Barry Biddulph examines issues of organisation and consciousness raised by the Communist Workers Organisation’s (CWO) pamphlet,Class Consciousness, and Revolutionary Organisation.
For the CWO,”Class consciousness is not the direct reflection of the daily material existence of the proletariat,but its indirect product based on a reflection of the lessons of the high points of proletarian struggle”. (1) This understanding of the relationship between a communist organisation and class is an amended version of Lenin’s 1902 schema of bringing socialist consciousness from outside the economic struggle of the working class. The material life of the working class is separated from the formation of Marxist theory and organisation. There is an artificial separation of elemental class struggle or spontaneity, and class consciousness. But, in Rosa Luxemburg’s words it is : “only in the struggle itself that the proletarian army is itself recruited, and only in the struggle that it becomes conscious of the purpose of the struggle”. (2)
There is certainly a heavy sense of political quietism about waiting for the next historical highpoint to prove the correctness of the CWO’S lessons of past revolutions. Yet, the abstract nature of their understanding of class struggle can be seen in their comment that : “it is clear that there is a world of difference between a strike against an attempt to lower wages and a mass struggle which calls for the overthrow of the ruling class”. (3) The history of class struggle shows the lifelessness of this comment. The Russian revolution of 1905 began as a strike of typesetters,the Soviet began as a strike committee. The February revolution in Russia, in 1917, started as a labour dispute in the Putilov works in Petrograd. In 1972, in Britain ,illegal picketing by London dockers sparked a spontaneous general strike from below to challenge the state. Political and economic issues were intermingled.
In class struggle, working class consciousness is developed to meet the challenges and demands of changing circumstances. It is not a question of artificially separating consciousness from spontaneity. Communists attempt to facilitate the development of the working class into a self-conscious subject striving to forge an alternative to capitalism. The communist organisation is an organic part of the ongoing process of struggle. The working class become conscious of its aims and fights for them. Communist organisation is not joined or linked to the working class : it is the working class’s own movement. (4) Communism comes from within the working class movement, not from the outside.The idea of communism was not invented by Marx. (5)
Theoretically the CWO refuse to go with the flow. Class consciousness is understood to be the passive reflection of the lessons of previous revolutions. They partially agree with Lenin’s WITBD, agreeing that the working class cannot formulate an independent ideology, (6) claiming that what Lenin really meant by outside was outside the physical boundaries of the daily class struggle. (7) This is obviously at odds with the self emancipation of the working class. There exists a real political danger of undervaluing or dismissing the potential of real movements, because they fall short of the requirements of the programme. Rosa Luxemburg made this point in her polemic with Lenin’s, One Step Forward Two Steps Back, The working class “insists on making its own mistakes and learning the dialectic of history for itself”. (8)
This is when the working class becomes a class for itself and begins to overcome alienated and reified social relations of exploitation which structure Capitalist society. Historically, Capitalism has created and developed the working class as a class in itself in relation to Capital. This is not entirely objective since base and superstructure are inter-laced. Sheila Cohen make the point when she writes : “working class consciousness is often contradictory, because the world is itself contradictory : a mixture of material relations which appear as natural so to speak,eternal,and those underlying relations which are both obscured by those appearances and constantly surface in working class experience”. (9) The CWO’s contention that the proletariat’s consciousness is not acquired directly from struggle seems to echo the epistemology of mechanical materialism.
This is the impression from the first chapter of the pamphlet, where there appears to be an element of bourgeois or enlightenment materialism, probably absorbed from Bolshevik philosophy (Plekhanov and Lenin prior to 1914). There is certainly an echo of Engels and his division of philosophy into two great camps of idealism and materialism. We are informed that for idealists,”ideas have an existence independent of human activity and are the prime movers of historical change”. (10) But, the point about Hegel’s philosophy was that ideas and reality are not separate. As Shlomo Aveneri explains, from Hegel’s phenomenology, Marx derived the view that reality is not mere objective datum external to man, but is shaped by him through consciousness”. (11) Against passive reflection : “in contradistinction to materialism,the active side was developed abstractly by idealism “. (12) This is also the point about educating the leader with a programme.
There is a strong emphasis in the pamphlet on Communists as an active minority up to the point of revolution. This seems to be an uncritical absorbtion of Bolshevik vanguardism. Although they do accept,contrary to their theory of the relationship of party and class,the very important point that a revolutionary organisation cannot be an instrument of government and the state. workers power can only be rooted in the mass organisations thrown up in struggle against the state. There is a rejection of the People’s or Workers State. However there is no real understanding of how the Bolshevik party state became a dictatorship over workers. This probably reflects their own theoretical substitutionism. Ironically, given their anti Trotskyism. they insist the main cause of the degeneration of the Russian revolution was, “the material situation of an isolated working class”. (13)
We are back to mechanical materialism. The role of ideas,or the form of the party in the degeneration are dismissed : “we reject the idea that the failure of the revolution was primarily because of the a- priori attitude of the Bolsheviks” (14) The word primary betrays their one-sided undialectical view. To give a few illustrations of the weakness of Bolshevik ideology. The Bolsheviks social democratic view of the economy as neutral technology, so that Taylorism could be an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat or State capitalism as a transition to Socialism. Then there is Lenin’s view of workers democracy as dispensable not essential. Michael Waller asks the question, is :”there not a link between his (Lenin) recommendation to put the lid on the opposition in 1921 and his views of democracy in 1902 as a dangerous plaything”. (15) If the CWO accept a significant role was played by the Bolshevik ideology of the state as an instrument of revolution, then why the uncritical view of Bolshevism in general? (16)
1 Class Consciousness and Organisation, October 2010,p.23
2 The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin Anderson,Monthly Review Press, New York, 2004, p.252.
3 Class Consciousness and Organisation,p.8 There are many examples of strikes turning into a challenge to the state. The 1984 miners strike,in Britain. The Great unrest in Britain 1910-14. One of the best accounts of how the capitalist separation of politics and economics breaks down is Rosa Luxemburg’s account of Mass strikes in Russia in 1905.
4 The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p.253.
5 Babeuf’s conspiracy of Equals was probably the first form of communist organisation.
6 Class consciousness and Organisation, p.24
7 ibid p.24
8 The Rosa Luxemburg Reader,p.265. Despite their contempt for Trotskyism the CWO repeat Tony Cliff and Alan wood’s false claim that Rosa’s comments are not directed at Lenin, but German Social Democracy. The title of her piece is Organisational problems of Russian Social Democracy and includes the words “the book before us, One Step forward Two Steps Back, by comrade Lenin”, and then goes on to detail problems with Lenin’s ultra centralist organisational plan.
9 Sheila Cohen, Ramparts of Resistance, p.191
10 Class consciousness and Organisation,p.2
11 Shlomo Aviniri,The Social and Political thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge University Press, 1968,p.68
12 Karl Marx,Theses on Feuerbach, Lawrence and Wishart,London p. 121
13 Class Consciousness and Organisation, p.38.
14 Class Consciousness and Organisation, p.43
15 Michael Waller,Democratic centralism, Manchester University Press,1981,p27 The values of centralism and discipline were enduring one’s for Lenin. In his left-wing communism he tried to give the impression that Bolshevism was strictly centralised and disciplined and a Party from 1903.
16 This is not the only inconsistency in the pamphlet. It appears to have been written by a number of comrades,but I have been reliably informed that this is not the case.