As I wrote a week-and-a-half ago, the concept of self-activity was introduced to me by my first intellectual mentor, labor historian George P. Rawick, a lifelong left activist who edited The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, a definitive, 41-volume collection of oral history interviews with former slaves taken during the 1930s under the auspices of the WPA. In his book on slavery, From Sundown to Sunup: The World the Slaves Made, Rawick emphasized the self-activity of American slaves, which he defined as that which exploited people do in coping with and resisting the conditions of their exploitation. He was especially interested in their strategies to (1) undermine the system of exploitation (e.g., tool-breaking) and (2) assert their human dignity in the face of a system that denies it (e.g., slave family life).
As my study of Marxian socialism has progressed, I've come to understand that self-activity is central to the humanist core of Marx's thinking, and that it represents nothing less than the active, creative aspect of humanity. Creative human activity, aka work or labor, is how we express our deepest selves and how we ensure our survival, but under capitalism labor becomes an activity alien to ourselves, directed and controlled by another, something that degrades us rather than exalting us.
Marx's concept of man is rooted in Hegel's Idealist philosophy. Hegel starts with the proposition that appearance and essence are not the same, and that the purpose of dialectics is to grasp the relations between the two, or in other words, between essence and existence.
How to do that? Unlike René Descartes, who wrote "cogito ergo sum" and thus embraced a proto-positivistic conception of thought-grounded identity, for Hegel, essence is realized not in passive contemplation, but through a subject's active process of existence: "facio ergo sum" (I act therefore I am). (I've no idea if Hegel ever wrote that, but he could have.)
However, Hegel's system is inherently abstract, as the Subject that actively unfolds its essence is the "Idea," and its dialectical processes take place in the realm of the intellect, then to be expressed in the material world. Thus "Freedom" realizes itself through successive stages of history, but Hegel was not especially interested in the actual struggles of real people for freedom, and was politically quite conservative, supporting the Prussian state and its established Lutheran church.
Nevertheless, Hegel's Idealist conception of "self-activity" formed the basis of Marx's materialist dialectic and in particular his understanding of self-activity of the working class. It is not the purpose of this essay to explore Marx's materialist dialectics in detail, nor to explore how he developed them out of Hegel's Idealist system.
As a materialist, Marx took his subject to be humanity, i.e., human beings as intelligent mammals actively engaged in producing and reproducing the conditions of their survival: food, shelter, defense, child-raising. The activities in which humanity engages itself Marx called "labor," synonymous with "life activity."
"For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet 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. Life itself appears only as a means to life.
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 his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity."
Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, "Estranged Labour" (1844).
Nor was this mere philosophical flourish of the young Marx. He wrote very similarly in 1867:
"Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention."
Marx, Capital, vol. I, ch. 7, 1867.
Because under capitalism the labor process yields a wage to the worker but the product belongs exclusively and totally to capital, the latter also holds authority over the details of the production process. Whereas the pre-capitalist artisan or small farmer owned his own means of production (tools, raw materials, land, animals) he also controlled them and the labor process. Over several centuries prior to the last one, capital gradually took ever greater control over production itself, but even at the beginning, the initial development of the division of labor under manufacture, the alienated character of labor under capitalism became clear, and precipitated much of the labor activism from then on.
"This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.
So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.
All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. ... The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. ... The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien."
Marx, E&PM, 1844.
Alienated activity is thus the opposite of self-activity.
The same dynamic applies to political activity, for human beings engage in politics, understood broadly as power relations throughout a social formation, and create political movements just as they do everything else: via the materialist dialectic of making their life activity itself the object of their will and their consciousness as they engage & reproduce the world, both natural and social, around them. To oversimplify: learning by doing.
And what do working class women and men learn when they engage in politics, whether at the workplace, or at the ballot box, or in the streets? The dominant lesson throughout the history of capitalism has been that collective action is necessary for working people to have even a chance of success in pressing their interests, which are often learned to be collective in nature: higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions, more control over the work process.
That is why, despite the forceful and fatal efforts by capitalist governments for centuries, workers spontaneously form unions and engage in collective action against capital: the nature of capitalism renders this the only possibly effective route to influence for the mass of people.
Such institutions and activism may become the schools for working class self-activity, where the ideological hegemony of capital may be challenged. However, as we have seen, the institutions of labor are quite vulnerable to capture, whether total (company unions) or partial (conservative trade unions). At such times, the union itself may temporarily become a more important locus for self-activity than the workplace.
For an excellent example of working class self-activity in relation to OWS, there is the recent struggle by restaurant workers at the Upper East Side location of the "Hot and Crusty" chain, who recently organized a union and extracted a promise from their employer to bargain in good faith.
"After enduring below minimum wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, the workers reached out to labor organizations and began attending Occupy Wall Street meetings last fall. With the support of OWS and the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organizing group, the workers organized an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in backpay and safer workplace conditions."
According to Marx, human beings are productive and creative by nature, and when forced to produce and create under conditions that alienate them from the creative process and its results, they will create ideas and activities that are opposed to those alienating conditions and the economic system that requires them. It doesn't mean they will win, but they will fight. That's why the struggle continues. Not solely because of the imperatives of capital, but because the imperatives of the creative human spirit demand it.