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Workers' struggle is the best school

By Paul D'Amato | November 3, 2006 | Page 13

IN 1867, Marx penned the preamble to the rules for the International Workingmen's Association, which proclaimed, "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

This concept of self-emancipation--that those who forge and bear the chains of exploitation and oppression must themselves break them--was quite different from the ideas of other socialist and radical traditions.

On the one hand, you had middle-class theories of social change which didn't take the masses into account at all, but instead offered various plans for socially re-engineering society in accordance with their own enlightened vision of the future. On the other hand, you have the conception of the masses as purely a stage army.

As Hal Draper writes, "One section of the propertied classes, beaten on top, becomes desperate enough to resort to arousing the broader masses below both contestants, and therefore sets the plebs into motion, with appropriate promises and slogans, in order to hoist itself into the seats of power."

But as Draper notes, such mobilizations always involved a certain risk--what if the stirred-up masses want to go further and refuse to accept any master? Even in the more radical left tradition, there is a longstanding practice of substitution--of middle-class radical forces acting in the name of or on behalf of, the exploited.

"The working class considered as a whole...cannot exercise its own dictatorship," Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and head of Cuba's armed forces, once wrote. Why? "Originating in bourgeois society," the working class is "marked by flaws and vices from the past." Castro fails to explain how he, Fidel and others who also "originated in bourgeois society" failed to be tainted by these same "flaws and vices."

All their lives, Marx and Engels waged a relentless struggle against an elitist and philanthropic conception of social change.

They wrote in 1879, for example: "At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes."

By self-emancipation, Marx and Engels did not mean that the mass of workers are always consciously striving to emancipate themselves. They did require education--but not from an enlightened elite.

The education of the working class would come first and foremost from engaging in struggle to change society. In changing their conditions, they would change themselves.

As Marx wrote, the doctrine that people are products of their environment, and that changed people are products of a changed environment, "forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."

Ordinary people are habituated to thinking that they are incapable of ruling. Only through struggle (strikes, protests) do they begin to feel their own power, and in the process, begin to develop a consciousness that contradicts the official ideology that pits workers against each other.

Even in the first flush of struggle, workers do not immediately think that they themselves can take the reigns of power. At first, they look for new, better rulers. Hence, as struggle unfolds, it becomes necessary for the most radical sections of the class to organize and try to influence the rest of the class in a socialist direction.

As the Russian socialist Plekhanov wrote, "People's awareness of the relations existing between them in the social process of production lags behind the course of development of these relations. Besides, even within one and the same class, consciousness does not develop at one and the same rate; some of its members grasp the essence of a given order of things sooner than others do, this making it possible for the advanced elements ideologically to influence those proletarians that have not yet achieved a socialist world-outlook."

Hence, for Marxists, the question is not what group standing above and outside the working class will lead it, but how do we organize the most class conscious part of the working class to influence the class as a whole.

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