GLW:Review of Tommy Sheridan's Imagine
Green Left Parramatta
glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Tue Feb 27 05:56:56 MST 2001
The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au),
Australia's radical newspaper.
See also http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2001/438/438p19.htm
Imagine: a Socialist Vision for the 21st Century
By Tommy Sheridan and Allan McCombes
Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2001
Available in March from Resistance bookshops
REVIEWED BY STEPHEN O'BRIEN
``There is not much inspiration in this south western section of
the city ... open green space is thin on the ground as council
estates occupy much of the seat's territory... If a militant took
the seat some interest would be excited, but it won't.'' This was
how the BBC's web site described the Glasgow seat of Pollock Park
just before the 1997 British general election.
One of the many inspiring stories recounted in Scottish Socialist
Party (SSP) activists Tommy Sheridan's and Allan McCombes'
Imagine is the description of how a supposedly ``uninspiring''
estate like Pollock fought back after the city council tried to
close its neighbourhood centre in 1997. The community rallied
together. Despite the electricity being cut off, the local people
continued to organise ``bingo, band practise, yoga, sewing
classes, children's parties and a youth club''. Pollock people
eventually won and their hall was reopened. Sheridan and McCombes
describe this as ``a glimpse of the type of society we could build
by harnessing the skills, talents, and energy of millions of
McCombes is editor of the Scottish Socialist Voice, the SSP's
newspaper, while Tommy Sheridan was the ``militant'' the BBC
referred to who stood in Pollock Park in 1997 and won 11%. In
1999, he was elected to the Scottish parliament representing
It's not often that an MP is willing to face arrest and police
batons to stand up for social justice and nuclear disarmament.
Sheridan's parliamentary web site declares his admiration for
Marx, Che Guevara, Lenin and Trotsky.
Imagine arose from the authors' realisation that there was a need
for simplified but convincing arguments for socialism after they
had travelled around Scotland explaining the SSP's case for ``an
independent socialist Scotland and a global challenge to the rule
of capitalism''. The book's aim is to inspire people to ``to get
involved ... on the side of the weak against the strong, on the
side of the poor against the rich, on the side of the underdog
against the powerful''. It is certainly doing that. Imagine is in
the top 10 list of bestsellers in Scotland.
After you read Imagine, you think, ``that's right, the same sort
of things happen here''. Ordinary struggles and social problems
are explained in such a way that you realise that the capitalist
system is rotten the world over, whether you are in Scotland or
It reminded me of the pensioners who stood on the picket lines
outside Wallsend hospital near Newcastle for 12 months in the
1990-91 fight to retain medical services in the area. It also
reminded me of the Newcastle State Dockyard workers who tried to
stop the NSW Labor government privatising the yard. Memories were
evoked of the more recent struggle of the STP metalworkers who
relentlessly exposed the opulent lifestyle and ``creative
accountancy'' of their bosses.
The case for socialism is argued in four parts, each based around
phrases from John Lennon's songs. ``Give Me Some Truth'' explains
how the working class has been ravaged by capitalist
globalisation. ``The rich get richer, not by trickling wealth down
to the working class and the poor, but by making the working
class and the poor even poorer'', the authors state. The
consequences of this simple fact which the capitalist class
does so much to hide are revealed in many fascinating, but
appalling, statistics. One example: in Glasgow, ``there are more
people making a living from selling illegal drugs than from
``Watching the Wheels Go Around'' reveals the hidden workings of
imperialism, like Third World exploitation, environmental
degradation and the workings of ``democracy''.
Sheridan and McCombes side with the battles against global
capitalism that have been waged on the streets of Seattle,
Washington, London and Melbourne. They defend young people's
right to take to the streets.
The Scottish socialists challenge the notion that the capitalist
system is organised rationally, asking: What do the rich really
do? Do we really need them? ``Even if the rich were to mount an
all-out indefinite general strike involving every stockbroker,
shareholder, investment analyst, fund manager, currency trader,
property speculator, and company director, most of us would
scarcely even notice the difference'', they observe. Perhaps the
rich and their hirelings will get the message and stay home on
May 1 when anti-globalisation activists in Australia blockade the
country's stock exchanges.
``Power to the People'' explains how the capitalists rely on
politicians in parties like the Labor Party to apologise for, and
justify, their class war against working people. British Labour
Prime Minister Tony Blair and his fellow social-democratic
hypocrites are major targets of Imagine. Blair's pledge to create
a society with ``equality of opportunity'', rather than equality,
is compared to the ``equality of opportunity'' of the lottery.
This is how Sheridan and McCombes describe capitalist democracy:
``The fighter in the blue corner always wins and the fighter in
the red corner always loses. And, if there's ever any chance that
the red corner will be victorious, the referee will call the
fight to a halt and declare the blue corner the winner.''
The last section Imagine argues for socialism within the
framework of Scottish independence. The case is made from a
refreshing and progressive perspective that is inclusive of Scots
of all races and backgrounds. It incorporates the issues of gay
and lesbian rights, fighting women's oppression and solidarity
with the people of the Third World and international freedom
Stress is placed on extending individual civil rights, promoting
social ownership of the means of production, and community
participation and direct democracy. ``Large-scale industry, oil,
gas, electricity, the national railway network could be owned by
the people of Scotland as a whole and run by democratically
elected boards in which workers, consumers and the wider
socialist government were all represented'', the authors propose.
Many of the arguments traditionally used against socialism that
cite ``human nature'' and what happened in the Soviet bloc are
countered in a chapter amusingly called ``Champagne and Cyanide''.
The supposed socialist belief in restrictions on individual
liberty and creativity are all convincingly tackled.
However, little mention is made of one of the best examples in
favour of socialism Cuba. That, I assume, has something to do
with the context of the British left, in which many good
activists remain confused on this question.
A strength of Imagine, and the SSP, is its inclusiveness and
non-sectarianism. Don't expect a direct outline of the SSP's
differences with other revolutionaries or polemics against other
revolutionary parties. The authors' target is capitalism and its
I would have preferred a clearer explanation of how to get to
socialism. A ``big bang theory'' of socialism is rejected. However,
enough historical examples of how masses of people have tried to
change their society such as the Spanish Revolution in 1936 and
the 1968 worker-student uprising in Paris are presented that
allow readers to draw their own conclusions. You don't have to be
a theoretical genius to realise the implication of the statement,
``We need to tear up the old rule book and establish a new set of
As well as inspiring us to take sides, to become involved and to
recognise the power of our own struggles, the book reveals the
SSP project to be an excellent example of what revolutionary and
socialist unity can achieve.
The Australian revolutionary left can learn much from Imagine and
the work of the SSP. Imagine is not a set of instructions but a
positive explanation at a time when the capitalist system is
beginning to be questioned on a mass scale. To paraphrase a quote
from Oscar Wilde used in Imagine: ``Show me a book which can
imagine utopia and I'll show you a book well worth reading.''
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