Critiquing "False Consciousness" & "Working Class Self-Activity"

Kasama received the following contribution.

By Vivid Visionary

I'm currently reading The Philosophy of Marx, by Etienne Balibar, and it got me thinking on this question of false consciousness and working class self activity, which is used a lot amongst Marxists, and which I think is very problematic and mechanical. I hope folks can take a look at it, give me their thoughts, and critique it. We're all in the process of learning.

In the chapter titled "Ideology or Fetishism," Balibar attempts to break down Marx's thought on the concept of ideology, both as it emerged from previous philosophy and how Marx attempted to move beyond it.

It explains Marx's view on the dominant ideology, how the 'ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force', and how Marx has to confront the problematic of this division between the 'ideal expression' of dominant social relations and the fact that the material and intellectual means of production are in the hands of those same rulers.

In other words, Balibar explains that Marx wants to move beyond the schematic division of ideology into either the theoretical (the opposite of science,as illusions and manipulation) and the practical (the concept that all thought expresses the identity of a group or movement and legitimates its established power).

And the last part of this explains why I think the idea of false consciousness is still stuck within that instrumentalist division which Marx was attempting to move beyond, a very long time ago. Because just like ideology is neither simply the manipulation of our worldview by the ruling class, it is also not the direct expression of an identity, or being. 'False consciousness' assumes that (in this case) working people have a 'real consciousness' which corresponds to their identity as a worker, but is simply mystified by bourgeois ideology. It creates a linear connection between being and consciousness, and I disagree that there is an inherent radicalism or communism in the identity of a worker. I think it is a formulation that gives into spontaneity and which downplays the necessity of an organized and revolutionary communist core to bring insights and exposures which cant simply be obtained through immediate experiences or circumstances.

'Working class self-activity' ties into this.

Like 'false consciousness', it assumes there's an innate political vision within the identity of a group of people, and that the self activity of working people in struggle equates to communist theory and struggle.

But, let's take a look at our current realities.

What are the 'politics of workers', or what does the 'self-activity of the working class' look like today, if it isn't voting for the Democratic Party, racism against competitors in the labor market, or tea parties, etc., all examples of how 'working class ideology' is in fact BOURGEOIS ideology?

Just as the mechanisms of the capitalist system (take for example, the labor market) contain the potential for elementary unity amongst the oppressed, it also contains the potential for disunity and competition.

The development of a revolutionary movement requires a deep break with 'the narrow horizon of bourgeois right', beyond a 'what's in it for me' mentality, which is at the core of how capitalism functions, from its most basic relations of exchange, whether it be between workers,between capitalists, or between both, which is why I'm opposed to the concept that revolution and communism arise spontaneously through basic economic struggle.

I'm still working through this book and through my own thinking, but I believe the beginning of an answer to these two problematics lies in viewing communist revolution not as the unity of a sociological identity (whether that be of workers, black people, latinos, gay people, etc), but as a unity based on a communist political vision to overcome ALL oppressive divisions, which cant be achieved spontaneously or mediated through a particular identity (race, class, or sex), but through intense struggle and study in the service of complete human liberation.

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  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I haven't read this book, but I've been working with the same problem. I don't care for the term 'false consciousness' for some of the reasons you suggest. I use 'conflicted consciousness' -- not original with me, but from Hegel -- but also in the sense that consciousness is a complicated locus combining interest, identity and values, which are often in conflict with each other within the same person or social group or class. 'Real' vs 'false' is too Platonic for me.

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    I really like how this ties the widely rejected concept of false consciousness to the often uncritically embraced one of of working-class self-activity.

    I think Marx's use of the concept of "species-being" is useful here. The condition of the worker is one of alienation from their species-being, that is to say from the conscious, collective, and creative process of making the world that defines and distinguishes our species from all others and makes us human. Communism is thus the realization of our species being. The revolutionary potential of the worker does not derive simply from their conditions as a worker, but from the struggle to negate those conditions that can only be accomplished by overturning the whole system. Revolutionary class consciousness is not something that arises in any automatic way from the conditions of being a worker, it is not there for the taking once the mystifications of bourgeois ideology is cleared away, but rather it must be forged and fought for over the protracted course of struggle that is still ongoing. Which is to say that we don't know, and really can not know, exactly what it will finally look like, but can only sketch approximations based on what we have learned from the struggle so far.

  • Guest - boris

    Vivid Visionary wrote:

    <blockquote>I believe the beginning of an answer to these two problematics lies in viewing communist revolution not as the unity of a sociological identity (whether that be of workers, black people, latinos, gay people, etc), but as a unity based on a communist political vision to overcome ALL oppressive divisions, which cant be achieved spontaneously or mediated through a particular identity (race, class, or sex), but through intense struggle and study in the service of complete human liberation.</blockquote>

    At the same time though, doesn't communist revolution correspond to the historic interests of a particular class, and not humanity in the abstract? In what sense does this correspondence exist?

    Maybe a distinction from Althusser is valuable here, who said that the "class instinct" of proletarians needs only to be "educated" to arrive at communist consciousness, while the "class instinct" of the petty bourgeoisie must be "revolutionized" to do the same.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Marx summed it up rather succinctly when he said the the working class was uniquely bound with radical chains, ie, when it freed itself it also freed all of humankind. Or something close to that; I don't have a direct source handy.

  • Guest - Mike S.

    Interesting. STO thoroughly rejected the idea of "false consciousness," but it fully embraced a version of "working class self-activity." A 1980 piece by Lee Holstein entitled simply "Working Class Self-Activity" detailed the connection between this concept and STO's Gramscian analysis of "dual consciousness," using Kim Moody as a foil and focusing specifically on a critique of trade union activity that will probably turn off many readers here. Nonetheless, I think it represents a valuable alternative to the views put forward here by Vivid Visionary. Check out the Holstein essay <a href="//www.sojournertruth.net/wcsa.html”" rel="nofollow">here</a>

  • Guest - Mike S.

    Crap, I can never get those links to work. Here's the actual website. [Kasama folks, feel free to correct the link in comment #5 and delete this one if you wish.]

    http://www.sojournertruth.net/wcsa.html

  • Guest - Vivid Visionary

    Boris:

    I do believe communism corresponds to the historic interests of a particular class - those of the proletariat.

    Marx made the important distinction of the working class as a class "in itself" that shared common economic conditions which fostered both unity and competition, and as a class "for itself", where the working class comes to see the true nature of the system and its need to liberate itself and all of humanity through a revolutionary process.

    But it is because the proletariat is not just a class like any other in human history that seeks to preserve itself and dominate - the proletariat is important in a communist sense because its liberation means the liberation of all humanity and the dissolution of all oppressive and exploitative divisions.

    I realize it sounds problematic to say that communism is in the historic interests of the working class, and at the same time that it doesn't arise spontaneously out of the identity of a worker.

    But I think there's a reason we refer to socialism as the dictatorship of the proletariAT and not the dictatorship of proletariANS. Because socialism does not mean individual proletarians exercising power in the workplace (although I do believe that's an important part of the process). What's primary is if the policies, lines, and overall practices of a socialist society correspond to the historic interests of this particular class. In other words, it means developing socialist production relations, the elimination of the mental/manual division, the division between town and country, men and women, and overall empowerment of the formerly oppressed to run society in their interests. The Chinese Revolution was, sociologically speaking, a peasant-based revolution, but, communist and proletarian in that the tremendous changes were led and guided by the historic interests of the working class. Likewise, the French Revolution was overwhelmingly based amongst the peasants and workers, yet it was a bourgeois revolution because that's the vision they were fighting for, and thats how it manifested concretely in the changes sought out (ie the development of capitalism in France).

    A while back, Mike Ely wrote a post about how communist revolution, especially in the US, would not take the form of "class struggle", meaning it wouldnt take the form of workers lining up one side and bosses on the other. While I agree that revolution in this country will look a lot more complex, I don't mind regarding our struggle as one between classes in the sense that we are struggling over two different visions of society we want to see - that of the proletariat remaking society, or the nightmare capitalism is taking us on.

    I don't use class struggle in a necessarily sociological sense, but to refer the struggle made by concrete human beings (mostly proletarian, although not always) against war, police brutality, sub-standard housing (etc) as a battle for a different world. In other words, class struggle isn't just two sociological classes battling it out, but (especially in the US) people from different classes and strata, primarily from the oppressed, uniting over a political vision for a new world.

  • Guest - Jan Makandal

    I do agree that communism corresponds to the historic needs of a social class: the Proletariat. I think it is important to differentiate consciousness to ideology as well as theory. One will find the presence and the effect of ideology and consciousness in the theoretical work, class-consciousness encompass three levels: political/ideological and theoretical. These three levels function in a dialectical relation where the political level determines and explains the other two. In the final analysis, class-consciousness is the political development of the class in the relative autonomous development of the three levels of the class in the struggle against capitalism. I just will like to mention as well in their relative autonomy these three levels inherently tend to construct unequally.

    I am more incline in the usage of autonomous struggle versus working class self-activity. The concept autonomous is more correspondents to the long-term political objective of the working class. Autonomous doesn’t look at the individual self-activity of the class but rather at the collective political development of the class. The capacity of the class to decipher its class interest and to define a political line determines historically by that class interest. Autonomous is the relations of the class with other dominated classes, its role in building unity with other classes and the manner in which the class will construct unity with other dominated classes under its leadership. In the political line elaborated by the Chinese communists in the Anti Imperialist united front the insistence was made on the autonomous presence of proletariat, at least in theory, in the United Front. The need for the proletariat to remain autonomous and independent, politically and organically, was correct and need to be generalizing as a political orientation of the working class.

    Communism is the highest stage in the development of working class consciousness. I do agree for the need of that core to organize at that level.

    The lower stage of working class consciousness is the mass level, correctly identify as school of socialism, a training ground for working class struggle against capitalism. The mass struggle encompass, economic struggle and struggle for political reforms. It is important to understand a thin hairline separate these types of struggles from economist and reformism struggles. The demarcating line should be in the objective, the final goal and the content of these mass struggles. For example for me, the anti apartheid struggle strips of the anti capitalist struggle was objectively a reformist struggle. Anti government struggle we have seen, in the seventies, were mostly reformist. I would argue similarly for the immigrant struggle if it were not an anti capitalist struggle, reducing it merely to moral issues. Again, the mass struggle demands also a level of organizations. Organization of fighters at the mass levels.
    These two levels of struggle are dialectically connected and the revolutionary level, the highest level of consciousness is determinant.

  • Guest - zerohour

    "...the proletariat is important in a communist sense because its liberation means the liberation of all humanity and the dissolution of all oppressive and exploitative divisions. "

    Then isn't communism in the interests of all who want to live in a classless society, one of mutual flourishing, as Bill Martin put it, and not just one particular class? What I'm getting at is that those who want to maintain relations of exploitation would not want a communist, but the best, if not only, argument for the universalist appeal of communism is that it would benefit all of humanity, all could thrive without exploiting and oppressing others.

    The working class are in the best position, and have the most compelling reasons to eliminate class society, but unless we're talking about an exclusive strategy of physical liquidation as distinct from political, social and ethical struggle, I think to re-consider the nature of the political subject. I prefer not to conflate "working class" with "proletariat." I consider "the proletariat" to be the name of that collective agent that is at the forefront, the vanguard [yes, the "v" word] of revolutionary struggle. On a sociological level, the majority of its members will most likely be from working classes [I include peasants too] but will include disaffected and sympathetic members of other classes and social groupings as well. This has been the historical pattern and I don't see why it would change. At the same time, large sections of the working classes will probably struggle on the side of reaction as they have in the past, so to see "the working class" as a monolithic agent of revolution is not supported historically.

    "What’s primary is if the policies, lines, and overall practices of a socialist society correspond to the historic interests of this particular class. In other words, it means developing socialist production relations, the elimination of the mental/manual division, the division between town and country, men and women, and overall empowerment of the formerly oppressed to run society in their interests."

    I agree with this, but I would draw the conclusion then, that the class would be in the process of its own liquidation and can no longer be called "the working class" in the sense that we know it. The working class works, that's what it does. As soon as it begins to define the broader contours of social life in matters of economics, housing, schooling, foreign relations, military policy, environmental policy, etc., it's becoming something else. This is why I find slogans like "workers revolution" or "workers democracy" or "workers" anything problematic - and on an anecdotal level, I've found workers to have problems with this too for the same reason: they don't want to put much effort for a "new" society in which "work" is still promoted as a central value.

    Others may have different experiences, and I'm not suggesting that this is the main obstacle to radicalizing more sectors of the working class, but I think the leftist discourse of "work" would be worth revisiting. I think such slogans appeal to a workers identity and, more specifically, the labor aristocracy. As a thought experiment, consider telling a sweatshop worker that your vision of liberation is collective management of the factory, and see how well that goes over. Or consider the different kinds of work under capitalism that are wasteful or even harmful. What's liberating about collectively running such industries or workplaces [like say advertising firms] as opposed to abolishing them.

    "I believe the beginning of an answer to these two problematics lies in viewing communist revolution not as the unity of a sociological identity (whether that be of workers, black people, latinos, gay people, etc), but as a unity based on a communist political vision to overcome ALL oppressive divisions, which cant be achieved spontaneously or mediated through a particular identity (race, class, or sex), but through intense struggle and study in the service of complete human liberation."

    +1, comrade.

  • Guest - Vivid Visionary

    Zerohour,

    I think making the distinction between the working class as the main sociological subject of revolution, and of the proletariat as its leading political subject is very useful, and is in fact the way in which the problematic I spelled out in my last post (about communism being in the historic interests of the proletariat yet not necessarily inherent in a worker) can be solved.

    I was thinking about this topic in terms of the migrant struggle in the United States. The majority of migrants labor in restaurants, agriculture, construction, and domestic services; their labor as a super-exploited section of the working class props up the vast wealth in this country and is directly tied to the imperialist exploitation of their home nations. But, in developing communist relations with their struggles, how far would we get if we appealed to them as workers, and on that basis proceed to develop programs, policies, etc? I'm not sure if the majority, but at least a very substantial part of latin american migrants don't have origins as workers in their home nations, but as small farmers and peasants. Their struggles in this country revolve around issues of citizenship, police brutality (ICE, la migra), and education (amongst others) and are framed around racism, national oppression, and imperialism. Something to ponder on.

  • Guest - ShineThePath

    Species-Being is bunk in the same frame concepts of "false consciousness" and "Working-class Self Activity" are. They rely about humanist conceptions of essence of experience, the concepts in fact mutually depend on each other in a circular use of reason - there can be no such thing as the concept of a "false consciousness" without a falling back upon the notion of species-being.

    There is no moment of alienation from our collective labor process, since it was the transformation to the capitalist mode of production on a world scale that even could have created such a consciousness. We can just look at any feudal mode of production to know that the process of production would have lacked the character of giving a "conscious, collective, and creative process of making the world." And now who can say in the age of globalized capital, in a complete division of labor across the world in the production process, that really the Worker knows not of his collective part in this? Its profoundly silly and even petty-bourgeois conception.

    The theory of alienation, and of species-being, must be thought of as Feurebachian conceptions first and foremost - since Marx simply took the structure of Feurebach's theory of alienation (alienation of man through God) and applied the structure to thinking of class. It remains therefore at the level of metaphysics, and bad metaphysics at that.

    Marx at his youth is something we should be embarrassed by - lets think politically and structurally about a project which attempts to transform social relations, not in bad metaphysics.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    'False consciousness' certainty is open to charges of metaphysics, as I mentioned above, but I wouldn't say the same for 'species being' and 'species consciousness,' especially in the historical sense in which Marx anchored it. Nor would I draw a hard line against the 'young Marx,' which is full of revolutionary vitality and insight, even if framed in left-Hegelian polemics.

  • Guest - Jan Makandal

    Consciousness is not innate and isn’t inherent to the working class. Such views will objectively negate class struggle. That why I don’t have a sociological approach in my attempt to give an interpretation [subjective] to an objective reality. Sociology tends to negate class struggle and is objectively a metaphysical “science”. So, it is a bourgeois concept. If we look at the progression of Marx we could easily defines the role of class struggle, Paris Commune as example, in Marx’s political development. I have argued, in many of my posts, the role of class struggle in the definition of social class and in the development of the consciousness of the class at all levels[ Political, ideological and theoretical].

    The peasantry is not part of the working class. The class interest of the working class/ proletariat could be quite different from that of the peasantry and sometimes even antagonistic if we are talking of a collectivize mode of productions. The important contributions, needed to deepen, by the Chinese communists. First, they correctly identified the peasantry as the principal force and the proletariat as the leading force.

    They insisted on the need for the proletariat to remain autonomous. But also, this theoretical position was very limited in the definition of their political line resulting in some very grave errors that nowadays we are witnessing some of the consequences. At the same time consolidating for us, thru these errors, the incapacity of the peasantry to build scientific socialism or any other dominated classes. Of course, attempts were made to correct these errors by initiating the Proletarian Cultural Revolution, but these attempts and lessons were marred by opportunism, populism and theoretical limitations. For example, they were incorrect to solely define this internal struggle as a two line struggles, I do think they were principally a class line struggle.

    The working class isn’t a monolithic. In the development of its consciousness, the proletariat should develop its capacity to unify the peoples ‘camps, all classes under class’s domination, under its leadership. The proletariat will not be monolithic but hegemonic.

    Vivid Visionary said:
    I was thinking about this topic in terms of the migrant struggle in the United States. The majority of migrants labor in restaurants, agriculture, construction, and domestic services; their labor as a super-exploited section of the working class props up the vast wealth in this country and is directly tied to the imperialist exploitation of their home nations. But, in developing communist relations with their struggles, how far would we get if we appealed to them as workers, and on that basis proceed to develop programs, policies, etc? I’m not sure if the majority, but at least a very substantial part of latin american migrants don’t have origins as workers in their home nations, but as small farmers and peasants. Their struggles in this country revolve around issues of citizenship, police brutality (ICE, la migra), and education (amongst others) and are framed around racism, national oppression, and imperialism. Something to ponder on.

    As an immigrant I do agree with you on this and let me add some other points to ponder:
    Not all immigrants are from the masses.
    Most immigrants integrate the masses in the US social formation principally the working class.
    The struggle for immigrants rights, struggle at the mass levels, are needed to be wage from a working class interest. These struggles must part of the working class struggle.
    Immigrants integrating the masses in the US go to a class transfer and in majority resist that transfer. [From peasant/petit bourgeois to workers.]

    As revolutionaries we should exposed the failure of capitalism, neo liberalism in the social formation of origins as well as the need for immigrants workers to participate side by side with conscientious workers in the new social formation.

    We should work objectively for immigrants workers to keep in touch with workers of their country of origins and coordinate and plans battle against their common enemy the dominant classes and imperialism and in the belly of the beast. Basically laying the groundwork for a new international.

  • Guest - Vivid Visionary

    ShineThePath:

    As I understand your critique of ‘species-being’, you mean that, like ‘false consciousness’, it draws a mechanical relation between being and consciousness, because both rely on the essence of experience (ie identity)to draw that mechanical relation?

    I haven't read much into the concept of 'species-being', but I've always believed communism represents a process of humanization, a struggle against our dehumanized, atomized, and objectified existence under capitalism.

    Can you explain this a bit further? I think it'd be useful for my understanding and also developing the discussion on this topic:

    "There is no moment of alienation from our collective labor process, since it was the transformation to the capitalist mode of production on a world scale that even could have created such a consciousness. We can just look at any feudal mode of production to know that the process of production would have lacked the character of giving a “conscious, collective, and creative process of making the world.” And now who can say in the age of globalized capital, in a complete division of labor across the world in the production process, that really the Worker knows not of his collective part in this? Its profoundly silly and even petty-bourgeois conception."