with the likes of hunter-gatherer societies.
Yet, critical of the legacy of both Marxism and social democracy, Swift sees greater value in radical green, decentralist and autonomist currents and his notes about the goal of revolution being a “good life, grounded in nogrowth economics, direct democracy and the concept of the ‘commons’” is thought-provoking.
Yet this section of the book is problematic and unconvincing.
Swift’s potpourri approach sometimes reads like a list of very good ideas but not much more and many of the concepts introduced aren’t quite as original as he seems to think. There’s a tendency to reduce movements to one-dimensional caricatures of his own making.
The momentous Soviet and Chinese revolutions are quickly dismissed for apparently having led to the creation of repressive and bureaucratic police states that were, in effect, just other forms of capitalism, while influential communist parties which are increasing in strength and often linked to wider mass movements are labelled nothing more than a collection of dwindling and irrelevant Stalinist sects.
As for more social-democratic organisations, it’s worth pointing out that the parties of Corbyn, Allende and Chavez, among others, are quite different formations to those of Blair and Mitterrand.
While Swift shies away from identifying with certain aspects of autonomist thought or libertarian municipalism, he often assumes the existence of a political space that doesn’t really exist now and is more than unlikely to in the future.
Maybe Swift has tried to cover far too much far too quickly and he has a lot more persuasive and detailed arguments to make. If that is the case, let the debate begin.