The concept of “false consciousness” is derived from the Marxist theory of social class. The concept refers to the systematic misrepresentation of dominant social relations in the consciousness of subordinate classes. Marx himself did not use the phrase “false consciousness,” but he paid extensive attention to the related concepts of ideology and commodity fetishism. Members of a subordinate class (e.g., workers, peasants, serfs) suffer from false consciousness in that their mental representations of the social relations around them systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination, exploitation, and domination those relations embody. Related concepts include mystification, ideology, and fetishism.
Marx offered an objective theory of class, based on an analysis of the objective features of the system of economic relations that form the social order. A person’s social class is determined by his or her position within the system of property relations in a given economic society. People also have subjective characteristics, such as thoughts, mental frameworks, and identities. These mental constructs give a person a cognitive framework through which to understand his or her role in the world and the forces that govern his or her life. One’s mental constructs, however, may not accurately reflect social reality. In a class-based society, there is an inherent conflict of material interests between privileged and subordinate groups. In such a society, Marx asserted, social mechanisms emerge that systematically create distortions, errors, and blind spots in the consciousness of the underclass. If these consciousness-shaping mechanisms did not exist, then the underclass, which is always a majority of the population, would quickly overthrow the system of their domination. So the institutions that shape the individual’s thoughts, ideas, and frameworks develop in such a way as to generate false consciousness and ideology.
Marx’s theory of ideology is presented in The German Ideology (1845), cowritten with Friedrich Engels. The term ideology refers to a system of ideas through which people understand their world. A central theoretical assertion in Marx’s writings is the view that ideology and thought are dependent on the material circumstances in which a person lives. Material circumstances determine consciousness, rather than consciousness determining material reality: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” (Marx 1847). A system of ideology supports the advantage of the dominant class, according to Marxist theory. The concept of commodity fetishism is discussed in Capital (Marx 1867). Marx used this concept to refer to the pervasive and defining illusion that exists in a commodity society. A commodity is perceived solely in terms of its money equivalent (its price), rather than being understood as standing within a set of social relations of production. Thus, the labor of the operator of a shoe-sewing machine disappears, and only the money value of the shoes is visible. Marx believed that this is a socially important form of mystification. In other words, the market society obscures the relations of domination and exploitation on which it depends.
Twentieth-century Marxist thinkers have given more systematic attention to a Marxist theory of consciousness and ideology than Marx provided. Georg Lukács (1885–1971) was one of the first European philosophers to reflect seriously on Marx’s philosophical ideas. Lukács introduced the concept of false consciousness into Marxist discourse (based on a brief reference by Engels) in relation to a dialectical theory of knowledge. A more sociological treatment of class consciousness was provided by Karl Mannheim (1893–1947) in his effort to formulate a “sociology of knowledge” in the 1930s. The sociology of knowledge attempts to provide a theoretical account of the relationship between knowledge systems and the social conditions within which they emerge; this provides a theoretical framework with which to understand the workings of a system of ideology. Mannheim supported the idea that the social position of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat deeply influence the forms of knowledge that they embody, and he argued that these forms of material bias lead to a systematic falsification of social reality.
Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) significantly extended Marxist thinking about ideology and consciousness in the 1930s, giving ideology a more active role in politics and history than classical historical materialism. He argued that the proletariat has the ability to influence the terms of its consciousness, so that there is an extended struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat over representations of the existing social reality. The bourgeoisie generally exercises “hegemony” over the terms of ideology through its control of the instruments of consciousness. The proletariat, however, can exert influence through its own cultural institutions. This perspective introduces a major change into the classical theory of ideology, in that it denies that the subordinate class is simply the passive tool of the dominant ideology. The French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918–1990) provided an influential perspective on the role of ideology in a class-based society in Lenin and Philosophy (1971). Generally characterized as offering a structuralist interpretation of Marxism, Althusser’s writings on the role of ideology in the social system diverge from the interpretation offered in The German Ideology. Althusser took issue with the notion that ideology is a feature of consciousness. Instead, he referred to the set of institutions that produce and reproduce social states of knowledge as an “ideological state apparatus.” He also disputed the assumption that there is an external social reality independent from ideology, believing instead that all features of reality are expressed in language and are inseparable from the features of consciousness singled out as “ideological.”
SEE ALSO Alienation; Factories; Ideology
Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Ed. and trans. Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Lukács, György. 1920. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971.
Mannheim, Karl. 1936. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Marx, Karl. 1847. The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971.
Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage. 1977.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845. The German Ideology. 3rd rev. ed. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Karl Marx writes of ‘the phrases and fantasies of the parties and their real organization and real interests, between their conception of themselves and what they really are’, which appears to suggest the commonsense (and mistaken) interpretation of false consciousness, as a wrong self-perception of interests and identity. However, these superstructures of illusion inhibit class (emancipating) action, by obscuring both the role of reason and its object in the historical process.
Within the class process, Marx's description of the manner in which the ruling ideas of an ascendant class come to exert hegemony on a broader class basis than that exercised by the previous ruling class, has led to further misunderstanding of what is meant by false consciousness. These ruling ideas are progressively more emancipating although still expressing a class interest. They are subversive of the ruling class itself in that their liberating thrust cannot ultimately be turned into a force for consolidating class power. False consciousness is also often mistakenly associated with consumerism and economic instrumentalism (see WORK, SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF).
In the writings of György Lukács there exists the distinction between class opportunism, where the struggle is with effects and not with causes of class situation (with the parts and not the whole, the symptoms and not the thing itself), actual consciousness, and real class consciousness. The last of these allegedly becomes obvious in periods of crisis, when the reified forms which fetter the proletariat and its reified consciousness are overcome, through objective necessity and the emergence of the ‘class for itself. Lukács in particular identified the workers’ councils as the signifier of the class consciousness which was overcoming bourgeois consciousness.
David Lockwood (Solidarity and Schism, 1992) examines the Marxist problem of ‘end-shift’, or the relation between class position, actual consciousness, class action, and potential consciousness. Eschewing discussions of revolutionary practice, and elaborating the relationship between immediate and fundamental interests, Lockwood criticizes the attribution by Marxists of standards of rationality which are a necessary prerequisite for the proletariat to overcome false consciousness. This not only overlooks such factors as the status order but also relegates nonrational action to the utilitarian depository of ignorance or error. See also COMMODITY FETISHISM.