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Review of Dave Stratman's We Can Change the World
REVIEW OF DAVE STRATMAN'S WE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD
by Connie Furdeck
The NUP and the New Democracy Movement, founded on Stratman's book, have some common ideas and goals. Both, believe that the capitalist system worldwide is at the root of our problems and both, want to replace it with a new society based on the positive human values of equality and solidarity, - a society in which we, the so-called common people, have control over our lives. Both organizations believe that working people need to regain respect for ourselves as a class - that each, in our own way contribute to the great ingenuity of the human race - and that leadership must be developed from our ranks.
However, our two organizations have some very important major differences. The NUP is based on the fundamentals of Marxism. The NDM has rejected Marxism on the basis of its belief that Marxism must always lead to dictatorship and that Marx's analysis of history was faulty. Because we, New Unionists, believe the NDM is sincerely searching for solutions, we have written the following critique of We Can Change the World in a non-confrontational manner in the hope of opening up further discussion.
Stratman's book is a must reading for a number of reasons. It contains a powerful and inspiring message that is very needed today. We need to hear and see what people are capable of. We need to realize and combat the capitalist propaganda that we are all as Chomsky puts it "tools of production and atoms of consumption." In addition, Dave's critique of capitalism and its value system, is excellent, particularly when he exposes the real role of some its institutions - such as education. It makes one more aware of the distorted value system into which we have been born and have grown up accepting as natural. Also he is right on the money in his analysis of present day bureaucratic unions and the role they play in providing a well-disciplined workforce for the capitalists. Most importantly, he understands that a rank and file run union movement could become a revolutionary tool in workers' hands.
Hooray for saying it, Dave, in your chapter, "Hope and Revolution": "Revolution, in my view, does not mean simply a new economic structure, and it does not mean control by a new elite. It means transforming all the relationships in society to accord with the values, goals and idea of human life of ordinary working people." We couldn't agree more. This puts a human face on revolution, so we will never again shrink from the word. It does not mean blood and violence. It means a change in the internal structure of society and with it a change in all of its social relations. But, to bring this about, we workers, first, must become classconscious and return to the class solidarity of the past - pooling together our energies across racial, ethnic, sexual and other lines.
Having achieved class solidarity, we need a viable plan and a set of goals. Our strategies must be based on a correct understanding of the past. This is why we are very concerned about Stratman's negative attitude towards Marxism. We believe he is wrong in most assertions and could very likely influence and divert uninformed working people in their search for solutions to today's problems.
For example, Stratman takes Marx to task for stating that workers are motivated by self interest. To prove his point, he relates stories of striking workers caught in no-win situations who held out way beyond their own material interests, losing homes and cars for principles and issues that, in their minds, were more important than their personal situations. Stratman's problem is he reads Marx too literally without taking into consideration the tremendous change in society since Marx's day. When Marx referred to worker self-interest it was in a period when workers identified their interests with the interests of their class. The idea of individualism as we know it today is a new concept. We refer to it as the cult of the individual - and it has been one of the most successful promotions of the capitalist class particularly since WW2.
Secondly Marx did not write about working people as though they were automatons only responding to economic necessity, nor did he deny that ideas and aspirations, a sense of their own humanity, solidarity and other motives drive human beings. (see his economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844) Capitalists are human beings too - and share these same natural human attributes. But, different classes have different needs and desires - aside from human nature. Put people into opposing economic situations and other aspects of human nature arise, such as the need to survive. So what we are concerned with here is not human nature, but human behavior which has been influenced by psychological, social and cultural conditioning.
Marx's great thesis the Materialist Conception of History says, in part, that economic changes are at the bottom of developing conflicts because these changes impinge on the established social structure and effect the material and social conditions of people.
Capitalism was operating for centuries before it had impact on the day by day living conditions of the majority. As it developed, it affected ever widening circles of people, regardless of whether they were directly involved in capitalist enterprises - eventually driving out small farmers, petty producers and people who worked for themselves. Today, in the "developed" countries, there are basically only two classes left, workers and capitalists, and these two classes have opposing material interests.
All previous human societies have gone through successive stages of birth, maturity, old age and death. Without making any value judgment as to the purpose they serve, eventually they no longer are a positive force, and begin create more harm than good. Capitalism is an old system which has run its course. The working class, the vast majority of the world's people are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet in a world of cut-throat competition.
The system never could provide jobs, food, clothing, shelter, education, etc., even in the best of times - which is generally during war. Today, it is estimated that one-half of the working class throughout the world is unemployed. Capitalism can't be saved or reclaimed in its present form. The choice is outright fascism or social and economic democracy. Because capitalism has eliminated all other economic classes except two, if worker's take charge and set up an economic democracy, everyone including former capitalists will participate in the work of society and share in its benefits - and class divisions will disappear.
This is why Marxism is so important for workers because, as a body of social science, it enables us to understand the fundamentals of human societies past and present - how they came into being, why they disappeared, etc. - in order to be able to plan and work toward replacing the present one with a new and truly democratic social system.
Socialism is not the invention of Marx or any one individual, but a body of material that has been contributed to by many, each, on the shoulders of those who proceeded him/her. There are three components, Historical Materialism, the Law of Value and Surplus Value and the Class Struggle. Time and again in his writings, Marx acknowledged the contributions of earlier thinkers. He credited Ben Franklin, Adam Smith and David Ricardo for their prior studies of capitalist economics when he wrote the Law of Value. An analysis of economics from a worker's perspective, it deals with how the system operates, how social wealth is created and who creates it and how it is divided. The class struggle was a common theme in Marx's time and many acknowledged it in their writings. Historical materialism was discovered independently by the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Marx and Engels praised his book, Ancient Society for its brilliant analysis of the evolution of early human societies throughout the world.
Marx never wrote down any formula or plan for what would constitute a Marxist society, nor did any appear in his lifetime. The only manifestation of anything remotely resembling socialism in his time was the famous Paris Commune, which Marx clearly designated as a worker's government, not yet socialist. Why? Because the economy was not as yet fully developed so as to have social production, which is the basis of socialism. Where Stratman gets the idea that workers have to wait for a fully developed economy to institute self-management, I can't fathom. The Commune was a positive example which Marx praised for its democratic structure. Marxism no more leads to dictatorship than the teachings of Christ and early Christian communism led to the top-down dictatorship of the Roman Church during the Middle Ages.
I believe part of Stratman's problem is that he equates Leninism with Marxism. However fine a theoretical Marxist Lenin might have been, he was a product of his own time and the customs of his particular country. He was an educated elitist, living in an undeveloped country - completely apart from the tiny working class of about 3 million and a vast peasantry of 160 million. Whatever theories the Bolsheviks held, when it came to practical democracy, Russia had just moved out from under Tsarist feudalism and had no concept of democratic forms. Marx had referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat by which he meant majority rule, in a country where workers make up the majority. In contrast, Lenin established a dictatorship over the working class and over the peasants.
The Russian Revolution was a nationalist revolution which, while clothed in the ideas of Marxism, at its material base, was fundamentally bourgeois. One Hundred sixty million peasants reclaiming land for farming and marketing is not socialist regardless of what it calls itself. As a vast nation in 1917, Russia faced the choice of developing social production, or falling further backwards economically against the rest of the world. In view of the powerful national and international forces arrayed against it, only some sort of centralized dictatorship could have held the regime together allowing it to close off its borders while developing its economy. Otherwise, it would have become a client state of powerful capitalist interests such as are countries like those in South America and Africa.
The Soviet Union developed into a form of State Capitalism centralized and controlled in such a way as to provide cradle to grave social programs that guaranteed everyone work and the necessities of life. Unfortunately because of this, today's workers worldwide think socialism is some kind of top-down welfare system rather than an advanced egalitarian society which promises peace and plenty for all.
Another reason for Stratman's rejection of Marxism was his experiences working with other "Marxists" in the student movement during the 1960's. The section on the "New Left" and various dominant student organizations and why they were unsuccessful in spreading out and organizing the working masses is informative and excellent, but he is describing the inevitable direction of Leninism, not Marxism. Here again Leninist vangardism and its attitude of workers as only playing a passive role is starkly contrasted to Marx's dictum that "the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself." as well as De Leonism which admonishes, "educate first and organize after." All the "Marxist" political parties playing a dominate role in the sixties were splits from the original Leninist Communist Party which had wealth and influence partly because it represented a series of "successful" revolutions in Europe and Asia, and largely because it was, for a long time, the paid-tool of the Soviet Union. These numerous splinter organizations originated as a result of power struggles between leaders (Trotsky and Stalin) and countries, (China and The Soviet Union) etc., but not because of differences in basic principles - such as rejecting the top-down anti-Marxist vanguard approach.
Aside from the fact that the elitists of the 60's were followers of Lenin from Herbert Marcuse onwards, there is another reason for their elitism. Stratman should see this himself. In his book, he does an excellent job of explaining how people are stratified into various levels in American society - how from kindergarten onward, one is programmed to be a "winner" or a "loser." The "winners" are isolated from "losers, internalize the values of capitalism and are groomed for college and high-level professional employment. The losers are programmed to be the drones, to accept menial low-paying dead-end jobs. Having understood this, is it not possible that the elitist were reflecting their experiences in capitalist society, not their understanding of Marxism?
One final note to Stratman. The ruling class is delighted when worker's reject Marxism. This has been their aim all along. This is why they did everything they could to promote the idea that the Soviet Union was Socialist. A real understanding of Marxism helps us to understand why attempts at socialism have failed in the past. A real understanding of Marxism helps us realize that there is not some impediment in human nature preventing us from building a world of economic and social equality and peace. As long as working people reject Marxism, they are rejecting the only valid analysis and critique of capitalism which can enable them to organize a viable movement to replace it!
UNDERSTANDING AND USING HISTORY TO WORK FOR FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE
The most glaring argument of contention in Dave's book is part four - an alternate view of history which says in essence that "capitalism is not primarily an economic system but a system of human relations and class control" and "the superiority of the young capitalist class to the feudal landowners did not lay in its economic powers". On top of this, Stratman includes landowners in the class who became known as the bourgeoisie. Sorry Dave but bourgeoisie means townsmen, capitalists carrying on trade and simple manufacturing in the burgeoning towns - not landowners. They were part of the old feudal ruling class.
Following this is the further assertion that capitalism need not have supplanted feudalism at all, instead, peasant movements such as the Levellers could have developed communal cultivation of the waste lands and the common people throughout England could have set up a communal society getting rid of private property and developing society for the benefit of all. Stratman correctly points out that Marx and Engels called such movements utopian.
So the question is, was it inevitable that capitalism overthrow feudalism or could socialism, as envisioned by some of the commoners, (Levelers) have been established instead? And why is it extremely important that we read history correctly? What does it have to do with our future?
Did the old feudal lords simply capitulate and hand the reins of government over to the capitalists? Obviously not. So what was the power of the aborning capitalist class?
In the first place capitalism was infinitely economically superior to the old feudal system. Feudalism was a sterile, land-based economy that used the labors of millions of peasants and serfs living and working the land in family groups, growing the necessities of life to support an increasingly parasitic feudal nobility whose entire existence was involved in war making and self aggrandizement.
Capitalism in its simplest level began when former peasants fled the land and began to establish towns under the castle walls and commenced simple hand production for sale gradually supplanting the guild system by hiring wage workers. This was augmented by traders following the crusades and bringing back silks and spices from the Near East. As the towns grew and prospered in the 13th and 14th centuries, the townsmen waged a struggle for political autonomy. Since their activities lead to the accumulation of wealth, which the feudal nobility was in constant need of to carry on its wars, this aborning bourgeois class had a powerful weapon over the nobility. However the nobility did not simply step aside. Time and again a merchant lender would find himself imprisoned or put to death over a loan. Gradually loans to the nobility were tied to bargains that the merchants receive seats in the House of Commons and it gradually was established that only the Commons could originate money bills. In addition to the financial power of the nascent capitalist class, two developments, in the latter part of the 15th Century, gave it tremendous help in overcoming feudal resistance. The revolution in military technology through the use of gunpowder, and the development of typographical printing. The bourgeoisie could now hire mass armies of foot soldiers with firearms which the armored knights had no chance against.Printing broke the monopoly on knowledge of the Catholic church. The great knowledge of antiquity was now available to everyone and was the key factor in an immense renaissance - advances in the arts of navigation, the discovery of new lands and trade routes - all expanded Europe's intellectual horizon - exciting a rebellious spirit that kept up a relentless pressure on the citadels of feudal power. This is why capitalism replaced feudalism. In the power struggle, the bourgeoisie gradually gained strength and overthrew the old societies - not alone by themselves - but with the aid of the various underclasses, peasants, serfs, working people. And in many cases, as soon as it consolidated its power, it allied itself with the old ruling elements and suppressed the classes below.
No ruling class has ever willingly given up its power. Marx and Engels called plans such as the Levellers utopian because they were unattainable. It was not because such ideas were not good - fair- equitable - etc., but, because the commoners had no economic or military power from which to negotiate. The Levellers were the poor. Where could they acquire firearms? Their beautiful dreams of setting up communes, occupying unused wastelands and farming for the common good, were a threat to the ruling class. It was not going to allow masses of people to get out from under and set up their own society.
We are faced with a similar situation, today, in regards to the great dream of a fair and equitable society. We know that the capitalist class is not going to allow the working class to get out from under it without a fight. Since we are not wealthy, we certainly could not buy out the capitalists.
Our plan, therefore, must be to set up a working class political party with one demand in its platform, social ownership and democratic control of the entire privately owned economy. However, even a 100 percent vote for socialism will not bring it about. When our rulers realize they are losing the election, they will marshal all the force possible against us including closing down industry and firing workers! Therefore we will need a greater force to counter them - and that, for obvious reasons, cannot be military. As a class, we workers do all the necessary work of society. It is at the point of production - at our place of work - where our potential power resides. This is why De Leon's plan of a massive, unified, rank-and-file controlled union movement is so necessary. Without an organized social body ready to back up our just demands by seizing control of the workplaces, electing our own management and carrying on the work of providing the necessities of life to all, the capitalists will try to bring in the troops and institute a complete fascist dictatorship over all of society.
One additional point about De Leon's plan: we live in an economy based on social production - carried on across all state and territorial lines. It is private ownership of the means of production and distribution that gives the capitalist class its power and the political state is the expression of that power. Marx held that the "existence of the state is inseparable from the existence of slavery." Therefore if our future government is to express the will of the people, it must conform to the reality of daily life. The political arm of labor has only a temporary role to play - capturing the state in order to dissolve it. Our union movement will be the permanent body. It will furnish the frame work by which to elect the necessary management committees for a smooth running social and economic democracy.
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