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false consciousness


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A Marxist concept, referring to thinking that confirms human servitude, rather than emancipating the species essence. It refers to the purpose served by thought in the collective life of humanity. False consciousness hinders the universal class of the proletariat in its liberating and developmental role and it leads the bourgeoisie to misleadingly cast its sectional outlook as a universally valid view.

In The 18th 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. An interesting elaboration of the idea can be found in Joseph Gabel 's False Consciousness (1962, trans. 1975). See also dominant ideology thesis; commodity fetishism; ideology.

Subjects: Sociology — Arts and Humanities.


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