Kjersti Ericsson:
The polyphonus revolution

The revolution needs many voices

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In this chapter: He who oppresses others, cannot himself be free |
"... all the articulated experience it can get" | Is leadership needed? | "Transgressing solutions"


In the beginning of this book I set two models or clear-cut images of the struggle for socialism up against each other. The one image I called a mighty, united wave, that rolled forward and swept everything along with it. The other image had more to do with versatility and contrasts.

A part of the image of the mighty, united wave is the image of a mighty, united, revolutionary force, too: the modern industrial proletariat. If we look at capitalism and imperialism as a comprehensive system, it becomes clear, however, that the revolutionary force is neither united nor has common interests in all questions. In countries in the Third World revolution must have a much broader class basis. The poor peasants belong to the the most exploited and oppressed in these countries. But also other strata of the population can and must be drawn into the revolutionary process. And between these different classes and strata there will be differences and conflicting interests.

Further, people in the South and people in the North do not stand in the same position. It is tempting to draw a parallel to the relations between women and men. The working class and the working people in the North are interwoven , materially, socially and psychologically, in the exploitational relationship to the Third World. This exploitational relationship must be broken down, for the sake of our own liberation. The relations between people in the North and South have their "extension" into the societies in the North in the form of racial oppression. The white working class' ability to take the struggle against racism seriously, is a test of whether it will be capable of freeing itself from the interwovenness in exploitation and oppression of the Third World.

Both on a global scale, and in each single society, whether it is a society in the North or South, the revolutionary force is versatile, full of contradictions and oppressive relations. This can easily be understood as a threat toward the necessary unity and striking power that is needed to beat such a formidable enemy as imperialism's and capitalism's ruling classes. But unity and striking power cannot be gained by overlooking the real contradictions and oppressive relations. They must be tackled along the way, as a part of the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. 

He who oppresses others, cannot himself be free

This is Marx' famous thesis on the English working class' relations to oppressed Ireland. Marx did not formulate this as a noble, moral principle. He thought, concretely and literally, that the English working class could not liberate itself without supporting the Irish nation's struggle against English rule. He stressed this himself:

"Hence it is the task of the International - to awaken a consciousness in the English workers that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is no question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation." (Marx, Marx Engels, Letter to Meyer and Vogt 9/4-1870, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1965, p. 237.)

Marx' arguments on Ireland and the English working class deserve to be quoted more fully. If Ireland's liberation was not understood as a demand in the interests of the English working class, this would bind the English people to "the dog chain of the ruling classes". The English workers would be allied with their own oppressors against Ireland. Also, it would help the oppressors to retain an important part of the foundation for their strength, namely the rule over Ireland. And the working class' own struggle would be weakened by the split between English and Irish workers (Marx, as above p. 236):

"The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself."

An unusually clear analysis. And up-to-date as never before. Set the Third World in instead of Ireland, and workers with dark skins in the rich countries instead of Irish proletarians, and then one can see the same mechanism.

But Marx' analysis suits, point by point, another relationship, namely the relationship between women and men in the working class and the working people. To liberate oneself from the position as an oppressed class, the working class and the working people must abolish capitalism. But the oppression of women is interwoven in capitalism's economic, social and political structure. Capitalism harvests profit through the indirect exploitation of women's unpaid work, and through the particular extra exploitation of women in capitalistic production. Women's subordinate position in the family, and the man's control over her, is a condition for making this exploitation possible. The oppression of women that common men are responsible for, contributes also to securing the capitalist's profit, and thereby, capitalism as a system. When common men do not take up the struggle against their own position as an oppressive gender, they weaken their own struggle as an oppressed class. They enter into an alliance with their main opponent, the bourgeoisie, and they hinder an alliance with half of their own class fellows, women. In short, male chauvinism is class co-operation. And class co-operation has never liberated any worker.

But there are several reasons why he who oppresses others, cannot himself be free. Let me use the relation between men and women as an example, even though the argument works as well for the relation between black and white.

Oppression is a question of building up and keeping up social structures at "macro" and "micro" levels, that systematically see to it that someone is kept down. But oppressive structures have a tendency to "spread" and strike at more and more people. Is it possible to imagine an equal relationship between men in a society that builds on the oppression of women? Contempt and anxiety for womanliness and what is considered to be women's weakness, is, in any case, an effective ruling technique, including when it is used by men towards men. When being big and important in society's eyes builds on power over, and contempt for, others, one easily becomes bigger and more important the more people over whom one has power. And it becomes central to keep men in their places as fellow-conspirators in the male rule over women. Holter (1989, p. 31) points this out:

"The more the common man in the street can take part in having a dominating role towards women, the more he is given the opportunity to present as the ruling sex - the greater is the chance that a minority of men will advance to a position of dominance over the rest. Mobbing is one example of the rule on how men's power over women in many ways means less freedom and power - for the majority of men. Behind the male facade there lies an anxiety for men with power, for the rulers in men's world and for what might happen if he defies them. Mobbing and other forms of disciplining of men create anxiety and impotency down the ranks."

Men's common power over women is, in other words, paid for by men's subordination under, and anxiety for, other men. Many men's extreme "homophobia" is, among other things, tied up with this. Homosexual men are seen as men who break out of the male confederacy and put themselves in a "womanly" position. They are living reminders of the intolerable possibility that men might "sink down" into womanly impotency. It is no coincidence that fascist and Nazi movements, where men are supposed to submit to one leader, also are the most oppressive of women and the most hateful toward homosexuals. Having value as a person is tied, in men's identity itself and their view of people, to having someone under their power. This is a parasitic "strength" that must be very anxiety making.

The struggle against male chauvinism is a central and important area for men themselves, for their own liberation as a class. The same thing goes for the struggle against racism for whites. White women must struggle against racism in the women's movement in order to liberate themselves as a gender. (See Hooks, 1984, on feminism and racism.)

Racism is something that is found in white society, in us who are white. We cannot be blamed for being born with white skin and have no reason to feel guilty about it. But we have a responsibility to struggle against the way capitalism and imperialism use whiteness to oppress blacks, and we have a responsibility for fighting against letting ourselves be used in this. This is a responsibility from which we cannot run away. The blacks fight their fight against racism. Whites must fight their fight, from a different standpoint. The struggle against racism is common to blacks and whites, but it must go on in different ways, on a particular basis.

It is the same thing with the struggle against the oppression of women. The struggle against women's oppression is common to men and women, but it must go on in two different ways, on a particular basis. A particular line for men's struggle against women's oppression is a necessary part of the struggle for liberation of the working class and the working people. And, as Marx says, this doesn't have to do with abstract justice or love of mankind, but with the common man's own freedom. 

"... All the articulated experience it can get"

In a discussion on artistic freedom, Raymond Williams says (1989, p. 89):

"I think that the need for freedom in the arts is, above all, a social need. I think that the very process of writing is so crucial to the full development of our social life that we do, in an important sense, need every voice. The extreme complexity of any historical and social process being lived out in a particular place at a particular time, the extreme complexity of the interaction of individual lives with all those general conditions, means that you can never at any time say that you have enough voices or that you have representative voices, or that anybody can say in advance what are the important things either to be said or to be written about. This need for many voices is a condition of the cultural health of any complex society, and so the creation of conditions for the freedom of the artist is in that sense the duty of society, not for the sake of any individual artist and not in terms of some abstract argument about rights, but simply because society needs all the articulated experience and all the specific creation it can get."

The need for many voices is a social need, something society needs to be able to understand itself, says Williams. The same is the case in a socialist society, and in a revolutionary process. And in this connection it has to do with far more than the artists' situation and circumstances. It has to do with in what degree a socialist movement is capable of turning multitudinousness and contradictions into an enrichment instead of a problem. If one turns it into a problem, one also cuts oneself off from developing the versatile consciousness that is necessary to grasp the complicated and complex social process.

"Unity" has always been an honorable word in socialist movements and in the organizations of the working class. The problem lies in that unity far too often has been the result of important parts of reality being peeled away. And those who have represented this reality, have become invisible and are brought to silence through demands of loyalty to the "common" cause. But a "common" cause that results because some have the power to define away other's reality, narrows and flattens the socialist movement. Unity must result from the movement absorbing the whole complicated and contradictory reality of the working class and the working people, and finding a foundation that truly expresses what is common. Only then can the movement develop a consciousness that is adequate to what reality demands. To attain this, the movement needs "every single voice", "all the articulated experience and all the specific creation it can get".

This demands an atmosphere of openness, of respect for others experiences and standpoint, an atmosphere of being listened to. And I don't mean the sloppy form of openness, where everything can be said, because it doesn't matter. Because the working class still has its organization, its discipline, and its unity to set against an all-powerful enemy. But an organization, discipline and unity with oppressive conditions, distortion and flattening of reality built in, is a poor tool in the struggle for a better future. Openness must therefore serve to catch hold of all the voices, because they mean something, because they are necessary in order to work one's way to a unity that truly mirrors the whole of the working class' and working people's situation.

Again, the women's movement has been important in making this question clear. The women's entry into the arena of the class struggle has broken up the matter-of-course and unproblematical picture of what a worker is, which interests "he" has, and which struggles the working class must fight. The women bring a different reality, with different demands, and with the weight of their male comrades at their backs. The answer from the worker's movement, both the reformistic and the revolutionary, has often been to define them out of what is "common", to demand class solidarity, also from the women, on a male platform. And so they have contributed to hindering the growth of a new class consciousness that tallies with the true face of the class.

But changes are occurring in the working class today, both internationally and in societies of Norway's type. The women's entry onto the stage is one side of this. The female workers are most often to be found outside of the industrial sector, in stores and offices, in hospitals and social services. Another aspect is the reduction in numbers of the traditional industrial working class. There is also the splitting up into "core labor power" and "marginal labor power", "core labor power" with permanent employment, full-time and ordered contractual conditions, "marginal labor power" working on short-term contracts, for sub-contractors, often part-time and on insecure conditions. There is the splitting up of the earlier well-organized worker's collectives through the divisioning of companies or through letting parts of the work be done by sub-contractors. There is the creation of a super-exploited immigrant proletariat. And there is the appearance of a "Third World" in the capitalist centers, where particularly black, female workers carry on a form of home production on commission under conditions that are reminiscent of manufacturing in capitalism's childhood.

Many have been worried that theses changes would mean the splitting up and disorganization of the working class, and the weakening of class consciousness. And it is true that the old class consciousness and the foundation for it are being weakened - the big, concentrated, well-organized and male dominated industrial work places. But if one defines this type of class consciousness as the class consciousness, then all voices that spring from new and other conditions are a threat, a weakening. However, there is no way back to the old times. Yet the choice is not between the "old" consciousness on the one hand, and breaking down class consciousness on the other. The way forward must go through creating a new class consciousness, that absorbs all the different voices and creates unity and a common consciousness on a new foundation.

This new consciousness must be created through practice, through the struggles we lead today. In this perspective, co-operation, common struggle and reciprocal support across the limits of organizations and branches, across the limits of gender and race, across different work and wage conditions, are of special importance. But this common struggle must really be common, not based on making invisible and defining away the new group's situation and interests. This demands a great deal as to interest for and identification with each others situation, ability to solve conflicts and look oppressive conditions in the eye. But only through this sort of process can the working class create a new consciousness that answers to the versatile, complex and contradictory character of its own reality as it is really lived. And only in this way can it create a true unity that is strong enough to carry a revolutionary mass movement. 

Is leadership needed?

The revolution needs many voices. Does that mean that it does not need leadership? I said, earlier, that the "mighty, united wave" has a political-organizational side, that is usually connected with Lenin's name. Lenin's view was that the class struggle must be led by a party that expresses the interests of the modern industrial working class. The party must be a "conscious element". Socialist consciousness does not spontaneously appear among workers - "does not spring up through the factory floor", as Lenin put it. Therefore the party has to supply the working class with this kind of consciousness. Lenin fought a number of polemic fights against others, who laid more stress on the idea that tactics and strategy would spring up by themselves from the working class' spontaneous movement. Among those who disagreed with Lenin on this point, were both the Russian Mensheviks and Rosa Luxembourg, who, by the way, stood for very different points of view.

The kind of view of the struggle for socialism that I have tried to study in this book, does not ask less of leadership and consciousness. If the revolutionary force is not a united working class, but a working class with inner contradictions and oppressive conditions that must be worked out politically if one is to reach a common platform that doesn't cement the old, oppressive structures, it is hardly enough to put one's trust in things "working out" along the way. Conscious political lines are needed, and conscious political actions. One main point in this book has been that we, too, who wish to change the world in a revolutionary way, carry around an inheritance "under our skin" from the society that we wish to conquer. This inheritance marks our thoughts and actions. The problem with revolutionary movements has never been that they have been "too conscious". The problem has been that in important areas they have unconsciously carried on old oppressive conditions. To again use the women's struggle as an example: if one doesn't continually fight for the women's perspective, it disappears from view. An important lesson from socialist societies is, also, that the spontaneous development contributes to recreating oppressive structures and social strata. One must organize the counter forces against the spontaneous.

Personally, I would formulate a political line for leadership in three points:

All of these three points are equally necessary for a movement that fights for a new society, a society that is created by people themselves. 

"Transgressing solutions"

"Working men of all countries, unite!", said Marx and Engels in The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Since then it has become: "Workers and oppressed in all countries, unite!" This slogan expresses a very daring - and difficult - thought. Workers and oppressed in all countries are to unite, across the differences in material and social situation, across nationality and religion, across gender and color. There are many and strong barriers in the way of such a unity, barriers that are built into the social structure. Capitalist competition is such a barrier. When a capitalist company out-competes another, the workers at the latter lose their jobs, while the workers at the first can breath more easily since it wasn't their turn this time. Another barrier is the patriarchal structure that is woven into capitalism. When female workers demand a 6-hour day, among other things, for everyone, in order to lay the foundation for a more equal division of labor in the home, this is not automatically a tempting thought for male workers. They prefer the position as main provider with a limited responsibility for the unpaid work. A third barrier is the imperialistic exploitation of the Third World. Many people in the North fear that an equal, just, trade relationship between North and South will mean a lowered standard of living for themselves. And when many must fight over access to tight resources, for example, money from public budgets, it is easy to set the nursery school children up against the elderly, etc. etc.

Many of these contradictions also have an ideological side. Everyone needs dignity and pride in their life. But in the ruling culture in our society dignity and pride are tied to power, at the least, the power to decide over oneself. Oppression means that one is deprived of the opportunity to decide over one's own life and own conditions of life in important areas. Therefore, the feeling of dignity and pride easily become attached to whether there is someone even more impotent than oneself. It becomes important to have someone beneath one, if one is not to feel too small. Contradictions between different groups of oppressed do not, therefore, only have to do with access to limited material benefits. They also have to do with how the different groups are to be defined in a value hierarchy, and, therefore, with their own self-image, their own dignity. At a women's conference at Sørøya in Finnmark in 1990, where they discussed how the crisis in the fishing industry hit women, one of the women said from the speaker's stand:

"It has been proposed that developmental aid money be used to solve the crisis in Northern Norway. Developmental aid! As though we need charity, as though we can't take care of ourselves, as though we need help from experts from the South to arrange our lives. That is to disparage us, brand us as underdeveloped!"

It is easy to understand the fury, and the anxiety, behind this speech. Because the speaker knew, of course, that those who get developmental aid money are no longer counted among the real people. If you get developmental aid you have been moved to the other side of the fated division, you belong to "the others". But women in the Third World are just as opposed to being branded as "underdeveloped", someone who needs help from experts from the North to arrange their lives. The women on the Finnmark coast and the women in the Third World are basically victims of the same system. The same forces rip the life foundation away from Vandana Shiva's Indian female peasants and threaten to lay all small societies in the North waste. In this way there should be a foundation for an alliance against a common enemy. But if they are to be able to unite, they must win over the idea that the one is underdeveloped, while the other is having this forced on them as a disparaging brand.

All this means that the simple slogan "Workers and oppressed in all countries, unite!" can only be realized through a very complicated process. Within the framework of the existing social structure different groups of the working class and the working people are almost automatically set against each other. To unite demands that one lifts one's eyes a step over the immediate, that one breaks with the usual terms and develops some new ones.

How contradictions between different groups in the working class and the working people are solved, is therefore far more than a pragmatic question, a question of what is expedient in a given struggle. Contradictions that are "solved" by one group winning through at the expense of another, contribute to re-creating the ruling social structure and the line of thought for which this structure is the source. Contradictions that are given a "transgressing solution", that are solved by reaching unity at a new level, demand, on the other hand, that one develops policies and strategies that point beyond this society's framework. Much of the strategy for a new society is built up in this way: by finding "transgressing solutions" to such contradictions. In this way, alliances are created that are a step on the road to realizing the slogan: "Workers and oppressed in all countries, unite!"

Communism as a political persuasion started with this slogan. I call myself a communist. And when I look back at what this book is really about - it is really about the struggle to realize Marx' and Engels' very daring and visionary, but at the same time necessary and practical, program.


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