The concept of class consciousness emerged in nineteenth-century socialist theories of social emancipation, mainly in the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx’s critique of the idealist philosophy of Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) led him to state, in his German Ideology (1845), that human consciousness is determined by material experiences and conditions, and not the reverse. As Marx argued in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), class consciousness entails both the common interests of a social class as arising from its material situation ( “class in itself”) and the solidarity articulated from such interests in the struggle against another class ( “class for itself”).
The protagonist of Marx’s idea of class consciousness is mainly the proletariat in the capitalist mode of production. Working-class consciousness is in this view the highest and truest form of consciousness ever expressed by a subaltern social group. In fact, for the first time in history, the consciousness of the oppressed can directly confront the economic mechanisms of exploitation. It does not, therefore, have to deal with the religious ideas, customs, and traditions that, in the words of the Communist Manifesto (1848), had “veiled” social relations in earlier epochs.
Marx’s analysis of class consciousness remained, however, unfinished as part of his general discussion on classes in the third volume of Capital (1894), a project that was interrupted when Marx died. Twentieth-century Marxists developed the concept in debates that to a large extent revolved around the relations between class consciousness and the organization of workers. Georg Lukács’s (1885-1971) History and Class Consciousness (1971) saw “true” class consciousness as the proletariat’s awareness of its revolutionary goal and, at the same time, as the most adequate set of reactions that could be “imputed” to particular positions in the production process. The revolutionary party is for Lukács the personification of the collective consciousness of the working class. Vladimir I. Lenin (1870-1924) and Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) emphasized the role of organization by arguing that real class consciousness can only be brought to the working class from outside, a task that for Lenin required a party of professional revolutionaries. Below this level, Lenin saw a realm of merely “economist” consciousness, symbolized by trade unions’ struggles for their immediate demands.
The views of Lenin, Kautsky, and Lukács have been widely debated and criticized by various Marxist activists and scholars. In contrast to Lenin’s theory of the party, Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) argued that class consciousness arises spontaneously from workers’ experiences of struggle, especially mass strikes. Karl Korsch’s (1886–1961) Marxism and Philosophy (1923) asserted that class consciousness is not the mere subjective reflection of economic conditions because ideology and politics can also independently shape social power relations. The autonomous role of ideology was further discussed in the structuralist tradition, especially in the work of Louis Althusser (1918-1990). It was, however, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) who placed this aspect at the center of his analysis. He argued that class struggle involves a contestation over “hegemony,” whereby the working class needs “organic intellectuals,” of which the party is an expression, who must be able to engage and shape the “common sense” of society.
Marxist analyses have since departed from earlier views of class consciousness as merely determined by economic conditions and ultimately represented by formal organizations. Social historians Edward P. Thompson and Eric J. Hobsbawm underline the complexity of workers’ consciousness, and the fact that their everyday experiences do not necessarily progress toward revolutionary ideas, being indeed often influenced by precapitalist notions of justice or collective identities. The view of human subjectivity in the work of members of the Frankfurt school, especially Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), is influenced by psychoanalysis, and argues that consumerism has largely subdued the radicalism of a working class that is increasingly co-opted by capitalism. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) “political economy of everyday life,” and in Wilhelm Reich’s (1897-1957) theory of psychic oppression, class consciousness is replaced by a theory of “serialized” and alienated human nature.
Such analyses tend to agree that as capitalism is able to extend middle-class consumption patterns, workers in industrialized countries lose their revolutionary potential. Conversely, class consciousness is replaced by a multiplicity of oppositional identities in the work of feminist scholars and in currents influenced by postmodernism, such as “autonomist Marxism.” Workers’ centrality in anticapitalist politics gives way to the development of social movements that express the specific demands of women, the unemployed, students, and indigenous people. At the same time, critics of the Leninist idea of the party stress the importance of horizontality and consensus as conditions for a shared awareness to emerge among diverse social actors. Moreover, production is no longer seen as the principal terrain where collective consciousness is developed. For Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), the broader social space and everyday life become battlefields for the advancement of projects of social emancipation. After the 1970s, “cultural studies” scholars like Dick Hebdige and Stuart Hall, strongly influenced by Gramsci, emphasized contestation over symbolic practices, subcultures, and the media as autonomous terrains of analysis.
SEE ALSO Alienation; Marxism
Gottlieb, Roger S. 1987. History and Subjectivity. The Transformation of Marxist Theory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Lukács, Georg. 1971. History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mészaros, István, ed. 1971. Aspects of History and Class Consciousness. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Wright, Erik Olin. 1997. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
However many the hints about the historical contingency of class consciousness that one can find in Marx, his emphasis is still upon the inevitability of real interests being pursued, even if sometimes the means come accidentally to hand—as with the Paris Commune. Here too, Marx saw only ‘delusive prejudice’ rather than real interest separating peasant from proletarian, and predicted that rural producers had as a class fraction entered their period of decay. This complex interplay between the apparent ineluctability of class and its problematic articulation are captured in E. P. Thompson's now famous aphorism that ‘if the experience appears as determined, class consciousness does not’.
Most conceptions of proletarian class consciousness depict its development as an explosion of mass consciousness—culminating in some sort of latter-day equivalent of the storming of the Winter Palace. However, in an interesting attempt to introduce rational choice theory (see EXCHANGE THEORY) into Marxist analysis, John Elster (‘Marxism, Functionalism and Game theory’, Theory and Society, 1982
) has argued that a class-conscious class is one which has solved the free-rider problem. That is, class consciousness is the ability of class organizations to pursue class objectives by controlling sectional struggles, and is therefore an attribute of organizations rather than individuals: it is the capacity of a class to behave as a collective actor. From this point of view, what is at issue is the capacity of class organizations (such as trade unions) to mobilize members behind centrally organized initiatives on behalf of class rather than particular interests; and, once mobilized, to hold in check groups who would ‘free ride’ or pursue sectional gains at the collective expense. Almost paradoxically, therefore, class consciousness implies the absence of industrial militancy and spontaneous mass action, since class objectives are pursued by a highly centralized labour organization.
In contemporary usage (and especially in American sociology), there is often a failure to distinguish sufficiently between class consciousness as envisaged by Marx and Engels, and the less problematic concepts of class identification or class awareness. See also CLASS INTEREST; COLLECTIVE ACTION.
class con·scious·ness • n. awareness of one's place in a system of social classes, esp. (in Marxist terms) as it relates to the class struggle. DERIVATIVES: class-con·scious adj.