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Are right wing ideas all in our heads?

Right wing ideas run through society, even among those they don’t benefit. Simon Basketter asks where they come from—and how we can change them
Issue 2865
home secretary suella braverman illustrating an article about right wing ideas

Home secretary Suella Braverman pushes divide (Picture:  No 10 Downing Street)

Why do people hold right wing ideas? That there are racists and misogynists at the top of society makes sense.

They benefit from a system based on theft and oppression. Even if they don’t see it as a useful tool to divide and rule, it’s logical for them to uphold the values of the society they oversee.

Yet we have all met people who have no material reason to support the present system but will defend aspects of it—or even express its worst ideas. A simple example is that, ever since working class people won the vote, something like 20 percent have voted for the Tories. Why do they vote for a party that so clearly and consistently attacks their interests?

On a smaller scale, in recent months we have seen people protesting against the arrival of migrants. These mobilisations offer a wide variety of racist ideas to justify their actions.

For revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the ruling ideas in any society are “the ideas of the ruling class”. Importantly, that doesn’t mean they are the only ideas. It does mean the people at the top don’t leave the process to chance. They don’t just hope “the system” will produce backward ideas.

This is expressed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. The words are, “You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught, from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.

“You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven, or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

More prosaically, in the early 20th century Antonio Gramsci said institutions such as schools, the media and the family act as a “transmission belt” for ruling ideas. Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, said this helps the ruling class gain “hegemony”.

People’s opinions are shaped by their experience. For much of the time, the world of competition that the rich and capitalist media promote does seem common sense to most people.

So even most people who accept some socialist ideas also think that changes have to be made within the framework of the current system. This can sometimes rest on a view of people as brainwashed. On the right of the labour movement, people say we must argue to accept right wing arguments over migration because it’s what people think.

A linked flipped view among sections of the left also sees people as brainwashed by propaganda from the top. They say we either have to patronisingly educate people or give up on them entirely and look elsewhere for change.

But people are not sponges, nor donkeys looking for lions to lead them. Capitalism can leave us feeling powerless. We have no real control over the way society is run. Most of the important decisions are made by the ruling class. That’s one reason some people see change as only possible by electing nice people, if we can find some, to change things on our behalf.

Yet it is more fundamental than that. The vast majority of us make a living by agreeing to work for a small number of enormously wealthy people—the ruling class.

This labour process is fundamental to human life. But in this society our labour is controlled by an alien force—the capitalist. Marx wrote that, in a world free from class division, “My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.” While in this society, “My work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.”

That which should be most essential to our lives becomes a burden we must endure. Workers don’t just lose control of the labour process through alienation, the products of their labour also take on alien properties. The things, or commodities, we make are not our property but that of the boss.

They no longer meet our direct needs, only the needs of profit and the market. The basic building block of society under capitalism is obscured, hidden and lied about.

Alienation also affects the way humans relate to each other, as the productive relationships they enter into are subjected to capitalist domination. And humans are alienated from their very nature as humans. This can help explain why workers can accept reactionary ideas, such as racism or sexism, that run against their interests.

For the individual worker, with no alternative experience of how society can be organised, this set-up can seem natural. It can also leave us feeling isolated or atomised, in competition with other workers.

Pay cuts for workers and tax cuts for the rich can be justified if our jobs depend on how much profit our bosses can make. So can anti-migrant racism if it seems as if migrants threaten our jobs or services.

But people don’t all think the same way. And most don’t accept all right wing ideas in their entirety. That’s because our ideas aren’t just shaped by how society is organised, but also by our positions within it. It’s the reason the answer to the old jibe, “You wouldn’t be a socialist if you were a millionaire” is usually true.

A worker could be a trade unionist who would never cross a picket line. But if they become a manager, whose job is disciplining workers on behalf of the boss, their attitude to strikes will probably change. Some hope that by improving people’s conditions—with more jobs, better homes and higher wages, better housing—that reactionary ideas will simply melt away. 

But changing aspects of the material reality of people’s lives, while leaving the system intact, means divisive ruling ideas will still dominate. It’s when workers’ own struggles combine with those fighting oppression that we can really loosen that grip.

Our experiences run directly against the ideas that the ruling class wants us to accept. So there is a tension. Attitudes are in constant flux precisely because they contradict.

When people start to change the world, their ideas start to change with it. On strike people find themselves in a collective battle against the bosses. Then the ruling class’ ideas can begin to break down.  Racist and sexist ideas make less sense when black and white people, men and women, stand together against a common enemy. But the outcome is not automatic. Because people have contradictory ideas, they can hold on to the contradictions strongly. 

The act of striking does not in itself make reactionary ideas go away. Nor does conflict with the capitalist state make a revolution happen. For example, workers often come into conflict with the state when protesting or striking. As the cops protect the wealthy and its system, this can show that police don’t solve crime, but instead hit people for the bosses.

That does not automatically lead to a radical conclusion. Instead it can produce a belief that only concentrating on tackling the cops or trying to ignore the state altogether is the solution.

What there has to be overall is an argument. The divisions forced on us mean there is usually a minority of scabs and a minority of revolutionaries in the working class.

A minority of principled anti-racists and a minority of racists—with others in between. In any struggle there is a battle of ideas. The bigger the battle, the bigger the potential to row back reactionary ideas. The structural alienation and the commodification of labour of the system opens the door to acceptance of the ideas of the bosses.

Resistance to that at the point of work can also lay the basis of their defeat. That means two things. First is a constant, principled argument against reactionary ideas wherever they appear, even when we’re in a minority.

It’s not always popular to stand up for and alongside migrants, transgender people and others under attack. But it’s necessary and right—and also lays the basis for future struggle. 

Second, we have to fight to raise the level of struggle high enough so that we break the chains of the system where they are forged. As Marx and Engels saw, “Revolution is necessary 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.”

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