Wednesday 3 September 2008

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

As we have already seen, for Lukacs history is a process, a struggle between classes. But all classes are largely unconscious of the processes their actions unleash. Any awareness they do have is projected onto nature or the realms of the fantastical. The forms this consciousness assumes have historically been the bread and butter of philosophical contemplation. For Marxists the meaning of phenomena is not derived from formal inquiry but the social relations that constitute them. Without this, history is unknowable - it 'just is' (and immutable) or irrational and hopelessly complex, but can still be distilled into the actions of the great personalities of age. The former kind of consciousness is 'false' consciousness, so-called not because it isn't 'true', but as a property and function of the social totality.
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.


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I'm not a regular reader of AVPS, so I'd missed the H&CC series. I'll add you to my academically respectable work feed if you're going to do this kind of thing. Are there just the two previous posts? And can you have a go at Korsch after?

Phil said...

You can find the two previous posts here and here.

There are only those two posts in addition to this one so far, but more are forthcoming as I work my way through the book.

I've got no plans to do Korsch - Louis Althusser's in my sights when I finally finish Lukacs. And if you want respectable, you'll find stuff on Baudrillard, Foucault, Gramsci, Bourdieu as well as reports from various conferences and research seminars in the archive. Just check out sociology in the labels list.

Rob said...

Great post Phil BC.

Other Phil - I personally lost a lot of respect for Korsch when I read his introduction to Pashukanis' General Theory of Law and Marxism. What specifically do you think he brings to Marxist theory?

Anonymous said...

Rob - 'have a go at' was deliberately ambiguous. I read a bit of Korsch when I was writing about Debord; he used to be cited as a forerunner of Debord, along with the Lukacs of H&CC. I never did read Lukacs, but I was less impressed with Korsch the more I read; his big idea seems to have been the opposition between 'theory' and 'ideology', which I think has done more harm than good. So I think he's a writer who could do with either salvaging or demolishing (preserving or negating) - I'm not too bothered which.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff - I look forward to the reification instalment!

Phil said...

I've just had a quick look at Korsch's entry in the Dictionary of Marxist Thought, and it seemed to me he got a bit jaded as time went on, following his expulsion from the KPD for "revisionism" in 1926. His book, Marxism and Philosophy, does look like an interesting read, charting the development and abuses of Marx's thought. I might give it a go at some point. But in addition to Althusser I promised myself to read Mill's 'On Liberty' too. Not enough hours in the day!

Adam Marks said...

The Communist Manifesto has one weakness, it was written before mass reformist parties. Variations on the manifesto became the foundation of the Second International.

You can infer from the manifesto that consciousness is true or false according to class interests and any deviation from true conciousness is due to alien influence or domination. All the early Marxists suffered from this misapprehension to some extent, that reformism was alien to working class politics and you had to either internally legislate against (Lenin) it or defeat it in argument (Rosa Luxemburg - the most frustrating of the lot!).

The way I see it, Gramsci picked up the spare left by Lukacs (not that they thought of it that way). Both developed the notion that the gap between imputed and actual consciousness grows out of the system. Yet, despite this, in instances the working class can act in a revolutionary way. Without "critical renovation of consciousness" the working class at rest is naturally reformist, from top to bottom.

Phil said...

I don't think you can claim the w/c is naturally reformist "at rest", simply because of the massive variations within the class regarding class consciousness. For example, I'm from a working class family who consistently voted Tory until 1997. My family's spontaneous reaction to Labour policies were deeply suspicious - for example a progressive reform like the minimum wage was greeted with doubts because it might cost business too much, who would then shed jobs to comply with the law. Therefore all we can say about the natural state of the working class, minus the widespread influence of Marxist ideas, it that it is prey to various ideologies and world views that appear to make sense to them from the standpoint they occupy in the division of labour.

One thing I didn't mention though, at least I can't remember mentioning it, is the existence of a tension between these ideologies and the positions of the workers. Because they're *bourgeois* ideologies and have the primary effect of cohering the bourgeoisie as a class, they can and frequently do come into conflict with workers' experiences. So, if you like, you could suggest false consciousness is always under threat of failure because of the trajectory of workers' thought.

I'm rambling now.

ModernityBlog said...

just saw the post at SU blog, the SP and others have my full support, they should be able to sell the Socialist or any periodical without fear of harassment

think about what will happen when the Tories get in Govt. and the rise of the far rights, the Left would be pushed from the streets, unity in action, the time is ney

thinkingdifference said...

i'm not an expert on marxism, but i always wondered how there can be a false consciousness (which i think it's a very strong possibility) and a collective realization we live in this false consciousness (the awakening if you want)... anyway, for me gramsci's hegemony model seems damn credible - it's not a collective realization of the oppression, but it is a constant struggle for the system to accommodate those instances of 'realization' so that the system is not threatened... or at least this seems plausible to me.

Adam Marks said...

"I don't think you can claim the w/c is naturally reformist "at rest", simply because of the massive variations within the class regarding class consciousness."

I think this is important because there have been, more or less, only two explantions of reformism. First was the theory of Labour Aristocracy, the second was best articulated by Gramsci, of the single, divided consciousness.

It's important because the first theory implies that reformism is practically insignificant and can be blown away by revolutionary movements (such as Luxemburg's mass strike). The second suggests reformism has a sound basis across the working class.

I think we should term reformism any political movement (it can only be political) that does not try to clearly transcend capitalism. If that's not the goal then you're stuck in the realm of capitalist reform. This is natural for people born under a particular system who have never known anything else, or indeed the potential for anything else.

What working class people do can be logically and practically counter to the way they think. The key intervention becomes critical renovation of consciousness, a la L'Ordine Nuovo: pointing out the revolutionary significance of what ordinary people are doing and how it can be brought to a successful conclusion.

This is not really possible, on any grand scale, if working people are not moving. Hence the point about working class consciouness "at rest". There is nothing to renovate.