Class, Class Struggle, and Class Consciousness

 
September 22, 2001

Opening to the National Board

‘History generally, and the history of revolutions in particular is
always richer in content, more varied, more many-sided, more lively and
‘subtle’ than even the best parties and the most class conscious vanguards
of the most advanced classes can ever imagine.’
(Lenin, Left Wing
Communism, An Infantile Disorder, p. 76)

Introduction

My opening resumes a practice that we began but then suspended prior
to the ideological conference. At the time, we said that we should re-start
this practice at a later date, but for one reason or another, we never
got around to it until now.

Hopefully, my opening will get the ball rolling again. An educational/theoretical
discussion at every meeting may be too ambitious, but we should do it
with some regularity, maybe monthly. In any case, we should make a decision
on this matter.

Unless we structure theoretical discussions into our agendas and assign
comrades to lead them, the theoretical life of the NB will limp. We know
from experience that pressing political demands as well as hesitancy among
board members to open too often become the excuse to postpone discussions
of theory and ideology.

This is shortsighted and self-defeating. We are living at a time marked
by profound changes in the political, economic, and social landscape on
a global level. It is, arguably, a new era in world development.

These changes, as you would expect, bring with them new theoretical
problems and challenges. In a fast changing world, the pat answer of yesterday
is sometimes patently wrong today.

Thus, a timely and fresh approach to questions of theory and ideology
is imperative. Otherwise, the working class and people’s movements easily
flounder and opportunities are missed.

To some extent, we have examined shifts in world and domestic politics
and, more importantly, what’s behind these shifts, but much more needs
to be done.

Hopefully, the resumption of these discussions in the NB will allow
us to collectively and energetically further examine in a more systematic
way the complex theoretical questions bedeviling the working class and
people’s movements – in the course of which we will raise our own theoretical
level.

To insure the most fruitful discussions, we should strive to create
an atmosphere that encourages comrades to break new ground, to think outside
the box. We need an atmosphere that encourages theoretical exploration
and innovation.

No one should feel constrained by what they think the ‘party line’ is
on this or that question. Nor, as I said at the NC meeting, should anyone
assume the responsibility of ideological guardian of Marxism-Leninism.
That is the role of collective bodies and even collective bodies should
exercise that function in a considered way.

Moreover, we should suspend raising our eyebrows, muttering under our
breath, and seeking out sympathetic eyes across the table when comrades
make a remark that goes against the grain of our thinking.

An excessive zeal for what we understand to be doctrinal purity stifles
theoretical inquiry and discussion. It dampens our theoretical imagination
and willingness to think about problems in a fresh way.

The founders of scientific socialism never claimed, as far as I know,
that what they wrote was the last word on politics, economics, or ideology.
They never viewed their theoretical innovations, immense as they were,
as anything but a foundation for further analysis of a wide range of problems.

Lenin once said that Marxism is not a closed and inviolable system while
Engels years earlier echoed a similar concern,

‘The materialistic conception of history,’ he wrote to a comrade, ‘has
a lot of them nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying
history … our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not
a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history
must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations
of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to
deduce from them the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, and
religious views corresponding to them. But instead too many of the younger
Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything
can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively
scanty historical knowledge constructed into a neat system as quickly
as possible and then they deem themselves very tremendous’ (Letter to
C, Schmidt, August 5, 1890)

Marx, of course, shared Engels view. These great minds appreciated the
dynamic nature of world capitalism and insisted on creatively and constantly
developing their insights and thinking in line with a changing world.

Never did they attempt to shoehorn facts to theory. Rather they elaborated
and adjusted their theoretical constructs to order to illuminate a fluid
and ever changing historical reality. And they did it eagerly and fearlessly.

We should try to follow their example in our discussions on ideology
and theory in the NB.

THEME OF THE OPENING

About a week ago, I was in Chicago for a meeting of the National Labor
Commission. While there Scott asked me what the theme of my opening to
the NB was. I thought a moment, but somewhat embarrassingly, came up blank.

Needless to say, this concerned me. After all, I should know what the
general line of my presentation is. So I immediately skimmed my very rough
notes, hoping that I could cull from them the main thrust of my argument.

I wish I could say that I saw the light at once, but that wouldn’t be
the truth. Nonetheless, after reading the notes a few times, I hit on
what I believe is the main theme of my opening. And it is this: I hope
to make a case against stiff and rigid concepts of class.

In my experience, stiffly constructed concepts of class are never appropriate.
And particularly now when political, economic, and ideological life is
so fluid, when new opportunities exist to strengthen working class, multi-racial,
and all people’s unity.

What I would like to do is to discuss in order the class struggle, class
exploitation and social democracy, class-consciousness, and finally the
working class.

Part 1: THE CLASS STRUGGLE

‘The history of all hitherto existing societies,’ wrote Marx and Engels,
‘is the history of class struggle.’ This profound observation by the founders
of scientific socialism challenged conventional wisdom. Up until then,
the historical process was seen as accidental and arbitrary. If human
agency played any role in historical change, it turned on the actions
of great personalities and dominant social classes. Marx and Engels, by
contrast, turned the historical process on its head. Constructing a new
theoretical model, they persuasively argued that historical change was
in large measure the outcome of the collective struggle of millions against
their class oppressors rather than the result of either the whims of individuals
perched at the top of the social structure or historical accidents.

In doing so, Marx and Engels transformed in the realm of theory the
exploited and oppressed from an inert mass into makers of history. This
insight has provided hundreds of millions in every corner of the globe
with a new way to understand as well as influence the historical process.
And that is precisely what people have done, sometimes in dramatic ways,
including in the US where we have had our own moments when ordinary men
and women stormed heaven.

With any new concept, however, there is always the danger of misinterpretation
and oversimplification. And there is no reason to think that this idea
of Marx and Engels is safe from such dangers.

To be sure, the class struggle is the main thread in historical development,
but it is not the only thread, it is not the only causal factor. The historical
process is exceedingly complicated and other struggles leave their imprint
on history’s record as well.

In fact, the class struggle mingles with other social struggles and
the relationship is complex and reciprocal. The relationship is not one
way, with the class struggle always ruling the roost.

Only at a high level of theoretical abstraction does the class struggle
appear in pure form, does it dance on the stage of history untouched and
untainted by the world swirling around it. Closer to the ground, closer
to the actual course of events, the class struggle is embedded in a complex
social process in which it structures and is structured by other processes.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, history abhors pure forms, the compartmentalization
of social phenomena, neat lines of demarcation and static relationships.
Let’s face it, the historical process is messy.

Marx, Engels and Lenin particularly appreciated the entangling nature
of historical development. If it were a choice between complexity and
simplicity of explanation with regard to historical change, they almost
always chose the former for fear that the latter concealed as much as
it revealed.

They were suspicious of historical explanations that drained the historical
process of variation, discounted new experience, and resisted the modification
of theory under any circumstances. By and large, they never gave the same
explanatory weight to the elegant phrases that appear in their writings
that later Marxists and Marxist-Leninists did.

While acknowledging the primary role of the class struggle in the historical
process, these theoretical giants allowed for novelty, embraced new experience,
and altered their views to changing reality. Historical change for them
was not reducible to some sanitized version of the class struggle.

‘To imagine that social revolution,’ Lenin wrote, ‘is conceivable without
revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary
outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all of its prejudices,
without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian
masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy,
To imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines
up and says, ‘We are for socialism,’ and another army lines up somewhere
else and says, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be social revolution
… Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see
it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding
what revolution is all about.’ (The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed
Up)

And on another occasion, he said,

‘All nations will arrive at socialism – this is inevitable, but all
will do so in not exactly the same way, each will contribute something
of its own to some form of democracy, to some variety of the dictatorship
of the proletariat, to the varying rates of socialist transformation in
the different aspects of social life. There is nothing more primitive
from the viewpoint of theory or more ridiculous from that of practice,
than to paint, ‘in the name of historical materialism’, this aspect of
the future in monotonous grey.’ (A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist
Economism)

Such an approach to theory and ideology would suit us well today given
the emergence of new political, economic, and ideological patterns, given
the emergence of capitalist globalization and everything that comes in
its train.

At Seattle and then in Washington a few weeks ago, we participated in
a movement whose political potential is staggering.

To be sure, it’s in its early stages, but it embraces already an incredibly
broad array of forces. The forms of struggle employed are creative and
varied. Its tone is militantly anti-corporate, and even anti-capitalist
among some of its currents, particularly the youth. It thinks in global
terms. And, labor is assuming a large and larger role in this multi-layered,
multi-level movement.

Of course, the movement does not have a single center. Its roots are
not deep enough. Its programmatic demands are imprecise. The unique leading
role of the working class and labor movement is not fully appreciated.
And the enormous strength of the racially oppressed is not yet felt, a
weakness that has to be overcome quickly.

No matter how you look at this phenomenon, one thing is clear: it’s
going to test our theoretical and political creativity and flexibility
like nothing else has for decades. How we measure up will go a long way
in determining what our Party and the YCL will look like in a decade from
now.

Part 2: THE SYSTEMIC NATURE OF THE CLASS STRUGGLE

In our view, the class struggle has its origins in material exploitative
practices. It is traceable – sometimes directly, other times in more roundabout
ways – to a system of exploitation.

The ceaseless accumulation of capital and the exploitation of wage labor
are two sides of a single coin. And this inner urge is reinforced and
sustained by competitive rivalry among competing capitals.

The ‘race to the bottom’, a race that is the ratcheting downward wages
and conditions of workers across the globe, is endemic to capitalism and
the TNCs which are capitalism’s main structural underpinning at this stage
of its development.

Left to its own devices, capitalism’s logic is to extend in a thousand
ways through speedup, overtime, job combination, race and gender discrimination,
and so forth the unpaid portion of the workday. Or to put it differently,
its insatiable urge is to appropriate an every larger quantity of surplus
labor from the working class worldwide.

After all, when it comes to exploitation, present-day capitalism has
no boundaries. More than at any time in its history, it is nearly a universal
system, even penetrating and exercising a considerable influence on the
economic polices and life of the countries of socialism.

But its global dominance has not ushered in an era of peace and prosperity
for the world’s people. Indeed, mass impoverishment of hundreds of millions,
widening race and gender inequality, the ravaging of entire nations and
regions, the explosion of child and contingent labor, the massive displacement
of unionized workers from the production process, and intensified racism
and national chauvinism are the hallmarks of unrestrained markets and
global capitalism.

Given the exploitative nature of capitalism and its miserable effects,
it’s easy to agree with Marx,

‘The main issue,’ he said in a speech to the Central Committee of the
Communist League, ‘cannot be the alteration of private property but only
its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the
abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society, but the
foundation of a new one.’ (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist
League, 1850)

That’s sweet to my ears and, I’m sure, yours, but not surprisingly,
social democratic and center forces in the working class and democratic
movements look at these matters differently.

Exploitative practices, they would argue, exist, in fact on a growing
scale. But they do not trace these practices to a system of exploitation,
to systemic sources. Instead, social democratic and liberal ideologues
blame myopic corporations that accent short-term profits and shareholder
capitalism, greedy business people, and misguided public policy for the
present predicament.

While acknowledging adversarial relations between capital and labor,
they claim that disputes can be resolved within the framework of capitalism,
albeit in a more benign and worker friendly capitalism than the present
one. Labor, they say, should have a seat at the table and the playing
field should be level. In short, the class struggle in their eyes is episodic
and accidental rather than a permanent, organic, and fundamental feature
of capitalist society.

This ideological fault line distinguishing communist and other left
forces from social democratic and center currents within the labor movement
(and other movements for that matter) should not preclude unity of action
around issues of common concern however.

Our main enemy is not social democracy. In fact, we need a more nuanced
attitude toward social democrats in the labor movement. Today’s social
democratic and social democratic influenced trade unionists are not the
same as the social democratic elements that inhabited the top floors of
the House of Labor during the Cold War years. The latter were right social
democrats – virulently anti-Communist, implacably class collaborationist,
and deeply racist and male supremacist.

Until recently however we had a tendency to lump the different tendencies
of social democracy together into one reactionary, monolithic and unchanging
heap. Such attitudes tended to obscure differences within social democracy
that in the end count for a lot from the standpoint of class and democratic
struggles against the TNCs and the extreme right.

This habit of lumping had its origins in the sectarian polices of Communist
movement in its formative period. But that error was given an extended
lease of life in 1928 when Stalin announced his class against class policy.

Given the prestige of the Soviet Party and of Stalin himself, the young
communist movement pursued their sectarian policies with a new vigor to
the point where social democrats were turned into social fascists. And
this policy continued until the time of the 7th World Congress. At that
historic gathering Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitroff, taking a diametrically
different position from the previous policy, argued for unity with social
democratic workers and their leaders who were, he maintained, changing
under the weight of the fascist threat and the worldwide economic crisis.

We should carefully study Dimitroff’s speech, especially in light of
the changes taking place in labor’s ranks, including among social democratic
minded leaders and workers. Under the impact of globalization and the
assault of the extreme right, this section of the labor movement is shedding
not all at once, but shedding nonetheless, concepts that held them back
from mass struggle.

This shift is dramatically enlarging the possibilities for broad unity
and radical change. Already, the struggle for economic justice, for racial
and gender equality, for immigrant rights and cross border solidarity,
for a revitalized labor movement are on a higher ground.

Moreover this shift is also widening the opportunities for communists
to make unique contributions to the class struggle, provided, of course,
that we quickly adjust our tactics to the new conditions and currents
of struggle.

Part 3: CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS

Class-consciousness is a cause and consequence of the class struggle.
It is as much a way of acting as it is a way of thinking. It is made and
unmade. It is not a hereditary trait, but rather it is constructed in
the course of struggle.

Class-consciousness is not a neat and tidy concept. Class conscious
workers have a lot of rough edges. Even contradictory ideas co-habit in
the their heads, but the main thing is what ideas dominate at any given
moment.

Class-consciousness does not inexorably follow from one’s position in
a social system of production. If it did then socialist revolution would
have happened a long time ago.

We don’t invent class-consciousness anymore than we invented fresh winds
in the labor movement. Yes, we have a hand – and a unique hand at that
– in its formation, but we are not the only hands stirring the pot. Class-consciousness
is conditioned by other objective and subjective factors as well.

The working class itself, to borrow a phrase from E. P. Thompson, the
great British historian, has a hand in its own making. Between social
being and social consciousness is the realm of struggle. And in this realm
– not apart from but in close connection with the communist and left forces
– the working class makes itself into a social force, capable of leading
a broad people’s movement and contending for political power.

In this regard, did Lenin shortchange the working class in ‘What Is
To Be Done’ when he wrote that working class by its own efforts could
only develop trade union consciousness? This seems too stiff, not open
ended enough for me. A few years later his formulation is more expansive.

‘The working class’ he writes, ‘is instinctively, spontaneously Social
Democratic (meaning socialist minded in the context of pre-Revolutionary
Russia) and more than 10 years of Social Democracy (meaning the communist
and socialist movement) has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity
into consciousness.’

And on another occasion Lenin has this to say regarding the political
capacities of the working class,

‘Marxism differs from all other socialist theories in the remarkable
way that it combines complete scientific sobriety in the analysis of the
objective state of affairs with the most emphatic recognition of the revolutionary
energy, revolutionary creative genius, and revolutionary initiative of
the masses’

Now no one should think that I’m suggesting that we suspend our efforts
to deepen and extend the class and socialist consciousness of the U.S.
working class. To the contrary, such efforts are crucial if the working
class and labor movement is to secure through dint of effort its position
as a leader of the people’s movements at every stage of struggle.

What I am suggesting, however, is that no one should underestimate the
political and fighting capacities of our nation’s multi-racial, multi-national,
male-female working people. Experience tells us that the US working class
brings its own understandings, insights, know-how and sensibilities to
class and democratic battles. It is a quick learner and an able teacher.

I never liked the concept that says that the working class is the motor
of the revolutionary movement and the Party its leader. Such a mechanical
construction, which, as you probably recall, was contained in book that
we discussed in a recent NB meeting, is not only mistaken, but harmful.
It implies that the Party is detached from the working class movement
rather than an integral and militant section of this movement.

Moreover, it can easily lead to huge mistakes and distortions at every
phase of the class struggle, including in the building of socialism.

Part 4: THE WORKING CLASS AND CONCENTRATION

In the Communist Manifesto, it says, ‘the only really revolutionary
class is the proletariat.’ What should we infer from this passage? Are
Marx and Engels suggesting that no other social grouping has revolutionary
potential? Are they saying that coalition politics and socialism are incompatible?
Are they arguing that only our nation’s working people are going to board
the bus of Bill of Rights socialism?

I suppose that a new reader of Marx might draw this conclusion from
the passage above. But it would be a mistaken interpretation of Marx and
Engels. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels write that the ‘lower
middle class’ is becoming revolutionary’ in view of its impending transfer
into the proletariat.’

Many years later in the Critique of the Gotha program, Marx assails
LaSalle, its author, for writing that apart from the working class, all
other groupings in society are, but ‘one reactionary mass.’

Marx says that this is ‘nonsense.’ He goes on to write, ‘Has one [LaSalle]
proclaimed to the artisans, small manufacturers, and peasants during the
last elections: relative to the working class, you form only one reactionary
mass?

For Marx the struggle for democracy and socialism consists in winning
allies to the side of the working class. Lenin perhaps was even more emphatic
about the absolute necessity of this. Do we have a similar strategic point
of view? Do we envision that the winning of socialism will be a labor-led
coalition affair?

For good reasons, we do. For one thing, the opportunities for broad
coalitions have seldom been better. One of the notable features of the
past few decades is the growth of new social movements. To labor’s traditional
strategic allies like, for example, the African American, Latino, Asian,
and Native American Indian peoples, we have to add a broad array of social
groupings that are emerging as new political actors on the stage of struggle
at home and abroad.

For another thing, there is no other path that will steer us to socialism.
Whoever thinks that these gigantic concentrations of economic and political
power now bestriding the entire globe can be successfully challenged by
the working class on its own is seriously mistaken and does damage to
the socialist cause. Of course, the converse is equally true (and we have
to convince other social forces of this)- no serious assault on the TNCs
and their system of capitalism stands a ghost’s chance without the working
class assuming a leading position in such a struggle.

In any event, we must develop broad and elastic concepts of struggle.
This is where politics begins in this new century.

Now some might think that the growth of the working class and people’s
movement is the prelude to the burial of our policy of concentration on
mass production workers. This however would be a hasty and wrong conclusion.

Our focus on mass production workers is a viable and necessary policy
– indeed more viable and necessary But like everything else it has to
adapt itself to new developments, namely the extreme right danger, the
upsurge in the labor and people’s movement, the new stage of global imperialism,
the unevenness of the economic expansion, the new racist offensive, the
feminization of poverty, the changing composition of working class, and
so forth.

Our concentration policy, therefore, should not be narrowly conceived.
We should not see mass production workers leading a insular existence.
Instead we should see this section of our class mingling with their class
brothers and sisters at Boeing, marching in New York against police brutality,
lobbying California governor Gray Davis to support the Cesar Chavez holiday,
rallying in Washington for women’s right to choose, and walking shoulder
to shoulder with student, environmental, and other activists. In short,
workers in mass production industries should help to lead a much wider
movement for radical change in conditions that are new and unique.

To express it differently, mass production workers, to quote Lenin,
who seemed to have always something trenchant to say, ‘should fight with
all the greater energy and enthusiasm for the cause of the whole people,
at the head of the whole people.’

This brings me to the end. I don’t know if I have convinced you of the
need for less stiff concepts of class. But maybe that is not the most
important thing anyway. Perhaps, the most important thing is that we are
all stimulated to think about these questions even if we don’t see eye
to eye.

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