Concrete analysis means then: the relation to society as a whole. For only when this relation is established does the consciousness of their existence that men have at any given time emerge in all its essential characteristics. It appears, on the one hand, as something which is subjectively justified in the social and historical situation, as something which can and should be understood, i.e. as ‘right’. At the same time, objectively, it by-passes the essence of the evolution of society and fails to pinpoint it and express it adequately. That is to say, objectively, it appears as a ‘false consciousness’. (1968, p.50).When consciousness is considered in its relationship to society, it becomes possible to infer the basic patterns of thought appropriate to the objective situation. For instance, it was impossible for St Thomas Aquinas to reach historical materialist conclusions. But what this inference allows Lukacs to construct class consciousness in theory as "... appropriate and rational reactions 'imputed' to a particular typical position in the process of production" (p.51). Thus class consciousness is a set of possible positions existing in a latent state - there is a difference exists between in and the everyday consciousness of the working class.
If there is a 'consciousness gap' and if capitalist society can only be seen in its totality from the standpoint of the proletariat, is the mundane consciousness of the working class capable of this feat? Lukacs suggests that for every position in the process of production there corresponds a class-conditioned unconsciousness of that position, an intellectual reflex of the structures the class experiences. In as far as the class remains locked within the terms of this unconscious it cannot perceive the totality as it really is, think through its class interests and properly organise in pursuit of them.
But at least the proletariat has the capacity of becoming fully conscious. In pre-capitalist societies this kind of consciousness was impossible for all classes. For example, feudal society rested on a self-sufficient peasantry who were juridically tied to the land and were forced to labour for the landlords or pay over grain as rent. The basic unit of production was the household, so peasants had no need to mix anywhere near as much as modern day proletarians do. The state, in as much as it existed, was the private military organisation of the sovereign. It leeched off the landlords as they leeched off the peasants. It was marginal to the organisation of production, unlike the capitalist state, which plays an integral part. This was a much less cohesive society, hence a systematic understanding of feudalism could not have been accomplished by any of the classes that grew up under it.
But it is also true that under capitalism, none of the other classes can become fully conscious either. The petit-bourgeoisie have their material roots outside of the central antagonism of labour and capital. Its collective consciousness imagines it either above or outside the class struggle, and/or sees it as unnecessary and undesirable and therefore favours its amelioration. Mainstream green thinking, which sees the class struggle as irrelevant to 'doing something' about the environment, and contemporary fascism, which can equally condemn labour and capital as dividers of 'national/racial unity' are two political examples of this standpoint. But for all this, the petit bourgeois can only become a decisive factor when it lines up with one class or the other.
The peasantry, largely being a class inherited from feudalism but has also adapted to capitalism, to an extent, remained a largely atomised class for the classical Marxists. Because of this only major external upheavals can provoke them into action. But the role they play in the class struggle depends on the weight of the contending classes and the consciousness of the parties that lead them. Hence the peasantry is highly unstable, ideologically speaking. They can be a decisive actor for revolution and a bastion of reaction.
What of the bourgeoisie? As one of the two "pure" classes of capitalism, we immediately run into a problem in theorising the contours of bourgeois consciousness. If we accept their ideologies have the effect of masking the class-bound nature of capitalism, and if capital has so completely penetrated the social body and subordinated it to its will, why is bourgeois consciousness so partial?
Bourgeois thought observes economic life consistently and necessarily from the standpoint of the individual capitalist and this naturally produces a sharp confrontation between the individual and the overpowering supra-personal ‘law of nature’ which propels all social phenomena. This leads both to the antagonism between individual and class interests in the event of conflict (which, it is true, rarely becomes as acute among the. ruling classes as in the bourgeoisie), and also to the logical impossibility of discovering theoretical and practical solutions to the problems created by the capitalist system of production (p.63).The limits of their consciousness coincides with the limits to the system. To recognise capitalism is a historically bounded system and that capital has become a fetter on the socialised forms of production it has called into being is to acknowledge one's obsolescence. The necessity of avoiding this conclusion is the root of the bourgeoisie's false consciousness. But this falseness is different from that the proletariat are prey to. This provides the bourgeoisie with the illusions necessary for them to carry on believing in their inhuman system. But also the actions they pursue, based on this false consciousness, fits their class interests like a glove. For example, whatever one may think of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic thesis, his argument that groups of early capitalists conducted their economic behaviour out of Calvinist convictions nevertheless shows it had the effect of deepening and reproducing capitalist relations of production. But for the proletariat, false consciousness prevents it acting in concert as a class.
For Lukacs capitalism's split between economics and politics is one of the chief props of false consciousness. In labour movements this is consistently realised as the tension between immediate needs and objective ends. As long as this persists, socialism cannot come about because the coming of the new society demands the division is consciously bridged. This is why it is so important for Marxists to make propaganda and build up influence among the working class. Any old bunch of ideas will do to underwrite bourgeois rule, from Scientology to Neo-Classical economics, but not for our class. Marxism must be fused with our class so it can become aware of its position, its interests and its destiny.
This emphasis on building class consciousness makes the struggle against opportunism a priority. Springing up spontaneously from the economics-politics split, it emphasises the particular and the partial. This makes it particularly insidious in moments of crisis. As the totality of capitalism becomes ever more stark opportunism works to split the class and drive it down "safe" channels.
For as long as capitalism remains the proletariat is subject to reification, the "act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of alienation, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society" (Tom Bottomore et al (eds) 1991, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, p.463). Politically the results are pragmatism/empiricism (of which opportunism is a species) and utopianism, of a naive belief that "something" will make everything better. Reification can be fought through the conscious organisation of the proletariat, but requires capitalism itself to be superseded if it is to be put to rest. As Lukacs puts it
The workers’ council spells the political and economic defeat of reification. In the period following the dictatorship it will eliminate the bourgeois separation of the legislature, administration and judiciary. During the struggle for control its mission is twofold. On the one hand, it must overcome the fragmentation of the proletariat in time and space, and on the other, it has to bring economics and politics together into the true synthesis of proletarian praxis. In this way it will help to reconcile the dialectical conflict between immediate interests and ultimate goal (Lukacs 1968, p.80)There are two charges that could be levelled at Lukacs' account of class consciousness. The first of these is essentialism. You could argue, as have Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their 1985 book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy that the philosophical conclusions drawn by Lukacs and others were theory fictions. His theoretical construction of class consciousness as an ideal-type derived from theorising the position of the working class is all it is. The working class Lukacs speaks of is an object of Marxist thought, nothing else. To pose the idea of an imminent revolutionary potentiality then is to lapse into essentialism and teleology.
This criticism is mistaken in my view. As post-structuralists, Laclau and Mouffe fight shy of the shadow cast by real world processes onto the realm of thought. There is no autonomy of theory and philosophy, it is always conditioned by social being and the contradictions/conflicts that play out in it. This basic point is a key foundation of Marxism. As we saw in Lukacs' first essay on Orthodox Marxism, different systems of philosophy more or less correspond to class positions, and concentrate in abstract form the experiences of those classes. Lukacs' observations on proletarian class consciousness are no different. Laclau and Mouffe forget that Marxism is constantly formulated and elaborated in close relationship with the struggles and experiences of the working class. Lukacs' argument that class consciousness is an imminent potentiality did not just pop into his head, it was based on the concrete, historical experience of the class up to the point he was writing, an experience that had seen the 1848 revolutions, the Paris Commune, the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, and the 1918-19 revolutions in Germany and Hungary. There is no essentialism here.
The second point is the possibility of drawing ultra-left conclusions from these meditations on consciousness. I'm sure the importance Lukacs attached to the struggle against opportunism is music to every Spartacist's ears. A very superficial reading suggests class consciousness is just bubbling beneath the surface - all that's needed is the removal of the proletariat's opportunist misleaders et voila, a fully formed and combat-ready working class is born. To make such a reading you would have to ignore the ways capitalism systematically reproduces forms of false consciousness, particularly with regard to reification. To struggle against it and to build class consciousness, Marxists have to intelligently and skilfully put the socialist case to our class, something which the British left hasn't got a terribly good track record at doing.
We'll be looking more into the problems reification poses consciousness in the next post on History and Class Consciousness.
A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.