DIALECTICAL MARXISM
The Writings of Bertell Ollman
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What Is To Be Done? - the little things < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman What Is To Be Done? - the little things

By Bertell Ollman

Those who want "to vanquish capitalism must have the perseverance to try hundreds and thousands of new methods, means and weapons of struggle in order to elaborate the most suitable of them."
–Lenin

How many people read socialist publications and books, see socialist films, or go to lectures and classes given by socialists? A couple of million? Let's be generous and say five million. The rest of the population can only be reached through publications and in environments completely under the control of the other side. And yet we know that making the jump from being angry at a harsh boss to opposing an irrational system generally requires the intervention of socialist ideas and concepts. I am not denying that the greater influence in radicalizing people comes from their life experiences, particularly at work, but without a little help from their friends (meaning us) many of the connections that are necessary for a socialist understanding—one that links class, racial, and gender oppression—never get made. Chiefly, what is missing is a sense of who and what are responsible for their plight conceptualized in a way that also permits people to see what can be done and with whom they must get together to do it. In particular, "capitalism," "exploitation," and "class struggle" must be grasped as something more than jargon. Given the nature of our problem, given who we are ("we" being everyone who reads the kind of publication in which this article could appear), and given the opportunities provided by the contradictions in capitalist society—are we doing all that we can? I think not.

What follows are a number of suggestions of what we might do to bring more people into contact with socialist ideas (sometimes it's with bits and pieces of socialist ideas, but then nobody knows how it all gets put together). For comrades who are already doing some of these things, please take my comments as an expression of support, and an encouragement to do a little more. But most radicals are not involved in these activities, mainly—I suspect—because of an overly narrow conception of politics, and therefore of what it means to be political, one that is too closely linked to the idea of organizing. However, everything that contributes to raising people's consciousness is political activity, and in the present period important political work, whether or not it emerges out of a particular organizating effort. It is also education, broadly defined, and should be of special concern to anyone who considers him/herself to be a radical teacher. In case it needs saying, I only want to add that my purpose here is not to bypass existing Left organizations and publications or to offer an alternative to current political strategies—merely to supplement them.

  1. Write letters to editors of non-socialist publications (campus, local, and national), not just formula protests but interesting letters of analysis and comment. "Letters to the Editor" is one of the best read parts of any newspaper. To increase the chances of getting your letter printed, keep it relatively short (limit it to two or three main points), tie it to an editorial or news story that has just appeared (best of all is one that mentions an organization or activity with which you have been involved or a subject on which you are a recognized authority), avoid what they will consider "jargon," raise provocative questions in preference to answering questions most readers have not yet asked, and don't be afraid to be funny. Not only does the last greatly increase your chances of being published but also of what you say being read, passed on, and thought about.

  2. Offer to write Op-Editorials and suggest people and topics for others, emphasizing the need to print the "other side," to local papers that have an Op-Editorial Page. Just as universities try to prove their openness by hiring some radicals, newspapers occasionally run letters and op-eds from radicals to make the same point. They also need good, provocative copy, something that readers will react to. Lastly, we shouldn't assume that everyone who helps decide whether to print your piece shares the politics of the publisher. We do have some allies in strange places, and there are others with some influence who sincerely want to hear opposing points of view.

  3. Let you local radio and TV talk shows know that you or some other radical "expert" or author, or virtually any visiting radical firefighter, is available as a potential guest. There are literally thousands of such shows today, and most of them are involved in a nonstop scramble to find interesting guests. And don't neglect the "open mikes" used by many of these shows that permit people in the listening audience to call in. The institutional and ideological barriers that stand in the way of our message getting through to people are full of cracks. Find them. Use them.

  4. Make it a point to know people who work for the media so you can alert them to stories, leads for stories, and radical material generally that is usually ignored by their mainstream sources.

  5. Organize radical media happenings, newsworthy events that show up the cruelty, irrationality, or hypocrisy of the system, or which help people make the links between elements in their understanding that are usually kept apart (the typical dilemma of liberals), or which illustrate the need for solidarity between all oppressed groups. This is not why the media will pick up the story, but with a little imagination...Abbie Hoffman's writings have a lot to teach us on this subject.

  6. Get active in university, church, library, and other speakers' programs to make sure that they invite at least some qualified socialists (and, of course, the same applies to Left films, theater companies, singers and comedians). Often one radical member on a key committee is enough to bring socialist ideas to a community that would otherwise never hear them.

  7. Take advantage of the opportunities offered by your union, class, church, and community group meetings to draw connections between the problems under discussion and the workings of the capitalist system. Understanding how most of the problems we suffer from are linked together as pieces in a capitalist puzzle is a major step forward in developing a socialist consciousness. Trying to effect changes in the activities and leadership of such groups, many socialists have unduly neglected our educational-political role. But, please, no long speeches.

  8. Increase your participation in mainstream academic and other meetings and conferences, and write articles (even short book reviews) for as many mainstream publications as will print your work. With all the censorship and bias, the openings—often very small—are still there, and there are always new audiences coming along.

  9. Recommend good socialist books to friends and colleagues who are putting together reading lists. One of the biggest changes in the university in recent years is that more and more socialist works are finding their way into courses taught by non-socialist professors. With a little help from us, this practice can be greatly expanded.

  10. In putting together your own reading lists, give special attention to books published by progressive houses. Their growing strength, which gets translated into more radical books and improved distribution, helps us all.

  11. Encourage local bookstores and magazine vendors to stock more titles from progressive publishers and your favorite radical publications. Asking—and getting a couple of friends to ask—for books and journals that are not there can often make the difference.

  12. Distribute old copies of Left publications to friends, co-workers, and students, or just leave them lying about in public places, like the student lounge, or in bars, or on subways or buses.

  13. Put your Left "junk mail" in the mailboxes of neighbors and colleagues with a note saying, "Thought this might be of interest." If you already subscribe to the journal that is soliciting your subscription for the third time this month, there are bound to be others within stuffing distance of your mailbox who don't. Even the facts and arguments given for why one should subscribe, donate, demonstrate, etc., (depending on the cause) are reason enough to pass the letter on to someone who hasn't heard these things before.

  14. Help publicize progressive films, plays, and other entertainment when they pass through your community. The comrades who engage in this work have small advertising budgets and count heavily on word of mouth to attract customers. Support their efforts by going yourself and benefit from the energy booster that such performances usually provide.

  15. March in holiday parades, wherever possible, with political signs, costumes, and even floats. Why do radicals limit their marching to parades organized by radicals (which means, too, in front of relatively small audiences, unless the media decides to print a photo or two)? The Halloween day parade in New York, in which everything goes, is watched by 300,000 to 400,000 people. What a great opportunity to carry parts of our message to the people, yet hardly and radicals take advantage of it.

  16. Take instant radical opinion poles whenever a group of people are standing around with a little time on their hands. People who are waiting for a parade or demonstration to being or who are standing in a cinema line are only too pleased to be spoken to. A radical opinion poll differs from the conservative variety in its substitution of radical facts, assumptions, and emphases for their conservative counterparts. One might ask, for example, "Given the probussiness bias of our two major political parties, do you think it is time that the workers had their own political party to represent their/our own interests?" Remember—raising a question that people will continue to think about is worth giving a dozen answers they will soon forget.

  17. Play progressive games, such as "Strike," "Anti-Monopoly," "Class Struggle," "Co-op," and others, at family occasions. These are aids to political outreach, opportunities to talk radical politics with people who, because of their social background, are ordinarily not interested. It's relatively easy to make education fun. The challenge is to make fun educational. Invent your own progressive card or board game for this purpose (dozens of people have).

  18. Bring the records of your favorite progressive singers to the same occasions. Share them also with friends. But make sure people actually hear the words.

  19. Organize a reading and discussion group around an important topic or a particularly provocative piece of writing (it doesn't have to be Capital, vol. 1) Include at least some people who don't already agree with you/us.

  20. Sell radical posters, buttons, records, games, publications, or some mix of these at fairs and outdoor markets and on street corners. The capitalist marketplace too has its contradictions. Use them. In recent years, our Left culture has given birth to a large number of products that contain a radical message. But for them to have an effect, people have to know that these products exist. Just remember, it is not how much you sell that counts here but how much consciousness you raise both among those who buy and among those who don't (so getting people to look over your wares is almost as good as selling them).

  21. Run for political office. No kidding. Since we're talking about educational campaigns, primaries may be better and are certainly cheaper than general elections. And don't neglect the GOP. An avowed socialist—and I'm only talking about people running on socialist platforms—running for Republican nomination for Congress is bound to get a lot of attention.

  22. If there is money to spend (most of the above doesn't cost anything), buy subscriptions to your favorite Left publication for friends, relatives, and politically strategic groups, such as prisoners. A comrade in Washington, D.C., recently bought an advertising space on subways to display a picture of Reagan and his Cabinet eating a hearty meal in front of a number of obviously hungry people. What do the laws in your community allow? And don't forget that most radical organizations and publications need your contributions to continue their work. Tithe yourself.

  23. Write political graffiti whenever you can get away with it. Perhaps nothing speaks louder about the nature of political repression American style than the almost total absence of political graffiti in our culture. As for content, short and funny, or just plain puzzling but with a sharp critical edge are best. My favorites are: "RedScare," "Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible," "If Reagan is the answer, it must have been a dumb question," and " Eat the Rich." Stickers with such slogans or with radical cartoons on one side can also be used.

  24. Wear T-shirts or buttons with these or other similar slogans on occasions where people are likely to notice and raise questions, or at least not throw eggs (or where you are running so fast, as in a marathon, that the eggs are not likely to hit you).

  25. Post your favorite radical cartoons on all the bulletin boards to which you have access. Don't underestimate the power of humor, of what can be taught and the kind of collective consciousness that can be aroused with its help. Enclose radical cartoons in letters to friends and relatives.

  26. Which brings us to jokes. Tell radical jokes. If they're any good, people who hear them, whatever their own political point of view, will pass them on. Dictatorships know what they're doing when they censor certain kinds of jokes. Radical jokes do not simply poke fun and leave everything as it was beforehand, but unmask bourgeois ideology and reveal something important about how our society really works. One of my favorites is about the young reporter who asks a leading capitalist how he made his fortune. "It's really quite simple," the capitalist replies. "I bought an apple for 5, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for 10. With this I bought two apples, spent the evening polishing them, and sold them for 20. And so it went until I amassed $1.60. It was then my wife's father died and left us a million dollars."

  27. Lastly—dare I say it?—live a socialist life, by which I mean treat others the way you would have them treat you (or, at least, try). (Harder). Granted, capitalism makes most forms of cooperation and democratic living impossible, and the alienation from which we all suffer to some degree doesn't help. Still, the personal is political. And, knowing you are a socialist, how you treat your spouse, kids, friends, and co-workers can't help but affect what they and other onlookers think about socialism. Aside from everything else, it is a serious political error to behave like an S.O.B.

NOW TEST YOURSELF. How many of these tactics have you tried? Take 5 points for every one you've done even once this year, and 10 points for those you've done a lot (you decide what's a lot). We'll make it easy on you: add 10 points for every consciousness-raising tactic which you can think of that isn't on this list, and another 10 points for getting a friend to take this test (another consciousness-raising tactic). Getting additional people to take the test is worth 2 points apiece. Also, take another 5 points for having the good sense to read this publication (which had the good sense to publish this article). Now add it all up.

THE PRIZES. Everyone who scores 100 or more wins the Karl Marx Hero of Socialist Labor medal (with red-leafed clusters awarded for every point over 100) and a free trip to a good consciousness. Those scoring 75 to 99 win a Rosa Luxemburg Class Struggle badge. Scores of 50 to 74 win a W.E.B. Du Bois Freedom Fighter pin. While those who score below 50 must make do with And You Call Yourself A Socialist, Jerry Rubin stick-ons.

If you want to do better next year, start now by making a plan for how to insert these tactics, or as many of them as possible, into your daily routine. The idea is to create a kind of "socialist calisthenics" (the phrase is Bill Livant's), something done every day as a matter of course and health, political as well as psychological.

What can all this achieve? It all depends, of course, on how many of us do these things, how well we do them, and especially on what else is happening to people and to the country generally. Still, over all, one should not be too starry-eyed that the sum of these tactics, even in the best of circumstances, could do more than prime the political pump. It is just that with capitalist hegemony working as well as it does, this particular pump is in bad need of priming. Obviously, we still need a mass-based socialist party and an active socialist presence in every movement that seeks to expand (or defend) social justice. But is it unreasonable to believe that the tactics proposed in this paper have some small part to play in setting the conditions in which a winnable socialist politics can arise and flourish.

A final word on dangers and costs: while we are trying to use the system against itself, it is busy doing the same, using what we do to ridicule the Left and distort what we have to say, exacting legitimation points for its tolerance along the way. This comes from playing on their turf. Given the stakes involved and the limited alternatives available, I consider this a price worth paying for what can be gained. On the personal level, the main dangers in our strategy are expecting too much too soon, neglecting your other political activities and obligations, losing friends who are afraid to go out in public with you any more, and thinking you are really funny.