Armchair Socialism

Book Review (Partial): Medhurst, John, “No Less Than Mystic. A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left.” Repeater Books, London, 2017

Somebody sent me a book anonymously. The package just said “Pearl Books” Wisconsin. I don’t know if everybody is getting one or if I was singled out. Even in paperback, this one costs $19.95 so whoever sent it must have either been strong of purpose or just has a lot of money. I get a lot of books because book salesmen mis-read “Workers Beat” the title of my radio show, and send me business management stuff. They think it’s “Beat Workers,” I guess.

Nevertheless, I liked the “21st Century Left” part of the title, so I’m trying to read it. Also, it led off with an interesting quote, “The Marxist doctrine is omnipresent because it is true.” –V.I. Lenin.

But I got really worried as soon as I got to the top of the second page of the Introduction: “In the end I suggest that that anti-capitalist writers such as …Noam Chomsky… have more constructive options to offer the left today than do the sages of Bolshevism.” I flipped back to the cover and, sure enough, there was a flagrant endorsement from the world’s champion armchair socialist himself, Chomsky!

Determined as I am to hear both sides of the story, I’m still trying to read it and have accomplished all the way to page 127 now. There are 467 to go. It’s pretty easy to see, from the git-go, that the author is against all revolutionaries and for all back-biting intellectual splitters. It reads very much like a treatise on theology – lots of name dropping, obscure quotes, and hardly any commitment to a course of action.

Since the author rules out revolution in the first few pages, I was eager to see what he does recommend, so I skipped to the last chapter. It wasn’t exactly clear, but he seems to favor early anarchism – the idea that capitalism has an on/off switch that needs no process. He likes the occupy movement, whether on the large scale like the Zapatistas in Mexico or the small scale such as what occurred recently in America’s parks and public places. He likes employee stock option plans in which laborers own a controlling stock in (usually small) businesses. He likes the word “libertarian,” but I don’t think he means America’s Libertarian Party. I think he means “more liberal.” Oh yes, I nearly forgot, he favors the counterculture idea – in which no revolutionary activity, or any activity at all, is required because the bosses are about to capsize on their own and all we have to do is grow our hair long, listen to music, and recycle our trash until they’re gone. All of the people he quotes that I recognize were gradualists who believed that the bosses will stand by while we elect revolutionary socialists to replace them.

When it suits him, the author finds anti-revolutionary quotes from Rosa Luxemburg or even Leon Trotsky to discredit the people who actually did make a difference in their lifetimes.

As I spent considerable time as a counter-culturalist and, later, as a Trotskyite, I felt that I had a special need to set the record straight on Luxemburg and Trotsky. Both of them were lifetime revolutionaries with slightly divergent views on how to overcome the bosses. Luxemburg, in fact, wrote what is probably the best refutation of people like Medhurst, the present author, in her short book “Reform and Revolution.” She spoke the truth and paid for it with her life. She’s essential reading.

I don’t like dissing somebody’s thinking without offering an alternative, so let me explain a short version of the actual situation. It begins by asking “what’s wrong?”

What’s Wrong?

Nothing is wrong. Everything is going swimmingly – but only for the bosses. The people who are running most of the world are running it very well, from their point of view. Working families may not like constant wars and environmental disaster, but oil stocks are skyrocketing. Racism and police misconduct may be ugly from our point of view, but they have always paid off nicely, from slavery thru Jim Crow to the present state of things, for our employers. Mass murders may be unseemly to us, but they are just fine for arms manufacturers. For our bosses, hunger and disease are just the cost of doing busines

Anybody who is thinking clearly will see it. Working families’ problems come from our bosses, and the only long-term solution is to remove them from power. I figured that out without any help from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Mao Tse-Tung, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba or Fidel Castro, and certainly not from Noam Chomsky. In my own case, I was simply an elementary school teacher who thought, at first, that the world would change if I could end corporal punishment. When I paused being a knee-jerk activist and thought about it, though, I realized that America’s system of public and private education has not “gone astray” or “missed the point.” They may not always be good for working families, but they function pretty well for the bosses. The same is true for all the other of society’s “ills.”

What I couldn’t figure out, and, like most people, what I’m still grappling with, is what to do about it. History’s great revolutionaries may have had minor differences in their strategies and tactics, but they all agreed that the bosses need to go. In some parts of his long book, Medhurst hints that he thinks so, too, but, for the most part, his contribution provides comfort for those who don’t really intend to do anything at all.

One can live a long and comfortable life writing books about the need for change as long as they stay away from doing anything, or advocating anything that might work. They can advocate for change – heck, they can even get big financial grants from the bosses for their projects – as long as no real challenge to the bosses is involved.

Clever writers can rise to fame and fortune if they defame the people and ideas that might actually make a difference. The armchair socialist, like the cockroach, will survive after all.

–Gene Lantz

I’m on’s “Workers Beat” radio talk show every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. My “Workers Beat Extra” podcasts usually go up on Soundcloud every Wednesday morning. If you are curious about what I really think, look at my personal web site

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