Book Review - A World to Build: New Paths Toward Twenty-first Century Socialism by Marta Harnecker (Derek Wall/Alborada Magazine)

A World to Build: new paths toward twenty-first century socialism
Marta Harnecker
Monthly Review Press, 2015
Reviewed by Derek Wall - Alborada Magazine (Issue 1 - Spring/Summer 2015)

The 2008/9 financial crisis was triggered by corrupt banks and unsustainable capitalism but has been used as an excuse for austerity, making the poorest pay for a catastrophe created by the rich and powerful. The balance of class forces seems to favour an elite, and in most of the world the Left has been in retreat since the 1980s. In her new book, A World to Build: new paths toward twenty-first century socialism, Marta Harnecker, a Chilean political theorist and social thinker, asks us to debate how we can create a new socialism, using the phrase popularised by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez: ’21st-century socialism.’

This new socialism rejects much, but not all, of the legacy of socialism in the 20th century, which from Fabian reformism to revolutionary Leninism, focused on centralising power, planning production and using the state to bring about a better society. 21st-century socialism is new in the sense that it seeks to change society, but whereas much of the Left feels defeated, 21st-century socialism has already gained some victories.

Harnecker examines how the varied Latin American Left - including states such as Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and, above all, Venezuela - won power and worked, albeit sometimes with contradictions, with indigenous and social movements. A ‘pink tide’ has swept Latin America and the influence of the US and neoliberal ideas have been impressively rolled back. Harnecker is frank about the weaknesses and the very varied nature of the Latin American Left. Her focus is to discuss what has been achieved and how the Left can become more effective.

The book is a call to action. Theory informs practice, suggestions are put forward, but further debate is encouraged. Harnecker advocates a socialism that is both revolutionary, because it seeks fundamental change, and pragmatic, because it looks in practical, hard-headed terms as to how this can be achieved.

In Harnecker’s view, socialism needs to be ecological, democratic, pluralistic, imaginative and based on the commune/commons (i.e. democratic ownership of the economy). She also stresses that 21st-century socialism grows from much of Marx and Engels’ work. It’s surprising to see, as Harnecker does, Marx as a decentralist who sought to move beyond the state and establish self-governing societies, and many will find Harnecker’s view of his work controversial. This is a socialism that is libertarian, because while it uses the state, for Harnecker society must become self-governing with power growing from local communities. Much of the analysis of the practice of self-government and of ecological economics would be immensely strengthened with reference to Elinor Ostrom’s work, for which she won a Nobel prize in economics for her work on the commons.

Nevertheless, while all texts can be criticised, this is a hugely exciting and inspiring book; and with the electoral victory of Syriza in Greece and rise of Podemos in Spain, we should ask whether Europe can embrace 21st-century century socialism as well? A World to Build is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone serious about promoting social change. Buy a copy, read it, set up a study group to discuss chapters. It can serve as a tool with which to help shape a new world that works for all of us, not just an elite.

Derek Wall is International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales

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