How do ideas ever change?

August 29, 2012

Tithi Bhattacharya explains how movements develop and learn to fight for more.

MOST PEOPLE know that the world that capitalism has made for us does not work in our favor. But the media will tell you that people around you don't care enough about the world to do anything about it.

We know, for example, from the latest Pew survey that 60 percent of Americans care more about keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits than deficit reduction. So how come this majority isn't demonstrating or otherwise taking action against the politicians of both parties who say that reducing the deficit has to be the top priority, even if that means cuts in cherished programs?

If most people think that the Wall Street bailout was unfair or that the 1 percent ought to pay more in taxes, then how come there aren't thousands of people in the streets wanting to expropriate the rich?

One answer--that provided by our rulers and their media--is that people don't protest because they don't care. But what if this answer is not correct? What if this answer is deliberately projected by a system whose survival depends precisely on people not protesting?

Boycotters walk along the side of a Montgomery street
Boycotters walk along the side of a Montgomery street

The real answer is more complicated. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained the problem as a feature of contradictory consciousness:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.

Simply put, Gramsci is saying that the capitalist class pours its ideas of passivity, reaction and hopelessness into us because they can--they control and own most of the means communication and instruction. But when we fight against the bosses, we find that we have more in common with each other as workers than what we're told. The ideas of division--of racism, sexism and homophobia, for example--which are meant to keep people from united can be challenged during moments of struggle and solidarity.

But now we have a Catch 22. Ideas, Gramsci is telling us, change during struggle. But how can we begin to participate in struggle with the age-old ideas of division and distrust planted in our heads? If such ideas only change during the course of the struggle, then how can struggles begin?

PEOPLE TEND to think of "struggle" in an idealized form--of mass demonstrations or street confrontations, with people shouting "We want our freedom!" Real movements, however, begin in far less dramatic ways. Struggles for major change usually begin at a very local level and with few grand ambitions.

Take the civil rights movement. The movement did not start with the spectacular March on Washington in 1963, with 200,000 people listening to Martin Luther King and his "I have a dream" speech. Its first actions came many years before--like the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The aims of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were both modest and gradualist (meaning, in turn, that the aims themselves changed and developed as the movement developed). On the night of December 1, 1955, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus, Jo Ann Robinson, an educator and civil rights activist, with Parks' consent, called for a one-day boycott of the city busses and printed up 35,000 handbills to spread the word.

At the time, not many people expected it to last, but the success of the one-day boycott gave confidence to organizers and the people of Montgomery to call for continuing actions, which lasted more than a year until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found the city's segregation law was unconstitutional.

If it took the Black citizens of Montgomery a whole year--a year marked by constant violence from the law and organized racists like the KKK--to win the struggle for desegregated buses, the wider struggle for civil right took eight years of organizing to reach the massive mobilization of the March on Washington.

So what begun as a modest local campaign--a one-day boycott of the buses over not giving up seats to whites--grew into a confident and determined mass campaign against Jim Crow segregation in the South and ultimately racism throughout the country.

This pattern of the U.S. civil rights movement is neither singular nor unique if we look at the way other major social upheavals developed in history, from modest beginnings to spectacular acts of rebellion.

The French Revolution, for instance, didn't start with feudal manors being burned down and cutting off the king's head. Indeed, in 1790, a year after the storming of the Bastille--the infamous prison in Paris--and the formal abolition of feudalism by the National Assembly, ordinary people of Paris gathered to commemorate the fall of Bastille with the King and his aristocratic scrounger friends.

But three more years of intense revolutionary activity, in which the ordinary masses of Paris, led by the radical Jacobins, played a heroic role, developed people's consciousness to the point where they understood the necessity of broadening the gains of the revolution. During that time, ordinary people gained greater confidence and commitment. It was only at this point that the masses of Paris responded to the call for more radical action from the Jacobin leadership.

The results of this sustained struggle, on a mass scale, were spectacular. Bourgeois historians only tell us about the execution of the king, presumably to warn us of the dangers of "mob" action. What they usually leave out is that during this time, the "mob," through its leading organ, the Committee of Public Safety, imposed price controls on essential food items, outlawed speculation by traders on such items, forced the rich to pay for France's wars, redistributed land in the countryside and imposed a progressive income tax in favor of the poor.

THIS IS where we can break through the apparent Catch 22 of Gramsci's formulation. We started with the question: If the ruling class' ideas dominate, then how can we even initiate a struggle that will change those ideas?

The answer lies in struggle itself. As the above examples show, struggles often begin with modest aims--aims that don't require people to have entirely rejected the dominant ruling class ideas. But history teaches us that if such "modest" struggles are allowed to develop and grow, the participants develop and grow, because of the very dynamic of struggle--and the consequences can be dramatic and unimaginable to those who participated in the first stage of the struggle.

Martin Luther King understood very well the process of small-scale struggles giving people the confidence to launch larger ones. Of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King said that it proved to the Southern Black "that many of the stereotypes he had held about himself are not valid." Once the ruling class' spell was broken through the act of struggle in Montgomery, the ideas of solidarity and confidence in self-activity began to spread.

So social change doesn't begin with hundreds of thousands marching to demand justice. Its roots are often modest and local. A small campaign such as a local strike or a community protest can blossom into something much, larger depending on the historical context and balance of class forces.

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once wrote, "Whoever expects a "pure" social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is."

What Lenin is saying here is still crucial for us as radicals and socialists, trying to build in our own times. Lenin is urging us to understand that every struggle by ordinary people against the system, no matter how modest, is a school for people to learn about their own potential. In certain specific historical moments, what appears as a modest struggle also has the potential to grow into something larger, like the seeds of a historic anti-racist campaign that lay in a local boycott in a Southern town.

As Lenin put it: "We must remember what a tremendous educational and organizational power the revolution has, when mighty historical events force the man in the street out of his remote garret or basement corner, and make a citizen of him. Months of revolution sometimes educate citizens more quickly and fully than decades of political stagnation."

This doesn't mean that every struggle against school closures or cuts to public funding will turn into a French Revolution or even a nationwide movement. What it does mean, is that every struggle is a training ground for ordinary people to experience their own power and understand that they can run society--and run it much better than the 1 percent.

Further Reading

From the archives