Maurice Brinton

"What is Class Consciousness?"


Published: in Solidarity, VII, 2 (June 1972)
Transcribed: by Jonas Holmgren

This pamphlet[1] consists of a translation of Reich's famous essay, "What is Class Consciousness?", first published in 1934 (under the pseudonym of Ernst Parell). It includes an introduction, some well-chosen illustrations, an excerpt from the preface to the third (1945) edition of Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism and the full text of the Sexpol Manifesto of 1936.

The subject is topical in view of the resurgence of interest in Reich's writings and of the new awareness, at least among some revolutionaries, of the many factors influencing class consciousness, delaying its appearance or distorting its features. The essay is essential reading for anyone interested in looking a little deeper than the surface of things, or dissatisfied with the facile political "explanations" which are the stock-in-trade of so many on the Left.

Unfortunately Reich's text, while containing many insights of deep significance, is vitiated by a number of Leninist residues. Throughout Reich endorses the belief that "the leadership must bring revolutionary consciousness to the masses". He claims that "awareness of the social situation, of the means of its mastery and of the correct path to socialism must be concentrated in the revolutionary vanguard". Party members are described as the "engineers ... bricklayers and carpenters" of the building of socialism. Lenin is described as "the greatest mass psychologist of all time". All this moreover is not merely a verbal tribute: it permeates much of the practical approach. It is always the Party which is failing to understand the real nature of class consciousness, failing to stress this or that in its propaganda, and thereby failing to evoke the appropriate echoes.

It would be a tragedy, however, if modern revolutionaries saw no further than these hang-ups and, in their revulsion, failed to get to grips with Reich's main message, namely that "one of the reasons for the failure of the revolutionary movement is that the real life of individuals is played out on a different level than the instigators of social revolution believe". "While we were presenting the masses with grandiose historical analyses and economic arguments about the contradictions of imperialism, their innermost feelings were being kindled for Hitler". Still shocked at the "total failure" of the German Left, in the early 1930s "to seize the imagination and enthusiasm of the masses", Reich is making a plea for a revolutionary political psychology. This is a useful approach, provided it is seen as a means of gaining a new awareness into the springs of human behaviour, rather than as a means of developing a new manipulative technique.

Despite its title, Reich's essay is not really about the nature of class consciousness. It is about all that prevents the growth of such consciousness. Although constantly stressing the need for revolutionary leadership, Reich is realist enough to perceive that even the best of leadership cannot create class consciousness. It could not even contribute to the growth of such consciousness if it were not "inherent in the daily experience of the working class". The main problem for Reich is to seek what it is, in society at large (and in the practice of revolutionaries, in particular), which inhibits the growth of that consciousness.

"If you want to develop class consciousness", Reich writes, "you must at least know what you want to develop, why it does not spontaneously develop under the pressure of deprivations of every sort and hence what stops it doing so". Queries of this type, Reich reminds us, would always cause intense annoyance among party functionaries or activists of all kinds, a clear indication that the Left were not even aware of the importance of these questions, let alone capable of providing an answer. In this respect the "scene" doesn't seem to have changed much.

Reich starts by contrasting the "consciousness" of the leaders and the consciousness of the masses. The leaders know "about the contradictions of the capitalist economic system, the terrific possibilities of socialist planning the necessity of social revolution in order to accommodate the form of appropriation to the form of production". They know all about the "progressive and reactionary forces in history". The consciousness of the masses "is remote from such knowledge and from wide perspective. It is concerned with petty, banal, everyday questions". The leaders "grasp the objective socio-economic process, those external conditions of an economic and social nature to which the individuals constituting society are subjected". The masses, on the other hand, are "completely unconcerned by the quarrels of Russia and Japan, or England and America - or in the development of the productive forces". Mass consciousness is "made up of concern about food, clothing family relationships, the possibilities of sexual satisfaction in the narrowest sense, sexual pleasure and amusements in a broader sense, such as the cinema, theatre, fairground entertainments and dancing". It is concerned "with the difficulties of bringing up children, with furnishing the house, with the length and utilization of free time, etc. If politics are to bring about international socialism, they "must find the connection with the petty, banal, primitive, simple everyday life and wishes of the broadest mass of the people, in all the specificity of their situation in society".

Reich then turns to the "traditional allegiances" and to the "wishes, anxieties, ideas and thoughts" which inhibit the development of class consciousness. He points out that "political reaction, with Fascism and the Church at its head, demands of the working masses the renunciation of earthly happiness, obedience, propriety, abjuration and self-sacrifice". Reaction "grows politically fat from the fulfilment of these demands by the masses themselves". It bases itself "on the guilt feelings of every member of the proletariat, upon their usual unassuming moderation, upon their tendency to undergo privation with dumb willingness and sometimes even with joy". Reaction and the Church exploit the identification of the masses with the glorious Führer whose "love for the nation" is substituted for real satisfaction of popular needs.

Reich then comes to the kernel of his analysis. Revolutionaries must recognize that "the principle of renunciation is harmful, stupid and reactionary". "The principle of full earthly pleasure by which Reich does not mean "beer and skittles" must be set against the political reactionaries' principle of renunciation". 'The moderation of the "simple man", the prime virtue as far as Church and Fascism are concerned, is from the standpoint of socialism his greatest fault, one of the many elements which militate against his class consciousness." "We are heading up a dead-end", Reich writes, "if we consider class consciousness an ethical quality" and hence compete with the bourgeoisie and its agents on grounds of their choosing. It would not only be futile but harmful to condemn, for instance, "adolescent sexuality, the character of prostitutes, the depravity of the criminal and immorality of the thief. (Reich clearly differentiates this attitude from any "romantic admiration for the world of crime".) He points out that "everything which goes by the name of morality and ethics today stands unequivocally in the service of the oppression of working humanity". "Everything that supports and strengthens the bourgeois order and attaches people to it is an impediment to class consciousness". On the other hand "everything that is in contradiction with the bourgeois order, that contains the seeds of revolt, may be regarded as an element of class consciousness".

Reich warns that the right will exploit these "amoral" conceptions in its propaganda. This doesn't matter he says, for the right has anyway always considered the left as thieves (who want to expropriate the means of production). Failure to deal with these matters, or "holier than thou" attitudes on the part of the left will only drive the frustrated and misunderstood masses into the arms of reaction.

We have touched on this subject in previous issues of Solidarity, perhaps without appreciating its full significance. In industrial struggles, for instance, there is nearly always a very strong urge among workers, to "make the dispute official", to project an image of being moderate, sensible people, acting constitutionally and within the framework of a procedure "agreed" by both sides. Instead of defending a sacked steward, as being a good militant, doing things that the trade union bureaucracy will not and cannot do, he is defended as "only implementing official union policy", etc.

From where do these conformist attitudes stem? Dealing with inhibiting influences, Reich stresses the importance of the early rebellion against the parents. "Sexual inhibition, the fear of sexual activity and the corresponding feelings of guilt are always either reactionary or at least inhibit revolutionary thinking. Sexual oppression is so immediately perceptible for the child - and class problems for the most part so alien to its thinking - that there is no question of a choice in this matter. Early, correct sexual knowledge does not merely create a lively attachment to the person giving it, does not merely destroy all the child's usual mistrust of adults, but constitutes in itself the best foundation for irreligious thinking and hence for class feeling". The ideological struggle against "being good" is seen by Reich as "one of the most important tasks on the ideological front". Attachment to the parents, on the other hand, is "a powerful, inhibiting element, which can never be exploited by revolutionaries in the interests of social revolution". Reich points out that these are class questions, not personal matters. The Church was well aware of all this, even if the revolutionaries, permeated by bourgeois inhibitions, were not. The Church was not afraid to discuss "these so-called taboo subjects. As far as it was concerned, children masturbating was a political matter". It required care and sensitivity to discuss these subjects with children. "Revolutionaries should at least not get in the way, by chiming in with the Church".

Reich then discusses such things as "parades, uniforms and military music", all seen as factors damaging the development of a critical consciousness. The Right would always be better than the Left at the game of pageantry, at creating myths and in mobilizing people around them. The task of the Left was to blend natural emotion with real understanding. This required patience and some insight into what went on in people's minds. It required understanding their unarticulated fears and doubts, the pressure to which they were submitted in the home or more generally outside of the work situation. "A worker can never be brought to class feeling by simply being called on to strike, as those obtuse individuals demand who do not know what goes on in a worker's mind." The message, here, is as relevant today as when first uttered nearly forty years ago. Honest discussion about all aspects of life will, on the other hand gain workers to the revolutionary cause, "if not immediately for a strike, certainly for later, when such islands of comprehension of the psychology of the masses come together in suburbs, towns and provinces, and the feeling that there are people who know exactly what is preoccupying one, arousing one's indignation, holding one back, driving one on and at the same time restricting one begins to gather people like an avalanche".

In a passage of deep relevance to what might happen tomorrow Reich writes "that in the course of the last ten years adolescents, adults, men and women, people from every walk of life have passed through the revolutionary organizations without becoming attached or committed to the revolutionary cause". What drove them in, in the first place? "Not uniforms, not material advantage, merely vague socialist conviction, revolutionary feeling". Why did they not stay in? "Because the organizations failed to develop this revolutionary feeling". Why did people lapse into indifference, or go over to the Right? "Because there were bourgeois structures in them that were not destroyed". Why were they not destroyed? "Because nobody knew what to promote and what to destroy". The desired objective could not be achieved by appeals to discipline not even "by music and marching, for the others the Right could do that a lot better". Nor could it be done with slogans "for the political clamour of the others was better and more powerful". "The only thing which the revolutionary organizations could, without competition, have offered the masses and which in reality they did not offer ... would have been the knowledge of what the uneducated, oppressed children of capitalism, hankering both after freedom and after authoritarian protection really wanted, without themselves being clearly aware of it". The revolutionaries should have put all this into words, and said it for the masses, in their own language, "but organizations which dismissed all psychology as counter-revolutionary were not up to such tasks". Underlying these formulations of Reich's are a number of very important matters (the role of intellectuals in the revolutionary movement, the importance of knowledge as a basis of self-activity, the growth of "consciousness", etc.) which we cannot here go into.

Among other interesting insights of Reich's one might mention his observations that organizations which saw themselves "the preordained leaders of the coming revolution" repelled people and would be swamped in the revolution itself. Reich also repeatedly stressed that revolutionary propaganda should be positive. It should not be frightened of discussing the future, as concretely as possible. Fear of revolution was partly the product of ignorance. The broad "apolitical" masses would have a decisive effect upon the fate of the revolution. Revolutionaries should therefore find them where they were. They should "politicize private life, fairs, dance halls, cinemas, markets, bedrooms, hostels and betting shops". Long before the Situationists (or Solidarity) came on the scene Reich had proclaimed that "revolutionary energy lies in everyday life".

This synopsis can only give a partial insight into the sort of problems Reich is dealing with. It should be enough, however, to cause serious revolutionaries to ask themselves a few questions about what they are really doing, about the emphases and priorities of their work, about the "triumphalist" myths some are so busy con-cocting and about the lasting content of their "interventions".



[1] Wilhelm Reich, What is Class Consciousness? (London: Socialist Reproduction, 1971).


Last updated on: 8.15.2009