On Class Consciousness: A Reponse to Red and Black Notes
As readers of Red and Black Notes and Internationalism may have noticed, a discussion has developed on the role of the revolutionary organization and its relationship to the class. This is a central and difficult, controversial issue that has been hotly and long debated within the workers’ movement. It is vital that the discussion continues for the benefit of clarification. This is why we would like to carry the discussion further and approach some points on councilism that Fischer, the editor of Red and Black Notes, raised, as well as other points.
The defeat of the revolutionary wave that started in Russia in 1918 and spread throughout Europe in the following years, provided a lethal weapon for the bourgeoisie worldwide, which it used to poison the consciousness of the working class. The establishment of state capitalism via Stalinism was equated to communism and even among some of the revolutionaries who had supported the Bolshevik party, a position formed that viewed the party, the revolutionary organization itself as inevitably leading to the suffocation of the revolution by becoming more and more integrated into a stratified political formation. In this view, it is the nature of ‘party organization’ itself that is in conflict with the unitary form of organization of the class, the councils. In this view, the councils have a revolutionary nature, while the party has an essentially conservative nature, which inevitably leads to the defeat of the revolution. In its most extreme, yet logical conclusion, this view sees the Bolshevik party as responsible for the defeat of the revolution. Hence, the theorization, by some groups, that the Bolshevik party had never been a communist organization, its origin and nature being rather bourgeois. In fact, some even theorized that the Russian Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. In yet other variations, we see sometimes a total and sometimes a hesitant rejection of organization. It is this rejection of the party as a necessary organizational and political organ of the class that ‘councilists’ reject. While ‘council communism’ is claimed as part of the workers’ movement, in that it has not rejected the necessity of the party, ‘councilism’ refers specifically to the denunciation and rejection of the idea of ‘party’.
Notwithstanding the nuances and variations, the origin of the confusion regarding the role of the party is the same: it is the confusion about the relationship of the party to the class. The rejection, hesitant or outright, of the party springs from this confusion, and it is because of this confusion that assigning a role for the party becomes impossible.
We agree with Fischer’s rejection of the Stalinist distortion of Lenin’s conception of the party and consciousness, which the Stalinists proclaim to be Leninist, when in fact Lenin himself recognized that he had bent the stick too far in the debate with the economists on the importance of the revolutionary organization and the ability or inability of the proletariat to go beyond trade union consciousness on its own. Fischer wrote in Red and Black Notes #21:
“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 view as it contradicts the essence of Marxism – the revolutionary capability of the working class. For the organizations 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 [this is] very important, an organization of revolutionaries can do more.”
We agree with the rejection of this Stalinist view, which assigns a passive role to the working class, and even denigrates it, while it glorifies the idea of an all-knowing elite. For us, the working class is the revolutionary subject. For us, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the task of the workers’ councils, not of the party. However, this is not the same as assigning to the party the role of ‘spectator’, or some kind of ‘paternal guardian’ that watches over its children, the workers, to make sure they make no mistakes. In this sense, we agree with Fischer that the role of a revolutionary organization is more than informing and developing a program.
In addition, we agree with Fischer’s earlier idea that the “…organization is intimately linked to the question of class consciousness.” But we need to clarify in what ways the organization is intimately linked to the class and its consciousness. This clarification will allow us to assign an organic, truthful role to the organization. From what Fischer says, he seems clear as to the ‘intimate relationship’ between the class and its consciousness, and between the class and its mass organizations, the councils. But he still has problems understanding the relationship between the class and the party. While Fischer is clear that the councils and class consciousness are both a product, a secretion of the class, the party does not enjoy the same kind of intimate relationship with the class. Somehow, the party feels alien, separated from the experience, the consciousness, the creation of the class. For example, while Fischer makes an attempt to assign a greater role to the party than the one Echanges et Mouvement assigns to it, the party is still emasculated, relegated to ‘the memory’ of the class, the developer of theory, the helper in the clarification of the struggle. Since the party is not viewed as part of the class, its secretion, it is still given a relatively passive role. This is a concession to ‘councilism’ as described above.
At the same time, though, Fischer agrees with Gilles Dauve’s vision, which he quotes from Spontaneity and Organization, that “…the task [of the party] is neither to seek to be leaders of the class, but neither to shy away from it.” The problem with this formulation is that it is not at all clear. Instead, it reveals a contradictory vision of, on the one hand, a sideline role for the party, and, on the other, of ‘leaders of the class’. This formulation says and clarifies nothing. Is a revolutionary a leader? Or does he stand on the sideline? The shyness about being ‘leaders’ stems from the scars of Stalinism and from the ideological confusion arising from associating Stalinism with communism, and the Bolschevik party with the ‘general staff’ of the class.
Our conception is that we do not shy away from ‘being leaders’. Instead, we seek to be so. But what do we mean by ‘leaders’? What are ‘leaders of the class’? For us, ‘leaders’ does not mean the ‘intelligentsia’ ruling over the class; neither does it mean being the ‘general staff’ of the class, giving orders. ‘Leaders’ are the most conscious revolutionaries who are internationally regrouped in a centralized organization, the party, to aid the class clarify the goals and methods of the struggle. While their tasks are not identical to those of the councils, they are dedicated to the class’ revolutionary transformation of the world, and to the process leading to the class’ self-emancipation. This is why their interests and aims do not diverge from those of the class.
The first task for the class is that of advancing its combat. The class does so by unifying and extending its struggle. It has historically created the means to do so through organizing bodies, the sovereign general assemblies and committees of elected and revocable delegates, the soviets, or workers’ councils. In addition to this bodies which help the class unify and extend the struggle, the class also has secreted the means to attain the clarification of the goals and methods of the struggle: the party. But the party does not do so ‘from the outside’, or from ‘the sidelines’. It is not some sort of reference library that lectures or teaches from the outside. Neither is it afraid of intervening. On the contrary, the party is totally involved with the development of the class struggle and class consciousness, and it does intervene to point out the general course of march. There is no separation between the practice, the daily struggle of the class, and theoretical deepening, even though these two aspects of the life of the movement do not always coincide in time. It sometimes happens that the class is ahead of the party in the understanding of the methods of the struggle, as in the case of the April Theses in 1917 when Lenin appealed to the class as a whole when the party did not understand that proletarian revolution was on the agenda, and sometimes it is not, and so on. In no way, though, does this absence of coincidence prove the party unnecessary or its existence a superimposition over the class. For the party to ‘aid in the clarification of the struggle’, as Fischer correctly formulates, it has to have an active role, a leadership role, both at times of lull in the struggle and otherwise. This is why the class itself has given rise, historically, to ‘the party’.
The very last point in our Basic Positions of the ICC, printed in the back of every ICC publication, is devoted to our activity:
“Political and theoretical clarification of the goals and methods of the proletarian struggle, of its historic and its immediate conditions.
Organized intervention, united and centralized on an international scale, in order to contribute to the process which leads to the revolutionary action of the proletariat.
The regroupment of revolutionaries with the aim of constituting a real world communist party, which is indispensable to the working class for the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a communist society.”
This is what the class has secreted its political, revolutionary organization for. It is its own creation, an integral part of it, the product of its rise in class consciousness. It does not exist, as the Stalinists and Trotskysts claim, because the class cannot achieve more than just trade union consciousness, and therefore it needs an ‘injector of consciousness’ from the outside. Rather, the revolutionary organization has always been the class’ own creation.