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How can workers’ ideas change to win freedom?

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
Matthew Cookson on socialism from below
Issue 1800

SOCIALIST Worker has argued in the first two parts of this series that we cannot expect the Labour Party or elections to bring about socialism. Tens of thousands of people in every workplace and those involved in the new movements agree. But many also believe we cannot look to ordinary people to bring about fundamental change.

‘The vast majority of the working class completely accepts capitalism,’ they say. ‘They are happy with their cars, TVs and DVD players. They’ll never want to be part of overthrowing the system. Worse still, many support the queen, or can even vote to support right wing and racist parties.’ Such statements ignore how people’s ideas can change.

Capitalism pumps out ideas to justify its existence, and the majority of workers accept these ideas most of the time. ‘The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class,’ was how Karl Marx put it when he wrote in the 19th century. Schools, newspapers and television all say only a privileged minority has the ability to run society, and this is widely accepted.

We are told the state is neutral and will protect everybody’s interests. Under capitalism, where everyone is forced to compete for the best jobs and resources, people are expected to be selfish. Those at the top of society fan ideas of nationalism, racism and sexism that divide people.

Yet, despite all this, throughout the history of capitalism there have been huge revolutionary upsurges in workers’ struggles. These include France in 1871, Russia in 1917, Italy in 1920, Spain and France in 1936, Chile in 1972, Portugal in 1975, Iran in 1979, and many others. In Indonesia in 1998, Serbia in 2000 and Argentina today there have been mass uprisings that have overthrown governments.

These upheavals are fuelled by the crisis-prone nature of capitalism itself. While promising prosperity for all, its drive for profits ensures that in harsher times like recessions it attacks workers. Because of the huge influence of capitalist ideas workers accept many of these attacks. But there comes a point when they can no longer take it.

Workers’ anger explodes and they take some action against their employer or government. A minority of workers always reject the predominant ideas in society. But during times of mass struggle this minority can find an echo among increasing numbers of workers.

And when they take action workers start to do things that contradict all the ideas they may have previously accepted. This is true of even small struggles. But it is much more the case where large-scale battles erupt. Workers’ previous ideas about divisions between men and women, black and white, and gay and straight can change.

These boundaries can break down as workers unite against the main enemy-the boss or the government. Capitalism rests on bosses’ control of factories, offices and other workplaces, and on control of the state.

This means that when workers come into conflict with their boss, such as by occupying a factory to stop it closing down, they invariably also come into conflict with the state. The boss will call in the police to remove the workers and ‘return’ his property to him.

To keep their jobs workers must then challenge the state and the boss. The ideas of a socialist society run by the vast majority of people for need not profit can begin to make sense to much wider layers of workers. In the process of fighting for their interests workers begin to organise themselves.

They begin to see that they, as individuals and collectively, can do things they believed were impossible. In strikes previously unconfident people speak to mass meetings of workers to raise solidarity or argue for more action.

Workers can run the strike to democratically discuss and decide the strategy and tactics. In uprisings or revolutions those involved can see how the majority of people can run society for themselves.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 threw up workers’ councils or soviets. These brought the mass of workers together to decide the distribution of resources and the way forward for the struggle. Soviets have also been produced in revolutions like Germany in 1918, Hungary in 1956 and others.

In the torrent of a revolution not just society but people themselves change. This is vital for the running of a different kind of system to capitalism. ‘This revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew,’ said Marx.


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