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In Marxism, class consciousness is the set of beliefs that a person holds regarding their social class or economic rank in society, the structure of their class, and their class interests. According to Karl Marx, it is an awareness that is key to sparking a revolution that would "create a dictatorship of the proletariat, transforming it from a wage-earning, property-less mass into the ruling class".
Early in the 19th century, the labels "working classes" and "middle classes" were already coming into common usage: "The old hereditary aristocracy, reinforced by the new gentry who owed their success to commerce, industry, and the professions, evolved into an "upper class". Its consciousness was formed in part by public schools (in the British sense where it refers to a form of private school) and Universities. The upper class tenaciously maintained control over the political system, depriving not only the working classes but the middle classes of a voice in the political process".
While German theorist Karl Marx rarely used the term "class consciousness", he did make the distinction between "class in itself", which is defined as a category of people having a common relation to the means of production; and a "class for itself", which is defined as a stratum organized in active pursuit of its own interests.
Defining a person's social class can be a determinant for their awareness of it. Marxists define classes on the basis of their relation to the means of production, especially on whether they own capital. Non-Marxist social scientists distinguish various social strata on the basis of income, occupation, or status.
Whereas Marx believed that the proletariat achieved class consciousness as a result of experiences of exploitation, later orthodox Marxism, in particular Vladimir Lenin, believed that the working class by itself could only achieve "trade union consciousness" and thus needed a vanguard party of intellectuals outside the class to bring class consciousness to it.
Class consciousness, as described by Georg Lukács's History and Class Consciousness (1923), is opposed to any psychological conception of consciousness, which forms the basis of individual or mass psychology (see Freud or, before him, Gustave Le Bon). According to Lukács, each social class has a determined class consciousness which it can achieve. In effect, as opposed to the liberal conception of consciousness as the basis of individual freedom and of the social contract, Marxist class consciousness is not an origin, but an achievement (i.e. it must be "earned" or won). Hence, it is never assured: the proletariat's class consciousness is the result of a permanent struggle to understand the "concrete totality" of the historical process.
According to Lukács, the proletariat was the first class in history that may achieve true class consciousness because of its specific position highlighted in The Communist Manifesto as the "living negation" of capitalism. All other classes, including the bourgeoisie, are limited to a "false consciousness" which impedes them from understanding the totality of history: instead of understanding each specific moment as a portion of a supposedly deterministic historical process, they universalize it and believe it is everlasting. Hence, capitalism is not thought as a specific phase of history, but is naturalized and thought of as an eternal solidified part of history. Says Lukács, this "false consciousness", which forms ideology itself, is not a simple error as in classical philosophy, but an illusion which cannot be dispelled.
Marx described it in his theory of commodity fetishism, which Lukács completed with his concept of reification in which alienation is what follows the worker's estrangement to the world following the new life acquired by the product of his work. The dominant bourgeois ideology thus leads the individual to see the achievement of his labour take a life of its own. Furthermore, specialization is also seen as a characteristic of the ideology of modern rationalism, which creates specific and independent domains (art, politics, science and the like). Only a global perspective can point out how all these different domains interact, argues Lukács. He also points out how Immanuel Kant brought to its limit the classical opposition between the abstract form and the concrete, historical content, which is abstractly conceived as irrational and contingent. Thus, with Kant's rational system history becomes totally contingent and is thus ignored. Only with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's dialectic can a mediation be found between the abstract form and the abstract notion of a concrete content.
Even if the bourgeois loses his individual point of view in an attempt to grasp the reality of the totality of society and of the historical process, he is condemned to a form of false consciousness. As an individual, he will always see the collective result of individual actions as a form of "objective law" to which he must submit himself (liberalism has gone so far as seeing an invisible hand in this collective results, making capitalism the best of all possible worlds). By contrast, the proletariat would be, according to Lukács, the first class in history with the possibility to achieve a true form of class consciousness, granting it knowledge of the totality of the historical process.
The proletariat takes the place of Hegel's Weltgeist ("World Spirit"), which achieves history through Volksgeist ("the spirit of the people"): the idealist conception of an abstract Spirit making history, which ends in the realm of Reason, is replaced by a materialist conception based not on mythical Spirits, but on a concrete "identical subject-object of history": the proletariat. The proletariat is both the "object" of history, created by the capitalist social formation; but it is also the "subject" of history, as it is its labour that shapes the world, and thus, knowledge of itself is also, necessarily, knowledge of the reality and of the totality of the historical process. The proletariat's class consciousness is not immediate; class consciousness must not be mistaken either with the consciousness of one's future and collective interests, opposed to personal immediate interests.
The possibility of class consciousness is given by the objective process of history, which transforms the proletariat into a commodity, hence objectifying it. Class consciousness is thus not a simple subjective act: "as consciousness here is not the consciousness of an object opposed to itself, but the object's consciousness, the act of being conscious of oneself disrupts the objectivity form of its object" (in "Reification and the Proletariat's Consciousness" §3, III "The proletariat's point of view"). In other words, instead of the bourgeois subject and its corresponding ideological concept of individual free will, the proletariat has been transformed into an object (a commodity) which, when it takes consciousness of itself, transforms the very structure of objectivity, that is of reality.
This specific role of the proletariat is a consequence of its specific position; thus, for the first time, consciousness of itself (class consciousness) is also consciousness of the totality (knowledge of the entire social and historical process). Through dialectical materialism, the proletariat understands that what the individual bourgeois conceived as "laws" akin to the laws of nature, which may be only manipulated as in René Descartes's dream, but not changed, is in fact the result of a social and historical process, which can be controlled. Furthermore, only dialectical materialism links together all specialized domains, which modern rationalism can only think as separate instead of as forming a totality.
Only the proletariat can understand that the so-called "eternal laws of economics" are in fact nothing more than the historical form taken by the social and economical process in a capitalist society. Since these "laws" are the result of the collective actions of individuals, and are thus created by society, Marx and Lukács reasoned that this necessarily meant that they could be changed. Any attempt in transforming the so-called "laws" governing capitalism into universal principles, valid in all times and places, are criticized by Lukács as a form of false consciousness.
As the "expression of the revolutionary process itself", dialectical materialism, which is the only theory with an understanding of the totality of the historical process, is the theory which may help the proletariat in its "struggle for class consciousness". Although Lukács does not contest the Marxist primacy of the economic base on the ideological superstructure (not to be mistaken with vulgar economic determinism), he considers that there is a place for autonomous struggle for class consciousness.
In order to achieve a unity of theory and praxis, theory must not only tend toward reality in an attempt to change it; reality must also tend towards theory. Otherwise, the historical process leads a life of its own, while theorists make their own little theories, desperately waiting for some kind of possible influence over the historical process. Henceforth, reality itself must tend toward the theory, making it the "expression of the revolutionary process itself". In turn, a theory which has as its goal helping the proletariat achieve class consciousness must first be an "objective theory of class consciousness". However, theory in itself is insufficient, and ultimately relies on the struggle of humankind and of the proletariat for consciousness: the "objective theory of class consciousness is only the theory of its objective possibility".
Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises argued that "Marx confus[ed] the notions of caste and class". Mises allowed that class consciousness and the associated class struggle were valid concepts in some circumstances where rigid social castes exist, e.g. when slavery is legal and slaves thus share a common motive for ending their disadvantaged status relative to other castes, but that class is an arbitrary distinction in capitalism where there is equality before the law. Von Mises' follower Murray Rothbard argued that Marx's efforts to portray the workers and capitalists as two monolithic groups was false as workers and capitalists would routinely compete within themselves, such as capitalist entrepreneurs competing amongst themselves or native workers competing with immigrant workers. Rothbard argued that if there is constant conflict between different members of the same class, then it is absurd to argue that these members have objective interests with one another against another class.