Class Consciousness

I do so much of my work in the form of email, it sometimes occurs to me that I should capture some of my more substantial emails. Today a student in my Modern Chinese Literature class sent me a message, saying he was having trouble coming to grips with the idea of class consciousness, and here’s what I wrote. Maybe it comes across as pedantic, but as I was writing it, it occurred to me that probably most people don’t even think about class consciousness anymore:

You don’t have to study Marxist thought intensively to grasp class consciousness. Yes, it is an idea we would associate with Marxist theory, but in the world of modern Chinese literature, the manifestations of that theory can be discerned in broad strokes. Class consciousness is, first of all, the awareness that one’s class background makes a difference, so in modern industrial society it means the consciousness that peasants and laborers are in many respects a different kind of people than managers, property owners and rich people. This is the basic class division that Marxists are concerned with, so they don’t get bogged down in finding new ways to define class with changes in the society and the economy. The members of these two groups (Marxists refer to them as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, respectively, although Chairman Mao’s contribution to this was adding the peasantry to the proletariat) will have different priorities, different values, different economic interests. 

A second way to think of or use the idea of class consciousness is as a designation of one’s own consciousness or subjectivity in terms of class. Most modern Chinese writers are bourgeois–there’s nothing they can do about that–but if they acknowledge that and consciously work to promote the interests of the proletariat, we can say that is a kind of class consciousness. But if a bourgeois writer believes his class interests–those principles, values, etc.–are universal to all classes, he is in fact acting in the interests of the bourgeois class only, from the point of view of Marxism.

Bottom line, put simply, in Marxism there are no universal human values, people’s values are determined by their class, and they will use those values to do battle for political supremacy over other classes. Thus what we call a “class-based view of literature” is one that devotes itself to the liberation of the proletariat in industrial capitalist society. People who do not accept this view of literature will say that human values and literary art transcend class.

There are a lot of things you could read to put a finer point on this, but a couple of my favorites are Marx’s “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844” and Georg Lukacs’ “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (the second one is in his book _History and Class Consciousness” and is very long, but quite brilliant). A simpler version of the ideas can be seen in the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels.


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