The Question of Consciousness: A Basis for Discussion

Translated from Bilan & Perspectives No. 6 (December 2005)

The text which follows as part of a series of discussions between communists in France. This particular text is a reply to a document by the comrades who still call themselves the Internal Fraction of the International Communist Current although some years have now passed since they were in that organisation. The quotations at the end of the text are from that document of the IFICC.

The question of consciousness is a wide one but this document only deals with the relationship of the party and the class. It is one of the unfortunate legacies of the defeat of the revolutions following the First World War, particularly the Russian, that the whole idea of a party to lead the proletariat in its programmatic fight against capitalism has become discredited. The fact that the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party went on to become the instrument of the capitalist counter-revolution has obscured the role it played in as the clearest expression of the proletariat before and during the overthrow of the Provisional Government of landlords, capitalists and their social democratic collaborators in 1917. What happened in the Russian Civil War (1918-21) in which the party gradually replaced the organs of the class has led many to reject the whole idea of the need for the most conscious, advanced, clear-sighted (or whatever you like) part of the class to form a party to not just spread propaganda for socialism but also to lead an insurrection against capitalism. The party leads the insurrection and gives the class back its own programme in order to begin the task but only a mass transformation of human beings can bring about socialism. This by definition can only be the work of the vast majority of the working class, and by definition it can only begin in earnest once the owners of the mass of production of ideas (the capitalist class) have been overcome. The expansion of these ideas can be found in our series on Class Consciousness which appeared in Revolutionary Perspectives numbers 21-30. This will be revised and re-issued as a pamphlet and is currently being translated into various languages of the Bureau.

The question of consciousness is closely linked to an analysis of the relationship between party and class and since a critical examination of it will lead us to identify eventual differences of methodological formulations, if they exist, we limit ourselves here to the re-statement of some basic concepts.

Firstly, it is important to clarify the concept of revolutionary, or communist, consciousness. The term doesn't just refer to the significance of being a class "in itself", a proletarian class opposed to the bourgeoisie. It's not just about the proletariat's awareness of being exploited and its need to struggle in order to end that exploitation. Communist consciousness means that the proletariat takes political cognisance of the length of time, the means, the forms of the struggle, the tactics, the strategy and the political programme it needs to actually overcome the conditions of subordination imposed by capitalist relations of production and distribution. It also means overcoming the political form the bourgeoisie gives to them. That is - to quote Marx - the proletariat has to pass from a class in itself to a class for itself.

The history of class struggle has largely taught us that the proletariat, pushed by objective conditions, can - and not necessarily must - fight on the basis of the defence of its immediate interests. It also teaches us that it can give itself the instruments for its struggle and it can reach the understanding of the need for an insurrection which is the ultimate outcome for the class struggle. But it can't arrive at full class consciousness as a whole. In other words, it can't solve tactical and strategical questions, and even less arrive at a complete political programme, if the revolutionary party hasn't crystallized within it.

What distinguishes all the idealist, mechanistic, councilist and economist positions from a correct materialist and dialectical interpretation, is precisely the question of consciousness and the relation between party and class. The fundamental question isn't to know if consciousness comes from the inside of the class itself, in an autonomous way, through the development of economic demand struggles which might become political at a certain level and which might lead by themselves to the inescapable maturation of consciousness; or if it comes from the outside, it means there would be a party born outside the class and which would inject from above, as a demiurge, the revolutionary political consciousness. For us, to pose the question in these terms is incorrect since the party isn't something outside the class. It is its more advanced part which represents the synthesis of all the demands of the class, both immediate and economic and those pertaining to its historical task. This consciousness necessarily lives to a certain degree, on practices and in places independent of its relation to the class. In this sense, and only in this sense, is it "outside". Whatever its sociological composition, proletarians, petit-bourgeois, intellectuals coming from the bourgeoisie, the party is born in the class. It makes its own all the demands of the class struggle, from the more minor economic, to the more general and strategic ones, right up to the complete political programme. The political knowledge of the party is the result of the historical synthesis of various class experiences. It learns from the causes of defeat, just as it brings to the fore the reasons for victories. It daily draws on the impulses which come from the twists and turns, sometimes hidden, instinctive and sectoral, of class struggle. It appropriates them in order to return them to the whole class through its political tactics and strategy. Thus, the relation is a dialectical relation not between a class and a party which is separate from it, and which brings it consciousness from outside; but from within the class itself, amongst the mass of the proletariat and its more advanced reflective part. This advanced part receives the impulses from the rank and file and returns them, worked out in terms of political strategy, to this rank and file itself.

It doesn't mean that during its struggle the rank and file of the proletariat can't develop a certain degree of political consciousness. But it does mean that given the ideological domination of the bourgeoisie, particularly today, the sectional aspect of economic demands and the lack of global vision of the final goal of class struggle, demand the presence of the party. It is the party which provides this global class consciousness and a proletariat, even in struggle against the class enemy, can't express this if it hasn't itself produced from within its vanguard, its party.

So consciousness isn't brought from the outside as if it had fallen from the sky since the party isn't a body foreign to the class. But it is the product of two inseparable moments which are dialectically related. And this because, for us, the party as political instrument of the class, must always be present and must seek to be the point of political reference in every moment of the class struggle. We reject the idea that the political evolution of class struggle towards revolution could happen without the party, or that the party will simply be an organizer and only generalises struggles, as if the entire class could independently work out such things as the political programme, and the means for carrying it out. We also consider as dangerous the thesis that preaches the need for the party only in revolutionary times while it relegates the party, at best, to a study centre in the counter-revolutionary phase i.e almost all the time. This is like saying that objective conditions are enough. Thus a major economic crisis, after having forced the proletariat to struggle, supposedly determines when the party comes into being and all the links between the two entities mechanically fall into place. In this case too, history teaches us how great proletarian struggles have been politically ruined and have been bloodily repressed because of the absence of a political leadership, or a party born too late, in the middle of the struggle, and distant from the class because of the serious delay in forming a political relationship which can't be forged in a day.

Objective conditions can set class struggle in motion. They can ease and strengthen the relations between the class and the party. But they can't create them from nothing. And if they did so, it would be too late anyway. Far too late. The party must do its best to be already present in the historical phase prior to the insurrectionary stage. It must have succeeded in establishing relations with the body of the class itself, however small, minor, but effective. Otherwise the events themselves, the crisis and the proletariat's willingness to struggle, wouldn't be grasped by the so-called party. It would thus pave the way to another political defeat with all its consequences. This would make a future revival of class struggle still more difficult. It's precisely because the party is a part of the class, that it is a permanent, and not an occasional, instrument of the class struggle. Either it grows with the class and evolves with it by giving it political leadership, or it is destined to the inevitable defeat. The latter is even more certain if one holds the theory that the party only comes into being or goes along with the class struggle only after it has begun, while it returns to the shadows, or retreats, in times when the class struggle disappears, or is only at a low level of struggle

This doesn't mean the party can live an autonomous life independent of the social context around it. In overwhelmingly counter-revolutionary periods, the tenuous relations which unite party and class are broken, so that the proletariat is defeated by its class enemy and the party is literally wiped out. But this doesn't prevent the more advanced elements from carrying on the effort to maintain a minimum of political and organisational continuity according to the situation. The party cannot choose the conditions in which it becomes involved, or arises and disappears. On the contrary, economic and social conditions define the rhythm of the class struggle, and the extent of the possibilities for the involvement of the party, which can't avoid attempting to become the reference point for the class struggle whatever its level. The main task of the party in economic struggles, besides taking their demands to the ultimate, is to give political meaning to the struggle. In other words, being part of the daily struggle, or defensive economic struggles of the proletariat, is the necesary and inescapable condition for trying to take the economic, trade-unionist, struggle up to the political level. The economic struggle arises, produces what it can produce on the level of demands, and then declines without leaving a political trace. That is unless there is an intervention by the revolutionary party whose task is to act to transform any economic struggle, whether won or lost, into political knowledge that can be returned to the next struggle, at an even higher level of class consciousness.

In more explicit terms, the priority of the party is to develop the class struggle from its natural sphere, i.e. that of immediate demands, into a political struggle. If it doesn't struggles could increase in terms of organisation, and even on a political level, as far as consciousness of exploitation and of the need to fight the class enemy are concerned, but they would continue to remain within the framework of demands struggles without going beyond the economic situation which produced them. In this sense, the presence of the party is absolutely necessary, alongside, of course, its rôle as the strategic point of reference to lead the revolutionary assault and elaborate the communist programme.

In this regard, the formulation:

When the working class enters into a struggle for the defence of its immediate economic interests, it objectively determines the question of the consciousness of its historical role

is openly opposed to any interpretation of a relationship between party and class regarding the question of consciousness. If it were so, economic demands of the class by themselves, would be enough to mechanically determine the consciousness of its historical rôle composed of the tactics, strategy, and ultimately the communist programme. There would be no need for the party; everything would be delegated to the movement of the class and to the independent maturation of its historical rôle. The opposite is actually true. It's the party, the class vanguard, the more conscious part of the proletariat, which carries out the qualitative leap aimed at channeling the struggle from an economic level to a political one.

Equally invalid is the following formulation:

these [economic demand struggles] are the objective conditions for consciousness, of the experience the class accumulates, of the distancing of a certain number of workers from the chaos of ruling ideology and for the synthesis and theorisation of this experience which, all through the history of the class and its struggles, gives rise to a political expression of the proletariat: a political expression which, at a certain level of development, becomes the class party.

In this case, firstly the role of the party is assigned to the class, and then the party is made to arise in predetermined historical phases which are characterised by their separation from the political consciousness of the class itself. The party is the historical fruit of a series of economic struggles, of synthesis and elaborations which come from the experience of class struggle and which, once become tactic and strategy, return to the class to orient it on a revolutionary path, breaking the economic cage in which it is confined. But it doesn't arise after the class as a whole has independently completed its course of acquiring consciousness: nor does it arise during every revival of the class struggle as the logical completion of an evolutionary course already predetermined.

The party-class relationship is not an academic question. On the contrary the clarity and fundamental agreement on this fundamental of communist theory and practice is an indispensable precondition for the process of coming together of all coherently revolutionary forces - something which we passionately desire.