Class Consciousness and the Role of the Revolutionary Organization: Comment by Red and Black Notes

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The exchange of views below continues a discussion with Red and Black Notes on the vitally important question of class consciousness and the role of the revolutionary organization. As readers will recall, in Internationalism 134 we published a letter to R&BN commenting on a joint public forum they held with the Internationalist Workers Group, the Canadian affiliate of the IBRP, last winter. We publish below R&BN’s response to our letter, followed by some further comments that we offer in an effort to deepen the discussion on consciousness and revolutionary organization.

The meeting to which Internationalism’s letter refers took place in Toronto on February 26, 2005. It was the second such discussion between Red & Black Notes and the Internationalist Workers’ Group. Last year, two meetings were held in Montreal and Toronto on the role of the trade unions. Public meetings and discussions between revolutionaries are to be encouraged as they provide a valuable place for the exchange and debate of ideas. In addition to the speakers, the meeting in Toronto drew participants from Autonomy and Solidarity, the International Communist Current, the Socialist Project, the North-Eastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists, the International Bolshevik Tendency and the New Democratic Party, as well as several unaffiliated individuals.

Space considerations prevent answering all of the points Internationalism raises; however, some clarification is necessary here, particularly on the relationship between organization and class. Red & Black Notes has never used the term councilist as a form of self-identification, even though that label has often been applied by it, and it has printed materials by groups considered to be councilist.

As I mentioned in my speech, my primary political education was as a Trotskyist, and as a member of the International Bolshevik Tendency from 1988 to 1995. I began publishing Red & Black Notes in 1997 as an attempt to reconsider some of my previous politics, and also to make contact with others with similar politics. Reading Red & Black Notes from its inception to the current issue, readers will note a definite evolution.

When I left the IBT, my belief was that Trotskyism made sense, but that it somehow didn’t work in the “real world.” In the course of re-examining my political theory, I came to reject that interpretation, and also the Trotskyists’ obsession with, in their words, “the crisis of leadership of the proletariat. As a result, where the Trotskyists put a plus on the leadership question, I put a minus. A comrade from the Communist Workers Organisation referred to Red & Black Notes at this point as a kind of “libertarian Trotskyism.” In a sense this was true, since I had not entirely broken with the methodology of Leninism.

So what is ‘councilism?’ The term councilist has always sounded like a pejorative to my ears. I don’t know anyone who uses the term except its opponents (unlike say, left communist, or council communist which many embrace). I have never seen those organizations which are labeled as councilist, such as Echanges et Mouvement or Daad en Gedachte use this term. Organizations which use the expression, such as the International Communist Current, often argue it is a product of the degeneration of the Dutch-German communist left tradition. The degeneration is seen in the view of these organizations analysis of the Soviet Union, and also on the need for organization.

As I tried to explain in my presentation, I tend to view organization as intimately linked to the question of class consciousness. How an organization views the development of class consciousness usually indicates the kind of organization its members see as necessary. For the Leninists, workers can never achieve more than trade union consciousness on their own, and therefore an organization is necessary to lead them. I reject such a view as it contradicts the essence of Marxism - the revolutionary capability of the working class. For the organization such as Echanges et Mouvement, class consciousness develops out of the experiences of the working class, but they believe the only task for the organization is to circulate information and develop program.

While the circulation of information and the promotion of workers ideas are very important, an organization of revolutionaries can do more... While workers will make their own history, they are not entirely free to make it as they choose, but neither do they make it from scratch. It’s a romanticization to suggest that the every member of the class remembers the heroic traditions of class struggle, but neither do they disappear with every new generation. It is not always necessary to reinvent the wheel.

As Gilles Dauvé noted in his critique of the ultra-left (reprinted in the new edition of Spontaneity and Organization), the task is neither to seek to be leaders of the class, but neither to shy away from it. It is the experience of the class which creates class consciousness, and ultimately the class which will create the mass organizations necessary to overthrow capitalism. But the revolutionary grouping can assist in that process, by being the memory, by developing theory and aiding in the clarification of the struggle.