How socialists work to win mass support
By Dave Holmes
[The following talk was presented at the Socialist Ideas Conference organised by the Australian Socialist Alliance and Resistance, Melbourne, September 3, 2011. It first appeared at Dave Holmes' Arguing for Socialism and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]
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Will the level of popular and working-class struggle rise significantly in the coming years? How can we overcome or neutralise the deadly effect of ruling-class propaganda on the minds of so many ordinary people? Can left-wing forces rally significant support and lead big struggles? How do we work towards this goal?
Bible sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Mormons go door to door preaching their message. Their success depends on the scope of the effort: How many people can they mobilise and how many doors can they knock on? It also depends on the general level of social distress and alienation in society, on the number of people searching for solace and comfort.
Socialists obviously don't reject propaganda, we are putting it out all the time, but our strategy is — and must be if we are serious — fundamentally based on something else.
Before the Communist Manifesto (written in late 1847) socialism was necessarily utopian. Marx and Engels had the greatest respect and admiration for their great utopian predecessors who operated in the first decades of the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution had really developed and transformed society. These were the Frenchmen Charles Fourier and Henri Saint Simon and the Englishman Robert Owen. They took over all that was valid in their ideas. As Engels put it later:
... To the crude conditions of capitalistic production and the crude class conditions correspond crude theories. The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure fantasies.
Lenin explained that utopianism was defined by its ignoring of material interests, i.e., the real interests of the various social classes. In particular, the anti-social behaviour of our ruling class is not the result of ignorance or misunderstanding but flows from their real social situation as capitalists who live off the exploitation of wage labour and are immersed in a competitive struggle for survival.
Today we often encounter utopian thinking, especially in the green movement. On the one hand, this has a progressive aspect in that many people can see that things should be — and could be — so different. For instance, we clearly have the material-technical means to abolish world poverty, to tackle climate change, etc.
But on the other hand, there is often no understanding that the capitalist class, which is responsible for the appalling situation our world faces, will fight to the end to preserve its power and privileges and can only be overcome by an even greater force — the organised struggle of the masses for a society that puts people's needs before profits.
In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels paid tribute to the great utopians but took a different approach. For them, the working class is not just the suffering class, not simply the biggest class numerically, but the essential product of capitalist development. The bosses own the modern means of production but the working class operates them. The exploitation of the working class is the source of capitalist profit: the workers get wages, the bosses get the profits.
The working class operates the social means of production and they operate them collectively. Their objective class interest is not to become petty proprietors but to collectively own the means of production — that is, to achieve socialism. As the Manifesto puts it, in the working class the bosses produce their own gravediggers. Or, to put it another way, the working class is a revolutionary — or potentially revolutionary — class. Socialism will develop out of the possibilities revealed by capitalism itself and through the struggle of the social grouping created by capitalist development — the working class.
Bridging the gap
But between these general and absolutely correct propositions and the actual development of big struggles against the system — let alone revolutionary struggles — there is an enormous task to carry out, a big gap to bridge, a huge political space to cross. That's what we are concerned with all the time.
It is actually no easy matter for the working class to fulfil the great progressive role that Marx and Engels saw for it. At various times many people on the left have come to doubt that they can ever do it.
Under capitalism, the working class is a ground-down, deeply divided mass — it is basically fodder for exploitation by the bosses in the workplace. Workers are forced to compete against each other for jobs. They are divided by nationality, ethnic background or skin colour; by skill and type of work (blue collar, white collar, etc.); by their wage levels and general conditions of work; and by age and gender. These divisions are skilfully exploited by the capitalist class to keep the workers disunited and turned in on each other.
The only antidote to this extreme heterogeneity is a conscious struggle for organisation and unity in order to fight for a new society. And the highest form of this unity is a mass fighting socialist party. Here is how Lenin put it in his famous 1904 polemic One Step Foward, Two Steps Back:
In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labour for capital, constantly thrust back to the "lower depths" of utter destitution, savagery, and degeneration, the proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organisation, which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class.
We can see today in Australia and other imperialist countries what a crippling effect the lack of a big militant workers party has on the struggle.
Ruling class weapons
Today we are acutely conscious of the all-pervasive mass media constantly spewing out ruling class propaganda to block or divert the working class from taking up the banner of progressive social struggle. Think about all the horrible things the capitalist politicians and media hacks deploy from their arsenal of noxious ideological weapons.
Nationalism and flag waving
Think of Australia's Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Liberal Party federal opposition leader Tony Abbott attending yet another funeral for an Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan. They look solemn and sad and intone the usual crap about "sacrifice" and "finishing the job". Samuel Johnston's aphorism that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel inescapably comes to mind.
Genuine love of one's country should mean caring about the welfare and the actual conditions of life of the mass of people who live in it. It has nothing to do with the militaristic, ANZAC-type rituals and empty rhetoric we cop all the time.
We live in a class-divided imperialist First World country. On the one hand, there is the capitalist oligarchy and its hangers on; on the other hand there is the mass of the working people. We have nothing in common with the capitalist oligarchy. There are in fact two Australias, not one. The "national interest" is the capitalists' interests; the flag is their flag.
Nazi leader Hermann Goering cyncially explained the ruling class attitude to patriotism in a discussion with the US psychologist Gilbert at Nuremburg shortly before his suicide:
"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship ..."
"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars." [A rather fanciful notion in the light of post-World War II history.]
"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
Then there is general xenophobia and scapegoating of refugees, Muslims (the burqa, terrorism, etc.) and guest workers (457 visa workers or whoever).
And no one should think that anti-Semitism is a dead letter in countries like Australia, that the Holocaust somehow took it permanently off the ideological menu. "The socialism of fools" is always there beneath the surface and under certain conditions can become a live issue again. The crimes of Israel are certainly a factor promoting anti-Semitism, despite progressive anti-Zionists routinely condemning it.
Another big ideological distraction is consumerism, promoted endlessly by the media. The implicit idea here is that happiness and meaning in life comes from consuming (or aspiring to consume) a huge array of various bright and dinky products. The bosses need to promote consumerist attitudes because their profits depend on us buying and continuing to buy the absolute rivers of stuff that pour off the assembly lines. As we know, consumerism is not only inimical to a happy life but is completely unsustainable. Furthermore, poverty means that masses of people are actually unable to "consume" the basic necessities of life.
The bosses objectively need all these tools and distractions since today they have nothing to offer the mass of people. The welfare state — a product of past struggles — is being systematically attacked and white-anted on all fronts. In regard to social expenditures it's one cutback after another. But for militarism and corporate welfare there is always plenty of money.
And if the ideological weapons aren't sufficient to immobilise people and prevent serious struggles from developing, there is a growing arsenal of reactionary laws in place. Trade unions are not illegal — heaven forbid! After all, we live in a democracy! — but they have less and less legal room to do anything meaningful in defence of their members. Despite an ocean of verbiage, the harsh anti-union laws brought in by the previous Liberal-National party Coalition federal government of John Howard have substantially been kept by the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
Then there are the so-called anti-terror laws. Today they are being used to pick off isolated targets (such as Muslims who engage in rather foolish talk and are entrapped by police provocateurs). Tomorrow they may be used against more "mainstream" targets.
Variability of popular consciousness
Some people look at all this crap and come to feel that nothing can be done.
Socialists have to keep our feet on the ground. Our starting point must be the insoluble contradictions of the system. The bosses can keep telling people that shit smells like roses, that life is wonderful, but that approach won't work forever. Unpleasant reality eventually intrudes and today it is starting to intrude big time as people's modest dreams vanish in front of their eyes. Think of Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Britain — or the US where scores of thousands of people are being evicted from their homes each month.
As Abraham Lincoln famously said: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."
Or, to put in it Marxist terms: At the end of the day, which is more powerful? People's daily experience of exploitation, oppression and alienation or the capitalist lie machine?
Racism and refugees
We often hear well-meaning people tell us that ordinary people are stupid or apathetic and that we get the governments we deserve. But this is untrue on so many levels.
First, newly elected capitalist governments always claim a mandate for all their policies but often the election has hinged on one or two things which, moreover, they have lied about. (Howard lied about WorkChoices and no one being worse off; Rudd and Gillard lied about scrapping it.)
Second, popular consciousness is not a given once and for all but is highly variable, even contradictory. Look at Australia over the last dozen or so years in regard to racism and refugees. The record shows a tremendous variability.
In March 1996 the ALP was defeated and the Howard government elected; October 1998 Howard was relected. racist independent Pauline Hanson became an MP and launched her vicious, xenophobic campaign. But anti-Hanson forces also mobilised in the streets, to significant effect.
In August 1999 East Timor's independence referendum was held amid a bloody Indonesian terror. Large demonstrations and protests in support of the — non-white — East Timorese took place in Australia. Howard was eventually forced to send in troops to protect the population.
Then in August 2001 the Tampa incident took place. At the federal elections in November the Howard government was re-elected. Gradually the lies were exposed. But with war and oppression driving refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan to take big risks to try to get here by boat, and with Labor in office in Canberra and unwilling to confront the Coalition in any real way, the whole ugly issue has been whipped up again.
Today there are obvious contradictions in popular attitudes to refugees. In fact, the policy of successive governments of keeping detainees far away from population centres and continually demonising them is a backhanded tribute to their perception of the basic human tendency of people to reach out and help other people suffering in front of them. We can see this in the very significant impact of the recent SBS TV program Go back to where you came from.
We can also look at popular attitudes towards Aborigines. On May 28, 2000, hundreds of thousands took part in a massive reconciliation march across Sydney Harbour Bridge. Another huge march took place some time later in Melbourne. But when Howard launched his Northern Territory "intervention" in 2007 many people were confused and mute in the face of the barrage of propaganda about supposed child abuse and "dysfunctional" Aboriginal families. The truth will out but that will take time and persistent struggles.
Opposition to imperialist war
In February and March 2003 huge demonstrations against the looming US-led invasion of Iraq took place across Australia. These were a genuine popular outpouring of revulsion against Washington's threatened "shock and awe" attack on Iraq. But Howard pressed ahead. People became despondent (no one had listened) and official patriotism kicked in along with all the usual lies from the always obliging establishment media. The real level of death and destruction was kept from the people.
And now we are again bogged down in a brutal imperialist war — this time in Afghanistan.
Obviously the socialist and progressive movement has to put out its own propaganda, to let people know what we think about what is going on and what we think should be done. This is most effective when it accompanies, arises out of, or is part of actual struggles, especially those in which we are involved.
This is sometimes very hard. We have to be willing sometimes to wear some isolation and even unpopularity.
In a discussion in Mexico with his US followers before World War II, Leon Trotsky explained:
We must have the courage to be unpopular, to say "you are fools", "you are stupid", "they betray you", and every once in a while with a scandal launch our ideas with passion. It is necessary to shake the worker from time to time, to explain, and then shake him again — that all belongs to the art of propaganda.
We have an inspiring example of what Trotsky was talking about right here in Australia. In late January 1934, with many workers unable to find jobs the mining town of Kalgoorlie in WA errupted in anti-migrant riots (largely directed against Italian workers) — people were attacked and houses were burnt down. A handful of communists fought against this madness and sought to turn the workers' anger against the bosses — its rightful target. Gradually their tireless and courageous activity bore fruit and they had some significant successes against the racist white-Australia AWU officialdom. There is an excellent article recounting this episode in the July 7, 1999 issue of Green Left Weekly.
Linking today's struggles to our socialist goal
The situation we face today in Australia is a rising level of discontent and distress coupled with — for a whole number of reasons — a very low level of struggles. Yet the background to all this — the objective situation — is increasingly alarming. The acute social crisis and harsh austerity we see in a number of European countries is clearly what is in store for us. Resource boom notwithstanding, it is already happening here in a slower way. And climate change — which threatens the human race with utter catastrophe — is accelerating and no capitalist party here has the slightest intention of doing anything meaningful about it.
Our general approach must be to try to link struggles around the immediate issues of concern to people with our goal of a workers' government that will expropriate the capitalists, bring the economy under social ownership and control and reorganise it to meet urgent human needs — dealing with climate change the foremost among these.
This approach is summed up in the term "transitional method" or "transitional program", the aim of which is to bridge the gap between the present and the future, between where we are now and where we need to be.
The Communist Manifesto contains a 10-point transitional program of measures a workers' government would carry out. It hit the deck as Europe errupted in the great 1848-49 revolutionary upsurge. While the program speaks to the reality of that time, many of its demands are (sadly) clearly not out of place even today!
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc., etc.
On an April 2007 edition of Aló Presidente!, the immensely popular weekly television program of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez — "a television chat show like no other", as the British Guardian aptly described it — he urged viewers to study Leon Trotsky's Transitional Program and repeatedly waved it around.
Trotsky's impassioned 1938 document did not invent transitional demands — Marx, Engels and Lenin all used the same approach — but it is a masterful exposition of our method and the thinking behind our arsenal of demands. While it was written against the backdrop of the great crises of the 1930s — the Great Depression, fascism, huge popular struggles and looming world war — much of the program remains deeply relevant to our situation today.
Trotsky describes the goal of the program is:
... to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.
Things in Australia today may be somewhat less stirring but the basic method used has to be the same. We become involved in all manner of struggles as the issues present themselves — that is a given beyond our control. But at all times we seek — in the most appropriate way — to raise the question of the burning need for a sharp change of direction in how society operates — for a society that puts people before profit, i.e., for socialism.
I would urge all comrades to follow Chavez's advice: Read the Transitional Program and then look over our policy documents or our election manifestos. You will see the same basic approach here. Let's look at one particularly relevant example.
Recently Bluescope Steel — a spin-off of the old BHP — announced that it intended to scrap its export business and shed 1000 workers in Wollongong in NSW and Hastings here in Victoria. Socialist Alliance has called for the company to be nationalised to protect jobs and drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The federal ALP government, of course, has announced yet another handout to the company which will do nothing to protect the workers jobs.
Trotsky's Transitional Program has a section on nationalisations: that reads very well today:
The socialist program of expropriation, i.e., of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.
... we demand the expropriation of the corporations holding monopolies on war industries, railroads, the most important sources of raw materials, etc ...
The necessity of advancing the slogan of expropriation in the course of daily agitation in partial form, and not only in our propaganda in its more comprehensive aspects, is dictated by the fact that different branches of industry are on different levels of development, occupy a different place in the life of society, and pass through different stages of the class struggle. Only a general revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat can place the complete expropriation of the bourgeoisie on the order of the day. The task of transitional demands is to prepare the proletariat to solve this problem.
We also call for the nationalisation of the banks, the energy and power sector, and the transport system in order to tackle climate change and reorient the economy to meeting urgent human needs.
(Of course, we don't want publicly owned enterprises to be run like Australia Post, i.e., as a business that rips off its customers, is engaged in permanent warfare against its own workforce and has a CEO who rakes in $2 million a year!)
Three types of demands
Any transitional program will be made up of three broad types of demands.
There are immediate demands, for example, stop this hospital closure, better health and safety conditions, etc. Then there are democratic demands, for example, for civil liberties, troops out of Afghanistan (let the Afghanis run their own country) etc. Finally, there are transitional demands, for example, a sliding scale of hours (divide up the available work among all workers with no loss of pay), nationalise the banks, etc. These demands more directly point the way to a post-capitalist reorganisation of the economy.
We shouldn't see any hierarchy of importance among these different types of demands. No one is superior to the other in terms of mobilising power. The impact of any demand depends on the political situation in the given country. The huge struggle around the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s, for instance, was fought around the basic proposition of self-determination for the Vietnamese, all foreign troops out — a democratic demand.
Only one program
It is important to stress that our program is a whole, a package to guide us in our struggle for socialism. In presenting it we may say, for instance, here is our "gender agenda" — our program for women's liberation. But this way of presenting things should not be taken to mean that women's oppression can be ended under capitalism.
Similarly, we may say here is our program to fight unemployment. But abolishing capitalism's "reserve army of labour" will really only be possible if we get rid of capitalism.
Working class and popular consciousness is not fixed or static but is highly variable. We should base our work on the fundamental contradictions of the world capitalist system rather than the state of popular consciousness at any particular moment. There will be upsurges from time to time and we should prepare ourselves for these. Our transitional approach is the best way in which to intervene in the daily struggle, in which we always strive to link the present with the socialist reorganisation of society.
[Dave Holmes is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.]
- Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999), p. 63.
- Lenin, "One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back", Collected Works, Vol. 7 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1977), p. 412.
- Trotsky, The Transitional Program and the Struggle for Socialism (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999), p. 76.
- Marx-Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1998), pp. 62-63.
- Transitional Program, p. 25.
- Transitional Program, pp. 32-33.