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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 27, June 20, 2009

Stimulating Exercise unfolding Socialist Future

Monday 22 June 2009, by K S Subramanium

Book Review

Workers Politics, the Ethics of Socialism by William Ash; Bread Books, Coventry, UK; 2007; pp. 340.

This is a remarkable book by a remarkable author! William Ash is an acclaimed novelist, script editor, journalist and writer, decorated war hero, leading trade unionist and thinker! The publication of the book, a British reprint of an earlier book published in India in 1998 with a different title, coincided with the 90th birthday of the distinguished author. The book is a ‘clear, rooted account of the importance of socialist ideas within the Marxist tradition’. This timely exercise needed to be carried out especially at a time when there is considerable lack of clarity over how Marx actually reasoned philosophically and practically and how he came to his revolutionary conclusions, using as well as transcending the ideas of the greatest minds of his time with the result that, ever since Marx, ‘sociology has become in the works of Weber, Durkheim, Mead, Mannheim and so many others, a debate with Marx’. One must thank and compliment the author for writing this admirably solid book.

The author enters the Marxist terrain of ideas by examining ‘values’, ‘rights’, ‘obligations’ and ‘alienation and social change’. After a stimulating discussion of the first three topics, the author provides us in the final chapter an absorbing examination of some major developments in global politics. Alas, India does not figure in his treatment though there is a passing reference to the eminent Indian Marxist Randhir Singh, whose 1087 page monumental work, Crisis of Socialism (Ajanta, 2006) has provided a challenging view of the panorama of socialist issues in the world.

The author’s new preface to the book explains the context. Global political developments since 1998 have demonstrated the moral necessity of a socialist understanding of society as the basis for united action to end the exploitation of working people by capitalist corporatists and to contribute to the establishment of a free, peaceful and truly democratic world. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not the end of socialism; it was the end of state socialism which had been allowed to degenerate into bureaucratic stagnation. The end of the Cold War saw the establishment of global capitalism, in which huge corporations of the US play a prominent role. Speaking of Blair’s Britain (and Brown’s as well, one presumes), the author states: ‘Real socialists have to realise that just as Blair’s political rule has become indistinguishable from Thatcher’s, so social democracy under capitalism, will always turn into some kind of fascism.’ How about ‘social democracy’ in Manmohan Singh’s India?

The four chapters in the book clinically examine how ethics and morality relate to politics and economics. The first deals with ‘values’: what they mean and where they come from; the second, with the meaning of ‘normative judgments’: what makes things right or wrong; the third, with ‘obligations’, including a discussion of capitalist freedoms; and the fourth, ‘alienation’ and political change. The theoretical discussion in the first three chapters needs careful reading by the ordinary reader. The invigorating political analysis of global developments in the last is refreshing, rewarding and of outstanding quality.


The author explains the limitations of bourgeois ethics and derives Marxist ethics from Marxist political economy and the theory of value. Scholars may feel that the author commits a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ and is logically unconvincing with a ‘logical blurring’ between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’. However, the attempt is worth making and provides intellectual provocation. After dealing with the whole question of value by analysing the concept of ‘good’, the author tackles the issue of claims on people and things by analysing the concept of ‘right’. He then goes on to analyse the limits and scope of freedom of choice and action by looking at the concept of ‘ought’. The author’s discussion is based on the original texts of Karl Marx but he does not lightly bypass or carelessly dismiss the thought of other major non-Marxist philosophers and thinkers in the field. The discussion enables the reader to put the ideas of thinkers like Althusser, Bentham, Bradley, Carlyle, Durkheim, Hegel, Russell, Mannheim, Weber, Wittgenstein, Sartre et al., and concepts like ‘existentialism’, ‘post-modernism’ and ‘structuralism’ in perspective. The author’s encyclopaedic reading and clear understanding is compelling and evokes one’s admiration.

The final chapter contains an absorbing analysis of ‘alienation and political change’. Unlike, Hegel, Marx uncovered the roots of ‘alienation’ in social existence and traced its relations with other aspects of the material conditions of specific people in their actual productive relationships to a theory of social change which can be acted upon. ‘Private property’ is Marx’s expression for the objects produced by alienated labour which reaches its culmination in capitalist society. While discussing the role of the working class as an agent of social change, the author asks whether the British working class, particularly as organised in trade unions, is developing its own ideology, which can establish socialist society in the country. This leads him to a discussion of industrial action by the British working class in the recent period.

The discussion of ‘Marxist socialism in practice’, leads the author to an exploration of the experience of socialism in the Soviet Union culminating in its ultimate demise. He is of the view that the socio-economic system which collapsed in the Soviet Union in 1990-91 was certainly not a dictatorship of the proletariat, Marx’s name for democratic socialism in the period when there are still class enemies within the country and external enemies without. What collapsed was state socialism, which had been allowed to decline into bureaucratic stagnation. In a backward country such as Russia the dictatorship of the party on behalf of the working class was the only alternative to abandoning the post-revolutionary socialist vision of society altogether. After the death of Lenin, Stalin used the party-managed dictatorship of the proletariat to severely repress any criticism and did not advance working class political democracy. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev used the same party dictatorship for an ill-thought-out and unrealistic policy of catching up with the West. The Gorbachev period witnessed the decline into state capitalism with all the accompanying features of ‘black marketing, currency swindles, protection rackets and the invasion of foreign entrepreneurs to cash in on the chaos’.

The author’s view is that the practice of socialism in the first workers’ state should be seen not as the end of socialism or of history but as the ‘first stage of a transition not unlike the passage through several centuries from feudalism to capitalism’. Randhir Singh is cited to the effect that ‘the transition from capitalism to socialism will also involve revolutions and counter-revolutions, victories and defeats, advances and retreats in the eventual transformation of capitalist barbarism into socialist civilisation’. Only, the transition will not take so long because it is a much more conscious development with the actors involved in the ideological conflict between capitalism and socialism ‘much clearer about the class interests, private profit or the collective good, which are respectively served’.

What stands out throughout the discussion is the author’s undying optimism of will against the pessimism of intellect while portraying some of the faltering steps taken by humanity in its march towards a truly ‘socialist’ future.

Bravo and thank you, Comrade William Ash, for providing us this exhilarating intellectual fare!

The author is a Visiting Professor, Jamia Millia University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: mani2002@gamil.com

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