WHAT IS MISSING FROM THE WORLD?
by Dave Stratman
New Democracy held a retreat recently in Madison, Wisconsin where 19 people discussed building a revolutionary movement. Dave addressed these remarks to the retreat.
Retreats let us step back from the pressures of our everyday life and get an overall view of the situation. I’d like to make a few comments on the historical situation we are in and what I believe we can do about it.
What’s our situation? The ruling elite, the capitalist class--whatever you want to call them--have been on the attack against working people for the last 25 years in a brutal class war. But this attack has a specific history.
From the end of WWII until the early ‘70s, the world elite tried to control people through prosperity. Give people more money, steady jobs, two cars in the garage, a chance to send their kids to college, they thought, and people will buy into the system and be content. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Instead of being more content, people became more rebellious. They demonstrated for Civil Rights. They fought against the Vietnam War. They went on strike. They fought against their union leaders and demanded democracy in their unions. 1970 saw more strikes than at any other time in US history except 1946 and more wildcat strikes than any other year. In 1968 revolutionary movements swept the world: China and Poland and Vietnam and Czechoslovakia, Mexico and Italy—virtually everywhere on the globe. In May, 1968 ten million workers in France occupied their factories and offices for ten days and came near to making a revolution.
The global elite had to respond to this situation. To cope with the worldwide "revolution of rising expectations," capitalist and communist elites embarked on a strategy of lowering people’s expectations. In every area of life they attacked people’s sense of economic and psychological security. Beginning with the wage-price freeze in 1971, they put the brakes on economic growth and promoted unemployment. After a decade of intense efforts, they delivered a series of deadly blows to working people: the defeats we know as PATCO, Hormel, Staley, Caterpillar, Detroit News, and others too numerous to name.
They prepared the ground carefully. They slashed government programs and repealed the Great Society and the New Deal in the name of balancing the budget, creating millions of homeless and poor desperate for jobs. They told working people loud and clear, "Stay in line or you’ll be on the streets with them." They waged tireless campaigns telling people that "We live in a global market," and we have to compete with foreign workers and even with each other. They told us in a million ways that we have to fear each other: whites are racists, blacks are criminals, men are brutes, women are mindless bimbos, your coworkers are fools.
The unions worked closely with their corporate masters in bringing about these defeats. The union leadership relentlessly repeated the corporate message, "Join the Company Team" to compete with other workers and attacked solidarity among working people. The major defeats suffered by workers were a result not of corporate power but of union betrayal: the Machinists forced to cross picket lines at airports to defeat PATCO; the entire Hormel chain continuing to work during the P-9 strike; the "selective strike" strategy imposed on the Cat workers by the International in 1991, and other examples that we’re all aware of. In these and other situations, the problem was not that the union leadership did not know how to fight but that it was fighting for the other side.
The government and corporate war hasn’t just been against workers in the workplace but against people in every area of our lives. The corporate-led campaign for education reform, for example, is really an attack on our children and grandchildren, to make the schools "lean and mean." Kids are told to run faster and faster, work harder and harder to make the grade set by the corporations. To get them to fit into a more unequal and undemocratic society, the aspirations and self-confidence of our children must be crushed.
There’s one final point I want to make about the situation and that is the utter failure of communism and socialism as revolutionary alternatives to capitalism. This is crucially important for us. For one thing, the working class movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries was profoundly influenced by Marxism; many of the activists in the CIO organizing drives of the ‘30s were communists or socialists, and many labor activists now still subscribe to these ideas. For another, the failure of communism has made it appear that there is no possible alternative to the capitalist system.
The lack of a revolutionary alternative to capitalism has had a very negative effect on people’s ability to organize a new movement for change. If there is no alternative to capitalism, then it seems we will forever have to give in to the companies’ demands for jointness or pay cuts or two-tier systems and all the other claims made in the name of "competitiveness." With no alternative to capitalism, we cannot oppose its logic.
What strategy makes sense in the face of this situation?
Well, an electoral strategy doesn’t make sense, because the real powers pulling the strings are behind the scenes. The politicians are just front men, and changing them doesn’t matter.
A reform strategy--like the reform of the unions, for example--doesn’t work, because the unions are part of the corporate system and they can’t be reformed. Other reforms—like, say, reforming the schools— can’t work, because the schools reflect the relations of power in society. And it’s the relations of power in society that are the real problem. If we haven’t changed the relations of power, we haven’t really changed anything.
So what strategy does make sense? To figure this out, let’s look more closely at the nature of the class war.
What is class struggle and the class war all about? I was talking a few months ago with Larry Solomon, and he said something very important about the Cat workers. He said, "We knew we were fighting for everyone. That’s why we held on for so long." The Staley workers were locked out for 27 months, but they fought on at great sacrifice to their families and themselves until their final betrayal by the AFL-CIO and the International Paperworkers Union, because they knew that their struggle was about more than just the families involved. There are many strikes and working class struggles where the sacrifice is all out of proportion to any possible gain. What does this show us?
Though strikes and lockouts and other class struggles almost always involve specific issues, these issues are just the occasions for class struggles. Under the surface the struggles are over two different sets of values, two different ideas of what society should be like, two different ideas of what it means to be a human being. On the one side stands the owning class. The corporate class values competition and inequality and top-down control. On the other side stands the working class, which values solidarity and equality and control from the bottom-up. The class war is only partially about economics. At its core it is about the goals and direction of society and the values that should shape it. Each class in this war is trying to impose its view of humanity, its values, its power over society. I made a speech in 1985 to Local P-9 at Hormel. At one point I said, "Your strike isn’t just about safety and wages. Your strike is about what it means to be a human being." Everybody in the local stood and cheered.
Now, as you all know by now, New Democracy proposes that our strategy should be to win the class war. What makes me think that we can win? To explain this, let me explain our most basic insight.
Part of the problem with Marxism and the way we’ve all been trained to see class struggle is that we view it too narrowly. If people aren’t out demonstrating or on strike, we think nothing’s going on. But that’s not true. Everywhere we look, and at every point in our lives and in other people’s lives, people are engaged in a struggle against capitalism to assert their values against capitalist values. This is why we can win.
Think for a minute about the capitalist system. We know that capitalism is the most dynamic social system that has ever existed. It has penetrated every part of the globe, and it works its way into every area of our lives. We also know that the basic principal of capitalism is the principle of competition, the idea of dog-eat-dog. The logic of capitalist culture is that we should each of us be trying to screw each other all the time. The logic of capitalism, in other words, is that this world should be a savage and loveless place. But we can look around and see that this is not so. We look around and see that most people in their everyday lives—with their wife or husband or their co-workers or their students or their patients—most people in the little piece of the world they think they can control struggle against the logic of capitalist relations to create relationships based on love and trust and solidarity and mutual respect. I’m not saying any of us is perfect. But to the extent that any of us has mutual and loving relationships in our lives, we have created them by struggle against a capitalist culture that is profoundly hostile to them.
This means, I think, that most people are already engaged in a struggle against capitalism to create a new world. The smallest acts of kindness and solidarity on the shop floor or in our classrooms or in our neighborhoods or our homes and the most public and collective acts of class struggle are all part of a struggle to humanize the world and make it conform to our idea of what it should be. The moral values present in people’s everyday lives--values of solidarity and commitment to each other--these are the real basis of every great movement for social change.
We don’t have to invent the revolutionary movement. The movement already exists. It exists in the little things that people do for each other everyday; it exists in the help people give each other on the shop floor and their resistance to the company and the union; it exists in the love of husband and wife for each other and the support they give their children; it exists in the efforts of teachers to teach, and in the resistance of students to much of what they are taught. It exists in this room, in our efforts to figure out the world and how we can help change it.
Are all these relationships of human solidarity perfect? Does friendship and equality and resistance to capitalism shape everything in society or everything we do? Of course not. That’s why we need a revolution—because everything that we value is under attack. But the revolutionary movement that we are part of is already a powerful force for change which the ruling class spends its every waking minute trying to control.
Our job as self-conscious revolutionaries is to make this already-existing movement aware of its earth-shaking significance, more confident of its power and more clear in the tasks that confront it, so that it can succeed.
By declaring revolution as our goal, we will not be isolated. Far from it. Instead we will be giving legitimacy to feelings and aspirations and values that millions of people share and know in their hearts to be right, but are constantly told are wrong. By declaring revolution our goal, we can build a movement that reaches into people’s deepest feelings and expresses their strongest desires. By declaring revolution our goal, we can build a movement engaging the great majority of humanity.
How do we put this strategy into effect? This is one of the questions we will want to answer this weekend. But I think that certain things follow from this analysis. One is that spreading our message—this new understanding of working people and the possibilities of revolution and real democracy—is crucial. A second is that we cannot rely on politicians or union officials or structures to build this movement: we have to rely on the people. A third is that we have to think big. We have to reach out to the whole world. We have to think of the whole world, not just our little corner of it, when we are trying to figure out the connections among people and issues. We have to think not in terms of some crummy compromise or "lesser evil." We’re for the world as it should be and as it can be.
Let me return to the historical significance of what we’re doing. Marxism provided the underpinnings for the working class movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and Marxism has failed. It failed because it accepted the capitalist view of human motivation, which led it into an anti-democratic and anti-people nightmare in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The effect of that failure has been to undermine the possibility of working class movements ever since. The revolutionary aspirations of the twentieth century have been trapped beneath the dead weight of Marxism. No new and successful revolutionary movement is possible except on the basis of a new way of seeing the world.
Great social movements are founded on great social visions. We in New Democracy are proposing a new social vision to replace capitalism and to replace the failed vision of Marxism. We are proposing a vision of ordinary people as the source not only of the material wealth that labor creates, but also of the positive values in this society and the values and social relations on which we can base a new one. We are proposing a democratic vision of a new society in which the goal is not mindless economic growth or greed or personal aggrandizement, but our shared fulfillment as human beings.
What is missing from the world now? Not the need for revolution: there are millions hungry in the midst of plenty; there are millions suffering from overwork and millions more without work; there is a planet being raped by an economic system run amok; there is a whole world of human beings whose relations of solidarity are under attack by a ruling elite that cannot survive without undermining the human bonds between us.
What is missing from the world? Not the desire for revolution. There are many millions of people in the U.S. and billions worldwide who yearn for, work for, struggle for a better world, who will gladly be part of a revolutionary movement.
What is missing from the world? What’s missing is a vision of ordinary human beings that can free us from the dead weight of the past and make democracy and revolution possible. This is the vision that I am proposing to you, and this is what we together can offer the world. Thank you.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, November-December 1998.