What, Indeed, Is To Be Done?
I’ve been blogging recently about the history of labor struggles and how the owning class stays in control of labor. Today I’ve been thinking about why the owners have been so successful over time, and what possibly can be done to eject them from the driver’s seat.
In a recent post I mentioned Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet, “What Is To Be Done?”
Where Lenin went wrong—tragically, cruelly wrong—was that his plan for organization of a revolutionary party did not lead to a “dictatorship of the proletariat” but to dictatorship over the proletariat, and finally to setting himself up as dictator. He ordered the deaths of thousands of people, and paved the way for an even more murderous dictator, Josef Stalin.
Some years ago, I discussed the Russian revolution and its consequences with my friend Marion Youers. She became a member of the Communist Party while in college, shortly after World War II, but by the time I met her in 1968 she had become disillusioned with the party. I asked why she’d joined in the first place. “I thought it was the only way for everyone in the world to have enough to eat.” That was the promise, the eventual goal. But, she added, the question is whether you believe that the ends justify the means, or that the means shape the ends.
In the case of Communist revolutions, history seems to indicate that in each case, the means shaped the ends. Violence leads to more violence, dictatorship leads to more of the same and not to freedom and equality.
I believe that the problem lies deeper than any political theory or social organization can easily correct. As Shakespeare said:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Looking at the current American political landscape, it seems that almost half the people in this country prefer to be underlings. They want a Big Brother to tell them what to do. They want a daddy to tell them that he alone can solve their problems if only they follow him, empty their pockets for him, even kill and die for him.
And that’s equally true in other countries. In discussing the invasion of Ukraine with a friend, I expressed puzzlement at the willingness of Russian soldiers to follow Putin’s dictates. My friend replied that if they didn’t, they’d be tortured. But who would torture them? Putin can’t do it by himself—he has to rely on a substantial infrastructure of officers, government officials, and secret and not-so-secret police willing to obey and enforce his orders. As robber baron Jay Gould reputedly said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
I am reminded of the Milgram study. For those who don’t remember, in 1961 Yale sociology professor Stanley Milgram measured people’s willingness to obey an authority figure. “Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an…experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a ‘learner’. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, with every participant going up to 300 volts (emphasis mine), and 65% going up to the full 450 volts.”
In 1971 Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo recruited students to play as either prisoners or prison guards. Over five days psychological abuse of the “prisoners” by the “guards” became increasingly brutal. The experiment was ended on the sixth day, after a visiting psychologist became upset with conditions in the “cells.” Other professors have criticized the methodology, saying that Zimbardo and his associates urged the guards to act aggressively. Zimbardo argues in his defense that guards’ behaviors were not unlike those of real-world prison atrocities or the actions taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib.
IMO, both the criticism and the defense are valid. Perhaps if Zimbardo and the guy playing the warden hadn’t encouraged the guards to be “tough,” the prisoners wouldn’t have been brutalized. But that kind of encouragement, in this case from the experimenters and in real prisons here and abroad, is the rule rather than the exception. If nothing else, Zimbardo’s study validates the Milgram one.
Are humans genetically wired this way? Or is it that we learn obedience, even with lethal consequences, from our families, schools, and churches?
Research into our primate cousins suggests that we can choose. We are equally related to chimpanzees and to bonobos—but “among chimpanzees, males hold a dominant place in society. They can be extremely violent, even killing babies. In bonobo groups, however, females dominate, and males have never been observed to commit infanticide.” Chimps will fight other groups of the same species while bonobos will cooperate with them. It seems that we are capable of both types of behavior, but all too often we go the way of the chimpanzee.
Can we ditch the chimpanzee model, walk away from groveling at the feet of a so-called alpha male—the murderous, narcissistic, even sociopathic Great Leader? Can we organize our work lives around cooperation instead of exploitation? I don’t know.
I do know that we can’t expect a leader, any leader, to take us to a promised land. As Malala Yousafzai said, “Don’t wait for anyone else to speak for you. You have the power to stand up for yourself.”
Each one of us must do the work ourselves.