To the Editor:
In his review of my book, We CAN Change The World, ("Attempt at New Theory of Revolution Fails to Supplant Marx," New Unionist, December 1995) George Kane actually shows why Marxism cannot lead to good results.
Kane writes, "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."
In the Marxist view which Kane presents here, working people have no values within themselves as individuals which contradict capitalist values of selfishness and competitiveness. They simply respond (like pigeons in a psych experiment) to the reward system on which society is structured. Under capitalism, they are selfish; under communism, they will be cooperative.
This is a totally demeaning view of working people which has nothing to do with real people. You would never guess from Kane's portrait that working people are complicated human beings, millions of whom engage everyday in acts of sacrifice and solidarity with their families and friends and coworkers and who daily take part in individual or collective resistance to the encroachments of capitalism on their lives.
You also would never guess from Kane's description that millions of workers have fought the class war often at great cost to themselves and their families. It doesn't matter that their explicit demands have usually been "reformist." The point is that workers' motivation in these struggles clearly goes counter to capitalist motivations of selfishness and competition. What capitalist "reward system" were the Hormel meatpackers responding to in their year-long strike? Where are the selfishness and competition in the three-year lesson in courage and commitment provided to us by the Staley workers? Were these wonderful people simply foolish, deluded into thinking they were going to get some personal reward for persisting in their struggle long after it was clear that they could not win on the explicit issues? Or were they perhaps motivated by working class values that go beyond personal gain?
I believe that we cannot make sense of open and collective class struggles or of the everyday lives of working people unless we first realize that workers have goals and values which contradict the values of capitalism and that ordinary people seek to realize these values in their everyday lives and in collective struggle.
Since Kane and Marx believe that workers simply respond to whatever reward system is imposed on them, they must deny that the everyday lives of ordinary people have any meaning which contradicts capitalism. Kane says that, "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."
Following Marx, Kane argues that, "The workers as a class become revolutionary only when their survival requires conditions that are incompatible with capitalist rule."
I think that this view is not only contemptuous of workers. It also is extremely demoralizing, and puts the left in the position of hoping that things get worse and worse for working people so that they will finally "become revolutionary."
The question that all of us who want to make a revolution must confront is, Is there a force for change in society. I believe that there is, but that we cannot see this force through the eyes of Marxism. To change the world, we must see it in a new way.
I argue in We CAN Change The World that the logic of the "dog-eat-dog" culture of capitalism is that this world should be a completely loveless and savage place. But we can see that this is not so. In fact most people in important parts of their lives-with their wife or husband or children, their friends or co-workers- struggle against the capitalist culture of competition and inequality to create relationships based on love and equality and solidarity. Most people try to shape the little piece of the world that they think they can control with values which contradict the values of capitalism. This means that most people, whether they are aware of it or not, are already engaged in a struggle to create a different world.
This struggle may not get very far: capitalism has devastating effects. But to the extent that people have any positive relationships, they have created them by struggle against capitalist culture. People's everyday lives have revolutionary meaning.
This daily struggle to create and sustain relationships and infuse them with anti-capitalist values is the basis of more public and collective struggles. The recent strikes in France and the struggle of the Hormel meatpackers and the Staley workers did not fall from the sky. They were rooted in the everyday values and relations of the working class.
When people's idea of how much of the world they can shape with the values of equality and solidarity grows, they mount strikes and build movements. When their confidence in themselves and each other grows sufficiently, they make revolutions. The smallest personal acts of kindness and solidarity and the most earth-shaking revolutionary movements are on a continuum of struggle to humanize the world.
I believe that the class war is not just over a division of the wealth of society, however important that may be. It is rather a struggle over what goals and values should shape society and who should control it. On the one side stands the owning class, who value competition and inequality and control from above. On the other side is the working class, who value equality and solidarity and control from below.
The class war is finally a struggle over what it means to be a human being. This is a struggle which we and other working people are already fighting, but which we need to understand in a new way if we are to win.
The Marxist paradigm is profoundly anti-democratic; it cannot lead to the liberating revolution which Marx himself desired. "Genuine communism" in the Marxist paradigm will always require a party elite to rule in place of the working class and to remold workers from the "competitive, selfish behaviors of capitalism" so that they are "cooperative and act to promote the common good." Authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union and China has its roots in the Marxist paradigm and the Marxist view of people.
The Marxist paradigm also leads to feelings of powerlessness and despair in those who are explicitly seeking to create a new society, because it tells us that the vast majority of people are against us or at least do not share our goals.
The paradigm that I am proposing shows that the struggle to humanize the world and to shape it with values of solidarity and equality is the most pervasive of human activities. Revolutionaries are not alone. Working for revolution means taking a full and conscious role in a struggle in which the great majority of the world's people are already engaged. Fighting for revolution means fulfilling our lives through all the commitments to other people which already give the lives of ordinary people dignity and significance.
Marx once said that "the revolution will draw its poetry from the
future." He was wrong about this. The revolution will draw its poetry from
the past and the present: from the meaning of people's lives finally revealed.