Jeremy Gilbert’s Great Socialism Read

Book Review: Twenty-First Century Socialism By Jeremy Gilbert

For anyone who has engaged in the “But that’s not socialism!” debate with an angry mouth-breathing internet troll, British author Jeremy Gilbert provides you with an excellent grounding to respond. In a breezy 128 pages, Gilbert’s Twenty-First Century Socialism walks the reader through the broad-brush differences between capitalism and socialism, describes the socialism(s) of the 20th century (what they looked like, where they came from), and, more importantly, lays out the main societal changes which make 20th-century socialism less applicable to a de-industrialized, diverse, financialized, information-based world facing ecological catastrophe. So, yeah, good times!

The socialist parties of the late 19th and early 20th century grew out of municipal socialism, with notable examples ranging from “Radical” Joe Chamberlain’s administration in Birmingham, England, which established public ownership of gas and water, to the “Sewer Socialists” of Milwaukee, WI, who, under Socialist Party Mayor Daniel Hoan, formed the first semi-municipal housing project in the US, provided street lighting and public schools, and put Milwaukee on a cash basis so the city wasn’t in debt to bondholders or the rich. Gilbert also references cooperative movements such as the Rochdale Pioneers. Half a century later, following the Second World War, Socialist parties scored massive victories on the national level. These victories included the election of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party in England (which booted out Churchill’s conservatives), the success of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which incorporated many policies pioneered by American Socialists, the rise of Tommy Douglas and the New Democratic Party in Canada, and many others.  

 These parties were installed and supported by militant labor unions and they created a number of popular, enduring socialist policies and programs. Gilbert highlights Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), pushed forward by a radical Welsh socialist Aneurin Bevan, and codified in the Beveridge Report. William Beveridge, the author of the Beveridge Report, was a Fabian Socialist, the organization of non-Marxist socialists which also included Beatrice Webb, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. These achievements are remarkable by the standards of world history: public education, mass transit, the ending of child labor, home construction, and so forth. But as Gilbert points out, these parties depended on a unionized workforce, located in the same place, sharing a similar culture and language, and receiving their information through similar means. Picture a scene from the 1930s, with men in overalls and newsboy hats listening to “the wireless” with a union paper in their hands. That, to put it mildly, is not today’s world.

So what changed? As Gilbert explains, there were several large changes that undermined the electoral support for socialism in western democracies. Computing and “the cybernetic revolution” allowed companies to off-shore production to low-cost and low protection countries while allowing capital to flee to tax havens with the click of a mouse, effectively giving businesses the power to veto progressive government policies. Capitalism had historically always fled to “green field” sites when workers became organized, but computing and communications increased this exponentially. This eroded the union base, the key support for socialist policies, not just through job loss, but with the threat of job loss. Companies created excess capacity in non-union countries simply as a means to undermine unionized workers (as the companies could always supply their orders from elsewhere. At the same time, western countries themselves were changing internally in response to demands from long marginalized and oppressed groups (women, minorities, the elderly, disabled citizens) who were often left out, or disadvantaged, in the new welfare states created during and after the Second World War. In the US, for example, African-Americans, as well as  Latino farmworkers, were excluded from many New Deal policies when the Democratic Party had to balance the demands of the liberal and progressive New Dealers with the reactionary Southern Democratic Party in order to pass legislation. Similarly, in England, the Beveridge Report’s welfare state often privileged a sole, male breadwinner. 

Groups denied a full place in the post-war welfare states began pushing back. In 1975, rather than “leaning in,” ninety percent of the women in Iceland went on strike over unequal pay, effectively shutting down the country – yes, that happened!. Reactionary elements began using the pushback to divide the electorate, promote a “law and order” agenda, and rollback the key achievements of the post-war era. In the UK, Thatcher went to war with the unions and privatized public housing, leading to a homeless crisis. Reagan launched the US on a neoliberal path, deliberately increasing the deficit to justify cuts in social programs, often using deliberately racist language to justify it. Reagan famously launched his run for President in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a location known only for the murder of civil rights organizers. By the 1990s, center-left parties adopted the agenda of Reagan and Thatcher in both countries. Bill “end of big government as we know it” Clinton and Tony “New Labour” Blair  effectively turned their parties into conservative parties, papering over their damage with a language of “expanding opportunity” and “diversity.” Meanwhile, they continued the privatization, budget cuts, and austerity started by their predecessors. And the rest, as they say, is 2016 (and we haven’t even touched on climate catastrophe).

So given that union membership is at a low ebb, the “means of production” are largely in other parts of the world (often watched over by western-backed dictatorships), capital is moving about the world at light-speed, and the electorate is filled with many different people with diverse interests and goals, and little knowledge of the past – how do we build socialism for the 21st century? The shortest part of the book does an admirable job in providing some suggestions, some of which mean a return to socialism’s municipal roots. Gilbert mentions the work of Kali Akuno and Cooperative Jackson, a progressive city government in the majority African-American city of Jackson, MS which has been working to link city contracting, municipal services, and worker cooperatives in a solidarity economy, which is the opposite of the exploitive supply-chain economy we see globally. This is similar to the UK’s “Preston Model” and in line with the work of Gar Alperovitz and Gilbert mentions the public banking movements underway now in many American cities, including San Francisco, which seek to create public banks (like the Bank of North Dakota) to push out the extractive bond markets and loan schemes and replace them with publicly directed investment. 

Apart from providing the modern socialist with important historical framing of the socialist movement in the West, the brevity and readability of Gilbert’s book makes it a perfect introduction to the current state of 21st-century socialist ideas.