“The real fruit of their battles …”
3. “What Marxists once meant by ‘class consciousness’ is no more.”
In the previous section of this essay, I argued, properly understood, Marx and Engels assumed the proletarian social emancipation does not take the form of a conflict with the ruling class. To say this has implications for the present crisis is an understatement. I think it goes a long way toward explaining why the most remarkable feature of the present crisis is the lack of a class struggle — which absence has been puzzled over by both bourgeois ideologues and by Marxists.
The writer Chris Cutrone, for instance, observes:
“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. “Class” has become a passive, objective category, rather than an active, subjective one, as it had been in Marx’s day and in the time of historical Marxism. What Marxists once meant by “class consciousness” is no more.”
Speaking of the apparent apathy of the European proletariat in face of the impact austerity has had on its living standards, without a corresponding improvement in the so-called “economy”, George Magnus of the banking giant UBS makes essentially the same point as Cutrone from the standpoint of a bourgeois financial technocrat:
“The most fundamental manifestation of this damage is, of course, unemployment. But this is only the most visible sign of the upheaval in Europe’s famed social model, and overlooks other important social and economic fault lines, including stagnant or declining real wages, rising income inequality, levels of youth unemployment of between 25% and 50%, and the rise in the numbers of long-term unemployed. These phenomena didn’t begin with the financial and Euro crises, of course, but they have certainly been exacerbated by it and by the response of governments, and citizens are certainly making the connection, regardless. So why are the streets relatively quiet? The short answer is we don’t know.”
Both Marxists and bourgeois observers seem to be at a loss to explain the limited resistance put up by the working class to the open class warfare waged by capitalist governments against them. Both point to the possibility of some as yet unexplained defect in the character of the proletariat. Marxists, in particular, advance hypotheses to explain this hidden defect, which must have somehow escaped Marx and Engels own notice. The possibility that the behavior of the proletariat in this crisis might suggest it is incapable of developing the class consciousness Marxists expect is never admitted, since, for Marxists, the only path out of constant capitalist crises is thought to be the political action of the working class. According to Marxists, therefore, without a class consciousness, the proletariat is unable to put an end to the rule of capital nor its crises.
The actual defect, of course, is not with the proletarians, who are not and never were a political class, but with Marxism, which is not, and never was, anything but the political expression of the class. The limited, purely political, character of Marxism is demonstrated by its inability to explain the lack of class struggle, in the present crisis, on the part of the proletariat — a class, moreover, which, even in the view of Marxists themselves, is not really a class, but the material expression of the decomposition of class society.
For this reason we find not only the extremely hostile reaction by Marxists to John Holloway’s argument that seizure of political power is self-defeating; but also, as if to add insult to injury, Holloway’s own admission that he is unable to formulate an aim other than seizure of political power:
“How then do we change the world without taking power? At the end of the book, as at the beginning, we do not know.”
It goes without saying that wertkritik suffers precisely from this limitation as well. Rather than disclosing for activists the material connection between the abolition of labor and the abolition of the state, Elmar Flaschart instead sheepishly explains, to anyone who bothers to listen, that the abolition of labor has no implications for politics:
“There is no new program or a master plan for emancipation that can be developed out of the abolition of value. Rather, it can be seen as a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents. How emancipation will be achieved is a more complex story. We know what will not work: much of what the Old Left proposed as Marxist politics. A lot of that should be abandoned because, essentially, abstract domination cannot be abolished through the imposition of some other kind of direct, personal domination. If we are to critique the abstractions of the economic forms, we similarly have to target the political form itself. While Marx and Engels suggested as much by their formulation of the state eventually “withering away,” I think we need to be a lot more radical. Emancipation ultimately has to mean the abolishment of the political as well. This is contradictory in the present political situation, but we should not try to postpone this task until after the revolution. We should see the constraints and the fetishizations immanent to the political form as something we want to get rid of now.”
Thus, even self-critically, as in the case of both Open Marxism and Wertkritik, we see Marxism proves unable to overcome its inherent limitation as mere political baggage, an anachronistic throwback to an earlier stage in the development of the productive forces and of the proleletarians own movement. And this is because Marxists make a theoretically false distinction between political power and abolition of labor – a distinction which can never explain how a class can, in even a limited way, i.e., by means of its overwhelming demographic majority, rule over the very class to whom it sells its labor power. How can a class be the master in the sphere of politics and the slave in its everyday economic reality?
The problem of social emancipation is not to be found, as Flatschart argues, in the increasing complexity of contemporary politics, but in the fragmentation of the conditions of labor, which achieves its highest expression in the world market. This fragmentation is expressed in the separation of the material conditions of capitalist production from the individuals composing bourgeois society, the division of labor. And here is where the difficulty arises for Marxism: Labor is premised on the fragmentation of the conditions of labor, but this fragmentation is simultaneously expressed materially in those conditions existing independent of the members of society in the form of the bourgeois state, the illusory community.
Thus, the fragmented character of the material conditions of bourgeois society are expressed simultaneously in the form of labor and the state. There is, on the one hand, no way the working class can put an end to labor without, at the same time, putting an end to the state; and there is, on the other hand, no way the proletariat can put an end to the existing state without at the same time putting an end to labor. Finally, both of these can only be accomplished by putting an end to the fragmentation of labor and the division of labor — a condition that is not and cannot be achieved by any political revolution, but only through the workers’ own association.
“The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community.”
They develop this idea later in the text where they explain social emancipation,
“… can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown, and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, without which the revolution cannot be accomplished; and in which, further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.”
Finally, they introduce this idea into the Communist Manifesto, where they explain it is not the political victories of the proletariat that matters, but its growing association:
“Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”
Marxists believe they can finesse this necessity by political means that can range anywhere from simple social democrat reforms to outright seizure of the existing state. In the Marxist argument, the emphasis has always been on the seizure of the state power, on the conquest of political power or by the application of a political pressure by the proletariat on existing relations, i.e., on achieving a political victory over the bourgeois class. In any case, the aim is a mere political seizure of power, not the actual overcoming of the fragmentation of labor. Since the fragmentation of labor is the premise of both labor and the state, it can only be overcome by “the community of revolutionary proletarians”. Thus it is the association of laborers, which puts an end to the competitive pressures within the class, not seizure of a political power, that puts an end to both the state and to labor.
Only in a universal association can the proletariat find its social emancipation.