June 15, 2013
The following article, written by Bill Foster, is based on material which originally appeared in the pamphlet "Change."
The Workers Party is devoted to the struggle to change society, to the struggle of the working class for emancipation. In the course of participating in this work, I have often come across individuals who insist that "change is impossible" because "people have backward ideas."
Of course, it is easy enough to show that this view is, at best, an over-generalization. Some people have progressive and revolutionary ideas; others have "backward" ideas. Do those with progressive ideas outnumber those with backward ideas? This is hard to say and we will return to this point later. But for now, we have to ask: "What is the source of "backward" ideas, and are people incapable of changing their ideas?" And even more importantly; "Is the fact that an individual may hold, various 'backward' ideas the primary thing determining his or her actions? Does the existence of certain ideas in the heads of people automatically prevent them from joining in the struggle for social progress and emancipation?"
In our society it is the capitalist class which is the die-hard opponent of progressive change. In fact, in today's world, the capitalist class is a reactionary class, a retrograde class which holds back human progress and social development in order to maintain its domination over society. The capitalist class, through its ownership of the mass media, its domination of the government, its control of the educational system, etc., bombards society with its reactionary ideas. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent and the most varied theories invented and taught in order to extol the virtues of the capitalist system, based on the exploitation of the working class, to spew out racist ideology, to glorify militarism and war and so forth. Long ago, the capitalists also began to create all kinds of apparatus to penetrate directly into the working class and popular movement – to create a labor aristocracy, various opportunist and diversionist political groups, etc., – in order to disorient the working class, split its ranks and undermine the struggles against capitalist exploitation. All of these things constitute the objective basis for the existence of reactionary ideas in our society. Yet, one of the favorite tricks of the capitalists themselves is to try to justify their own bestial activities through phony "public opinion" polls, which claim that the masses of people hold racist or chauvinist ideas and fully accept the status quo of capitalist exploitation.
Two issues immediately arise. Firstly, one who is concerned about the existence of backward ideas in society should direct his fire, his criticism, against the capitalist class and its ideologists. Secondly, we must ask, why do the capitalists, who never part with a dime except in anticipation of a greater return, spend billions of dollars literally trying to force their ideas down the peoples' throats, if the people are backward and uninterested in changing the capitalist system?
The fact is that regardless of the "ideas in their heads," the workers and broad masses of people are continually forced to struggle in defense of their rights, forced to struggle to change the social relations in society, which at present insure their exploitation and oppression at the hands of the capitalists. No one likes to be laid off or have her/his wages cut; capitalist exploitation and oppression necessarily give rise to the idea of resistance as well as to the objective class struggle. No one likes to be beaten or harassed by the police simply because of their skin color (or for any other reason). In fact, the very conditions and objective struggles of the workers inevitably give rise to ideas about the solidarity of the whole working class, about a world free of exploitation and oppression, about a society based on cooperation amongst all the laboring people.
Thus the necessity and basis of change in society does not begin with the ideas in peoples' heads, but with the objective conditions under which people live. The world and society move and change according to objective laws inherent in them. Whether you believe in the law of gravity or not, you will surely fall if you jump off a cliff. A worker may vote for Bill Clinton, but this does not change the fact that Clinton is a representative of the capitalist class and as such will attack the rights of the workers. The contradictions of capitalist society, which are intensifying every day, give rise to an objective struggle between the working class and the capitalist class, a struggle which can find its resolution only in the overthrow of the capitalist system and the emancipation of the workers.
The point is that the "ideas in people's heads" continually change as the objective conditions under which they live change and reality reveals itself. When the war in Vietnam began, for example, some workers supported it, others were unaware of it, while only a small percentage actively opposed it. But as the war went on and the savage nature of U.S. imperialism was revealed for all to see, the small anti-war movement grew into an unprecedented nation-wide struggle of tens, even hundreds of millions. Every day the crisis of capitalism reveals the inability of the capitalists to meet even the elementary needs of the people. Countless other big and small examples can be given.
Thus, for a person interested in progressive change, the starting point, the question of principle, is not the ideas in people's heads but the objective contradictions in society. One must determine which classes support the status quo and which forces necessarily seek change; one must take a firm stand on the side of the working class and oppressed masses. The thesis that "change is impossible" because "people have backward ideas" is not only a false over-generalization but also a prescription for acceptance of, and surrender to, the status quo. It leaves the individual in a passive position, relieved of any responsibility to take a stand of principle, and detaches the individual from the objective struggle of the working people against their exploitation and oppression.
But if ideas arise from reality, then one might ask, why is it necessary to propagate and fight for progressive and revolutionary ideas? Won't these ideas spontaneously arise in the heads of the working class and oppressed masses?
While ideas arise from objective reality, they are also part of reality and, in turn, play a big role in either advancing or retarding the struggle of the working class and people. While the conditions of the workers necessarily give rise to struggle against exploitation and oppression, this spontaneous struggle alone does not arm the workers with the history of the struggle of other workers, or with a scientific explanation of the root cause of exploitation and the solution to this problem. Just as the capitalists, in their struggle to enforce the exploitation and enslavement of the workers, propagate various ideas, so too, an indispensable part of the class struggle of the workers is the fight for revolutionary ideas – ideas which reveal the underlying cause and solution of the problems faced by the people, ideas which point out the path of struggle and victory.
In the course of its struggle against the capitalist class, the working class has created the theory of Marxism-Leninism to guide its struggle. Marxism-Leninism is the science which reveals the objective laws of motion of society. For 150 years, above all, the propaganda of the capitalists has been directed against this theory. The capitalists have burned the books of Marxism-Leninism, passed laws not only forbidding Americans from espousing this theory but even declaring it a crime to "think" about it. On a world scale, millions and tens of millions of workers have been murdered for espousing this theory. But precisely because Marxism-Leninism arises objectively from the struggle of the working class, precisely because it is the theoretical expression of the actual existing relations and motion in society, Marxism-Leninism can never be eradicated or replaced. The capitalists can no more wipe out Marxism-Leninism than they can wipe out the law of gravity or annihilate the entire working class.
On the basis of the Marxist-Leninist theory, the Workers Party analyzes the objective problems confronting the workers movement today. That is, we are continually involved in clarifying the tasks which arise from the conditions facing us. So too, we are continually involved in drawing more and more people into this work of analyzing the conditions of the class struggle and working out solutions. Clarifying the tasks at hand and carrying through the ideological and theoretical work necessary to assist people in taking up these tasks is a decisive part of the working class movement for emancipation.
Returning again to the question of what ideas actually exist in the heads of the U.S. working class and people. Of course I cannot know the ideas in the heads of 200 million people. But I do know that when I first entered into active political life I also was influenced by the widespread theory that "people are backward." But for more than 20 years, my consistent experience has been that by taking a firm stand of principle alongside the working masses in their struggles, by taking the initiative to go to the masses with the revolutionary ideas which reflect their real conditions and aspirations, I have never been disappointed. In fact it has been the ideas and aspirations of the masses which are an inexhaustible source of strength and inspiration. On the other hand, if one chooses to go along with the status quo, and approaches the people with the idea that they are backward, one will never see the revolutionary ideas or learn of the revolutionary experience of the masses. My advice to those obsessed with the alleged "backward ideas" of the masses is that such individuals should look first to their own ideas.