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Be Careful What You Fight For

by John Spritzler

February 28, 2014

How do the few haves stay on top of the many have-nots? After generations of domination, the haves know how to do it pretty well. They know how to divide and conquer the have-nots. This is the secret of their power.

The have-nots never stop fighting against their domination by the haves. But the have-nots remain dominated. When a large majority keeps fighting the domination of a small minority, and keeps failing to overthrow that domination, it means something is fundamentally wrong in the way that they're fighting.

Why Do the Haves Keep Winning?

One of the biggest problems with the way we, the have-nots, fight, is that the way we fight typically plays into the hands of the divide-and-conquer strategy of the haves. Here's what I mean. For divide-and-conquer to work, wherever have-nots fight the haves there must be some have-nots elsewhere who oppose them and are willing to attack them (as cops or soldiers or strikebreakers etc.) AND (equally important!) the rest of the have-nots must fail to support the fighting have-nots. Otherwise, the haves would be defeated.

So, how do the haves make sure that their divide-and-conquer strategy works? The key to success (from the viewpoint of the haves) is to make sure that, when have-nots someplace engage in a struggle, their aims will be perceived by the other have-nots as either a) in conflict with and threatening to their aims and values or b) of no concern or of such little concern, at least, that narrow self-interest will trump feelings of solidarity so that for financial reward some laborers will scab on, or sufficient numbers of cops or soldiers will attack, the fighting have-nots.

This is why it is so crucial for we have-nots to think very carefully about what we are fighting for, what we say our struggle is about, and how much effort we put into spreading as far and wide as possible the truth about what we are fighting for. The biggest battles in history between the have-nots and the haves all resulted in the haves coming out on top because the goals of the fighting have-nots were perceived by other have-nots the way the haves needed them to be perceived.

Why the Have-Nots Lost Our Biggest Battle in History

Perhaps the biggest battle of all was the 1936-9 Spanish Revolution (known also as the Spanish Civil War). The Spanish have-nots overthrew the haves in an area of Spain with about four million people. Ultimately the haves regained power. How come? The haves were defeated by the military forces of the fascist General Franco. Volumes have been written about this epic struggle for egalitarianism, and the heroic and inspiring way that peasants and workers fought the fascists, including with armed militias. In the end, however, General Franco, with the rich providing him money to pay soldiers, was able to recruit enough rank and file soldiers to fight the revolutionaries and prevail. How come?

Two reasons stand out. 1) General Franco obtained 78,000 Moroccan troops as volunteers very easily because he (duplicitously) held out the carrot of Spain giving its Moroccan colony independence after he defeated the revolution (i.e., the Republican government). Franco's Moroccan recruits would never have joined his counterrevolutionary army had the Republic granted Morocco's independence; but the Republic insisted on keeping Morocco a colony, thus ensuring that Moroccans would perceive the goals of the revolution as a threat to their aims and values. 2) On the revolutionary side (the Republic) the top leaders, who were liberal capitalists and not egalitarians, presented the goals of the Replublic not as the revolutionary egalitarianism that rank and file workers and peasants were passionately fighting for, but rather as liberal (just not fascist) capitalism. For the majority of peasants and workers in Spain, who had experienced decades of oppression at the hands of the liberal capitalists, liberal capitalism was a distinctly uninspiring goal, not one worth fighting for. General Franco was hence more able to recruit soldiers in parts of Spain outside the area secured by the revolution. This is why General Franco was able to defeat the revolution. This is how he was able to divide and conquer.

Only a Big Inspiring Vision Can Defeat the Haves

No matter how small and local a struggle of have-nots against haves is, the way we express our goal is just as important as it was for the Spanish Revolution. If the issue of immediate concern (an eviction of a family from their home, low wages, bad working conditions, bad schools, pollution, racist discrmination, police terror, unemployment, an unjust war, an oppressive foreign policy, etc.) is presented as the ONLY goal of the struggle, then the haves will have a much easier time defeating it with divide-and-rule compared to the difficulty they would have if the goal were framed as an effort to make the world egalitarian. Egalitarian means no rich and no poor; an economy based on sharing and mutual aid ("from each according to ability, to each according to need") instead of buying and selling; and government by voluntary federation of sovereign local assemblies of egalitarians. See this and this for further discussion of egalitarianism.

Whenever the have-nots somewhere say they want more, then the haves tell the other have-nots, "If those people get more then you will get less." How they make this argument depends on the specific situation, but this is always the heart of the propaganda. "Higher wages for them means higher prices for you when you buy the product." "Better pay for teachers means higher taxes for you." "If health care is made a right for all then you'll have to wait much longer to get treated." Of course as long as the haves remain in power there is a lot of truth to the "you will get less" part of their propaganda; power enables the haves to deliver on their threats. This is what makes the propaganda so effective. In the absence of a struggle being perceived as aiming to remove the rich from power and creating real equality with no rich and no poor, the propaganda of the rich remains convincing.

Whenever the have-nots somewhere fight against unjust discrimination or an unjust war or any immediate demand, the haves will try to make sure that the other have-nots don't see the issue as one that concerns them. The more the fighting have-nots limit the expression of what motivates their struggle for a particular immediate demand to only the specifics of the particular issue, the easier it is for the haves to persuade others to not get involved. The goal of making a particular Woolworth's store (and only that particular store) in the 1960s American South serve blacks would have gained passionate support of blacks (and some whites) in that community but not much elsewhere; the goal of ending Jim Crow altogether gained passionate support throughout the nation. The goal of removing the rich from power, having real equality, with no rich and no poor, and real--not fake--democracy can gain even greater support. It gets support from people whether or not they know the reality of racial discrimination in the United States, whether or not they are familiar with or concerned about this or that particular issue. The egalitarian goal gets support even when people hear the rich threatening to make things worse for them if the have-nots elsewhere win their struggle. The point of removing the rich from power, after all, is precisely to rid the world of such diabolical threats.

In any struggle there will almost inevitably be people who think that the way to strengthen the struggle is by framing its goals as narrowly as possible, meaning to avoid any hint of radicalism, anti-capitalism or--God forbid!--egalitarianism. The reasoning here is based on the belief that the wider public consists of people who, just like the rulers of society, support the status quo and capitalism and inequality. Based on this belief, the way to get support from anybody, rich or poor or inbetween, is to make the goal seem as non-threatening to the status quo as possible, to emphasize that the goal is, say, merely to enforce an already-existing law, or to make things here the way they already are there, and so forth.

This reasoning is based on a flat out wrong view of ordinary people. Most ordinary people don't like the status quo at all! They don't like the inequality at all. They know we live in a virtual dictatorship of the rich and they don't like it one bit. They know the rich organize society around the principle of greed (profit, dog-eat-dog competition) and they hate it. They tend to keep these feelings to themselves, however, because they too think other people support the status quo and they don't want to be thought weird or crazy.

When have-nots fighting somewhere explain to the larger public that the reason they are fighting for this or that is because they want an egalitarian world, and when they say what this means, then they get far more passionate support than if they do the opposite and express their aims as narrowly as possible. It is a big mistake to sacrifice this support from our real allies--millions of ordinary people in our nation and billions around the world--by trying to stay in the good graces of our enemies--the rich and powerful--with narrowly framed goals. One way for people to tell the world they want an egalitarian world is by joining the Ring the Bells of Revolution campaign described at

Additionally, when have-nots fail to make egalitarianism their explicit goal then even if they win what they set out to win they will still be dominated by the haves. South Africans made ending apartheid their goal, not egalitarianism. They won their goal and are now just as much dominated by the haves as before. American blacks in the Civil Rights Movement set out to abolish the racist Jim Crow laws, not make an egalitarian world. They succeeded in abolishing Jim Crow, only to see a new Jim Crow (racist prison incareration spearheaded by the racist war on drugs) take its place in a United States where the have-nots are dominated by the haves every bit as much as before.

Let's Aim to Win

Let's aim to win what we really want! Let's inspire people to join our struggle by shouting proudly for all to hear: We want an egalitarian revolution. We want to remove the rich from power. We want real, not fake, democracy, with no rich and no poor. We aim to shape all of society by equality and mutual aid, and call on all who share that vision to join our struggle and make it happen.



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