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Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change

Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change

by Cynthia Kaufman, Elizabeth Martinez (Foreword by)

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Kaufman (philosophy and women's studies, De Anza College) summarizes and explains some of the major theoretical threads running through the radical left, frequently invoking her own experiences with the Central American solidarity movement and an array of other causes. Presenting chapters on capitalism and class, racism and gender oppression, the role of the state in


Kaufman (philosophy and women's studies, De Anza College) summarizes and explains some of the major theoretical threads running through the radical left, frequently invoking her own experiences with the Central American solidarity movement and an array of other causes. Presenting chapters on capitalism and class, racism and gender oppression, the role of the state in society and other questions of societal organization, she is not loathe to present her own views on matters, but concentrates primarily on distilling the many debates that have raged on the left, in order to help activists and others begin to think clearly about the issues. Annotation ©2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

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“There’s a long-running conversation about what’s wrong with our world and how to fix it. Ideas for Action fills in the ‘backstory’ that can help you to join that conversation.” —Jeremy Brecher, author of Strike!

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South End Press
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New Edition
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5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

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Ideas for Action

Relevant Theory for Radical Change

By Cynthia Kaufman

PM Press

Copyright © 2016 Cynthia Kaufman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62963-254-4


Thinking about Liberation

How many times have you heard that we cannot have a society based on cooperation because people are naturally greedy? The idea that human nature is unchangeable and that it is basically selfish or antisocial is used over and over again to discourage people from challenging our current social order. It is one of the mechanisms used to promote cynicism and destroy hope.

But is it so? Dominant ideas about human nature are often dated back to Adam Smith, one of the most important theorists of capitalism. In The Wealth of Nations, published in England in 1776, Smith writes that people are naturally self-interested. The best society, he argues, was one that made good use of this fact. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." He imagines society as a collection of these self-interested, small-business people, with social goods achieved through the invisible hand of the market. If we simply allow markets to work, people will be able to get what they need.

The idea of the sufficiency of the market has expanded into the idea that when people pursue profit they are doing something good for society. It lives on in the idea that social policies not based on self-interest and the free workings of the market are bad for all members of society. Social programs must make the best use of the unavoidable truth that people only act out of self-interest. If we appeal to any values other than self-interest, we are being idealistic, unrealistic and starry-eyed.

What is human nature?

One of the complications in thinking about human nature is that the very question, "What is human nature?" implies that we can look at people as they are, outside of any specific culture. When we ask what human nature is, we are asking, "What are people like underneath all of the layers of cultural conditioning?" But one of the most fundamental things we can say about human beings as a species is that we live together in groups, and that we get our senses of meaning, identity, purpose, desire, etc. from our cultures.

Smith makes a mistake that is common among social theorists. He looks at people in his society and extrapolates to make judgments about how all people are. As a middle-class person, writing at a time when capitalism was stabilizing as the dominant economic system in England, Smith saw the world in individualistic terms. But people in different societies experience reality in very different ways. And it turns out that the greediness hypothesis isn't even a good characterization of people in a society dominated by capitalist processes.

If we ask ourselves what motivates us to take care of the people in our families or our friends, what makes us help people in our communities or volunteer for organizations, we can see that our motivations are very complex. Of course, we could say that even if I rush into a burning building to save my neighbors, I am acting greedily because I am looking to feel good about myself. That sort of argument, while common, does not seem very helpful. If I want to really understand my motivation in helping my neighbors, it seems simpler to say that I have a sense of right and wrong, of what good people do and of what it means to be the kind of person I want to be, or that I have a big heart and I am acting out of a sense of care and empathy. These motivations are all mixed up in the social order and in how meaning is generated from it. Thus, we need a richer theory of human nature than the one that is accepted as common sense in the dominant culture.

At best, the greediness hypothesis explains how people are expected to operate in business. It doesn't explain how they act in all other spheres of life. Because Smith's theory of human nature takes people as they are expected to act in a modern industrialized society as the basis for his view of how they always are, his views seem like an excellent description from within this society. So if we think the way most of the social forces around us want us to think, Smith's philosophy will seem natural and normal. It's hard to criticize Smith's view because we live in a society that is organized around the assumptions that he made. Much of what we are taught in school, shown by the media, and told by our friends and neighbors supports the view that people are greedy consumers, and that it is good to be that way. If we want to challenge this view, we are facing an uphill battle against ideas that seem like obvious common sense.

But alternative, and more hopeful, ways of looking at the world have always existed alongside this dominant set of ideas. Exciting social movements have challenged the way society is organized, and fascinating thinkers have helped create different ways of understanding the world. Unfortunately, most people are not taught about the ways that these movements have made major contributions to a better world. The thinkers associated with them are not widely known in the United States. And, to the extent that these thinkers and movements are represented in popular culture, they are seriously misrepresented.

One example of this is the nineteenth-century German philosopher and social activist Karl Marx. Most people know Marx as the father of communism, but aren't aware that many people had theorized communism before him, and no nation had a communist government in his lifetime. Extrapolating from what they've been told about the Soviet Union, they suppose that Marx advocated an authoritarian state that would rule over every aspect of people's lives. For many people, the name Marx conjures up images of a gray and boring world, in which people work all the time and are controlled by the police.

Marx didn't write much about how he imagined life would be in a communist society, but in the following paragraph he envisions a society in which people can do what they want:

In a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.

When people read Marx for the first time, they are often surprised to find him writing persuasively about the ways that capitalism crushes the human spirit through mind-numbing work and a lack of control over our lives. He was deeply interested in freedom and human fulfillment.

Marx was born in 1818 into a middle-class Jewish family. His father was a banker who converted to Christianity, wanting to escape the discrimination Jews experienced in Germany at that time. Karl Marx studied philosophy and received a doctorate for a thesis that focused on early Greek thought. He never worked as an academic, though. His interest in politics drove him into journalism, a field he worked in for the rest of his life.

While there are weaknesses in Marx's work that can help explain how it was used by others to justify authoritarian state rule, there is nothing in Marx that argues for a strong state or that advocates drudgery.

Marx offers us ways of looking at the world that help us to see how it can be made better for everyone. His is a hopeful vision of the ways that misery can be eliminated from people's lives, and that all of us can bring forward that vision. His ideas have inspired generations of activists, even though his image in the dominant culture is a negative one.

Similarly with anarchism. In popular culture, anarchism is often presented as a philosophy of total destruction and gratuitous violence. Sometimes it is portrayed as even less than that, as merely a fashion statement made by alienated young people. Yet many powerful anarchist social experiments, such as the Mondragón network of cooperatives in Spain, have shown how a human society based on cooperation is possible. Anarchists have been involved in many movements for social justice and were important leaders in the United States fight for the eight-hour workday.

Because our textbooks, newspapers, and talk show hosts often misrepresent the thinkers who have played important roles in changing society, we are kept ignorant of the forces that have helped foster movements for social justice. The dominant set of ideas that rule our society encourage us to have a passive view of our place in the world and a pessimistic view of the possibilities for change. Once we break free of this dominant set of ideas, a whole world of possibilities for changing the world opens up before us.


Understanding the possibility of human liberation requires us to risk upsetting the very foundations of how we see the world. The dominant view argues that to be liberated is to be freed from social obligations that get in the way of our pursuit of our own interests. So, for those who accept Smith's idea of people as basically self-interested, capitalism is the ideal society. In contrast to Smith, many other theorists argue that human nature is basically about caring for others. Seeing people as altruistic social beings, they argue that the best society is one that allows this goodness to run the social order. If human beings are basically good, then it makes sense to argue that the best society is one that allows people to do what they want to do.

Emma Goldman was a leading thinker in the anarchist expression of this viewpoint. Born into a working-class Jewish family in Russia in 1869, she immigrated to Rochester, New York. Forced by a tyrannical father into a loveless marriage, Goldman became interested in radical politics through following the case of the Haymarket massacre. She left her family and bad marriage and moved to New York City, where she became involved in the anarchist movement. Goldman advocated for access to birth control, an end to repressive attitudes about sexuality, and freedom from state control. In 1919, she was deported to Russia as a result of her opposition to the draft for World War I.

Goldman envisioned a life in which we would be much freer to follow our desires and in which the happiness of each member of society would matter. Goldman defined anarchism as "the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary."

Anarchists such as Goldman played a major role in the development of the US labor movement. They inspired the particular sorts of antiauthoritarian activism that were popular in the 1970s and in youth-based radical circles since.

Much of the value of anarchist thinking to movements for social justice has been its insistence on paying attention to people's lived experiences. Where Marxists can sometimes argue that something is good for society on the basis of a theoretical argument, anarchists almost always ground their views on the value that a change will have for the actual lives of people. Goldman was an important contributor to this tendency. The famous slogan, attributed to Goldman, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution," expresses this sentiment. When told that it was unbecoming for revolutionaries to dance, Goldman replied by stating that "I want freedom, the right to self expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." For her, a joyful life was one of the goals of social transformation and, like many anarchists, she believed that we should be living the kind of life we are working toward as much as possible. This view — that how a movement is structured influences its results — is at the root of much US social justice politics developed during and since the 1960s.

Goldman argues that people should be able to develop their inner potential, free from distorting and constraining social systems. There is no conflict between the individual and society, she claims, when people are able to develop freely. "The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence — that is, the individual — pure and strong." Anarchists and procapitalist thinkers such as Smith are on opposite ends of the spectrum with their views about greed and human nature. Where Smith sees people as selfish, Goldman believes that without government to oppress us, people will find ways to get along.

Yet Goldman and Smith share a certain stress on the individual. Not all anarchists are individualists, but many are. There is a strong tendency within the anarchist tradition to suppose that when left alone people will fulfill their potential. This tradition is in contrast with another tendency within the anarchist tradition, often called social anarchism, which works hard to find ways to have people work together to create social forms that everyone can live well within.

Goldman shares the weakness of many anarchists of not looking too deeply into the complex ways that society influences our desires and senses of self. Procapitalist thinkers and some anarchists, such as Goldman, take liberation to mean being free from social fetters.

Thinkers from many non-Western traditions argue that this idea of people being best understood as fundamentally individual is particular to the European tradition. Contemporary philosopher Segun Gbadegesin claims that we are all born into a network of social relationships. Gbadegesin is a professor of philosophy at Howard University and he is from Nigeria. Most of his work focuses on ethics and medicine, but he has also written several essays on ethics from the perspective of traditional Yoruba values. Gbadegesin argues that social relationships begin to influence us even before we are born. Describing life in a communal society, such as the Yoruba of Nigeria, he writes,

There need not be any tension between individuality and community since it is possible for an individual to freely give up his/her own perceived interest for the survival of the community. But in giving up one's interest thus, one is also sure that the community will not disown one and that one's well-being will be its concern. It is a life of give and take. The idea of individual rights, based on a conception of individuals as atoms, is therefore bound to be foreign to this system. For the community is founded on notions of an intrinsic and enduring relationship among its members.

While a Western reader might think that this leads to a lack of individuality, Gbadegesin argues that in a society where people are bound together by networks of deep relationships, the social order changes and adapts to make way for the needs of all members of society. This allows for more individual differentiation than a society based on abstract and general rules for behavior, such as the dominant culture of the West. Thus, for example, most US school systems are designed for students who can sit still for hours at a time. Those who can't are given drugs to make them able to do so. The school system rarely takes the particular needs of the individual student into account. Instead, in many aspects of life, we are treated as interchangeable units, rather than as specific people with different desires, abilities, and personalities.

Small-scale communal societies are often more able to respond to individual differences. According to Gbadegesin, if someone is acting in antisocial ways, the Yoruba ask themselves what they have done wrong to make it so that this person's way of being isn't in harmony with the needs of the community.

Of course, small-scale societies have ways of controlling people and many limit people's possibilities especially in terms of gender and sexual identities. Gbadegesin's point isn't that these societies are ideal, but simply that they can allow for greater levels of individual difference than we sometimes imagine, and in some cases allow for more individual difference than do large-scale societies in which people are treated as interchangeable units.


Excerpted from Ideas for Action by Cynthia Kaufman. Copyright © 2016 Cynthia Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. She is also the author of Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope (Lexington Books, 2012). She is a lifelong social change activist, having worked on issues such as tenants’ rights, police abuse, union organizing, international politics, and most recently climate change.

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