Class consciousness


a. Class consciousness and organisation

Any class fighting against the social order of the day can only do this effectively if it gives its struggle an organised and conscious form. Whatever the imperfection and alienation in their forms of organisation and their consciousness, this was already the case for classes like the slaves or the peasants who did not carry within them a new social order. But this necessity applies all the more to historic classes who bear the new relations made necessary by the evolution of society. The proletariat is, among these classes, the only class which possesses no economic power within the old society. Because of this its organisation and consciousness are even more decisive factors in its struggle.

The form of organisation which the class creates for its revolutionary struggle and for the wielding of political power is that of the workers’ councils. But while the whole class is the subject of the revolution and is regrouped in these organisations at that moment, this does not mean that the process by which the class becomes conscious is in any way simultaneous or homogeneous. Class consciousness develops along a tortuous path through the struggle of the class, its successes and defeats. It has to confront the sectional and national divisions which constitute the ‘natural’ framework of capitalist society and which capital has every interest in perpetuating within the class.

b. The role of revolutionaries

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. To accomplish this task in an indissoluble way, the revolutionary organisation:
  • participates in all the struggles of the class in which its members distinguish themselves by being the most determined and combative fighters;
  • intervenes in these struggles always stressing the general interests of the class and the final goals of the movement;and the final goals of the movement;
  • as an integral part of this intervention, constantly dedicates itself to the work of theoretical clarification and reflection which alone will allow its general activity to be based on the whole past experience of the class and on the future perspectives crystallised through such theoretical work.

c. The relationship between the class and the organisation of revolutionaries

If the general organisation of the class and the organisation of revolutionaries are part of the same movement, they are nonetheless two distinct things.

The first, the councils, regroup the whole class. The only criterion for belonging to them is to be a worker. The second, on the other hand, regroups only the revolutionary elements of the class. The criterion for membership is no longer sociological, but political: agreement on the programme and commitment to defend it. Because of this the vanguard of the class can include individuals who are not sociologically part of the working class but who, by breaking with the class they came out of, identify themselves with the historic class interests of the proletariat.

However, though the class and the organisation of its vanguard are two distinct things, they are not separate, external or opposed to one another as is claimed by the ‘Leninist’ tendencies on the one hand and by the workerist-councilist tendencies on the other. What both these conceptions deny is the fact that, far from clashing with each other, these two elements – the class and revolutionaries – actually complement each other as a whole and a part of the whole. Between the two of them there can never exist relations of force because communists "have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole" (Communist Manifesto).

As a part of the class, revolutionaries can at no time substitute themselves for the class, either in its struggles within capitalism or, still less, in the overthrow of capitalism and the wielding of political power. Unlike other historical classes, the consciousness of a minority, no matter how enlightened, is not sufficient to accomplish the tasks of the proletariat. These are tasks which demand the constant participation and creative activity of the entire class at all times.

Generalised consciousness is the only guarantee of the victory of the proletarian revolution and, since it is essentially the fruit of practical experience, the activity of the whole class is irreplaceable. In particular, the necessary use of violence by the class cannot be separated from the general movement of the class. For this reason terrorism by individuals or isolated groups is absolutely foreign to the methods of the class and at best represents a manifestation of petty-bourgeois despair when it is not simply a cynical method of struggle between bourgeois factions. When it appears within the proletarian struggle, it is a sign of influences external to the struggle, and can only weaken the very basis for the development of consciousness.

The self-organisation of workers’ struggles and the exercise of power by the class itself is not just one of the roads to communism which can be weighed against others: it is the only road.

The organisation of revolutionaries (whose most advanced form is the party) is the necessary organ with which the class equips itself to become conscious of its historic future and to politically orient the struggle for this future. For this reason the existence and activity of the party are an indispensable condition for the final victory of the proletariat.

d. The autonomy of the working class

However, the concept of ‘class autonomy’ used by workerist and anarchist tendencies, and which they put forward in opposition to substitutionist conceptions, has a totally reactionary and petty-bourgeois meaning. Apart from the fact that this ‘autonomy’ often boils down to no more than their own ‘autonomy’ as tiny sects who claim to represent the working class in the same way as the substitutionist tendencies they denounce so strongly, their conception has two main aspects:
  • the rejection of any political parties and organisations whatever they may be by the workers;
  • the autonomy of each fraction of the working class (factories, neighbourhoods, regions, nations etc.) in relation to others: federalism.
Today such ideas are at best an elementary reaction against Stalinist bureaucracy and the development of state totalitarianism, and at worst the political expression of the isolation and division typical of the petty-bourgeoisie. But both express a total incomprehension of the three fundamental aspects of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat:
  • the importance and priority of the political tasks of the class (destruction of the capitalist state, world dictatorship of the proletariat);
  • the importance and indispensable character of the organisation of revolutionaries within the class;
  • the unitary, centralised and world-wide character of the revolutionary struggle of the class.
For us, as marxists, the autonomy of the class means its independence form all other classes in society. This autonomy constitutes an INDESPENSABLE PRECONDITION for the revolutionary activity of the class because the proletariat today is the only revolutionary class. This autonomy manifests itself both on the organisational level (the organisation of the councils), and on the political level and therefore, contrary to the assertions of the workerist tendencies, in close connection with the communist vanguard of the proletariat.

e. The organisation of revolutionaries in the different moments of the class struggle

While the general organisation of the class and the organisation of revolutionaries are two different things as far as their function is concerned, as far as their function is concerned, the circumstances in which they arise are also different. The councils appear only in periods of revolutionary confrontation when all the struggles of the class tend towards the seizure of power. However the effort of the class to develop its consciousness has existed at all times since its origins and will exist until its dissolution into communist society. This is why communist minorities have existed in every period as an expression of this constant effort. But the scope, the influence, the type of activity, and the mode of organisation of these minorities are closely linked to the conditions of the class struggle.

In the periods of intense class activity, these minorities have a direct influence on the practical course of events. One can then speak of the party to describe the organisation of the communist vanguard. On the other hand, in periods of defeat or of downturn in the class struggle, revolutionaries no longer have a direct influence on the immediate course of history.

All that can exist at such times are organisations of a much smaller size whose function is no longer to influence the immediate movement, but to resist it, which means struggling against the current while the class is being disarmed and mobilised by the bourgeoisie (through class collaboration, ‘Sacred Union’, ‘the Resistance’, ‘anti-fascism’, etc). Their essential task then is to draw the lessons of previous experience and so prepare the theoretical and programmatic framework for the future proletarian party which must necessarily emerge in the next upsurge of the class. These groups and fractions who, when the class struggle is on the ebb, have detached themselves from the degenerating party or have survived its demise, have the task of constituting a political and organisational bridge until the re-emergence of the party.

f. The structure of the organisation of revolutionaries

The necessarily world-wide and centralised character of the proletarian revolution confers the same world-wide and centralised character on the party of the working class, and the fractions and groups who lay the basis of the party necessarily tend towards a world-wide centralisation. This is concretised in the existence of central organs invested with political responsibilities between each of the organisation’s congresses, to which they are accountable.

The structure of the organisation of revolutionaries must take two fundamental needs into account:
  • it must permit the fullest development in revolutionary consciousness within itself and thus allow the widest and most searching discussion of all the questions and disagreements which arise in a non-monolithic organisation;
  • it must at the same time ensure the organisation’s cohesion and unity of action; in particular this means that all parts of the organisation must carry out the decisions of the majority.
Likewise the relations between the different parts of the organisation and the ties between militants necessarily bear the scars of capitalist society and therefore cannot constitute an island of communist relations within capitalism. Nevertheless, they cannot be in flagrant contradiction with the goal pursued by revolutionaries, and they must of necessity be based on that solidarity and mutual confidence which are the hallmarks of belonging to an organisation of the class which is the bearer of communism.

(see note)

Class Consciousness and the Role of the Revolutionary Organization: Comment by Red and Black Notes

The exchange of views below continues a discussion with Red and Black Notes on the vitally important question of class consciousness and the role of the revolutionary organization. As readers will recall, in Internationalism 134 we published a letter to R&BN commenting on a joint public forum they held with the Internationalist Workers Group, the Canadian affiliate of the IBRP, last winter. We publish below R&BN’s response to our letter, followed by some further comments that we offer in an effort to deepen the discussion on consciousness and revolutionary organization.

On Class Consciousness: A Reponse to Red and Black Notes

As readers of Red and Black Notes and Internationalism may have noticed, a discussion has developed on the role of the revolutionary organization and its relationship to the class.  This is a central and difficult, controversial issue that has been hotly and long debated within the workers’ movement.   It is vital that the discussion continues for the benefit of clarification.  This is why we would like to carry the discussion further and approach some points on councilism that Fischer, the editor of Red and Black Notes, raised, as well as other points.

The debate on "proletarian culture"

The previous articles in this series examined how the communist movement, during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the darkest years of the counter-revolution, struggled to understand what had become of the first proletarian dictatorship to establish itself on the scale of an entire country – the Soviet power in Russia. Future essays will look at the lessons revolutionaries have drawn from the demise of this dictatorship and have applied to any future proletarian regime. But before proceeding in that direction, we must return to the days when the Russian revolution was still alive, in order to study a key aspect of the communist transformation that was raised, though not of course resolved, during that decisive period. We refer to the question of ‘culture’.

The only answer to capitalist war - the class struggle!

In response to the horrible war crime of 11 September, new and equally horrible war crimes are now being committed by the USA, which has come under direct attack for the first time in nearly two hundred years. Even before the first assaults were launched on an already ruined Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees were being condemned to death by starvation and disease. The death list will increase dramatically now the military strikes have begun.

Shootings in Gothenburg: Democratic state repression

Protesters at June's EU summit in Gothenburg were met with the full force of Sweden's liberal democracy. The police attacked with dogs, batons, the cavalry and gunfire. 3 people were shot, 90 injured and 600 arrested. The EU leaders, including Tony Blair and Jack Straw, condemned the "thuggery" of the protesters and backed the police. The Danish Prime Minister thought it a "paradox" that there could be protests at a meeting "where we are working towards a better world". Blair said it was OK for protesters to protest, but, according to him, the way that capitalism was organised was universally beneficial: "The fact is that world trade is good for people's jobs and living standards".

Spartacus revolt: inspiration for the proletariat

The world wide success of the film Gladiator has generated a renewed interested in Ancient Rome and the role of gladiators. Any inquiry into this question has to raise the spectre of the slave war between 73 and 71 BC, which was lead by the gladiator Spartacus. Unlike the fictional Gladiator which opposes the central character and his small band of gladiators to the truly wicked emperor Commodus, the real slave revolt saw 100,000 or more slaves waging war on their Roman oppressors and defeating the seeming invincible legions time and time again. This revolt, though bloodily crushed, has inspired revolutionary movements. The main grouping of revolutionaries in Germany who opposed World War 1 adopted the name of the Spartacus League to express their determination to wage war on the ruling class; and like Spartacus and the slave army the revolutionary struggle of the workers in Germany was drowned in blood. Thus the name Spartacus became synonymous with the revolutionary aspirations of the exploited. Whereas Gladiator is about the hero and his small band of gladiators standing up for an empire based on 'justice' (no mention of the exploitation of slaves) against the oh-so-wicked Commodus: in short for democracy against dictatorship.

Cajo Brendel Meetings in Germany

Through his exposes and his contributions to the discussions, Cajo Brendel proved, in our opinion, that the 'classic' positions of the German-Dutch left have lost none of their relevance even if, as Brendel asserted, along with Marx, "our theory is not a dogma but a guide to action". As has long been the case with, what can be called "the Dutch can be called "the Dutch school of marxism", which was animated by, among others, Anton Pannekoek and Hermann Gorter, comrade Brendel denounced the bourgeois character of parliamentarism, the trade unions, and social democracy, and the state capitalist nature of the former eastern bloc. And while the state capitalist currents like Stalinism and Trotskyism have welcomed the new "Red-Green" government in Germany as a step forward for the working class, Brendel showed the profoundly anti-working class nature of this government.

Subscribe to RSS - Class consciousness