Correspondence on Comportment And Class Struggle

See also :

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

It is impossible to clarify communist positions without an active exchange of different points of view, without a debate. Therefore we welcome letters from readers and regularly publish them alongside our response in the press of the ICC with the aim of generating discussion around our work and political positions. With this in mind we encourage readers to contact us if they have a comment on, or criticism of, a position defended in our press, even if it is just a few lines.

We recently received a letter from Germany, which deals with the question of human behavior and in particular, comportment. How we behave with others is a central aspect of social life, of what it means to be human. The letter conveys that its author is not merely dwelling on general problems of being human, but is especially interested in the question of social comportment. The letter also looks at the perspectives for the class struggle. Essentially it deals with the question of whether or not the working class today and in the future will be able to stand up to the pressure of competition –the central theme of capitalist  thought and comportment – and put forward its own social perspective. 

What are the preconditions for the proletariat developing its own specific class forms of behavior, which can live up to the final goal of its struggle – communism? In what context does a specific kind of behavior evolve? Which emotions are an expression of this?

This letter makes it perfectly clear that our reader has not just posed major a question but that he has gone a step further and has begun to provide an answer. We consider the questions raised by the comrade as extremely important and vital for the working class as a whole. Below we publish extracts from the comrade’s letter followed by extracts of our response.

Extracts from correspondence on question of comportment

What influence, what function and what cause does confidence, will, solidarity, organization, feeling of responsibility and personal history have? What actually causes us to behave in a specific manner and how can we consciously influence our behavior? How arbitrary is the question of comportment? What meaning does comportment have within society? Whose interests does it serve? And is it possible to build a collective consciousness?
    The connection between these questions must be made within the given social reality. Today, due to social decomposition, there is a danger that,  if the proletariat does not succeed in developing a class perspective, more and more parts of the working class will become lumpenized. Low paying jobs and short term contracts are linked to this danger, because workers have to take up such jobs in fear of unemployment and poverty. Another face of capitalist decomposition is increasing criminality as an expression of the capitalist idea of everybody for him- or herself and against the rest of the world. If the working class gives in and forgets about its collective consciousness, its solidarity and confidence and its class interests as a world wide class in the face of its momentary weakness, then there is the danger that the balance of forces will turn towards capitalist decomposition and towards a loss of a communist perspective....In a society in which the ruling class owns all the means of production and where competition is actually the ruling ideology,  this ideology certainly does not serve the class interests of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie as a whole has the main interest of expanding the exploitation of man as labor power. The exploitation of the proletariat is in fact a necessity for the bourgeoisie to exist. Competition is not part of the class nature of the working class. Nevertheless each worker is forced to compete with other workers for a job in order not to fall beneath the minimum standard of living. It is a matter of fact that there are not enough markets. Therefore unemployment and low paying jobs will increase. Of course the working class as a whole has to defend itself against this situation. The proletariat has to do so by developing the perspective of communism through collective consciousness, international mass strikes, the creation of soviets and a yet-to-be created communist world party. This shows that even though on the surface it may appear that the question of comportment is a general, cross class issue, you do in fact need to give an answer that is necessarily class specific. According to the way the “democratic” policy answers this question of comportment with the help of sociology, psychology, neurobiology, and philosophy, there is supposedly no general difference between classes. The only differences to be found are between female and male, old and young, rich and poor, social and antisocial, stupid and intelligent,…losers and winners, good genes and bad genes, good and bad, ill and healthy. So that at the end of the day behavior is measured and selected according to how well you function as a worker, to be exploited. Within these capitalist criteria of the functionality of the workers – which obviously biased in favor of the interest of the ruling class’ ideology – there remains no room for the common interests of wage workers.

The working class as a whole and its political organizations have to stand up against the ruling ideology, and draw lessons from past experiences, and use its knowledge for its class interests. Emotions such as envy, jealousy, meanness and ambition are expressions of property relations  and therefore part of bourgeois society, as well as the ruling ideology. They are also to be found within the working class but only when competition situations create it. Competition among workers is not abstract, but a concrete reality. It is, thus,  in the  interest of the international proletariat to fight to put an end to its exploitation. In consequence, the more the proletariat gains collective awareness, the more the ideology of general competition is unable to prevent the strengthening of the working class.  This broad and far reaching perspective is necessary, so that we can defend ourselves against this increasing exploitation today….”

Comments of the ICC

The comrade has posed questions of great complexity and relevance. Issues of comportment have been researched and controversially discussed in scientific studies. As a communist organization we do not feel able to develop in great detail the origin and historic development of a great number of forms of comportment, which humanity has produced. We want to limit ourselves to naming some important principles, which the Marxist workers movement has worked out on these questions. These few general ideas may help  contribute  a framework for the discussion our reader has opened up. 

The question of comportment

The comrade wrote that feelings like envy, jealousy or ambitions are an expression of property relations and therefore part of bourgeois society. We agree that these feelings, in their form today, are also part of the property relations and thereby also of capitalism. Nevertheless Marxist authors such as August Bebel or Leo Trotsky repeatedly stated that a feeling like ambition would still exist in a future communist society. They were convinced of the fact that these feelings would not be a driving motor of competition, as in capitalism, of each against all but rather a form of ambition which would serve the whole society as much as possible. Therefore it would play an extremely positive role. This shows that according to Marxism the history of humanity does not necessarily develop in such a way that every form of society comes up with its own, completely new forms of emotions.  If this were the case this would mean that there would be no continuity in history at all but rather merely a series of breaks and beginnings. However, the dialectical method teaches us that every great leap forward does not just mean a restart; at the same time it constitutes building on existing emotions on a higher level than before.

One and the same feeling can have different effects depending on the organization of society. An emotion, which in a given context can rather serve a notion of hostility amongst human beings, is capable of strengthening the social bond in changed living conditions. Obviously we should be cautious not to make things too easy for ourselves by saying that feelings lead to more competition in a society based on competition but in a society of truly social bonds, feelings would automatically have the opposite effect. This cannot be the case because the basic feelings of human beings are not always in harmony with each other. They can get into a clinch because they serve different purposes. The so-called maternal instinct for instance can collide with the instinct of self preservation, when a mother risks her life in order to protect her children. Apart from which, it is also obvious that not all emotions can foster the unity of society to the same extent, such as the example of jealousy given in the comrade’s letter. We actually do not know how old the emotion of jealousy is. Engels did not consider it an inherent social impulse in humans, but rather a cultural product. Anyhow it appears to be a very old feeling. Since it is quite difficult to reconcile the notion of jealousy with preserving  social ties in society at the same time, different societies have had to develop various means in order to keep jealousy under control. If a communist society should still be confronted with such a problem, it is quite likely that it will find more effective and culturally more advanced means to deal with it. 

In the letter the comrade asks about the causes and the social relativity of comportment. “Which influence, which function and which causes do confidence, will, solidarity, organization, feeling of responsibility and personal history have?” The main concern in the letter is a better understanding  of those emotions, which are most needed in course of the struggle of the proletariat. The letter expresses the fear that capitalism might finally destroy all these positive qualities.

We think that this worry is fully justified. The fact that probably the most severe cruelties in history happened in the last 100 years is directly linked to the fact that capitalism –like no other system of production  – destroys the bond between and the compassion amongst man, by turning all human beings into competitors within an impersonal market mechanism. As written in the letter, capitalist decomposition speeds up this process. Do these emotions still exist, which for 200 years were an undoubting sign of proletarian class struggle? Where do its roots lay?
    Let us take the example of the feeling of social responsibility mentioned in the letter. In her article on the writer Korolenko, which Rosa Luxemburg wrote in prison during the First World War, she demonstrates how this feeling of social responsibility developed from the 1860s onwards in Russia, where generations of heroic revolutionaries emerged:

 “That attitude towards society which enables one to be free of gnawing self-analysis and inner discord and considers ‘God-willed conditions’ are something elemental, accepting the acts of history as a sort of divine fate, is compatible with the most varied political and social systems.… In Russia, this ‘imperturbable equilibrium of conscience’ had already begun to crumble in the 1860’s among wide circles of the intelligentsia. Korolenko describes in an intuitive manner this spiritual change in Russian society, and shows just how this generation overcame the slave psychology, and was seized by the trend of a new time, the predominant characteristic of which was the “gnawing and painful, but creative spirit of social responsibility””. (Rosa Luxemburg Speaks. Pathway Press, New York, p. 343).
    It becomes clear that it is the power of consciousness that arouses people. This consciousness, as well as solidarity, is a sign of the social being of humanity. The fact that man was able to achieve a higher level of consciousness and outgrow animality, is directly connected to the highly developed social predispositions of our  species. The manifestation of these social predispositions itself – common labour, common language etc. – has not weakened our social dependency but rather increased it incredibly.

Of course it is true that capitalism undermines social impulses and makes active solidarity more difficult. But at the same time it has given birth to a class which per definition, due to its position in production – unlike any prior class in history – is capable of rediscovering these common social feelings in class struggle and taking them to a higher level. This class is the modern proletariat. The working class is able to do this, not because workers are better humans, but rather because the proletariat is the first class, which produces collectively without owning any means of production.

On the question of unemployment

The letter is absolutely right in saying that there is the danger that unemployment, by increasing the competition on the tight labour market, can lead to opening the door within the ranks of the proletariat for the idea of everybody for him- or herself“. It was already back in the 1840s that Friedrich Engels said in his “Elberfelder Speeches,” that the workers only start acting as an active class as soon as they line up their own solidarity against capitalist competition.
Even more so: according to Engels it is only by doing so that the workers actually regain their own humanity. Towards an undefeated generation of the working class, unemployment is a particularly good means to uncover the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. Firstly, because unemployment turns class solidarity more and more into a question of survival. Secondly, because the bankruptcy of capitalism unveils the incompatibility of wage labour and human dignity.   
    As Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her “Introduction to National Economy”, the struggle of the proletariat against  being made superfluous by machines, in other words, against the consequences of the inner tendency of capitalism – the fall of relative labour rate, the increase of capital power, an overflowing army of unemployed – is a struggle against the system itself.:

“The workers cannot oppose anything to the technical progress of production, to discoveries, the introduction of machines, to steam and electricity, to the improvement of the means of transport. The effect of all these steps forward on the relative wage is a purely mechanical product of commodity production and the commodity character of labor power. This is why even the most powerful trade unions are quite powerless against this tendency of the relative wage to rapidly fall. The struggle against the drop in relative wages is thus no longer a struggle on the terrain of the commodity economy, but a revolutionary, insurrectional offensive against this economy itself, it is the socialist movement of the proletariat.”  (ICC translation from the German original)

The letter is  right in stressing that the proletariat – in opposition to the bourgeoisie - is capable of overcoming the bourgeois ideology, which tries to hide its reality, because of its own class interests.
Social feelings as well as the power of human consciousness are incredible forces. Marxist confidence in the working class is also confidence in human nature. 

Translated from Weltrevolution (Germany).