Review: Twenty-First Century Socialism

How should socialists organise in the ‘climate decade’? Gus Woody reviews Jeremy Gilbert’s book, Twenty-First Century Socialism, which attempts to tackle the question.

Jeremy Gilbert, Twenty-First Century Socialism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020). 140pp. £9.99


Only two decades into the twenty-first century, it is clear that we are facing an era of crisis. The rise of the far-right, climate breakdown and global impoverishment have all characterised the last twenty years. It is Jeremy Gilbert’s assertion, and unsurprisingly this reviewer’s, that the only solution to these problems is socialism. Not just any socialism, but one redesigned around the new and worrying material position the world currently finds itself in. 

The short book ends up covering a wide range of subjects. Beginning with clarification around what capitalism and socialism constitute, Gilbert then traces how capitalism causes climate collapse, democratic failure and more. Consequently, the majority of the book constitutes a history and introduction to modern capitalism and its ills. For many embedded already within the left, this analysis is, therefore, neither controversial nor novel. The book’s role is to bring together in a short, jargon-free, way many of the left analyses of current issues and point to their unifying feature: capitalism. From this Gilbert begins his advocacy for socialism as a solution. The concluding chapters on a socialist programme and strategy are perhaps the most interesting. Here Gilbert is really attempting to step on new territory and articulate what this century’s socialism looks like and how we go about achieving it.

Perhaps the most presently relevant element of Gilbert’s argument is the demand for movement building beyond elections to achieve socialism. Many engaged with socialist politics for the first time hoping that Corbynism within the Labour party was enough. The 2019 election highlighted just how important non-parliamentary organising needs to be to ensure socialist victories. It is clear now more than ever that movements coming together with a socialist language and practice are necessary, both inside and outside Parliament. This is not a new idea obviously, but Gilbert is correctly reasserting this need to build power not just within the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour grassroots. It is a timely intervention in this regard.

Twenty-First Century Socialism still leaves the biggest issues open. How do we build these movements? Which need to be built and where? How do we sustain them? One feature Gilbert identifies is ‘political education’ and the perceived lack of it since the 1980s. This idea feels somewhat unexplored. There have been a number of left-wing thinkers who have sought their security in the education sector, producing many works of radical thought. Furthermore, left-wing journalism, whilst still failing to penetrate the mainstream media seems in ascendancy in the UK.

So, it seems less that we are facing a crisis of radical educational content, rather a crisis of engagement. To this extent, Gilbert seems to see radical education as achieved within movements themselves, but beyond this little is prescribed. How the left creates spaces for the discussion of their ideas which don’t just descend into a million disorganised podcasts and blogs, or book clubs is left uncertain. There can only be so many student-led State and Revolution reading groups before the left faces questions of how radical education is done within systems of new media and thought. 

Another key element of movement building identified by Gilbert is the likelihood there will be an ecology of different organisations and tendencies. Such wide coalitions for socialism recognise a reality where activism has become increasingly specialised. Gilbert is probably correct to suggest some on the left have been too quickly dogmatic and sectarian. However, the book, like many on this issue, leaves the difficult work unmentioned. Ascertaining who is on side, and what constitutes a crossing of lines for broad movements will never have clear answers. The setting of these boundaries and the development of practical solidarity between organisations is often the most difficult aspect of collective struggle. Thus, the two elements Gilbert identifies as necessary for modern socialist movements, education and coalitions, point to wider questions which will only be answered through the practices of organising themselves. 

Beyond a focus on strategy, Gilbert suggests key elements of a programme for modern socialism. Central is a focus on socialist liberation demands for the democratizing of the workplace, state, and society in general. The book gives many suggestions of organisational democracy, such as government promotion of trade union membership, as well as references to examples of co-operative organising like the Mondragon Corporation. To Gilbert, what distinguishes the programme of nationalization and public banks from social democratic reforms of the past is this democratising element. But this points to the greater difficulty of articulating forms of democracy that can survive within a wider system of capitalism. Defending radical democracy and preventing forms of bureaucratic degeneration are key challenges for all forms of socialist organising.

A further element of Gilbert’s programme is the demand that socialism be green. Most accounts of socialism now recognise the need for appropriate responses around climate and nature. Many fail to do this sufficiently seriously, perhaps most notably so in the case of ‘luxury communist’ accounts. Gilbert recognises that concern for ecology leads to demand for not just Green New Deal policies, but also a reorganisation of the spaces of transport and housing towards more tightly knit city lives. The necessity of a planned economy approach, inspired by computerized experiments in planning, to tackle the ecological crisis is made succinctly clear. But, the more contentious concern for how to approach ideas like degrowth and ecological limit under socialism are unexplored. These issues will be a thorn in the side of eco-socialist thinking for years to come. Generally, the focus on green socialism in Twenty-First Century Socialism reflects mature thinking on this issue by Gilbert. 

Ultimately, for socialists working within and beyond Parliament many features of this book are uncontroversial. It brings together different strategies and ideas in an accessible way. Its role is perhaps the very radical education Gilbert mentions, as a short read given to those who wish to learn more about socialist ideas. Twenty-First Century Socialism is not for the converted, but to convert. While the general thrust of many ideas in contemporary socialism are there, inevitably a work of this aim and scale doesn’t provide the answers to some of the more difficult issues in practice. A book of this scope cannot cover every nuance, but it is a timely intervention to introduce many to contemporary thinking across the left. I suspect for many it will be the start on their journey, and this should be welcomed.




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