Proletarian consciousness can only be global: a reply to Chris Cutrone

by Jehu

I was reading Chris Cutrone’s “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today”, when some thoughts occurred to me that I feel necessary to outline. Although this might appear to be polemical that is not my intent. I want to outline my understanding of the subject of class consciousness based on the text, The German Ideology, in hopes of getting some feedback.

In the piece, Cutrone states:

“The difference between Marx’s time and ours is not in the essential problem of society, its self-contradictory form of value between wages and capital, but rather in the social and political conflicts, which no longer take the form primarily, as in Marx’s time, of the “class struggle” between workers and capitalists.”

wotwuClass, argues Cutrone, is no longer the active expression of the contradictions in bourgeois society that it was in Marx’s day. “Class consciousness” as Marxists define it, “is no more.”

I found this to be a very peculiar argument, since, so far as historical materialism is concerned there is not and never was such a thing as a working class consciousness. Engels and Marx do reference a consciousness in the German Ideology, where they first outline the materialist conception of history, but this consciousness is most decidedly not a class consciousness.

There are several reasons why this consciousness is not a class consciousness: First and foremost is the fact that, common wisdom among Marxists to the contrary, the members of the proletariat do not constitute a class. Since the proletariat is not a class, class consciousness could not possibly be an attribute of the consciousness of these individuals.

Second, the very nature of class consciousness is that the class shares “The same conditions, the same contradiction, the same interests [which] necessarily called forth on the whole similar customs everywhere.” This might also be true for the proletariat, but Engels and Marx make this very important distinction:

“The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.”

Why is this last point important? In historical materialist assumptions the proletariat has no interest to assert against the bourgeois class — none at all. That’s right, according to Engels and Marx the proletariat has no beef with the bourgeois class at all. This is a fundamental assumption of historical materialism, which if removed renders it completely incoherent.

Why is this so?

The reason is simple: in historical materialism the only reason why the proletariat brings an end to classes is because it has no interest of its own as a class to assert. This is what distinguishes it from the other great laboring class of history, the peasantry. The interest of this latter class was bound up with its material conditions of life — the land. And it is why the proletarian class must put an end to classes generally — it has no interest bound up with any particular property. Engels and Marx state this directly:

“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”

The materialist prediction of communism rests on the proletariat not having a particular class interest to assert against bourgeois rule. Without this assumption, Engels’ and Marx’s life work collapses.

So, what had to be explained in Cutrone’s article is not the state of proletarian consciousness today, but the apparent and purely transitory expression of what people took to be working class consciousness up until about World War II. This consciousness, which Marxists and other communists took to be a working class consciousness, was never a working class consciousness.

So what was it?

Engels and Marx gives some hints on this as well: it is the “consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness”. This communist consciousness is decidedly not a class consciousness and has none of the characteristics of class consciousness. First, it is not the recognition within this class of an interest that is asserted against other classes. Second, the consciousness of the working class rests on universal competition within the class over the sale of their labor power, and this competition is not mitigated by a common interest against another class. In fact, the workers struggle among themselves precisely to sell themselves into wage slavery at the hands of the capitalist class.

In historical materialism, a class is entirely riven by competition unless it finds itself in conflict with other classes. In the case of the proletariat, however, no such conflict exists — it is never in conflict as a class with the bourgeois class. Thus its relations within itself is entirely determined by competition.

In historical materialist assumptions the working class is not a class, it is the material expression of the decomposition of class society. However, since in bourgeois society every social group appears as a class, this non-class appears within society as just another class. As Marx explained in his critique of Bakunin, however, this appearance is deceptive: the political struggles of this non-class are only forms through which the working class passes until it reaches its final constitution. The final constitution of the working class is not that of a class, and, hence, cannot have a political expression.

In his Conspectus on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy:” in the 1870s, Marx is clearly trying to explain why the political expression of the working class is not its actual expression, but a stage of development it would pass through. You can see he is very agitated by Bakunin’s criticism because the nuances of his argument are reduced to black or white by Bakunin. Yes, he argues, this activity is political, but this appearance only means the working class has not yet achieved its final form. In its final form, the working class is not a political creature.

Which is to say it is not a class.

The proletariat which embodies only the decomposition of class society, nevertheless appears within bourgeois society as just another class. This appearance, however, is a transitory one, which, over time, ceases to be expressed. Once class society is completely decomposed from top to bottom, this class-like appearance of the proletariat falls away.

This is the argument Marx tries to make against Bakunin, but Bakunin wasn’t the only problem child — the bigger distorters of Marx’s position was to be found among his followers, not the anarchists. The entire category, class consciousness, is nowhere to be found in any of the writings of either Marx nor Engels. It was invented by the post-Engels classical Marxists, like Kautsky, Lenin and Lukacs. The proletariat, Marx and Engels argue in the German Ideology, has a communist consciousness, a consciousness of the need for a fundamental revolution of society.

The classical Marxists, following Kautsky, separated this consciousness from the working class and asserted the working class was only capable of attaining a working class — that is, bourgeois — consciousness. The communist consciousness of the working class, they argued, had to be brought to it from outside by bourgeois intellectuals.

But just ask yourself, what is this class consciousness? It is a consciousness among the working class of its own class interest, right?  And what exactly is the nature of an interest in historical materialism? Marx and Engels use the example of the emergence of the bourgeoisie to explain the process:

“In the Middle Ages the citizens in each town were compelled to unite against the landed nobility to save their skins. The extension of trade, the establishment of communications, led the separate towns to get to know other towns, which had asserted the same interests in the struggle with the same antagonist. Out of the many local corporations of burghers there arose only gradually the burgher class. The conditions of life of the individual burghers became, on account of their contradiction to the existing relationships and of the mode of labour determined by these, conditions which were common to them all and independent of each individual. The burghers had created the conditions insofar as they had torn themselves free from feudal ties, and were created by them insofar as they were determined by their antagonism to the feudal system which they found in existence. When the individual towns began to enter into associations, these common conditions developed into class conditions. The same conditions, the same contradiction, the same interests necessarily called forth on the whole similar customs everywhere. The bourgeoisie itself with its conditions, develops only gradually, splits according to the division of labour into various fractions and finally absorbs all propertied classes it finds in existence [1] (while it develops the majority of the earlier propertyless and a part of the hitherto propertied classes into a new class, the proletariat) in the measure to which all property found in existence is transformed into industrial or commercial capital. The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it.”

As can be seen in this passage, the interest of any class stands over against the members of that class; it is opposed to them as individuals. This interest must, therefore, take the form of a state that stands over against them and opposed to them as individuals. The interest of any class resides not in the members of that class as individuals, but is represented in a state standing over against them. The working class, by contrast, since it has no interest of this sort, can never have this interest represented in any form of state. So, according to Engels and Marx, the rule of the proletariat “can only be effected through a union”.

Kautsky and the Marxist theory of class consciousness

It has to be acknowledged that all of this is taking from a text, The German Ideology, that was not widely available to the classical Marxists. Lenin, Luxemburg et al. were relying entirely on Kautsky for their own arguments. And it has to be stated clearly: Kautsky almost word for word completely altered Engels’ and Marx’s argument for his own ends. The text Lenin quotes from Kautsky in What is to be Done is almost verbatim the exact opposite of what was written in the German Ideology. If you compare the texts, you will be astonished.

Kautsky’s role in this may have not been deliberate, since he was himself fighting the revisionists in Germany. It is not clear that he had access to the original text, so he may have been responding to those who did. In any case, the text of the German Ideology almost verbatim became identified with the revisionist position. It is precisely the socialist consciousness that Kautsky said could not develop spontaneously among the working class that Marx and Engels said was the working class’s own consciousness.

When Chris Cutrone writes, “It becomes impossible to derive a politics from class position, and so other politics take its place.” He is absolutely correct to the extent this represents the growing maturity of the proletariat in modern society. The working class actually does lose its political characteristics, but these characteristics were never that of the class, but a reflection back onto the proletariat of class relations prevailing in bourgeois society generally.

When Cutrone asks, “Why have people stopped struggling for socialism?”, the answer, as i see it, is obvious: the socialism people stopped struggling for was a political socialism: the socialism of a class that never was really a class to begin with. All political struggles are over which class will wield the power of the state. The working class as it matures is not concerned to wield this power, but to abolish it. Conflicts over culture, ethnicity, religion, etc., are not of themselves the point: they are simply manifestations of, on the one hand, the universal competition reigning among the working class, which must take whatever forms already exist; and, on the other hand, a general and growing outrage at this competition and an expression that it has become intolerable. This is not a contradiction that can be resolved within politics, but only by abolishing the state.

Class consciousness as a regressive longing for politics

The “melancholy to the experience of ‘class’ today” is nothing more than a regressive longing for the immature proletarian political struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is also an institutional praxis, a bias, among communists to turn every struggle into a political struggle. Institutionally, communists do not recognize any struggle unless it takes a political form. But to take a political form, the aim of every struggle must become the seizure of the state power and this aim can only be a national aim. There is no such thing as an international state, there are only nation states: so every attempt to seize state power must be national.

The struggle to abolish all state powers together can only be a global struggle and this is what concerns me about the Left critique of neoliberalism: this critique proposes precisely to defend the nation state from the impact of globalization. The whole purpose of the communist movement of society is to put an end to this nation state not defend its continuation. Neoliberalism and globalization are doing our work for us, our job is to do consciously what these forces are only doing reflexively and for the exclusive benefit of the capitalists and their appendages.

Communists can either push to accelerate the process of destroying the nation state power, or end up in bed with Golden Dawn and UKIP. The choice is up to us. The “consciousness of common class situation” can only be a global consciousness and this consciousness is hostile to every state.