Notes for Class Tutors
In this chapter Comrade Holz refutes the prevailing myth that classes and class struggle have disappeared, while recognising that changes have taken place in class structure and the class experience.
The material lends itself readily to discussion based around questions and answers. The tutor could, at appropriate intervals, pose the following questions:
Do we live in a class society?
What defines class? In what ways is it disguised today?
How does class society hold together?
What do we mean by class consciousness? Is spontaneous rebellion the same?
How can the gap between individualised consciousness and general class consciousness be bridged? Can it be done by trade unions?
What are the most important factors in building class consciousness?
What are the key tasks of a communist party in that context?
Main points to bring out:
- Class is primarily an economic concept, based on different sources of income and property. However, changed lifestyles, new work features and new roles in the production process mean that class antagonism today is more impersonal and anonymous than in the past.
- Class has always had a political side too – based on the ability of the ruling class to ensure that sections of the ruled classes identify with it. Hence class struggle is commonly played out at the political level.
- A system of rule is essential for holding class society together. In this, members of the ruling class are as free as they want, while members of the ruled class are only as free as they are allowed to be.
- To stay in power, the ruling class must conduct a class struggle from above. This will be the more successful, the more it conceals that struggle from the ruled class (ideological camouflage, hegemony) and so prevents the class struggle from below.
- Rebellious consciousness only sees a situation in isolation; educated class consciousness sees experiences as linked to the social system.
- Class consciousness itself is an abstraction – the ‘self-confidence’ of a generalised person – behind which all individual consciousnesses must always trail.
- The two most important factors in building class consciousness are solidarity (requires a generalisation of experiences external to one’s own) and discipline (preparedness for sacrifice).
- Bridging that gap between individual consciousness and general class consciousness requires a political organisation of the working class – the Communist Party – which develops activity on the basis of its members’ experiences, has a scientific theory of society and is able to generalise its members’ experiences in terms of that theory.
- The Party’s theoretical work must take place at two levels: developing a comprehensible generalised model of society, linked to experiences; and engaging in a propagandist and agitational method of mass dissemination, focusing on actual conflicts and the need to change the system. The Party is the bearer of historical truth of our time.
Hans Heinz Holz: COMMUNISTS TODAY
CHAPTER 4: CLASS STRUGGLE
Do we live in a class society? Bourgeois politicians and social scientists are not too keen to talk about it. Among present-day sociologists, the word “class” seems to be taboo. Instead they tend to speak of “social layering”, or even of “a graded middle-class society”.
This terminological allergy towards a classical concept of sociological teaching is striking. Might it not hide a social problem? Are politicians looking to sociologists to provide them with an alibi by banishing the teaching of class struggle to the lumber-room1? To an objective observer, this effort of avoiding the class concept must indicate that the basis of class society persists.
It is certainly important to use the class concept correctly in its scientific meaning. It is easy to knock down an “Aunt Sally” - the typical approach of the many critics who declare the Marxist interpretation of history as outmoded.
Class is primarily an economic concept. Marx intended the 3rd Volume of Capital to conclude with an analysis of the class structure of capitalist society, and to define the essence of class, but he was unable to complete it. The text simply breaks off after some introductory sentences in the very last paragraph. Nonetheless, even this introduction is quite illuminating, as it shows that the class concept is related to the economic social formation:
“The owners merely of labour power, owners of capital and landowners, whose respective sources of income are wages, profit and ground rent, in other words wage labourers, capitalists and land-owners, constitute the three big classes of modern society, based upon the capitalist mode of production.” 2
In the next sentences Marx differentiates, in so far as he points out that there are transitional and intermediate forms, so that the classes are not neatly placed in opposition to one another. Elsewhere3 he points out that the ruling classes assimilate members of the ruled classes to themselves and are thereby able to consolidate their position. People who belong objectively to the class of wage-labourers may indeed subjectively feel themselves in solidarity with the capitalist class. This is a problem that is posed in the context of an analysis of “false consciousness.”4
The class concept thus has a political side, connected directly with its economic content: economic classes, necessarily bound together in a common society, but one full of contradictions, gain a political character as soon as they act upon each other. Class becomes a political entity and class struggle is played out at the level of political debate.
Since the class structure of society indicates a differentiation not only of functions but also of property, then the property relations also indicate a system of rule. A large part of the class-determined activities of the ruling class serves the purpose of maintaining and extending the system of rule which guarantees its power:
- the concentration of political power within and beyond democratic institutions;
- the maintenance of educational privileges;the securing of a class-conforming judicial system;
- the manipulation of public opinion through control of the media;
- all these are means of exercise of rule in the service of maintaining the existing system.
Let me just make a few points to demonstrate that a “levelling of class differences” is not the case. Such claims are always based on the participation of individuals in the general prosperity (at least in the metropolitan centres, and only there). Increasing cutbacks, even in the rich industrialised countries, already make these claims untrustworthy, even if the pain boundary of reduced living standards has not yet been reached. But it does not depend on whether classes are openly recognised and talked about. Politically it is a matter of the different integration of people into the social process as a result of their differentiated economic situations.
Members of the ruling class can and must identify themselves with the society which guarantees them the highest degree of self-determination and self-development - they are in many respects as free as they want. Members of the dominated class remain on the contrary partially and largely excluded from the organisation of society and have only as many possibilities for self-determination and self-development as are granted to them in the scope of the existing social order (or as they can obtain by struggle) - they are therefore only as free as they are allowed to be.
If the ruling class wants to maintain itself as such, then it must prevent the ruled class from participating throughout society - with all the implications of the exercise of power. There is constantly a “class struggle from above”, even when it is fought with means which make it appear as if the struggle is not brutal. The ruling class will be that much more successful, the more it conceals this “class struggle from above” and thus avoids provoking the “class struggle from below”. Ideological camouflage enables it to gain acceptance of its hegemony5 in the consciousness of the ruled and to move them to accept the existing relations. Today, the massive extension and refinement in the means of ideological influence has made such disguising of the class struggle situation more feasible than ever. But such practices have occurred at all times in history, particularly and repeatedly involving the influence of church-institutionalised religion.
Class Interest and Class Consciousness
Naturally, time and again in the past – and the present - there have been outbreaks of concentrated indignation, inflamed by the overt contradictions of society and people’s individual experiences of oppression, exploitation, discrimination and injustice. From the slave revolts of the ancient Roman Empire6, through the plebeian rebellions in medieval municipalities7 and the peasant wars at the beginning of modern times8, to the revolt of the Silesian weavers9, we have had numerous well-documented examples of such violent class struggles. At some time or other the ideological camouflage of the ruling class runs up against the limits set by direct experience. And in turn social concessions, which favour both the ideological attraction of reformism and political opportunism amongst the ruled, can only temporarily integrate exploited people into the existing social order. The contradiction in the system then breaks out again.
However, no concept of the class situation develops “by itself” from individual experiences of discrimination and oppression. A rebellious consciousness reacts to particular situations, without seeing them as expressions of the prevailing form of society - along with the particular situations of other victims; and without seeing an alternative form of interconnection and dependence. While spontaneous dissatisfaction and criticism develop out of experiences of oppression and exploitation, educated class consciousness understands that these experiences are inherently linked to the existing social system, defined by the way in which the social product is appropriated.
As already shown in this book (Ch. 3), Lenin made clear the danger of confounding class consciousness with the spontaneous articulation of class-determined interests10. The concept of class itself is a theoretical generalisation: it presupposes both an abstraction from the way in which contemporary social life manifests itself, and the formulation of essential characteristics of the process of socialisation.
Class consciousness is the “self-confidence” of a generalised person at a particular historical period. It may not simply be interpreted as the sum or average of the individual psychologies of different members of the class. Rather every individual person, abstracting their own theoretical generalisation from the perspective of their own experiences, will remain behind the general class consciousness, since each represents only one of the particularities of this general consciousness. At a theoretical level this gap between the individual and the general may be overcome - but at a price of reduced content of personal experiences. “Remoteness from real life”, and the dogmatic issuing of abstract directives and solutions, inclining towards bureaucracy, lead to the separation of theory from experience. On the other hand the transformation of theory in daily practice is always connected with an unavoidable shortening and distortion of perspectives by the individual standpoints of experience, to which the theory is referred back by its application. In the absence of an adequate organisational framework, that leads to subjective deviations in individual activism.
Between these two dangers the process of building class consciousness must take place. It is the consciousness, brought at theoretical level, of the “collective labourer”11 - thus the general consciousness of an “abstract person”, which expresses itself in the particular “real people”.
The Organisation of Class Consciousness
Thus class consciousness and its transformation in practice are not brought about according to a sort of Hegelian “cunning of reason”12 - an objective spirit acting behind people’s backs, appearing and being fetishised13 as an irrationally illuminating appearance of “historical fate” (at which level of understanding, bourgeois consciousness of history must necessarily stick). It requires a mediation, carried out by people themselves, between the individual consciousnesses of real people and the general class consciousness of the collective worker. This mediation process must take place at a particular level, at which its outcomes, as theory united with practice, are grasped, worked up and continually enriched and changed as the process develops.
This level is the political organisation of the struggling working class. The organisation develops its activity on the basis of the experiences of its members, applying and further developing the scientific theory - which generalises these experiences in terms of social totality, and is therefore able to describe the make-up of that social totality by formulating the laws of existence of society. The political-economic as well as philosophical character of such a theory arises from the task which is placed before it. In every individual member of the organisation this theory appears as an ingredient of his/her practice, but always in such a way that its fulfilled totality is displayed only by collective organised political activity.
When a theory, satisfying the experience of one group of individuals, is taken up as an abstract result by other groups of individuals, then the practical consequence is solidarity. This outcome remains effective, even where the experience is not directly felt. Indeed - within the organisation and imparted by the organisation - solidarity becomes the general concentration of experience, which makes it possible for the abstraction of theory to enter into practice. Solidarity in class struggle is thereby an essential factor of class consciousness; and, because of this, actions and struggles in which this solidarity is built and strengthened are indeed an element in the development of class consciousness. However, for this effect to be brought about, such actions will require a certain common basis of experience, and must have a clear sense of purpose. Where the working class movement is strong and possesses a wealth of traditions, then building solidarity enters as an essential part of the conduct of the movement, which also allows it to survive defeats. The level of class consciousness is co-determined by the historical standing of the experiences of class struggle.
Now in bourgeois society all actions of proletarian class struggle start out from a position in which direct power is lacking – while, on the other hand, the ruling class disposes power through its instrument, the state. At every level of the class struggle – right up to armed uprising, the revolutionary ultima ratio14 – the means upon which the state can call are relatively superior to those of the working class. Power in the state is always primarily power exercised by the organs of the state. The proletariat, as a necessary component of bourgeois society, does of course have the opportunity to interrupt the functions of social production - negatively, by refusal to work, i.e. by strike, and positively, by encroachments into the sphere of exercise of power. Capitalist society is powerful, but easily damaged. The strength of a class-fighting organisation in relation to the organised state power lies in the discipline of its members.
As an individual, the worker is powerless; as a class – or rather as a relevant section of the class, thus in a mass action – the worker is unassailable, because the system would indeed break up, if it wanted to remove a necessary element of its existence. However: the mass, which in principle is invincible, in practice is as vulnerable as the individuals united within it. The class struggle, if it is to be successful, demands individual sacrifices and preparedness for sacrifice. The sharpening of the class struggle towards vigorous confrontation is only then sensible, if the individual class fighters bring in – and maintain - this preparedness for sacrifice! That presupposes a high state of consciousness – insight and fighting morale - which in turn is the result of discipline generated by a long phase of preparation.
Naturally, that does not mean that discipline would just be necessary at the instant of revolutionary upheaval, and beforehand would merely have to be “practised”. On the contrary, precisely in the long period of small step-by-step disputes inside bourgeois society, discipline is the logical prerequisite whereby the contents of individual consciousness and experience can be successfully transmuted into class consciousness. If organised political activity is the place where the historical truth of class consciousness is established, then the renunciation of spontaneous isolated actions, the back-reference to the totality of the strategic plan, and the preparedness for self-denying engagement - even in small things, in the detailed work - are the individual side of the generality of the collective. In this discipline, which imposes itself on individuals, the formal shape of class consciousness is built, as its material content arises from the individual experiences and their theoretical treatment.
Changes in Class Structure and the Tasks of the Party
Given the changes in social structure in the highly industrialised countries, it remains for us to consider whether we are still really entitled to speak of the working class or the proletariat. Bourgeois sociology disputes that, with reference to the changed lifestyles of wage- and salary-earners. After all, what one calls class is not popularly interpretable. However, there is a scientific definition, starting out from Marx’s characterisation of it, cited above, which differentiates classes on the basis of their appropriation or non-appropriation of surplus value. A capitalist is a person who privately appropriates the surplus value of social production – and those who do not do that belong to the “working class”, the proletariat, because they only have their labour power to sell, even if they are assigned to some intermediate strata by sociological classification.
Under capitalist production relations - i.e. private appropriation of surplus value, flowing from private ownership of the means of production - structural changes, e.g. the development of new work features, or new roles due to changes in the nature of productive power, remain simply internal transformations in a society still defined by its class divisions. That indicates that class antagonism determines the basic structure of society; but also that the class analysis must include a very precise determination of the place of sub-groups of the working class in the total production and distribution process of society. It does not indicate, however, that the real opposition between wage-labour and capital has disappeared. It has only become more impersonal and anonymous and has thereby suffered a loss in direct qualities of experience.
Given this very differentiated subjective situation of individual sectors of the working class, how can a fighting class consciousness – including solidarity and discipline – be built up? The less uniformity there is in the subjective conditions of experience of one’s own class situation, then the more relevant becomes the theoretical generalisation, which develops out of these individual situations of experience and interest into a total consciousness of the social system, embracing the most different points of departure.
For classes to constitute themselves as political factors, this theoretical work is necessary at two levels: firstly, in working up a comprehensible interpretative model at a high degree of generality, including a tight network of connections with experience; secondly, developing a method of mass dissemination of these theoretical outcomes, i.e. a propagandist and agitational process of activation, which is tightly focussed on actual conflicts at the continued experience of oppression and exploitation, and connects these conflicts with the political objectives of changing the system. Trade union struggles, citizen’s initiatives and similar disputes form the starting point for this.
The question of the formation of the working class into a self-confident political unity however leads on to the question of the organisation through which this political process can take place. The organisation of class struggle demands the existence of a party guided by theoretically educated class-consciousness, well-grounded in scientific socialism, which can be the crystallisation point and nucleus of opposition to the ruling system. The party question is not an aspect, to be considered one way or another, of the sociology of organisation; rather it is a central component of the understanding of history. If our epoch is that of the struggle for transition from capitalism to socialism, in as much as the development aims of humanity, the way to the emancipation of people, must not fail – then the party which is conscious of this epochal situation and which has made the abolition of class society its political aim and activity, is the bearer of the historical truth of our time.
1. A place where, after all, forgotten and unappreciated masterworks can often be found
2. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 37, p.870.
3. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 37, p.595.
4. “ 'False Consciousness’ refers to ideology dominating the consciousness of exploited groups and classes which at the same time justifies and perpetuates their exploitation. The phrase was never used by Marx, and was used only once by Engels in a private letter to Franz Mehring in 1893. The context in which Engels used the term was to explain how Marx and Engels had not given sufficient emphasis in their writing to the role played by thought in determining social action, having spent their main effort in explaining how social life determines how people think. ‘False Consciousness’ is meant in contrast to an understanding which a subject is in a position to have, but through lack of reflection or sufficient information, has not attained.” (http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/f/a.htm)
5. Term developed by Italian communist leader and theoretician Antonio Gramsci to denote a class alliance by means of which one class assumes a position of leadership over other classes, in return guaranteeing them certain benefits, so as to be able to secure public political power over society as a whole.
6. The so-called Spartacus Revolt, named after the leader of the slaves’ rebellion. See http://graham.thewebtailor.co.uk/archives/000043.html.
7. Here Holz may be referring to such examples as Laon (1115), Flanders (1280s – 1390s) and Florence (1378). Some townspeople took part in the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. See also next footnote.
8. The Peasant War in Germany – also encompassing some urban plebeian revolts - occurred in the 16th Century. In his article on this topic, Engels pointed out that the real motivating force behind the War was class conflict rather than religion (K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 10, p.397).
9. On June 4-6, 1844, Silesian weavers rose up in the first historic worker-capitalist struggle Germany had ever seen. Writing about this in 1844, Marx said: “…. The Silesian rebellion starts where the French and English workers' finish, namely with an understanding of the nature of the proletariat. This superiority stamps the whole episode. Not only were machines destroyed, those competitors of the workers, but also the account books, the titles of ownership, and whereas all other movements had directed their attacks primarily at the visible enemy, namely the industrialists, the Silesian workers turned also against the hidden enemy, the bankers. Finally, not one English workers' uprising was carried out with such courage, foresight and endurance.” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.189)
10. V I Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 347.
11. Term used by Marx in Capital, Vol. 1: “The product ceases to be the direct product of the individual, and becomes a social product, produced in common by a collective labourer, i.e. by a combination of workmen, each of whom takes only a part, greater or less, in the manipulation of the subject of their labour.” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 35, p. 509)
12. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher who developed the theory of dialectics. He regarded history “as a rational process by which the Absolute Spirit (God) externalised himself into nature and human history in a dialectical progress of thesis (seed), antithesis (negation of seed and growth of sprout) and synthesis (flower). … He calls history a slaughter-bench. This means that, by what he calls ‘the cunning of reason’, individuals motivated irrationally by their passions and interests, along with world-historical individuals like Caesar and Napoleon, cause terrific bloodshed in bringing about the end of history (universal freedom) of which only the philosopher Hegel has a comprehensive understanding.” (F. Lawrence, Philosophers and Theologians, Boston College, quoted at http://mindyourmaker.wordpress.com/tag/hegel/)
In his Afterword to the second edition of Capital (Vol. 1), Marx wrote: "My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea.’ With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought. …
"The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell."
(K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 35, p.19)
13. The word is used here in the sense applied by Marx in Capital to commodities: “There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”
(K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 35, p.83)
14. ultima ratio regum: “the last argument of kings”. In the reign of Louis IV, this motto was engraved by royal order on French cannon.