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Published 11 June 2015
“Understanding that we can be socialized into adopting an ideological position that is detrimental to our own interests is an important step towards the development of revolutionary consciousness.”

Question: If capitalist economics is based on class exploitation and oppression, then why hasn’t the working class organized itself into a liberating revolutionary movement?  


Answer: False consciousness!  


The notion of false consciousness has been developed out of Marxist theory. The basic idea can be broken down into the following components.  First, the dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class or classes.  Second, the interests of the dominant class or classes are not the same as those of the subordinate class or classes. Third, under such circumstances, the subordinate class(es) tend to adopt the interests of the dominant class and in-so-doing unknowingly takes on an ideological position that does not promote their interests.


Perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of false consciousness, to play-out in the real world, would be that of war.  Here the use of nationalism, for example, as a means of getting the people of one country to fight against the people of another country, is employed by elites.  Put simply, this results in working class people killing each other to protect and promote the existing power and privilege of the capitalist class.


Understanding that we can be socialized into adopting an ideological position that is detrimental to our own interests is an important step towards the development of revolutionary consciousness.  The facilitation of such development also represents perhaps the greatest challenge to revolutionaries.  Unfortunately however, the ways in which Marxists have tried to address false consciousness have led to a number of very problematic and undesirable outcomes.  Here I would like to highlight two specific, and perhaps related, examples of this problem and present possible alternative solutions.  


The first problem with the Marxist approach to addressing false consciousness, that I would like to highlight here, has to do with logical inconsistency.  The idea of false consciousness - i.e. taking on beliefs that do not represent your interests - only really makes sense if the opposite exists.  That is to say, the solution to false consciousness has to be something like a consciousness that is, or can be, free from external distorting influences.  This idea of a consciousness - that can be free from external distorting influences - seems to imply some kind of innate properties or qualities of mind.  However, such an idea seems to run contrary to Marx’s own formulation:  


“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (1)


Although not all Marxists would agree (2), this it seems to me, is a clear expression of what is sometimes referred to as the blank slate doctrine - the position which holds that all thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be explained with a few simple psychological mechanisms, and that all customs and social arrangements result from the socialization process from infancy to adulthood. (3) But if there are no intrinsic qualities of mind, other than those determined by society, then the idea of false consciousness is simply a non-starter.  The same holds, incidentally, for human rights.  As Chomsky, for one, has pointed out:


“If in fact humans are infinitely malleable, completely plastic beings, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of culture or social character, then they are fit subjects for the “shaping of behaviour” by state authorities, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or central committee.” (4)


So, in the end, the notion of false consciousness only makes sense from the position that there are innate structures of mind with intrinsic needs that effectively constitute important aspects of human nature.  It is the social accommodation of these intrinsic needs that constitutes what we might think of as true consciousness - without which there can be no meaningful notion of social justice.  This brings us nicely to the next problem I have with regards to how Marxists have attempted to address false consciousness, namely the way in which it is used to justify the vanguard party.


Tony Cliff, in chapter two of Marxism at the Millennium, poses the question: Why do we need a revolutionary party?  In answering this question, Cliff highlights a contradiction between the following two statements made by Marx:  “The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class” and “The prevailing ideas of every society are the ideas of the ruling class.”  For Cliff, of course, the contradiction is not in Marx’s head, but in reality.  In short, there is uneven consciousness within the working class and it is this unevenness that the vanguard party, in conjunction with state power, is established to address.  


We can see from this that the Marxist notion of false consciousness is used to justify the argument for a Leninist style vanguard party.  As noted above, however, the Marxist notion of false consciousness is highly problematic in that it seems to deny innate structures of mind with intrinsic needs.  Combine this blank slate view of the human mind with state power and we have a recipe for disaster - a lesson that history seems keen to teach us. But, is there an alternative way forward for revolutionaries that addresses the reality of false consciousness but that also avoids the dangers implicit in the Marxist-Leninist approach?  


One possible way forward would be to start by rejecting the blank slate doctrine that, as I have argued, seems to underpin the Marxist notion of false consciousness. Such a position would hold that innate structures of mind with intrinsic needs constitutes a central feature of human nature - a position that is supported by developments in the cognitive sciences. (5)  An investigation into what these innate structures and intrinsic needs could follow.  From this investigation a set of evidence based values could be identified that could then be used to inform a model of an idealized form of social organization. (6)  In turn this set of values could be used to inform strategy for radical-progressive social transformation. (7)  


Of course, Marxists (following Engels) typically reject such an approach as “utopian socialism,” which they dismiss as unscientific - even though the opposite is, in fact, the case. (8)  Understanding this issue from this position also opens-up the possibility that members of the vanguard party, themselves, could have false consciousness - using Marxist theory to rationalize oppressive state policy, all whilst claiming to be liberating the oppressed. (9)  


That aside, the contradiction highlighted by Cliff (and other Marxists) remains a genuine problem.  The solution, however, is not a Leninist style vanguard party but a revolutionary organization informed by an evidenced based model of a just society.  Such an organization may take on a vanguardist role and may even attempt to capture state power.(10)  However, as I hope is clear from the above this kind of revolutionary organization would, in important ways, be distinct from what has historically been referred to as Marxist-Leninist.  




(1)  This quote appears in Marx’s - A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy - available online here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm


(2)  For example, in his - Marx’s Concept of Man - Erich Fromm writes: “It is exactly the blindness of man’s conscious thought which prevents him from being aware of his true human needs, and ideals which are rooted in them.  Only if false consciousness is transformed into true consciousness, that is, only if we are aware of reality, rather than distorting it by rationalizations and fiction, can we also become aware of our real and true human needs.”  


(3) See Steven Pinker’s - The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human nature.


(4) This quote is taken from “Language and Freedom” which appears in - The Chomsky Reader - but which is also available on-line here: http://www.chomsky.info/books/state02.pdf

See, for example - Patterns in the Mind - by Ray Jackendoff.


(5) An example of this might be the value of social inclusion which has been shown to promote positive mental health.  


(6) Chomsky sketches out a similar proposal towards the end of his 1970 essay “Language and Freedom” (see note 4, above, for details).


(7) I have written about this previously here: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Utopian-Socialism-More-Scientific-than-Scientific-Socialism-20150425-0008.html


(8) I have written about false consciousness within the Marxist-Leninist tradition here:http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/-A-Lazy-Way-of-Explaining-History--20150518-0042.html


(9) A recent, but as yet unsuccessful, attempt at setting-up an organization alongside these kinds of lines is that of IOPS: http://www.iopsociety.org/

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