by Adrian McMenamin
Eduard Bernstein is not a name heard much in Labour circles today – a social democrat and a communist (he would not have seen these as antithetical) – he shocked and scandalised many more orthodox members of the Social-democratic Party of Germany (SPD) by daring to “revise” Marxist thinking, to account for societal developments, in his “Premises of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy” in 1899.
Fundamentalists have a tendency to regard their favourite books as unchallengeable eternal truth, rather than human works created in a given society at a particular time. That applies even when these fundamentalists are supposedly the most stringent enemies of superstition or religion – as the SPD’s hard-line Marxists claimed to be. For them the very idea of suggesting that Marx’s works were other than sacred and fixed was unthinkable. No method of theory revision for them, no matter how “scientific” they claimed their socialism was.
“Revisionism” thus quickly became, and remained, a term of abuse on the left – even, as in Mao’s China, a suitable reason to put someone to death: imagine that, a movement ostensibly at the pinnacle of the enlightenment ends up killing people for impure thoughts.
To be a revisionist is to be a traitor, an unbeliever or an apostate.
The Labour leadership election has been a case-in-point: the commonest piece of abuse thrown at Liz Kendall for daring to suggest, for instance, we should not be knee-jerk hostile to parents who want to improve the outcome of the state education system by setting up challenger schools, is that she is a Tory.
There are plainly a lot of Labour party members who think there is no difference between us – the revisionists – and the Tories. Beyond the obvious question of why, if someone really is ”a Tory”, they are wasting their time in an impotent and defeated party, as opposed to exercising power and influence in the real thing, there is the issue of historical experience. For surely it is us revisionists – from Bernstein on – who are those seeking victory for the left most keenly.
The Tories were in power for all but six months of my teenage years and all the way through my twenties. When Labour, led by Tony Blair, was plainly on the verge of ending that, there were plenty of voices then too denouncing him as a Tory. Some on the very far left even claimed a Labour government would be worse than the Tories, yet still advocated voting Labour: as the subsequent suffering of the workers would hasten the coming of the revolution.
Such claims were briefly silenced after 1 May 1997. It would have stretched the credibility of even the most fanatical of Blair-haters to claim a minimum wage or the adoption of Europe’s social chapter was ever going to happen with the Tories in office. However briefly, the argument was not that the revisionists were traitors but merely that we were insufficiently ardent.
But the old claims returned quite quickly. Partly because the left is both quick to forget and dismissive of politics – three election victories were treated as inevitable rather than any sort of achievement – but mainly because many on the left are happier whinging about inequality and injustice than actually doing something about it. For doing something requires making a decision about priorities and leaving someone disappointed as a result.
In the fantasy world that many on the left inhabit there are money trees at the end of the garden and a nationalised British Rail offered a better train service than we have today. To even suggest that, maybe, we should encourage economic growth instead of thinking we can pay for everything by “taxing the rich” or that, actually, competition has driven up standards on the railways, as in many other areas, is nothing better than treachery.
The Green party represent the apotheosis of this approach, as seen at a close-to-comical way in their housing proposal to end excessive rents in the private sector by building social housing paid for by taxes on excessive rents in the private sector. Such perpetual motion machines are a leftist commonplace, and even to point the flaws out is to reveal oneself as part of the enemy – lacking faith in the sense of a refusal to believe in an idea for which no supporting evidence exists.
Well, I am that faithless person. But I refuse to accept that means I am on the right – certainly not in a broader perspective, but also in terms of the Labour Party’s internal politics.
I want a radical and thorough-going challenge to inequalities of wealth and power in society. In general I prefer increased equality to increased social mobility (and I understand the difference, unlike many.) I am also enthusiastic about equality of outcome and not just equality of opportunity: where I grew up, Belfast, all children were offered the opportunity of sitting the eleven-plus.
I want to win. I recognise that without power and office won through democratic means, all my aspirations count for nothing. We might as well be howling at the moon, a pastime which, to be honest, I would not be surprised to discover a few of Liz Kendall’s detractors regarded as a productive way of spending an evening.
Adrian McMenamin is a member of Hornsey and Wood Green CLP