Understanding Karl Marx's Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

Two of Marx's Key Social Precepts Defined

Demonstrators gather in front of a McDonald's restaurant to call for an increase in minimum wage on April 15, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The demonstration was one of many held nationwide to draw attention to the cause.
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Class consciousness and false consciousness are concepts introduced by Karl Marx that were later expanded by social theorists who came after him. Marx wrote about the theory in his book "Capital, Volume 1," and again with his frequent collaborator, Friedrich Engels, in the impassioned treatise, "Manifesto of the Communist Party." Class consciousness refers to the awareness by a social or economic class of their position and interests within the structure of the economic order and social system in which they live. In contrast, false consciousness is a perception of one's relationships to social and economic systems of an individual nature, and a failure to see oneself as a part of a class with particular class interests relative to the economic order and social system.

Marx's Theory of Class Consciousness

According to Marxist theory, class consciousness is an awareness of one's social and/or economic class relative to others, as well as an understanding of the economic rank of the class to which you belong in the context of the larger society. In addition, class consciousness involves an understanding of the defining social and economic characteristics and collective interests of your own class within the constructs of the given socio-economic and political order.

Class consciousness is a core facet of Marx's theory of class conflict, which focuses on the social, economic, and political relationships between workers and owners within a capitalist economy. The precept was developed in conjunction with his theory on how workers might overthrow the system of capitalism and then go on to create a new economic, social, and political system based on equality rather than inequality and exploitation.

The Proletariat vs. the Bourgeoisie

Marx believed that the capitalist system was rooted in class conflict—specifically, the economic exploitation of the proletariat (workers) by the bourgeoisie (those who owned and controlled production). He reasoned that the system only functioned as long as the workers did not recognize their unity as a class of laborers, their shared economic and political interests, and the power inherent in their numbers. Marx argued that when workers came to understand the totality of these factors, they would achieve class consciousness, and this, in turn, would lead to a workers' revolution that would overthrow the exploitative system of capitalism.

Hungarian social theorist Georg Lukács, who followed in the tradition of Marxist theory, expanded the concept by saying that class consciousness is an achievement that opposes individual consciousness and results from the group struggle to see the "totality" of social and economic systems.

The Problem of False Consciousness

According to Marx, before workers developed a class consciousness they were actually living with a false consciousness. (Though Marx never used the actual term, he did develop the ideas that it encompasses.) In essence, false consciousness is the opposite of class consciousness. Individualistic rather than collective in nature, it produces a view of oneself as a single entity engaged in competition with others of one's social and economic standing, rather than as part of a group with unified experiences, struggles, and interests. According to Marx and other social theorists who followed, false consciousness was dangerous because it encouraged people to think and act in ways that were counterintuitive to their economic, social, and political self-interests.

Marx saw false consciousness as a product of an unequal social system controlled by a powerful minority of elites. The false consciousness among workers, which prevented them from seeing their collective interests and power, was created by the material relations and conditions of the capitalist system, by the ideology (the dominant worldview and values) of those who control the system, and by social institutions and how they function in society.

Marx cited the phenomenon of commodity fetishism—the way capitalist production frames relationships between people (workers and owners) as relationships between things (money and products)—with playing a key role in producing false consciousness among workers. He believed that commodity fetishism served to obscure the fact that relations with regard to production within a capitalist system are actually relationships between people, and that as such, they are changeable.

Building on Marx's theory, Italian scholar, writer, and activist Antonio Gramsci expanded the ideological component of false consciousness by arguing that a process of cultural hegemony guided by those holding economic, social, and cultural power in society produced a "common sense" way of thinking that embued the status quo with legitimacy. Gramsci noted that by believing in the common sense of one's age, a person actually consents to the conditions of exploitation and domination that one experiences. This "common sense"—the ideology that produces false consciousness—is actually a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the social relationships that define the economic, social, and political systems.

False Consciousness in a Stratified Society

An example of how cultural hegemony works to produce false consciousness—that is true both historically and today—is the belief that upward mobility is possible for all people, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, as long as they choose to dedicate themselves to education, training, and hard work. In the U.S. this belief is encapsulated in the ideal of "the American Dream." Viewing society and one's place within it based on the set of assumptions derived from "common sense" thinking results in a perception of being an individual rather than part of a collective. Economic success and failure rest squarely on the shoulders of the individual and do not take into account the totality of the social, economic, and political systems that shape our lives.

At the time Marx was writing about class consciousness, he perceived class as the relationship of people to the means of production—the owners versus the workers. While the model is still useful, we can also think about the economic stratification of our society into different classes based on income, occupation, and social status. Decades' worth of demographic data reveals that the American Dream and its promise of upward mobility is largely a myth. In truth, the economic class a person is born into is the primary determinant of how he or she will fair economically as an adult. However, as long as a person believes the myth, he or she will continue to live and operate with a false consciousness. Without a class consciousness, they will fail to recognize that the stratified economic system in which they're operating was designed to afford only the bare minimum of money to workers while funneling huge profits to the owners, executives, and financiers at the top.