Wide open for the class

What is class-consciousness? Paul B Smith discusses the possibility of a political revival

Think globally

Readers may recall the series of three articles I wrote that was published in the Weekly Worker at the beginning of this year.[1] In the first of these, I defined class-consciousness as individuals’ understanding of the universal nature of a goal they have set themselves to achieve: “This is to go beyond local and national struggles and take on the responsibility to emancipate not just themselves, but the whole of humanity.” This is as good a definition as any. It not only captures the potential workers have as a class, but also an historical aspect of the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie.

However, it means very little if it remains the property of atomised individuals or atomised political units competing to recruit workers as members. It only makes sense as part of an emerging global form of collectivity. I understand the latter to mean that, in order to overcome the contemporary barriers to class-consciousness, there needs to be both the creation of a Marxist culture through the engagement of workers in political and educational activity, but also - at least for workers’ leaders - the creation of an integrated global community. Such a community would presuppose that workers can overthrow capitalism and replace it by socialism or communism. It would also presuppose that workers are already organising themselves to take control over production, distribution and consumption from below. Both forms of organisation are necessary for a collectivity sufficient to overthrow capitalism. They require the support of Marxists organised into a political party or parties.

What I want to do here is to argue that the potential for class-consciousness to emerge is greater today than it has been for possibly over a hundred years. In order to do this I will discuss barriers to this process - in particular, misconceptions of the category of class itself. I will use Owen Jones’s recent book Chavs to illustrate this and I will contrast that with Hillel Ticktin’s discussion in an article he wrote on ‘The political economy of class’ in the journal Critique in 1987. I shall conclude with a few thoughts on the future of the left.

Class and self-identity

Chavs is a timely book for a variety of reasons. One of these is the way Jones documents ‘classism’ in contemporary Britain. Classism is a form of discrimination that uses stereotypes and misinformation in order to mistreat individuals on the basis of their class position or background. Another timely reason is that it reflects a limited understanding of class based upon trade union consciousness. Jones records that over half the population of the UK still describes itself as “working class”. He quotes the former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, as saying that people who have no means of sustenance other than the sale of labour are working class. Jones adds that individuals who are working class not only sell their labour, but lack control over it. He quotes the leftwing trade union leader, Mark Serwotka, as saying that in the new industries the exploitation of workers is as great as - if not greater than - within the old.

Jones links his understanding of class to the trade unions and the notion that, through trade union activity, workers have gained a sense of power and belonging. British workers continue to identify themselves as working class, he suggests, because they are aware that they do not work for themselves, but for an employer and that they have little or no control over the work they do. They are, in some sense, aware that they are exploited and economically oppressed.

This understanding of class is based on the existence and persistence of exploitation. It is compatible with a trade union consciousness that limits workers’ collective action to economic demands. These demands have historically attempted to mitigate exploitation through union attempts to control and manage the labour process on behalf of the members. Unions have also tried to ameliorate economic oppression through a struggle for higher wages and better pensions. Economic struggles have attempted to compensate workers for employers’ control over their time and what they do at work.

Union consciousness

Is trade union consciousness a form of class-consciousness? No, an awareness of being exploited does not necessarily lead to organising collectively for the global goal of socialism or communism. However, a contrary argument goes something like this - trade unions go beyond purely economic struggles by forming political parties. These address the question of workers’ emancipation on a global as well as a national scale. This is the classical Labourist response. By Labourism, I mean the doctrine that political parties representing the interests of trade unions are the means to achieving socialism.

However, this argument ignores the way trade unions have been incorporated and absorbed by capitalism into a means of controlling and managing workers’ anger and discontent. Unions function as atomised units competing to better their members’ interests. They have a bureaucratic structure given to them by the market in which they operate. This incorporation could not have happened without imperialism and a limitation of the operation of the law of value. Trade unions have proved to be an insuperable block to political activity that might lead to a global form of proletarian collectivity. It is as if a ruling class fearful of the self-organisation of the proletariat had decided to organise workers themselves. In fact, this is what has been done in some countries.

The more successful trade unions have been in extracting concessions from their national governments, the more they turned embryonic forms of class-consciousness into a national consciousness. The social democratic and Labourist political parties based on the unions have encouraged chauvinism, supported imperialist wars and developed protectionist economic policies. Stalinism reinforced nationalism by its emphasis on workers’ economic improvement through nationalisation, social spending and full employment. It is arguable that trade unions are incapable of taking workers’ struggles beyond the local and national scale and that even those strikes that have an international dimension such as the Liverpool dockers’ dispute of the 1990s retain a sectional, depoliticised character.

This was not always the case. As capitalism matured, trade unionists initially saw struggles against their employers as also struggles to free themselves from capitalism and for a socialist alternative to it. In the 1840s, Marx argued in the Poverty of philosophy that workers’ economic struggles over wages would turn into political struggles with a socialist or communist character. Unions were ,for Marx, incipient class organisations. Nonetheless, he did not think that they would automatically become political organisations. On the contrary, he thought that political parties would be needed as the organising instruments for the class to come into being.

By the time of Lenin, however, trade unions had become barriers to the formation of a class. Lenin rejected the idea that economic struggles would draw workers automatically into political struggles. He was aware of an important change in the nature of workers’ organisations. In Marx’s time there had been little separation between the economic and the political. The bourgeoisie saw any combination for economic purposes as also a political threat. Their response in most countries was to try to ban trade unions. With the turn to imperialism as a strategy for capitalist survival, the ruling class was able to split the economic from the political by accepting unions shorn of politics. The role of political parties in developing the conditions for workers to form a class became more important. This remains true today.

Ticktin on class

Ticktin argues that it is not possible to understand class sociologically. Class is a category of political economy. The development of class-consciousness, therefore, is not just a question of a change of ideas - of a subjective change of awareness - but also a change in material reality. Conversely, it is insufficient to understand it purely at the economic level. Many Marxists have argued that class is a social relationship. Stalinists understood it juridically rather than economically as a relationship of ownership of the means of production. This has led to confused arguments that the capitalist class no longer exists, because managers, not owners, control investment conditions.

The classical Marxist perspective is that class is best understood economically as a relationship that individuals have to the extraction, distribution and consumption of a social surplus. There is a ruling group which controls the extractive process and a subordinate group from whose labour a surplus is extracted. This economic understanding is - as we have seen - insufficient. As long as individuals are isolated or atomised there can be no class. Class has to take on a collective form through political activity. The collectivity required for class to come into being cannot fully exist until the point of revolution and overthrow.

Following Lenin and Trotsky, Ticktin also argues that capitalism is in decline and that, beginning with the October revolution, the world entered a transitional epoch. This has also changed the nature of workers’ collective activity. Stalinism was the dominant form of control during the cold war. This acted to contain workers’ activity within the sphere of economic struggle by reinforcing and supporting trade union consciousness. Stalinism served capitalism by preventing the coming into being of a class by adding a dimension of political atomisation to the economic atomisation caused by commodity fetishism.

Ticktin states that in a transitional period two groups of workers of a new kind have come into being. The first are those that represent transitional forms of work. The second are those that are part of the decaying forms. Within the first group, he suggests, are workers whose labour would be needed within the society of the future. They include teachers, health and social care workers, engineers, artists and scientists. Within the second group are bank clerks and other workers within the financial sector. He questions whether the latter would form part of the class and describes them as lackeys to those who cream off the surplus value from productive workers.

Given the dependence that the former have on government and global transnational companies, he reckons that workers representing transitional forms are likely to play a contradictory role in the development of class. They will increasingly identify with government, the political process and the structure of their companies rather than with profits and its expansion. He argues that even though many of these workers are placed in managerial roles and both sell their labour-power and are employed to control the labour-power of other workers, they are drawn into actions defending the public sector or their companies against predatory takeovers - neither of which are actions that will assist the accumulation of capital. He suggests that the likelihood that workers representing the new transitional forms could form into a class and neutralise countervailing tendencies is much greater now than it was in an earlier period.

The left

I stated earlier that the potential for class-consciousness to emerge is greater today than it has been for possibly over a hundred years. In the Weekly Worker articles I gave much attention to the barriers to class-consciousness operating to prevent this happening. I mentioned commodity fetishism, Stalinism, fear of retribution after a revolution, imperialism, division and the left.

I argued there that the barriers have become increasingly subjective and based on fear and despair. Fear of unemployment, overwork and losing one’s home is compounded by fear of repression, ostracism and exclusion of those who try to organise against economic and political oppression. This is complicated by a sense of despair about the possibility of a humane, inclusive alternative to capitalism and despair about the possibility of bringing this into being.

I want to conclude with some thoughts on the organised left. This addresses the subjectivity of self-defining socialist and communists in the present. When I gave this talk to the Northern Communist Forum in March 2012, a comrade asked why it was that the left has not yet been able to intervene successfully to develop class-consciousness. Surely if Stalinism was such a major barrier to class-consciousness and it ceased to exist over 20 years ago, there should have been a corresponding change in political awareness?

I think I replied then that self-defining socialists and communists have yet to comprehend the depth of the attempt that Stalinism made to destroy Marxism. This was an attack at every level - intellectual, political, cultural and moral. A recovery capable of impacting on mass political consciousness is still in the process of emerging. During the cold war, it was impossible for workers to form a class - in one half of the world workers were extremely politically atomised. They were unable to act collectively in any political form. In the other half, they were trapped by trade union consciousness. This kept struggles at the economic and national level.

A tiny anti-Stalinist left was terrorised, ostracised, ridiculed, infiltrated and denounced by both Stalinists and their allies in the bourgeoisie. It is no surprise that anti-Stalinist socialists and communists became rigid in thought and action, intolerant of difference of opinion and undemocratic in practice. Many of them adapted politically to trade union consciousness, intellectually to Keynesianism, and morally to anti-humanism. A generation wanted to escape from the prison of atomised despair by finding a comforting social vehicle for their desperation.

Socialists and communists who survived this process have internalised the despair of the cold war period. Despair became the unspoken atmosphere of the left. Despair is, however, a feeling with no place in the present. Stalinism is dead, social democracy is dead, trade union consciousness is dying and the ruling class is divided and confused. The field is now wide open for the class to form.


1. ‘Politics of fear and despair’, January 12; ‘Impediments to consciousness’, January 19; ‘Overcoming despair’, January 26.