Skip to Content

First Steps In Socialism: Who Are the Working Class?

Who are the working class? Many members of the working class, who dress after the fashion of their masters, and ape their manners, would repel with lively indignation and scorn, the suggestion that they belong to "the backbone of the country," the working class. They think that between these "hewers of wood and drawers of water" and the "upper ten" there exists a class whose fortunes and interest are with neither.

The idea is fallacious. Manners may make the man, or nine tailors, working in harmony and with might and main, may accomplish the same feat, but neither manners nor the tailors give a man his class status. Nor can the nature of the person's daily occupation draw the line of class distinction, though the fact of any occupation at all being followed goes far in the direction of placing the subject in the ranks of the despised and rejected.

Many imagine that the working class are those who perform what they are pleased to refer to as manual labour, as distinct from those they are even more pleased to call mental workers. But if this is so, where is the line to be drawn?

Who, think you, has to exercise the greater mental activity—the booking clerk serving out tickets or the signalman passing the passenger safely on to his destination?—the office dignitary who works out the amount of the joiner's wages or the joiner involved in the intricacies of stair-casing and hand-railing?

As a matter of fact a little consideration will show us that it is impossible to draw the line anywhere, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a distinction between manual labour and mental. The brain is the centre of all activities. Every muscle in the body, therefore, derives its power of movement from the brain. It follows, then, that every muscular activity must be mental as well.

On the other hand, there is no possible means at present known by which any mental activity can find outlet to the world save through the exercise of manual or muscular effort in some form or other. A thought cannot be written without the muscular effort of wielding the pen, cannot even be spoken without the muscular exertion of moving the lips. So all mental labour that does not perish fruitless in the head wherein it is generated, must be manual as well as mental.

What is it, then, that divides the community into classes? What is that there is common between all those who constitute each class, yet is not common to the different classes? The answer to this last question, when we find it, may throw some light on the first.

If we take a survey of those about us, our fellow members of society, we find them a motley crew. Some are old, some are young; some fair to view, some we shouldn't care to be mistaken for; some are big and strong, some small and weak; some are good like ourselves, some are awful perishers. But none of these things can form the basis of a class division.

Shall we say that all the strong, or the good, form a class by themselves? Then class cannot go by families. There can be no working-class families, or other-class families. For there are long and short, strong and weak, plain and comely, in every family; and though, of course, all crime is with the working class, not all the working class are criminals.

In the same way occupation does not supply the test, for the same families frequently supply the workers for both the office, the workshop, and the factory; the salaried black-coat and the waged cloth cap.

What, then, can it be, that divides and unites the people into classes?

There are two things and two things only we can discover that remain fairly constant in certain circles, seldom dividing individual families, though separating families into two great groups and keeping them apart. These are, the possession or non possession of wealth, and the necessity or otherwise of working for money or selling one's energy.

A moment's thought will reveal the fact that three things are intimately connected. People possessing considerable wealth are not compelled to sell their strength and energy in order to live, while those who do not share in the ownership of wealth have no means of living except by means of the sale of their labour-power.

So there we have it. The working class are the propertyless, those, with their dependants, who must sell the strength of their mind and body for sustenance. What matter whether it is expended in mine of office? What matter whether it is paid for with salary or wages? All these trivialities vanish in the essentials that it provides. The propertyless have to work, to obey, to suffer unemployment, insecurity, and poverty. The properties live idle and luxurious lives—and dominate.

The working class, then, are all those who have to sell their energy to live.

A. E. Jacomb