1990s >> 1996 >> no-1105-september-1996

Book Review: ‘We Can Change the World – the Real Meaning of Everyday Life’

Knowledge is Mostly Potential

We Can Change the World: the Real Meaning of Everyday Life. David G. Stratman, New Democracy Books. £7.

From a socialist point of view, this book has much to commend it However, it does have a few features which make us less happy. First the positive points. David Stratman’s main thesis is a critical opposition to both capitalism and Communism (the system he sees as having operated in the USSR) and their replacement by what he calls revolutionary democracy. In Part I he seeks to show the links between class struggle and people’s everyday lives. He discusses the bussing in Boston of black children into white neighbourhoods, the British miners’ strike of 1984-5, a meat packers’ strike, and working-class opposition to an elite educational programme. The common theme he sees running through these episodes is that “class struggle is a struggle over different conceptions of what it means to be human”.

In Part II Stratman backs his claim that “the history of the post two decades is driven not by competition among rival business economies, but by a struggle between the world elite and most people over the future of human society”. One chapter is devoted to “revolutionary” activity in the USSR. The author’s general conclusion is that “the problem of capitalists is not each other; their problem is their inability to subdue the working population. Capitalism is in crisis because it cannot win the class war”.

Part III is intended to show that “Communism” has been consistently counter-revolutionary and that trade unions function as instruments of capitalist control. In a chapter on the current US political scene Stratman attacks “the left” for not really believing in the possibility of revolution and hence restricting themselves to aiming at a reformed capitalism as the best possible system.

Finally, Part IV discusses the nature of the revolutionary movement, and the role of the revolutionary party which follows from “a new model of social change and a new view of people”. Socialists would not dispute his contention that “the role of a revolutionary party is not to bring to the working class a consciousness from outside, but to uncover and bring together the fragments of consciousness that are already there, rooted in workers’ experience and their values and social relations”.

Stratman writes well and with conviction. He says many things with which we agree. However, here are some differences and disagreements.

We recognise that Stratman and his associates are living in a country where, perhaps even more than in Britain, “communism” is insistently and deeply identified with what went on in the USSR and elsewhere, and even “socialism” is grossly distorted. But do we get over this problem by calling our object the attainment of “revolutionary democracy”? Stratman admits that both “democracy” and “revolution” have been distorted in meaning, but he doesn’t make a convincing case that a doubly distorted label for the kind of world we are working for is any better than a singly distorted one.

His major failure to recognise the positive theoretical insights to be drawn from Marxist thinking is made worse by his unsustainable claim that “Leninism is a consistent development of the internal logic of Marxism, adapting it for practical use … The Soviet Union and other Communist societies represent not a betrayal of Marxism but its fulfilment.” There are also some worryingly approving comments on the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China.

Stratman talks about a “revolutionary party”, yet he is very vague about what a revolutionary democratic world will actually be like, other than that it won’t be capitalism. Will it be a world in which the means of wealth production and distribution will be commonly owned and democratically controlled? Will it be a world in which there are no nation states, no armies and police forces, no buying and selling, no money? In the absence of a solid and widely understood basis for fundamental change, and democratic action to achieve that change, some form of capitalism will surely go on.

Stratman believes that “people collectively know enough now to crush capitalism and to create a new world”. If they do know enough, what’s stopping them? The answer must be that the knowledge is mostly potential, and that it needs to be converted into actual knowledge and then appropriate revolutionary action.

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