In the transition from a ‘class in itself’ (a category of people having a common relation to the means of production) to a ‘class for itself’ (a stratum organized in active pursuit of its own interests) the emphasis in Marxist analysis has been on the development of revolutionary class consciousness among the workers. As a rule, constituting this class in itself involves a set of environmental variables (concentration in factories, communication, mechanization), a distinctive way of life and distinctive cultural activities, all of which bring the working class into conflict with other classes as a ‘class against capital’. However, it is only when these objective features generate a consciousness of common interests rooted in the process of production and lead to practical action through political representation, that it is possible to speak of class consciousness in the Marxian sense. Marx severally identified the connections between these two analytically distinct stages, but the easy bipolarity of proletariat versus bourgeoisie found in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) is often replaced in his other writings by a complex interrelation between ideology, culture, and political representations (as is found, for example, in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852). Here, ‘class fractions’ tied to particular property forms are engaged in myriad political contests, using a varied symbolic universe and competing discourses, all under the auspices of a multi-faceted state.
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 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.