Class Consciousness as a Marxist Virtue (the lost NOLA talk)
I was set to give a talk in New Orleans this week on a topic that I've been kicking around in the background. Sadly, the COVID-19 worries and the fact that NC issued a state of emergency this morning means that the talk had to be canceled. That's a bummer for all sorts of reasons, but it's better that I don't serve as a vector for disease for people who might be at risk than to do go and possibly harm some folks.
In light of all that, I've decided to put up the written version of my talk here so at least somebody can see it. At this stage this is very much a work in progress, but I'm curious to get some feedback on it. Here it is:
What does it take to have ‘class consciousness’ in the Marxist sense? Is it a matter of knowing a certain set of propositions (“Capitalism is rooted in exploitation of the proletariat”; “No war but class war”; etc.)? If so, of which propositions? Those identified by Marx? Lenin? Lucaks? Is it a matter of being conscious of the existence of class? Of its importance? Or rather, is it the case that consciousness is a property of the class? If so, what is the relation between the consciousness of the class and the individual? Is the former a function of the consciousness of the latter, or is it independent of it?
In this brief talk, I will argue that we can think of class consciousness as a kind of Marxist virtue along roughly Aristotelian lines, and that when we do so, the answers to these questions become apparent. In arguing for this claim, I don’t mean to imply that Marx necessarily envisioned class consciousness as such—in fact Marx only talks about class consciousness indirectly and doesn’t explicitly define it (in contrast to, say, the concepts of ‘socially necessarily labor’ or ‘means of production’). For obvious reasons, I also don’t mean to imply that Aristotle would have (or should have) included ‘class consciousness’ as one of the virtues. Rather, my claim will be the much more modest one that when we apply Aristotle’s method of defining the virtues, we can make better sense of the concept of class consciousness and its importance.
II. Aristotle's Function Argument
Although this is likely to be frustrating I won’t start with a definition of class consciousness for reasons that I hope will become clear soon. Rather, I want to begin with a short little recap of Aristotelian virtues as discussed in the Nicomachean Ethics. The specific details here are less important than the overall structure, so don’t worry, this won’t be too painful.
The Ethics begins, as many of you might remember, with a search for and specification of that summum bonum towards which all crafts and deliberate actions aim. This end, we know, is what we call ‘happiness’; this much, Aristotle thinks, is uncontroversial. However, without knowing what happiness is, or what it takes to be happy, our agreement that happiness is the greatest good is of little use.
To get a better grip on what the content of happiness is Aristotle offers us his famous function argument. The idea here is as follows: when it comes to things that have a function—whether they be arts, crafts, of other activities—the good lies in the fulfilment of that function (or functions). Furthermore, we also know that it is by virtue of fulfilling such functions that we call things excellent of their kind, and they are such because they possess certain virtues that allows them to fulfil their function well. Thus, we can say, for example, that the function of a flute player (qua flute player) is to play the flute; that an excellent flautist is one that performs this function well (i.e. plays the flute well); and that they do so well because they have the virtues that allow them to do this (i.e. good finger placement, breath-control, etc.).
Crucially, Aristotle believes that if human beings in general have a characteristic function associated with a certain kind of activity, then the fulfilment of that function through the doing of that activity well might be the good for human beings. Engaging in such activities would also make people who do so excellent qua human beings, and they will be such because they possess certain human virtues that allow them to fulfil their functions well.
Aristotle claims that human beings do indeed have such a unique function, and that it is related to the exercise of rationality. It is with respect to this function that we are set apart from all other living things. Plants and animals may live by engaging in the activity of nutrition and perception (for animals), but it is we alone who live by structuring and directing our actions based on our reasoning. And if acting in accord with reason is indeed the proper function of human beings, then it follows that living well and being happy will be a matter of exercising our rational faculty, that we will be excellent human beings when we engage in such activity well, and we will do so just in case we possess the virtues that allow us to exercise reason.
What follows in the rest of the Ethics after this functional argument is an exploration of the different virtues of character and virtues of intellect and how to acquire and cultivate them. What’s important for our purposes, however, is the general structure of the functional argument and how the virtues fit therein. Specifically, the structure requires that we first posit a telos or end towards which all human actions aim and which constitutes living well for human beings (happiness); this end is then considered in connection to a uniquely human function, the satisfaction of which amounts to living well and being an excellent human being (acting in accord with reason); and the human virtues are those traits the possession of which allows one to live well (courage, moderation, practical wisdom, etc.).
It should be clear from that has been said that the general schema pointed out in the previous paragraph can be employed to analyze matters apart from the summum bonum. We did this partially when discussing the flautist but we can list other examples as well. We posit an end towards which all doctoring actions aim and which consists in doctoring well (e.g. producing healthy bodies); this end is then connected to a function of the doctor (e.g. preserving health), the satisfaction of which is just amounts to doctoring well and being an excellent doctor; and the doctoring virtues are precisely those traits the possession of which allows one to doctor well (being attentive, informed, compassionate, etc.). Likewise, we can posit an end toward which all foot-racers aim and which consists in racing well (e.g. winning the race); this end is connected to a function of the runner (e.g. coming in first), the satisfaction of which amounts to running well and being an excellent runner; and the runner’s virtues are just those traits that allow an individual to run well (having the required stamina, knowing how to pace oneself, etc.)
In fact, we don’t even have to change all the variables to re-apply the schema. We could still posit, for example, that the end result towards which all actions aim is happiness, then say that the unique function of the doctor as it relates to that end is still that of promoting health, that he’s an excellent doctor when he does this well, and that it’s possession of the doctoring virtues that allow him to do that well. Granted, this kind of application of the schema won’t tell us much about what non-doctors should do to be happy—but on the assumption that the doctor does what he does for the sake of happiness (a safe assumption given that happiness just is that for which all deliberate actions are done), it would tell us what virtues one must cultivate to be happy qua doctor.
III. Marxian Telos
If this is true, then I suggest we can take the general schema relating ends to function to excellence and to virtue, and apply it to Marx’s philosophy. When we do this, class consciousness comes out as one of the virtues. In turn, thinking of it as a virtue allows us to give some content the very concept of class consciousness.
We can begin by noting that Marx, too posits both a telos for humanity—which, while not quite the Aristotelian end of eudaimonia, is not far removed from it either—as well as a characteristic proper human function. The latter is most clearly laid out in Marx’s remarks in the 1844 Manuscripts and specifically in the section on alienated labor where he is rather explicit that the characteristic function of humanity is that of productive labor. Thus, Marx says that “The productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species—its species character—is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species character...The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of its will.” (pg. 113 italics in original)
Although other living beings interact with nature and modify it, it is human beings alone who do so purposefully and creatively in accord with their will. Not only so, but unlike other animals, the labor that man puts into modifying nature is not only reserved for his own preservation and reproduction, but for the preservation and needs of others. (“Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.” Ibid) It is when engaging in this activity of freely laboring that human beings behave qua human beings; it is their proper characteristic function.
At least part of Marx’s criticisms of capitalism then follow from the effects that the capitalist mode of production has on the worker and their ability to engage in this activity. Specifically, under capitalism, the worker still labors, but his labor becomes alienated—he no longer puts his labor forward freely and creatively, but now works meaninglessly, repetitively, and monotonously for the capitalist so that he can make a profit. Labor no longer serves as the means by which man self-actualizes, but now becomes the means by which he is tormented: “The worker who for twelve hours weaves, spins, drills, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stones, carries loads, etc.—does he consider this twelve hours spinning, drilling, turning, building, shoveling, stone breaking as a manifestation of his life, as life? On the contrary life begins for him when his activity ceases, at table, in the public house, in bed.” (Wage Labor and Capital). In short, capitalism takes the proper characteristic function of human beings and frustrates it, prevents it from being fulfilled.
In light of this criticism (and others) Marx advocates for an economic, political, and social arrangement that allows for people to engage in just this very characteristically human activity. This is, of course, communism, under which people’s creative energies and labor are freed and put to use for the entire species rather than solely for the benefit of the capitalist. Still, one might wonder why a system in which this function is fulfilled would be preferable to the capitalist one. The answer is simple and implied in what has already been said: it is under the condition of fulfilling this function that people are happy. If its torment to live one’s life with this function frustrated—if the alienation of labor turns life into misery—then, presumably, restoring the ability to engage in that activity will allow for the possibility of happiness, and, crucially, engaging in that activity will be at least part of (if not the totality of) what constitutes happiness. Thus, we see that the end that Marx posits for people looks very much like the end that Aristotle posits as well: happiness.
If all this is correct, then we can say that Marx has provided us with two of the pieces of the previously discussed schema. The end towards which human action aims is happiness and the proper function of human beings as it relates to that end is engaging in productive labor freely and creatively. In turn, an excellent person is one who is able to do that activity well, and they will be able to do so if they have certain virtues that let them do this. The question before us now is what these virtues are.
IV. Class Consciousness as a Virtue
Undoubtedly, some of the virtues that will allow someone to engage in productive labor well will be the same as those pointed out by Aristotle given that the two share the common end of happiness. But others are going to be different based on the fact that the unique function of human beings has changed. So, we have to look at what virtues are necessary to do that function well.
I want to suggest that at least one of the things that allows one to do so is the virtue of class consciousness. The reason for this is rather straightforward in the Marxist context and has partially been stated: under capitalism, engaging in productive labor freely and creatively is virtually impossible. Part of getting to the point in which one can engage in productive labor is understanding that one’s happiness is related to productive laboring, and understanding the conditions under which one is and is not able to engage in such laboring. It involves understanding, for example, that the kind of wage labor that most workers are engage in in service of the capitalist is not the same kind of labor as free, creative, and productive labor, and that one is deprived of the ability to do the latter when engaging in the former.
To put the matter a different way, class consciousness allows one to engage in the function of productive labor well and is hence a virtue by providing individuals with the ability to recognize the importance of one’s labor, what frustrates it, and what facilitates it. This, in turn, allows an individual to direct one’s actions so as to properly engage in productive labor when possible and, hence, to be happy.
But what does this have to do with class? After all, in describing class consciousness, I’ve talked only about how it relates to one’s labor, and said nothing about class. This might appear counter-intuitive since one might have reasonably thought that class consciousness has something to do with class. This is true, but the tension can be worked out easily: on the Marxist view, what prevents the vast majority of people from engaging in productive labor is the very existence of classes—the fact that workers can’t engage in productive labor is due to the fact they are oppressed by a class whose interest requires them to do rote, repetitive, ‘unproductive’ labor for profit. Thus, a recognition of the importance of one’s labor and its relation to the individual’s happiness naturally leads to a focus on class and its role.
That being said, we also know that Marx also thinks that after the revolution there won’t be any classes since at least one of its goals is specifically to eliminate them. Thus, it might be better to say that under capitalist conditions having class consciousness is de facto a matter of understanding the role that class has in preventing people from engaging in productive labor. However, following the revolution, when classes no longer exist, the virtue of class consciousness will remain a matter of recognizing the importance of one’s productive labor as it relates to one’s happiness, but the focus on the role of class in frustrating productive labor will drop out.
Let’s return to our main topic, though, and fill out the content of class consciousness a bit more—I won’t be able to give a full account given the time constraints, but I hope at least a few preliminaries will be sufficient to give a general picture. In any case, at least part of the content has already been supplied since we’ve worked out that class consciousness is concerned with matters of productive labor and specifically with what frustrates and facilitates it. If class consciousness is a virtue, then, it is a medial condition concerned with these matters. Its excesses and deficiencies don’t have names, but we can say that a person who is excessive in this respect sees more things as relevant to engaging in productive labor than there really are, and one who is deficient in them sees fewer. Thus, a person who sees nothing about the capitalist mode of production as interfering with productive labor is deficient in matters of class consciousness (they may, in fact, lack it!). And similarly, a person who thinks that everything is relevant to productive labor is excessive in these matters. The medial condition between these is, of course, that of recognizing which things really are relevant to productive labor in the proper way, and that we can call being class conscious or having class consciousness. When it comes to erring the person who sees more things as relevant is closer to the mean that the person who sees fewer.
Crucially, like all the other virtues class consciousness is not just a matter of simply knowing which things matter to productive labor, but the use of that knowledge in practice. Just as the courageous person isn’t such simply by virtue of knowing what things are to be feared and to what degree but their ability to put that knowledge into practice and to endure those things, so the person who has class consciousness is able to employ their knowledge of what matters in productive labor to act appropriately. What this means in practice will depend on the situation, of course, but we might say that a class-conscious person will be one who, for example, supports strikes when they will be affective to making labor be more productive (in the Marxist sense, not in the capitalist’s) and opposes them when they would be destructive (e.g. they wouldn’t support a strike called by an agent provocateur). Similarly, the class conscious person is able to distinguish between those reforms that are merely opportunistic and afford a temporary advantage and those that would truly liberate labor. And so on.
V. Brief Closing Remarks
Finally, I’d like to close out by showing how adopting this view gives us some straightforward answers to the questions with which we began.
Is having class consciousness a matter of knowing certain propositions? As we already discussed, the answer is no. But this doesn’t mean that those propositions are not important since they are necessary in order to act appropriately.
Is class consciousness a property of a class? Yes, but only insofar as it is a property of the individuals who make it up (just as courage can be a property of a combat battalion by virtue of the courage that each of the soldiers in the battalion). Thus, class consciousness is reducible to the consciousness of the individuals, but not to the propositions that the individuals know.
 The qualifications here are necessary because it’s both possible that our search is abortive, or that whatever the function of the human being is, it is so much at odds with what we normally take to make people happy that we have to reject it.
 Birds and spiders produce, but they only produce what they need to survive. They can’t make a pen-knife or a jacket. Man, by contrast, can produce anything (including bee hives for bees and webs for spiders!).
 We can draw an analogy of this case with a different virtue like courage. We know that courage is the medial condition dealing with fears and that helps one live well insofar as it helps one properly handle situations in which one has to confront fearful things. In the wildly implausible scenario in which the fear of death is removed, but not, say, the fear of spiders, the virtue of courage will remain relevant to dealing with the latter situation, but for the most part its importance will be significantly reduced. Something similar can be said about the virtue of class consciousness.