Class Consciousness and Mythology

23 March 2010


Marx thought that the proletariat would attain to class consciousness and that this dawning class consciousness on the part of the proletariat would precipitate the revolution that would ultimately expropriate the expropriators. For Marx, the proletariat emerged from the Industrial Revolution, but as a people unaware of itself and of its powers and possibilities. The eventual emergence of proletarian class consciousness would bring the realization to the proletarian of itself as a people and of its powers and possibilities.

However, it is rather difficult to nail down Marx on this. Marx himself doesn’t often use the phrase “class consciousness” even though the idea of it is pervasive throughout his works. The phrase really comes into general use with Marx’s followers. Here is a longish passage from Das Kapital that ends with the famous passage about expropriating the expropriators:

Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.


The basic idea here of like that of a bunch of inmates of a prison or an asylum suddenly realizing that they far outnumber the guards or orderlies, and that if they will simply work together they can take over the prison or asylum. This realization on the part of a large mass of people with something in common, and the appeal to this common character to displace those few in positions of power with representatives of the mass of people, is the class consciousness of that mass of people. With the realization they become aware of themselves as a class, and when they become aware of themselves as a class they realize the power that they have if they can work together.

Marx’s claim (or, at least, the claim of many of his commentators) that the proletariat would attain to class consciousness is an interesting one, but I will not address is directly here, only indirectly, by way of a digression. What I will note directly is what Marx did not say about the proletariat, and what Marx did not say was that the proletariat would develop its own mythology. As a social class created by the Industrial Revolution, that is to say, not only a new people, but a new kind of people, the proletariat is a people without traditions, without roots, without myths, and without even an awareness of itself as a people.

If we agree with Marx that a new class was created by the Industrial Revolution, and that this class would eventually make a place for itself in a world that had heretofore not hosted such a class, similar considerations apply to the development (or emergence) of class consciousness and the development (or emergence) of mythology. A people — in the present instance, that people is the proletariat — might come to an awareness of itself as a people, but it might also, or instead, establish for itself a mythology specific to itself as a people.

That it should occur to be that Marx did not say that the proletariat would develop its own mythology, and that he chose instead to say (after a fashion) that the proletariat would develop class consciousness, is a function of the fact that, at the moment, I am deeply steeped in the work of Joseph Campbell. I have mentioned Campbell in many posts (most recently in The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society), and I decided that instead of leaving it to chance as to when I would happen upon another set of lectures at the library, I would systematically acquire some of them. And I did. After the past few weeks I have listened through, one after another, four sets of lectures by Joseph Campbell: Myths and the Masks of God, The Western Quest, Man and Myth, and Wings of Art. This has been both enlightening and enjoyable.

The mythology of the proletariat would not be the claim that the existence of such a class is false (that is to say, someone might construe the phase “the mythology of the proletariat” to mean that the existence of the proletariat is a myth, thus false), but would be the myths by which the proletariat lives. There is a sense in which this is a missing part of the puzzle for both Marx and Campbell alike, though it feels a little strange to mention them in the same sentence, since it is difficult to imagine two more different human beings.

One of Marx’s central concerns is that the proletariat, newly emergent from the Industrial Revolution, should take is proper and rightful place in the world, preferably by a violent revolution that would displace the previous ruling class. The proletariat, according to Marx, doesn’t (yet) possess class consciousness, and doesn’t possess its rightful power, and it needs to acquire both.

One of Campbell’s central concerns that comes up repeatedly throughout his lectures is that contemporary man is attempting to live by myths that no longer speak to him, myths that date from the bronze age, and one of the great challenges of our time is to find the myths by which we actually live, and not the established and official myths that we think we live by. Contemporary man of which Campbell speaks is none other than man of industrialized society, and man of industrialized society is, in Marx’s terms, the proletariat.

Both Marx and Campbell see modern man as being at loose ends, as it were. This is often referred to as the problem of alienation. Both Marx and Campbell are deeply concerned about the alienation of modern man. For Marx, the solution is class consciousness, revolution, and communism. For Campbell, the solution is to find the myth by which one lives.

In The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society I began to outline some of the rituals of industrialized society, for if we can come to grasp our uniquely modern rituals, we will be a little closer to understanding our uniquely modern myths, on the principle enunciated by Campbell that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.

If a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth, and (as I have said) a political ritual is an opportunity to participate in a political myth, so too a labor ritual is an opportunity to participate in a labor myth. What then are the rituals of labor? If we could identify the rituals of labor, we would be well on our way to discovering the mythology of labor, and this would be the myth by which the proletariat lives.

However, I don’t expect it to be as simple as that. The terms and the concepts and the conditions have changed since the time of Marx. Today, almost everyone works for a living, but almost no one self-identifies as a proletariat. Indeed, almost no one self-identifies as a laborer. Even the term “labor” is used less frequently than in the recent past. Most people tend to speak of “work” or “jobs” or “career.” This, and not the proletariat, is the idiom of today, and we must pay attention to the idiom of today, because speech is part ritual, and what we say is sometimes said for the purposes of incantation rather than the communication of information.

This is a large topic. Hopefully I will return to it tomorrow.

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