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Colin Barker

Consciousness and Action

(December 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 65, Mid-December 1973, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Consciousness and Action Among the Western Working Class
Michael Mann
Papermac, £0.60.

THIS IS an [un]usual study. Mann is a professional British sociologist who actually deals with interesting questions. The book is a brief review of the contribution that largely sociological literature can offer to the problem: what are the possibilities of working-class revolution in Western Europe?

Much is his most interesting discussion draws on work by French writers reviewing the events of 1968, work which is little known in Britain. At the same time, his reading in the post-1968 literature is highly selective, reflecting the concerns of French sociologists rather than French socialists. French sociology – as represented here – appears to be infected by a kind of passive ‘Marxismism’, concerned with description in formally Marxist terminology (‘contradictions’ is a favourite word) reminiscent of the New Left Review in Britain.

Mann dismisses the increasingly old-fashioned 1950s sociological images of society as harmonious, an counterposes to this a version of Marxism which he also rejects. Interestingly, the rejected version of Marxism is one that few ‘Marxists’ hold: in this ‘Marxism’ the working class, in some mysterious, semi-automatic manner, arrives finally at revolutionary consciousness and action chiefly through the workings of immutable historical laws. It doesn’t happen, says Mann, but then who – at least since Lenin – ever thought it did?

The events of May 1968 in France, Mann sees as crucial, and rightly. But one element in the situation in France he omits to discuss – because it was not present. The French working class, despite an inspiring upsurge of militancy, despite its discovery and development of new forms of struggle and new demands, did not make a revolution. The French sociologists – and Michael Mann – have theorised extensively about that fact, about the isolation of the students with the revolutionary ideas from the workers with the potential revolutionary power. They have noted the strange hold of the French Communist Party on the militants of the working class. But the lessons they draw from all that they have seen and described are passive lessons. 1968 is a demonstration that, in Mann’s concluding words,

‘It seems rather unlikely that the proletariat carries in itself the power to be a class for itself.’

What Mann does not discuss, seems not to understand except in the crudest sense, is that the crisis of French capitalism could not be resolved by the working class without a revolutionary party. And such a party did not exist, still does not exist. They key lesson of the French experience transcends the limits of sociology, since it is a practical lesson: Marxists have to work to build a revolutionary organisation rooted in the working class, capable of translating, workers’ consciousness of exploitation into confidence of their ability to end it.

The book is thus flawed, a product of the new strain in sociology that recognises – as it can hardly avoid – the presence of class conflict in capitalism but cannot really comprehend it. Nonetheless, it is worth reading, if you want a brief and readable review of some of the more interesting bits of the academic output.

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