Class Consciousness: Its Meaning and Value
One of the terms most frequently in use in Socialist propaganda, and one which may prove most mystifying to the uninitiated, is the term “class-consciousness.”
What do we mean when we speak of “class consciousness”? We mean simply a thorough knowledge of the position in society of the class to which the class-conscious subject belongs.
Socialists claim that class-consciousness is a mental condition which must necessarily precede working-class emancipation. The reason is because, owing to the peculiarly complex nature of the modern social system, the interest of the classes is obscured, and only a clear understanding of the working-class place in the social system can enable the workers to see in what direction their interests lie, and therefore what they have to fight for.
The chattel-slave, who was the property of his owner, was never in any doubt as to his place in society. His relation to his master, and his class to his master’s class, were too simple to allow of obscurity. He knew that he was mere property, and hence he was in no danger of identifying his master’s interest with his own. That it is true is proved by the fact that those ruling races of antiquity whose States were based on chattel-slavery could never get their slaves to fight for them—or trust them to do so—except under pledge of granting them their freedom.
With the modern wage slave the case is entirely different. He has the freedom of selling his labour power, not where he will, but where he can. He may enter into “free” contracts. These things make him think there is no essential difference between his class and his master’s save such as has arisen from difference of ability. He sees, occasionally, one of his own class rise into the ranks above, so he knows there is no impassable barrier. He finds he cannot live without wages, therefore the class who own the money which provides wages have their useful place in society. He finds he cannot get wages without work, hence it is no less to his interest, he reasons, than to his master’s, to follow the policy which will provide most work. So the complexity of the relations of modern society hide from the worker the fact that he is just as much a slave as the old chattel slave, working to produce wealth for his master, and getting for himself just enough to enable him to do it.
Class-consciousness, the knowledge of his slave status, makes clear the opposition of class interests, and fits the worker for the class struggle.
A. E. Jacomb