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My May Day Post: The Marxist Academy and the Myth of “Working Class Consciousness”

This May Day, as in all previous May Days going back almost to its establishment, will be marked by the indifference of the working class, at least in the United States, to its arrival. The odd thing about this is that May Day was born here in the United States as an expression of working class power and its determined struggle for the reduction in hours of labor. Yet here, more than in any other country, it passes almost unnoticed by the very class that created it through its own independent power. That it should be met with indifference here in the country of its birth is a paradox that requires explaining — if for no other reason than it points to a fundamentally troubling aspect of communist theory in its orthodox Marxist and anarchist variants: the apparent failure of the working class to rise to its historical mission as gravedigger of capitalism, to acquire what is commonly referred to as a class consciousness.

Part of this paradox can be explained by visiting a paper recently published by Alberto Toscano on the problem posed by Post-Workerism interpretations of Marx’s and Engels’ argument in which a worker, Nanni Balestrini, complains:

Once I went to May Day. I never got workers’ festivities. The day of work, are you kidding? The day of workers celebrating themselves. I never got it into my head what workers’ day or the day of work meant. I never got it into my head why work should be celebrated. But when I wasn’t working I didn’t know what the fuck to do. Because I was a worker, that is someone who spent most of their day in the factory. And in the time left over I could only rest for the next day. But that May Day on a whim I went to listen to some guy’s speech because I didn’t know him.

As I stated in a recent interview:

What I find interesting about this quote is that, obviously, May Day does not “celebrate work”, but celebrates a victory in the working class’s struggle for a reduction of hours of labor. What began as a celebration of a victory marking a step toward the abolition of labor became, over time, redefined as the celebration of the thing to be abolished, labor. But what is equally interesting about the quote is that the worker quoted, while apparently ignorant of this history, recognizes the idiocy of celebrating wage slavery. Even without realizing it, the worker reestablishes the original significance of the day.

This is an observation that seems lost on the critics of the Occupy and Tea Party movements.

*****

Marx and “Working Class Consciousness”

Bertell Ollman’s “Toward Class Consciousness Next Time: Marx and the Working Class” shows how the Marxist academy continues to spread a fundamental revision of Marx’s theory of working class consciousness. This revision proposes that the communist movement of society is not an empirical event, but depends on the theoretical development of the working class. The working class becomes, in this revision, the first and only class in history to make a purely theoretical revolution.

Ollman begins with the most important question facing communism in all its variants today:

Why haven’t the workers in the advanced capitalist countries become class-conscious?

The problem facing Marxists on this May Day is that their model of the social revolution explicitly requires a class conscious working class to undertake a social revolution to bring an end to the capitalist mode of production. However this class consciousness arises and whatever its characteristics, Marxists hold this consciousness is a precondition for the social revolution. And that is the problem. If anything, workers in the most advanced countries, and particularly in the United States, which is the largest single economy in the world market, appear no closer, and arguably even more distant from, acquiring the necessary class consciousness of its historical mission than ever.

Why is this? Ollman argues the problem of working class consciousness was even apparent in Marx’s day, and he suggests Marx offered a number of contingent reasons for the failure of the working classes of various countries to acquire a class consciousness requisite to its tasks:

Marx was wont to blame leadership, short memories, temporary bursts of prosperity, and, in the case of the English and German workers, national characteristics. In the last fifteen years of his life he often singled out the enmity between English and Irish workers as the chief hindrance to a revolutionary class consciousness developing in the country that was most ripe for it. The success of this explanation can be judged from the fact that it was never given the same prominence by any of Marx’s followers. Engels, too, remained unsatisfied. After Marx’s death, he generally accounted for the disappointing performance of the working class, particularly in England, by claiming that they had been bought off with a share of their country’s colonial spoils. The same reasoning is found in Lenin’s theory of imperialism, and in this form it still aids countless Marxists in understanding why the revolution Marx predicted never came to pass in the advanced capitalist countries.

A closely related addendum to this argument, Ollman argues, is the expectation on the part of Marx and Engels that the worsening conditions of the working class within the mode of production would serve as a trigger for the emergence of the necessary class consciousness among the working class. Making an argument against the finding of Martin Nicholas, who proposes Marx predicts the collapse of capitalism as a distant prospect, Ollman argues Marx greeted each economic depression with hopes that this time it would be different — the new crisis would impel the laboring classes to acquire a consciousness sufficient to accomplish their historical mission:

On the basis of his research, he not only hoped for but expected revolutions on each downturn of the economic cycle. In 1858, the year of the Grundrisse, he wrote to Engels, “On the continent the revolution is immanent.”18 And twelve years later he declared: “The English have all the material requisites necessary for a social revolution. What they lack is the spirit of generalization and revolutionary ardor.” Does this sound like a man who thought capitalist conditions were not sufficiently ripe for the workers to make a revolution? Though it is true that Marx became progressively less optimistic (and always took account of other possibilities) he never really believed he was writing for a century other than his own.

Despite this hope, Ollman admits, major crises have shaken capitalism time and again over the past 150 years without producing a class conscious of itself and its mission. Ollman believes this history requires Marxists to figure out the cause of this failure because nothing suggests the pattern will change in the immediate future.

Necessary, but not sufficient

Ollman notes that a social revolution requires both the necessary material conditions and the actions of individuals. There is, he argues, between the material conditions of society and the actions of individuals a necessary gap that can only be bridged by a working class consciousness.

“Men make their own history,” Marx said, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” In his writings, Marx was primarily concerned with the circumstances of social and economic life under capitalism, with how they developed and are developing. His followers have likewise stressed social and economic processes. As is apparent from the above quotation, however, the necessary conditions for a proletarian revolution were never mistaken for sufficient conditions: real, living human beings had to react to their oppressive circumstances in ways that would bring needed change. The theoretical link in Marxism between determining conditions and determined response is the class consciousness of the actors.

Ollman does not give a source for this argument that class consciousness is the necessary link between “determining conditions and determined response” in Marx’s own theory — he merely offers it as a self-evident “theoretical” expansion of Marx’s own argument. However, Marx’s argument is that we make our history “under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” There is nothing here to suggest we are even dimly aware of those circumstances, nor of the effect our own actions have on subsequent history. There is, for example, nothing to suggests the rising bourgeois class had anything more than superficial grasp of the dying feudal society, nor any grasp of the implications of its own actions in producing a class of proletarians who would eventually bury all classes and the state.

All Marx is suggesting in his argument is that we create our own history under historically given circumstances directly encountered. Ollman, in his wisdom, appends to Marx’s argument his own statement that “The theoretical link in Marxism between determining conditions and determined response is the class consciousness of the actors.” Yet, this additional argument is not at all evident in Marx’s argument in any way, shape or form. It is a myth created out of whole cloth by Marxists in the decades after the death of Marx and Engels, and is not supported by their writings. This myth of “working class consciousness” is the foundation of the sectarian character of Marxist theory and its insistence on its privileged role in the social revolution.

In Marx’s argument, history is made under circumstances directly encountered. Which is to say we make our history based on our experiences and the observations produced by the historically given circumstances we encounter. For the simpletons of the Marxist academy, however, this empirical activity is mediated by something called class consciousness. Ollman knows he is on shaky ground asserting this fundamental revision of Marx’s argument, but, to his credit, he does not ignore the implications of his argument. Although he cannot point to any actual statements by Marx supporting his claim, in the finest traditions of the Marxist academy Ollman accuses Marx of being inconsistent in his argument on the question of working class consciousness. The “theoretical link” provided by working class consciousness, Ollman asserts, is obscured in Marx’s argument because Marx also insisted in other contexts that the social revolution had nothing to do with working class consciousness — for instance, in this unambiguous statement on the question of working class consciousness:

The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.

According to Ollman, Marx manages to “hide” his conclusion that working class consciousness matters behind a statement that says it doesn’t. Because, you see, Marx went out of his way to convey a false idea that the social revolution had nothing to do with working class consciousness. However, since Bertell knows so much more about Marx’s argument than Marx did, he can tease the necessity for working class consciousness out of the place where Marx hid it — his own theory. Anxious to excavate Marx’s ‘true’ argument from his deliberately confusing actual argument, Ollman poses the question, “But compelled by what?” His answer is that proletarians are compelled by their common interests as a distinct class of individuals within the capitalist mode of production, a set of interests of which they must, sooner or later, become conscious:

…what the proletariat is is a class of people whose conditions of life, whose experiences at work and elsewhere, whose common struggles and discussions will sooner or later bring them to a consciousness of their state and of what must be done to transform it. Though industrial wage earners are in the forefront of Marx’s mind when he speaks of proletariat, most of what he says holds for all wage earners, and he generally intends the designations “proletariat” and “working class” to apply to them as well.

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.” 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.

So, according to Ollman, Marx’s theory assumes the “consciousness of their state and of what must be done to transform it” is proletarian class consciousness; it is “essentially the interests of a class becoming its recognized goals.” These interest are “objective” for any class and arise from their “real situation”. And, since these class interests are “objective”, it follows they can be discovered through theoretical investigation — and, perhaps, no longer actually require the input of the class itself. These interests, Ollman asserts, are not individual “wants”, but “refers to those generalized means which increase their ability to get what they want. Moreover, these interests refer not only to the present, but also the future generalized means for the individuals to satisfy their wants, up to and including, “overturning the exploitative relations which keep them, individually and collectively, from getting what they want.”

And what of the wage relationship itself? The worker “wants” to eat and feed her children, so she naturally “wants” to rent her body out as a mere instrument, but she can sell herself only if the capitalist can make a profit. And since she is a rational person who knows the conditions of her sale depends on the profitability of her capitalist’s capital, she votes for Democrats and Republicans who promise to reduce taxes on capital. Her kids are ignorant and without healthcare, but they now have all the processed food they can shovel into their obese diabetic bodies. So is it in the interest of the worker that her children are ignorant, obese, diabetic rug-rats, surviving without medical care, just so she can ensure the profits of her bosses?

To settle this question we should take a poll at the next Tea Party gathering.

No particular class interest to assert?

Since Ollman offers a such a comprehensive and workable set of ideas on the nature of class interests, I really hate to piss on his May Day parade by suggesting he neglected to add one thing of decisive importance: In Marx’s actual theory, he makes the critical argument that the workers have no class interests to assert as a class.

Yes. That’s right. In Marx’s argument the working class has no class interest. In fact, without this argument a critical component of Marx’s historical materialist theory collapses:

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.”

In Marx’s theory the proletarians are a class without any interests to raise against society, and therefore, cannot possibly make a social revolution driven by a conscious apprehension of their class interests. Nor can they acquire a consciousness of these class interests for the simple reason that they have none as a class.

The idea that the working class has a class interest to assert against the ruling class is the core revision of Marx’s theory present in all varieties of Marxist dogma. In complete contradiction to Ollman’s and the Marxist academy’s distortion of Marx’s theory, in the German Ideology Marx outlines a brief sketch of the history of classes and class society, taking as his example the bourgeois class. He states the early bourgeois class was compelled to unite together to assert their interests against the dying feudal order. The bourgeois class took shape gradually, tearing itself from the feudal order and creating the conditions for its association through their conflict with the feudal order. Marx writes:

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.

This class, Marx argues, develops only gradually, splits within itself along the lines of the division of labor and absorbs the other classes in society it finds. As a collection of individuals, the class is on hostile terms, and only presents itself as a class in the conflict with the other classes in society. On the other hand, the conditions that determine the class arises as an independent power over the class and against its members. Marx argues:

This is the same phenomenon as the subjection of the separate individuals to the division of labour and can only  be removed by the abolition of private property and of labour itself.

This abolition, Marx argues, is not possible until – surprise! surprise! — a class emerges that is no longer a class but the detritus of the decomposition of class society itself. This is the proletarians, who no longer form a class in any sense of that term, and whose very existence materially is simply constituted out of the process of decomposition of class society.Contrary to decades of accumulated Marxist dogma, in Marx’s theory the proletarians cannot develop a class consciousness because they are not a class, do not come into existence as a class, are incapable of acquiring the characteristics of a class, and already materially express the disintegration of class society.

Two questions

So, I have two questions:

  1. Now which part of this goddamned argument is so fucking difficult for the Marxist academy to comprehend?
  2. Instead of just making shit up, why couldn’t Bertell Ollman just read the man’s fucking argument as it exists written on paper?

The answer is simple: because Marx’s actual argument doesn’t provide for a privileged position of theory and a privileged vanguard of theoreticians. To actually explain Marx’s argument as it actually was written would require a lot of dumb academics to get real fucking jobs.

Every revolution in history has been an empirical event, and the social revolution is not an exception to this rule. It is not, and cannot be a theoretical revolution — mankind does not imagine a new social order into existence. As Marx clearly stated, in a statement that is not subject to misinterpretation, in his theory, “The question is what the proletariat is…” The proletariat is, in other words, in its own mass, no longer a class, but a new society already materially latent and growing within the bowels of the capitalist mode of production.

Marx again shows the distinction of the proletarians revolution from preceding revolution when he argues this revolution is made not by a class, but by individuals acting as individuals:

It follows from all we have been saying up till now that the communal relationship into which the individuals of a class entered, and which was determined by their common interests over against a third party, was always a community to which these individuals belonged only as average individuals, only insofar as they lived ” within the conditions of existence of their class — a relationship in which they participated not as individuals but as members of a class. With the community of revolutionary proletarians, on the other hand, who take their conditions of existence and those of all members of society under their control, it is just the reverse; it is as individuals that the individuals participate in it.

So unlike all preceding revolutions, where individuals act as members of their class, in the social revolution proletarians act as individuals. Since these individuals act only as individuals, there is no need for them to acquire a class consciousness, nor to assert a class interest.

Now, it is possible Bertell and the rest of the fucking Marxist academy can’t read, but, unlike Lenin’s time, the material is available on the internet. In any case, there is no longer any need to reproduce this revision of Marx’s theory, since Marx argument is present in its original form.

When we now re-examine Ollman’s question, “Why haven’t the workers in the advanced capitalist countries become class-conscious?”, the answer is obvious: Because they are not a class; because the social revolution is an empirical act of individuals who do not constitute a class but individuals who participate in it only as individuals; because these individuals have no interest to assert against the ruling class of society as a class, but only as individuals; because lacking a class interest, this class cannot acquire a political consciousness of itself and a common aim as a class; and, finally, because the social revolution is not, and never was, a political revolution in which this class asserts its interest against the dominant class.

This latter point is made explicitly by Marx in the German Ideology:

Communism differs from all previous movements in that it overturns the basis of all earlier relations of production and intercourse, and for the first time consciously treats all natural premises as the creatures of hitherto existing men, strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals. Its organisation is, therefore, essentially economic, the material production of the conditions of this unity; it turns existing conditions into conditions of unity.

Marx is stating here that the social revolution is not at all like the preceding revolutions of society: it is not political, but economic. And this economic activity is the “material production” of the conditions of the united individuals own association. Since this class is not political, and its revolution is not a political revolution of a class asserted against the ruling class, its activity must appear in politics — in political-economy — as the political aim of the other class in society, as a bourgeois aim. The proletariat cannot articulate its own aims in political (i.e., “class conscious”) terms, precisely because it is not a class, and in any case, has no political aims to articulate. Rather, as Marx argues, unlike all previous revolutions its own activity is expressed anti-politically:

Thus, while the refugee serfs only wished to be free to develop and assert those conditions of existence which were already there, and hence, in the end, only arrived at free labour, the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to the present), namely, labour. Thus they find themselves directly opposed to the form in which, hitherto, the individuals, of which society consists, have given themselves collective expression, that is, the State. In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State.

Notice Marx does not say “seize the state”, but “overthrow the state”. The social revolution is not a political revolution, but an anti-political, directly social, revolution. It is not the assertion of an interest against the ruling class, but an effort to overthrow all the interests of society imposed on it.

It seems obvious, based on Marx’s argument, that the answer to Ollman’s question is exactly the one he never addresses: How can a class that is not a class, cannot become a class, and cannot assert a common interest as a class, acquire class consciousness? The only interest this class of individuals share in common is precisely what divides it: not the overthrow of the ruling class, but the sale of their labor power to this ruling class. As a class this class is only a mass of labor power looking for a buyer. It is only when it is employed by capital, and is transformed into directly social labor, that it becomes the gravedigger of capital.

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  1. NEO•ANARCHIA
    May 1, 2012 at 9:30 pm | #1

    Reblogged this on A Nature Anarchia and commented:
    Great article! Check it out.

  2. May 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm | #2

    You have really nailed some of my pet peeves of academic marxism. Additionally, “false consciousness” is something I think is blown out of proportion along with just what the hell a dictatorship of the proletariat is and who first coined it! In any case, I think class consciousness is something to realize outside of marxist thought, and I really like bell hooks’s work on it, mostly because the US is thought to exist outside of such a paradigm. I want to think on this more for sure, but I agree that the emerging proletariat will do so because of capital’s force (ie, the state’s) on individuals to form alternative societies/communities.

    • May 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm | #3

      Thanks for your comment Kariflack. And for the info on Bell Hooks. I will track his work down.

  3. Neil
    May 5, 2012 at 11:16 am | #4

    Extremely interesting and well-articulated post. I’m still only getting to grips with the very basics of Marx’s theory, but this has been bothering me since I started. So I’m glad I came across this.

    ps: bell hooks was a woman, although it’s a very easy mistake to make. She also insisted on spelling her name lower-case for some obscure reason I can’t remember.

    • May 7, 2012 at 7:55 pm | #5

      Ha! I am such an idiot. Okay, I will track her work down. Thanks for the redirection.

  4. December 6, 2012 at 11:54 am | #6

    Not all Marxists agree that the “model of the social revolution explicitly requires a class conscious working class to undertake a social revolution to bring an end to the capitalist mode of production.”

    Audio: Is it True that “People Are Not Ready for Socialism”?
    http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/philosophy-organization/is-it-true-that-%E2%80%9Cpeople-are-not-ready-for-socialism%E2%80%9D.html

  1. May 7, 2012 at 10:21 am | #1

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