John Rees introduces a new reprint of his popular book in the preface reproduced here
John Rees, The ABC of Socialism (Counterfire 2014)
This book was first published exactly 20 years ago, in May 1994. It sold in many thousands of copies. It was written for, and seemed to speak to, an audience created by the struggles of the preceding four years. These included the anti-poll tax campaign which destroyed not only the Tory government’s flagship policy but also, ultimately, Margaret Thatcher’s all too long premiership. They also included the revolt against the 1992 pit closure programme which involved two huge protest marches in central London. One of these was the biggest march on a working day until, a decade or so later, the Stop the War Coalition protest at George Bush’s visit to London in 2003. In addition there were strikes in the health service, marches and meetings to oppose the first Gulf War, and a movement against the Criminal Justice Bill.
In a longer timescale the book could look back on about a decade and a half of neo-liberal economics, if we take the previous welfare state/Keynesian consensus to have been abandoned when the Labour government of the late 1970s accepted the International Monetary Fund cuts programme.
In the 20 years since then practically every indicator of working class living standards has changed for the worse: inequality is greater, infant mortality is worse; real wages have declined, welfare provision is meaner; the cost of education is greater, the chance of a stable job much reduced; pensioners are poorer, workers less likely to enjoy the protection of union membership.
But there have been some notable, in some cases historic, movements of resistance. The global anti-capitalist movement which began with mass demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999 was a signal event. It brought together climate change and environmental activists with trade union demonstrators—the famous teamster-turtle alliance. It named the enemy in the most general political terms: capitalism. And it self-identified as an ‘anti-capitalist’ movement. This was new. I remember watching the BBC main news bulletin where the commentator said ‘anti-capitalist protestors took over the centre of Seattle today’. I’d rarely heard the BBC use the word ‘capitalist’, let alone the words ‘anti-capitalist’ before. This term became the hallmark of many demonstrations to this day. It had a great strength: an immediate identification of the entire system as the problem. But there was also a corresponding weakness: a much lower level of direct workplace struggle than in the 1968-1975 period.
Even so the movement’s political strength became greater as the anti-war movement arose, involving many of the same forces, in response to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002-2003. Again, just as the anti-capitalist movement had popularised to millions of ordinary citizens language once the exclusive property of the left, so the rise of the mass anti-war movement made anti-imperialism a mass popular force on a scale that even exceeded that achieved by the anti-Vietnam protests. At the same time, and partly as a consequence, establishment politics became hollowed out to an unprecedented degree. Faced with mainstream parties all of whom embraced neo-liberalism at home and defended imperialism abroad the old system began to crack. Political party membership fell and turnout in elections declined. Opinion polls revealed that public faith in politicians, the police, the media and other pillars of the status quo were at historic lows.
And yet at the same time the organisation of the left was also facing a crisis. The Labour Left has probably never been weaker. The Communist Party left is much reduced after the body blow of the East European revolutions of 1989, far longer and deeper in their effect on the left than many thought at the time. The revolutionary far left has, in all too many cases, retreated into sectarian isolation.
In fact the central paradox of left politics can be formulated in this way: at a time when an unprecedented level of ideological radicalism have seized large sections of the working class the far left has been unable to strengthen itself because it is wedded to 1970s models of industrial militancy which prevents it from understanding the tasks before it.
This is not to deny, of course, that workplace struggle is a central component of any project for working class liberation. But when such resistance is at low levels it is the height of foolishness not to use the radicalism that does exist as a lever to get us closer to the radicalism we need.
In short, the existing left is not in danger from ‘liquidating’ itself under the rightward pressure of ordinary workers. On the contrary, the left is not ‘too close’ to existing working class consciousness, but too far from it to engage with it effectively. Of course there are many arguments to be had—indeed the very arguments outlined in this book. But they cannot even be begun by a left that is so far distant from its intended audience that they pay it no mind. There are many struggles—against austerity, against war, to strengthen trade unions—in which socialists can engage in common struggle with those they seek to win. But many on the left have forgotten that joint action is always the best place to conduct an argument. They prefer loud-hailer propaganda conducted in self-satisfied, knowing, isolation from the struggles that can be fought now.
This needs to change. To advance we need more socialists, and more socialists who are working together in political organisation. This new edition of The ABC of Socialism will, I hope, help more people become socialists, and help more socialists to become effective organisers.
John Rees, London, May 2014
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.