Editorial from the November 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
Twenty years ago Labour MPs elected a young leader who described himself as a pragmatist. When Wilson became Prime Minister, it was quickly made clear that pragmatism had a particular meaning for him — that his government would try to run the affairs of British capitalism in accordance with the needs of its owning class and not by any reference to inconvenient, grass roots theories. Under Wilson and later Callaghan Labour was indeed pragmatic, for they fought the British working class over wages, they broke strikes with troops, they cut services, supported the American war effort in Vietnam, they introduced racist immigration laws . . .
Since those pragmatic days we have had another government, which assures us it is realistic. There is, the Tories assert, no other way than to behave roughly like their Labour predecessors in office — hold back wages, cut social services, fight a war in the Falklands. . .
And now the Labour Party, in the first contest under its new system of popular voting in the party, has elected a leader who says that he also is a realist, although he has coupled the word with patriotism and socialism, which shows that he has a truly pragmatic disregard for the dictionary of politics. The battle between Thatcher and Kinnock promises to be a clash in which victory — which means the majority of votes of politically ignorant workers — will go to whoever can lay claim to the greater degree of hard-headed realism.
Well if they are all to be realists now it is fair to ask what the word means. For the Labour Party, after its crushing defeat in June, there is one obvious and immediate interpretation. “We can’t” right-wing realist John Golding shouted to their Conference. "afford any more to fight elections on a like it or lump it basis”. Golding was not the only speaker to urge the delegates to consider first the need to win votes; Labour is a party which forms its policies, not on political principles or on confused pioneer notions about a radically different society, but on what the voters will support. Power is their priority. This might upset some of the party members who joined under the delusion that Labour stood for socialism and it would certainly confuse workers who voted Labour on the promise that it would lead to a more equal social system and who find their living standards under attack. But all that is a small price to pay in the cause of realism.
Kinnock is not just a realist but a realist of the Left, which means that his “realism” has dawned only after he has trodden a familiar path from left-wing bluster to the point at which he must concede that a more "moderate" attitude is likelier to win power. Like pragmatic Wilson in 1963, Kinnock’s first announced priority is to be Prime Minister, as soon as posssible. In his first speech as leader he talked of the need to “produce our way to prosperity” (alliteration is a habit of Kinnock’s; it is in fact popular with a lot of politicians — it often goes down well with reporters and helps to conceal the emptiness of the words) as if the poverty of capitalism’s peoples has something to do with the level of production. In deference to his waning reputation as a firebrand of the Left, he needed to mention the word socialism, describing it in typical obscure fashion as “. . . real patriotism. when the sick, old and young and poor have their just share of the wealth of this massively prosperous country” — as if socialism is not a world society of free access but a re-adjustment of some workers’ poverty.
Behind these fine words and ringing declarations, and beyond the sycophantic ovations they provoke, the gruesome reality of capitalism persists. As only one expression of poverty, in this country during the coming winter old workers, whose usefulness to the ruling class is at an end, will die from hypothermia. Thousands of workers in this country are homeless, millions live in festering slums, millions more in homes which are slums but escape the official definition of slumdom, millions live in cramped and jerry-built neurosis manufactories which are called homes. War is a continuing threat, backed by an international nuclear arsenal which could quickly paralyse human society. Tens of millions die each year because they can’t get enough to eat to stay alive. The "realism” of Thatcher and Kinnock has no relevance to these problems. To assert, in the face of all the evidence, that capitalism can be made to work in the interests of the majority is not realistic; it is to propagate a cruel fantasy.
The efforts of socialists to expose that fantasy are hampered by the workers’ reluctance to recognise where their interests lie. In the last general election, for example, the best manifesto was that produced by the Socialist Party of Great Britain; it was the only one to analyse the problems of modern society and to point to the conclusion that socialism is the only solution. Yet fewer than one hundred workers voted for the case in that manifesto; the rest preferred the discredited fantasies of the Tory, Labour and Alliance parties.
The vital work of the socialist movement is to encourage the workers to face the reality that their problems can be solved, and they can live a full, humane life, only through a social revolution which will overthrow the society of class ownership of the means of life. When these are the property of the entire human race there will be a world free of war, poverty, repression, of the tensions and ugliness which we live with today. In socialism human beings will work and live together in harmony for the common well-being. Social relationships will be fashioned by the basis that wealth will be produced for its usefulness to people and not for the profit of a minority. In an unprecedented freedom, humans will be able to discover their true abilities; there will be a veritable explosion of creativity and people will look back on capitalism, with its wars, its poverty, its fear, its posturing leaders and its compliant, suffering people, as a black nightmare.
To attain that condition, the world’s workers must look beyond the deceits of the leaders, to confidence in their own ability to run society in the interests of the majority. They must grasp the fact that capitalism is decadent, reactionary and repressive and that progress lies with the revolution for socialism. All the evidence encourages this conclusion; the ideas of socialism fit in with what we know of history, with the facts of our experience now, with all reasoned prospects for society tomorrow. Socialism will work and bring a humane world because it is based on reality. Socialists are the true realists.