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In the fourth part of the series on class, Chris Nineham explains how a revolutionary class consciousness can be developed

Part One: The Great Denial – why they don’t want us to talk about class
Part Two: Whatever happened to the western working class?
Part Three: Class analysis or identity politics?
Part Five: Southern Storms – class in the developing world
Part Six: the working class and revolution

Marx made strong claims for class. He argued that exploitative class relationships are the key to understanding how any particular society works and that people’s class position shapes their life experience more than anything else. Class struggle was for Marx the vital motor for fundamental change.

More than all this however, for Marx, the position of the working class provided it with a unique vantage point from which to understand and critique capitalism. For this reason, the working class was the main source of radical ideas in modern society. 

This argument, from which many on the left have rowed back, directly contradicts many of the snobbish caricatures about working-class people that circulate today. Workers are often talked about as backward, self-interested, and more likely to be racist or ‘nativist’ than other groups in society.

This is rubbish. Actual polls and surveys of opinion show that even in the darkest days of the neoliberal offensive, working people were more concerned than other groups about equality, keener on public ownership, trade-union rights and in general for limits to the power and wealth of big business and the rich.[i] 

Contradictory consciousness

The way capitalism affects working people’s understanding of the world is, however, complicated. People always have mixed ideas in their heads and their understanding changes over time. Workers can vote for a left-wing party for example, but still accept some racist ideas. Workers can go on strike for more pay, but still believe that management have a right to manage.

In his discussions about class, Karl Marx made a crucial distinction that is often overlooked. There is, Marx argued, a difference between a class ‘in itself’ and a class ‘for itself’. There is, on the one hand, class as an objective product of the system, and, on the other, the separate question as to whether people are aware of their own class position at any given time.

If we accept Marx’s argument that working-class people have an objective interest in overthrowing capitalism, then this distinction between people’s actual role in society and the way they understand it is vital. Without it you can’t explain why we are not permanently in a state of revolutionary upheaval. Not grasping the nature of the difference can disillusion people about the possibilities of change or lead them to believe that class is no longer decisive.

Marxism explains this by pointing to the fact that there are two sides to workers’ experience under capitalism. There are aspects of working people’s social existence that hold back radicalisation, and there are others that lead to opposition to the system and clarity about it. Grasping both sides of this experience, and how they interact, is essential to understanding how a critical consciousness can develop.

Perhaps the most common explanation for passivity or acceptance of the status quo is the influence of the media, the education system and ruling-class ideas generally. Marx and Engels discussed these things in the German Ideology:

‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.’[ii]

This is a constant factor with real importance, and the power of the media and the education system is the thing that most people think of first when they seek to explain the system’s survival. There is a logical problem here, however, in seeing ideology on its own as the key to limiting people’s understanding of the world. Looking simply to ruling-class ideas can’t explain either the fact that workers almost always hold some radical and oppositional ideas in their heads, or that working-class consciousness varies over time.

Ever the materialist, Marx looked mainly to working-class experience to explain the complexities of consciousness. There are elements of this experience that discourage resistance and obscure underlying realities. The biggest block to the development of class consciousness is the fact that workers are ‘alienated’; they lack control over the production process, which appears to be operating completely independently of them. Marx argued that the fact that we produce everything in society but that we have no control over it, profoundly affects the way we see it and understand it.

The drive to maximise profits leads to an extreme and inhuman division of labour, to ruthless discipline, regulation and monitoring of every movement. The result is devastating. The fragmentation of the process of production leads to the fragmentation of the human. This experience encourages passivity, a sense of powerlessness and an inability to grasp the overall nature of the process of production in which workers are involved.

As a result, the commodities we collectively produce can come to dominate our lives and even our thinking. Marx called this ‘reification’, or ‘commodity fetishism’, a phrase that was meant to indicate that, like a primitive fetish, the commodity appears to take on a life of its own even though it is human made. All this has the effect of concealing the real relations of production.

Workers’ labour power is itself turned into a commodity. The capitalist pays the worker a good deal less than the value she or he produces. But because the capitalist only makes good on that value when the commodity produced reaches the market, and because the market appears to operate quite independently of human agency, the robbery is hidden.

The contract between worker and employer appears fair to both sides because it too is determined by market rates. This reification affects every aspect of our life and takes its purest form in money, which Marx called ‘the universal pimp’. In the marketplace we all appear to be equal:

‘A worker who buys a loaf of bread and a millionaire who does the same appear in this act only as simple buyers, just as, in respect of them, the grocer appears only as a seller. All other aspects here are extinguished. The content of these purchases, like their extent, here appears irrelevant when compared with the formal aspect.’[iii]

There are then important aspects of capitalist reality that obscure the robbery at the system’s heart, that atomise workers and hinder the development of a clear class consciousness. Taken together, these things can generate a sense of powerlessness, a sense that there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances. This illusory sense that reality somehow happens to us, that we are unable to influence it, is the fundamental secret to capitalists’ survival. It is the soil in which the individualistic ideas of the ruling class can take root.

The beginnings of wisdom

This interaction between ruling-class ideas and the alienated experience of life under capitalism is, however, only one side of the story. There are other decisive aspects to working-class experience. First of all, the inequality in society and the compulsion at the heart of the labour process is never completely hidden. The flip side of workers’ lack of control over the labour process is the despotism of the management. Workers are:

‘Slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more hateful and embittering it is.’[iv]

Operating in these conditions tends to make people want to defend themselves and at least mitigate the worst excesses of exploitation. That is why trade-union organisation has sprung up almost everywhere, why there are social-democratic or reformist parties in so many countries, and why so many workers have voted for them. It is why there is always some level of working-class consciousness and some level of resistance. But though life under capitalism often forces people to organise to improve their conditions and vote for parties that promise reforms, it doesn’t immediately lead to revolutionary consciousness. The division of labour obscures the way the different elements of the economy fit together, and the associated alienation makes people feel atomised.

How can these limitations be overcome? How can workers break through the partial delusions generated by capitalist reality itself? Once again, Marx’s solution is eminently materialist. Workers’ consciousness, he argued, changes most radically when workers start to fight back themselves. The imperatives of active struggle against management often force people to overcome sectionalism and look for solidarity from workers in other departments or industries. Major struggles further radicalise people when the police, the media or the government get involved. Workers in these circumstances start to see who their real allies are, and who their enemies are, and begin to put together a picture of their real position in society. Most of all, active resistance tends to breed confidence in workers’ own capacities and their importance in society.

The breakthrough that led to the first complete outline of the Marxist worldview involved recognising precisely this; the significance of working-class struggle. It is for this reason above all that the idea that Marxism is fatalistic or deterministic is so mistaken. Our first sight of this breakthrough comes in Marx’s hastily scribbled notes which were later called the Theses on Feuerbach, written in 1845. In the Theses, Marx argued it is not enough to understand that people are shaped by their circumstances; you have to recognise that those circumstances themselves are created by human beings. They are created first by human labour, but also by another kind of transformative practice, the struggle for social change. When people start to try to change the world around them collectively, they start to change themselves.

In the third of the theses, Marx identified this coming together of the changing of circumstances and self-change as ‘revolutionary practice’. The way was now clear for Marx and Engels to write the rousing and crucial final paragraph of Part One of the German Ideology. Here, they argued that revolutionary or communist consciousness is the product, more than anything, of mass movements for change:

‘Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.’[v]

The road to revolution

This central insight of Marx was developed further by revolutionary Marxists in the light of the experience of the revolutionary years after World War One. It was clear from these experiences that even a seismic workers’ struggle doesn’t lead automatically to the diffusion of clear class consciousness throughout the working class. It was Lenin who first theorised the unevenness of working-class consciousness, but it became a central question in the rich discussions that took place in the Third International after the Russian Revolution.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and the Hungarian Georg Lukács were amongst those who took up these discussions most systematically. They agreed with Marx that the constant conflict between boss and worker produces some level of class consciousness at all times: a feeling of us and them; hatred of the boss; sympathy with or participation in unions; votes for social democrats and so on.

They agreed too that mass struggles can do a lot to break down illusions. Resisting wage cuts or speed-ups, or fire and rehire, involves a struggle over the terms of exploitation. When the struggle takes a sharp form, it can begin to reveal that there is an irreconcilable opposition between the interests of workers and bosses. When struggle spreads, various institutions of the state can intervene, politicising the dispute and exposing the fact that the whole edifice of official society is rigged against workers and is based on the commodification of everything.  

For both Gramsci and Lukács, as for Marx, this tendency to generalisation is greater in periods of economic crisis. At these moments, in Lukács’ words: ‘The unity of the economic process now moves within reach.’ [vi]

All the same, even at times of deep crisis and mass working-class resistance, the hold of the old ideas, assumptions and organisations are not automatically broken. There is instead an ideological crisis in the working class because in some ways workers remain caught up in capitalist ways of thought and feeling.

The established organisations of the working class, committed in general to sectional struggles and reform within the system, actively work to try to ensure that spontaneous actions of the working class remain on the level of pure spontaneity:

‘They strive to prevent them from turning their attention to the totality, whether this be territorial, professional, etc., or whether it involves synthesising the economic movement with the political one.[vii]

Trade unions, of course, remain essential in these circumstances as the basic units of working-class organisation and their reach will be a decisive factor in any major struggle. Working-class politics, however, can’t be reduced to building union strength. Unions are deeply shaped by their role in capitalist society. Their sectionalism reflects, rather than challenges, the various forms of division within the process of production. Their leaderships, whose role in society is to negotiate the terms of exploitation, industry by industry, will in general oppose calls for workers’ control and the root-and-branch transformation of society. Reformist political organisations, meanwhile, will continue to have a strong influence even at times of major struggle, and their promotion of gradualism and compromise needs to be actively challenged.

This is why Gramsci, Lukács, Lenin, Luxemburg, and others in the twentieth-century classical Marxist tradition saw that the full development of class consciousness requires specific, revolutionary organisation. Such organisation is designed to hold on to and develop the insights gained by the most conscious workers at the height of struggles, to generalise them as widely as possible and to overcome sectionalism and gradualism. This is not just a question of technically preparing a revolution, or of spreading socialist propaganda and ideas, however important these things may be. To believe so is just the other side of the idea that revolution is a matter of a spontaneous ‘break’ or ‘event’, a fashionable notion today amongst some on the academic left. Revolutionary organisation is necessary actively to develop the situation; ‘to accelerate the maturing of these revolutionary tendencies by its actions.’[viii]

Focussed as they are on elections, reformist organisations take a snapshot of public opinion, or at best of the opinions of working people, and adapt to it. Revolutionary socialist organisation has fundamentally different aims and methods. It aims to organise the most active and militant members of the working class, to try to offer leadership to those struggles which do take place, and to draw socialist conclusions out of those struggles. This involves bringing together the most radical workers around a set of principles. It implies a certain political separation from the rest of the working class, but only so that the most clear-sighted workers can campaign to persuade others that their principles are correct. The ultimate aim is to overcome division and oppression, to unite workers in an active assault on the system. But the paradox is that unity has to be campaigned for. And just as reformism takes organisational form, so must revolutionary politics, or else it can have no impact.

Capitalism generates anger, resistance, strikes, solidarity, protest, even uprisings. From time to time it turns large minorities into instinctive revolutionaries. But because of the dual nature and unevenness of experience of life under capitalism, it cannot spontaneously generate a successful revolution. A workers’ revolution is nothing if not conscious. It requires its own organisation and leadership specifically focussed on the problems and challenges raised by the task of fundamental social change. And we cannot wait until the turmoil of a revolutionary crisis to create this organisation. Its basis needs to be constructed now. There is already a gathering ideological crisis in the workers’ movement. A key task for the left is to make the revolutionary pole of attraction more visible, more dynamic and more accessible in short order.


[i] For a discussion of the data about working-class opinion, see Chris Nineham, How the Establishment Lost Control (Zero, Hants 2017), pp.22-3.

[ii] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1970), p.64.

[iii] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, London 1973), p.251.

[iv] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin, London 2015), p.14.

[v] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1970), p.95.

[vi] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Merlin, London 1971), p.75.

[vii] Ibid. p.310.

[viii] Ibid. p.75.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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