Is there such a thing as ‘class consciousness’?

Last Friday we had a great session of the London Philosophy Club, where we were treated to Paul Doran and Arthur Adler from the Philosophy In Pubs (PIPs) movement, coming down from Liverpool to London to discuss their ideas about the role of grass-roots philosophy in transforming society.

Their vision is unique and fascinating, partly because they see it as their mission to spread philosophy beyond academia, beyond the affluent classes, and to introduce a ‘thinking culture’ in the working class. It’s an extension of the grass roots ‘education of the working man’ mission which used to be part of Marxism (both Paul and Arthur have long relationships with the Communist Party, and Arthur was chairman of the British Communist Party in the 1980s). What can Socialists or Communists do in a society which stubbornly clings to its capitalist values and structures? They can practice philosophy, spread the practice of philosophy, and bide their time.

Now this is a noble and very necessary mission – necessary, because philosophy is still an overwhelmingly middle class past-time, and if it is genuinely going to transform society, then it needs to reach other parts of society, particularly those parts that don’t necessarily have the clearest voice yet in modern politics.

So is the role of grass roots philosophy to develop ‘class consciousness’ in the working class, to empower them to engage with the power structures of their society in a more intelligent, conscious and coherent way? Well, it could be that. But I would argue that it’s not just that – and I think Paul would agree with me. In some ways, grass roots philosophy today looks more to the ancient Greeks than to Marx, and it’s worth teasing out the differences in their attitudes to the practice of philosophy.

For both the ancient Greeks and Marxists, the aim of philosophy is the development of consciousness. However, the aim of ancient Greek philosophy is the development of ‘cosmic consciousness’, while the aim of Marxism is the development of ‘class consciousness’.

What does ‘class consciousness’ mean? Can a ‘class’ be ‘conscious’? Could a city be conscious? Could a country be conscious? The idea of ‘class consciousness’ seems to come from 19th century German Romanticism, from the idea in Herder that communities could have a particular ‘spirit’ or geist , which could be discovered in folk-tales or stories or even in historical figures. From there, Hegel developed the idea that national consciousness could develop through historical dialectic, finally evolving into ‘world spirit’. Marx took this Hegelian idea of the development of consciousness through dialectic, and tied it to economics. He introduced the idea that economic history was the dialectic process of class war, with different classes coming into existence, and fighting it out with other classes. Except ‘consciousness’ doesn’t really play a decisive role in Marxism. It’s just an epiphenomenon of impersonal and inevitable economic processes. If Marxism had really worked as an economic theory, there would be no need to go out and educate the working man in philosophy: the revolution would simply happen of its own accord. Marxism doesn’t really require grass roots philosophy…history should follow its course regardless of any well-meaning philosophy groups.

Nonetheless, for many decades, the project of radical philosophy was taken to be the development of working class consciousness against the ‘false consciousness’ of capitalism, in preparation for the revolution and the final glorious stage in human history: the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. For some philosophers on the Continent, this is still the basic project of philosophy, grass roots or otherwise.
I have many problems with this vision of philosophy, not least with the ‘Dictatorship’ part of it. But I also have a problem with its definition of consciousness. First of all, I think human consciousness is bigger and more mysterious than any particular class affiliation. Our class beliefs may be illuminated and enabled by our consciousness, but to say that our consciousness is class-bound is like saying the sun is bound by our window, because it appears there every day. You may identify yourself as working class or land owning or whatever, but that’s a tiny part of what ‘consciousness’ is. Consciousness – that which enables us to think, to consider, to reflect and criticize – is far more than economics. It is far more than the property we own or don’t own. Consciousness enables us to reflect on the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Is the universe ‘working class’ or ‘middle class’? Socrates famously said ‘I am a citizen of the universe’. What I think he meant is that consciousness is not confined to any particular tribal affiliation. It is not confined to Athens, or to Greece, or to the class that he belonged to. It is bigger than that. And that means that the project of grass roots philosophy is also bigger than simply advancing the interests of any particular class, city or country.

For the Stoics, for Heraclitus, for Pythagoras, Aristotle and Plato, consciousness was in some rather mysterious way the very essence of the universe. They were, I would suggest, ‘panpsychic’ – they believed that Mind is contained in matter, perhaps in all matter (this was certainly the position of the Stoics). To practice philosophy is to develop your consciousness and realize your identity with the cosmos. It is to attain, not ‘proletarian consciousness’, but cosmic consciousness.

Now that process is not just an individual, lonely, inward exercise. It is very much political and communal as well as personal. It involves challenging economic structures that are unjust and that obscure your relationship to truth and beauty. It involves deciding how best to organize your society. And I guess that this will also involve questions of class – you need to decide if only one class be trained to be philosophical (as Plato thought) or if as many people and classes as possible be trained to be philosophical (as the Stoics thought). I personally believe the latter. Which means philosophy is not just for the upper class, not just for the intellectuals, not just for the working class. It’s really, genuinely, for everyone. It’s at the heart of being a human, and our humanity comes prior to any class affiliation.

Those are my thoughts on ‘working class’, ‘middle class’ and other such labels. I also think it’s reductive and dehumanizing to divide all humans into those rigid categories. A person is free to think of themselves as ‘working class’, and to define themselves like that, but if they’re an orthodox Marxist, then they are also putting everyone else in the world into the same separate categories, and I think that will ultimately cut them off from other humans. The bourgeoisie are, according to Marxism, the enemy of the proletariat, on the wrong side of history, doomed to extinction. But who believes that anymore? Who thinks humans fit into such neat Manichean categories?

But then, I’m middle class, so perhaps it’s inevitable that I think in such naive and idealistic terms. Perhaps if I was black, for example, the idea of ‘black consciousness’ or ‘black identity’ would be more important to me and I wouldn’t be in such a rush to transcend local identity and attain ‘cosmic consciousness’. Perhaps it is only the luxury of my economic situation that enables me to cast my eyes up and think pretty thoughts about the universe. If my economic situation were more severe, perhaps I would think less about the cosmos, and more about creating actual change here, in my immediate situation. And perhaps I would recognize the necessity of collective action, and the necessity of the emergence of class consciousness for that collective action to happen.

Am I being a chronic head-in-the-clouds bourgeois idealist?

Comments:

  • Jayarava says:

    The English people I know all seem very much aware of class, what class they and others are. They also seem aware of distinctions in class that I cannot get my head around.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Yes, its a class ridden country in some ways. Perhaps cos of our education system…

  • Greg Linster says:

    In regards to your last question: maybe. Here's an interesting tangential question I'd be interested in getting your take on: are all people capable of philosophizing?

    Cheers,
    Greg

  • interpersonal says:

    i wonder which country Jayarava comes from?

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Greg

    Id quote Amarta Sen:

    'by and large, all of us are capable of being reasonable through being open-minded about welcoming information, and through reflecting on arguments coming from different quarters, along with undertaking interactive deliberations and debates on how the underlying issues should be seen'.

  • I would like to note that as we are interconnected by 6 degrees of separation as theorized by Frigyes Karinthy there is a huge chance that our consciousness are connected that way too so class consciousness can be shared among people within one or 2 degrees of separation from you(aka. same class as you).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *