Dr Susan Rosenthal speaks about her new book in Belfast
3 April 2007
On 27 March Dr Susan Rosenthal spoke in Belfast as part of an Irish tour promoting her new book – “Power and Powerlessness”. Organised jointly by the Irish Labour Party and the Independent Workers Union (IWU) this event, which took place at the Common Grounds Café in the university area, attracted around twenty people.
Patricia Campbell of the IWU gave a brief introduction. She said she had first met Susan Rosenthal at a Labor Notes conference in Detroit, and had been asked by her to write a review of her forthcoming book “Power and Powerlessness”. It was out of this initial contact that Susan’s current tour of Ireland of had been organised.
Susan Rosenthal then took the platform. She said that her book was a product of her thirty years as a practising physician in North America. When she began her medical career she held the belief that being a doctor would contribute to making the world a better place. However, thirty years on, it was actually worse. Patients were still coming to her with the same problems, and though every one of them believed their problems to be unique, many were similar and had their common roots in work, school and the family. Susan said that as a doctor she could do little to help these people, as their problems were not medical but social. The purpose of writing her new book is to address this dilemma. To do this she poses four broad questions and attempts to answer them. Firstly, why is the world the way it is? Secondly, how did we get into this state? Thirdly, why do we put up with it? And fourthly, what will it take to change the world?
Susan did not attempt to cover all this in her talk, but instead focused on a number of specific issues and read the sections of her book that dealt with them. The first issue was anger. Susan said that anger was the emotion of injustice. Humans were social beings and had an inbuilt sense of fairness. Consequently, unfairness invokes anger in people. This is why throughout history class societies have provoked rebellion – the basic injustice inherit within them compels the ruled to rebel against their rulers. Susan said that young people were today often condemned and punished for being angry. However, a lot of it was justifiable anger at the society in which they live. The second issue was power and responsibility. Susan said that capitalism severed the link between power and responsibility, with the most powerful taking the least responsibility. She cited New Orleans and the Iraq war as examples of this. Susan said that in capitalist society ordinary people are not allowed the make any important decision. The claim from those at the top is that the people are not fit to rule themselves.
Susan then dealt with the two party system in the US. She said that while there were two parties they both served the same corporate programme. The purpose of having two parties was to fool people into believing that they can make a change by supporting one or the other. A good example of if this was the orientation of the anti-war movement in the US towards the Democratic Party. Susan said that anti-war activists were always under pressure to help the Democrats defeat the Republicans. In 2004, the anti-war movement even suspended their activities in the belief that it would boost the electoral fortunes of the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Susan said that because the Democratic Party was fundamentally pro-capitalist it always betrayed any progressive hopes placed upon it. Throughout its history, it has been the graveyard for social movements.
Susan finally dealt with how change could come about. She said that ordinary people do have power but are unaware they possess it or how to use it. However, the nature of humans as social beings, with an innate motivation to improve society, means that change is possible. We can have a just society because society it is the creation of humans. Susan said that the immediate task for socialists was to build an anti-war movement based upon the working class. She did not believe that the world was at the point of no return or that revolution was impossible. The failure of past revolutions was no reason to give up on revolution. A working class rebellion against capitalism was inevitable; what was needed was an organisation strong enough to convince the workers to go on to take power.
The meeting was then opened up to contributions and questions from the audience. The first speaker raised some doubts over the idea of the intrinsic goodness of humans. In his view the world was full of the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Susan responded by saying that capitalism, because it was against the nature of human beings, often produces what appears to be psychopathic behaviour by those who rule. She reiterated her earlier point that human beings were are a social species, and that class society is against human nature. The next speaker asked how the two party system in the US would be broken. Susan said that the best hope of changing the system was through building the anti-war movement. She claimed that more and more people in the US were opposed to the war, and that there was also growing opposition within the military. The next person asked how the anti-war movement could go on to challenge capitalism. Susan said that the war in Iraq was a test of strength for the US ruling class, and that a defeat there would inevitably have a destabilising affect back home. She reminded the audience that revolutions often came out of wars, citing the example of October 1917. The follow up question was on whether capitalism could reform itself to deal with opposition it faced over the war. The questioner believed that there were signs that the US was trying to pull out of Iraq. Susan said that there was no basis for reform as the US was in relative economic decline and had become increasing dependent on Mid East oil. The US could not withdraw from Iraq as this would represent a defeat with far reaching consequences for its position in the world.
Another American speaking form the floor claimed that the anti-war struggle was fluid. There was the potential for people to change in the course of struggle. It was also possible for people to make links between the war and other issues such as black and gay rights. She said a major problem was that the memory of previous struggles hade been lost. The legacy of McCarthyism was that socialist/ working class history in the US had been lost. To overcome this required organisation. I picked up this theme in may own contribution, arguing that while social movement were important they also had limitations, particularly when it came to bringing about political change. I cited the example of Argentina where there was a political and economic collapse and massive social activism, but where ultimately there was no political change.
Susan responded by saying that movements would rise and fall depending on the issues they fought around. She said there was a need for political organisation in order to retain people and learn lessons for future struggles; political activists in each generation couldn’t keep re-inventing the wheel. She concluded by saying that the working class needed an organisation to encourage workers to take power for themselves.
Susan Rosenthal’s talk was impressive.
It was interesting to hear someone from the medical profession link people’s
health to the type of society in which we live. It was also refreshing
to hear someone so unequivocally pose socialism as the alternative, and
advocate the creation of a socialist organisation to achieve it.
The problem was that most of the audience did not share this perspective.
These are the people, epitomised by groups such as the People Before Profit
electoral front and the We Won’t Pay water charge front, who have buried
themselves in whatever movement appears to be popular and eschew any notion
of socialism. This is also true of the Irish Labour Party who co-sponsored
the meeting. Its spokesperson announced that its next meeting would
be a debate on the new rates system in the North. This is reformism
at its lowest level, aimed more at the liberal middle class of south Belfast
than wining workers to socialism.