Paul Anderson, review of The Revenge of History by Alex Callinicos (Polity, £9.95), Tribune, 8 March 1990

Alex Callinicos’s argument in The Revenge of History will be familiar to anyone who has read the publications of the Socialist Workers’ Party. The collapse of “actually existing socialism” in eastern Europe is not to be mourned by socialists, because it isn’t (increasingly wasn’t) socialism at all but rather state capitalism. Far from marking “the bankruptcy of the revolutionary socialist tradition founded by Marx”,  the end of the Stalinist system means that true revolutionary Marxism-Leninism will no longer be held back by the popular misconception that it was somehow responsible for the disaster. Meanwhile, capitalism remains as crisis-ridden and irrational as ever, and social democracy offers no real alternative. The proletarian revolution, led by the Leninist party, is still on the agenda.

All this is stated clearly and concisely, and on the way Callinicos makes some telling points — about the flimsiness of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History?, about the vacuity of postmodernism, about the intellectual and political collapse of the orthodox communist parties. But in the end this must go down as one of the least convincing books yet published about 1989 and its aftermath.

One problem is Callinicos’s conception of “state capitalism”, which is based upon a definition of capitalism — “wage labour plus capital accumulation” — that makes it difficult to conceive of any feasible socialism. This is not to suggest that the left should be leaping to the posthumous defence of “actually existing socialism”, but it just won’t do simply to denounce as reactionary all the ideas of social democrats and market socialists, while gesturing vaguely in the direction of democratic planning through workers’ councils as if it were a panacea.

More importantly, in his attempt to rescue Lenin from the dustbin of history, Callinicos falls in himself. His account of the fate of the Russian revolution dismisses far too casually the argument that the roots of Stalinism were well nourished in the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party and in the practice of the Bolsheviks after their seizure of power in 1917: the Red terror, the militarisation of labour, the suppression of workers’ control, independent trade union organisation and rival political parties. Even in the hands of an articulate polemicist, the old excuses — the isolation of the Bolshevik revolution, the backwardness of Russian society and the defeat of Leon Trotsky by the right — are as unconvincing as ever. Callinicos gives no good reasons to expect that a Leninist revolution in the developed world today would be anything other than a bloody disaster.

Of course, the chances of such a revolution are luckily almost non-existent, but that, we can be sure, won’t cause Callinicos and his pals in the SWP leadership any pause for thought. As long as a few hundred students every year sign up to replace the few hundred disillusioned ex – students who leave, the SWP leadership will continue quite happily to wallow in its belief that it is the vanguard of the working class. The overwhelming feeling one gets on reading this book is a sense of sadness that such an obviously intellectually capable man has wasted so much of his life on such a foolish cause.

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