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My 1923 masterpiece History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics made my career and spelled out my profundities on (as the title suggests) class consciousness. When I talk about class consciousness, I'm not talking about it in the psychological sense; I'm referring to how each social class has its own consciousness to which it aspires.
Every class has a false consciousness opposed to class consciousness. If you're a member of the bourgeoisie, this probably means that you're all into the idea of having two kids, some nice furniture, and a nicer car than the Joneses. Class consciousness is what happens when you get rid of this false consciousness and come to an understanding of your class's place in the overall process of history. This is mad hard to achieve, because you pretty much have to change how you think about everything to get there.
So, you aren't born with class consciousness—you have to struggle to achieve it. The proletariat was lucky because it had a how-to guide with the Communist Manifesto, which could guide them to a life opposed to capitalism and help them understand their place in history. As for the bourgeoisie—they were on their own, with their false ideals and illusions. Good luck with that one, bourgies!
"Realism in the Balance," my essay of staggering insight, gets real about Realism. Look, I was a literary critic as well as a political bigwig. I was really stoked about Realist novels because they dealt with life as we know it without a lot of imaginative nonsense thrown in to mess things up, as often happens in, say, Modernist literature. (Thomas Mann was my go-to author for great Realism.)
Why, you legitimately ask, did I see Realist literature as superior to all that experimental, Expressionist, stream-of-consciousness, Surrealist goobledy-gook? Because only Realist art understands its place in history, and only Realist art doesn't reduce a book's perspective to one privileged, special individual.
Because Modernist art was so focused on individual perspectives (I'm looking at you, James Joyce), Modernist authors (ahem, James Joyce) sentimentalized the individual. They were so busy creating revolution in narrative that they forgot about the real revolution happening in the streets, among the people.
Not to be confused with "totally," totality—a term I used in both my literary criticism and my political writing—refers to sense of a wholeness and completeness. So, if we're talking aesthetics, rather than consider someone or something from only a single, subjective position, I was interested in all angles of what made a thing a thing, or a person a person, or a state a state.
And while we're on the subject of states, let's discuss the state as a totality: what is it, and how do people see it? Taking into consideration a state's totality means thinking about 1) who runs the show (the bureaucracy); 2) those who work (the proletariat); and 3) those who make the state possible (the people). Basically, you cannot only think of the state in one way—it includes all of the above.
I accept that not everyone liked my ideas about totality—did you hear the one about how I wrote that the proletariat is the universal subject?—but I just chock that up to anti-Marxist hater talk.
We Marxists hold historical consciousness in high esteem. It's a complicated story, but I believe that all of this great awareness started when people began to reject absolutism. At a certain point, they just up and said, "Hey, this whole monarchy thing is so top-down and oppressive. Why is one person telling all of us what to do?"
For me, rejecting an absolutist kind of government provoked a new era of reasonable thinking. After that, it was all Down with one dude wielding absolute power, and Up with the people thinking through the shared creation of a reasonable nation-state.
To me, books that explored all of the muscle that went into creating a state by and for the people were the books for me. Writers like Voltaire really got at the importance of historical consciousness. I mean, not to oversimplify, but do you want the opposite—historical unconsciousness? People must work toward creating a self-aware government supported at all levels. Any questions?
This was one of those zingers that helped me poke the bourgeoisie in the proverbial eye. As I saw it, those bourgie folks only cared about economic comforts. They could only understand the world through their own limited perspective, which means that they saw the proletariat only through middle-class eyes, which made the working class not people with imaginations and perspectives of their own but "reified" objects.
For the bourgeoisie, the workers were just makers of things, entities who were valued to the extent that they were able to produce commodities and make the rich richer. (Thank goodness we got over that, right?) In fact, the bourgeoisie saw everything as an object and a commodity.
Let me just put it out there: when you're seeing other human beings as objects and commodities, that's just materialism gone mad.