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Study Notes

Class Consciousness (Socialism)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 29 Jun 2020

There are several terms used within the context of Marxist discourse, yet perhaps the most significant is that of class consciousness.

In terms of a basic definition, class consciousness depicts a stage along the course of human development at which the proletariat becomes fully aware of their exploitation. Class consciousness eventually determines the realisation of Marx’s prediction of a full-scale revolution which then leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

No understanding of class consciousness would be complete without reference to the notion of false consciousness. This refers to a state of affairs in which the proletariat fail to grasp the truly exploitative nature of capitalism. Agents of the bourgeois state generate a sense of false consciousness to maintain the existence of the capitalist system. Marxists have repeatedly argued that the emergence of class consciousness is deliberately thwarted by the ability of the bourgeoisie to emphasise differences within the working-class, thereby preventing the emergence of a shared view on their exploitation. False consciousness is therefore an important instrument of control as used by the ruling class. Theorists such as Gyorgy Lukacs claim that false consciousness prevents the proletariat from taking on their predicted role within society as agents of revolutionary change, whereas the Marxist historian Ralph Miliband (1973) argues that the media is the new “opium of the people” by acting as a hallucinatory drug to keep the masses subsumed.

Another relevant term to consider here is that of dual consciousness, in which an individual is said to hold two contradictory sets of beliefs at the same time. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that the working-class may share a set of beliefs derived from the education system which contrasts with the values acquired from the workplace. He concluded that common-sense knowledge was potentially revolutionary, but was mitigated by that consciousness raised within wider society. Taken together, Gramsci marks a distinct departure from the Marxist preoccupation with economic determinism and the premise that the inherent contradictions within capitalism made a revolution a foregone conclusion.

Gramsci also claimed that the state could only remain hegemonic if it was prepared to compromise over the demands made by those suffering from exploitation. He believed that ruling class hegemony would never be complete due to the divisions within the ruling class and the existence of dual consciousness. As such, the state must always make some concessions to the subject class (perhaps in the form of Tory paternalism or enfranchisement of those without property). Gramsci thereby represents a revision of the observations offered by Marx and Engels, although his insights remains highly relevant towards any comprehension of class consciousness.

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