What is false consciousness?


  Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” — Mao Zedong



In an attempt to grasp the inner workings and implications of Lukács’ ‘false consciousness’ we may ask whether this cornerstone of Western Marxian thought resounds in any other modern academic discipline or whether it will, as a result, always be limited to the lecture halls of the few remaining ‘leftist’ institutions. And if, furthermore, Lukács’ concept is to have any relevance to the way we as a global community do or ought to react in the face of systemic social injustice, this investigation should be anchored in reality.  Any attempt to juxtapose differing academic standpoints will fall short of describing the precise conditions under which we submit ourselves to false consciousness and the effects this submission has.

Since the end of the Cold War, capitalism and the free market economy seem to have established themselves as the only viable form of intra- and international governance. The promise, which could be considered essential to capitalism’s existence, is that of limitless liberties. Described as such, it is no wonder why capitalism won the ideological battle against Soviet totalitarianism. But even when capitalism (American or otherwise) exemplified this promise most, there were some who questioned its sincerity. In this light we may consider whether Marcuse’s analysis of the post-war boom still holds any merit today and whether our age – an age in which technology has reached a point where individual suffering could be overcome – may still be characterised by “the union of growing productivity and growing destruction; the brinkmanship of annihilation; the surrender of thought, hope, and fear to the decisions of the powers that be; the preservation of misery in the face of unprecedented wealth” (Marcuse, 1964).  And yet the system goes largely unquestioned: while there are policies in place to dampen the effect of the market’s most detrimental forces, the larger question — whether this system is in reality the only viable option of coexistence — is rarely asked. It seems like the paradigm shift so direly needed would not only enable a shift in questions asked but also change the answers that are permissible (MacFarlane, 2002). If capitalism should in fact be “the end of history” (Fukuyama, 1989), should we be content with the current state of the world – and does this adage, if true, equate to the end of social change for the better? If not, then the question becomes: why are we not seeing more people empowering themselves? If the proletariat (or any marginalised group) is indeed being exploited all over the world, why isn’t every marginalised person a Marxist revolutionary? For Lukács the answer is ‘false consciousness’.

The term first arises in a letter by Engels to Franz Mehring in which Engels admits that he and Marx placed their focus primarily on the “derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions […] from basic economic facts” to the dismissal of the notional aspects of ideology themselves (Engels, 1893). He holds that “ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously […] but with a false consciousness” (ibid.). So the pivotal question to ask is: how does this discrepancy arise? How are we consciously conjuring up a false consciousness?

Lukács holds that the “essence of scientific Marxism consists […] in the realisation that the real motor forces of history are independent of man’s (psychological) consciousness of them [my emphasis]” (Lukács, 1920). Unlike dogmatic ‘vulgar’ Marxism, this scientific Marxism is above all a methodology to dissolve ‘the rigid, unhistorical, natural appearance of social institutions […] [revealing] their historical origins and […] [showing] that they are subject to history in every respect’ (ibid.). This process, known as historical or dialectical materialism, places capital and the maximisation of profit at the centre of human historical development. The social institutions thought to govern humanity justly are thereby only in place to ensure the right to maximise one’s own profit. Within the existing power dynamics that created the social institutions in the first place, however, this perpetuates the status quo: favouring the elites by securing their autonomy to invest their already abundant wealth and accumulating more; disadvantaging the working class, who believe that their inability to accumulate wealth is somehow just. Bourgeois history — in other words, conceptions of history that do not rely on historical materialism — largely produces apologies for the immutability of the existing order by projecting interpretations of their own day and age onto known dates, subsequently claiming to have created historical fact (ibid.). However, “the tacit pre-supposition is that these facts themselves are also only the fruits of a process of thought” (Engels,1893), each process of thought running along the paradigms of the current age.

Only dialectical materialism provides the methodology comparatively to study the subjective wants of individuals and their objective needs, and to understand that the objective development of society is not necessarily in line with anyone’s personal ambition towards a ‘better’ life but may only happen to coincide with it. The realisation of any such discrepancy, between subjective wants and objective needs, would constitute class consciousness — neither the sum nor the average of what is thought by the single individuals that the class is made up of (Lukács, 1920). The class struggle thus defined becomes a struggle for a personal revolution of thought rather than a collective revolution of political power. It is the misleading axioms of capitalist thought that have to be overcome categorically, advancing from a ‘formal’ to a ‘substantive’ form of rationality (Weber, 19) in order for the proletariat to perfect itself “by annihilating and transcending itself” (Lukács, 1920) as a category, to create the classless society. As “all liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude” (Marcuse, 1963) there exists in scientific Marxism the need for a way to quantify false consciousness, crucially without telling people how to think and thereby revisiting the mistakes of all previous forms of serfdom. Lukács attempts this by distinguishing first between false consciousness of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

His investigation begins by questioning the function of class consciousness, or a class-conditioned unconsciousness. For any class to dominate society and construct it in its favour, requires firstly an insight into their own interest and into the “definite formal nexus which appears to govern the whole of life” (Lukács, p.52). The bourgeoisie had the necessary insights and momentum both when abolishing the feudal system and subsequently — equipped with a methodical understanding of economies — when institutionalising its hegemony. However, bourgeois thought observes economic life ‘necessarily from the viewpoint of the individual capitalist’ (ibid., p.63) which produces a clash when confronted by a ‘dialectical contradiction’: for instance an economic crash,  a case where the ideological reason for the system is adverse to an inevitable product of the system, in which individual self-interest clashes with collective self-interest. As such, bourgeois dialectics are insolubly rooted in an “antagonism between ideology and economic base’”(ibid., p64), and the only way for them to sustain themselves became to forge a former false consciousness into a ‘mendacious consciousness’ as “the theoretical problem turned into a moral posture which decisively influenced every practical class attitude”. (ibid. 65)

As for the proletariat, or any social group or class relegated to the margins of society, the problem with attaining consciousness to one’s own advantage is the aforementioned moralising argument so intrinsic to capitalism. This effectively fragments the interests in a “world where the reified relations of capitalism have the appearance of a natural environment” (ibid., 70), this great loss of unity in praxis, that could be used to counter the system, lays scattered before a unified force of “objective economic tendencies”. (ibid., p.74) As far as this argument goes the only way to counter this force is to scrutinise all behaviour and thought and not give in to the axioms of the system that have been naturalised in order to sustain it; a system where it is only “a sense of political mistrust [that] has been identified as essential to group consciousness-raising and the achievement of progressive social change” (Jost, 1995).

Marx and Lukács have exhaustively dealt with the question of whom the system favours, but in doing so they also touched on a matter needing further investigation. If the bourgeoisie should be disadvantaged by some aspects of the system then the revolution in thought would be necessary in allstrata of society. Should this be the case we may ask whether we are dominated by an increasingly small elite with an unproportionate amount of power or whether our collective subjugation is a result of a failed assumption about how human beings behave. Either way, “Marx may have underestimated the extent to which social-psychological mechanisms allow people to adapt to political systems which thwart their own interests” (Jost,1995).

One of these social-psychological biases is ‘cognitive conservatism’, which is the tendency to stick to thoughts or beliefs out of habit although they are no longer functional and “involves the belief that change, in itself, is aversive, not just difficult to achieve.” (ibid.) Underlying the hegemonic conception of economics, for instance, is a very pessimistic picture of humankind as homo oeconomicus, a one-dimensional pleasure machine “devoted to the maximisation of pleasure (utility) and the minimisation of pain (disutility)” (Chang, 2014). This claim was central to the school of neoclassical economics as only a purely self-interested, rational and most importantly independent actor would allow for the self-regulating equilibrium and as “their competition in the market ensures that their actions collectively produce a socially benign outcome” (ibid.). This next section will aim to demonstrate how this claim was perpetuated throughout the development of the modern market system even against evidence to the contrary. 

With respect to the topic at hand, we may say that due to the bias inherent in us to favour information that would affirm this claim and reconcile selfish tendencies with a pessimistic world view we perpetuate this false consciousness. Furthermore it is the hegemony of capitalist thought itself, that has led to the “collapse of our collective imaginations” (Graeber, 2011) when trying to envisage alternatives to capitalism, although it may be viewed by many as being unsustainable in its current form. This is in part due to the fact that since the early stages of capitalism we have been conditioned to describe things in capitalist terms. Graeber’s view, though defining himself as an anarchist anthropologist, arguably employs a materialist dialectic to go beyond reified notions of the economy and our conception of debt. One example of this is his investigation of our assumption as to what what pre-capitalism must have looked like — this already being part of the problem: the assumed unilinear progression of economic systems.

When thinking about the origin of our modern market economy, economists often speak of the origin of money, where debt is usually only something of an afterthought. “First comes barter, then money; credit only develops later” seems to be the resounding account in all introductions to economics (ibid. p.21). They posit that what was needed in those cases was a “double coincidence of wants”(ibid. p.22) whereby both exchange partners need to show an interest in what the other one has to offer. As this wouldn’t always prove practical and would usually involve more than two exchange partners, a form of generalised substitute token was invented (i.e. currency).

Debt doesn’t enter into the economist’s illustration.  However, “when we examine how economic life is actually conducted […] [we] discover everyone is in debt to everyone else in a dozen different ways, and that most transactions take place without the use of currency”. (ibid. 22) If all anthropological evidence to date discounts this myth of barter, why would it still be so widespread? What this myth effectively does is set the marketplace, where we engage in commerce, apart from what Graeber terms the “sphere of consumption” (ibid. 32). The sphere of consumption is where we practise all forms of sociality, be it food, music, sex or anything else — separating social life from the marketplace only made it possible for economics to exist as its own discipline(ibid. 32): first as a part of ethics and then as it’s own dominion. (Chang, 2014, p.120). In fact, no such realm of commerce exists: the economy, defined as independent from society, is, in Marxist terms, perhaps the archetypal product of reification.

On the contrary, people all over the world have created markets in a personal and social context, precisely within the “sphere of consumption”: for instance by maintaining the social order through attaching great value to non-use pearl necklaces in the kula ring (Malinowski, 1922 ), or by integrating commercial exchange into flamboyant displays of wealth as in the potlatch (Mauss, 1923 ).  The narrative of advanced capitalism, however, underlies and informs our perception of the material world so that when reading ‘The Gift’ it is only too easy to equate the hau or the spirit of the gift to an emotional form of pre-capitalist interest-return, circularly enforcing a worldview of human interactions based on the selfish maximisation of profit. But it is rather the reverse that is true: only once the categorical division between consumption and commerce is created — once emotional and social forms of debt are done away with — it calls for the creation of “very specific institutional arrangements — the existence of lawyers, prisons and police — to ensure that even people who don’t like each other very much, who have no interest in developing any kind of ongoing relationship, but are simply interested in getting their hands on as much of the others’ possessions as possible, will nonetheless refrain from the most obvious expedient (theft)”. (Graeber, 2011)

As we have seen it is this moralising argument about human nature that seeds distrust and fosters a rationalist paradigm in our current world view.  The tragedy of bourgeois dialectics was, in Lukács sense, that it undermines its own rule by advancing an essentially moral premise — that humans are at their deepest selfish beings best left to their own devices — that was devoid of any higher form of morality. “To achieve this it was forced both to develop a coherent theory of economics, politics and society and also to make conscious and sustain its faith in its own mission to control and organise society.” (Lukács, 1920) The reason why this still constitutes a false consciousness is that this picture is just an oversimplification of our human nature that is at its base not only concerned with pure rationality, others influences may be as unscientific as instinct, habit or belief. Even if we were purely rational beings, only a complete sociopath would be able to act on such impulses because we are constantly suspended in a web of social obligations and favours that, thankfully, permit us from acting on our most self-serving desires. In light of Fukuyama’s adage we conclude that the challenge now lies ahead, that is, the true ‘end of history’ may only come once we have created an image of ourself, that firstly reflects all humankind, that we feel comfortable with and that might be worth aspiring to.



Freddie W. P. Schmidt  
– SOAS Anthropology




Marcuse, Herbert, One-Dimensional Man

MacFarlane, Alan, The Milk of Paradise or the Conditions for Creativity

Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History?

Engels, Friedrich, Friedrich Engels to Franz Mehring, July 14, 1893. Letter, from Marx and Engels Correspondence. International Publishers (1968) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm (last accessed April 17, 2015).

  1. Lukács, György, History and Class Consciousness p.47
  2. p. 48

Engels, Friedrich, Friedrich Engels to Franz Mehring, July 14, 1893. Letter, from Marx and Engels Correspondence. International Publishers (1968) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm (last accessed April 17, 2015).

Lukács, György, History and Class Consciousness


Lukács, György, History and Class Consciousness

Marcuse, Herbert, One-Dimensional Man

Lukács, György, History and Class Consciousness p.52

ibid. p.63

  1. p.64

ibid. p.65

ibid. p.70

ibid. p.74

Jost, John T., Negative Illusions: Conceptual Clarification and Psychological Evidence concerning False Consciousness

Chang, Ha-Joon, Economics: The User’s Guide, p.120

Graeber, David, Debt: The First 5,000 Years,p.29

ibid., p.21

ibid., p.22

ibid., p.32

Chang, Ha-Joon, Economics: The User’s Guide, p.120

Malinowski, Bromislaw, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, 1921

Mauss, Marcel, The Gift, 1922

Lukács, György, History and Class Consciousness p.65














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