A note on the Limitations of Reforming “Realism”
First published in Socialist Review, Febuary 1960.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp.106-8.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive
Thanks to Ted Crawford.
If one essay to commune with thee, wilt thou be grieved?
I shan’t race Hughes  around the dirt-track of academic oneupmanship. He knows the circuit; I don’t. I find the fumes, the false starts, the furious scoring of points pointless. However, if any reader feels cheated of a spectacle, let him write in (s.a.e. to Bloodsports, c/o SR) for a comment on the subtleties of “if,” the dialectics of little “l” and big “L” and other matters pertaining to the debating standards of our protagonist.
Hughes sidesteps the issue. He throws in some standard quotations from Marx to refute an argument I did not use and ignores one that I did. There is no question of whether reforms are possible – “On the contrary,” I wrote, “they are palpably with us and have been for a long time” – nor whether they can he extracted from a capitalist state, but how? How do we squeeze more from a hostile system? How do we approach a hostile state? How? This is the cardinal question of the ’sixties.
Hughes approaches it “realistically”: he makes a Plan, peddles it in the labour movement and hopes, in all innocence, that the next Labour Government will implement it. Bless his heart, has he forgotten October 8 last year? or that Comrade Realism (unreasonable fellow!) demands a plan for the next five (or ten, or more) years of Tory rule as well? Or does Realism go so far as to bury workers’ demands throughout the Tory ice-age until, welcome the day, they burgeon splendiferous under Labour’s vernal sun?
Of course I agree with Hughes that the Movement should adopt a common plan to advance its interests; should impose such a plan on Capital; should use, if it can, the state to that end. But why stop there? If it’s no sooner said than done, let’s say something more than 3 per cent. Let’s say ... the 40-hour week, or ... equal pay, or ... the Brotherhood of Man, the Society of Equals, the ... the mind boggles at the possibilities.
Readers will excuse a poor, benighted “revolutionary romantic” for seeking refuge from such stark realism. With trepidation I advance the theory that Capital does not quake at the sight of a Plan, not even Hughes’; or that the Labour leadership needs more than the dulcet tones of professional persuasion to advance purposefully against the bastions of privilege. Plans are undoubtedly useful. They quicken the exercise of power. But they have substance only in terms of that power.
Let me spell this out: Plans can be had at bargain prices from every academic breast pocket. if they are to be socialist Plans they have to be able to command working-class support, they have to mesh in with the degree of conscious working-class activity, with tile current level of class struggle. To take Hughes’ example of the 10-hour day. it was, in the phrase he abuses from Marx, “the upshot of a prolonged class struggle.” It materialized not because the Plan was perfect but because it answered a felt need, therefore attracted mass support and even, at times, revolutionary enthusiasm.
But the state of class struggle – that struggle itself – is irrelevant for Hughes. Questions of power are not for him. The circumference of the Plan is his line of horizon.
Once again, take a look at it. Ignore, for the moment, the meanness of 3 per cent. All I ask is whether the Plan can conceivably be grafted on to the present working class scene. The labour movement is badly fragmented and localized. Boom, automation, rapid structural changes in the economy tend to keep it that way. in all conscience it is difficult enough to sustain what collective discipline remains, to keep “Jackery” at bay, without adding the complication of that snazzy blueprint and its blown up minutiae. Hughes’ Plan requires centralized direction and discipline, co-ordination of industrial and political action, makes sophisticated demands on intellect and moral principle – all in the name of ... 3 per cent. One-half of one per cent more than Lord Chandos offered bakshee! One per cent less than the figure suggested in a Fabian Research Pamphlet as a reasonable goal for the labour movement! (See NR 10, p 78). This is the stuff to fire the hearts of millions! Here’s a program indeed that will shake masses out of deepest apathy! Ah me, that I find such realism too strong a draught ...
If reforms need to be fought for and workers inspired to fight, the banner in the van will have to be more attractive than 3 per cent on a pale pink background. Much more attractive. But what? Is there an y one issue that could startle the Movement into moving? A “Seven Hour League” perhaps? (See Ken Coates in SR January). The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? (See EP Thompson in NR 9). 1 fear not. Issues there are in plenty, but the fragmentation of Labour is such as to make it extremely difficult for socialists to do more than keep the most tenuous links between them. A single national Plan is out; what’s in is the enlarging of the working class consciousness as it reveals itself on the segmented fronts of class struggle.
No one likes to retreat. No one likes to admit that the decadent, immoral and savage society we live in has achieved a Bomb-based stability which makes a socialist’s task harder. But we had better do so or we’ll find ourselves aping those demented “realists, Himmler and Rosenberg who, in the Winter of 1945, with their backs against the walls of Berlin, found time to quarrel about the fate of Moscow: should it or should it not be included in the rump of defeated Russia?
1. Ken Alexander and John Hughes appear as co-authors of the article Kidron and the Limits of Revolutionary Romanticism (New Reasoner 10, Autumn 1959). For reasons of convenience and because I hold the latter to be mainly responsible, I shall address myself to him alone. The article is in reply to mine The Limits of Reform (reprinted in the same issue of NR from Socialist Review, Mid-June, 1959) which, in its turn, dealt with Socialist Wages Plan, New Left Pamphlets, 1959.
Last updated on Last updated 21.5.2003