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Karl Marx: Theory of Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

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  • 0:05 Groups and Inequality
  • 0:45 The Consciousness of a Class
  • 1:46 Class Consciousness -…
  • 3:09 False Consciousness -…
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bethany Johnson
In this lesson, you will learn what Karl Marx meant by a society having a class consciousness and a false consciousness. This lesson will also discuss how, according to Marx, these two elements can either help or hinder working-class members of a society.

Groups and Inequality

Karl Marx viewed the world as groups who were either advantaged or disadvantaged
Unequal Groups

Do you see the world in terms of groups and inequality? Groups where one is advantaged and one is disadvantaged? Groups where one has more and one has less? If you do, then you share a viewpoint with Karl Marx, a German economist whose works and ideas are studied and used by philosophers, historians, economists, sociologists, and politicians. Marx's ideas were seen as so radical that he was perceived as an inspiration to revolutionists and a threat by leaders of state governments.

The Consciousness of a Class

Marx is one of the most important of all Socialist thinkers. One of his greatest sociological insights centered on the thought that social class was the deciding principle of social life. Much of his work focused on the plight of the working class, and he felt it imperative that the class structure of society be changed. In Marx's view, the relationship between people was determined primarily through who controlled the mode of economic production, such as land or factories. The land, resources, and factories were controlled and owned by the wealthy citizens; thus, the working class had little choice but to work according to the terms dictated by the upper, controlling class. For this reason, Marx detested the concept and practice of capitalism; he felt that it only allowed the rich to become richer and the poor to become poorer.

Class Consciousness - A Collective Whole

Marx saw the exploitation of the working class as a catalyst for change. He felt that the capitalistic system of the time could and should be destroyed, and Marx called for a revolution by the working-class members. However, before the revolution could occur, Marx felt that the working class first needed to develop what is known as class consciousness. This is a subjective awareness of common vested interests and the need for collective political action to bring about social change. Simply put, the workers needed to see themselves as one unit and, together, could revolt and change their working conditions.

Marx believed that through class consciousness, workers would stand up to their oppressors
Class Consciousness

False Consciousness - The Concept of 'I' and 'Me'

There was one stumbling block to Marx's hope of a working-class revolution, and that was the fact that the working class did not see themselves as one unit, but individually, in terms of 'I' and 'me.' This is known as false consciousness. A false consciousness is an attitude held by members of a class that does not accurately reflect their objective position. Basically, workers would see themselves as 'I,' as in 'I am being exploited by my boss,' rather than 'we:' 'We are being exploited by our boss.' Marx's revolution to end capitalism and bring down the wealthy controlling class would not come to light as long as the working class was viewing life through a false consciousness.

False consciousness is when class members view themselves as individuals rather than a single unit
False Consciousness

While Marx hoped for revolutions in large industrial countries, such as Britain and Germany, smaller ones occurred in Russia and China. Many factors that Marx did not foresee may be the very reason the revolutions did not occur - factors such as the development of labor unions and political ideologies teaching people that they controlled their destinies within their circumstances. Nor did Marx see the rise of Communism, which gave government complete control. To date, Marx's political vision has not been seen; however, his economic theory of the gap between the wealthy and the poor growing larger has never been truer than today.

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