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How do our ideas change?

This article is over 8 years, 8 months old
It’s a common argument that socialists must accept some right wing ideas to get elected and make a difference. But Nick Clark argues that ideas can change through struggle
Issue 2472
Women insurance workers strike during the Egyptian Revolution
Women insurance workers strike during the Egyptian Revolution. (Pic: Socialist Worker)

One of the biggest criticisms thrown at Jeremy Corbyn is that his left wing politics will make the Labour Party unelectable. 

Voters will never accept left wing ideas, the argument runs. People don’t trust Labour to cut enough public services, keep enough migrants out, or slash enough benefits. So Labour must pitch to the right if it wants to win elections.

It’s no surprise that the loudest voices in this argument come from the right—particularly the right of the Labour Party. But some people on Corbyn’s side think it too.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones—a high-profile Corbyn supporter—argues that he needs a “broad-based message” to appeal to people with right wing ideas.

The problem with this is that it sees ordinary people as a homogeneous mass that will always accept racism, the need for austerity, and capitalism. They have to be either accommodated to or patronised—“love-bombed” as Jones puts it.

But people’s ideas are always changing and can change very rapidly, as recent events in solidarity with refugees show. Of course lots of people do have right wing ideas. 

And many will have voted for the Tories or even the racist Ukip party in May’s general election. But many people also support left wing ideas, such as nationalisation of the railways.

People often hold a mixture of different—often contradictory ideas—at the same time. So someone can demand more refugees be let into Britain but still accept the need for some of the immigration controls that keep them out.

Or someone may believe that we need anti-union laws to protect the public from disruptive strikes. But they can fully support a friend or a family member if they strike.

These contradictory ideas don’t come from nowhere. They have their basis in the way that society is organised and how we experience the world. 


Under capitalism, the vast majority us of make a living by agreeing to work for a small number of enormously wealthy people—the ruling class.

For the individual worker, with no alternative experience of how society can be organised, this set-up can seem natural.

And it can also leave us feeling isolated or atomised, in competition with other workers.

This lays the basis for right wing ideas, which the ruling class encourages through institutions such as the media, schools and political parties.

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.

And it can strike a chord when right wingers ask why should people on benefits receive money for doing nothing while others have to work?

Obviously, 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.

McDonald’s boss millionaire Steve Easterbrook will have a vastly different experience of the world than one of his employees on less than the Living Wage. 

So their ideas are also likely to be worlds apart. The same is true on a smaller level. A worker could be a trade unionist who would never cross a picket line.

But if she becomes a manager, whose job involves sacking and disciplining workers on behalf of her company, her attitude to strikes will probably change.

Often our experiences run directly against the ideas that the ruling class wants us to accept.


Politicians and the media have relentlessly blamed migrants for low wages, lack of jobs or strained public services for years.

This led to a rise in support for the racist Ukip party, which grew off the back of its anti-migrant politics.

Despite this, most people never accepted all of Ukip’s racism. 

And something changed with recent images of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean or living in shanty towns in places like Calais.

Tens of thousands of people marched to say refugees are welcome here. Many people organised to send aid to migrants living in Calais. Some people even offered to put migrants up in their homes.

The reality of the refugees’ suffering didn’t sit well with the anti-migrant rhetoric. But although ideas can change, reformism—the idea that the system can be changed to work in a way that better meets our needs—remains strong. 

So almost everyone wants to see some kind of change in society. But most people don’t think that it should—or even could—be fundamentally overhauled.

The revolutionary Karl Marx said capitalism leaves people feeling alienated.

People create societies. But they are organised in such a way that society can feel like an alien force with a life of its own.

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.

So it seems natural that if we want to see changes in society, we have to elect people to change things on our behalf. 


Many workers look to organisations such as the Labour Party to bring change because they lack confidence to take action themselves.

This can be the case even as people’s ideas begin to change very rapidly and they start to look for more radical solutions.

Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party is a perfect example.

Tens of thousands of people backed him because they are fed up with the way that society is run. 

And that mood goes far wider. Corbyn speaks to people’s anger and represents a sense of hope that things can be changed.

That’s why his election is a huge victory for anyone who’s serious about fighting for a better world—including revolutionaries.

But revolutionaries also have a very different approach to changing society. 

If workers confront the ruling class head on we can take control of society and run things for ourselves.

Most of the time revolutionaries are in a minority. But people’s ideas can change around this too. There are times when workers are brought into direct confrontation with the system.

When people go on strike, for example, they find themselves in a collective battle against the bosses. When this happens, 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.

When this happens, the conflict between workers on one hand and bosses on the other is laid bare. At the same time, people can begin to realise their strength and ability to organise and change things themselves.


This is particularly true during times of mass struggle or revolutionary upheaval. During the Egyptian revolution in 2011, people occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square had to organise to defend themselves from attacks from Mubarak’s regime.

There were discussions about the best way to do this. But people who were there also remember huge debates about the kind of society they could build together once the regime fell.

So when people start to change the world, their ideas start to change with it. One of the problems with simply looking to parliament to change things is that it can lead us away from this process. 

It relies on the idea that if we want to change things, we need to elect people to do it for us.

What’s more, the logic of elections is that politicians have to appeal to all sections of society to win votes. The pressure is to accommodate to right wing and ruling class ideas rather than challenging them.

That’s why it’s important for everyone who backs Corbyn to support him against the right. 

We should argue that he shouldn’t back down and compromise, but stick to his principles.

But it’s also why we need to build a movement outside parliament that can win the kind of change many Corbyn voters want to see.

Further reading…

  • The Point Is To Change It
     by John Molyneux, £7.00
  • The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx
    by Alex Callinicos, £9.99
  • Arguments for Revolution
    by Joseph Choonara and Charlie Kimber, £3.00
  • The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
    by Karl Marx

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to



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