March 6, 2023


The Marx Memorial Library takes a look at a concept key to understanding how ruling-class ideology becomes the ‘common sense’ of ordinary people.

False consciousness is a term used to describe the way in which exploited, oppressed or disadvantaged groups in society accept, assimilate and indeed actively defend or promote ideas which ultimately act against their own interests.

It can apply to individuals, to the working class as a whole, or to sections of it. It is closely related to the idea of hegemony (see Q&A 82) and to Marxist concepts of alienation, reification and fetishism (see Q&A 51).

“False consciousness” often manifests itself as so-called “common sense”. Examples include the notion that capitalism, “private enterprise”, profit, “the market” is simply how things are. That those who have power or earn more do so because they are brighter or work harder than the rest of us; that differences in opportunity or in the social position of men and women are natural, determined by their genes; that the status quo is simply just “the way the world works” and can’t be changed.

False consciousness is related to the ever changing economic and social base of capitalism. Marx and Engels declared:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e.,  the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.

“The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.”

Marx and Engels argued that false consciousness applies particularly in regard to abstract ideas, such as property rights, “ie ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones”.

The term “false consciousness” was first used by Engels who emphasised that it was not simply a passive absorption of ruling-class ideas and values, but involves an active acquiescence in adopting and developing those ideas: “a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness”. False consciousness was an aspect of ideology but, Engels declared, had been neglected by Marxists because of “the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history.”

Gramsci in the 1930s further developed the notion of false consciousness as part of the political superstructure, as a vehicle for delivering capitalist hegemony – the dominant but changing set of cultural and ideological norms which determine the boundaries of what can and cannot be said without inviting ridicule or antagonism and which helps the existing system to address its own contradictions, adapt and survive.

False consciousness is in part a consequence of the hegemony of propaganda, of the institutions of the capitalist state including education and the media, which encourages, and for some individuals rewards, obedience, submission and conformity.

But it manifests itself – and is reinforced – in multiple ways in everyday life. It expresses itself (for example) in commodity fetishism — the way relationships between people (workers and owners) are framed as relationships between things (money and products).

Commodity fetishism obscures the fact that relations between people and products reflect relationships between people and that they can therefore be changed.

False consciousness reveals itself above all in conformity – how the need to keep a job to pay the rent or mortgage, feed the kids, heat the home, enjoy the occasional luxury becomes seen as normal, the natural state of affairs whilst those who reap the rewards of your labour are simply enjoying the rights of ownership.

Ultimately, false consciousness legitimates the power of the ruling class.

Marx and Engels declared “in the last analysis, the dominant ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class” – legitimating a situation in which one class has power. As Terry Eagleton puts it, ideology is “an element in that complex structure of social perception which ensures that the situation in which one social class has power over the others is either seen by most members of the society as ‘natural’, or not seen at all.”

But (especially in its cultural aspects) “ideology is never a simple reflection of a ruling class’s ideas: on the contrary, it is always a complex phenomenon, which may incorporate conflicting, even contradictory, views of the world.”

Engels for example declared that art is far richer and more “opaque” than political and economic theory because it is less explicit, less purely ideological. So challenging false consciousness is not (just) a matter of political education and social argument. As the excellent culture pages in this paper show, the battle is also important in the cultural sphere.

The literary critic Ernst Fischer declared that art can (and that good art always does) transcend the ideological limits of its time “yielding us insights into the realities”.

False consciousness is the antithesis of class consciousness, of the development of a “class for itself”. Class consciousness involves forging a counter-culture which sees beyond the limitations of capitalism.

That task is vital where the contradictions of capitalism are most apparent – in the workplace, in our transport or energy supply systems, in the food chain, in the climate crisis.

But it is critical also in neighbourhoods, in communities, in everyday life.

In the decades following the collapse of “existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and subsequently elsewhere, not least (for example) in Yugoslavia (which had a very different model of social organisation and political engagement) some on the left experienced self-doubt.

Some even conceived that capitalism represented “the end of history” – that self-interest and exploitation was the inevitable state of humanity.

But socialism survived – and survives – not least in Cuba, in perhaps the least propitious of circumstances, due to the consciousness and engagement of workers and communities in protecting the gains of their revolution. And socialist ideas continue to inspire struggles for social justice and progress throughout the world.

In Britain, too, resistance to capitalism’s escalating economic crisis and public support for struggles over jobs, pay, conditions, and the social wage reflects a growing understanding that things can and must change.

Central to Marx’s concept of historical materialism is the understanding that it is not consciousness that determines people’s existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

However the form that consciousness takes can vary. As Gawain Little pointed out in an article in this paper, the hegemony exercised by capital is in a constant process of being remade and reconfigured.

As he argued, “It is not enough to propose alternatives, or even to fight to win people to them. We must change the very ‘common sense’ of society, enabling people to envision a future beyond capitalism.”

That is probably the single biggest challenge facing all socialists today.


-This article appeared as the Full Marx Feature #93 in the Morning Star (UK).