Polemic: Class consciousness and the Party

Printer-friendly version

Preliminary Introduction:

Of the various proletarian groups which the GPI has made contact and initiated an exchange of publications with, the IBRP (particularly the PCInt) has been one of those making a large and direct critique of our positions as ex­pressed in Revolucion Mundial. We salute this attitude of the IBRP. There are various ques­tions that we have taken up with these com­rades, but all of them are centered around one main preoccupation; in the IBRP's judgment, the GPI has "adopted very quickly, and without hardly a critique, the positions of the ICC, which they characterize as being within the proletarian political camp." According to the IBRP, this is to be explained by the "direct and exclusive" contact with the ICC which marked the origins of the GPI, and "since we are convinced that the ICC (without denying it the merit of being an organization of sincere mili­tants, loyal to the proletarian class) does not represent a valid pole of regroupment for the constitution of the international revolutionary party, we think that the comrades of the GPI must take further steps towards a real process of clarification, decantation and selection useful to the constitution of a revolutionary pole in Mexico ... a series of political discussions, the out­come of which will demonstrate that we were right."[1]

That the GPI has been fashioned under the influence of the ICC, taking up its positions from the beginning (or if you want to pose it from another perspective; that we are the result of the militant labor of the ICC), is something we've always pointed out. We have already said that presently, in front of the weakness of the international revolutionary milieu, before the creation of a unique pole of reference and re­groupment of the revolutionary forces, new mil­itants are emerging under the determined influ­ence of this or that group, inheriting as many of their merits as deficiencies, are being imme­diately faced with the necessity of taking "a side" faced with the existing divergences in the milieu.

But it is not correct to say that the GPI has adopted the ICC's positions without being criti­cal. From the beginning we have recognized the existence of a camp of proletarian political groups, in fact we want to say we do not con­sider the ICC as the possessor of "all that is true", and we have already had occasions to develop our divergences with them. Although, truth be told, from the understanding we have of the positions of the other regroupments, we have developed the conviction that the ICC is, at least, the one that has maintained the great­est political coherence.

We insist once more that the GPI considers that its consolidation will only be able to occur through the deepening of the political positions we have taken up, especially by confronting them with those maintained by the different groups of the international communist milieu. By being willing to discuss and to collaborate with other groups, as far as maintaining proletarian principles will permit, we situate ourselves as a small part of the process towards the confirmation of the world communist party.

In this spirit, we publish the position we have taken concerning the conception of the IBRP on class consciousness and the role of the party.

We understand that the conditions for the regroupmerrt of revolutionaries in a new inter­national party are still far away and that much remains to be done; probably only some very important confrontations in the class struggle will permit a clear and effective polarization of revolutionary forces. We don't pretend to know the concrete form of this process of polarization. However it is certain that the necessity of a world communist party on a world scale will be posed each time with more urgency by the proletariat, and its present revolutionary minorities must make every effort to clear the way that leads to its constitution, laying the foun­dations so that the different existing groups will be able to regroup with the maximum politi­cal clarity possible. Beginning by clarifying the points of accord and divergences that exist on the role of the communist party in the working class.

Clearly, the GPI has no other choice than to "meddle" in the fundamental debates that have occupied revolutionaries for many years (and which recently have found expression in two important moments; firstly the conferences called by the PCInt and secondly the responses to the ‘International Proposal' of 1986 by Emancipacion Obrera. And if we have entered into debate with the comrades of the PCInt, it is because all of the points raised in the discussions by them refer to the question of class consciousness and the party. So, it is not for us to pretend to give right now a solution to the question. But if we can at least make clear what for us are the weaknesses of the IBRP (and of those who share its positions), we will consider the object of our article to have been fulfilled.

We criticize basically the PCInt's article ‘Class Consciousness in the Marxist Perspective', the Platform of the IBRP and their correspon­dence with us.

I. Posing the problem

In the article ‘Class Consciousness in the Marxist Perspective', the IBRP develop their conception of this question, endeavoring at the same time to demonstrate that in the polemic that took place between Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg concerning the formation of class consciousness and the role of the party, that the former was right and the latter (together with her present-day ‘inheritors'), were wrong.

There is in effect in the revolutionary milieu a tendency to present divergences on the party (and on all questions) as a reproduction or continuation of all the old debates that have al­ways animated revolutionaries. This is the result not of an academic excess, but of a real effort of the proletarian political regroupments to take hold of the historical traditions of revolutionary positions.

But without doubt, it is obvious that the present debates cannot be exactly the same as those which took place almost a century ago: ‘much water has passed under the bridge' since then the proletariat has not only lived through the revolutionary wave, the largest ever known, but also the longest period of counter-revolution. For the present revolutionary minorities, there is an immense accumulation of experience that provides the basis for the clarification of problems that will be posed to the proletariat in its struggle, but at the same time they have greater difficulty obtaining this clarification due to their precarious existence.

And this, the present debate between revo­lutionaries concerning the relationship between class consciousness and the party, that appar­ently reproduces the same divergences between the tendencies represented by Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg, hides a much more profound diver­gence, more serious than the differences of these leaders of the proletariat.

In effect, whereas at the beginning of the century the preoccupation of those revolution­aries was to set out the process through which the proletarian masses arrive at class con­sciousness, that is to say, the understanding of the irreconcilable antagonism between the bour­geoisie and the proletariat, as well as the ne­cessity and possibility of the communist revolu­tion, now this preoccupation, although still pre­sent, is intersected by another more general and elemental, if you want, more ‘primitive' ­whether in general the proletarian masses can or cannot arrive - in some way - at class con­sciousness.

Whereas one part of the present revolution­ary milieu, including the IBRP, consider that "the communist party is the only or principal depository of class consciousness," until the de­struction of the bourgeois state and the estab­lishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and only after then will the masses become class conscious.

The other part, in which the GPI includes it­self, considers that the fundamental prerequisite for the destruction of the bourgeois state and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the arrival of the proletariat, the determined mass of the class (at least the ma­jority of the proletariat of the biggest cities) to class consciousness.

With the result that there exists a veritable abyss between the conceptions that are held on the role of the party (more specifically on the present role that the organized revolutionary minorities must fulfill). In the end, the debate does not consist of the more or less decisive role that the party will play in the process of the confirmation of the proletariat as a class for itself; the major problem is not to define whether the party ‘orients' or ‘leads', but a more basic question: what is meant by a class for itself?

Thus for example, perhaps we would be able to agree that the function of the party is ‘to lead' the proletariat. But this agreement would only be more apparent than real: since at pre­sent others (like the IBRP) consider ‘idealistic' the notion that the proletarian masses develop revolutionary consciousness as a condition for the taking of power, it's evident that because of this they have to see their relationship as es­sentially identical to that which, for example, exists between officers and soldiers in modern armies, or between the boss and the workers in the factory: that is to say, a relationship in which only the leader knows the real aims to follow, whereas for the led, these aims appear behind ideological clouds and, therefore, they have to be pushed along an imposed direction (in a patriarchal and authoritarian way), a rela­tionship of the dominating to the dominated.

For us, on the contrary, the direction given by the communist party is nothing other than the comprehension, the profound conviction that develops in the whole of the working class, of the correctness of the party's programmatic po­sitions and of its slogans, which are the expres­sion of the class' own movement. A conviction at which the masses will arrive through learning the historical lessons that they extract from their struggle, in which the party participates taking a vanguard role. Between the party and the proletariat there is a relationship of a new type, the sole property of the working class.

So then, for some, the constitution of the proletariat into a class means that the party, unique bearer of the proletarian/revolutionary consciousness, comes to the head of the masses, who - despite all their experience of struggle ­are permanently dominated by bourgeois ideol­ogy. For others, on the contrary, the constitu­tion of the proletariat as a class means that the masses, through their experience, and the inter­vention of the party, advance towards revolu­tionary proletarian consciousness. The IBRP hold the first position, we the second; perhaps the GPI will be submerged in idealism?

II. The IBRP intend to deepen Lenin

One of the first questions that arises from the article cited by the IBRP, is the new formulation that they make of the thesis that Lenin ex­pressed in his work, What is to be done? But the changes the comrades introduce into the terminology employed by Lenin, do not signify so much a ‘precision' of his thought, but a travesty of it, behind which is found the dis­placement of the debate on the question con­cerning how the masses arrive at class con­sciousness, to whether in general it is possible for them to arrive at this. Therefore, though we do not share the thinking of Lenin according to which consciousness is introduced from outside the working class, before ‘criticizing' Lenin we must ‘defend' him, trying to restore his think­ing, showing clearly what his preoccupations were and their role in the combat against the economists. (In order that there is no misunder­standing, we want to make it clear that when we refer to ‘Lenin', or to any other revolutionary, we do not look to see if they were ‘mistaken' or ‘infalable' as individuals, but we take them as representatives of a particular political current, and it is because in this or that work that this current which we want to take as our ‘example' is expressed more clearly).

OK. Lenin called trade union consciousness "the conviction that it is necessary to regroup in trade unions, to struggle against the bosses, to demand of the government the promulgation of this or that law necessary for the workers ..."[2] and social democratic consciousness (we to­day would call it communist consciousness) "the consciousness of the irreconcilable antagonisms between its interests (of the workers) and all contemporary political and social regimes"[3]. According to Lenin, the working class, despite its spontaneous struggles of resistance, is only capable of reaching a trade unionist conscious­ness, whereas communist consciousness has to be introduced from outside by the party.

The IBRP modify the formulation of Lenin, posing that "the immediate experience of the working class allows it to develop consciousness of its class identity and of the necessity of collective struggle ( ... )," that "the conditions of existence of the proletariat, its struggles and reflections on that struggle, raise its under­standing to a level where it can see itself as a separate class, and define itself as by the need for struggle against the bourgeoisie. But class identity is not consciousness"[4]. And a little further on they say: "for class identity to be transformed into class consciousness, the organization of the proletariat into a class, hence into a political party is necessary." From this, we can see more clearly what the IBRP comrades mean when they talk of "transformation". Firstly it is necessary to note that what the comrades call "consciousness of class identity", Lenin called "trade union consciousness."

Moreover, Lenin made clear that the sponta­neous element is the embryonic form of con­sciousness, "since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the course of their move­ment, the only choice is either socialist or bourgeois ideology... the spontaneous develop­ment of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology... Therefore our task consists in combating spontaneity, it consists in separating the workers movement from this spontaneous tendency to trade union­ism sheltering under the wing of the bour­geoisie and pulling towards the wing of revolu­tionary social democracy" (the then proletarian party)[5].

Now, it would be possible to ask on what side does the IBRP place this "consciousness of class identity" that the workers will develop? And they would answer: "For the most part, the experiences gained by the working class in its conflict with the bourgeoisie are structured by the world outlook of the bourgeoisie and give rise only to a sense of class identity which re­mains a type of bourgeois consciousness"[6].

So then, in a roundabout way, (changing ‘consciousness' for ‘sense'), the IBRP say that consciousness of  working class identity is a form of bourgeois consciousness. We regret that this, straight away, is no more than the intro­duction of an enormous confusion of terms in marxism. But we have hardly begun; now the IBRP has to explain how class identity, that is to say this form of bourgeois consciousness, "is transformed into communist consciousness.":

"a section of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists who have raised them­selves to comprehending theoretically the his­torical movement as a whole (Communist Manifesto). Here, in a nutshell, is the materialist conception of class consciousness. The spontaneous struggle of the working class can raised the consciousness of that class to the level of class identity, the realization that it is not part of the ‘people', but is a class-in-itself. This is a necessary prelude to its qualitative leap to class consciousness (or, the emergence of the class for itself), but the latter can only come about if ‘philosophy' or a theoretical understanding of the historical movement as a whole is provided and grips the working class: ie if the class can become aware that it must be furnished with a party possessing a scientific world view. This world view is of necessity formulated outside of (though its material is partly furnished by) the class struggle and outside the existence of the whole proletariat, though individual proletarians participate in its creation" [P16, RP21][7]

There are expressed in this paragraph of the IBRP such a quantity of confusions that it is very difficult for us to know where to begin. We are trying to disentangle their reasoning. The IBRP offer us here three ‘levels' of consciousness.

The first level: consciousness of class iden­tity which already is not considered as an identity of a class in opposition to the bosses, but only "that it is not part of the people." With this, the IBRP reduce this "embryonic con­sciousness," the product of the struggle about which Lenin talks, to the level of vulgar "knowledge", on the same level of understanding as a child which can make a verbal distinction between workers, peasants, etc. But the IBRP also denotes this identity as an indispensable premise in order that the leap towards class consciousness can occur. Without a doubt, the IBRP would say to us that this "class identity" is nothing other than a form of bourgeois con­sciousness - with the result that bourgeois con­sciousness is an indispensable premise for ... proletarian consciousness. In other words, in order for the proletariat to become a "class for itself", it must be a class "in itself", or, in order for the proletariat to become class con­scious, it must go through an indispensable process which it does not have.

The second level: class consciousness. By means of a qualitative leap, the proletariat con­firms itself as a class for itself. What does this leap consist of? In the conviction of the masses of the need of a party bearing - in itself - ­communist consciousness. But this conviction, does it imply that the proletarian masses break, in the end, with bourgeois ideology? According to the reasoning of the IBRP, no. The masses are not able to arrive at communist conscious­ness before the taking of power, and as there is no "middle way", then in reality there is no such qualitative leap.

The proletariat, according to the IBRP, con­firms itself as a class for itself, but the prole­tariat remains dominated by bourgeois ideology. It would be fruitful to ask, what is the basis for the masses to become "convinced" of the ne­cessity for the communist party, since nothing exists, apart from bourgeois ideology? How do the masses recognize the "correct" party, given that they are permanently dominated by bour­geois ideology and, therefore, they cannot un­derstand the party's revolutionary positions? Such a "conviction" becomes a mere causality, something that depends, not on the correctness of the party's positions, but on its skillful maneuvers in relation to the other parties (bourgeois and petty bourgeois) who also try and "convince" the masses. The IBRP reduce the confirmation of the proletariat as a class for it­self, to this.

The third level: communist consciousness, the theoretical understanding of the movement, the global, scientific understanding held by the party. Where does it come from? According to Marx: "The theoretical conclusions of the com­munists are in no way based on ideas or princi­ples that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual rela­tions springing from an existing class struggle, from an historical movement going on under our eyes," (Communist Manifesto). But now the IBRP, "deepening" Lenin, have discovered that the theoretical thesis of communists are found in analyses elaborated outside of the class struggle (though this is part of its. material) by this or that bourgeois ideologist or this or that isolated ­proletarian that has risen to the level of ideologist. Very good, but the class struggle is the real form of the class existence, its prowess, its form of movement: the class does not exist but in its struggle. To affirm therefore, as the IBRP does, that communist consciousness is developed outside of the class struggle is the equivalent of saying that it is elaborated outside of classes, independently outside of these, and particularly outside of the proletariat. And, the effect of this reasoning is that the IBRP tend to differentiate between what will be the class consciousness of the proletariat (the consciousness of the necessity for the party) and what will be communist consciousness, making of the latter some sort of... "philosophy", inaccessible to the profane.

Certainly, we can find in the article of the IBRP paragraphs which contradict this, as when they say "to provide such a world view is the task of the communist party. It does this through a profound study of social reality, its conflicting processes and its historical trajectory coupled with political intervention in the class struggle. It thus aims to fuse all the sparks of communist consciousness generated in the class struggle into a coherent world view and to regroup all those who accept this world view into a force capable of intervention, capable of structuring the experience of the working class within the communist framework" [pI6, RP21][8]. Formulating the question like this, there nothing to suggest or support the conception of ideologists outside of the class struggle forging communist consciousness. But it is not us, but the IBRP that has to choose between the two contradictory positions.              

What then does the deepening of Lenin by the IBRP consist of?                             

According to Lenin, the proletarian masses cannot by themselves - despite all their sponta­neous struggle rise up to communist con­sciousness. Therefore, the party must infuse this consciousness, bring it to them, while he maintained that "the socialist consciousness of the worker masses is the only basis that can assure our triumph". "The party must always have the possibility to reveal to the working class the hostile antagonisms between its inter­ests and those of the bourgeoisie." The con­sciousness attained by the party "must be in­fused into the working masses with an increas­ing fervor". If there are workers involved in the elaboration of socialist theory, "they only participate to the degree that they have at­tained, with greater or lesser perfection, a grasp of the science of their century, to ad­vance this science. And in order that the work­ers attain this more frequently, it is necessary to concern oneself as much as possible with the development of the consciousness of the workers in general" [The IBRP who cite this first idea of Lenin have forgotten to cite the second].

The task of the party is to "use the sparks of political consciousness that the economic struggle generates in the spirit of the workers to raise them to the level of social democratic consciousness" (that is to say, communist). That the "the political consciousness of the class cannot be brought to the workers from outside of the sphere of the relationship between the workers and bosses. The only sphere in which it is possible to find the knowledge of the relations between all classes." That the communist militant will participate in the "integral development of the political consciousness of the proletariat." That "social democracy is always in the front line ... bringing abundant material for the development of political consciousness and the political activity of the proletariat." In the end the party must always concern itself with "general and multiple agitations and in general uniting all the labors that bring together as one the spontaneous destructive force of the multitude and the conscious destructive force of revolutionaries."

Whereas on the contrary, the IBRP consider that "to admit that the whole class or the majority of the working class, taking account of the domination of capital, can attain communist consciousness before the taking of power and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is purely and simply idealism".

Sooner or later the comrades will have to extend their critique beyond Rosa Luxemburg and her "heirs." Extend it to Engels who, when he attacks the "social democratic cretinism", states:

"The time of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses is past. Where it is a question of the complete social order, the masses themselves must also be in it, must have grasped what is at stake, what they are going for body and soul," (Introduction to the Class Struggle in France, 1895). Formulations of this type imply - accord­ing to the IBRP - "an over-estimation of how extensively true consciousness, not a product of the direct class experience, could eventually permeate the proletariat, via the party" [p 17, RP21][9].

But then the IBRP will have to extend its critique, we would say, to Lenin, and to see him as "over-estimating" the level of communist con­sciousness that the proletariat can develop, "over-estimating" the importance of the party's work in raising this consciousness as its funda­mental and basic task, and for believing that the communist consciousness of the masses will be the only guarantee of the triumph of the revolution.

The whole of Lenin's combat in What is To Be Done? was directed against the economists, against those who objectively kept the workers at the level of trade unionism, in a spontaneity that pushed towards maintaining the workers under the domination of bourgeois ide­ology. And here is the IBRP, supposedly com­bating the "spontaneists", but instead of analysing how the masses develop consciousness, on the contrary establishing in theory the maintenance of the masses under the domination of bourgeois ideology. The comrades haven't deepened Lenin when they say that until the taking of power, the proletariat has no alterna­tive but to convince themselves of the necessity for the party - which itself - bares communist consciousness. On the contrary, this is more like the thesis of the "economists": "that the work­ers are trapped in the trade unionist struggle and that leaves to the marxist intellectuals the political struggle."

For Lenin, the confirmation of the proletariat as a class for itself was signified by the raising of the masses to communist consciousness, uniting thus the whole spontaneous movement with scientific socialism. For the IBRP, on the con­trary, the confirmation of the proletariat as a class for itself is signified by the maintenance of the masses under the domination of bourgeois ideology, the fusion of all bourgeois ideology with communist consciousness. This is what they reduce their "dialectic" to.

In the next Revolucion Mondial, we will con­tinue this work dealing with the fundamentals of marxism concerning class consciousness and the role of the party.

October 1988


[1] Letter of IBRP to the GPI, 19.3.88.

[2] What is To Be Done. Ed Anteo, p. 69.

[3] Opcit, p. 68

[4] ‘Class Consciousness In the Marxist Perspective', Communist Review No 2.

[5] What is To Be Done p81

[6] ‘Class Consciousness...' p10

[7] idem

[8] idem

[9] ‘Class Consciousness..." p15.

Life of the ICC: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Recent and ongoing: