Organisation and class consciousness

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We have seen what
distinguishes ideology from the development of consciousness in the
proletariat. Earlier, we tried to understand why the characteristics of
communism make the con­sciousness of the proletariat indispensable. Now we must
pose the following questions: ‘How is it possible for the class to become
conscious? How is class consciousness manifested?’

first element which makes class consciousness possible is the revolutionary
class nature of the proletariat. The pro­letariat, like other revolutionary
classes of the past, is obliged to organise itself consciously if it is to
overthrow the old economic and political order.

all human activity, and particularly because it is a social movement, the
action of a class is necessarily an organised action. In fact, every class, and
above all a revolutionary class, only manifests its own living reality when it
engenders within itself a tendency towards self-organisation. This tendency
corresponds both to immediate, practical, material necessities and to the more
general necessities for reflection, understanding and consciousness about its
own being, its existence and its future.
” (‘Class consciousness and
Organisation’, a document presented by the ICC to the IInd International
Conference organised at the initiative of Battaglia Comunista, October
1978; see the pamphlet Second Conference of Groups of the Communist Left)

the proletariat, its organisation and consciousness are the only weapons it

these previous classes, the proletariat is the only class called upon to take
over the whole of society which does not dispose of any economic basis of power
within this society, as a prelude to its future domination. The only material
strength that the proletariat has is its organisation. This is why organisation
constitutes for the proletariat, still more than for other classes, a decisive
and fundamental con­dition for its struggle, Its capacity for self—organisation
is the measure of its passage from a class—in—itself to a class—for—itself,
from a simple economic category within cap­italist production into an
historical class. For the same reasons, consciousness is an even more
fundamental element for the proletarian struggle than for the struggle of
previous revolutionary classes.
” (‘Class Consciousness and Organisation’,
ibid., p.52)

Marx said, “the only social power possessed by the workers is their numbers,
but that power is broken by disunity. The dispersion of the workers is
engendered and maintained by their inevitable competition
”. To overcome
disunity and com­petition in order to finally triumph over capitalism, the
workers have but one choice: to organise and struggle together for their common
interests. The place which they occupy in the process of production makes it
possible for them to organise on the basis of unity and solidarity. Such
organisation is, in fact, a formidable force.

community spirit has always been the principal, necessary force for the
progress of the revolution. This progress is embodied in the development of
solidarity, of mutual relations between workers, of unity. Their organisation
and their growing power are the new characteristics which are forged in the
struggle (...) The virtues of solidarity and zeal, the impulsion to act as a
solid unity engendered by the social struggle, are the very basis of the new
social system which will rest on work in common.
” (Pannekoek, The
Workers’ Councils
, 1941)

organisation and solidarity on their own can’t determine the collapse of
capitalist society. It remains necessary for them to be maintained and welded
together by combative will and collective consciousness.

workers have in their hands one element for success: their numbers. But numbers
don’t tip the scales unless unified by means of association and guided by
. The experience of the past has shown us that fraternal links
must exist between the workers of different countries and must incite them to
hold out together, shoulder to shoulder, in their struggles for emancipation.
Ignoring these links will be punished by a common defeat of all their dispersed
” (Marx, The Address of the International Workingmen’s Association
to all Workers in the World, 1864)

United organisation, collective functioning, the living,
active participation of the workers, political consciousness, solidarity are
all so many elements welded together in the tendency to the proletariat to
constitute itself into a revolutionary class. Organisation and class
consciousness are, thus, not only linked together, but are inseparable. It is
the devel­opment of political comprehension which reinforces the organisation
of the proletariat into a revolutionary class. The progress the class makes in
self—organisation allows it to enrich its consciousness. This is why a
proletarian organisation which has lost its last spark of revolutionary life by
taking on the views of the bourgeoisie, thus becoming an organisation which can
no longer defend the final goals of the movement and which is no longer infused
by new blood coming from the partic­ipation of the workers — this is why such
an organisation is nothing but a cadaver for the proletariat, and as such must
be swept aside and replaced in the new revolutionary wave of struggle.

The organisation of the class

The type of organisation
that the working class creates in the course of history is necessarily linked
to the different stages that capitalism itself goes through, and varies
according to the objectives that these stages give birth to, and impose upon
the struggle of the proletariat.
” (‘Class Consciousness and Organisation’,

the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the workers had got accustomed to
distinguishing machinery from the use capitalism made of it (the first riots by
the workers had destroyed machines), and hence no longer directed their attacks
against the material means of production but against the social system itself,
their first attempts to regroup themselves really appeared. The first struggles
for the right of assoc­iation appeared at this time. The utopians were the
theoreticians produced by these first class battles. They tried to intervene in
the movements, organised by the proletariat in order to accentuate their
political dimension. But their theories ran aground because of their utopian
character and the state of the class struggle itself.

first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times
of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these
attempts necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the
proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its
emancipation (...) The Socialist and Communist systems properly so called,
those of St. Simon, Fourier, Owen and others, spring into existence in the
early undeveloped period, described above, of the struggle between proletariat
and bourgeoisie.
” (The Communist Manifesto)

by coming in contact with the Chartist movement and by becoming influenced by
the progress of trade unionism, the proletariat and its most conscious elements
were able to estab­lish the basis for historical materialism. Historical mater­ialism
is the basis of a method of action and struggle in as much as it is an
instrument for understanding reality in a demystified way. The strengthening of
such consciousness allowed the proletariat in 1847 to transform the Society of
the Just, a secret, conspiratorial society, into a revolutionary organisation
of propaganda and combat.

year later, the Communist Manifesto launched the idea of the necessity
for an autonomous organisation and political movement of the proletariat. As a
result of the combined efforts of its trade union and political organisations,
the working class progressively demarcated its struggle within the political
movement, distinct from the democratic organisations of the bourgeoisie and
their ideas.

the proletariat and its revolutionary elements still lacked a crucial element
of understanding. The First International, because it thought that the period
of its own constitution (1864) was also the period of “social revolution” which
would bring with it the imminent conquest of power, didn’t understand the
necessity of struggling essentially for economic demands while always keeping
the final goal in sight. To do so would have required attributing tasks to the unitary
organs of the class that were distinct from those of the revolutionary
organisation. Its limited understanding of the period thus caused the
International Working Men’s Association to organise around political currents
as well as workers’ associations and unions.

had to wait the development of the IInd International before the consciousness
of this reality (that revolution was still not on the agenda) really passed
into the practice of the workers’ movement, and two forms of organisation
adapted to the necessities and possibilities of the movement could at last be
consciously and systematically constructed
”. (R.    Victor. ‘The Proletariat and its Vanguard’, in Revolution
, no. 17, 1975)

the IInd International, the understanding of the period, and the distinction
between the unitary and political organisations of the proletariat, were made
more precise. The definitive overthrow of bourgeois rule couldn’t be the
immediate aim of the struggle. The task of that time was to prepare for the
final struggle through the struggle for political and economic reforms. In
order to accomplish this task, the proletariat had to provide itself with, on
the one hand, a unitary, economic organisation in which every worker
could belong on the simple basis of being a worker, while on the other hand,
creating a political organisation whose criteria for membership had
nothing to do with the social origin of its adherents, but was based on their
political agreement. This organisation was also a parliamentary
organisation. It was a question of creating unions, co—operatives, etc, and a
mass party.

the economic and political character of the workers’ struggles were still tied
to one and the same process. This is why the distinction made between ‘the
economic’ and ‘the political’, and the rigid separation erected between the
‘minimum’ and the ‘maximum’ programmes, came to constitute a real barrier to
the development of class consciousness after some theoreticians of the IInd
International made these div­isions into principles (for Bernstein the movement
was every­thing, the goal nothing). This conception ‘facilitated’ the passage
of the Social Democracy into the capitalist swamp the instant the material
conditions necessary for the communist revolution were realised. From that time
on, a new process of maturation of class consciousness was called for, as were
new forms of class organisation.

revolutionary movements which sprang up at the end of the First World War,
especially in Russia and Germany, confirmed there and then the possibility of
the immediate realisation of the ‘maximum programme’, by creating the new forms
of organisation adapted to the new task which had at last arrived on the
historical agenda: the definitive destruction of bourgeois rule.

workers’ councils, which arose spontaneously for the first time in the class movements
of 1905 in Russia, showed them­selves to be the specific form of class
organisation, a form of organisation which would be systematically recreated by
all workers in struggle against the capitalist state. The workers’ councils —
assemblies formed in the factories and working class neighbourhoods —
constituted the form of organisation which allowed the proletariat itself to
lead its own struggle. The councils physically regrouped the whole of
the working class, and simultaneously took up the economic and political
character of the struggle. These two aspects of the struggle, henceforward,
became impossible to separate, even momentarily.
” (R.    Victor, ‘The Proletariat and Its Vanguard’,

in all of this, what part is played by revolutionaries?

‘mass party’ form of organisation loses its essential basis in decadent
capitalism. That basis is the possibility and necessity for the proletariat to
participate in bourgeois Parliaments, so as to impose on capitalism reforms
beneficial to the workers. In decadence, the bourgeois state must be destroyed
in all its forms, and this act of destruction cannot be the work of a minority
or fraction of the class, no matter how enlightened it may be; it must be the
work of the ENTIRE working class, that is to say the WORKERS’ COUNCILS.

in such a situation and period what role do revolutionaries have? Why must they
exist when the councils bring together the economic and political struggle,
class consciousness and organisation? It’s even possible to say that it is the
councils which allow the class to surmount, both theoretically and practically,
capitalist exploitation and its ideology.

organisation of councils permits the working class to liberate itself
progressively from the yoke of capitalism, and particularly from the yoke of
bourgeois ideology. Within them gradually materialises the proletariat’s
consciousness of itself and its will to give class consciousness a concrete and
real expression
”. (Theses presented to the IIIrd Conference of the General
Workers Union of Germany (AAUD) in 1920)

does the proletariat in the period of decadence continue to develop a minority
organisation composed of its most com­bative and most conscious elements — the
communist vanguard?

reply to that question must be located within the overall process of
self—organisation and development of class conscious­ness. Immediately, the
term ‘process’ indicates that class consciousness doesn’t appear finished and
perfect on such and such a day. It doesn’t appear from nowhere or descend on
the workers like a revelation. Class consciousness must be forged gradually,
and this process is long and painful.

Class consciousness as a process

Even if it’s true that it’s
the entire proletariat, organised in councils, which has the task of carrying
out the communist revolution to its end, this doesn’t mean that the conscious­ness
of this necessity exists in a constant and homogeneous manner among all the
workers. Moreover, the unitary organisation of the proletariat in councils is
also not a constant phenomenon.

arrive at communism, at a consciousness of the necessity to organise itself in
councils, the proletariat must travel a difficult road. Even the simple will to
struggle, to go on strike, to resist capitalist exploitation, doesn’t exist in
a constant manner within the working class. Periods of lull or discouragement
or illusions can mar a wave of struggles and cause it to fall back. And if the
bourgeoisie can profit from such refluxes in the struggle by drowning the
workers’ movement in a blood—bath, then the perspective for revolution is put
back to a more distant future.

process of the class struggle, the process through which the proletariat forms
itself into a revolutionary class, un­folds in a progressive, uneven, jostling
manner. Hence, you rarely see important strikes and struggles flaring up across
the world all at the same time. The internationalisation of workers’ struggles
proceeds gradually under the pressure of the internationalisation of the
capitalist crisis. Neither does the proletariat have a homogeneous
consciousness about how to struggle and how to lead its strikes towards the
revolution. Certain sectors, certain workers will be more decided, more
combative; others will continue to hesitate, unprepared to commit themselves to
a battle to the end.

causes this? The answer is evident. Within capitalist society, the proletariat
is a class in which alienation is pushed to the limit. It’s a class which the
bourgeoisie strongly impregnates with its ideology and divides through
competition. The goal towards which the proletariat moves when it constitutes
itself into a conscious and unified class is in contradiction to the capitalist
conditions which give rise to it as a class. Between the revolutionary pro­letariat,
and-the proletariat atomised into units of competing individuals, or just
beginning its first struggles for economic demands, there is a dialectical
contradiction, which must culminate in the class acting voluntarily and
consciously, and in an organised way.

fundamental difficulty of the socialist revolution remains this complex and
contradictory situation. On the other hand, the revolution can only realise
itself through the conscious action of the great majority of the
working class; on the other hand, the development of class conscious­ness comes
up against the conditions of the working class in society, conditions which
prevent and unceasingly destroy the consciousness of the workers regarding
their historic, revolutionary task.
” (‘On the Nature and Function of the
Party’, Internatioalisme, no. 38, 1948, reprinted in the Bulletin
d’etude et de discussion
, no. 6, 1974)

proletariat, whatever the unity attained in its struggle, never acts in the
same way as an individual acts. It never acts like a single person mechanically
directed towards a goal. Since it is unable to develop its consciousness
according to the stable, frozen principles of an ideology, or according to a
series of ready—made recipes, the proletariat can only become conscious of its
situation in a real and practical pro­cess linked to the material conditions of
its social existence. It is essentially in the course of its struggles that it
forges its practical and theoretical weapons. But these struggles themselves
have their source in a very long and complex social process.

sudden general rising of the proletariat in January under the powerful impetus
of the St. Petersburg events was outwardly a political act of the revolutionary
declaration of war on absolutism. But this first general direct action reacted
inwardly all the more powerfully as it for the first time awoke class feeling
and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock.
And this awakening of class feeling expressed itself forthwith in the
circumstances that the proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly
and sharply came to realize how intolerable was that social and economic
existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of
capitalism. Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging
at these chains (...)

Only complete thoughtlessness could expect that
absolutism could be destroyed at one blow by a single ‘long drawn’ general
strike after the anarchist plan. Absolutism in Russia must be overthrown by the
proletariat. But in order to be able to overthrow it, the proletariat requires
a high degree of pol­itical education, of class consciousness and organisation.
All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaf­lets, but only
by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the
continuous course of the revolution. Further, absolutism cannot be overthrown
at any desired moment in which only adequate ‘exertion’ and ‘endurance’ are
necessary. The fall of absolutism is merely the outer expression of the inner
social and class development of Russian society.

This apparently simple and purely mechanical
problem may there­fore be stated thus: the overthrow of absolutism is a long
continuous social process, and its solution demands a complete undermining of
the soil of society; the uppermost part must be placed the lowest and the
lowermost part highest, the appa­rent ‘anarchist’ chaos must be changed into a
new order.
” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)

The development of proletarian consciousness
requires the rot­ting of material and economic conditions, the laying bare of
the contradictions and horrors of capitalism, the worsening of social tensions.

But this fertile terrain must not be left fallow.
It’s necessary for the proletariat to sow the seeds of its struggle by drawing
sufficient lessons from its past actions in order to use such a favourable
situation to generalise its political understanding. It must bring about this
generalisation of its experience even in times of lull in the struggle. In such
periods, the pro­letariat can reflect upon its past experience and draw up a
balance—sheet of the victories and defeats it has lived through, thus preparing
itself for the future. It is, in this sense, that the development of class
consciousness is not the immediate reflection of a given situation.

The proletariat isn’t content with sitting waiting
for the next wave of its struggle before beginning to carry out its theoretical
work. The development of its consciousness, even though it can’t subsist
constantly and in a homogeneous fashion within the majority of the class,
requires a work of incessant, theoretical reflection, criticism of past
experience. It involves the constant refining of the communist programme, of
the proletariat’s historical interests.

How does the proletariat carry out this work of
constant re­flection, of active generalisation of its political gains?

One thing is clear: given the contradictory
situation which it finds itself, the proletariat cannot entrust this task to
all of its members. In periods of social calm, the great majority of workers
submit to the pressure of bourgeois ideology. The task of generalising
political gains and homogenising class consciousness falls to the most decided,
the most combative elements of the class. Thanks to this fraction, to this part
of itself (defined from a political point of view), the proletariat can
collectivise its gains in consciousness by raising itself above immediate
contingencies and partial experiences. Because this fraction has arrived sooner
at an understanding of the goals of the movement, it enables the working class
to reinforce the tendency to break down the isolation and divisions which
fragment and weaken its struggle. In this way, a powerful and conscious class
can oppose itself to capitalism and triumph over it.

In order for these elements of the class to carry
out their tasks properly, they must regroup themselves into revolutionary
communist organisations. And they will have an essentially active role to play
within the struggle of their class.

Revolutionaries are those elements within the
class who through this heterogeneous process are the first to obtain a clear
understanding of the ‘line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general
results of the proletarian movement’ (Communist Manifesto), and because in
capitalist society ‘the dominant ideas are the ideas of the ruling class’,
revolutionaries necessarily constitute a minority of the working
class. As an emanation of the class, a manifestation of the process by which it
becomes conscious, revolutionaries can only exist as such by becoming an
active factor
in this process.
” (The Platform of the ICC. Published in
English as a separate pamphlet entitled Platform and Manifesto of the
International Communist Current

Thus, when revolutionary organisations arise within
the working class, they arise on the same basis, and out of the same necessity
which forces the proletariat to organise itself in councils. Revolutionaries
are, then, a spontaneous and voluntary product of their class. Spontaneous,
because their existence is a product of the struggle and is enriched by the
practical experience of their class. Voluntary, because they come from the historic
of the class struggle and not just from simple, limited,
mechanical, economic factors.

It is only the international understanding of
the working class, which can guarantee its definitive triumph. This need has
given birth to the International Working Men’s Association. It isn’t a child of
a sect or a theory. It is the spontaneous product of the proletarian
movement, engendered itself by the natural, irrepressible tendencies of modern
(...) The aspirations and general tendencies of the working class
emanate from the real conditions in which it is placed.
” (Marx, ‘Letter to
Paul Lafargue’, 1870, our emphasis)

The spontaneous and historic movement of the
proletariat truly constitutes the base, the only base for the existence of
revolutionaries. Revolutionaries don’t appear in order to satisfy their own
aspirations through the pursuit of mach­iavellian goals or dreams of
dictatorship. They arise because the unitary organisation of the class can’t
fulfil, by itself the complex needs for conscious self—organisation by the
majority of the workers. Revolutionaries also appear because right up to the
time when the working class has realised its final revolutionary aim, it will
still exist in capitalist society and continue to suffer from its
contradictions and humiliations, its depraved atmosphere and seductive lies.
The proletariat cannot liberate itself from the heritage of thousands of years
of slavery and obscurantism from one day to the next. There­fore, up until a
communist society exists, the process whereby the class develops its consciousness
will remain a heterogeneous phenomenon, although tending to generalise and
develop more and more.

How can one conceive of the generalisation of class
consciousness, if the whole of the class collectively loses its ‘memory’ of
theoretical and political gains in consciousness made in the struggle’ after
each strike, after each partial defeat or victory in its struggle? How can the
homogenisation of class consciousness be possible if the proletariat, after
each combat, must re-travel the historical road that leads from the struggles
of the weavers of Lyon, past the struggles of the Russian workers of 1917, to
the struggles of workers today in 1982? Where will it get the political lessons
of its struggles? Are these lessons to be found in the clouds or the collective

No! If these lessons exist (and they constitute one of the guarantees
for the victory of the revolution), they must exist in a material human form.
Communist consciousness isn’t a mystical affair, but a highly concrete and
human fact. And communist consciousness and action are inconceivable without a
revolutionary programme and a revolutionary organisation. This necessity is
imposed by the very nature of communism and proletarian consciousness. If it is
to make the communist revolution and transform society, the proletariat cannot
do without a qualitative development in the way it understands its historical