I am a revisionist, not a right-winger

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

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17 Responses to “I am a revisionist, not a right-winger”

  1. Mike says:

    Great article and certainly closer to the electorate than others in the Labour party. People want what works, so competing franchisee for the railways have delivered a better service than BR ever did.
    Two questions though, why do you favour equality of outcome rather than just equality of opportunity? Also, why do you prefer equality rather than social mobility?

  2. Madasafish says:

    “I want a radical and thorough-going challenge to inequalities of wealth and power in society”

    “I want to win.”

    Well to win, you need to attract voters to vote for you.

    Pollwatch carried out their analysis of what happened and who voted by age and social class. You can read it …http://www.comres.co.uk/pollwatch-lessons-for-labour/

    In summary it said:

    “As we reported before the election – and as implied by the results on the night – some demographics are considerably more likely to vote than others. The more affluent (ABC1) middle classes vote in much greater numbers than less affluent (C2DE) voters, and were breaking towards the Conservatives:
    We are not arguing here for Blairism or centrism – that is a debate for the Labour Party and others to have. But any strategy focused on issues relevant only to the less affluent, the young and the disgruntled will fail because these groups tend not to vote in sufficient numbers to win general elections.

    The next Labour leader will need to find an issue that cuts across classes and generations if he or she is to win an election. Aspiration, education and enterprise are worth revisiting. Of course, Labour will need a leader who can also talk to the working class voters it has lost to UKIP.”

    Those are the issues Labour needs to address to WIN.

  3. Tafia says:

    People want what works, so competing franchisee for the railways have delivered a better service than BR ever did. People – particularly regular rail travellers, want the system re-nationalised. You cannot compare the private companies now to BR as it was 30 years ago – that is simplistic nonsense. That’s like comparing a computer now to a ZX Spectrum. If it’s better now then they no longer need subsidies. Subsidising private profits is obscene by anyones measure. If it’s better now then each franchisee operating ion the same route should be setting it’s own price so that the consumer can choose. And each franchisee should be building it’s own tracks.

    Also, why do you prefer equality rather than social mobility? Social mobility is a myth for most people. You are where you are in the socio-economic scale and for the most part that’s where you will be until you retire. And as for opportunity, that is just an employers piss take – offering the opportunity of a minimum wage part-time position is exploitation

  4. John P Reid says:

    I know a few people at Gornsey who feel the same, and Catherine West would be certainly open to listening to such views

  5. Patrick Whitten says:

    Excellent piece. Two brief comments. Many on the ‘left’ prefer opposition as it requires less responsibility than the choices you have to make in government. Much easier, though sickeningly self righteous, to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks. As the phrase goes, “to decide is to divide”.

    The other point is on the notion of equality of opportunity. There’s no such thing, and there can never be. You can have opportunity, or you can have equality. But as they’re mutually exclusive, never both. A person who gets ahead then stays ahead. He doesn’t return to some imaginary starting line. It’s a contradiction in terms we learned 50 years ago. Think about it, please.

  6. Adrian McMenamin says:

    Mike, thanks for your comments.
    Why equality of outcome – well obviously there are limits, after all I have also talked about competition, but the example I’d cite is the one I hinted at in the piece – I don’t think giving every child the “opportunity” at 11 to go to a grammar school or, as in so many cases, get thrown on the academic scrap-heap is right.
    And why equality and not just social mobility – well social mobility just means different groups of people get to be poor: of course commentators love to focus on the corollary, different groups of people get to be rich but social mobility means both. I’m not really in favour of reducing people to poverty.

  7. Adrian, I too want to ask the same questions as Mike, although I doubt that myself and Mike have anything else in common.

    Two questions though, why do you favour equality of outcome rather than just equality of opportunity? Also, why do you prefer equality rather than social mobility?

    You see I too favour equality of outcome over equality of opportunity and equality over social mobility. I believe in these because I think, as a social democrat, I have an ideological difference with the liberal economics and conservative social ideas of Toryism.

    Now I don’t as a rule howl at the moon, but I do struggle to see similar beliefs in the likes of Kendall. If she also believes in these rather fundamental ideas why doesn’t she say so, or at least made an attempt to show that side of her arguments. I have a horrible feeling you are setting yourself up for a bad fall.

  8. Andy H says:

    “Subsidising private profits is obscene by anyones measure.”

    We abolishing green subsidies, then?

  9. Adrian McMenamin says:


    I don’t speak for Liz Kendall’s campaign in any way.

    What I do know is that the politics of not changing anything very much from Labour’s 2015 platform means inequality will probably increase, because the Tories will win in 2020. Ideological purity is for losers.

    But, yes, I think that the producer-orientated politics that the Labour Party falls back on when it seeks comfort are damaging to equality too. For example: There was a reason so many BMA members with private practice lists bleated about “privatisation” when Labour brought in things like private-sector led treatment centres – because the additional capacity and, yes, the competition to state provision, they offered threatened to destroy the whole economic basis of private practice. Labour’s knee-jerk hostility to this and the disavowal of our poristive record in government over the last five years was a very serious mistake.

  10. Mike Stallard says:

    Hello from down here underneath.
    Last night I was with an interesting and charming lot of immigrants. I was meant to be teaching them English, but before we played Bingo for chocolate, I had a chat with them. Do you know what? They are concerned that their children get as a good schooling as they had at the end of Communism. They are concerned about their families, many of whom live in their country of origin. They are concerned about their special foods and how lovely they are. They like living in UK but home is home. Russian is sort of their lingua franca. They quite often have terrible marriage problems.
    I live on a working class estate, sprinkled with pensioners like myself. My next door neighbour has a son who is at College, but he loves being at home with his mum and dad playing Call of Duty on the computer. His mum has a job looking after children at the local remedial school. His Dad works as an engineer in a factory. His twenty something brother is not married, but as good as, with a job and a “wife” and a house and a car. No kiddies have come along yet. The rest of my neighbours are in the same situation really.
    OK we have one in whom the Police are interested. But these are exceptions. Most of us are pretty self sufficient.

    I can hear you yawning already.
    Because this isn’t all about cuts and Tory injustice and the vulnerable. For us down here, it is about efficient and honest government services – School, tax, education, police, immigration – and the freedom to make enough to get by on without interference. The less interference the better down here – so long as the basics are efficient and running smoothly. We are people, families, you see, not -isms.

    If you have read this far, well done! But I very much doubt you have, being concerned, as you are, being nice people, with “reality”.

  11. What worries me is that the bigger picture is missing, as it was during the last two elections.
    Globalization has changed everything: right wing agendas are the only ones that get a hearing; the politics of deception ensures that matters like the forthcoming Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – and with it Wolfgang Streeck’s warning as to the demise of democratic capitalism ( New Left Review 71, September-October 2011 ) – are not part of the discourse.
    Then there’s the small matter of an economy which generates ‘wealth’ via a shortage of housing – aka rising inequality – a trend which seems also to be absent from the current leadership ‘debate’.
    Finally there’s the matter of fiat money banking, and a so-called industry totally uninterested in allocating capital where it will create jobs, but which prefers – instead – to indulge in blatant gambling to the extent that Will Hutton told us that 72% of stock market activity is speculation.
    (British Capitalism is broken … Guardian … 11/02/15)

  12. Tafia says:

    We abolishing green subsidies, then?

    Yep. And the false strike price for nuclear as well.

  13. Well Adrian, your answer leaves me rather confused. As I listen to the leadership contenders saying we need to be more business friendly and throw in the aspiration buzzword, it doesn’t sound like people who favour equality of outcome rather than just equality of opportunity, or prefer equality rather than social mobility.

    Then you say, Ideological purity is for losers.

    What does that mean? We should no longer believe in these things that you just told us you believed in only yesterday? Should we really no longer believe in them? One of the biggest failures of the New Labour experiment in my view was the failure to tackle inequality. It’s measurable, so it’s not even a gut feeling. It’s what happened.

    You see Adrian I don’t see myself as a fundamentalist. I see myself now in old age as somewhere to the right of where the party used to be, but like Roy Hattersley I find I can’t keep up with the party’s shift rightwards. As for you being a revisionst, this must mean an ideological break from previous Labour or social democrat beliefs, isn’t it? Can you give me some examples of where you have revised our more traditional ideas.

  14. Ginger says:

    ‘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’.

    While I very much agree with this I don’t see how you get a mandate to ‘challenge the inequalities of wealth and power in society’ by accepting the Tory narrative (a’la Liz Kendall), joining the benefit claimants witch hunt (a’la Kendall and now Burnham) or allowing profiteers into the NHS and education systems.

    For ‘money trees’ (which IS a very right wing trope, sorry) – see QE…oh, and there always seem to be a few money trees sprouting up when we go to war – even when there’s allegedly ‘no money left’ (see Syria).

    And as for the rail network, is it Marxist dogma to point out the running cost has increased exponentially since privatisation or that the companies operate for shareholders not the public.

    We hear a lot of guff about ‘the real world’ from politicos who know sod all about it.

    Try telling people whose train to work is routinely late, is dangerously packed and leaks rain water that competition has ‘driven up standards’.

    The right has just as many ideologues as the left – To question the market is to be a traitor, an unbeliever or an apostate.

  15. JPB Law says:

    Fascinating article. Bravo!

  16. Edward says:

    The Bernstein analogy is unfortunate. You don’t have to be an ideological leftist to know that it was the post-Bernstein “revised” SPD that became so comfortable with the establishment that it ended up supporting the Germans’ World War I efforts and later went around crushing workers councils with the help of paramilitaries. You used the word “treachery” to describe ideological leftism but it was the revisionists in the German SPD who were actually treacherous—they threw workers and communists alike under the bus.

    If the market is the key to improving conditions for all, as many on the right of Labour seem to think, I hope to God that they are right and that the wealth produced can be distributed fairly and that GOOD jobs are produced. It seems that criticizing poor jobs (like those produced by Sports Direct) is out of the question, as it labels you anti-market/anti-business.

    Mr. McMenamin—how can Labour promote economic growth while implementing policies that are also fair, if even a middling-left Labour party is seen as too left by the general public??

  17. John P Reid says:

    Danny Speight, you talk of a rightward shift since hattersleys time, when did labour have AWS or BME Shortlists, when did we propose civil partnerships, circa 1992′ I dint recall them
    Hattersley supported Iraq, didn’t support the single currency, during blairs time

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