The author Alan Sillitoe described how, as a national serviceman aged 19 in 1955, he was got to read Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by an eager colleague saying: “This is the book which won the 1945 election for Labour”.
The Tories, in 1945, tried to counter by mass-distributing a book of their own, Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.
The political shift of 1945 was shaped by books, and conversations around books, not by tweets or memes. If we want a similar big shift today, we need similarly heavy ammunition.
Over the last two and a half years, allowing for churn, almost half a million new people must have joined the Labour Party, and the great majority of them because with Jeremy Corbyn they now see the Labour Party as a vehicle for left-wing hope.
Over 30,000 have joined the Labour left group Momentum.
Those people may have thought of themselves as left-wing before mid-2015. But the great majority of them were not politically active in any regular way. At most they might come to a demonstration, sign a petition, express left-wing opinions to their friends.
Now, in one way or another, they have embarked on becoming not just left-wing individuals, but left-wingers active in a collective, organised, systematic way.
Of course some have done no more than sign up, make their payment to the Labour Party, and maybe help out in the June 2017 election campaign.
An increasing proportion, though, are coming to meetings. The number of Young Labour groups is still much less than it could be, but it is increasing. The big majority, we can guess, think of themselves as “socialist” in one sense or another.
It was never likely that this surge of hundreds of thousands of people would have come straight to the explicit activist socialist left. Understandably, most want first to go with the flow and try out the “easy option” — vote Corbyn, get an approximately socialist government for no greater price than just those votes. They are inclined to try that first even if they would prefer Corbyn and the Labour leadership to be bolder, even if they are worried on issues like Labour’s abandonment of freedom of movement in Europe.
But a minority are — to some degree or another, occasionally or inconsistently, fleetingly or lastingly — thinking further.
They are wondering what this “socialism” they’ve got involved in means, whether it can really be won without daring to say the word “socialist”, whether it can be won by policies which seek to be “mainstream” and in tune with at least a large part of “big business”.
How many of that minority can be drawn now into discussing those questions through, into wanting to be explicit and upfront about socialism, and into organising as socialists — specifically, as class-struggle socialists, as socialists who gear themselves to working-class struggle as the way to win — will be a decisive issue for the coming years, when the Corbyn surge will face sharper tests.
That sort of consolidation requires reading and discussion. Not just reading tweets or Facebook statuses or social media messages, but studying books.
The legacy of Thatcherism and Blairism, a relentlessly market-oriented society and a relentlessly credential-oriented education system, can be seen in the fact that Britain’s averages for hours spent reading books are now only half the averages for India, which still has 25% illiteracy and 40% of rural children dropping out of school before age 14.
Social historians have long explained how the advent of silent, individual reading of long texts was pivotal in developing intellectual rigour, reflective and self-revising thought, science, irony, nuance, criticism of established authorities and established religion.
We need all those today in the labour movement, and in the first place on the left.
Over the coming weeks, Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty people will be turning out to talk face-to-face with as many as we can of our friends, workmates, and union and Labour Party co-workers, and to ask each one of them if they will buy and read our new booklet, a new (reworked, short, cheap) edition of Socialism Makes Sense. (The first edition, mid-2016, was entitled Can Socialism Make Sense?).
This campaign will identify us to those friends and colleagues, and to ourselves, as the people within the Labour left dedicated to fighting for explicit, unabridged, and authentic (that is, libertarian, democratic, anti-Stalinist) socialism.
It will, we’re confident, open up political conversations with many of those we speak to on wider issues of aims and strategy, and of current politics.
It will be a “socialist canvass”, an equivalent at the level of talking about socialism, after meetings, in work, or at personal meet-ups, to the talking about Labour votes that we do on a broader and shallower level on the doorsteps.