The Left is Left Behind - Part 2

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N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture
The Left is Left Behind - Part 2

Ed Finn wrote a piece that appeared on the CCPA website. Discussion has followed.

Ed Finn at the CCPA

The Left is Left Behind


Here's is the previous thread.


Carry on.

Jacob Richter

Crises of Various Types of Consciousness: Revisiting False Consciousness and Ideology

"The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the [...] intelligentsia; modern socialism arises among individual members of this stratum and then is communicated by them to proletarians who stand out due to their intellectual development, and these then bring it into the class struggle of the proletariat where conditions allow." (Karl Kautsky)

One of the "scandalous passages" in What Is To Be Done? dealt with the subject of consciousness or awareness from a sociological perspective.  The historian Lars Lih has shown that the controversy was in the emphasis and not the passage as a whole.  The proper emphasis is not in the glorification of the intelligentsia, but in those educated proletarians (such as this author at the time of writing) who bring revolutionary theory into the class struggle of the proletariat.  More importantly, the class movement referred to in Kautsky's words is by no means the class as a whole!

In my earlier work, I gave a contemporary answer to how the "vehicle of science" has changed:

1) Only those workers who, under initial conditions (the relative absence of open class struggle), support radical or revolutionary change due to their education are capable of "spontaneously" leaving behind underclass or petit-bourgeois false consciousness.  All others ("the proletarian masses"), according to Kautsky, "still vegetate, helpless and hopeless" through having little free time or through being unemployed.
2) Since both bourgeois and petit-bourgeois intellectuals are ancient relics, the "spontaneous" development and proliferation of specifically revolutionary class consciousness is left to the modern equivalent and even more: professional and some clerical workers, as well as those in the "class of flux."
3) When the process of introducing specifically revolutionary class consciousness to the proletarian masses and even radicalized workers begins, it is done most effectively (since there are less effective means) when the organized vanguard acts "not as ordinary workers, but as socialist theoreticians."

This third point is "profoundly true and important," because modern "vanguard" circles today act as "ordinary workers" in trying to spread specifically revolutionary class consciousness.  This is the main reason why they have been ineffective!

However, because of the third point, the genuine class separation that existed between the non-proletarian intellectuals and the proletarian masses has been replaced by an artificial "theory gulf" between different groups of proletarians, so to speak.  Socialist theoreticians, especially those without direct experience in either the immediate worker struggles or the open class struggle later on, can overcome this gulf by connecting their dynamic-materialist knowledge with the material conditions of the proletarian masses as a whole, thereby finding real expression of the newfound knowledge.

What I said above addresses in fact two types of consciousness, one of which pertains to "the struggle for socialism."  For anti-economist reasons explained below, in the next chapter, and in the Appendix B commentary on the forgotten story of syndicalism, the two types of consciousness should be addressed separately.

In her book Rebuilding the Left, Marta Harnecker did note another aspect of confusion on the question of consciousness:

I find it difficult to argue against these statements that history has confirmed.  I think the problem arises when we identify socialist consciousness with class consciousness.


I find it necessary, therefore, to distinguish three levels of consciousness in the working class:

Spontaneous or naive consciousness is consciousness necessarily deformed by the effects of the ruling ideology, and most of Althusser's reflections on ideology as deformed knowledge of reality are applicable to this type of consciousness.  It is typical, as Sanchez Vazquez says, of a class society in the past, when the working class knew only of economic class practice.

Class consciousness - the very existence of which implies a distancing from bourgeois ideology - is no longer a factor of cohesion for the dominant system but one of antagonism and is not necessarily deformed.  This is the consciousness acquired when the class struggle takes on a political dimension, but this consciousness is still not socialist, in as far as it represents resistance to the situation of exploitation rather than a proposal for an alternative to do away with it.

Enlightened class consciousness or socialist consciousness is that class consciousness enlightened by Marxist science.


To conclude, I think that it is correct to say that socialism, as scientific theory, cannot arise solely from the practice of the labour movement but needs to be imported from without.  On the other hand, I think that the acquisition of class consciousness is indeed linked to social practice, to the class struggle.

But is this separate definition of class consciousness correct?  It is simply too broad, ranging from "resistance to the situation of exploitation" to "distancing from bourgeois ideology."  In fact, "resistance to the situation of exploitation" can be and has been interpreted in a way that counters the premise that every class struggle is a political struggle, and one such way can be found in the forgotten story of syndicalism.

Suggested below are at least four different types of consciousness, and how they relate to the class movement and even to the class as a whole:

1) Naïve consciousness is the more proper term to use than spontaneous consciousness, since spontaneity already spans across all kinds of consciousness.  Here one can find the usual labour struggles around wages, hours, and conditions.  One can also find populist rhetoric from economic populism of the lowest common denominator (pertaining to tax-and-spend politics, subsidies, business regulations, monetary policy, and international trade) up to the point of outright demagoguery, all based on underclass or petit-bourgeois false consciousness.  So-called "identity politics" based on race, gender, etc. and "Green politics" based on countering pollution can be found here, as well.  Overall, the "social-democratic" or "social justice" interpretation of "class consciousness" prevails here, and this naïve consciousness emerges from the class as a whole, with no class movement involved.
2) So-called "socialist consciousness," or the consciousness pertaining to "the struggle for socialism," is at the furthest end apart from naïve consciousness, and as mentioned above, is something that can emerge from inside the class but is also something that originates outside any class movement.  It should be noted that "outside the class as a whole" means coming from sources like tenured professors with subordinate research staff - the former being coordinator intellectuals, once the elite of the old petit-bourgeois intelligentsia, and not proletarians.
3) Political consciousness is something identified mainly in discussions on the lack thereof.  For example, today's deficit of political consciousness or awareness is one of a few obstacles preventing ordinary people from being more politically active beyond marching every few years to that woefully limited political venue that is the ballot box.  Even then, there is more talk about the voter cynicism towards all electoral parties that has been translated into ever-ineffective abstentions, thus threatening the legitimacy of the entire bourgeois "liberal-democratic" project.  In some cases political consciousness can be identified in discussions on clear signs, such as communal politics in Venezuela or voter awareness of numerous national issues in Bolivia.  In extreme cases, political consciousness is the type of consciousness referred to by the anarchist likes of Michael Bakunin when they are obsessed with provoking mass action by any means necessary.  Almost like with "socialist consciousness," political consciousness generally comes from outside any class movement but not necessarily the class as a whole.
4) Full class consciousness or revolutionary class consciousness stems from political consciousness, since every class struggle is a political struggle, and is defined in the goals of "proletarian parties" mentioned in the Communist Manifesto, especially the third goal: the transformation of the working class in itself into a class for itself, the establishment of working-class hegemony at the expense of bourgeois hegemony, and the implementation of minimum programs like the one in the next chapter - whereby individual demands could easily be implemented without eliminating the bourgeois state order, but whereby full implementation would mean that the working class will have expropriated ruling-class political power in policymaking, legislation, execution-administration, and other areas.  Because the first type of consciousness contains the aims of so-called "bourgeois workers parties" that lay claim to "Labour" or "Social-Democratic" or even "Democratic Socialist" labels, no such parties aspire towards the goals that mark full or revolutionary class consciousness, no matter how distinct this is from "socialist consciousness."  Organized expression of this form of consciousness is precisely a genuine worker-class movement, where "worker-class" is used instead of "working-class" to emphasize the merger of worker demographics and class issues!




Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context by Lars Lih [[url=[/url]]">]http:/...

Rebuilding the Left by Marta Harnecker [[url=[/url]]">]http:/...

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

Yea, that was in the previous thread. I'm planning to review Harnecker's book.

One of the critical points that I got from Finn's article, and others like it recently, is that a very critical look needs to be taken at the role of social democratic parties - like the NDP here in Canada - have in DEMOBILIZING the left. The whole parliamentary cretinism - to use an old Leninist expression - can and should be exposed the way the belly of a turtle should be exposed to show the helplessness of that creature in certain circumstances. Social democrats habitually underestimate the amount of struggle required for even the very modest successes that an NDP regime can bring.

Another critical point is how many left theoreticians are of the opinion that a stronger left, in general, would mean a stronger NDP. Most NDPers seem allergic to this conclusion. However, there are plenty of parallels to this obstinacy in life. Getting better at something often means undoing bad habits and, for a time, one's skill seems to decline prior to an improvement. This decline is taken for a general trend by the usual blockheads. 

All of this shows that of all the forms of class struggle - economic, political, ideological, and so on - ideological struggle really is critical. Critical. The whole monstrous system hinges on the animal droppings that the population is stupefied by. It's a dirty job but these "droppings" need to be better understood. Leftists need to better understand social psychology, methods of marketing and advertising (propaganda), mass media, and so on.