Thoughts about Consciousness from a Marxist Perspective

Karl Marx’s starting point for human consciousness stems from material and economic conditions through two contrasting ways: (1) a false consciousness which recreates the status quo social and economic system and, (2) class consciousness which aims to reverse the existing material conditions to create more social and economic equity. Marx saw social movements as inevitable once the proletariat working class develops a class consciousness discovering their true economic interests and rising up against the ruling bourgeiosie.

Marxian dialectics articulate a view of history where social change is ingrained in society. Social movements do not always lead to class-based revolutions as societies stay relatively stable and free of major upheavals over time. What keeps these social systems so stable with the oppressors in control and the oppressed vanquished even with flagrant exploitation? Marx discusses “false consciousness” as contributing to reproducing poverty and unjust economic conditions. A false consciousness is misdirected promoting the interests of the ruling class. As discussed in the following passage, the ruling class misdirects proletariat by manipulating intellectual and educational systems:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production…the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (Marx, The German Ideology: 172).

The prevalence of this biased mental production makes it difficult for revolutionary ideas to be disseminated and take root. Marx also argues that the ruling class will disguise their ideology to sound as if they represent everyone’s best interests:

“Each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all of the members of society…It has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent tehm as the only rational, universally valid ones” (174).

In this light, it becomes overwhelming for citizens to conform to the ruling class’s mental production and conform. A seemingly universalist ideology keeps the means and modes of production within the controls of a few elite population. For Marx, social change is possible with the replacement of a false consciousness with a revolutionary class consciousness.

Marx proclaims in the Manifesto of the Communist Party that proletariat can find freedom through class-centered idealism: “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat as a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of power by the proletariat” (Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party: 484).

This passage indicates the primacy of class formation to find solidarity against the oppressive bourgeoisie and reversing the lies perpetuated by false consciousness.

Marx argued that socialism is possible with the elimination of class as a way to organize society:

“If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class (491).

Marx looks at the creation of classes that are born of a Capitalist society and argues for Socialism to replace this social order as a ways to lessen the inequalities that burden the majority of the world’s population. A catalyst of this change, Marx argues, is the replacement of a false consciousness by a revolutionary class consciousness.

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