Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Turning ‘pie in the sky’ into a reality

In Guest Feature on January 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm

by Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire

What is the relationship between ideas and action? It is a question that should underlie everything that socialists think, say and do. It is a question that should occupy socialists all the time in a quest to find the answer.

To put it starkly, as socialists, we know what we are against and we broadly know what we are for – give or take a few details. But we pay far too little attention to the thorny questions of how we go about realising these dreams, ambitions and aspirations.

We cannot treat ideas as separate entities from the means to go about achieving them. Ideas, even if the creator or advocate of them thinks they are the best thing since sliced bread, can be as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot or ashtray on a motorbike if they are not linked to a credible means to go about obtaining them.

Our ideals as radical ideas have to be seen as being part of a new common sense – albeit an anti-status quo one.

And the means for achieving the ideals are what are known as social agencies – workers, citizens, unions, political parties, social movements and the like. In other words, people with the power to act in a collective way that can enforce their demands upon other groups in society.

The most obvious tools are the demonstrations, pickets, lobbies and strikes.

So to stand on a high street in any town or city on a Saturday morning, proclaiming that socialism is the answer to all the problems of so-called “ordinary” people in the world is to, quite rightly, invite ridicule and derision. Not because socialism is not the answer but because it is meaningless abstract sloganising at the moment.

It is meaningless abstract sloganising to the very people that it must not be that to – the people that desperately need to become their own conscious, deliberate agents to demand what is and should be rightfully theirs.

And the reason that it is meaningless abstract sloganising to these people is not because socialism cannot have a practical face to it, whether it be about tackling pressing social issues like lack of decent affordable housing or opposing cuts in the public services.

Rather, it is because any such practical action to achieve socialism can seem to the casual observer or even disinterested person to be pie in the sky given the circumstances of low levels of consciousness, protest, mobilisation and fighting back. It almost seems as if the non-socialists are the better estimators of the chances of such successful struggle than the socialists themselves.

So what they – the ordinary people – are saying to socialists is that “It may be a good idea but it’s just not going to happen, is it?”

And no amount of socialists saying to them: “No, it won’t happen unless you and others get involved” is going to convince them that they should get involved or that others will get involved.

This means that when assessing what ideas to put forward there are times when we as socialists must sometimes scale down what we want to achieve to the level that it becomes more credible and realistic to those who we want to take up the cudgels in the fight for the stated goal.

Now there are big challenges in doing this for socialists because we know that consciousness among people is uneven. This means it’s not an easy task to pitch the idea in a way that appeals to as many people as possible with the same sense of urgency and importance.

In trying to pitch the idea to the mass of people in the middle, for some it will still be too ambitious and for others it will be insufficiently ambitious.

If the more radically minded people can be convinced that taking the less radical people with them in this way will open up the possibility of widening the horizons of these moderates to bolder and more radical ideas and action, then the danger is that the more radical people will turn into cynics.

There is not much that can be done to explain to the extreme moderates that they need go along with something a bit more radical than they wish. For the moment they have to be left behind.

I’ve taken it for read that the strategies and tactics for achieving the aims and ambitions are sensibly pitched. This is not always the case for sometimes the idea we what to achieve seems reasonable but the means to achieve it a bit too pie in the sky.

Demanding the TUC call a general strike over this and that demand is one such example. It is not just because the TUC cannot call a general strike by law (which is a problem) or unless its affiliates allow it to. It’s also because the TUC does not play such a central role in the union movement that this is a realisable outcome.

In the coming battles over attacks on public services, we need to get the pitch right to create the best chance of a united and successful fightback. We need to take some smallish steps first to make sure we can take the bigger steps thereafter.

first printed in The Morning Star, September 2010; re-printed with permission.