“The consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution …”

by Jehu

This is part two of a three part series. Part one can be found here.

Part 2: Bourgeois Consciousness versus Proletarian Consciousness

In part one of this series, I claimed that, in the German Ideology, Marx and Engels argued that the proletarian revolution quote-marxism-is-essentially-a-product-of-the-bourgeois-mind-joseph-schumpeter-165264does not play out the way the bourgeois revolution plays out and it cannot play out that way for very specific reasons. Given this claim, I have to answer the obvious question: If the proletarian revolution is not an assertion of a proletarian class interest against the ruling class, as Marx and Engels themselves asserted, what is it?

Part of the answer to this question might lie in the nature of the bourgeois class itself. That class, according to Marx and Engels, has “an independent existence over against the individuals” that compose the class. There is a real distinction that must be made between the class itself and the individuals who compose it that is not simply an abstract one as the Rothbardians anarcho-capitalists believe. This peculiarity of the bourgeois class is not specific to it, but is a feature of bourgeois class society itself. According to Marx and Engels,

“Individuals have always built on themselves, but naturally on themselves within their given historical conditions and relationships, not on the “pure” individual in the sense of the ideologists. But in the course of historical evolution, and precisely through the inevitable fact that within the division of labour social relationships take on an independent existence, there appears a division within the life of each individual, insofar as it is personal and insofar as it is determined by some branch of labour and the conditions pertaining to it.”

Thus, the material conditions of any class within bourgeois society is not only in contradiction with the material conditions of other classes in society, it is also independent of the individuals who compose the class. According to Marx and Engels, this independent existence of the material conditions of the class, i.e., its class interest, is a real independent existence, not simply an abstract one.  It takes the form of the illusory community, a bourgeois state, that itself has an independent existence standing over against the members of the bourgeois class as well as against other classes in society. The state is a combination of one class standing over against other classes and independent of the class whose interest (material conditions) it represents.

Moreover, the division of the interests of the class from the members is not unique to the bourgeois and earlier classes. According to Marx and Engels, the division between the class and its individual members actually reaches its most developed form with the emergence of the proletariat.

Now why would that be?

The answer is surprisingly simple and would occur to any Marxist if they ever took the time to give it a minute’s consideration: With the proletariat, for the first time, we have a class whose material conditions of existence — labor — only enriches the other classes in bourgeois society and impoverishes it. As a class, no state could represent the proletarians, since, as a class, their material conditions of life only enriches the bourgeois class. How could Marx and Engels posit a state for a class whose material conditions of existence, not only did not come into contradiction with the material conditions of existence of the ruling class, but only served to enrich the other class? Try as they might, Marxists have no answer for why individuals whose condition of existence only serve the other class need a state. Even if they could “rule” through a state, this state would represent the interest of the other class, not the proletariat.

This fact was so obvious to the classical Marxists that even in their disagreement with Marx and Engels, neither Kautsky nor Lenin proposed the working class had a class consciousness or asserted a class interest against the bourgeois class. It seems to have been accepted by both Kautsky and Lenin that individuals know what their own interests are, not the interests of their class. Thus, Kautsky’s and Lenin’s disagreement with Marx and Engels is not whether the class is capable of developing a class consciousness, but whether it can develop a communist consciousness.

In his argument, Kautsky seems to conflate a communist consciousness with the scientific knowledge needed to manage modern social production. As referenced by Lenin in his book, What is to be done”, Kautsky states:

“Of course, socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the proletariat has, and, like the latter, emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [K. K.’s italics]: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig].”

Kautsky’s argument was not extraordinary, since it directly parallels a similar argument Bakunin made against Marx as well. Precisely because, as Kautsky asserted, socialist consciousness required “scientific knowledge”, Bakunin argued power in the commune would become increasingly concentrated in the hands of those that had the knowledge. These knowledgeable persons would, in time, become a new state within the commune. Unlike post-war Marxists who wonder why the “class consciousness” of the working class is so undeveloped, the classical Marxists and anarchists appear to have assumed no such class consciousness at all.

The question raised by the arguments of Kautsky and Lenin against “the revisionists” is whether the proletariat is capable of developing a communist consciousness and the answer to this seems to hinge on the definition of communist consciousness.

In their own revision of labor theory, Kautsky and Lenin did not suggest the proletariat would develop a class consciousness, rather, they suggested the working class would not be able to develop the scientific knowledge required to manage a modern economy. Lenin argued there is only a bourgeois consciousness and a communist consciousness. He never suggests there is something that could be called a proletarian class consciousness that is antagonistic to a bourgeois class consciousness — in fact, he makes an argument against such a notion:

“Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a “third” ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology. There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology, to its development along the lines of the Credo programme; for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism, is Nur-Gewerkschaftlerei, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”

According to both Kautsky and Lenin, then, bourgeois ideology is the class consciousness of the dominant class, while socialist (communist) consciousness is the “profound scientific knowledge” necessary to manage a socialist society. Pointing to the very same distinction as Kautsky, Bakunin argued,

“The Marxists are aware of this contradiction and realize that a government of scientists will be a real dictatorship regardless of its democratic form. They console themselves with the idea that this rule will be temporary.”

In this way, Bakunin arrived at the logic of Leninism decades before Lenin himself, if with different conclusions. What Kautsky called communist consciousness, Bakunin pointed to as the material basis for the emergence of a new state composed of elite intellectual and highly skilled workers within the commune.

But is Kautsky’s “profound scientific knowledge” what Marx meant by the communist consciousness of the proletariat? For Kautsky, Lenin and Bakunin this body of scientific knowledge was in the hands of a minority of the commune. Kautsky and Lenin “out-Bakunin-ed” Bakunin by asserting this scientific knowledge is not only held by a minority, the minority itself was a stratum of bourgeois intellectuals who rallied to the proletariat’s cause. While Bakunin limits his criticism of Marx and Engels strictly to the technical and scientific knowledge of production held by the upper stratum of the social producers in advanced society; Kautsky and Lenin extended this argument to the very concept of communist consciousness itself.

Thus, according to Kautsky and Lenin, even the proletariat’s own unique consciousness arises not from its material conditions of life, but directly from the other class. While bourgeois consciousness is a product of its material conditions of life, proletarian consciousness is, bizarrely enough, a product of bourgeois material conditions of life too.

Marx and Engels, however, explicitly described communist consciousness as a consciousness emanating from the proletarians throughout society. The passage in which this consciousness is described is extremely interesting once we compare it to a nearly identical formulation in Kautsky allegedly refuting “the revisionists” in the German party.

Kautsky states:

“Many of our revisionist critics believe that Marx asserted that economic development and the class struggle create, not only the conditions for socialist production, but also, and directly, the consciousness of its necessity.

While, in the German Ideology, Marx and Engels state:

In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, … and connected with this a class is called forth… from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness …”

Kautsky is clearly referencing this fragment of the German Ideology, but only to deny Marx and Engels believed it. He thus asserts Marx’s and Engels’ own argument on proletarian consciousness is a revisionist theory.

In contradiction to our present day Marxists, this consciousness is not a class consciousness; in contradiction to Kautsky and Lenin, the proletarian consciousness, as defined by Marx and Engels, is a communist consciousness, but directly communistic. Since proletarian consciousness is not a class consciousness, yet must arise from the material conditions of life of the class of proletariat, what is this consciousness? To say it is not a class consciousness means, among other things, that it does not express an antagonism to other classes. Bourgeois consciousness is an expression of the antagonism of the material conditions of the class to the material conditions of life of the old regime. As the bourgeois class tore itself away from those conditions, and as it developed new conditions of dependence within the division of labor, this gave rise to a unique bourgeois class consciousness, which expresses the average conditions of the class.

By contrast, the proletariat does not tear itself away from bourgeois conditions of production, but is itself the product of those conditions. Its consciousness, therefore, is not the expression of an antagonism between its material condition of life and bourgeois material conditions of life; rather, the proletariat’s material condition of existence — labor — is itself the premise of the bourgeois material conditions of life. For this reason Marx and Engels makes the argument that social emancipation of the proletariat means it puts an end to its own material conditions of life, not the other class. Its consciousness, therefore, is not the consciousness of a need to overthrow another class — a political or class consciousness; it is instead the consciousness of the need to put an end to itself, to labor.

For the proletariat, social emancipation is not emancipation from another class — a political emancipation — but emancipation of the proletariat from labor itself, i.e., from its own material conditions of existence.

As we will see in the final section of this essay, for the proletariat, social emancipation is not to be found in a conflict with the ruling class.