1980s >> 1987 >> no-996-august-1987

Letter: Class Consciousness

Dear Letters Editors.

Thank you for the useful and thoughtful response to my recent letter (Socialist Standard May 1987), a number of very interesting points were raised which clarified your position on a number of issues.

However I would like to make a few further points as I think they’re important.

The concept of class consciousness is a good deal more complex in my view than the recognition of a proletarian “interest” by workers. What is more, its place within the “conceptual map” (your phrase) raises important questions as regards the SPGB position especially as regards your seventh declared principle.

My reference to class consciousness ebbing and flowing has strong historical evidence to back it up. One only has to look at the role of conscious Petrograd workers in the Russian Revolution, the militancy of the Chinese revolution and the pre-1914 industrial militancy in Britain for 3 solid examples. Clearly each of these phenomena fit the concept of class consciousness which you asserted in your reply to my recent letter you did not understand.

We should perhaps talk in terms of “subjective” and “objective” class consciousness as I find that they are the only way I can make sense of this area of Marxian thought.

Subjective class consciousness (“consciousness in itself”) perhaps relates to ways of thinking and feeling born out of say daily contact with capitalism and expresses itself in such vehicles as trade unions, friendly societies, and perhaps political parties other than the SPGB. Objective class consciousness on the other hand should perhaps be seen as a culmination of struggles with capitalism and expresses itself in terms of the abolition of capitalism by workers (“consciousness for itself”).

Accepting, as I think you must because of the philosophical basis of all your arguments, that the achievement of this objective state of consciousness involves subjective consciousness on the way — out of antagonism comes greater insight and therefore wider consciousness. I find the hostility clause in your Principles most confusing. Surely to claim the workers’ interest (i.e objective class consciousness) and therefore to be hostile to all other groups is logical — deviant to the whole thrust of the Marxist case — there are gradations to class conscious action so why be hostile and how can the SPGB claim the transcendance of antagonism when all around points to the opposite?

The fact that there are gradations of consciousness makes alliance with others far from “waste of energy” but integral to the development of a majority in support of socialism — far from being compromise to engage in the daily struggles of other people/groups is perhaps the best things socialists can do.

My letter and its reply covered other interesting points too. I acknowledge that the sixth principle of your party does raise the possibility of non-peaceful revolutionary action and I am in broad agreement with you here. I was also pleased to read the sections on the role of elections, though I would imagine the cost of an election campaign does not really merit its advocacy as something of importance by you especially bearing in mind the poor coverage of small parties in the media (I’m assuming your resources are limited here!).

Obviously 1 don’t expect to keep having my letters published, however I would very much welcome a written response as a possible alternative as the issues raised are extremely important to me. Many thanks.

Andrew Walker

Reply to Andrew Walker

The issues raised in this letter are extremely important to all of us. As Andrew Walker implies in his examples of working class militancy, they are inextricably bound up with the question of what really happened in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and what effect this has had on working class political consciousness, not only in those nations but throughout the world.

The Socialist Party has always contended that the revolution in Russia was not (could not be) a socialist/communist revolution. The reasons we gave were, briefly, that the forces of production were far from being sufficiently developed; that the Russian working class formed only a small and relatively inexperienced fraction of the population, the vast majority of whom were peasants or serfs; and that the establishment of socialism/communism in one country was impossible.

To the extent, therefore, that the revolutionaries thought they were fighting for a socialist/communist society, we said then and say now that this was false consciousness on their part. We said the same things about the Chinese revolution. But such false consciousness is not peculiar to particular peoples. The same judgement can be made about the Diggers and the Levellers in the British revolution, or many of the French revolutionaries a century later, although they used quite different terminology to express their ideals and objectives.

All of these, as we can now see. were revolutions ushering in capitalism. What has made the historical processes so difficult to comprehend has been the piecemeal spread of capitalism round the world over a period of almost three hundred years. In eastern Europe, Russia, China, Japan, South East Asia, heavily entrenched feudalism made almost impossible the development of a bourgeoisie powerful enough to lead a successful revolution. By the time these nations came under increasing pressure to change over to capitalism. Marxists in the west were already equipping themselves with the intellectual tools for the overthrow of capitalism and the move on to the next stage in social development. And so the groups struggling for power in these countries used slogans derived from Marx to persuade their peasants and workers to fight in their revolutions, in spite of the fact that the slogans did not really fit the circumstances. A lot of remedial theorising by Lenin (and Stalin and Mao Tse Tung and others) made for greater confusion. not clarity, because it was trying to reconcile complete contradictions in the attempt to rationalise and justify domination by these new ruling classes.

These events and the theorising derived from them have reflected back again into western Europe and America. The deception, the confusion and the conflict between factions in the self-styled “socialist” countries has fragmented the followers of Stalin, Trotsky and Mao into numerous splinter groups. And it has suited the capitalist media of the west very well to go along with Lenin’s fiction that state capitalism was really socialism, because the viciousness and oppression of these regimes has been used as a bogey called “socialism” to dangle in front of the working class. With events like the Moscow Trials or the invasion of Hungary or the Cultural Revolution carried out by “socialists” there is little need for them to argue the case against socialism.

To members of the Socialist Party, therefore, “the left” and the capitalist media have joined forces in this distortion of the facts and we have no choice but to oppose them all. But it goes further than this. In trying to accommodate their ideas of socialism/communism to what has been happening in Russia et al, many Leninists have lost sight of what Marx and Engels were working for. The society of common ownership, without money, frontiers, war, poverty, crime, which they called socialism or communism at different times, “the left” now sneeringly labels “utopian”, or they call it “full communism” and relegate it to 500 years in the future.

This is what has helped to complicate the development of all working class consciousness in recent years. As Andrew Walker says, our consciousness is roused by our inevitable conflicts with the forces of capitalism in our daily (particularly working) lives. How we interpret that experience, however, and what sort of political action (if any) we take depends very much on the information and the intellectual tools at our disposal. If, in our search for some radical alternative to life as we are forced to live it, we are told by “left” and “right” alike that Russia epitomises that alternative, we are likely to become totally cynical or turn to religion. We have to be very persistent to investigate revolutionary politics any further.

Throughout their existence. Communist parties in Britain and other countries have pursued, not the interests of the working class, but those of the Russian capitalist class — a record which we have carefully documented. The other political parties of the left have known of our object and our analysis of capitalism, and have rejected them to form their own parties. That is their choice. They have never seemed keen to ally themselves with us — or each other.

Engaging in the daily struggles of other people/groups is all very well if they invite you to do so or ask for your help. Otherwise it is false. Instead of building working class solidarity, this creates suspicion and mistrust. Countless examples of manipulation of trade union activities by left wing groups have demonstrated this. Every socialist has more than enough to do in being active in his/her own daily struggles and in spreading socialist information and ideas.