Revolutionary Organisation and Class Consciousness - Red and Black Notes

The following article is the text of a speech delivered at a public meeting to discuss revolutionary organizations and class consciousness on Saturday February 26, 2005 in Toronto.

The panel included a speaker from the Internationalist Workers' Group, the Montreal affiliate of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party and Red & Black Notes. Interested readers can see a letter from Internationalism, the US section of the International Communist Current regarding this meeting followed by a comment from Red & Black Notes.

Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Beginning with the stirring lines that the history of all hitherto existing society has been the history of class struggle, Marx and Engels concluded that working people have nothing to lose but their chains. At the beginning of the 21st century, there's little to change in that statement. If anything, the urgency, the need for communism is even greater. And while there are certain sections of The Manifesto that are underwritten, several key points need to be underscored.

At the end of the first section in The Manifesto, "Bourgeois and Proletarians," Marx and Engels write, "What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers." In other words: the working class. Second, in the section entitled "Proletarians and Communists," they write, "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties." The point is not to brandish quotations from Marx and Engels as if they were Holy Writ, but the sections quoted do raise key questions for today's revolutionaries:

1. If the working class is the gravedigger of capitalism, how will it achieve the consciousness to do it?

2. What is the role of a Communist organization in this process?

Before attempting to answer those questions, it is necessary to situate the perspectives of Red & Black Notes. For much of the twentieth century, the dominant political current on the revolutionary left derived from the theory and practice of Leninism, in its Stalinist, Trotskyist or Maoist variants. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, I was a Trotskyist. Like Lenin, Trotsky and his supporters had a quite specific approach to questions of class-consciousness and revolutionary organization. They believed that what the working class needed above all was a vanguard party. This model was derived from the political model of Bolshevism; a model which came from particularly Russian conditions, but was later extrapolated for broader application. Today, Red & Black Notes is primarily influenced by the Dutch-German Communist Left and to a lesser extent by the Italian Communist Left.

These two left tendencies were expelled from the Communist International in the 1920s. People will probably have heard of or read, Lenin's famous booklet Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, but unfortunately few will have read the replies to it, such as Herman Gorter's Open Letter to Comrade Lenin. Both of these tendencies were significant working class trends, and both had significantly different approaches to that of Bolshevism. I'll speak more about them, and in particular the Dutch-German communist left, a little later.

What then is class-consciousness? Better yet, what is class? Many leftists groups have a fairly elastic definition of class - whenever workers do what the leftists think they should do, workers are deemed to be class conscious. When they don't, they are suffering from false consciousness. Leaving aside that this view turns class-consciousness into ideology; this view sets up workers as passive consumers. The development of class-consciousness becomes like buying soap. Workers are never seen as independent actors, only recipients. Much of the left pays lip service to Marx's famous comment that the liberation of the working class must be the task of the working class, as this assertion clashes with much leftist thought. The most infamous expression of this view was Lenin's, who argued workers by themselves could only achieve trade union consciousness. In other words, while workers could find the consciousness to rebel against capitalism, they could never reach the level of the understanding of the need to overthrow capitalism. Revolutionary consciousness would be brought to the working class through the agency of the revolutionary organization. And while Lenin modified this view, he never entirely abandoned it, believing that the working class could never be right against its conscious expression, i.e. the Bolshevik Party.

In this view, Lenin was only echoing the majority view, but not the exclusive view, of the Second International. Indeed, Lenin's formula echoed those of the International's main theoretician Karl Kautsky, whom Lenin later denounced as a "renegade."

Bearing this in mind, it's useful to consider the historian E. P. Thompson's very interesting definition of class:

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born - or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems and institutional forms.

EP Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

The important thing to remember is that class is not a thing; it is a social relationship, which is in constantly in flux, and that the conditions, under which it is produced, are constantly changing.

At the dawn of capitalism, peasants moved from the land into the new factories. They did not immediately become proletarians in their consciousness (their understanding of themselves), but over time, they were to understand their new role. In the early days of capitalism, apparently one of the hardest things was to discipline the workers with the clock. And also to get people to show up for work on Monday. Many who failed to show up announced they were celebrating St. Monday.

But being determines consciousness: Proletarianized, workers identified with each other, with the working conditions, their struggles and aspirations, as the lower wages, longer hours attitudes of the capitalist. (Even as those working conditions changed through new technology).

One of the results of this affinity of interests was the building of trade unions as defensive organizations. Later on, workers formed political organizations. However, as Marx noted, the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, and these organizations tended to reflect the divisions and prejudices of capitalism. These powerful organizations were incorporated into the structures of capitalism in the early years of the twentieth century.

Does this mean that without their mass organizations class-consciousness is impossible or that it simply requires a different type of organization? Not at all. Class-consciousness develops through the interaction of workers with their environment.

Imagine a situation: A person is waiting for a bus. Another person arrives and asks how long the first has been waiting. A conversation arises over the inefficiencies of public transit, the weather, or anything else that might be of interest. As the conversation deepens, the bus arrives and the two passengers sit in different parts of the bus, dropping back into the lonely crowd. But imagine if the bus had not arrived, or if a crowd of people had been involved in the conversation. It is possible the conversation could have survived the immediate satisfaction of interests.

Of course, this example has its limitations. The two passengers are unlikely to become lifelong friends. Nor is revolution likely to emerge from a simple strike over working conditions or wages. But these represent a disruption in the flow of normal operating conditions, both material and ideological, of capitalism.

It's important to recognize two things. Class-consciousness is not an ideology, a thing, which the proletariat has to learn from its would-be saviors. Class-consciousness is a process.

The impetus for class-consciousness springs from the role of the working class under capitalism, as an exploited class. At the same time, capital continually undermines the natural solidarity it creates through sectional logic and by reorganizing the means of production (It goes without saying that the trade unions and other official organizations loyal to capital reinforce this sectionalism).

In the process of class struggle, the possibility for class-consciousness develops. This class struggle is neither pre-ordained nor pre-determined. And because of the sectional developments within capitalism, it is generally not even. The development of class-consciousness may see advances and retreats according to the advances and retreats of the class. But it is in the struggle that its possibilities are created.

Martin Glaberman, a communist activist from Detroit, in his book, Wartime Strikes told a story of the struggle against the no-strike pact during the Second World War. During the 1944 United Autoworkers convention none of the resolutions on whether to re-affirm the no-strike pact, either pro or con, passed. It was decided to hold a membership-wide referendum through a postal ballot on the question. While the pro-position passed, less than half of the membership bothered to vote; however, at the same time more than half of the membership of the UAW engaged in wildcat strikes. Contradictory? Not really. If you measure class-consciousness by the number of votes for social democracy or the number of copies of Socialist Worker sold on the last demonstration, this story makes no sense. But if you see consciousness as part of the living existence of the working class, it makes perfect sense.

While it's important to reject class-consciousness as something to be grasped by the workers, neither is it simply the mirror image of the economic struggle. It is in the process of class struggle that class-consciousness develops. As Marx so clearly wrote:

The materialist doctrine that men are the products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily divides society into two parts, of which one is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example). The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can only be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice.

- Theses on Feuerbach

What then of the second question, the role for communists? A revolutionary organization can be thought of as a link: Between the past and the future. But it is a link that is a part of the class.

As noted earlier, the most prevalent model for revolutionary organization in the twentieth century owed some debt to Leninism. While this meant widely different things in practice, all so-called Leninist organizations swore some allegiance to Lenin's views about spontaneity and organization. Since the Stalinist and Maoist interpretations have largely disappeared, although Maoism seems to be making a comeback within direct action and anarchist circles, let's look at Trotskyism. For half a century, Trotskyism has been guided by the opening lines of The Transitional Programme, which held that the crisis of humanity is "characterized by the historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat." Essentially, the critique boils down to arguing that what is needed is the revolutionary leadership of the vanguard party. And while the talk is constantly of the betrayals of the current leaders, it overlooks the role these leaders and their organizations play.

Rather than the Bolshevik tradition, let's look at the Communist Left mentioned earlier. After their expulsion from the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1919, the German left formed the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD). Unlike the KPD, the KAPD opposed participation in the trade unions and parliament. Now for many this was proof of their ultra-leftism, but given that the unions had helped to liquidate the workers' councils in Germany, and the Social Democratic Party had unleashed the proto-Nazi Freikcorps on the revolution killing, among others Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, you could be forgive for a little "ultra-leftism." While the party saw itself in a leading role it had a different focus from the Bolsheviks. The party they wished to build would be, in the words of Herman Gorter, "As strong as steel; as clear as glass."

The KAPD at its founding was larger that the KPD, and its workplace organization, the General Workers' Union of Germany (AAUD) had over 200,000 members. Yet within a few years, it had almost completely vanished. Contrary to their expectations, the time for permanent opposition organizations was over. The development of the decadence of the capitalist system leading to permanent crisis, and the vast expansion of the law of value into the previously untouched social spaces meant that any sizable organization would be recuperated by capitalism with little trouble. As for the Leninists, the successful ones have largely functioned like their social democratic cousins, while the smaller ones have had negligible impact. As Paul Mattick noted, purism is the luxury of the sect.

In 1927, former members of the Communist Workers Party of the Netherlands (KAPN) founded the Group of International Communists. The GIK was a break with the "party spirit," but saw itself as part of the "council movement." The GIK did not try to be a leadership, but did publish material hold public meeting, publish materials about the nature of capitalism and its agents in the working class, as well as intervening in the workers movement, especially in the struggle of unemployed workers.

But in this orientation, the GIK, and other council communist organizations felt, as Paul Mattick, put it

The 'consciousness' to rebel against and to change society is not developed by the 'propaganda' of conscious minorities, but by the real and direct propaganda of events…so long as minorities operate within the mass, the mass is not revolutionary but neither is the minority. Its 'revolutionary conceptions' can only serve capitalistic functions. If the masses become revolutionary, the distinction between conscious minority and unconscious majority disappears and also the capitalistic function of the apparently 'revolutionary' minority.

If it seems that what is being advocated here is a kind of spontaneous approach to revolutionary organization, that's a mistaken impression. The liberation of the working class must be the task of the working class, but revolutionaries are a part of the working class. A revolutionary organization is not separate from the class. It's a part of it; it should take part in the struggles of the class, even isolation from the broader layers of the class makes that participation limited. Discussion and debate are not separate from the class struggle. Was Marx carrying out a merely theoretical task when he wrote Capital in the British Museum? Through clarifying points, and helping in the development of the critique of capital, revolutionaries can help the development of the real movement against capital, communism.

Fischer

February 2005

Revolutionary Organization and Class Consciousness

The following article is the text of a speech delivered at a public meeting to discuss revolutionary organizations and class consciousness on Saturday February 26, 2005 in Toronto. The panel included a speaker from the Internationalist Workers' Group, the Montreal affiliate of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party and Red & Black Notes. The text has been edited for publication.

Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Beginning with the stirring lines that the history of all hitherto existing society has been the history of class struggle, Marx and Engels concluded that working people have nothing to lose but their chains. At the beginning of the 21st century, there's little to change in that statement. If anything, the urgency, the need for communism is even greater. And while there are certain sections of The Manifesto that are underwritten, several key points need to be underscored.

At the end of the first section in The Manifesto, "Bourgeois and Proletarians," Marx and Engels write, "What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers." In other words: the working class. Second, in the section entitled "Proletarians and Communists," they write, "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties." The point is not to brandish quotations from Marx and Engels as if they were Holy Writ, but the sections quoted do raise key questions for today's revolutionaries:

1. If the working class is the gravedigger of capitalism, how will it achieve the consciousness to do it?

2. What is the role of a Communist organization in this process?

Before attempting to answer those questions, it is necessary to situate the perspectives of Red & Black Notes. For much of the twentieth century, the dominant political current on the revolutionary left derived from the theory and practice of Leninism, in its Stalinist, Trotskyist or Maoist variants. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, I was a Trotskyist. Like Lenin, Trotsky and his supporters had a quite specific approach to questions of class-consciousness and revolutionary organization. They believed that what the working class needed above all was a vanguard party. This model was derived from the political model of Bolshevism; a model which came from particularly Russian conditions, but was later extrapolated for broader application. Today, Red & Black Notes is primarily influenced by the Dutch-German Communist Left and to a lesser extent by the Italian Communist Left.

These two left tendencies were expelled from the Communist International in the 1920s. People will probably have heard of or read, Lenin's famous booklet Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, but unfortunately few will have read the replies to it, such as Herman Gorter's Open Letter to Comrade Lenin. Both of these tendencies were significant working class trends, and both had significantly different approaches to that of Bolshevism. I'll speak more about them, and in particular the Dutch-German communist left, a little later.

What then is class-consciousness? Better yet, what is class? Many leftists groups have a fairly elastic definition of class - whenever workers do what the leftists think they should do, workers are deemed to be class conscious. When they don't, they are suffering

from false consciousness. Leaving aside that this view turns class-consciousness into ideology; this view sets up workers as passive consumers. The development of class-consciousness becomes like buying soap. Workers are never seen as independent actors, only recipients. Much of the left pays lip service to Marx's famous comment that the liberation of the working class must be the task of the working class, as this assertion clashes with much leftist thought. The most infamous expression of this view was Lenin's, who argued workers by themselves could only achieve trade union consciousness. In other words, while workers could find the consciousness to rebel against capitalism, they could never reach the level of the understanding of the need to overthrow capitalism. Revolutionary consciousness would be brought to the working class through the agency of the revolutionary organization. And while Lenin modified this view, he never entirely abandoned it, believing that the working class could never be right against its conscious expression, i.e. the Bolshevik Party.

In this view, Lenin was only echoing the majority view, but not the exclusive view, of the Second International. Indeed, Lenin's formula echoed those of the International's main theoretician Karl Kautsky, whom Lenin later denounced as a "renegade."

Bearing this in mind, it's useful to consider the historian E. P. Thompson's very interesting definition of class:

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born - or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems and institutional forms.

EP Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

The important thing to remember is that class is not a thing; it is a social relationship, which is in constantly in flux, and that the conditions, under which it is produced, are constantly changing.

At the dawn of capitalism, peasants moved from the land into the new factories. They did not immediately become proletarians in their consciousness (their understanding of themselves), but over time, they were to understand their new role. In the early days of capitalism, apparently one of the hardest things was to discipline the workers with the clock. And also to get people to show up for work on Monday. Many who failed to show up announced they were celebrating St. Monday.

But being determines consciousness: Proletarianized, workers identified with each other, with the working conditions, their struggles and aspirations, as the lower wages, longer hours attitudes of the capitalist. (Even as those working conditions changed through new technology).

One of the results of this affinity of interests was the building of trade unions as defensive organizations. Later on, workers formed political organizations. However, as Marx noted, the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, and these organizations tended to reflect the divisions and prejudices of capitalism. These powerful organizations were incorporated into the structures of capitalism in the early years of the twentieth century.

Does this mean that without their mass organizations class-consciousness is impossible or that it simply requires a different type of organization? Not at all. Class-consciousness develops through the interaction of workers with their environment.

Imagine a situation: A person is waiting for a bus. Another person arrives and asks how long the first has been waiting. A conversation arises over the inefficiencies of public transit, the weather, or anything else that might be of interest. As the conversation deepens, the bus arrives and the two passengers sit in different parts of the bus, dropping back into the lonely crowd. But imagine if the bus had not arrived, or if a crowd of people had been involved in the conversation. It is possible the conversation could have survived the immediate satisfaction of interests.

Of course, this example has its limitations. The two passengers are unlikely to become lifelong friends. Nor is revolution likely to emerge from a simple strike over working conditions or wages. But these represent a disruption in the flow of normal operating conditions, both material and ideological, of capitalism.

It's important to recognize two things. Class-consciousness is not an ideology, a thing, which the proletariat has to learn from its would-be saviors. Class-consciousness is a process.

The impetus for class-consciousness springs from the role of the working class under capitalism, as an exploited class. At the same time, capital continually undermines the natural solidarity it creates through sectional logic and by reorganizing the means of production (It goes without saying that the trade unions and other official organizations loyal to capital reinforce this sectionalism).

In the process of class struggle, the possibility for class-consciousness develops. This class struggle is neither pre-ordained nor pre-determined. And because of the sectional developments within capitalism, it is generally not even. The development of class-consciousness may see advances and retreats according to the advances and retreats of the class. But it is in the struggle that its possibilities are created.

Martin Glaberman, a communist activist from Detroit, in his book, Wartime Strikes told a story of the struggle against the no-strike pact during the Second World War. During the 1944 United Autoworkers convention none of the resolutions on whether to re-affirm the no-strike pact, either pro or con, passed. It was decided to hold a membership-wide referendum through a postal ballot on the question. While the pro-position passed, less than half of the membership bothered to vote; however, at the same time more than half of the membership of the UAW engaged in wildcat strikes. Contradictory? Not really. If you measure class-consciousness by the number of votes for social democracy or the number of copies of Socialist Worker sold on the last demonstration, this story makes no sense. But if you see consciousness as part of the living existence of the working class, it makes perfect sense.

While it's important to reject class-consciousness as something to be grasped by the workers, neither is it simply the mirror image of the economic struggle. It is in the process of class struggle that class-consciousness develops. As Marx so clearly wrote:

The materialist doctrine that men are the products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily divides society into two parts, of which one is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example). The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can only be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice.

- Theses on Feuerbach

What then of the second question, the role for communists? A revolutionary organization can be thought of as a link: Between the past and the future. But it is a link that is a part of the class.

As noted earlier, the most prevalent model for revolutionary organization in the twentieth century owed some debt to Leninism. While this meant widely different things in practice, all so-called Leninist organizations swore some allegiance to Lenin's views about spontaneity and organization. Since the Stalinist and Maoist interpretations have largely disappeared, although Maoism seems to be making a comeback within direct action and anarchist circles, let's look at Trotskyism. For half a century, Trotskyism has been guided by the opening lines of The Transitional Programme, which held that the crisis of humanity is "characterized by the historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat." Essentially, the critique boils down to arguing that what is needed is the revolutionary leadership of the vanguard party. And while the talk is constantly of the betrayals of the current leaders, it overlooks the role these leaders and their organizations play.

Rather than the Bolshevik tradition, let's look at the Communist Left mentioned earlier. After their expulsion from the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1919, the German left formed the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD). Unlike the KPD, the KAPD opposed participation in the trade unions and parliament. Now for many this was proof of their ultra-leftism, but given that the unions had helped to liquidate the workers' councils in Germany, and the Social Democratic Party had unleashed the proto-Nazi Freikcorps on the revolution killing, among others Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, you could be forgive for a little "ultra-leftism." While the party saw itself in a leading role it had a different focus from the Bolsheviks. The party they wished to build would be, in the words of Herman Gorter, "As strong as steel; as clear as glass."

The KAPD at its founding was larger that the KPD, and its workplace organization, the General Workers' Union of Germany (AAUD) had over 200,000 members. Yet within a few years, it had almost completely vanished. Contrary to their expectations, the time for permanent opposition organizations was over. The development of the decadence of the capitalist system leading to permanent crisis, and the vast expansion of the law of value into the previously untouched social spaces meant that any sizable organization would be recuperated by capitalism with little trouble. As for the Leninists, the successful ones have largely functioned like their social democratic cousins, while the smaller ones have had negligible impact. As Paul Mattick noted, purism is the luxury of the sect.

In 1927, former members of the Communist Workers Party of the Netherlands (KAPN) founded the Group of International Communists. The GIK was a break with the "party spirit," but saw itself as part of the "council movement." The GIK did not try to be a leadership, but did publish material hold public meeting, publish materials about the nature of capitalism and its agents in the working class, as well as intervening in the workers movement, especially in the struggle of unemployed workers.

But in this orientation, the GIK, and other council communist organizations felt, as Paul Mattick, put it

"The 'consciousness' to rebel against and to change society is not developed by the 'propaganda' of conscious minorities, but by the real and direct propaganda of events…so long as minorities operate within the mass, the mass is not revolutionary but neither is the minority. Its 'revolutionary conceptions' can only serve capitalistic functions. If the masses become revolutionary, the distinction between conscious minority and unconscious majority disappears and also the capitalistic function of the apparently 'revolutionary' minority."

If it seems that what is being advocated here is a kind of spontaneous approach to revolutionary organization, that's a mistaken impression. The liberation of the working class must be the task of the working class, but revolutionaries are a part of the working class. A revolutionary organization is not separate from the class. It's a part of it; it should take part in the struggles of the class, even isolation from the broader layers of the class makes that participation limited. Discussion and debate are not separate from the class struggle. Was Marx carrying out a merely theoretical task when he wrote Capital in the British Museum? Through clarifying points, and helping in the development of the critique of capital, revolutionaries can help the development of the real movement against capital, communism.

Fischer

February 2005

Read Internationalism's letter to Red and Black Notes on this meeting
Read Red and Black Notes comments on this letter

First Published in Red and Black Notes #21, Spring 2005, this article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.

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