Class Consciousness Research Paper

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1. A Key Concept Of Marxist Theory

In Marx’s work the concept of class consciousness is based on his theory of social classes and the distinction he makes between existing social classes and politically active ones. It is not sufficient for a large number of individuals merely to be living under similar social conditions for them to constitute a class. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Marx describes the living conditions of peasant families. He sees them as having few connections with each other and even less with the rest of society. For this reason, these families do not form a social class. Only groups of individuals engaged in common activities, mainly relations of production and exchange, constitute a social class.

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In the struggle that necessarily opposes the owners of the means of production and the workers, who possess only their labor power, all the conditions are fulfilled for the proletariat to constitute a true social class. The workers are all equally dependent upon their employers. They are forced to sell their labor and must also resist the stronghold of capital whose demands continually threaten their livelihood. This situation of dependence and resistance, this class struggle, which accompanies the beginnings of capitalist relations, becomes particularly intense due to the system’s growing contradictions. As observed by Marx from 1845 onward, this is the context in which the issue of class consciousness arises. In other words, it is the situation through which workers become conscious of their shared socioeconomic conditions, of their fundamentally antagonistic relationship with the capitalists, and hence of the need for political struggle. This awareness signals a new change within the working class itself, leading it from the condition of class ‘in itself’ to one of class ‘for itself.’

In The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx analyzes the economic transformation of the working class and the ensuing changes in its subjective position. Since workers have been brought together, ‘agglomerated,’ in the same workplaces, they experience similar labor conditions. They face the same demands from their employers, and are therefore led to organize strikes together and to form ‘coalitions,’ which persist beyond the period of strike. Such struggles and communal activities bring the entire working class above the level of local conflicts and heighten its awareness of its political role. This rise in consciousness represents more than simply the awareness of a particular situation. For Marx, proletarian consciousness is simultaneously the discovery by the laborers of their extreme alienation and of their need to overcome such alienation through a form of action aimed at destroying the capitalist mode of production. Class consciousness is considered to be the sine qua non of social revolution.

Such a concept, which is both an element of Marxist philosophy of history and a theory of social change, comes from two major sources: one theoretical, the other empirical. Hegel, in The Phenomenology of Mind (1807), describes ‘self-consciousness’ as a moment in the mind’s evolution by means of which the subject reaches a heightened level of awareness and a new potential for action. Yet it is essentially the changes in working conditions in the UK and France that inspired Marx to formulate such a concept. As E. P. Thompson (1963) shows in his study, The Making of the English Working Class, the years 1820–40 witnessed a decline in the traditional organization of the various trades, a re-enforcement of the process of proletarianization of the English working class, and the beginnings of chartism. In France, during the 1840s an increasing number of scientific and journalistic writings emphasized the unification of the working class, who thereby transcended divisions between the trades and traditional organizations. Newspapers appeared, written by workers, in which they asserted their need to express their own claims and their hopes for a new form of social organization. Some of these reiterated the appeal formulated by Saint-Simon as early as 1820, calling for class consciousness as the fundamental condition necessary for political activity by the agents of production.

2. A Political Debate

In 1865, Proudhon, one of the founders of anarchism, developed a theory similar to that of Marx. In his work, De la capacite politique des classes ouvrieres (On the political potential of the working classes), he poses the question of the conditions necessary for a social class to unite in political action. He formulates three conditions: the achieving of self-consciousness, the formulation of a political program, and the capacity to carry out such a program. He believes that the working class has fulfilled the first two conditions since 1848, but that it has yet to reach the third condition. He emphasizes, even more than does Marx, the dynamics of the social movement and also the problems it faces as it attempts to achieve its goals. This theory of class consciousness led to divergent and far-reaching interpretations. One could indeed conclude from it that the function of a labor party should be only to encourage class consciousness, without aiming to control or direct it. On the contrary, Lenin, in his 1902 publication What is to be Done, states that the class consciousness of the workers has led spontaneously within the context of capitalism to purely economic claims. He considers that it is not the working class, but rather intellectuals of bourgeois origin, who produced the theory of social revolution. He therefore concludes that the political leadership of the movement must not be handed over to representatives of the working class (who tend towards reformism and anarchism), but rather to professional revolutionaries, united by strong party discipline. These sociopolitical arguments provoked critical reactions on the part of Marxist theoreticians (Rosa Luxembourg, Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci), who feared the consequences of replacing class conscious- ness by an authoritarian party.

3. Four Sociological Criteria

After World War II, certain works suggested that such a theory should be made sociologically relevant. To this end Mann (1973) distinguished four principles which together would constitute class consciousness: (a) identity—the definition of oneself as a member of the working class; (b) opposition—the designation of an opposing class; (c) totality—the vision of society as a whole; (d) alternative—an alternative vision of society based on different principles of organization and aimed at replacing the established order. These four conditions give rise to many different questions which numerous studies have attempted to answer.

Many studies lean toward a positive answer to the first principle, or condition, concerning the awareness of an identity. Richard Hoggart’s work (1957) asks whether it is pertinent to emphasize the originality of working-class culture. Using the perspective of cultural anthropology, the study undertaken by Hoggart in England in the 1950s illustrates the uniqueness of the attitudes, the habits and the representations of the lower classes. Hoggart underlines the permanence of a strong identity among members of this milieu and their heightened awareness of the social distance existing between themselves and other social classes. The opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them’ lies at the heart of their entire social representation.

The world of the ‘others’ is a vague congregation of employers of the private sector and civil servants. However, such a feeling of membership does not necessarily lead to the consciousness that there exists an inevitable conflict. Moreover, class consciousness is limited essentially to those who work in industry. One might add that studies which adopt the perspective of social stratification bring nuances to this notion of identity. The works by W. L. Warner, published in the USA in 1949, suggest that the social structure differentiates between multiple levels of social status. Three of them—the lower-middle class, the upper-lower class, and the lower-lower class—together make up the working class. To this is added the distinction between ethnic groups, characterized by differing feelings of membership.

The principle of the opposition to, and the designation of, an adversarial class may be regarded both from the perspective of representation and from that of action. Many studies indicate that it is not among the most disadvantaged workers that one finds the most entrenched adversarial stances. Material difficulties, unemployment, insecurity, and lack of qualification generate a consciousness of the opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but not a polarization against an adversarial class. It is mainly in professions such as mining and among dock workers, where attachment to one’s job and loyalty between members of the working group are very strong, that one finds the most adamant expressions of general opposition to authority (Touraine 1966). In industry, among skilled workers, attitudes are less radical. In their research, J. H. Goldthorpe and his collaborators (1969) formulated the general hypothesis that prosperous ‘affluent’ workers, who have a more functional relationship to their work, seek to obtain job stability and a higher salary, and are more interested in consumption than conflict. Patterns of strike participation confirm the main points of this thesis. In industry, strikes have wide participation, while in the service sector (banking, administration), where the organizing unions are concerned more with obtaining satisfaction for particular claims (raises, better working conditions, shorter working hours), they tend to result in negotiations.

The theory of class consciousness presupposes that the working class, due to its subordinate position, will eventually come to have a global image of society, as opposed to those who own wealth and whose horizons are limited by their personal interests (Lukacs 1971). Studies of the ‘images’ which workers hold of the social system help to shed light on such assumptions (Bulmer 1975). These studies show that workers’ representations are not as homogenous as Marxist theory might lead one to assume. Depending on whether the people questioned interpret the social system in terms of power, of prestige, or of property, they are more or less likely to perceive the social system in terms of conflict. The most adversarial perception of society is expressed by those whose perceptions are linked to power. Yet such a representation is not the most frequent one. W. L. Warner’s studies of US workers already suggest that differences exist depending on the type of workplace, the degree of urbanization, and the level of qualification. The attitude of the ‘affluent workers,’ because they tend toward representations related to possession, suggest the generalization of an image of society in which the majority is made up of a middle class, subdivided according to wealth, income, and consumption habits.

These studies cast doubt upon the argument that claims that the working class is driven by a will for political change and by a capacity to support an alternative program. During the 1960s, these observations led to the proposal that such a political potential for change was no longer to be found among unqualified workers, but instead in a ‘new working class’ made up of technicians and more qualified workers from cutting-edge industries such as computers, communications, and petrochemical industries (Mallet 1963). This idea, which places emphasis on new skills, has not been confirmed. It assumes that these highly qualified technicians and workers will call upon their unions to adopt radical political stances. Yet the low level of union membership among workers in general, and in particular among such technicians, tends to indicate that they have different types of demands. They ask their unions to negotiate to safeguard their own interests, while expecting political parties to defend national interests. In this sense they reproduce the traditional divisions found in public opinion rather than following the model of political awareness supposedly characteristic of the working class.


  1. Bulmer M (ed.) 1975 Working Class Images of Society. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
  2. Dahrendorf R 1959 Class and Class Conflicts in Industrial Society. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
  3. Goldthorpe J H, Lockwood D, Bechhofer F, Plat J 1969 The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  4. Hoggart R 1957 The Uses of Literacy. Aspects of Working-Class Life with Special References to Publications and Entertainments. Chatto & Windus, London
  5. Lockwood D 1958 The Blackcoated Worker. A Study in Class Consciousness. George Allen and Unwin, London
  6. Lukacs G 1971 [trans. Livingstone R] History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Merlin Press, London
  7. Mallet S 1963 La nouvelle classe ouvriere. Editions du Seuil, Paris
  8. Mann M 1973 Consciousness and Action among the Western Working Class. Macmillan, London
  9. Thompson E P 1963 The Making of the English Working Class. Gollancz, London
  10. Touraine A 1966 La conscience ouvriere. Editions du Seuil, Paris
  11. Warner W L, Meeker M, Eells K 1960 Social Class in America. A Manual of Procedure for the Measurement of Social Status. Harper & Row, New York
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