Socialist Party of America | Workers of the World Unite

A Model of Activist Research:
How to Study Class Consciousness...and Why We Should
by Bertell Ollman

According to Marxist theory, a socialist revolution requires a class conscious working class. Consequently, most socialist political activity is directed one way or another to raising workers' consciousness. Yet relatively few Marxists have gone beyond theoretical analysis to studying the class consciousness of real workers. In part, this is due to the belief, widespread among Marxists, that such consciousness is a necessary by-product of capitalist economic crisis, or the belief, equally widespread, that class consciousness can only be observed in political actions (in both cases, studying class consciousness now is impossible or irrelevant). In part, this neglect is due to a post Lenin overemphasis on developing political strategies and organizations, on the assumption that class consciousness is sufficiently advanced—once effective leadership is provided—for revolutionary activity to occur (in which case, studying it is unnecessary). Proponents of this view often confuse, as Lenin never did, simple anger directed against a boss and trade union consciousness with revolutionary or class consciousness.

Given the complexity of our subject, the paucity of Marxist studies of class consciousness is also due, in part, to lack of a workable method (in which case, such studies are unthinkable). And, finally, if truth will out, this situation is due, in part, to an unhappy tradition in which many renegades from Marxism have begun their descent from grace by noting the non-socialist character of real workers (in which case, investigating class consciousness has appeared to some as politically suspect and even reactionary). The absence, until relatively recently, of Marxist scholars in the universities who might have conducted such studies has only served to exacerbate these tendencies.

There have been, of course, numerous Marxist studies of the working class, particularly by historians and sociologists, that describe important aspects of their class consciousness. E.P. Thompson (1966), Eric Hobsbawm (1984), David Montgomery (1979), Herbert Gutman (1976), Harry Braverman (1974), Andre Gorz (1967), Serge Mallet (1975), Erich Fromm (1984), Michael Mann (1973), John Leggett (1968), Stanley Aronowitz (1973), Eric Wright (1985), Adam Przeworski (1977), John McDermott (1980), and Paul Willis (1981) are some of the chief figures here. But few of these authors have made consciousness their main focus. And fewer still have made independent studies of the consciousness of today's workers. In the main their evidence comes from non-Marxist research (which they reinterpret), working class actions (which they deconstruct), government statistics, literary texts, personal experiences, anecdotes, and unique events and testimonies. More serious still, there is no consistent method that helps us as readers and potential researchers and political actors to get what we want and to understand what we have once we've gotten it. Usually, we are provided with a highly suggestive collage, generally with many parts missing, of theoretically undigested facts and insights. Until these findings are reformulated in terms of Marx's theory of class consciousness and integrated in turn within Marx's broader analysis of society, their full potential for helping us either understand or change capitalism cannot be realized. Clearly, a better focused, more systematic, and more effectively theorized Marxist study of class-consciousness of today's workers remains to be done.

In the meantime, non-Marxist social science has made class-consciousness one of it main topics of study, though, of course, the conceptual frameworks that are used have little to do with Marx's own. The preferred approach is the attitude survey, simply asking workers a whole range of questions as to how they feel, think, and act in regard to specified social and political situations. One of the most influential examples of this approach is found in Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer, and Platt (1969). Those who conduct such surveys generally assume that the answers they get back are honest, of similar intensity, easy to interpret, and—most suspect of all—relatively stable. But Seymour Martin Lipset, whose many writings on the working class have made extensive use of such materials, admits that no attitude survey has even foretold any of the great bursts of working class consciousness that have occurred (1983a). Public choice literature offers another, increasingly popular, non-Marxist approach to studying class-consciousness. Here, the emphasis is on examining the practical reasoning that leads individuals to make decisions on whether to participate in class actions. Based on a highly individualist sense of decision making and an extremely egoistic view of human nature, most of the studies that have come out of this school, beginning with the path-breaking work of Mancur Olsen (1971), have demonstrated conclusively that individual workers have nothing to gain by thinking and acting as members of their class.

A third approach has simply linked class-consciousness; or rather the lack of it, to the increasing segmentation of the work force that follows from changes in the structure of the job market. What distinguishes different groups of workers from each other, it is held, has become greater than what they have in common, establishing a variety of occupation or sector consciousnesses in place of class consciousness (Lockwood, 1975). This account is sufficiently materialist and stucturalist to attract the support of some radicals (Edwards, 1979), but the class consciousness that is undermined never gets the same attention as what undermines it. Hence, we are in no position to estimate the pull of conflicting forces on workers' consciousness either now or in the future.

But perhaps the most influential non-Marxist approach to studying class consciousness is one that uses cross-cultural data to answer the question, "Why no socialism in the U.S.?" In this case, what workers think is deduced from what they have achieved, especially politically, and what American workers have achieved in this regard is considerably less impressive than the powerful socialist and communist parties and trade unions thrown up by the European working class. By concentrating on what there is in European history and conditions that contributed to these developments (such as a feudal past), and what there is in the U.S that restricted them (such as greater social mobility), this comparative approach tries to show not only that class consciousness does not exist here, but that it could not have come about and—by implication—will never come about. For the classic statement of this position, see Sombart (1976; first published 1906).

The assumption here, of course, is that there is only one way of becoming class conscious. This is clearly disproved, however, not only by the variety of paths taken by the working class in different European countries but also by the degree of class consciousness that relatively large numbers of American workers achieved in the period just before World War 1 and again in the 1930s. The point is that capitalism, just like any complex organism, contains many compensating mechanisms, so that the absence of any one of them is not sufficient reason for believing that its function will not find expression through some other form. Conversely, the presence of conditions that exist only in the United States is no guarantee that the sum of capitalism's other conditions will not sooner or later produce a class-consciousness equal to, or even greater than, that found in Europe. Besides their conservative implications and the questionable methods adopted by all these non-Marxist studies, they can also be faulted for focusing on only part of class consciousness, which narrowness is also largely responsible for their conservative implications.


Making a Marxist inquiry into the class-consciousness of today's workers on the other hand, requires that we bring the whole of this notion into focus. For this, we must clarify the nature of class and the consciousness of a class in Marxist theory. To begin with the latter, "consciousness" in the expression "class consciousness" does not mean the same thing as it does in the expression "individual consciousness." It is not just a matter of individuals being conscious, or having a certain understanding, of their class. Rather, class is the subject, and consequently, consciousness is not just a larger version of individual consciousness. What is it then? Before answering we must shift our attention to class.

We find that defining "class"—or indeed any other important notion in Marxism—proceeds from the whole to the part (class, in this case) rather than from still smaller parts (individuals) to class, viewed as some larger composite notion. According to Marx, "the subject, society, must always be envisaged as the precondition of comprehension" (1904, 295). This whole, this society, is capitalism, or more specifically, Marx's analysis of capitalism, which captures both its distinctive character as a social formation and the unique dynamics, or "law of motion," that has transformed it from its beginnings in feudalism to and through the present to whatever future awaits it. Before we can offer more precision on Marx's notion of class, we need to have a better idea of the whole in which it plays such a crucial role.

Capitalism is not a perpetual motion machine destined to last forever and a day. But if it isn't, what is it about the way this system works and develops that will eventually bring on its destruction? Marx believed he found the answer to this question in the process of accumulation and centralization of capital (or wealth producing wealth), especially when view in connection with the limited purchasing power of the workers. This relationship is often expressed as the contradiction between social production and private appropriation. Production and consumption follow two different logics. The former is determined by profit maximization; the capitalists invest in order to make and maximize profits. While what gets bought and consumed is determined by what people, most of whom are workers, can afford. And, as the capitalist never return as much wealth to workers (in the form of wages) as the workers produce (in the form of commodities), there is a constant pressure on the system to find alternative buyers for this surplus.

This contradiction intensifies as the gap between the amount of wealth produced (and producible) and the amount returned to the workers as wages grows, as it invariably does, chiefly through advances in science and technology. Increases in the workers' real wages, which can occur from time to time and from place to place does not seriously impede this process. Every decade or so for the past 150 years this contradiction has resulted in a crisis of overproduction (or, viewed from the perspective of the workers, of underconsumption), with the accompanying destruction and wastage of factories, machines, goods and workers. Eventually the need to rebuild what has been destroyed or left to wear out together with the appearance of new markets makes investment more profitable. There is a renewed burst of accumulation, and the cycle starts over. The new beginning takes place on a higher level; more is invested, more people, tasks, and area are involved all around the world; more is at stake. Capitalism has been saved, but only at the cost of increasing the scale of risk in the next crisis. In Marx's estimation, capitalism is a little like a drunk who drinks in order to steady his nerves until the time that... And that time always comes. Marx's prediction of the downfall of capitalism is not to be read as the prediction of the arrival of a comet on such and such a day, but as the projection of the most likely outcome of a worsening impasse, whose development one can see and study in the past and present.


In capitalism, grasped in this way, class is first of all a place in the system, a property of the whole at whose core we find the interrelated functions of capital and wage-labor. The groups of people, who realize these functions, i.e., use capital to exploit workers and use labor to produce value, are the capitalists and workers. Marx often refers to capitalists and workers as "embodiments" or "personifications" of capital and wage-labor (1958, 10, 85, 592; 1959, 857f.) Without denying that these classes are composed of real people, this is a way of saying that what makes them classes is not so much the qualities of the individuals but the relation of the group, qua group, to a central organizing function of the system. It is clear that workers, in this sense, are not more male than female, white than black, unskilled than skilled. As classes, the capitalists and the workers are viewed as extensions of the functions of capital and wage-labor, which themselves are only meaningful as parts of a system whose functions they are. Marx himself goes so far as to say, "capital is necessarily at the same time the capitalist... the capitalist is contained in the process of capital" (1973, 512).

In the labor theory of value and the materialist conception of history, the major theories through which Marx interprets capitalism, capitalists, and workers generally make their appearance as embodiments of capital and wage-labor. When describing the broad lines of capitalist development, the origins of different social pressures and constraints, the opening and closing of options, and especially what happens in the majority of cases over time, Marx did not think it necessary to move much beyond this essentially functional approach to classes. This same approach lies behind his oft-quoted statement that, "The question is not what this or that man or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do" (Marx and Engels, 1956, 53). What real flesh and blood capitalists and workers did and said and thought and wanted was either deducible from the way the system works and has developed (or else it would not work or have developed like that) or irrelevant (since even without the contribution of these individuals the system works and has developed as it has). Both necessary and sufficient conditions are easy to decipher after the fact. For example, that the French Revolution occurred indicates that the conditions for it happening at that time were not only necessary but sufficient. Consequently, where the acts and words of particular individuals are cited in Marx's more general historical and economic writings, it is to illustrate a point or to otherwise facilitate exposition rather than as evidence or as part of an argument for his conclusions.

In dealing with the possibility of socialist revolution in the present however, whether Marx's present or our own, it is not enough to treat people as embodiments of social-economic functions. As much as this helps us understand their conditions, the pressures they are under, and their options and opportunities, the people involved must still respond to these influences in ways that make what is possible actual. In Marxist terminology, they must become class conscious. To study whether this can actually occur here and now, or at least soon, we must add a subjective, people-oriented, more directly and narrowly human element and focus to the objective, system-oriented view of class that has been presented so far. In short, in analyzing history and political economy, Marx could operate with an essentially functionalist conception of class derived from the place of a function within the system. Class here is something to which recognizable individuals are attached. In this way, incidentally, it is possible for an individual who serves more than one function (managers and wage-earning professionals, for example) to belong to more than one class. But in analyzing the present state of the class struggle and in developing political strategy, this view has to be supplemented, not replaced, by a conception of class that gives priority to the actual people who occupy this place and perform this function. Sharing a social space and functions, they also tend to acquire over time other common characteristics as regards income, life-style, political consciousness, and organization that become, in turn, further evidence for membership in their class and subsidiary criteria for determining when to use the class label. Here, class is a quality that is attached to people, who posses other qualities—such as nationality, race or sex, for example—that reduce and may even nullify the influence on thinking and action that comes from their membership in the class. Conceived as a complex social relation, in line with Marx's dialectical outlook on the world, class invites analysis as both a function and a group, that is to say, from different sides of this relation.

There is even a third major aspect of class, conceived of as a complex relation, which is the abstracted common element in the social relations of alienated people. Their tendency to interact with each other as instances of a kind rather than as unique individuals, a tendency that is expressed mainly through mutual indifference and competition, takes on independent form in the notion of "class". It is the alienated quality of social life of the individuals who embody the aforesaid economic functions. We will return to class as alienation later in this paper, when we discuss the various difficulties workers experience in becoming class conscious. All these aspects of class—place/function, group, alienated social relation, and there are others—are mutually dependent, but their relative importance varies with the problem and period under consideration. Each is distinctive for the dimension of reality it brings into focus. Essentially, they are different ways of cutting up the "pie". Their real content largely overlaps; though the way each organizes its content makes this difficult to recognize.

Returning to the example of the French Revolution, it is clear that the classes involved were not only embodiments of functions, but groups of real people and expressions of social alienation. As people they made decisions, and there was always the possibility that on any given occasion they might have chosen otherwise. However, it does not follow that each of these aspects of class should get equal treatment in an account of this event, or that the aspect of class that is emphasized for an event that has already happened, like the French Revolution, should be emphasized in trying to understand developments that lie ahead. One should be open, in other words, to using "class" in somewhat different ways when analyzing the present and/or future than when analyzing the past.

Corresponding to our two main senses of class—as embodiment of a function and as a group—is a bifurcated conception of class interests. In one case, class interest are attached to class in the sense of function, and in the other to the social group who performs this function. The first can be referred to as "objective interests" and the second as "subjective interests." Thus, in the case of the workers, class interest not only refers to what real workers, viewed as a group, actually believe to be in their interest (these are subjective interests), but it also refers to those practices and changes that serve the workers, being who they are, i.e., in their function as wage-labor (these are their objective interests). The most important of these objective interests involve the kind of social structural changes that are required for the mass of workers to realize their subjective interests. This is how these apparently independent sets of interests are linked. Capitalist power relations, for example, simply do not permit most workers to get the good, high paying, secure, healthy, interesting jobs they want, that they know and say they want. To understand why this is so and what order of changes would secure these aims, that is, realize these subjective interests, requires the kind of analysis of capitalism that Marx made and most workers have not. As a result, most workers are unaware of their objective class interests in transforming capitalist power relations, which—given what capitalism is and how it works—is the only way that the mass of the workers could secure their subjective interests over time.


Having defined "class" and "class interests" as both objective and subjective, we are now in a position to approach class-consciousness. First, as regards its content, its main elements include one's identity and interests (subjective and objective) as members of a class, something of the dynamics of capitalism uncovered by Marx (at least enough to grasp objective interests), the broad outlines of the class struggle and where one fits into it, feelings of solidarity toward one's own class and of rational hostility toward opposition classes (in contrast to the feelings of mutual indifference and inner-class competition that accompany alienation), and the vision of a more democratic and egalitarian society that is not only possible but that one can help bring about. These are the main things that a class conscious working class is conscious of. Studying workers' class-consciousness, then, is looking for what is not there, not yet present in the thinking of real workers, as well as for what is. How can this be?

It can be, because class consciousness brings together (and is equally a part of) both the function and group aspects of class. To begin with, it is the understanding that is appropriate to the objective character of a class and its objective interests. We can call this the objective aspect of class consciousness. Given this is the place and function of a class and this its objective interests, its class consciousness must be such and such. The one is deducible from the other. It is an imputed class consciousness. George Lukacs (1971) is the Marxist scholar most associated with this view. However, class consciousness is also the consciousness of the group of people in a class in so far as their understanding of who they are and what must be done develops from its economistic beginnings toward the consciousness that is appropriate to their class situation. This is the subjective aspect of class-consciousness.

Class consciousness in this subjective sense differs from the actual consciousness of each individual in the group in three ways; (1) it is a group consciousness, a way of thinking and a thought content, that develops through the individuals in the group interacting with each other and with opposing groups in situations that are peculiar to the class; (2) it is a consciousness that has its main point of reference in the situation and objective interests of a class, viewed functionally, and not in the declared subjective interests of individual class members (the imputed class consciousness referred to above has been given a role here in the thinking of real people); and (3) it is in its essence a process, a movement from wherever a group begins in its consciousness of itself to the consciousness appropriate to its situation. In other words, the process of becoming class conscious is not external to what class consciousness is but instead is at the center of what it is all about.

To claim that class consciousness is a group consciousness is not to deny that individuals also have something that may be called an individual consciousness, that this may include political and social elements, and that such consciousness both affects and is affected by their group consciousness (or that they may have—really participate in—other kinds of group consciousness, racial, national, religious and sexual as well as class). Individual consciousness may also be politically in advance of or lagging behind class-consciousness. Class-consciousness, however, is something other. It is kind of "group think," a collective, interactive approach to recognizing, labeling, coming to understand, and acting upon the particular world class members have in common. It is a set of mental moves and a store of knowledge and judgments reserved for these common situations and what these situations tap or set into motion, where the individual's fate is inextricably linked with the fate of the group. It is a manner of thinking that is done in common, most of the time in a common place on common problems, phrased in a common terminology, pushed forward and held back by common pressures and constraints. It is not only the Australian Aborigines who solve problems in a group (apparently to the point that individual Aborigines have trouble taking Western IQ tests). We all do. It is, at least in part, a professional deformation of intellectuals, of people whose work involves a lot of thinking in isolation, to believe that thinking can only be done by individuals operating on their own, with the result that what I have called "group thinking" is generally either ignored or denied the honorific label of "thinking".

There is nothing mystical here. I am not suggesting that there is a collective "mind" of the same order as individual "minds." On the other hand, neither am I making the commonsensical point that some aspects of individual consciousness are more affected by social interaction that others. Nor am I introducing Jung's collective unconscious by the back door. Instead, some of our thinking is simply being viewed as a cooperative activity, and an activity that is best understood by focusing on the shared conditions in which it occurs, the shared problems it attacks, the common interests that it expresses, and the interactive logic that gives it its structure, rather than on the individual minds in which it continues to take place.

Obviously not all problems are submitted to group thinking, but just those which circumscribe our existence as members of the group, class in this case, though the same thing applies to problem solving as a member of racial, national, religious and sexual groups. Individuals who do not participate in the consciousness of their class in this way, no matter how numerous they are, should be viewed as the exceptions and, no matter how long the wait, as temporary exceptions at that.

Politically, what counts is what an individual understands and does as a member of a class and not his private reflections and intimate behavior. In coming to recognize, as most of us have in this Freudian century, the undeniable influence of the latter on the former (not to mention the reverse), there has been a regrettable conflation of these two forms of consciousness. The study of class-consciousness as part of developing a strategy for socialist transformation requires that group and individual consciousnesses, at least initially, be kept quite distinct.

Class consciousness is also different from individual consciousness, as we said, by having its main point of reference in the situation of the class and not in the already recognized interests of individuals. It is this that enables Marx, on occasion, to conceptualize class consciousness as an aspect of class (again, grasped as a complex relation), with the implication that workers are not fully a class until they become class conscious (1934, 19). The main content of class consciousness, therefore, is not to be had by asking members of the class what they think or want, but by analyzing their objective interests as a group of people embodying a particular societal place and function. It is, again, the appropriate consciousness of people in that position, the consciousness that maximizes their chances of realizing class interests, including structural change where such change is required to secure other interests. What these same people, occupying this same place, think before they acquire this class consciousness is not really class consciousness, except in so far as it is used to highlight what is not there. In this sense, and to this degree, class consciousness is a consciousness waiting to happen. It exists in potential, not an abstract potential but one rooted in a situation unfolding before our very eyes, long before the understanding of real people catches up with it.

It should be evident now the degree to which "class consciousness" is a theory laden expression, and that what non-Marxists mean by it is not and cannot be the same things that Marxists mean by it. Therefore, what non-Marxists find in their research into what they call "class consciousness" is not easily transferable into a Marxist analysis. Likewise, what Marxists discover in their investigation of class consciousness will not be readily accepted or even understood by non-Marxists. The questions that Marxists address generally take the form—"Why haven't the workers become class conscious?" and "When are they likely to do so?" (which inclines us to look for the barriers to such consciousness). While non Marxists ordinarily ask such questions as "What is the consciousness of workers?" and "Are the workers class conscious?" (which ignores the very analysis, Marxism, that leads us to raise these questions in the first place). The difference is between Marxists—who are looking for something that they believe is already there, in one sense, and not there, in another, something they grasp the broad outlines of from their analysis—and non Marxists investigating the same subject who appear to be simply looking. But are they? We shall return to this in a moment.

Finally, and possibly what distinguishes it most from individual consciousness as ordinarily understood, class consciousness is elastic and changing, and encompasses all the stages in the process of becoming what it potentially is along with the time it takes for this is occur. As such, class consciousness cannot be captured in any instant, nor can it be expressed in any simple, straightforward description. The time frame is stretched to cover the whole journey, but it is a journey with an end, a goal established by the situation of the class as such and evoked by all the conditions and pressures that constitute that situation, though most members of the class may not recognize this until very late. One of the most puzzling features in Marx's use of "class" is how he could claim that class is "the product of the bourgeoisie" while maintaining that "All history is the history of class struggle," and refer to various pre-capitalist groups as "classes" (Marx and Engels, 1942, 77; 1945, 12). In fact, class (in all of its aspects), class struggle, and class-consciousness all develop, mature, become over time, and only in late capitalist society do they realize their full potential. It is in this sense that each may be said to be a product of capitalism. In so far as many of their elements are present earlier, however, class, class struggle, and class consciousness can be said—if this limited sense is kept in mind—to have existed before. Moreover, viewed as historical processes, the mature form of each can be taken as present as a germ in its earlier stages and vice versa. Such is the nature of becoming as a dialectical category. As regards class-consciousness at the present time, rather than what any single person thinks, class-consciousness refers to how, when, from and towards what a whole class of people are changing their minds.

Studying class consciousness has something in common with trying to catch a wave at the moment when it breaks. All movement toward this point is treated as development, as preliminary, as the unfolding of a potential. Everything that either contributes to or retards it movement is equally the object of study, but the constant point of repair, the perspective from which the whole process is viewed and interpreted, the event that gives everything that proceeded it its distinctive meaning, is the moment at which the wave breaks. Naturally, there is the assumption, derived from a Marxist analysis of capitalism, that the waves will almost certainly break, that sooner or later the worsening problems of the system, together with the reduction and eventual disappearance of system-approved alternatives for dealing with them, will drive most workers to embody the consciousness of their class.

But why do Marxists insist on making Marx's view of the most probable future of class consciousness the key element in understanding its present form? Are we unnecessarily burdening class consciousness with something that just is not there? Why can't we be satisfied with whatever class consciousness emerges from simply questioning workers and leave it at that? Our answer can be summarized in the following points: (1) That class consciousness has a future is incontestable. (2) No one can avoid having some idea of what that will be, as evidenced by our expectations, by what surprises us, and by what developments we think need to be explained and accounted for. (3) Marx arrives at his idea of what class consciousness will become through an analysis of the changes going on in the conditions in which people live and work (this seems reasonable). (4) Non-Marxist social scientists also have an idea about the future of class-consciousness, though it is generally left implicit (see number two above). Most probably believe that class-consciousness will stay more or less the same, while some may believe that every conceivable change is equally possible. (5) The basis for the first view could only be that it is class consciousness in its present state that determines future class consciousness, or that the other conditions that influence class consciousness, whatever they are, will never change, so that the effect they have now will continue into the future. The basis for the second view could only be that there is nothing we know about our past and present that is relevant to learning about our likely future, or that what we do know suggests that no one outcome, no particular development in class consciousness, is more likely than another. On the surface, none of these arguments seem reasonable, so that the beliefs they support—that no change in class consciousness will occur, or that every kind of change is equally possible—are never openly defended. (6) Moreover, one's view of future class consciousness, whatever it is, greatly affects one's interpretation of its present state. In Marx's case, it is what enables him to view much of what today's workers actually think as false consciousness and ideology. Among non-Marxists viewing future class consciousness as identical with it present state—what I take to be the more prevalent alternative view—gives to class consciousness in its present form an appearance of natural truth. What is becomes reified, unchanging and, apparently, unchangeable. The Marxist ideas of false consciousness and ideology are not only rejected but ridiculed. It is not just that these non-Marxist beliefs go beyond the evidence; they are held in the absence of any attempt to get the evidence. So much for the notion suggested earlier that non-Marxist social scientists investigating this subject were simply looking, that they brought no assumptions with them, and that this might be an advantage. (7) Hence—and finally— it seems clear that to fully understand what class consciousness is in the present requires a serious effort to learn about its likely future, using, as Marx does, all the available evidence.

What if the majority of the workers in capitalist society never become class conscious? This certainly is a possibility. Our effort to integrate the probable future into the present is not an exercise in crystal ball gazing. But imputed class consciousness, the workers' rational understanding of their situation and of what kind of actions are required to serve their interests, can be treated as future class consciousness even if it never takes place. It is after all only the probable future as determined by Marx's analysis of the worker's situation together with its developing patterns and trends. What needs to be stressed is that the probable future is an internally related part of the present, and exists there (here) as the point toward which real pressures are directing us. Grasped as "becoming", it is a form assumed by the future within the present, and as such affects how we understand the present, how we should study it, and what we can do to help change it.

Does understanding imputed class consciousness as future class consciousness imply that socialism is inevitable? No, because class conscious workers are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a successful socialist transformation of society. How effectively these class conscious workers are organized, what political action they take, the character of the then opposition, and even luck will help determine the final outcome of the class struggle. Marx himself offered barbarism—the disintegration of advanced civilization—as one alternative to socialism, but living one hundred years ago, he did not give it the attention that it would receive today. The Cold War has led to the recognition that another all too realistic alternative to socialism is the death of humanity brought about by nuclear holocaust. Still another awful possibility is ecocide, or the destruction of our species through the rapidly escalating destruction of our natural environment. Many rate this last as the most likely outcome of our species' relatively brief sojourn on this planet. While occasionally sympathetic (if this is the right word) to this view, it should be clear that the factors effecting this outcome are, at least to a large degree, of a different order than those that influence the progress of class consciousness. Consequently, the possibility of ecocide, like the possibility of barbarism and nuclear holocaust, does not prevent us from treating imputed class consciousness as future class consciousness within a notion of present class consciousness viewed in the process of becoming.

What emerges from the foregoing is that our object of study, class consciousness, is much larger than the mind or understanding of any individual and much longer than the present moment. It is the class, its interest and self-understanding, in the context of the situation, especially its interaction with opposing classes, that constitute it as a class, and all this as it has developed, is developing and will continue to develop into the future. At its broadest, the study of class consciousness is a study of an important part of capitalist society, which, through its interconnections, is simultaneously an investigation into capitalism, into how it works and where it is tending, viewed from the perspective of that moment when the mass of workers have acquired the understand that is necessary for engaging in revolutionary activity.

Given the spatial and temporal dimensions of class consciousness, it is obvious that examining small pieces of this process, such as the consciousness of individual workers, which is separated from its social context and viewed statically, as it appears in an instant, simply will not do. This is, of course, what happens in most attitude surveys. Even if the questions are fair and the respondents honest (big "ifs"), attitude surveys cannot capture a process, a context, and a potential for change. It is as if one sought to catch the moment a wave breaks by photographing an earlier moment (and small piece) in its movement. But class-consciousness is not the kind of thing that shows up in a photo, or even in moving pictures. There are just too many aspects that are not immediately perceptible.


What is the alternative? Until now, I have been constructing a dialectical conception of class consciousness that could be studied directly and not only as a dependent aspect of class structure or class struggle. In what follows, I sketch what such a study would look like, its advantages and problems, and its relation to political practice. The dialectical alternative to examining class consciousness in the attitudes of individual workers, then, is to study the objective aspects of class consciousness in the situation of the class, and its subjective aspects in the thinking and activity of the group of people who make up the class, and both of these over time. On the objective side, what we have called the situation of the class must be studied on two different levels of historical specificity. First, we must clearly establish the place and function of the working class together with its objective interests in capitalism as such, that is in capitalism as it has existed for the past three to four hundred years, in order to derive the class consciousness that is appropriate. Reconstructing this situation not only provides the goal or finished form of class consciousness but puts us in touch with social and economic pressures arising out of the most basic relations of capitalism that move the actual consciousness of living workers in the direction of this goal. Given our concern with class consciousness, the focus is on the workers and hence the rest of capitalist society comes into view chiefly as part of the necessary conditions and/or results of the workers appearing and functioning as they do. In reconstructing how capitalism looks and works from the vantage point of the working class, there are some tendencies that deserve special attention. Among these are the accumulation and centralization of capital, the falling rate of profit, the increasing rate of exploitation, and the immiseration of the working class (that is relative to capitalists and viewed on a world scale). Though sometimes referred to as "laws," Marx's tendencies all admit—indeed often require—counter-tendencies, and should be understood and investigated with this in mind.

The second level on which to study the situation of the working class is the more specific one of world capitalism today. As well as the tendencies mentioned above, which are characteristic of capitalism as such and apply with varying degrees of tenacity to the whole capitalist epoch, there are a number of often contradictory tendencies—each exercising some influence on consciousness—which taken together express what capitalism has become in our day. Among the most important of those helping to expand class consciousness are recent developments in automation and related changes in job structure and employment; the movement of viable industries out of the advanced capitalist countries to the third world where labor is cheaper; the closing off of traditional non-socialist solutions to the problems associated with capitalism's need to expand investment and trade due to the saturation of older markets; the "debt bomb" with, among other things, its implicit threat to the savings workers have in banks that are threatened; the invasion of even the advanced capitalist countries, including the United States, by foreign and international capital, seriously weakening the link between capitalism and nationalism (if most workers could believe "What's good for General Motors is good for America": it is difficult to substitute "Renault" or "Toyota" or "Honda" for "General Motors" and feel the same sentiment); and the increase in workers' "ownership" of industry, whatever its pro-capitalist form and however little it affects who exercises real control (the question of power has been joined and the potential of workers to take and use power for their own ends has become that much easier to conceive).

On both of these levels, in capitalism overall as well as in modern capitalism, there are also a number of relations and tendencies that pull in the opposite direction, that make the attainment of class consciousness more difficult. As regards capitalism in general, the most important of these find expression in Marx's theory of alienation: workers are separated from—and hence lack control over—their activity, products, and other people, at work and throughout social life. While the resulting feelings of isolation and powerlessness (both subjective factors) receive most of the attention, the core of alienation lies in the workers' objective situation as workers in capitalism. Oddly enough, Marx never offered the workers' alienation as part of the explanation for the continued inability of the mass of the workers to become fully class conscious, just as he never introduced the progress many workers have made in becoming class conscious as a factor qualifying their alienation. Yet, each condition acts as a major check on the other, and until we succeed in integrating the theories with which Marx grasps these opposed developments—something that must be left for another time—we will not be able to gauge with any accuracy the real potential for change inherent in each one.

As regards modern capitalism, the most important of these retraining relations and tendencies include the increasing segmentation of the labor force (with its accompanying fragmentation of interests), institutional racism, sexism, nationalism and other means of dividing the workers, the enormous expansion of the consciousness industry (some would put capitalist ownership of all mass media at the top of our list), and the spread and then failure of Soviet-style socialism, which is widely viewed as a dystopian model of what happens to all attempts at radical reform. All of this constitutes so many barriers and pressures rooted in the objective situation of workers, in their work, life, and world, against their becoming class conscious.

How these contradictory tendencies (promoting class consciousness and undermining it—whose main parts I have only been able to list) are related to each other in each modern capitalism and capitalism overall, and how the sum of the tendencies in the former facilitate, give expression to, or inhibit all the tendencies in the latter constitute the core of a Marxist study of the objective side of class consciousness. One way to bring out the objective character of these heterogeneous elements is to subsume them under the notion of class struggle. The class struggle is not, as most commentators left and right would have it, a subjective, consciously chosen form of class behavior. Rather, it is "the form of motion of classes." It is what a class—grasped as a place/function in the system, as the group of people who embody this function and who as a result tend to develop other common characteristics, and as the common element in their alienated social relations—becomes in and through its complex interaction with other classes, particularly over class interests and the conditions and possibilities for their realization. All that a class does, or what happens to it, that directly or indirectly affects its power vis- is other classes is class struggle. Viewed in this way, class struggle encompasses what Gramsci calls the war of position, the adding and subtracting of advantages and disadvantages, as well as what he calls the war of movement, or those occasions when all that has been acquired (and lost) serves to fuel more direct forms of confrontation; and both of these "wars" rage throughout all sectors of society (1971, 108-110, 229-235, 238f., 243). The contradictory tendencies within class consciousness that we referred to above are recast here as internally related causes, expressions, and effects of the interaction of classes.

To be sure, when a class, in the sense of group, is conscious of itself as a class together with its interests, its involvement in class struggle is more purposeful and usually more effective than when it is not. What makes the interaction of classes a "struggle," however, is not the consciousness of the actors, nor even the intensity or undisguised nature of the clash, but the incompatibility of their objective interests and paths of development, both of which are inherent in the structure of capitalism itself. And it is this that makes it possible to organize the key contradictions of capitalism as a class struggle and to treat class struggle as the over-arching expression for the objective forms of class-consciousness.

In most Marxist accounts of this subject the opposite occurs, which is to say class struggle is the main object of study, and class consciousness, to the extent it is addressed at all, is treated as a minor and dependent aspect, as a mere reflection of the class struggle ("For workers to have arrived at this degree of struggle, their consciousness must be such and such"). We have also seen that Marx could conceptualize class consciousness as an aspect of class as such, as something that develops as a class realizes its full potential as a class. While such approaches to class consciousness are adequate for treating the past, where the evidence of what happened is in (so that we know roughly what the level of class consciousness must have been for classes or class struggle to have progressed so far), it is my view that a serious Marxist study of how the present is opening onto the future requires as a complementary focus, one that makes class struggle a subordinate aspect of class consciousness. (A similar point was made earlier in this essay about the limitations of understanding class simply as the embodiment of an economic function). This, then, is not an attempt to deny the material basis of Marxism or the priority it gives to activity, political as well as economic, for analyzing capitalism. It is only that the dialectical method allows us to approach capitalist social relations from the vantage point of class consciousness—a vantage point neither Marx or his followers have made much use of—and that for understanding our present moment as well as for affecting it there are certain advantages in doing so.

In investigating the different objective aspects of class consciousness, now conceptualized as class struggle, care must also be taken not to prejudge the particular combination of factors that will carry the wave to its breaking point, or, conversely, will ensure that it not get there, at least not now anyway. As we said earlier, any complex organism, and none is more complex than capitalism, has many compensating mechanisms for what is missing or not working as expected. Consequently, no social feature, either through its presence or absence, exercises an absolute veto on the development of class consciousness. No doubt the way in which consciousness develops has an important influence on the pace and form of the revolution. It does not follow, however, that there is only one road, a royal road, to socialism, and that socialists who are not on it are doomed to failure. Given the changing though still highly structured context provided by the process of capital accumulation, the class struggle allows for enormous flexibility and variety in how workers become class conscious. Yet, it remains the case that some paths of development are more likely—indeed far more likely—to be taken than others, and studying the objective aspects of class consciousness for each time and place is the surest means of uncovering what these are.

While an overly deterministic reading of any of these relations is in error, Marx clearly saw a particularly close connection between worsening economic conditions and improved prospects for socialist revolution. The tie between the two, however, is not automatic and necessary, but probable and mediated through a series of changes that make the development of class consciousness easier and more likely to take place. Such changes include the intensification of capitalist exploitation, which occurs in any crisis, the concentration of capital and the accompanying accentuation of class differences, the closing and narrowing of existing career options (small business, for example), increasing evidence of the irrationality and immorality of capitalism (particularly, conspicuous consumption and waste amid growing poverty), unemployment for many and job insecurity for the rest, the loss of savings, homes, farms and small businesses, the steady erosion of welfare state benefits acquired in better times, and the evident failure of traditional economic and political strategies (like trade unionism and voting for the Democrats). As various life options that have been available to workers are closed off, as the connections that have to be made appear more obvious, as the material penalties for not making them grow larger, as the surrounding injustices become more blaring, and as the benefits to be won through a redistribution of economic and political power (what is sometimes called the "revolutionary positive") become easier to see and to imagine, in sum, as the objective forces propelling workers toward full class consciousness become overwhelming, it is difficult for any worker to retain his old outlook. (That many still do is another matter—based chiefly on a different set of considerations—and we will return to this shortly.) Minus many important details and qualifications, this is the most general conclusion to be drawn from studies already done on the objective side of class consciousness.


Having acquired some understanding of the objective aspects of class-consciousness, of the consciousness appropriate to the situation of the class together with everything in the situation that is working toward its full actualization, we are now ready to examine its subjective aspects. Proceeding in the opposite order, dealing with subjective aspects first, there is a serious danger of mistaking a part, usually the psychology of workers, for the whole, and ignoring the objective aspects of class consciousness or treating them as minor conditions and qualifications. Psychology today has become a lot like Pac-Man, gobbling up one discipline after another. The only sure way to avoid psychologizing social problems is by laying out the main objective conditions (pressures, constraints, and options) in and with which people think and act first. Then, and only then, can their thinking and acting be judged for what they are.

On the subjective side, the study of class consciousness should proceed by dealing with groups of workers as groups, especially in situations where some dramatic change had occurred that triggers off a heightened interaction between the members. A change of this kind generally increases their awareness of their place and role in the system as workers and with it the likelihood of thinking, even of personal problems, in class terms. A strike offers one example of this. Visits to the unemployment office is another. Observing what the group does and the interaction and degree of participation of members, listening to what is said, reading what is written, asking questions aimed at bringing out their understanding and intensity of feeling about whatever is pushing them toward class consciousness and whatever is holding them back, making remarks on similar topics in order to provoke a response, asking workers what they see in pictures and cartoons that are relevant to their situation, judging their reaction to political jokes, beginning a story taken from their lives and asking them to finish it, showing videos of their own discussions and asking them to comment on what they have seen, and even acting alongside workers to get a feel for what is going on are all recommended.

It is also extremely important to conduct such inquiries over a period of time in order to chart both the direction and pace of change. One of the most neglected aspects of class consciousness, largely because the process of becoming is not put at the center of what it is, is the speed at which it can develop (and also, unfortunately, undeveloped or come apart). This is still another reason for the priority we have given to the objective side of class consciousness over the psychology of workers. For if class consciousness can develop and spread with the speed of a forest fire, then—sticking with this analogy—it is more important to know the conditions under which this can occur, including the dryness of the grass, the extremes of heat, the duration of the heat wave, what kind of events can start a fire and how likely they are to occur, what techniques of fire preventions are available, etc., than knowing details about the currently nonflammable state of particular blades of grass.

Dialoguing with a group of workers in a stable situation, where nothing dramatic has taken place, is less revealing but still worthwhile. Working class colleges and high schools, hiring halls, trade union meetings, welfare offices, bars and churches in working class neighborhoods, hospital waiting rooms, dances, summer camps, sporting events, funerals, over food, waiting for parades or demonstrations to begin, parks and beaches provide some of the occasions for such research. The particular locale chosen, of course, will greatly influence what can and cannot be learned. Still, each of these is an occasion for the group to interact and react to the researcher's questions and provocations as a group, and for studying class consciousness this is crucial. How many people speak, the way in which answers feed into or oppose each other, the intensity with which positions get expressed, the nods of the head as well as the expletives are all raw data for such a study.

It is probably worth stating once again the importance we attach to the group, and therefore to group studies, for understanding class consciousness. Class consciousness is an evolving quality of the class. It progresses in and through the class's evolving response to its determinate situation and corresponding interests. The class displays the level of its consciousness, the factors that are currently influencing it most, and the direction and pace of its development whenever workers interact with each other, which occurs in all the different subgroups in which members of this class come together. Approached on their own, individual workers may not even know or feel or be able to put this consciousness into words. For the individual, class consciousness is not so much something they have or do not have as it is something they give expression to or participate in when in a group along with other workers, when acting and thinking in their capacity as group members dealing with the situation and problems that are peculiar to the group. At these times, the people in the group both perceive what is taking place (which includes how they hear the questions of the researcher) and respond to it (intellectually, emotionally, and practically) differently than each individual does or would on his own.

Changes of mind, in particular, are strongly affected by the group. For example, in a group that is moving in one direction, it is easier for the individual, given some degree of identification with the group, to change his mind in the same direction than it would be if he were on his own. While in its more conservative moments, of course, a group may have just the opposite effect. Earlier, I said class-consciousness is how, when, and toward what a whole class of people change their minds. It is because most of the changes that make up the content of class consciousness take place in group interaction and can only be observed and correctly evaluated in this context that the group must be the focus of our study.

I would also like to insist once again on the need to study class consciousness as a developing rather than a static phenomenon. Examining what is there in light of what is not (imputed consciousness), tracing the changes in the class' objective situation, following a group of workers over a period of time, stressing sharp transitions in their situations or behavior or thinking—all this is generally not enough. The very concepts we use in which to think about class consciousness, starting with "class consciousness" itself, must be opened up to allow the passage of time, to include where the content that is brought into focus has come from as well as where it is likely to go as part of its very meaning. Other change-oriented concepts, such as "process," "moment," and becoming," should be used in preference to "attitude," "factor," and "variable" to convey its relational parts. Only then can everything uncovered at a moment be consistently grasped as arising out of and arching toward something else. Otherwise, temporarily stalled processes are likely to combine with reified social forms and all too frequent intellectual laxness to produce prematurely finished results. Everything in class consciousness is in transition and must be viewed and studied as such.

As for which subsection of the workers should be given priority as subjects of study, the answer can be found in an updated reading of Marx's texts. Besides constituting the largest section of the working class in nineteen-century capitalism, industrial workers worked and lived in conditions that were in the process of becoming generalized. In this, as in so much else, they led the way. Because of their place and numbers in industry, industrial workers also had the power to bring the entire capitalist system to a halt. Hence, Marx's political as well as economic emphasis on this section of the working class. Today, industrial workers are no longer the majority of the working class, and their proportion as part of the class is becoming smaller, and while they set the pace when material conditions for the whole class were improving, the current drop in real living standards finds them trailing after other less favored, generally less unionized, sections of the class. Granted, they are still the main source of all real (as distinct from paper) wealth in our society, and they still have the force to bring capitalism to a halt by withdrawing their labor-power. From this, it would seem that industrial workers should continue to be a main subgroup in any study of working class consciousness, but—on the basis of current trends in capitalism—they must now share the spotlight with others. As the fastest growing sectors of the working class, highly skilled technical workers, low skilled services workers, and government and office workers should also be heavily represented in studies of working class consciousness.

There are, of course, serious dangers of distortion in conducting the kind of interviews and interventions I have called for, especially those held in less conflictual situations. Here I can only sketch the most important of these. What does one do, for example, with the people who choose to remain silent, a problem that grows of necessity with the size of the group? In part, and where this is feasible, this can be dealt with by asking everyone for their opinion. Beyond this, one must be attentive to various signs and noises that show how people feel about what is being said and done. Enthusiasm, delight, anger, disgust, disappointment, and resignation are all relatively easy to detect, but the bulk of what constitutes class consciousness remains beyond our perceptual reach. An equally serious problem is that people tend to be more spontaneous and truthful in responding to questions when they are dealing with pressing life problems.

Caught at more relaxed moments, their responses are often shaped by demands other than truth. They may not want to appear stupid, or extreme, or to say something that will make them into outsiders in their group. Many respondents also say what they think the researcher wants or expects to hear, and/or will make the researcher like them more. In many cases, it is very difficult to get at the intensity with which people believe and feel something, and therefore to judge what actions may follow or what kind of effort is required for them to change their views. Avoiding these and similar pitfalls altogether is probably impossible, but their distorting effects can be minimized by giving careful attention to interview tactics, questions asked, language used, and the kind of credentials and prior connections with which one appears on the scene. Unfortunately, these are not matters we can address at this time.

For understanding class consciousness, it is essential—I have argued—to concentrate on groups rather than on individuals; just as earlier I maintained that the objective aspects of class consciousness should precede its subjective aspects in the order of treatment. Given the spatial and temporal dimensions of our subject and, in particular, its character as an evolving quality of the group, this is the only way to avoid trivialization and one-sidedness. Having stressed this point, I am now ready to admit that there are some studies of individuals that may also be of help. Of these, the least useful are just those attitude surveys that constitute the great bulk of mainstream research on workers' consciousness. Besides suffering from all the problems that beset studies of groups (given above), these studies tend to magnify the aspects of consciousness that set the individual apart from the group, to reify these aspects, and eventually to substitute them for whatever consciousness the group may have on the same subject. So that in subsequent studies of the group, it is the individual's consciousness that gets expressed and not that of the group or what would have been that of the group. Witness the difference between the attitude toward strikes expressed by most individual workers and that expressed by a group of workers at a union meeting. Hence, the preference of most union leaders for mass meetings over secret ballots as a means for deciding whether to strike, and the preference of employers for secret ballots (Mann, 1973, 50). It is also clear that individual consciousness is more likely to reflect the restricted concerns of private life—and to that extent to show less awareness of one's place in the capitalist system—than group consciousness, rooted, as it is in the function and interests of the class.

Despite such drawbacks, some aspects of the process of becoming class conscious, even as applied to groups, can be studied on an individual basis. For example, though all social and political ideas are interrelated, the ties that bind any few of them together may be so close as to constitute a subsystem, so that a change in any one of them immediately triggers changes in the others. Learning which these ideas are and the nature of their peculiar interaction with each other and with other subsystems of ideas can take place through studies of individuals. Likewise, cognitive dissonance (the coexistence of apparently contradictory views on the same subject), the reliance on authoritarian figures and texts (who they are and how much influence they have), the complex ties between ideas and emotions, the amount of thinking on social and political matters that is unconscious or automatic (though this is likely to vary a lot depending on whether one is alone or acting as a member of a group), and something of the priorities and weighting given to different parts of the belief system can all be usefully studied on a person by person basis. I also would not neglect in depth interviews of workers who are already class conscious to see how much they can reconstruct of the process that brought them to their position.

In studying individuals for purposes of understanding class consciousness, it is important to phrase questions as much as possible in ways that presuppose the individual's identity as a member of the group. Here, one does not ask what John Doe, who happens to be a worker, thinks of such and such; but what the worker, John Doe, thinks of it. By directing questions and remarks to individuals as part of their class, one can evoke something of the group's response even with the other members of the group absent, reinforce the individual's identity as a group member, and valorize group consciousness over individual consciousness for the subject under discussion.

Dealing with individuals is probably most useful, however, in helping us understand the various psychological barriers that interfere with becoming class conscious. Some of these barrier like qualities result from the situation of the group and affect to some degree all of its members. Such, as we saw, are the feelings of separation and powerlessness that come from the relations of alienation in which the whole class finds itself. Individuals may also posses qualities derived from membership in other groups (racial, national, gender, etc.) or from personal experiences (however, socially conditioned) that make it very difficult for them to participate in the thinking of their class. Racism, sexism, patriotism, exaggerated religiosity, and authoritarianism are examples of this. Though social in origin and expressed in a variety of social forms, these qualities also form a part of individual character, so that person oriented approaches, such as psychology and psychoanalysis, can be useful both in analyzing and reducing their distorting influence. Whilhelm Reich's conception of character structure, understood as organized habit, as an internalized pattern of early behavioral responses to dangers to the self from both within (anxiety) and without (repression, oppression and indifference), offers a helpful framework in which to investigate such apparently irrational qualities (1961, Part 2).

As Reich said in a related context, what requires explanation is not why a hungry person steals, but why he doesn't (1972,204). Why he does or should follows more or less logically from his condition. Why, despite this condition, he does not is the problem for which psychology may supply a large part of the answer. And the same applies to class consciousness, the presence of which is easily explainable in terms of the workers' conditions; whereas its absence requires another order of explanation. By putting us in touch with some of the pressures within each individual that inhibit the development of class consciousness, Freud and his followers have an important contribution to make to our study. But, focusing as they do on the individual, they cannot even begin to see the pressures that promote class consciousness, since all of the latter arise out of the situation of the class. Hence, the one-sided, essentially negative and pessimistic conclusions regarding class consciousness of virtually all psychological studies of our subject.

In summary: asking how can we study class consciousness required that we start by defining "class," "class interests," and "class consciousness." Each was found to have objective and subjective aspects, and in every case it was the relation between the two that was decisive in grasping the notion. In the case of class consciousness, the relation of its main subjective aspect, which is the actual consciousness of the group, to its main objective aspect, which is the consciousness appropriate to the place and function of the class in capitalist society, is a relation of the one developing toward the other. Investigating class consciousness, too, was broken down into inquiring into its objective and subjective aspects, with the latter divided in turn into group and individual consciousness.

Investigating the subjective side of class consciousness was said to involve the following steps: studying groups of workers wherever possible; studying them over time, especially in conflictual situations; tracing sharp transitions in their lives and beliefs; looking for what is not there, a potential gleaned from the analysis of the workers' place in society and the interests that are attached to it; and trying to uncover what inhibits or blocks the actualization of this potential, both in groups and in individual workers. Interacting and provoking responses as well as observing and questioning workers all have a place in this process. As paradoxical as it may sound, from a study of the workers' objective situation we can know in a general way where class consciousness is probably heading even before we have learned very much about its present state or when, how and how quickly it will develop in the direction indicated by its potential. Throughout change and movement are more or less taken for granted, while apparent stability and what causes it are the main problems to be explained. Perhaps most attention in studying the subjective side of class consciousness should be devoted to the various barriers to its development in the group and in individuals. We need to know what they are, how they evolve and work, their intensity, what effects them, etc., and this for each subsection of the class in each stage of its movement towards full class consciousness. It is within this framework and by taking such steps that dialectical inquiry is able to deal with class-consciousness in its quality of becoming.

But what class consciousness is becoming involves activity, revolutionary activity, conscious class struggle, as well as a heightened and aroused understanding. Class struggle, as I said earlier, is the law of motion of classes, bringing under one rubric the contradictory forces that underlie class interaction as the summary objective expression of class consciousness. Given dialectical relations, therefore, class consciousness can also be viewed as the subjective side of class struggle, reflecting both the form and intensity of this struggle at each moment in its development. Though this is—as I admitted—the standard way of viewing and treating their relationship, in this essay the order has been reversed. Hence, my conclusion: fully class-conscious workers engage in revolutionary activity, of some sort and to some degree. Being the one entails the other, but the steps by which the latter occurs need to be worked out. (It does not follow that workers who are less than fully class conscious cannot under certain circumstances also engage in revolutionary activity, at least for brief periods, but that is another matter and requires detailed study of these circumstances.) Any thorough study of class consciousness, therefore, has to address such questions as—at what point in the development of class consciousness do workers get involved in revolutionary activity (given some agreement on what exactly that is)? What are the conditions for sustaining class-consciousness, and why and how do people lose it? (With so much attention paid to raising consciousness very few socialist scholars or activists have concerned themselves with the reverse process). And what is the role of unions and political parties in the movement to attain state power? Does recognizing the role of leadership in the workers' movement imply, as Reich for one believed, a two-tiered conception of class consciousness, one for leaders and another for the mass of workers? (Reich, 1972, 289).

Putting questions that usually lie at the core of most socialist political analyses at the very end of a plan to study class consciousness is not meant to deny the importance of these questions, but rather to indicate another approach to finding answers for them. For example, studying capitalism from this perspective suggests that a class not only gets the party it deserves, but constructs the one it needs, that it is ready for one, one that is appropriate to what it is and is becoming. Whereas a party, as hard as it may try—as Brecht informs us and the experience of the American left among others confirms—can never create an appropriate people (1957, 1010).

No effort to induce more Marxist empirical studies is complete without a warning against the kind of errors and distortions Marxists are inclined to make because of the systemic character of our subject and our dialectical approach to it. If non-Marxists, for example, often miss the forest for the trees, Marxists just as often play down or ignore the parts in deference to generalizations about the whole. But the capitalist system can only be grasped through a study of its parts in their interconnectedness.

Marxists also tend to push the germ of any development too quickly to its final form (granted the dialectical relation between the two). This is apparent in many Marxist studies of "Who profits?" and in the reductionism found in most versions of economic determinism. For the problem with which we have been concerned, this takes the form of reducing the long and involved process of becoming class conscious into a simple conditioned reflex, where every sign of progress is viewed as evidence of the finished result. In general, this error comes from not giving enough attention to the complex mediations that make up the joints of any important social problem. The dialectical tension, always difficult to maintain, between identity and difference has collapsed here into simple identity. The alternatives of mistaking what class consciousness can become for what it already is (always a sectarian temptation) or what it is as the full measure of what it can become (the dead end of empiricism and Social Democracy) can only be avoided by giving both equal attention, as I have tried to do, as moments in class consciousness' process of becoming.

Also, in accounting for the actions of individuals, Marxists often mistake interests for motives; but interest is but one component, however major, in the construction of motives, most other components being of a more personal nature. Aside from these distortions, there is frequently an overestimate of how fast society is changing, with relatively minor cracks on the surface of capitalist stability being mistaken for the start of a revolutionary upsurge. And there is a corresponding underestimation of the barriers to change, especially those located in individual character. The last points could probably be subsumed under wishful thinking—and so they are—but Marxists are also predisposed to make such mistakes because of weaknesses inherent in the very strengths of Marxism. Bringing change into proper focus and emphasizing all the elements that make for change carries with it the danger of underestimating the forces that support the status quo. Ever present as temptations, these false moves substitute reassuring formulae for the hard work of dialectical inquiry, and have to be very carefully guarded against.


Finally, it is obvious that studying class consciousness affects it, becomes part of the respondents' social world, and an ingredient in the process by which they come to understand it. Conceiving of class consciousness as a complex relation and as a process, viewing it as something that is always becoming in and through workers' interaction with their environment (including other people), it is clear that every attempt to study class consciousness, which becomes of necessity a part of that environment, will influence its development in some way and to some degree. Where class consciousness is viewed as a given set of beliefs, as something static, it is possible to argue that a careful investigator could leave it as he found it, and studying class consciousness need not change its object one way or another. But if class-consciousness is constantly changing, chiefly in response to changes in the workers' situation, then introducing a researcher into that situation will either raise class consciousness or lower it. Mainly, this results from the techniques, comparisons, and categories used, the information conveyed or withheld, and the hierarchies legitimized or undermined in the conduct or research, as well as from the publication of what is found, which in conservative studies means the reification of a passing moment in consciousness and its transformation into one more reason for sticking with the present.

For example, one can construct questions that emphasize the individual's identity in the class as the self-definition that is most appropriate for dealing with a particular set of problems. One can supply important facts that most workers do not know. One can introduce comparisons that highlight rather than downplay the injustice of their situation (most judgments involve a comparison with a situation believed to be similar, but there is always a choice of which one to use). One can link up individual opponents into an opposition class, and that class to a set of rules and conditions from which it draws its power. And, perhaps most important, one can make such categories as "class," "exploitation," "capitalism," and especially "class struggle" available to workers to think with, to help them organize more effectively, more politically, what they already know, and integrate more dialectically what they continue to learn. Care must be taken, of course, not to use these categories until most of what they refer to is already known albeit in some other form, or else they will strike people as meaningless jargon.

On the other hand, along with most social scientists—aside from introducing conservative facts and using comparisons that play down injustices—one can withhold such categories and encourage workers to think in terms of other group identities (race, nation, religion, gender, etc.), "individual attitudes," and "personal choices." The crux is how the subject is introduced (how the stage is set), what get emphasized, what is assumed, what comparisons used, how it gets framed, and in what categories all this is formulated. The point is that conducting research in the orthodox mode, remaining tied to traditional disciplinary forms and norms, effectively retards the development of class consciousness, whether one intends that result or not. And, throughout, the more aware a researcher is of the affect he has on his human subjects, whether he wants to or not, the greater the likelihood of his having the affect he wants to.

The question with which we started out—how to study class consciousness—is both about how to investigate this subject and how we do and can affect it. It is this double sense that I tried to convey in my title "How to Study Class Consciousness...and Why We Should." The radicalizing potential of doing radical research, particularly on class consciousness, has barely been touched. Yet, how better to combine our interests and skills as scholars and activists? With the greater penetration of bourgeois ideology among workers, conducting a study of classes and class struggle from the perspective of class consciousness is probably more important now than it ever was, both for understanding the possibilities of change and for influencing them. The time has come to move beyond criticizing the ideological biases in mainstream scholarship to undertaking our own research on workers to discover the information we need while helping to produce the results we want. The opportunities for carrying out such studies are also greater than they were in the past. The current crisis in capitalism provides us with conflictual situations aplenty and the growing number of radical scholars in the universities constitute an army of potential researchers. Consciousness studying can become an important part of consciousness raising. The choice is ours.

If there are people who take this interest in influencing what workers think through making a study of their consciousness as a sign of manipulation, I can only answer—again—that every study of class consciousness affects how workers think, one way or another. It is manipulation only where there is dishonesty, or where the researcher does not admit even to himself what he is doing or tries to hide it. The old question—Which side are you on?—cannot be avoided. To put this question still more concretely—Do you want to help lower class consciousness or to help raise it? There is no third possibility. Opening taking sides at the start, when it is necessary to be on one side or the other, then, is not only the radical thing to do. It is also the honest thing to do. And who, but those whose interests are hurt by the truth, would want us to be dishonest?


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