Notes on the subterranean maturation of consciousness

Printer-friendly version

We are publishing a contribution to the discussion about the development of class consciousness by comrade mhou who regularly contributes to our internet forum. We agree with its approach but welcome further contributions, either as articles or on the forum. The comrade also has a blog where he further develops his ideas:

"At all times the economic and social relationships in capitalist society are unbearable for the proletarians, who consequently are driven to try to overcome them. Through complex developments the victims of these relationships are brought to realize that, in their instinctive struggle against sufferings and hardships which are common to a multitude of people, individual resources are not enough. Hence they are led to experiment with collective forms of action in order to increase, through their association, the extent of their influence on the social conditions imposed upon them. But the succession of these experiences all along the path of the development of the present capitalist social form leads to the inevitable conclusion that the workers will achieve no real influence on their own destinies until they have united their efforts beyond the limits of local, national and trade interests and until they have concentrated these efforts on a far-reaching and integral objective which is realized in the overthrow of bourgeois political power. This is so because as long as the present political apparatus remains in force, its function will be to annihilate all the efforts of the proletarian class to escape from capitalist exploitation.

The first groups of proletarians to attain this consciousness are those who take part in the movements of their class comrades and who, through a critical analysis of their efforts, of the results which follow, and of their mistakes and disillusions, bring an ever-growing number of proletarians onto the field of the common and final struggle which is a struggle for power, a political struggle, a revolutionary struggle." - Amadeo Bordiga, Party and Class Action, 1921

A number of views have been put forward in recent discussions about consciousness in the ICC’s internet discussion forum1. From the common starting point of the necessity of communism, of the proletariat's agency, it was agreed that there is such a thing as class consciousness, and that this consciousness is necessary for the transformation of existing social relations and the capitalist mode of production. One aspect of the theory of class consciousness which brought a lot of disagreement in the course of discussions on the ICC's forum was the theory of the subterranean maturation of consciousness. This theory was developed by the ICC in the wake of the mass strikes in Poland in 1980-1981. The crux of the theory is that the working class develops class consciousness in its struggles with capital, and that the collective experience and memories of these struggles inform the thoughts and actions of workers in their future struggles. With this theory, it is possible to analyze and understand the appearance of seemingly spontaneous yet advanced and militant forms of struggle containing class conscious content. The example of the time it was developed was the appearance of the mass strike in Poland, which shook the geopolitical world, the opposing imperialist blocs, and the international working class at the time. Polish workers developed a system of revocable worker-delegates, workplace committees, and inter-profession assemblies, encompassing workers from a variety of industries and geographic locations into one unified struggle. To understand this phenomenon, the history of the Polish working class in the years leading up to the outbreak of advanced forms and content of struggle were analyzed; the forms and content of struggles in 1956, 1970 and 1976 were viewed as stepping-stones or building blocks for the upheaval of 1980. French and English workers in similar industries (such as steel, on the docks, rail) had also been engaging in similarly militant and advanced struggles throughout the 1970's, informing the thoughts and actions of the workers in Poland- giving the struggles of the proletariat an international dimension (and the communist minority a reference point for being in advance of generalized international struggle). The emergence of pro-revolutionary minorities is another facet of the subterranean maturation of consciousness.

"The misery of the miners, with its eruptive soil which even in ‘normal’ times is a storm centre of the greatest violence, must immediately explode, in a violent economic socialist struggle, with every great political mass action of the working class, with every violent sudden jerk which disturbs the momentary equilibrium of everyday social life." - Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 1906

In the accelerating centralization and globalization of capital since the late 1960's, the echoes of forms and content of struggles appears to be informing workers all over the world at a faster rate than ever before- such as the outburst of struggle in Northern Africa during the Arab Spring, where workers struck and swarmed the public squares in constant protest. This form of struggle was picked up by American workers in Wisconsin when teaching assistants occupied the capital building and inter-profession crowds of public sector workers occupied the public square around the capital building in constant protest- in short order, signs began showing up in Tahrir Square with slogans like, "Solidarity with Wisconsin Workers". In this instance, the history of struggle informed future praxis, which also informed the thoughts and actions of workers internationally, while also being recognized by the initiators of the forms and content of struggle in that period. All of which is indicative of the subterranean maturation of consciousness. Leading up to the Arab Spring, the most advanced section of the Egyptian proletariat had been the public sector textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla. Their cycle of struggles began in 2006 during the anti-Dutch cartoon Islamist protests, with reactionary strikes based on religious dogma and sectarian rage. However, from this ideological and reactionary starting point, the textile workers of Mahalla began combining in struggle across public and private sector divisions, winning demands repeatedly as the state thought the textile workers could be appeased with mild reform and increased wages.

"Faisal Naousha, one of the leaders of the walkout at Misr Spinning and Weaving, said the factory was running again after the strikers’ main demands were met.

Around 15,000 workers from the plant which employs 24,000 people in the Nile Delta city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Cairo went on strike last week.

We ended the strike, the factory is working. Our demands were met,’ including a 25 per cent increase in wages and the dismissal of a manager involved in corruption, Naousha said.

Misr Spinning and Weaving is the largest plant in the Egyptian textile industry, which employs 48 per cent of the nation’s total workforce, according to the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services."2

Over the course of the next 6 years, both public and private sector textile workers engaged in escalating mass strike tactics, forming workplace committees, refusing the promises of concessions from the state and disregarding the advice of union leaders (when the workers weren’t physically ejecting them from the factory):

"Al-Mahalla witnessed a successful strike in September 2007, with workers demanding a greater share of the company’s annual profits and removal of company management. The strike ended in victory, with the government succumbing to the workers’ demands after six days.

The head of the local union resigned after he was hospitalized by the strikers while trying to persuade them to disband the strike. The CEO was removed a month later." (ibid)

The public sector textile workers at Misr Spinning & Weaving led the struggle against the state, realizing that as its employer they were in direct conflict with the state (which would sporadically send security forces to clash with striking workers) rather than individual managers and executives. By 2011, the Arab Spring movement which would topple authoritarian regimes all over the Middle East (including and especially in Egypt) was incubated in Mahalla, where the textile workers acted as the advanced section of the reaction against the Mubarak regime. Yet even after the de-legitimization of the Mubarak government and the spectacle of a new ‘democratic’ state, they renewed their struggles against the state for its inability to provide promised reforms and against the bourgeois apologists of the ‘official Opposition’ parties and trade union apparatchiks telling them to give the state more time to meet their demands. In the latest round of mass action, the Mahalla workers declared their forms of self-organization (encompassing the geographic area of the city) independent of the Morsi state, while at the same time chasing political representatives of the opposition and Muslim Brotherhood out of the city and taking over the offices of the city council.

". . . thousands of protestors in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra were reported to have announced the city 'independent', and planned a revolutionary council. "We no longer belong to the Ikhwani [Brotherhood] state." The protestors or insurgents seized the City Council building and blocked roads into and out of the city." 3

This escalation of struggle, development of the forms and content indicative of growing class consciousness, and learning from the events during struggles, is a perfect example of the subterranean maturation of consciousness. However, there are many communists who do not consider such phenomena to be indicative of growing class consciousness. Some argue that it is simple mysticism to theorize the existence of something that cannot be empirically observed and documented; that it relies entirely on subjective interpretation of events and actions. That if we can't measure it, it cannot be considered part of the science of Marxism ('Scientific Socialism'). While demanding verifiable proof before accepting the possibility that a theory may be valid may seem reasonable, in practice it would paralyze the creative energies and capacities of the communist minority to act in the class struggle or (more importantly) when the proletariat turns the capitalist crisis into a revolutionary crisis - the time when the historic role of the communist minority becomes necessary. The methodological tools of Marxism enable us to better understand the world around us, with a conscious understanding of history and a vision for the future. When the objective situation changes in favor of proletarian offensive, our ability to interpret events becomes paramount; without such an understanding of what is happening around us, we would be unable to understand the changes in the balance of class forces and to act in accordance with the movement of the class- in short, unable to be in advance of this movement of the class. Demanding a high threshold of hard facts before accepting any changes in the objective socio-political conditions of the classes would lead to simply tail-ending the real movement of the proletariat; the history of proletarian offensives and revolutionary attempts, even in the time of Marx and the Paris Commune, shows us that events move quickly, as do changes in the trajectory of revolutions and offensives. The actions of the ‘center’ of the Bolshevik Party of 1917 (embodied in members like Kamenev) show us what happens when sections of the communist minority hesitate and doubt the advance of the proletariat; putting forward (now outdated) theories and tactics and not up to the tasks of the hour (it is the difference between ‘The Democratic Republic’ and ‘All Power To The Soviets!’).

Our analysis of class consciousness and use of theories related to it is to advance our understanding of the real movement of the proletariat in its mission to carry out the historic task of overthrowing the bourgeoisie and abolishing all classes. Either a theory can aid our understanding and allow us to be in advance of events, or it cannot. The subterranean maturation of consciousness is a useful tool, the way many psychologists believe psychoanalysis is a useful tool, for accomplishing specific ends. 

"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." Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution

Utilizing the theory of the subterranean maturation of consciousness allows the communist minority to clearly analyze and understand the state of the class struggle at a given time. Since the latest manifestation of the crisis of capital in late 2007, the working class response has taken similar forms internationally: of which the Arab Spring and the struggles in Mahalla are but one facet. The emergence of the General Assembly form has been seen in diverse regions of the world, applied in workplaces, in the streets, in occupied buildings and spaces, all in a specific time frame. The assembly, whether general or specific to a group of workers (of one workplace, one company, one industry), is one of the most basic forms of proletarian self-organization. Doubt has been brought up as to whether we are still living through the downward spiral of retreat and defeat for the working-class; despite the explosion of large strikes, extra-parliamentary activity, and the wave of struggles during the Arab Spring-Occupy-Indignados troika. 

"If, in a single large factory, between May 16 and May 30, a general assembly had constituted itself as a council holding all powers of decision and execution, expelling the bureaucrats, organizing its self-defense and calling on the strikers of all the enterprises to link up with it, this qualitative step could have immediately brought the movement to the ultimate showdown, to the final struggle whose general outlines have all been historically traced by this movement. A very large number of enterprises would have followed the course thus discovered. This factory could immediately have taken the place of the dubious and in every sense eccentric Sorbonne of the first days and have become the real center of the occupations movement: genuine delegates from the numerous councils that already virtually existed in some of the occupied buildings, and from all the councils that could have imposed themselves in all the branches of industry, would have rallied around this base." - The Beginning of an Era, Internationale Situationniste #12, 1969

This is where the distinction between the subterranean maturation of consciousness and the spontaneism of councilism becomes most apparent. When the view of class consciousness is that it is the immediate product of escalating struggles, a linear advance (and if mass action is defeated, a linear reflux), the perspective of the trajectory of the struggle, the existing conditions, leads to tunnel-vision. If there are mass struggles of the working-class, they think there is always a chance at the movement for communism and turning the capitalist crisis into a revolutionary crisis of capitalism. In May 1968, the Situationists clearly defended the councilist position, succinctly captured in the passage quoted above. While the mass action of May 1968 was an historic series of struggles of the proletariat, the potential of the struggle was vastly overestimated. A new generation of young workers had entered the factories during the 1960's, who were critical of the Machiavellian hold the Stalinist parties and Stalinist unions held over the central working-class. Just prior to this return of the proletarian offensive, ushered into history in May 1968, the deepest depths of the counter-revolution still prevailed, where the 'official Opposition' to capitalism, recognized by the Situationists as the 'pseudo-Communist parties of the spectacle-commodity society', continued to mystify the proletariat from Moscow (and later Peking). This was a working class without a connection to the revolutionary principles and positions of the communist wing of the worker's movement; a link broken by the failure of the revolutionary wave of 1917-1923 and the victory of the counter-revolution for over 40 years. The connection between the communist minority and the working class is organic, the former developing from the class consciousness of the latter within the class. The subterranean maturation of consciousness allows us to understand the events of May 1968 (the return of the economic crisis after the post-war boom, the experience of the post-war escalation of struggles in Western Europe- such as major strikes at Renault and Fiat in the 1950's), as well as the context of the struggle- which did suggest further escalation of struggles of a young proletariat, and the creation of a new revolutionary minority in the midst and as a result of these struggles (evident in organizations born after the ferment of 1968- such as the ICC and other organizations of the communist milieu). However, for the councilists of the Situationist International, the May movement had as much a chance at the transformation of all things in the movement for communism as the revolutionary wave 50 years earlier; and afterward, saw in it only a failed revolutionary attempt, rather than an important moment in the resurgence of the working-class, a change in the balance of class forces. So for the councilists, any large struggle has the potential to 'boil over' into proletarian revolution, if only the workers form councils. The form of the soviet becomes more important than the actual content of the struggle or its context and trajectory- leading to confused intervention and an inability to absorb the lessons if struggles are defeated and consciousness goes into reflux (which happened to the Situationists in 1972 with their organizational implosion and dissolution). Such a conception of class consciousness loses perspective and obstructs the communist minority's ability to properly interpret, theorize and intervene in the struggle. Without such an understanding and ability to draw the appropriate lessons, we are less capable. The theory of the subterranean maturation of consciousness improves our capabilities, which is the necessity of any theoretical or methodological tool in the arsenal of the working class and its most advanced fraction.


1 See in particular the discussions on "Why is it so difficult to struggle?" and " "The maturation of consciousness".

2 Egypt Workers' Solidarity


Automated tagging: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 


Class consciousness