Sunday, May 15, 2022

Riley Black - The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

The odd thing about dinosaurs is that they are defined by their absence. As children we learn about these enormous creatures that no longer exists, and perhaps our fascination with them stems from their extinction. Like mythical dragons they do not exist, but at the same time dinosaurs are not dragons - they did once roam the Earth, and then they were gone. 

But the strange thing is that while dinosaurs are known by extinction, we discuss the actual extinction very little. What usually matters for enthusiasts is dinosaur life. Museums don't have dioramas depicting mass death - we see replica dinosaur standing in landscapes. But the manner of extinction does matter, not least because we are living through an era of extinction ourselves. So Riley Black's book is unique because it looks precisely at the end of the dinosaurs - the moment of transition from Cretaceous to Paleocene. What exactly happened when that asteroid hit? 

While this is a book seeped in science Black tells the story as a narrative. She begins with a typical dinosaur diorama in Hell's Creek (now in Montana) reconstructed from fossil evidence. In an opening chapter we follow a Triceratops which dies of old age, and see how scavenging animals wait patiently for a Tyrannosaurus rex to break open the tough armoured hide so they can feast too. It is a scene drawn from Black's own experiences in Yellowstone Park watching birds wait for a grizzly to open up a dead bison. 

Each chapter tells similar stories, introducing the reader to a variety of dinosaurs and animals, following them through the extinction, then exploring what Hell Creek looked like a day, a month, a year, one thousand years and one hundred thousand years after impact. It is a sobering read. I was struck by how quickly extinction took place - most of the dinosaurs on Earth were dead in the 24 hours after impact, killed by a infra-red pulse that raised temperatures so high that they simply could not survive. I was also struck by how lucky humans are - the evolutionary space created by the extinction gave mammals the space to evolve. But had events taken slight different turns - asteroid impact at a slightly different angle - dinosaurs might have survived. Or indeed the impact been so great that only bacteria survived and life began, so to speak, again. We would not be here.

It is a grim story, that Black tells well. In parts it is a horror story, "there is no dawn on the first day of the Paleocene" writes Black. We can imagine the suffering and pain that billions of creatures felt in the previous 24 hours, and we can imagine just how difficult life will be for the survivors. This is not the gradual dying off of previous "extinctions" or even that accelerated extinction that we're seeing today. This was a light going out.

While Black's book did make me draw connections with today, oddly they weren't just about extinction. What I was repeatedly struck by was the way their descriptions of dinosaur ecology made me think about ecological relationships today. Black makes you think what a herd of massive dinosaurs does to the environment around them as they stomp through:

When ever-hungry Edmontosaurus and Ankylosaurus mowed down plants with their mouths, they shaped what would become of the forest. Young, juicy plants were always the best delicacy, so these dinosaurs often cropped off young plants before the could take hold. These megaherbivores kept the meadows and open ground clear, just as Triceratops did when they'd rub their horns against trees to the point of toppling some over. Soil  was packed, seeds were scattered ,carcasses were left behind to nourish the soil... And vast quantities of dung... Dinosaurs did not merely inhabit the world as if it were a ready-made diorama. Dinosaurs literally made the world their own.

What is true of dinosaurs is also true of the world today. Species make their own nature, shape their own ecology which in turn shapes them. Similarly, Black shows how evolution fits the context in which it takes place. There is no preordained path, rather "each evolutionary happenstance opened up new possibilities, biodiversity generating itself through interaction". Not all the animals that survived made it. Not all the lineages developed and not all the ecological niches were filled.

While fresh, readable and packed with information this is a book that is rooted in contemporary science. I read each "narrative" chapter and then the corresponding section of the appendix where Black tells us precisely what bit of science backs up the descriptions they've made, and indeed the places were they've had to extrapolate or make educated guesses. I suggest that if you read it you do likewise.

This remarkably accessible book is well worth a read. Riley Black's Last Days of the Dinosaurs is very likely to be my science book of the year, and I hope that others grab hold of it. While the central events of the story are 66 million years ago, the connections I made were very contemporary. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Gould - Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History
Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

Ward - The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared
Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Maddox - Reading the Rocks
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Hal Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 3: The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'

The third volume of Hal Draper's work on Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution is a different beast to the first two. Those were broad, but detailed works, taking up Marx's big themes - classes and the state - and showing how Marx's ideas developed and were applied differently at various points in his life. Book three starts from a specific, but important, concept of Marx's and explores how it was understood, how it was attacked and what it really meant. In other words this book is different because it moves from the broad picture to a zoom in on a very narrow aspect of Marx and Engels' thought.

The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' is a phrase that is oft repeated and usually misunderstood. Frequently in fact it is deliberately misunderstood, guided in part by some on the left who have been keen to misuse it. Draper identifies fifteen loci or occurrences of the phrase in the works of Marx and Engels. Of these, only eight were specific usages by Marx, and several of those were in works not intended for publication. Draper notes two distinct periods of the phrase's usage - the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions and during and following the Paris Commune of 1871.

The timing is important because they correspond with Marx and Engels thinking through the revolutionary process and the sort of change that could bring in a socialist society. If readers haven't read the first two volumes they will miss some key insights that underpin Draper's argument. In particular the concept of a workers' state as a transition to a stateless Communism. 

Draper quotes Engels on this very point:

in order to arrive at this [disappearance of the state - Draper] and the other, far more important ends of the social revolution of the future, the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the State and with this aid stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and re-organise society. This is stated already in the Communist Manifesto.

The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' then is Marx and Engels term for this period when the newly triumphant workers' state uses its power to defend itself from attackers. Lenin famously used these concepts in State and Revolution on the eve of the workers' seizure of power in Russia in 1917 to understand the process the movement was embarking upon. Even in Marx and Engels' time the lessons of counter-revolution were obvious, hence the timing of their use of the phrase. Russia after 1917 also demonstrates to a new generation that the capitalists will waste little energy in trying to destroy any fledgling workers' power.

So why does the phrase Dictatorship of the Proletariat get such hostility? Clearly it is because of the modern meaning of dictatorship. Though it is also clear that the nature of Stalinist Russia and the Eastern bloc after 1945 have helped create the idea that socialism is synonymous with dictatorship, or single person rule. Draper begins then, with an overview of how the meaning of dictatorship has changed. He shows how, in language that would have been familiar to Marx and Engels, in ancient times dictatorship meant a brief, transitory period. He quotes R.M. MacIver (not a Marxist) who explained that: 

The original Marxist doctrine of the 'dictatorship of the people' [sic] had in it something akin to the Roman idea. It was to be a temporary and exceptional form of government to prepare the way for the inauguration of a new dictatorless - in fact, stateless - order.

Of course, the nuances of this are immaterial to those who want to paint socialism as a top down, dictatorial repressive regime. It is also immaterial to those who to argue that societies like these stood in the tradition of Marx and Engels, when exactly the opposite was true. 

Draper then takes us through a detailed examination of everyone who has critiqued Marx and Engels on these points, and to emphasis his point, he critiques those that Marx opposed but was lumped together with. In particular he shows how Marx was repeatedly tarred by with the brush of the French socialist Louis Blanqui, whose revolutionary strategy emphasised action by small groups of heroic individuals substituting for the masses. Draper shows how Marx's politics were exactly the opposite of Blanqui, and indeed demonstrates conclusively that Marx had no contact with him, and could not be said to have been influenced, or worked in a secret organisation with Blanqui. Casual readers may well find themselves frustrated by these sections as Draper deploys his encyclopaedic knowledge of Marx's life and work to prove an accusation false. Indeed its a similar method to the earlier books were Draper proved some aspect of Marx's theoretical work. But here it feels abstract and over the top.

I lauded the first two volumes of Hal Draper's Marx's Theory of Revolution. I am less enthused by this volume because it focuses on an important aspect of Marx's thought, but is too focused on the minutiae. The sections, for instance, on the Paris Commune are excellent and it would have been more useful and illustrative to have expanded these. As usual though the book sparks with Draper's wit and knowledge and there is much to be had. But reader beware this is very much a book in a series, those jumping in at volume III will find themselves rudderless and unprepared.

Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Marco Polo - The Travels

Marco Polo's Travels wasn't actually the book I expected. It isn't the travel account I'd expected it to be, rather its a description of people and places. Nor do you find out much about what happened to Marco Polo himself, beyond a brief overview at the start and some potted references. However, despite the repetition ("the people here are all idolaters, using paper money and subject to the Great Khan") and the comments that mark it out as an oral account ("you must know..."), as well as the nagging suspicion that Marco Polo didn't actually go to all these places (his description of a Giraffe is unlike any I've ever seen) there is a lot here of interest.

Firstly, particularly in the sections on what we would now call the Middle East and China, there are some fascinating accounts of different cultural norms. Polo is particularly interested in religion-noting about almost every place he visits how many people are Muslim, Jewish, Christian or "idolaters". He notes the tensions and conflicts between the faiths, which usually seem to arise from the ruler's personal interests. But he also notes that some places are remarkably tolerant when compared to modern times.

The Tartars do not care what god is worshipped in their territories. So long as all their subjects are loyal and obedient to the Khan and accordingly pay the tribute... you may do as you please about your soul. They object to your speaking ill of their souls or intermeddling with their practices. But concerning God and your own soul do what you will, whether you be Jew or page, Saracen or Christian, who live among the Tartars. 

Also of interest are Polo's comments on marriage in the different cultures he visits. On occasion, I suspect Polo is simply writing for an audience with salacious interests. In the province of Pem, he tells us, "when a woman's husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than twenty days, then, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband... and the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way". While he clearly exaggerates at times, its also clear that many local rulers take hundreds of wives. Polo never says what the women think of this, and glosses over how they are treated - though is clear women are often simply taken from their families and communities by a local lord for sex.

Its difficult to know what to conclude about The Travels. Is it a travelogue? If so its clearly untrue, exaggerated or unclear in places. Nor is it history, though some of it clearly can be attested to by other records. It perhaps is of greatest interest to those looking for what's there in passing, rather than detailed accounts - the general treatment by Polo of relations between men and women, his lack of racism - while faithfully recording the colour of peoples' skin and his clear desire to tell his readers (and listeners) all the marvellous things he has seen. 

My edition is a 1982 Penguin, based on a 1958 translation by R.E.Latham. It would benefit perhaps, from a more modern translation, and a more detailed commentary.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Berridge, Lynch, Makawi & De Waal - Sudan's Unfinished Democracy: The Promise & Betrayal of a People's Revolution

The Sudanese Revolution began at the end of December 2018 as a cost of living crisis and growing economic problems saw street protests that developed into demands for the President Omar al-Bashir to step down. There have been many twists and turns in the revolution since then, including violent repression by the military regime that stepped in after Bashir's fall in 2019. The revolution has been marked by mass protests and strikes and, significantly, the growth of democratic revolutionary organisational bodies - known as resistance committees - that have taken on the task of organising the movement. The revolutionary process, in my opinion, has not ended - in recent weeks we have seen the re-emergence of mass protests - and the Sudanese Revolution could well become a significant working class revolutionary event of the 21st century.

Sudan's Unfinished Democracy is perhaps the first book length treatment of the Sudanese Revolution. It's authors are activists, journalists and academics with an extensive acquaintance with Sudanese politics. It is, for any reservations that I will express, undoubtedly an important work that ought to be read by anyone trying to understand events in Sudan. 

Recent Sudanese politics have been dominated by the 30 year rule of Omar al-Bashir. Bashir was a ruthless President, whose policies led to the mass killings in Darfur, and the departure of Southern Sudan from the north. A great strength of this book is to guide the reader through the myriad of individuals and overlapping political interests that form the backdrop to Bashir's reign. This also helps understand some of the military and paramilitary forces and organisations that continue to shape Sudanese politics. Usefully the authors root this recent history in the wider context of colonial rule.

The other strength of the book is its exploration of the background to the organisations that formed the backbone of the revolutionary movement. In this we must be slightly careful. Groups like the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) have deep roots in the country's politics, though their role in kickstarting the revolution was minimal. Activists and groups within the SPA however had played an important role in keeping anti-government protest alive, even if their immediate role in the December 2018 revolution was small. The authors argue that the SPA is a complex assemblage, "a mapping of the revolutionary associations would look like a tangled yarn ball", but it was key to the development of further revolutionary groups and particularly the resistance committees. Of these, the authors write: "Personal ties made them work: individuals' networks were used to bring protestors on to the streets when called, and to support them on march days".

The SPA was, out of necessity, secret. In fact the authors argue it made a virtue out of its anonymity and lack of leaders, "a faceless organisation". But this caused problems. When the revolution overthrew Bashir, the SPA was called in to negotiate with the government, but had no clear politics and no clear leadership with whom the military could negotiate. The lack of leaders and the lack of clear politics meant that the military was able to out manoeuvre the SPA, "the longer the talks went on the weaker the civilians became". 

A key moment in the revolution was the establishment of a self-organised mass protest sit-in outside the Sudanese military headquarters. This involved hundreds of thousands and likely, in its participation, democracy and self-organisation, surpassed the achievements of Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution. The sit-in is a touchstone for the authors who see in it not just a revolutionary protest movement but an alternative model of Sudanese society. As such, the author's argue the sit-in posed an enormous threat to military rule. Its democracy, they say, was a direct challenge to 30 years of Sudanese government. The involvement of minority groups from different regions of Sudan and women in central roles had to end. Over time the military delayed negotiations and eroded the sit-in, helping to undermine the revolution's main strength. Eventually they were to unleash brutal force against it, breaking up the protest with killing and rape. There is no doubt that the sit-in was important and a massive challenge to the military's political framework, and could not be tolerated beyond the first months of the revolution.

But I think the focus on the sit-in misses more important revolutionary dynamics. The attack on the sit-in takes place after a general strike, a strike called by the SPA to try and drive negotiations forward (the slogan was for "full victory" to the revolution). It was a military response not just to the sit-in, but also to the growing power of the revolution as expressed by the mass strikes. This was the army's attempt to break the stalemate, just as the general strike had been the SPA's attempt. A follow up strike was quickly called off as the military entered negotiations and the SPA signed an agreement for Civilian and Military power-sharing in August 2019. This was a disaster and set the scene for the military coup that followed.

All of these twists and turns are described well by the authors and readers trying to get to grips with the politics of the Sudanese Revolution should study them. But I think that the framework used by the authors is inadequate. One particular gripe I have is that there seems to be a downplaying of workers' strikes in this account of the revolution. This means that the authors' do not see an alternative power to the military within the revolution. For them, the revolution is the sit-in. Of this they write:

This was a moment of Utopian revolution in Sudan, an inspiring promise that a different world was possible. For a few weeks, in one place, the fog of politics cleared enough for a remarkable congregation of Sudanese to create a space for a festival of a popular republic. It was euphoric: a generation’s worth of ideals and aspirations released in an explosion of pride, protest and patriotism. It was a moment and a place where everything that divided Sudanese citizens was set aside, when citizenship and participation took on a heightened sense... The sit-in coalesced around an egalitarian system of solidarity that stood in stark contradiction to the hierarchies and deal-making that still dominated the world outside its barricades. Anyone with human feelings was inspired. There was a democratic Sudan and it lasted 53 days - between the challenge to a dictator and a massacre. 

The destruction of the sit-in, for the authors, was the end of the revolution. But that's inadequate - the revolution is not yet over. The question is where is the power to take it forward by challenging the military and offering a vision of a new way of organising Sudanese society. This has to be about the coming together of popular democracy from below, in the form of the resistance committees AND the power of workers at the point of production. 

The authors' repeatedly dismiss revolutionary socialist politics, though they tend to associate this with the politics of Communist Parties. As such I think they miss the insights that the Russian Revolution might offer. There, for instance, the strength of workers' councils and Soviets during the period of Dual Power in 1917, was enough to break rank and file soldiers from the generals. A similar dynamic was seen as the start of the Sudanese Revolution, but the failure to develop this alternative power within society meant that the military could regroup.

The military spent the period after the fall of Bashir consolidating its power over the Sudanese state. The authors' of Sudan's Unfinished Democracy emphasise the power of non-violence to bring down the dictator, but offer no roadmap for going forward with this. But that's because the strategy they advocate cannot challenge the power of the state. In particular their neglect of workers' struggles means they cannot envisage this power developing, hence the pessimistic conclusions quoted above. The question for revolutionaries in Sudan today is not just how they can win, but where the revolution is going. Is it simply trying to achieve the sort of pro-market democracy that Western powers would like? Or is it going in the direction of a more radical reshaping of society from the ground up?

The Sudanese Revolution has not ended, though its next direction is not yet clear. But one thing we can say is that the last three years has seen enormous bravery and élan on the part of ordinary Sudanese people. For all my criticisms of their book, the authors' of Sudan's Unfinished Democracy certainly understand and celebrate this. Which is why it is a book that can help us all understand what is happening in this unfinished revolution.

Related Reviews

Ayeb & Bush - Food Insecurity & Revolution in the Middle East & North Africa
Alexander & Bassiouny - Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution
El-Mahdi & Marfleet - Egypt: The Moment of Change
Ziegler - Omdurman

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Hal Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes

Having read the first volume of Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, I immediately started out on the second. Partly this was out of sheer joy! Draper is a treat to read, combining clarity with humour and, above all, a cleverly structured argument. The first volume dealt with the theory of the State. The second is much more broad, looking at the Politics of Social Classes, which means, in part examining what Marx meant by class and, indeed, politics. The volume opens with a discussion of what Marx meant by revolution. Draper points out that the word has become a "mere synonym for change". But Marx understood that revolution was a fundamental transformation, a struggle of class against class, for a new order.

Social revolution means that the new class in power does not limit itself to change within the framework of the old social system, but tends to put its new state power into basic conflict with the former ruling strata. And the conflict must be resolved more or less quickly in favour of the new or the old; the new political power must proceed to revolutionise the socioeconomic foundation, or else it will be destroyed by the rooted power of the latter. IN either case, by revolution or counterrevolution, congruence will eventually be re-established between the political and socioeconomic foundation.

Here the reader will of course think back to Draper's first volume on the state and Marx's explanation of the state protecting the interests of the ruling class and the status quo, and indeed they might look forward to the core politics of the second which deals with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which deals with how a workers' state can protect itself as it emerges and faces the challenges from the old order. Draper emphasises the transformative nature of revoution for Marx. These are words that ought to be read by many who see "revolutionary" change being simply about electing radical politicians to bring radical policies from above. Draper:

From Marx's standpoint, what made his theory revolutionary was that it looked to a literal overturning: not simply an overthrow, the deposition of established power, but a turning-over of the social corpus itself, as "the lowest stratum of our present society" stirs, heaves up, with "the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air," as the Manifesto pictured it vividly. This is the revolution; the revolution is not he adoption of a certain social schema. It was only the revolution of the exploited majority that could do this, in Marx's view; therefore the revolution from below had to be a proletarian revolution, and the proletarian ascendency to power had to be a revolution from below.

Developing this thesis through the volume (and honestly I could have quoted page after page of Draper in this review) the author takes us through Marx's concepts of class and his explanation of various classes - from the proletariat, to specifics of the working class, the bourgeoise, as well as groups like intellectuals. The chapter on the latter has plenty of entertaining quotes that can be used against academic Marxists who feel that their ivory tower places them above the struggle itself. I won't do them, but readers (especially academic Marxists) ought to read them. I must also highlight the appendix on beards and hair, "Marxism and Pilosity" for those readers craving these insights.

There is much here of practical interest to the socialist activist. For instance there is an insightful discussion of Marx's thoughts on the trade unions and how socialists should relate to them. There's a massive discussion of the peasantry and chapters on two groups - intellectuals and the lumpen proletariat - whose roles have been endlessly dissected by Marxists. Draper presents Marx's thoughts with clarity. 

But Draper constantly returns to his central theme - the revolutionary project at the core of Marx's ideas:

Only a movement of the immense majority, in its own interests, could be a movement of self-emancipation. This moves out of the sphere of charity versus self-help, to become a basic determinant of the nature of socialism.

Draper illustrates this with a deep discussion of Marx and Engels' thoughts on the 1848 revolution, in particular their discussion of what has come to be termed "permanent revolution". There is a linguistic discussion too - for those who've struggled with the meaning of "permanent" in this context. But it's Draper's discussion of the contradictory and cowardly role of the German bourgeoisie in 1848/9 that is so useful in this context. It is simultaneously a clear discussion of Marx's ideas and a brilliant application of the Marxist method itself. 

Reading Draper is an immersion in Marx and Engels' thought that shows how Marxism developed over time, responding to the actuality of revolution, and the tasks and challenges the movement faced. The sections on 1848 in this volume are particularly useful showing how their thought changes and then, once they have understood that the bourgeoise is not going to play its early role, how they seize this idea themselves to arm the workers' movement. As with volume one, and I suspect volume three, this comes highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Alastair Reynolds - Inhibitor Phase

The latest of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels is much less of a galaxy spanning story than some of his other works. Here we are closely focused on the story of Miguel de Ruyter. At the beginning he is the head of a small human colony, hiding deep inside a remote planet. An alien technology, the Wolves, has destroyed most of humanity's galactic civilisation, just as they previously destroyed other galactic societies. Their motivation is unknown and humans survive in isolated pockets. Ruyter has worked to protect his small group hoping that somehow they can survive long enough for the Wolves to be defeated.

His vigil is interrupted by the arrival of a humanoid, Glass, who comes to pull Miguel back into the galactic war that he had deliberately forgotten. Glass turns out to be a conjoiner, an augmented human who needs Miguel because his long dead brother has the key to a super-weapon that can defeat the Wolves. Gradually Miguel learns who he is as, together with Glass, they travel the galaxy finding allies and equipment to get the secrets they need.

It's a complex novel, but brilliantly constructed. The pace is well crafted with the reader learning Miguel's real history interspersed with a growing realisation with what that history meant. I also liked the way that Miguel's feud with Glass is set out, his frustration at her behaviour dragging him away from home, combined by their mutual need to stand together brings a nice counterpoint to the wider story. 

Fans of Reynolds' will find many concepts and species return in Inhibitor Phase, though things may have developed further. While there is a slight tendency for deus ex machina on the part of the author I tend to think that the reader is very much along for the ride in such a wide ranging story. Just hang on is my advice.

Related Reviews

Reynolds - Revenger
Reynolds - Zima Blue
Reynolds - Galactic North
Reynolds - Terminal World
Reynolds - Redemption Ark
Reynolds - House of Suns
Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth
Reynolds - The Prefect
Reynolds - Pushing Ice
Reynolds - Century Rain

Monday, April 11, 2022

Pat Devine - Democracy and Economic Planning

The question of how a society that rationally uses resources in the interest of the "associated producers" is one that is being asked with increased urgency given the ecological crisis that humanity faces. For revolutionary socialists the answer has always been "democratic planning" of the economy. But how this might work is a subject of intense debate. Pat Devine's book Democracy and Economic Planning has been mentioned by a number of Marxist writers in this context and his proposal of "negotiated coordination" is a clear and logical response to those who argue that economies cannot work with out some for of market, or profit motive.

Devine's argument is clear:

The case for planning is that it enables the conscious shaping of economic activity, in accordance with individually and collectively determined needs, and it overcomes the instability that is an endemic empirical characteristic of market-based economies. So far, neither historical experience nor the state of theory gives any reasons to suppose that market-based economies can be managed or regulated effectively enough to achieve these objectives.

Devine opens the book by exploring how and why capitalist and "statist" economies fail to deliver what people and the environment need. Devine classes the former USSR and Eastern European economies as "statist" rather than my preferred term of "State Capitalist" though its clear that there is some overlap. However Devine certainly doesn't see these societies as socialist arguing that like the capitalist countries they failed to deliver for ordinary people. First published in 1989 the book bears the hallmarks of being written in the period when the State Capitalist regimes collapsed and people were urgently looking for other models. As such his demolition of the "third way" of "Market Socialism" as practised in Yugoslavia is very useful. 

For many people "planning" brings to mind the top-down, "command" economies of Eastern Europe. Devine shows why this model doesn't work, and argues that instead "what is needed is a form of democratic planning combining centrally taken decisions where necessary with decentralised decision-making wherever possible." In arguing against the free-market (i,e. a system were economic decisions are based on maximising profit of companies etc) Devine makes it clear he doesn't reject "market-exchange".  For such a system to work would require the conscious transformation of those engaged in the planning, at every level in society. As Devine says:

Participation in the detailed construction of the social interest, taking account of the interests of all involved, is a central part of the process through which people cease to be objects, to be manipulated by administrative command or economic incentives, and become self-activating subjects who do what they do because they think it is right... narrow self-interest gives way to a broader self-interest, in which people's own interests are redefined to include the interest of others.

It is this aspect to the vision of a democratic planned economy which means that bourgeois economists cannot comprehend it working, because they cannot imagine people at every level of society being part of a collectively organised and decided rational approach to the economy. While a national framework of what is needed would need to be agreed - crucially not by an unelected and unaccountable group - it would be done through a process of debate, discussion and information input from all levels and sectors of society. Such a "broad allocation of resources" would "reflect social priorities":

The result would be a pattern of specific claims on resources, that is, a distribution of purchasing power or demand, that had been shaped by overall social priorities and yet reflected group and individual preferences. Demand would be from government and functional social bodies for social consumption and investment, from government bodies, but channelled through negotiated coordination bodies and production units, for major economic investment; from production units for minor new investment, as agreed by their negotiated coordination bodies and from individuals and households for personal consumption.

In other words, demand is set by individuals and "production units" and planned for by continuous negotiation by different sections of the economies. Democratic decision making is done through a network of nation, regional and local bodies which are "democratically elected in a context of political party pluralism... vested with ultimate political power". Devine proposes a relatively straightforward set of structures that could negotiate and debate decisions about national or regional frameworks while other, more localised bodies, work out details and respond to needs. He argues that these debates might reflect the interests of different political parties - pointing out that actually they would be political issues - and this undermines the idea that party politics would disappear in a "communist" society.

Devine's book is a detailed and convincing argument. It is not without fault. Firstly the book suffers from a dry academic style and is not as accessible as it ought to be. Secondly, and certainly more importantly, Devine has no real model for how such a society might come about - making a few hand wavy arguments about it being the result of struggles that place the improved democratisation of society at their heart. This is disappointing, and perhaps reflects the authors own rejection of what he calls the "fundamentalist" Marxist movement (i.e. the non-Stalinist, classical tradition). Perhaps Devine did not, or does not, see revolution as possible, but the classical Marxist tradition sees such institutions that could form the basis of a democratic planned economy as arising out of the struggle itself. This is the biggest gap in the book, and while it might make the book more palatable for some audiences for those of us struggling for a more rational society, its a major ommission.

Pat Devine's book has much food for thought, but his arguments become utopian as they are abstracted from the revolutionary movements that could make them real. Nonetheless there are stimulating and profound insights into what is wrong and what could be right.