Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)
Our ability to reveal the undercurrents of class consciousness is intimately tied to the act of self-reflection. It is in this context that we must begin our consideration of class and social stratification with a brief word on the major work of G.W.F.Hegel and his influential text, the Phenomenology of Mind (Published in 1807). It is my opinion that self-reflection is a necessary ingredient in the ability of the few to manipulate the masses and that although the existence of social classes can be seen in the most primitive of societies, class consciousness and social stratification took on a completely new character within the emerging era of industrialization and has since been used to consciously and intentionally solidify the power of the few over the many.
Let us remember that Hegel was writing at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century in a Western European environment. By the time of the publication of his seminal work, the young Hegel had lived through the French revolution with its intended transition towards representative government as well as the recent passing of Immanuel Kant (1803) and was thus historically situated in the wake of the Enlightenment. Is it any wonder, then, that Hegel would have seen the world as fraught with contradictions such as those between the subject and object of knowledge, mind and nature, self and Other, freedom and authority, knowledge and faith.
What is important for us to understand is that in the Phenomenology of Mind, which owes a great deal to the Kantian notion of a Transcendental Unity of Apperceptions (TUA), these contradictions are englobed by the human mind and can be rationally understood as resulting from the same developmental dynamic leading towards the fulfillment of self-consciousness. It should be kept in mind that this developmental dynamic entails a realization of the dichotomy between self and other. This is the most important aspect of Hegel’s work for our purposes and stands at the heart of all subsequent class struggle.
Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach ( July 28, 1804 to September 13, 1872)
Hegel’s contribution to our understanding of class consciousness and social stratification comes to us via Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels by way of Ludwig Feuerbach. That is, for Marx, the developmental dynamic that leads towards self-consciousness was structurally sound but needed to be turned on its head, so to speak, in order to facilitate Marx’s desired Historical Materialism. To accomplish such a feat, Marx employed Feuerbach’s Theory of Predication.
We find in Feuerbach’s theory of predication what may well be the first instance of a linguistic tool or device being used to impact upon historical developments in the field of philosophy. Stated very simply, Feuerbach’s theory is as follows:
God is Man / In this statement God is the subject and man is the predicate.
Man is God / In this statement Man is the subject and God is the predicate.
Feuerbach contends that both of the statements say quite different things. To say that God is man is to assign the attributes of man to God. In this context God, as the subject of the sentence, can be many things and one of them will be man, however, God remains greater than man. Alternatively, to say that Man is God is to assign the attributes of God to man. In this context Man, as the subject of the sentence can be many things and one of them will be God, however, man will remain greater than God. The implications of these two distinct statements can be elaborated upon in protracted discussions ad infinitum but perhaps its most significant utility will be in the way it served to inspire Karl Marx to turn Hegel on his head. Stated differently, rather than concluding that the human mind serves to englobe the natural contradictions of our existence and lead us to self-consciousness, Marx replaced the phenomenology of mind with historical materialism to produce class consciousness rather than self-consciousness.
On Class Differences: Montesquieu Revisited
Before proceeding with a consideration of class and social stratification as revealed in the work of Karl Marx, I want to digress for just a moment to reconsider some of the ideas expressed in the work of Montesquieu in order to provide the appropriate (my) spin on the story I am telling. Again, this is not a scientific work and my only interest is that you come to understand why I feel that modernist ideology has been used to oppress and subordinate a large number of human beings. I am specifically interested in Montesquieu’s notion that human nature evolves through stages ranging from savagery to barbarism and finally civilization. In fact, he believed that the entire purpose of laws was to safeguard, as much as possible, the advantage of the few over the many. I bring up this point because I believe that an accurate understanding of Marx entails that we understand his motivation. Based on the kinds of ideas expressed by Montesquieu, Marx seems to agree that those few in society that would take advantage of the many are in fact real. The entire purpose of the Marxist approach to interpreting history is to identify the manner by which those few operate.
Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818 to March 14, 1883)
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
One of the cornerstones of Marxist philosophy is that we must not allow ourselves to be consumed by abstract thought as it only serves as a distraction from what is really going on in the world relative to the development of economic wealth and power. Such a shift in focus is the pivot point that Marx needed to make his contribution to our understanding of class consciousness and social stratification. Thus, when our focus is directed towards an analysis of the means of production, we are more clearly able to see the kinds of class divisions that can be traced historically to reveal the subjugation of the many by the few. Let us not forget that it is this very relationship between the few and the many that was of such concern for Montesquieu who has clearly served as one of the cornerstone figures in the creation of our political structure here in the United States. Stated differently, while the Marxist concern with the development of the means of production in a capitalist society may no longer be relevant in our age of economic globalization, the manipulation of the masses by those in power is still very much a part of our social reality. Thus, we shall return to this issue in our consideration of Neo-Marxism later in our story when we discuss the culture industry.
In terms of our understanding of social stratification and how the notions of class and class consciousness have entrenched themselves into the fabric of modernist society, subsequently leading to the subordination and oppression of the masses, we shall find that the history of Western European societies is replete with examples of economic growth that has, on the one hand, benefited all and, on the other, consistently been manipulated by those in power to their own political and economic advantage. In more practical terms, the more relevant issue is in understanding our ability to make the appropriate adjustments to the process so as to promote egalitarian opportunity and democratic justice. This was, after all, the intention of Montesquieu in seeking a balance of power. Stated differently, we always seem to be making gains but those gains seem to be losing ground to the advances being made by the few. The need for some form of a Marxist programmatic or critical theory remains.