28 March 2015

The working class and socialist consciousness

Capitalism can, but does not inevitably, produce either class or socialist consciousness

There is debate among the left today about the passivity of ordinary working people in Britain and elsewhere in the face of mushrooming inequality and general economic insecurity. But what, if anything, do developments tell us about working class and socialist consciousness?

In the last two centuries, the development of capitalism in western Europe produced the preconditions for class consciousness, i.e. a relatively homogenous geographically-stable proletariat which experienced a shared sense of its own exploitation and oppression. The working class - if here understood to be all those who live by selling their labour power - came to comprise a majority of the population; and a majority of those who were working class saw themselves as such.

Class consciousness is a necessary but an insufficient condition for socialist (or even social democratic) consciousness: if self-recognition of class were all that were needed, then socialism would have been successfully achieved in Western Europe and in North America. What went wrong?

Marx was right to suggest that capitalism produced within itself the seeds (i.e. the potential) for its own destruction (i.e. a vast exploited working class with an interest in transforming the system), but was wrong in his prediction that proletarian concentration, homogenisation and universal impoverishment would (i) continue uninterrupted as an sociological fact, and (ii) that – even if it did – it would of itself lead to socialist consciousness. History has taught us otherwise.

The movement for social progress - whether for amelioration of conditions within capitalism or for the overthrow of capitalism altogether - is political. The production and reception of political ideas and practices are indeed influenced in major part by the class structure, but politics is not a mere reflection of class structure. Political structures and systems of ideas exist to some extent independently of class relations, have their own history and rhythms of development.

Looking at Britain in the last decades, it seems that the development of the working class, in all its economic and political aspects, can facilitate socialist consciousness, as it did in Britain in the last century up until the 1970s (Hobsbawm: The Forward March of Labour Halted). Or capitalist development can undermine both class and socialist consciousness in the working class, as has happened under market fundamentalism which has held sway from the 1980s. The actual situation depends on a combination of economic, political and ideological factors, which is why the answers are always going to be found in analysis not dogma.