A recent article by Caitlin Johnstone was raised in the Critical Mass Readers and Writers Group (you can join the group by subscribing to CM and following the link in our newsletter). Her main point was that the genuine left, by which she means, ‘real socialists, communists and anarchists who oppose capitalism and imperialism and seek the drastic, revolutionary changes this civilisation urgently needs,’ are such a tiny minority that our main priority should be creating more leftists instead of debating obscure points of theory with each other. We should be ‘reaching out to people, winning hearts and minds.’ Caitlin ends by inviting others on the left to address this issue and offer ways forward. So here goes:
There is one significant omission from Caitlin’s article: the working class. If there are so few of us socialists, who should we be reaching out to? Whose hearts and minds matter the most? As a lifelong socialist, I hold to the idea that, no matter how dominant the ideas of capitalism have become, when we strike to defend our jobs, our wages, and our working conditions, that is when we are most open to socialist ideas, and any socialist worth their salt should place the class struggle at the heart of their politics.
From this it follows that, when class struggle is at a low ebb, creating socialists becomes a lot harder. The pull of ruling class ideas becomes so much stronger when working class resistance is on the wane. In these periods of downturn, just keeping socialists, never mind making more, is quite an achievement. We are beginning to emerge from just such a period of downturn that began with the Thatcher-Reagan alliance and has lasted over 40 years.
The habits of debate that Caitlin berates us for are not an indulgence. They were a necessary survival mechanism at a time when capitalist ideology was ascendant and socialists were being pulled to the right. The crisis within capitalism is opening up the cracks in that ideology and provoking a serious fightback within the working class. It is very unevenly expressed around the world; but, within the UK, at least mass strikes are providing a serious challenge to the system and opening up opportunities for socialists — like the teach-in on Julian Assange led by John Rees on a UCU picket line.
We have been here before. Socialists were side-lined by the post war boom in the 1950s and 60s, which suggested that capitalism had resolved its contradictions, and even those who remained unconvinced were looking away from the working class towards Third World anti-colonial struggles to provide capitalism’s nemesis. The genuine socialist left was really tiny and insignificant. It was very hard to keep the the faith.
Chris Harman described how:
“This was true in America of the Marxists, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, whose book Monopoly Capital (1964) concluded that the working class in the advanced capitalist countries no longer constituted any threat to capitalism; such threats as there were lay with the former colonial countries of the ‘third world’. It was true of the dissident sociologist C Wright Mills, who saw students and intellectuals – not workers – as a possible agency of change. It was true of the French theorist of the ‘new working class’, Andre Gorz, who declared in an article written in early 1968 that ‘in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes.'”
Almost immediately after Gorz wrote this, the May Events in France in 1968 gave rise to the biggest general strike in the history of the world, accompanied by factory occupations and mass demonstrations that mobilised millions of workers and students. The radical left did not foresee this — we certainly did not create it — it grew out of the emerging crisis of capitalism at the time. Our acid test was how we responded to it; and those groups on the left who had retained a focus on the centrality of the working class generally responded better than those who were tempted by the ideas of Baran, Sweezy, Wright Mills and Gorz.
The working class is central to socialist politics because our labour is the source of the capitalists’ wealth. Whenever capitalism is in crisis, its only answer is to squeeze the working class. Working class resistance is essentially defensive, as in the current strike wave to protect our jobs, wages, and conditions; but, in times of severe crisis, the working class can transcend the economic struggle and express its collective strength using revolutionary mass strikes to demand political change that is inimical to capitalism. In these titanic struggles between capital and labour, the intermediary classes feel trapped in the middle. Winning their support is important for the revolution — but their compromised position within capitalism means they can never be the main engine of change.
I am also uneasy about the tone of Caitlin’s piece, especially when she writes:
“The first and foremost priority of the western left should be to create more western leftists. You don’t do that by having all the correct opinions and reading all the correct books and proving yourself the most correct in argument after argument, and you don’t do it by waiting for western material conditions to deteriorate like a bunch of fundamentalists awaiting the Rapture. You do it by reaching out to people, winning hearts and minds, showing them that everything they’ve been taught about their nation and their world is a lie, and showing them that things can be better.”
In response, I suggest that our foremost priority is to show solidarity with all those who are fighting back. Of course we want to create more socialists, but on what basis? If you are not reading and debating with fellow socialists, how can you persuade other people to join us? And telling people that everything they believe is wrong sounds every bit as preachy as the fundamentalism she berates. Perhaps we should take another step back in history to William Morris, who saw his political task as making socialists. He went about it in a number of ways:
Morris came to socialism via his role as a craftsman working with skilled artisans. He was appalled by the conditions of workers in the factory system. His pamphlet, ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’, extolled the virtue of labour for its own sake and attacked its degradation under capitalism. His participation in marches against unemployment, that were brutally suppressed by the police and the army, convinced Morris that revolution and not reform was the only route to socialism and that, although middle class socialists like himself should be welcomed, the struggle for socialism was first and foremost the struggle of the working class.
He grappled with the theory, reading Das Kapital in a French translation because no English version was yet available. He put his money where his mouth was, funding socialist newspapers like the Commonweal. He wrote pamphlets and stood on a soap box on street corners. He was arrested on demonstrations. He made speeches that engaged with people’s own experiences and understanding, rather than discounting them. If he had a weakness, it was probably his naïve approach to building a socialist organisation.
This points to my final question for Caitlin Johnstone and for us all — whether you call it creating leftists or making socialists, what do you do with the people you successfully persuade? Agree with us and subscribe to our newsletter (something that both we, at Critical Mass, and Caitlin advocate)? What next? Is there a preferred party that all socialists should join? If not, how should we go about building one?
I think we are going to need a lot more reading and writing, discussing and debating, before we can answer these questions. In the meantime, showing solidarity with workers in struggle, listening and learning from them while sharing the insights we have gleaned from our own history of struggle, and privileging dialogue over diatribe in our discussions, should be our watchwords.
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Uncommitted member of the Labour Party. Will they expel me before my direct debit expires?