Mural reading "workers of the world unite"
Image credit: Jurriaan Persyn – Creative Commons

In just under a year, progressive movements across the Anglosphere have received some crushing defeats. First came electoral crises, with the wipe-out result for Labour in the 2019 election, then the Democratic Party establishment’s routing of Bernie Sanders. Then, as the dust began to settle, along came the extensive shocks of the coronavirus pandemic to the health and livelihoods of the global working classes. In the UK, with little positive to say about either the Government or the Opposition’s responses, it seems those committed to socialism are at a crossroads.

Grace Blakely’s edited collection, Futures of Socialism, represents a wide-ranging attempt to chart potential courses for socialists. With over 30 contributors squeezed into less than 250 pages, this book is a rapid journey across topics ranging from green socialism to press regulation.  Bringing together these many different thinkers on the left in a few short months, Blakeley has managed to construct an engaging and informative read, necessary for the hard conversations going forward.

The many futures faced

Futures of Socialism’s early chapters have several excellent interventions. In the first section, Tom Hazeldine, building on his far reaching The Northern Question, discusses England’s uneven economy and the low likelihood that the Conservatives will intervene in favour of these regions. Such analysis, recognising an opportunity to ‘marry up malcontents’ in the North, seems prophetic given the recent support for Andy Burnham against Westminster. Similarly, Rory Scothore’s essay on Scotland cuts through the mistaken view held by many that the SNP’s dominance is a victory for the left, instead convincingly arguing for Scotland as ‘the bolthole of centrism’. These early pieces reflect a return to serious thinking about the UK’s parts not seen since Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain.

These contributions are not alone as standout pieces in the collection. Gargi Bhattacharyya’s discussion of the five ‘bad habits’ of the British left provides both a useful challenge to wishful thinking and a rallying cry that socialism remains ambitious without turning to tradition or policing. Additionally, Dalia Gebrial’s contribution on precarity succinctly recognises the challenge of working class organising as the nature of work changes, analysing the global rise in people engaged in gig economy, zero-hour, or temporary contracts. These pieces reflect the collection at its best – inspiring, informative, and seriously engaged with current challenges.

The green stuff

Looking at the contributions in the environmental sphere, there are several enlightening pieces. Chris Saltmarsh’s analysis of green socialism, recognising the limits of elections alone, argues for new eco-socialist grassroots organising as well as a strengthening of trade unions. For Saltmarsh, such organising would buttress support for any party wishing to gain power on a radical climate agenda. In addition to this, Saltmarsh rightly argues for the necessity of a socialist politics of climate adaptation, and the need to organise to ensure the locked-in effects of climate change are not distributed inequitably. On the flip side, Saltmarsh is certainly too dismissive of degrowth, reducing the complex work of many socialists in this area to the strawman of climate austerity. Despite this, the piece serves as an accessible and effective proposals for the green left.

In a similar vein, Palagummi Sainath, Richard Pithouse and Vijay Prashad’s piece on hunger and the global food system provides in six pages a clear program of demands to end hunger and revolutionise food. It’s a crucial intervention given global food systems are overlooked in many discussions on the UK left, despite the scale of the hunger and climate crises food systems produce. One hopes many young progressives are inspired to rectify this going forward, uniting globally around the clear demands put forward.

Labourism versus socialism

In Futures of Socialism, there is a tendency to elide the future of socialism with the future of the Labour party. Such a situation is somewhat inevitable given many of its contributors have seen their political ascendency tied to the Corbyn project. But any historian of the Labour party would recognise that Corbyn’s leadership was an exception to the rule. As James Schneider states in the concluding essay of Futures of Socialism – ‘Labour is not and never has been a socialist party’. Similarly, this reviewer is inclined to the distinction drawn by Miliband, Macintyre, and others between Labourism and socialism. The broad tent of interests within Labour, and its commitment to parliamentary organising, produces its own politics and worldview. Labourism is a messy creature of compromise, refusing to stay still and commit to any coherent socialist project.

As Labour lurches right under Starmer, socialists are forced to reconsider their relationship to the shoggoth of Labourism. Some thinkers within this book take seriously the crisis of how to organise having lost what fleeting control Corbyn’s team had. Despite this, at several points in Futures of Socialism there is an overfocus on the shifts in opinion caused by Corbyn’s leadership. For example, after discussing Brexit, Andrew Murray suggests Starmer ‘will struggle to strike out in a different direction’ from Corbyn’s anti-imperialism, with a membership inclined to the internationalist left. Given Labour’s abstention on the overseas operations bill, such pronouncements have aged like milk. Cat Hobbs, in an otherwise informative piece on public ownership, additionally focuses on the consensus both nationally and within Labour for nationalisation. Despite such a large consensus among Labour members, this has not stopped the slow climbdown from the leadership in the past few months on public control. Winning the argument matters little in a hostile system.

There is much talk, as with Chris Saltmarsh’s piece, of community organising, of union activity, and of building new networks of mutual aid threaded throughout Futures of Socialism. Perhaps the greatest blind spot of this tendency is the lack of recognition that extra-parliamentary organising as a vehicle to secure some future Labour victory is a different project than extra-parliamentary organising for socialism. Such organising is not a hobby to do in-between elections, in fact, the exact opposite is the case – electoral activity is subservient to the need to build a base of working-class power willing and able to act. As the slow decline in Momentum has shown only too clearly, movements which only excite and mobilise around elections are insufficient for the current conjuncture. How we prevent such new grassroots organising collapsing in 2024, when the next election occurs and energies are sapped, is not appropriately analysed by contributors.

Putting together the foundations

With its wide spread of arguments and articles, it is inevitable that reading Futures of Socialism is a rollercoaster. There are some pieces which immediately excite and others which readers may find themselves having comradely disagreements with. However, one slight drawback of Futures of Socialism is in its composition. The book is split into two sections, ‘Foundations’ and ‘Futures’, the distinction between which is never fully explored. Most contributions look both at our current conjuncture and the changing road ahead, making the two sections seem superfluous.

Additionally, the ordering of the pieces can be quite bewildering. There are eyebrow raising moments, such as when Tom Mills’ piece on the British press succeeds Bhattacharyya’s argument that one of the left’s bad habits is ‘too much talk about ‘the media’’. But in general, there is little to indicate a purposeful ordering. Several contributions discuss issues of global political economy, but they are often split up from each other. We leap from public ownership, to musings on socialist humanism, to anti-colonialism and Rhodes Must Fall. All of these are interesting contributions in their own way, but a reordering, with greater focus on placing similar topics together, would have allowed the reader to develop potential threads across pieces and avoid topic whiplash.

A bright future

Overall, this is a timely intervention, and an impressive collection to produce in a few months during a global pandemic. Each contributor bats from their own safe territory, providing informative pieces on many pressing issues, from which socialists across the UK can build. Futures of Socialism is at its weakest when it confuses a Labour victory for a socialist one, as well as in the somewhat confused layout of the work. But this does little to detract from the many effective, comradely, and hopeful contributions found within Futures of Socialism. For the British left, Futures of Socialism provides a much-needed tonic in these ill times.