People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 02

January 13, 2013


Leninism and Class Consciousness


Prabhat Patnaik


A BASIC proposition of Leninism is that theoretical understanding that leads to the formation of class consciousness comes to the proletariat from “outside;” the proletariat does not spontaneously achieve revolutionary class consciousness. This idea did not originate with Lenin. It was contained in the Communist Manifesto itself, where Marx and Engels had discussed three sources from which the proletariat drew enlightenment in organising itself as a class: first, the bourgeoisie itself which dragged the proletariat into the political arena by seeking its support for fighting battles against the feudal lords and the other class enemies it faced, and therefore supplied the proletariat “with its own elements of political and general education;” second, sections of the ruling classes which were thrown into the ranks of the proletariat with the progress of modern industry, and supplied the proletariat “with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress;” and thirdly, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who had raised themselves to the level of “comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole” and went over to the side of the proletariat. In short, the idea that the proletariat organises itself as a class with the “enlightenment” that comes to it from “outside,” predated Lenin and was already there in the Manifesto. But Lenin gave this idea both a centrality and a concrete shape that it did not have earlier.




Many, including some sympathisers of the Left, see in this proposition, about theory having to come to the proletariat from “outside,” the genesis of an anti-democratic, authoritarian trend that according to them leads inevitably to a dictatorship over the proletariat rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat. A part of the answer to this criticism of Lenin was given earlier (People’s Democracy, December 30), where it was argued that “democracy” itself, if it is to mean not just an accommodation of, and negotiations between, different “identities” and interest groups, but a transcendence of these specific “identities” for the creation of a new fraternity, has to be brought to the people from “outside.” People do not spontaneously acquire a “democratic consciousness” any more than the proletariat spontaneously acquires a socialist consciousness. “Democratic consciousness” in this sense, of rising above all forms of specific identity consciousness, to see oneself as a member of a fraternity of equals, as a citizen on a par with other citizens, has to be brought to the people from “outside.”


True, even this attenuated notion of democracy, as a process of negotiations between different identity groups, itself represents an advance: when dalits confront upper castes for their rights and the latter are forced to negotiate with them, or the state mediates between the two, this very fact already entails a massive blow against the old order; but it still does not represent an overcoming of the old order, which can only happen when the whole hierarchical caste system with its ideology of inequality  disappears altogether. Authentic democracy must mean such a disappearance, and the conception of such a democracy comes, not necessarily geographically, but epistemologically, from “outside.”  


But a second part of the answer to the critics of Leninism lies in the fact that Lenin’s position has been persistently misinterpreted. It is not that the proletariat consists of an inert mass which has to be prepared for carrying out a revolutionary transformation by filling its mind with a theory brought from “outside;” i.e. that it represents, to change the metaphor, a clean slate upon which the theorists from “outside,” the “ideologists who have theoretically comprehended the historical movement as a whole” (to use the words of the Manifesto), can write the programme of the revolution, in which case the proletariat merely becomes the cannon-fodder for the grand ideas of a revolutionary intelligentsia which acquires power on behalf of the proletariat to establish a dictatorship, no matter how benevolent, upon it. Such is not the Leninist conception. The proletariat is not the “object,” and revolutionary intellectuals in leading positions in the vanguard party the “subjects” of the historical process surrounding the revolution. What Leninism holds is that the proletariat has a “class instinct” because of which it becomes at all receptive to the revolutionary theory brought to it from “outside.” The role of the theory brought from “outside” is, in other words, not to write revolutionary ideas on a clean slate, but to enable the proletariat to make the journey from “class instinct” to “class consciousness.”




This journey too cannot be seen as being effected solely through the intervention of theory. The struggle of the working class on its material demands relating to wages and working conditions, leads to the formation of “combinations” and the development of a “trade union consciousness.” With the intervention of the bourgeois state on the side of the employers during these struggles, the trade union consciousness itself begins to be supplemented by a political understanding, namely, that it is not only the capitalists who constitute their class opponents but also the state which acts on their behalf. Marx had discussed this process of the proletariat acquiring a political understanding from its own experience of struggle in The Poverty of Philosophy. But this self-movement of the proletariat cannot spontaneously carry it to the acquisition of a revolutionary class consciousness. The introduction of theory from “outside” is necessary to complete the transition.


Not to recognise this is tantamount to making the palpably invalid claim that theory can be acquired entirely from experience, that there is no autonomous process of theoretical development, on the basis of a theoretical practice that operates on concepts bequeathed from the past by theoretical practice undertaken in the past. The workers, in short, make the transition from “class instinct” to “class consciousness” through the acquisition of theory from “outside” but in the course of their own practice of struggle.


A dialectics between theory and practice is what underlies the development of revolutionary proletarian class consciousness; in the absence of such a dialectics there will be a mere duality, a separation, and a disjunction, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Krupskaya, in her Memories of Lenin, gives several instances of Lenin’s concern that such duality must not creep into (what was then) the “social democratic” movement. He was, for example, insistent on bringing workers into committees, and also on the convergence between the current of party work and the self-activity of the workers.


The “class instinct” of the workers itself cannot be seen as a mere static attribute; it is something that also develops and sharpens itself, even though it does not spontaneously give rise to revolutionary “class consciousness.” Hence, Leninism is not about persons epistemologically located outside the working class and dictating to the working class what it should do or pushing the working class into doing something that they have theoretically arrived at as a panacea for social ills. The working class would not even respond to them if that was the case; it responds because its own “class instincts,” getting sharpened in the process of its own struggles, enable it to perceive the validity of the theory that comes to it from “outside.”




The problem of how the working class got depoliticised in the socialist countries that existed earlier, because of which there was no serious working class resistance to the collapse of socialism, needs proper analysis; but to question the basic Leninist proposition and to hold that proposition responsible for this depoliticisation is completely without any basis. Putting it differently, the absence of convergence between theory and working class practice must of course be examined, but this absence of convergence should not be taken to mean that theory is unnecessary or that it can be acquired spontaneously.


This “class instinct” of the proletariat as it develops through its struggles, which makes it receptive to theory, is closely linked to the question of socialist democracy. A basic presupposition of democracy is that the common people can be discerning enough to make choices even on so-called technical issues; i.e. that decisions about the course that a society must follow are not something that must be left only to the experts. This presupposition itself will be questioned by many. In the case of socialism they would raise an additional issue, namely, that since no course would be followed that jeopardises the future of the revolution, no socialist would actually risk this future by leaving decisions to the proletarian masses. Since too much is at stake, a revolutionary society would necessarily bypass proletarian sovereignty and gravitate towards taking decisions exclusively at the level of the vanguard where theoretical competence and expertise are concentrated. They would therefore argue that a socialist society, keen to defend the revolution, will necessarily bypass democracy.


But the proletariat’s “class instinct” makes it averse to jeopardising the future of the revolution; it therefore would favour decisions that it believes would carry the revolution forward. This implies not only that leaving decision making to the proletariat at large is not harmful for the revolution, but that on the contrary not doing so is fraught with adverse consequences for the revolution. This is why a socialist society would need to respect proletarian sovereignty in decision making in the interests of the revolution itself.


Put differently, the fact that the proletariat, even though it is theoretically less advanced than the intellectuals in the vanguard organisation, has a class instinct that enables it to defend the revolution against wrong theory (and also eventually against theory whose wrongness, though not immediately obvious, becomes apparent over time), constitutes the basis for socialist democracy, for making the proletarian masses the ultimate arbiters in crucial decisions.


There is, in other words, no inherent tendency, derived from the theory of socialism, for excluding the people, essentially the proletariat, from exercising sovereignty in decision making in a socialist society. The perception that the Leninist view of “theory” being brought from “outside” militates against socialist democracy is without any basis. Likewise, the perception that the future of the revolution would be jeopardised if the sovereignty of the people in decision making is institutionalised, is also without any basis. “Theory” coming from “outside” is perfectly compatible with the practice of democracy under socialism. And what is more, since socialism, implying social ownership of the means of production, overcomes the “spontaneity” of capitalism where the system is driven by its own immanent tendencies and the individual participants within the system are reduced to being mere objects, authentic democracy can only be realised under socialism.