Socialist Worker

Staring reality in the face

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2606

The TUC’s recent demonstration was smaller than it should have been. Marxists must understand why and fight to change it

The TUC’s recent demonstration was smaller than it should have been. Marxists must understand why and fight to change it (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Historically low levels of strikes, numbers on demonstrations smaller than similar ones a year ago, and years of Tory austerity—it’s enough to get any socialist down.

But at the same time the Labour Party is at its most left wing for a generation. Progressive politics have an audience and are passionately held by a significant section of the population. Socialist ideas are back as part of regular political debate.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that revolutionaries must stare reality in the face and find ways to push the class struggle forward. He borrowed the phrase, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” to deal with the problem.

As a phrase it is a powerful warning against wishful thinking. And at the same time a cry against resignation. It proposes a determined, open-eyed engagement.

Marx put it like this, “Men make their own history but they do not make it just as they please they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.”

So what’s the job of socialists?

Reflecting the mood around us shows that we are in touch, but it is never enough to just reflect.

Socialists should try and change the mood of the working class—not by being optimistic when the class struggle goes well and pessimistic when it goes badly.

Sometimes revolutionaries are accused of being too optimistic. The argument runs, “I wish I could believe in revolution but it will never happen.” We’re also accused of being too pessimistic. “What do you mean a Labour government would be like Syriza in Greece?”

Guillotine

Of course the temptation is to do one or the other. But it doesn’t work just to be optimistic. Socialists can’t just charge at the police lines at the royal wedding and expect workers to set up a guillotine.

And it isn’t just impatient people who want to ignore the need for pessimism of the intellect.

Most supporters of the Labour Party are perennial optimists of the intellect because they want to forget awkward facts. They want to forget the ways in which the system limits their actions.

Socialists must fight to increase the size and militancy of strikes and demonstrations

Socialists must fight to increase the size and militancy of strikes and demonstrations (Pic: Guy Smallman)


But the other risk is to have no optimism. Saying that Labour has always been and will always be rubbish is not much of a guide to action.

Things change. John McDonnell last week said he would be on the picket lines of the PCS union. A statement common for McDonnell but rare indeed for Labour shadow chancellors. When Diane Abbott spoke out against the Tories’ “hostile environment” for migrants it stood out against the years of Labour bowing to racist myths and tropes.

There were socialists before the First World War who argued that, since the capitalist system was to blame, any changes that ameliorated the brutality of the system were irrelevant or even harmful. That was pessimism of the will in the extreme.

So today’s limited resistance to ten years of austerity pushed by the Tories is no argument for not fighting. Noting that Labour has yet to promise to reverse the cuts is no reason not to welcome Labour onto a picket line.

Nor is it out of place to have real concern about what Labour’s terror of being seen as too soft on migrants or crime will mean when they are office.

Labour isn’t a substitute for the real lack of picket lines in general, and specifically a shortage of picket lines being used to shut down workplaces. That’s what strikes are for—workers smashing the bosses’ profits. If the workplace is still functioning the strike’s effectiveness is limited.

The shift leftwards at the top of the Labour Party reflects the strength of left wing ideas. But it is also a reflection of people’s lack of confidence in their own ability to change the world.

The idea that if we can get Corbyn in it will be OK is understandable, but it encourages passivity.

Everything that encourages our side’s confidence to resist should be encouraged, everything that reduces that confidence should be opposed.

In the case of the union leaders, who initially opposed Corbyn, this passivity is a blessing. They rely on enough members to pay their inflated wages and allow them to negotiate with the bosses.

They are deeply hostile to workers’ self-activity as it undermines their hold over the union structures and position. If the rank and file can decide the outcome of the strike who needs the union apparatus?

The bureaucracy has traditionally argued for waiting for a Labour government rather than resisting. And when Labour is in office, it argues for inaction to stop rocking the boat in case Labour loses an election.

This formula is being repeated currently. Of course for the bureaucracy the motions must be gone through—such as the TUC demo earlier this month. It managed to be about everything and nothing and did not attract anywhere near the potential numbers of people hurt by the current crisis.

Emancipate

But the reasons for ­passivity are deeper than Len McCluskey’s ego or even his class position. As well as writing that workers had to emancipate themselves Marx also wrote that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

He didn’t just mean that the ruling class engage in the succession of tricks—rather that from cradle to grave, the ruling class fights for its interpretation of experience.

As part of that Marx wrote, “Social relations between men themselves assume here for them the fantastic form of a relationship between things.” Capitalism tries to hide its exploitation and oppression. And it always employs men with big sticks to enforce that vision if hiding it doesn’t work.

Capitalism encourages passivity. But crucially, because it is based on exploitation, resistance is inevitable. The question is what direction that resistance moves in.

That’s why every grumble against the system should be pointed towards resistance. Every protest should be pushed to be more militant. And every racist made afraid again is a step forward.

Every small strike should be fought to be a bigger strike and controlled by striking workers. Linking up struggles and broadening them means that each new resistance doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Blurred

The Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote, “Every strike reminds the capitalist that it is the workers and not they who are the real masters.”

Strikes project a blurred vision of workers’ power. With a big long strike the vision becomes clearer, and with more rank and file control the vision becomes clearer still.

We need more than token demonstrations - we need real demonstrations of working class power

We need more than token demonstrations - we need real demonstrations of working class power (Pic: Guy Smallman)


There are more links in the chain between strikes and workers’ power.

But seeing the end of the chain as workers’ power shapes how you act. Workers taking power is meant to be taken literally. No group, including the Socialist Workers Party, can take power on behalf of workers.

The basic principle of revolutionary socialism is socialism from below. The job of socialists is to fight to encourage that change.

Everything that encourages our side’s confidence to resist should be encouraged, everything that reduces that confidence should be opposed.

Even small victories are important. Everything that improves workers’ lives under capitalism, however small, is worth fighting for. But it is also how we learn that we are fit to change the word.

The experience of victory can be repeated. The lesson of defeats can be learnt.

Marx argued that, “The alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution—the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

That is not a call to passivity but to activity.

It is also a call for a revolutionary political organisation to build resistance and fight for a socialist future.


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