On Bourgeois Class Consciousness

by Joseph Seymour

Note: this is a worthwhile article for educational purposes, and is included as such. It was originally published in Spartacist no 24 (May-June 1977).

“Each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society …. It will give its ideas the form of universality, and present them as the only rational, universally valid ones.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

The relationship between the institutional structure of capitalism and the conscious policies of the bourgeoisie remains something of a gray area in Marxist theory. At one pole is the purely structural approach of social-democratic revisionism, in which the institutions of capitalism are not associated with nor considered to be defended by definite groups of people. This outlook is central to the social-democratic theory of the state. At the other pole is the conspiracy theory of history, in which a totally self-conscious ruling class manipulates society to remain in power.

Historically, the conspiracy approach has been generally associated with “leftism.” However, this is not logically necessary. A purely manipulationist view of capitalism can lead to a completely elastic conception of reformist possibilities, particularly the degree to which unlimited economic concessions can be granted, thus ignoring the law of value. Thus either approach can be compatible with reformist conclusions-either the view that there are only the automatic workings of the system without a definite class enemy, or the view that the bourgeoisie is so conscious that it can forestall any development of a revolutionary situation, making reformism the only feasible approach.

A purely structural approach is compatible with those forms of “leftism” which consist solely in propagandizing that socialism is a superior form of social organization (e.g. DeLeonism). It is, however, incompatible with Leninism. The Leninist theory of the state holds that the ruling class is a definite group of people who have to be replaced in the administration of society by another definite group of people, the core of which is the proletarian vanguard party. Thus the Leninist party is not only an instrument for organizing the revolutionary class for the seizure of power, but is also the nucleus of the administration of a workers state.

“The Best of All Possible Worlds”

Bourgeois class “consciousness” is not Marxist class analysis in reverse. It is necessarily a false consciousness imposed on the bourgeoisie by its need to “represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society” and to “give its ideas the form of universality.” Therefore, bourgeois ideology always presents the existing society as the “best of all possible worlds.” This is not to say that bourgeois ideology always presents society in an optimistic light. But where a pessimistic outlook is presented, human suffering is attributed to human nature (e.g. Hobbes), scarce natural resources (e.g. Malthus) or god.

Insofar as it does not borrow from Marxism, bourgeois ideology is simply a hypostatisation of bourgeois society. The central principle of bourgeois social theory, from Comte through Weber to Talcott Parsons, is the universality and necessity of social stratification. The idea of an egalitarian society based on the enormous raising of the technical and cultural level of mankind is completely foreign to bourgeois sociology. Bourgeois economics, by definition, deals with a society characterized by scarcity in the face of unequal distribution of skills and resources.

Even where bourgeois ideology appropriates some Marxist concepts, it retains its “best of all possible worlds” aspect. This is most clearly expressed in social-democratic revisionism, represented by George Lichtheim. Post World War I revisionism of the Kautskyan school maintains that capitalism has changed to meet the programmatic goals which nineteenth century Marxism associated only with a socialist regime. Thus, it is claimed that universal suffrage in a parliamentary system has effectively transferred political power to the working class, or that technocratic capitalist planning means production for use and not for profit.

Reactionary Marxists?

The question of bourgeois class consciousness bears a certain relation to the old Austro-Marxist concept of a Marxist who is not a socialist – one who recognizes the historical inevitability of socialism but does not support it, or possibly even opposes it. However, the Marxist analysis of class society leads directly to an understanding of socialism as a just, super-abundant society capable of producing happier human beings. To recognize this and still oppose socialism is to be completely cynical. As Lukacs correctly pointed out, the Austro-Marxist dichotomy between grasping a Marxist class analysis and opting for a socialist society was a pseudo-problem created by divorcing thought from its necessary social consequences – an exercise in rational idealism. It is doubtful if even a single bourgeois politician could be totally cynical yet still effective. It is clearly impossible for the entire ruling class to be cynical – i.e., to despair of the social desirability or even the historical possibility of its remaining in power.

It is significant that bourgeois politics approaches open cynicism only in extreme degeneration – fascism. And even here pure ruling-class power is disguised with nationalist ideology of the most reactionary sort. It is also significant that fascism produced (as much by its ideology as by its actions) a profound moral revulsion on the part of the European working class which was an important element in the revolutionary situation which developed in the wake of World War II. The deep popularity and revolutionary aspect of anti-fascist sentiment threw the European bourgeoisie back to liberal reformist ideology and parliamentary politics.

The falsity of the notion that the ruling class are Marxists who are on the other side of the barricades is demonstrated by ideologues trained in the manipulation of Marxist concepts who go over to the camp of reaction, such as Robert Michels and James Burnham. In their careers as reactionaries, they experience continual frustration at their inability to win the bourgeoisie over to a “counter-Marxist” world view. Thus most of James Burnham’s writings are aimed at demonstrating how traditional bourgeois ideology is an obstacle to understanding the strength and danger of communism and how conflicts within the bourgeoisie are an obstacle to combatting communism. Burnham wrote an entire book designed to prove that the dominant political attitudes of the American ruling class were optimistically false. Burnham felt continually frustrated by national capitalist rivalry, attacking Gaullism as a petty-bourgeois deviation. European conservatives found Burnham’s hostility to DeGaulle, a successful right-wing authoritarian, inexplicable or an expression of American chauvinism. Only an ideologue familiar with Marxism could place class unity (bourgeois class unity) higher than national interest. Burnham’s attitude is totally unacceptable to the bourgeois world view, even when it is self-consciously presented in the interest of the bourgeoisie.

Historical vs. Immediate Interest

A common error in analysing bourgeois class consciousness is a tendency to anthropomorphise class so that the bourgeoisie is seen to act rationally in its long-term interests. To the bourgeois class are attributed all kinds of individual characteristics-volition, foresight, memory, etc. Associated with this is a tendency to overstate the degree to which the state shapes the economy, undervaluing the operations of the market. It is important to realize the essentially atomized nature of the bourgeoisie. The basic motive force of bourgeois behaviour is maximization of individual firm profits. The degree to which actual capitalists are willing to, or able to, sacrifice profit maximization to some conception of the historic interest of their class is quite limited. History is replete with examples of individual capitalist appetites undermining the general policy of the ruling class. The classic example is the sale of U.S. scrap metal to Japan during the diplomatic escalation preceding World War II. The sugar beet lobby proved a minor, but real, obstacle to the Eisenhower administration’s cutting the Cuban sugar quota in 1959, fearing that a reorganization of the U.S. sugar import system would weaken its own monopolistic position. Even where the majority of capitalists are prepared to work for a certain policy, the mechanisms for doing so are faulty. The institution of private property imposes strict limits on the state, which is the main instrument of collective ruling-class action. This is demonstrated by the relative inefficiency of capitalist war planning even where the overwhelming majority of capitalists are genuinely trying to cooperate.

Is the Bourgeoisie an International Class?

A fundamental question about bourgeois class consciousness is whether the bourgeoisie is capable of transcending national identity and interests for some conception of international class solidarity. On this question turn both the tendency toward interimperialist war and the likelihood and efficacy of international interventions against proletarian revolutions and resulting workers states.

Part of the disorientation of American ideologues, radical or otherwise, stemmed from the global appetites of U.S. imperialism in the 1943-71 period (Henry Luce’s “American Century” and the U.S. “obligation” to “defend the Free World”). This was taken by some to reflect the American bourgeoisie’s transcendence of mere national aspirations. In fact, what it constituted was a national ruling class possessing for a historical moment so much productive power that it aspired to subordinate the entire planet to U .S. domination~a very ordinary appetite writ large.

The issue was first posed sharply in the Marxist movement by Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism, which held that competition between imperialist nations could be peacefully mediated in the same manner as competition between domestic monopolies. Lenin countered that the bourgeoisie cannot transcend national interests and that interimperialist agreements can only be based on the existing balance of strength which all parties are desperately seeking to change to their advantage.

That the tendency toward inter-imperialist war exists despite its known de-stabilising effects on the bourgeois order is indicated by the last reported meeting between the French ambassador Coulandre and Hitler before the outbreak of World War II. Both agreed that a prolonged war might well produce proletarian revolutions (“only Trotsky will be the victor,” Coulandre is reported to have said). And yet neither the French nor the German ruling class was prepared to sacrifice its aim of national expansion to prevent the revolutionary destruction of the bourgeoisie which both considered a real eventuality.

The national character of the bourgeoisie is demonstrated by the response to the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet state. While all the imperialist powers intervened against the Bolsheviks, they were incapable of cooperating, since the way in which Bolshevik Russia was defeated would shape the balance of world power. In 1923 the Soviet government effected an agreement with the most reactionary wing of the German ruling class to train the Red Army. During the 1930’s, despite talk of an anti-Soviet crusade, when the crunch came all the capitalist powers determined their relations with the Soviet Union on the basis of immediate national interest. Germany effected an alliance with the Soviet Union, then broke it when German leaders believed they had a decisive military advantage. The Western powers entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union when they needed its military support. Japan remained neutral despite its alliance with Germany. This does not mean that unified international reaction against a proletarian revolution is impossible, but the obstacles to it are great, as each imperialist power sees its own aggrandizement as the overriding goal.

 While capable of certain acts and attitudes of internationalist solidarity, the bourgeoisie is a nationally limited class. It is capable neither of abolishing national states nor, often, even of subordinating immediate national interests to the historic defence of the bourgeois order.

The class unity of the bourgeoisie is undermined by its atomisation into competing firms within each state and by the inevitable conflicts between the national bourgeoisies. The bourgeoisie is moreover partly the creature of its own false consciousness, bourgeois ideology. With its options limited by the operation of the capitalist market and the declining rate of profit, the bourgeoisie manoeuvres within circumscribed confines.

The bourgeoisie is not devoid of elemental class instinct and short-term memory, enabling it to manoeuvre in reaction to an immediate threat. When the working class is disorganized and misled by reformist, class-collaborationist leaderships, the capitalist class can consolidate its position and stave off its downfall even under the most threatening objective conditions. In the 1930’s the bourgeoisie seized upon its last resort, fascism, a Bonapartist form of rule which allows the capitalist state a relatively greater degree of autonomy from the particular appetites of sections of the class it represents. Following the 1968 general strike in France, the French bourgeoisie used reformism rather than repression, granting economic concessions significant enough to undermine France’s competitive position in the world market for a short period.

Thus the capitalist class is capable of manoeuvring to retain power granted one essential factor: the absence of a revolutionary proletarian leadership which seizes the initiative of the objective situation. The lesson to be drawn from the failure of the working class thus far to extend the one victorious socialist revolution in Russia to the world-wide triumph of proletarian power is not to credit the bourgeoisie with omniscience or infinite manoeuvrability. The conclusion must be Trotsky’s conclusion of the crisis of proletarian leadership, which demands the organization of the international Leninist party to lead the working class in the conquest of power.