Mainstream, VOL LII, No 10, March 1, 2014
Debate on Workers’ Consciousness: Further Contribution
Monday 3 March 2014, by
I am thankful to Paresh Chattopadhyaya (PC) to have responded to my article and to express his reactions frankly. (Mainstream, December 28, 2013) I read his ‘Communication’ very carefully, and went back to the issues of Mainstream where other articles, including mine, have appeared and read them again.
I think it has been a fruitful debate all through. I must say, though, that I was a bit surprised by the sharpness in PC’s reaction; of course, everybody has the full right to express one’s feelings. No problems here. I consider his response a fruitful one all the same.
The following is not a reply but only by way of certain clarifications and some opinions.
In fact, the main purpose of my earlier article or response (Mainstream, June 22, 2013), to which PC has replied, was to highlight the contribution of Kautsky, as also of some others, to the question under discussion. It was not intended to be a defence etc. of Lenin. I take PC’s views seriously as he is a scholar of great repute and I try to follow his pieces, but somehow he has misunderstood my intentions and my line of argumentation, it seems. There is a whole section on ‘Kautsky’s contribution’ in my article, and I stated that PC is right in mentioning Kautsky in the context of the present debate.
There is no ‘salvo’ in ‘defence’ of Lenin, nor have I attacked anybody or anything criticising Lenin. I am not defending anybody here. In fact, my tone is quite sympathetic with PC’s presentation, though differing on points. It should not be taken as an ‘opening salvo’ or anything of the sort. Lenin has been mentioned in a certain context. I am not one of those who keep on defending Lenin or try to prove him right on each and every point. There is a lot in Lenin that should be criticised as erroneous or outdated, as also there is a lot which I look upon as his great contribution.
Question of Lenin’s ‘Defence’
There are any number of places and formulations in Lenin that should be criticised, particularly in the context of the present-day rapid changes in the STR, democracy, updated concepts of socialism and world market. I have myself done so in several publications and gatherings. Here I found Roy Medvedev’s evaluation of the Russian Revolution (in a Samizdat publication), both ‘February’ and ‘October’, quite illuminating, as this critiques and analyses the Russian Revolution in a far greater number of rich facets. There is often an element of over-determination and over-estimation of the nature of the Russian Revolution in Lenin’s works.
This does not prevent me from considering Lenin as one of the few scholars of Hegel. I am not a ‘master’ of anything, nor a great scholar; nothing of the sort. Even then I do have a right to express myself as a humble reader and writer on the basis of whatever little I have studied. And it is as a simple reader that I can say that Lenin is unequalled in dialectics and is matched only by Marx in this field. There are and must be, of course other great scholars in this field, yet nobody, to my knowledge, has touched the height Lenin has and understood dialectics as he has (besides Marx). The works of Lenin between February and October (1917), which contain much that is debatable, are an example of how Lenin could foresee trends in situations and change his tactics dialectically, for example, in the April theses; on the possibility of a rare peaceful revolution in Russia; on the possibility of support to the Mensheviks from outside; on the sudden end of such possibilities and on armed struggle being the only way, and so on. His attitude to the Constituent Assembly, though, may be debatable. He could discuss dialectics even while dealing with the trade union question, giving the example of a ‘tumbler’, as he did in his debates with Bukharin, saying we should be able to discover dialectics even in the simplest example.
I had recently the opportunity to study very carefully and in great detail Lenin’s Volume 38 (of his Collected Works) and his other works on philosophy, in the course of writing my book on Particle and Philosophy in Crisis, and I consider his work a seminal contribution to the development of dialectics, and dialectical method and science. The way Lenin has rescued dialectical and historical materialism from Hegel, has developed not three but 16 elements of dialectics from his works, and so on, is a fascinating reading, and not only fascinating but incisive and deeply scientific. The workers’ movement would be much poorer without this dialectics; in fact, it has been rendered poorer precisely because of the replacement of the dialectical method by a mechanical one and due a failure to assimilate the new in the present. Working class consciousness can only be richer through assimilation and mastery of the dialectical method. Unfortunately, many parties are following mechanical rather than the dialectical method. It is my firm view that the dialectical method has become a victim in the existing working class movement. Many in the movement may not agree.
I once again make it clear that I have read very little and a lot remains to be to be studied (by me).
Consciousness and theory
PC has made a very important distinction between consciousness and theory and has correctly pointed out that they are not identical. Yet, it is relevant to state that theory and other forms of thought constitute part and parcel of consciousness, and thus they are inter-related. Therefore, theory and philosophy play a crucial role in consciousness-formation.
From this point of view, training and self-training of the working class with theory and philosophy is crucial to the fashioning of its consciousness, as also are other constituents. Engels, Kautsky and Lenin emphasise the point while analysing the emergence of socialist consciousness in the workers’ movement. This emphasis was laid in the context of economic relations.
PC states that “the author has not made clear how this question of philosophy is relevant for workers’ revolutionary consciousness”. But I would like to clarify that I did mention it. I have described in some detail how Engels, dealing with the German working class movement, states that without ‘German philosophy’, “German scientific socialism...would never have come into existence”. Compared to it, the English working class just ‘crawled along the path of socialism’; that was because it lacked the philosophical and theoretical grounding. It goes without saying that scientific socialism is crucial to the revolutionary workers’ movement and its consciousness
So, theory and philosophy are inseparable ingredients of the evolving scientific and revolutionary consciousness. There are many other aspects and sources of consciousness, some of which PC has rightly mentioned.
Wherefrom the consciousness?
PC has provided some important passages from both Marx and Engels, and they certainly need to be taken into account in the totality of the picture. Undoubtedly, consciousness-formation is a multi-sided and highly complicated process, with many sources. It is not a unilinear phenomenon.
The issue here is: Where does the class political/theoretical (and practical) consciousness come from? How is socialist consciousness acquired? How do the workers become a class in the realm of consciousness? These are, I think, quite complicated multi-sided questions to which sources both from within and without the class contribute.
In the context of the present debate the answer provided by Engels-Kautsky-Lenin to particular aspects is: consciousness of the workers emanates from ‘outside’. Outside what? Where-from? The answer or the essence of it, given by the Engels-Kautsky-Lenin line of argumentation in the course of the historic debates, was: ‘from outside the sphere of the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of the relations between the workers and the employers’. Here, the ‘outside’ is not necessarily constituted by ‘outside the class’ but by ‘outside’ certain relations within the class and its relations with other classes, primarily the opposite one. What is also emphasised is that the consciousness needs to travel outside the strict day-to-day economic relations with the masters of the workers. At the same time, sources outside the class are also very important, as history tells us, and here the contribution of other classes and sections would come in. So, the formation of class consciousness is both from within and without the class; it all depends on the context.
This was a very important contribution of the theoreticians of the working class movement to the solution of a problem that beset the movement during those decades, and continues to be a serious problem. The above-mentioned arguments in no way contradict the important passages from Marx and Engels mentioned by PC. They are in fact sides or aspects of the same historic process, and enrich each other. They have been stated in different contexts.
The issue I was dealing with was not whether consciousness comes from this or that class into the working class or whether the source of consciousness-formation is the class itself; the issue is: which area of activity of workers and intellectuals is the source of working class consciousness? In a way, economic relations too contribute to certain aspects, and it would be mechanical to ignore this.
The question of ‘working class consciousness’, both in the narrow and broad senses, continues to be a theoretical as well as a practical problem even today, and a fuller debate on it would be really very fruitful.
As is well-known, thinkers like Antonio Gramsci made singular contribution to the scientific elaboration of the problem by arguing about and developing the concept of the organic intellectual and so on. He, along with others, enriched the process of clarification in this field.
I hope I have made myself sufficiently clear. I thank PC for having taken up the questions and responded with polemics, which are very welcome because they force one to think and clarify many issues. At least I have gained much from the debate.
The author, a Marxist ideologue, is a leading member of the CPI.