Is the consciousness of the masses too low? Or is the problem one of leadership?

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It is fashionable among some layers on the left to blame the workers' "low consciousness" for the lack of a genuine left alternative emerging within the labour movement internationally. This is utterly false and represents a lack of understanding of how the working class moves historically. The working class is fully aware of the situation it is in. What it requires is a leadership up to task of leading the class in its struggle to change society.

"Der Feind, den wir am meisten hassen,
der uns umlagert schwarz und dicht,
das ist der Unverstand der Massen,
den nur des Geistes Schwert durchbricht."

"The enemy, that we hate most,
Who besieges us black and densely,
It is the masses' stupidity
broken only by the sword of the ghost."

(Ferdinand Freiligrath, German poet and friend of Marx)

Like the poet Freiligrath in the 19th century, many on the left today are of the opinion that the so-called "low consciousness of the masses" is the reason why we have not seen successful revolutions, or major movements of the working class in recent years. These people constantly complain about how deeply people are indoctrinated and manipulated by so-called "neoliberal" ideology. This actually reflects the "low consciousness" of these "lefts", and their total lack of understanding of the working class and its organisations.

Revolutionary Marxism has a completely different approach to this question. It is the leadership of the traditional mass organisations of the working class and the Left, not the masses, that is in an unprecedented crisis. Revolutionary Marxists distinguish themselves from all other tendencies on the left with their approach to the question of political mass consciousness and its inner dynamics.

Consciousness and its dynamics

In general, it is true that human consciousness is conservative and lags behind objective reality. This fact leads some theoreticians to look at consciousness as something static and unchangeable. "Austromarxism", the philosophy of Rudolf Hilferding and Otto Bauer (while similar ideas were supported by such leaders as Karl Kautsky in Germany), a theoretical concept that was dominant within the Second International for many years, states that a human being has to be educated and trained from childhood on, in order to become ripe for socialism. Many so-called neo-gramscian intellectuals today think that the left has to conquer first the universities and the mass media before it is able to create a turn to the left within society. This amounts to reducing the struggle for socialism to one for so-called "hegemony", in the sense of winning over individuals one by one, and thereby shaping "public opinion".

Is the consciousness of the masses too low? Or is the problem one of leadership? Image taken from Christof Koch (2004) The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach.Is the consciousness of the masses too low? Or is the problem one of leadership? Image taken from Christof Koch (2004) The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. In reality consciousness develops not in a slow gradual manner but in leaps, provoked by sharp turns in the objective situation, serious crises of capitalism, wars and so on. For long periods of time the development of consciousness can be hidden beneath the surface, and may not express itself in mass movements, but it is definitely burrowing away, like the mole that Marx referred to. Through their own daily experience the workers gain a clearer insight into the real situation in society, but they do not immediately find a way of expressing their anger and consciousness within existing society. People lose their illusions in the old ideologies but their desire for change finds no ready-made channel, no party that reflects what they think and feel.

On the other hand, however, there are periods when consciousness apparently leaps forward in an explosive manner. Consciousness that has been developing below the surface for a long time breaks through like a thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky. This takes our reformist friends by surprise, who after years of moaning about "lack of consciousness" are no longer capable of seeing a movement when it does come.

The best example of this was the Russian revolution of 1905. It began with a religious procession to plead with the tsar. At that time most of the Russian workers involved in the procession had illusions in the Church and the monarchy. It was only after the tsar had not listened to their prayers, but instead sent in the Cossacks to shoot at the people, that those very same workers within a few hours were turning to the Bolsheviks - who they had previously attacked ‑ asking for weapons to fight the autocracy. What followed was the most militant strike movement in history and the formation of a new form of political self-organisation of the working class, the soviets. One decisive feature in the situation was the existence of the young revolutionary Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, as the Marxists were known then, that could give an expression to the longings of the masses.

This channel of expression is today clogged up by a huge bureaucratic apparatus that has formed at the tops of the mass organisations of the working class. This very same apparatus is dominated by a small clique of bourgeois politicians who alienate the masses with their anti-working class and pro-capitalist policies. They have pushed these organisations to the right to an unprecedented degree in recent years. In a dialectical manner, this turn to the right on the part of the leadership of the mass organisations further repels ordinary rank and file workers; they become less active, thus lifting pressure from the leadership, which is then able to move further to the right.

This is the reason why today revolutionary processes, including the molecular process of revolution, can have a tendency to be protracted. Nevertheless, the contradiction between the rising consciousness of the working class and the inability to express this is more glaring than at any time in history. This accumulation of contradictions will generate movements, class struggle and revolutionary upheavals that will be more explosive than at any time in history.

Rising anger

After a thirty-year period of stagnating salaries, social cuts and counter-reforms, the masses long for social change. The problem is that the policies being put forward by the reformist leaders of the mass organisations, both political and trade union, offer nothing to the working people that would make their political activity appear meaningful, This especially affects young people, who often look at "political activity" as something disgusting designed for corrupt careerists. If official bourgeois politics is the only politics you see then it is logical to come to such a conclusion.

Otto Bauer argued that a human being has to be educated and trained from childhood on, in order to become ripe for socialism.Otto Bauer argued that a human being has to be educated and trained from childhood on, in order to become ripe for socialism. The complete and unprecedented moral, political and ideological decay of the leadership of the trade unions and the social democrat, socialist and communist parties has created a situation in which the rising anger does not find a point of reference within society. The consequence is a rejection of all kind of politics in general and political alienation on the basis of one's immediate experience.

What we see today in the advanced capitalist countries is a phenomenon that also occurred in Latin America in the 1990s, whereby the population tends to lose confidence in all political parties, from the conservative parties to the mass workers' parties. This phenomenon, which is often misinterpreted as "de-politicisation", is in reality a necessary stage in the process of politicisation. The collapse in the authority of some of the most rotten right-wing leaders of the traditional mass organisations in Latin America was a necessary precondition for the revolutionary process that started in 1998 in Venezuela.

Trotsky pointed out that the essence of a revolution is when the masses are no longer prepared to entrust their political and economic affairs to a special layer of professional politicians and businessmen, and instead take these affairs into their own hands. Thus, disillusionment in all existing policies is an important feature in the molecular process of revolution. It is the first step: a rejection of what they see before them.

The crisis of reformism

Many conservative and right-wing parties are hated by ordinary working people and are therefore discredited. Many of them are facing historical crises, in Japan, the USA and in almost all the countries of Europe. At the same time, the reformist political parties are also discredited. The "Third Way" of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, essentially reformism without reforms, is in tatters. We see this not only in Britain and Germany, where the Labour Party and the SPD are facing serious electoral setbacks in the coming period, but also in Austria and Italy where the so-called centre-left governments only lasted for one and a half years. We also see this expressed in situations where in spite of the crisis of the traditional bourgeois parties, the reformist parties are incapable of immediately taking advantage of this, as they too are not trusted by the masses.

This is because the leadership of social-democratic and even communist parties, once in government, put into practice the same policies as the conservative parties. The only difference is that conservative parties often proclaim their aims openly, while the so-called left parties are forced to dress up their policies as socially "progressive" when in fact there is no fundamental difference between their policies and those of the right-wing conservative parties. Disillusionment with "left" governments leads in some cases to sizeable working class abstention and in others to shifts to the right in electoral terms. This allows right-wing parties to win the elections. When the left in government has failed, it is inevitable that a layer even of the working class will seek an answer by voting for whoever is in opposition.

We saw this in France, Italy and Switzerland where, after historic class struggles and strike waves left parties lost the elections and right-wing forces won. In France and Switzerland the well-organized advanced layers of the working class could even defeat the government in the streets or reach partial victories through strikes, but they could not appeal to the whole of the working class on the electoral front because they do not have the necessary political means. This is because the traditional workers' parties, those parties that are supposed to represent the interests of the working class, have been kidnapped by bourgeois careerists.

Communist parties like the French PCF, the Italian PRC or the Spanish IU have suffered even more from the crisis of reformism. If communist parties adopt the logic of the market, leave the struggle of the workers behind and even join capitalist governments, workers punish them even more in the elections than they do social democrat parties because their betrayal appears even more glaring in the light of what their name stands for. Even when communist or left parties come up with left reforms within the market system, they often lose in the elections.

That is because these communist parties are attempting to compete with the social-democratic parties on the basis of reformist ideas. When workers are asked to decide between two purely reformist parties, they tend to vote for the bigger of the two, which is often the social democrat one. On the other hand, a programme of left reforms within a system completely dominated by the world market and by the pursuit of greater and greater profits is a contradiction that workers can see. The crisis is so severe that only a radical change, a thorough transformation of society can solve the problems facing the working class.

Human reason revolts against such a utopian programme that only middle class intellectuals ‑ who do not form a big electoral force ‑ find interesting. Even the bourgeois press is surprised at how, in the middle of a world economic crisis, when masses of people even in the advanced industrial countries have come to the conclusion that capitalism is responsible for this crisis, so-called left parties are not able to gain support. In Germany, when jobs are in danger and more than 50% of the population is in favour of nationalising companies, support for the SPD and the LINKE in the recent period has declined.

How can one explain this apparent contradiction? The reformists draw the conclusion that they must shift even further to the right! Left parties, social democratic or "communist", in the age of world capitalism can only provide an ideological answer to the ruling capitalist elite if they offer a global alternative to the capitalist mode of production and to the profit system. As long as capitalism is accepted as the basis for their policies by all the political parties - both bourgeois and workers' parties - a section of the workers will tend to abstain, seeing no difference between the major parties, while many voters (especially among the more backward layers of the working class) can be pushed to vote for openly bourgeois conservative parties as they see no fundamental difference between the "left" and the "right".

This means that when the workers are seriously affected by the crisis, the political leaders of the working class parties, because of their policies of class collaboration, are unable to transform the strength and ripeness of mass consciousness into electoral and political victory.

In Italy we see the biggest contradiction between the actual strength of the working class and its willingness to struggle on the one hand and the total lack of political representation of this process. The shift to the right on the part of the former Stalinist leaders of the old Communist Party (PCI) has been so extreme that they have actually dissolved themselves into a bourgeois party, the Democratic Party. To its left we have the PRC, which has kept alive the name of Communist Party, but whose leadership under Bertinotti dragged the party into coalition politics, supporting the Prodi government and thus taking responsibility for its anti-working class policies. This led to electoral collapse of the party last year, where it lost every single Member of Parliament and Senator. Thus there is no workers' representative in the Italian parliament, despite the mass demonstration of 500,000 communist workers a few months before the elections in Rome. The election results in Italy last year reflected the complete decay of the pro-bourgeois leaders of the Italian communist movement and is a warning to the labour movement of the whole world.

However, every experience teaches and the effect of this collapse of the left in Italy, has led to a questioning and a radicalisation among the ranks especially of the PRC, who are drawing conclusions that the party must abandon coalition politics and stand openly in defence of the interests of the working class.

Thus we can see how, as frustration about official policies grows, so does the yearning for an entirely different society. The crisis of the last 30 years, like the crisis of the 20th century as a whole, is a crisis of the leadership of the parties of the working class and not a crisis of mass consciousness. This is what the reformist leaders and their petit bourgeois ideological advisers fail to understand.

The golden '60s?

Many left activists nostalgically talk about the "good old days of the 1960s and 1970s". At that time many more workers were organised in trade unions and politically active. Parties and trade unions stood for a socialist or communist ideology at least in words. Does this mean that at that time mass consciousness was higher, the workers were more educated and closer to the socialist ideal? This is a somewhat simplistic and superficial approach to the question. Revolutionary Marxism looks deeper below the surface of such empirical prejudice.

The crisis of capitalism that unfolded in the late 1960s and 1970s led to revolutionary movements of the working class, with waves of strikes, general strikes and factory occupations. In the picture: strike at the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt in May 1968.The crisis of capitalism that unfolded in the late 1960s and 1970s led to revolutionary movements of the working class, with waves of strikes, general strikes and factory occupations. In the picture: strike at the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt in May 1968. The greater authority that the leaders of the social democrat and communist parties had amongst workers and youth then was due to post-war economic boom that allowed them to actually implement reforms. Reformism seemed to be working, and thus these leaders had not yet been put to the test. At the same time the crisis of capitalism that unfolded in the 1970s led to revolutionary movements of the working class, with waves of strikes, general strikes and factory occupations, that shook the very foundations of capitalism in one country after another. This was accompanied by a mass student movement and radicalisation of the youth. All this had an impact on the mass organisations, within which mass left reformist - and in some cases centrist - currents emerged. This in turn made these organisations attractive and layer after layer of workers and youth entered these organisations.

It was in this situation that the reformist and left-reformist leaders played a key role in derailing this movement. During the 1970s the idea that capitalism could be transformed into something human and better step-by-step was presented by these leaders as the only real road open to the working class. Because the movement was so strong, and because in many countries the bosses were forced to make concessions, this created the temporary illusion that such a policy could in fact work. However, the concrete experience of what subsequently happened led to widespread disillusionment. Reformism failed but the Marxists were too weak to fill the vacuum that had been created. This led to a gradual emptying out of the mass organisations, falling strike figures, falling trade union membership and in many cases electoral victories of the bourgeois parties, such as Thatcher's victory in 1979.

The approach of millions of workers and youth to these mass organisations today was prepared by those events. The approach of the workers is more sobered and also wide open to revolutionary concepts and ideas. The speed at which the ideas of socialism can penetrate the consciousness of the masses can be seen in Venezuela, where within just a few weeks six million people joined a party (the PSUV) that declared that the overcoming of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society were the most important and immediate tasks of the day.

What is true of the 1960s is that, once there was a mass movement of the working class, it was reflected relatively quickly and directly within the traditional mass organisations. This was possible because capitalism still had a certain potential to grant reformist concessions. Consequently the political workers' parties still could offer some real reforms in order to create the illusion of real progress in order to direct them into reformist channels. The authority and organisational potential of left parties in the 1960s also enabled them to hold back the mass workers' movements for a considerable amount of time. We have seen how in the big general strikes that took place in more than one country in the past few years and all the other major strike waves that have taken place, today's leaders of the working class parties do not have the same authority, and therefore ability to hold back the working class to the same degree that did in the past.

In the past the influence of the Soviet Union, the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, allowed the Stalinist leaders in the West to bask in the authority of these revolutions. This provided them with the necessary authority to hold back the advanced layers in the industrialised countries, but also to put forward disastrous strategies and tactics in the former colonial countries.

One consequence of this was the illusion among many of the youth that the "armed struggle" was the only road. They did not understand the question of the leadership of the working class, and therefore rejected the classical methods of mass struggle, of strikes and general strikes. They drew the wrong conclusions and developed the idea that the working class was incapable of leading a revolution and that therefore someone had to do it for them. This we saw in countries like Argentina and Uruguay. Tens of thousands of young revolutionaries died to no effect but that of strengthening the existing right-wing dictatorships and of isolating the advanced layers from the struggles of the working class. The forms that the class struggle is taking today in Latin America are those of mass mobilisations, and this will prove to be a hundred times more fruitful than the guerrilla tactics of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the end, however, the traditional mass organisations could not prevent real revolutionary processes, despite their attempts to derail the movement. A whole layer of advanced workers and youth (tens of thousands) in the advanced capitalist countries moved decisively in the direction of revolution, pushing their organisations to the left. In many countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, among others, the situation was such that it could have ended in a successful revolution if a genuine mass revolutionary organisation had been present.

What we can say about today's situation is that due to the lack of authority of the present leadership of the mass organisations and, more importantly, because there is a lot less room for genuine reformist concessions in today's capitalism, the leadership of the mass organisations in the coming revolutionary upheavals will find it much more difficult to channel the movement as they did in the 1970s. In fact, the only way they can regain their lost authority is by moving to the left. This will mean that in the coming period either the leaders will be forced to the left or they will be replaced by other leaders who better express the shift to the left within the ranks. What has happened recently in Italy in the PRC is an example of this, where the old leadership tainted with coalition politics has been replaced by a leadership that - at least in words - rejects such politics.

The examples of Germany and Austria

Measuring "consciousness" is not a simple straightforward task. We would argue that in many ways consciousness in the most industrialised countries of the world today is actually higher than in the 1970s, and this fact is actually confirmed by bourgeois institutions. The renowned German Allensbach Institute for public opinion polls has analysed for decades public opinion regarding the values of equality and liberty and has come to conclusions that have terrified bourgeois journalists. In the 1970s and 1980s less than one third of the population preferred equality. Today most Germans would prefer to live in a country without rich and poor. Many think that Socialism is a good idea that was implemented in a bad way. Another astonishing fact is that the reputation of the market economy has never been so low since the Institute started its research. A huge majority of Germans do not want to live in a "market economy system". The number of people who expressed this opinion in polls in the early stages of the movement of the seventies was far lower. Austrian opinion polls have come up with similar conclusions, although Austria is presently behind Germany in terms of class struggle.

An opinion poll of the bourgeois IMAS institute found that 67% of the population thinks that living standards will decline for them in the future. The last time the mood of the population was so bad was in 1974, the year of the oil shock and the first simultaneous post-war worldwide recession. People are not just worried about rising prices. According to one of the institute's experts, "people no longer feel that they live in a safe world. They are concerned about the poor quality of jobs and about the state of care for elderly people. They are afraid of financial crises that erupt like natural disasters". According to this institute more than a million Austrians are deeply affected by a feeling of insecurity, and not only poor people, but also people with a monthly income of up to €4000. The expert concludes that social cohesion is in danger and that what we are seeing is an accumulation of social tension.

The role of the mass organisations

Having said all the above, one may accept the fact that consciousness today may be very high, and possibly even higher than in the 1960s, but as it cannot be expressed via the mass organisations such a fact has no practical meaning. That, however, would be an undialectical approach to the question. The fact that this is the situation today does not mean that it cannot change, and change very rapidly at that. It is true that the traditional mass organisations have moved to the right to an unprecedented degree. But this does not make them immune from the pressure of the masses. All it means is that it will take more to move them. Initially that bureaucratic encrustation on the surface may take longer to remove. But at a certain point of the class struggle the dam of the traditional apparatus must burst.

In reality the real cause of the extreme shift to the right on the part of the leaders of the mass organisations is that these "leaders" fear a reflection of the class struggle within their own ranks more than at any time since the end of the Second World War. The bureaucracy does not want to give the slightest hope, knowing that the aspirations of the masses may develop their own inner dynamics and come into conflict with those of capitalism itself. The domination of the world market today is so relentless that any deviation from pro-capitalist policies will meet the sharpest and most hysterical resistance on the part of the bourgeois class, as we are beginning to see in many countries.

However, at a certain point, when the pressure of the class becomes unbearable, especially when a left wing in the trade unions is formed, the bureaucracy of the labour movement will be forced to move to the left if it does not want to be replaced by more left-sounding leaders, by centrists who will be pushed in the direction of revolutionary politics or even by conscious Marxist revolutionaries. Workers will have to fight on the industrial field in order to defend their basic living standards. This vital necessity will forge militant tendencies within the Trade Unions. And this time, under the conditions of unprecedented instability and world economic crisis, either the leaders put themselves at the head of the movement or they will be removed and replaced by more left sounding leaders.

As soon as the working class sees even the slightest possibility of social change via a traditional mass organisation its answer and reaction will be far beyond any expectations. In the not too distant future we will see a massive turn of the workers towards communist parties, where these have a base, and in countries like Austria and Britain also towards Labour and social democratic parties. A revival of the left within the mass organisations will take place at a certain point, and the fact that the authority of the right-wing reformist leaders is already very low today will make this process extremely explosive, once it starts.

The first reflection of the class struggle in the workers' organisations will take place inside the trade unions. This is because workers will simply have no other alternative but to fight in order to defend their standards of living. This first reflection of the class struggle is already taking place in some of the most industrialised countries, where we have seen leaders with more left-wing credentials replacing the openly right wing leaders. This process within the trade unions will at some stage spill over into the mass workers' parties. The fact that at present the old right wing still dominates, which itself is a reflection of the low ebb of activity within the ranks, will initially represent a brake on this process. But this does not mean that at present nothing is happening in these parties.

In many traditional workers' parties we can already see signs of a first stirring. Ferment is taking place among activists and officials with roots in the working class, despite the emptiness of these organisations. We are not yet faced with a massive wave of newly radicalised activists entering the traditional mass workers' parties as we saw in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, the disgusting moves to the right on the part of the top leaders, and the widening gap between the policy of these leaders and the real thinking of the working class, is already creating the basis for the first shifts to the left among some layers. In these conditions, at some point, important organised left wings can emerge within the communist parties and parties such as the British Labour Party or the Austrian Social democracy. Once such a left wing emerges it will attract the most militant workers and youth, who will not be seeking reformist ideas, albeit of the left-wing variety, but genuine Marxist ideas.

In other parts of the world, especially in the former colonial countries, new mass organisations can emerge, such as the MAS in Bolivia or the PSUV in Venezuela. It is not completely excluded that new workers' parties, in exceptional circumstances, can also emerge in some European countries. The main thing we need to understand is that even in such cases they will be thrown up by the mass movement. An example of such a development was the PASOK in Greece back in 1974. Once created, however, these parties assume the role of the more traditional mass forces.

The lamentable situation that exists in most of the mass organisations today cannot block the molecular process of revolution forever. It is precisely the present world financial and economic crisis that will propel the class struggle and this in turn will be reflected inside the trade unions and the political parties of the working class. It will herald an entirely new stage in the class struggle in the industrialised countries, just as the South East Asian crisis in 1997 heralded a new stage for Latin America and the ex-colonial world as a whole.

Not the masses but the leaders are the problem

The crisis of humanity today, as in the whole of the 20th century, is the crisis of the leadership of the working class, which includes the leadership of the Communist, Labour and Social Democratic parties as well as the trade unions. Even those leaders that put forward a left reformist programme, at every decisive turning point prove to be unable to offer a real alternative policy to the main leadership. They may criticise this or that counter-reform, but in the end they accept the logic of capitalism by not presenting a concrete socialist alternative. The worst example of this kind of behaviour is the leader of the so-called left within the German SPD, Andrea Nahles. She could easily have taken over the party leadership after the disintegration of the Schröder leadership in 2005 but she stepped back from doing so and handed it back to the same right-wing clique again. Because she is incapable of offering a real alternative to the "practical constraints" of Grand-Coalition politics and class collaboration, she fears responsibility like the devil fears holy water.

Even worse are the petit bourgeois intellectual lefts that seem to dominate in the academic world of the universities. They treat the working class as if it were an unintelligent mass that is incapable of "understanding". From this flows their approach of attempting to carry out reforms for the workers. Their aim is to win one position after another, step by step, thus achieving "intellectual hegemony" directed against so-called neo-liberalism. This in effect means not mobilising the working class against capitalism. By accepting the logic of capitalism while proposing reforms that go against the logic of capitalism, and by believing that universities, state institutions, NGOs, the media and so on - anything but the organised working class - can be used as instruments of profound social change, these ladies and gentlemen only reveal their own lack of consciousness!

The working class is conscious enough of its own position in society. It is fully aware of the fact that it is exploited, and that capitalism is an unjust society. They do not need to be told this. Workers can tolerate the injustices of capitalist society so long as jobs are being created and so long as capitalism can grant a modicum of a decent civilised existence. The problem arises when capitalism can no longer guarantee this minimum. Once capitalism enters into deep crisis all the ideas of the reformists are exposed for what they really are. The crisis of capitalism at some stage provokes class struggle on a grand scale and this in turn shakes all the mass workers' organisations from top to bottom.

It is in such a situation that the rising frustrations need to be expressed in some form. Its expression will inevitably be through the mass organisations. Once this process starts the workers will learn from bitter experience that reformism has no answers. In such a scenario a vacuum will appear within these organisations which the Marxists must be ready to fill. That will be in the form of a Marxist tendency that on the one hand can offer a real and concrete revolutionary alternative vision to the existing order of capital and to the policy of reformism. On the other hand it must sink roots within the traditional organisations of the working class. Thirdly it is necessary that revolutionary policy starts from the concrete needs and political aims of the masses and takes into account in a flexible manner their illusions, aspirations, traditions, and forms of organisation. To create this Tendency is the central task of the International Marxist Tendency fighting in over 40 countries on the planet.


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