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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 27, June 22, 2013

‘Consciousness from Outside’ Debate: Certain Points

Saturday 22 June 2013, by Anil Rajimwale

The last few issues of Mainstream (March 16, 2013, April 6, 2013, April 20, 2013) have been carrying on an interesting and fruitful debate on working class consciousness, torn by the dialectics of the economic and the politico-ideological aspects. I really enjoyed reading the debate between the well-known academicians, Prabhat Patnaik and Paresh Chattopadhyaya, and decided to make my own humble contribution.

Paresh Chattopadhyaya has rightly under-lined one crucial point, and that is very important in the context of the Soviet collapse: that of democracy. If there is one big lesson from the collapse in the East European countries and the USSR, it is the question of democracy. And that is yet to be resolved. Not to talk of a multi-party system, many in the communist move-ment are even today not ready to mention or acknowledge the contributions of Karl Kautsky, Bernstein, Plekhanov, Gramsci, Lukacs, Trotsky and a host of other giant theoreticians. The Stalinist mould of thought still works, thus stifling creative development of scientific theory. That theorisation is a creative human activity is yet to be properly realised.

At the same time, some of Paresh Chatto-padhyaya’s observations on Lenin are debatable and controversial. There is much that is hasty and one-sided in Lenin, and all that needs dispassionate study. Yet, he was a theoretician unequalled in many respects, and I think he is yet to be fully analysed. This task was largely prevented by the ideological state existing then in the USSR. But the task is yet to be taken up. For example, among all the great figures of the world revolutionary movement, Lenin was the one who really mastered Hegel’s dialectics as none else.

Kautsky’s Contribution

The whole debate down the years on ‘working class consciousness’ has been more mechanical than dialectical. But before going ahead, we will see what Kautsky has really to say on the consciousness question. Paresh is right in mentioning Kautsky’s quotation as important. Lenin has given a long passage from him in his famous ‘What is to be Done?’ (We are using here the 1951 Moscow edition.) Kautsky criticises the view that economic development and class struggle in themselves create socialist conscious-ness. He criticises the Austrian Social Democratic Party programme that “socialist consciousness is a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle”. (Kautsky’s quotations are on pp 64-66 of the book.) Of course, socialism as a doctrine has its roots in the modern economic relations. Similarly, class struggle too arises out of these conditions. But that does not mean that class struggle gives rise to socialist consciousness. They arise side by side and not one out of the other, each operating under different conditions.

It is extraordinary that Kautsky makes a profound scientific formulation regarding the origin of socialism. He says: “Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.” This statement is very incisive, and relates socialist theory with the developments in sciences, technology and other fields of knowledge like philosophy, economics and so on. It becomes particularly relevant in the context of the present-day STR or the scientific and technological revolution.

It is for this reason that the proletariat in itself cannot create the theory of socialism. It is precisely in this context that the ‘outside’ business comes into picture. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia. It is in their minds that the ideas of socialism arise. They introduce it to the more intellectually developed elements of the prole-tariat, who in turn introduce it to class struggle.

That is how the ‘outside’ business operates. Says Kautsky: “Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously.” The old Hainfeld programme of the Austrian SDP had stated that the proletariat had to be imbued (‘saturated’) with the consciousness of its position.

 That is how the concept of bringing political class consciousness came into being. Lenin highly estimated Kautsky’s formulations in the following glowing terms: Lenin says: “We shall quote the following profoundly just and important utterances by Karl Kautsky in the new draft programme of the Austrian Social Democratic Party.” (p. 64) Some of these we have quoted above.

 Clarifying Kautsky, Lenin states that “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without...” (p. 130) What is the meaning of ‘from without’ or from the outside? Lenin clarifies, following Kautsky, that it is only from outside the sphere of economic struggle, ‘from outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers’. (Ibid., emphasis added)

This is very important indeed, a profound formulation: imparting of consciousness from outside the sphere of the employer-employee relations. Outside this sphere are the relations between all classes, government and so on. This indeed is a great statement. To do so, just ‘going among the workers’ is not enough. (p. 131) The party must go among all the classes of the population.

And do what? It is interesting that Lenin mentions that only issues like price rise, unemployment and such ones are talked about. But no mention is made about history, politics, modern society and its make-up etc. And then comes one of the most profound analyses made by Lenin of the chief characteristics of the workers’ movement. Usually our present-day revolutionaries and Communists ignore, even pooh-pooh the use of philosophy. Let them study Lenin as to what he says on these questions.

It is here that Engels comes into the picture. I think Paresh Chattopadhyaya has gone to the wrong places in Marx and Engels, and Prabhat Patnaik also misses the all-important point. Lenin provides us with long quotations and references from Engels. Lenin was habituated, by the way, to give long quotations to prove his points. Both Engels and Lenin highly emphasise the importance of theory and philosophy in the working class movements, which our modern-day ‘revolutionaries’ totally ignore! Engels points out (p. 43 etc.) that the German workers came late into the movement, and therefore had a great advantage over those in other countries. They belonged to the ‘most theoretical people of Europe’. “Without German philosophy which preceded it, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific socialism...would never had come into existence.”! (Emphasis added) A confirmation of what Kautsky said later! While the English working class crawled along the path of socialism or whatever, the German one spread by leaps and bounds because it had highly developed philosophy and theory. For the first time, the struggle was being carried on from three coordinated directions: theoretical, political and practical-economic. That is why they were placed in the vanguard positions of the working class movement. It was the task of the leaders to impart theory, study science as science because they professed scientific socialism.

Mechanical versus Dialectical Application

Actually the very concept of imparting consciousness ‘from outside’ has been used very mechanically by the international working class movement and its leaders. This has led to the exclusion of concrete, continuous, and scientific studies of the ever-developing new trends and facts and events in the society. The movement and its main leadership all over the world are not prepared to face the reality and answer the new questions thrown up by life. For example, there is a near-total indifference to the STR and its great implications for theory and practice.

On Democratic Centralism

A careful reading of ‘What is to be Done?’ reveals certain very interesting features as regards Lenin’s attitude to democratic centralism. Much debate has recently been figuring on this topic, which erupted afresh after the collapse of the USSR and East European regimes. The question cannot simply be wished away. The context here is constituted by the debate that went on within the underground Russian social democracy, and quite naturally comparisons were made with the conditions in the countries of Europe, where there was a functioning democracy.

Lenin makes a positive reference to the functioning, for example, of the German Social Democratic Party in the conditions of developed democratic and parliamentary system. Broad democratic principles involve wide publicity and elections to all the offices in the party. “It would be absurd to speak about democracy without publicity...” “ not limited to the membership of the organisation. We call the German Socialist Party a democratic organisation because all it does is done publicly; even its party congresses are held in public.” (See pp. 223 etc.)

Regarding membership, the situation is different in the countries that are politically free. For example, as regards the German SDP, the entire arena is open to people like a theatre stage to the audience. Everything is known about every leader. And therefore when they are in the elections, they are judged on the basis of their work. Lenin, again approvingly, quotes Kautsky to the effect that an organised system of democratic institutions within the party has to be developed. (p. 229, elsewhere) The ideas of professional workers, journalists, cadres, parliamentarians etc. are discussed.

Thus, Lenin explains why the nature of functioning of party structures in the West was different from that in Tsarist Russia, where most of these principles were not applicable, and therefore different sets of standards of discipline had to be evolved. He does not hold the party organisation in Russia as an example for the parties in the West or as something universal, applicable everywhere as basic standards.

This kind of flexible party organisation and greater emphasis on democracy and principles of elections has much to do with the implementation of imparting consciousness and theory to the working class ‘from outside’. Here we can only note in passing that Antonio Gramsci made original contributions to the question of democracy within the party and to the debate on the ‘organic intellectual’, which provided a creative solution to the problem of development of working class consciousness. The minds of the masses have to be won over first before you strive for power; otherwise such a power is not stable.

Lukacs and some others were referring, in part, to that part of social texture and terrain which is continuous and open to debates and creative development of ideas. It is here, in the civil society in particular, that the hegemonic and assenting role of the party is highlighted. The party garners assent on common questions and certain agreement of consciousness, where it was not possible earlier. The party thus acts as a particular kind of catalytic force. This becomes possible through dissent and recognition of dissent. Dissent in certain ways is the best form and method of development of ideas in the political and civil social realms.

The party in such a terrain of complicated movements of ideas tries to convince people on certain solutions, which themselves may be forthcoming from the people, who then act as carriers of certain transformatory ideas.

The present-day world of information revolution may provide certain answers. But that is a subject needing separate treatment.

The author, a Marxist ideologue, is a leading member of the CPI.

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