Class Consciousness

Originally written as a short speech for S.U.A.C. given at Surrey University.
This article is available to purchase for use at my scribd account



class′ con′sciousness

1. awareness of one’s own social or economic rank.

2. a feeling of identification and solidarity with those belonging to the same social or economic class as oneself.


Class consciousness is very hard to define but I see it as the self-emergent property that we see and experience phenomenologically, as the dialectic between the group of society that controls the means of production and the group of people tied to working for the production as a means to survive.

Karl Marx talked about ones social class as dictating ones social life and that the people that own the modes of production can dictate the lives of their workers. Stating that a class is defined by a group of people who share similar socio economic and political ideals, values or needs and one’s own social class is defined by how one sees themselves within the socio political system.

He isolated the idea of an economic scale as the common denominator for the analysis of social systems. That is, that you have to become existentially aware of your state within the world to be aware of where you are situated within ‘class’ consciousness.

Marxism considers these social classes to have their own objective identities and interests. Though this could be considered to be over-anthropomorphasising somewhat.

The state of any given class is determined by its history, i.e. one can follow the path of the upper class from feudalisms through its merger with merchant traders to where it is today. For one to be aware of this historical structure and its relevance in consciousness you have to see the world in groups of equality and inequality, and associate ones social class, and position within it, with the quality of social life one can lead. Looking at the world in this divided way can provide an opportunity for the development of a dialectic. This dialectic can be seen as a catalyst for social change (an innate and required property of social evolution). To develop a social state that can ultimately lead to these changes being brought about, the workers need to see themselves as one unit – to bring about change for themselves. One of the main steps in developing this – is understanding false consciousness.

False consciousness is an attitude held by a class that does not accurately reflect their objective position in the work and production scheme. i.e. thinking in terms of I and ME (like I am being exploited by MY boss, rather than alternatively WE are being exploited by OUR boss). This narcissistic tendency, characterised by many pop culture icons that are regularly thrown into the media spot light forms the foundation of one of the many methods used to stunt the development of social change.

The development of class consciousness – relies on the proletariat understanding the nature of the dialectic and its role in the development of current socio political climates, furthur more they must acknowledge the ruling classes dependence upon the production of the proletariat. This indicates a unique quality of the proletariat class in that the proletariat was the first to be able to form an identity and develop a class consciousness, as they can see the nature of the structure of the wage slavery and the dependence of the ruling classes. Allowing them to negate the very identity of the bourgeoisie.

Incidentally it can then be said that the bourgeoisie ‘s class consciousness is intrinsically a false consciousness, there idea of their class consciousness is dependent on the existence of the proletariat class consciousness. The bourgeoisie cannot completely perceive there own history as long as they maintain the idea that capitalism as an ideology is not just a phase in social evolution but rather something innate to human psychology.

So it is not so much a facet of bad judgement but an illusion which they hold to be the truth, though it remains important to differentiate between the class consciousness and the consciousness of the individuals of the class.

Ones social class can act as a filter, limiting the perspective that one may have of the world around them, identifying the intrinsic alienation of human experience. The solution for this comes not from strengthening intraclass bonds but from educating people of all classes to approach reality from multiple perspectives. Although it is considered that not every form of knowledge is affected in this way, for instance maths and science are not influenced by class consciousness.


“In a seminal redefinition, the sociologist Michael Mann examined different dimensions of class consciousness: – class belonging and identity, class antagonism, class totality (the idea that social classes encompass the entirety of society), and the vision of a classless society.

Those dimensions not only are formal subcategories but correspond to experiences that generate class awareness and class solidarity. For instance, the experience of economic exploitation can lead workers to recognize that they have a stake in each other’s well-being, and from there they will develop class consciousness and class solidarity.”


So, for the mode of production and the profits thereof to be equally distributed amongst the population the workers first need to overcome their false consciousness. The existence of class consciousness in its classical terms relies heavily on the class history. Marxists define classes on the basis of their relation to the means of production, whereas Non-Marxist social scientists distinguish various social divisions upon the income, occupation, or status. I would say that alienation of the individual is key to the modern interpretation of class consciousness.

Another idea is that and person’s social class can be defined by his own awareness of it. As an individual moves into the working sector – contributing to the production of commodities, it can lead to the individual becoming alienated from the rest of the world. Due in part to the dissociation of his identity as a person – as his sociological influence, as a facet of the result of his production, take the foreground and by the production of his labour acquires its own identity.

Specialisations of types of production can further lead to the development of new domains here, whose relevance only truly becomes apparent when looking at the dialectic of the inter relationship of these factors on a global scale. Leading to the development of such theories as the invisible hand.

Hegel provides a good analogy of this is his book Weltgeist, or ‘world spirit’. Where the proletariat, represented by the ‘world spirit’, develops its own history through the action of Voltgiest, ‘the spirit of the people’.  Though this idea holds many mythological connotations its grounding in sociological and materialistic object relations lends validity to the concept.

‘The possibility of class consciousness is given by its history, which transforms the proletariat into a commodity hence objectifying it.

This allows us to displace our understanding of awareness – with ones position in society becoming a signifier for the symbol that is class consciousness.

But this alone does not do justice to the dialectic that evolves here. As the now objectified class’ consciousness is aware of its self, displayed in its constant adaptation to its socio political environment. This destroys the objectivity of the object and allows a window into the complex dialect of transcendent collective ideas.’

Due to the proletariat’s unique position, its consciousness of its self is also a consciousness of totality, an awareness of the entire social and historical process. Thus when the proletariat becomes conscious of itself, it can transform the very structure of reality. The laws of economics can then be seen to be nothing more than a facet of the dialectic between the present state of history, –  that lead to the current state of each of the classes of this collective consciousness – meaning that they can become subject to change.

It has been posited that the theoretical consciousness of the working class could be present in a political organism that considered its self to be the carrier, regardless of what the actual working class is or wants. Though a notable Kafkaesque notion that is possibly an over anthropomorphism it is still pertinent to social theory.

One of the many reasons that class consciousness may be less prevalent in the modern psyche today, is that the state sees the idea that their citizens perceive society in this way as a threat to their sovereignty. Some critics of Marx argue that he confuses class with cast, whereas others state – that class consciousness is only relevant in social structures where cast is fixed, i.e. slavery, where slaves thus share a common motive for ending their disadvantaged status relative to other castes, and certain religious sects also posses qualities displaying similar properties.  Another critic is that the lines between modern classes are drawn too arbitrarily. Others have stated that to advance the ideas of class consciousness empowers totalitarianism.

One of the main problems with class consciousness – is that its appeal is not in its scientific truth – but in its psychological form. This may somewhat account for its falling out of the common psyche – but may also highlight a way in which it can be brought back and to be used as a more effective tool.

For an empirical change to occur within the socio political realm – it is necessary that both the reality of and practical situation of the present or current class consciousness must be aligned with theory, otherwise we facilitate the procession of the historical nature of the class system. To have a goal for class consciousness is essential but it must be objective. This, on its own is insufficient,  requiring the struggle of both humanity and the proletariat for class consciousness.


Duncan Thomson


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