There is obviously much more to say on these questions and this small post can’t possibly do them the service they deserve, but this is a question I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and since I have a blog I have the ability to think out loud. Please take this in that spirit-
For a Marxist all political work hinges on the proposition that the self-emancipation of the working class is a process whereby the class “of itself” transforms into a class “for itself.” It is for this reason revolutionaries push for the independence of the working class both politically and organizationally. Nearly all of the most important struggles within the international workers movement historically have revolved around the question of “class independence” and that is no accident. The process can go the other way and militants “for” the class can become militants “of” the class, politically there is a world of difference.
The struggle between classes is, in some ways, unfair. After all, a liberated working class, the producing class, has no need for the capitalist class while the capitalist is chained to his worker as the source of his wealth. It is the working class that can solve the class conflict; the capitalist exists only with it. As is so often the case that fundamental reality of capitalist society is masked by its culture which presents the capitalist, recently in the guise of a banker, as the indispensable class. A society whose cultural understandings are so at odd with the underlying reality produces any number of warning signs. The Cult of the Celebrity is certainly one such sign.
However, this enculturation is based on the reality that in capitalist society the working class is dependent on the capitalists as workers. Capitalism has long stripped individuals of the means of producing their own subsistence. They have to sell their labor to a capitalist to exist. The working class “of itself” cannot liberate itself, because it exists only in the context of that relationship. It is not only the relationship with the capitalist that needs to change if we are to overcome this contradiction.
Workers are led to believe that choice in life is exercised at the mall and between different brands of the same product. Real choices about our life, how we enrich ourselves and what we contribute to our society, are left to the market and the value of our labor in it. Again, culture reinforces the problem for the working class where, with all of the dynamism available to it, the capitalist marketing of commodities has convinced workers that their primary role, indeed their contribution, to society is that of consumer with our job also being a sort of consumer choice with all of the associated status markers of other “choices.” And just as with products, only the brand is different.
Who produced that commodity? Money didn’t magically transform itself into a television; hands were bloodied somewhere in that process. Commodities are produced, actually made, by a whole class of people beyond boundaries. By now we have all been to a meeting where we are told to look at the tag of our shirt to see where it was made. It not only takes the grower, the sewer, the truck driver, the store clerk or office worker to make a shirt, moving its components across continents; it also takes the whole of society that sustains that grower, that driver, etc.
While technology may have removed many who sell their labor from the direct manufacture of goods into information and service industries, further masking their role as producers, the fact remains that they labor in the service of that process, it is that process which allows them to labor. The worker may get her wages from the boss, but she gets her belly filled by other workers, a world of workers. How convenient for the bosses that the answer to this reality on the part of most US trade union “leaders” is the call: “American Jobs for American Workers!” The divisions of race, sex, nation, etc. that exist across class lines divide the working class internally too and everywhere is “the other” when it reality it is “each other.”
In the productive process it is the working class that adds value; money only represents it. But in capitalism it is also true that “it takes money to make money.” In general, workers, by their labor alone, do not make value. It also requires means, tools, to produce values. Marx would call that “fixed capital” and it is the reason it takes capital to transform labor into values. The worker brings his “capital” to the process in the form of his labor, or rather his ability to labor, which is determined by that world of workers out there. It is here that lays the central contradiction of capitalist production and the fulcrum on which class transformation rests. The labor to produce goods, values, is a social labor, collective in form and in essence, while the means, the tools, to produce goods, are owned individually, even if by a group of individuals who then decide on how all of the surplus values are distributed.
In a society where the capitalist is the ruling class the products of the labor process go to the one who owns the tools and not to the one who uses the tools, naturally. The “right to property” has deprived workers of the products of their own labor, the only “property” they own (we do not include all of the many homes workers “owned” now returning to the banks). The worker is doubly robbed because the worker also made the “fixed capital” that is the source of capitalists claim to ownership of the product made. It is to those means of production that the workers’ relationship must change. As long as the working class accepts the capitalist claim on the means of production any effective struggle with the capitalists is made impossible. They have you before you start since the rules of the game, and the imagination of the participants, are set. The capitalist, incidentally, wrote the rules.
A working class that acts “for itself” has to wade through a wide river of muck; that consciousness which is “false” because it is only partial (there is no such thing as unconscious consciousness). As Marx said “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.” As long as workers see themselves simply as consumers then they won’t be able to imagine how to apply themselves as producers. As long as the working class imagines that it can’t live with out the capitalist they will surely die for the capitalist. As long as the working class sees its interests tied up with the capitalists system it will never seek to go beyond those interests.
At the heart of that re-expropriation is the class realizing itself as producers and ending itself as workers. As surely as it must destroy the capitalist class as a class it must also end itself as the dependent class it now is. This is no easy process, however it is a process that is continually happening. Even by asserting the interests “of the class” the questions of what is the interest “for the class” arises. It is what Lenin called “the actuality of the revolution”, it is where form is seen through to essence. The generalization of such everyday lessons is where class consciousness is developed beyond the immediate. It is where, as a class, workers begin to imagine another world because they begin, through the muck of the ages, to see the world now as it really is.
It is the task of revolutionaries to hold up “the essence of things” and to foster such imaginations, that is why we stick to the principle of class independence. However, we also understand that the class coming to such independence is a process. It is only by organizing as workers and putting forward demands as workers that the class can begin to define its own interests for itself. We participate fully in the struggles “of the class” for better conditions that workers might make conditions for themselves. In the day to day struggle over living conditions the more independent the demands of the working class are, the greater the threat backing them up is. It is only with such threats that anything is won in the class struggle.
The struggle for better conditions within the framework of capitalism, necessary as it is, places enormous pressure on revolutionary organizations. It is all too easy to give up revolutionary imagination, but the requirement for doing so is to reject the essence and embrace the form, to lose sight of the world as it really is. Mighty Internationals have fallen over the years because of such pressures. By “independence” we do not just mean political and organizational independence from the interests of capital. No, it is only by acting “for itself”, independent and in conflict with the needs “of itself,” that the working class can take what, by law and by culture, does not belong to them; the products of their own labor. By doing so they remake the world, their tools in their hands.