In response to Part One of this series, Nigel Thomas wrote: “The problem facing the revolutionary left is splits, arguing over theories, tactics, leadership cults and historical events, none of them lived through? We should be regrouping around a simple programme, mutual aid, education and a central publication. Local socialists must get together, talk together, and act together. Corbyn proved there are 500,000 people willing to join a socialist movement, there are thousands of us isolated and alone.”
Regrouping is not quite as simple as Nigel suggests. The history of the left gives us plenty of examples. We come together around very specific campaigns, then split over the way forward. Being on the left does not indicate anything but a shared anti-capitalist agenda. And sometimes not even that. But it is not all doom and gloom, as we saw in Part 1, as socialism offers a way of living that is more closely attuned to how people say they would like to live. Or does it?
Ipsos-MORI ran a series of surveys from 1988 onward that asked people to choose between diametrically opposed positions. The results are not as overwhelmingly in favour of socialism as we might hope. Asked to choose between a society in which collective welfarism was counterposed to an individualist society in 1988, 55% chose the collectivist option. By 2012 that had fallen to 41%. Now, of course, 10 years have passed since the last time that question was asked, and these have been 10 momentous years in which we have faced Covid, climate emergency and now economic catastrophe.
During the early stages of the pandemic (which is still ongoing), the clash of individualist and collectivist approaches to public health became apparent with some catastrophic results for countries who score high on individualist indexes. I should point out that there is no perfect correlation indicating that countries with a more collectivist orientation had the lowest death rates, but the death rates amongst countries with the most individualist orientation make interesting reading. The USA, for example, which scores 96 on the individualist index had a death rate per 100k population of 338.39. Thailand, with an individualist score of 20, had a death rate of 44.14. The UK, with an individualist score of 89, had a death rate of 329.81. Japan, with an individualist score of 46, had a death rate of 52.15. As stated, it is not a perfect correlation: New Zealand has a high individualist score but a low death rate. In other words, an individualist orientation does not cause a low death rate, but the attitudes associated with individualism made a higher death rate more likely.
Individualism is a philosophy closely linked to libertarianism. Whilst libertarians tend to be right wing, there are left-wing brands of libertarianism which emphasise the power of individuals to make decisions free from government interference.
Many of those who campaigned against public health restrictions, which were imposed to counter the spread of Covid, did so in the name of freedom. Often they wanted an individual freedom not to wear a mask, or not to have a vaccination and to be able to go where they wanted when they wanted. Outside of a pandemic all of these are reasonable demands. And for this reason many socialists were sympathetic to their aims. Even with a pandemic raging, when a Tory government introduced restrictions on their ability to go about their daily lives, they couldn’t see much beyond “Tory government”.
Since the pandemic restrictions, measures imposed by local authorities with a view to reducing carbon emissions have met with similar cries of disapproval wrapped up in the rhetoric of freedom. One such scheme currently being trialled in Oxford has been labelled a “climate lockdown” and one Facebook page opposing the scheme has claimed that it “confines residents to their local neighbourhood and requires them to ask permission to leave.” In fact it does no such thing, but it does restrict the use of cars on six major roads as a means “to reduce traffic levels and congestion, make the buses faster and more reliable, and make cycling and walking safer and more pleasant”.
Local residents, led by local businesses, have claimed that this is an attack on their ‘right’ to freedom of movement. But it is more an attack by those who oppose any changes which impact on them personally even though they could well be in the interests of wider society. Most socialists will not be throwing their lot in with groups boasting the support of Katie Hopkins, but some who live in Oxford will be ambivalent about having these environment-saving plans imposed on them.
A recent Opinions and Lifestyle Survey conducted by the ONS found that, whilst 75% of those surveyed were worried about climate change, 81% claimed to have made lifestyle changes. The more worried a person was, the more likely to make changes. For those who had made no changes (19%) the reasons were fairly evenly spread between those who did not believe any changes they made would have an impact, those who thought big polluters should change first, those who thought supporting the environment was too expensive and those who claimed they did not know how to make meaningful changes.
Faced with the most devastating scenario possible – the extinction of our species – people are still arguing about whether it is worth doing anything at all. Worse still people oppose the bigger changes that impact directly on them. Socialists might occasionally find themselves in a minority on these issues but the time for tinkering has passed. Without major and far reaching changes, there will simply be no human life left.
Yet many socialists still blame individual governments – generally their own, unless it’s America – for the world’s woes. We find common cause with extreme individualists if they are anti-government or anti-big corporation.
That is one of the issues that ‘socialists’ have: it is far easier to be against things than it is to be for them. At least it is easier to react to the bad things being done by government than to provide a plausible account of what life would be like in the future socialist society.
‘There is no blueprint’ is an oft-repeated defence of those who assert that socialism is the answer but are reluctant to say exactly how. That, frankly, is a cop-out and leaves socialism to mean all things to all people, and, ultimately, to mean nothing at all.
So we content ourselves with protesting against bad laws and bad decisions and, if we are for anything at all, it is for better conditions under capitalism. It leads us inexorably to a pragmatic, practical socialism where we move seamlessly from one campaign to the next, convincing ourselves we are making progress.
Is there an answer to all this? A vision of socialism that goes beyond ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. Whilst Marx’s famous dictum sounds great, it offers no sense of how housing will be allocated under socialism or food or healthcare. How exactly will we decide what is your ‘ability’ and who does the deciding?
After something like 200 years of socialist agitation we are still stuck in a familiar dichotomy of ‘reform or revolution’; a belief that you must choose one or the other, and that whichever it is means that those who choose the other are less pure, less committed, less practical.
In truth, of course, we do have 200 years of experience to study and understand, 200 years of reforms with a couple of revolutions thrown in for good measure. What have we learned?
Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that neither reform nor revolution has seen off capitalism. It is, if nothing else, amazingly resilient. But whereas capitalism ensures we remember all its victories it encourages us to forget ours. Of course to the victors go the spoils, and capitalism has been on a roll but the result is that each generation of socialists starts with a blank sheet. It means we have to make the same mistakes, and have the same arguments, over and over and over.
So, when people say they favour socialism over capitalism, they are not saying I prefer the direct democracy of the Paris Commune over parliamentary representative democracy, or the workers’ councils that ran the shipyards of Petrograd over the bureaucratic management of state-owned British Rail. People do not draw on the genius of the Lucas Plan as an example of the imaginative intellect of ordinary workers or point to the idealism that inspired Toussaint L’Ouverture as he led the slaves to freedom. These are not our reference points. For the self-styled ‘revolutionary left’ it remains Russia and the Bolsheviks, but even that now seems discredited by events. But why should the Russian Revolution be any more discredited than the genocide and mass kidnapping of Africans to work American plantations discredit capitalism?
In short, capitalism whitewashes (certainly in the case of African slavery) its own past. Marx and Engels once wrote: “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.”
In other words, the ruling class controls not only the means by which we produce our subsistence (and all the other commodities we consume) but also the way in which we propagate ideas from printing presses to the mass media to schools. It’s not all one-way traffic. There has always been a socialist press. Marx wrote for the Rheinische Zeitung, the Bolsheviks had Iskra managed by Lenin in exile and the Communist Party of Great Britain at its zenith in the 1930s had the Daily Worker, the forerunner of the Morning Star. But the circulation of these papers was miniscule compared to the papers of the ruling classes, who not only owned printing presses but the means to disseminate their ideas widely (often through the pulpit, or what we now call television).
The internet and World Wide Web have allowed a digital revolution where alternative papers and a plethora of blogs can present an alternative to the mainstream. Critical Mass is one such response. Set up to counter the dominant media and provide a home for radical, non-dogmatic political journalism. But let’s be honest our reach is not very long. Whilst the tentacles of the capitalist media extend into every household one way or another, we can reach just a handful of people who broadly agree with us to start with.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.