On the “necessary false consciousness” of the proletariat Ruthless Criticism

On the “Necessary False Consciousness” of the Proletariat

[Translated from P. Decker and K. Hecker, Das Proletariat. Munich: 2002, p. 272-279]

Why don't they leave it? Why do wage laborers put up with a community that systematically degrades them into maneuverable masses of capitalistic property and the omnipresent state force apparatus?

The answer is already given. There are no other “causes” for it than the bad reasons the people have. But perhaps one must draw the attention of some remnants of the left to it once again.

1. If “social life determines consciousness” …

In his criticism of the wage system and the willingness of the working class to go along with it, Marx talked of the necessary false consciousness displayed by the inhabitants of the modern class state and social life determining consciousness. What Marx meant by this is that capitalistic class society – as enlightened, rational, egalitarian and materialistic as it claims to be – appears to its members as a set of peculiar, thoroughly opaque, quasi-natural laws (which are indeed very one-sided in terms of whom they benefit). He intended to show that social relations in capitalism are not grounded in more or less rational deliberations between the members of society as to what their common interests are and how to go about fulfilling them, let alone do they even come up; rather, they answer to money and the special laws of its accumulation in a completely irrational way that deserves scientific explanation; the peoples’ interests, i.e. the very class-specific and antagonistic interests they have in a system of exploitation, are determined for them by the economic objects that they are forced to make use of; and if wage-laborers, driven by necessity, go along with this system and decide to try and cope with the “given circumstances,” then they are making a serious mistake, for they subject themselves to capitalist property to their own harm. Marx's critical remarks on the literal madness of “free-enterprise” production relations, however, were taken quite differently. Legions of interpreters of capitalism have thrown his catchwords together – left critics who have seen themselves as his successors just like bourgeois apologists; and they spin from it nothing more than fundamentally wrong theories about a supposedly nature-given, inevitable and, to that extent, no further criticizable determinism of the human psyche.

Primarily the early Social Democrats and some communists – all the representatives of the deceased “real socialism” – were very fond of the conception that “social being” – i.e. the wretched class situation of the proletariat – would completely by itself, automatically, supply the most appropriate level of revolutionary consciousness and the will to revolt; so that their own campaign, the task of the workers' party, could limit itself to, and also would have to limit itself to, “advancing” the “objective contradictions” in the society, assuring the masses that their respective “historical situation” properly “progresses”; until then – rudimentarily – developing a subversive communist world view and action programs that must avoid one “error” above all: one was not allowed to overrate the inevitably growing “ripeness” of proletarian consciousness, undertake no demands going too far for the non-proletarian “allies” of the worker’s cause and, by no means, “isolate themselves from the masses.” Failures, which could not be lacking at all, not only because of the strength of the opponent but also because of this screwy kind of calculating agitation, offered reasons for the appropriate “self-criticism” of having wanted too much, too soon, perhaps too little at the wrong place; then, in any case, the activists of the socialist movement – instead of agitating for the appropriation and reasonable, well-planned use of the social productive forces by the “masses,” who then would no longer have to serve as a proletariat – were mainly busy with the absurd effort of correctly estimating the “revolutionary situation,” in “social reality” as in the minds of the people.

Quite a few disappointed revolutionaries have at one time or other arrived at the conclusion that it would be possible, but that the proletariat with its difficult “consciousness” leaves a lot to be desired. And because they firmly held as true the dogma of “conditions” that would at a given time “ripen” into the “revolutionary situation,” they felt the need to supplement the theory of the quasi-natural necessity for the emergence of revolutionary consciousness from the objective class position with a determinism of the prevention of this progress in the thinking and willing of the masses.

Thus some have passed off an “explanation” which is characterized by a lot of moral outrage about the wage laborers’ culpability for what hopeful revolutionists have awarded to them as their “historic task”: the capitalists are said to have bribed their service forces – the obvious question about the origin of the means allegedly spent on it was more rejected than answered by referring to the fruits of the “especially extreme” exploitation of the people held down by force in the colonies of the imperialistic powers – or to have at least split the “revolutionary masses” by corrupting a proletarian elite in a way crucial for class warfare; and the workers are said to have allowed themselves to be bribed and split. The idea is not only political-economically inverted, because it measures the exploitation of the wage laborers in the imperialistic metropolises by the desolate misery elsewhere and “estimates” the difference as a convincing reason for the wage laborers to be content, instead of merely registering the increasingly absurd contradiction between the continuously increasing productivity of labor in the centers of world capitalism and its continuing subsumption under the laws of increasing capitalistic property. It is fatal insofar as one positions the materialism of the wage-labors quite explicitly in opposition to the “socialist perspective” on which one would like to set them; as if the communist revolution would be an act of moral self-denial which the capitalistically exploited masses would take upon themselves only under pressure of extreme distress – that communism and “classless society” could have something to do with a reasonable, comfortable organization of the production relations that dominate the globe is completely lost from view, before loud devotions to an imagined world-historical moral obligation of the proletariat; and with noisy determination ideas, which always reveal nothing but the not at all determined will to manipulate other people, one already no longer likes to imagine that facilitations of proletarian life could possibly be used, instead of by the bourgeoisie to produce deep gratitude among the happy wage laborers, also sometimes by properly agitated wage laborers for a few upright thoughts on the principles of an economic mode in which a bit more wages is supposed to compel appreciative docility towards the conspicuously easily solvent employers.

Other interpreters of proletarian consciousness and its surprisingly lacking revolutionary content came to the theory of a “socialization” that is less wrong than much too narrowly considered, with filthy lucre carrying out a paralyzing of the intrinsically subversive impulses of the badly treated masses. They find that Marx, in his “economistic view,” had “neglected” consciousness of the “subjective factor”; along with a definition of the human psyche by means of “social being,” they must act against an inner determinacy by means of psychotherapy. And this can be done, of course: schooled in the relevant inventions of academic psychology, left theorists of the dissatisfactory performance of an undeveloped proletarian revolutionary will constructed the responsible “defects” and “deformations” of proletarian inner life. In contrast, their more philosophically inclined colleagues developed epistemological theories of the all too hesitant “revolutionary consciousness,” and from Marx's remarks on the irrationality of the capitalist mode of production, whose division of labor and exploitative purpose produces itself “behind the backs” of those involved and presents itself as a “social relationship between things,” they concocted the idea that the working-behind-their-backs “logic of capital” cannot be seen through by the agents who are practically caught up in this “system,” and the proletarian underdogs the same; they lacked – as opposed to the Marxist theorists, who even so get it right ... – not by any chance merely the will or time or means to understand their own exploitation, but the – virtually transcendental – conditions of possibility for it. Nothing remains any longer, in either case, of opposition to the capitalist mode of production, which after all was still contained in the faith in a virtually nature-necessary communist revolution, and a fortiori the will to agitate the affected persons to terminate their status as maneuverable masses: one substitutes for clarification and agitation the belief in the necessity of an upstream psychotherapy of the working class and lands in consequence with a criticism of capitalism that has nothing further to say about the systematic exploitation of the wage-earning majority than their postulated psychic defect of being incapable of resistance. Others explain the proletariat generally as a lost lump whose imagined total and hermetic blindness is only good for philosophical consumption, to absolve oneself from it – “negative dialectically” or something.

Normal bourgeois theorists have from the start liked the saying “social life determines consciousness,” in the opposite sense of one of Marx's criticisms. The image fits their a priori affirmative sociological worldview, the interpretation of capitalism as an ingenious systematic connection of interdependent elements, each functionally definable social ensemble making from the world an image appropriate to its function and its status; beliefs and attitudes are basically only correctly grasped as “behind their backs” results of the conscious agents’ prevailing meaning-making and integration processes. This theory never says that any of the world views that it investigates are wrong: all it perceives is one – limited – function, and is very satisfied with this finding.

But its all no helps: thoughts, even incorrect ones, are not products of social being; what the wage laborers themselves think about their position and deal with in their lives are also the results of the conclusions that they draw from their life situation. Therefore, when they fail, there is no other reason than the – appropriate or unfounded, good or bad – reasons that the people have, and in any event there is no socially determining reason behind their – however crazy it may be – reasoning behavior. If “social life is determinant,” it is not that some other mysterious effective power steps in the place of the thoughts of the people, even when they go to work for wages, however continuously, and then these thoughts go crazy; and indeed insofar as, from the outset, they do not critically scrutinize social reality, but accept it as a determining guideline for all their own plans and activities, they allow themselves to be determined. Not by a determinism of any kind whatsoever, but by a mistake “of consciousness”: the fact that somebody submits to his damage by ruling interests and material compulsions and has no solid reasons for it at all.

2. … then “consciousness” makes nothing but errors!

The first and fundamental argument that the wage laborers make for the purpose of positively getting involved in and adapting to wage labor as their livelihood is the calculation to which they are compelled in practice: they have no other means; they must use their minds from the start to find work and get along with the wages earned; thus nothing different probably remains for them than to resign themselves to it and make peace with their alternativeless situation in life. This “thus” is and remains a false conclusion: if an over-powering public force with property on one side guarantees propertylessness on the other for the great majority of society, if it leaves no alternative to wage labor and endlessly takes lots of precautions to ensure that it is well performed, then this speaks against this force and not for a peaceful arrangement with its orders. The decision to submit and make peace with the systematically spruced up world of wage labor also does not become correct by the fact that the whole momentum of perfectly arranged conditions and a violence monopolist enthroned above is forced upon the affected persons and therefore appears as a practical life necessity – this is severe, but is also the whole necessity that Marx ascribes to the “false consciousness” of the proletariat towards its situation and its life chances. How wrong they are, the wage earners who make their alternativelessness the argument for their willingness to adapt, they also then inevitably feel: they never get anywhere with their calculations. Therefore, they stand again and again before the alternative that they always have: to grasp and theoretically comprehend the conflict of democratic free market exploitation relations with their material interests in order to tackle them in practice or to decide on invariably new calculating adaptations and use the mind and will to search for means of indemnity and compensation. The practical constraint, to adapt oneself in accordance with “social life,” is again and again the same – and the mistake, to search for happiness in this, as well.

This is, however, capable of alteration; and modern employees have brought this far ... What the workers' movement of earlier days fought for in eased burdens and freedoms and what was conceded by socio-politically progressive governments, this is in any case not useful for getting to the root of the political-economic necessities of speed-ups and unemployment, wage squeezing and “flexibilization.” The opposite stands on the agenda: enlarged competition, trouble free as far benefits for life, to let nobody – except the bosses – say anything, and to feel good about it and make a good impression on the environment. Today's proletarians no longer only fulfill the compulsory bourgeois program of accepting wage labor as their destiny and allowing themselves, by the continual failure of their calculations, to be goaded into ever more work – and willingness to sacrifice. They have thoroughly settled accounts with their class position, regarding themselves to be anything possible – Rhinelanders, owners of driver's licenses, SPD voters, the life of the office, mountain climbers… – rather than proletarians, and show off all their bourgeois “identities” that are forced on them.

Proletarians aren’t spared from finding out that their source of income isn’t exactly pleasure and that their desire to be content demands an extra effort on their own part. That’s why they also aren’t spared the question of what the whole thing is good for. Modern workers certainly aren’t interested in this simple question – but what is just as certain is that this question is by no means intellectually overwhelming, and that the effort required for dealing with this question definitely isn’t greater than what is needed to convince themselves throughout their lifetime that everything, and especially themselves, are just super. Answering this question would be a much better use of their effort.