Useful Book: Socialisms: Theory and Practices, by Antony Wright

Socialisms Cover

(Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987)

I was asked a few weeks ago by some of the commenters here what the difference between Socialism and Communism was. In fact, apart from democratic Socialism, which most people understand as Socialism, there is a bewildering variety of difference types of Socialism, and socialists have often strongly disagreed with each other about what it means and how it should be carried out, while advocating the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Anthony Wright was the lecturer in political studies at the Department of Extramural Studies at Birmingham University. His book, published nearly three decades ago, has the subtitle on its front cover ‘Why Socialists disagree – and what they disagree about’. It discusses the different forms of Socialism, and the disagreements between them.

The blurb states:

One third of the world’s population now lives under a regime which describes itself as socialist. But what precisely is socialism? Marxists claim that they are the only true socialists, but this is hotly denied by Trotksyists, Anarchists, Fabians, Collectivists, Syndicalists, Social Democrats and members of the many other ‘socialist’ movements.

In this lucid and unintimidating introduction to the subject Anthony Wright argues that the contradictions, rivalries, and antagonisms within socialism arise from the absence of a single socialist tradition. The very word ‘socialism’ has (as R.H. Tawney put it) ‘radiant ambiguities’.

Socialisms develops this theme throughout a wide-ranging analysis of socialist theories and practices, and concludes, provocatively, with a look at the future prospects of contemporary socialisms.

As you can see, the book was written before the collapse of Communism, and neoliberal economics had infected the western socialist parties with different forms of the ‘Third Way’. It’s quite short at 137 pages, with different chapters on ‘traditions’, ‘arguments’, ‘doctrines’, ‘methods’, ‘actors’ and ‘futures’. In his conclusion, Wright looked forward to the rigid divisions between the different varieties of socialism breaking down, so that socialists of different persuasions can learn, and profitably borrow from each other.

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