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3 August 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 11:41am

Dictionary of concepts: False consciousness

Whose version of false consciousness is most true? 

By India Bourke

“The reason why Lab didn’t win = Murdoch, media, false consciousness. That’s the Corbyn platform,” was how a tweet to Spectator journalist Isabel Hardman summed up the success of Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign.

So what is false consciousness? And how has a term born on the left become a weapon wielded by the right?


According to a Marxist notion of history, people ultimately behave in line with the best interests of their class.

But how then to explain why history doesn’t always pan out as planned? – Why workers often act to the advantage of their capitalist overlords? Or why Jeremy Corbyn isn’t certain to win a landslide in the next general election?

Friedrich Engles, the co-founder of Marxist theory, pondered such dilemmas, and, in an 1893 letter to a friend, appropriated the term “false consciousness” to help explain the way that certain ideas (or “ideologies”) can mask our understanding of deeper truths:

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“Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all.” (D.Torr tr. F. Engles in K. Marx & F.Engels Corr.1846-95)

How is it used today?

Today, the term is most commonly associated with the manipulative narratives of right-wing press and politics. Think Brexit-bus. Think Murdoch. Think Daily Mail:


Yet in a case of confusing doublethink, the term itself is most often bandied around by right-wing commentators, hoping to smear their opponents as patronising, disconnected, snobs. Here it is in a Daily Mail article from last summer: “intellectuals gather to lament the false consciousness of the working classes, who do not know what is good for them and really ought to be guided by their moral superiors.”

So whose version of false consciousness is most true? As Dr Jonathan Maynard explains, “people now equivocate as to whether False Consciousness means misperceiving certain things as being in your interests, and misperceiving what your interests are”. Having someone point out that there are reasons why immigration serves your economic interest, for instance, is a lot less contentious than having them dispute what your interests are to start with.

Perhaps as a result of such ambiguity, those on the Left appear to use the term less and less. Instead, new research initiatives talk about how we “frame” our discussions of economics, migration and society – and generally appear to take a wider view of human motivation.

So while this phrase might best be consigned to history, Marxist fans need not fear, it can still hit the right notes for some:

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