Class Consciousness in the 20th Century

This post is just to make a fairly simple point. An attitude I occasionally hear expressed by socialists is that over most of the 20th century, especially the second half, ‘identity politics’ (feminism, anti-racism, etc.) has grown and advanced, while ‘class politics’ has stagnated. In particular, there is often a view that ‘class consciousness’ among the working class has declined overall.

I’m inclined to disagree, because to me the advance of feminism et al. is an enormous and crucial element in the development of such ‘class consciousness’.

So what exactly does ‘class consciousness’ mean here?

Does this phrase mean the sort of consciousness (the sort of habits of thought, feeling, and perception) that makes you aware of the class you belong to? That reflects the experiences of your class? That otherwise ‘corresponds’ to a class position? After all, even identifying the class an individual belongs to with any precision isn’t that easy.

I’d suggest that this is one of those phrases which is best defined by what it’s used for, by what makes it important. ‘Class consciousness’ is of interest, at least to some people, because they think it’s needed to allow a class to effectively advance its interests. In particular, ‘working-class consciousness’ is supposed to be what enables the proletariat to acquire an increasing share of social power and ultimately to establish socialism. So the best way to define ‘proletarian class-consciousness’, provisionally, is ‘whatever habits of thought, feeling and perception achieve this’.

So the question is, what sort of consciousness is suitable to advance proletarian control of society? Consider these lines from the Marx:

“All preceding [ruling] classes…sought to…subject society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation…They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify.”

Other classes that became ruling classes had to have some else to dominate and exploit: aristocrats need serfs, capitalists need workers, etc. Workers, the theory goes, are defined by an activity that doesn’t involve control of anyone else, and so rule by the workers can be genuinely democratic. This is also why Engels famously says that once the proletariat takes political power, it eventually abolishes its own political power, lets it to ‘wither away’.

If worker’s rule over society is so different from other sorts of class rule, though, the sort of mindset appropriate to it will also be different. To advance their interests, the workers need to manage a population without subordinating any part of it, to rule without rule. This, presumably, demands a consciousness, mindset, or culture that is democratic, libertarian, and egalitarian to an unprecedented degree.

By contrast, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that invest people in spurious claims of superiority (their own or others), which naturalise domination and hierarchy, which eroticise violence or submission, etc. etc. are ‘ruling class consciousness’ in that they tend to maintain a hierarchical society, which is in the interests of whoever’s at the top.

This is true independently of whether the individual in question thinks of themselves as belonging to an economic class, or directs their feelings onto economic classes, etc. On the assumption that this latter psychology also helps to advance a class’s interests, it would be one element, but not the whole, of class consciousness.

Given this definition, and given the high hopes that socialism tends to have for the working class and their ability to manage society without domination, and given also that sexual hierarchies, racial hierarchies, the exclusion or suppression of cultural or sexual or other minorities, all function to imbue what I’ve described as ‘ruling class consciousness’ –

– given all this, it seems to me that by socialist standards, ‘class consciousness’ in the working class of the world has advanced immeasurably over the 20th century, regardless of increases or decreases in explicit appeal to class categories.

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