Proletarian Class Consciousness and Social Emancipation
This is part one of a three part series
1. Social Emancipation in the imagination of Marxists
If asked about social emancipation, the typical Marxist will state something to this effect: At some point the working class will acquire something that can be called a class consciousness — a recognition of its interests as a class and of its position in society. It will then undertake a political revolution that consists of the assertion of this interest against the other class, a revolution, in which the other class is overthrown and the proletariat sets out to reorganize society according to its interest.
There are, of course, variations on this theme as it is explained by various Marxists and by those who make it their business to study Marxism. For instance, one Australian educator emphasizes the similarity of proletarian revolution to the bourgeois revolution that came before it:
“Major social change is not possible without revolution. Bourgeois revolutions overthrew feudal society, e.g., the French Revolution. Marxists insist that dominant classes will not voluntarily give up power, wealth and privilege. Their control has to be taken away from them, and this might have to involve violence.”
The Marxist, Bertell Ollman, suggests a proletarian revolution can only come about once the working class has acquired a sense of its own interests, which class interests are, he assures us, objective facts:
“Class consciousness is essentially the interests of a class becoming its recognized goals. These interests, for those who accept Marx’s analysis, are objective; they accrue to a class because of its real situation and can be found there by all who seriously look. Rather than indicating simply what people want, “interest” refers to those generalized means which increase their ability to get what they want, and includes such things as money, power, ease, and structural reform or its absence. Whether they know it or not, the higher wages, improved working conditions, job security, inexpensive consumer goods, etc., that most workers say they want are only to be had through such mediation. Moreover, the reference is not only to the present, but to what people will come to want under other and better conditions. Hence, the aptness of C. Wright Mill’s description of Marxian interests as “long run, general, and rational interests.”7 The most long run, general, and rational interest of the working class lies in overturning the exploitative relations which keep them, individually and collectively, from getting what they want.”
Werner Bonefeld, a member of the Open Marxism school, argues along similar lines, that the assertion of a class interest has the potential to lead to the revolutionary overthrow of the present order”
“The fight against the cuts is a fight for the provision of the means of subsistence. And that is, it is a conflict between antagonistic interests, one determining that time is money, the other demanding the means of subsistence. This demand, as I argued at the start, might well express itself uncritically as a demand for a politics of jobs and wages, affirming the need for rapid accumulation as the means of job-creation. It might not. It might in fact politicise the social labour relations, leading to the question why the development of the productive forces at the disposal of society have become too powerful for this society, bringing financial disorder and requiring austerity to maintain it. Such politicisation, if indeed it is to come about, might well express, in its own words, Jacques Roux’s dictum that ‘freedom is a hollow delusion for as long as one class of humans can starve another with impunity. Equality is a hollow delusion for as long as the rich exercise the right to decide over the life and death of others.’”
The idea generally holds within Marxism that, at some point, the proletariat will awaken to its interests as a class, and assert this interest against the other class, thus leading to the overthrow of the existing state. Indeed, the argument is not only made by Marxists, even the opponents of the proletarian revolution accept the Marxist argument as a valid restatement of the argument made by Marx and Engels.
For instance, one of the alleged refutations of labor theory by Murray Rothbard, in his book, Man, State and Society, is that:
“It is obviously absurd to treat “society” as “real,” with some independent force of its own. There is no reality to society apart from the individuals who compose it and whose actions determine the type of social pattern that will be established.”
If Rothbard and his sort are correct, “society”, “classes”, etc. are mere abstractions — the only real actors in history are individuals.
Oddly enough, in a certain sense, Marx and Engels agreed with Rothbard’s objection to the cardboard argument made by Marxists. They stated a capitalist, for instance, does not stop being a human being simply because he is a capitalist and his action are those of an individual not a class:
“We do not mean it to be understood from this that, for example, the rentier, the capitalist, etc. cease to be persons…”
The capitalist always acts as an individual and the interests of capital are not and cannot be his interest as an individual. He has no idea what the interests of his class are; he only knows what his own interests are as an individual. This has to be understood, because this is not just true for the capitalist, it is also true for all classes in modern society. No member of any class within society can know the interest of his class nor can he be guided by a recognition of his class interest. If this is true for the capitalist and other classes in modern society, it has to be true of the proletariat as well: there is no magical quality in being a worker that makes the worker aware of his class interest. In every case, individuals act as individuals and only as individuals.
There is nothing ever written by Marx or Engels that could ever be interpreted as suggesting that, unlike all other classes in society, the working class is uniquely guided by a common recognition of its class interest. Which means, if you take any class in isolation, including the proletariat, you would just have a collection of individuals who treat each other as competitors. Among the bourgeois class there is only competition and this is true for the working class as well; the members of both classes treat all of the other members of their class as enemies, as competitors.
So what does this imply about classes in bourgeois society and the relation between individuals and the classes to which they belong? It doesn’t mean classes do not exist as the Rothbardians think, or that classes are pure and simple abstractions. It simply means a class makes its appearance only when its members find themselves in “opposition to another class and, for themselves, only when they go bankrupt,” that is, when there is a conflict between the material conditions of existence of one class and the material conditions of existence of another.
There are two reason why the argument made by Marx and Engels is important. The first reason is that it explains, from their point of view, the series of political revolutions that marked the transition between feudal and bourgeois society. The bourgeois class emerged in contradiction to feudal social relationships and the material conditions of the old regime by tearing itself away from those social relations as it created the material conditions of its own class.
The second reason is that it explains why, from their point of view, the proletarian revolution is not a political revolution. Unlike the bourgeois class, the proletariat does not arise in contradiction to the bourgeois social relations, but as a product of those relations– it is the product of the decomposition of the old regime carried on by the bourgeois revolution unleashed by the mode of production. This industrial revolution decomposes the old society. The proletarian revolution is, by contrast, the product of this decomposition. This product is not a political product, but a material one: a communist movement of society.
As I have noted before, in this communist movement of society, the proletariat has no class interest to assert against the ruling class — which is to say, contrary to the common wisdom of Marxists, the material conditions of existence of the proletarians do not conflict with the material conditions of existence of the bourgeois class. Which makes the proletarian revolution peculiar as compared to the much more common and familiar bourgeois revolution in that it is not at all political. The proletarian revolution is not expressed as a political revolution — an assertion of a class interest — against the ruling class.
Needless to say, this statement is very difficult for Marxists to accept and they howl in protest whenever I assert it. They have this idea of proletarian revolution that more or less plays out like the bourgeois one. In fact, if the argument Marx and Engels make in the German Ideology is correct, the proletarian revolution does not play out the way the bourgeois revolution plays out and it cannot play out that way for very specific reasons.
So, if the proletarian revolution is not an assertion of a class interest against another class, what is it? I will try to explain my own reading of this problem, as described by Marx and Engels in the German Ideology, in the next section.