Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and their close associates probably never expected to get where they’ve got now, where their words get the weight and attention due to the alternative government.
Many rank and file left-wing activists, too, have been surprised suddenly to find themselves in the centre of large left-wing meetings where ideas are discussed about changing the economy and society wholesale.
The whole view on life of socialists in the Marxist tradition is based on the conviction that recurrent socialistic upsurges are built in to the structure of capitalism, but that they will be defeated, deflected, or dissipated unless they can gain clarity and organisation. For us, the task of the hour is clearly indicated.
It is to stand up for socialism. To speak out for the idea that productive wealth should be owned and controlled by the community, to create a society of solidarity, equality, and creative freedom.
Socialist ideas have been marginalised for a quarter of a century. The tainting of those ideas by the Stalinist counterfeit gradually undermined them. Then the fact that the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR led to a garish triumph of capitalism demoralised many. Since then rapid capitalist restructurings of industry on a global scale have kept the labour movement off balance. And kept many socialists off balance, too: it has become common for socialists, day to day, to limit themselves to agitating only defensively.
The crash of 2008, and its gloomy sequels, have battered capitalist triumphalism. “Socialism” was the most-consulted word in 2015 on the USA’s biggest dictionary website, Merriam Webster. Thomas Piketty’s 700-page book Capital in the 21st Century described by its author as “soft Marxism”, became a best-seller when published in 2013, and is still no.3 in Amazon’s Economics: Theory and Philosophy category. (No.2 is Woodfin’s Introducing Marxism). Marx’s Capital sells many more than before 2008: when first published in 1867, it took five years to sell a thousand copies in Germany, and 20 years to get translated into English.
Milton Friedman, one of the main theorists of neoliberalism, was an isolated figure for decades. He kept plugging away. And then, suddenly, at the end of the 1970s, he had governments listening. Friedman commented: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around... Our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”.
There’s something of the same with socialists. The difference is that neoliberal ideas were imposed by rapacious elites on populations demoralised and atomised by military coups (as in Chile), union-busting, and so on. Socialist ideas can be made reality only by the bulk of the working class coming to understand them, develop them as their own, and to fight for them. That process starts with the opinion-formers, the activists, becoming convinced and keen to speak out.
That is why Workers’ Liberty has published our new book, Can Socialism Make Sense?, and why we are launching a campaign round it under the banner “Stand up for socialism”. The campaign has three planks.
First, to mobilise ourselves and our friends and close comrades to study the book, discuss it, and become fluent and confident, not just in disputing cuts or arguing trade union issues, but in advocating a different society and answering the objections. (“What about Russia? What went wrong there? Doesn’t human nature make socialism impossible?”)
Second, taking the book out to others, interested in socialism but not yet convinced or confident — convincing them to study it and discuss with us — mobilising as many as possible of them in turn to take the book and its ideas out to yet others.
And, third, convincing as many as possible to become organised activists with us. Precisely because socialism must be made from “below”, the struggle for socialism calls for an open, active, democratic, coherent, disciplined organisation of socialists. The struggle cannot be won by diffuse ideological influence, or by string-pulling, or by “winning positions”, with the rank and file left unorganised, or organised only on limited-issue or short-term bases.
We can no more win socialism by individuals being active, each one on her or his own, than a workforce can win better wages and conditions by each worker complaining one by one.