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In Marxist theory, false consciousness is a term describing the ways in which material, ideological, and institutional processes are said to mislead members of the proletariat and other class actors within capitalist societies, concealing the exploitation and inequality intrinsic to the social relations between classes. According to Marxists, false consciousness legitimizes the existence of different social classes.
False consciousness is consciousness which is incorrect and misaligned from reality. In a Marxist worldview, false consciousness is a serious impediment to human progress. Thus, correcting false consciousness is a major focus of dialectical materialism.
Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) used the term "false consciousness" in an 1893 letter to Franz Mehring to address the scenario where a subordinate class willfully embodies the ideology of the ruling class. Engels dubs this consciousness "false" because the class is asserting itself towards goals that do not benefit it. In the letter, Engels uses the term false consciousness interchangeably with the term ideology.
"Consciousness", in this context, reflects a class's ability to politically identify and assert its will. The subordinate class is conscious if it plays a major role in society and can assert its will due to being sufficiently unified in ideas and action.
Although the term false consciousness was not coined until after Marx's death, the concept appears throughout the earlier writing of Marx and Engels. For example, in The Holy Family, Marx describes how communist workers are able to break out of the false consciousness prevalent under capitalism:
They (the communist workers) are most painfully aware of the difference between being and thinking, between consciousness and life. They know that property, capital, money, wage-labor and the like are no ideal figments of the brain but very practical, very objective products of their self-estrangement.
Marshall I. Pomer has argued that members of the proletariat disregard the true nature of class relations because of their belief in the probability or possibility of upward mobility. Such a belief or something like it is said to be required in economics with its presumption of rational agency; otherwise wage laborers would not be the conscious supporters of social relations antithetical to their own interests, violating that presumption.
Hungarian philosopher György Lukács discussed the concept of false consciousness in his 1923 book History and Class Consciousness. The concept was further developed by German philosopher Herbert Marcuse and by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre.
Since the late 20th century, the term false consciousness has been used in a non-Marxian context, specifically in relation to oppression based on sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity.
The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony, the process within capitalist societies by which the ruling classes create particular norms, values, and stigmas, amounting to a culture in which their continued dominance is considered beneficial.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, the philosophical and anthropological school of structuralism began to gain popularity among academics and public intellectuals, focusing on interpreting human culture in terms of underlying structures such as symbolic, linguistic, and ideological perspectives. Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser popularized his structuralist interpretation of false consciousness, the Ideological State Apparatus. Structuralism influenced Althusser's interpretation of false consciousness, which focuses on the institutions of the capitalist state—particularly those of public education—which enforce an ideological system favoring obedience, conformity and submissiveness.
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.