Why workers have the power to change society

April 11, 2018

Socialism sounds like a good idea to lots of people--but how do we get there? Danny Katch, author of Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People, looks at why Karl Marx's answer to this question was: "the self-emancipation of the working class."

LAST MONTH'S historic statewide teachers' strike in West Virginia won many concrete victories. Educators won a 5 percent raise, not only for themselves, but other state employees, and mandated a task force to find funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

They also prevented passage of anti-union and pro-charter school laws that would have further harmed organized labor and public education across the state--and they inspired a wave of protests and potential strikes among teachers across the country.

But by organizing themselves to defy the most powerful and wealthy forces in the Mountain State, classroom teachers, cafeteria workers and school bus drivers also accomplished something less tangible but just as important: They provided a glimpse of a different way that our society could be.

That's a society where the working class majority is actually in charge, and so the huge sums that make energy companies rich would be used to make sure everyone has access to health care--and where kids don't just get drilled in standardized test prep at school, but learn about standing up for what's right and building a supportive community with the people who teach and feed and drive them five days a week.

Construction workers in New York City rally to defend their union
Construction workers in New York City rally to defend their union (nylecet | Facebook)

Many of the people who participated in or supported the strike may not know it, but this is the essence of what socialists have been fighting for since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto more than 150 years ago.

Through history, many people have preached that we should live together in peace, harmony and equality. But because their strategies centered on convincing elites to give up their privileges, those plans never got far. Or the visions of a different world became religions that transferred the time of equality from this life to the next.

What made Marx and many of his co-thinkers different was that they recognized that the then-new system of capitalism was transforming ordinary people from peasants and small farmers scattered across the countryside into wage workers concentrated in factories and schools.

Ever since, the dream of humanity being able to build a society committed to the common good socialists has rested on the ability of the workers to take control of the tremendous wealth we create and determine democratically among the working class majority how it should be used.

WE TEND to think that the world looks the way it does because some smart people came up with a system that they thought would work best.

In reality, however, societies are less the result of conscious creation than they are reflections of their most powerful classes and their priorities and interests.

Capitalists--the people we go to work for because they own the businesses and land, and we don't--live according to the rules of competition and profit-seeking, and therefore our society does as well.

The result is a world that doesn't actually make sense for anybody--where the long-term interest of stopping climate change loses to the short-term lust for selling oil, for example--and where companies make us stressed and miserable by squeezing our hours and wages, no matter how rich they already are.

And in places like West Virginia, it means that politicians elected by voters but loyal to local energy companies put the state's schools in jeopardy by paying teachers so little and forcing them to pay so much in health care that they were almost forced to get jobs in nearby states with better compensation.

By contrast, socialism is what the world would look like if the working class majority made the rules.

If teachers were fully in charge of a school, for example, they wouldn't take the capitalist approach of dividing it up into privately owned classrooms and trying to run each other out of business.

Instead, they would work out ways--with plenty of trial and error--to run the school collectively. Under socialism, this kind of cooperative organization would extend across industries and society.

Socialism doesn't rest on the idea that working people are naturally any less selfish than business owners. Workers can stab each other in the back to get ahead, just like managers. But when workers are forced to come together and fight as a collective, it can have a transformative effect. Building solidarity becomes not just the moral thing to do, but the only way to win.

In the lead-up to their strike, West Virginia teachers spent hours collecting donations to prepare meals for students who depended on the schools to eat enough. In the process, educators strengthened their bonds with parents, students and one another--and they exposed the poverty that Republican state leaders preside over and do nothing to ease.

The teachers transformed themselves from beleaguered workers facing another round of cuts into leaders of their communities, with more moral authority than the corrupt gang running the statehouse.

This isn't a unique feature of teachers. Go to a picket line of any group of striking workers--regardless of gender or what type of work--and strike up some conversations.

In almost any case, some of the workers will tell you that they're willing to sacrifice a much-needed paycheck in order to defend or improve their standard of living--not just for themselves, but for workers everywhere.

This ideal of fighting for people you've never even met is widespread in the labor movement, but it's a strange concept to bosses--who then assume that their employees must be getting tricked by devious union leaders.

Which is exactly why capitalists shouldn't be the ones in charge.

THE OTHER reason why workers' power is essential to socialism is that it's the only way to get there.

We know from polls and the popularity of Bernie Sanders that tens of millions of people in this country are unhappy with capitalism and would prefer a cooperative egalitarian system where it would be a no-brainer that teachers--and everyone else--had a living wage with full health care.

The problem is that we can't just vote socialism into existence. Even if Sanders were elected president--and the bipartisan U.S. political system has and will continue to deploy every trick to make sure he's not--most of the wealth by far that could be redistributed is the private property of the 1 Percent.

That's the biggest reason we can't seem to stop climate change: the laws of capitalism say we can't stop oil companies from pumping our their oil, even if it destroys our species.

We've all been taught that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand, but in reality, they're opposites. Capitalism is about a handful of people owning most of the capital so the rest of us are forced to go to work for them. A system like that can't allow real democracy, because sooner or later, the majority would vote to change such a fundamentally unfair setup.

That doesn't mean the fight for democracy doesn't matter, but just the opposite. Socialists fight for whatever democracy we can get in the political and social sphere under capitalism--and then we fight for democracy in the place where capitalism wants us to have it the least: at our jobs.

If you're lucky enough to have a full-time job (or two), think about the place you spend most of your waking hours, and ask yourself how many democratic rights you have while you're there.

No freedom of speech to say what you really think--at least not without getting fired. No right to vote on your next manager. No right to a fair trial when you face discipline. You don't even have the right to your private property when they want to cut benefits they had previously promised you.

When people are pushed by the authoritarian regimes at their jobs into collective protest, their lack of democratic rights at work means that rather than taking a vote to change things, they have to resort to the more direct action of going on strike--and in turn, they discover that they have far more power than they ever did in the voting booth.

The 20,000 striking teachers of West Virginia demonstrated a greater ability to win better pay and protect public education than 20 million people could have accomplished by voting for politicians promising the same thing.

THE POWER shown in the West Virginia strike comes not only from teachers shutting down schools across the state, but from their inspiring teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and elsewhere to organize themselves for similar action.

In a matter of weeks, states that had been written off in the national media as "Trump country" have turned into flashpoints of class struggle.

There's nothing automatic about these protests winning, at work or anywhere else--much less leading to a thorough transformation of society. Like every unequal order in history, capitalism uses both repression and co-optation to push down dissent.

U.S. rulers are especially fond of repression--the land of the free locks up the highest proportion of its people behind bars--which is meant to keep us both down and divided, by race and nationality in particular.

This country also has more anti-union laws than any other country in the industrialized world, and they all have the same goal. It's illegal for most workers to strike in support of customers, other workers or the general public. That's to prevent workers from joining together in massive general strikes--but it also aids politicians in demonizing striking workers as overpaid gluttons who are out for themselves.

Generations of workers fought to build unions and civil rights organizations in spite of this repression, but those organizations face the challenge of co-optation. They are allowed to have a seat at the table and advocate for their members, as long as they play by the increasingly unfair rules and don't rock the boat too much.

West Virginia teachers were able to overcome their fear of repression and organize to push their union into taking a risky stand.

If teachers across the country move ahead with their plans to have strikes of their own, they might encounter even greater obstacles from state governments--or their own union leaderships--who will be more prepared than their West Virginia counterparts.

These significant challenges are what make it hard for workers to win under capitalism, but they are also part of the process of building a class strong enough to eventually win not only strikes, but a different world.

Karl Marx once said, "[W]e say to the workers: 'You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles, not only to bring about a change in society, but also to change yourselves and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power." He didn't mean military warfare, but rather intense conflict between the working and capitalist classes that make up "civil society."

This idea of workers changing themselves through struggle would probably ring true to many West Virginia teachers, who just went through the process of transforming themselves from 20,000 scattered individuals into a fighting force able to overcome opposition at every stage and to call for and then win a strike.

But this process of political radicalization isn't like a wave that washes over everyone in the same way. Through the debates about what to do next, leaders emerge--some with their words, and others just with their actions.

When the labor movement was being built, many of these leaders--whether they were West Virginia coal miners or Flint autoworkers or New York City seamstresses--were radicals, most of them members of socialist organizations. For the last 50 years, that connection between socialist politics and working-class fighters has been severed.

Today, there's an opportunity to rebuild that tradition among working-class people, both at their jobs and in their classrooms and communities, around economic issues and around issues like deportations, sexual harassment and climate change.

The purpose of rebuilding that tradition is to equip a new generation of working people for the struggle for a better world, wherever they find themselves--to not only participate in the battles that take place around them, but to collectively initiate and lead them.

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