One of the fundamental characteristics of the proletarian revolution and communism is that they are collective and conscious creations of the working class. Thus we have to answer the following question: ‘What is class consciousness?’ Do we have to go through the same ideological process that accompanied previous revolutions? What does proletarian consciousness have in common with the type of intellectual process characteristic of past societies?
To distinguish class consciousness from all existing ideologies is above all to distinguish it from ideology in general. But we must also take account of the fantastic development of the productive forces, and equally of social thought, from which the communist revolution will be able to draw. We can understand that, just as communism is made possible by the development of the productive forces and the exacerbation of the internal contradictions of capitalism, proletarian consciousness also has its origins in a whole range of ideas developed in past societies. But at the same time, it represents the supercession of these ideas, under the pressure of the economic and social crisis of capitalist society.
The development of proletarian consciousness is thus based on a whole period of previous intellectual development.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth than to consider the history of humanity as an incoherent and ‘natural’ succession of facts, or as a mechanical chain of events. This conception of the determination of human history by the blind and irresistible force of ‘destiny’ must be rejected. What distinguishes the human being from the animal is that while the latter is entirely identified with its own activity, humans make their life activity the object of will and consciousness.
“In creating a world of objects by his practical activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species being… Admittedly, animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one—sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom there from… Man therefore also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty.” (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)
Evidently, to speak of a wholly voluntary and lucid transformation of the world by humanity would also be false. Moreover, humans do not make history in an abstract or spiritual fashion.
“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.” (Marx. Eighteenth Brumaire…)
Actions are determined by circumstances. “Consciousness is determined by existence”. The successive stages reached in the development of the productive forces are reflected in the progress of social thought. The relative degree of consciousness achieved by humans, or more precisely by social classes, in the course of the production of the means of subsistence and the shaping of the natural and social environment, is strictly determined by material circumstances.
The whole history of humanity expresses an increasingly fertile growth of the productive forces along with a growing capacity of human beings to become conscious of themselves, of their relations with others and with the world that surrounds them. The development of proletarian consciousness and the material revolution upon which this is based, continues, enriches and supersedes this legacy.