Consciousness and Spontaneity

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Consciousness and Spontaneity


categories of historical materialism that refer to processes in society. Actions carried out in conformity with previously determined goals are described as conscious; unpremeditated events beyond human control are described as spontaneous.

In the broadest sense, consciousness and spontaneity are a manifestation of the opposition between natural and social processes. Spontaneous forces operate in nature, but in society, individuals possessing consciousness and volition act in the pursuit of certain goals. Although each individual acts consciously, social life in general is not an entirely conscious process. Conscious activity pursues certain goals and therefore presupposes that the members of a particular class, group, or society have recognized their common interests, have achieved a certain level of organization, and can, to some degree, predict the consequences of their activity. The highest form of conscious activity is based on knowledge of the laws governing nature and society. When individuals act only in their immediate interests, the immediate and long-term consequences of their activity sometimes fail to coincide, and the ultimate consequences of conscious activity prove to be spontaneous.

The economy of presocialist social formations was governed by spontaneity, since, under the prevailing conditions of production, individuals could act only in their immediate interests. However, even in the past, fundamental changes in production relations were brought about primarily by conscious activity, as a result of the struggle waged by the most progressive social classes. Under the conditions of state-monopoly capitalism, in a number of countries it has become increasingly evident that it is objectively necessary to regulate production with economic programs and forecasts of the development of society. With its present scale, the economy cannot develop purely spontaneously. However, the increasing intervention by the bourgeois state in the economy cannot overcome the spontaneous forces of capitalist economic development.

Although political struggle is carried out more or less consciously, it does not always lead to the anticipated results, for the goals and consequences of the activity of various classes frequently do not coincide.

In most instances, the spontaneity of social movements is an indicator of their immaturity and insufficient organization, as well as the absence of leadership by a political party. In its most highly developed forms, the class struggle is always a conscious struggle. On the other hand, the spontaneity of a movement may sometimes indicate its vitality and the unrestrainable pressure of the masses (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5thed., vol. 34, p. 217).

Marxists strive to transform spontaneous movements into conscious ones, because a spontaneous upsurge alone is insufficient for the victory of a socialist revolution. Leadership by a Marxist party, which introduces conscious premises into a mass movement, is absolutely necessary (Leninskiisbornik, 1934, vol. 26, p. 342).

The victory of socialism and the establishment of social ownership of the means of production mark a radical break in social development and lead to the gradual domination of the spontaneous forces of economic development by society.

Plans for the development of the national economy are a concrete expression of the goals and tasks set by socialist society itself. Under socialism, society is capable of taking into account the immediate and long-term consequences of social activity, as is evident in long-term forecasting and planning. The economic laws of socialism require conscious control over societal activities. However, when people violate laws, their actions may have unforeseen, spontaneous consequences. Moreover, social laws only reflect the main trends of development, so that even under socialism, it is impossible to take into account all the long-term consequences of human actions.

There are spontaneous phenomena that herald the appearance of something new. Conscious control, which emerges with the development of socialist society, does not mean that everything new and progressive is imposed from above. The transition from spontaneity to consciousness presumes that conscious control over the development of socialist society by its governing institutions is combined with the creative activity and initiative of the masses.


Engels, F. Anti-Dühring, secs. 2, 3. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. Chto delat’? Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. “Doklad o tekushchem momente 24 aprelia (7 maia)” [Sed’maia (Aprel’skaia) Vserossiiskaia konferentsiia RSDRP(b)]. Ibid., vol. 31.
Lenin, V. I. “Russkaia revoliutsiia i grazhdanskaia voina.” Ibid., vol. 34.
Glezerman, G. E. O zakonakh obshchestvennogo razvitiia. Moscow, 1960.
Glezerman, G. E. Istoricheskii materializm i razvitie sotsialisticheskogo obshchestva, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1973.
Pripisnov, V. I. Problemy sub”ektivnogo faktora v istoricheskom materializme. Dushanbe, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.