Follow Us:

Remembering Marx~I

Tapan Kumar Banerjee |

Marxist thinkers assert that a socialist revolution can never occur if the workers of that country do not attain revolutionary consciousness. On the issue of feasibility of the emergence of revolutionary consciousness, non-Marxist thinkers are not in agreement with the Marxists. In order to ensure the emergence of revolutionary consciousness of the working class the Marxists devised a novel mechanism. But did they succeed in realising that mechanism?

Non-Marxist social science has made class-consciousness one of its main topics of study, though, the conceptual frameworks that are used have little to do with Marx’s own. The preferred approach is the survey of attitudes, simply by asking workers a whole range of questions as to how they feel, think, and act in regard to specified social and political situations.

One of the most influential examples of this approach is found in Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer, and Platt. Those who conduct such surveys generally assume that the answers they get back are honest, of similar intensity, easy to interpret and relatively stable. But Seymour Martin Lipset, whose writings on the working class have made extensive use of such materials, admits that no attitude survey has even foretold any of the great bouts of working class consciousness that have occurred.

Public choice literature offers another non-Marxist approach to the study of class-consciousness. Here, the emphasis is on examining the practical reasoning that leads individuals to make decisions on whether to participate in class actions. Based on a highly individualist sense of decision-making and an extremely egoistic view of human nature, most of the studies that have come out of this school have demonstrated conclusively that individual workers have nothing to gain by thinking and acting as members of their class.

A third approach has simply linked class-consciousness to the increasing segmentation of the work force that follows from changes in the structure of the job market. What distinguishes different groups of workers from each other, it has been observed, has become greater than what they have in common, establishing a variety of occupation or sector consciousness in place of class consciousness.

But perhaps the most influential non-Marxist approach to the study of class consciousness is one that uses cross-cultural data to answer the question, “Why no socialism in the US?” In this case, what workers think is deduced from what they have achieved, especially politically, and what American workers have achieved in this regard is considerably less impressive than the powerful socialist and Communist parties and trade unions thrown up by the European working class. This comparative approach tries to show not only that class consciousness does not exist there, but that it could not have come about and will never come about.

Making a Marxist inquiry into the class-consciousness of today’s workers requires that we bring the whole of this notion into focus. For this, we must clarify the nature of the consciousness of a class in Marxist theory.

Marx and Engels were convinced that of all the classes that stand face-to-face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class as a result of the objective condition of their life. Pinpointing the objective condition, they argued that the proletariat represented human suffering.

But as Marx and Engels were not determinists they came to maintain that unless the proletariat attained a revolutionary consciousness it could not bring about social transformation. For Marx and Engels, the party was an essential instrument for the development of the revolutionary consciousness of the working class. They entrusted the Communists with the task of instilling into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

But Marx and Engels were opposed to the notion that the party on its own would evolve revolutionary consciousness, even if disconnected from the working class struggle, and that the workers would buttress of this consciousness. On the contrary, they believed that while evolving revolutionary consciousness, the party would be in close touch with the spontaneous movement of the working class but it would not subordinate itself to this movement.

In evolving revolutionary consciousness, the party would provide leadership to the working class. In their reckoning, the party would not bring about revolutionary consciousness from outside the working class struggle, and there was no question of the party imposing revolutionary consciousness on the working class. They looked upon the emergence of revolutionary consciousness as a product of dialectical interaction between the party and the spontaneous movement of the working class.

While searching for the origin of revolutionary consciousness of the working class, Marx and Engels often shifted in favour of voluntarism and sometimes in favour of spontaneism. But despite their shifts they felt it was imperative to look upon the revolutionary consciousness of the working class as emerging out of the dialectical interaction between the party and the class. But was their dialectical approach realizable? What Marx and Engels intended to do was to combine voluntarism with spontaneism.

To uphold the spirit of spontaneism they were eager to base the party on the spontaneous movement of the working class. Under these circumstances theree was the possibility of the party getting subordinated to the spontaneous struggle of the working class and losing its identity. To avoid this possibility, Marx and Engels sought to provide the role not of subordination but of leadership to the party in relation to the spontaneously rising working class.

But is there any guarantee that the party while intending to play the leadership role would not impose its own idea of revolutionary consciousness on the working class? So Marx and Engels were in a dilemma as to how to provide a clear shape to the dialectical relationship between the class and the party as a result of which the revolutionary consciousness of the working class would emerge.

All Marxist thinkers had to countenance the problem of providing clarity to the dialectical relationship between the class and the party as originating in revolutionary consciousness. Faced with this problem Pannekoek and Gramsci sought to provide a new direction. They discovered consciousness in an incoherent form in the working class and in a coherent and consistent form in the party. It needs to be pointed out here that Pannekoek did not have a clear stand on the root of the coherent consciousness which the party would claim.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a Retired Head of the Department, Political Science, Asutosh College, Kolkata.