U.S. Intellectual History Blog

False Consciousness

Since my name was invoked in the ongoing debate on Eran’s latest post (“Could there be an intellectual history about ideas”)—as someone who might know something about “false consciousness”—I hereby dedicate a short post to thinking through this term and concept. It seems to me there are at least two ways in which “false consciousness” has been used in the Marxist tradition since Engels first used it in a private letter to Franz Mering:

  1. False consciousness is how the proletariat (or oppressed classes more generally) internalizes its oppression. It believes that the system is working in its favor, when in fact it’s working against its interests and in favor of bourgeois interests. Working class people are dupes.
  2. False consciousness is that which describes how all or most people living within the capitalist system wrongly think that capitalism is the superior mode of production and human interaction, or wrongly think it’s the only viable way of living—the only alternative. We’re all dupes.

Marx never used the term “false consciousness” and never analyzed the concept in terms of its first way—in terms of thinking about working-class people as being dupes. This was for good reason and not only because it’s condescending. Rather Marx’s main project was a critique of political economy, and one of the central currents running through 18th and 19th century political economy that he sought to criticize was the idea that humans are rational agents who seek to maximize personal advantage. Homo economicus. Such an understanding of human motivation kneecaps ethics, and although Marx was focused on unmasking seeming laws of capitalism his critique was also ethical in that he pointed to less exploitative ways of living that would improve the lives of everyone. To the Finland Station. The idea that the proletariat has false consciousness is grounded in the idea that humans should be governed by narrow self-interest.

The best-known Marxist analysis of false consciousness is Lukács, Class Consciousness. To a certain degree Lukács did indeed think that false consciousness was a problem specific to the working class. He premised his study on the following essential question: if the working class understands its real interests, why aren’t all its members socialist revolutionaries? Putting aside liberal or conservative criticisms of the premise upon which this question is based—about whether socialism is indeed in the best interests of the working class—and it does engender an interesting avenue of analysis, but only because Lukács argued his way out of its potentially condescending or anti-ethical elements. He wrote that rather than analyze how people’s beliefs are true or false relative to their interests, we should “investigate this ‘false consciousness’ concretely as an aspect of the historical totality and as a stage in the historical process.” In other words, the system itself breeds misunderstanding—this was what Lukács famously referred to as reification which is now a commonly used academic term to refer to the naturalization of historically contingent ideas. In other words, Lukács started at the first way of thinking about “false consciousness” (specific to the working class) but ended at the second (more generally a systemic or historical problem).

Even though Marx did not use the term “false consciousness” in his analysis of capitalism, and although he avoided the first way of understanding the concept, he did indeed point in the direction of the second, specifically with his elegant unmasking of commodity fetishism. We cannot see the underlying social relations that give us our world of surfaces. This is what Žižek means when he claims that “Marx invented the symptom.” Capitalism violates human nature and capacity, but the process of capitalism keeps such violations hidden from us. We are alienated from ourselves.

Another term for this second form of “false consciousness” is ideology, although the ways in which that term has been used are even more varied and fraught. For a lucid and thorough genealogy of ideology see Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction. I also recommend Žižek’s Sublime Object of Ideology (this was written way before Žižek became, well, Žižek, and its theoretical originality blew my mind when I first read it). Žižek writes: “‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence.” Or; we are all caught in a web of unreality.

19 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Found this post really helpful, especially the clear division of the two definition. I still think that the idea of false consciousness, even in its second form, is condescending or patronizing. Imagine we reverse the dictum, and say that Marxists believe that scientific socialism is the “superior mode of production and human interaction, or (wrongly) think it’s the only viable way of living, the only alternative.” Shouldn’t it follow that everyone who doesn’t believe that is a dupe?

    • Yes you’re probably right. The terms “false” and “true” are the problem. But if I believe one way of living is superior to another, and you believe the opposite, and we both hold our ideas to be true in some sense, then we also both hold the other’s ideas to be false in the same sense. So how do we broker this? Humility?

      • Yes! Humility is so important! Socrates once said that “the only thing I know for certain is that I nothing.” Or something like that 🙂

        I guess philosophical pragmatism/pluralism/relativism is one way to broker this. In some ways it’s an inherently humble philosophy. But it still may not be adequate is an enormous and separate discussion.

  2. This is great, Andrew–thank you!

    I’d argue that one of the great advantages that intersectionality has is its ability to work through some of these questions about the internalization of oppression: it’s not a question of being duped but of being caught out constantly in the contradictions of multiple overlapping identities–we are not just members of a class, and so our interests are not purely class-based. Thus we cannot simply misconstrue them; we are always responding to multiple conflicting demands, impulses, interests.

    Erik Olin Wright, it seems to me, has tried to replicate this solely in the idiom of class with his concept of contradictory class locations, but the result–I think most commentators have argued–is less than convincing.

  3. I would hope all would-be Marxists, or at least those inspired or motivated by Marxian or Marxist conceptions of ideology would attempt to explain same by the mental mechanisms identified in cognitive and Freudian (or post-Freudian) psychology, perhaps in the manner similar or analogous to those processes in which Fromm spoke of “social filters.” I may be unduly enamored of “causal mechanisms,” but I think we cannot account for ideology without some plausible account of how (and why) ideology becomes anchored in individual minds, including an account of which (often motley) ends or purposes it serves, which may or may not be identical to the original reasons for its initial entrenchment.

    • Slavoj Žižek has been mixing psychoanalysis and Marxist theory since the late 1980s. And there are plenty of other thinkers who have gone down that route, from Wilhelm Reich and Marcuse to Althusser. And although not necessarily Marxist, one can find similar musings in the works of theorists such as Fanon and Félix Guattari…

      • Yes, indeed, I have a bibliography (that needs a bit of updating) on Marxism and Freudian Psychology although (and for what it’s worth) unlike Žižek, I’m not too fond of Lacan. Marxists might also avail themselves of cognitive psychology (Elster provides some fine illustrations of its value in several books).

  4. Andrew, thanks for this. I agree with much of what you write.

    There is a third option: it is bourgeois political economists who are duped. That is what Marx actually argues in Capital.

    During grad school in 2010 or so, in one of the best seminar sessions I ever experienced–a class on social theory at NYU taught by Neil Brenner–a number of erudite marxists worked through these questions. A few points that I took away, ultimately convinced by the arguments of a member of the Endnotes collective, germane to your post: 1. Marx uses the word ideology in the three volumes of Capital only once. 2. The most important words in Capital vol. 1 are “as what they are,” when Marx says: “To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labors appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things” (166 in Penguin edition). The problem is not misperception, it is the inverted relations themselves. 3. When Marx discusses fetishism, he is always arguing that it is the property of bourgeois political economy (ie, that is what the final ten pages of part 4 of ch. 1 of vol. 1 are all about). They take the social character of the capitalist production process to be natural. The distinction to be drawn is between the fetish character of social relations, as in the sentence I just quoted, and the mode of bourgeois thinking represented in the Robinsonades, Ricardo, etc., which is inherently partial.

    Inheritors of the German Neue Marx-Lektüre debates like Moishe Postone, Michael Heinrich, and Chris Arthur all extend this sort of critique, as does Endnotes. At the risk of oversimplification, Postone in particular argues that “traditional marxism” and bourgeois political economy settle basically on the same flawed reading, which corresponds not only to the attribution of misunderstanding to the proletariat that you point out but also to socialists’ notion that the proletariat can and should obtain a just distribution of value. Marx, rather, aims for its abolition.

    So, the point is: we are all subject to the topsy-turvy fetish-character of the social relations of capitalism but we are not all duped according to Marx’s understanding of fetishism.

    • In the section on commodity fetishism in Capital vol. 1, Marx says that even after the discovery (or ‘discovery’ if one prefers) of the determinants of a commodity’s value, the fact that the commodity has a physical, ‘objective’ form continues to mislead those who are engaged in producing and exchanging commodities:

      The belated scientific discovery that the products of labor, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labor expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance [i.e., the appearance] of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labor. [Penguin ed., p.167, and see the immediately following sentences]

      As I read this section, he’s saying that commodities will always necessarily have “a material form” (p.168), and therefore in the mode of commodity production (p.169) the exchange of commodities (on the market or perhaps otherwise) will always involve a “definite social relation between men” assuming a “fantastic form of a relation between things.” (p.165) On this reading, the ‘fetishism of commodities’ is an ineradicable feature of the capitalist mode of production, and the ‘discovery’ of the labor theory of value (as Marx lays it out), i.e. the ‘discovery’ that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially-necessary labor time required to produce it, does not alter that fetishism because the ‘objective’ material form of commodities (and the surrounding conditions of exchange) continues to mislead or to conceal what’s really going on.

      However, if one rejects the proposition that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially-necessary labor time required to produce it, then probably (?) one has to reject the whole discussion of commodity fetishism in its particulars, though I suppose one could keep the general or extrapolated point that capitalism generates various sorts of mystifications and concealments.

      P.s. I must say that I find these passages more difficult to read now than I did a long time ago, and I didn’t find them especially easy then. This could be entirely my deficiencies, or I could decide to blame it all on the translator of the Penguin edition (B. Fowkes), though I’m sure the latter would be unfair.

      • p.p.s. I didn’t address the passage from p.166 that you quote, which does seem to cut the other way on the issue of misperception. I’m not sure exactly how to square it with the references to a “secret” (p.168) and “a social hieroglyphic” (p.167) etc., but I’ll let other people argue about this and/or settle it.

      • I don’t disagree here, Louis (especially about how tough to understand some of this stuff is!). The Q seems to be: who is the “secret” being kept from? Bourgeois political economists is the answer for Marx. I guess more generally I think the notion of concealment is misleading, though that has tended to be the most common way people understand what Marx is saying here. It may be true, particularly in a highly globalized and stretched supply chain, that the producers of a commodity are hidden from the consumer of that commodity. But I don’t really think that has much to do with what Marx is getting at in ch. 1 of vol. 1.

  5. Stuart,
    Thanks for the reply. After thinking about this a bit more, I guess my reaction to your comment, above, that “the problem is not misperception [by the producers], it is the inverted relations themselves” is that I’m not quite sure how to disentangle the issue of (mis)perception from the inverted relations, or from what makes the relations inverted. So much of Marx’s discussion here is couched in terms of ‘appearance’ (‘semblance’) and ‘reality’ that it seems to invite a focus on perception and misperception.
    (I would have to re-read all this more thoroughly than I did a little while ago, which I’m not inclined to do right now.) I agree, of course, that Marx directed a lot of fire at bourgeois political economists and they perhaps are the real target here.

    My (admittedly semi-ignorant) speculation is that the Hegelian inheritance might not have helped Marx in this instance, and perhaps it led him to make the points in an unnecessarily convoluted way. Last thing: I suspect one reason the discussion of commodity fetishism has had a pretty wide appeal (even to people who reject the labor theory of value and therefore, logically, probably would have to reject most or all of the discussion) is precisely that it does seem to many people to be about mystification, about how surfaces or appearances are misleading, and about that notion of ‘ideology’ that Andrew presents in the OP.

    De-emphasizing all that may indeed be the most sophisticated and/or accurate way to read this part of Capital, but, for better or worse, it’s likely going to diminish its appeal to a lot of people. That would be my hunch, anyway.

    • Before M. takes aim at the bourgeois economists in the last pages of the chapter, there’s this sentence (part of a longer passage):

      “It is…precisely this finished form of the world of commodities — the money form — which conceals the social character of private labor and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly…. [W]hen the producers of coats and boots bring these commodities into a relation with linen, or with gold or silver (and this makes no difference here), as the universal equivalent, the relation between their own private labor and the collective labor of society appears to them [i.e., to the producers] in exactly this absurd form [i.e., in the form of a relation between material objects].” (pp.168-9, emphasis added)

      I think the language here is worth noting and it clearly bears on the questions being discussed above.

  6. Andrew H. in the orig. post:
    We cannot see the underlying social relations that give us our world of surfaces. This is what Žižek means when he claims that “Marx invented the symptom.”

    Kahlil in a comment above:
    Slavoj Žižek has been mixing psychoanalysis and Marxist theory since the late 1980s. And there are plenty of other thinkers who have gone down that route, from Wilhelm Reich and Marcuse to Althusser. And although not necessarily Marxist, one can find similar musings in the works of theorists such as Fanon and Félix Guattari…

    Another place one can find a similar point (the Marx-Freud parallel) is in Robert Heilbroner, Marxism: For and Against (Norton, 1980; pb., 1981), pp.16-17:

    [Marx’s] contribution, in some ways paralleling those of Plato and Freud, was the discovery of an unsuspected level of reality beneath the surface of history, above all beneath the history of the period that we call “capitalism.” What Marx invented — again paralleling Plato and Freud — was a mode of inquiry to reach that buried reality….

    In a footnote Heilbroner mentions Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy (1971; p.15), saying that Althusser offers “a similar explanation for Marx’s unique place,” comparing Marx to — in their respective fields — Thales, Galileo, and Freud.

    [I also note a passing ref. to Marx/Freud, albeit in a different context, in M. Harrington, Socialism (Saturday Review Press, 1970), p.285.]

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