One of the most common arguments encountered when making the case for revolutionary change is that working people in Australia are too comfortable to fight against capitalism. The other, related, argument is that people are too selfish – that a socialist society won’t work because it’s human nature to be greedy and individualistic.
This becomes a central issue because it is easy to demonstrate that working people have the objective power to make a revolution. Working people create society’s wealth. Those who own the means of production and distribution are unnecessary parasites. They use ownership to employ working people, who have no choice but to sell their labour power in order to survive.
Private ownership of the means of production creates a massive contradiction in the unequal distribution of wealth. Not only is it unequal, but the overwhelming bulk of the wealth is accumulated in the hands of people who do not work for it. People starve because planning is based on what will make a greater profit, not on social need.
The Third World is poor and underdeveloped because the divisions between rich and poor nations are perpetuated economically and politically. The wealth is ripped out of these nations through the theft of natural resources; through hoarding technology in the imperialist nations so that the “developing” world never can; through continual repayment of “debt” that has been paid off many times over. When an exploited nation rises up to kick out the oppressor and take control of its wealth, the imperialists resort to whatever they can get away with to take back control – from sanctions to direct and usually brutal political intervention to military force.
Racism and nationalism
Capitalism uses racism to justify the wars and brutality and the poverty of the Third World, sometimes open, sometimes less so – like “we work harder” or “that’s just they way things are”. It’s also racism behind the liberal consciousness perpetuated by Western NGOs that “we” have to “help” the poor, “help” the “helpless”. Entire industries operate within this “charity” framework. The people of the exploited nations don’t need “help”; they need solidarity in the fight to remove the boot of the oppressor from their necks.
While the objective interests of working people in the imperialist nations lie with the workers of the exploited nations in ridding ourselves of a common oppressor, in the imperialist countries there is a relative privilege afforded to working people on the back of this super-exploitation. The capitalists have conceded some demands for better working conditions and wages in the imperialist countries in order to buy a measure of social peace. They can afford this thanks to the super-profits they extract from workers in the Third World. Of course, this is not offered across the board, but only to some sections of the working class: divide and rule is used within as well as between nations. This tactic uses scapegoating – shifting the blame for the difficulties faced by working people on to other working people.
We need to understand the ideological, social and material barriers before us in the struggle to mobilise the working class and raise class consciousness. We have to understand how and why the ruling class sows divisions and how we can counter these divisions. Genuine working-class consciousness can only be internationalist. Nationalism has always been the ideology of the capitalist class.
That is the fundamental political weakness of the organised labour movement today. The political leadership of the movement has a thoroughly nationalist outlook. The primary peddlers of such poison in the union movement are the labour bureaucracy – those who make their careers and livelihoods off the back of the labour movement. They see their interests as aligned with those of the political system, because that is where so many of them have their sights set. Those who are the most successful in quelling disquiet are quickly promoted, and before you know it, pre-selected by the ALP. It is one of the few ways that working people can cross the class divide: capitalism pays its politicians so well because allowing people into an elite club ensures that they don’t want to smash it up.
This bureaucracy is an important part of capitalism’s survival. It is a union leadership that does the bidding of the ruling class, to the point that today they promote the idea that workers should not go on strike if it is “illegal” – you can’t strike because the bosses and their government say you can’t!
But it is important also to differentiate between those who have a highly political interest in maintaining the status quo and workers in imperialist countries who are afforded a higher standard of living but are not politically conscious about defending this privilege at the expense of other workers. A significant section of the working class in imperialist countries unconsciously accepts the ideology of nationalism simply because they have never heard it challenged.
This base of support for reactionary nationalism is based upon a relative privilege. But we have to keep this in perspective. The ruling class perpetuates the mythology of the “lucky country” precisely to silence dissent and opposition.
In the Sydney Morning Herald on January 28, a worker with one of the Christian charities wrote: “Eleven per cent of Australians live in poverty – seriously. Having written about poverty and homelessness in Australian newspapers for more than a decade, I am constantly intrigued by the number of indignant letters I receive from people who are adamant that what I write is a lie.” This denial is part of the nationalist mythology. Most working people struggle to keep up with the myth, working harder and longer to maintain the illusion.
Conjunctural factors in the “quality of life” of working people do not change the structure of capitalism. They do not change the fact that working people have nothing but their labour power to sell in order to survive. They do not change the fact that capitalist profit comes from the exploitation of workers. They do not change workers’ alienation from their work – that because they have no control over how or what they produce, work is something separate and apart from their life rather than intrinsic to it. Work and life are seen as two separate things – and under capitalism that is what they have become. This alienation is repackaged and sold back to us in the form of reality TV.
This attempt to distract us intensifies as the contradictions of capitalism become more apparent. The human-made environmental disasters are impossible to ignore, but the ruling class does what it can to foster a sense of hopelessness about them. This is pushed in pop culture through apocalypse movies and the like. It is highly demobilising, because it creates a sense that there’s no point fighting.
This needs to be challenged. The environmental crisis can be turned around – to do that, working people need to take political power. Nothing short of a working people’s government will have the capacity to reverse and repair the damage that capitalism has done.
This highlights one of the single greatest contradictions of capitalism. Society is now immensely rich: there are enormous human and technological resources available for social and environmental development. Yet, as Marx warned so many years ago, the productive forces are turned into their opposite – destructive forces. The single biggest industry on the planet is the war industry. Destroying in order to rebuild is what helps keep capitalism afloat.
Those who say that socialism is against human nature don’t consider that such catastrophic destruction is against human nature. What creature actively destroys its own habitat? But human nature is complex, not a one-sided thing. Humans have a survival instinct, so if there is no guarantee of food and shelter and other necessities, the struggle for survival will at times pit people against each other, especially in an environment in which this is fostered.
Yet this goes against another extremely important and essential part of human nature: we are social creatures. Human beings and human society arose because of cooperation. Cooperation is central to being human. Capitalism has to work hard to break this down. Capitalism utilises many mechanisms of division and sowing of fear and hatred to counter this instinct.
Under socialism, these antisocial mechanisms, like racism and sexism, will be smashed through education and political struggle. The material basis of human survival will be radically changed. Society’s wealth will be equitable distributed among those who create it. With the immense wealth that already exists and the potential for technological advance once resources are freed up from wasteful industries such as the military, people will no longer have to struggle in order to survive.
Is the stranglehold of bourgeois ideology too strong? No, not unless we think that the minority who oppose capitalism today are somehow special. Of course, this attitude does affect some on the left, the “people are stupid” brigade. It is a highly elitist attitude.
The ideology of the ruling class will always be dominant in normal times, simply because they have the means of disseminating their ideas through the media, popular culture, the education system – all of which ideologically reinforce one of the greatest systems of thought control that ever existed, the family. But none of this changes the lived existence, the reality of working class life. The contradictions of capitalism guarantee that there are continually moments of crisis, in which most things or everything is bought into question. At these times, people can be thrown into struggle and ideas can change rapidly. At these times, people can be thrown into struggle and ideas can change rapidly.
We only need to look to the recent revolutionary upheaval in Egypt. Before January, the idea that Mubarak could be deposed was thought impossible, yet through the experience of the mass uprising, people found confidence and there was a rapid radicalisation. The bourgeoisie and US imperialism are working overtime now to contain the movement within the confines of capitalism, to quell the revival of working-class organisation and mobilisation.
This struggle exists in any revolutionary situation, and it highlights the necessity of strengthening the revolutionary forces and working-class consciousness before a revolutionary situation. Of course, the existence of a strong revolutionary force is no guarantee of success; many revolutions have failed because the other side was stronger. But there is no way for a revolution to succeed in the absence of an organised revolutionary force that consciously intervenes to counter those who seek to contain and quell the revolutionary impulse of the people. A revolutionary force is needed to bring the lessons of history to bear, to raise the political consciousness and promote the organisation necessary for working people to take political power.
People sometimes say that it won’t be until things get really bad that people will do something about it. It is true that the social and material conditions of life play a central part in the dynamics of struggle. This is the case in the Arab uprisings, where years of neoliberal policies and deepening poverty have devastated people’s lives. But there was another important dynamic in the developments in Egypt. The rapid mobilisation did not come out of nowhere. There had been small groups organising for many years, building up the militancy and consciousness. The people knew of these small opposition groups, the strikes and the mobilisations. But it was not until the overthrow of Ben-Ali in Tunisia that that small spark was able to ignite the masses. One of the most important factors in the uprising, which had not been there before, was hope.
Often terms like hope get coopted, but hope does matter in the revolutionary struggle, and we have to reclaim it from deceivers like Obama. When oppressed people have no hope that change is possible, they will devote their limited energies to the struggle to survive. These same people are those who have the most to gain from revolutionary change, and that’s why they will be in the front line, leading the charge, when they see that there is hope for change.
It’s why a central part of empowering people and building a revolutionary working-class consciousness and self-confidence is about instilling a sense that change is possible – not religious faith-like hope, but hope based upon the historical experience of revolution and an understanding of potential working-class power. This means combating defeatism about the future of the planet and about human nature. Sometimes it is difficult to counter this pessimism, because working-class experience in this country for the last three decades has been retreat and defeat.
But to give into pessimism is to give up in the battle of ideas – which is to give in to capitalism. The pressure to do this is nothing new. For many decades, those who are optimistic about revolutionary change have been ridiculed as naive or mindless fanatics. The enthusiasm of young revolutionaries is patronised with “you’ll grow out of it” or “I believed in all that stuff when I was your age” (read: until I sold out). And if you don’t “grow out of it”, then there’s something really wrong with you. Even some on the left mock the dedication and commitment of revolutionary activity. These days it often takes the form of mocking “newspaper sellers” – as if enthusiasm for distributing revolutionary propaganda was something to be ashamed of.
Too many people give in to this ideological barrage – they conform to their surroundings and adapt to the pessimism that surrounds them. It’s a pessimism that is particularly acute among those who look to the labour bureaucracy for political leadership – for whom killing hope among the rank and file is a matter of career survival.
Sometimes those who promote pessimism about revolutionary change do so to justify a political retreat. We saw this in the RSP late last year with the resignation of a group of comrades in Sydney who declared that it was not possible to build a revolutionary party in Australia today. During the debate that preceded their resignation, it became clear that their outlook was based on a very different assessment of the situation of the working class – they even disputed the party’s dispelling of the “lucky country” myth. Belief in that fundamentally racist myth is almost always an indicator that you are on the wrong track. That’s been confirmed by the direction that some of them have now taken, with the recent publishing of an article in support the imperialist bombing of Libya!
Such a political retreat is in part a product of the political difficulties for revolutionary forces today. There is an ongoing political and organisational retreat of the labour movement. This is what underlies the very low level of working-class consciousness. Among young people particularly, even basic concepts of solidarity and struggle are poorly understood; after all, most young people today have never seen a strike, let alone participated in one. This lack of working-class political consciousness lays the basis for the rise of racism and the deepening of sexism, misogyny and queerphobia.
But this situation can be deceptive, especially if you’re viewing it to justify giving up on the struggle. There is a flip-side to this retreat: the increasing anger among a significant layer of young people. This is reflected in the protests that have been taking place – the campaigns against mandatory detention, against the NT intervention, against the ban on same-sex marriage and the attacks on abortion rights and increasingly in the BDS campaign against apartheid Israel. Wherever there is action and leadership in struggle, there are people willing to put themselves on the line. This includes in the workplaces – but there the dead hand of the ALP is more able to quell the impulse to action.
The struggles waged today are not revolutionary struggles. But struggles for reform under capitalism are essential in developing the practical experience, and the partial victories that can be won develop the self-confidence and self-organisation of working people. Moreover, the struggle and active intervention of revolutionaries can raise class consciousness and build the revolutionary forces.
This is absolutely essential. We cannot predict when or how a revolutionary situation may arise, but in such a situation the preparedness of the revolutionary forces is key to whether the potential of the working class will be realised through the taking of political power. This preparedness is not just about the size of a party or group; in almost all successful socialist revolutions, the revolutionary forces remained small through pre-revolutionary periods. It is also about the capacity of those forces: the education, training, practical experience and political continuity embodied in a revolutionary party, built through consistent participation in struggle and through revolutionary propaganda and organisation.