Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Danger: opportunists at work (1986)

From the September 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

With friends like the National Front, who needs enemies like Rupert Murdoch? Print union pickets at Wapping were recently embarrassed by a gift of NF publicity stickers with the message:
Six thousand sacked by an American. Are you British? We’ll keep our newspapers British.
Just what might be expected of the National Front - attaching themselves leech-like to somebody else’s struggle in order to spread their nationalist propaganda, denying the internationalism of working-class interests by telling us that only foreign employers are greedy enough to try to protect their profits through giving British workers the sack. Disgusting, you might call it.

But what about the comments which Neil Kinnock made to the Sogat conference on 11 June:
If someone wishes to own the means of communication in a country they should at least have the commitment of citizenship in the country. Such a law on ownership would be fair, practical and constructive.
The Labour leader was, of course, attacking Murdoch — a “naturalised American” who applies “intercontinental ballistic management”. In rather more words than the NF used (not for nothing is he known as the Welsh Windbag) Kinnock was agreeing with the fascists that the nationality of an employer is crucial in a dispute and that there is some advantage to the workers in ensuring that only British capitalists should own British newspapers.

Does this mean that Kinnock, who has moved steadily from left wing to right under the wrathful observation of his early admirers, is now a fascist? Or that the National Front, wracked by one internal feud after another, is trying to dissolve itself into the Labour Party? There is another, simpler, explanation. Both Kinnock and the NF are practising the art of political opportunism, the readiness to exploit every issue for what it is worth in votes. It must be said that Murdoch is something of an opportunist’s dream; concentrating on attacking him makes it easier to ignore the anti-trade union records of British media moguls like Lord Matthews, James Goldsmith and the Rothermeres as well as those of other British capitalists in other industries. Workers who focus their hatred on Murdoch’s lugubrious but ruthless person are ignoring the fact that the essential class division of capitalist society, and not the personality of a single capitalist, lies at the root of the dispute at Wapping. They are ignoring the many bitter struggles which workers have engaged in with British employers in this country and in those abroad where British capitalists have invested. Those who mislead themselves in this way may also be writing off the history of continual conflict between past Labour governments and the working class and, listening to Kinnock’s honeyed words, comfort themselves with the delusion that a future Labour government will run British capitalism in some way basically different from the Tories.

These deceptions are typical of the everyday material of politicians, especially of one like Kinnock as he slavers at the prospect of power, which he sees coming closer with each opinion poll and each by-election. As capitalism grinds on it offers many opportunities to an opportunist political leader. Chernobyl, for example, has left a lot of people - who have a lot of votes - feeling pretty worried about nuclear power stations and asking whether it might not be better to replace the things with other methods of generating electricity. These people, suspicious and ungrateful as they are, might not be encouraged to find Kinnock agreeing with them, in a garrulous attack on Thatcher at the NACODS conference on 27 June:
In her nuclear infatuation she appears to have forgotten completely that this island is virtually made of coal and surrounded by a sea which rolls across a bed richly endowed with oil and natural gas. I believe . . . that coal should have primacy as the energy source of this country and that our dependence on nuclear energy should be systematically diminished.
The pit deputies probably loved it. Clearly, it was not a time to recall that the nuclear programme in this country was launched by a Labour government, who set down the first reactor on the site of an old munitions factory at Windscale, backed by Prime Minister Attlee’s personal guarantee of the highest priority - higher than all the nationalisation schemes, “free” medical treatment, more generous pensions, better organised schooling - for the murderous project. In the cause of bolstering the military standing and the international competitive power of the British capitalist class, Labour’s commitment to nuclear weapons and energy reached the depths of a blind infatuation, which had not abated by the 1960s when their Minister of Energy babbled exultantly about “hitting the jackpot” with the programme to erect a series of Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors.

There are, as we all know, liars, damned liars and politicians, whose technique of winning power is always concerned with exploiting day-to-day issues, sometimes contradicting something they said only a short time ago, sometimes attacking the very policies which they themselves carried out in the past. However there are certain problems in this, particularly because the opportunist becomes supported by - which also means hamstrung by - a mass of people who believe that capitalism’s problems are a disconnected process of separate, immediate issues. They insist on superficial, short-term measures and are not interested in any radical, permanent, revolutionary solution. So while the opportunist harvests the votes capitalism surges on, its ailments continue and the people carry on voting for their own repression.

Opportunism excites audiences, it raises hopes and in this way it helps put people like Kinnock and Thatcher - and sometimes the National Front - in power. But in terms of human welfare and progress it is insidious. An organisation aiming at fundamental social change to eradicate class conflict and the perils and the restrictions of commodity society cannot be opportunist. Its principles and policy must be hallmarked with a long-term consistency - as long as the continuance of capitalism. Socialist principles prevent us gauging every symptom of capitalism’s sickness for what it may yield in votes. They prevent us vying for support with programmes of futile reformism. Socialists are interested in the growing conscious appreciation of how and why capitalism must work as an inhumane, exploitative system and of why and how socialism must replace it.

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