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The Problem of Class Consciousness February 21, 2004 by RedStar2000


Why isn't the working class in the advanced capitalist countries revolutionary (yet)?

Is it the "fault" of the "left" or are real material conditions to blame?

Here are some of my thoughts on the matter, for what they're worth.


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Let's begin with a "crude" observation. I've been around the "left" now for more than four decades. This is what I have observed.

As high as 90% of the participants are white males of above average intelligence in their late teens or early to mid 20s. While a few come from working class families, nearly all have parents in the "professions" -- and I don't mean teachers or social workers...I'm talking doctors, lawyers, perhaps engineers, university professors, etc. Once in a while, their parents are mid-level corporate managers, and I even ran into one once whose father was an actual "Texas oil-millionaire".

Young white women, also of above-average intelligence, constitute most of the remainder and also mostly come from a similar class background; people of color (from any class) are extremely rare.

Geographically, they mostly come from the Boston-New York area on the east coast and from the Seattle-San Francisco-Los Angeles area on the west coast. There's a smattering of folks from the mid-west and a tiny number from the southeast.

Ok, I'm one guy and there's no way I can parlay my observations into a "statistically significant sampling". In addition, I suffer under the same racist constraint that any white person does in North America...massive ignorance of the politics of other ethnic groups. For all I know, there could very well be a sizable African-American Leninist party or a thriving Chicano anarcho-syndicalist union...and I would have practically no way of knowing they even existed. The "left" media suffers much the same "white bias" as the bourgeois mainstream media.

But let's assume that I'm "roughly" right about all this..."in the ballpark" as the saying has it. How should we look at this from a Marxist standpoint?

Well, we could ask ourselves just what Marx meant when he talked about "class consciousness"? It wasn't just a "sense of identity or belonging" in his view. When he spoke of "a class for itself", he meant a class that no longer saw itself as "inferior" to the existing ruling class, but rather one that felt "class pride" and considered itself "fit to rule".

With historically brief and limited exceptions, the white working class in the United States has been conspicuously lacking in this consciousness. There have been periods of rebelliousness and struggle...but no clear emergence of that sense of "pride" and "fitness to rule" that Marx predicted.

Once in a while, a bright and self-educated white worker will embrace the "left"...otherwise, it's pretty much all "college kids".

The "college kids", now and then, beat their breasts and pull their hair over this "depressing" situation. There's much fuss made about "going to the workers" or "speaking the workers' language" or even "talking to the workers where they're at and not where we want them to be". But whether one becomes a Leninist missionary or some kind of fake reformist, the result is usually the same...the workers say a polite "thank you" and otherwise ignore the "left". There have been localized exceptions...but the pattern has remained intact thus far.

Why?

It's not all that difficult to explain the "college kid left". These are bright kids who either went to very good public schools or even better private schools. They were exposed to "the life of ideas" at an early age. Being perceptive, they "caught on" to some of the deceptive practices of capitalist ideologues and rebelled against that. Much of the "college-kid left" is very "moralistic" -- they see the world in abstract "good and evil" terms. The corporate polluter is "evil" while the militant environmentalist is "good". The corporate sweat-shop is "evil" while the union organizer is "good".

In other words, even when they call themselves "Marxists" or "anarchists", they usually don't have a real class analysis of present social reality. In their minds, it's a moral struggle between "good" and "evil".

This is not some kind of "fault" in their character or intelligence; it's an obvious product of the sub-class from which they originate. The "professional sub-class" concerns itself (among other matters) with defining things like "good" and "evil"...it's part of their job in capitalist society. The kids don't like their parents' definitions -- which are usually rather shabby rationales for corporate rapaciousness or imperialist aggression. So the kids make up their own definitions...it's what they've been trained to do.

Now and then, one will move on to a real Marxist understanding; probably more often then not, it will be one of the bright self-educated working class kids who will do that. S/he starts with a deeper understanding of what class really is, and with fewer illusions of "upward mobility".

But even s/he will run into the "stone wall" of proletarian indifference to "left" politics. And even s/he will puzzle or even agonize over "why the left can't get it right".

(It would be most interesting to do a study of working class kids who find their way into the left -- what were the circumstances in their lives that influenced them to do exactly what most of their contemporaries never even imagine.)

When does a working class develop into "a class for itself"? Can it happen at any time under any conditions? Or are there certain material conditions that must be present for real proletarian consciousness to emerge?

When a class society -- capitalism, for example -- is functioning successfully and even thriving, its ruling class is very "class conscious"...full of self-confidence, a "sense of mission", etc. At the other end of the food chain, the exploited class is depressed and demoralized -- it sees "no way out". Fatalism is pervasive and only individual "solutions" are even imaginable. This has been the situation here (with minor exceptions) since the stunning victories of U.S. imperialism in World War II.

A "revolutionary message" delivered to such a class "falls on deaf ears"...it sounds unreal, like a fantasy.

Indeed, such a message is often met with open hostility. It's the "kidnap victim syndrome" spread over an entire class. Just as such victims have been known to "cope" with their powerlessness by emotionally identifying with their kidnappers, many members of the exploited class "cope" by emotionally identifying with their exploiters.

It's not my fault that I don't rebel against those who exploit me...they are obviously superior to me in every way and are doing just what I would do if I were superior like them.

When the stereotypical "Joe Six-Pack" cheers the latest imperialist victory that he watches on the dummyvision, he's expressing the kidnap-victim syndrome.

Corporate and political corruption, increasingly common characteristics of capitalist society, don't upset him at all -- it's "just what he would do" if he had the opportunity (he thinks).

Very well, what are the material conditions that "break up" that "false consciousness" and open the working class's ears to revolutionary messages?

Clearly, the primary requirement is the failure of the ruling class to demonstrate its "real superiority". It must show the working class that it is no longer competent to rule. It must destroy the working class "faith" in "the order of things".

A severe economic crisis and/or an unsuccessful imperialist war are two "good" ways to do that; but there may be others. As the present century ages, there may be no particular defining "crisis" but rather a growing malaise and alienation of the working class from a capitalism that sputters and stagnates without ever quite collapsing.

What will happen then is that the various messages of the "left" will, perhaps suddenly, find many receptive ears where none existed before. There will be some very sharp ideological struggles between those who want to be the new rulers and those who want the working class to rule itself...and the outcome, at least in the short run, is not guaranteed.

In part, things will depend on what that "college-kid left" has done in the intervening years to move towards a Marxist perspective, to abandon abstract "good and evil" for a working class outlook. It would be helpful to try and recruit more working class kids to the left right now...as they may be the most important part of that move towards a real Marxist understanding.

And where there are, even now, small outbreaks of class struggle, we should be telling people the kind of future we really want to see...a communist future. It will sound like "fantasy" to many -- but in some, it will plant a seed.
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First posted at Che-Lives on February 18, 2004
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