Reform or Revolution, 8. Paul Mattick

Ideology and Class Consciousness

In retrospect all lost causes appear as irrational endeavors, while those that succeed seem rational and justifiable. The goals of the defeated revolutionary minority have invariably been described as utopian and thus as indefensible. The term “utopian” does not apply, however, to objectively realizable projects, but to imaginary systems, which may or may not have concretely given material underpinnings that allow for their realization. There was nothing utopian in the attempt to gain control of society by way of workers’ councils and to end the market economy, for in the developed capitalist system the industrial proletariat is the determining factor in the social reproduction process as a whole, which is not necessarily associated with labor as wage labor. Whether a society is capitalist or socialist, in either case it is the working class that enables it to exist, production can be carried on without regard to its expansion in value terms and the requirements of capital accumulation. Distribution and the allocation of social labor are not dependent upon the indirect exchange relations of the market, but can be organized consciously through appropriate new social institutions under the open and direct control of the producers. Western capitalism in 1918 was not the necessary social production system but only the existing one, whose overthrow would merely have released it from its capitalist encumbrances.

What was missing was not the objective possibility for social change, but a subjective willingness on the part of the majority of the working class to take advantage of the opportunity to overthrow the ruling class and to take possession of the means of production. The labor movement had changed with changing capitalism, but in a direction contrary to Marxian expectations. Despite the pseudo-Marxist ideology, it tended toward the apolitical position that characterizes labor movements in the Anglo-Saxon countries and toward their positive acceptance of the capitalist system. The movement had become politically “neutral,” so to speak, by leaving political decisions to the accredited political parties of bourgeois democracy, of which the Social Democratic Party was one among others. The workers supported the party that promised, or seemingly intended, to take care of their particular immediate needs, which now comprised all their needs. They would not object to the nationalization of industries, were this the goal of their favored party, but neither did they object to reneging on this principle in favor of the private-property system. They simply left such decisions to their elected and more or less trusted leaders, just as they awaited the managers’ or entrepreneurs’ orders in the factories. They continued to deny themselves any kind of self-determination by simply leaving things as they had been, which seemed preferable to the turmoil and the uncertainties of a prolonged struggle against the traditional authorities. It is thus not possible to say that Social Democracy “betrayed” the working class; what its leaders “betrayed” was their own past, now that they had become an appreciated part of the capitalist establishment.

The failure of the German Revolution seems to vindicate the Bolshevik assertion that, left to itself, the working class is not able to make a socialist revolution and therefore requires the leadership of a revolutionary party ready to assume dictatorial powers. But the German working class did not attempt to make a socialist revolution and thus its failure to do so cannot prove the validity of the Bolshevik proposition. Moreover, there was a revolutionary “vanguard” that tried to change the purely political character of the revolution. Although this revolutionary minority did not subscribe to the Bolshevik party concept, it was no less ready to assume leadership, but as a part, not as the dominator, of the working class. Under Western European conditions, a socialist revolution depended clearly on class and not on party actions, for here it is the working class as a whole that has to take over political power and the means of production. It is true of course – but true for all classes, the bourgeoisie as well as the proletariat – that it is always only a part of the whole that actually engages itself in social affairs, while another part remains inactive. But in either case, it is the active part that is decisive as regards the outcome of the class war. It is thus not a question of the whole of the working class literally partaking in the revolutionary process, but of a mass sufficient to match the forces mobilized by the bourgeoisie. This relative mass did not aggregate fast enough to offset the growing power of the counter-revolution.

The whole counter-revolutionary strategy consisted in forestalling a possible increase of the revolutionary minority. The great rush into the National Assembly, as the political goal of Social Democracy, was at the same time dictated by the fear that a prolonged existence of the workers’ councils could lead to their radicalization in the direction of the revolutionary minority. With the demobilization of the army, the political diversity of the soldiers’ councils would disappear, and the composition of the councils, based now exclusively in the factories, might take on a more consistently revolutionary character. That this fear was uncalled for came to light in the results of the election to the National Assembly, which gave the Majority Socialists 37.9 percent of the total vote, whereas the more radical Independent Socialists received only 7.6 percent. Social Democracy still had the confidence of the mass of the working class, despite, or perhaps because of, its anti-revolutionary program. Yet the fear persisted that the victory of bourgeois democracy might not be the last act of the revolution. With revolutionary Russia in the background, a new revolutionary upsurge remained a possibility – a situation calling for the systematic destruction of revolutionary forces that refused to accept the reconsolidation of the capitalist regime.

Although it demanded the end of the war, not the whole of the army joined the revolution. Nonetheless, so as to facilitate the orderly retreat from the frontlines and to avoid a large-scale civil war, the Military High Command accepted both the soldiers’ councils and the provisional Social Democratic government. In close cooperation with the Military High Command, the newly established government began at once to select and to organize the more trustworthy elements from the dissolving army into voluntary formations (Freikorps) to challenge, disarm, and destroy the revolutionary minority. Under the command of the Social Democratic militarist Gustav Noske, these military forces succeeded in piecemeal fashion in eliminating the armed revolutionaries wherever they tried to drive the revolution beyond the confines of bourgeois democracy. The resort to White terror disturbed the complacency of the Social Democratic masses somewhat more than the revolutionary agitation of the Communists. However, this loss of confidence in the Social Democratic leadership did not benefit the Communists but merely increased the ranks of the divided oppositional Independent Socialists. Between the elections to the National Assembly in January 1919 and the election of the Reichstag in June 1920, the votes for the Majority Socialists declined from 37.9 percent to 21.6 percent, while those of the Independent Socialists increased from 7.6 percent to 18 percent.

Just as the Social Democratic Party utilized the council movement in order to sustain its own political influence, so it did not object to the nationalization of large-scale industry called for by the Second Congress of Workers’ Councils. This was to be taken up by the National Assembly, which, of course, offered no guarantee that the demand would also be heeded. But this apparent commitment to the actualization of a program of nationalization-as a synonym for socialization-allowed the Provisional Government to camouflage its counter-revolutionary course with the promise to further the socialization process by peaceful, legal means, in contrast to the Communist endeavors to reach it by way of civil war. While the White terror ruled, this was only because “socialism was on the march” and found no other obstacle in its path than “Bolshevik anarchism.” Wherever this promise was taken seriously, as for instance by the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in the Ruhr district, who made a first step toward socialization by assuming control over industries and mines in the expectation that the government would complete and ratify their actions, their independent initiative was quickly brought to an end by military means. In any case, the Social Democratic concept of nationalization did not include proletarian self-determination but merely, and at best, the taking over of industries by the state. It was in this sense only – that is, in the Bolshevik sense – that nationalization was debatable at all, and it was soon to be discarded as an object of discussion, together with the duly instituted parliamentary committee on socialization.

The November Revolution itself was thus its one and only result. Apart from the toppling of the monarchy, some changes in electoral procedures, the eight-hour day, and the transformation of the factory councils into nonpolitical shop stewards’ committees under trade-union auspices, the liberal capitalist economy remained untouched and the state remained a bourgeois state. All the revolution had accomplished were some meager reforms that in any case could have been reached within the framework of capitalism’s “normal” development. In the minds of the reformist Social Democrats social change had always been a purely evolutionary process of small progressive improvements which would eventually issue into a quantitatively different social system. They saw themselves, in 1914 and again in 1918, not as “counter-revolutionaries” or as “betrayers” of the working class but, on the contrary, as its true representatives, who cared for both the workers’ most immediate needs and their final social emancipation. This is nothing to be wondered at, for, more often than not, even the capitalists see themselves as benefactors of the working class. With far more justification could the Social Democratic leadership imagine that its interventions in the revolutionary process would in the end be more beneficial to the working class than a radical overturn of all existing conditions, with its accompanying interruption of the routinely necessary social and productive functions. Gradualism seemed the only assurance that the social transformation could proceed with the least cost in human misery, and, of course, the least risk for the Social Democratic leadership. Moreover, the political revolution afforded, at least in theory, an opportunity to speed up the process of social reform by bridging the antagonism of labor and capital through a more democratic state and government.

In this view class conflict could be continuously softened through government-induced concessions made to the working class at the expense of the bourgeoisie. There could be an extension of political democracy into the economic sphere and “codetermination” of the social production and distribution process. There was no need for the dictatorship of a class, whether of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. There could be a continuation of the class collaboration practiced during the war, now to serve peaceful ends, benefiting the whole of society. A condition was imagined, such as came to pass some decades later with the “welfare state” and the “social market economy,” in which all conflicts could be arbitrated instead of being fought out, and a social harmony established that would be advantageous to all. The prewar confidence in the economic viability of the capitalist system was still alive: the setbacks of the war could be overcome through an increasing production, unhampered by time-consuming and dislocating social experiments. A bankrupt capitalism was not considered a proper base for socialism; as before, the latter would be a problem of the future, when the economy was once again in full flourish. If some workers did not see it this way, their folly should not be allowed to deprive the rest of society of the possibility to emerge from the shambles left by the war and to meet its more immediate needs in terms of bread and butter.

The reformists had no principles to “betray.” They remained what they had been all along, but they were now obliged first of all to safeguard the system in which their cherished practice could continue. The revolution had to be reduced to a mere reform, so as to satisfy their deepest convictions and, incidentally, secure their political existence. The only thing to be wondered at was the great number of socialist workers for whom, at least ideologically, reforms were supposed to be only an intermediate stage in the march to the social revolution. Now that the opportunity was given to realize their “historical mission,” they failed to take advantage of it, preferring instead the “easy way” of social reform and the liquidation of the revolution. Again, this is not a verification of the Kautsky-Lenin proposition that the working class is incapable of raising its class consciousness beyond mere trade unionism, for the German working class was a highly socialistically educated working class, quite able to conceive of a social revolution for the overthrow of capitalism. Moreover, it was not “revolutionary consciousness” that the middle-class intellectuals had carried into the working class, but only their own reformism and opportunism, which undermined whatever revolutionary consciousness evolved within the working class. Marxist revisionism did not originate in the working class but in its leadership, for which trade unionism and parliamentarism were the sufficient means for a progressive social development. They merely turned the historically restricted practice of the labor movement into a theory of socialism and, by monopolizing its ideology, were able to influence the workers in the same direction.

Still, the workers proved only too willing to share the leaders’ reformist convictions. For Lenin, this was proof enough of their congenital incapacity to develop a revolutionary consciousness, which thus condemned them to follow the reformist lead. The solution was thus the replacement of reformist by revolutionary leaders, who would not “betray” the revolutionary potentialities of the laboring class. It was a question of the “right leadership,” a struggle among intellectuals for the minds of the workers, a competition of ideologies for the allegiance of the proletariat. And thus it was the character of the party that was deemed the decisive element in the revolutionary process, even though this party would have to win the confidence of the masses through their intuitive recognition that it represented their own interests, which the masses themselves were not able to express in effective political action.

Simultaneously, the differentiation between class and party was seen as their identity, because the latter would compensate for the lack of political awareness on the part of the less-educated proletariat. Contrary to the Marxian theory that it is material conditions and social relations that account for the rise of a revolutionary consciousness within the proletariat, in the Social Democratic view (whether reformist or revolutionary) these very conditions prevent the workers from recognizing their true class interests and from finding ways and means to realize them. They are able to rebel, no doubt, but not to turn their wrath into successful revolutionary actions and meaningful social change. For this they need the aid of middle-class intellectuals who make the cause of the workers their own, even though, or because, they do not share in those deprivations of the working class which, in the Marxian view, would turn the workers into revolutionaries. This elitist notion implies, of course, that though ideas find their source in material social conditions, they are nonetheless the irreplacable and dominating element in the process of social change. But as ideas they are the privilege of that group in society which, with the given division of labor, attends to its ideological requirements.

But what is class consciousness anyway? Insofar as it merely refers to one’s position in society it is immediately recognizable: the bourgeois knows that he belongs to the ruling class; the worker, that his place is among the ruled; and the social groups in between count themselves in neither of these basic classes. There is no problem so long as the different classes adhere to one and the same ideology, namely, the idea that these class relations are natural relations that will always prevail as a basic characteristic of the human condition. Actually, of course, the material interests of the various classes diverge and lead to social frictions that conflict with the common ideology. The latter is increasingly recognized as the ideology of the ruling class in support of the existing social arrangements and will be rejected as a statement of the inescapable destiny of human society. The ruling ideology is thus bound to succumb to the extension of class consciousness into the ideological sphere. The differences of material interests turn into ideological differences and then into political theories based on the concrete social contradictions. The political theories may be quite rudimentary, because of the complexities of the social issues involved, but they nonetheless constitute a change from mere class consciousness to a comprehension that social arrangements could be different from what they are. We are then on the road from mere class consciousness to a revolutionary class consciousness, which recognizes the ruling ideology as a confidence game and concerns itself with ways and means to alter the existing conditions. If this were not so, no labor movement would have arisen and social development would not be characterized by class struggles

However, just as the presence of the ruling ideology does not suffice to maintain existing social relations, but must in turn be supported by the material forces of the state apparatus, so a counter-ideology will remain just this unless it can produce material forces stronger than those reflected by the ruling ideology. If this is not the case, the quality of the counter-ideology, whether it is merely intuitive or based on scientific considerations, does not matter and neither the intellectual nor the worker can effect a change in the existing social relations. Revolutionaries may or may not be allowed to express their views, depending on the mentality that dominates the ruling class, but under whatever conditions they will not be able to dislodge the ruling class by ideological means. In this respect the ruling class has all the advantage, since with the means of production and the forces of the state it controls instrumentalities for the perpetuation and dissemination of its own ideology. As this condition persists until the actual overthrow of a given social system, revolutions must take place with insufficient ideological preparation. In short, the counter-ideology can triumph only through a revolution that plays the means of production and political power into the hands of the revolutionaries. Until then, revolutionary class consciousness will always be less effective than the ruling ideology.