Tariq Ali's "The Coming British Revolution" is like looking at those photos your parents took of you as a child and embarrassed you by showing them to your new girlfriend. It's not just a book of its time but one dated beyond repair, a hotch-potch of Marxist terminology of no relevance to the real world. It's reminiscent of the superficiality of Richard Dawkins when the latter tries to label religious teaching at home as a form of child abuse. If it is then it applies just as equally to Ali's childhood which was grounded in communism and atheism from which he has never developed intellectually enough to extricate himself. It is a phenomenon endemic to left-wing politics.
Ali arrived in Britain after the trauma of Khruschev's condemnation of Stalin's "Cult of the Personality" had created an intellectual schizophrenia within the British Left. Attaching himself to the Trotskyism of the International Marxist Group, Ali became obsessed with the Vietnam War and was prominent amongst the leadership of the anti-war movement. The movement was, in many ways, a re-enactment of the upper and middle class communism of pre-war Cambridge. "Kindly Uncle Joe" was replaced by "Kindly Uncle Ho" and the opproprium of the appeasement policy of Chamberlain was replaced by savage attacks on Wilson's refusal to condemn American action in Vietnam. It was a time when the political Left examined and mis-read current affairs, rejoicing in the idea they were "revolutionaries" without once mentioning the armchairs in which they sat.
Ali's description of the international impact of the Vienam war was naive and ideological. To explain why opposition to Wilson's policies was big on publicity but relatively small in numbers, Ali resorted to the Marxist ideology of consciousness. "Marxism maintains that consciousness determines history". The concept is the epitome of arrogance, dismissing those who disagree with Marxist policies, however determined, as lacking the insight or understanding possessed by the supposed middle class revolutionaries. Yet, as Ali admits, many militants yearned for contacts with workers. The workers themselves - the real workers as opposed to the mythical workers of Marxist theory - were uninterested. Ali argued the the political situation had changed in favour of the revolutionary movement because of the changing character of universities. He did not understand that the expansion of university education did not necessarily lead to the organisation and training of militants by revolutionary groups. Many student "revolutionaries" were prats engaged in ego trips to nowhere or Channel Four. Nothing's changed.
Ali's interpretation of British society bears little relationship to the truth but a strong relationship with fantasy. He depicts nineteenth century trade unions' support for apprenticeships as an example of class collaboration whereas the "aristocracy of labour" was rejecting Marxism and its politics of class. Although the New Unionism extended unionism to non-craft workers, the notion that, "if they had followed a correct strategy they would have been able to gain a massive base in the organised ranks of the working class....(which) would have provided a revolutionary challenge" to the Labour Party is wishful thinking. The New Unionism had the support of the Social Democratic Federation (headed and funded by the egocentric H M Hyndman) which favoured the Parliamentary route to power. Those who did not attempted to establish their own mass party but failed not simply because of the rise of Labour in Parliament but because their ideology was rejected by the public. As has been pointed out elsewhere the practical empiricism of the British was a rock on which Marxism floundered and sank. The "class struggle" which Ali espoused a power struggle between powerful trade union leaders and a government elected by the people. Ali is apopletic about right wing domination of trade unions in the 1950s but makes no reference to the Communists' corrupt control of the Electrical Trades Union.
Ali regarded the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) as a "considerable hinderance to the cause of revolutionary socialism in Britain" by its association with Stalinism and its commitment to Parliamentary Socialism. He argued Parliament was losing its credibility which would lead to the termination of the CPGB itself. The latter came about, not because of a decline in Parliamentary politics (which carries even less credibility now than then), but because of theoretical sectarianism between Euro-Communists and anti-revisionists. The discovery that the CPGB had been funded between 1956 and the late 'seventies by secret cash donations from Moscow brought the debate to a head. The Party was dissolved in 1991 and many members became involved in a variety of issues, including financial support for the Alternative Vote. The money which had kept the Party afloat long after its sell-by date is in the hands of a property management company which in 2011 declared assets of just under two million pounds! The rentier class lives on!!
Ali's commitment to ideology over fact is demonstrated when he writes, "Scientific socialist theory....is formed by the constant struggle against the ideology and practice of the bourgeoisie and.....exists as a dialetical antithesis to that ideology." Condemning empiricism he argues Marx's ideas reached a British audience just at the wrong time, as the upheavals of Chartism subsided. He suggests that Fabianism was part of reformist ideology. He fails to understand there was no reformist ideology only the practical application of ideas tested by experience. Part of that failure lies in his use of the term bourgeoisie as a fact whereas it is an artificial construct created by Marx as part of his ficticious ideology of "scientific socialism". So how should this book be rated? By defining everything in Marxist terms Ali loses touch with social reality. Even as a product of its time it is stilted and irrelevant, an historical curiosity rather than historical record. It's no wonder it's long been out of print. Three stars.