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The Pretension of "Class Consciousness"

The Pretension of "Class Consciousness"

A critique of "class consciousness" from an anti-Leninist perspective.

In radical politics one of the most cherished, thought about, and fawned over concepts is that of "class consciousness". It is assumed that the majority of the victims of capitalism remain victims because they haven't achieved sufficient "class consciousness". They haven't woken up to the reality they live in and are thus persuaded by ideology which hides that reality to go along with it. Thus the victims of capitalism must be woken up to this reality and become "class conscious". As such the task for radicals becomes the promotion of this "class consciousness". This concept, however, is a "bourgeois" one. It is in fact a piece of the ideology which holds capitalism together and maintains it's rule over the system's victims.

The logical extent of this concept is "vanguardism", or the Leninist conception of the communist political party. According to this conception radical intellectuals who have the material comfort afforded by capitalism which allows them to spend their time thinking about grand social questions are uniquely equipped to instill in, or teach the victims of capitalism the correct answers to those questions. Lenin explicitly said that workers' struggles at the point of production for daily bread would only lead to involvement in trade union struggles, rather than revolutionary movements, which thus needed to be built under the leadership of "intellectuals from the propertied classes".1

According to this conception the intellectuals supported by the capitalist system are the revolutionary agents who can bring it down, not the victims of that system through their on the ground struggles. This is because only the intellectuals have been able to gain the proper consciousness on their own. In creating a conception of "class consciousness" one inherently creates a concept of those who are and are not "conscious". Thus the agents of radical social change become those who are arbitrarily appointed as having the "correct" understanding of social questions, rather than those who have the direct interest in the resolving of those questions.

Thus the idea behind class consciousness is that the task of ending capitalism is not that of it's victims, but actually, it's beneficiaries. Intellectuals are members of the bourgeoisie, or "capitalists", who receive some of the proceeds extracted from workers (surplus value) in exchange for disseminating the system's ideology. Thus they are all members of the "propertied classes". This assumption, that intellectuals rather than capitalism's victims, are the revolutionary agents of capitalist society, is dead wrong.

Intellectuals receive benefits from the system to toe it's ideological line while the system will only distribute benefits to it's victims in so far as it's victims organize to fight the system. The idea of a stagnant "economism" which Lenin criticized and upon which those he criticized focused ignores the trans-formative capacity of struggle. Supposedly economism, according to it's critics (Lenin) and it's advocates, would prioritize trade union demands and activity above wider social questions.2 Despite this, the most basic trade union struggles involve workers directly in the fight for their future and thus introduce them further to the concept and reality of class struggle.

The class struggle is the process by which capitalism's victims learn to fight for themselves and learn how to exorcise and take power. The "conscious" distinction elevates the simple status of political alignment with radical ideas to that of the natural right to the throne of radical movements. "Consciousness" is a collective process, it is not simply present in some individuals and not in others. How "conscious" can you and I be while most of the over victims of capitalism the world over have not utilized their collective power to produce new lessons and examples?

The collective practice of struggle produces the collective theory that is made up of observations from that experience and vice versa.

Notes:
1.What Is To Be Done, V.I. Lenin
2.Ibid, The Soviets, Oskar Anweiler

Posted By

Ivysyn
Dec 14 2019 03:07

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comradeEmma
Dec 14 2019 07:16
Quote:
According to this conception radical intellectuals who have the material comfort afforded by capitalism which allows them to spend their time thinking about grand social questions are uniquely equipped to instill in, or teach the victims of capitalism the correct answers to those questions. Lenin explicitly said that workers' struggles at the point of production for daily bread would only lead to involvement in trade union struggles, rather than revolutionary movements, which thus needed to be built under the leadership of "intellectuals from the propertied classes".

Isn't this just accepting the sort of retroactive construction of Leninism as what Lenin actually said, and not looking at what he actually wrote. What is to be done? is after all not a handbook on building a "communist party"(a bit of an anachronism in this context) but a critique against a specific tendency within the movement at that time and a way to mend the disunity in the movement. He also never said as a general rule that "professional revolutionaries" should come from the intellectual class, in fact he says the opposite and that these people should come from the working-class(I think he cites August Bebel as an example), and being an active trade unionist is not contradictory to this form of organizing.

I also think it is undeniable that in 1902 the average factory did not have access to books or things in general to read about workers' struggle and socialism, or society in general. What Lenin is proposing is basically that those who want to organize the working-class be ready to fully commit themselves to do everything they can to spread the struggle of the workers, against the bosses and state. His opposition at the time was instead arguing that workers don't care about far-off labor struggles or what the state is doing, they really only care about the direct and economic struggle. This quote is very good I think,

Quote:
The “economic struggle of the workers against the employers and the government”, about which you make as much fuss as if you had discovered a new America, is being waged in all parts of Russia, even the most remote, by the workers themselves who have heard about strikes, but who have heard almost nothing about socialism. The “activity” you want to stimulate among us workers, by advancing concrete demands that promise palpable results, we are already displaying and in our everyday, limited trade union work we put forward these concrete demands, very often without any assistance whatever from the intellectuals. But such activity is not enough for us; we are not children to be fed on the thin gruel of “economic” politics alone; we want to know everything that others know, we want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every single political event. In order that we may do this, the intellectuals must talk to us less of what we already know. and tell us more about what we do not yet know and what we can never learn from our factory and “economic” experience, namely, political knowledge. You intellectuals can acquire this knowledge, and it is your duty to bring it to us in a hundred- and a thousand-fold greater measure than you have done up to now; and you must bring it to us, not only in the form of discussions, pamphlets, and articles (which very often — pardon our frankness — are rather dull), but precisely in the form of vivid exposures of what our government and our governing classes are doing at this very moment in all spheres of life.

This quote I think speaks to my experiences at least.

Quote:
Intellectuals receive benefits from the system to toe it's ideological line while the system will only distribute benefits to it's victims in so far as it's victims organize to fight the system. The idea of a stagnant "economism" which Lenin criticized and upon which those he criticized focused ignores the trans-formative capacity of struggle. Supposedly economism, according to it's critics (Lenin) and it's advocates, would prioritize trade union demands and activity above wider social questions.2 Despite this, the most basic trade union struggles involve workers directly in the fight for their future and thus introduce them further to the concept and reality of class struggle.

I think this part makes a mistake that maoists like JMP also do: confusing economism with economic struggle. Lenin was beyond impressed with the economic struggle of the workers, he reiterates multiple times in What is to be done? that the working-class is already much more advanced than the social-democrats, while the workers are quickly becoming organized in much more "mature" ways(putting forward concrete lists of demands, having patience when it comes to riots, forming workers' organisations, etc) while the social-democrats were unable to interact with this movement because of their own inexperience and failure of class consciousness among the party members. This failure of class consciousness among the party members, the capitulation to spontaneity, is "economism". Economism does not come from the working-class carrying out economic struggle but from the intellectuals in the party.

If we look at the situation in Russia at the time, was Lenin wrong in saying that one of the main tasks for the labor movement should be to attack Czarism and to fight for democratic rights?

I would also be curious to know what you think of the book One step forward, two steps backwards by Lenin. In this books he explicitly says that intellectuals are more often than not fit for party work, they often reject basic discipline and fail to work together since they are used to "fighting" on an individual level, while workers being schooled in the advanced co-operation of the factory system and economic struggle are perfect for party work and therefore should be the majority of the party and its deciding bodies.

Quote:
The class struggle is the process by which capitalism's victims learn to fight for themselves and learn how to exorcise and take power. The "conscious" distinction elevates the simple status of political alignment with radical ideas to that of the natural right to the throne of radical movements. "Consciousness" is a collective process, it is not simply present in some individuals and not in others. How "conscious" can you and I be while most of the over victims of capitalism the world over have not utilized their collective power to produce new lessons and examples?

I don't think this part is wrong, consciousness is still built on struggle and you can not really learn to struggle(political or trade unionist) from books, only by actually doing it. But actually thinking about what this struggle entails, what social-relations are present in society, how the workplace is structured, how the composition of the working-class changes, evaluate your own struggles and so on are still core parts to develop this collective struggle. Lenin did not say that it should be intellectuals or people from the middle-class always doing this part(which I think is shown by him in the footnotes pointing towards working-class theoreticians from his time) but if we are being harsh, most socialist theoreticians were middle-class or even aristocrats. De Leon, Engels, Karl Marx, Kropotkin, Bakunin, and so on. This is also why I think political education on a mass-scale has been so present in the worker's movement. Workers want knowledge on politics and society but are to some extent(more then than now) structurally excluded from it by the current state. Therefore worker's with the help of people like Marx and Engels built educational centers, workplace libraries, party-schools, publications and study groups.

Pannekoek also writes this in his text The Social-democratic party school in Berlin,

Quote:
Can the school attain its end? It may seem difficult to train in half a year those men who have simply passed through the elementary school, to train them sufficiently in such deep scientific theories. Still, it must not be forgotten that they have passed through the school of life, and therefore the theory of that life is easily taken up by them. Then it is possible that socialist workingmen well acquainted with the practical side of life and with the labor movement, should have a good understanding of the fundamental ideas of socialistic theory. The first half year of the school has shown this. A foundation for the further study of classical and current literature has been laid; but farther study is of course necessary. It is clearly understood in the German party that not enough can be done through this Institute alone. Everywhere committees are springing up, mostly from unions and party branches, whose object is to provide lectures, courses and lessons for the workingmen. Interest in theory, in the theoretical question is awaking everywhere; libraries are being founded and lecturers provided. In this way the German working class is preparing itself for the hard battle of the future; and the hardest task it will have to accomplish, is to be well armed.

Also I recommend this shorter text by Hal Draper on WITBD that tries to remove Lenin from "leninism" by actually putting Lenin into his context and not the narrative that stalinists and so on try to push.

darren p
Dec 14 2019 13:26

"Consciousness" merely means "awareness" It's one thing to say that, in order to achieve socialism, the proletariat must be aware of its situation and consciously organise to overcome it, and another to say that this awareness can come about only if it is injected into the proletariat from above by a body that sits outside proletariat in general.

There's nothing vanguardist in the idea of "class consciousness" or "false consciousness" in and of themselves. See this video:
http://www.theoryandpractice.org.uk/video/why-dont-people-revolt

Quote:
Intellectuals are members of the bourgeoisie, or "capitalists", who receive some of the proceeds extracted from workers (surplus value) in exchange for disseminating the system's ideology. Thus they are all members of the "propertied classes".

This is garbled. And you don't say what you actually mean by an "intellectual". A capitalist is someone who makes their living through returns to capital invested, nothing more, nothing less. If you're getting paid to write articles etc, and have no other independent means of income, you're selling your labour-power, you're a wage labourer. You do know that work in the university is becoming increasingly precarious? Hence the recent strikes...

Plenty of types of worker, NHS nurses for example, don't create value themselves but recieve value that has been created in other parts of the economy. Are you going to argue that nurses are members of the propertied classes?

Quote:
The collective practice of struggle produces the collective theory that is made up of observations from that experience and vice versa.

Well, partially. But to think that consciousness appears automatically, without people actually discussing and creating texts etc (Intelectualising?) seems as dubious as the idea that theory has to be inserted from the outside.

Ivysyn
Jan 6 2020 15:45

@LeninistGirl

You say that I'm treating Leninism as what Lenin said, rather than what he wrote. I'm not sure what the difference is suppose to be between these two things. You don't seem to know what Lenin wrote about this issue because in What Is To Be Done Lenin specifically says that socialist consciousness comes from the "intellectuals of the propertied classes", not the workers themselves. This is both what Lenin said and what he wrote because they are the same exact thing in the context of examining the theories laid out a century ago by a specific intellectual on paper. Here you should have made use of the citation I provided, as already in the notes I cited WITBD as the source for my claim. You can read the book for yourself and see where Lenin says exactly this. The quote you provided calls on intellectuals to educate workers;

Quote:
You intellectuals can acquire this knowledge, and it is your duty to bring it to us in a hundred- and a thousand-fold greater measure than you have done up to now; and you must bring it to us, not only in the form of discussions, pamphlets, and articles (which very often — pardon our frankness — are rather dull), but precisely in the form of vivid exposures of what our government and our governing classes are doing at this very moment in all spheres of life.

Even though you tried to deny that Lenin indeed said and held this you also offered arguments to bolster this conclusion. Just because workers don't have access to books universally, doesn't mean that they can't develop their understanding of the world and thus how to fight within it. In this sense the class struggle itself becomes their school of liberation, as you conceded in your own comment. In addition; everything you said about economism was concordant with everything that I said about economism.

Ivysyn
Jan 6 2020 07:56

@darren p

Quote:
"Consciousness" merely means "awareness" It's one thing to say that, in order to achieve socialism, the proletariat must be aware of its situation and consciously organise to overcome it, and another to say that this awareness can come about only if it is injected into the proletariat from above by a body that sits outside proletariat in general.

I would argue that "consciousness" transcends awareness in this case. When people appoint themselves as politically "conscious", they are not simply saying they know what is going on. You can draw any conclusions you want from the bare bones facts. In the political and social context "consciousness" implies one group that is completely deaf to extant realities and another that has a heightened awareness. As we know, there are no exploited peoples on the face of the planet that are completely deaf to their exploitation, since exploitation is a material experience.

Quote:
This is garbled.

It is not. I was very clear and precise. "Garbled" is not a synonym for "statement I don't like".

Quote:
And you don't say what you actually mean by an "intellectual".

Wrong, from my post:

Quote:
Intellectuals are members of the bourgeoisie, or "capitalists", who receive some of the proceeds extracted from workers (surplus value) in exchange for disseminating the system's ideology. Thus they are all members of the "propertied classes".

Quote:
If you're getting paid to write articles etc, and have no other independent means of income, you're selling your labour-power, you're a wage labourer. You do know that work in the university is becoming increasingly precarious? Hence the recent strikes...

Depends for what purpose you are being paid. If you are being paid to write analytically about reality, sure, but if you are paid to disseminate the ideology of the system (a neoclassical economist, for example) then no. I would like you to go back to Marx's basic text Wage Labor and Capital and show where he defines precariousness at any specific moment in time as the basis for the class relation between workers and capitalists. Most workers actually at least have a household that they can fall back on if they become unemployed, the same goes for capitalists if their business ventures go bust. I'd like you to also note that this is not my crackpot theory. This was explicitly argued by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein in his introduction to World Systems Analysis. The comment about nurses and value you added is irrelevant given that you didn't properly understand why I classified intellectuals the way I did in the first place.

Quote:
Well, partially. But to think that consciousness appears automatically, without people actually discussing and creating texts etc (Intelectualising?) seems as dubious as the idea that theory has to be inserted from the outside.

Is your impression that theorizing takes place outside of struggle?

darren p
Jan 6 2020 09:46
Ivysyn wrote:
"Garbled" is not a synonym for "statement I don't like".

I said "garbled" because that passage seems to mix and confuse different categories.

Quote:
Depends for what purpose you are being paid.

No it doesn't. A capitalist is someone who makes there living from returns from invested capital, nothing more and nothing less. If I get paid by a university to write "A primer in neo-classical economics" this does not make me a capitalist. I can only be a capitalist by making a living from returns from invested capital. That's why I said the passage is garbled.

Quote:
Is your impression that theorizing takes place outside of struggle?

In capitalist society there is no place that is outside of the class struggle.

Ivysyn
Jan 6 2020 15:41
Quote:
No it doesn't. A capitalist is someone who makes there living from returns from invested capital, nothing more and nothing less. If I get paid by a university to write "A primer in neo-classical economics" this does not make me a capitalist. I can only be a capitalist by making a living from returns from invested capital. That's why I said the passage is garbled.

Fine, so why is someone who gets a share of surplus value produced in order to disseminate the ideology of the world system not a capitalist, simply because they don't invest capital themselves necessarily? Because those people certainly exist. There are actual cadres of intellectuals and specialists who are organized and deployed by the system and it's disciplines for this exact purpose.

If nothing is outside the class struggle than you don't disagree with me that theory is an out-growth of struggle.

comradeEmma
Jan 6 2020 17:02
Quote:
You say that I'm treating Leninism as what Lenin said, rather than what he wrote. I'm not sure what the difference is suppose to be between these two things. You don't seem to know what Lenin wrote about this issue because in What Is To Be Done Lenin specifically says that socialist consciousness comes from the "intellectuals of the propertied classes", not the workers themselves. This is both what Lenin said and what he wrote because they are the same exact thing in the context of examining the theories laid out a century ago by a specific intellectual on paper. Here you should have made use of the citation I provided, as already in the notes I cited WITBD as the source for my claim. You can read the book for yourself and see where Lenin says exactly this. The quote you provided calls on intellectuals to educate workers;

I think you are still reading the pamphlet wrong. The fact that middle-class people historically played an important part in developing "scientific socialism" is indisputable. What class did Blanqui, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin and Bakunin belong to? This is Lenin's point but he is not making a general political principle out of it as you seem to imply. He never says that professional revolutionaries are exclusively from the middle-class. Did you read the Hal Draper text linked?

darren p
Jan 6 2020 17:37
Ivysyn wrote:
Fine, so why is someone who gets a share of surplus value produced in order to disseminate the ideology of the world system not a capitalist, simply because they don't invest capital themselves necessarily? Because those people certainly exist.

This goes back to one of the things I thought was confused in your text, you seemed to be conflating non-productive labour and surplus extraction. Not all wage workers add new value to the economy, the distinction between productive (types of work that add new value into the economy) and non-productive labour (types of work that do not add new value into the economy) is an important one to understand.

A worker in the non-productive sectors (insurance, banking, armed forces, state health sector, teaching etc.) definitely is not a capitalist, because they have to sell their labour-power to a capitalist in order to survive. But all workers in the non-productive sector *are* getting a share of surplus value created in other parts of the economy (though perhaps this is not the best way to put it).

The *only* criteria for being a capitalist is that you can survive solely through returns on invested capital. It has nothing to do with ideological or political beliefs or activities. In fact it is entirely possible to be both a capitalist and a communist - Engels and William Morris as obvious examples..