[Marxism] "Building class consciousness" (was: RE: Socialist Voice (Canada) criticizes Nader campaign

LouPaulsen at comcast.net LouPaulsen at comcast.net
Tue Jun 15 16:27:47 MDT 2004


Mark Lause writes:

> I don't think socialists should be engaged in "building working-class
> consciousness."  Workers will develop class consciousness from what
> capitalism does rather than from what socialists say.  Thinking we have
> the power to substitute ourselves for this process errs simplistically
> in terms of both the size of the class and the limitations on our
> numbers.  It errs more fundamentally, I think, in understanding the
> nature of consciousness itself, which doesn't involve the merely
> cerebral acceptance of certain arguments but requires, in part, a
> common, shared set of experiences. 

This is an important issue, Mark, and I'm afraid I don't agree with you on it.  The very clear implication of what you are saying is that we socialists have to wait passively until "class consciousness arises", and until that time it is really utopian and adventuristic for us to be socialists AT ALL.

Taking your assertions one at a time,

(a) "Workers will develop class consciousness from what capitalism does rather than from what socialists say."  Do they really?  Workers develop a consciousness of their common oppression in a particular job and/or a particular company.  This is what Lenin meant when he said that workers develop "trade-union consciousness" on their own.  But don't rely on quotes from Lenin, rely on your common experience.  I believe that teachers develop teacher-consciousness, and bus drivers develop bus driver-consciousness, and that fast food workers develop their own consciousness, but nothing automatically causes the teachers and the bus drivers and the fast food workers to see that they are members of a common class and that other members of that class include unemployed workers, prisoners, workers in other countries and so on.  Indeed the bourgeoisie does everything possible to conceal this reality.  It is much more of a battleground and much less of an automatic process than your argument implies.

In fact, I sort of believe the argument that only the possibility of socialism gives any reality to the existence of a global working class.  Why does the auto worker in Detroit have anything in common with the workers in Colombia or Haiti?  Their lives are much different.  The pressures they face are much different.  Are they part of a 'working class' only because they all earn wages?  It makes little sense to talk about all the parts of this class as a unity unless you already have in mind that they can somehow stand up together and throw off the bonds of capital.

(b) "Thinking we have the power to substitute ourselves for this process errs simplistically in terms of both the size of the class and the limitations on our numbers."  You are saying that even if socialists are needed to help spread class consciousness, there are not enough socialists to do it.  Possibly you think I haven't noticed this fact?  Yes, the class is very big, and the limitations on our numbers are very great (speaking mainly about the US here).  All the more reason to get at it!  Fortunately, as we recruit more socialists the process will move faster (if we are lucky, exponentially so).  Also fortunately, a few well-organized socialists can affect the intellectual climate very significantly.  But perhaps this explains to you why I consider it very important to do socialist propaganda and why I consider parties like mine, with all its limitations in size and everything else, to be important.  I believe that socialists are not just a sort of epiphenomenal foam on the wave of history.  I believe that we have an important role to play, but if there aren't enough of us and if we aren't properly organized then we can't play it.  

(c) "It errs more fundamentally, I think, in understanding the nature of consciousness itself, which doesn't involve the merely cerebral acceptance of certain arguments but requires, in part, a common, shared set of experiences."  Actually, I think the essential thing that we socialists need to get across is not "arguments" or "experiences" but, rather, a paradigm - that is, a way of making sense of the experiences that people already have.

Look, here is an analogy from a very stupid experiment that I read about once.  Someone once decided to test the idea that learning is merely a matter of "reflex", which was supposed to be what strict behaviorists believe.  Here was the experiment:

Basic design: There are some colored lights on a screen in front of the subject.  There are some other stimuli in the area - a computer screen with changing numbers on it, for example.  The lights are lit one at a time according to certain rules: for example, "if the number on the screen is divisible by 3, the red light will go on".  The subject has to guess which light will be lit.  If the subject guesses correctly, he or she gets a reward.

Step 1: The experimenter does not tell the subject what the rules are.  The subject has to try to figure them out, or, if you believe strict behaviorism, the "stimuli" of the lights will eventually cause the subject to respond with the correct predictions by a process which might be unconscious reflex.  Result: the subjects didn't do very well.

Step 2: A confederate tells the subjects what the rules are!  Now of course their predictions are all correct.  See, this shows that people can really learn things and that learning is better than reflexes!  If you knew that already, SO DID EVERYONE.  A researcher actually spent money on this!  

But here is the point of this laborious analogy: the role of the socialist is to be the confederate who tells the other subjects what the rules are, that is, how the system is working.  It's a matter of pointing out a way of looking at things which actually works to make sense of things and make certain kinds of action possible, but which the worker wouldn't necessarily figure out "automatically" or by "reflex".  The point is not so much that this paradigm can be shown to be correct by "argument".  The point is that it actually is useful.  If it were not useful, then we should all get out of the business.  But it IS useful. 

Lou Paulsen
member, WWP
Chicago







More information about the Marxism mailing list