false consciousness

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false consciousness

any form of CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS, IDEOLOGY or social imagery which is held to be inappropriate to the ‘real’ or ‘objective’ class situation or CLASS INTERESTS of the actor. The concept, although not used as such by MARX, is developed from his theory. In particular, it derives from the argument that ideologies and consciousness, generally, are products of social structure and represent real relationships of domination and oppression. It followed that, in time, the PROLETARIAT would come to realize its position as an oppressed and exploited class and put that realization to political use through revolutionary struggle.

A major problem facing Marxists has been that a widespread revolutionary consciousness has never emerged among the proletariat. Thus, after the extension of the vote to nearly all adult males, Engels wrote to Marx complaining about how the working class had ‘disgraced itself’ by giving political support to the Liberal Party at election time. In the period up to the 1950s the concept of ‘false consciousness’ was frequently referred to in accounting for the failure of a revolutionary working class to develop.

One persistent theme, established by LENIN, was that, unaided, the proletariat would develop only a ‘reformist’, ‘economistic’ or trade union consciousness. It required the organization of a revolutionary VANGUARD PARTY to transform the working class's limited awareness into a truly progressive ‘political’ consciousness based on the reality of the working-class situation. Other explanations included the idea that the formation of a revolutionary proletariat was impeded by factors such as NATIONALISM or IMPERIALISM, or even that sport and non-political diversions, in effect, sublimated the revolutionary impulse (see also LEISURE, INCORPORATION).

Theoretically, the concept has also been important in revising central perspectives within MARXISM. Georg LUKACS (1971), for example, writing in the 1920s, argued for the need for much more attention to be paid to the issue of consciousness than had been paid by the ‘vulgar’ Marxists who assumed an inevitable move to worldwide revolution. These themes have continued an interest in the study of MASS CULTURE, in the work of the FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY, and, more recently, in the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (see CULTURAL STUDIES).

For sociologists generally, the idea of ‘false consciousness’ has posed a number of problems. It has been criticized for the ‘élitist’ implication that ‘we know what the working class needs better than the working class does’. More pertinently, it may be seen to divert attention away from the need to research the actual ideas and consciousness of working-class groups and their social sources. It also requires that one accepts the Marxist theory of CLASS and embraces the idea that revolution is a logical necessity and inevitable consequence of social class relations. Although in recent times the notion of ‘false consciousness’ has tended to fall into disuse, in both Marxism and Marxist sociology the idea of HEGEMONY has replaced it as a popular conceptual tool in the discussion of working-class consciousness (for example in the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies). However, it can be argued that ‘hegemony’ has at least some of the same drawbacks of the earlier concept. See also IDEOLOGY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000