Noel Thompson Left in the Wilderness: The Political Economy of British Democratic Socialism Since 1979 Acumen Publishing, Chesham, 2002, 320 pp. ISBN 1-902683-53-6 (hbk) £45 ISBN 1-902-68354-4 (pbk) £16.99
It is more than twenty years now since Perry Anderson drew attention to two fundamental flaws in the Left's traditional avoidance of Utopian thinking. In its absence, we had radically underestimated the complexity of future political and economic institutions, and failed to politically persuade subordinate classes of their feasibility as alternatives to the existing capitalist order. For Anderson, these weaknesses had severely undermined the socialist project:
In recent years the very notion of socialism as an alternative form of civilisation has become effaced and remote ... In these conditions, it is all the more necessary to put a quite renewed emphasis on socialism as a future society ... whose articulated form it is essential to debate at once as boldly and as concretely as possible. (Anderson, 1983: 97)
Institutional specification was crucial here: '[W]ithout serious exploration and mapping of it, any political advance beyond a parliamentary capitalism will continue to be blocked. No working class or popular bloc in a Western society will ever make a leap in the dark, at this point in history' (ibid: 99).
One of the areas for institutional investigation that Anderson pointed to was 'the pattern of an advanced socialist economy'. Following the demise of Keynesianism, but in an historical and political context certainly no more favourable to socialism than that of two decades ago, Noel Thompson has rounded up the main contenders for the mantle of 'economic blueprint for the future', and subjected them to comprehensive critical analysis.
Thompson's book covers a wide range of models and projects for a Left political economy and, not surprisingly, there is a significant degree of variation amongst the contenders. One central dimension concerns their political aim. Certain models make no claim to be transcending the forms and relations of capitalist production, merely reforming it as best as possible in highly inhospitable circumstances-the recent examples of New Labour and 'radical stakeholderism' clearly fall into this category.
Of those whose political horizons stretched further, aiming to make significant inroads into the capitalist economy up to its ultimate transformation, key distinctions can be drawn over their geographical scope and reach. Thompson's optic ranges over multinational efforts, traditional national state strategies, novel attempts that harness local states and economic regions, right down to the reorientation of single economic units.
Some are clearly vulnerable to the well-known charge of being too small in their scope to ever realise their anticapitalist aims, their distortion and eventual capitulation to capitalist modes of operating in actual practice being all too evident. Such a fate befell worker co-ops and local state strategies alike in the hostile and constraining economic contexts of the 1980s and 1990s, as Thompson has little difficulty in showing.
Others of potentially greater substance have proved equally unsuccessful. The 'alternative economic strategy' (AES) promised a thorough democratisation of national economic power through its policy mixture of public ownership, industrial democracy, national planning agreements and planned trade. Thompson argues that it proved unable to be implemented unilaterally in any one nation-state in a context of global economic recession and increasing integration-as vividly demonstrated in the experience of the Mitterand government in France during the early 1980s. Combined with its domestic failure to politically conquer the Labour party, and internally beset by divisions between revolutionary and reformist impulses, its brief moment of glory in the early 19805 was followed by a steep decline and a shrinkage of the horizons of Left political economy. …