Chris Harman


The very idea of it

(January 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Rival rulers put forward rival versions of the ruling ideology – and made it easier for the mass of the population to develop ideas of their own’

Most conventional political analysts at the end of last year were predicting a future in which the advance of the pro-market, neo-Thatcherite right continued unchecked. Nothing, they claimed, could stop the advance of the Portillo-Howard-Lilley axis, especially since Kenneth Clarke had acceded to much of their approach but wrapped it in a package which provided a basis for a restoration of Tory Party unity.

The Tory right themselves are confident enough to insist that they ‘hold the ideological high ground’ and that nothing can shake them.

Strangely enough, a fair section of the left accept a similar perspective. This is not just true of the Labour Party leadership but of many to the left of it. Some who believed that the revolt against the pit closure programme in the autumn of 1992 was a turning point have concluded that the government’s ability to survive that revolt means the turning point will never come. They begin to ask, ‘won’t workers always fall for the bosses’ lies?’

But both the right wing triumphalists and the left wing pessimists fail to ask themselves the simple question as to why half a century ago both conservative and social democrat parties throughout the world felt compelled to promise the very things they are now taking away – full employment, unemployment benefits, pensions, free health services, subsidised public housing and trade union rights.

It was because ruling classes everywhere had recent experience of how the bitterness of the exploited classes could threaten the continuation of existing society. The orthodoxy became that capitalism could only survive if governments mitigated the effects of the markets on the lives of the mass of people. As the young Tory MP Quintin Hogg (now the ageing Tory peer Lord Hailsham) put it, ‘if you don’t give the people reform, they will give you revolution’.

This remained the orthodoxy right through the 1950s and 1960s. Mainstream commentators ascribed the victory of the Tories in three consecutive elections to winning the votes of the ‘affluent workers’. A Fabian Society pamphlet claimed that semi-detached houses complete with garden gnomes had ‘embourgeoisified’ groups like car workers. Even in the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections, the Tory victory was supposed to be due to economic policies that won over the skilled workers, foremen and the manual self employed.

The reality was much more complex but it is true that the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1980s all saw small rises in the real take home wages of employed workers and rises in total public expenditure. People’s attitudes were a result not just of ideology, but of material reality.

This is not what the neo-Thatcherite right offer today. Indeed, it is what governments right across Europe are turning their backs on. They are all insisting on ‘greater international competitiveness’ to be brought about by ‘greater labour flexibility’, ‘working harder’, ‘wage restraint’ and ‘deregulation of hours’.

In the 1950s, the 1960s and even the 1980s bourgeois commentators used to pour scorn on Marx because he had, they claimed, predicted ‘absolute immiseration’ and an increase in ‘absolute surplus value’ – that is, workers would get poorer and have to work longer. In the 1990s governments internationally are calling for both!

This in itself does not mean there is going to be an automatic swing away from right wing ideas in the years ahead. In any society the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. People who are brought up in a certain sort of society take it for granted, if only because they have known no other. And they are bombarded all the time with apologies for this society, since the class that controls the means of production also controls the major means of propagating ideas.

So in ancient Egypt those who toiled from dawn to dusk accepted for much of the time that the pharaohs who lived off their backs were gods. In medieval Europe serfs went to church to extol not merely God, but also the abbots, kings and lords who were his representatives on earth. Yet in neither case did this prevent society being torn apart by enormous conflicts once the the existing economic system ran out of steam.

The response of the ruling classes to such periods of endemic crisis is particularly relevant today. It was, characteristically, to try to increase the level of exploitation of the mass of the population. But this could not do away with the causes of the crisis. Nor could it stop growing rifts within the ruling class itself as each section tried to offload its problems on to other sections. Rival rulers put forward rival versions of the ruling ideology – and, in the process, made it easier for the mass of the population to begin to develop ideas of their own. What had been stable societies broke down into long periods of civil wars and mass revolts.

This is the path capitalist governments are following today. Even capitalism’s most adamant supporters recognise that the advanced Western countries are in a period of endemic crisis. As a result they are undertaking measures which only a couple of decades ago would have been decried as lunacy. And they are doing so at a time when members of the ruling class itself are at each others’ throats.

That is why the picture of the last year has not just been one of an international move to the right by ruling classes. It has also been of splits in ruling classes, of sections suddenly turning the ideological apparatuses at their control against other sections, and of sudden unexpected upsurges of revolt from below: in Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and Belgium.

Of necessity the first revolts from below are shortlived. Those taking part are only just beginning to experience what it is to fight back. Most of them are certainly not yet ready to reject the ruling ideology in its entirety. They are hesitant to continue action they have started and tentative in the conclusions they draw. And their bitterness can lead many to listen to the racist right rather than the socialist left. But the revolts are symptomatic of a whole system in crisis, and are not going to disappear.

The question is not whether existing ‘consensus’ will break down, but what alternatives are available to people as they begin to question it – whether there is a minority of activists in every locality and workplace putting forward socialist arguments.

Last updated on 17 December 2009