False consciousness

A brief explanation of Marx's conception of false consciousness; some of the ways in which later Marxist thinkers have used the concept.

Author: Daniel Little

University of Michigan-Dearborn

“False consciousness” is a concept derived from Marxist theory of social class.  The concept refers to the systematic misrepresentation of dominant social relations in the consciousness of subordinate classes.  Marx himself did not use the phrase “false consciousness,” but he paid extensive attention to the related concepts of ideology and commodity fetishism.  Members of a subordinate class (workers, peasants, serfs) suffer from false consciousness in that their mental representations of the social relations around them systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination, exploitation, and domination those relations embody.  Related concepts include mystification, ideology, and fetishism.

Marx offered an objective theory of class, based on an analysis of the objective features of the system of economic relations that constitute the social order.  A person's social class is determined by his or her position within the system of property relations that constitutes a given economic society. People also have subjective characteristics: thoughts, mental frameworks, and identities. These mental constructs give the person a cognitive framework in terms of which the person understands his or her role in the world and the forces that govern his or her life.  One's mental constructs may correspond more or less well to the social reality they seek to represent. In a class society, there is an inherent conflict of material interests between privileged and subordinate groups.  Marx asserts that social mechanisms emerge in class society that systematically create distortions, errors, and blind spots in the consciousness of the underclass.  If these consciousness-shaping mechanisms did not exist, then the underclass, always a majority, would quickly overthrow the system of their domination.  So the institutions that shape the person’s thoughts, ideas, and frameworks develop in such a way as to generate false consciousness and ideology.

Marx’s theory of ideology is presented in The German Ideology (Marx and Engels [1845-49] 1970).  Marx uses the term “ideology” to refer to a system of ideas through which people understand their world.  A central theoretical assertion in Marx’s writings is the view that “ideology” and thought are dependent on the material circumstances in which the person lives.  Material circumstances determine consciousness, rather than consciousness determining material reality: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” (Marx 1971).  A system of ideology plays the role of supporting the class advantage of the dominant class, according to Marxist theory.  The concept of commodity fetishism is discussed in Capital (Marx 1977).  Marx uses this concept to refer to the pervasive and defining illusion that exists in a commodity society.  A commodity is perceived solely in terms of its money equivalent (its price), rather than being understood as standing within a set of social relations of production.  The labor of the operator of the shoe-sewing machine disappears and we see only the money value of the shoes.  Marx believes that this is a socially important form of mystification; the market society erases the relations of domination and exploitation on which it depends.

Twentieth-century Marxist thinkers have given more systematic attention to a Marxist theory of consciousness and ideology than Marx provided.  Georg Lukács was one of the first European philosophers to reflect seriously on Marx’s philosophical ideas (Lukács 1971 [1920]). Lukács introduces the concept of false consciousness into Marxist discourse, based on a brief reference by Engels, in relation to a dialectical theory of knowledge. 

A more sociological treatment of class consciousness was provided by Karl Mannheim in his effort to formulate a sociology of knowledge in the 1930s (Mannheim 1959 [1936]).  The sociology of knowledge attempts to provide a theoretical account of the relationship between knowledge systems and the social conditions within which they emerge; this provides a theoretical framework in terms of which to understand the workings of a system of ideology.  Mannheim supports the idea that the social position of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat deeply influence the forms of knowledge that they embody; and in each case, he argues that these forms of material bias lead to a systematic falsification of social reality.

Antonio Gramsci significantly extended Marxist thinking about ideology and consciousness in the 1930s (Gramsci 1971).  Gramsci gave ideology a more active role in politics and history than classical historical materialism.  He argued that the proletariat has the ability to influence the terms of its consciousness, so there is an extended struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat over the terms of the representation of the existing social reality.  The bourgeoisie generally exercises “hegemony” over the terms of ideology, through its control of the instruments of consciousness; but the proletariat can exert influence through its own cultural institutions.  This perspective introduces a major change into the classical theory of ideology, in that it denies that the subordinate class is simply the passive tool of the dominant ideology. 

The French philosopher Louis Althusser provided an influential perspective on the role of ideology in a class society in Lenin and Philosophy (Althusser 1971).  Generally characterized as offering a structuralist interpretation of Marxism, Althusser’s writings on the role of ideology in the social system diverge from the interpretation offered in the German Ideology.  Althusser takes issue with the notion that ideology is a feature of consciousness; instead, he refers to an “ideological state apparatus” as the set of institutions that produce and reproduce social states of knowledge.  And he disputes the assumption that there is an external social reality independent from ideology; rather, all features of reality are expressed in language, and are inseparable from the features of consciousness singled out as “ideological.” 


Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. [London]: New Left Books.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Translated by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith. New York: International.

Lukács, György. 1971 [1920]. History and class consciousness; studies in Marxist dialectics. Cambridge, Mass.,: MIT Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1959 [1936]. Ideology and utopia : an introduction to the sociology of knowledge, A harvest book ; HB 3. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Marx, Karl. 1971. The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1977. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. [1845-49] 1970. The German ideology. 3d rev. ed. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

 Go to UnderstandingSociety gateway



Interested in social justice in the global world? Visit UnderstandingSociety and ChangingSociety -- two blogs on social justice and the foundations of the social sciences in a changing global world.

This article is part of the UnderstandingSociety gateway. Please feel free to visit for more useful articles on the philosophy of social science, globalization, and global justice.

See also --

Marxism and Method