The spirit that lifts the slave before his Lord
BACK WE COME with a bump to where we started: Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1990s. Her game is up. The mixture of fear and hypnosis which seems to have struck people down isn’t working any more. Most people want her out. They are sick of right-wing government, and they want a change.
What sort of change? Rather like the masses in Eastern Europe at the end of 1989, most people seem happy with a minor change. They want the government out, but they do not want too sharp a shift in the other direction. The New Model Labour Party under Neil Kinnock has become the focus of hope for most people who want political change. A Kinnock-led Labour government, it is argued, would improve things – marginally. It would scrap the poll tax, increase child benefits and old-age pensions. It would build a few more council houses. It would spend a little more on public transport. It would usher in a slightly fairer and more decent society without changing anything too fast.
How far they have come, these Labourites, from the hopes of their origins! How mean and miserable are their aspirations compared even with what their most right-wing supporters were saying thirty or forty years ago!
In the 1950s and 1960s, political pundits started to talk about ‘consensus polities’. They detected a basic agreement between most politicians, whatever their party, about what could be achieved by parliamentary politics. The consensus at that time was called ‘Butskellism’, after the leading Tory R.A. Butler and the leader of the Labour Party Hugh Gaitskell. Their ‘consensus’ agreed on the need for a National Health Service, a declining private sector in education, a certain amount of nationalisation, full employment, strong and free trade unions. On the Labour side, the new consensus was expressed by Anthony Crosland in The Future of Socialism, published in 1956. He prophesied permanent industrial peace:
One cannot imagine a deliberate offensive alliance between government and employers... with all the brutal paraphernalia of wage cuts, national lock-outs and anti-union legislation.
He could not imagine it, but it happened very soon. Crosland’s unimaginable horror became the reality of the 1980s.
Crosland was even more optimistic about the economic future:
I no longer regard questions of growth and efficiency as being, on a long view, of primary importance to socialism. We stand in Britain on the threshold of mass abundance.
For Crosland, the old slumps and booms of pre-war capitalism, with all their dreadful consequences – mass unemployment, poverty, welfare cuts and so on – were gone forever. Somehow, without even knowing how they did it, modern politicians had rid themselves of the old problems and could turn their attention to new ones. Crosland’s socialist future concentrated on different matters. ‘We need,’ he wrote,
not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum.
On the whole, Tories agreed with this. They liked the idea of a fully employed capitalist Britain where employers and workers, Tories and Labour Party people could mingle contentedly in better-designed riverside cafes.
The consensus started to break up in the mid-1970s. In 1975 Tory MPs elected a new leader, the strident right-winger Margaret Thatcher. She openly attacked the consensus, calling for a return to the naked capitalism of the Victorian era. Nationalisation, public spending of all kinds, council houses, state schools and National Health Service hospitals were all at risk from the new ideology of the right. This extraordinary choice had nothing to do with personalities. By any definition, Thatcher’s chief rival, William Whitelaw, had a more congenial personality. Thatcher’s election was one of the signs that Crosland’s prophecy was wrong. Capitalism had not solved its problems. The old cycle of slumps and booms was re-emerging. Unemployment had topped a million, and was still rising. The class war, written off so often, was back on the agenda.
The Labour government of the time did little to resist this new trend. Indeed their chancellor of the exchequer, Denis Healey, put into practice the very monetarism and the very cuts in public spending which Crosland had said were unimaginable. These were the policies which ensured that there would be no new council housing estates to put Tony Crosland’s statues in, no cheap eating houses to make brighter and cleaner and fewer telephone kiosks on which to improve the design.
The process has continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Thatcher, this time in office, has led the way and the Labour Party has followed. Today we have a new consensus, based on unemployment rather than full employment, on free market capitalism rather than a mixed economy, and on an acceptance of the right to be rich rather than a right not to be poor.
This huge slippage in aims, aspirations and policies is a warning of what is to come. At no time since the war has Labour called the tune in politics. Throughout, it has responded to events, shamefacedly shuffled off what it now calls the ‘baggage’ of its heritage, and settled for a new society which, in all but the faces on the government front bench, is largely indistinguishable from the old one.
The sheer opportunism involved in this process has astonished even those who have pushed it on. The most hideous example is Labour’s attitude to British nuclear weapons. At two general elections – 1983 and 1987 – Labour argued that the British government should stop making and stockpiling these weapons. They were, Labour argued, useless, expensive and an encouragement to all other belligerent nations who wanted their own bombs. It was a clear policy, easily argued, at one time shared by a majority of the people, again and again passed at party conferences and enthusiastically endorsed by the enormous majority of Labour Party members.
A mighty campaign against this anti-nuclear policy was set in train by the Tories. Labour, they said, was leaving Britain ‘defenceless’ against the only enemy country which had nuclear weapons: Russia. The campaign, so the polls pronounced, damaged Labour in the elections. Accordingly, after 1987, the Labour leaders set their minds to changing it.
Their problem, however, was that Russia, the former ‘enemy’, was now rapidly becoming a ‘friend’. There were now no ‘enemy’ nations with nuclear weapons! The last half-argument for keeping them was gone. Yet doggedly the Labour leaders constructed a ‘defence policy’ which was based on keeping nuclear weapons for possible use against ... er ... no one in particular.
The new policy was warmly endorsed by the Labour Party conference. The best explanation came from a delegate called Sylvia Heal, who said she was quite prepared to sacrifice her former allegiance to CND and her continued belief in the case for scrapping nuclear weapons in exchange for winning the next election. What mattered, she said, was parliamentary power. She was able to realise this earlier than she expected when she won the Mid-Staffordshire by-election in 1990 – the best by-election result for Labour in all its history.
Sylvia Real’s speech is echoed everywhere on the left and half-left today. People declare themselves sick of ‘grand ideas which never get us anywhere’. They openly applaud the trimming and erasing of their own long-standing beliefs and commitments. So great is the hysteria about winning the next election, so totally does it carry everything before it, that every word, every policy, almost every thought of Labour MPs and their supporters is measured by only one yardstick: will it lose votes? Thus Labour policy is devised not by rational men and women with their own distinctive ideas, but by the opinion pollsters.
The decline in Labour’s aspirations and the weakness of its policies become, by this token, positive advantages. People say (without even realising how cynical they sound) that ‘if Labour promises a little, it won’t sell out.’ They stress again and again that they will be satisfied with ‘just a little’. They denounce their few socialist critics as saboteurs of practical and possible reform.
At the root of all these arguments is the notion that the political spring which waters society is parliament; that political measures, reformist or reactionary, all flow from parliament and therefore nothing can be done to emancipate labour unless parliament is won for Labour. If Labour is elected, laws and measures flow from parliament which are friendly to labour. If Labour loses, those laws and measures will be hostile to labour. It follows that everything must be subordinated to securing a Labour government.
The briefest glance at post-war British history proves the entire argument false. There was full employment during the Tory years of 1955-1964; and heavy unemployment in the Labour years 1975-1978. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Tories built hundreds of thousands of council houses, and maintained a completely free National Health Service (not to mention completely free school meals). The school leaving age was raised when the secretary of state for education was Margaret Thatcher. Far more public spending was committed to railways and coal mines by Edward Heath’s Tory government in 1972 than in any year of the ensuing Labour government. And it was not a Tory government, but a Labour one, which was the first since the war to propose laws to curb the trade unions.
The pattern of reform and reaction does not follow the pattern of elections and the change of governments. There are other forces at work far stronger than the elected governments. Every Labour government in history has come to office pledged to end unemployment, or at least reduce it. Every Labour government in history has left office with unemployment higher than when it was elected.
The rise and fall of the ‘business cycle’, capitalism’s ‘booms and slumps’, do not wait to see which government is in office. They follow economic laws over which parliamentary laws have nothing but the remotest control. Governments can shell out money for the unemployed, but only enough to keep them worse off than the very lowest-paid of the employed. They can employ a few, train a few. But no government can alter the rules of a catastrophic economic system.
When Mrs Thatcher said ‘You cannot buck the market’, she was explaining not only Labour’s impotence but her own. When in May 1990 the newly privatised British Steel said it would close down the strip mill at Ravenscraig in Scotland, Mrs Thatcher’s own government, in the shape of the wimpish secretary of state for Scotland Malcolm Rifkind, tried to dissuade them. (There are few enough Tory votes in Scotland already). The chairman of British Steel, who had been raised to his new prominence by the Tories’ privatisation policies, sent his former benefactor packing. ‘We are not,’ he told Rifkind haughtily, ‘responsible to the government – but to our shareholders.’ Not even Thatcher or Rifkind could save 10,000 jobs in Scotland when the market dictated otherwise.
The market and the struggle between classes which it creates lay down the priorities for society. If there is full employment, and the trade unions are strong, they fight for decent housing and welfare. This is just as likely to happen under a Tory government as under Labour. Houses, hospitals and schools then get built for the masses, because the employers and the moneylenders can afford them. But when capitalism is in crisis, the battle for every penny intensifies. Unemployment weakens the unions, and it is the employers who feel strong, militant and confident.
Of course, employers prefer a Tory government and workers prefer a Labour government. Of course, it is more difficult for either side to proceed if there is a hostile government in office. But equally, a strong working class can make gains from a Tory government and ‘a confident ruling class will play havoc with a Labour government.
There is absolutely nothing inevitable about reforms under a Labour government. From the moment the votes are counted and a Labour government is declared in office, a huge war is launched on that government by the class with economic power. The war takes many different forms: investment strikes by the holders of capital, a run on sterling organised by the treasurers of multinational companies, violent campaigns in the media, rebellions by the military, the police and the judiciary. There have been plenty of examples of all of these since 1946: the runs on sterling in 1966 and 1975 changed the whole course of the Labour governments then recently elected; the judges staged a revolt over comprehensive schools and over trade union blacking in 1976; the media campaigned viciously against Harold Wilson in 1967; the military in Northern Ireland refused orders from a Labour government in 1974.
These are just examples. There is no limit to their scope. The smallest morsel of reform will be snatched from Labour if its class enemies believe they can get away with it.
In January 1968, as the Labour government under Harold Wilson negotiated with the International Monetary Fund over public spending cuts after devaluation of the pound, a deal seemed almost struck. It involved hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts in crucial areas of public spending.
Then the IMF, in the shape of brilliant young men from investment banks in Massachusetts, made their final demand. They wanted prescription charges imposed on medicines. Wilson’s ministers begged, wheedled, and offered all sorts of other cuts in exchange. Free medicine, they whined, was the sacred cow of the Labour Party. Of all the policies they bad introduced when they first came into office four years previously, they were proudest of their removal of the health charges. The great Aneurin Bevan, along with Harold Wilson, had resigned from a former government on the issue. Could they please, they implored, be spared the health charges?
The IMF, sensing its certain victory, and knowing well how important it was to humiliate the government in the eyes of its socialist supporters, stuck firm. Though the health charges were only peanuts in the context of total government spending – some £8 million – it insisted on them. The Labour ministers surrendered. A great portrait of them with their hands in the air should be unveiled at Labour Party headquarters and dedicated to all those who suppress their socialist opinions so that the next Labour government can do the ‘little things’.
If reforms are determined not by the rhythm of elections or the colour of the government but by the rise and fall of class confidence, it follows that the weaker Labour’s policies are the more likely it is that they will be abandoned. R.H. Tawney, a social-democratic thinker and writer with more socialism in his little finger than there is in Kinnock’s whole shadow cabinet, once warned his Labour colleagues that they could not skin a tiger claw by claw. He might have gone on to say that you cannot, by putting your head into the tiger’s mouth, turn him into a vegetarian.
Tawney’s tiger metaphor illustrates the central argument against the fashionable emphasis on the next general election.
It is not just that the reforms may be illusory, nor even that hundreds of thousands of socialists will be disillusioned and depressed when the reforms they hoped for are not achieved, but that the fixation on reforms through parliament disarms the real movement for change.
Parliamentary politics are necessarily passive. In order to achieve that vital parliamentary majority, politicians must forever preach passivity. Any protest movement which mobilises people against their rulers disturbs the peaceful pace of the parliamentary reformers. However much in theory they support a cause, they feel bound to confine it to a constitutional cage. Strikes, the most effective weapons in the hands of the dispossessed, are anathema to the parliamentary socialist. The same goes for demonstrations, agitations, even propaganda and thought. The central principle of parliamentary activity is that change is most effectively brought by politicians from above. Whether those politicians are in office or out of it, therefore, it is best for them if people who are not politicians keep quiet and lie down.
Thus in the great miners’ strike of 1984-5, the theme from the Labour leaders was that the miners should cool it. The mass solidarity action necessary to win the strike was discouraged. Miners were pressed to stay at home and not to go to the picket line.
By the same token, the great agitation against the poll tax in early 1990 was constantly cut down and insulted by leading Labour politicians. The enormous demonstration of 31 March, which was attacked by the police and which refused to dissolve under the attack, was assailed on all sides in parliament, most of all by Labour. In the council chambers, local Labour politicians developed an acute form of political schizophrenia. On the one hand they explained that they were against the poll tax, that the poll tax was unfair, monstrous, the worst attack on the poor since the days of Wat Tyler. On the other, they called on their supporters to pay the tax, and threatened them with bailiffs, fines and even prison if they refused to do so. Gradually, the schizophrenia wore off. The councillors became first and foremost, unconditionally and militantly, collectors of the tax rather than opponents of it. A chasm opened up between those who wanted to fight the tax by not paying it, and the leaders of the party who opposed the tax but suppressed their opposition in their determination not to rock the Labour Party boat on its voyage to the next general election.
As Rosa Luxemburg predicted nearly a hundred years ago, the Labour leaders thus became not just milder and meeker fighters for the same aim, but ferocious opponents of all fighters.
Many Labour Party members who have followed the argument so far, and agreed with it, will now protest: ‘We are not in the Labour Party to destroy campaigning. We are there to change the Labour Party and at the same time to support campaigners and strikers in their struggles.’
Such people are thin on the ground today, much thinner than they were ten years ago. In 1980, disgusted by the record of the 1974-9 Labour government, socialists in their thousands rallied to the banner of Tony Benn in his attempt to change the Labour Party. His 1981 campaign for the deputy leadership of the party attracted more socialists than any other campaign on the left of the party since the war. More flocked to his meetings than had gone to similar meetings addressed by Aneurin Bevan in the early 1950s, to the ‘Victory for Socialism’ campaign in the late 1950s or the ‘Appeal for Unity’ in the early 1960s. Probably 150,000 socialists actively supported Tony Benn in his campaign. Though Benn himself failed by the narrowest whisker to win the deputy leadership, huge strides were made to reform the Labour Party from within. The election of the leader was organised on much more democratic lines and Labour MPs were obliged to put themselves up for re-selection in each parliamentary term. The Young Socialists gained new strength and influence within the party.
Very quickly, this powerful movement evaporated. Some threw in their hand with the new Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. Others, far the majority, slunk off to nowhere. How could so many socialists disappear so fast? The answer is that for all their hostility to the right-wing Labour leadership, their central political strategy was the same: to change society from the top down, through a different and more socialist Labour Party – but nevertheless a party whose central strategy was to get elected to parliament and pass laws. For the supporters of Tony Benn in the early 1980s, therefore, the changing of the Labour Party was the first and last objective. They poured all their effort and enthusiasm into it.
While they did so, and almost without their noticing it, the working-class movement on the ground was beaten again and again in a series of terrible defeats. During the recession of the early 1980s two and a half million jobs were destroyed. Many of the sacked workers could have organised all kinds of protests, occupations or strikes. Some did so, though usually without success because the trade union leaders were unwilling to throw their weight behind the resistance. The huge rise of militancy in Labour conference halls took place against the background of a huge decline in militancy on the shop floor.
As a result, when defeat at the polls followed defeat for the unions, the Labour left was quite unprepared. Their changed Labour Party, with a comparatively left-wing programme, was trounced in the 1983 general election. A new Social Democratic Party, led by former right-wing Labour leaders and allied to the Liberal Party, got 26 per cent of the vote, compared to Labour’s 28 per cent. The process was completed by the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985.
Since the chief field of operations for Benn’s supporters was the Labour Party, and since the Labour Party plainly could not win an election without trimming its sails to fit the winds of defeat and stealing the right-wing clothes of the new SDP, there was suddenly nowhere for them to go. Many smartly changed their spots, and snuggled comfortably under the wing of the new leader, Neil Kinnock, who at once marched them off sharply to the right. Many others dropped out of politics altogether. Pretty well the only survivor was Tony Benn himself, who kept up his spirit and his socialism by abandoning any further ministerial ambition and, while still sticking to the Labour Party, turning his attentions more and more to stoking the fire down below.
The theme of this book is that fire down below. If society is to change in a socialist direction and if capitalism is to be replaced by socialism, the source of that change must be the fight against the exploitative society by the exploited people themselves. To knuckle down to the notion that changes can only come from the top is to accept the most debilitating and arrogant of all capitalist arguments: namely that there is at all times in human history a God-given elite, a few who are equipped to rule, while most people are not capable of government or politics and should count themselves lucky to have the occasional chance to choose which section of the elite should govern them.
This assumption of the rights of the few and the ignorance and inefficiency of the many is the hallmark of class rule through all our history. The reformer who believes that an educated elite in a parliament can change things for the masses, can – in the words of the Labour Party’s famous Clause Four – ‘secure for the workers ... the full fruits of their industry’, is really playing the same game and making the same assumptions as the most bigoted class warrior. Both believe that whatever is right and wrong for most people can only be determined by the enlightened few.
That way there lies no prospect of any real change, and what changes are made that way will as likely as not be reversed by the same process. Real change, in people’s attitudes as well as in reforms, comes only when people at the sharp end of exploitation organise and fight against it. To repeat yet again: the emancipation of labour, the one real hope for human civilisation, can only be achieved by the struggle for self-emancipation.
Socialists should align themselves with that struggle. They should organise themselves, their activity and their propaganda to sharpen the weapons against the old society and to build the confidence and strength of the minority who are prepared to fight.
Minority. There is the word which causes the most heated opposition. Surely, it is argued, socialism is about majorities being in charge of society. Surely the exploited billions are the majority in society – by far. How then can socialists argue that they should concern themselves with a minority rather than seek to get the support of majorities?
The answer is that the minority among whom socialists should organise is active, while the majority whose votes are canvassed at election times is passive. The passive majority is prey all the time to the machinations of class society, especially to its mass media. The active minority, because it is active, is capable of resisting those pressures, of responding to new ideas and creating their own.
The passive majority accept most of the time what they are told, what they read in the papers and see on television. There is a view, fashionable on the left for many years, that these media alone are responsible for people’s reactionary ideas, that if only the media could be curbed, controlled or censored, people would think differently. In fact, people’s reactionary ideas have their root in the way society is organised. Marx put it like this:
The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that, thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.
Thus, for instance, a favourite ‘idea’ among our ruling-class propagandists is ‘freedom’. This freedom means the right to vote for a parliament, the right to say and even write what you like provided you can find a publisher or an audience. This freedom also means the right to make money from other people and the right to be enormously rich.
Great disparities of wealth in society, however, restrict freedoms every bit as much as restrictions on voting. Everyone is ‘free’ to send their children to private school, to have tea at the Ritz, to gamble on the stock exchange. These ‘freedoms’ are defended far more vigorously than the freedom to vote, yet they are in fact restrictions on freedom. For every one person who can have tea at the Ritz, there are a hundred who cannot do so because they have not got the money. If 10 per cent can send their children to private school and secure for them a straight route back into the privileged class from which they came, 90 per cent cannot do so – are banned from doing so – because they cannot afford it.
Thus the ‘freedom’ handed out by capitalist society is more often than not the opposite of freedom. Yet the idea of freedom still prevails, because the prevailing ideas of any society are the ideas of the class which runs it.
So the people who fight against these ideas – whether in strikes, demonstrations, popular protests or just in argument – are always, or almost always, swimming against the stream. They are the minority. But this minority, unlike the passive majority, can involve other people far outside their immediate orbit. And once involved in struggle against the old society, people’s ideas can change decisively.
The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the 1960s, without any help from parliament or the passive majority, went a long way to changing people’s attitudes to the Vietnam War. The Anti Nazi League in the 1970s, by organising among young people who were prepared to fight against fascism, rolled back a growing racist and fascist movement. The anti-poll tax movement today, boycotted by parliament, abused by Labour leaders and attacked by the police, brought hundreds of thousands of people into the battle against the tax by encouraging them not to pay it. In each of these cases and in countless others all over the world, active, fighting minorities have inspired real change in people’s material conditions and in their ideas.
A fighting minority can do even more. As we saw in the section on the Russian revolution, it can become the majority. It was precisely because socialists were organised downwards, because a socialist party concentrated all its effort on the fighting spirit of the masses, that the Bolsheviks were able to win the soviets from the Mensheviks and in doing so to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the Russian working class. In such circumstances, and only in such circumstances, can capitalist society ever be ended and replaced by a socialist society. The fighting minorities become ruling majorities only in a revolution.
Revolution? Is that not a distant and even a ridiculous idea in the last decade of the 20th century? Is it not something which happened 200 years ago in France and 70 years ago in Russia, but is hardly even thinkable today?
The answer is that there have been as many revolutionary situations in the past twenty-five years as in any other quarter century in history. In France in 1968, for instance, there was a students’ revolt and a general strike which for an instant threatened one of the most powerful and complacent ruling classes in the world. In 1974 there was a revolution in Portugal. In 1979 there was a revolution in Iran. In 1981, as we have seen, the workers of Poland came within a whisker of bringing down the regime. In all these four cases, the whole structure of class power was in jeopardy. In each case, a new system of society, a socialist system, was made possible by the revolutionary actions of the masses.
In each case the masses were defeated. The revolutionary wave subsided, and society slid back into reaction. There was nothing inevitable about this. What was missing in all four upheavals was a strong organisation of socialists linked to the fighting spirit of the working class.
The vast majority of socialists in all four countries had organised as they had done elsewhere, basing themselves either on a parliamentary strategy or on the local Communist party and state-capitalist Russia. In a revolutionary situation both forms of organisation proved weak, almost helpless. Unable, unwilling and unused to moving forward with the masses, they sought allies and strategies which handed the initiative back to reaction. Leaderless, and without a strategy to take them forward to a new society, the masses slowed down the pace of the struggle. In France and Portugal the beneficiaries were the old social-democratic parties and the Communist parties, in Iran the fanatical and superstitious mullahs, in Poland the armed forces of the state-capitalist war machine.
In revolutionary circumstances, a relatively small group of organised revolutionary socialists who have linked themselves, in good times and in bad, with the struggle at the bottom of society can make the difference as to whether the revolution goes on to change the old society or retreats to shore it up again.
Socialism is, and must always be, a revolutionary idea. Unless it means the transfer of economic power from a small, greedy and irresponsible elite to the democratic control of the majority it means nothing. Since this transfer will not willingly be conceded, it can take place only in a revolution. So socialists must be revolutionaries. They have to organise themselves and direct their propaganda in the only area where there is any real prospect of change: among the minority who are prepared to fight. Their success is measured not by their ideological purity, still less by their propensity to rant and hector, but by their ability to organise and encourage people who do not share all their ideas but who are ready to fight.
This minority may change from year to year, week to week. The dynamics of class society are always throwing up new struggles, usually in unexpected areas, where people who imagined themselves law-abiding and decent citizens suddenly find themselves indignantly fighting against the rulers they previously respected. The presence and organisation of socialists in such circumstances can be crucial to victory or defeat. The chief job of socialists is to spread and link the struggles across the boundaries of race, sex, religion and nation.
The militant coal miner, for instance, sees the import of coal from abroad as a threat and is inclined to call for import controls. The socialist coal miner, however, can point to other socialist coal miners in South Africa, Poland, the United States, Russia – and make common cause with them. Similarly, militant workers are often distracted by racist arguments. They accept at once that there are too many people in this country and that black people should be kept out. Socialist workers can establish the links between white and black workers; can point out that the immigrant is just another worker shoved about as a pawn on the capitalist board in just the same way as British workers are.
Unafraid of losing votes and determined only to pursue socialist ideas, socialists who organise among the fighting minority can say what they think, and act accordingly. Their politics are different in style and content from the necessarily opportunistic and usually racist and nationalist claptrap of those who hunt for votes from the passive majority. They can speak out against the sexism which pollutes so much of working-class life, stand up for gay people, seek a solution to the ‘Irish question’ by demanding that Britain clear out of Ireland where it has caused nothing but dissension and pain for 400 years.
In all these matters and countless others which arise in conversation and in experience every day of the week, cautious and careerist politicians prefer to stand aside with a shy smile or a shrug – in the fear that any intervention on any ‘unpopular’ issue might lose them votes. The result of course is that racism, sexism, nationalism – and all the other ‘isms’ fed by the Tory press to divide and humiliate us – fester and grow.
Here is the main point one last time.
Socialism means nothing unless it means control of society from below. There is no hope of achieving that socialism except by action from below. For most of the twentieth century the idea of socialism has been poisoned by people who pretend that it can be instituted from on high: by well-meaning parliamentarians or by blind or brutal Stalinists. Now the Labour parliamentarians, in their rush for votes, are rapidly abandoning the word ‘socialism’ – the idea itself they abandoned long ago. Stalinism is dead. The ‘growing wrath’ against a system which has brought the world to the rim of hell is everywhere: in furious strikes in South Korea, in courageous uprisings of the oppressed Palestinians in the Middle East, in a new impatient fury at the wrecking of the world’s environment, in anti-poll tax demonstrations all over Britain.
There has never been a time when socialism – real socialism, socialism from below, socialism whose main ingredient is democracy, socialism won by fighting against capitalism – is more relevant. There is a world to win, and it is time for socialists to shake off their inhibitions, and go out to organise where it can be won.
Last updated on 5.2.2005