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Home page > 07 - Livre Sept : SOCIOLOGIE > Marxism and Sociology, Cliff Slaughter

Marxism and Sociology, Cliff Slaughter

Friday 26 July 2019, by Robert Paris

Marxist theory and class consciousness

Marxism is not a ’sociology’. It only appears to be so, because, from the point of view of every other particular section of the intellectual division of labour-philosophy, economics, history, history of ideas, etc.-Marxism goes beyond their defined subject-matter, insisting that the real content of each of them is to be found in the contradictory totality of social economic relations from which flow the forms of activity and thought to which the separate disciplines address themselves. Political economy, for example, is ’negated’ by Marxism, in the Hegelian sense. Marx’s treatment of political economy takes to their limit the contradictory developments of classical political economy. To do this requires the explanation of political economy’s concepts and their real content as the ’alienated’ consciousness of the development of bourgeois society itself. Thus we find in the Critique of Political Economy and in Capital itself a negation of political economy, which is demonstrated as being an adequate reflection of the sphere of exchange values and their behaviour. But this sphere is shown to be the real world of appearances or illusions as necessarily created by a historically limited social order, capitalism.

Marx’s rejection of bourgeois philosophy is a similar materialist critique. His analysis of political and historical thought and their material sources was the third element of the synthesis achieved by Marx.

Why then do we say that Marxism only appears to be a sociology? Because sociology originated and developed, not as the dialectical negation, the overcoming of the contradictions, of each of the alienated spheres of thought, but as their definition anew in relation to some supposedly more ’general’ science of the ’the social as such’ (Durkheim’s ’le social en soi’ and ’social facts’ constitute the acme of this approach). Comte, first to use the term ’sociology’, invented the word in order to indicate: ’. . . under one single heading that integral part of natural philosophy which concerns itself with the positive study of the totality of fundamental laws proper to social phenomena.’

Instead of the dynamic synthesis constituted by Marx’s negation of the separated and alienated fields of philosophy, political economy and history (class struggle), we have the static and uncritical synthesis of Comte, to be followed by a century of sterile debate in sociology about ’metaphysics or empiricism’, ’generalisation or specialised monographs’, ’system or action’. Instead of the consistent materialism made possible by Marx’s historical or dialectical approach, we have the pseudo-scientific reliance on ’experience’, which in Comte’s case ended in the purest mysticism, since his ’spiritual’ experience was granted just as much validity as any other. Bourgeois sociology in the 20th century is tied, philosophically and methodologically, to the pragmatism of the ruling class. Sociology continues to oscillate between idealism and mechanical materialism: ’social facts as things’ on the one hand, freedom of the individual on the other; the classical dichotomy of bourgeois ideology. Instead of social analysis in terms of the contradictory development and struggle of opposites in each specific, historically limited, socioeconomic formation, we have in sociology the search for general principles or sociological laws which transcend specific historical stages. Talcott Parsons’ rejection of Marxism, on the grounds that it is a series of ’genetic’ explanations, sums up this functionalist barrenness.

These aspects of the split in social theory between Marxism and sociology since the second quarter of the last century are of course inseparably linked with the fact that, as against Marx and Marxism’s concern with capitalist society, Comte is the father (though he himself is only the bastard son of Saint-Simon in this and many other respects) of the sociologists’ insistence that they are concerned with ’industrial’ or ’modern’ society. This is only a ’sociological’ version of the political economists’ recognition of the ’natural’ character of the laws of capitalist economy, which they could not accept as only the laws of a definite and historically limited socio-economic formation. When Marx insisted on the ’social’ dimension of all spheres of activity and thought, it was with a dual emphasis: first, to grasp each sphere as only one ’moment’ of a contradictory social whole; second, to put an end to the alienation resulting from exploitation, to give a new life to each activity by making it the conscious activity of the associated producers in a classless society; for this, theory must unite with and develop in unity with the proletarian revolution. Sociology, by contrast, accepts and describes the alienation and even dignifies it by presenting it systematically as the ’differentiation and integration of roles’ and the ’structuring of orientations’. A Marxist analysis of sociology would demonstrate in what way these supposedly ’general’ social phenomena and mechanisms are but an ideological reflection of the surface of capitalist society itself.

The revolutionary political orientation of Marxist social theory, as contrasted with the professed ’value-freedom’ of sociology, is fundamental to Marxism. And the perennial pleas for separating Marx’s politics from his sociological ’insights’ are as absurdity misplaced as the similar attempts to cleanse Marx’s social theories of philosophy.

Marxism is then the dialectical negation of the highest developments in bourgeois thought, and through this of the reality from which that thought flows and of which it forms a necessary part. It is this conception which lies behind Lenin’s famous dictum:

The workers can acquire political consciousness only from without, i.e., only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships between all classes and the state and the government-the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. (Lenin, What is to be Done?)

Here Lenin expresses politically (i.e. in conflict with political opponents who based themselves on the supposed ’spontaneous’ development of socialist consciousness from the experience of the working class) the implications for working-class consciousness of the discoveries of Marx. Scientific thought (in the philosophy of Hegel) had arrived at the point where it must accept the conclusion that it could advance further only by grasping activity its real place in the struggle to end the conditions of its own alienated character; this was only possible, Marx said, by grasping the nature of the working class as the agent of the necessary revolutionary change. The working class itself, however, could arrive at the necessary consciousness and thereby the unity necessary for social revolution only by understanding the full historical implications of its role in production and its capacity for abolishing class society. Besides the conclusion that the economic structure is ’basic’, and that the class struggle of the proletariat is an objective necessity creating the conditions for socialist revolution, there was necessary the whole theory of historical materialism, the understanding of social development as a unified process, with revolutionary consciousness seizing hold of the meaning of the contradictions at the base of society in order to overthrow it. This body of theory could not come from the working class but only ’from the outside, from bourgeois intellectuals’. From that point on, the development of Marxism takes definite forms in relation to the struggle of the working class, its internal political conflicts, strategy, tactics and organisation, nationally and internationally. While Marx and Engels themselves made great contributions in this field, it has of course been most enriched in the twentieth century, above all by the work of Lenin and Trotsky.

Marx and Engels began their communist political careers with a series of thoroughgoing polemics against other schools of socialism (e.g., in The Comnunist Manifesto). Immediately after the 1848 revolutions they combated the impatience and what amounted to rejection of theory by those who wanted to continue an insurrectionist struggle in unfavourable conditions. They never ceased to participate in and advise the labour movement in every country with which they could establish contact. They insisted - for example, in correspondence with Russian and North American socialists - on a very close and detailed attention to the specific conditions of the history, economy and working-class movement of each particular country. But they always were vigilant against eclecticism and attempts to put aside the theoretical conquests they had made. Writing to Bebel and other leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party in 1879, Marx and Engels returned to a theme which had concerned them as long ago as 1848: the role of bourgeois intellectuals in the revolutionary movement. Then, in the Manifesto, they had written: ’ . . . a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class . . . in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists.’

Now, in 1879, they make a very different emphasis, and one which shows that Lenin was not inconsistent when he combined his insistence on the decisive importance of intellectuals in the development of revolutionary theory with an implacable struggle against every manifestation of revisionism and intellectual light-mindedness with theory. Marx and Engels go out of their way to warn Bebel and the party leaders that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals joining the movement must show that they are willing to learn from the party its theory of scientific socialism in the first place. If this is not done, then they inevitably bring with them elements of the now decaying and disintegrating German bourgeois culture and philosophy. (In other words, what could be gained from bourgeois development before 1848 was the opposite of what flowed from it in 1789.)

Lenin stressed that the fight against revisionism (so called after the celebrated controversy in the German Social Democracy over Bernstein’s criticisms of Marx in the 1890s) was a recurring and inevitable one. He explained that not only individual thinkers in the working class or the revolutionary Marxist party were affected by particular aspects of bourgeois ideology, but that the development of capitalism constantly modified the relations between the proletariat and the middle classes, the latter carrying into the former their ideas, the ideas of capitalism. Revisionism in the labour movement reflected these class pressures. The nearer a revolutionary situation, the more these ideological differences would be expressed in political and organisational differences. Hence the vital importance in a pre-revolutionary period of consciously combating revisionism. This theoretical fight is the anticipation of all the problems and divisions which the working class will have to overcome in its actual struggle for power.

The problem of proletarian class-consciousness is often discussed in a very abstract and general manner, instead of through the analysis of the actual historical process by which the Marxist movement and the working-class movement have developed. These are not two distinct processes: the conscious building of revolutionary parties is the highest form of the process by which the proletariat becomes a class ’for itself’. In the proper place, there is needed a critical analysis of all those writings on the working class and its consciousness which rely on concepts lie ’affluence’, ’prosperity’, ’embourgeoisement’, ’social mobility’, and so on; and this analysis would have to deal with all the superficially very different and ’radical’ approaches of writers like Marcuse. For the Marxist, such an analysis is of interest as an insight into the ideology of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, reflecting their own historical situation and its changes, but it would at the same time be important in relation to the development of Marxism itself, because it bears directly on the most characteristic ’revision’ of Marxism in our epoch: the rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class and of the need for revolutionary parties.

Class, for Marx, is rooted in social relations of production, and cannot be referred in the first place to relations of distribution and consumption or their ideological reflections. In considering the class consciousness of the proletariat, Marxists are therefore not concerned with the ideas of individual workers about their position in society (no matter how many examples are collected and classified) so much as with the following series of categories: relations of production (sale of labour-power, exploitation); conflict of workers and employers on this basis (economic struggles, trade unions, elementary political battles for economic ends); conflict at the level of class (economic struggles which merge into the conflict between classes, which is organised through the political parties and the struggle for state power); the theoretical and practical struggle to build revolutionary parties of the working class, in conflict with non-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary tendencies in the class and their reflection inside the revolutionary party.

Thus, for example, a worker in the motor car industry will move through his elemental experience to an understanding of the gap between his own standard of life, income and conditions of work, on the one hand, and the mass of wealth to whose production he contributes, on the other. He will recognise an identity of interest, on this basis, with other wage-workers. ’Combinations’ or trade unions are the adequate expression of this level of consciousness. To this ’trade union consciousness’ may correspond other ideological, critical views on various aspects of capitalist society: for example, such consciousness can easily co-exist with that view which lays all the stress on differences or similarities in patterns of consumption; thus, elementary socialistic propaganda of the moralising type, and modern pessimistic speculation about the workers’ consciousness being dulled by the abundance of consumer goods, are types of consciousness which do not penetrate to the basis of class differences and class struggle and therefore cannot facilitate the development of political consciousness.

More ’sophisticated’ socialist views of class-consciousness often refer to a process of more or less spontaneous political maturing through a series of economic struggles which take on greater and greater magnitude, finally posing demands which the system cannot meet. Here again the same basic error, from the Marxist standpoint, is made. In all such approaches, the class and its consciousness are seen in terms of a pre-Marxist theory of knowledge and of history. Those who put forward these ideas are unable to escape from a conception in which the separate individuals in the class move from their own working and other everyday experience to a higher level of consciousness, in this case political consciousness.

In point of fast an individual worker does not arrive through his own experience at a scientific consciousness of the actual relationships at work, let alone the political relationships. It u only when a worker comes into contact with the products, in political programme and action, of Marxist theory in politics - i.e., with the outcome of theoretical works produced in the first place by non-proletarian - that he can conceive of even his own working experience in terms which go beyond those of the prevailing bourgeois ideology. These works take the essence of the experience of the proletariat as well as all developments in economy, politics, science, the arts, etc.

Only a historical view of the working class and of the theory of Marxism, in their mutual interrelations, can produce a theory of class consciousness. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels, working on various fields of learning, as well as analysing the experience of the struggle of the working class to that date, elaborated their theory of socialism. The theory is henceforth the essential component of the process by which the working class becomes a class ’for itself’. As a theory, it had first to penetrate beneath the day-to-day phenomenal form of capitalist society to the social relations of production. It demonstrated that production under capitalism continues, and society develops, not through any conscious plan, but through the drive to produce surplus value, consequent upon the reduction of labour-power to a commodity, to units of ’abstract labour’. This is the essence of the worker’s exploitation, rather than the fact, say, that he does not own the cars he produces. What he produces is essentially surplus value, the augmentation of that same capital which oppresses him.

From these basic relationships, Marx demonstrated the reality of the history of capitalism, the way in which private ownership came to a revolutionary clash with the further development of the forces of production. For a political or socialist consciousness of the struggle against the capitalist class, there is necessary the understanding of this historical tendency of the capitalist system. This means not just an abstract knowledge of the theory of historical materialism, but the concrete analysis of, and active engagement in, the development of the class struggle in all its forms and at all levels, in the period of capitalism’s historical decline.

It was" Lenin’s major special contribution to Marxism to elaborate this theory of leadership and the revolutionary party, first of all in What is to be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. But the whole of Lenin’s work is an expression of this central concern. Later, Trotsky devoted a series of books and articles to the defence and development of the ideas worked out by Lenin (cf. particularly his In Defence of Marxism and Lessons of October).

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