Aspects of History and Class Consciousness
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Aspects of History and Class Consciousness

Istvan Meszaros

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Aspects of History and Class Consciousness

Istvan Meszaros

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The various contributions in this book, originally published in 1971, discuss many aspects of the complex subject of history and class consciousness, and the themes that are dealt with are all inter-related. The papers range from history and sociology, through political theory and philosophy, to art criticism and literary criticism. Georg Lukács' classic work History and Class Consciousness, is discussed in several of the essays, and the volume is prefaced by a letter from Georg Lukács to István Mészáros.

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Contingent and necessary class consciousness

István Mészáros

1 Marx's approach to the problem of class consciousness

The following two quotations illustrate, better than anything else, the central dilemma of the Marxist theory of classes and class consciousness. The first comes from The Holy Family:
It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment considers as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is irrevocably and clearly foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today. There is no need here to show that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.1
The second quotation, from a work by Gramsci, puts the emphasis on the vital need for developing class consciousness in an organization ally effective form:
It can be excluded that, by themselves, economic crises directly produce fundamental events; they can only create more favourable ground for the propagation of certain ways of thinking, of posing and solving questions which involve the whole future development of State life.
The decisive element in every situation is the force, permanently organized and pre-ordered over a long period, which can be advanced when one judges that the situation is favourable (and it it is favourable only to the extent to which such a force exists and is full of fighting ardour); therefore the essential task is that of paying systematic and patient attention to forming and developing this force, rendering it even more homogeneous, compact, conscious of itself.2
As we can see, the issue at stake is the relationship between historical necessity and class consciousness. On the face of it there seems to be a contradiction between Marx and Gramsci: the first speaks of the proletariat being compelled to fulfil its historic task, whereas the second insists that the historical situation itself is favourable only to the extent to which the proletariat has already succeeded in developing an organized force fully conscious of itself. However, for a more adequate under standing of the meaning of both quotations it is essential to notice that Marx, in his assertion of the historical necessity of class-conscious proletarian action, does not simply refer to 'economic crises'-the terms of Gramsci's polemics against 'vulgar economism'-but to the 'being' of the class: i.e. he indicates the line of solution in terms of the complex determinants of a social ontology as contrasted with some economic mechanism. And this makes all the difference. For the 'being' of any class is the comprehensive synthesis of all factors which are at work in society, whereas the propounders of an 'economic determinism' —rightly castigated by Gramsci-single out one factor only, and crudely superimpose it on all the others.
If Marx's approach to the problem of classes and class consciousness is interpreted on the crude model of 'economic determinism', the dilemma mentioned above remains insoluble. Instead of a dialectical assessment of 'social being' we are given a schematic account and a pseudo-solution:
It is apparent that Marx's theory of social classes, along with other parts of his doctrine, involved a basic ambiguity which has bedevilled his interpreters ever since. For, on the one hand, he felt quite certain that the contradictions engendered by capitalism would inevitably lead to a class conscious proletariat and hence to a proletarian revolution. But on the other hand, he assigned to class consciousness, to political action, and to his scientific theory of history a major role in bringing about this result. In his own eyes this difficulty was resolved because such subjective elements as class consciousness or a scientific theory were themselves a by-product of the contradictions inherent in capitalism.3
To treat class consciousness as mere subjectivity and 'by-product' of capitalist economy is a caricature of Marx. This view arises out of an approach which substitutes a one-sided, mechanical model of deter mination for Marx's complex dialectical model. Thus, in the end, consciousness is crudely subsumed under economy and its role becomes illusory: it cannot actively produce change, since it is itself the mere product (indeed, 'by-product') of capitalist economic develop ment.
And here we come to a crucial question: the complexity of Marx's dialectical methodology. In a mechanical conception there is a clear-cut line of demarcation between 'determined' and its 'determinants'. Not so within the framework of a dialectical methodology. In terms of the latter: although the economic foundations of capitalist society constitute the 'ultimate determinants' of the social being of its classes, these 'ultimate determinants' are at the same time also 'determined determinants'. In other words, Marx's assertions about the ontological significance of economics become meaningful only if we are able to grasp his idea of 'complex interactions' in the most varied fields of human activity. Accordingly, the various institutional and intellectual manifestations of human life are not simply 'built upon' an economic basis, but also actively structure the latter through the immensely intricate and relatively autonomous structure of their own. 'Economic determinations' do not exist outside the historically changing complex of specific mediations, including the most 'spiritual' ones.4 In Marx's view 'the gods in the beginning are not the cause but the effect of man's intellectual confusion. Later this relationship becomes reciprocal.'5 Consequently, once beliefs of this kind-or indeed of any other kind—are held by man, they carry with them manifold repercussions for the totality of human life, including the 'economic fact' of 'allocating scarce resources' for the construction of cathedrals, for the maintenance of the Church and the clergy, etc. Similarly with consciousness in all its forms and manifestations which have a relatively autonomous structure of their own, determining thus, in the form of reciprocity, the economic structures of society while they are also determined by the latter. 'Supply and demand', 'production and consumption' are economic categories par excellence. But only on the surface. A closer look reveals that none of them makes any sense whatsoever without the historically changing category of'human needs', which cannot conceivably be accounted for in terms of one-sided economic determinations.
One cannot understand Marx's concept of class consciousness without understanding his view of social causation. According to Marx, every human achievement introduces a new element into the complex set of interactions which characterize society at any given time. Consequently, what is the case 'in the beginning' cannot possibly remain the case at a later stage of development. The dialectical warning about the nature of economic determinations which prevail 'only in the last analysis' is meant to emphasize that while both structurally and genetically the concept of 'the material conditions of life' occupies a paramount position in the Marxian system—i.e. both as regards the historical genesis of the more complex forms of human interchange and in that material conditions constitute the structurally necessary pre condition of human life in all conceivable forms of society—it is by no means capable of accounting for the complexities of social development on its own. Indeed, when Marx points to abundance—both material abundance and the free availability of time at the disposal of men—as the necessary basis of 'that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom',6 he does not suggest that this abundance produces 'the realm of freedom'. (If he did so he would have been guilty of the contradiction of mechanically determining freedom.) On the contrary, by emphasizing the necessary basis and precondition of a truly free human development he indicates those conditions which—if satisfied—enable man to overcome those natural and material determinations which oppose 'that development of human energy which is an end in itself'.
This means that the role of consciousness becomes increasingly greater with the development of human productive powers. But precisely because of the relative autonomy of the various forms and manifestations of human consciousness, 'socialized man' (i.e. 'the associated producers who rationally regulate their interchange with nature')7 is by no means an automatic result of this development, although he is a necessary being at a certain stage of social interchange. Consciousness can be put at the service of alienated life, just as it can envisage the supersession of alienation.8 The question whether the former or the latter forms of consciousness prevail in the society of potential abundance cannot even be tackled, let alone solved, in terms of a mechanical model of social causality which must deny the relative autonomy of social consciousness. ('Economism', 'fatalism', and 'immobilism' are the well-known political manifestations of this kind of mechanical approach to the problem of class consciousness.) On the other hand, the failure to understand the dialectic of reciprocal determinations can also result in assigning absolute autonomy to consciousness, postulating political structures and forms of organization in sharp contradiction to the objective possibilities of the given socio-historical situation. ('Subjectivism', 'voluntarism', 'activism', etc., are the equally well-known political manifestations of this undialectical conception.) In the case of mechanical determinism the possibility of a break in the chain of material determinations, in its Marxian sense, is a priori rejected, while in the case of undialectical voluntarism a break is arbitrarily postulated: without taking into account, that is, the conditions necessary for such a break. Marx, by contrast, on the one hand defines the objective conditions of a break in terms of the reciprocal determination of social being and social consciousness. (To illustrate this point: he insists that the productive forces had to reach a certain degree of development before it became possible to separate 'objectification' from 'alienation': a possibility that cannot become reality without the conscious implementation of the programme of 'de-alienating' the various forms and instruments of human 'self-objectification'.) On the other hand, Marx stresses the necessity of a break in the chain of economic determinations: a break without which he could not define the crucial characteristic of the proletariat as 'self-abolition', nor its class consciousness as awareness of the historical task of abolishing all class-limitations—the limitations of class-society—in the course of abolishing oneself as a class. 'Conscious self-abolition' as a result of economic determinism is a contradiction in terms. Consequently, either there is no alternative to reproducing the contradictions of class society in all conceivable forms of society, or the chain of socio-economic determinations must be broken. (We shall return shortly to this problem of 'conscious self-abolition'.) There can be no doubt a~ to where Marx stands on this issue.
Another major difficulty in fully grasping the meaning of Marx's theory of classes and class consciousness resides in the multi-dimensionality of his concepts. For all his categories are not only structurally interrelated, but also every one of them is conceived as inherently historical. This difficulty, thus, consists in adequately grasping the historical dynamism of structurally interconnected categories which are constitutive parts of a complex whole.
The structural aspect of this problem is well illustrated by Marx's warnings against isolating the specific categories of any particular field from the complex totality to which they belong: 'To try to give a definition of property as of an independent relation, a category apart—an abstract and eternal idea-can be nothing but an illusion of meta physics.'9 The same goes, of course, for the concepts of 'classes' and 'class consciousness': they acquire their full meaning only as focal points of a multiplicity of structurally interconnected social phenomena. 'Do not say'—warns Marx—'that social movement excludes political movement. There is never a political movement which is not at the same time social.'10 Consequently, 'class consciousness' cannot be understood simply in terms of the ideological and organizational factors of the political sphere, however important they may be. Isolating the issue of class consciousness from the complex problematics to which it objectively belongs can only give rise to voluntarism, subjectivism and adventurism. According to Marx, political devices on their own make no sense whatsoever; for men must change 'from top to bottom the conditions of their industrial and political existence, and consequently their whole manner of being'.11 Strikes, for instance, were enthusiastically greeted by Marx—in sharp contrast to his categorical condemnation of Luddism—not simply because they contributed to the development of working-class consciousness: he was quite aware of their limitations in that respect. (Limitations which were later appropriately termed by Lenin as 'trade union consciousness'.) He insisted on their significance for the development of the productive forces in that they compelled the bourgeoisie to introduce labour-saving devices, mobilizing science in the service of higher productivity, and thus substantially hastening the maturation of both the productive potentials and the contradictions of capitalism.12 The political factor thus acquires its significance in terms of a comprehensive set of reciprocal determinations: in virtue of its effective contribution to a profound structural modification of the totality of social processes-from the ...

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Citation styles for Aspects of History and Class Consciousness
APA 6 Citation
Meszaros, I. (2016). Aspects of History and Class Consciousness (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Meszaros, Istvan. (2016) 2016. Aspects of History and Class Consciousness. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Meszaros, I. (2016) Aspects of History and Class Consciousness. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Meszaros, Istvan. Aspects of History and Class Consciousness. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.