This is Section b of Chapter 4 of Beyond Classical Marxism.
So we are clear on the need for democracy, but exactly who is going to bring about socialism in our country, as a matter of conscious need? Marx in middle nineteenth century Europe observed the increasing immiseration of the working class, with “nothing to lose but its chains”, and postulated its providing the instrument for the eradication of capitalism through necessary class struggle. But can we say that this is true of the U.S. working class these days? Certainly workers here have been engaged in sharp struggle to defend themselves, such as the recent teachers’ strikes and currently protection against the coronavirus; there should be no doubt that they have the capacity to engage in conscious class struggle, given appropriate motivation and information. And in France, another advanced capitalist country, we have the examples of the strikes in 1968 which almost brought down the whole edifice of government, and the current “yellow vest” actions.
But we also have here the phenomenon that Trump has the constant blind support of some 40% of the populace no matter how outrageous and evil his actions are. He has harnessed white supremacy, conservative Christianity, homophobia, anti-immigrant prejudice, and anti-science ideology to his campaign wagon. His supporters include a vast number of ordinary workers, and the question we should ask of them is not are they going to support the struggle to overthrow capitalism, but rather whether they are going to support his drive towards an authoritarian society, even fascism. (A discussion of fascism and Trump’s laying the groundwork for such in the U.S. is given in the articles “Historical Fascism” and “Donald Trump”.)
Marx’s conception of dialectical materialism didn’t go beyond the base-superstructure dialectic quoted at the beginning of Chapter 2, and we have since been saddled with the prescription that we must always be focused on the working class’s potential for overthrowing capitalism. Thus, for so many years many socialists virtually ignored non-economic struggles (against racism, for reproductive rights and against other oppression of women, against homophobia, etc.) with the rationalization that all these problems would be solved under socialism. And of course, who better to lead the working class to victory over the bourgeoisie than the Leninist vanguard party?
But humans and their societal development are much more complicated than depicted by classical Marxism, and the figure for dialectical materialism given in the article “Dialectical Materialism” may provide some guidance for sorting things out. Our point is that it is not just the working class, but also many members of the amorphous middle class (and conceivably some renegades from the bourgeoisie) who may struggle to achieve our envisioned socialist society. Such struggles must be “from the ground up”, and it is the job of socialists not to try to control them but rather to give them impetus to work toward an overall progressive transformation of society. Socialism can be achieved only when the bulk of the working class, and many of the middle class, work together to this end.
Indeed, with its overemphasis on the fundamental class struggle between workers and capitalists, classical Marxism tends to forget the spiritual side of people in effecting a new socialist society. Each person’s ideology is composed of a contradictory combination of “good” and “bad” (as we socialists choose to define these terms), and we should look to overcoming bad ideology through collective practice, rational discussion, and appeal to that aspect of a person’s ideology which is good. If this were all that we did in working toward socialism, we could rightly be criticized as promoting an idealist strategy for attaining socialism, but our point here is that the ideological struggle for morality is but one facet of our political work which is crucial and which can at times be dominant. Trump, for example, has risen to such power through his concerted appeal to the worst of Americans’ ideology, and there’s no doubting that a great many working-class people are receptive to his noxious entreaties.
I myself am not religious in the sense of believing in the existence of some sort of Higher Being, but I do consider myself to be highly spiritual. And I do think that most socialists, even if prejudiced by the antipathy to religion of classical Marxism, are also highly spiritual in the sense of having as their main goal – or at least as a major goal – in life as working effectively toward the betterment of human society. Similarly, we must appeal directly to the spiritual side of people, rather than arguing for socialism solely in terms of improving economic conditions. We must present a coherent, all-round vision of how life will be like with socialism, emphasizing that we must have this because it will be what is right.