Luxemburg was the leading exponent of a Marxism in the spirit
of Marx. One indication of this, paradoxical at first glance, is
that she was one of the very few leading Marxists who did not
treat Marx's writings as holy writ.
On Rosa Luxemburg
We need only look at activities of the thousands of people
working in grassroots groups across this country, and around the
world, to see that people do join with others to block
what they see as harmful and to fight for what they consider to
be desirable and just. When they do, that which seemed impossible
to achieve starts to become possible.
What Do We Do Now?
A 1990 interview with Ulli Diemer conducted by Jeff Orchard.
Q: You've been active in the social change movement for more than 20 years now. Have your views changed very much over that period of time, or have they remained consistent? What would the Ulli Diemer of 1969, say, think of the Ulli Diemer of 1990? What differences would he notice?
UD: Well, one noticeable difference is the Ulli Diemer of 1969 had a full head of hair.... I realize we're often the last to be aware of changes in ourselves - either that, or we become very self-righteous about the changes, perhaps to drown out our consciences.
Still, as far as I'm aware, my views haven't changed very much at all, certainly in terms of fundamentals, of basic principles. I recently read a couple of things I wrote about 15 years ago, and while I found myself cringing a little at the way I expressed some of my ideas - I think I've become a better writer, if nothing else - I found that substantively there was very little in them I would disagree with now. Some points of detail, but nothing major.
Q: In that case, there are certainly those who would accuse you of failing to move with the times. The world has changed. We're in the computer age. Shouldn't we be changing our thinking too rather than clinging to old ideas that are 25 or even 100 years old?
UD: I think one of the problems with our society is that we believe everything has to be new and different. I don't apologize for having ideas that are "old". Some of the ideas I'm fondest of aren't just 25 or 100 years old, they're 2,000 years old or even older, and as far as I'm concerned they're just as valid today as they were then.
What I do think we need to do is to distinguish between what is fundamental and what isn't. Obviously we need to change our analysis as situations change. An analysis of the political situation in Eastern Europe written in 1969 wouldn't be terribly helpful now. And we need to adapt our way of doing things. In 1969, my political activities never took me near a computer. Now I use a computer constantly. But I'm using it to pursue essentially the same goals I was pursuing then.
Q: What are those goals? You used to be known as a Marxist, as a proponent of something called "libertarian socialism". Would you still use those terms to describe yourself? And what do you mean by them? Haven't socialism and Marxism been discredited by the collapse in Eastern Europe?
UD: Well, as you probably know, the political tradition I identify with has always considered the Soviet system an utter betrayal, the complete opposite, of what Marx meant by socialism. Those societies were no more socialist than the Inquisition was an expression of the ideals of Jesus Christ.
Socialism as Marx described it presupposed the dismantling of the state as we know it, maximum freedom for the individual, a radically democratized society, freedom of speech and association, an end to censorship and capital punishment. If you look at what Marx actually wrote, you'll find that on every single important point the Soviet dictatorships did the exact opposite.
Marx and Engels specifically stated that the replacement of capitalist ownership by state ownership would by itself mean nothing except a more complete form of tyranny. Capitalism where the state had replaced the individual capitalists. Rosa Luxemburg warned in 1918 that the approach taken by the Bolsheviks would destroy the possibilities for socialism in Russia.
Q: But why continue calling yourself a socialist when to most people 'socialism' signifies the horrors of Stalinism?
UD: That's certainly a very valid question. Many people who share a point of view similar to mine have given up on the term, and call themselves something else, or just avoid attaching any label to what they believe. I can sympathize with that. I don't normally begin a political conversation by proclaiming myself a socialist either. When you call yourself a socialist now, there is undoubtedly a tendency for people to shut off their brains and say to themselves: 'Well, I know what you're about, I don't need to bother listening to you'.
But the reason I still call myself a Marxist and a socialist is because I am. I believe that those ideas are valid. To me, Marx's work remains the most profound and most fruitful source of ideas for understanding how society works and how it could be transformed. Not in every detail, of course. Marx was wrong about things, and the world has changed greatly since he lived.
But I remain convinced that any effort to transform our world into one that is fundamentally freer and more just and more ecologically whole has to be rooted in the Marxist critique and the Marxist method, whether it knows it is or not. And if you believe that, you might as well call yourself a socialist and a Marxist, because if you want people to take a look at what Marx, and the best of the Marxists, like Luxemburg, had to say, then sooner or later you have to shovel off the dirt and the distortions that have been heaped on them.
Q: Where does the term 'libertarian socialism' fit in, then?
UD: The reason for tacking the label 'libertarian' onto 'socialism' is to make the point that socialism has to be about freedom and about democracy before and above anything else. Part of the point is also to be provocative, to open up discussion, to have people say 'isn't that a contradiction in terms?', which gives you an opening for saying 'well no, I don't think so' and then go on to talk about it.
Q: Even if socialism is good as an ideal, isn't it unrealistic? Isn't the world moving in the opposite direction, if anything? Has the social change movement actually accomplished anything?
UD: Well, it's certainly an uphill battle, that's for sure. The odds are probably in favour of the world getting worse rather than better. But then who knows? Five years ago, what would we have thought the odds were of what happened in Eastern Europe?
I don't think there is any doubt, though, that movements for social change have had a tremendous impact. The women's movement, the environmental movement, unions, have played a major role in changing the ground rules of society. The system may have been able to partially stop or co-opt those movements, but even in doing so it has had to yield ground.
There have also been many essentially defensive accomplishments - stopping things from getting worse, preventing harmful things from happening. It can be something local, like stopping a nuclear plant, or something like the anti-Vietnam-War movement, which if it didn't stop the war probably helped to prevent the U.S. government from unleashing even more destruction on the Vietnamese.
Of course when you're working for fundamental change, it's not terribly satisfying to know that all you've done is to keep things from getting quite as bad as they might otherwise have done. But even our small victories have made important differences to the lives of many people, including our own. We can feel some satisfaction with that even as we try to achieve bigger victories.
Q: If it is such an uphill battle, don't you sometimes feel like giving up and throwing in the towel?
UD: But there's no point in giving up. It's not like you're living in Eastern Europe in 1970, or in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Sure, if you're likely to be shot for opposing the regime, or to be put in a prison camp or a psychiatric hospital for ten years - well, that's a fairly persuasive reason for abstaining from political opposition.
Even so, I firmly believe that's it's only because some people have had the courage to resist even under those circumstances that you and I have the luxury of sitting here today. If we have a certain degree of freedom and democracy, however limited, in at least some parts of the world, it's only because there have been people willing to put their lives and liberty on the line when the odds were a lot worse than the ones we face here today. There aren't very many people like Nelson Mandela who could face spending a quarter of a century in prison for their ideals. But if democracy does come to South Africa, it will be because Mandela and others like him refused to give up no matter what the odds. In a country like Canada, it requires a lot less courage to be an activist.
Q: But if the odds are stacked against achieving what you believe in, don't you feel like giving up on your ideals because achieving them seems hopeless?
UD: It's not hopeless. Even if you don't live to see the achievement of your ultimate goals, you can still make a difference. You can make small contributions that add up to making the world a little better, a little more humane. You can at least help lay the groundwork for future generations to carry on what you've started. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa has been going on for several generations now. Most of the women and men who began it aren't around any more, but they will have played a crucial role in the eventual success of the movement. We humans do a lot of things whose results we won't live to see - we plant trees, leave money to grandchildren. A truly free society is going to take generations to achieve.
But in a way I think the odds of 'winning' are almost irrelevant anyway - even though I passionately want to win. The thing is that I wouldn't really do anything very differently if I thought the odds were 5%, or if they were 95%. I'm working for certain ideals because I believe in them. If injustices that I hate seem deeply entrenched, am I supposed to ignore them? If I decide that the odds of achieving the freedoms I believe in are unfavourable, am I supposed to pretend that I never really wanted them anyway? Am I going to be happier if I do that? How could I live with myself? We owe all the rights and freedoms we have to people who didn't wait for favourable odds, let alone guarantees of success.
Frankly, I can't understand people who give up on their ideals. I'm not saying I expect everyone to be out there putting their body on the line for every issue. I can understand people pulling back because work tires them out, because they have kids, because they have health problems, because they're in emotional turmoil. The contributions we can make vary greatly depending on our circumstances. We do what we can do.
But that's a different matter from actually giving up on your ideals. When you do that, you're betraying yourself. You're saying you don't care about injustice any more as long as you're left alone, you don't care if other people suffer as long as you don't have to suffer, you don't care if other people are free as long as you are free to not get involved. To me, that's giving up on your own humanity. I'm committed to a certain vision of social change because that's the only way I can be true to myself. I couldn't live any other way. I feel sorry for people who have given up. They're often very self-righteous, but they never seem very happy.
Q: How about the argument that the kind of society you propose is utopian, that people are too selfish or untrustworthy for a truly free, democratic society to work? Aren't you putting too much faith in the goodness of human nature?
UD: I don't think human nature is inherently good. I think it's a very complicated and contradictory mixture of good and bad, and it's very malleable too. A lot depends on what society does to bring out the potentials that are latent in people, and our society is geared to bringing out much of what is worst in us. A different society could help us realize more of our potential for creativity and co-operation and caring.
But in any case the fact that people can be selfish and untrustworthy is an argument for democracy. That's precisely why no one person or small group of people can be trusted to wield power over the rest of us. Those who hold power are usually corrupted by it because they are as selfish and untrustworthy as anyone else. That is one of the most compelling reasons for decentralizing and democratizing power - for sharing power as widely and equally as possible.
Q: Do the recent events in Eastern Europe make you feel more hopeful about the possibilities for change?
UD: What happened there is a tremendous illustration of what is in the realm of the possible. You had societies there which had been locked into a very rigid authoritarian pattern for forty-five years or more, and if you went around and talked to people or got a sense of the society, most people would have said, and believed in the privacy of their own thoughts, that fundamental change was impossible, and certainly that it wasn't going to happen quickly. Even the people who were most active and courageous in opposing those regimes thought that what they could accomplish was a slow undermining, or a gradual painstaking building up of alternative social networks and movements. In a city like Leipzig or Prague, you'd have maybe a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred people who were actually activists and organizing protests against the government or being oppositional in some way, and the whole rest of the population was having nothing to do with them because they thought it was foolhardy and they would just get into trouble or thrown into jail or lose their jobs.
And then circumstance changed, and the reason circumstances changed is partly because people's consciousness changed. People who one day were sitting at home, politically passive, were suddenly in the streets in their thousands and then hundreds of thousands. And part of the reason is something happened in their consciousness where they suddenly felt it was possible. A mental burden was lifted from them and they felt able to go out into the streets and they started to believe change was possible. And because so many other people felt the same way it suddenly became possible. And in the course of a few months all those regimes just toppled.
Q: How do you feel about how events in those countries have unfolded since the Communists were overthrown?
UD: I have mixed feelings. I'm very happy that the dictatorships were overthrown and that the conditions now exist for the development of freer and more diverse societies. I think the headlong plunge into so-called free market capitalism is going to result in major social and economic disasters. The East Europeans expect that they are now going to get a standard of living like the West European or American middle class, but a lot of them are going to end up with a standard of living more like the West European Gastarbeiter or the American ghettos. Some people will undoubtedly be much better off, but many will actually wind up worse off, economically. You'll probably get people becoming nostalgic for the good old days of Stalinism!
I'm also troubled by the re-emergence of old national and racial enmities. It seems there are plenty of people around whose first thought, when the dictatorship they hated was thrown out, was to go back to their own hatreds from fifty years ago. Bulgarians, some of them anyway, turn on their Turkish minority, the Romanians are still persecuting the Hungarian minority. In East Germany, you've got the development of a significant, openly fascist movement, especially a youth movement, skinheads and that sort of thing.
Q: How would you respond to those who would say it has been proven that a free market society is the only kind that can 'deliver the goods', that only free markets can create societies that are prosperous and free?
UD: That's the central myth of our time, of course. 'Free market' societies have obviously been tremendous engines of economic growth and prosperity. But they also produce tremendous inequalities. We're sitting here drinking coffee, and we're fairly comfortable as things go, but the people who grew this coffee and harvested it, and who work a lot harder than we probably ever do, are almost certainly desperately poor. Together, we make up the free market in coffee, but when we think of the free market, we only think of ourselves and how well off we are. And that one relationship is a microcosm of what the free market is. It's a worldwide system of relationships, and we look at the top 10 or 20 per cent of the relationship and we imagine that that is the free market. It isn't. The whole system together is the free market, and that system produces a lot more poverty and misery and ecological devastation that it does prosperity. That's no accident. It isn't because the free market hasn't arrived yet in Africa or South America. It has arrived. Those people are working right now, growing coffee - or whatever - for the free market which we and they are both part of.
Right here, in this city, which is the wealthiest city in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and God knows we're as free-market as they get, we've got thousands, literally thousands, of people who don't even have a place to live. If you walk over to that window, you'll see two of them, a woman who lives and sleeps in the laneway, and a man who sits all day in a doorway. We've got tens of thousands of people who rely on charity, on food banks, so they can eat. In this prosperous country, there are well over a million people who don't have a job. In some parts of the country, the unemployment rate is over 15 per cent. A lot of other people who do have jobs are having their health ruined by the chemicals and fibres in their workplaces, but they can't quit because they need the job. The free market doesn't 'deliver the goods' for most of the world's people. It delivers a lot of goods for a few, a fairly decent standard of living for a larger number, and much, much less for the majority. The free market isn't just the stockbrokers on Bay Street making several hundred thousand year, it's also the cleaners in those same building making $7 an hour.
As for delivering democracy or political freedom, you only have to look at a map to remind yourself that most capitalist free-market nations are authoritarian and politically repressive.
The idea of a 'free market' needs to be looked at more closely too. The phrase 'free market' is really an ideological Trojan Horse containing a variety of ideas which have been tossed in together.
Advocates of the free market assume that it goes without saying that free markets mean private capitalist ownership of economic enterprise. Meaning a system where a few people control the wealth and hire a lot of other people to work for them, and the people who work for them don't have ownership or control.
There is no reason why that has to be so. For example, you can have a free-market dealings between co-operatives, or worker-owned enterprises, or publicly owned companies. All a free market need really mean is that you'll produce and exchange goods and services on the basis of their cost and demand.
Q: Are you saying that private ownership is wrong then?
UD: No, not necessarily. It depends. For some things it's fine, for others not. No one form of enterprise or ownership is appropriate for all situations. If you've got a small business, a restaurant, a corner store, a dentist's office, then private ownership probably makes the most sense. Something like a co-operative might work well too, depending on the people who are doing the co-operating. Trying to impose public ownership on small enterprises like that would be a nightmare - Eastern Europe provided any proof that was still necessary of that. I certainly see no reason for the state to involve itself directly in that kind of business, aside from setting health regulations for restaurants, that sort of thing.
On the other hand, I think that large corporations like banks and oil companies cry out for public ownership and control. I can't see the justification for allowing private ownership of our natural resources. How can you justify letting a particular corporation 'own' the forests, or the oil reserves, or the fish quotas? That should belong to society collectively, including future generations.
Q: Where do you draw the line then? How big does an enterprise have to be before public ownership is appropriate?
UD: You can't draw an arbitrary line. The larger the enterprise is - the more people it employs, the more resources it uses, the greater its impact on the environment and the community - the stronger the case becomes for increased public involvement in the enterprise. Ownership is by no means the only issue. There are other ways in which the public can have input: tax policies that encourage or discourage particular things, environmental regulations, legislation.
Whatever mixture of ownership forms we have, I think the crucial thing is that economic activity needs to be subject to significantly more democratic input than it is now. We shouldn't be trapped into thinking there is only one way - state ownership - to exercise more democratic control. There are various ways: we need to be creative and flexible. And we need to listen to the people who are already working in a particular field or enterprise. Often they are the ones who will be able to come up with some of the best ways of doing things better.
I would particularly want to encourage alternative forms of ownership like worker co-operatives. But I think that's more a matter of providing various forms of support and incentives, rather than trying to legislate or force everyone into a single mold.
Whatever we do, we need to allow for a diversity of forms, for experimentation and initiative.
Q: The idea of a more radical form of democracy: You treat that as common sense in The Connexions Annual, where you wrote "Why shouldn't economic activities have to justify themselves on grounds of social usefulness if they are to consume our resources?" ... "Why, indeed, shouldn't economic decisions be made democratically, by those who do the work and need the goods and services?"
UD: Well, it seems like common sense to me. It obviously doesn't seem like common sense to everybody.
It depends on where you're coming from; if you're coming from the point of view that the key to a good society is that people should be able to accumulate as much wealth as possible, then it wouldn't seem like common sense at all.
I'm a very strong believer in democracy. If democracy is to have real content, it has to be about something, and the democracy which we have in this country is actually about very little. It consists of going to the polls every few years and putting down an 'X' for one person or another who will then be a backbencher for one political party or another, and do what they're told to do by the leader of that political party. And you know that whatever party gets elected, they won't carry out their election promises anyway.
Even the electoral system itself is not very democratic: in this country, in the last election, a clear majority voted against Free Trade, and we wound up with Free Trade anyway, imposed by a government which had been rejected by a substantial majority of the voters.
For there to be real democracy, you have to be able to exercise it more directly and more frequently, and you've got to be able to exercise it over more of the things that matter. If a lot of the key decisions are made in the corporate boardrooms, rather than democratically, then you haven't got very much democracy.
From the point of view of the environment, too, we need to have more control over economic decisions. One of the things that people have become much more aware of is that we're all part of the environment, we're all affected by what other people do to it, what they put into the water, or the air, or the soil. The only way to really control those things is to do it at the point of production. It makes a lot more sense to stop the pollution from being produced than trying to clean it up afterwards, or to prevent needless garbage from being created in the first place than trying to deal with it later. That means we need to have democratic accountability on those production decisions.
From the point of view of working people's health, too, we have to change the way decisions get made. The people who work in a particular place are most affected by what happens there. If you may be breathing things that give you cancer, you certainly have a right to know what's in the air, with no crap about industrial secrecy. And you've got to have a right to decide, collectively, from the standpoint of the common good, whether those things get used. Not just from the point of view of whether some ingredient is cheaper than another ingredient or not, but from the point of view of whether it's a greater risk to health.
As long as those decisions are determined managers or owners solely on the basis of maximizing profit, which they are now, a lot of decisions are going to be made which from an environmental point of view, or from a worker health point of view, or from the point of view of social usefulness of the product, are not going to be the best decisions.
Q: You became an activist in the late 1960's. Looking back now, how do you assess Sixties radicalism now?
UD: One of the most significant things about the Sixties was the idea that real change really was possible, that you didn't have to settle for tawdry little compromises, you actually could change society in a fundamental way.
The understanding of power was probably naive, in the sense that we probably didn't realize how long and tough a road it would be.
To me one of the most valuable contributions was that idea that you could go out and change the world. It was a mental and psychological breakthrough which laid the groundwork for a lot of the movements that followed in the wake of the Sixties.
The idea of participatory democracy was one of the key ideas to come out of the Sixties. It wasn't necessarily very clearly defined, but it articulated the gut feeling that people should be able to make or participate in the making of the decisions that affect their own lives. Those decisions shouldn't be made by some anonymous power structure somewhere, rather people should be able to directly make those decisions. That's a very radical idea, a very subversive idea. And it is one that has certainly been carried over into other movements, like the women's movement or the environmental movement.
Q: One of the themes of Sixties radicalism, and something that you have stressed in your own writing, was the idea that social transformation means not only political and economic change, but also profound changes in the way we lead our lives and the way we think. You've written that socialist politics require "the critique and transformation of daily life," and that "Capitalism is a total system that invades all areas of life: socialism must be the overcoming of capitalist reality in its entirety." How, can that be translated into practical terms?
UD: One thing it means is that in our political activities, in our relations with other people, we try to actually live our politics and set up procedures and structures reflecting the principles we advocate, such as open, democratic organizations, mutual respect, equality between the sexes, inclusion of minorities, free and open discussion, and so on. And that we try to live our own lives, as best we can, as free human beings, trying to realize our own potential, fostering community with others.... I realize it's a lot easier to list a few vague generalities like this than to be precise - I guess you have to discuss it situation by situation. Perhaps one important thing is to keep pushing forward the need to deal with these kinds of issues. Make sure that we stay aware of them, that they keep on getting considered and dealt with. Women are often still the ones who play that role, I guess. I hope men are getting a little better at it.
Q: How do you see some of the more radical forms of social experimentation: communal living, sexual permissiveness and 'non-monogamous' relationships, different parenting arrangements, that kind of thing?
UD: I'm certainly in favour of attempts to liberate ourselves from some of the social and moral strait-jackets. Obviously some experiments work out better than others, and some of them are a lot more intelligently conceived than others. We've seen a lot of stupidities as well as some very positive and creative things. But that's the way it is when you're experimenting.
I'm opposed to being very dogmatic about these things. You can't look at a pervasive social institution like marriage and say: 'This is bad, let's abolish it' - as if it was something that could be decreed out of existence. You can't take a sledgehammer to patterns of human relationships. But we do need to question our own attitudes to things like marriage and sexuality and see what we can do the create forms of living that are both freeing and supportive.
Q: Would you advocate something like 'open marriages'?
UD: I wouldn't advocate it, and I wouldn't be against it. There can't be one model that fits all. And it's so easy to hurt others, and yourself. You have to try to find out what your needs are, what can work for you, test things out carefully. For most people 'open marriage', or something like it, is too threatening, certainly in this society.
But as far as I'm concerned an `open marriage' is just as valid a way to live as an exclusive sexual relationship with just one partner. Of course, many people don't have as exclusive a sexual relationship with their partner as they think they do anyway. In North America, something like 70% of married men and 50% of married women have at least one extra-marital affair. It's just that mostly it's done secretly. I do think that people who are committed to social change need to look at their own attitudes on such things. I certainly know men who think it's OK for them to play around, but who don't want their partner to.
In any case, I think efforts to liberate daily life and relationships are an absolutely key crucial element of social change. Women, again, have been in the forefront of that.
And others, like gays, and bi-sexuals, who among a lot of others things have helped show that it's OK to enjoy sex. As a society, we handle sexuality very badly. We need to become a lot more comfortable with our sexuality and even just with the human body. We use sexual images to sell commodities while we prosecute nudists. What we need is more acceptance of casual nudity, more honest sexual enjoyment, more good pornography, and a lot less of this perverted objectification of sexuality by the media.
Q: Good pornography? Is that possible? Do you make a distinction between pornography and erotica?
UD: If you approve of it, it's erotica. If you don't, it's pornography. I don't buy the distinction. I know that supposedly pornography objectifies women and sexuality, while erotica portrays sex as something uplifting and so on, but that's a critical judgement, not an objective definition. It's like a good novel and a bad novel. There certainly is a difference, but it's a difference in quality, not a difference between two different things. They're both novels. Similarly, there is good pornography and bad pornography. Or good erotica and bad erotica, if that's the term you prefer.
I know some people think there is an objective standard for distinguishing pornography from erotica. I've seen definitions along the lines of: 'If it portrays a woman's body as an object, it's pornography; if it shows mutual enjoyment, it's erotica'. Well, try applying that in real life.
To me, pornography is like television. Most of it is pretty bad, some of it is violent, some of it is downright disgusting. Though I'd bet there is a lot more violence on television, even in kid's shows, than in pornography. There are forces in our society, in our marketplace, which create a strong tendency for most of it - pornography or television - to be bad. But it doesn't inherently have to be bad. Sometimes it's pretty good, or fairly decent anyway - I guess I mean fairly indecent! - and under different circumstances, more of it could be good.
Q: That's a disagreements with parts of the feminist movement?
UD: Yes, with parts of it, on that particular issue. I don't question that the women's movement has been an extremely positive force. It has had a major impact in pretty well every realm of society and it has confronted a lot of things which need to be confronted. It has transformed the movement for social change, as well as society generally, though obviously there is a long way to go yet.
I do have some criticisms of the direction some of the more visible parts of the feminist movement have taken. While some very important work is being done on issues like violence against women and abortion, many of the feminist leaders now seem to see their goal as getting their share of power and wealth within the system, rather than changing the system. Getting half of the corporate board of directors to be women, rather wresting power and wealth away from the corporations.
Q: Maybe having women in positions of power will change the nature of power and how it gets used?
UD: Not likely! I do agree, naturally, with women and other disadvantaged groups getting their fair share. But women and minorities getting their fair share of power isn't going to fundamentally change the nature of power. Women politicians have shown they can be every bit as ruthless as male politicians. Black leaders can be despots just like whites can. Being oppressed or exploited by a woman or a person of your own race isn't any more fun, although it does at least have the virtue of making the fundamentals of the power structure clearer.
Q: But isn't that perhaps a matter of women having to conform to a male power structure and way of doing things? That's why they have to wear the blazers...
UD: Well, everybody has to conform to the power structure, men also. Men have to wear the jackets, the ties, too, whether they hate them or not. The power structure has its own dead weight, inertia.
Women's organizations, or organizations which are run by women, are often no more egalitarian than organizations dominated by men. You'll find as much politicking and backstabbing and all that in women's organizations as anywhere else.
The thing is that ours is a hierarchical system which is authoritarian, which exploits people. One of the important characteristics of that system is still that it is male-dominated. But that may well change, resulting in a new system where the sexes are equal but which in other ways is as oppressive and exploitative as ever.
Also, calling the system male-dominated can sometimes be misleading because there are some very distinct aspects to that male domination. There is the broader social sense in which men have more power and privileges, in which husbands have more power and privileges than their wives, better access to jobs, and so on. On that level, most men are relatively more privileged. That inequality is one of the key problems and injustices in our society.
And there is also the fact that society's rulers are mostly male. Obviously those two facts are closely related. They aren't a coincidence. But simply using the same term 'male-dominated' can make it sound as if the 13 million men in Canada together rule the country. That's false. Most men have no power on that level at all. There are maybe 100,000 people - I'm guessing - in Canada's elite, and maybe 80% of them are men. The rest of the men have no more power to speak of, on that level, than the women who don't belong to the elite. A working class male has no greater a share of the power exercised by a corporate executive or a cabinet minister than a working class woman. They both have an equal share: Zero.
The women who want to get into that elite, or acquire more power within it, are mostly concerned with the fact that male hands are wielding most of the power. They want half of that power in female hands. So great. Then half the oppressors will be women. I'm not saying that it isn't right that women should have half of everything, and obviously more women in power will result in some improvements in the lot of women generally in society. There will be pay equity, more day care, more attention to street safety. I think those things are very important. I support them completely. But it still comes down to the fact that the agenda of the female elite, which has largely captured the voice of feminism, stops there. And stopping there translates into a vision of a capitalist, undemocratic, environmentally destructive society with gender equality.
Q: In effect you're saying that class is more important than gender?
UD: Let's say more fundamental. I think that class relationships are the fundamental motor of our world. They are the thing that define the system in a more basic way than anything else. Using the word 'important' may lead us astray, because that can be a value judgement. If women's oppression is more important to you on a gut level than class, or if the environment is, or race, or religion, or nationality - well, who am I to argue? But I think that our economic system is based on class relationships, most crucially between capital and labour. That's what determines what happens to wealth, who has power, the context within which governmental decisions are made, where people live, the work you do and who you do it for.
If you think about it, you can imagine the power structure yielding on gender, letting women have half the cake. They won't like it, but it's conceivable. The system will still work. The more farsighted members of the elite are even in favour, because they think it will make the system stronger. But it's impossible to imagine the power structure yielding on class, on the division of society into those who own the means of wealth, and those who don't. Doing that would mean ceasing to exist. Letting women in wouldn't mean ceasing to exist.
It's in that sense that I think class is the most basic relationship. That's the hardest nut to crack. That's the jugular.
Q: How about age? In the context of social change, do people become more conservative as they get older? Do they get wiser?
UD: Getting older is obviously an important biological fact, and one that doesn't have a whole lot to recommend it that I can see. Age can have an effect on one's political activities, especially in the sense that age tends to be accompanied by other of life's normal stages, like children, more financial responsibilities, etc., which can cause you to pull back.
But by and large I think the effect of age in that sense is overrated. I know many people who are just as politically committed now as they were when they were 20 or 25 years younger. Anyone in the social change movement will also know people who have been activists for 30, 40, 50 or more years. It's not unusual. And lots of people are young and terribly conservative. Age may have some effect, but I think mostly it's used as a way to stereotype people, to create divisions that need not exist, or need not be terribly important. It's quite possible to reach across the barrier of age and make contact and common cause if you want to.
As for people becoming wiser as they get older.... Well, let's say that getting older means you've had more of an opportunity to become wiser because you've had a chance to do more things, make more mistakes and learn from them, read more things. My observation is that most people don't take a lot of advantage of that opportunity. Young fools often become old fools.
But I do think that the social change movement needs to learn more from the experience of elders in the movement. There are people who have learned and experienced a great deal and become wiser, and if we tried to learn from them, we could benefit from their wisdom.
I think it's important that we make more effort to bridge generational barriers.
Q: Much of your political energy goes into Connexions. How do you view Connexions, and how do you see it fitting into the project of social change in Canada?
UD: The situation in Canada - and in many other places - is that there isn't an organized national political party or force which is committed to fundamental social change. The NDP [New Democratic Party] doesn't come close. Outside of the NDP there are a lot of people who are organizing various kinds of grassroots groups and coalitions, but they are fragmented. I would like to see the emergence of a broader movement with a more unified sense of itself and some means of co-ordinating its activities more effectively.
The contribution that I see Connexions making towards that is trying to first of all provide people with information about what other groups are doing, what other activists are thinking, what experiences they're having, whether it's successful or not successful, what strategies they're coming up with, what resources they're producing. Also just to provide them with the raw information of how to get in touch with each other, to let people know that here are other groups that do similar things to what you are doing and here are their names and addresses and phone numbers: You can get in touch with them and maybe work together. We're providing that practical information.
Also, to circulate ideas. Partly to circulate the ideas which these various activists are developing among other activists and the public, and also to get people thinking about certain ideas, like the idea that it's good to form alliances with other people, to be aware of the fact that there are connexions between issues, to have people understand that there are connexions between environmental issues and peace issues and third world development issues and human rights issues, women's issues, native peoples. That those things are connected.
To try and encourage people to be less parochial in how they view things, because one of the real drawbacks of the grassroots groups we have in Canada is that they do tend to have a blinkered view of things. They tend to think that, 'we're just involved in housing, or peace,' or 'we're just involved in this particular community.' Those things are well and good, but as the slogan says, you have to think globally, as well as acting locally. If you don't try to tie those things together with other issues then you're really limiting yourself and the effectiveness you can have.
So through Connexions I hope that we can play a role in encouraging people to see that there are those connexions between issues, and also to take some of the logical steps that follow from understanding there are connexions, which are to analyze what the connexions are and to figure out, practically speaking, what they might have in common with other people working in different communities or on different issues.
If you can understand that your struggle is also somebody else's struggle, or that your different concerns and problems are part of the same struggle, the potential is created for a stronger more effective movement.
The working class movement has slogan: 'An injustice to one is an injustice to all.' If that is your approach you understand that solidarity, co-operation, mutual support, whatever you want to call it, is at one and the same time a duty to your fellow human beings and an act of rational self-interest.
What that can mean, practically speaking, is that you go and offer support when it is needed or give support when it is asked for. That helps those people in their struggle, because if other people come to support them, then they have more clout, more weight, they have a better chance of achieving something, and it makes them feel stronger and more self-confident, which is often a large part of the battle. It also helps to open their eyes to the fact that there is something in common, that there may be a basis for working together. And it encourages people to reciprocate that support.
What you're doing, on this practical level, is combining political analysis, class analysis, with basic solidarity and with practical power brokering. And in fact they turn out to be much the same thing.
And now you've got a basis for going to the people you helped and saying, 'Look, we helped you, now we need your help with this struggle we're involved in.' You've got much more basis for asking that when you need support, if you supported them when they needed it.
People working for change need to pay more attention to that. To the idea that it's in people's interests to work together and to support each other, and to form alliances, and form coalitions.
Q: So, no regrets?
UD: I've made mistakes I regret. As I guess we all have. But as far as the way I've decided to live my life, I've got no regrets. Sometimes I wish things were a little easier, of course, but I'm not given to feeling sorry for myself. You've got to make your own happiness out of whatever opportunities life gives you. And I'm a pretty happy person by nature. Actually, probably the most important thing is a sense of humour, being able to laugh at the absurdity of life, being able to laugh at yourself.
Q: And the Ulli Diemer of 1990 still finds his happiness in being a political person?
UD: I do have other interests, you know. I've been accused more than once of being too eclectic, not political enough. Which is another strategy for staying sane, not burning out. But yes, I'm still working on changing the world. That's me. That's the person I am.
Q: However long it takes?
UD: However long it takes. I'm a terribly stubborn person. But I do believe in having fun, and not taking life too seriously.
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