The Meaning of Class Consciousness
What does the Socialist mean when he claims to be “class-conscious” ? Class is one, the most important, of the social groups into which human beings tend to be divided by the mutual association of individuals with like interests. It is the most important of these groups because the common interest involved is the primary one of bread and butter. The class structure of society rises immediately out of the prevailing mode of production and distribution: and in general every individual must belong to one or other of the classes existing at a given period, though he may belong to comparatively few of the sets and circles which serve his secondary activities.
From this standpoint, class-consciousness is thus one kind of “group-consciousness,” about which many academic sociologists have offered various confused and unsound views. Particularly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the capitalist class rose to political supremacy, the “Nation-State” was exalted to the skies by political and social writers who spoke of the “spirit of the people,” of the “will of the nation,” of the “group mind,” as something which had real existence over and above the brain-boxes of the individuals brought together in the group. Much as the ancients conceived the sky as an inverted bowl fixed over the earth, so Hegel’s “Absolute Spirit of the Universe” became for him incarnate in the kingly representative of the Nation-State—thus moulding to capitalist needs the idea of the divinity of the sovereign power which is inevitably generated in every society divided into classes, into exploiter and exploited.
To the Socialist, the “mind” of a group is but a mental abstraction of the common features of thought of the individuals belonging to it, by reason of their like reaction to like conditions. Another word for the thoughts and feelings which constitute the common mind of Socialists, or to a less degree of the capitalist class, is class-consciousness.
Notice that we do not say “of the working class”: for the principal element in class-consciousness, the recognition of a paramount class interest opposed to the interest of another class, is not a common feature of the minds of the workers as a whole. On the one hand sectional differences still loom largely in their minds; and on the other hand, consequently, they are all too easily beguiled into believing that they have some common interest (of “nationality” or trade, for instance) with their masters, the capitalist class.
The workers still tend to be split by differences of occupation, by slight differences of dress, or speech or education, unable to see the working-class wood for the trees, because they have not thoroughly grasped the common economic bondage of all who have to sell their energies for bread, that unemployed labourer and “disengaged” expert are dike under the necessity to beg for a job from a master.
Nor does the capitalist openly recognise that his interests are opposed to those of the workers. He is, indeed, anxious to impress upon the worker that they have a common interest in the running of the nation. It goes without saying, however, that this “community of interests” lasts for the capitalist only so long as the workers are content to accept the economic status of wage-slaves, and to maintain the master class in their privileged position as owners of the means of living. The class-consciousness of the capitalist is thus little more than an instinctive conviction that existing conditions are best—the natural conviction of a dominant class, in contrast with the class-consciousness of a subject and revolting class, which tends to he altogether more virile of thought in proportion as it questions the validity of current ideas and institutions, in proportion as it becomes revolutionary.
The class struggles of society, because they grow out of its economic foundations, work themselves out, as more or less blind trial and error adjustments of conflicting interests, whether or not the participants in a struggle realise its historical meaning as a social process having a necessary origin and a necessary outcome. And it is the peculiar feature of capitalism that it generates in the workers just that historical perspective which other classes have lacked. Forced to question the beneficence of the existing order, and the need for its continuance, by the pressure of unrelieved want and anxiety which the defenders of capitalism can neither remedy nor explain, armed with the scientific knowledge which is one of capitalism’s essential products, the working class has in addition the lessons of all other class struggles to learn from. Because the working class is the last class needing emancipation, because the struggle between capitalist and worker is the last of all class struggles, capitalism only can provide the historical material for an analysis of all class struggles, of class in general.
It is this historical attitude, this scientific analysis of the past used to illumine the present class struggle, which constitutes the essential core of the class-consciousness of Socialists.
The Socialist is simply the worker who has become class-conscious, and who organises with his fellows who are like-minded. But if the numerical strength of the world’s Socialist Parties is thus a measure of the number of workers who have achieved mental emancipation, it is by no means the exact measure of capitalism’s remaining days. Elements of class-consciousness are present in the minds of large numbers of workers who are still confused and unclear. In any large gathering of workers, such as the recent unemployed demonstration in Hyde Park, there can be seen writ large on the faces around a grim antagonism to some dimly conceived enemy, a half articulate knowledge of a conflict which knows no reconciliation, a muddled but profound resentment against the mounted representatives of capitalist law and order who ride ruthless through their unarmed fellows. These vague feelings of solidarity with the “poor” against the “rich,” so long as they remain uncrystallised by Socialist principles, into clear-cut class-consciousness, readily lend themselves to exploitation by the numerous brood of Communist and Labour leaders, and indeed by every politician who is in opposition to the Government. The reformist Labour and Communist parties are no less parasitical in the political field than is the capitalist in the field of production. These “leaders of the masses” suck up the discontent of the workers, leaving them politically anaemic and helpless. They feed upon the mass emotionalism which, uninformed by sound knowledge, degenerates into hooliganism and hysteria. The Communist Party attempts to reconcile its reformist activities with its revolutionary pretensions by the tragi-comical plea that the way to generate in the workers a revolutionary Socialist outlook is to concentrate on immediate reforms of capitalism. The “tactical” value of going out for particular reforms is recognised no less by the capitalist than by the Communist Party. For such activities divert the workers from the main issue, befog their minds, pit one section of workers against another, and all too often turn their political energy and enthusiasm into exhaustion and despair.
It is only the Socialist, the class-conscious worker who has analysed his class position for himself in its historical setting, who is at once independent of leaders and proof against their entire stock-in-trade of sentimentalism and reformism. It is he alone who cannot be sold, because he has no need to put himself in pawn. It is he alone who realises that the defensive struggle to resist the encroachments of the capitalist class upon the workers’ standard of living is essentially subordinate to the aggressive policy of dispossessing the capitalist class at their political seat of power.
The function of the class-conscious worker, organised in the Socialist Party of Great Britain, is to fertilise the discontent of his fellow workers with this knowledge, which alone has power to make the master class tremble. It is in this sense that the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and comrade parties abroad, their steady growth in numbers and activity in the face of every obstacle, is the vindication of the Marxian prediction: “What capitalism produces above all are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are alike inevitable.”