The Consciousness of the Proletariat

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What must be asked now is: ‘What interest lies in speaking about the appearance of ideological superstructures? How can the definition of ideology enable us to understand the birth of proletarian consciousness?’

It is obvious that if we linger over the problem of ideological superstructures, we do so in order to understand better the phenomenon whereby the proletariat becomes conscious. What have our investigations so far uncovered?

At present, we know that the tendency for the proletariat to become conscious of its role as a revolutionary class isn’t a totally new phenomenon. Other revolutionary classes in the past have also struggled to impose their own world-view so as to triumph over old dogmas and sclerotic ideas. The struggle to install a new society, to institute a new mode of production, has been accompanied in the past by a struggle between ideas, a struggle between different conceptions of the world. Thus, throughout the course of the development of human society, the class struggle which established new social relations has always been, simultaneously, a struggle for the victory of new general ideas. From the moment that society becomes sclerotic on an economic level, from the time that the relations of production become transformed into a shell inhibiting the life and progress of society, from then on all the ideological forms corresponding to the past evolution of society become uprooted and void of content, openly contradicted by social reality. Optimism and vitality manifested in ideologies, philosophy, and art are re­placed by philosophical pessimism, obscurantism and a decline in artistic expression and social thought, once society has entered into a period of senility and decadence on an economic level. A growing disjuncture appears between the existing relations regulating society and the new historical necessities confronting it, as well as the ideas men hold about society.

In such periods, the only ideas which can really be progressive are those which announce a new society. Ideas, foreseeing new types of social relations, surge up and first take on critical, utopian and contestationist forms before becoming revolutionary.

Class consciousness unfolds in the same context. For the work­ing class, the putrefaction of the economic contradictions of decadent capitalism and the process of decline of bourgeois ideology establish the fertile terrain necessary for the development of its own historical consciousness. Another point of comparison exists between the development of proletarian consciousness and the ideological processes that characterised the struggle of revolutionary classes in the past. Proletarian consciousness, just as ideology in general, rests on a totality of material conditions of an economic and social kind. The existence of such a concrete base determines the conscious march forward of the proletariat. The development of class consciousness thus expresses the very real economic and historic antagonisms of two social classes. In the course of this essentially practical movement, class consciousness can establish itself and triumph.

       A massive transformation of men is necessarily verified in the mass creation of communist consciousness, because such a transformation can only become operable in a practical move­ment, in a revolution. This revolution is not only made necessary because it is the only means of overthrowing the ruling class, but equally because only a revolution will allow the class which has overturned the other class to sweep away all the rottenness of the old system.” (Marx, The German Ideology)

Proletarian consciousness, like revolutionary ideas of the past, can only really triumph at the end of the political and social victory of the working class.

The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This however, requires that society possesses a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development.” (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1)

The definitive surpassing of the old ideas of the past im­plies, therefore (and this has always been the case), surpassing materially the old economic contradictions.

Religion, the family, the state, law, morality, science, art, etc. are only particular modes of production and therefore come under its general law. The positive supercession of private property, as the appropriation of human life, is therefore the positive supercession of all estrangement, and the return of man from religion, the family, the state, etc., to his human, i.e. social existence. Religious estrangement as such takes place only in the sphere of consciousness, of man’s inner life, but economic estrangement is that of real life — its supercession therefore embraces both aspects.” (Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)

And yet, despite certain resemblances, we continue to speak of ideologies when speaking of the past and class consciousness when speaking of the proletariat. Is this a simple terminological difference?

In reality, we use these two different terms because of our concern to precisely characterise two fundamentally different processes. What distinguishes the ideological process of revolutionary classes in the past and the development of con­sciousness in the proletariat is far more important than the few elements that they share in common. Furthermore, the very nature and origin of proletarian consciousness prevents it from being identified with a simple ideology.

What are the distinctions between ideology and class consciousness?

Ideological superstructures express, at the level of social thought, the existence of an economic infrastructure based on the exploitation of man by man. The social class which is dominant within this infrastructure and which possesses economic power, the means of production and material force, equally possess the ideological means necessary to justify its rule. It is in this sense that one can speak of an ideological “reflection”. Even if the ideas of the ruling class contain real­ities and are not just murky notions without substance, they still must passively follow a much more determinant reality, that of the economy and its laws. Thus, even in the course of the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism, the critical action of bourgeois ideas, in the last analysis, only constituted the visible tip of the iceberg. The real revolutionary action took place lower down, at the base of society.

Although it is true that the writings of philosophers during the Enlightenment - the work of the French Encyclopaedists, books by Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Kant, Locke, etc — contributed to weakening seriously the ideological superstruc­ture of feudalism, while giving credibility to the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie and the imposition of its political rule, it is also true that their contributions always followed slightly in the wake of the process of economic transformation already underway in society. All the geniuses who were the precursors of the bourgeoisie (Roger Bacon, Pomponazzi, Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Thomas More, etc) expressed the more and more flagrant contradictions existing between the de­gree of development of the productive forces and the social relations of feudalism, and the still timid advance of the bourgeoisie on the economic level. Despite its revolutionary role, bourgeois ideology only appeared as a justification after the fact of the gradually acquired economic power of the bourgeoisie.

Capitalism succeeded in determining concretely the historical programme of its struggle only in the nineteenth century, in other words at the end of its historical trajectory. Right up to the eve of its victory, the historical intelligence of capitalism was gradually realised to the extent that its economic position developed and cleared a path for its further develop­ment within the old society.” (Bilan, no. 5, March l934, our emphasis).

Conversely, the consciousness of the proletariat doesn’t rest on any economic infrastructure. The proletariat has absolutely no economic power; it cannot have as its objective the estab­lishment of a new form of exploitation. Even when it affirms itself as the ruling class of society, the proletariat will not become an exploiting class. No economic considerations force the proletariat to forge an ideology to justify the continuation of exploitation. And even if it wanted to, the proletariat couldn’t create an ideological superstructure. The instant the political gains of class consciousness freeze into absolute ideas, into ideologies, they lose their revolut­ionary character and become integrated into the overcrowded edifice of bourgeois prejudice.

The consequences of this situation are the following:

1.     Contrary to the past progress of social thought, the con­sciousness of the proletariat is not bound by, and does not passively follow, the economic transformation of the old society. Since it possesses no economic privilege whatsoever, the proletariat is obliged from the start to assert itself through a conscious, political movement before passing on to the material overthrow of the existing order. Class consciousness, the revolutionary programme of the proletariat, must proceed and condition the overthrow of existing society.

Like capitalism, the proletariat too will need to establish a base of principles particular to itself as a class, which can absorb the oppositions, commotions and upheavals produced by capitalist society and direct them toward the installation of the proletarian dictatorship (...) However, if capitalism could proceed with the elaboration of its historic programme in a non-systematic, disorderly, contradictory fashion, the proletariat, on the contrary, finds itself forced to pre-establish the political basis necessary for the growth of its revolutionary struggles.” (Bilan, no. 5 March 1934)

Communist consciousness doesn’t content itself with reflecting a state of fact, but must express itself as an active element in the revolutionary process.

2.     Ideology tends to preserve the ruling, social order by maintaining it in place and declaring it immutable. Once in power, the exploiting class has every interest in perpetuating mysticism and dogmatism. This is why the bourgeoisie delights in alienation and recognises in it its own power. Reality is masked; the historical character of social relations is veiled. But the social situation of the proletariat is totally different from that of the bourgeoisie. Its situation gives it other possibilities of ‘understanding’ than those of the bourgeoisie. As a result, it is obliged to revolt against its situation and tear apart capitalism’s complacent ideological mask, which would have everyone believe in the eternal nature of capitalist society. One of the first conditions needed for the trans­formation of the situation of the proletariat and for the end of its exploitation is precisely its recognition of the trans­itory, historical, transformable character of capitalism.

The proletariat wouldn’t launch itself head-on against exploit­ation if it were not partially convinced that the economic and social laws which regulate its exploitation are not laws of nature operating independently from human action, but are laws which reflect a concrete, transitory reality.

Only such a comprehension renders possible the transformation of this reality, by giving to man through the suppression of the separation existing between the producers and the means of production, the mastery of his own strength, which in economy is opposed to him like a thing. The dissolution of the ‘reified’ appearance of reality and the suppression of its material basis is of vital interest to the proletariat.” (F.    Jakubowski, Ideological Superstructures in the Materialist Conception of History)

Behind this somewhat abstract language lies the following idea: since it possesses no economic interest which can aid it in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat must develop a demystified understanding of its own situation in order to be able to transform it. Class consciousness allows the pro­letariat to realise that the relation between capital and labour in which it lives is not a relationship between abstract things, established once and for all, but is a very living social relation which can and must be changed. All ideologies, of whatever hue, are absolutely incapable of arriving at this global understanding.

3.     What is the starting—point of ideology? The means of production held as private property isolate the individuals who belong to the bourgeoisie. Single capitalists, nations, competing individuals, the individual possessor of commodities, such is the starting—point of bourgeois ideology. Ideology, even if it expresses very well the domination of a social class, is never a truly collective product. Like a mirror broken into a thousand fragments which all reflect the same image, ideology imposes itself on all individuals. Society submits to the ruling ideology just as it submits to an economic situation which it does not control and which appears to be an external force. The competitive individuals of capitalist society all submit to the same ideological bludgeoning, to the same illusions, to the same prejudices and dogmas. Yet despite this, each regards the other as a stranger, as a competitor, and each imagines that he himself has a very original personality and set of ideas. Real solidarity in action and thought is impossible from the point of view of capitalist society and capitalist ideology. And this is bec­ause the collectivisation of the means of production and the socialisation of human relations are impossible from the capitalist point of view. The individual in capitalist society is irremediably alone; his ideas and his way of life — both products of bourgeois rule — cannot enter into a really col­lective movement.

The proletarians, on the contrary, are associated in the process of production. They are pushed toward union and sol­idarity by their condition of life. Only their association in struggle, the fruit of their association in the process of work, allows them to bring pressure to bear on their common enemy - capital. Thus, throughout the history of their struggle, the workers have pushed for the unification of their forces.

At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the workpeople of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them (...) But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses (...) The collision between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.” (The Communist Manifesto)

Only the proletariat is able to constitute itself into a class based on international solidarity. This solidarity is a fore­runner of what social relations will be like in a communist society, and it springs up spontaneously in the struggle. It is an unbelievable phenomenon. Workers, who scarcely spoke to each other yesterday because of the infernal pressure of work, who even sometimes felt in competition with each other, sud­denly find themselves talking together in the heat of the struggle, closing ranks and helping each other, feeling so united that it takes all the power of the bourgeoisie with its unions and police to break apart their iron solidarity. This is the starting—point of class consciousness!

The starting—point of political reflection in the proletariat doesn’t lie with the individual as an individual, but the individual as a part of a whole, as a part of a class. In this sense, it’s not important what this or that worker thinks. What is important is what the proletariat as a class will be compelled to do and what it must become conscious of doing. Class consciousness starts off from the totality and is a highly collective process.

4.     But the totality, the class in which proletarian conscious­ness arises, is not a characterless mass, an ordinary part of all that makes up bourgeois society. There are also sects, convents and religious groupings which claim they have attained a total community in their life and thought. The bourgeoisie itself is obliged to ‘solidarise’ when faced with the attack of the proletariat; the peasantry can also constitute a greater or lesser collectivity, etc. In reality, none of these other classes, strata or sects can attain the degree of sol­idarity reached by the proletarians for the simple reason that the proletariat constitutes an historic class, the bearer of a new type of social relation. The proletariat constitutes an historic class antagonistic to the bourgeoisie; it is the living negation of capitalist society. Class consciousness also possesses this historic dimension. It is not a simple ideological reflection of a given situation.

Is it enough for the proletariat merely to imagine the des­truction of capitalism? Is the class struggle the fruit of an unbridled imagination? On the contrary! Class conscious­ness, which is acquired by the workers and which pushes them always further in their struggles, is a completely concrete and practical process. It is an active force that materialises in a very precise manner; it requires the living experience of the struggle to subsist and grow. In its practice, the proletariat cuts through problems that hadn’t been solved theoretically, raises others, while discarding old, used—up ideas and revitalising others. And for a qualitative stage to be once more passed beyond, the proletariat must draw the political and theoretical lessons of its past experiences.

The revolutionary wave of the 1920’s confirmed the living, eminently practical character of class consciousness. The Russian, the German, the Hungarian revolutions all saw the flourishing, the intense outburst of ideas within the class. At the same time as the struggle develops, everywhere workers’ councils and general assemblies surge up; everywhere impromptu meetings, earnest discussions and innumerable exchanges of ideas and propositions take place. Workers, who yesterday were stagnating in the crass ignorance imposed on them by cap­italism, become orators who show their practical intelligence and unbelievable audacity. Millions of workers, who had pre­viously submitted silently to the yoke of capital, break into speech and provide living proof of their initiative and ingen­uity in exchanging a thousand ideas and a thousand thoughts, gathering information and political discussions together from everywhere... The political milieu is brought to a white-hot pitch, a thousand channels of exchange and reflection are created... Class consciousness begins to live collectively and practically.

But it is not necessary to wait for insurrectional and revol­utionary periods to see the development of this process. When it is the fruit of real struggle, the proletariat’s daily resistance to its exploitation equally constitutes a fertile terrain for the expansion of class unity and consciousness. You see the same phenomenon produced, but on a more reduced scale, as that which marked the revolutionary period of the 1920’s — a sudden bubbling—up of ideas, of discussions, all intense and living.

It should be well—understood that this process isn’t mechanical or homogeneous. The level of consciousness attained by the workers’ assemblies, by these struggles of daily resistance to capitalism, doesn’t lead in general to an overall questioning of capitalist society. The class struggle, just like the pro­cess of coming to consciousness within the proletariat, is a fluctuating movement, a wave which unceasingly renews itself but which can also go into reflux.

Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the historic strength and practice of the proletariat remains dormant as long as the workers remain subjugated to bourgeois ideas. It is class consciousness which transforms their potential power into effective strength. Through their practice, the workers dis­cover that they form a particular class, one exploited by capital, and that they must-fight against it to liberate them­selves from exploitation. Their struggle obliges them to understand the economic system, to know the society in which their enemies and allies are to be found.

The real education of the masses can never be separated from the independent, political, and particularly from the revolutionary struggle of the masses themselves. Only the struggle educates the exploited class. Only the struggle dis­closes to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its hor­izons, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.” (Lenin, ‘Lecture on the 1905 Revolution’ delivered 22 January 1917, reprinted in The Revolution of 1905)

5. Class consciousness begins from the struggle of the pro­letariat itself. Contrary to the ideology which assumes that a division exists between the ‘economic’, the ‘social’ and the ‘political’, class consciousness is based at one and the same time on economic and political struggles, because they are inseparable.

Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting — all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another — it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions)

Only the intimate liaison between economic strikes and political strikes, whether partial or generalised struggles — allows for the later development of the struggle, its international generalisation and the enriching of class consciousness.

An outstanding feature was the manner in which economic strikes were interlaced with political strikes during the revolution. It is quite evident that only when these two forms of strikes are closely linked up with each other can the movement acquire its greatest power. The broad masses of the exploited could not have been thrown into the revolutionary movement had they not seen examples of how the wage workers in the various branches of industry compelled the capitalists to improve their conditions. This struggle imbued the masses of the Russian people with a new spirit.” (Lenin, ibid.)

By resisting the degradation of their living conditions, workers thus acquire a sense and consciousness of their own force. Its struggle and its consciousness expand when the proletariat sees its social gains torn from it once again by the bourgeoisie. It is progressively obliged to take into account that the cap­italist crisis is a mortal crisis, that this putrefying system can no longer grant anything to the working class, that capit­alism has ceased to be a progressive system. But the proletariat cannot really become conscious of this except by struggling in a more and more radical way, by refusing to accept austerity and capitalism’s drive towards war, by seeing the partial ‘defeat’ of its struggles so long as they remain on a strictly economic level. These series of ‘defeats’ on the level of demands made in struggle (i.e. what’s granted by the bourgeoisie today is taken back tomorrow) gradually become transformed into victories on the level of class consciousness and political unity within the proletariat. The movement of the struggles orientates itself little by little toward a political and revolutionary questioning of the whole of society.

The fact that class consciousness is essentially the fruit of experience, of the practical struggle of the class, truly implies that the activity of the entire class is irreplaceable. Revolutionary consciousness, like the political emancipation of the proletariat, is the work of the workers themselves. It has nothing to do with a collection of rigid ideas, of ready made recipes developed exterior to the class. Similarly, the consciousness which the proletariat has about its situation is not an awareness about an object external to itself, but is a consciousness of what it is itself. Proletarian consciousness is the consciousness of the proletariat of itself as a class. This means, quite simply, that in becoming conscious of its own situation in the process of production, the proletariat becomes conscious of the nature of the capitalist system in all its complexity and barbarity. And this development of consciousness is always synonymous with the class struggle. Class consciousness is, then, the affirmation by the pro­letariat of its nature as a revolutionary class, as conscious being.