Winning the battle of ideas

For socialists, how workers power can be brought about is the central question.  Most socialist groups have different answers to this question, from the large idealogical chasm of revolution versus reform as a means of changing society to smaller more nuanced issues of tactics in the here and now.  One notion that does seem to straddle the vast majority of existing socialist groups however is the view that the “battle ideas”, the idealogical struggle against capitalism, is of central importance.  This is often cited as the reason for standing in elections, to give socialist ideas a platform, and the justification for endless paper sales and leafleting.

The problem is, we seem to be losing this battle of ideas.  Capitalism is undoubtedly the dominant ideology of the working class (all be it nice fluffy Keynesian capitalism) and over the past decade, even with capitalism facing possible collapse, the socialist left has gained little in terms of support.  If we are serious about winning socialism we need to examine the reasons for these failures and find out in what way we can improve our approach.

Current approaches

Nearly every socialist organisation, from the most authoritarian Stalinists to the most liberal anarchists, has its own publication. Usually this takes the form of a “newspaper” that comes periodically and espouses the position of the group and generally advocates for their chosen ideology. These newspapers are often accompanied by less frequent and more in-depth magazines and a web presence, more or less developed depending on the organisation in question.

Such publications do their best to convince the reader of the merits of a socialist transformation, and in particular of membership of that group, their aim being to create socialists (or to “spread socialist ideas”, which amounts to the same thing). Now there are undoubtedly cases where this approach works, and most experienced paper-sellers will have a couple of anecdotes up their sleeves about this or that comrade that was recruited via the weekly paper-sale.

Such benefits shouldn’t be dismissed, however at present the socialist movement is recruiting in ones or twos, and hasn’t increased markedly the percentage of the population that believe in socialist ideas. Now we can argue that this is because of “objective circumstances”, but, in the midst of a crisis of capitalism it is difficult to imagine circumstances more favourable to socialist ideas, and yet their take up, whilst increased slightly, is still minor amongst the population as a whole.

So why is it that our ideas are failing to spread? To answer this question it is necessary to look at how our political opponents, the capitalist class, promote their own ideas.

Learning from the enemy

Firstly, when we compare our own organisations to the capitalist political parties we immediately notice that these party’s do not have their own organ. Why is this? Would “New Labour Worker” be a successful publication? Probably not as most people are very sceptical of any publication with an explicit agenda, and prefer their media to have at least nominal independence. Of course all of the bourgeoisie press has its own allegiances, and most are not blind to this, but they are none the less considered a more reputable source of information than party-political election materials.

Newspapers may be partisan, but they are still more trusted

Another characteristic of the capitalist newspaper industry is its noted recent decline. Over the last decade there has been a marked decrease in newspaper sales as technology slowly makes this media irrelevant. The newspaper industry has been slow to adapt to this change and has thus lost out, however the left press has found it even more difficult to cope with change.

Various dogmas surround the notion of the centrality of the party paper, especially on the Leninist left.  Whilst party papers undoubtedly played an important role in the Russian revolution and we should seek to learn from that experience what we can, technology has moved on and such an approach is no longer effective.  The notion of organising around a paper these days makes little sense, and usually translates into yet more dismal paper sales.  Other media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as the present day revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt have found, are far more potent tools than party-political newspapers.

From action to ideas

However, there is a more fundamental problem than the technological out-datedness and obvious partisanship of the far left press.  For most people socialism seems unattainable, utopian, “nice idea but it’ll never happen”.  Whilst we can try to mitigate against this attitude by wheeling out Marxist dogmas on the inevitability of proletarian victory, or by quoting historical examples, “but look, in 1917, in Russia, for a bit…” neither approach is going to be hugely convincing to your average worker.

This perception of attainability is very important when it comes to looking at motivations.  Socialism does not appear to be in the immediate self-interest, because it appears to be unattainable, of working class people.  As it stands its difficult to argue that doing a miserable paper sale once every weekend at the local shopping centre will tangibly benefit the working class, and so surprise surprise few are drawn in by this sort of activity.

So a central project for us as socialists must be to make socialism, the empowerment of the working class, as attainable as possible.  To do this, we must look to empower working people, creating powerful demonstrations in their own lives that the working class can and should run society.  Such power does not have to come all at once, more naturally it can be built.  Every time an industrial union successfully stops a management attack on the workers, it is demonstrating its power over the workplace.  Every time the workers win a demand, even a small one, they have taken a little control over their workplace away from their boss.

Of course, winning a new coffee machine or stopping a pay cut is still a long way from attaining true socialism, but such victories can help us build the confidence of those involved in winning them and enable us to demonstrate to yet more workers the effectiveness of our popular organisations.  The more organised the working class is, though trade unions, community associations or any other mass organisation, the better able to assert itself it will be, and the more power it will wield.

Eventually, when unions become strong, the question ceases to be “who runs this workplace” and begins to be “who runs this country”.  Worker’s power has been made attainable and it is then that we will find the working classes responsive to our idealogical propaganda and can push for total control over society.  The terrain will be such that the battle of ideas can be decisively won.

But in the mean time, our focus should not be on trying to preach our socialist gospel to a largely uninterested working class, but rather we should focus our efforts on preparing the battlefield, building and democratising the popular organisations of our class.  With our limited resources this may mean tough choices, moving finance away from propaganda activities and towards the work we do within mass organisations, but ultimately this strategic realignment will render us better able to win the battle of ideas in the long term.

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9 responses to “Winning the battle of ideas

  1. I think there is room for propaganda, its just that the left does it interminably badly.

    The RSA lecture on the economy, the Landsley rap and the videos that the Indignatos in Edinburgh have produced stand out for me as some of the best propaganda in recent times. Makes a refreshing change to dull wordy newspapers.

  2. Not familiar with the Indignatos stuff, but certainly the RSA cartoon and Landsley rap are good examples of propaganda done well. I think propaganda has a role to play, but I think we need to aim it at where people are at. If we’re leafleting the general public, lets persuade them to join their trade union (an easier step to make ideologically) rather than to sign straight up for (seemingly unattainable) full-blown socialism.

  3. I guess its just that there are different purposes for each

    Propaganda is aimed at conciousness raising – the best propaganda doesn’t tell people to do anything in particular other than think about things more carefully, or highlight issues

    If you looking at attainability then you need more direct realistic instructions of what people can do, assuming that they know the arguments, they are just looking for ways to put them into practical effect.

    Problems arise when these two get muddled, especially where the actions suggested seem utopian or impractical, or as used as part of the propaganda.

  4. Greetings-I found this article through peopleofcolororganize.com, and tried to use it to start a new APOC thread on libcom.org, do you ever post on there? I think more people would have checked it if I just used your title.

    Anyways, I think you are right on, especially when you wrote “Every time an industrial union successfully stops a management attack on the workers, it is demonstrating its power over the workplace. Every time the workers win a demand, even a small one, they have taken a little control over their workplace away from their boss.” I’m a Socialist Industrial Unionist amongst other things and when I was in the Socialist Labor Party of America I pushed hard for us to re-enter the fray of economic organizing, and after resigning, the next activist group I joined was the Workers’ International Industrial Union for this reason.

    Alas, what I really think is needed is an expansion of the revolutionary Industrial Union program, basically ParEcon with class consciousness is what I’m thinking, but I’ve just been working for the most part since April… and really looking forward to getting re-involved with things this fall on our side of the pond…

  5. Interesting, I’ll have to send a link for that site to a comrade of mine, I think he’ll dig your blog too. He’s been frustrated by Anarchists in the IWW playing down their politics to recruit non-Anarchists.

    I’m not sure exactly how the demographic break down went in the Detroit IWW, I’m 99.9% it came out weaker than it went in as the ST&LA, which had formed independent of the SLP. But over the years, the WIIU actually became a sort of haven of ex-SLP members, that’s why the SLP eventually cut it loose. The new WIIU is similarly a lot of ex-SLP members. I’m no longer in either, but maybe half or more of the cadre were ex-SLP, I’m sure the SLP is mad as hell about the new WIIU, which is truly unfortunate, kind of like the New Union Movement then Party was just an off shoot with a sea of bad blood in between as far as I could tell.

    I like what you wrote about union culture in your other blog post. It’s the main the the IWW has had going for it for decades. It’s definitely a component. But honestly, I’m sort of at a loss for tactics, people here have been having the same old, hot shop/organizing/recruiting/boring from within/Red union, etc.etc. debates for decades and decades. I’m becoming surer and surer new programs are what’s needed more than anything else.

  6. The thing is people have been coming up with new programs for decades as well, with little effect. I think the main problem is the conservatism and dogma of much of the left as well as the sectarianism of most left groups.

    In terms of the IWW, it isn’t an anarchist union so I think anarchists would be quite right to play down their politics if they were trying to recruit to it, otherwise people might get the wrong idea.

  7. Yeah, people have been developing new programs, but I just don’t think they are new enough. Like the SWP here, who really wants to die for reforms possible within the capitalist system? Their immediate demands have been consistently reformist, and they don’t even mean them. They campaign around reformist demands they don’t even want to implement, and it’s somehow all part of a struggle for a workers’ and farmers’ state, all I think they’ve really added to their program since the 1960s is now they are against homophobia. The RCP is very similar in that sense, I’ve gone and read old documents when I hung around either group and got a sense of their history, and its rampant in the Left here.

    What else would this be but the conservatism and sectarianism that you wrote about? I think we’re on the same page.

    Of course, I know the IWW isn’t explicitly anarchist, that’s why I thought my comrade would interested in the site because he is an anarchist.

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