Reply to the CWO: On the subterranean maturation of consciousness
"Revolutionary ideas are not the property of any single organization, and the affairs of any component part of the proletarian camp are of interest to it all. While reserving our right to criticize, we unreservedly must welcome any moves in other organizations which we feel express a positive dynamic... The issues raised by the WR Congress are too important to remain the private affair of any single organization, and are, and must visibly become, the concern of the whole proletarian camp." (Workers' Voice 20).
Thus wrote the CWO in its article on the Sixth Congress of the ICC's section in Britain, a Congress animated by the debate on class consciousness, councilism and centrism which the ICC has been conducting for almost two years. We couldn't agree more with the above statement, and urge other revolutionary organizations to follow the CWO's example: as yet, the CWO is the only group to have commented seriously on this debate in the ICC.
Since the article in WV 20 (January 1985), we haven't heard much more from the CWO on this question, though judging from some passing remarks in their press they still don't seem to have made up their minds whether the ICC really is showing a "positive dynamic" or merely trying to "cover its tracks" (see ‘Class Consciousness and the Role of the Party' in WV 22). But since we remain persuaded of the crucial importance of the issues raised in this debate, we wish to return here to some of the main themes at greater length than was possible in our initial reply to the CWO (World Revolution 81, ‘The Councilist Menace: CWO Misses the Mark').
In the WR 81 article we welcomed the CWO's intervention in the debate, and also their willingness to state their agreement with us on certain of its central issues, "since in the past - specifically at the international conferences of the Communist Left - the CWO has accused the ICC of opportunism when we argued that revolutionary groups needed to declare what they held in common as well as what divided them." At the same time, the article pointed to a number of distortions and incomprehensions in the CWO's presentation of the debate, for example:
- the article in WV 20 made it appear that this debate was restricted to the ICC's section in Britain, whereas, like all major discussions in the ICC, it first and foremost had an international character;
- the CWO give the impression that this debate only came to the surface at the WR Congress (November ‘84), but in fact its origins go back at least as far as the 5th Congress of the ICC in July ‘83 (for more on the history of this debate, see ‘Centrist Slidings Towards Councilism' in IR 42).
- the CWO imply that the ICC has suddenly adopted ‘new' positions on such questions as class consciousness and opportunism; in reality this debate has enabled us to deepen and clarify positions that have always been central to the ICC's politics.
The idea that the ICC is abandoning a former coherence is something that the CWO, from a different point of departure, shares with the ‘tendency' that has constituted itself in the ICC in opposition to the principal orientations developed in this debate. The article in IR 42 answers this charge from the tendency, particularly on the question of opportunism. Similarly, the WR 81 article responds to the CWO's insinuation that, hitherto, the ICC had seen the organization of revolutionaries as a product of the immediate struggles of the class. Against this misrepresentation, we quoted a basic text on the party adopted in 1979:
"...if the communist party is a product of the class, it must also be understood... that it is not the product of the class in its immediate aspect, as it appears as a mere object of capitalist exploitation, or a product simply of the day-to-day defensive struggle against this exploitation; it is the product of the class in its historic totality. The failure to see the proletariat as a historic, not merely a contingent reality, is what underlies all... deviations either of an economistic, spontaneist nature (revolutionary organization as a passive product of the day-to-day struggle), or of an elitist, substitutionist nature (revolutionary organization being ‘outside' or ‘above' the class)." (‘Party, Class and Revolution', WR 23)
As well as correcting the CWO's misrepresentations, this passage takes us to the heart of the ICC's criticisms both of councilism and of substitutionism, towards which the CWO has a centrist position when it does not embrace it wholeheartedly. The recent debates in the ICC were born out of divergences on the question of the ‘subterranean maturation of consciousness', and it is precisely their common "failure to see the proletariat as a historic, not merely a contingent reality" which leads both councilism and substitutionism to reject this formulation.
Convergence and divergence
Before embarking on a defense of the notion of ‘subterranean maturation', it would be useful to dwell on a point we have in common with the CWO on the question of class consciousness: the rejection of councilism.
In their article ‘Class Consciousness in the Marxist Perspective' in Revolutionary Perspectives 21, the CWO make some perfectly correct criticisms of the councilist ideology which tends to reduce class consciousness (and thus the organization of revolutionaries, which most clearly embodies it) to an automatic and mechanical product of the immediate struggles of the class. They point out that Marx's Theses on Feuerbach (which contain some of the richest and most concentrated of Marx's pronouncements on the problem of consciousness) have as their very starting point the rejection of this ‘automatic' view, which deprives consciousness of its active, dynamic side and which is characteristic of the vulgar materialism of the bourgeoisie. Now it was precisely the appearance of this deviation within the ICC, and of centrist conciliations towards it, which compelled us to intensify the combat against councilist ideology, reaffirming, in the resolution of January 1984, that:
"The condition for coming to consciousness by the class is given by the historic existence of a class capable of apprehending its future, not by its contingent, immediate struggles. These, their experience, provide new elements to enrich it, especially in periods of intense proletarian activity. But these are not the only ones: the consciousness arising from existence also has its own dynamic: reflection and theoretical research are also necessary elements for its development."
"Even if they are part of the same unity, and interact reciprocally, it is wrong to identify class consciousness with the consciousness of the class or in the class, that is to say, its extent at a given moment." (see IR 42)
Now, in WV 20, the CWO explicitly state that they agree with this distinction between class consciousness as a historical, depth dimension, and the immediate extent of consciousness in the class. But the ICC was led to emphasize this distinction in order to defend the idea of the subterranean maturation of consciousness against the councilist view which cannot conceive of class consciousness existing outside the open struggle. And it's here that our convergence with the CWO comes to an end: for in the very same article they dismiss ‘subterranean maturation' as a "councilist nostrum" - a view which had already been expounded in the article in RP 21.
Ironically, the CWO's position on this question is a mirror-image of the position of our tendency. For while the CWO ‘accepts' the distinction between depth and extent, but ‘rejects' the notion of subterranean maturation, our tendency ‘accepts' the notion of subterranean maturation but rejects the distinction between depth and extent - ie, the theoretical argument upon which the organization's defense of subterranean maturation was based! For our tendency, this distinction is a bit too ‘Leninist'; but for the CWO, it's not Leninist enough, since, as they say in WV 20, "we would have wished a more explicit affirmation that this is a difference more of quality than of quantity." The tendency sees in depth and extent - two dimensions of a single class consciousness - two kinds of consciousness, as in the ‘Kautsky-Lenin' thesis of What is to be Done? The CWO, who really does defend this thesis, regret that they can't quite see it in the ICC's definition...
We will return to this shortly. But before examining the contradictions of the CWO, we should make it clear that the notion of subterranean maturation, like many other marxist formulae (eg, the falling rate of profit...), can indeed be used and abused in a councilist manner. In the ICC, the position of ‘no subterranean maturation' arose as a false response to another false position: the idea, defended at the 5th ICC Congress, that the post-Poland reflux in struggles would last a long time and could in fact only be brought to an end by a ‘qualitative leap' prepared almost exclusively by a process of subterranean maturation, ie, outside of open struggle. This thesis shattered under two hard blows: one delivered by the resurgence of struggles in September ‘83, the other by the ICC itself. Thus point six of the same January ‘84 resolution on the international situation quoted above attacks the thesis that
"insisted on a ‘qualitative leap' as a precondition for putting an end to the retreat following Poland (in particular, the calling into question of the trade unions). Such a conception implies that consciousness matures wholly outside the struggle, and that the latter is only a concretization of a previous clarification. Taken to the extreme, this comes down to modernism, which expects from the class struggle breaks with the past, and the birth of a revolutionary consciousness in opposition to a false ‘economic' consciousness. What this forgets, and hides, is that the spread of class consciousness is not purely an intellectual process unfolding in the head of each worker, but a practical process which is above all expressed in and fed by the struggle."
This quasi-modernist view shares with councilism a profound underestimation of the role of the organization of revolutionaries; because if "consciousness matures wholly outside the struggle", there's precious little need for revolutionaries to intervene in the day-to-day struggle of the class. And although the most overt expressions of this view have been abandoned, the ICC has subsequently had to confront, within its own ranks, some watered-down versions of it, for example in a certain tendency to present the workers' passive hostility to the unions, their reluctance to participate in dead-end union ‘actions' as something positive in itself - whereas such passivity can easily be used to further atomize the workers if they don't translate their distrust for the unions into collective class activity.
But none of this is an argument against the notion of subterranean maturation, any more than marxists reject the theory of the falling rate of profit simply because councilists (among others) apply it in a crude and mechanical way. Thus, points 7 and 8 of the January ‘84 resolution, returning to the roots of the marxist theory of consciousness, demonstrate why the notion of subterranean maturation is an integral and irreplaceable aspect of this theory (these points are quoted in full in the article ‘Centrist Slidings Towards Councilism' in IR 42).
Subterranean maturation in the Marxist perspective
The CWO consider themselves to be very ‘marxist' in rejecting the notion of subterranean maturation. But what version of marxism are they referring to?
Certainly not the marxism of Marx, who was not deaf to the underground grubbing of the "old mole". Certainly not the marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, whose inestimable insights into the dynamic of workers' struggles in the epoch of decadence are dismissed by the CWO as the ultimate source of all this councilist nonsense about subterranean maturation. In RP 21, the CWO describes Luxemburg as a ‘political Jungian', attributing to the class "a collective historical sub-consciousness, where slow fermentation towards class understanding is taking place." By this token, Trotsky was also a Jungian, a councilist, a nonmarxist, when he wrote:
"In a revolution we look first of all at the direct interference of the masses in the destinies of society. We seek to uncover behind the events changes in the collective consciousness...This can seem puzzling only to one who looks upon the insurrection of the masses as ‘spontaneous' - that is, as a herd-mutiny artificially made use of by leaders. In reality the mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection, if it were, the masses would always be in revolt...The immediate causes of the events of a revolution are changes in the state of mind of the conflicting classes... Changes in the collective consciousness have naturally a semi-concealed character. Only when they have attained a certain degree of intensity do the new moods and ideas break to the surface in the form of mass activities." (History of the Russian Revolution)
So what marxist authority do the CWO cites in their case against subterranean maturation? The Lenin of What is to be Done?, adapted for modern use. According to the CWO in RP 21, all that the working class can achieve through its struggles is a thing called ‘class instinct' or ‘class identity' (Lenin used to call it ‘trade union consciousness'), "which remains a form of bourgeois consciousness." Class consciousness itself is developed "outside of the existence of the whole proletariat", by those who possess the necessary intellectual capital: the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. And if, in its open struggle, it can only reach this stage of ‘class identity', things are even worse when the struggle dies down:
"outside of' periods of open struggle, the consciousness of the proletariat retreats, and the class is atomized...This is because, for the class, its consciousness is a collective one, and only in struggle does it experience itself collectively. When it is atomized and individualized in defeat, its consciousness reverts back to that of bourgeois individualism; the reservoir runs dry."
In this view, the class struggle of the proletariat is a purely cyclical process, and only the divine intervention of the party can bring light to all this dumb, animal striving, which would otherwise remain locked in the eternal return of instinctual life.
Concerning the Lenin of What is to be Done?, we have said many times that in this book Lenin was essentially correct in his criticisms of the ‘councilists' of his day, the Economists, who wanted to reduce class consciousness from an active, historical and political phenomenon to a banal reflection of everyday life on the shop-floor. But this fundamental agreement with Lenin does not forbid us from pointing out that in combatting the vulgar materialism of the Economists, Lenin ‘bent the stick too far' and fell into an idealist deviation which separated consciousness from being (just as, in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, in combatting the idealism of Bogdanov and others, he fell into a vulgar materialism which presented consciousness as a mere reflection of being).
We can't spend too much time here arguing against Lenin's thesis and the CWO's version of it (we have already done so at length elsewhere: eg, in the pamphlet Class Consciousness and Communist Organizations and the articles on the CWO's view of class consciousness in WRs 69 and 70). But we will make the following remarks:
* Lenin's theory of a ‘consciousness from outside' was an aberration that was never incorporated into the program of any revolutionary party of the time, and it was later repudiated by Lenin himself. The CWO, in RP 21, denies this. But first they should call Trotsky back to the witness-box, because he wrote:
"The author (of What is to be Done?) himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically interjected as a battery in the battle against ‘Economism' and its deference to the elemental nature of the labor movement." (Stalin)
Or, if Trotsky's word isn't good enough for them, they can cross-examine Lenin himself, who, at the time of the 1905 revolution, was compelled to polemicize against those Bolsheviks whose rigid adherence to the letter of What is to be Done? had prevented them from intervening concretely in the soviet movement, and who wrote:
"At every step the workers come face to face with their main enemy - the capitalist class. In combat with this enemy the worker becomes a socialist, comes to realize the necessity of a complete reconstruction of the whole of society, the complete abolition of all poverty and all oppression." (‘The Lessons of the Revolution', in Collected Works, vo1.16)
* Lenin's thesis (borrowed from Kautsky) goes against all of Marx's most crucial statements about consciousness. Against the Theses on Feuerbach, where Marx attacks the contemplative materialism of the bourgeoisie which regards the movement of reality as an external object only, and not "subjectively" - ie, it does not see consciousness and conscious practice as an integral axed active element within the movement. The penetration of this standpoint into the ranks of the proletariat gives rise to the substitutionist error (in the Theses, Marx points to Owen as an expression of this) which involves "dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society" and forgets that "the educator himself needs educating." Above all it goes against the position defended in The German Ideology that social being determines social consciousness, and consequently against the same work's most explicit statement about class consciousness: "...from the conception of history we have sketched we obtain these further conclusions: In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces...and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without ‘enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class."
Notice that Marx entirely reverses the manner in which Lenin posed the problem: communist consciousness "emanates" from the proletariat and because of this elements from other classes are able to attain communist consciousness - though only, as the Communist Manifesto puts it, by going over to the proletariat, by breaking with their 'inherited' class ideology. In none of is there a trace of communist consciousness "emanating" from the intellectuals and then being injected into the proletariat.
No doubt the CWO has revived this aberration with the laudable intention of carrying on Lenin's battle against spontaneism. But in practice the ‘importers' of consciousness frequently end up on the same terrain as the spontaneists. In WR we have written at length (especially in nos.71 & 75) about how the intervention of the CWO in the miners' strike showed the same tendency to capitulate to the immediate consciousness of the masses as a councilist group like Wildcat. That this conjunction is no accident, but has profound theoretical roots, is demonstrated precisely over the issue of subterranean maturation. Thus, returning to Trotsky's terms, both councilists and substitutionists tend to see "the insurrection of the masses as ‘spontaneous' - that is as a herd-mutiny artificially made use of by leaders", the only difference being that the councilists want the workers to be a leaderless herd, while the substitutionists portray themselves as herders. But both fail to connect mass outbreaks with prior "changes in the state of mind of the conflicting classes." Because these changes have a "semi-concealed character", the empiricists on both wings of the proletarian camp, transfixed by the immediate appearance of the class, fail to notice them at all. And thus when the CWO wrote "outside periods of open struggle, the consciousness of the proletariat retreats", they were coinciding both in time and in content with the emergence in the ICC of a councilist view which insisted no less firmly that "In moments of retreat there is not an advance, but a retreat, a regression of consciousness...consciousness can only develop in the open, mass struggle of the class." (see IR 42)
Why a ‘subterranean' maturation?
"As marxists, the starting point for all discussions on class consciousness is Marx's unambiguous statement in the German Ideology that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas..."
Thus spoke the CWO in ‘Class Consciousness and Councilist Confusions' in WV 17. Excuse us, comrades, but you are standing on your heads again. As marxists, the starting point for all discussions on class consciousness is Marx's unambiguous statement in the German Ideology that "the existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period pre-supposes the existence of a revolutionary class."
The CWO only sees one side of the proletariat: its aspect as an exploited class. But Marxism distinguishes itself by insisting that the proletariat is the first exploited class in history to be a revolutionary class; that it bears within itself the self-conscious future of the human species, that it is the incarnation of communism.
For the CWO this is Hegelianism, heresy, mystical mumbo-jumbo. What the future already acting on the present? "We rub our eyes, can we be dreaming?", splutter the guardians of outraged Reason in RP 21.
For us, the nature of the proletariat as a communist class is not in doubt. Nor was it in this doubt for Marx in the German Ideology when he defined communism as none other than the activity of the proletariat, and thus as "the real movement which abolishes the present state of things."
No, for us, the question is rather: how does the proletariat, this exploited, dominated class, become aware of its revolutionary nature, of its historic destiny, given that it indeed inhabits a social world in which the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class? And in approaching this question, we will see how the movement of the proletariat towards self-knowledge necessarily, inevitably, passes through phases of subterranean maturation.
From the unconscious to the conscious
In RP 21, the CWO cites, as evidence of Rosa Luxemburg's ‘tailism', her statement in Organizational Question of Russian Social Democracy that "The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historical process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historical process." And they then proceed to wag their finger at poor Rosa: "But for the party this cannot be so. It must be in advance of the logic of events ..."
But the CWO is ‘unconscious' of what Luxemburg is getting at here. The above passage is simply a restatement of the basic marxist postulate that being determines consciousness, and thus of the fact that, in the prehistory of our species, when man is dominated by natural and social forces outside of his control, conscious activity tends to be subordinated to unconscious motives and processes. But this reality does not invalidate the equally basic marxist postulate that what distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom is precisely its capacity to see ahead, to be consciously in advance of its concrete action. And one of the consequences of this seeming paradox is that hitherto all thought, not excluding the most rigorously scientific mental labor, has been compelled to pass through phases of unconscious and then semi-conscious maturation, to sink underground prior to rising up towards the bright sun of the future.
We cannot elaborate on this further here. But suffice it to say that in the proletariat this paradox is pushed to its extreme limit: on the one hand, it is the most suppressed, dominated, and alienated of all exploited classes, taking onto its shoulders the burdens and sufferings of all humanity; on the other hand, it is the ‘class of consciousness', the class whose historical mission is to liberate human consciousness from subordination to the unconscious, and thus truly realize the human capacity to foresee and shape its own destiny. Even more than for previous historical classes, the movement whereby this most enslaved of classes becomes the vanguard of humanity's consciousness must, to a considerable extent, be an underground or "semi-concealed" movement.
The Course of Proletarian Consciousness
As an exploited class, the proletariat has no economic base to guarantee the automatic progress of its struggle. Consequently, as Marx put it in the 18th Brumaire, proletarian revolutions "constantly engage in self-criticism and in repeated interruptions of their own course...they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals." But, contrary to the CWO's vision, the inevitable movement of the class struggle through a series of peaks and troughs, advances and retreats, is not a closed circle: at the most profound historical level, it is the movement through which the proletarian class matures and advances towards self-awareness. And against the CWO/councilist picture of a class collapsing into total atomization when the open struggle dies down, we can only repeat what is said in the January ‘84 resolution: "the condition for coming to consciousness by the class is given by the historic existence of a class capable of apprehending its future, not by its contingent, immediate struggles." In other words, the historic being of the class does not dissolve when the immediate struggle sinks into a trough. Even outside periods of open struggle, the class remains a living, collective force; therefore its consciousness can and does continue to develop in such periods. It is true, nevertheless, that the contingent balance of forces between the classes does affect the manner in which this development takes place. Speaking very broadly, we can therefore say that:
* in a period of defeat and counter-revolution, class consciousness is severely reduced in extent, since the majority of the class is trapped in the mystifications of the bourgeoisie, but it can nevertheless make profound advances in depth, as witnessed by the writing of Capital after the defeats of 1848, and in particular by the work of Bilan in the bleak days of the ‘30s.
* in general periods of rising class struggle such as today's, the process of subterranean maturation tends to involve both dimensions - depth and extent. In other words, the whole class is traversed by a forward-movement of consciousness, even though this still expresses itself at numerous levels:
- at the least conscious level, and also in the broadest layers of the class, it takes the form of a growing contradiction between the historic being, the real needs of the class, and the workers' superficial adherence to bourgeois ideas. This clash may for a long time remain largely unadmitted, buried or repressed, or it may begin to surface in the negative form of disillusionment with, and disengagement from, the principal themes of bourgeois ideology;
- in a more restricted sector of the class, among workers who fundamentally remain on a proletarian terrain, it takes the form of a reflection on past struggles, more or less formal discussions on the struggles to come, the emergence of combative nuclei in the factories and among the unemployed. In recent times, the most dramatic demonstration of this aspect of the phenomenon of subterranean maturation was provided by the mass strikes in Poland 1980, in which the methods of struggle used by the workers showed that there had been a real assimilation of many of the lessons of the struggles of 1956, 1970 and 1976 (for a fuller analysis of how the events in Poland demonstrate the existence of a collective class memory, see the article on ‘Poland and the role of revolutionaries' in IR 24) ;
- in a fraction of the class that is even more limited in size, but destined to grow as the struggle advances, it takes the form of an explicit defense of the communist program, and thus of regrounment into the organized marxist vanguard. The emergence of communist organizations, far from being a refutation of the notion of subterranean maturation, is both a product of and an active factor within it. A product, in that, contrary to the idealist theory defended by the CWO, the communist minority does not come from Heaven but from Earth - it is the fruit of the historical maturation of the proletariat, of the historical becoming of the class, which is necessarily ‘hidden' from the immediatist, empiricist methods of perception instilled by bourgeois ideology. An active factor because - especially in the period of decadence when the proletariat is deprived of permanent mass organizations, and the bourgeois state uses all the means at its disposal to keep the stirrings of class consciousness as deeply buried as it can - communist fractions are for the most part reduced to such tiny minorities that they tend to carry out an ‘underground' work whose influence on the struggle takes the form of a molecular and not obviously visible process of contagion. Just as the third wave of struggles since 1968 is still only at its beginnings, so the capacity of revolutionaries to have an open impact on the struggle (an impact that will be expressed most fully through the intervention of the party) is only today becoming evident. But this does not mean that all the work by revolutionaries over the past 15 years has vanished into the void. On the contrary: the seeds that it sowed are now beginning to flower.
The recognition by communists that they are a product of the subterranean maturation of consciousness in no way implies a passive attitude to their tasks, an underestimation of their indispensable role. On the contrary, to recognize that only the communists, in the ‘normal' course of capitalist society, are explicitly aware of the underlying processes going on inside the class, can only increase the urgency of applying all the necessary organization and determination to the work of transforming this minority into a majority. As we have already stressed, there is no automatic link between the historic being of the class and its consciousness of that being. If this transformation from minority to majority does not take place, if the consciousness of the class does not become class consciousness in the fullest sense of the term, the proletariat will be unable to carry out its historical mission, and all humanity will suffer the consequences.
On the other hand, a rejection of the notion of subterranean maturation leads in practice to an inability to be "in advance of the logic of events", to provide the working class with a perspective for its struggles. As the January ‘84 resolution says in its concluding paragraph:
"any conception which derives consciousness solely from the objective conditions and the struggles they provoke is unable to take account of the existence of a historic course."
Unable to see the real maturation of the proletariat, to measure the social force it represents even when not openly struggling, the CWO have shown themselves incapable of understanding why the class today is a barrier to the bourgeoisie's drive towards war: they thus tend to fall into pessimism or utter bewilderment when it comes to pronouncing on the overall direction in which society is moving. Unable to understand the existence of a historic course towards class confrontations, they have also been incapable of tracing the progressive evolution of the proletarian resurgence since 1968, as demonstrated in their failure to predict the 1983 revival of struggles, their tardy recognition that it existed at all, and their persistent hesitations about where it's going (at one point they expressed the fear that a defeat for the miners' strike in Britain would bring an end to the resurgence throughout western Europe). These are only a few examples which illustrate a general rule: if you can't see the real movement of the class in the first place, you will be unable to indicate its future direction, and thus be an active element in the shaping of that future. And you won't be able to see the movement if you cannot dig beneath the thin topsoil of ‘reality' which, according to the bourgeoisie's empiricist philosophy, is all that exists.