James Miller jamiller at
Fri Nov 10 14:12:23 MST 1995


   Peter Burns, responding to my claim that the
abolitionists were motivated by class forces that
were more fundamental than their religious ideas,
argued that I was "confusing what people's _motives_
might be for a course of action with what might be
their _objective class interests_. Precisely
because," Peter maintained, "people often don't
know their own objective class interests, the two
can and do come apart."
   I think we might have here a semantical problem.
Up to now, we have been using the term "motive,"
and "motivation," differently. Peter believes that
"motive" is a word that describes how people
justify or explain their own actions. I, on the
other hand, have been using the word "motive" to
describe the way class pressures provoke individuals
to act politically. Thus, in my view, the conscious
explanation of goals and purposes, when it makes no
reference to class issues, but rather to "God's
will," etc, is not the real motivation.
   So perhaps we can get away from the semantic
side of this question. I think this discussion is
important, and should continue, because it's a
good confrontation between idealism and materialism.
   What I am saying is that what causes individuals
to get involved in a political movement is their
class interest. This is the primary cause of their
involvement. But, due to the way society is ruled
by ideological illusions, this political involvement
cannot immediately be grasped for what it is. The
activity has to be rationalized in terms that the
individual is accustomed to using. But these terms
are not accurate descriptions of political and
social interests, rather they are drawn from the
obscurantist ideology of class-divided society.
   The abolitionist firmly believed that he or
she was acting to bring the Lord's justice down
against those sinful elements who were violating
God's law and God's truth. "He has loosed the
fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.
His truth is marching on."
    Of course, they used secular terminology as
well. This involved the invocation of the principles
of truth, justice and morality, which they regarded
as absolute, eternal and inviolate. "...a new
nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to
the proposition that all men are created equal."
This ideology expresses the democratic content
of the bourgeois revolution as it strives to
sweep away the pre-captitalist obstacles to
bourgeois society. It is an idealized expression
of the bourgeoisie's own historical mission as
the leader of the "common people" in the struggle
against feudal privilege, or against slavery.
   But bourgeois-democratic ideology is no more
scientific than theology, though it is more
modern, and it is a historical step towards a
rational and scientific analysis of social
problems. Marxists, as scientific sociologists,
have the responsibility to explain why it is
that certain movements arise at certain points
in history, and why classes, and their individual
members, behave as they do in political struggles.
   We understand that the terms they use to
rationalize their own participation are not
sufficient to explain why they behave as they
do. We recognize that people don't have a
scientific conception of class struggles, yet
they find a way to participate anyway, whatever
terms they use to explain their behavior. In the
course of the struggles, especially during a
period of revolutionary upheaval, they begin to
understand more about the forces that move
society, and begin to understand better why they
became involved in the first place. Religious
conceptions and abstract moral principles begin
to wither. In the modern period of decaying
capitalism, the tendency to approach a scientific
understanding of the class struggle is more
pronounced than it was during the civil war
period in U.S. history. And this is due to the
accumulated historical and political knowledge
that exists within the working class.
   Peter turned to a more topical issue to
illustrate the counterposed philosophical
perspectives: the Boeing strike. He said that
the motives of the strikers were "correctly
described" as relating to the issues of job
preservation, benefits, etc. Here he refers to
the "motivations" of the strikers as what the
strikers themselves see as their purposes.
"Their motives are largely economistic," Peter
says, and adds that, "now Jim and I would agree
that their objective class interests go beyond
these trade unionist demands, and we would both
regard the strike as objectively a form of the
class struggle."
   It's true that the demands of the strikers
are "economistic," and that this form of workers'
consciousness is a distorted and incomplete
expression of their class interests. One example
of the harmful character of this trade-unionist
consciousness is the demand that "our" jobs not
be exported to Japan, China or Mexico. This
dovetails with the patriotic campaign of "American
jobs for American workers." Workers in other
countries are seen as "the enemy." It would be
better to demand that the government guarantee
jobs for all. Boeing workers sometimes claim that
workers in other countries cannot perform to the
same high-quality standards as American workers.
(Though some Boeing workers know better.)
   Peter then continues, "but while there may be
some highly class-conscious workers among the
strikers... it would be a misuse of the English
language to say that Boeing workers as a whole
are therefore, ipso facto, _motivated_ by
considerations of the class struggle. A bit of
class struggle may indeed be going on there,
but we can only attribute class struggle
motivation to the strikers as a body if they are
indeed a highly class-conscious lot...".
   How class conscious they are is a relative
question. They are at a particular stage of
development in this regard. They certainly have
a ways to go before their conscious political
conceptions coincide with their real class
interests. But they are "motivated" by the
class struggle, in the sense that it is an
attack on them as workers, by the company, that
has inspired their defensive action. They
understand their own class interests in a
defective and incomplete way. Yet they do
see themselves as workers in contradistinction
to the managers and shareholders. And they
do have a well-developed sense of the fact
that the ones who do the work are getting
dumped on while the ones who get the big
bonuses (the top management) do little if
any real work.
   On a more fundamental level, what has caused
this strike (or nearly any strike), is the
clash of counterposed class interests. This
is what provokes the action on both sides,
whether the respective combatants understand
it very well, or but dimly. It begins with
capitalist exploitation, it leads to the
resistance of the workers, and this produces
an ongoing series of battles. In the course
of these battles the workers learn to
differentiate ever more clearly their own
class interests from those of the bosses.
   The bourgeois ideology which forms the
starting point for self-explanation, over
time, gives way to a more scientific view
of the class struggle based on experience
gained from repeated class battles. And this
is a process that proceeds slowly, in a
more or less subterranean way, during periods
of relative class stability. But it speeds
up dramatically during a period of social
revolution. We still have this bourgeois
ideology with us, whether of the religious
or secular variety, and it is nowhere near
as strong as most people think. But this is
another story.

Jim Miller

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