August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


13 - Theory of History and Dialectical Materialism II

As I have already explained, the formation of classes grows out of the social division of labor. But it is not true that every social division of labor coincides with the formation of classes. Division of labor is manifest in an Australian horde, for example, but there are no classes. There is certainly division of labor in a peasant family which employs no outside labor power, but this division is certainly not based on class differences. Classes do not emerge until the division of labor reaches the point where a surplus product beyond what is necessary is regularly produced and a social group or social groups regularly appropriate, in whole or in part, the surplus product of another group. Economic exploitation of one part of society by another is the foundation of the class structure. In isolated, irregular cases, there also occurs exploitation of one communistically producing society by another. This is actually one of the most important starting points for exploitation and class structure within the same society.

For class structure it is essential that the exploitation occur within the same society and that it no longer be sporadic and irregular, but regular, periodic and self-generating. The basis of castes and ranks is likewise the class structure, though here other determining factors are involved, such as heredity, marriage only within the group, etc. The class structure is a general foundation which does not prevent the structure of castes and ranks from deviating, in individual cases, more or less widely from this foundation. At the same time, it consolidates and guarantees exploitation. It is in the nature of every class structure to be grouped about these two poles: about those who produce surplus product or surplus value and about those who, without working themselves, appropriate the surplus product. In short, class opposition revolves about the opposition between groups of exploiters and groups of exploited.

Accordingly, when I say classes, I necessarily mean class opposition; that is, the presence of economic groups with opposing interests. A given class society need in no way be limited to two classes, to an exploiting and an exploited. There can also be more classes, and as a rule there are. But because of its oppositive relation the role of exploiter or exploited is decisive. It must be carefully noted that class opposition signifies no more than that in a given class society there are classes with opposing economic interests; and this means, in the last analysis, that there are classes with opposing functions or roles, in production, in exchange, and in social life generally. Class opposition is thus something objective, actual, something independent of the consciousness or the recognition of men. It is as objective as the opposition between positive and negative electricity. This latter opposition does not depend on whether the electric particles know they are positive or negative. Neither does it depend on whether men observe this opposition or not.

The opposing interests of classes or class opposition necessarily produces the struggle of classes or class struggle. Class struggle thus means no more than class opposition breaking out into action. Class opposition as process or as occurrence is class struggle. Class struggle is thus the mode of existence, the mode of life of a class society. Class society without class struggle is as inconceivable as matter without motion, or as a piece of matter without molecular heat vibrations.

The class struggle, therefore, is not an invention of Karl Marx. In the first place, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not the first to discover that there is a class struggle in history and that there are classes; this discovery was made before them. What Marx and Engels established was not the presence of classes and the presence of class struggles, but their fundamental significance for the course of history in class society. They perceived in the class struggle the key to all history since the emergence of classes. This is what is new in the theory. In the second place, it is, naturally, ridiculous to assume that there was no class struggle before Marx and Engels, that these two first provoked the class struggle. There have been class struggles as long as there have been class societies. They already existed several thousands of years before the birth of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was the contribution of Marx and Engels that they first of all brought to the working class as well as to other exploited classes a clear consciousness of their interests and of the opposition of their interests to those of the exploiting classes, and that they thereby introduced planning, consciousness, and organization into the class struggle of the workers. When one speaks of the relation of Communists and Socialists to the class struggle, one always implies certain forms and a certain content of the class struggle: the higher, conscious, organized forms of the class struggle, in contrast to the elementary and unorganized forms.

The class struggle embraces a whole host of different forms. These forms of the class struggle are as various as the forms of motion of a piece of matter. Let us take a piece of ice. At a low temperature the molecular motions slow; at a high temperature it is fast. At a certain temperature and pressure, the physical condition of ice changes; it becomes fluid or gaseous. Its forms of motion can be varied. We speak of mechanical motion, heat motion, chemical motion, etc. Within mechanical motion we further distinguish different degrees: faster, slower, rest, etc.

Just as you have different forms and degrees here, so you have different forms of the class struggle. I will cite a few examples of the different forms of class struggle of the working class. The most primitive form in which the working class rebelled against its oppression by newly established capitalism was the destruction of machines, the Luddite movement. The destruction of machinery was accompanied by sabotage; houses of the manufacturers were set on fire, etc. This was only an early form of motion. There to follow forms of struggle such as the individual strike, strike in one factory, strike in one branch of industry, strike in all industries in a locality, and, as the most highly developed form of strike, the political or economic general strike. Further, we have the class struggle in the political realm: verbal and written agitation and propaganda, election struggles, demonstrations; and, finally, the struggle proceeds to different forms of armed struggle: partisan struggle, armed insurrection, and revolutionary war. Every one of these forms of struggle in turn has its peculiar divisions, phases, and sub-forms. That sometimes peace treaties are concluded and pauses occur in the class struggle does not alter the fact that class struggle is a perennial phenomenon in class society. A war does not cease being a war even though battles are not always raging: sometimes there are marches, there are pauses in the fight, armistices are declared, but this does not alter the fact that a war is a unitary, connected action.

The same is true of the class struggle. It not only has various forms and sub-forms, and various degrees. It too is interrupted by armistices, peace treaties, etc. These interruptions do not as a rule apply to the class struggle in general, but only to particular forms of the class struggle. Even the reformists, who in principle are for class collaboration between bourgeoisie and proletariat, are unable to abolish the class struggle in its entirety. They try to limit it, to check it, to disperse it; above all they try to prevent its sharpening into the armed struggle of the working class for power. But they too cannot abolish it.

Thus the "recognition" or "non-recognition" of the class struggle has very little practical significance. The forms of struggle, the forms in which a class struggle is enacted, are not arbitrary; they are determined by the peculiar nature of the class which struggles, as well as by the nature of the classes against which the struggle is waged, and also by those allied with these; that is, by the total interrelation and degree of maturity of all classes. For example: the strike is a natural form of struggle for the working class, because it corresponds to its role in production. On the other hand, the strike was impossible as a weapon for the bourgeoisie when it struggled for power against the feudal classes. The bourgeoisie, when it struggled for power against feudalism, employed wholly different means in the preparatory stage of the struggle: chiefly, the means of refusing to assent to taxes. The bourgeoisie used its money power to extort, to buy, or to acquire underhandedly certain rights from the feudal classes or the absolute monarchy. In 1905 in Russia and today in China we see sections of the bourgeoisie seizing upon the weapon of the strike. This is a sign that the working class already occupies the leading rule in the struggle and that the proletarian forms of struggle are carried over to sections of the bourgeoisie. Thus the forms of struggle of the different classes - of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the feudal classes, and the agricultural classes - are not arbitrary but they depend on the economic and social role of each individual class and on its relation to all other classes.

Just as various and manifold as the forms of the class struggle are the contents or the objects of the class struggle. These contents can be economic, political or cultural. They can consist of a struggle for higher wages, or a struggle for the bettering of working conditions. They can be a struggle for the election of a parliamentary representative or of a president of the state. The struggle for the development of schools has a cultural content; the struggle for the control of the army, a politico-military content; the exposition of a philosophy, a cultural content. Thus very different contents or objects can lie at the basis of the class struggle, can be the aim, the purpose, of the class struggle. I want to stress that these contents, just like the forms of the struggle, are determined by the nature of the class. The bourgeoisie in its struggle against feudalism will choose contents different from those of the working class in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, or the peasantry in its struggle against feudalism.

Class opposition produces the class struggle; the class struggle at a certain level produces class consciousness or class ideology. Class consciousness and class ideology react upon the class struggle. Now we pose the question: what is class consciousness? Class consciousness is the consciousness, first, of the community of interests and of the position of the members of a class, and second (and this is linked with the first), the consciousness of the opposition of the interests of this class to the interests of another class.

This consciousness that all workers have common interests, or all small farmers have common interests. this consciousness of the oppressed and exploited classes, is not present from the outset. It emerges only through the struggle. The class struggle of the oppressed and exploited classes is at first carried on planlessly, instinctively, without a common consciousness. Class opposition which has broken out into struggle produces first of all the consciousness of the opposition of the oppressed to the oppressing classes, and then this produces the consciousness of the community of interests of the oppressed class or classes. This is no wonder, since the exploited or oppressed classes are ruled not only by authority, but also by intellectual power; they are ruled by the ideas of the ruling classes. Class consciousness is first developed in struggle; in the course of the struggle it becomes clearer and sharper, at the same time extending itself to an ever greater section of the class. At first, as a rule, only a small minority understands that the members of a class have common interests. Gradually this class consciousness becomes more and more clearly defined. There arises a need for special organs which will embody the most enlightened consciousness of a class. From these interests there spring up what we know as political parties. Political parties constitute that part of a class which through an especially clear consciousness defines its position and tasks and is able to lead the struggle of the class planfully, consciously, and in an organized fashion.

Class consciousness can reflect the interests of a class more or less correctly or falsely. Therefore, to avoid confusion, we must distinguish between class consciousness in its narrower and wider senses. Class consciousness in its wider sense embraces the false as well as the correct consciousness of the interests and position of the class. For this the expression, class ideology, is used; that is, collective ideas which a class builds up about its interests, regardless of whether its ideas are true or false. In the narrower sense, class consciousness means correct class consciousness, the correct conception of the interests and position of a class. In this sense it is used in connection with the working class. When we speak of more or less class conscious workers, we mean that they see, more or less clearly, the unity, the identity of interests of the working class and their opposition, in principle, to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

False class consciousness is also called class illusions; that is, fancies which a class has of its position and its interests. Such fancies, such class illusions, occur just as often as a single individual has illusions concerning himself. As a dialectical materialist one must distinguish between what a class really is and what it believes itself to be. These are two different things, which must be kept rigidly separate. One of the best known and most frequent of these illusions is the assumption of exploiting and exploited classes that as long as they struggle in common against a third class they have no interests opposed to each other. Furthermore, I should like to point out that there are not only self-deceptions; there are also, of course, conscious deceptions, ideas which one class sets in circulation to deceive and misguide other classes. Self-deception proceeds very easily into conscious deception of others. All ruling classes have used and use certain means to set false ideologies in motion, to deceive oppressed classes in regard to their interests. As a rule they do not thereby deceive themselves. Fundamentally the entire press, literature, and the schools of the ruling class are a means of spreading false ideologies, of confusing the class consciousness of the oppressed classes. As the highest degree of class consciousness we can designate the scientific comprehension of the nature of class and its laws of motion on the basis of dialectical materialism.

Class position or class membership determines in general the class consciousness or the class ideology, as well as class illusions. This law is valid for the great mass of every class, for the class average. To make this clearer, I shall give you an example from physics. You know that in the theory of gases one makes certain declarations of law about the collective motion of a gaseous mass and about the average motion of a particle of gas. But one is not able to give an account of the motion of every single particle of gas.

Such laws one calls laws of averages or statistical laws. Something similar is found in the theory of the average behavior of the smallest part of the atom, although the motion of every one of the smallest parts of the atom cannot be followed. Laws in the realm of the social have a similar character. The determination of class consciousness through class position is valid for the average of the membership of a class, for the class as a collectivity. This does not mean that individual class members do not shift from one class to another or do not assume the consciousness of another class - either above or below.

As an example of such phenomena we may take the case of Marx and Engels, the founders of the dialectical-materialistic world-view. Marx and Engels both came from the bourgeois class and became advocates of the working class. They changed their class consciousness; they elaborated scientific socialism and for decades led the struggle of the working class. They crossed from one class to another. On the other hand you have a number of individual cases of workers who go over to the bourgeoisie and develop not proletarian but bourgeois class consciousness and become propagandists of this class consciousness. These individual cases do not undermine the general law. Rather, they are a part of this general law, just as accidents or individual deviations are part of regularity in general. Such phenomena as the passage of individuals from one class to another are frequent at crises in revolution, at such crises, for example, as the transformation of a bourgeois revolution into a proletarian revolution. This applies to Marx and Engels; it also applies to the history of the Russian Revolution, and, last but not least, to the history of revolutionary movements after the war.

Classes are not the only groupings of men in a given class society. Besides class groupings there are numerous other groupings. I refer to groups which are formed around occupations, groupings of men according to religion, according to level of culture, according to race, according to national citizenship, etc. Of these groupings the last named, those according to race and national citizenship, are especially important, and these groupings have also been made the point of departure for certain theories of history. There is a theory of history which claims that race is the decisive factor. Historical materialism does not deny that alongside of class groupings there have existed and still exist numerous other groupings. But it maintains that class grouping is decisive for the course of the history of class society, whereas national, religious and other groupings play a secondary role.

In conclusion I will consider two other concepts which play an important role in the theory of history, the concepts of revolution and evolution. The relation of these two concepts is correctly understood only if understood dialectically; that is, if it is understood that these two concepts, revolution and evolution, are opposites and at the same time constitute a unity.

By revolution one means fundamental change in the relations of power between classes so that the previous ruling class is overthrown and replaced by a class formerly oppressed. Every transition from one mode of production to another is accomplished in class society by political and social revolution. The external characteristic of a revolution is suddenness and violence, but one cannot say conversely that every violent or sudden act represents a revolutionary event. Revolution depends upon a fundamental change in the power relations of the classes. It achieves the violent solution of existing fundamental social contradictions, of existing fundamental class oppositions. It is the dialectical or progressive impulse of history under class relationships.

Now let us take the second concept, evolution or development. Evolution designates social development within a given power relation of classes. The relation of the two concepts in class society is as follows: revolution extracts the essence of accomplished evolution; evolution or development prepares the way for revolution. On the other hand, every completed revolution, every transformation of a given fundamental power relation of classes, brings about a new evolution. Revolution is the form of the passage from one form of society to another under the conditions of class society. Mark well the last qualification: under the conditions of class society the passage from one social form to another is accomplished through revolution. This does not apply when there is no class society. We have had a number of forms of society before the emergence of class society which dissolved each other without social revolution. And, moreover, after contemporary class society is abolished, we shall have a social development which will not be accomplished in revolutionary forms.