Slogans Foreign to the Proletariat, Alienated Workers' Consciousness - ICG

Slogans Foreign to the Proletariat, Alienated Workers' Consciousness - ICG

Submitted by redtwister on December 15, 2005

Concerning slogans such as:

"Protect work"
"Protect the workplace"
"Protect the company"
"Protect the national economy"

In periods like the ones we’re going through factory, mine, or farm closures or "restructuring" based on massive unemployment are common currency. In the face of this bourgeois attack which condemns it to unemployment and thus to ever increasing misery, the proletariat can only respond by struggle, by direct action. On very many occasions this struggle for proletarian interests takes up slogans like the ones above as its banners. However, contrary to what the protagonists believe, they do not reflect the interests of the proletariat in any way, but on the contrary those of its enemies: the bourgeois.

The interest of the proletarian is to satisfy his human needs, to appropriate a less miserable share of the social product, to be less dispossessed of the product of his labour (the interest of the proletariat, as a class, is clearly to appropriate the whole of the social product - both past and present - to abolish exploitation, the state, and to suppress itself as a class by abolishing all social classes). When the bourgeoisie gives him the sack, the proletarian is fully conscious that this separates him even more from the means of life and that, from then on, he will be even more deprived of what he needs than in the past. Revolutionary militants will always find difficulties in being able to express the interests of the class they belong to in clear, incisive, agitating slogans. This difficulty is relatively simplified when things are demanded directly, for example "bread" in revolutionary Russia, "housing" in the Chile of Allende and again in Naples more than ten years ago. In this case the interest of the proletariat expresses itself directly for what it is, always with the same outcome, a direct attack on private property, since for proletarians the cause of all deprivation is indeed the fact that they are deprived of the means of life and of their production.

But, in the majority of cases, the interest of the proletariat is filtered by the dominant ideology and camouflaged by its agents, especially trade-unionists and journalists, by means of a whole set of mediations which appear necessary (in the sense that this is the way it has to be) to the proletariat, and which disfigure it to the point of transforming it into its opposite: the praise of labour, of the company, of the factory,... It is important to explain this process of ideological transformation by which the attack on private property is recuperated and turned into its opposite, that is, into the defence of our own exploiters’ private property. Even if we must always differentiate the real struggle of the proletariat, based upon its interests, from the banners or slogans which emerge, these do transform themselves objectively into weaknesses of this struggle. Indeed, struggle of the proletariat in which bourgeois banners are expressed is easily recuperated and destroyed. In all workers’ struggles bourgeois banners imply an (almost always) fatal weakness.

It immediately appears natural to the proletariat that it cannot take the means of life which it needs from those who have it in their possession, although it would naturally be more human to do so. It does not even occur to the proletariat to take what is necessary to satisfy its needs as a human being (or if it does he is immediately put off by the whole apparatus of state terror). In the brutal disassociation between the indispensable means for his survival and his being, in this beastly and bloody separation, the proletariat does not see an aggression but instead something "natural". This naturalisation of the social relationship of privatisation is the product of centuries of exploitation and the transmission from generation to generation of the ideology of private property.

The absence of consciousness concerning practical alienation practically develops alienated consciousness. With the same social naturalness which assimilates this separation, money is accepted as an indispensable mediation. In the same way that it appears natural to the human species not to be able to use the means of living which it needs, which it produces, yet which are within its reach, it considers it natural that in order to enjoy these means of living one must dispose of money to buy them. In this way, a historical social relationship just as specific as money becomes both natural and necessary. As money appears indispensable for obtaining the means of life it therefore appears as the symbol of all of objects of life and even of life itself.

However the question does not end there, because whilst money represents a necessary mediation for the proletarian, he himself does not have any. And any proletarian knows, even if his alienation does not allow him to grasp any more than this, that to obtain it - apart from through a general attack (revolution) or a partial attack (recuperation) on private property - he has nothing else to resort to than woork. This not only means being disposed to sell his labour force commodity (hundreds of millions of proletarians find no buyer) but also meeting a buyer, someone who is effectively disposed to hand over money for the sale of the only thing which he possesses: his labour force.

Not only does he consider it natural not to appropriate what he needs, his own and exclusive creation (1), not only does he consider money to be natural and necessary, but now even his labour, in fact torture, which separates him from his really human activity (2) appears as something indispensable, inherent to the realisation of his life. The alienation of his life, the sale of himself and his humanity from then on becomes, from the point of view of alienated consciousness, an act of liberty, the liberty to sell one’s own labour force. Trade-unionists, politicians, do nothing other than fashion this alienated consciousness into pretty slogans: "Protect labour", "Struggle for free labour" (3), "Our laws guarantee the freedom of each individual"

It is obvious that the proletarian is at least conscious that he does not work because it is his desire, but rather because he has no other solution (4), that labour is not the realisation of his life but an indispensable means for living and what he associates with his real life is always outside of work. Yet this does not keep him from considering work to be a necessary mediation for possessing the objects which he needs to live.

In many cases alienated consciousness goes even further. To live one must consume, to consume one must be able to buy, to buy one must dispose of money, to dispose of money one must work, to work one must find a boss ready to buy one’s labour force. But the possibility of there being bosses disposed to buy one’s labour power depends on the profitability of the company, on the national economy functioning well. It’s in this way that even more mediations are added which end up turning the wage slave into the most subservient defender not only of slavery in general (long live work!) and consequently of the historical interests of the bourgeoisie (the perpetuation of the system of wage slavery), but also the immediate interests of his immediate enemy, his boss, his exploiter, the national fraction of Capital which exploits him: "Defend the company", "Take care of the machines", "Not too many demands or else the company could shut down", "Let’s sacrifice ourselves for the national economy", "Let’s produce our own goods, against foreign imports!". In reality, the boss, the trade-unionist, the politician, do not even have to defend the need for all of these mediations to obtain a "good job", a job to get money, money to procure the means of living, since centuries and centuries of production of alienated consciousness make each of these mediations (in reality artificial, or unnecessary from a historical point of view) as natural as the meeting of the sperm and the egg permitting the reproduction of the human species and thus the existence of men and women.

When the company or mine closes, or threatens to do so, because it is no longer profitable, the society of workers bearing this alienated consciousness reaches supreme levels. "Protection of labour", "of the workplace", "of the company"... is made concrete by proposing sacrifices. Recent experience has shown us that in periods like the present, even when a real proletarian struggle rises up in reaction to a factory closure, this struggle does not come to terms with itself for what it really is - a struggle against the increase in workers’ poverty. There is, amongst the workers in struggle, an almost general persistence of this set of slogans typical of the alienated proletariat, that is to say, belonging to a dominated class reproducing the ideology of its own domination and exploitation.

Once we have exposed the process of ideological naturalisation by which alienated consciousness assumes deprivation and alienation to be necessary and natural, and once we have made explicit all mediations which, as precise historical products, ideally consolidate themselves as eternal and indispensable mediations between man and the satisfaction of his needs, we must ask ourselves what is the duty of revolutionary militants in such situations, faced with such slogans?

Communists participate in all proletarian movements even if they oppose their banners or formal leaders which, in general, are not the expression of the real movement but only of its banners. They must oppose them openly by criticising, mercilessly, all of the ideological expressions of the bourgeoisie at the heart of the proletarian movement, because the future of the movement is at stake. If the movement continues to struggle against the boss in front of it, against the state, against capital in general... despite expressing itself through slogans like "Protect the workplace", it remains alive and the essential issue is that of direction, perspective. But these slogans almost always end up killing the movement. When alienated consciousness begins to dictate all the actions and the movement really transforms itself into the protection of the company, the mine, the national economy by accepting sacrifices,... the rupture from the revolutionaries is total and the most they can aspire to is gaining a small group of militants and starting to draw a balance sheet of the life and death of the movement.

Yet it is important to ask whether revolutionaries criticise all of the inaccurate slogans in the movement itself in the same way or, to put it another way, whether the various banners that we have mentioned in this text are all equally harmful for the proletariat? The answer is no, there are different levels of alienation of consciousness which correspond to the different mediations which we have analysed.

The immediate interests and the historical programmes of the two social classes confront each other through polarity. The slogans which are totally accurate from the revolutionary point of view are those which openly and directly expose in a straightforward way proletarian (and consequently human) needs, that is when no mediation is accepted as natural but always as historical and directly maintained by the state. In these cases, private property and the state are attacked directly and the social polarisation between revolution and counter-revolution is inevitable. At the opposite extreme, all of these mediations are considered to be natural, slaves defending their slavery, the means of their slavery and even their slave masters. Worse still, the protection of the company, the economy and self-sacrifice increase the competition which workers make between themselves, they increase the global rate of exploitation and destroy the proletariat as a class, transforming it into a multitude of atoms of capital killing one another (capitalism is the war of all against all!).

But it is the intermediate cases which are the most difficult, which pose the most problems for militants. When, in their struggle against capital, instead of struggling directly against exploitation, seeking to appropriate a larger part of the social product, massively attacking private property, proletarians ask for more money (wage rises, increased unemployment and social benefits,...) the slogans correspond to the proletarian content of the movement, the interests of capital are attacked in every way and the interests of the proletariat are demanded. In this sense, the development of the struggle and of these slogans contains the revolutionary struggle (5). But the acceptance of these first mediations as natural is, without doubt, a definite weakness which we must criticise and correct. In practice the whole of their consequences can be harmful.

Firstly, with the acceptance of the mediation of money follows an ever-present tendency to accept all of the other mediations which we live. Secondly, the demand itself makes it seem like the one who is prepared to make a concession - the boss or the State - is no longer something to be destroyed but someone with whom to negotiate. Thirdly, as a result of the above factors, the state even appears to be a necessary mediation to obtain our needs, particularly in the case of unemployment benefits and social security (let’s take into account that, in the past, such crumbs for the maintainance of the labour force were not handed down by the state but depended upon the internal solidarity of the proletariat). Fourthly, expression of the social product as money, as opposed to as a share, contains a set of ideological distortions specific to it, tending to convince the proletarian that he has bettered his situation when, in reality, it has become worse. This last point, in a list which is not exhaustive, is by no means the least important: the wages in terms of money can increase whilst the wages in terms of objects decrease (due to inflation, the problem between nominal wages and real wages). In the same way, the wages in objects can increase while the rate of exploitation increases, implying a decrease in participation in the social product by the proletariat (due to the increase in the productivity of labour appropriated by capital, the problem between real wages -and nominal- and relative wages). In the face of all of this, revolutionary militants (6), active in these movements, never forget the critique and the assertion of the interests of the whole of the class (the struggle against private property, for the abolition of wage labour), at the same time as criticising any possible fixation on these insufficiently clear slogans. The revolutionary militant, specifically where wages and the struggle for wage rises are concerned (7), denounces both vulgar traps (rises in nominal wages) and subtle ones (rises in real wages) used by the bourgeoisie to pass off increases in the rate of the worker’s exploitation and social misery as increases in his well-being. The revolutionary militant bases his action and slogans on the demand for a real attack against the rate of exploitation, the only real struggle of the proletariat which, at the same time, brings the struggle for wage rises to its final conclusion, making its character inseparable from the struggle for the abolition of wage labour.

If we go from the proletarian pole of openly proletarian slogans to openly counter-revolutionary bourgeois slogans, if thus we advance, whilst incorporating these mediations which appear natural in alienated consciousness, there is necessarily a point, a moment, where a qualitative step takes place. We are not claiming that these slogans in themselves, rising up out of this consciousness are either a proletarian guarantee or a counter-revolutionary guarantee. We have already given examples of proletarian movements with totally bourgeois slogans. Consequently, the difficulty lies in locating the qualitative step by which a proletarian struggle is liquidated and wherein the workers in the movement transform themselves objectively into agents of capital, not only in the productive sense (which is always the case) but also in the sense of defending wage slavery and the immediate interests of the bourgeoisie (defending private property, its means of production, and its rate of exploitation). It is particularly difficult to situate this qualitative leap at each specific moment of the class struggle without making it depend in a linear way on the slogans, while at the same time considering the slogans as part of the real movement.

Thus, for example, when the "the protection of work", "the protection of the company", "the protection of the mine" are demanded, the movement (if there still is one) kills itself. This must be clearly denounced and is one of the most important tasks of revolutionaries who participate in the struggle. But we insist on the fact that we have seen bourgeois slogans appear a thousand times at the heart of objectively proletarian movements against the bourgeoisie.

When the worker shouts "Protect work", "Protect the company"... what really interests him is neither work, which often he spits on all day long, nor the dark tomb which is for him the mine or the company, but what he needs to live better. However, he is not bold enough to proclaim his own interests, society has taught him that this is not the done thing. The radical trade-unionist, the leftist, the Trotskist, will say that even if these slogans are not the best it is better to stick to them "because if not we’ll isolate ourselves from the masses"(!!??), or because public opinion is more accepting of the fact that "they are not making demands for their selfish interests but for the interests of the whole nation". The duty of revolutionaries is precisely the opposite, to see to it that the movement assumes its own interests. This has nothing to do with the supposed transformation of an economic struggle into a political struggle, nor with the introduction of political consciousness into economic struggle, as social-democracy advocates in all its various forms. Instead it means, through the struggle itself, making conscious the real interests contained within this movement for proletarian needs.

When there really is a proletarian movement against capital (one cannot transform a workers’ non-struggle into a workers’ struggle by the introduction of ideas!!) the key problem is to assume itself as such, to break from the whole ideological spider’s web. Thus reemerges the problem of knowing what slogans to use in opposition to those of the bourgeoisie. The answer has appeared throughout the whole of this text. All bourgeois slogans start from a natural and logical presentation of everything that is social and, in human terms, absurd. Contrary to this, the slogans which make the struggle advance are those which, even if they appear socially as illogical or absurd, start from the needs of the proletariat as human beings, and therefore from all that signifies the real improvement of its standard of living, to the detriment of the bourgeoisie and the national economy.

Consequently the answer is not complicated. On the contrary, it is the counter-revolution which complicates everything: it manages to present even our own needs and everything that makes us suffer deep in our guts as illogical and absurd and at the same time, it portrays our sacrifice at the altar of the national economy as being most natural and human.

The answer is to be found, to express it brutally, in the guts of all proletarians who struggle. The right slogans and banners will vary according to the circumstances, but they can never consist of accepting these mediations as natural, of accepting the sacrifice of needs. On the contrary, they are the real expression of these needs.

To stick to human needs, against all attempts by bourgeois intellectuals to introduce consciousness into proletarian ranks, is not only the line of action which leads to revolution but is also what dictates to revolutionary militants the way in which to act.


1. We are not referring to the individual worker who, in the strict sense of the term, is not even productive but to the whole of the proletariat, to the collective worker who is the single producer of the means of life (let us also recall that he is also the single producer of all of the rubbish which capital needs "to produce" to valorise itself, that is use values that have nothing to do with human needs).

2. On this subject, "From man’s alienation to human comunity" in Communism n°6 and "Human activity against labour" in Communism n°5.

3. Marx already said "It is not about freeing work but suppressing it".

4. It is only in the case of extreme tyranny and the total destruction of workers’ resistance that the human being can be oppressed to the point of considering work as an end and not as a means for living. This is what Stalinism, Nazism, the Popular Fronts, and closer to us, Castrism, and, to a lesser extent, Sandinism attempted. But the limits of such experiences can be demonstrated by the ever-increasing number of proletarians accused of sabotaging work who are sentenced, imprisoned or murdered.

5. As the reader will have noticed, in this sort of analysis it is decisive to fight the old conception of a separation between the economic and the political, between the immediate and the historical, by showing their indivisible unity, and by showing within each of these aspects, upon which social-democracy has built its theory, the allegedly opposed or less distinct aspects are contained.

6. Neither those who are satisfied with these slogans nor the ones who abandon the struggle because these slogans are not revolutionnary enough or those who declare from the heights of their theoretical platforms that all struggle for the immediate interests of the proletariat is historically outdated deserve this name.

7. Whilst reformists enclose the struggle in the framework of the increase of the nominal or the real wage, the idealist isolates himself from the movement by declaring that he cannot fight for a wage increase because he is against wage labour.


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