by Martin Levy

In CR77 (Autumn 2015), writing about Jeremy Corbyn’s successful campaign for the Labour leadership, I recalled the statement by former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson that “A week is a long time in politics.” Fewer than 80 weeks on, we have seen further dramatic transformations, including the ruling class defeat in the EU referendum, Corbyn’s second victory over the right wing in the parliamentary Labour Party, and the stunning advances made by Labour in the 2017 general election.

“Universal suffrage”, wrote Frederick Engels back in 1884, “is the gauge of the maturity of the working class.” In a capitalist parliamentary democracy such as ours, “wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely” than under a dictatorship.i

The election result therefore represents a significant growing maturity in our working class. After over 30 years of retreats, when “class” almost became a dirty word, and despite the ruling class pulling out all the stops, millions of working people voted to support a programme which puts class back at the centre of the agenda – For the many, not the few.

How did this happen? Corbyn’s campaign broke new ground in several respects – a rock concert appearance, 6 simultaneous mass rallies and the mobilisation of tens of thousands of door-step campaigners, phone bankers and social media activists. Corbyn’s own drive, integrity and approachability was also a major factor. But it was above all the policies: Labour’s manifesto offered a vision of community, public service and collectivism – a message of hope in response to austerity, privatisation, and ‘same old, same old’.

Of course, the manifesto was not a socialist programme, and it did reflect major weaknesses over the nature of the European Union and the state, nuclear weapons and the role of imperialism and NATO. But it was a big step forward, opening up the possibilities for major left advance should Labour ultimately be elected to government. But such a victory would inevitably be countered by the most ruthless opposition from the monopoly capitalist ruling class. The labour movement needs to be prepared for that, and there is still a big gap between the vague understanding of class, as expressed in voting, and political class consciousness.

Two of the contributions in this edition of CR relate to that distinction. In part 2 of his article The Overthrow of Tsardom, originally published in Marxism Today 50 years ago, Andrew Rothstein explains why the February 1917 Revolution in Russia did not dispense with the capitalists and landlords along with the monarchy. Brought suddenly into mass activity, the soldiers – largely recruited from the peasantry – and the inexperienced majority of the working class fell prey to petty-bourgeois ideology. But the working class was, for the first time in its history, playing an independent part, and was therefore in a position to learn from its experiences and as a result carry through the October Revolution under Bolshevik leadership.

In his article, Reform and Revolution: V I Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, Matthew Widdowson addresses the question of spontaneity in developing class consciousness. While making clear that Luxemburg and Lenin were actually a lot closer in theoretical terms than commonly presented, he argues that for Luxemburg it is the experience of class struggle which enables the working class to raise its class consciousness and hence fulfil its historic role. For Lenin, on the other hand, such struggle only leads to trade union consciousness, which is at the mercy of bourgeois ideology and populism – unless there is leadership by a revolutionary vanguard based on the principles of scientific socialism (ie a Communist Party). As Matthew notes, “different members and sections of [the working class] will come to class consciousness at different times due to their specific concrete conditions.”

That last point was also made over 20 years ago by Hans Heinz Holz, in chapter 4 of his book Kommunisten Heute (Communists Today).ii Class itself, he says, is a theoretical generalisation, and so is class consciousness, which may be considered as the ‘self-confidence’ of a generalised person at a particular historical period. No concept of the class situation develops ‘by itself’ from individual experiences; and every individual person will remain behind the general class consciousness, since each represents only one of the particularities of this general consciousness. The task is to turn that general consciousness into educated class consciousness, which understands that individual and trade union experiences are inherently linked to the existing social system. Key elements in helping workers to develop that consciousness are the development of practical solidarity, and the educative and leadership role of the Communist Party.

Workers should therefore not only learn about the history of struggle of their class, but also develop their understanding of how capitalist society works, and why it needs to be replaced by socialism. On 18 September this year, exactly 150 years will have passed since the first publication of Das Kapital, which Marx himself described as the “the most terrible MISSILE that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners included).” That quotation also appears in our feature article, the first installment of a two-parter from Rob Griffiths, celebrating the 150th anniversary. Of course, as Rob makes clear, capitalism has developed since Marx’s day into imperialism and state monopoly capitalism, but the basic contradiction between capital and labour remains. For anyone who has not read Capital – and even for those who have – Rob’s is a very stimulating introduction.

In our previous issue, we printed the speech by the Chinese Communist Party representative at last November’s International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties. This time, we print the Vietnamese contribution, which again highlights the market methods being used to expand production from a very low level. Soul Food profiles the really deep and intense poetry of political activist Fran Lock. And Lars Ulrik Thomsen gives us another of his interesting book reviews relating to Russia in that decisive year of 1917.

Notes and References in Magaizine