The first of a series of articles on class by Chris Nineham.
This summer’s strikes in Britain and the announcement by the RMT’s Mick Lynch that ‘the working class is back’ will have sent a collective shudder through the ranks of the establishment. They hoped they had buried the whole idea of a combative working class. One of the great paradoxes of the last 40 years has been that just when society has become more unequal than at any time for a century, class had dropped out of the discussion.
This was something the British ruling class has worked at very hard right from the start of the Thatcher project. Alfred Sherman, a key adviser to the Tories’ then new leader Margaret Thatcher, gave a series of lectures in the 1970s aimed at proving that class was a ‘Marxist term which has no meaning in any non-Marxist schema’. Thatcher echoed this later with her claim that ‘class was a communist concept’. Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s closest confidantes, saw the aim of their project as creating a society in which it would be possible to claim ‘we are all bourgeois now’.1
These themes have been enthusiastically taken up across the establishment. In universities, industrial relations departments have closed and business studies has flourished. Newspapers long ago sacked their labour correspondents and focussed on stock prices instead of strike statistics. Ignoring their roots in working-class organisation, social-democratic parties everywhere have dropped the rhetoric of class. Intellectuals from the right, the liberal centre and parts of the left have fallen over themselves to dismiss class by introducing a range of new social categories, separating class from any economic basis, reducing it to one division among many others or just denying it altogether.
The neoliberal denial of class is however only an extreme case of a long-held aversion. Ever since independent working-class organisation emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, discussing class has been regarded as largely improper in polite society. Up till then, the writing of history had from time to time recognised class and even class struggles as central to human development. But from the mid 19th century, history turned into a celebration of evolution and progress or the mere description of facts and events with no inner logic.
Economics, which had admitted certain contradictions in capitalism, morphed at around the same time into the purely mathematical harmonies of vulgar liberalism. Sociology emerged in the late 19th century as a science of society which recognised various connections between the individual and society but went out of its way to avoid making class central to its analysis.
Ever since, mainstream academics, politicians and journalists have tended to deny the existence of class, or when that wasn’t possible, to break it down into multiple categories, treat it as one division amongst many or as purely a matter of culture. In too many cases, these kind of arguments have been echoed on the left.
These efforts have peaked in the neoliberal years. It may at first seem puzzling that class has been so successfully swept under the carpet just as inequality has reached levels not seen since the 19th century, but there is a logic to it. Achieving a society as unequal as ours depended on smashing key bastions of working-class organisation in a series of set piece battles. Serial defeats for the working class around the world lent credibility to the idea that workers had less social weight. The wave of new technology, plant closures and international restructuring that accompanied it appeared to give objectivity to the notion that we were dealing with a whole new social set up.
Attacking the very idea of class was, however, an important element of the class war that was unleashed by the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, surrender on this issue, and acceptance by parts of the left that class was no longer key, is one of the reasons why employers have achieved success in their class war.
The ‘innermost secret’
Why the obsessive concern to bury class? The first problem for capitalists is of course is that working class militancy eats into their profits. So it is partly a matter of narrow, immediate, self-interest. The extent of the operation however, betrays wider anxieties. Denying or suppressing class is a more deep seated, ideological necessity for our rulers. First, even the most superficial discussion of class is bound to focus people’s minds on the shocking levels of inequality that disfigure our world. To maintain legitimacy, the capitalist class and its supporters need to do everything possible to distract attention from the fact of their minority rule.
There is more at stake here even than concealing rampant inequality however. Class in its Marxist rather than sociological sense describes an active relation between groups of people in society, it explains how people fit into the way the economic fundamentals of society are organised. Because of this, it illuminates the economics on which society is based and the conflicts of interests it generates. This is why Marx argued that class reveals the ‘innermost secret’ of society, ‘the hidden basis of the entire social structure’.
Class societies have existed for thousands of years, ever since humans produced enough for a surplus—goods over and above what is needed to survive on a daily basis. But in capitalism class relations have reached their fullest development. Exploitation in previous class societies was driven by the immediate needs of the rulers. In the Middle Ages, for example, feudal lords used the surplus they extracted from the peasants to fund their armies and their own luxurious lifestyles.
The unique characteristic of capitalism is that the expansion of wealth has become an end in itself: capitalism is driven by competition without limit to accumulate capital. In order to survive, the capitalists have to try constantly to increase these profits so that they can generate the maximum amount of new investment to buy the new technology necessary to achieve the economies of scale that will keep their prices competitive. That accumulation takes place in the main by generating profit from workers, by paying workers less than the value of the labour power they have expended to produce goods. This is what explains capitalism’s dynamism, the speed with which it came to dominate the globe and the ruthlessness with which it exploits workers.
As a result, working people are completely dependent on capital for their livelihoods, for their very existence. Supporters of capitalism claim it is based on free choice. It is true that workers may in some circumstances be able to choose between different employers, but those employers will all be competing to maximise profits, meaning they will all be trying to drive wages down to the minimum and constantly pressurising staff to work faster and more efficiently. As a result, capitalism has increasing inequality built into its basic economic drive.
An understanding of the way capitalism exploits workers makes a mockery of the various ways in which the establishment explain the world. Their preferred model of society is a giant market in which individuals interact freely and equally. In reality, of course, people come to the market with wildly different levels of buying power. The distribution of wealth is determined by people’s position in the productive process, by their class position.
Politicians also like to tell us ‘We are all in it together.’ The idea can’t survive contact with an understanding that the whole system is driven by a tiny minority forcing profit from the labour of the many. We are also told that capitalist investors are ‘wealth creators’. Looked at from the point of view of class, the capital that an investor brings to the table has been stolen from past labour. The investor is simply recycling the spoils to make still more money.
A class analysis also challenges the idea that capitalism will ‘lift up’ the poor over time. Capitalism has produced unimaginable wealth, but as Marx predicted, its drive to keep wages down means that for most of its existence the distribution of that wealth has become more and more unequal. Two and a half decades of capitalist boom after the Second World War, combined with high levels of working class pressure helped to reduce inequality after the terrible experience of the 1930s. But 40 years of neoliberal capitalism has more than reversed these gains. Neoliberalism’s class struggle from above has brought us to the extraordinary point at which just eight men are worth as much as half the world’s population. Grasping class as a social relation leads to the devastating conclusion that the poor are poor because the rich are rich. Generalised poverty and inequality are a necessary outcome of a system based on competition for profit.
A universal class
For Marx, however, the nature of modern exploitation and the exclusion of workers from the fruits of production had three further, deeply subversive implications which are less frequently discussed and are in many ways the most important.
The first is that capitalism has created a ‘universal class’ which has no interest in exploiting or oppressing any other group. The bourgeois revolutions resulted in the replacement of one ruling class by another. The emerging capitalist class fought the fixed bonds and the backwardness of the feudal system, but they did so to establish a new, more dynamic regime of exploitation. Because the economic project of the bourgeoisie depended on the exploitation of a new class, the new rights it offered for the great mass of people, even at their most radical, were limited. For all its achievements, the equality announced in the French Revolution’s central slogan of ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ turned out to be formal and political rather than material or economic.
The nature of the subordination and exploitation of workers puts them in a much more radical situation. Not only is the working class unable to exploit any other group, but for working people, political freedom without social and economic liberation counts for little. Real liberation for workers can only come by dismantling the whole edifice of society, and that means in the process challenging every form of discrimination that the system generates. As Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto:
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.2
The sheer comprehensiveness of its exploitation and oppression made the working class a subversive force like no other, ‘a class which is the dissolution of all classes’, a class in short, ‘with radical chains’.3
The second point is implied in the first. The position and experience of the working class provides a unique vantage point from which to understand the way capitalism works. The experience of exploitation, constant attacks on conditions and tension between boss and worker produces some level of class consciousness at all times. This explains why, despite the defeats and the propaganda of the neoliberal years, a solid 60% of the population in Britain has continued to self-define as working class throughout this time.4 We will come on to the issue of the unevenness of working class thought and opinion later in the series, but despite current snobbish caricatures of working people as socially backward, prejudiced, ‘nativist’ and so forth, workers in fact tend to have the most progressive attitudes in society on a whole range of economic and social issues.5 There is always some feeling of ‘us and them’ amongst workers: dislike for the boss, sympathy with or participation in unions. This is why most workers who participate in elections vote for social democratic parties and so on.
In periods of social tension and crisis things can go much further. Vivek Chibber probably expressed a widespread view when he suggested last year that the highpoint of workers’ revolutionary struggle in the period between the two world wars was in some sense a historical exception.6 The period around the Russian revolution remains indeed the peak of workers struggle thus far. It needs restating, however, that workers have been at the forefront of cycles of insurgency from the inception of capitalism. These struggles, from the Chartists to the great working class struggles of 1968 and after, including the Second World War wave of anti-fascist struggles in Europe, many anti-colonial uprisings and a number of recent insurgencies in the global south, tend to raise the spectre of socialism anew. Working class struggle has as a result without doubt been the most important source of radical ideas and revolutionary, anti-capitalist movements.
Crucially of course, as well as having an interest in change, workers have the means to make it happen. Just as workers rely entirely on capitalists for their livelihood, capitalists are completely dependent on workers for their profits. Powerless as individuals, collectively, workers have immense potential power. By forcing huge numbers of workers together at the point of production, capitalism creates a counter-power. By very publicly demonstrating the fact that nothing happens without workers, and by showing what can be achieved when workers organise together, every major strike contains within it the suggestion, the hope of a different way of organising society. In Marx’s words:
Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance—combination…If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages…In this struggle—a veritable civil war—all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character.7
The ruling class of course dislike working class militancy because it can hit them in the pocket. But just as workers’ economic struggles can grow over into political challenges, for the bosses every strike is an insolent challenge to their overall authority. They expend so much effort and energy trying to stop class consciousness developing because they know from history that class struggle can threaten the very basis of their world. This reveals some understanding of the moist important reason that class matters. Working people are in a unique position to be able to comprehend the systematic robbery at capitalism’s heart and have both an interest and an ability in bringing it to an end.
- ↩ For an interesting discussion of this effort, see: Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (2012), ‘Margaret Thatcher and the decline of class politics’, in Ben Jackson, Robert Saunders (2012) Making Thatcher’s Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.132-148.
- ↩ Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (2015) The Communist Manifesto, Penguin, London, p.19.
- ↩ Karl Marx (1844) ‘Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, in Karl Marx (1975) Early Writings, Penguin, London, p.256.
- ↩ See for example, Patrick Butler (June 29, 2016) ‘Most Britons regard themselves as working class, survey finds’, The Guardian, available at: www.theguardian.com
- ↩ For a discussion of the data about working-class opinion see Chris Nineham (2017) How the Establishment Lost Control, Zero, Hants, pp.22-3.
- ↩ Vivek Chibber, ‘Labor’s Long March’, Jacobin August, 2021.
- ↩ Karl Marx (1955) Poverty of Philosophy, Progress, Moscow, p.79.