Importance of Revolutionary Consciousness in Reactionary Periods

With the July 15 coup attempt and the ensuing state of emergency introduced by Erdoğan’s rule in the name of suppressing it, the bourgeois order in Turkey has become altogether authoritarian and repressive. In fact, the events that have unfolded since the parliamentary elections of 7 June 2015 demonstrate that we have entered a chaotic era that leads the masses to huge illusions or deep suspicions and fears. The points we had been making for a long time have been vindicated by the recent past and the current state of affairs. However, in this chaotic period of capitalism, what really matters is to grasp the importance of revolutionary consciousness properly and carry the struggle forward, no matter how adverse the conditions.   

Capitalism at an impasse

In stark contrast to the expectations of bourgeois ideologues, the 21st Century did not open up a new epoch of capitalist upswing. Rather, it opened up the age of the historical crisis of capitalism, plunging these ideologues into a deep disappointment. We have already elaborated on this issue in some of our previous works. Therefore, here we will briefly touch upon the fundamental features of the overall picture.

Today, the ongoing worldwide economic crisis is accompanied by the never-ending turmoil and instability in the political field. In this extremely tumultuous period, all the dirt swept under the rug by the bourgeoisie for years is now coming to the surface. In many capitalist countries, the political scene has been shaken by rumours of corruption, scandals, plots and intrigues. The relatively stable periods of the bourgeois order are now a thing of the past. Today, world politics is shaped under the flames of imperialist wars of redivision, a tendency to spread further and further. In addition to all these developments and phenomena, capitalism is also laying bare numerous repercussions of the worldwide decay in the field of ideology.

At the end, the current state of affairs worldwide is characterised by turbulence and chaos, with the bourgeois order becoming further reactionary, the rulers seeking to overcome the crisis through imperialist wars of redivision and the bogey of “terrorism” being used to keep the masses away from revolting against these conditions. And it is clearly apparent that what we are currently witnessing in Turkey cannot be examined without regard to the general state of the world and the imperialist war of redivision spreading throughout the Middle-East.

When we look at history, we see that such situations emerge when a social order tends towards collapse. As pointed out by Marx, no social system ever leaves the stage of history before it exhausts all its creative potentials. The impasse confronting capitalism today indicates that it has exhausted its creative potential as a social system. The exhausted state of the credit mechanism provides a telling example that illustrates the impasse of capitalism. Having long provided lifeblood to the workings of capitalism and therefore considered by bourgeois economists a solution to crises, credit mechanism is now triggering deep crises one after another.

For all the empty rhetoric parroted by its advocates, capitalist society is in fact in a very grim state. The death knell, which heralded the end of other social formations in the past, is now ringing for capitalism. As a result of the level of development reached by capitalism and the fact that this mode of production became prevalent all over the world, the antagonism between productive forces and relations of production has now reached unbearable dimensions. In brief, when the current state of the world capitalist system is examined from a Marxist perspective, one needs no crystal ball to say that an ever-increasing number of signs point to the fact that capitalism has outlived itself.

Yet, this is only an objective reality which, alone, does not send capitalism to the dustbin of history. The subjective factor, that is to say, the revolutionary consciousness and organisation of the working class, must be sufficiently mature in order to change the course of history by sweeping aside capitalism, which loses its self-confidence as it decays and which becomes more aggressive as it declines.

It is clearly apparent that, for all the impasses and never-ending crises it grapples with, capitalism will not leave the historical scene automatically. Unless it is overthrown through the revolutionary struggle of the working class, this rotting order of exploitation will continue, despite its historical crisis, to exist and damage the nature and the humankind. The world under the heel of a decayed capitalism will be a world where the unbearable burden of ever-intensifying crises is placed on the poor and where the humankind will go through more sufferings and bloody wars. In every country, bourgeois rulers will exhibit their “skills” for the sake of maintaining their power and go to any lengths to deceive the masses and to keep them under the heel. In short, under capitalism and the bourgeois order, there is nowhere in the world where the working masses can expect a better future.

Yet, let us look at the future from the other side of the coin. Let us imagine that the objective conditions, which signal the end of capitalism, are coupled with subjective conditions that are able to overthrow it. Undoubtedly, we are aware of the sad fact that in the dulling daily struggle for living, the broad masses cannot free themselves of the effects of dominant ideological bombardment and pursue such dreams. However, this does not apply to the working class revolutionaries who strive to mobilise the potential latent in the working class. They have, and they must have, such dreams. It must never be forgotten that “the magic” that will turn the prospect of revolutionary emancipation, which appears as an empty dream to millions of workers and toilers in today’s world, into a reality will come from no one other than themselves. Yet, it is the vanguard revolutionary organisation of the working class that will bring this reality up in their consciousness and change their outlook on the world and life. Therefore, it is an urgent task to provide the vanguard elements of the working class with revolutionary consciousness in the face of oppression and attacks of the bourgeoisie.

Revolutionary consciousness

Let us briefly touch upon some key points without elaborating on details. Consciousness is generally defined as the ability of the human being to perceive, comprehend and distinguish oneself, one’s environment and what is happening around. Without doubt, this state of awareness of one’s own self, the environment and the world develops on the basis of self-observations, i.e. internal observations, as well as external ones, i.e. the observation of the environment. One’s accumulated knowledge makes it possible to perceive, interpret and store internal and external phenomena this or that way. Since the human being is a social being, it is the social conditions, in the final analysis, that play a determining role in the development of the consciousness of individuals. Leaving aside individual differences in consciousness, human groups, which share similar conditions and roles in social life, constitute a class. On this basis, they can develop a common class consciousness.

When we talk about social consciousness and class consciousness, we refer to the state of consciousness created by the class struggles that occur on the basis of a given mode of production. This state of consciousness emerges at different levels among different classes. The most important scientific characteristic of Marxism is its ability to grasp the relation between the objective and the subjective in a correct and thorough manner. Marx emphasises that it is not the consciousness that determines one’s being, but one’s social being that determines consciousness. Marxist theory distinguishes between the class and the class consciousness, with the former being an objective phenomenon, while the latter is a subjective one. Hence, it is upon this basis that it sheds light on these issues. In the capitalist society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat constitute two separate objective classes who have incompatible social interests. However, it is impossible for workers to achieve class consciousness as an automatic result of their class position. For this to happen, they must free their minds from illusions created by the bourgeois ideology, the dominant ideology in capitalist society, and from the distorted perceptions of the world and society they live in. This can only be possible through the anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois struggle that will be spearheaded by the vanguard elements of the working class.

In fact, for people who possess no other means of subsistence than to sell their labour power, it is irrational to remain aloof from the idea of class-based social solidarity and political organisation. But this is not a product of a health problem concerning the perceptions of individuals. Unless they are replaced through revolutionary struggle, the ideas dominating the masses can be nothing else than those instilled by the ruling class into their minds. And one must add that, in this period of capitalist decay and reaction, the bourgeois ideology, using all the means at its disposal, instils enormous lies into the minds of the masses, turning them into safety valves of the bourgeois order. Thus, a mass eclipse of reason is inflicted by the ruling class upon the modern pariahs, who amount to nothing more than poor folk unless they join hands with their class brothers and organise. In the absence of revolutionary consciousness and organisation, the working masses can by no means free themselves from capitalism and its ideology, not even a tiny bit.  

In the struggle against capitalism, the vanguard of the working class must achieve an active class consciousness, rather than a passive one. It is the revolutionary practice that provides the source for the revolutionary consciousness. The revolutionary consciousness can be achieved only by actively participating in the class struggle and only through a vanguard revolutionary organisation that spearheads this struggle. However, even the “educators”, who take on the vanguard role in the process of revolutionary struggle, develop and transform in light of the lessons given by the revolutionary practice of the masses. Therefore, in order to grasp the revolutionary consciousness correctly, it is indispensable to distinguish between the passive accumulated knowledge and its transformation into active practical attitude.

Consciousness is not a mere result of accumulated knowledge. Take, for instance, those who have no desire to participate in the revolutionary struggle actively. It is completely possible for them to access the revolutionary sources of information, examine them and accumulate and store this theoretical information in their memory in a passive manner. However, revolutionary consciousness can be attributed only to those who use the revolutionary accumulated knowledge as a point of departure, desire to transform themselves and life and join the collective struggle to this end. Revolutionary consciousness contains the sentiment of companionship, will to organise, collective effort and fight for a common goal with those sharing the same ideals. It is the cement of revolutionary organisation.

Against suffocating atmosphere of capitalism, revolutionary individuals can find a breathing space for life within the revolutionary organisation, where they can protect and improve their revolutionary consciousness as long as they realise themselves in this environment. Equipped with such a consciousness, working-class revolutionaries internalise the revolutionary organisation and its discipline. In contrast, those falling short of this level would consider and depict the requirements of the revolutionary organisation as external pressures. Without accommodating oneself to the rules and the atmosphere of the organised struggle voluntarily, it is impossible to become a working-class revolutionary and overcome individualism.

Historical consciousness: A prerequisite for historical optimism

History reveals an important phenomenon. When a social formation plunges into a crisis of legitimacy in terms of ruling the lower classes, the authority exercised by the ruling powers acquires an increasingly repressive character, while the techniques of mass deception play an ever-increasing role in the running of the society. Capitalism is no exception to this pattern, as demonstrated by the present state of affairs.

In point of fact, today, political and social life are characterised by deep contradictions posed by the decaying capitalism. Although the bourgeoisie maintains its dominance over the working masses in the spheres of ideology and politics on a worldwide scale, this dominance is by no means an expression of an ultimate victory with an objective basis. When examined from a historical perspective, the victories achieved by the bourgeoisie through authoritarianism and repression amount to nothing more than pyrrhic victories built on sand. On the other side, the current low level of class consciousness and organisation of the working masses does not signify an ultimate defeat or a permanent objectivity. When considered in a broader historical context, it would be seen that, in the final analysis, this is rather a temporary subjectivity that will turn into its opposite sooner or later. 

The world we live in today is characterised by extreme instability that manifests itself in the social, economic and political spheres. It is filled with deep antagonisms in terms of the current and the future relationship between the bourgeoisie and the working class. It is for this reason that, in this senile period of capitalism, the bourgeois ideology is able to maintain its dominance over the masses only through wars, repression and reaction. The working masses, on the other side, are in a very weak position subjectively, though they are able to change the world completely if they go on the offensive in a robust manner. But, just as a decaying organism heralds the birth of new organisms, so the historical crisis of capitalism signifies that “the weak and the strong” will change places as a result of class struggle. One must approach to the present day and look forward through the lenses of historical optimism, which is based on firm foundations. For this to happen, one must be imbued with historical consciousness. History is of crucial importance for those who are able to draw lessons from it.

At this juncture, let us look back briefly to the Ancient Rome. Ancient Rome was a slave society. As a source of cheap labour, slavery was providing the basis of the social order. Some of the slaves were being employed as servants or craftsmen. However, the overwhelming majority were used for labour-intensive works in the fields of agriculture and mining. According to the Roman law, slaves were not human beings but commodities. Slave-owners were allowed to wound, kill and rape their slaves with impunity. The unbearable conditions led to many slave revolts, but they were all crushed at the end, leaving little impact on Rome. But the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE), also known as the Spartacus Revolt, turned everything upside down. Although the revolt ended in defeat, this experience was buried deep into the historical consciousness as an unforgettable example of rising against exploitation and repression. 

Prior to the revolt, Rome had a republican form of government. Under this republic, the sumptuous privileges of Roman slave-owners were safeguarded, while some of the slaves were selected and trained as gladiators to fight in gladiator games. One of these slaves was Spartacus. Trained in a gladiator school, he became a prominent gladiator. Gladiators were much better educated and equipped than ordinary slaves. When they decided to revolt, they chose three leaders. Among them, the Thracian gladiator Spartacus stood out as the most courageous one, who set himself the goal of bringing freedom to the slaves. Throughout the revolt that broke out in 73 BCE, Spartacus liberated the slaves wherever he achieved a victory. The more victories the slave army achieved, the greater became its military capability. With the news of victories spreading like wildfire across the country, more and more slaves were joining the slave army. Thus, the number first reached 70,000. At its peak, the army of revolt became a 120,000-strong force, including liberated slaves, wives and children. 

The Third Servile War was the largest slave revolt Rome had ever witnessed. What set it apart from all the other slave revolts was the fact that, for the first time in Roman history, the central regions of Italy had been affected, and more importantly, the city of Rome had been threatened by a slave revolt. Having been terrified by the defeats suffered by Roman troops, Roman rulers felt obliged to put many Roman legions under the command of Crassus. Only then were they able to defeat the slave army led by Spartacus. At the end, the warriors and Spartacus, their brave leader, sacrificed their lives fighting for freedom. But, the revolt shook the Roman rule, i.e. the rule of slave masters. It destroyed the equilibrium to such a degree that even the republican regime, which represented the democracy among the slave owners, could not remain immune from it. The republican regime had always been the expression of the internal harmony among the ruling class. But the period that followed the revolt saw the collapse of this regime. It would later be replaced by Caesar’s dictatorship. Sadly, this historical experience ended in defeat for slaves and failed to put an end to slave society. However, it was buried deep in historical memory, showing that it is both possible and necessary to revolt against the seemingly unshakeable order of the rulers.

Centuries passed and times changed. And in the age of capitalism, labourers are now forced to work under the conditions of waged slavery. Those who failed to grasp or refused to accept the fact that ultimate victories come only after many trials and setbacks have always thought in the wake of defeats that the revolutionary struggle has ended forever. Yet, the revolutionary leaders, who held aloft the banner of struggle even under the most unfavourable conditions, inherited the legacy of Spartacus in their efforts to draw lessons from defeats and establish links between the revolts of the labourers over the course of history. Hence, the Spartacus Revolt took on a new dimension and carried the spirit of rebellion to future generations by demonstrating to the working masses that the glorious experiences of the past did not go down the drain.

Among those who did not forget this revolutionary experiment were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Following their split with the German Social Democrat Party (SDP) over the party’s social-chauvinist policies, they formed a revolutionary internationalist organisation called the Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). When the German Revolution was crushed by German militarism and reaction in 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who devoted their lives for the cause of revolution, were murdered. But the revolutionary torch lighted by the Spartakists remained shining, just as with the case of Spartacus Revolt. In his last article written in his final day, Liebknecht was appealing to the revolutionary generations of his time: “Spartacus is not beaten!” Liebknecht was adding the following lines to the history of revolutionary struggles: “Spartacus means the fire and spirit, the heart and soul, the will and deed of the revolution of the proletariat. Spartacus means the longing for happiness, and the readiness for battle of the class-conscious proletariat. Spartacus means Socialism and World Revolution!’’

Bridging the past and the future, these revolutionary experiences from the history of the working masses illuminate our path. In periods of reaction, where bourgeois regimes become more authoritarian and the working class struggle is defeated or in decline, it is necessary to wage a firm struggle, based upon historical consciousness, against capitulationist tendencies that tend towards organisational, political and ideological liquidation of the revolutionary struggle. Throughout history, there have always been, and will always be, renegades and capitulationists who think Spartacus and other revolutionaries will never triumph. We are aware of this fact and must always be so. But when push comes to shove, the masses will sweep the renegades, counter-revolutionaries and reactionaries off the stage and stand up. At such moments that turn the tide of history, it has always been the working class revolutionaries who show the way forward for the masses. For, they patiently and resolutely continued to struggle, as they knew that the seemingly endless reigns of Bonapartes would crumble one day. It must not be forgotten that this will also be the case in the future.

Undoubtedly, the final victory over capitalism cannot be achieved at a single stroke. Even the workers’ power in Russia, which arose out of the victory of the October Revolution in 1917, would fall victim to counter-revolutionary blows by the bureaucracy in the subsequent period. In their effort to perplex our understanding of history, renegades and apostates have fervently proclaimed the end of Marxism and socialism on the pretext that even the great October Revolution could not achieve a final victory of no return. Yet, the necessary response to such claims was provided by Marx decades ago and in the most striking way. Let us remind the lines written by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Proletarian revolutions constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [Here is the rose, here dance!]”

In these lines, Marx addresses today’s world decades in advance. His lines perfectly reveal the fact that the working class will draw lessons from defeats, get up off its knees and make a greater leap forward than ever before. Let us bear in mind that Bonapartes come and go, but the struggle of the working class will continue until capitalism is overthrown and an egalitarian, participative and peaceful world is built.

Importance of revolutionary consciousness

It is an obvious fact that the dominant characteristic of the era exerts its impact on the thoughts, political views and perceptions of the people. When we look at the present period from this perspective, we can see the fact that all along the ideological offensive accelerated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and spread of capitalism as the sole world system, the working masses suffered an enormous setback in their consciousness to fight. We must note this as a profound factor. Added to this are the fear, illusion and lack of self-confidence imposed upon the masses by a period of repression, reaction and chaos that goes hand in hand with the historical crisis of capitalism. Thus, taking the advantage of the setback of the subjective factor, capitalism is able to shape the world according to its interests despite its objective weakness.

In today’s Turkey, under the conditions of state of emergency, this fact reflects itself in a very striking way. The working masses are not standing up against the bourgeois order despite the heavy burdens it imposes on them such as economic crisis, the suffering caused by the imperialist war, worsening working conditions, falling wages, poverty, injustice and repression. Rather, they are either drawing back in fear, or, worse, siding with those responsible for their suffering. Today, in Turkey, as well as in many other countries, there are continuous efforts to turn the poor masses, which have been plunged into a disorganised state and paralysed by the threat of unemployment, into social base of authoritarian regimes and fascism.

When we look at today’s world in light of these striking realities, it can be stated that this “zeitgeist”, or the spirit of the time, created by capitalism offers no hope for the future, finding its embodiment in a society filled with fear and suspicion. But it must never be forgotten that such a spirit of the time is an expression of the senility of capitalism and has no future. That spirit has decayed. It has outlived its time. In the mean time, something fresh is brewing. Although it seems extremely weak in today’s world, the tenacity to mount the revolutionary struggle for a new future is taking root, with a new spirit of time brewing.

The history of working class struggles shows how difficult it is to carry forward the revolutionary struggle in periods of reaction. However, it also proves that the struggle will sooner or later revive and tear apart the darkness. Working-class revolutionaries are the ones who reject pessimism and equip themselves with revolutionary faith and consciousness in the periods of repression under Bonapartist and fascist bourgeois regimes. To succeed in this, one must find inspiration in the revolutionary stories of the past, undergo an internal transformation and solidify one’s faith and consciousness. It is an obvious fact that this noble banner of struggle will be carried forward only by those who strive to convey the revolutionary faith and consciousness to more and more workers. As we wrote years ago, during a similarly dark period, the period that followed the fascist military coup of 12 September 1980: Hard days bring about tough challenges. Despite all the suffering, it is necessary to keep historical optimism alive in order to carry forward the revolutionary banner.