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THE MEANING OF MARXISM
The question of organization

By Paul D'Amato | November 18, 2005 | Page 13

VERY FEW leftists would deny that at least some rudimentary forms of organization are necessary to fight back against economic exploitation and social injustice. The question is, what kind of organization is necessary? That depends on the goal.

Socialism, for Marxists, is the "self-emancipation of the working class," that is, of the exploited majority. The question, then, is what kind of organization is necessary for the working class to emancipate itself?

Union organization, for example, is necessary for workers in one workplace or one industry to defend their economic interests. Indeed, the working class today suffers from a lack of mass union organization. Unions, though, are not set up to end the system but to improve conditions within the system.

A local committee might successfully fight and win the prosecution of a brutal cop, but such a committee cannot end police brutality, which is a systemic problem. Building an independent working-class party capable of running candidates would be a tremendous step forward.

Imagine if we had delegates in Congress, standing up for our side in the exclusive club of the wealthy few. But even more important than who is sitting in the White House, to quote Howard Zinn, is "who is sitting in."

There are some on the left who argue that there need be only minimal organization to facilitate such struggles, and nothing more. Since capitalism oppresses and exploits people mercilessly, it will force people to fight back, and in the course of struggle, they will figure out how to emancipate themselves.

There is an important truth to this idea. As the socialist Hal Draper noted: "To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to 'believe in' the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane. (In the latter eventuality, however, it is advisable to believe in parachutes). The working class moves toward class struggle insofar as capitalism fails to satisfy its economic and social needs and aspirations."

A more common argument is that workers are too well off, if not brainwashed by TV, to emancipate themselves. But the old idea that radical and socialist ideas in the U.S. crash upon the "reefs of roast beef and apple pie" hardly applies to a country where workers face conditions more akin to 1935 than 1955.

It is difficult to argue, in the face of the growing mass anger over declining wages, a disastrous war, a bungled hurricane relief effort and endless corruption scandals, that everyone is fooled. Yet, at the same time, it is necessary to recognize that the ruling class more often than not relies on consent to maintain itself in power than it does on coercion--though coercion's always a backup.

Degrees of consent are secured by promoting what Marx called "the ruling ideas of society," which are, because of who owns the media and controls the schools, the ideas of the ruling class. But the efforts by the ruling class to secure its hegemony are periodically upset by the system's failure, as Draper notes, to satisfy workers' economic and social needs. This produces collective fightback on a number of fronts.

Each of these struggles are important, both in terms of the goals they achieve in the here and now, but even more importantly, in the way that they change consciousness by promoting class solidarity, breaking down the "ruling ideas," and instilling fighting confidence in workers so long told that they don't matter.

But however important the changes wrought by these struggles, they cannot by themselves end capitalism. What is needed is an organization of socialist activists in workplaces and communities that can take initiative in different struggles, link those struggles together, win to their side the growing number of workers breaking from the system, and provide a level of generalization that can lift the struggle to a level in which it can challenge the system as a whole.

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