Note: This is a written version of the talk given by Anne Jaclard in this panel. It is not fully worked out as a paper.
by Anne Jaclard
This year’s conference theme, “Mobilizing for Ecological-Economic Transformation,” demands that we first address the questions, “Who needs to be mobilized, and mobilized to do what?” The left doesn’t agree on the answers to these questions—and I don’t agree with the prevalent left assumption that the working class needs to be mobilized through having its “consciousness raised.” Such a view of workers, which replicates class society’s division between mental and manual labor, leads the left to blame the absence of transformative mass movements on workers’ “backward consciousness.” It then follows that the left needs to teach people to want to transform the world, and to take them along step by step toward radical ideas. This view assumes that workers do not to have the capacity for the knowledge that the intellectuals or professed revolutionaries already possess, and the workers can only gain it through this step-by-step process, and so they must be enticed to go along with the left through slogans, half-truths, or whatever it takes, until they become more like us.
Now I’m not just talking about vanguard organizations that state openly that they will raise consciousness and lead the workers; I’m talking about most of the left, which seems to share this view, however they clothe it. For example, labor economist and Monthly Review editor Michael D. Yates wrote an article in Counterpunch, Feb. 27 of this year, extolling the virtues of the slogan “the 99%,” even while he admitted its inaccuracy:
The imprecise nature of political slogans is a virtue. …What slogans do is clarify the most basic political cleavages; they help people develop the mindset most suited to active participation in whatever struggles are at hand. [Here he praises an example from China and concludes,]… complexities would have to be dealt with later….
…[A]rguments about the accuracy of the slogan miss the point. “We are the 99%” suggests an “us versus them” politics that foreshadows the class perspective so badly needed in the United States. [Emphases added]
So: Yates is telling us that half-truths and poor slogans are good things because the masses aren’t ready for whole truths or complexity, because they lack a class perspective and need help to develop a class “mindset.” According to Yates, we have to “foreshadow the class perspective,” meaning we don’t discuss it openly! I find this view not only condescending but outright scary: he seems to be advocating for manipulating people with slogans in a process that, if true, could just as easily allow the right to lead them to fascism.
I am arguing that the main impediment to transforming the world is not workers’ supposedly low consciousness, but rather the left’s presuppositions and elitism. I am arguing that the left needs to mobilize itself, first and foremost, to re-think and re-organize its theory and practice. Operating from the perspective of needing to raise others’ consciousness, the left not only fails to lead them—who wants to be talked down to?– it frequently stifles mass movements for change. I’m thinking of the abrupt demobilization of the single-issue anti-Vietnam war movement that was dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (American Trotskyists), and the more recent anti-Iraq war movement that actually shrank instead of growing when its leading organizations refused to criticize Saddam Hussein and political Islam on the grounds that we should only talk about U.S. imperialism (as if such position could possibly have broad appeal!). I not only disagree with this attitude toward working people, I disagree with the presuppositions that I think cause this view to be so wide-spread and entrenched.
Let me say that the issue is not whether working people use the word “socialism” or any other language of the left, but rather whether they are ready, willing and able to address the idea of fundamental, systemic change in the way they work and live, and to address it from the standpoint of a possible non-capitalist society. The fact is that we hear working people raising these very issues all over the world today, from South Africa to China, in the continuing unfinished revolutions in the Middle East, upheavals in Europe against austerity, and in strikes and demonstrations in the U.S. Workers who form cooperatives to eliminate the need for profits except for reinvestment; poor people who occupy vacant housing, rehab it and don’t pay rent; the tens of thousands of protestors in Turkey who think parks are more important than malls, all these forms of revolt are imbued with a different vision for the future. Yet in spite of such activity, much of the U.S. left remains gloomy about the prospect for social and economic transformation, convinced that workers, at least American workers, are too “backward” even to think about it.
Let me also say: we need to distinguish between people not being fully informed, and people not being “ready” for these ideas until we first raise their consciousness. People may not have sufficient knowledge about how capitalism functions to identify all the characteristics of it that must be gotten rid of in order to create a new economic system, but neither does the left. That is very different from their not being ready, willing and able to think, learn and contribute to the development of ideas about another way to live. This distinction is vastly different from the usual left dichotomy between those in the know, and the masses of people who are not ready to think about socialism because they don’t think like we do, or because they have bought into the capitalist line that this society is the best one possible, or because they have been bought off by material comforts.
The dogma of the workers’ backwardness gives the left a very big role to play: it will teach the workers to want to change society, and it will be the “mind” or leaders of their struggles. This task consists basically of advertising and demonstrating the defects of capitalism, since no more profound activity is possible until the workers’ consciousness has been raised. These leftists assume that ideas about creating a new society come to workers, if ever, only at the end of a process of having the evils of capitalism exposed, and this only incrementally. They don’t say workers are stupid, but they act that way, even if they pose the problem as including themselves and blame society for dulling our minds. For example, Tidal, a theoretical journal that came out of OWS last year, in its communique #2, wrote:
Our present institutions exploit our weaker aspects, our laziness and passivity, our love of ease, our self-centeredness. They encourage our addictions to the vain and superficial. In return for our dignity, they offer us the salve of television, magazines, movies, games, from which we invent fantasies and identities in which to hide. Escapism has grown from occasional distraction to central social tenant. No one wants to deal with life, really. We want to believe the beautiful lie that humanity has overcome the ancient need to work and suffer, despite all evidence to the contrary.
This view of people as preferring escapism to transformation is nothing new; it sounds just like the Frankfurt School 75 years ago!
The reality is that workers understand the nature of work and its perversion under capitalism better than do middle class young people, because workers work and struggle in the system daily. But the consciousness raising approach would have us not discuss the nature of capitalism with them at this time, except to tell them they don’t receive the full value of what they produce, as if workers don’t already know that. I contend that the nature of capitalism is what we should be discussing with them.
The view that workers are “backward” is not only contradicted by the process of actual social change throughout history, but it also stifles the self-development of ideas and of mass movements. From the standpoint of the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic, revolutionary movements arise through an interchange and development of ideas and activities, which the philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya referred to as a single dialectic that emerges out of interactions between thought and reality, between theory and practice. This view does not eliminate a role for the left, but it changes entirely what that role is.
The dogma of the workers’ backwardness is deeply entrenched in all class societies, and goes back for centuries in the left as well, but beware of the genetic fallacy, that origin determines current function. I believe the dogma of “backward” workers is sustained and conditioned by another myth: the myth that the world can be changed fundamentally and sustainably for the better without needing a thoroughgoing break with capitalism. In fact, the main reason the dogma of backwardness persists may not be the left’s laziness about re-thinking its assumptions. The real story may be that, regardless of the history of the dogma of the backwardness of the masses, it is retained and perpetuated due to its usefulness to a left that no longer considers an actual break with capitalism to be possible. This way it can justify limited, reformist and ultimately unsustainable goals by blaming the lack of revolutionary vision on the workers instead of on itself.
Marx laid out two aspects of dialectical reality: (1) that human beings possess the capacity to change and self-develop, and (2) capitalist society is by its nature transient. If you see human beings as static creatures who can’t develop their minds or change their conditions of life except through a force from the outside, then you think they need the left to “raise their consciousness.” The opposing view—my view–works backward from the standpoint of a new society, as Marx did. If we want a classless, egalitarian society, we have to begin by changing the relationship of workers to intellectuals now, so both together can develop the vision and the strategy to get there. Breaking with capitalism will require a new relationship of theory to practice—a relationship that cannot even begin to develop without first discarding the concept that working people need their conscious raised. For this view, I’ve been called utopian or workerist, to think that workers can be the agents of their own development without an exogenous presence to instruct them or condition them. “Be realistic,” I’m told, as if continuing a practice that does not succeed is realistic. As I titled an earlier discussion of this subject, “Who is being realistic depends on how you understand reality.” In other words, your attitude toward working people, toward whether they have the capacity to self-develop and to emancipate themselves, determines how you understand the process of change, and that in turn determines what you consider the role of the left to be. If you think people’s minds are fixed and can only be changed from the outside, then you must raise their consciousness and lead them. If you hold fast to Marx’s view, your role is completely different.
Now I’m not saying that workers know everything they need to about how to re-make society; no one does, and our lack of knowledge has been much of the problem with past post-revolutionary attempts to create socialism. What I’m saying is that workers need to be included in the process of working this out from the start, starting way before they have to put ideas into practice to build a new society. Without theoretical preparation for an alternative mode of production, capitalism comes rushing back in.
The assumptions underlying the belief in the backwardness of the masses dictate a resultant dedication to stagifying political work and revolt. If most human beings need to have their “consciousness” raised step by step, and they need to be moved forward in stages, then left activity must be such step by step direction of popular movements and organizations, as they “bring the workers along.” Then our work must be to popularize our existing ideas, to simplify them, reduce them to slogans or pictures, whatever it takes to reach the workers. Again, workers are not seen as a source of and partner in ideas, but as objects, as players of a part written and directed by others. This stifles the creativity of workers and intellectuals alike; it is, I contend, a noose around all our necks.