“Socialism Makes Sense: An Unfriendly Dialogue”
Sean Matgamna is well into his sixth decade of activism, and for most of that time has been the leading theoretician of the tendency now known as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. This book – a revised version of one published under a slightly different name in 2016 – is constructed as a series of arguments with an imaginary interlocutor, in which the author sets out the case for socialism.
It’s a format that was used quite frequently in the first half of the twentieth century, and sits alongside other attempts to popularise socialist ideas like Paul Foot’s Why You Should be a Socialist, although this is more sophisticated. Whether it is successful is a moot point.
Certainly, there are some solid sections, particularly where Sean contrasts the irrationality and waste capitalism engenders, his refutation of the idea that human nature predestines us to individualism and self-interest, and his insistence that the “actually existing socialism” of the Eastern bloc is not the yardstick by which genuine socialism should be measured.
That said, you might wonder why you would spend the time equivalent of 182 pages arguing with someone of mature years who is evidently a Tory and thinks that the NHS is “the only good thing a Labour government ever did”. More than that, the working class is digging its own grave and that’s a “good thing”. If I was canvassing, I’d rapidly move on.
Then there’s the point that it’s difficult to put decent arguments in an imaginary opponent’s mouth, and some of the dialogue is positively clunky: “Your ‘socialism’ is a picture of the Virgin Mary on the walls of a brothel.”
Talking of which, Sean isn’t likely to win many Muslim converts with statements like “many people coming from Islamic societies look on typical women … as being in effect prostitutes”; and linking the “Muslim world” to “self-righteous, murderously militant jihadist superstition”. The great Marxists were careful not to insult the religion of the oppressed in the manner of an 18th century rationalist.
Sean returns on several occasions to the role of Stalinism. I question whether this has the same importance that it had in past decades. Historically, yes; going forwards less so.
What I would have liked would have been for the interlocutor to be a social democrat on the right wing of the Labour Party. That would have addressed the burning issues of the day, since many of the people around Progress and Labour First still refer to themselves as socialists.
Back in the first week of July 2015 – just as the first Corbyn leadership campaign was taking off – a leading AWL member spent half an hour berating me for wasting my time in the Labour Party. If only the interlocutor could have asked: “You claim your version of Marxism gives you unparalleled insight. How come you got the political situation so wrong three years ago?”
“Socialism Makes Sense: An Unfriendly Dialogue” by Sean Matgamna is published by Workers Liberty, £7