on March 12, 2006
An outstanding introduction and a meaty one too. Now that I've read three books in the "very short introduction" series, it has been a pleasant surprise to see how formidable these book are.
References, suggestions for further reading and a 9 page index are included.
Newman does not hide the problems that socialists have had but neither does he fail to recognize the ways in which they might help.
The analyses of Cuban communism and Swedish social democracy were illuminating. Socialism may not have dominated, but it has not always been the failure that it is made out to be.
Newman claims "What can be maintained with confidence is that capitalism will not be able to resolve the problems and injustices that it causes...and that socialist arguments remain relevant". He notes the challenge, beyond whatever problems socialists themselves have in running an economy, that "At present, Washington is opposed to any international regimes that might limit its autonomy and is willing to use its power to thwart their development."
Unlike the literature I've read of many socialist parties, which tend to be simplistic and shallow in analysis, Newman does manage in this "very short introduction" multi-dimensional explorations of the challenges facing socialism. He continues to value the role of trade unions, the greens and feminists. The socialist effort is fragmented and it is not clear in what ways it can be effective. Like many socialists, Newman's moral concerns seem clear but Newman's openness and flexibility seems all the more valuable at a time when many socialist groups seem dogmatic and rigid.
Newman's "very short introduction" seems one of the best statements on what Socialism today has to offer.
on June 5, 2012
I chose this book to read because I wanted to understand socialism better in order to update my honors thesis as to my subject's contributions to early socialist theory in the nineteenth century. I thought this book (I hoped anyway) might fulfill its purpose as an introduction to a subject that is often verboten in US political discourse. As a history student, I obviously understand that socialism does not equal communism and since beginning my study of nineteenth century political thought, I don't think I had fully appreciated how diverse and rich the history of socialist political thought.
This book fulfilled my objectives and then some. Newman divided his study into four chapters, the first of which 'Socialist Traditions' addressed most of my questions as to the birth of socialist theory and its trajectory throughout the nineteenth century until the Russian revolution when it began inextricably intertwined with the Soviet interpretation. In this forty-page chapter, he addressed utopian socialists like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, the modern socialists Marx and Engels and then the turn to traditional socialism in the late nineteenth century as it became practical governmental theory in countries like Britain and Germany under the auspices of the Labor and SPD parties. There was so much more in this chapter that was very useful to me and I felt like he had answered all of my questions and given me more areas to pursue, the objective of any well-written introduction.
The next two chapters consisted of examples illustrating socialism in the twentieth century. In Chapter 2, he analyzed two different socialist governments -- the socialist democracy of Sweden and the communist regime of Cuba, how they had arrived at their form of government, their governmental programs since adopting socialism and how their government fit into the overall principles of socialism. He used these examples to compare and contrast Sweden as a country where the embracing of capitalism within socialist theory had proved successful with Cuba as a country that had rejected capitalism and had failed. But Newman also reminded the reader that each country had brought its own unique history and circumstances to socialism and it had had its own effect. In Chapter 3, he analyzed the fragmentation of socialism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, illustrating two specific sects--feminists and the Green party, both finding their roots in the tumultuous 1960s, flourishing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then each finding different objectives in the end. Each had connections to socialism, but had also strayed from the core of thinking in some ways and found themselves on the fringe.
The final chapter was somewhat more abstract, discussing the future of socialism and its role during the last few years. The book was published in 2005 and I found myself wondering what Newman might have written had he known what would have unfolded in the last four years with the discourse of calling our president a socialist as if one was equating him with Joseph Stalin instead of the Swedish or the French in the 1980s. This book showed me how much I did not know about socialism, and how much I still wanted to learn. I am looking forward to exploring more, and am happy to look up some of the books suggested in the reading. It was a well-written introduction that will help me update my thesis and give me more material to work with.
Author Michael Newman acknowledges at the beginning of his Very Short Introduction that writing a "very short introduction" to socialism is a daunting task. So he decides that, after a chapter-length introductory discussion of "Socialist Traditions," the wisest approach would be to examine representative periods and movements. Consequently, Chapter 2 focuses on Cuban communism and Swedish social democracy and Chapter 3 on feminist socialism and eco-socialism. Chapter 4 is a forecast of what socialism must do to retain vitality into the future.
For Newman, the hallmark of socialism is that it offers a social and political alternative to capitalism based on the values of equality and cooperation between humans. Socialism of course adapts itself to historical and cultural contexts, but these are its necessary conditions. When socialism perverts into the state domination displayed by the Soviet Union or the liberal capitalism which the British Labor Party has embraced, it's no longer socialism.
While I appreciate Newman's need to be selective in his discussion of socialism, I have to admit that I found his second chapter utterly tedious. The facts about Cuban communism are so well known that much of what he says about it is all too familiar. The history of Sweden's social democracy is so unexciting that it takes a great deal of patience to get through Newman's discussion.
On the other hand, his discussion of the "New Left" infusions of feminism and environmentalism/ecologism is potentially exciting, but too abbreviated to do more than whet the reader's appetite (which, I suppose, is a good thing). I think it would've made for a better book to have reduced chapter 2 to five or so pages, incorporated it into the first chapter, and then devoted much more space to the issues discussed in Chapter 3. Feminism and the green movement, after all, and not Cuba or Sweden, are the future of socialism--if future there be.
In the final analysis, then, Newman's book is long on history, but short on an analysis of the driving ideas behind 19th, 20th, and 21st century socialism. It might better be entitled A Very Short Introduction to the History of Socialism.
Three and a half stars.
on March 4, 2010
I got this book because I want to know more about socialism. The problem I faced is that socialism is such a big topic that I didn't even know where to begin. I saw this "Short Introduction" and thought it seemed like a perfect introduction to frame up future studies. This book accomplished EXACTLY that. I am very pleased. The author is obviously well informed on the topic and is a good writer. I found it to be an enjoyable read. The author is obviously a committed socialist. I was glad to see that, too. I have no use for a book introducing a topic with the author is trying to convince me that the toping being introduced is wrong.
The book starts out with the early socialists, covers Marx, the Soviet revolution, Trotsky and the whole socialist freak show up to the present day. It contains speculation on socialism's next move and a look to the future.
That being said, after finishing the book I did check the author out on the internet because the last few pages basically consist of 'socialism has failed everywhere it has been tried' and 'no one wants us'. It reminded me of stuff I'VE said about socialism. I wondered if he was a really a capitalist pretending to be a socialist. But, no he's an HONEST socialist and believes SO thoroughly in the idea of socialism that despite ALL the evidence we need to keep trying. I thought that was the perfect ending.
If you want to understand socialism - and not waste a lot of time doing it-this is the book for you.
on July 21, 2014
Newman's very short introduction has the problem that many of these introductions have in that they must cover very complicated and lengthy terrain in a 100 or so pages. Socialism is duly hard as it is both internally and externally contested as a term, has 200 years of emerging and failing models and critiques, and has probably become even more polarizing in opinions since this book was written. Newman's focus on traditions in the first chapter, case studies in the second, historical problems in the third, and new ideas on emerging socialism in the fourth chapter does focus the reader, Newman does not downplay nor make an apologia for either Soviet communism or social democracy, he fairly presents both the promise and problems of post-1968 new leftism and social democracy's problematic dependence on Keynesianism post-world war two
If there are some criticisms to launched here: Newman does not present many of the center and right critiques of socialism in much detail and then cannot present socialist answers to those critiques. Furthermore, he does leave out entire non-anarchist and non-utopian socialist traditions which were critical of both social democracy and Leninism. Still space was hardly there for this discussion. If one is a novice, this is an excellent introduction and if one is a specialist then the case studies on Sweden and Cuba are worth the price of the book.
on March 28, 2012
Rank-and-file Socialists who read this book will likely be gratified to find that there are many different types of victims suffering oppression in Capitalist societies and that; indeed, the Capitalist glass is half empty. Conservative readers, neo-Liberals, who approach this book with little concrete knowledge of socialist theory, on the other hand, will likely remain cheerfully convinced that the Capitalist glass is already half full but; in all probability, will end up concerned for their nation upon discovering that for the past hundred and fifty years there has been a relentless effort by socialists to destroy everything they believe in. Moderates, if they read the book at all, will likely be persuaded by this author that socialism is the only way to go, since that is essentially what this book is all about. What one takes from the book, then, will likely depend on what one brings to it.
What did I take from it? Quite a few things: for one, a greater respect for Karl Marx. He certainly was a great theoretician who was able to identify a significant flaw in the Capitalist system but, as near as I can tell, was unable to formulate a better one. I was also surprised to learn that `Utopianism' and `Anarchism,' along with `Marxism' were the three original `forms' of Socialism and that more recently `Feminism' and `Green Socialism', among other factions have joined forces. I was also surprised to learn that the Hippie flower-children of the 1960s were essentially the manifestation of the much earlier Utopian theory and that Anarchism is the ultimate form of Socialism, since it offers complete equality with no leadership. I was also very surprised to learn that Socialist intellectuals are fearful that Socialism has passed its peak and is losing its thrust toward destroying Capitalism. This struck me as strange since Socialism has been and is being so successful in undermining America's political system and destroying its economy. What more could they ask for? I was also surprised that this book's author draws a distinction between Socialism and modern-day Liberalism, although he never clearly states what the difference might be.
I wasn't surprised; however, to find that, although Marxism has some basis in fact, no absolute socialist society seems possible, since, based on real-world experience, socialist policies can only be implemented if they are embedded in a prosperous Capitalist system which funds them and allows them to be enforced. Neither was I surprised to find that every completely socialist nation ever attempted has ultimately become an authoritarian dictatorship, as in Cuba and the Soviet Union, since pure socialism can only be implemented and maintained by force. After reading this book, I also have to conclude that there are powerful secret agencies throughout the world which are driving the Socialist agenda, just as Vladimir Lenin deemed necessary --- massive demonstrations don't just happen spontaneously and simultaneous throughout the world or even within a given nation.
My conclusion: This is a valuable book which will enhance its reader's understanding of both historical and modern-day Socialism while, at the same time, reinforcing their political beliefs whatever they may be. My only complaint about the book is that it was clearly written by a socialist and seems to push the socialist agenda. It would have been helpful for this reader if that had been stated at the outset.
on March 28, 2016
Newman broadly defines the term 'socialism' as any idea or movement committed to an egalitarian society, solidarity and cooperation, an "optimistic faith" in human nature and a belief in conscious human agency. The first chapter describes the progression of socialist ideas from the Utopian socialists of the early 19th century, through Proudhon and Marx, to the split between the Second and Third Internationals following the First World War. The second chapter critically examines Sweden and Cuba as 'positive' case studies of 'social democracy' and Stalinist 'Communism'. Here Newman diagnoses some recognizable limitations of these socialisms from above: the failure of Swedish social democracy to make inroads into private ownership, the weak foundation of Cuban "socialism" on a "charismatic'"but undemocratic governance, and the onslaught on any 'socialist' progress by an increasingly "globalized" capitalism. He generalizes these findings to make conclusions about the absolute necessity for socialism to be democratically structured while making uncompromising inroads into capitalist relations of property and power. Furthermore, he argues that for "overwhelming reasons, both ethical and practical, that 21st-century socialism must be internationalist" (even though this will be "difficult").
Many of Newman's arguments are powerfully backed by statistics, and he uses these to good effect in demolishing the idea that capitalism is in any way "meritocratic", or making the world more equal. (The richest 1 percent of the world's population receive as much income as the poorest 57 percent, whereas the income of the richest 25 million Americans is equivalent to that of the world's poorest 2 billion people.) Newman concludes that socialism with equality as a "core value" is needed as a basis for greater democracy.
on July 11, 2012
Michael Newman has written an excellent introduction to socialism, especially the varieties of socialism expressed in the 20th and, so far, 21st centuries. Newman's analysis takes in utopian socialism, Marxism, communism, and social democracy. He is able to include social democracy (which attempts to achieve socialistic ends in a society through a highly regulated capitalist economy directed to achieve social reforms) in his analysis because he paints the characteristics of socialism in broad yet credible terms. His chapter comparing and contrasting Cuba's socialism with Sweden's social democracy is especially illuminating. Newman also sketches the assaults on social democracy by neo liberalism.
Newman then presents socialism as developed by the "new lefts"--Feminist socialism and Green socialism. In this chapter he considers how these new expressions of socialism have both augmented traditional socialism with new concerns and bases for advocacy and solidarity and have arguably fragmented socialism from its traditional concerns as well.
Newman concludes with a discussion of how socialist ideas continue to be relevant to social and economic analysis and policy making. He argues that socialism needs to take a broad, supple, and internationalist approach to its analyses and advocacy in order to be relevant and effective.
If you want a good, clear, and cogent introduction to contemporary socialism, it will be hard to find a better book than this one.
on February 8, 2011
This is a superb title, and I am left hoping and wondering whether all in the series are so well written! Not knowing much about Socialism, I am unable to say how broad a swatch of ground Newman has covered, but I walk away from the reading with good insight into the origins, evolution, and current status of socialist ideas in the world. Newman's tone is obviously sympathetic, but tempered with outstanding insight into the problems that socialism has encountered and those which it faces today. Excellent!
on December 10, 2012
Succinctly explains the history, meaning and Achilles heel of socialism. Very good introductory book to explain where America is headed.