The Unfulfilled Phenomenology of Proletarian Consciousness

Erasmo Calzadilla

In the mid-20th century, the young Cornelios Castoriadis wrote the article “Phenomenology of Proletarian Consciousness,” in which he described the convoluted yet logical path that the collective mind of the working class had to journey to reach its final emancipation.

For the budding thinker, the ascent to “proletarian heaven” (total de-alienation), was constituted by states or steps taken in the process of maturing. The levels to overcome were:

1. that of “for itself” or the point of departure.
2. purely external rebellion.
3. the mystification of infinite mediation: reformism.
4. the false individualist shortcut of anarchism.
5. the party.
6. bureaucracy or being “for no one.”
7. absolute revolutionary consciousness.

Before dying in 1997 Castoriadis had plenty of time to witness the fact that with the collapse the “socialist” camp in the early ‘90s, emancipation didn’t occur in the wake of the bureaucracy.

His early idea of history turned out to be too linear and rigid to survive, and even his own yearning for emancipation left him worried in that “deconstructive” end of the 20th century (about which I would say thank God).

However not everything was mistaken in that early work. Much of what he outlined in the interior of each stage seems as it were written today.

Let’s listen to him reflect on the supposed situation prior to final emancipation: that of the bureaucracy. If you are able to get beyond the barrier of jargon you can enjoy a great deal and learn from this work.

“The expropriation of consciousness to the benefit of the bureaucracy and physical expropriation run in tandem, since the monopoly of consciousness is only possible on the basis of the monopoly of the conditions of consciousness. As those conditions are essentially material, exploitation reappears and with it the tendency to reduce the proletariat to its pure physical material.

“Bureaucracy tends to realize the reduction of the proletariat to its pure physical matter much more completely than capitalism. The basis of that possibility is the suppression of competition, which is essentially the suppression of the motor of accumulation. Therefore the reduction of surplus value to a purely static function: the maintenance of the parasitic class. That’s why, to this extent, the bureaucratic class is no longer forced to maintain the creativity of work.

“As the bureaucracy arises in and through the same terrain on which we see the destruction of capitalism, and as the appearance of its opposition to the proletariat does not mean the suppression of its opposition to capitalism (as with reformism), but on the contrary, it sharpens that opposition; lastly, as its arrival in power implies the physical struggle of the proletariat against capitalism and that system’s elimination, the bureaucracy appears as the negation of capitalism. But that negation is no more than an abstract negation and the power of the bureaucracy is no more than the abstract form of the power of the proletariat.

“The form in which that abstract universality first appears is in the form of the economy, with the suppression of the individual or private ownership of the productive forces and the appearance of the state as the universal owner. But as the state is no more than an abstraction, this state ownership is an abstract universality that hides ownership by the bureaucracy and at the same time dominates it. Abstract universality also appears in politics, since the state or the “people” is presented as the subject of power while in reality the bureaucracy is that power.

“The bureaucracy thus presents the suppression of capitalist alienation to the proletariat as identical to the suppression of alienation in general and of all alienation. It presents “nationalization” and “state planning” of the economy as identical to collectivization and communist planning; likewise it portrays the destruction of capitalist power as identical to the destruction of class power; the abstract notion of “the people” as identical to concrete people; and terror as identical to freedom.

“In the end, the bureaucracy itself becomes a simple piece of the social machine at the service of abstraction, since its own corporal existence (at whose service it believes to be) becomes pure abstraction to the degree that its total absence of historical significance is discovered. It then results that after that corporality there is nothing, with it reaching the point that — within the framework of the total alienation — it is not even for itself. The “for itself” of the bureaucracy turns out to be “for abstraction,” which is to say ultimately “for no one.”

Oughf! It’s time now to take a rest.

One thought on “The Unfulfilled Phenomenology of Proletarian Consciousness

  • Cornelios is simply saying, in arcane language, that bureaucracy is antithetical to workable socialism.

    Too bad he doesn’t come right out and say that full state ownership, i.e., Marxian state monopolism, creates bureaucracy, and that workable socialism therefore must have a different core principle.

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