Impediments to consciousness

In the second of three articles, Paul B Smith discusses the negative impact of imperialism, Stalinism and social democracy

The process of capital accumulation controls workers both in economic reality and in their thinking about it. Workers are atomised and compete to sell their labour-power against one another. They also see capitalism as a necessary, natural and eternal system. They are economically oppressed and see capital as an alien force dominating them, but at the same time they believe they have equal rights and freedoms with capitalists. Equality before the law seems to guarantee real equality in life. Marx calls this form of economic and ideological control commodity fetishism.

Commodity fetishism generates certain kinds of fears that most workers are aware of. Atomisation through competition isolates them. It makes them suspicious and distrustful not only of their employers and managers, but also of their co-workers and colleagues. Workers are fearful of losing their jobs or being made redundant. It follows they are fearful their co-workers or colleagues may report their behaviour or opinions to a manager who could use this information to discipline, sack or make them redundant. They are also fearful of being driven to the point of exhaustion through an extension of hours or an increased pace of work. They fear making insufficient money in their wages or salaries to pay for the needs of their children, for education and healthcare and to keep up rent or mortgage payments. Behind these fears lurk the ultimate life-threatening conditions of overwork, work-related injuries, homelessness and malnutrition.

Fear of loss of the independence given by a wage or salary and - in the privileged imperialist countries - of having to depend on bureaucratically controlled forms of income leads to indifference. As the old jazz/blues number states, “Nobody loves you when you’re down and out”. If the worker has no money, then it seems as if most people (apart from those motivated to save your soul from going to hell) do not care about her or his survival. In work, competition for better wages and conditions operates to create an indifferent attitude between workers that can easily turn into antagonism and violence. Once there is no longer a contractual relationship that binds workers and employer together, the employer who lays off workers is indifferent to their welfare, passing responsibility elsewhere. Looters are indifferent to the businessman’s alienated need to make a profit when they appropriate retail produce directly without participating in exchange.

Commodity fetishism also kicks in when workers organise collectively against their oppression. They are told that to get a decent level of wages the firm must be competitive. They are told their firm must stay profitable if they are to stay in employment. Many strikes and occupations fail because employers threaten to withdraw investment from the workplace in the dispute. Even those workers who succeed by taking over the firm and running it themselves as a cooperative soon find they are dependent on whether or not there is a market for the goods and services they provide. If there is not, they are forced to depend on financial institutions for loans (thereby putting themselves into debt) or to lay themselves off.

Workers who have the time to reflect on their condition therefore despair that they will ever live in a society that does not involve commodity production, distribution, exchange and consumption. They are told they have a shared interest in their employers’ success. They are educated to believe that the unintended consequence of capitalist competition is the benign distribution of goods to workers through the workings of what the Scottish political economist, Adam Smith, called the market’s “invisible hand”.

Mistakenly identifying an indifference to others as a universal human attribute, they argue that a classless society is conceivable, but unrealisable, because it is unnatural. It contradicts human nature. The idea that humans are biologically conditioned to be violent, uncooperative and uncaring of anyone (save their immediate family and friends) is therefore also a product of commodity fetishism.


By emphasising fear as the emotion necessary for the introduction of unpopular and socially destructive, market-driven policies, Naomi Klein ignores the sense of despair that most workers feel when they look to the future.[1] Despair is the absence of hope. The absence of hope entails not just that the future is perceived as one within which the individual’s desires and expectations cannot be realised, but also that individuals feel powerless when faced with the challenge of trying to achieve them. For workers to feel despair they must not only have given up hope that the world can be changed into one in which they are no longer exploited or oppressed, but also feel powerless when faced with the challenge of bringing about this change. A sense of powerlessness is where fear and despair link up.

Hillel Ticktin argues that this desperation cannot be fully understood without considering what passed as an alternative to capitalism in the recent past.[2] He calls this “Stalinism”. In the first part of this article I mentioned this as the subjective doctrine that it is possible to build socialism in one country separate from the rest of the world.[3] This definition is derived from Trotsky. Ticktin follows this, but he also defines it as the doctrine of a ruling group controlling and exploiting workers in an economy based on nationalised industry.

Workers fear a future society based on nationalised industry. The former Soviet Union proved that nationalised property, full employment and a non-market society was compatible with capitalism abroad and extreme forms of atomisation, exploitation, waste and inefficiency at home. However destructive capitalism is, it has proved superior to Stalinism. Despite the use of force in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere that Klein eloquently records, workers have been less atomised during periods of intense capitalist repression than in the former Soviet Union or modern-day China. This is true historically. Workers had more freedoms in Nazi Germany than in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

One reason for workers’ acquiescence to contemporary capitalism is that workers reject a nationalised alternative because of its association with inefficiency and unfreedom. Workers do not want to exchange the present ruling class with one that is more brutal and exploitative. They do not want to exchange a society in which there is the opportunity for a few to have unlimited access to well made commodities for one in which the many have limited access to poorly made products.


Not only members of the capitalist class, but also workers view the idea of revolution with a sense of dread. There is an ongoing attempt to distort the history of the Bolshevik revolution. There are now a plethora of popular histories and biographies of Bolshevik leaders such as Trotsky and Lenin. They portray the Bolsheviks as immoral, insane fanatics, intent on introducing an inefficient, murderous regime. An unquestioned prejudice of the intelligentsia is the assumption that, had Lenin lived or Trotsky taken power, they would have behaved like Stalin. Moreover, the experience of revolutions in the 20th century has been bloody and violent. It is one in which workers have died in their millions, capitalism has continued to survive and socialism has not arrived any sooner.

The effect on workers’ consciousness is to establish a belief that the struggle for an alternative to capitalism leads to even greater suffering than they experience at present. This awareness is coupled with the knowledge that ruling class vengeance towards attempts to implement policies that challenge capitalism is ruthless. As Klein records, it has included wars, boycotts, withdrawal of investment, destruction of assets and the assassination of workers’ leaders and socialists. The transitional period appears to be a nightmare. Despair of an alternative and fear of retribution if workers challenge capitalism reinforce the conservative belief that revolutions worsen rather than improve their conditions.

Marxism is a theory that explains the nature of capitalism and points to the possibility of a rational alternative to it. Stalinism, however, dressed up anti-Marxism as Marxism. As a result Marxism now appears as a totalitarian ideology. Workers in the former USSR, for example, have lost all hope of socialism. Workers think of socialism as a failed or utopian doctrine. Marxists active on the left in capitalist countries were, until recently, portrayed as extremists who peddle inhumane and corrupt doctrines. During the cold war both Stalinists and capitalists characterised revolutionary Marxists as insane and in need of vigorous forms of suppression. Nowadays, they are sidelined or ignored as irrelevant.

The result is that workers despair of being any freer than they are already are. Forms of capitalist unfreedom are accepted as the least worst option. Workers may have a declining standard of living, they may be increasingly insecure, poorly paid, overworked and exhausted, but they are not attracted to socialist ideas.

It is true that despair can overcome fear of state terror. The young people who riot no longer fear the violence of the police. The mass civilian opposition to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East fuelled by the despair of unemployed youth has cost hundreds of lives to the forces of repression. However, these actions are neither anti-capitalist nor pro-socialist. It does not follow, as some leftists have suggested, that if the system breaks down and there is a collapse of society, workers will revolt against capitalism and spontaneously come up with brilliant plans on how to take control and reorganise the world. On the contrary, they are just as likely to abstain from voting in elections or opt for policies that appear to provide them with some security and stability. These tend to be authoritarian, nationalist and divisive.

Imperialism and division

I am arguing that the fear and desperation workers experience operate to prevent class-consciousness emerging. The causes of this experience are a combination of commodity fetishism and Stalinism. This combination is fused together with another important causal influence. This is imperialism and the exploitation of division and difference between workers.

The Latin author, Tacitus, writing on the German-speaking tribes in the ancient world, wrote that, as long as they were more preoccupied with fighting amongst themselves, the Roman empire would remain safe and secure.[4] During the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the emergent imperial European powers, such as England (later Britain), were to foster division amongst the peoples they colonised in order to secure their acquiescence. This was needed to extract an economic surplus through exploiting the colonial population. The fear that workers have of other nationalities is a result of these past and present policies of divide and rule.

The imperialism of a mature and declining capitalism has had an effect on workers’ consciousness in the imperial countries. It has divided skilled workers from other workers - not only from workers in the colonised countries, but also from unskilled workers at home in the imperialist countries. As is well known, Lenin described this layer of skilled workers as an “aristocracy of labour” - a group privileged by income, education and status.

Another important effect of imperialism was on the trade unions. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the trade unions abandoned a global perspective on socialism as the solution to workers’ oppression. They became preoccupied with economic improvements for workers within a national framework. The more successful trade unions were in extracting economic concessions from their national governments, the more these turned embryonic forms of class-consciousness into a nationalist consciousness.

Trade unions colluded with imperialism by arguing that the profits extracted from the exploitation of colonial workers could be turned into revenue. They argued that governments could use this revenue to improve the standard of living of workers. Ticktin argues that imperialism is not a thing of the past. There is still a flow of wealth from underdeveloped to developed countries. He calculates that this is approximately $500 billion a year. Even within the limits of the trade unions’ nationalist consciousness, imperialism has failed to improve workers’ conditions within imperial countries as a whole.

Hurricane Katrina showed to the world that many people in the United States live at third-world levels. If workers are working longer hours, their pensions and health are poor and the minimum wage is low, then it is hard to argue that the whole of the population is better off through imperialism. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly a number of workers who have high wages or salaries and can afford better healthcare, pensions and education.

Racism and hostility towards immigrant labour are an effect of imperialism and play an important role in instilling patterns of fear between groups of workers. Native workers fear immigrants because of a combination of commodity fetishism and imperialism. They are forced to compete with each other for jobs and benefits, as well as being drawn to the belief that they are morally, intellectually or culturally superior or inferior to each other.

Oppression and liberation

Racism (and other forms of oppression, such as sexism, homophobia, ageism and anti-Semitism) tends to kick in when the controls provided by commodity fetishism become more transparent and obvious. Marx argued that capitalism requires a flexible, homogeneous workforce. It is often said that capital is gender-, race- and age-blind. In other words, it will exploit the form of labour-power that is the most accessible and amenable at a particular time. It does not care for rigid divisions and tends to reduce all forms of labour to a common denominator - abstract labour. Divisions are costly to maintain and produce inefficiencies. Without the fear of workers’ potential power and the need for a controlling intermediate social layer, capitalists would be happy to completely proletarianise professionals such as lawyers, teachers, academics and doctors.

On the other hand, imperialist strategy institutionalised divisions amongst workers. Divisions are useful in preventing class-consciousness. Divisions exist between workers in imperialist countries and workers in the third world, skilled and unskilled workers, white- and blue-collar workers, the employed and the unemployed, the exploited and the superexploited, and men and women. Divisions are kept in place through mutual antagonism and help prevent the working class from coming into existence.

Klein looks back to a time when economic concessions for workers could be extracted from capitalism within a national framework. The ruling class abandoned this policy over 30 years ago and Klein documents the detail of the effects of this decision. Ticktin argues that the capitalist class will not return to this strategy and reflate the imperialist countries’ economies. Fear that workers will again become a militant and challenging force (as they were perceived to be in the 1960s and 1970s) motivates this decision.

The period of Stalinism lasted from 1924 until 1991. Stalinism was a nationalist doctrine. It taught that the Soviet Union could develop separately from the rest of the world. Stalinist support for anti-colonial movements dominated the politics of the left during the period. Not only did the USSR provide a model of separate development to anti-colonial activists, but also military and economic support.

Stalinism made a major contribution to nationalist and separatist perspectives and politics worldwide. The communist parties in both imperialist and post-colonial countries argued for workers’ economic improvement within national frameworks through nationalisation, social spending and policies of full employment. They promoted these policies as the strategy for national liberation from colonial oppression. Klein records how quickly they were abandoned in post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately she does not mention the role liberalisation in the Soviet Union had on the South African Communist Party. The SACP was influential in the decision to adopt policies favourable to finance capital.

During this period, both socialists and anti-socialists emphasised the differences that exist between workers. This had the effect of downplaying the role of workers as a whole. Historically, social democrats privileged the struggles of skilled and white-collar workers; feminists women’s struggles; and anarchists those of the marginalised and unemployed. Workers were encouraged to find hope in struggles to free groups of people oppressed by colonial, racial, religious and patriarchal domination. In the struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, however, white workers became the targets of black workers in southern Africa, men the target of women in Europe and the US, and workers who benefit from imperialism the target of workers in colonial and post-colonial states generally. This spread despair amongst those who campaign to end divisions caused by racism, nationalism, religion and sexism.

These struggles have been cross-class in nature and tend to subordinate awareness of a socialist solution for ending all forms of oppression to separate campaigns to end racism, sexism or imperial domination. The struggles of particular oppressed groups have given people a sense of group solidarity and collectivity, but on a limited scale. In extreme cases they have degenerated into war between oppressor and oppressed groups. The war in Yugoslavia was fought between national groups that had the experience of being in both oppressed and oppressor roles historically. It was particularly vicious. The experience of the Stalinist period demonstrates that nationalism - including the nationalism of the oppressed - has no progressive role to play in developing class-consciousness.

The left

The desperation of the left has played an important role in preventing workers from developing class-consciousness. Impatience with workers’ refusal to act informs this. Leftwing groups have called on workers to organise general strikes, and arm themselves in the belief that a socialist revolution is imminent. However, class-consciousness does not automatically follow from the fact that the system is collapsing and objective conditions are getting harder for workers.

As Ticktin remarks, Marxists have not discussed the circumstances that enable workers to become a class and take power. They have assumed, along with Lenin and Trotsky, that objective changes within capitalism would cause positive, subjective changes. Thus Trotsky thought that workers would begin to act when an upturn followed a downturn in the world economy - in other words, when their material position improved after being depressed. But he did not explain why this should be.

It has been hard for Marxists to have any serious exchange of ideas about the development of class-consciousness when they were subject to confusion with Stalinists. During the cold war, anyone who was critical of the former Soviet Union might be accused of being an agent of an imperialist secret service. Conversely, within anti-Stalinist groups, anyone critical of the thinking of the leading group could be accused of being an agent of the KGB. The atmosphere of the left was one of fear and distrust. This influenced those workers who became involved. The aim was to isolate critics of the former USSR. Accusing critics of being secret service agents legitimised violence and exclusion towards them.

A less extreme form of internalised violence and exclusion was experienced within the Trotskyist left. These were individuals who had broken with Stalinism, but continued to reproduce the practice of accusation, counter-accusation, denunciation and exclusion they had experienced as members of Stalinist groups. This atmosphere made individuals fearful of expressing criticism or differences of opinion - not only regarding the nature of the former USSR, but of any viewpoint - Marxist or not. When criticisms were made, they took on a tone of accusation and implied threat or betrayal.

The habits of accusation and denunciation spread an atmosphere of desperation within and between people of the left. The feeling was that it was impossible for working class leaders and leftists to work together with any sense of shared goals, strategies and tactics. Fear of exclusion functioned to make people distrust their own judgement and reproduce the ideas, however confused, of the most forceful, arrogant or Machiavellian of individuals. The people best able to cope with these patterns of behaviour rose to power as leaders of various left groups and organisations.

During this period, the atmosphere was not as claustrophobic or intense within trade unions. Some people of the left therefore found a more congenial home in careers as labour activists. Where this involvement crossed over into electoral activity through trade union sponsorship of political parties, some leftists moved over into a more conventional political career pattern. The price they paid was an adaptation to an environment which was hostile to Marxism. The socialist goal - if mentioned at all - was conceived of in national terms or as one too far off to give attention to.

The result was conformity to social democratic ideas and the notion that limited improvements and reforms were all that workers could achieve. As long as the capitalist class was secure that workers’ knowledge of Marxism and socialism was policed internally by social democrats and Stalinists, concessions could be made. These concessions made it appear as if social democracy was the only viable political form leftists could adopt and advocate.

The trade unions’ failure to effectively police workers’ militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the breakdown of Stalinist forms of control over workers convinced many capitalists that it was safe to abandon the strategy of concessions. This meant also abandoning trade union involvement in management and giving finance capitalists greater influence on government policy. This, in turn, led to the hegemony of Friedmanite ideas within bourgeois economics and the subsequent effects on populations that Klein records.

What continues to pass for a left in the present day has internalised the despair of the cold war period and feeds workers’ despair about their power to organise collectively to emancipate humanity. The attempt to protect workers from the worst effects of capitalism through support for trade union policies involved giving the unions greater control over workplaces. This led to undemocratic and corrupt practices. Moreover, privileging workers in imperial countries against workers elsewhere reinforced a nationalist, racist and anti-immigrant consciousness. Support for ‘social democracy in one country’ has contributed to the belief that welfare benefits and social housing should only be given to worker-citizens of the imperial country and not for the millions of workers and peasants of the former empire. It has led leftists spending much of their time defending the indefensible and arguing for a least worst political alternative of voting for parties financed by the trade unions. As Lenin pointed out many years ago, it is not true that workers’ economic struggles for better wages, conditions, benefits and public services will necessarily lead to class-consciousness. Yet this is what many people on the left still promote in practice, even if they do not believe it in theory.



1. See N Klein The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism London 2007.

2. H Ticktin, ‘Political consciousness and its conditions at the present time’ Critique Vol 34, No1, pp9-26.

3. ‘The politics of fear and despair’, January 12.

4. “Long, I pray, may the Germans persist, if not in loving us, at least in hating one another; for the imperial destiny drives hard and fortune has no longer any better gift for us than the disunity of our foes” - Tacitus Germania 33(98AD).