False consciousness?

I’ve just been reading Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness1 One of the things that struck me is how much it belongs so much to another age (it was originally published in 1922). All the texts in the book were written in the shadow of the end of the first world war and the Russian Revolution, and much of it whilst the civil war in Russia was still raging. The whole of eastern and central Europe was in social, political and economic turmoil, and even in the west of Europe the spectre of revolution weighed heavily on the minds of politicians and the wider population.

However, it also struck me that Lukács might have something important to say about the current state of class consciousness (or, rather, the lack of class consciousness) in our modern world. Furthermore, his arguments highlight some of the fundamental theoretical problems regarding class and the analysis of class. In the early part of the twenty first century it seems hard to imagine that there was a time when many intellectuals and politicians believed that communism or socialism would actually triumph, and that capitalism was on the wane. Even following the events of the last few years, no-one seems to be seriously arguing that capitalism is finished.

However, from a psychoanalytic position what’s always rather puzzled me is the whole concept of class consciousness in the first place, and how this relates to the idea of false consciousness.

In his writings Lukács is quite clear: class consciousness is not the consciousness of individual members of a class, and neither is it some form of group consciousness. In other words, class consciousness cannot be defined in terms of individual or group psychology. For Lukács (and for many other Marxist thinkers) the critical point is that it must be possible for society can be viewed as a totality. The reason why this matters is that it is only by being able to understand society as a whole that one is able to infer or impute class consciousness to members of that society.

By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society (p.51, emphasis in original)

In other words, if the proletariat were able to understand the true nature of their situation, i.e. being exploited by capital but at the same time being capitalism’s gravediggers, then we could speak of a proletarian consciousness. The problem is, however, that, according to Lukács, the proletariat (or indeed any other class) are unable to understand the true nature of their situation; rather, it is left to others, i.e. the party intelligentsia, to do it for them.

At this point we are faced with a range of practical and theoretical problems. To start with, as psychoanalysts the world over will tell you, people just don’t want to know. In politics, as in the clinic, ignorance is bliss. Who wants to know that they are being exploited, taken advantage of, manipulated for other people’s benefit? Furthermore, who wants to know that they are colluding with this exploitation because, at some level, they are getting something out of it?

It’s tempting to argue at this point that this is a classic example of false consciousness. In other words, people are simply denying their true situation. In fact, not only are they denying it but they are misrecognising it. In other words, they think they are in a different situation to the one they are actually in. For example, many professionals, managers and white collar workers would not identify themselves as working class or proletarian. But from a strictly Marxist perspective most of them are; they do not own the means of production, and they rely on their labour to earn a living. This may be intellectual and/or ‘social skills’ labour and they may be well paid for it, but at the end of the day they are still proletarian.

Of course, the question of white collar, professional and managerial workers has always been a headache for many Marxists and fellow travellers. For example, is a doctor, or a solicitor a member of the proletariat, or do they belong to a separate class? They certainly do not own the means of production, so in a strictly Marxist sense they are proletarians; however, the life, and the life chances, of a doctor or solicitor are so different from a causal worker on a zero-hours contract that it seems almost perverse to equate the two. But then again, what are we to make of Lacan’s remark that we are all proletarians now…………?2

But there is also another problem regarding the question of class consciousness and the question of false consciousness: who is able to take up a privileged position in order to view society as a whole? More to the point, is there such a totality called ‘society’ in the first place. From a Marxist perspective, ‘society’ refers to a totality. In fact, without this assumption it becomes impossible for anyone to have a privileged vantage point in order to ‘impute’ class consciousness to a class. But some writers, including those sympathetic to Marxism, have argued that such a totality is impossible. Furthermore, it’s precisely the function of ideology to sustain the illusion that there is such a thing as society – in terms of there being a totality that can be known.

Taking this one step further, and looking at things from a Lacanian position, one might argue that all consciousness is false, because consciousness is a function of the ego, but so is misrecognition. In other words, the ego always misrecognises the truth; what we call ‘reality’ is essentially a misrecognition. And those Marxists who try to impute class consciousness into the proletariat are as much trapped in this misrecognition as the proletariat themselves.

  1. Lukács, G. (1971) History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Pontypool, Merlin Press. The chapter I’m focusing on is Class Consciousness: pp.46-82. []
  2. This was a remark made by Lacan in 1974. It is explored in more detail by Declercq in his paper on the capitalist discourse: Declercq, F. (2006) Lacan on the Capitalist Discourse: its Consequences for Libidinal Enjoyment and Social Bonds. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, (11), pp.74–83. []