working-class subjectivity -Reply

Adam Rose adam at
Wed Feb 14 03:56:03 MST 1996


"The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class".
"The ruling ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class".

Gramsci ( paraphrased - I'd be grateful if someone can find the original ) :

"Workers have two consciousnesses, or rather, one contradictory consciousness.
One represents the future communist society, the other the present"

Lisa :

"It seems contradictory yet true [dialectical?] that the processes of capitalism
simultaneously obscure the true nature of class relations, <cut>, while that
same exploitation presses down so insistently that workers cannot
avoid becoming aware of the lies and the theft of their lives,
generating resistance and organization."


On the surface, there is a direct contradiction between Marx's assertions that the
emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, and that
the ruling ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class. How can the
working class act in its own interests if its ideas are those of the ruling class ?

The working class is after all in a different position to previous revolutionary
classes, precisely because workers are completely separated from the means of
production. Where the bourgeoisie could set up universities, "Royal Societies", the
Freemasons etc under feudalism in order to work out its alternative vision for society,
the working class has no such opportunity.

I think really we have to answer to questions : what is it about capitalism that
reinforces capitalist ideology, and what is it about capitalism that undermines it ?

1. What is it about capitalism that reinforces capitalist ideology ?

First, as Marx says, the ruling class not only owns the means of production but also
the means of mental production. It owns newspapers, TV, etc, it runs schools [ eg
George Orwell's 1984 is ( or was ) studied by nearly every British child, but
homage to Catalonia isn't ] and universities. While there is a degree of ideological
struggle within these instituitions, basically they reinforce the ruling ideas. This
"crude" explanation of the strength of capitalist ideology should not be underestimated.

Second, there is the superficial "naturalness" of exploitation under capitalism :
they give me a wage, I ( seem to ) give them work of equal value. Capital seems
detached from our Labour, obeying its own "natural" laws. All the other hidden
inequalities of capitalism stem from this one : the state seems to float above
society as a neutral arbiter, we all have an equal right to vote etc etc.

While the workings of every society to some extent seem natural to those who live
in it, this is more pronounced under capitalism than other social systems.
Exploitation for a ancient slave or a feudal serf is just obvious. A Capital style
investigation into their exploitation was not only impossible, it was also unneccessary.
The relationship between economic and political power is not something that needed
explaining to a serf - they were just the same person, the local Lord.

2. What is it about capitalism that undermines capitalist ideology ?

In Capital, Marx starts with demystifying commodities, wage labour etc and arrives
at a point where the logic he uncovers explains what he and subsequent generations
have observed : the concentration and centralisation of capital, along with the
increased rate and intensity of exploitation.

This produces a situation where workers are forced, despite different religious or
ethnic origins, to see their common problems, common enemies, and common enemies.
The workers may see themselves as Irish or English, Zulu or Xhosa, but capital treats
them as abstracted labour power. In comparison with other social systems exploitation
is more mystified, but the exploited are also disabused of any illusions that they
are anything other than raw labour.

Another peculularity of capitalism is the "constant revolutionising of production" and
therefore of the means of mental production. Marx quotes Cleopatra "all that is solid
melts to air". Companies, technologies, whole industries and states appear and disappear
with bewildering speed. Ideology, as a result, is constantly in flux ( and lagging
behing reality ). The ideology of the familly today corresponds to the reality of
the familly in the 50's. We still have nuclear weapons, even though the cold war,
which provided their ideological justification, is over. The economy provides
competing tendencies to multi national capitalism, state capitalism, and regional
blocks, so British Capitalists are genuinely uncertain whether to go it alone or
with Europe. The ideology of Empire still exists after the death of the actual
Empire. Sometimes capital prefers local wage bargaining, sometimes national.
The particular justification changes from decade to decade. The infamous racist
Enoch Powell was the minister in charge of recruiting West Indians to work in the
health service in the 50's.

[ The best explanation of this is Bob Dylan's "god on our side" ].

This constant revolutionising of the means of mental production inevitably leads
workers to question not just the old capitalist ideology, but also the new one.
It exposes the ideology as ideology, giving the opportunity for working class
ideas to develop.

However, precisely how Gramsci's two contradictory consciousnesses work out, which
one tends to dominate in individuals and classes, cannot of course be deduced from
abstract principles. This depends on previous struggles between classes, tendencies,
parties, and the precise location of the individual in that context. Without Lenin,
there would have been no revolution. Nevertheless, Lenin was also a product of
the Russian Revolution. Also, it is possible that without Plekhanov, Lenin would
have been an alchoholic.


Adam Rose


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