Some Unfinished Thoughts on Class Consciousness

The following text was written as a contribution to the discussion on class consciousness at the IP-conference last fall.

For quite a while, IP has focused on trying to understand how class consciousness can develop in our time to its revolutionary potential. This is the framework for defining our own role. We have tried to tackle the question in the “species being” debate that was the main subject of 3 issues of IP. While the debate could be called “rich”, it did not lead to a consensus, or to a synthesis or a plan on how to continue the discussion. We vowed to continue the debate with texts on the website but we haven’t. The debate has stopped or has maybe restarted on a different path, an examination of reification and what can loosen its grip. Still, the species being debate showed a consensus on important points: We rejected “productivism” and a view of class struggle as limited to wages and employment and claimed that the totality in which the working class is attacked as human beings informs its consciousness. History cannot be understood if class consciousness is seen as an automatic result of the “natural” development of the productive forces. The same conditions can lead to radically different results.

We have for now dropped the subject of “species being,” but people with whom I talk about politics, and about our perspectives, have not. In my experience it comes up almost every time I talk about the possibility of communism with someone from outside our “milieu.” “Human nature” won’t allow it, is the common reaction, men are too selfish, too competitive, too cruel, too evil. Look at all the horror around us. Look at the pleasure murder and rape gives soldiers when the reins are loosened.

How do we answer that? By saying that there is much more in human nature than these awful things, that, all things considered, there is more “good” than “bad” in our species? Or, that the bad is not part of human nature, but the product of alienation from our true nature? Or by saying: human nature as such does not exist, it is capitalism, and the law of value, that compels humans to act as they do? Neither answer satisfies, although they all contain some truth, contradictory as they may be.

Another reaction I hear a lot in discussions with “outsiders” is: ‘fill in what revolutionary change means. How do we get from here to there? And once there, how will our lives be different?’

We talk about the goal of communism but we describe it only in general, abstract terms, we don’t want to be accused of pretending to have a blueprint for the future. Though vague, our view of that goal is also static, invariant. In our view, the goal of the proletarian struggle remains the same, only its expression changes; as the struggle develops, it moves from being implicit to becoming explicit. Since the concept of the goal is static, it is not discussed much in function of the process, the class struggle, but only the other way around: how the class struggle can change in function of the goal of communism.

We do of course recognize that goal and process are dialectically linked. Workers fight because they are compelled to do so but also because the possibility arises, because a certain force is felt and a desired goal is seen as within the reach of that force. As the means of the struggle broaden through self-organization, possibilities expand and so do the goals of the struggle. That’s why we can believe despite our tiny numbers, despite the current lack of class struggle, that once a broad mass movement erupts, it will be a self-reinforcing process, making the goal more and more explicit, a process of which the pro-revolutionaries will be a part by articulating that goal, connecting it to the experience of the struggle.

While we do see that process as self-reinforcing, we do not see it as automatic; we know that it can be derailed, it can be defeated. The beliefs of people, the windows through which they look at the world, are not a mere reflection of the state of the productive forces. The development of class consciousness is the development of a feeling, of a collective emotion, but also of a collective thought process, of an imagining in word and action, in which we participate.

But isn’t that clinging to a teleological scheme in which the pre-existing goal, expressed in the communist program, contained or not in our species being, realizes itself? Is communism a set of ideas to be put into practice? Of course we would argue that it is more than that, that it is a real movement of which these ideas are an expression. But do we not operate under the assumption that this set of ideas is already there? Does that not lead to the logical conclusion that we must unite in one party to disseminate this set of ideas as efficiently as possible, as many in the left communist milieu believe?

It’s true that IP has argued that the theory is not yet there, that in fact it is so sorely lacking that a “renaissance of Marxism” is necessary, maybe even vital for revolutionary change. But we agree with others in the left communist milieu that no meaningful change is possible as long as capitalism exists; that the real sense of the struggle is that it leads to the replacement of the rule of capital by the rule of the collective worker, internationally organized and centralized by the workers councils, after which meaningful change can begin.

This leads me to the question of “the period of transition” (p.o.t). IP has never discussed this question but the bulk of the group came out of the ICC, which saw it as one of its first tasks to adopt a position on this issue (I was one of the few dissenters). This position said that, after the capitalist class is defeated politically, there will still be a capitalist economy and there will still be class contradictions, so there will still be a need for a state to manage the economy and society in general. It is important that the workers councils and the party stay out of the state, lest they be infected by its bureaucratic conservatism. The workers councils must be separate from, but controlling the state, and the party must be separate from both but active in each. This was seen as the essential lesson of the Russian revolution.

Several thoughts occur to me about this.

- It is true that after capitalism is politically defeated, huge problems will face the victorious working class. The greatest of all may be, how to integrate the billions of people expelled from the global economy? If only the collective worker is organized, that leaves many people in the cold. It stands to reason that the revolutionary struggle will not only lead to self-organization in the workplaces but also in other areas; that it will give birth to territorially based organization in neighborhoods, cities and regions. But, must such territorial organization become the state, assuming a totality of management functions? That is still questionable to me.

- How can we know? One thing we know is that the future will not be a replay of the Russian revolution. About the specific forms that the revolutionary movement will take and how they will relate to each other, we know very little and that should inspire us to modesty. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to say, we must always push the envelope towards greater solidarity, towards organization that engages everybody, before and after the defeat of the capitalist state.

- The ICC-position on the p.o.t is based on the assumption that the political defeat of capitalism comes first, and that a change of the capitalist economy (and larger society) follows; that the only instance of dual power occurs right before that defeat. Is that realistic? I am not suggesting that communism can grow in the womb of capitalism as the latter grew in feudalism. Self-management as a strategy is self-defeating. But I think that if the resistance of the working class is to become revolutionary, there will be many instances of dual power along the way; moments in which the workers break the law, wrestle control away from the capitalist class over some aspect of their lives, change the world, maybe only locally and for a moment, maybe leaving a deeper impact. Maybe the transition towards communism does not begin with the political defeat of capitalism but long before it in the praxis of the struggle.

We all agree that revolutionary change, not just now but throughout history, has required conditions that make it necessary and possible. With respect to necessity, if our analysis is sound, we can be “confident” that it will weigh increasingly heavy. Workers will be increasingly compelled to resist conditions that threaten their survival. What about the possibility? What is it, in the conditions of the working class today that opens the possibility of it not being mobilized for self-destruction as in the past? Is it the collective historical memory? Is the working class today, as a result of its experience, a less easy prey for the lies of the left and the right? Is it the changes in the capitalist mode of production itself? The fact that the contradiction between its global nature and its national foundation, between competition and the global human interest, and, most of all, because the contradiction within the value form itself, between the capacity to produce use-values and the misery resulting from the inability to valorize, has never been so glaring as today? Is it because, even if the law of value has penetrated consciousness as never before, the increasingly central role of knowledge in the economy pushes capitalism to stimulate the education, knowledge, and in some ways even the imagination of the working class? Is it because capitalism’s tendency towards production with ever less value creates openings for “exchanges” that are no longer value-based and thus shows the concrete possibility of non-commodified social relations?

To be continued.