This is a commentary on Marx’s analysis of class. It critically applies Marx’s analysis to his own theses. It's entirely based on what can be found in the Communist Manifesto.
This essay's primary theme is Marx’s theory of class and the relation of what I call the Communist Vanguard Class to the working class. You'll see that not only can Marx’s analysis be applied to the conclusions of that analysis itself: some of these self-referential points are also destructive of Marx’s central thesis (i.e., of the working class’s relation to the Communist Vanguard Class).
It's ironic, then, that despite the central thesis of this essay, both Marx and Engels made much of the fact that the Communist Party was a "working class party". In Engel’s own introduction to the Communist Manifesto, he specifically says that "in 1847, Socialism was a middle class movement". On the other hand, communism was a "working class movement" – the "very opposite" of socialism’s middle-class basis/base. Thus Marx and Engels (as well as communists ever since) have been absolutely convinced (or self-convinced) that communists were working class; even if that was qualified by the vitally-important addition that they were also, in fact, the "vanguard" or "class consciousness" of that class.
Communists have never doubted this. Indeed they could never doubt it without doubting Marxism/communism itself.
Alongside this absolute lack of doubt (as well as the strong emphasis on the materialist analysis of history and politics), was the equally strict view of the static nature and truth of Marxism itself. That is, although history has continuously been moved by class conflict, Marx’s central theses themselves were absolute and therefore unmovable. Engels himself stresses this by quoting another communist thus:
“‘… the Manifesto has become a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.’”
Not only had the true nature of history, ideology and politics been accurately captured for all time: history itself (in many - if not all - respects) would come to an end once the communists were victorious in the necessarily-coming revolution. (This is more or less what Francis Fukuyama thought - roughly a hundred and fifty years later - about both History with a capital ‘H’ and the victorious "end-of-history" ideology of "liberal-capitalist democracy".)
Marx says what you’d expect every communist to say; both past and present. He says that
"the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement".
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Though I bet you were waiting for the big "but". (As in: "I’m not racist, but…") What we have instead is:
We Communists are not separate from the working class, but…
What was Marx’s own ‘but’? This:
"The Communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only… they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat…" (425)
What Marx is actually saying here is that communists aren't different from other working-class parties, and the working class itself, except in the cases in which they are, indeed, different.
That difference is that communists "point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat". That may be a nice difference. It may even be a difference which genuinely represents "the entire proletariat". However, it's still a difference. Thus the communists are different from the working class and their representative parties; regardless of how benign or malign that difference is. The benign nature of the difference doesn’t stop it from being a difference. However, I would argue that this elite nature - this vanguardism - this "pointing out and bringing to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat" - is at the heart of the problem that is communism or Marxism. These quotes alone show us that communism isn't only non-democratic: it's anti-democratic. The ostensibly benign nature of the communists representing the "interests of the entire proletariat" does signify a rupture with the working class.
Not only that: the Marxist analysis of class and ideology can be applied to the communists themselves.
If class determines ideology, then class also determines the ideology of communists. The Class of Communists represents a Vanguard or Elite Class; whether or not it attempts to "represent" or "work for" the working class. That very act of distinguishing themselves from the working class (as Marx acknowledges) sets the communists up as effectively another class.
Perhaps communists would say that you can't set up a class (such as the Communist Vanguard Class) if it doesn't have an economic basis. That may true according to strict Marxist criteria; though weren’t most – or all - of the Communist Vanguard Class also joint members of the middle class or the capitalist class? The Communist Vanguard Class was a subgroup of the capitalist class. Their economic underpinning was the same as that which underpinned the middle class. Thus, according to Marx’s own criteria, the economic reality which determined the middle class also determined the consciousness of its subgroup – the Communist Vanguard Class - even if that ideology was in fact at odds with the capitalist class. This being at odds with capitalism was itself determined by the socioeconomic reality that was capitalism.
Despite all that, we must still try to understand what precisely Marx meant by "pointing out and bringing to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat". If I've distinguished the Communist Vanguard Class from the working class, then doesn’t it follow that the former will not completely know what are genuinely the "common interests of the entire proletariat" and thus won’t be able to "point out and bring to the front [these] common interests"? Here again I'm applying "Marxist laws" to the Communist Vanguard Class itself. If socioeconomic conditions and class determine ideology, then the ideology of the Communist Vanguard Class will be at odds with the ideology of the working class. It can't be any other way; according to Marxism itself.
Marx himself goes on to stress this difference between the Communist Vanguard Class and the working class by saying that the communists are
"the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties… the section which pushes forward all others" (425).
Does Marx escape from these differences – these differences of class! – simply by saying that the Communist Vanguard Class is a "section of the working class"? What sort of section is that? How different can the CVC be to the WC and still be a section of it? Indeed is it really a section of the WC at all? What does it mean for something (or the CVC) to be "a section of" something else? What makes the CVC different? And if it is indeed different, and it is, doesn’t that create problems for it "pushing forward" the WC precisely because of these very differences?
Marx distinguishes the CVC from the WC yet more. The CVC has the
"advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement". (425)
This sounds almost messianic in its condescension of the WC. The "line of march", and the "ultimate" this, that and the other, is very metaphysical in timbre. This is Hegelianism in the disguise of an economics, history and sociology.
Are there any ultimates at all in the social sciences? Is there even a definite and determinate "line of march" of anything in this sphere? It's clear here that although Marx "turned Hegel on his head"; he still turned Hegel on his head.
All this disregards the former problem of the CVC being a different class than the WC. By Marxist self-referential logic, that too can't but help make the CVC get the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement wrong in some large or small ways. And even if the CVC got things right about all these things, would it have got them right automatically for the benefit of the WC?
The proof that socioeconomic conditions determine every class’s ideology, and everyone’s mind, is shown by Marx. He says that "the theoretical conclusions" of the communists
"merely express in general terms actual relations springing from existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes". (425)
That therefore also means that "actual relations springing from existing class struggle" also determine the ideology of the CVC itself and therefore differentiate it from the WC. If different socioeconomic and class conditions determine ideology, and the CVC is essentially part of the capitalist class (even if it sees itself as the vanguard or "consciousness" of the WC), then such things will by definition make the ideologies of the CVC different from those of the WC.
This is as true today as it was in Marx’s day. Today's CVC is represented by the Socialist Workers Party. Or, more correctly, by the Central Committee of the SWP. So just as the SWP sees itself as the vanguard or "true consciousness" of the WC, so the SWP’s Central Committee sees itself as the vanguard or true consciousness of the SWP as a whole.
But why stop there? If we can effortlessly move from the working class to the SWP and then to the Central Committee of the SWP, then why not go one step further and end up with the leader (or fuehrer) of the SWP? Thus:
the working class – Socialist Workers Party – the Central Committee (of the SWP) – the leader (of the Central Committee)
And that's exactly what happened with Lenin and then Stalin. Perhaps the "collectivity" of the Central Committee of the SWP today is merely for display. For all anyone knows on the outside, it may have its own Lenin or Stalin.
Marx again stresses the CVC leading from the front when he says that the communists "bring to the front as the leading question in each case the property question" (434).
Marx himself says that the "bourgeoisie" at some stages "educate" the proletariat. Of course he doesn't see his comments as being equally applicable to the CVC itself; even though it too is bourgeoisie. He says of the non-communist bourgeoisie that it
"supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education… These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress".
This distinction between the communist middle class and the non-communist middle class it neatly encapsulated by the term "bourgeoisie" or "bourgeois". That is,
If one is middle class and a communist as well, then one is not bourgeois.
However, the non-communist middle class is bourgeois. Thus:
If a communist or Trotskyist today earns £150,000 a year (or even if he owns shares, etc.) and if he's nonetheless a Trotskyist or a communist, then he quite simply isn't bourgeois – though he may admit to being middle class.
But today even that's not likely. Trotskyists and communists who are professors, lecturers, journalists, professionals, etc. count themselves as "workers" and therefore members of the working class! No matter how much they earn, and how different their lifestyles are from the working class, they'll still class themselves as workers because of their revolutionary political affiliations. Thus a self-employed man on less than £20,000 a year, and who also supports the Conservative Party, will be more bourgeois (to a communist or Trotskyist) than a communism-supporting professor (on £75,000 a year) simply because of his non-revolutionary political affiliations.