David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

The 2004 election

In your next paragraph, you assert that I was unable, on account of my alleged objectivist and mechanical conception of consciousness, to explain the results of the 2004 election, and that I considered them “inexplicable.” On this one occasion, you actually quote one complete sentence—from a lecture I gave, in November 2004, on the results of the recently completed election, in which I referred to the majority pro-Bush vote in the most impoverished states: “To claim that its voters backed the Republicans because of ‘values’ that they hold far dearer than their own material interests is to substitute mysticism for scientific socio-political analysis.” You end the quote there (without providing a page reference), and proclaim: “But this leaves us completely at a loss to understand what happened in the election, since clearly values of some kind played a role in that.”

If the sentence that you cited were all that I said, it would have been inadequate as an explanation of why Bush swept the most impoverished states. As a matter of fact, it was the beginning of an extended analysis, which you leave out. Immediately following that sentence, I went on to say:

Abstract reference to “values,” whose precise meaning is clear to no one, does little to explain why workers have come under the influence of the Republican Party and its retinue of religious hucksters and moralizing conmen. A more convincing explanation is that the virtual collapse of the old labor movement, in states that were once bastions of militant trade unionism, has left millions of workers without any means of confronting social problems and defending their interests as a class. Let us consider the social experience of just one section of the American working class.

For much of the twentieth century, the struggles of coal miners, organized inside the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA), raged across West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as significant sections of Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ohio and even Indiana. The coal miners were arguably the most class-conscious section of the American working class. They fought “with fine impartiality”—as John L. Lewis might have said—mighty coal corporations and defied the White House on innumerable occasions. But during the 1980s, the miners suffered a series of devastating defeats, for which the treachery of the union bureaucracy was principally responsible. The UMWA was reduced to a hollow and insignificant shell. Thousands of coal mining jobs were wiped out.

Without jobs, cut off from the deep-rooted social relations that sustained class consciousness over generations of struggle, alienated from a union that had deserted them, the militant workers of yesterday became susceptible to well-practiced pitchmen of the Evangelical Industry, always on the look-out for new customers. For the children of such workers, who have grown up entirely outside the milieu of an organized labor movement and with little or no awareness of the traditions of class struggle, the obstacles to the development of class consciousness are considerable. From what source will they acquire the information and insights that facilitate the development of a critical attitude toward contemporary society, let alone a sense that a better and more humane society—in this world and in their lifetime—is possible? Certainly not from the existing political parties or from the cesspool of the mass media.

This does not mean that the average American worker buys into the propaganda to which he or she is subjected relentlessly by the mass media and the Republican political machine. Not by a long shot. They see enough of life to know that things are not as they should be. When a worker speaks of “values,” it has a very different meaning for him than it does for Enron’s Kenneth Lay or for George W. Bush.

A number of reports have emerged that already call into question the significance of the “values” issue in the 2004 election. It now appears that the polling data upon which the initial post-election claims was made were either misleading or misinterpreted. This, I am sure, is the case. But the really important point that must be made is that the “values” issue has arisen in a political vacuum created by the absence of any articulation, by either party, of the genuine social, economic and political interests of the broad mass of working Americans. The Democrats, the Republicans and the mass media form different parts of one massive chorus that sings rapturous hymns to the glories of American capitalism.

This is not a temporary weakness that can be overcome through a reshuffling of personnel or the recruitment of better candidates. It is a product of the evolution of American capitalism, the extraordinary concentration of wealth in relatively few hands, the extreme levels of social inequality, the rapid decline of the traditional “middle class” strata that once served as arbitrators in the class struggle between capitalists and workers, and which formed a substantial constituency for social reformism, and, finally, the disappearance within the ruling elite itself of any substantial bloc seriously committed to the maintenance of traditional bourgeois democratic forms of rule.” [34]

It is quite clear that I did not at all consider the outcome of the election “inexplicable.” You simply chose not to quote my explanation. But the falsification does not end there. You then assert that I, as a “mechanical materialist,” assume that “consciousness will accurately comprehend the reality that shaped it, i.e., that objective conditions translate themselves directly into a correct consciousness of those conditions.” Such a conception is, indeed, incorrect. However, as you well know, I never said any such thing. As a matter of fact, I devoted a substantial portion of the third lecture that I delivered in the summer of 2005 to an explanation of why the consciousness that arises spontaneously within the working class is not socialist consciousness. As a consequence of your unscrupulous approach to polemics, in which you are prepared to attribute to your political opponents positions that are the opposite of what they believe and have actually said, I am again obligated to provide a lengthy extract from my lecture:

When people go to work, to what extent are they aware of the vast network of global economic interconnections of which their own job is a minute element? One can reasonably assume that even the most intelligent worker would have only the vaguest sense of the relationship of his job, or his company, to the complex processes of modern transnational production and exchange of goods and services. Nor is the individual worker in a position to penetrate the mysteries of international capitalist finance, the role of global hedge funds, and the secret and often impenetrable ways (even to experts in the field) that tens of billions of dollars in financial assets are moved across international borders every day. The realities of modern capitalist production, trade and finance are so complex that corporate and political leaders are dependent upon the analyses and advice of major academic institutions, which, more often than not, are divided among themselves as to the meaning of the data at their disposal.

But the problem of class consciousness goes beyond the obvious difficulty of assimilating and mastering the complex phenomena of modern economic life. At a more basic level, the precise nature of the social relationship between an individual worker and his employer, let alone between the entire working class and the bourgeoisie, is not and cannot be grasped at the level of sense perception and immediate experience.

Even a worker who is convinced that he or she is being exploited cannot, on the basis of his or her own bitter personal experience, perceive the underlying socioeconomic mechanism of that exploitation. Moreover, the concept of exploitation is not one that is easily understood, let alone derived directly from the instinctive sense that one is not being paid enough. The worker who fills out an application form upon applying for a job does not perceive that she is offering to sell her labor-power, or that the unique quality of that labor-power is its capacity to produce a sum of value greater than the price (the wage) at which it has been purchased; and that profit is derived from this differential between the cost of labor-power and the value that it creates.

Nor is a worker aware that when he purchases a commodity for a definite sum of money, the essence of that exchange is a relation not between things (a coat or some other commodity for a definite amount of money) but between people. Indeed, he does not understand the nature of money, how it emerged historically as the expression of the value form, and how it serves to mask, in a society in which the production and exchange of commodities have been universalized, the underlying social relations of capitalist society.

The last point might serve as a general introduction to the theoretical-epistemological foundation of Marx’s most important work, Capital. In the concluding section of the first chapter of volume one, Marx introduces his theory of commodity fetishism, which explains the source of the mystification of social relations within capitalist society—that is, the reason why, in this particular economic system, social relations between people necessarily appear as relations between things. It is not, and cannot be apparent to workers, on the basis of sense perception and immediate experience, that any given commodity’s value is the crystallized expression of the sum of abstract human labor expended in its production. The discovery of the essence of the value form represented a historical milestone in scientific thought. Without this discovery, neither the objective socioeconomic foundations of the class struggle nor their revolutionary implications could have been understood.

However the worker may dislike the social consequences of the system in which he lives, he is not in a position to grasp, on the basis of immediate experience, either its origins, its internal contradictions or the historically-limited character of its existence. The understanding of the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, of the exploitative relationship between capital and wage-labor, of the inevitability of class struggle and its revolutionary consequences, arose on the basis of real scientific work, with which the name of Marx will be forever linked. The knowledge obtained through this science, and the method of analysis involved in the achievement and extension of this knowledge, must be introduced into the working class. That is the task of the revolutionary party. [35]

These passages, quoted directly from last summer’s lectures, advance a position that is the direct opposite of the one you attribute to me.


David North, The Crisis of American Democracy: The Presidential Elections of 2000 and 2004 (Oak Park: Mehring Books, 2004), pp. 104–105, [emphasis in the original].


North, The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century, pp. 205–207.