27 January 2017

Does socialist consciousness originate in the working class?

The claim that socialist consciousness has and will emerge in the working class is a dogma without evidence behind it.

If by socialist consciousness one means a relatively well worked out theory of how society is and how it should be, then socialist consciousness has seldom originated, nor flourished, as a major force among working people.

Socialist ideas have historically originated in the minds of intellectuals (e.g. Marx, Methodist reformers). In the case of Karl Marx his discovery of historical materialism was based on borrowings from haut-bourgeois intellectuals, especially Hegel (history as an all-embracing totality) and Feuerbach (being determines thinking and not vice versa). Of course, while intellectuals discovered and articulated historical materialism, the socio-material conditions had to be right for their emergence, and for them to have relevance. That proves the rule that the generation of ideas, even Marxist ones, must be grounded in social-material reality.

Once in the world, socialist ideas were then adopted by the leaders of political parties, either because they believed them to be correct and helpful, or for more opportunistic reasons. In the last century, large numbers of workers and others voted for these parties in many developed countries because ordinary people felt left-wing parties better represented their practical interests than did non-socialist ones.

Only a tiny fraction of people in manual jobs ever concerned themselves with the theoretical and ideological issues connected with socialism, probably fewer people than were involved in religious sects. Remember George Orwell entering Catholic workers houses in the 1930s: the communist newspaper Daily Worker on the table and a crucifix on the wall.

One such exception in the twentieth century was an interest in socialist theory among a minority of skilled workers, particularly those working alone. We could mention the watchmakers of Jena, but also the role of cobblers, tailors and more recently left-wing train drivers in the ASLEF trade union in Britain.

Socialists were also likely to be found among upwardly mobile families whose members had left the manual working class. The connection between socialist belief, education and upward social mobility was well established in the twentieth century. This linkage is now largely something of the past.

Nevertheless the bulk of those interested in socialist and Marxist ideas are – and historically have always been – found among the intelligentsia. It is here among teachers and other professionals that discussions of what socialism is and how it can be realised have always been a fascinating topic for a minority.

Whether and how a socialist consciousness could emerge today, and whether and how socialist consciousness could embed itself among ordinary working people are difficult issues.

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