What do we mean by… class?

Terry Wrigley takes a look at class, in the first of an rs21 series on the fundamentals of our political tradition.

Marxism has not been put out of business because Etonians have started to drop their aitches . . . While the chief executive smooths his jeans over his sneakers, over one billion on the planet go hungry every day. (Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, p261-3)

Class is a matter of economic position and relationship; it is not decided by tastes or lifestyle. Marx and Engels, at the start of the Communist Manifesto, present the key opposition in modern times to be that between the bourgeoisie (“the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour”) and the proletariat (“the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live”). This is now the case globally.

This division replaced earlier ones, such as slave owners against slaves in the ancient world, or aristocracy against serfs in feudal Europe. Marx predicted the decline of in-between groups: professionals such as doctors and scientists would themselves become wage labourers; the petit bourgeoisie of small scale shopkeepers and peasants would also “sink into the proletariat”, no longer able to compete. This is an ongoing process, but has had occasional short-term reversals. Under Thatcher’s government, for example, lots of industrial workers lost their jobs and went self-employed.

There is also a long-lasting argument that class doesn’t matter any more, or that we have all become ‘middle class’. This is probably because people think of working class as lower skilled or manual work, mainly industrial.

In Marx’s own time, the largest group of wage labourers was not the industrial working class but domestic servants, most off whom were female. The working class, then, is not always male, brawny and handy with a sledgehammer. (Eagleton, Why Marx was right, p169)

Class doesn’t depend on whether your work is light of heavy. Capitalism extracted profits from workers who painted flowers on crockery in the 19th century, just as it now exploits those who produce images on computer screens in the 21st. Capitalism is promiscuous in the ways it can extract profit – in the production of solid objects, surfaces, energy, or ideas.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, other social theorists and government agencies began to confuse the matter. Many of the divisions used today relate to a mix of skills, occupation, social status, consumption, and cultural habits, and advertisers also use ‘social class’ to target sales. These divisions, usually into 5-7 groups, mix up nurses and teachers with business executives, and divide up workers into manual and non-manual, and more and less skilled or qualified.

Different occupations and fields of work have particular characteristics and traditions, which have an influence on attitudes and politics, but for Marxists the fundamental necessity is to strengthen the unity of the working class in order to succeed in class struggle against capitalism.


To say that class is based on economics rather than lifestyle or tastes or culture or attitudes does not mean that cultural issues are irrelevant. Marx spent his life studying how the working class was formed, as an active historic process which involved overcoming prejudice and division and developing organisations and solidarity.

The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology)

E P Thomson took up this theme in his book ‘The making of the English working class’. The process of formation is grounded in the economic relation between the owners of capital and those with only their labour power to sell, but moves through a complex cultural process involving association, conditions of everyday life, attitudes, understanding, struggle and liberation.

The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way. (Thompson, The making of the English working class)

Culture and ideology is involved from start to finish in the development of class, and we have to pay close attention to the complex ways in which relations of production connected with ideological transformation and social change. This has given rise to complex debates about identity and class consciousness, dispositions and aspirations, among both Marxists and non-Marxists who support our cause. Gramsci argued that people have a ‘common sense’ which is often contradictory and misleading, and which needs to turn into ‘good sense’. Bourdieu argued that people’s conditions of life and social situation can generate a ‘class unconsciousness’, attitudes which are embodied and habitual. There is no simple passageway from class structure to class consciousness to class action.

Workers can be conscious of themselves as a class at a more or less instinctive level, at the common sense level of ‘Them and Us’ or in more politically aware terms. Class struggle can be envisaged in terms of striking for immediate benefit or as part of a broader social struggle for socialism, or the two may be entangled.

They can be aware of themselves as workers, but lack hope for the future. Workers can also be in denial about class, largely because of the way ‘working class’ has been denigrated. Beverley Skeggs’ study of care workers shows how desperate many are not to wear the ‘working class’ label. They dis-identify as workers because of the way working class women have been stigmatised by politicians as “rough”, “poor”, “on the dole”, “a fag in their mouths”, “common as muck” and “battering their kids”. They are often anxious about their appearance and tastes, and doubt their own judgements.

In the women’s claims for a caring / respectable / responsible personality class was rarely directly figured but was constantly present… It is a study of doubt, insecurity and unease: the emotional politics of class. (Skeggs, Formations of Class and Gender, pg 74-5)

Marx saw class as the key driving force in history. Industrialisation did not mean the end of social struggle but new class battle lines. Because the relationship between employers and workers is one of exploitation (the extraction of profit), conflict inevitably arises between the two classes, leading to revolution and socialism when the workers take control.

That is why pro-capitalist politicians are desperate to divide and rule. In Victorian times the ruling class saw a division between the ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’. Cameron and his gang want to turn us against each other (private and public sector, old and young, employed and unemployed, male and female etc.) through media attacks on benefits claimants, the unemployed, public service employees with pensions, the disabled, and ethnic minorities and migrants. A new vocabulary of denigration (“benefit scroungers”, “strivers against skivers” etc) has been invented.

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