Revolution or War n°6

Biannual - September 2016

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On Class Consciousness

The following text is the first part of a contribution by one member of our group on the question of class consciousness. The second part will be published in the next issue. The IGCL stated in agreement with this text at the General Meeting it held late July. Nevertheless, our reflection and internal debate is just beginning. We present it to the readers and the political groups of the Proletarian Camp so that they can participate, we invite them to do so, to our reflection and debate. In particular, we call the attention on our position towards Lenin’s pamphlet What is to be done?, so disparaged or fetishized depending to the cases. According to us, its main goal which bases it – and based great part of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party’s political action – was to ’take up actively (...) the development of [the working class’] political consciousness’, to ’raise its consciousness’. It is his main argument that he does not cease delivering all along What is to be done? against the Economists – the Councilists of that time. In this sense, those who today reject Lenin and What is to be done? because it takes back, formally, Kautsky’s position according to which the class consciousness can’t come from the very revolutionary class itself, make him a fake criticism which gives them the excuse for preventing them to pronounce on the theoretical and political basic questions and above all about their implications: the political dimension of the class fight and the need of the Party. It is all the more regrettable, or (politically) dishonest, since Lenin himself came back on the What is to be done? ’s formulations : ’Nor at the Second Congress did I have any intention of elevating my own formulations, as given in What Is To Be Done?, to “programmatic” level, constituting special principles. On the contrary, the expression I used – and it has since been frequently quoted –was that the Economists had gone to one extreme. What Is To Be Done?, I said, straightens out what had been twisted by the Economists’ (Lenin, Preface to the Collection Twelve Years, september 1907).

On class consciousness

Any discussion or debate about class consciousness makes no sense, has no interest for the proletariat, if we do not found it on the basic militant principle : how to raise the proletariat’s class consciousness. Therein lies the debate that ignited generations of revolutionary militants, causing various lines of separation within revolutionary organizations between different tendencies, currents or fractions.

Any discussion of class consciousness considered in itself, that is to say in the abstract, is a discussion of living room intellectuals by its non-militant nature, precisely because it does not first ask the question ’how to raise class consciousness’ but rather ’what is class consciousness.’ The nature of the question of course will change the content of the answer. Now when the question was badly posed by different political currents, answers invariably tended to focus on one aspect at the expense of a general conception, therefore dialectic. For example, Georg Lukacs and his History and Class Consciousness virtually only put the emphasis on the philosophical aspect of consciousness. Similarly, the economist, anarchist, syndicalist currents and even by some aspects councilist see class consciousness only in the economic relations between bosses and workers on the workplace. Finally, for the revisionist current, the socialist doctrine being a bourgeois ideologues invention and the proletariat being too uneducated, one had to adapt socialism, and therefore the party, to the civilized bourgeois society.

All these political currents have made the mistake of putting aside the fundamental aspect of the class consciousness from the revolutionary point of view, i.e the political aspect. Far be it from us to say here that there is no philosophical factor, economic, cultural, etc. to class consciousness. Only the political aspect transcends and binds together all other aspects. The political nature of the class struggle and the proletarian class consciousness is coming from the fact that the working class is both an exploited class and a revolutionary class, that is to say without any power in capitalist society and directly in opposition to the capitalist state. The revolutionaries need a clear conception of the goal, that is to say, a political program, and effective ways to achieve this goal, that is to say, a political organization which allows the seizure of political power. “ In our view, revolution is a process, the first stages of which we are now experiencing, for it is only by the struggle for power itself that the masses can be assembled, drilled and formed into an organisation capable of taking power. [1] The conquest of power by the proletariat, the dictatorship of the proletariat, is the political mean to give birth to the communist society.

The basic premises being established, the militant and political nature of class consciousness, we can start to reclaim past discussions of the labor movement on the question of consciousness. While this debate was never at the front of the scene of the labor movement, it is always underlying during other debates such as the debate between the Economists and Iskra in Russia or the debate on the mass strike between Luxemburg-Pannekoek and Kautsky, both in the early 20th century. This method allows us to reclaim the experience of revolutionary currents in the labor movement. Indeed, when there is a debate on a political question, it usually forms a revolutionary Left facing a conservative Right within the organization. The political confrontation between fractions in the organization has the beneficial result of separating the wheat from the chaff. Finally, this method prevents us from astray us to want to reinvent the wheel.

The Communist Party Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels for the Communist League in 1848, marks the first attempt to give the proletariat a political program to guide the struggle. This manifesto is primarily intended to provide a scientific and historical basis for the class struggle, that is to say, to mark a frank opposition to utopian socialism currents. These aimed in general to put forward moral principles to adapt and transform society. Marx and Engels criticize such reasoning by stating that « the theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. » [2] The idea expressed here is that communism is not a theory that is born in the minds of some thinkers of genius. Rather, communism is the existing movement in capitalist society and born directly from contradictions of this society that tends to make possible its abolition. The Communists are the activists who theorize and practice « the real movement which abolishes the present state of things »marxists as a program that is then used to make conscious struggles orienting them more clearly. Similarly, the manifesto wishes to stand out from the different types of petty-bourgeois socialism which all tend, in different ways of course, to adapt the principles of socialism to bourgeois society. Thus, it founded an autonomous political action of the proletariat on a historical and scientific basis.

The Communists are the bearers of class consciousness. They are a voluntary regroupement of militants that understand the final goal. « The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. » [3]

However, Communists do not use this advantage they have over the rest of the proletariat to carry out their own special interests. Instead, they use this awareness of the final goal to ensure political leadership of the class struggle, that is to say, raise the rest of the proletariat to the level of consciousness to enable it to implement the political means of its liberation. That is the deep meaning of the sentence on the constitution of the proletariat as a class, and so in a party of the Communist Manifesto. « The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat. » [4]

What is to Be Done?

The fundamental importance of Lenin’s What has to be done? lies in the fact that it had as a starting point a reflection on how to raise class consciousness. This makes it a reference text for any serious debate about consciousness. Also, as we must criticize Kautsky’s thesis echoed by Lenin making socialism an invention of bourgeois intellectuals, so one can not use this error of Lenin, that he himself confessed later, to evacuate all other excellent positions that are in the text.

First, we have to take care of Lenin’s kautskist thesis : « We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. » [5] In this thesis, which moreover is inconsistent with the rest of the text, Lenin was trying clumsily to explain how class consciousness is not the direct product of the clash between employers and workers on the workplaces, but rather a political expression of shock in society between the bourgeois class and the working class. We must take into account that the polemic between Lenin and the Economists in which they worshiped spontaneity and took the workplace as center of gravity of the class struggle, which obviously made them closer to the trade unions and reformists of Western Europe. Lenin opposed the Economists the eminently political character of the class struggle. So even if he was wrong in taking the Kautsky thesis, Lenin was still right against the Economists.

This kautskist thesis has two main weaknesses. It separates socialism and the proletariat. To this, Rosa Luxemburg responded masterly : « The class struggle is known to be not a social democratic invention that can be arbitrarily set aside for a period of time whenever it may seem convenient to do so. The proletarian class struggle is older than the social democracy, is an elementary product of class society. It flamed up all over Europe when capitalism first came into power. The modern proletariat was not led by the social democracy into the class struggle. On the contrary the international social democratic movement was called into being by the class struggle to bring a conscious aim and unity into the various local and scattered fragments of the class struggle. [6] » Then it takes completely upside down the issue of intellectuals towards communism. Yet Marx and Engels had already resolved the question simply : « Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole. » [7] In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels accept and encourage the idea of bourgeois leaving their class to put themselves at the service of the proletariat and its historical movement. Instead, Kautsky says that the historical movement of the proletariat would be in fact a doctrine invented by enlightened bourgeois.

With a brief reminder of some workers’ struggles in Russia, Lenin poses a fundamental principle of the understanding of consciousness from the Marxist point of view. « This shows that the “spontaneous element”, in essence, represents nothing more nor less than. consciousness in an embryonic form. » [8] There are two currents within Marxism which never managed to assimilate this lesson: the councilist and substitutionist currents. The first current worships spontaneity as a state of purity that a class party could just taint and spoil. In this, that theory condemns the militants to passivity and impotence in the class struggle. Lenin speaks in What has to be done? of queuisme, that is to say, to put themselves in the tail of the movement. Meanwhile, the substitutionist current swears only by consciousness, which only the party has. It will even assert, in its Bordigist caricature, that the revolution will be the act of an unconscious mass whose conscience will happen only afterwards, in the communist paradise. It is the only party that makes the revolution. The two tendencies are the reverse of the same coin in that they are not able to use the Marxist method to understand class consciousness. Their fault is to think in absolute instead of using dialectics. Indeed as Lenin said, the spontaneous emergence of class consciousness in the proletariat is only an embryonic form of a more developed and finished class consciousness. And it is precisely the political role of revolutionaries to promote and intervene in the process that sees the passage of the « spontaneous » to « conscious » in the rest of the proletariat. In short, it is the class that makes the revolution, but it is the party that gives it the political capacity.

The councilist and anarchist currents often refer wrongly to Lenin’s position as elitism, the party becoming for them a strata above the proletariat. On the contrary, according to Lenin, the most revolutionary fraction of the proletariat must systematically organize and work to elevate the least revolutionary and least politicized fraction of the proletariat, through the class struggle, at the level of revolutionaries. « This fact proves that our very first and most pressing duty is to help to train working-class revolutionaries who will be on the same level in regard to Party activity as the revolutionaries from amongst the intellectuals (we emphasise the words “in regard to Party activity”, for, although necessary, it is neither so easy nor so pressingly necessary to bring the workers up to the level of intellectuals in other respects). Attention, therefore, must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries; it is not at all our task to descend to the level of the “working masses” as the Economists wish to do, or to the level of the “average worker” as Svoboda desires to do. » [9] A conception of the party whose duties is to extend and raise class consciousness can not be credibly described as elitism. In this sense, the party is not a political elite. Rather, it provides political leadership in the working class.

The Bolshevik party adopted and practiced Lenin’s position of What has to be done? on the party and consciousness. This position contributed to make the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century the leaders of the radical left in the international social democracy alongside, among others, the Dutch Tribunists, the German IKD and Spartacus League and the abstentionnist fraction of the Italian Socialist Party. Was it not also Rosa Luxemburg stating at the end of her article on the Russian Revolution that : « In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.” »  [10] Similarly, Pannekoek, who however later became a prominent representative of the councilist current, at that time was ’more Bolshevik than Lenin’ : « But the party has taught them that desperate outbursts on the part of individuals or individual groups are pointless, and that success can only be achieved through collective, united, organised action. It has disciplined the masses and restrained them from frittering away their revolutionary activity fruitlessly. But this, of course, is only the one, negative side of the party’s function; it must simultaneously show in positive terms how these energies can be set to work in a different, productive manner, and lead the way in doing so. The masses have, so to speak, made over part of their energy, their revolutionary purpose, to the organised collectivity, not so that it shall be dissipated, but so that the party can put it to use as their collective will. The initiative and potential for spontaneous action which the masses surrender by doing so is not in fact lost, but re-appears elsewhere and in another form as the party’s initiative and potential for spontaneous action; a transformation of energy takes place, as it were. » [11] This high political homogeneity, while not perfect, will be the basis of the formation of the 3rd International and will only be compromised later when the reflux of the world revolution will cause the first dissents from the 20s to the 30s.

The Communist International

The 3rd International was formed on the basis of the international Socialist Lefts who refused the treason of the center and the right of social democracy during the 1st World War. In this, and under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution, the 3rd International restored the revolutionary program of the proletariat against revisionism and reformism of the 2nd International.

In its Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution, the 3rd International took over the basic concepts established in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 : « The Communist Party is a part of the working class, namely, the most advanced, most class-conscious, and hence most revolutionary part. By a process of natural selection the Communist Party is formed of the best, most class-conscious, most devoted and far-sighted workers. The Communist Party has no interests other than the interests of the working class as a whole. The Communist Party is differentiated from the working class as a whole by the fact that it has a clear view of the entire historical path of the working class in its totality and endeavours, at every bend in this road, to defend the interests not of separate groups or trades, but of the working class as a whole. The Communist Party is the organisational and political lever which the most advanced section of the working class uses to direct the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses along the right road. » [12] In short, nothing new compared to the Manifesto, except that the International clearly established that the class party is not outside the proletariat, which was already implicit in the Manifesto, but is the most conscious fraction within the proletariat.

With the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 appear the new form of proletarian political power: the workers’ councils. These will appear in situations of dual power where bourgeois parliaments are discredited and assemblies from the streets and workplaces are formed as workers’ power against the bourgeois power. Obviously the bourgeoisie did everything to legalize the councils and make them non-revolutionary. Normally, the soldiers of this legalization was precisely the social-democracy, yesterday’s reformist and today’s counter-revolutionnaries. The International adopted a very important thesis which is actually an adaptation of What has to be done? on class consciousness on the situation of workers’ councils. « In order that the soviets may be able to achieve their historical tasks, a strong Communist Party is essential, a party which does not simply ’adapt’ itself to the soviets, but is able to ensure that the soviets do not ’adapt’ themselves to the bourgeoisie and to white-guard social-democracy, a party which through its fractions in the soviets is able to make them follow it. » [13] As Lenin wanted to raise the proletariat to the level of consciousness of the class party, the International worked to raise the workers’ councils at the level of consciousness of the same party.

The Communist Left

The Communist Left took up the torch from the tradition of the struggle of the social democratic Left against Revisionism. Like Lenin, Luxemburg and Pannekoek before the war, the Communist Left defended the importance of a party doctrine based on a final goal, communist society, with revolutionary means. This consciousness of the final goals and the means to achieve is actually the class consciousness that the party must be the most advanced expression on the political level. « It is not simply to edify the masses, and even less to exhibit an intrinsically pure and perfect party, but in fact to obtain the best in the actual process. As we shall see later, it is by systematic propaganda and proselytism and especially active participation in social struggles, to shift a growing number of workers from the terrain of partial struggles for immediate interests to the terrain of the organic and united struggle for the communist revolution. But it is only when a similar continuity of program and leadership exists in the Party that it is possible not only to overcome the reluctance of the proletariat to trust it, but to channel and to more quickly and effectively use the new energies conquered in communal thought and action to achieve this unity of the movement which is an indispensable condition of the revolution. » [14] It’s definitely in the ’Italian’ current of the Communist Left that we find the clearest and most correct conception of class consciousness and the party / class relation. « A party is living when live a doctrine and a method of action. A party is a political school of thought and simultaneously a fighting organization. The first feature is a fact of consciousness, the second is a fact of will, specifically an effort toward a goal. » [15]

The Italian left was right to put emphasize on the political nature of class consciousness. A good example of this important notion is in the controversy surrounding the Spanish war within the Communist Left between Bilan and the Union Communiste. The latter criticized the Left Fraction of the Italian Communist Party publishing Bilan because they denied any revolutionary character in the Spanish civil war. Among the factors justifying their position, contained the absence of a class party. So the Communist Union asserted, for good controversy, that Bilan position was ’not party = no revolution.’ On the contrary Bilan position was based on a political tradition it was trying to preserve against the current. Commenting thesis # 1 on the party of the Communist International, the Italian Left had already affirmed « that one cannot even speak of a class unless a minority of this class tending to organise itself into a political party has come into existence. » [16] Considering that the party is the most conscious and revolutionary fraction of the working class, if there is no tendency towards the constitution of the party in the working class, it means that there is no progress in consciousness. We can not talk about a revolutionary situation since consciousness does not exist and the revolution must be a conscious act. In Spain, there were some comrades defending revolutionary positions around Grandizo Munis, but they were drowned in the stinking swamp of Republican and anti-fascist national union. The lack of discernment of Union Communiste has pushed these comrades to seek revolutionaries in Spain where there was not, that is to say in the Left of the POUM, the class collaboration party by excellency.

It’s in the journal called Internationalisme published by the Communist Left of France that we finally find the highest synthesis during this historical period of the relation between party / consciousness / class. As we said above, there are two bad fundamental understandings of class consciousness within the Communist Left: Councilism for which only the class exists and Bordigism for which only the party really counts. For the GCF : « the Party does not substitute itself for the class. It does not call for “confidence” in the bourgeois meaning of the word, but rather sets out as a delegation to which the fate and the destiny of society is entrusted. Its unique historical function is to act towards enabling the class to acquire its own consciousness of its mission, of its goals and means which are the basis of its revolutionary action. » [17]

Class consciousness is the knowledge of the ultimate goal of the class struggle and the means to get there. This knowledge is not the prerogative of a layer of ’ revolution specialists’, but is rather the historical experience of the working class that the party crystallizes into a political program. The proletariat becomes politicized in the very process of class struggle, the class party being both product and factor this politicization. « Political revolution is a primary condition for a socialist orientation of the economy and society. Thus, socialism can only be brought about through the consciousness of the aims of the movement, as a consciousness of its realization and a conscious will for action. Socialist consciousness precedes and conditions the revolutionary action of the class’. Socialist revolution is the beginning of history where humanity is called upon to dominate the productive forces that it has already strongly developed, and it is from this domination that socialist revolution arises. » [18] The last sentence is important. It says that Communist militants must be organized before the revolution to be involved in the front line of the revolutionary struggle.




[1Anton Pannekoek, Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactic, 1912 –

[2Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848



[5Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What has to be done?, 1902 -

[6Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, 1915,

[7Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848

[8Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What has to be done?, 1902 -

[9Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What has to be done?, 1902 -

[10Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1918 -

[11Anton Pannekoek, Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactic, 1912 –

[12Communist International, Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution, 1920 -


[14Communist Party of Italy, Rome Thesis, 1922 – Translated by us


[16Communist Party of Italy, Party and Class, 1921 -

[17The Nature and the Political Function of the Political Party of the Proletariat, Internationalisme #38, GCF, 1948 -