class consciousness

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class consciousness

the awareness, amongst members of a social CLASS, of common interests which are based on their own class situation and are in opposition to the interests of other classes. The term is particularly associated with MARXISM, where the concern is often either with the processes which foster the development of class consciousness in the PROLETARIAT, or involves discussions as to why such a consciousness has not developed. A basic distinction here is between a class-in-itself- the objective basis of class interests – and a class-for-itself- the consciousness of these interests. The basic idea is that a set of values and beliefs and a political organization will, or should, emerge in order to represent and realize the objective interests of a class. In the case of the WORKING CLASS, certain aspects of their work and life situations (exploitation, ALIENATION, periodic mass unemployment and poverty, etc.) are seen as facilitating a growing awareness of a common situation and encouraging a collective response. Most Marxists agree, however, that only a limited awareness and set of objectives are arrived at spontaneously LENIN, for example, in a very influential pamphlet (1902), argued that, left to itself, the working class would develop only an ‘economistic’ consciousness, limited to demands for better pay and conditions within the capitalist system. Lenin, like many Marxists, was interested in the overthrow of CAPITALISM, not in its reform. Thus, he argued that a revolutionary (‘vanguard’) party was necessary to transform TRADE UNION CONSCIOUSNESS into political, ‘revolutionary consciousness’ and action. This has been a recurrent theme in Marxist writings on the proletariat – the issue of why a revolutionary class consciousness’ has never developed among the working classes of the most developed capitalist states. In the 1920s and 30s, for example, LUKACS and GRAMSCI developed different critiques of‘crude’ Marxism, emphasizing theoretical and cultural factors which impeded the development of‘true’ consciousness or promoted the development of ‘FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS’.

A substantial literature also exists on CLASS IMAGERY, the actual images of class possessed by social ACTORS, and, at the same time, sociologists have taken up the issue of the limits and possibilities of the notion of ‘class consciousness’ in the Marxian sense. This is a theme which also underlies debate on the NEW WORKING CLASS. MANN (1973) argued that one may find awareness of class membership and also group solidarity, but it is ‘rather unlikely’ that the working class can produce, independently, an alternative vision of a new society. This type of sociological approach seeks to do more than echo Lenin's 70-year-old conclusion. Instead, it attempts to operationalize the concept of working-class consciousness by identifying it as involving four elements:

  1. ‘class identity’ – the definition of oneself as working-class;
  2. ‘class opposition’ – the definition of an opposed (capitalist) class;
  3. ‘class totality’ – (a) and (b) taken as together defining the ‘whole society’;
  4. an alternative vision of society

Mann concluded that British workers are usually limited to

  1. only occasionally incorporating
  2. See also HEGEMONY.
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