Interview with Ulli Diemer
In this 1990 interview with Jeff Orchard, Connexions Co-ordinator Ulli Diemer ranges
over a wide variety of issues relating to social change.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
Even so, I firmly believe that 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
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.
’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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I think it’s important that we make more effort to bridge generational
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
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
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
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
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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