Image: Cliff Slaughter. [Source: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/slaughte.htm]
Cliff Slaughter (1975)
VII Marxist theory and class consciousness
Marxism is not a ‘sociology’. It only appears to be so, because, from the point of view of every other particular section of the intellectual division of labour-philosophy, economics, history, history of ideas, etc.-Marxism goes beyond their defined subject-matter, insisting that the real content of each of them is to be found in the contradictory totality of social economic relations from which flow the forms of activity and thought to which the separate disciplines address themselves. Political economy, for example, is ‘negated’ by Marxism, in the Hegelian sense. Marx’s treatment of political economy takes to their limit the contradictory developments of classical political economy. To do this requires the explanation of political economy’s concepts and their real content as the ‘alienated’ consciousness of the development of bourgeois society itself. Thus we find in the Critique of Political Economy and in Capital itself a negation of political economy, which is demonstrated as being an adequate reflection of the sphere of exchange values and their behaviour. But this sphere is shown to be the real world of appearances or illusions as necessarily created by a historically limited social order, capitalism.
Marx’s rejection of bourgeois philosophy is a similar materialist critique. His analysis of political and historical thought and their material sources was the third element of the synthesis achieved by Marx.
Why then do we say that Marxism only appears to be a sociology? Because sociology originated and developed, not as the dialectical negation, the overcoming of the contradictions, of each of the alienated spheres of thought, but as their definition anew in relation to some supposedly more ‘general’ science of the ‘the social as such’ (Durkheim’s ‘le social en soi‘ and ‘social facts’ constitute the acme of this approach). Comte, first to use the term ‘sociology’, invented the word in order to indicate: ‘. . . under one single heading that integral part of natural philosophy which concerns itself with the positive study of the totality of fundamental laws proper to social phenomena.’
Instead of the dynamic synthesis constituted by Marx’s negation of the separated and alienated fields of philosophy, political economy and history (class struggle), we have the static and uncritical synthesis of Comte, to be followed by a century of sterile debate in sociology about ‘metaphysics or empiricism’, ‘generalisation or specialised monographs’, ‘system or action’. Instead of the consistent materialism made possible by Marx’s historical or dialectical approach, we have the pseudo-scientific reliance on ‘experience’, which in Comte’s case ended in the purest mysticism, since his ‘spiritual’ experience was granted just as much validity as any other. Bourgeois sociology in the 20th century is tied, philosophically and methodologically, to the pragmatism of the ruling class. Sociology continues to oscillate between idealism and mechanical materialism: ‘social facts as things’ on the one hand, freedom of the individual on the other; the classical dichotomy of bourgeois ideology. Instead of social analysis in terms of the contradictory development and struggle of opposites in each specific, historically limited, socioeconomic formation, we have in sociology the search for general principles or sociological laws which transcend specific historical stages. Talcott Parsons’ rejection of Marxism, on the grounds that it is a series of ‘genetic’ explanations, sums up this functionalist barrenness.
These aspects of the split in social theory between Marxism and sociology since the second quarter of the last century are of course inseparably linked with the fact that, as against Marx and Marxism’s concern with capitalist society, Comte is the father (though he himself is only the bastard son of Saint-Simon in this and many other respects) of the sociologists’ insistence that they are concerned with ‘industrial’ or ‘modern’ society. This is only a ‘sociological’ version of the political economists’ recognition of the ‘natural’ character of the laws of capitalist economy, which they could not accept as only the laws of a definite and historically limited socio-economic formation. When Marx insisted on the ‘social’ dimension of all spheres of activity and thought, it was with a dual emphasis: first, to grasp each sphere as only one ‘moment’ of a contradictory social whole; second, to put an end to the alienation resulting from exploitation, to give a new life to each activity by making it the conscious activity of the associated producers in a classless society; for this, theory must unite with and develop in unity with the proletarian revolution. Sociology, by contrast, accepts and describes the alienation and even dignifies it by presenting it systematically as the ‘differentiation and integration of roles’ and the ‘structuring of orientations’. A Marxist analysis of sociology would demonstrate in what way these supposedly ‘general’ social phenomena and mechanisms are but an ideological reflection of the surface of capitalist society itself.
The revolutionary political orientation of Marxist social theory, as contrasted with the professed ‘value-freedom’ of sociology, is fundamental to Marxism. And the perennial pleas for separating Marx’s politics from his sociological ‘insights’ are as absurdity misplaced as the similar attempts to cleanse Marx’s social theories of philosophy.
Marxism is then the dialectical negation of the highest developments in bourgeois thought, and through this of the reality from which that thought flows and of which it forms a necessary part. It is this conception which lies behind Lenin’s famous dictum:
The workers can acquire political consciousness only from without, i.e., only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships between all classes and the state and the government-the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. (Lenin, What is to be Done?)
Here Lenin expresses politically (i.e. in conflict with political opponents who based themselves on the supposed ‘spontaneous’ development of socialist consciousness from the experience of the working class) the implications for working-class consciousness of the discoveries of Marx. Scientific thought (in the philosophy of Hegel) had arrived at the point where it must accept the conclusion that it could advance further only by grasping activity its real place in the struggle to end the conditions of its own alienated character; this was only possible, Marx said, by grasping the nature of the working class as the agent of the necessary revolutionary change. The working class itself, however, could arrive at the necessary consciousness and thereby the unity necessary for social revolution only by understanding the full historical implications of its role in production and its capacity for abolishing class society. Besides the conclusion that the economic structure is ‘basic’, and that the class struggle of the proletariat is an objective necessity creating the conditions for socialist revolution, there was necessary the whole theory of historical materialism, the understanding of social development as a unified process, with revolutionary consciousness seizing hold of the meaning of the contradictions at the base of society in order to overthrow it. This body of theory could not come from the working class but only ‘from the outside, from bourgeois intellectuals’. From that point on, the development of Marxism takes definite forms in relation to the struggle of the working class, its internal political conflicts, strategy, tactics and organisation, nationally and internationally. While Marx and Engels themselves made great contributions in this field, it has of course been most enriched in the twentieth century, above all by the work of Lenin and Trotsky.
Marx and Engels began their communist political careers with a series of thoroughgoing polemics against other schools of socialism (e.g., in The Comnunist Manifesto). Immediately after the 1848 revolutions they combated the impatience and what amounted to rejection of theory by those who wanted to continue an insurrectionist struggle in unfavourable conditions. They never ceased to participate in and advise the labour movement in every country with which they could establish contact. They insisted – for example, in correspondence with Russian and North American socialists – on a very close and detailed attention to the specific conditions of the history, economy and working-class movement of each particular country. But they always were vigilant against eclecticism and attempts to put aside the theoretical conquests they had made. Writing to Bebel and other leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party in 1879, Marx and Engels returned to a theme which had concerned them as long ago as 1848: the role of bourgeois intellectuals in the revolutionary movement. Then, in the Manifesto, they had written: ‘ . . . a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class . . . in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists.’
Now, in 1879, they make a very different emphasis, and one which shows that Lenin was not inconsistent when he combined his insistence on the decisive importance of intellectuals in the development of revolutionary theory with an implacable struggle against every manifestation of revisionism and intellectual light-mindedness with theory. Marx and Engels go out of their way to warn Bebel and the party leaders that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals joining the movement must show that they are willing to learn from the party its theory of scientific socialism in the first place. If this is not done, then they inevitably bring with them elements of the now decaying and disintegrating German bourgeois culture and philosophy. (In other words, what could be gained from bourgeois development before 1848 was the opposite of what flowed from it in 1789.)
Lenin stressed that the fight against revisionism (so called after the celebrated controversy in the German Social Democracy over Bernstein’s criticisms of Marx in the 1890s) was a recurring and inevitable one. He explained that not only individual thinkers in the working class or the revolutionary Marxist party were affected by particular aspects of bourgeois ideology, but that the development of capitalism constantly modified the relations between the proletariat and the middle classes, the latter carrying into the former their ideas, the ideas of capitalism. Revisionism in the labour movement reflected these class pressures. The nearer a revolutionary situation, the more these ideological differences would be expressed in political and organisational differences. Hence the vital importance in a pre-revolutionary period of consciously combating revisionism. This theoretical fight is the anticipation of all the problems and divisions which the working class will have to overcome in its actual struggle for power.
The problem of proletarian class-consciousness is often discussed in a very abstract and general manner, instead of through the analysis of the actual historical process by which the Marxist movement and the working-class movement have developed. These are not two distinct processes: the conscious building of revolutionary parties is the highest form of the process by which the proletariat becomes a class ‘for itself’. In the proper place, there is needed a critical analysis of all those writings on the working class and its consciousness which rely on concepts lie ‘affluence’, ‘prosperity’, ‘embourgeoisement‘, ‘social mobility’, and so on; and this analysis would have to deal with all the superficially very different and ‘radical’ approaches of writers like Marcuse. For the Marxist, such an analysis is of interest as an insight into the ideology of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, reflecting their own historical situation and its changes, but it would at the same time be important in relation to the development of Marxism itself, because it bears directly on the most characteristic ‘revision’ of Marxism in our epoch: the rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class and of the need for revolutionary parties.
Class, for Marx, is rooted in social relations of production, and cannot be referred in the first place to relations of distribution and consumption or their ideological reflections. In considering the class consciousness of the proletariat, Marxists are therefore not concerned with the ideas of individual workers about their position in society (no matter how many examples are collected and classified) so much as with the following series of categories: relations of production (sale of labour-power, exploitation); conflict of workers and employers on this basis (economic struggles, trade unions, elementary political battles for economic ends); conflict at the level of class (economic struggles which merge into the conflict between classes, which is organised through the political parties and the struggle for state power); the theoretical and practical struggle to build revolutionary parties of the working class, in conflict with non-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary tendencies in the class and their reflection inside the revolutionary party.
Thus, for example, a worker in the motor car industry will move through his elemental experience to an understanding of the gap between his own standard of life, income and conditions of work, on the one hand, and the mass of wealth to whose production he contributes, on the other. He will recognise an identity of interest, on this basis, with other wage-workers. ‘Combinations’ or trade unions are the adequate expression of this level of consciousness. To this ‘trade union consciousness’ may correspond other ideological, critical views on various aspects of capitalist society: for example, such consciousness can easily co-exist with that view which lays all the stress on differences or similarities in patterns of consumption; thus, elementary socialistic propaganda of the moralising type, and modern pessimistic speculation about the workers’ consciousness being dulled by the abundance of consumer goods, are types of consciousness which do not penetrate to the basis of class differences and class struggle and therefore cannot facilitate the development of political consciousness.
More ‘sophisticated’ socialist views of class-consciousness often refer to a process of more or less spontaneous political maturing through a series of economic struggles which take on greater and greater magnitude, finally posing demands which the system cannot meet. Here again the same basic error, from the Marxist standpoint, is made. In all such approaches, the class and its consciousness are seen in terms of a pre-Marxist theory of knowledge and of history. Those who put forward these ideas are unable to escape from a conception in which the separate individuals in the class move from their own working and other everyday experience to a higher level of consciousness, in this case political consciousness.
In point of fast an individual worker does not arrive through his own experience at a scientific consciousness of the actual relationships at work, let alone the political relationships. It u only when a worker comes into contact with the products, in political programme and action, of Marxist theory in politics – i.e., with the outcome of theoretical works produced in the first place by non-proletarian – that he can conceive of even his own working experience in terms which go beyond those of the prevailing bourgeois ideology. These works take the essence of the experience of the proletariat as well as all developments in economy, politics, science, the arts, etc.
Only a historical view of the working class and of the theory of Marxism, in their mutual interrelations, can produce a theory of class consciousness. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels, working on various fields of learning, as well as analysing the experience of the struggle of the working class to that date, elaborated their theory of socialism. The theory is henceforth the essential component of the process by which the working class becomes a class ‘for itself’. As a theory, it had first to penetrate beneath the day-to-day phenomenal form of capitalist society to the social relations of production. It demonstrated that production under capitalism continues, and society develops, not through any conscious plan, but through the drive to produce surplus value, consequent upon the reduction of labour-power to a commodity, to units of ‘abstract labour’. This is the essence of the worker’s exploitation, rather than the fact, say, that he does not own the cars he produces. What he produces is essentially surplus value, the augmentation of that same capital which oppresses him.
From these basic relationships, Marx demonstrated the reality of the history of capitalism, the way in which private ownership came to a revolutionary clash with the further development of the forces of production. For a political or socialist consciousness of the struggle against the capitalist class, there is necessary the understanding of this historical tendency of the capitalist system. This means not just an abstract knowledge of the theory of historical materialism, but the concrete analysis of, and active engagement in, the development of the class struggle in all its forms and at all levels, in the period of capitalism’s historical decline.
It was” Lenin’s major special contribution to Marxism to elaborate this theory of leadership and the revolutionary party, first of all in What is to be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. But the whole of Lenin’s work is an expression of this central concern. Later, Trotsky devoted a series of books and articles to the defence and development of the ideas worked out by Lenin (cf. particularly his In Defence of Marxism and Lessons of October). Gramsci also worked on important aspects of the relationship between Marxist theory and class consciousness, and developed further the critique of notions of spontaneity.
We have seen that even though the mass of workers experience capitalist exploitation, it is necessary for a struggle to take place between their existing consciousness, on the one hand, and Marxism on the other. This struggle is conducted, as part of the struggle of material forces, by the revolutionary Marxist party. The socialist revolution, like every social revolution, occupies an entire epoch. Its outcome is decided by a series of battles in every country, requiring the developed strategy and tactics of revolutionary parties and a revolutionary international whose whole outlook and experience is guided by the theoretical foundations laid by Marx.
Through the socialist revolution, men will enter ‘the realm of freedom’, says Marx. Consciousness will then not be the distorted ideology of oppressive social relations, resulting from the product’s domination over the producer, but will be the expression of the scientifically-orientated will of the collective producers, of ‘socialised humanity’. ‘The free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all.’
Already the struggle of the working class against capitalism raises this fundamental question of the relation between subject and object, thus bringing Marx to say that philosophy can realize itself only through the proletariat. Capitalism poses the question in generalised from for the whole class in its relation to the rest of society, and thus demands nothing less than a revolutionary solution: ‘… the labour employed on the products appears here as the value of those products, au a material quality possessed by them.’ (Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme‘)
This ‘reification’, the value-form, in which a social relation between men in their most fundamental activity is transformed into a ‘thing’ standing outside and against men, is specific to the way in which the capitalist system continues the enslavement of man by man. This ‘topsy-turvy world’ becomes in sociology a world of ‘social facts’, of ‘roles’, faithfully recorded as the necessary framework of experience.
Just as the working class in its struggle must reject this split between subject and object as a threat to its very humanity, so must Marxist theory penetrate beneath it and point the way to its internal contradictions and historical fate. The real relation between the working class and its product is obscured in the first place by the fact that the labour appears to have been paid for in wages, and that there the matter ends. Marx says that this illusion of wages as the proper reward for labour is the key to all the ideology of capitalism (Capital, Vol . I, p. 550). Marx exploded this illusion in theory, and thus opened the path for its being exploded in practice. That path leads from trade union consciousness (a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work!) to socialist consciousness.
Working-class consciousness is then, for Marxists, the comprehending in struggle of the process through which the proletariat develops from its identity as formed by capitalism (the mass of exploited wage-labourers, the class ‘in itself’) to the working class organised as a revolutionary force for the taking of power and the building of socialism (the class ‘for itself’). This process must be grasped dialectically, i.e., as a conflict of opposites, a real conflict between the class as it is and as the Marxist movement fights for it to be, on the basis of analysing the objective developments in society. It is the failure to recognise and to begin from this conflict which restricts, for example, the work of Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness (1923-1924). Lukacs cannot get beyond the concept of ‘adjudged’ or ‘adequate’ consciousness, which is abstracted by the investigator according to his scientific estimation of the needs of the class historically. This remains at the level of the type of concepts developed by bourgeois sociology (particularly Max Weber), and fails to reach the level of dialectical materialism, at the centre of which is the unity of theory and practice as a contradictory process. Lukacs’ own subsequent capitulation to Stalinism, whatever other causes it had, was rooted in this static and essentially idealist conception of class consciousness, imported from neo-Kantian philosophy. It helped him in a very crude way to accept and become an apologist for Stalinist orthodoxy in the communist movement.
Lukacs asserted that the central concept of dialectics is ‘totality’; and here again he shows the inadequacy of his outlook for a theory of class consciousness. For Marx, the struggle, the unity and the interpenetration of opposites is the essence of dialectics, and this dialectic is materialist, so that for Marxists the notion of totality must have a meaning different from that presented by Lukacs. ‘The unity of the world consists in its materiality,’ wrote Engels. It is characteristic of Lukacs’ agnosticism on the question of the objective nature of the external world (in History and Class Consciousness) that he must take ‘totality’ and the proletariat’s grasp of this totality as an abstraction. Only a view of the ‘unity’ or ‘totality’ of the objective world of nature and society which sees this unity as arising continuously from a changing conflict of material opposites can form the basis of ‘revolutionary practice’, the sine qua non of Marx’s theory of knowledge.
Henri Lefebvre (in his The Sociology of Marx, 1968, and elsewhere) has criticised Lukacs for his stress on ‘totality’ and has argued that ‘the conflict of opposites’ is in fact the core of dialectics. However, in Lefebvre’s work this correct criticism remains purely abstract, and leads him eventually to Utopianism. He starts from the concept of a struggle of opposites, but leaves it at the level of the very general concepts of praxis and alienation. These terms, taken from Marx’s early work, enable Lefebvre to make often penetrating exposés of capitalist culture, but they remain altogether too abstract for a revolutionary theory of class consciousness. The theory remains purely critical, aloof from practice, i.e., from the activity of the class and the fight for a working-class leadership on a Marxist basis.
Lefebvre criticises, for example, Lucien Goldmann, because the latter, developing the work of Lukacs, over-emphasises the phenomenon of ‘reification’ so much that his argument amounts to a virtual acceptance, rather than a criticism, of the forms of objectivity imposed on consciousness by capitalist society. But this criticism is inadequate, and needs in the end to be turned against Lefebvre himself. Goldmann in the period between 1957 and his death in 1973, expressed complete scepticism about the revolutionary role of the working class under modern capitalism. He did so on the grounds that, besides certain economic and political changes in the capitalist system, such as the part played by state intervention in the economy, the ability of capitalism to supply an ever-increasing amount of consumer goods had eroded working class consciousness. This suggests immediately that Goldmann’s original reasons for accepting the revolutionary character of the proletariat were unsound, from the Marxist standpoint (see his articles in Les Temps Modernes for 1957 and 1958, reprinted in Recherches Dialectiques, Paris, 1959). Goldmann conceives of ideas and ideologies as mental translations of economic and social patterns, rather than as the outcome of the struggles of the class at all levels of social reality (see chapter VI above), and this has provided an avenue for him to accept the fashionable ‘structuralist’ school of idealism in France.
The actual contradictory process of the struggle for revolutionary consciousness, the conflicts between theory and practice, between party and class and, concretely, the struggle of tendencies within the labour movement and within the revolutionary party, and the class bases of these struggles-all these are almost completely lacking in any of the often interesting commentaries of these writers, whose works appeal so much to those who look for some pure or ‘restored’ Marxism, rediscovered by removing all the results of a century and more of bitter struggle as the theory has taken on flesh and blood. The ‘young Marx’ is the usual gospel of this faith. It would be in the spirit of Marx himself to aim for a Marxism which is rich and concrete, and at the same time warlike, having worked over and ‘negated’ all the contradictory developments in the proletarian revolution, and above all in the communist movement itself. For the various ‘schools’ of Marxism in France and their faint echoes outside, the issue is indeed presented much more concretely than they would like: to really develop the Marxist method and concepts for the analysis of modern capitalist society and of the USSR, it is necessary to start from a conscious reintegration with the whole actual past struggle for Marxism against the social democrats and then the Stalinists and revisionists who distorted it. That means an identification with the continuity of the fight for Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky, and in particular against the Stalinist domination of working-class politics and of ‘Marxism’ in France.
In the most fundamental theoretical terms, Lefebvre has missed out what was potentially correct in Lukacs’ insistence on ‘totality’: the struggle of opposites in society must be taken as first and foremost a class conflict, at the level of the social whole. To analyse, and to start in all social analyses from this, requires of course a concentration on the specific contradictions of capitalism and of the development of the working class and its revolutionary consciousness within capitalism. Marx himself developed his ideas from the general notions of praxis and alienation of humanity in his early works to the specific analysis of the historically developing social relations of capitalism, out of which grew all the ‘praxis’ and ‘alienation’ of modern man. By returning to the early Marx for the key to capitalist society today, Lefebvre opens the door to a reformist and Utopian critique of culture, instead of a consistent and revolutionary theory and practice, in conflict with the Stalinist distortion of Marxism in every field. His works Critique de la Vie Quotidienne (Vol II, 1960, Editions de L’Arche) and Introduction a la Modernite (Editions de Minuit, 1962) reveal this tendency very clearly: a searching for a ‘poetic’ quality in particular aspects of life, a contrast between creative and repetitive actions which is made a more general and important distinction than the specific historical contradictions of capitalism and the tasks of revolutionary transformation which they pose to the working class and to Marxists.
Our argument here does not simplify the question of class consciousness. On the contrary, it opens up a prospect which cannot be settled purely by words. Theory must become conscious of its real relationship with its subject-matter, and consciously guide the revolutionary struggle to transform it. This is the essence of dialectical materialism in Marx’s work. For the working class to become a class ‘for itself’ requires not simply the absorption of the experience of capitalist society, but the critical struggle against this experience by a party armed with the whole theory of Marxism. Party and class are two interpenetrating opposites at one level (the class ‘for itself’ and the class ‘in itself’). These two poles at the same time constitute a whole (the working class) which itself is one pole as against its opposite (the capitalist class) in another contradictory whole (capitalist society). Society confronts nature as its ‘opposite’. The working class must realize itself, against capitalism, subsuming all the historical gains for humanity made by capitalism at the same time as overthrowing it. This it can do only when the outlook, strategy and tactics of a Marxist party predominate in the actions of the class as a class, in revolutionary struggles. A similar process is necessary within the party: only if it can study, unify and transform through struggle all the experiences of the class can its theory be saved from one-sidedness, dogma and idealism. Within the Marxist party, once again we have a struggle of opposites, a struggle for the development of Marxist theory and its application to the struggles of the proletariat, in constant struggle against every mode of adaptation to the existing position of the working class, its disunity, fragmentation, etc., those aspects of its situation which predispose it towards acceptance of its oppression. Then theory itself must also be considered as a struggle of opposites. We have seen that at every level, each pole of a unity of opposites contains a recapitulation of the total opposition within itself (e.g. the party has both its own essence and its opposite within it and not only as an external opposite, etc.). Marxist theory develops by proving the ‘concreteness’ of its abstractions against the apparent concreteness (really abstractness, because abstracted from the changing forces which produce them) of uncritically accepted empirical reality. It does this through a struggle to change that reality, capitalism, by placing itself politically in a relation of political consciousness, leadership, with the working class. That means the struggle to build revolutionary parties able to lead the working class to power. Marxism is this struggle: it is not a sociology or an abstract theoretical system of any kind.
Image: FOR MARXISTS, the division of modern socioeconomic classes is not the cause of the problem of capitalism but rather its effect. [Source: http://www.heathwoodpress.com/monthly-guest-article-dec-class-consciousness-from-a-marxist-perspective-today/]
Marxism & the Class Struggle, publ. by New Park Publications. Last chapter reproduced here.