It doesn’t feel like the setting for talk of revolution. It’s a rainy day in Lewes, and I’m sat in Howard Pilott’s large open plan kitchen as he stands distractedly making tea. His springer spaniel Rose nestles against my leg, and I’m a little intimidated by the affluence of my surroundings. He dismisses the idea that this conflicts with his socialist ideals: “In order to advance the case of the working class in this society I’m not sure it particularly serves for me to say: Right, I’ve got to live in sackcloth and ashes for the rest of my life”.
Pilott is passionate about socialism, that much is clear; a self-confessed ‘political-butterfly’ (he’s been a member of both the Labour and Green Party), Howard Pilott contested Caroline Lucas’ seat for Brighton Pavilion in the 2015 general election for the Socialist Party of Great Britain. What does socialism mean for him? He’s clear that it is, and will be (although not within his lifetime he wearily concedes), a leaderless movement. He looks at me seriously as he discusses how our government is structured towards the representation of vested interests, a system supported through clever spin and media monopolies, and yet “there seems to be this consensus that there is no alternative”.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain envision instead a system of local organisation: “Decisions about what are in the interests of the majority of the population should be taken by the majority of the population; local collectives organising on a local basis with other local collectives”. There’s no monetary system, no particular political agendas: “People freely choose what they aspire to, what needs to be made. They contribute what they can”.
I ask Pilott if his running for MP was in line with this conception of a leaderless movement, and whether the change for which he speaks, a socialist revolution, the end of capitalism, is something that could be achieved by working from within: “Voting for me wasn’t about my intentions to become an MP, to go to the House of Commons, be a backbencher…It’s not that kind of thing. A vote for us is a statement of rejection of the current society. Saying you want something very different. To reject capitalism. A rejection of the idea that power is in the hands of the few”.
“We’d gradually get a large sector of the community turning round and saying ‘we don’t want this’. That a large part of the population are outside of this [system of governance]. At some point sooner or later the majority of the population will have to seize power; turn around and say, actually we’re not playing by these rules anymore”. Pilott maintains the necessity of a peaceful revolution, and he’s evidently wary of being associated with the legacies of former communist states: “To seize power tends to conjure up images of storming the Winter Palace. I don’t think it would be like that – violent revolutions don’t get you very far”. He reflects on Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan, observing that violence is cyclical and self-repeating; a poor foundation for an egalitarian society: “If you start off being violent, it’s hard to stop – you’re on the road to notown”.
When I first heard Howard Pilott talk, during the first waves of Corbyn mania, I was surprised by his hostility to the new Labour leader and the wider Labour party, which he criticises enthusiastically and with a seemingly greater regularity than the Conservatives; is this an explication of the much lamented fracturing among the British political left? The problem with Jeremy Corbyn, according to Pilott, is that he represents “a kind of sense of false hope. Joining the Labour party may be a bit like giving to charity or buying a copy of the Big Issue in order to change things – because they’re in bed with capital”. He contends that the Labour party is tearing itself apart: “It has got this really difficult path to tread, because it’s not talking about abolishing capitalism, it’s talking about running capitalism a bit more nicely than the Tories can”. However, Corbyn is not entirely dismissed: “I welcome the existence of everybody on the Left, because they may be asking the right questions”, although Pilott wrily adds that Labour’s solutions are often “half-baked”. Either way, for Howard Pilott, questioning the system will eventually lead to answers; to the structural change anticipated by the SPGB.
Indeed, Pilott considers that Jeremy Corbyn may be the recruitment drive the SPGB desperately needs. He contends that newer members of the Labour party, enthused for a new voice platforming popular dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, will begin to see that in actual fact Corbyn’s Labour represents more of “the same old same old; squabbling over Trident, talking about bombing Syria, not doing anything about tuition fees”. To be in Labour, according to Pilott, is to be “bogged down in the minutiae of managing capitalism”. Yet, despite Howard Pilott’s passions for the advancement of socialist ‘rationalism’, the SPGB struggles with attendance at public meetings, even in Brighton. Does he get dejected? “It’s a bit demotivating at times. We’re not a big party at the moment (he laughs, adding that he only got 88 votes in the general election), we’re not going to make a major dent in the world”.
“I think it’s a bit like ‘what did you do in the war Daddy?’, ‘what’s the bit you’re doing towards the environment?’ It’s about what you’re doing in these areas on a personal level. I think it’s really important to keep the flag flying. We’re still here: this is the alternative, opportunities are available for you”. Whilst Howard Pilott thinks that there’s “not a chance” capitalism will end within his lifetime, he thinks there’s already steps being taken: “The thing that is going to force the hand of the world is the environment. Even Bill Gates now has said that he doesn’t think the market system can deliver [a solution to climate change]. What will happen is that there will be an increasing polarity of interests”.
The consequence of environmental pressures could go either way, Pilott says, according to this polarity; he’s afraid of the alternative: “Society could become more oppressive, more fascistic”. Yet he’s mentioned previously that socialists should vote Tory. He laughs when I ask him about this, but admits that “this is something I’ve always struggled with. I subscribe to the Marxist idea of false consciousness – people are arguing in favour of things that are not in their interest”. He ascribes UKIP’s popularity to this notion: “What is Nigel Farage? A city trader, a millionaire. They think that because he’s got a pint and a fag in his hand he’s one of them. What does he want to do? Cut taxes for the rich”.
If there is a false consciousness, as Howard Pilott attributes, how can there be the break necessary for a socialist revolution? Pilott smiles, “well you can talk to them, which my party has tried to do for 110 years. Or alternatively, you can wait for capitalism to do its work for you. For things to begin to get so bad that people start to become more agitated”. This is his logic behind the idea of voting Tory – the necessity to shock people from their inertia: “You get more full-blown capitalism [under a Tory government], less of the amelioration of a welfare state; workers rights are removed, social provision is scrapped, markets are let rip…Maybe what would happen is that the inequalities, the deprivations this creates will wake people up”. Pilott’s uncertain however of this tactic: “That was a facetious remark I made – I don’t know whether or not it’s true”.
One thing is clear for Howard Pilott though: we are reaching the final crises of capitalism. He thinks people need to be shocked in order to ‘wake up’ to the oppression and inequality inhered in a capitalist system, and that this will happen through environmental pressures, through climate change, as we fail to take effective mitigative action: “The environment will certainly wake people up, but the trouble is, it may wake them up too late”.
Is there no hope then for socialism? Howard Pilott I think is quietly optimistic; he possesses the certain dogged idealism necessary for the contemporary socialist, trusting in the ‘ingenuity of humankind’: “I don’t believe that a society which can come up with triple heart bypass surgery, that can effectively bring people back from the dead, can take a piece of machinery on this planet, fire it at another planet that is further away than the sun and get it to land on an asteroid smaller than Lewes, can’t arrange things on this planet other than a way where a handful of people have to own half of it, and millions of people have to starve. I simply don’t believe it. It doesn’t strike me as sensible, rational or intelligent, and I’m sure actually we’re beyond that”.
Image: Courtesy of Howard Pilott