George Kane, Book Review: We Can Change the World, by Dave Stratman

George Kane
Attempt at New Theory of Revolution Fails to Supplant Marx
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a review of the book
We Can Change the World, by David G. Stratman
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reprinted from the New Unionist, December 1995, page 3

Attempt at New Theory of Revolution Fails to Supplant Marx

By George Kane

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A Massachusetts reader, David G. Stratman, sent a copy of his book, We Can Change the World; The Real Meaning of Everyday Life, to the New Unionist for review. Stratman is a veteran of the anti-war movement of the 1960s, when he became a student of Marxism. He later apostatized and "became firmly against communism of any sort, concluding that there must be something wrong with any tree that always bears bad fruit."

Stratman nevertheless retains the conviction that capitalism demands a revolutionary reply. His mission in this book is to replace Marxism with a new paradigm to rally a revolutionary working class.

Stratman is a perceptive critic of the evils of capitalism and the U.S. government. He expounds common themes of radical political criticism that he weaves into a compelling condemnation of class rule.

His insights into the specifics of capitalist exploitation in the United States of the 1990s are well-considered and often original. For example, he observes that "the real purpose of the [educational reform] movement is to lower the educational attainment and the expectations of most students, so they will accept less rewarding jobs and less fulfilling lives in a contracting economy and a more unequal social order."

Chapter 6, "The Empire Strikes Back," is worth the price of the book. In it Stratman chronicles the "corporate counteroffensive" against the working class in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout this chapter Stratman exposes the hypocrisy of outrageous public policies specifically designed to enrich the capitalist class. For example, he points out that "huge military expenditures... were a way of transferring enormous amounts of public wealth to private corporations, without creating many new jobs."

In another sharp attack on government typical of this chapter, Stratman writes that "the Reagan Administration's purpose in slashing social programs... was to increase the pain and make people desperate enough to accept wage and benefit cuts." Stratman goes on to explore the significance to the class struggle of the trade deficit, unemployment rates intentionally kept high, the de-skilling of the work force through computerization, and the export of jobs.

Stratman loses clarity when his attention shifts from the specific evils of government policy to more general political theory. Some of his theoretical points are outlandish. He contends, for example, that capitalism has managed to maintain dominance only because of the counterrevolutionary influence of communism. Many radicals concur with his observation that the implementation of so-called "communism" in the Soviet-bloc countries and China just reformulated class rule to continue the suppression and exploitation of the working class. But Stratman overshoots this point when he asserts that it was Marxism itself that led to oppressive elites seizing power in these countries. He condemns Marxism as inherently counterrevolutionary because it posits the historical necessity of a capitalist stage to create the conditions for the revolutionary overthrow of class rule.

While Stratman correctly represents this position of Marx, his evaluation only makes sense if we disdain the lessons of history.

Marxism is a theory of history as the unfolding of the conflict between social classes. These classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production. In every historical epoch since the breakup of ancient communal society, there are people who get rich by exploiting those who by their labor actually produce the wealth of society. The specific nature of that exploitation defines the historical epochs.

Capitalist society is characterized by a working class that must sell its labor to the owners of the industries in which they work. Profit and wages are in direct conflict: a gain for one is always a loss for the other. Competition for profit requires capitalists in all industries to progressively exploit the work force. A consequence of capitalism is an ever-widening gap in the distribution of wealth. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Capitalism is inherently volatile becausecompetitive pressures compel capitalists to continually revolutionize the means of production. To match the prices of other products in the market, industrialists must pare back their labor costs by employing increasingly productive machinery. In capitalist production, no one can stand. If a cmpany is not increasing its profits, it is on the road to bankruptcy.

This dynamism of capitalism distinguishes it from all earlier forms of production. The laws of the marketplace require it to be progressively exploitative, progressively divisive between rich and poor. While previous economies tended to be conservative and to persist for centuries with only gradual changes to their external forms, capitalism cannot stand still. That is one reason why capitalism alone provides the soil in which a revolution from below, to overthrow the class structure of society, can grow. Stratman, however, dissents that history is important to revolution. He finds revolution inherent in human nature. He asserts that "human nature is a constant, and in this sense ahistorical."

While Marxism is a dynamic model of economic and social systems, Stratman' s model of a conflict of class "values" is divorced from historical development, and therefore static. His rejection of Marx's historical materialism leaves Stratman with only insubstantial wisps of subjective idealism as a foundation for his new theory of revolution.

Economics is fundamental in Marxist analysis because society, in all of its manifestations, is an objective phenomenon. Human survival requires the production of the means of subsistence. The specific methods of production in any epoch define the relationships of people involved in production. These are all objective and observable. Power and control in any society are expressions of those class relationships.

Since he denies that social development is a proper subject for scientific analysis, Stratman naturally rebuts Marx's assertion that the collapse of capitalism is inevitable. "There is nothing intrinsic to capitalism as an economic system," Stratman contends, "which makes its destruction inevitable."

There is no point, however, on which Marx is more clear and convincing. Capitalism suffers from a terminal disease, the contradiction between the social nature of production and the private ownership of the means of production.

The external manifestation of this internal contradiction is the irreconcilable opposition of the interests of capitalists and workers. Capitalism cannot exist without a working class to produce its wealth, but the logic of capitalism forces the capitalists to squeeze the working class to the lowest acceptable economic level. The working class, in order to survive, must eventually overturn class society.

Stratman contends that class warfare is really a struggle between value systems and is not inherently economic. The true source of revolution, Stratman believes, is that capitalism conflicts with human nature and consigns people to dehumanizing relationships. "The motive force of history is working people's struggle tohumanize the world," he writes, an eternal struggle to replace class relationships with a society based on equality and solidarity.

Of course, the proponents of capitalism defend it on the basis that it is the true expression of "human nature." For them, human nature is the behavior they observe in capitalist society, such as greed and selfishness.

This leads to a hopelessly circular argument because it confuses cause and effect. Every society believes that its rules and systems are an expression of human nature.

Yet Stratman falls into the same error of extolling a couple of attributes, egalitarianism and solidarity, as representing eternal human nature. A Marxist understands that, while human nature is not infinitely malleable, people develop behavior patterns that their social and economic systems reward. Under genuine communism, people will be cooperative and act to promote the common good because such behavior will be rewarding for the individual, while the competitive, selfish behaviors of capitalism will no longer be rewarded.

Stratman argues against Marx's historical materialism by claiming it depicts the working class as the passive victim of capitalist exploitation. In Stratman's mind, this passive victim cannot develop the self-aware revolutionary consciousness necessary to overturn class rule. Material circumstances, Stratman avers, do not determine political consciousness.

This argument reveals a misunderstanding of Marx's vision of the working class. Stratman believes that in a materialistic theory of history the agents of historical necessity are automatons, devoid of will and reason.

But Marx was keenly aware of the need for revolutionary consciousness. In the Communist Manifesto Marx wrote that "the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority" (my emphasis).

Marxists and Stratman agree that revolutionary consciousness is a consequence of class struggle. The struggle over wages and working conditions that drives workers into unions and onto picket lines is only the most obvious manifestation of the class struggle. Through the everyday struggles upon which Stratman bases his theory of revolution -- against unemployment, homelessness, costly and uneven medical care, boring and stupid jobs, a mis-education system, consumerism, alienation and the degradation of the environment to name only a few -- workers gain class awareness and learn that the capitalists are their common enemy. At his best, Stratman provides an update and expansion to Marx's writings on class struggle, not a substitute.

But Stratman's eccentric revolutionary program does not call for organizing the working class in economic and political opposition to capitalism. The source of true revolution, according to Stratman, is the everyday protests of ordinary people:

"The condition for world revolution is greater consciousness among working people as the collective creators of human society. The condition of this greater self-consciousness is a new paradigm of history and society which shows the role of ordinary people in creating them."

The everyday conduct of ordinary people may, as Stratman claims, be seditious of bourgeois hegemony, but by itself it has no revolutionary potential. At best it is reformist, and at worst it is conservative.

The workers as a class become revolutionary only when their survival requires conditions that are incompatible with capitalist rule. At that time-which is now here-workers can and must expand their focus from the tactics of daily class struggle to plan the overthrow of the class rule of the capitalists.

While Stratman's critique of capitalism is excellent, there is little merit in his analysis of Marxism or his revolutionary alternative. Stratman has a BMW-revolutionary's understanding of class struggle. Capitalism, he finds, provokes revolution because it is inconvenient, unfulfilling and unaes-thetic-the perspective of the cranky, middle-aged, privileged knowledge worker.

Stratman alleges the radical movements of the '60s failed because they did not present a theoretical alternative to Marxism. Stratman fails because there is no valid alternative.