How do ideas change?

Involvement in struggle can shift ideas about the world, argues James Supple

Often, being an activist means standing against the tide of public opinion. It can sometimes seem that the majority of Australians will always be racist and right wing, or couldn’t care less about trying to change things. But socialists insist that the mass of working class people can change their ideas and hold the ability to fundamentally transform society.

We point to the experience of mass struggles as key to the development of the “class consciousness”, or understanding of the class nature of society, necessary for ordinary working people to see the need for change.

The power of the media in promoting right-wing ideas, from the tabloids like the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun to the TV news, is a cliché. It’s something that Karl Marx and socialists since have always acknowledged.

Marx famously wrote that, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas… the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Some media barons, most notoriously Rupert Murdoch, consciously push right-wing views to the millions that read their papers and watch their TV channels.

His News Corporation controls a $40 billion media empire spread over five continents. But even the less ideological media are still mostly owned by the rich and have an interest in promoting ideas that protect their wealth.

And it’s not just the media. The ideas pumped out by mainstream politicians help to make alternative viewpoints seem marginal.

Scores of think tanks and research institutes plied with corporate money pump out commentary to help to promote their interests. The people who run government departments, schools and universities come from the same circles and identify with the same ideas.


However, propaganda is not the only thing that shapes people’s views. All the time people draw lessons from their own individual experience of life that conflict with mainstream ideas.

For instance there is a consensus among the main media outlets and mainstream politicians about the benefits of privatisation. When the NSW government moved to sell off the power industry in 2008 even liberal papers like the Sydney Morning Herald supported it. But because most people’s experience of privatisation has been of higher prices and worse services there is an instinctive opposition to it.

Key to anyone’s experience of life and therefore their ideas about society is their position within it. Class is fundamental to this. And the primary factor that shapes class in our society is the kind of work a person does. Work is where most people spend the bulk of their time. It shapes a person’s social standing and self-image.

The life experience of a poorly educated worker on a production line doing boring, repetitive work is worlds away from that of a university-trained corporate executive, whose decisions affect and command the attention of hundreds or thousands of other people.

Most of the time working class people hold a whole series of ideas that are contrary to their interests. For example a significant proportion of workers vote Liberal, supporting a party that has a track record of attacking trade unions and working class living standards: think policies like WorkChoices.

Marxists call these ideas “false consciousness”, because they are based on a flawed understanding about how society works and what is in the interests of workers.

Many working people accept these ideas because of their experience of life. For the majority of us, work is an alienating experience. A minority of the workforce, the senior managers and CEOs, exercise control over the most important decisions about how businesses and government departments are run.

Socialisation, as well as the lack of control most working class people have over their time at work, produces a passive acceptance of their own powerlessness. They come to accept the idea that they are not suited to making decisions about how to run their workplace, let alone society at large.

This “alienation” is a powerful force in maintaining the existing system.

Class interest

But working class people also have an interest in uniting in collective action to demand better wages and conditions. Individually workers have little power to resist management, but when drawn together in a trade union have a greater ability to assert their interests.

The bosses and corporate CEOs are constantly driven to squeeze workers through demanding longer hours of work or holding down wages. When their demands become too much to bear, whether as a result of recession or simply after bottled up frustration explodes, workers can be pushed into struggle. The history of capitalism over the last 150 years shows that there are recurrent waves of mass struggle against the system.

If a person’s experience is a powerful way of challenging their existing ideas, then we can see why involvement in struggle—such as mass demonstrations, meetings and strikes—has such a powerful ability to shift ideas.

Employers and governments often use racism to divide workers and distract people from unpopular policies. This means that challenging racist ideas is often a necessity in order to forge working class unity and win struggles.

Workers on Queensland’s sugar cane fields in the 1930s faced horrible working conditions but their union was kept weak because union leaders blamed migrant workers for the poor conditions. Anti-racist activists from the Communist Party won the workers to hold strike meetings where there was always one English-speaking and one Italian-speaking chairman and brought better-paid British mill workers out on strike in solidarity with the mostly Italian cane cutters. This unity across the racial divide allowed victories against their employers.

The same process can break down sexism and homophobia. During the 1984-85 British miners’ strike a stereotypical blue-collar male workforce was won to oppose homophobia and sexist ideas.

Many miners’ wives, who had previously spent most of their time at home, played a crucial role. They staffed picket lines when male strikers were banned by the courts, and supported the strike through collecting donations and food. This challenged traditional sexist ideas that women should remain in the home, and won them a newfound confidence and respect.

Miners initially wanted to refuse help from gay and lesbian groups who raised money to support them. But the miners’ own experience of police harassment and attacks on their pickets, and efforts by the media and the government to label them the “enemy within”, helped them to identify with other oppressed groups. In 1985 a group of striking miners led the Gay Pride march.


The confidence in their own power that ordinary people gain from victories won through struggle increases their understanding of their ability to exercise control in their own workplaces—and society more widely.

Ideas are nowhere more shaken up than during mass social upheavals and revolutions. We saw an example of this early in 2011 when Tahrir square in Cairo was occupied, and operated as a liberated zone run under popular control.

Religious sectarianism between Muslims and Christians was broken down through the unity forged in the struggle against the dictatorship, with Christians forming a human chain to protect Muslim worshippers as they prayed, and vice versa.

Sexist ideas were also challenged. According to activist Gigi Ibrahim: “Discrimination against women and sexual harassment has been entrenched in mainstream Egyptian culture. It’s treated as a joke. Everywhere we go we face verbal harassment. But from the beginning of the revolution, and throughout the 18 days I spent in Tahrir Square, I did not face sexual harassment once. There were thousands of us sleeping in tents, alongside strangers. Yet it was like we were all friends and family. I felt completely safe.”

The years immediately following the Russian revolution saw the development of liberating and experimental forms of organisation governing daily life, affecting marriage and divorce, the family, childcare and sexuality. Housework was socialised through communal kitchens and laundries to allow women to break the shackles of the home and participate more fully in the revolution. A long-suppressed thirst for knowledge and culture among millions of downtrodden workers and peasants exploded.

John Reed, an American radical journalist, described the transformation among working people in his classic account of the revolution, Ten days that shook the world:

“All Russia was learning to read, and reading—politics, economics, history—because the people wanted to know…

“The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, in the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land.

“Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts—but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky…”

Most importantly, the revolution in Russia showed ordinary workers their capacity to take over workplaces and run them themselves and to reorganise society based on mass participatory democracy. Similarly, the ongoing workers’ struggles in Egypt today demonstrate how the victories in overthrowing the Mubarak dictatorship, as well as in challenging Mubarak-era managers at a workplace level, are feeding workers’ consciousness about the possibility of pushing for deeper change.

However workers’ ideas don’t change evenly across the working class as a result of struggle. Waging a battle of ideas against backward ideas like racism, sexism and homophobia, and building the confidence of workers to fight back, requires an organisation of revolutionary socialists inside the working class.

Revolutionary publications and activists are needed to generalise the best experiences of struggle across the working class and point out clearly the lessons of struggle, from the role of right-wing ideas to the most effective ways to fight back.

That applies just as much to the immediate struggles to combat the influence of racism among workers around issues like refugee rights and the NT intervention as it does to the periods in history where the whole question of who runs society is posed.


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