3. Repressive Consciousness

The Wandering of Humanity - Repressive Consciousness - Communism

3. Repressive Consciousness

Mystification does not only affect capitalist society but also affects the theory of capitalism. Marxist theory elevated to the rank of proletarian consciousness is a new form of consciousness : repressive consciousness. We will describe some of its characteristics, leaving aside the problem of determining whether or not all forms of consciousness throughout history are repressive.

The object of repressive consciousness is the goal which it thinks it controls. Since there is a gap between this goal and immediate reality, this consciousness becomes theological and refines the differences between the minimum or immediate program and the maximum, future, or mediate program. But the longer the path to its realization, the more consciousness makes itself the goal and reifies itself in an organization which comes to incarnate the goal.

The project of this consciousness is to frame reality with its concept. This is the source of all the sophisms about the divergence between objective and subjective elements. It exists but it cannot be. And precisely because of its inability to be, it has to negate and scorn whatever is trying to emerge, to be.

In other words, it exists but it needs certain events to be real. Since it is a product of the past it is refuted by every current event. Thus it can only exist as a polemic with reality. It refutes everything. It can survive only by freezing, by becoming increasingly totalitarian. In order to operate it has to be organized : thus the mystique of the party, of councils, and of other coagulations of despotic consciousness.

All direct action which does not recognize this consciousness (and every political racket pretends to embody the true consciousness) is condemned by it. Condemnation is followed by justification : impatience of those who revolt, lack of maturity, provocation by the dominant class. The picture is completed by litanies on the petit-bourgeois character of the eternal anarchists and the utopianism of intellectuals or young people. Struggles are not real unless they revive class consciousness; some go so far as to wish for war, so that this consciousness will at last be produced.

Theory has turned into repressive consciousness. The proletariat has become a myth, not in terms of its existence, but in terms of its revolutionary role as the class which was to liberate all humanity and thus resolve all socio-economic contradictions. In reality it exists in all countries characterized by the formal domination of capital, where this proletariat still constitutes the majority of the population; in countries characterized by the real domination of capital one still finds a large number of men and women in conditions of 19th century proletarians. But the activity of every party and every group is organized around the myth. The myth is their source. Everything begins with the appearance of this class which is defined as the only revolutionary class in history, or at least as the most revolutionary. Whatever happened before is ordered as a function of the rise of this class, and earlier events are secondary in relation to those lived or created by the proletariat. It even defines conduct. Whoever is proletarian is saved; one who is not must expiate the defect of non-proletarian birth by various practices, going so far as to serve terms in factories. A group achieves revolutionary existence only at the moment when it is able to exhibit one or several "authentic" proletarians. The presence of the man with calloused hands is the guarantee, the certificate of revolutionary authenticity. The content of the program defended by the group, its theory, even its actions, cease to be important; all that matters is the presence or absence of the "proletarian." The myth maintains and revives the antagonism between intellectual and manual. Many councilists make a cult of anti-intellectualism which serves them as a substitute for theory and justification. They can pronounce any idiocy; they'll be saved; they're proletarians.

Just as it is thought by many that one who leaves the party thereby ceases to be revolutionary, so it is considered impossible to be revolutionary without claiming one's proletarian position, without taking on the virtues thought to be proletarian. The counter-revolution ends at the mythical frontiers which separate the proletariat from the rest of the social body. Any action is justified in the name of the proletarian movement. One does not act because of a need to act, because of hatred for capital, but because the proletariat has to recover its class base. Action and thought are unveiled by intermediaries.

This is how, especially after 1945, the proletariat as revolutionary class outlived itself : through its myth.

A historical study of proletarian revolutionary movements would shed light on the limited character of this class. Marx himself clearly exposed its reformist character. Fundamentally, from 1848, when it demanded the right to work, to 1917-1923, when it demanded full employment and self-management by workers' unions, the proletariat rebelled solely within the interior of the capitalist system. This seems to conflict with Marx's statements in his "Critical Notes on the Article 'The King of Prussia and Social Reform.' By a Prussian" : "But at this moment the proletariat really manifested itself as a class without reserves, as a total negation. It was forced to create a profound rupture which makes possible an understanding of what communist revolution and therefore communism can be." [16] Marx was right; but the capitalist mode of production, in order to survive, was forced to annihilate the negation which undermined it. The proletariat which is outside of society, as Marx and Engels say in The German Ideology, is increasingly integrated into society; it is integrated to the extent that it struggles for survival, for reinforcement; the more it organizes itself, the more it becomes reformist. It succeeds, with the German Socialist Party, in forming a counter-society which is finally absorbed by the society of capital, and the negating movement of the proletariat is over. [17]

Didn't Kautsky, Bernstein and Lenin simply recognize the reality of the workers' movement when they declared that it was necessary to unite it with the socialist movement : "The workers' movement and socialism are in no way identical by nature" (Kautsky) ?

Doesn't Lenin's discredited statement that the proletariat, left to itself, can only attain trade-union consciousness, describe the truth about the class bound to capital ? It can be criticized only from the standpoint of the distinction, made by Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy, between class as object of capital and class as subject. Without a revolutionary upheaval the proletariat cannot become a subject. The process through which it was to become a subject implied an outside, external consciousness, which at a given moment would become incarnated in the proletariat. This consciousness coming from the outside is the most reified, the most estranged form of repressive consciousness ! Consequently, the point is not to rehash the debate and return to Marx, but to recognize that the cycle of the proletarian class is now over, first of all because its goals have been realized, secondly because it is no longer the determinant in the global context. We have reached the end of the historical cycle during which humanity (especially the part situated in the West) moved within class societies. Capital has realized the negation of classes -- by means of mystification, since it retains the conflicts and collisions which characterize the existence of classes. The reality is the despotism of capital. It is capital we must now face, not the past.

Almost all social democrats were aware of the divorce between the real, reformist movement of the working class and the socialist goal. Bernstein proclaimed that it was necessary to adapt once and for all, clearly and straightforwardly, not hypocritically (like the majority of the socialists) by making revolutionary proclamations in order to hide compromises. [18] At the same time, it became increasingly problematic to define and delimit the proletarian class. This problem became so acute that by the beginning of this century almost all revolutionaries were trying to define the proletariat in terms of consciousness : Luxemburg, Pannekoek directly, Lenin, Trotsky indirectly through the party, etc. The Russian revolution merely increased the urgency of specifying the proletarian class; this is the context of Korsch's attempts, and especially of Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness. Later on Bordiga held that the class should be defined in terms of the mode of production which it builds. Thus it can be a class for itself only from the moment when its actions move toward this goal, only to the extent that it recognizes its program (which describes this mode of production). For Bordiga, it exists when the party exists, because the program can only be carried by the party. "We still need an object, the party, to envision the communist society." [19] But to the extent that men and women are able to move on their own toward communism, as is evident among young people today, it becomes obvious that this object, the party, is not needed.

In sum, for party as well as council advocates, the problem of action would largely be reduced to finding a direct or indirect means for making the proletariat receptive to its own consciousness -- since in this view the proletariat is itself only through its consciousness of itself.


[16] Marx, Early Writings, London, Pelican, 1974, pp. 401-420.

[17] Which proves that it was impossible to hold on to a "classist" discourse and behavior while maintaining the basic "aclassist" thesis of the necessity of the proletariat's self-negation.

[18] On this subject, see the book by H. Mueller published in 1892, Der Klassenkampf in der Deutschen Sozialdemokratie, Verlags-kooperative Heidelberg-Frankfurt-Hanover-Berlin, 1969. This book clearly shows the duality-duplicity of men like Bebel, who expressed themselves as "rightists" in parliament and as "leftists" at workers' meetings, who told one audience it would be very long before the principles of socialism could be realized, while telling another that socialism was around the corner. This book is also interesting because it contains positions which were later to be taken up by the KAPD (German Communist Workers' Party).

[19] Bordiga at meeting in Milan, 1960.