Freire, Holloway, Lukacs, and Glaberman: The problem of consciousness

There is a disconnect between revolutionary theory (and practice) and our experience of everyday life concerning the role that conscious thought and deliberation play in creating action. I’ve been reading the above authors of late, and am going to try and be better about putting my thoughts down as I read things. One thing I’ve discovered is that we have a weak point in how we understand knowledge and action to arise both socially and individually.

I first started thinking about this when I was shown Martin Glaberman’s collection of writings, Punching Out. One of Glaberman’s main contributions to thinking about changing the world is about the relationship of thought to action. Glaberman, an autoworker most of his adult life, participated in the wildcats in autoplants during WWII. During the war workers voted nearly unanimously for a no-strike pledge on largely patriotic pro-war grounds. Most of the left, aligned with the soviet union, supported the pledge as it serve the USSR’s need for relief, and the unions and leftists got in line to serve Stalin’s foreign policy, and promote the no-strike idea. Thereafter though one of the largest strike waves in history exploded across the auto industry. The press was baffled. Glaberman presents a way of making sense of the situation. Workers supported the idea of the war when asked to reflect about the situation. That is, as individuals sitting in their kitchen reading the paper or the union no-strike ballot, they make a decision on the basis of the conscious reasons and arguments presented. Yet working in the factory, an individual alongside other workers in hellish conditions, the workers had different experiences. When asked why they struck, workers said they supported the war, but they didn’t willingly break the pledge, the employers made them strike. Glaberman has the insight to point out that the two contexts, individual reflection and action in a social context, are very different. His conclusion is that there is a gap between thought and action, and action can proceed consciousness. Understanding this, Glaberman helps us reframe much of history where working class self-activity seems less than linear.

The stock answer these days is to claim that there are agitating leftists always involved in these struggles that seem spontaneous. That completely misses the point. It isn’t whether someone is saying radical things at the point of struggle or not that makes these actions happen, because sometimes radicals agitate and it doesn’t work. The question is why did it happen at this moment (rather than another) and how did it happen? Especially considering that when you speak to participants their verbal and conscious understanding of the activity departs from their actions. This destroys any idea of clean causality coming from revolutionaries, and instead demands a more dynamic and socially rooted (that account of action is rather individualistic) conception. Which is to say, yes organized revolutionaries are necessary but not sufficient.

All of this accords with what we know from everyday life. People talk and don’t back it up with their actions, people act even when their words are insufficient. People know things they can’t or don’t say, and people say things they don’t understand. In fact we see how bankrupt the idea of conscious activity being a good representative of people’s activities and potential activities is from our education. Studies show again and again that people learn through activity being incorporated and used in their everyday life. For thousands of years people are trained in culture, work, and community through apprenticeship, mentoring while working side by side, and bringing people into an form of activity rather than explicit explication of whatever content is transmitted. Language learning is somewhat unique, but illustrates the point. No one ever taught you the subjunctive, you developed an understanding through being in a linguistic community and speaking.

These insights clash with Freire, who I began reading recently, since the pedagogy of the oppressed is wholly founded on the notions of developing self-reflective consciousness of oppression and liberation. It appears to me (I could be wrong) that the underlying assumption is a degree of stability between being consciously aware and active and acting in accordance with those ideas. Correspondingly, these changes are to be had by acting in the realm of conscious thought. Freire seems explicit about this at a number of points such as:

"Problem-posing” education, responding to the essence of consciousness — intentionality — rejects communiques and embodies communication. It epitomizes the special characteristic of consciousness: being conscious of not only as intent on objects but as turned in upon itself in a Jasperian “split” — consciousness as consciousness of consciousness."

Throughout POE Freire psychologizes about the oppressed’s though processes and sees the problem in terms of internalized oppressor consciousness, and liberation in terms of the rupture of oppressed consciousness. While Freire recognizes that it isn’t merely a problem of having the right thoughts ("Those truly committed to the cause of liberation can accept neither the mechanistic concept of consciousness as an empty vessel to be filled, nor the use of banking methods of domination (propaganda, slogans — deposits) in the name of liberation."), he doesn’t take the further step to question what relation there is between thought, knowledge, and action nor whether education as such is the (empirically) most effective for bringing about such changes.

There are ambiguous pieces in the work though such as "The former attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness; the latter strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality." and "In these relations consciousness and world are simultaneous: consciousness neither precedes the world nor follows it." Yet it is hard to understand this as moving beyond mere reflexive consciousness since there is little discussion of non-conscious elements, the relationship they have to consciousness, etc. Instead there is merely the assertion that the world and consciousness are dialectical. Moreover by stressing intentionality (a philosophical trade term meaning mental states about action) and tying it to consciousness, Freire makes a crucial error since intentionality is by and large an unconscious affair. Reasoning about what to do explicitly is relatively slim, and occurs generally when something fails to conform to our preexisting understanding of the world. Freier then restates this confusion, in apparent contradiction of the quotes above, as "A deepened consciousness of their situation leads people to apprehend that situation as an historical reality susceptible of transformation". There is no reason to think this to be the case for the casuality between perception and understanding of one’s class situation and seeing the ability for change is not at all unmediated. In fact it can lead to further entrenchment, alienation, and demotivation. Rather than seeing mere struggle and liberatory dialogue and mutual education yielding understanding of the potential for change, we must understand that it is the social life of the struggle in coevolution with the mental lives (conscious and unconscious) of the oppressed in struggle that CAN yield such a change, and not the it WILL lead to it. 

One could argue that  education as a notion could be stretched to incorporate activity itself, but this would stretch the idea to be so general as to include more or less everything. If POE is a methodology or a mentality, it is hard to see what sense we could make of it if not about conscious reflexivity beyond mere slogans of dissolving the teacher-student distinction and the oppressed developing their own practice and ideas.

I do think POE is a strong statement of libertarian ideas, perhaps even a crucial piece of revolutionary thought, but want to stay on the topic of consciousness, so won’t go deeper into it. I

These problems are particularly intense if we consider radicalization, or the process by which one becomes an active and committed revolutionary (which we should recognize that not everyone is even conscious this has occurred at times). This isn’t to say again that say radicalization IS unconscious, but rather to question how it operates. Indeed I suspect it is like anything else, a mixture of conscious and unconscious elements. The problem is for revolutionaries that if our methodology is focused only the conscious elements, we are misanalyzing the way humanity actually functions, and trying to impose a view of the mind and society borrowed largely from intellectual history and activity. 

A stock answer to thinking about unconscious transformation in struggle is to say that revolutionaries have always been in these struggles, and to equate spontaneism with unconscious transformation. That is to wholly miss the point. There have been revolutionaries spread out across time and struggles certainly. The question isn’t were they there, but why did this struggle emerge here and when it did?Unless we assume a very crude linear (banking concept) of revolutionary propaganda, then we need to develop an understanding of how struggle emerges even in apparent contradiction to the conscious rationalization of the participants at times. The WWII strikes illucidate this, and as Glaberman describes so do most revolutions. Russian workers and peasants were sexist, racist, imperialistic, and perhaps self-hating in the Russian revolution, but still during the revolution they surged past the left who lagged behind in the most backwards ideas of society and ultimately restrained and repressed them. Were there revolutionaries there making those arguments? Sure. Why did those arguments work and what process occurred to allow that rupture then though. That is the question, and it is a question you can’t arrive at through hollow logical syllogisms about people seeing that they are a class, consciously. 

In an unrelated research train of thought I read Changing the World Without Taking Power by Holloway. Holloway grazes these issues through his attempts to deal with reification and commodity fetishism. The dirty version of this is that if capital is able to penetrate society not merely in terms of work, but also to reproduce relations of people as relations of people to mere objects, and even these may harden into institutionalized forms of mediated social activity (such as the state), then revolutionary consciousness is problematized as it is mediated by commodity relationships. This caused some people to go nuts (adorno), and others didn’t care (Lenin) because belief in a scientifically guided party with privledged access to the truth (in light of having Marxist doctrine as its guide) would overcome the proletariat’s false consciousness created by commodity fetishism (partly). For someone who takes these ideas seriously, this is a big problem. History has spoken about the party’s unfailing nature and gives us no guarantees in pursuit of liberation. 

Holloway looks to Lukacs to find a way, and in early Lukacs find the foundations of a theory though one that is marred by an illogical midstream appeal to party sanctity and ultimately abandoned it all together in the name of party discipline under the Comintern’s demands. Briefly spoken, there are two conceptions of commodity fetishism: one were it is a done deal, and another where it is an ongoing struggle within the life of the proletariat. The Frankfurt School and PoMo theorists like the first, Holloway the second. The first, when viewed this way, is clearly false. Capitalism, though having spread throughout society, clearly has failed to in a totalizing way fetishize all of society. There is active struggle and contradictions at every stage, and ruptures occur all over often without the knowledge of the left.

Lukacs, via Holloway, makes a distinction in the traditional notion of consciousness between empirical consciousness (that which exists and is attributed to individual proletarians say) and imbued consciousness. Imbued consciousness can be observed by seeing the activities of groups emerging and acting as though it were an entity unto itself. That is to say that the proletariat in struggle can act and does act as a historical actor in certain time periods and may do so without the individual consciousness of the participants. Here Lukacs drops the idea, which amounts essentially to a form of complex adaptive systems theory applied to a revolutionary praxis and within a (heavily modified) conception of dialectics.

Holloway uses this concept to account for the potential of revolution, though he doesn’t develop ideas about consciousness, which clearly seem to emerge from it. Lukacs understands these issues via distinctions in terms of emergent behavior of groups versus individuals, while the same principle can be applied within the activity of a person (the relation between intentionality, consciousness, upbringing, collectivity, unconscious reasoning, etc) and then again at a higher level of the emergence of groups. This has led me to look to reread Lukacs, as well as perhaps flesh out my ideas on consciousness in a more coherent and researched form. It’s nice to have philosophy actually be useful, and things I know about the mind, language, and philosophy of action potentially inform concrete methodology about organizing! 


2 thoughts on “Freire, Holloway, Lukacs, and Glaberman: The problem of consciousness

  1. hi,

    I’ve been following the thread of work around organising and its been really fantastic – its been useful to me as a shop steward, in my community campaigns and more generally to help me organise my thoughts. I think that you might be reaching to far for an explanation in this piece though – is there an ultimate cause to be found, or is it enough that there are conditions and a little chaos?

    I think where you were going with the idea of necessary conditions within complex systems is as far as we can follow this road. We need people organising collectively. We need the circulation of ideas and the creation of social imaginaries that push beyond the consensus. But the gem of the idea of complex systems – of chaos theory – is that each ‘system’ or expression of a series of interconnected rules is unique, because in each system even the smallest differences can have huge impacts. I suspect that people work with only a few rules – both individual and collective – but that there is no one way of knowing how they will play out in advance. I think the best we could do it come up with rough list of conditions that tend to be associated with advances in the struggle to see what we can replicate or watch out for. And then work for the best and examine how things went after the fact (hopefully when we’ve won). Because it could be that in one instance a national sport creates enough common space for something to spark, or that a particular community campaign just so happens to involve enough people from the right number of streets, or that there is someone who has a great idea for how thugs could be and the ability to explain it in such a way that fires peoples imaginations…

    which is just to say that with any theory of struggle and the transformation of consciousness, we need to leave room for the contingent and accidental


  2. Nic,

    I think you are essentially right in your assessment, and its a necessary correction from the determinist and positivist orientations that have been dominant. My attempt here was to grapple with how revolutionary consciousness is possible, that is given the ability of capitalism to reproduce itself and the limitations of directly imbuing revolutionary consciousness. If that is given, then I think we’re in a good spot 🙂

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