Changing Minds: The Struggle is a School (Part 2 of 6)

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By Willie Baptist, Charon Hribar, and John Wessel-McCoy

This is part 2 of a six-part series published by The Journal of the University of the Poor. Read Part 1.

The basic conflicts between old and new ideas are what the struggle for social change is all about. Objective changes in the material conditions of our lives and our response to those conditions make the social struggle a school. This means we as leaders must teach as we fight, learn as we lead, educate as we organize, talk as we walk. This is our indispensable role as leaders in contributing to how objective developments in human history are consciously fought out, to the changing of minds.

We as leaders must teach as we fight, learn as we lead, educate as we organize, talk as we walk.

Since the pre-written history period of communal tribal societies, human history has been a history of class exploitation and oppressive societies, which engender ongoing, hidden and open, moral and physical struggles between classes. Under these conditions the emergence of new ideas has always had to come up against old dominant ideas of a society, which are those of the existing ruling class. The ruling class’s fundamental interest is to maintain the economic status quo, that is, the existing system of class exploitation and oppression. Ultimately, these conflicts are conditioned by the deepening contradictions in the economic life of the people. Social psychology is formed and developed in this way. Therefore the science of social psychology must be understood as part of the science of society, the basic propositions of which summarize millions of years of human history. Karl Marx in his Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy gives a concise summary of these basic propositions of the science of society:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.[1]

“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

Marx is concluding that social existence or human experiences are at their base conditioned by developments in the economy. The economic conditions and the social experiences, as well as the struggles and conflicts arising from those conditions, are the primary movers of the minds and hearts of the masses, the inescapable educators of the educators. Karl Marx’s main theoretical proposition, drawn from his own practical experience and from his deep study of mass historical experiences, is that, “It is not consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Therefore, to be successful in our pedagogy or political agitation and education campaigns, in our overall political strategy and tactics, we must always take this basic law of social change into account. Advanced and mass popular education, propaganda and mass agitation alone cannot be effective. These pedagogical approaches must be properly combined with the practical life experiences of the masses of the people if they are to help create the conscious critical mass necessary to successfully bring about social change.

The scientific truth of this theoretical observation and political conclusion has been confirmed by all of human history. As society transformed from ancient slavery, to serfdom of the middle ages, to wage slavery of modern times, corresponding changes in social ideas and consciousness were conditioned by these successive transformations. These social changes were not and will not be automatic. Well-funded and long-established social institutions and powerful organizations of all sorts supported by the capitalist economy have deeply embedded the old values and views like ideological fortresses inside our minds. They include the various apparatuses of the government, big business lobbying associations, the educational institutions from elementary schools through the university level, major TV and radio stations, the corporate internet services, the churches and other religious institutions, the marriage and funeral industries, etc. The basic governmental apparatuses, which have been called the “State,” that is the military, police and criminal-legal justice systems, forcefully protect these organizations and institutions. The “Powers That Be” make up the class that rules society by controlling these institutions and holding and wielding State power. All this is based on their ownership and dominance of the economy by which they secured political and ideological representatives who strategically and tactically appeal to, manage and manipulate the conditioned old ideas and institutions.

The sections that follow apply the basic propositions of the science of social psychology to discuss the major Why’s and How’s of changing minds. In other words, to have a new and correct idea is one thing. To convince the masses of people of the new and correct idea is another thing. This is where the considerations of political strategy and tactics come in.

All social movements and all social change are products of the confluence of certain conditions and a certain consciousness of those conditions. In other words, social movements are not simply the results of nice-sounding conversations. They are compelled at base by the necessities of changing conditions. Raising the consciousness of the oppressed serves to hasten changing conditions by making their social movements more coherent and cogent. Victory in struggle requires the proper combination of these two indispensable elements. Many leaders think that success in building a social movement requires hard work and exhortation alone. They are not attentive to the conditions and are unaware of what is possible and what is necessary at any given moment. Nor do they lead with a vision based on an accurate analysis of the possibilities contained in the current conditions for the ultimate solution to the effects and structural cause of the problems they face. They think that fighting hard and not fighting smart can win the day. They therefore inevitably fall into frustration and resignation. Or they fall prey to simply being manipulated or outmaneuvered by a more knowledgeable foe.[2]

Specifically, in considering the hearts and minds, the values and views of the American people in the United States, we must study the ways specific influences have brought about developments and changes in their thinking, feelings, and behaviors. This includes a study of the means by which the existing mental fortresses in the American people’s mental terrain will have to be overcome if change is to occur. Firstly, we have to acknowledge the fact that we are dealing with 300+ million human beings who are not monolithic but are of many diverse races, faiths, and ethnic heritages.  Nevertheless they share certain common values, cultural norms, customs, and current views.

In the next installment we examine more closely how history has demonstrated that wars are not won on the battlefield. They are won in the minds of the people. The “hearts and minds,” the political will of the people and combatants have to be won. The Vietnam War was a clear and unforgettable example of this pivotal principle. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong lost every major battle against U.S. forces, but they ultimately won the war on the mental terrain of the American people. Why? Because they successfully conducted an indirect, protracted warfare that eventually exhausted and defeated the political will and won the public opinion of the American People, compelling the United States Armed Forces to withdraw from their country.


[1] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977).

[2]Willie Baptist, It’s Not Enough to Be Angry, (New York City: University of the Poor Press, 2015).

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