What is “socialist consciousness”?

While Dave was giving his talk to the comrades, I was preparing the following piece for a pamphlet prepared for the party’s summer school – on the theme of “new perspectives on socialism”. I don’t know whether my perspective is really new, but I don’t think I’ve heard the view expressed in quite this way anywhere else.

My unstated assumption in the piece is that socialism is a secular religion, and that for every feature you can find in religious organisation, practice and belief, you can find a more or less exact counterpart in the socialist traditions. I mean this as both criticism and praise, for every aspect of religion itself has a dual character. There is the religion of dogmatism, blind faith, empty ritual, oppression, reaction, propagandism and plain stupidity. There is also the religion that is, as Marx put it, “the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification”.

As with religion, so with socialism (in all the meanings of that term). My idea for the following piece came when I began to wonder what the socialist counterpart was of the concept in the spiritual life variously known as Buddhanature, Big Mind, Zen mind, pu, Krishna consciousness, or Christ consciousness (and I’m sure many others – all rooted in meditation). I’m not entirely sure it has one. But it should do – and there’s an already-existing but somewhat empty concept waiting to do the job…

What is socialist consciousness?

“… socialist consciousness requires workers to experience ‘a process of
complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.’ Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind – but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation.”–Steve Coleman, ‘Impossibilism’

The Socialist Party of Great Britain stands alone among socialists and Marxists in its peculiar insistence on the importance of “socialist consciousness”. Socialism, in this view, is impossible unless and until a majority of the world’s workers undergo a “process of mental reconstruction”. To put it another way, that the inner transformation of individuals is more important than, and logically prior to, any meaningful transformation in the structures and institutions of the outer world. This may be a peculiar point of view, but it is surely the right one. An unaddressed question, however, is precisely what is meant by socialist consciousness and how it is to be achieved.

Steve Coleman, quoting an author in the Socialist Standard, puts his finger on it (see epigraph above). Socialist consciousness is a “process of complete mental reconstruction”, one where years (indeed millennia) of “thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour” are decisively overcome. Socialists must, as Coleman rightly says, “think very carefully” about what all this might mean. In his own essay, Coleman makes the observation and lets the thinking stop there. He doesn’t tell us what socialist consciousness is or how it is to be achieved beyond stating that it is a matter of “understanding” and “desire”, before going on to imply that the task is mostly one of propaganda and education and political organisation. This is perhaps necessary but surely inadequate, as we shall explore below.

Socialism really is impossible
One way of thinking about this is to imagine, for the sake of argument, that “socialist consciousness”, whatever it may be, really is not possible under capitalism, as the Leninists insist. The logical conclusion, if this were so, is that socialism would be impossible too. Grasping this point will help us understand and sympathise with every right-wing and common-sensical objection to socialism we’ve ever heard. To give just the most obvious examples, human nature, as it manifests in capitalist societies, clearly does make socialism an unlikely proposition. Greed and violence really does make stateless abundance and free access improbable ways of organising economies. Revolutions really must end in the establishment of new tyrannies. A party taking power in the name of the workers really would end up having to impose a dictatorship. The SPGB links arms with socialism’s opponents on every point. Having linked arms with our new anti-socialist friends, perhaps we might sit down to consider together what “socialist consciousness” might be, ie, what kind of inner transformation might turn socialism from a “nice idea” into a real practical possibility.

It’s not what you think it is
To the knowledge of this writer, very little has been written, either within or without the party, on what socialist consciousness might mean. A more common conception among Marxists generally is the related idea of “class consciousness”. But by this seems to be meant little more than knowledge or awareness that one is part of a social class. We must all surely know of people who have such awareness, but are nevertheless not socialists. Indeed, there’s no obvious reason why such a class-conscious person might not also be a Tory, depending on their political views and upbringing, precise position in class hierarchies, and so on. Class consciousness is clearly not necessarily much help to us.

Is it, then, a matter of “understanding” or “desire”, as Coleman puts it? The way to see that it is not is to conduct a scientific experiment of our own. Think of a person you know who lays claim to a good understanding of socialist issues – perhaps they’ve read every word of Marx and Engels and Morris and so on – and who has a burning desire for socialism. Now closely watch that person as they conduct themselves in social life. Do they, to use Coleman’s words again, demonstrate by their actions that they have overcome, lock, stock and barrel, impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour? Have they achieved a “complete mental reconstruction”? Have they achieved “the necessary consciousness for social liberation”?

Whether the person you are observing is yourself or your worst enemy doesn’t in the end matter, and in neither case is moral judgement or censure implied. If your subject is the worst arsehole and hypocrite imaginable, he or she is only sharing in the general social madness, and is no doubt nevertheless very nice indeed to their dog. But while we refrain from judging, let us nevertheless continue to observe closely and carefully. Let us see what is there, and think about the implications.

You might see that socialist “understanding” and “desire” has, if anything, made us worse. Our superior understanding alienates us from our fellow workers, and we get frustrated and angry that they can’t see as we do. Our desire for socialism burns to anger at the social injustices we must live with every day, and we turn into monsters of negativity and aggression. Frustration, anger, pride in superior knowledge, alienation from our fellow man, negativity, aggression – are these the characteristics of the “necessary consciousness for social liberation”? Surely not.

If socialist consciousness isn’t then what we think it is or what we desire, what is it? What I would like to suggest is that socialist consciousness is what arises spontaneously and without volition from a total awareness of our situation.

That starts with us as individuals – the exercise I suggested above needs to be continued. Proceed carefully and slowly, for such scientific observation demands great skill and subtlety and patience. Watch and appreciate every aspect of your own consciousness and experience – the thinking and the emotions, and how they feed each other; your desire to be proved right; to do the right thing… and get applause for it; the aggression and irritability; the constant search for gratification and entertainment; your childishness when you don’t get your own way in even the slightest degree; your shyness and desire to assert yourself; your pride in achievement; your desire to go out and change the world, and to curl up in a darkened room and forget the whole thing.

That’s the internal aspect. We hardly need to go into the external aspects when all we have to do is switch on the news. But make this too part of your scientific experiment, your awareness of the world we live in – the world we help to create and sustain everyday by our thoughts and our actions. The wars. The violence. The greed. The stupidity. The ecological destruction. The ugliness. The pettiness. The class struggle.

The SPGB is quite right to insist, against other Marxists, than socialist consciousness does not arise spontaneously out of the class struggle, but rather out of our consciousness of and reflection on the total situation we find ourselves in. This then is our answer to the question in the title. Out of the total awareness of our total situation arises a consciousness adequate to that situation – a direct and immediate consequence of that awareness is that we grow up and become and act as responsible adults in this crazy and immature world.

Those who were hoping for an intellectually satisfying answer to the question might be very disappointed by this anti-climax. But the truth is that the whole question of consciousness is a very tricky one scientifically and philosophically. As a practical matter, however, we can just accept the unsatisfactoriness of it. We may not quite be able to grasp consciousness – let alone socialist consciousness – scientifically or intellectually, but consciousness is the one thing we have good access to and a measure of control over from the inside. So let’s start with what we have – the common inheritance of all humanity – and begin our study of ourselves, from the inside, to see whether the answer to the possibility of socialism doesn’t lie within.

Although we don’t really know what socialist consciousness is, nevertheless “by their fruits ye shall know them”. We know it when we see it. We know it by its signs – friendliness, kindliness, patience, compassion, service, work freely given without expectation of reward, moderation, open mindedness, good heartedness, forgiveness, altruism, sharing, generosity. When socialist consciousness comes into this world, then so too inevitably does socialism.–Stuart