Theory : Ernest Mandel Archive : The Leninist Theory of Organisation




Bourgeois ideology and proletarian class consciousness


Leninist Organisation - Part 2

Ernest Mandel




The formation of the working class as an objective category is itself an historical process. Some sections of the working class are the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of urban wage labourers; others are the sons and grandsons of agricultural labourers and landless peasants, Still others are only first or second generation descendants of a petty bourgeoisie that owned some means of production (peasants, artisans, etc.). Part of the working class works in large factories where both the economic and the social relations give rise to at least an elementary class consciousness (consciousness that "social questions" can be solved only through collective activity and organisation). Another part works in small or medium-sized factories in industry or in the so-called service sectors, where economic self-confidence as well as an understanding of the necessity for broad mass actions flow much less easily from the objective situation than in the large industrial plant. Some sections of the working class have been living in big cities for a long time. They have been literate for a long time and have several generations of trade-union organisation and political and cultural education behind them (through youth organisations, the workers press, labour education, etc.). Still others live in small towns or even in the countryside. (This was true into the late 1930s, for instance, for a significant number of European miners.) These workers have little or no collective social life, scarcely any trade-union experience, and have received no political or cultural education at all in the organised workers movement. Some sectors of the working class are born from nations which were independent for a thousand years, and whose ruling class oppressed for long periods other nations. Other workers are born from nations which fought for decades or centuries for their national freedom - or who lived in slavery or serfdom no more than one hundred years ago. If one adds to all these historical and structural differences the various personal abilities of each wage worker - not just differences in intelligence and ability to generalise from immediate experiences, but differences in the amount of energy, strength of character: combatively and self-assurance too - then one understands that the stratification of the working class into various layers, depending on the degree of class consciousness, is an inevitable phenomenon in the history of the working class itself. It is this historical process of becoming a class which, at a given point in time, is reflected in the various degrees of consciousness within the class.


The category of the revolutionary party stems from the fact that Marxian socialism is a science which, in the final analysis, can be completely assimilated only in an individual and not in a collective manner. Marxism constitutes the culmination (and in part also the dissolution) of at least three classical social sciences: classical German philosophy, classical political economy, and classical French political science (French socialism and historiography). Its assimilation presupposes at least an understanding of the materialist dialectic, historical materialism, Marxian economic theory and the critical history of modern revolutions and of the modern labour movement. Such an assimilation is necessary if it is to be able to function, in its totality, as an instrument for analysing social reality and as the compilation of the experiences of a century of proletarian class struggle. The notion that this colossal sum of knowledge and information could somehow spontaneously flow from working at a lathe or a calculating machine is absurd. [[To counter this view, many critics of the Leninist concept of organisation (beginning with Plekhanovís article, "Centralism or Bonapartism" in Iskra, No, 70 [Summer, 1904]), refer to a passage in The Holy Family - The passage states: "When socialist writers ascribe this historic role to the proletariat, it is not, as Critical Criticism pretends to think, because they consider the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. Since the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete in the full-grown proletariat; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in all their inhuman acuity; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need - that practical expression of necessity - is driven to revolt against that inhumanity; it follows that the proletariat can and must free itself. But it cannot free itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat, at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is irrevocably and obviously demonstrated in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of burgeons society today. There is no need to dwell here upon the fact that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity." Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956). pp.52-53.


Aside from the fact that Marx and Engels were hardly in a position in 1844-1845 to produce a mature theory of proletarian class consciousness and proletarian organisation (to become aware of this, one need only compare the last sentence of the above quotation with what Engels wrote forty years later about the English working class), these lines say the very opposite of what Plekhanov reads into them. They say only that the social situation of the proletariat prepares it for radical, revolutionary action, and that the determination of the general socialist objective (the abolition of private property) is "pre scribed" by its conditions of life. In no way do they indicate, however, that the proletariatís "inhuman conditions of life" will somehow mysteriously enable it to "spontaneously" assimilate all the social sciences. Quite the opposite! (Concerning Plekhanovís article, see Samuel H. Baronís Plekhanov [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963], pp.248-253.)]]


The fact that as a science Marxism is an expression of the highest degree in the development of proletarian class consciousness means simply that it is only through an individual process of selection that the best, most experienced, the most intelligent and the most combative members of the proletariat are able to directly and independently acquire this class consciousness in its most potent form. To the extent that this acquisition is an individual one, it also becomes accessible to other social classes and layers (above all, the revolutionary intelligentsia and the students). [[Today it is almost forgotten that the Russian socialist movement too was founded largely by students and intellectuals, and that around three-fourths of a century ago they were faced with a problem similar to that of the revolutionary intelligentsia today. Similar, but of course not identical: Today there is an additional obstacle (the reformist, revisionist mass organisations of the working class), as well as an additional strength (historical experience, including the experience of great victory which the revolutionary movement has accumulated since then).


In What is to Be Done? Lenin speaks explicitly of the capacity of intellectuals to assimilate "political knowledge," i.e., scientific Marxism.]] Any other approach can lead only to an idealisation of the working class - and ultimately of capitalism itself.


Of course it must always be remembered that Marxism could not arise independently of the actual development of bourgeois society and of the class struggle that was inevitably unfolding within it. There is an inextricable tie between the collective, historical experience of the working class in struggle and its scientific working out of Marxism as collective, historical class consciousness in its most potent form. But to maintain that scientific socialism is an historical product of the proletarian class struggle is not to say that all or even most members of this class can, with greater or lesser ease, reproduce this knowledge. Marxism is not an automatic product of the class struggle and class experience but a result of scientific, theoretical production. Such an assimilation is made possible only through participation in that process of production; and this process is by definition an individual one, even though it is only made possible through the development social forces of production and class contradictions under capitalism.