Political consciousness

Political consciousness

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Following the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher, one of the creators of German Idealism. His historicist and idealist account of reality as a whole revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism.Hegel developed a comprehensive...

, Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 outlined the workings of a political consciousness.

The politics of consciousness

Consciousness is a term that refers to the relationship between the mind and the world with which it interacts. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind...

 typically refers to the idea of a being who is self-aware. It is a distinction often reserved for human beings. This remains the original and most common usage of the term. But a line of political and philosophical inquiry opened up which explores consciousness in terms of one's political state of mind. For Marx, consciousness describes a person's political sense of self. That is, consciousness describes a person's awareness of politics. For Marx, an authentic consciousness was linked to understanding one's true position in History. While Hegel placed God behind the workings of consciousness in people, Marx saw the political economy
Political economy
Political economy originally was the term for studying production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth, including through the budget process. Political economy originated in moral philosophy...

 as the engine of mind.

In the 20th century, many social movements and intellectuals have developed this use of consciousness.

False consciousness

In Marx's view, consciousness was always political, for it was always the outcome of politic-economic circumstances. What one thinks of life, power, and self, for Marx, is always a product of ideological forces.

For Marx, ideologies appear to explain and justify the current distribution of wealth and power in a society. In societies with unequal allocations of wealth and power, ideologies present these inequalities as acceptable, virtuous, inevitable, and so forth. Ideologies thus tend to lead people to accept the status quo. The subordinate people come to believe in their subordination: the peasants to accept the rule of the aristocracy, the factory workers to accept the rule of the owners, consumers the rule of corporations. This belief in one's own subordination, which comes about through ideology, is, for Marx, false consciousness.

That is, conditions of inequality create ideologies which confuse people about their true aspirations, loyalties, and purposes. Thus, for example, the working class
Working class
Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs , often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes...

 has often been, for Marx, beguiled by nationalism, organized religion, and other distractions. These ideological devices help to keep people from realizing that it is they who produce wealth, they who deserve the fruits of the land, all who can prosper: instead of literally thinking for themselves, they think the thoughts given to them by the ruling class.

Consciousness and the political-economy

For Marx, consciousness is a reflection of the political economy. A person's thoughts tend to be shaped by his or her political and economic circumstances. He famously wrote, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

Perhaps Marx's greatest contribution to modern thought... is his comprehensive investigation into the role of Ideology, or how social being determines consciousness, which results in certain (for the most part unconscious) belief and value systems depending on the particular economic infrastructure pertaining at the time. From a Marxian point of view all cultural artifacts--religious systems, philosophical positions, ethical values--are, naturally enough, products of consciousness and as such are subject to these ideological pressures.

Consciousness and social movements

Many social movements have loosely followed Marx's thinking on consciousness. Attaining consciousness, many believe, means finding one's true historical path, as opposed to the propaganda dispensed by the ruling elites. Thus, the feminist movement
Feminist movement
The feminist movement refers to a series of campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, women's suffrage, sexual harassment and sexual violence...

 spoke of consciousness raising
Consciousness raising
Consciousness raising is a form of political activism, pioneered by United States feminists in the late 1960s...

 and many South African activists have subscribe to a Black Consciousness Movement
Black Consciousness Movement
The Black Consciousness Movement was a grassroots anti-Apartheid activist movement that emerged in South Africa in the mid-1960s out of the political vacuum created by the jailing and banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress leadership after the Sharpeville Massacre in...

, which calls upon Blacks to pursue their "true" political trajectory (as opposed to the ideas set out by, for example, the apartheid regime). In the latter example, for many South African Blacks, consciousness meant rejecting racist ideas about Blacks, rejecting White rule of the nation, and restoring Black identity, history, and power.

In a politically charged sense, becoming "politically conscious" is often meant to connote that people have awakened to their true political role, their actual identity. For Marx, this meant that the working classes would become conscious of themselves as the agents of history--they would unite and share in the wealth of labor. This, for Marx, was their historical role and their right (as opposed to working for wages, fighting wars on behalf of capitalists, and so forth). For many African Americans, "consciousness" has meant identifying and discrediting forms of White supremacy
White supremacy
White supremacy is the belief, and promotion of the belief, that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds. The term is sometimes used specifically to describe a political ideology that advocates the social and political dominance by whites.White supremacy, as with racial...

, including those internalized by Blacks. In these uses of the term "consciousness" is truth or destiny. These uses of political consciousness are often politically charged. Does, for example, a Black woman lack consciousness because she generally supports a system run mostly by White male capitalists? If she became politically conscious would she think differently? What is her "true" consciousness supposed to look like?

Many marxists, feminists, African Americans (and other groups), have ceased to argue that there is one true form of consciousness. Instead, while preserving a sense that the ruling class perpetuates a dominant ideology
Dominant ideology
The dominant ideology, in Marxist theory, is the set of common values and beliefs shared by most people in a given society, framing how the majority think about a range of topics...

 and often behaves in ways which harm people, many dissenters now hold a more liberal position which tolerates a variety of political positions. The complexities of political consciousness are described by the theories of cultural hegemony
Cultural hegemony
Cultural hegemony is the philosophic and sociological theory, by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, that a culturally diverse society can be dominated by one social class, by manipulating the societal culture so that its ruling-class worldview is imposed as the societal norm, which then is...


See also

  • Consciousness raising
    Consciousness raising
    Consciousness raising is a form of political activism, pioneered by United States feminists in the late 1960s...

  • Class consciousness
    Class consciousness
    Class consciousness is consciousness of one's social class or economic rank in society. From the perspective of Marxist theory, it refers to the self-awareness, or lack thereof, of a particular class; its capacity to act in its own rational interests; or its awareness of the historical tasks...

  • History of Consciousness
    History of Consciousness
    The History of Consciousness program is an interdisciplinary graduate program in the humanities with links to the sciences, social sciences, and arts at the University of California at Santa Cruz....

    , an interdisciplinary program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
  • Identity politics
    Identity politics
    Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the self interest and perspectives of self-identified social interest groups and ways in which people's politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through race, class, religion, sexual orientation or traditional dominance...

External resources