I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
William Blake’s Jerusalem
Francis Fish writes:
A Facebook friend of mine said to me: If you can show me a practical, workable solution to bring about a Socialist/Communist utopia, I would love to see it sir.
So here is what will be a long article explaining how we might get to a better world, not a perfect one. It’s also interesting to note that the original use of the word utopia was a better world. I haven’t read Thomas Moore’s book that originated the word (or at least a translation from the Latin), but when I went to a talk about utopia the speaker pointed out that all Moore was arguing for was a better world than the one he was experiencing at the time. The idea it means some kind of unattainable perfection came later.
So we can’t have a perfect world because we aren’t perfect, and also because things change and perfect for one time could be extremely wrong at another. A perfect world would adapt and change, rather than the unchanging sterility that people imagine. The idea of a perfect world takes no account of history and how societies change over time. Also, this idea denies us agency, it means that someone (or some godlike thing) has to make that world for us. We make the world we live in, just by participating in it, no gods need apply. This also means that world is a compendium of our vices, virtues, blind spots, and knowledge.
Way back in the 19th century Marx’s close collaborator Frederick Engels wrote a book called Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, (PDF here) which is in fact an excerpt from a longer work. It’s written in 19th Century language which can make it hard to understand, but it’s also mercifully short and is well worth studying. I will try and summarise the relevant points here for your delight and delectation.
He first talks about the Utopian socialists such as Robert Owen. The socialism of these individuals is that of the imagination, in Owen’s case he was a very wealthy man and created ideal factories. Workers were paid well, harsh practices in the factories were dropped, and it was a vision of what an idealised environment might look like.
It had one flaw, the idealised workers’ paradise didn’t have the workers in control and didn’t come from their struggle to make it happen. It was what one man thought was best. In that sense it was what Engels meant by utopian. This is a problem we have today as well, people play a game of if only capitalists weren’t so bad things would be fine and ignore who should be in control and what their class position makes them behave like. It’s where the Green fantasies about growing all your food locally takes you. It’s petty and middle class. It’s also where you see the idea that not wasting uneaten food would help, and the waste inherent in the chaos of capitalist ways of doing things can somehow be fixed by mere good will.
This is the flaw with Utopian socialism, it often rests on the willingness of a few wealthy individuals to do the right thing, or on the willingness of bought and paid for politicians not to take the view of the people who purchased them. It’s only when a fully functioning social movement demands change, and keeps the process honest, that things can properly get better. Otherwise it could all disappear on a whim, just like a lot of the good the Blair regime did was wiped out at the stroke of a pen when Cameron was elected. They did do some good things, if you weren’t brown, practising the wrong religion, and living far away.
New Labour were always telling people what to do, they always knew better than the rest of us, they were always talking down to us. They were the last gasp of the dead eyed slogan cradle to the grave, which I have written about before:
… I don’t want some upper middle-class individual looking after me, I really don’t. I certainly don’t want them deciding what’s best for me. In fact, Labour have this culture of claiming to do the thinking for working class people. It was one of the more revolting things you used to see when Blair’s crew came to power, constantly trying to police the minutiae of people’s lives – it seems to be part of their DNA. I discuss this tangentially in my book Empire Socialism – the people who founded the party were a combination of middle-class christians and what Marxists would call the labour aristocracy.
We have to make a better world by doing. Through doing we find out what works. In order to change the world we must first understand how it fits together. We already have all of the systems in place that could be used to create a much better economic model built around people’s needs. In an earlier article I talked about the six pillars of human happiness, and any decent society worth the name must meet those needs for all or be counted a failure. This is where the old anarchist slogan all for all shows its true meaning.
Meeting those needs requires a lot of thought and care. It’s also why capitalism won’t fix things for us. A system that is built on an ever-expanding drive to grow is not going to meet human needs, its structure means they don’t figure in the way it creates the world. This is why we make food for at least a billion more people than exist at the moment but there is still mass starvation and want. The other half of the title of Engels’ book uses the word scientific. This means understanding how things are put together properly and coherently, and using that understanding to decide how to make things work for everybody instead of the billionaire class.
We live in a strange time. Despite all of the establishment whining about woke and all the other crap they use to distract us ordinary people have never been more disarmed in the face of an implacable enemy that literally wants to eat their children and turn them into profits. The very idea of working collectively on problems and with priorities based on need instead of greed, using democratic forms that are properly democratic, and making sure all voices are properly heard has been driven out of the minds of most people in the worker class. The people who still believe this is possible have been marginalised and attacked over the last 40 to 50 years. It’s almost impossible to hear their views in the main stream.
There is historical precedence for this. When people are consumed by the day to day struggle to survive they tend to fight battles that don’t challenge the system as a whole. This used to be called economism or trade-union consciousness, meaning that the furthest it could go was the kind of demands for better pay and conditions that trade unions would concern themselves with, rather than a more revolutionary consciousness that challenges the whole basis of exploitation and inequality. This is where you get the phrase a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay – it assumes that things can never change and the owner will always close their fist around the product of the work, so the best you can do is get a fair rent for your time, whatever that means. It sounds good, but it is really an admission of defeat, saying things cannot change fundamentally for the better. It’s the politics of the Labour party, when they aren’t just being outright right wing reactionaries.
People are scared of the word revolution, but what does it mean anyway? The people on the bottom become the people in charge. In the case of a socialist revolution we no longer have the owning class in charge, but the class that makes the world deciding how it should be used. This means an iron determination to keep things open and democratic, and build things that follow those principles.
Other people have a clearer understanding of how things are put together, and they know that some kind of organisation that links struggles with an anti capitalist perspective is needed. This is a harder idea to grasp, and joining the dots is also made difficult by the constant stream of misinformation hiding the realities of how things work from us. Our owners create a story where the way things are now is the way they have always been, and we cannot change things for the better. This is nonsense – if you talk to anyone over about 40 years old who thinks about things carefully they can point to times when things were objectively better for the worker class, not in all ways, but better. Even more recently, in Britain we’ve had the Tories in charge since 2010, for all their faults the Blair government did spend a lot of money on the NHS and other social programmes. There was more money in the economy at the time before the crash, but you wouldn’t see the current clown car massacre crew spending money on worker class people under any circumstances, their first and only recourse is to line their own pockets.
So we have a consciousness that’s based on what we’re told to believe, and another one based on a deeper understanding on how things actually work. Our owners don’t like either perspective, but they’re terrified that enough people will see that a small number of people owning everything is hurting everybody else, so you find that there was a fairly systematic driving out of a critical understanding of both politics and economics in the 1980s onwards. It in fact puts the lie to the right wing contention that universities are becoming more and more left wing. You can count the number of academics who understand revolutionary politics on one hand. For example, if people try to defend the rights of Palestinians they are hounded out of their jobs.
There is also now a narrative that forgets the true history of what happened since the 1980s. Take the destruction of the Soviet Union. It resulted in demographic changes where the children born in that period are all now somewhat smaller than they should be. This is what you see after a famine. The collapse was a disaster for the people that lived there. This is somehow sold as a great victory when it was nothing of the kind. We have the current mess over Ukraine, with the rehabilitation of fascism and the cynical spending of Ukrainian lives too. There were a lot of things wrong with the place, but asset stripping and wholesale fraud haven’t made things better for the majority of the people who live there, a net drop in population and pensioners finding their income so low they had to root in bins for food is not something that speaks for great improvements that come from the reintroduction of capitalism.
In the rest of Europe we were hypnotised by the snake that often gets called Neoliberalism, which is an obsession with markets and finance games, plus delusional nonsense about how private enterprise is somehow more efficient than publicly owned utilities. The more serious sounding philosophical underpinnings of this are now regarded as dubious and silly even in mainstream publications like the Financial Times. Markets are controlled by legislation. If the people who write the law are in the pockets of the wealthy they aren’t going to work for the rest of us. The same applies to the private sector controlling utilities and health services – they now need to make a profit, and the parasitical behaviour of the hedge funds that now control these industries just makes things expensive and crap.
This recent history is never discussed in these more honest terms, but instead we are sold yet more rubbish about there being no alternative and how we can’t afford to meet the needs of the worker class and the urban poor. This is a barefaced lie. The last 10 years in particular, and the last 40 in practice, have seen a massive movement of wealth from the poorest to the wealthiest in society all across the world. There is a cornucopia we all can share in, but a few people in the billionaire class have stolen it from the rest of us. Great wealth needs vile poverty, you can’t have one without the other.
As an example of the news that never gets reported – did you know that the Indian government has signed agreements to tear minerals out of the ground under the feet of indigenous people and there has been an ongoing war involving thousands of people for years? All over the world people are fighting back, but you never hear of it.
The two different kinds of consciousness mean that our enemies can pretend that the more revolutionary thinking people are some sort of elite. These are what the right wing dingbats whine about when they’re using the word against people who can see through their empty posturing. The people whose understanding has progressed past the fight for the day to day survival and become a real challenge to the status quo are called an elite, instead of just ordinary people who have had the opportunity to understand things more clearly. The dingbats themselves are usually speakers for and members of the actual elite, for example look at the millionaire Farage, the near-billionaire Sunak, the billionaire Trump and clowns like Hartley-Brewer and Rogan.
This attempt to drive a wedge between the default economist style thinking and the deeper understanding serves our enemies well. If you go back to the writings of various dead Russians, take Lenin in particular, you will see that there are a lot of empty academic discussions saying how his politics changed and became elitist when he helped lead the Russian revolution. In fact they never changed that much and were always based on working with people and building up and developing their consciousness and working for conditions of political freedom and speeding up the processes behind change. It suits our owners to pretend otherwise so they can turn people away from a politics that can genuinely change the world by claiming that most people don’t need and can’t understand them. This politics challenges their ownership of the world and they can’t have that, can they?
The other thing that happens when more conscious thinking is part of the struggle is the people trying to improve their lot will win more often and more consistently because their clearer political understanding gives them an advantage. It also follows that instead of individual struggles, an organisation of people who understand more deeply can co-ordinate and explain the tactics used against the worker class, developing winning strategies and tactics of their own. This organisation is part of the worker class, just as the public whose interests are so beloved of right wing commentators are also union members in a lot of cases.
We need to look for this deeper understanding and develop it. We need to break free from the narrow view, and embrace thinking about our needs as a class across the world. The petty minded flag shaggers that want us to lie down and allow the tide of inflation to bankrupt us and let the rampant under funding to breaking point of systems we need to survive must be ignored and fought against.
So we come to the phrase politics in command – put simply it means organising and operating with the broader perspective in how things are done. Making sure that the short-term demands align with the long-term objectives, making sure that anything won from the grip of our owners stays won. Making sure that the things we organise are democratically controlled. Making sure that we have principles that aren’t negotiable.
We also need to come down from the high ground and realise we make the politics of change out of love and solidarity. Some time ago I wrote a short article called Building the movement that ends with these words:
The problem with the broad sweep of history narrative is it hides the gargantuan amount of human suffering that creates the forces that create the conditions to make fundamental change possible. So even if you can see the possibilities there’s nothing to be exultant about. People are suffering and dying to create the new consciousness that makes change possible.
This is why we need love more than ever now.
You will have seen this slogan in various memes on social media and it makes sense. It also has a serious flaw because it’s passive. Whose system needs to change? Capitalism is the system that is causing the destruction and mayhem across the world. It won’t be wished away.
The problem with the slogan, the elephant in the room, is that it is asking for system change. If we don’t make our own systems that work for everybody then the stupidity and destruction will continue. This is where the limits of a lot of campaigns are – you can criticise, but how do you actually change things? If you were voting in the US and you went for Biden, he hasn’t kept a single promise and recently sponsored a law to force rail workers back to work.
If you want the NHS to be restored we need systems in place that stop it being sold off again. Either we own and control it or it will be destroyed again, and we can’t trust those nice people who let it be sold out from under us not to do so again.
We cannot have any change if we don’t build and control our own systems.
I discussed this at some length in the article Engines of Change:
By contrast Scientific Socialism is based on understanding the material conditions in society and working with them to create a socialism that has roots in people’s lives and lived experience. This is where the phrase Socialism with British features (or the the country or place where you live) comes from. It’s a socialism with a base in the people that created it, not something given by their betters. You can only work with what you have – there isn’t any point in wishing, there is no point in writing detail plans for your revolution. You will not know where it will come from until the conditions make it possible and what you end up with will belong to that particular time and place even if guided by the same principles.
There are no trivially easy solutions or we would have done them already. We need to do things and evaluate them to find out what works. This is why programmes and manifestos are nonsense [if they aren’t rooted in people’s lived experience] – they assume things underneath will stay the same and ignore the unstable roots of our society. Transforming the systems and moving ownership to the people who create the wealth will throw up problems our existing systems cannot cope with, they were not designed to cope with them. The old state’s forms are useless, they are built on, and in support of, the violence of ownership and dispossession. We need to replace it with systems that are built around human needs and desires, rather than the distortions of overbearing wealth, short term profit, and robbery.
To do this we need to ditch the party that is only the expression of the unsophisticated consciousness.
… While patting the head of their home working class the other hand is covered in the blood from the racist imperialist project othering poor and usually brown people far away and turning them into money. This is Labour’s dirty secret, and it never gets discussed. It’s also why the recent revelations of outright racism in the senior ranks of the party aren’t even a little surprising.
This means a new party is needed and we need to ignore all the crap about enabling the Tories – the old party will do that anyway, they sabotaged Corbyn’s electoral chances and now pretend they have no culpability in the huge death toll we face from Tory venality and incompetence. Labour apologists have claimed that it is a broad church, accommodating all sorts of views. There is no such breadth when only the tired old right wing can be its priests and bishops, which was always the case but for some reason folks refused to acknowledge it. That’s a dishonest dictatorship that uses up the energy, dreams and aspirations of the more radical members to limit and control what can be achieved. It needs to go, and the left leaning folks are being purged anyway. They need a home, which is based on an honest analysis of what’s needed, and policies, strategies and tactics that reflect that understanding.
We need to start finding ways to raise and awaken class consciousness. I have written about the consequences of the long sleep and some ideas about how to counter it in the articles Capitalism as dreamtime, born yesterday, and One song to the tune of another. We also need to clearly understand that the modern capitalist state we live under is little better than an armed gang set on robbing people who can’t defend themselves, whatever they may say to us at home.
Despite their democratic veneer modern states in the imperial core are in reality armed multinational gangs when looked at from the outside. This is particularly egregious in a country like the UK, where constitutionally the royals (actually their plutocrat-controlled government) look after international relations and parliament is supposed to only deal with domestic affairs. In practice the British state’s behaviour is indistinguishable from that of gangsters when force is needed to protect the interests of capital. We still have the eighteenth century buccaneers and slave takers but they mostly use economics, prating about free trade, and the fetish of markets to stand in for the old cannon and pistols. But make no mistake, if you are weak enough their full might will be deployed if they see you as a threat. The imperial core has been at war with people who didn’t want to be exploited or robbed continuously since the end of the Second World War, they even murdered people over the control of bananas.
… we must start holding our owners and their attack dogs to account. For years, centuries even, they have stolen, polluted and murdered their way around the globe for fun and profit while pretending they have done nothing wrong, or mostly just lying about it. It’s past time they learn we know better and the jig is up.
Once enough people understand how things really work we need to start creating our own institutions that educate, care for and protect us based on the principles of mutual aid and democratic control. What people don’t remember is that before the creation of organisations like the NHS there was a whole plethora of friendly societies and union-backed organisations that ran schools, controlled hospitals and paid for doctors and nurses, which the NHS took over when it was founded. If our owners are going to try and take the NHS from us we need to start founding such aid organisations again, and funding them ourselves. If they belong to us they cannot be stolen. We also need to ensure that they are democratically controlled and held in trust in a way that means they cannot be bought by rapacious hedge funds or banks.
No more cap in hand to the monsters that have killed at least half a million people with their policies, whether it be Austerity, or the still-rising toll from Covid. We need to go around them, and look after ourselves. No more cradle to the grave leaving us incapable of looking after ourselves. We must be in control.
If we stop needing their money they can’t tax us, if we stop believing their lies they can’t fool us, if we take care of each other without fear or favour nobody is left to suffer needlessly and they can’t use fear to control us. It’s so simple it’s terrifying, but it’s also going to be a huge struggle to achieve even a little of this.
In the short term:
It’s all far too simple. But there is no plan as such, just work and organisation.
If you want a new year’s resolution, well here it is.
First published at Green and Plenty.
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
About Left Unity
Read our manifesto
Left Unity is a member of the European Left Party.
Read the European Left Manifesto
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Just Stop Oil – Slow Marches
Slow marches are still legal (so LOW RISK of arrest), and are extremely effective. The plan is to keep up the pressure on this ecocidal government to stop all new fossil fuel licences.
Wed 31 May, 19.00
Trade Union Struggles in France & Britain – Left Unity Public Meeting
Millions of workers in France and Britain are in struggle against austerity -join us for a discussion with: Francoise Baran – CGT & PCF (France) Jim Hollinshead – UCU & Left Unity (Britain)
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.