Somebody said to me last week that they could not remember such awful times. They were referring specifically to the unfolding disaster in Gaza and the lack of a clear political alternative at the ballot box in the UK. To that we could add the fact that the climate emergency seems to have slipped so far down the political agenda that it is now virtually invisible.

As socialists we are used to being in a minority and also used to feeling that the world is spinning out of our control. But are things, objectively, worse now than they were a year ago, five years ago or a decade ago?

Two years ago, when Critical Mass was just starting out, I wrote an article called ‘The Prospects for Socialism’. In that article I made a point I have made on numerous occasions: “Politics is too often reduced to a focus on short-term changes in the political classes. In other words, we spend far too much time worrying about elections.” It seems particularly apt to revisit that idea because, with an American Presidential election on the horizon and a UK General Election imminent, the focus on electoral politics will ensure that politics will be reduced to who wins and by how much. As if that really matters. 

Do we think that for people being obliterated by Israeli missiles in Gaza it matters one jot who is in the White House? Or whether Keir Starmer achieves his ambition of becoming British Prime Minister?

The fact is that on the biggest issues, the ones that really matter, changing the person at the top rarely means anything other than ‘business as usual’.

In concluding my review of the prospects for socialism in 2021 I said: “Nothing that has happened in our recent past has done anything other than deepen the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism. The progress of democratic forms across the globe (admittedly with some setbacks such as Afghanistan), the development of modern infrastructure, the advances in science and technology – all point to the fact that the transition to socialism is not only possible, but desirable.” 

But this was based on an analysis that the working class would inevitably be drawn into conflict with the capitalist class and that this would result in a victory for socialism. Is this optimism still justified? The first thing to say in response to that is that two years is a very short time in a political cycle. The working class has not disappeared and the inherent power they have has not diminished. We have seen glimpses in both the UK and USA in recent months, as striking workers have been rewarded with better pay and conditions. Solidarity still matters.

If socialists were able to look beyond the immediate and concentrate on the longer-term prospects, then perhaps the pessimism that pervades our movement might be lessened.

Some people will argue that they are far from pessimistic. Those who recently attended the Transform Conference which decided to launch yet another left-leaning political party in the UK will be full of optimism. 

We do not yet know whether Transform will outperform TUSC at the next election, but it is highly unlikely they will dent the massive Labour lead. That lead, incidentally, is based less on an enthusiasm for Labour than the fact that disaffected Tories intend to stay at home. A recent focus group reported on Labour List made this damning indictment of Starmer: “When asked to describe the Labour leader, views ranged from “self-centred” and “untrustworthy” to “flaky”, “indistinct”, “pathetic” and a “slimeball”.”

But, in reality, it really does not matter. Whether it is a Tory in blue or one in red, the point is that nothing changes through the electoral system. Or, at least, nothing of any lasting consequence. Ha, I hear you say, you are dismissing the great victories of the past. The Great Reform Act which extended the franchise, women’s emancipation, even the welfare state and the NHS are often cited as examples of what the Labour Party can do when in office. But this or that reform, whilst important to fight for, does very little to change the nature of the beast.

If the welfare state was such a magnificent victory, then how come it is constantly undermined today? If the NHS was Labour’s greatest achievement, why does it seem like a shell of its past? Reforms are given under two conditions. First, economic upturn. The system has to be able to afford them. Second, a strong labour movement. Nothing is ever given without mass workers’ struggles demanding them. Neither are particularly true today. And, whilst we obsess about how to vote, we are in danger of turning our backs on the very real suffering of our Palestinian comrades.

Of course, as true as that is, whilst we are obsessing over Gaza, we are also forgetting that the planet veers closer and closer to a disaster that will make that particular death count look minimal in comparison. Gaza is immediate, it is in front of us and is so clearly an injustice that it is hard to ignore. And I am not suggesting we do. 

But we must retain our perspective. Whilst we march and advocate for a ceasefire and a lasting peace in the Middle East, we must continue to seek a lasting peace in the rest of the world too. The danger is that we just move from one defensive strategy to the next. We are so desperate to just stand still for a moment that we forget about moving forward. And we cannot move forward unless we take a much wider view of what is happening than just focussing on whatever disaster is unfolding before our eyes.

So how will that work? I’m not suggesting we stop supporting Gaza in any way we can, or that we take no interest at all in the elections. What I am suggesting is that we do not lose sight of our ultimate goal: the transformation of society. Whilst arguing for a lasting peace in the Middle East is important, and watching the Conservative Party implode is fun, neither are steps towards the future we both want and need. 

And that in a paragraph is what has paralysed the socialist movement for decades. It was summed up by the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein in the phrase with which he admonished Rosa Luxemburg: “To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” He elaborated on this saying: “Practical political socialism which places near aims in front of distant ones”. In other words, we should regard ultimate aims as something to aspire to, but meanwhile the practical job of politics is to obtain real reforms in the here and now. Sadly, generations of socialists have, albeit unknowingly, followed his advice. It is not just that fighting for reforms is a diversion from fighting for ultimate ambition, but rather that the ultimate goal is to remain forever a distant aspiration.

Evidence of this is seen in the Labour Party debate over Clause IV Part IV which famously began: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

This formulation, which explicitly avoids mentioning socialism, was adopted in 1918, proposed by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. But, having adopted these fine sounding words, the party, more importantly the majority of its members, ignored it until 1995 when the soon-to-be war criminal Tony Blair decided that even an abstract distant aspiration was too radical for his Labour Party. He needn’t have worried. Most Labour activists saw it clearly as a distant aspiration not a statement of intent. And that remained the case even during the Corbyn era, even if there was slightly more enthusiasm for nationalisation which was the way in which common ownership was defined. And still is.

The point is this. Did the oppressed peoples of the world hold parties in 1918 at the promise in the Labour Party manifesto? Did they care that in 1995 it no longer existed? Of course not. They cared that they were poor and oppressed. They still do.

Socialism is not to be found in grand sounding words written in constitutions. It is to be found in the everyday lives of ordinary people. In their troubles, in their misery and, yes, in their joy too. But mainly in their solidarity.

It is the job of socialists not simply to rail against these conditions, but to understand them. It is our role not to just sympathise with those who are dealt an unfair hand, neither is it our job to spend our energy asking for a better deal. It is our job to analyse and to understand. 

It is our job not simply to allow our emotions to guide us, but to use our intellect. The entirety of the capitalist propaganda machine is against us. That means we need better argument and more compelling reasons for people to support us. That ultimate goal gives us the prospect for that. Devoid of that we are simply shouting slogans that mean little to most people. The truth is that for most people politics is a diversion from living their lives. But when they need to, ordinary people discover that they can do little on their own. Only solidarity with others brings any chance of taking on the system. In that solidarity is the opportunity to build wider alliances. But to do that we need to be more than paper sellers, we need to be able to engage with people as equals. 

We cannot& prescribe solidarity as the panacea to the world’s ills. Neither can we predict when solidarity in a particular cause will become something bigger. Something more than the sum of its parts. it is why socialism remains so elusive, so difficult.

But this much I know. Socialism, at least as I understand it, is no threat to democracy, it is the realisation of democracy. It is no threat to equality, it is the only hope for equality. It is no threat to difference. It is the only way in which difference can be celebrated. It is no threat to freedom. For your freedom, my freedom is contingent upon the freedom of our neighbours, whether those neighbours are in the next house or the next country or the next continent. A global system that relies on exploitation has become accepted as ‘the norm’. There is nothing normal about a system that enriches a few, whilst leaving others with absolutely nothing. 

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