When we make a distinction between what is real and what is not real, we distinguish between those experiences which we intend to take seriously and the experiences we intend to ignore.
A parent tells their child that the monster from their nightmare is not real so that the child can let go of that experience. Scientists decide whether the phenomena indicated by their test results are not real in order to decide whether to include them in or leave them out of further investigation. By saying that God is not real, atheists ignore or invalidate the experience of faith, and by insisting on the reality of God, theists affirm the validity of that that experience.
Deep conflicts arise when groups of people disagree about the validity of whole categories of experience. These disagreements go beyond abstract conceptualizations to concrete lived experience: they express radically differing ways of relating to the universe, to other people, to oneself. People don’t just have different ideas about what ‘is real’; they live out, in practice, different ways of being human.
This presents an obstacle for any social movement that aspires to include the majority or totality of human beings, including radical socialism. The global working class finds itself divided, not only by identifications like nationality or religious creed, but by what Nelson Goodman calls “ways of worldmaking”. Will theists, for instance, actually give up their theism as ‘false consciousness’? Will practitioners of Indigenous spiritualities give up their sacred relationships to land, to ancestors, to visions, in order to embrace historical materialism? Will the privileged middle classes of the “developed” world, absorbed in bourgeois ideology, accept en masse that the desires and fears which have animated their entire lives are nothing more than illusions? I doubt it.
For this reason among others, as a radical socialist I find irrealist relativism appealing. I think we can distinguish between the abstract and the concrete, the exigent and the ephemeral, the actual and the fictive, without essentializing these distinctions into the real and the not-real. Letting go of that essentialism could defuse conflicts that only distract from the task of making revolutionary change.