Saturday 5 November 2016


My web designer, Steve McIntosh, alerted me to the review of my book, 'The Road to Corbyn', in the Morning Star Arts by Paul Simon a day or two before Louise and I set off to north Wales for a birthday break. Google had picked up the article in the newspaper that proudly proclaims its role as the People's Press, the workers' national daily newspaper - financed solely by its readers. I warmly recommend buying a copy from your newsagent whenever you see it displayed or even consider placing a regular order if you can afford to do so. It is an excellent way to keep in touch with a consistent socialist perspective. The Guardian or the Independent will not serve this purpose, whatever their other merits.

My point of difference with Paul Simon, the reviewer, comes down to what we understand by 'socialism'. I believe that in an advanced industrialised society with free elections such as ours the coming to power of a democratic socialist party through a general election does not and should not mean the overthrow of capitalism. The language and realities of the late 19th century are no longer apposite in the early 21st century. As Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the Labour Party here in the United Kingdom says, we need a socialism fit for the 21st century. I sense in Paul Simon's critique of my book the presence of a traditional Marxist perspective that looks back to the great iconic figures of Marx, Engels and Lenin with a reverence that those with faith do tend to reserve for their founders

Karl Marx

and their sacred writings. My contrary view is shaped by the philosopher's awareness of the provisional nature of 'truth' and the historian's instinct for change over time. I am with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders (imagine Trump vs Sanders - Trump would not have stood a chance).

Read on and make your own judgements about the relevance and meaning of socialism. Here is an abridged version of Paul Simon's review:

'This re-imagining of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress for our own more secular times certainly opens impressively: "One night, on my journey through the wilderness of this world, I laid me down

to sleep and the likeness of a dream came to me and, behold, I saw men and women and children and they were all suffering."

That language, redolent of  an earlier powerful dissenting tradition, imitates John Bunyan's prototype as a work of literature and political polemic.

Its protagonist, Pilgrim, carries his burden and dreams of a world traduced by Mammon and is guided  through it by the Interpreter, a modern Evangelist and the Lady Hope - the Lady Charity having disappeared from society.

In his wanderings, Pilgrim travels through the years from 2010 to the election of the eponymous Labour leader and, artistically, the book largely succeeds in the process.

The reader is engaged in identifying which of Donovan's  characters relate to the equivalents in John Bunyan's  original  and especially to the cast of  crooks in contemporary British society. Head Boy, Pocket Money and No Benefit are clearly Cameron,  Osborne and Duncan Smith respectively, although they also represent the deluded and uncaring classes in whose interests they legislated.

Pilgrim's encounters ... grimly amuse and the slow politicisation of Pilgrim is well-handled in the discourses between him and the Interpreter ...

There are literary weaknesses though, not least in the heavy slabs of reportage, data and summaries of  contemporary economists as to the negative  consequences of neoliberalism that are dumped like  roadblocks into the text ...

More  disappointing is the book's narrow and shallow polemical ambitions ... (Donovan) totally ignores any class-based analysis whatsoever.

For Donovan, the task is  to manage capitalism, not to replace it. Pilgrim is even encouraged by the Interpreter to exercise empathy for the people's oppressors - they are burdened themselves, apparently, by their self-delusion ... There are no mentions of the verities of Marx, Engels and Lenin. and there is not  so much as a paragraph about the class struggle and the need for the working class not to cohabit with its oppressors but to control all the means of production, distribution and exchange for the betterment of all ...'

The full text of the Morning Star Arts review can be found here, using this link.

Back in 1968, I was more inclined to share Paul Simon's views as you can see below:

A taste of the giddy days in 1968 when anything seemed possible ...

But today is different. My response to Simon's review was penned just before leaving for north Wales. Here it is:

Dear Morning Star,

As the author of 'The Road to Corbyn' I was very pleased to find my book reviewed in Morning Star Arts. Paul Simon, the reviewer, shows a gratifying measure of empathy for my desire to expose and explain the damage done by neoliberalism. But only so far, of course. His Marxist position is clear in his view that the working class needs 'to control all the means of production, distribution and exchange for the betterment of all'. I no longer share Paul Simon's uncomplicated attachment to what he sees as the 'verities in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin.' The socialist vision in which I believe is more nuanced. In the words of Pilgrim towards the end of the book: 'I  feel ... I feel now that the way people used to talk about the battle between capitalism and socialism is no longer helpful. Too many sane and compassionate people who have an understanding of economics that is the opposite of the neo-liberal nonsense we are suffering believe in the proven power of the market to generate wealth. But that market has to have a measure of regulation to control it, otherwise Mammon will rule. Inequalities of wealth and power will be the order of the day.'

My position, like Pilgrim's, takes into account the ideas of other later thinkers, in this century and the last, who have tried to make sense of those fundamental economic, social, political and moral issues that have shaped our world since the onset of industrialisation and urbanisation. What Paul Simon rather dismissively refers to as 'the heavy slabs of reportage, data and summaries of contemporary economists' are the fruits of my own search for a coherent and multi-disciplinary understanding of what has happened in my country after the 2008 financial crash. Read the Interpreter's words carefully in my book and you will find a credible explanation that reaches back two hundred and fifty years or so. It is true that Marx, Lenin and Engels do not get a name-check -  but these days any worthwhile thinking about economics is in a sense imbued with Marxist insights. Class struggle I also did not name-check but the contempt and cruelty shown by those with wealth and power towards the people who are not like them is only too evident in my political fantasy. The SNP are presented in my book as a role model for the Labour Party in that the SNP had manifesto commitments in 2015 to anti-austerity and no-Trident policies. Sounds convincing to me.

The ending that Paul Simon acknowledges is a march for change is not simply fuelled by a sense of good will as he suggests. In my mind, this march is made up of angry men and women who are all the more purposeful and threatening because they have gained an understanding of their enemy and the self-deceptions that sustain these damaged and damaging people. I make no apology for seeing empathy as a powerful weapon in the armoury of the oppressed. I explore the idea through a few pages in the book but the power of collective shaming by those who in a democracy can spell out the mischief being done should not be dismissed. We are not living in the second half of the 19th century. To borrow Jeremy Corbyn's election slogan for 2020 (or earlier): 'We need a socialism for the 21st century'.


Rob Donovan

I hope these are matters that have interested you and stimulated your thinking. I can't think of matters more important and so fundamental as these. In my own political thinking, I have come some distance from the person who was one of the original members of the Committee of Ninety, the shock-troops for the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students movement. But my heart is still stirred by that shared sense of injustice. And my book is the latest expression of that political thinking (the link is here!).



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