By Fred Magdoff
World Peace Forum Teach-In, Vancouver
November 12, 2011
One of the first lessens of a long history of dissent from the early twentieth century to the current Occupy Wall Street movement is that relatively small numbers -- that is, significantly less than a majority -- of people can cause big changes through either armed revolutions or non-violent actions. Support by large sectors of society can be gained along the way. Examples include Russia, China, Cuba, the union/left movement and reforms during the Great Depression, anti-colonial liberation movements, the U.S. civil rights struggles, etc.
A second lesson is that most changes -- both large and small -- did not happen by "normal" electoral processes. They were a result of either revolutions or agitation and direct action that forced legislators' hands. When changes did happen through "representative" governments, it was because of the pressure exerted by activists. Capital was willing to accept some limited reforms -- for example voting rights for African-Americans -- and was willing to live with them. Sometimes such limited reforms accorded with the interests of the system. Civil rights reforms were essential if the U.S. state wanted to continue to exert its imperial power through proclaiming itself the home of freedom and democracy. However, when reforms or programs directly threatened profits the capitalist class took a long-run view to turning back the reforms. Thus, the social programs of the New Deal and "Great Society" -- Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, welfare, food assistance, etc., as well as the power of unions -- "needed" to be undermined, downsized, or privatized (brought within the market logic of the system) in various ways in order to maximize capital's flexibility and profits.
Changing the economic system by means of electoral democracy is not only challenging, but -- given ruling-class power and imperialism -- may not even be possible.
As Samir Amin has written:
I think that the reason for the failure of electoral democracy to produce real change is not hard to find: all hitherto existing societies have been based on a dual system of exploitation of labor (in various forms) and of concentration of the state's powers on behalf of the ruling class. This fundamental reality results in a relative "depoliticization/disacculturation" of very large segments of society. And this result, broadly designed and implemented to fulfill the systemic function expected of it, is simultaneously the condition for reproduction of the system without changes other than those it can control and absorb -- the condition of its stability.
A fourth lessen is that under appropriate conditions a highly organized "vanguard" group can be effective in the armed struggle and in helping to mobilize the majority around a revolutionary project. However, this structure later creates major problems. In essence, the class struggle continues following even a successful overthrow of the old system. As Mao put it:
Marxism-Leninism and the practice of the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries all teach us that socialist society covers a very, very long historical stage. Throughout this stage, the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat goes on and the question of "who will win" between the roads of capitalism and socialism remains, as does the danger of restoration of capitalism.
It is clear that it is very difficult to get this "vanguard" under control of the people. It rapidly begins to have its own interests -- whether desiring a return to capitalism or not -- that are different from those of the mass of workers. Marx discussed the issue of "the educator [who] must himself be educated." There were many attempts to put a check on the Communist cadres during the struggles in China from even before the revolutionaries took Beijing (for example, see William Hinton's Fanshen) through the Cultural Revolution (for example, see Han Dongping's The Unknown Cultural Revolution) where the final battle to gain the people's control over the Communist Party was lost.
If the "vanguard" (or bureaucracy or leadership) can't be brought under the control of the people, a truly democratic society -- essential to the success of a complete economic/social transformation -- is not possible.
So both the vanguard-revolutionary and electoral roads have proven to have huge problems in bringing about a new socio-economic-political system. And, of course, this is certainly true about the "identity" politics and "act local" tendencies.
Some Thoughts on Implications for 21st Century Dissent
The Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street Movement
It is truly inspiring to see the mass demonstrations coming in the Arab world, inspired by a wish for a different life (and also by high costs of food and large numbers of unemployed). But while such demonstrations brought down two regimes, they left (especially in Egypt) the power structure intact. The focus in Egypt was understandably on the tyrant (and best friend of the United States) Hosni Mubarak. But, for a true transformation to occur, power must be transferred from both the army and local and international capital to the people. The mass demonstrations in Europe, especially Greece and Spain, have not yet resulted in any material changes.
We are no less inspired today by the way that this new movement has crossed the Atlantic from the Arab world and Europe, leading to Occupy Wall Street, which immediately set off a global protest now present in more than a thousand cities worldwide, representing every continent (almost literally so since pictures from Occupy Antarctica circulated the globe). The Occupy movement is a development of the highest importance for the left. The right slogan (we are the 99 %) -- at the right time has captured the imagination and the frustration of many people in the United States and abroad. Along with the actions already taken, this indicates a growing realization that it is the system itself that needs changing.
Whether or not they came on the slogan separately, the Joseph Stiglitz article in Vanity Fair (May 2011) "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" provided mainstream backing to the concept that a plutocracy rules the United States with little meaningful democracy. The initial call to take and hold public spaces was made by Adbusters (adbusters.org). And it was here that the connection between the critique of the 1% and social revolution was most powerfully made, inspiring many.
Although the Occupy struggle has been criticized by the media, as well as some on the left, as having no demands, one of the main button slogans at Occupy Boston reads: "What do we want? Well for starters . . . TAX THE RICH, STOP THE WARS, MEDICARE AND JOBS FOR ALL." Not bad for starters, is it? The Occupy Wall Street activists have gained support from unions and in turn are assisting union struggles. Unions, in turn are seeing that they need more confrontational direct action.
Many are talking of "capitalism" and the need to transform the system -- lots of signs have the word "capitalism" in their slogans. Many people see the connections between the imperial wars, the gross inequality in the U.S., the lack of meaningful democracy, and the disastrous economy. The destruction of the environment, although not receiving the same attention initially as the economic/political issues (although there were some environmentally oriented signs, such as one reading "infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet"), is gaining attention from the movement. And some environmental groups are seeing that they need to join forces and struggle together with the Occupy movement. Occupy the Planet and Occupy Climate Change have become slogans, and reflect the efforts of environmental activists, who are increasingly joining with this new movement.
Fred Magdoff is professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor of crop and soil science at Cornell University. He writes frequently on political economy. His most recent books are The Great Financial Crisis (written with John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press, 2009) and Agriculture and Food in Crisis (edited with Brian Tokar, Monthly Review Press, 2010) and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism: A Citizen's Guide to Capitalism and the Environment (with John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press, 2011).