Class consciousness, literally, is consciousness of one’s social class or economic rank in society. From the perspective of Marxist theory, it refers to the self-awareness, or lack thereof, of a particular class; its capacity to act in its own rational interests; or its awareness of the historical tasks implicit (given the precepts of Marxism) to it.
Another Marxist approach is to consider the transition from a ‘class in itself,” which is defined as a category of people having a common relation to the means of production, to a ‘class for itself,’ which is defined as a stratum organized in active pursuit of its own interests. Members of “lower” classes often have a greater class consciousness than do members of the “upper” class.
However, this may not necessarily be the case in societies where class hierarchy is a strict and deep tradition. The United States has the majority of its class-related issues clouded by race. People of color in the United States are generally less well-off financially than whites. A more advanced degree of class consciousness would make one aware that all poor people in this country have a common ground that goes deeper than racial divides.
Defining a person’s social class can be a determinant for her awareness of it. Marxists define classes on the basis of their relation to the means of production – especially their ownership or non-ownership of it. Non-marxist social scientists distinguish various social strata on the basis of income, occupation, or status.
Early in the nineteenth century the labels “working classes” and “middle classes” were already coming into common usage. “The old hereditary aristocracy, reinforced by the new gentry who owed their success to commerce, industry, and the professions, evolved into an “upper class”. Its consciousness was formed in part by public schools (in the British sense) and Universities.
The upper class tenaciously maintained control over the political system, depriving not only the working classes but the middle classes of a voice in the political process.”