The necessary incoherence of proletarian consciousness

by Jehu

A while ago, @graphlegmblop asked me a question: “what the hell does “behaving as a class” mean?” Both of us were disappointed with my response at the time. So I am going  to restate in a way we might both find more satisfactory.

The question was raised, because my contention is that Marx and Engels did not think the proletariat was capable of behaving as a class. If the proletariat is incapable of behaving as a class, much of 20th century Marxist political strategy is Bt-B_CgIQAAZUKOdefective because it assumes the opposite: that political strategy assumes the working class can act as a class, can acquire consciousness as a class and has a class interest to assert. If none of these assumptions are true, it would explain much about the course of 20th century politics and the emergence of fascism. I contend none of them are true and that proletarian revolution was always premised on an external event that is not given in the capitalist relationship — the development of a political consciousness among the working class.

My argument is based on the argument Marx and Engels made in their first explication of historical materialism: the German Ideology. In Book 1, section D of that work, Marx and Engels outline their concept of the relation between the individual, the class and the community. In particular they sketch out the rise of classes within bourgeois society. The members of what would become the bourgeois class emerges out of the conflict with the ruling class — the landed nobility.

The development of the productive forces and, in particular, means of communication, made it possible for local instances of this nascent class to recognize each other and to assert the same interests against a common foe. The conditions of the burghers stood in contradiction to the existing relations and the mode of production determined by those relations. These conditions, shared by the burghers, were common to them all as burghers, yet independent of each of them individually.

This point has to be emphasized in the argument made by Marx and Engels: the conditions of the burgher class were independent of the individuals. The fact that the material conditions of the class existed apart from the individuals composing the class is of high import. The burghers created the conditions by tearing themselves free of the dominant relations and through their antagonism with those relations.

“The same conditions, the same contradiction, the same interests necessarily called forth on the whole similar customs everywhere.”

The material conditions of the burghers emerge gradually, and the class itself splits up along the division of labor; it absorbs a part of the propertied classes and converts the existing propertyless classes and a portion of the propertied into proletarians. In this way, already existing property is transformed into industrial or commercial capital.

At this point, Marx and Engels make another extremely important point about the internal life of a class:

“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.”

This point is absolutely critical to understand: every class is class only insofar as it carries on a common battle with another class. Its character as a class is determined solely by its conflict with other classes. Absent this conflict any class in society is nothing more than a mass of hostile competitors.

The question may be asked if this view was somehow later dropped by Marx and Engels? The answer is, No. This view of classes is a thread passing through all of their work and careers. It is so vital to understanding their view, that it reappears in volume 3 of Capital, where Marx writes:

“How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.”

All understanding of classes in capitalist society is lost the minute we forget that the internal life of any class is determined by hostility and competition — this theme permeates the writings of Marx and Engels. A class in bourgeois society can best be thought of as a hostile fraternity. And this has a vital significance for our understanding, since it means that, owing to competition raging within the class, the interests of the class as a whole — i.e., the material conditions common to all members of a class — takes a form that is actually independent of the class.

“[The] class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, …”

If I am reading the passage correctly, Marx and Engels make the argument that that we call a class is not, by any means, the sum of the individual members of that social formation, but a thing that is materially independent of those members. The class is an independent abstraction under which the individuals members are subsumed and their lives determined by it. The echoes of this argument reappears in Marx’s discussion of value at the beginning of Capital, where value is the product of the whole body of labor power, not individual useful labors.

If this is what a class is, why can’t the proletariat behave as a class in the same way the bourgeois class behaves? The reason is simple: remember: The conditions of the burghers stood in contradiction to the existing relations and the mode of production determined by those relations, but this is not true for the proletariat.

In the case of the proletariat, we find that it is the product of the bourgeois class itself, which converts the existing propertyless classes and a portion of the propertied into proletarians. While the burghers formed by tearing themselves away from then-existing conditions, the proletariat is a product of existing conditions of bourgeois relations of production. Thus the proletariat is as much a product of the bourgeoisie as is big industry. As a class, the proletariat does not tear itself away from existing conditions, does not come into contradiction with these conditions and “has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”

Assuming the above is correct, here is the big problem: even if it has no interest to assert against the ruling class and does not find itself in contradiction with existing conditions, it nevertheless is still characterized internally as a hostile fraternity, the same as any other class in bourgeois society. Moreover it is a hostile fraternity of competitors that never comes into conflict with its own ruling class. Thus the competitive character of intra-class relations are given full expression within the proletarians: they are on absolutely hostile terms with one another; there is no limit to this hostility and nothing to mediate or limit it, but their conscious action.

Which is to say, Auschwitz was not a fucking accident; what is happening in Gaza today is not a fucking accident!

An objection can be made to my interpretation of the text, but one thing cannot be objected to: the argument Marx and Engels make in this section of the German Ideology is not just of heuristic value for trying to solve the problem of the revolutionary subject and the lack of class struggle in the present crisis, Marx and Engels employed it to explain why this class, unlike all other classes, signaled the end of class society and the state itself.

This class, because it had no interest to assert as a class, would put an end to the state. If Marx and Engels were wrong about this, all their conclusions that followed falls apart. In the German Ideology, the end of classes and the state is premised on the expressed assumption that the proletariat has no interest of its own to assert in society. The very material conditions that allow the proletariat to put an end to classes, also fatally cripples its class struggle against the bourgeoisie. Proletarians are incapable of ever winning the class struggle for the same reason that they represent the end of classes and class society.

Thus, when Marx writes Capital, there is no proletarian agency in the demise of the mode of production. If Marx asserted, as so many Marxists do, capitalism collapses only as a result of a proletarian victory in the class struggle, he would have violated his own premises set forth in the German Ideology. Marx had to show capitalism would collapse no matter how the class struggle ended and even on the basis of the absolute subjugation of the proletarians to the bourgeiosie.

I think this provides a significant insight into the consciousness of the proletariat: This class does not aim to overthrow the ruling class but to put an end to its own competitive environment. This has both positive and negative expressions: it implies unions and combinations to put an end to competition within the class, but it also implies racism and anti-immigrant hostility to lock out competitors. Both are perfect expressions of proletarians consciousness and can easily co-exist side by side within the class as a whole.

Which is to say, the political consciousness of the proletariat is perfectly incoherent and a purely political strategy to overthrow capitalism must, of necessity, fail.