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Class, Community and Working-Class Consciousness

By Joel Wendland  Posted by Teresa Albano (about the submitter)       (Page 4 of 6 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page. (View How Many People Read This)   1 comment
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Again, I would not pretend that political struggle and social progress
are only won on the level of words or discourse, but words like Steve
Skvara's and speeches like Barack Obama's give a snapshot of the current
state of struggle and the balance of forces in the fight. They are not
just words, as left and right pundits have uncritically opined.
President Obama, with a united labor-led coalition of workers and
democratic movements behind him, holds certain principles and values and
is fighting for an agenda that itself is saturated by the complexity
and contradictions of the coalition he leads.

Marxism and coalitions

The first Marxist theory of the formation of political coalitions came
from Marx himself. In his various works in which he describes mid-19th
century European revolutions, Marx makes some important points on this
question. The labor movement in early 19th century Europe was mostly
unorganized and often failed to see itself as a class for itself. So
Marx highlighted the times when workers sought or fell into alliances
with non-proletarian strata and movements. Sometimes these alliances
crossed class lines to include sections of the bourgeoisie. While Marx
rightly remained skeptical of such multi-class coalitions, assuming that
the most powerful forces in a coalition would abandon the cause of the
workers, he accepted their practical necessity.

In Capital, for example, Marx traces the multi-class coalition in
England that played on the splits in the capitalist class in order to
pass the most important, if limited, reforms of the period: the Factory
Acts. These reforms reduced working hours, provided the basis for
government oversight of the safety and health of workers, and improved
working conditions. Marx argued that these reforms not only eased the
most outrageous working conditions for workers - they also helped to
develop the forces of production and "[mature] the contradictions ad
antagonisms of capitalism."

Simply put, it was unnecessary at that point for the advanced sections
of the working class to adopt a narrow revolutionary or socialist
posture. In alliance with other forces who shared a common program,
workers won minimal reforms. Contrary to standard left-wing rules for
revolution, these reforms did not mitigate the class struggle or the
contradictions of capitalism, but in fact helped them to mature, Marx

Thus, being able to identify those moments when tactical alliances could
help the working class attain strategic aims and produce social
progress is a key function of the Marxist outlook. This Marxist outlook
contrasts sharply today with "revolutionary" ideas that are more
concerned with being "to the left" of someone else, or with being
anti-capitalist enough in all cases.

In the case of early 19th century England, the outcome of the struggle
for labor law reforms necessarily reflected the balance of forces in
place. While power relations among the strata in this coalition were
neither equal nor favored the workers, it was Marx's view that organized
workers could, through struggle and unity, decisively influence the
course of events, public policy, and the development of capitalism.

The international communist movement has consistently argued for broad,
united coalitions to fight for democratic rights, increases in
working-class power, national liberation, and socialism. Much of the
theoretical frameworks for these arguments flows out of the lived
experiences of socialist movements. For example, in 1903 and 1905 in two
well known books, Lenin approached the question of building a
working-class challenge to capitalist ideological and cultural hegemony
working-class political education from the perspective of a coalition

Emphasizing the importance of democratic struggle, in What Is to Be
Done? Lenin urged his readers to become politically engaged "in the most
varied spheres of life and activity" and to learn from the practical
experiences that arose from the fight against "all cases of tyranny,
oppression, violence and abuses, no matter what class is affected."
Class consciousness becomes "genuine," he asserted, when workers become
involved in, and can observe, reflect upon and articulate, an analysis
of the various class and social forces operating around them in a
particular struggle.

A couple of years later, in the midst of the sectarian fights within
Russia's Social Democratic Party, Lenin unapologetically rejected the
leftist notion in his party that revolutionary conditions mature, as the
pro-socialist forces become narrower (and numerically smaller), by
fighting against the less advanced politics of the center forces in the
broad democratic movement. In this view, developed in Two Tactics of
Social Democracy, Lenin maintained that a revolutionary situation
develops and grows as the result of the necessary alliances among many
class forces capitalist, small business, workers and farmers. The
immediate goal of wining a general democratic victory ("bourgeois in its
social and economic content") would prove immediately beneficial to the
working class. But to reap the reward of being able to construct more
democratic institutions, workers had to align themselves with sections
of the capitalist class and other non-working-class forces that shared
this interest, he argued.

About 15 years later, after the collapse of the Czarist dictatorship and
the imposition of the socialist government, Lenin developed this line
of reasoning further. In his book, Left-wing Communism: An Infantile
Disorder, he chided European communists who felt that setting themselves
apart from workers and other social strata as "the vanguard" was the
best way to advance the working class as a whole toward socialism,
refusing to "compromise" or join forces with non-revolutionary elements,
decrying such activity as "reactionary."

Today some leftists use the word "revisionism" to describe such
compromises, and the phrase "move to the left" as the counter-measure to
such revisionism.

Lenin responded to these types of sentiments by saying that a flat
rejection of such compromises on principle is "childishness which is
difficult to take seriously." When the German communists refused to
align themselves with centrist parties on the vague "principle" that the
only party of the working class should not be tainted by others, Lenin
called their tactic "old and familiar rubbish."

Beyond name-calling, Lenin offered an alternative. He insisted that
coalitions unite diverse social forces and movements by developing a
common agenda, a plan of action, resources for cultural and ideological
struggle, and benchmarks of success. In addition, such coalitions should
reflect real forces, not invented ones. Today, we sometimes find
leftist parties or groupings creating "coalitions" of leftists (often
from the same party) in an attempt to attract unsuspecting affiliated
leftists to their leftist cause. They call this a movement or even

To claim that a single political party can create a truly representative
coalition or try to control an existing one, even refusing on principle
to contribute to an existing coalition, indicates a disconnect between
the so-called vanguard status of that party, the working-class movement
as a whole, and the general democratic cause. The refusal to
participate, Lenin stated, was a "repudiation of the party principle"
and was "tantamount to disarming the proletariat for the benefit of the

As for compromise with other social forces, Lenin urged communists to
work at understanding the differences between a compromise that advances
the interests of the working class and those that do not. This
understanding is shaped by the ability to understand the specific
conditions in which working-class people live and struggle to survive,
and on the refusal to base strategies and ideas on "recipes" or
"phrase-mongering." Subjective impulses and emotional radicalism are
very poor substitutes for critical analysis. Analysis should be based on
knowledge gained from experience in the workers' struggle, as all
class-consciousness is, not something worked out in coffee shops or on
Marxist list-serves. Leadership in struggles for democracy and
working-class power by socialists, communists or advanced democrats
alike involves understanding where people are coming from (even
reactionary people) and how they view the world, and then providing a
means of clearly articulating the basic and advanced demands of workers
and their allies.

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Terrie Albano is co-editor of People's World,
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