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A Question of Definition (2) Class and Reform

Class was originally a general term for a division or a group and was thus equivalent to modern “category”. Thus it had no particular social significance but from the period 1770 to 1840 it came increasingly to be used to describe divisions in society. Williams explains its displacing of previous words for social divisions such as rank, order, estate, degree by the fact that, unlike them, class did not imply a hierarchical arrangement of society—such as feudalism had been but as (an) emerging capitalism was not.

Even so, the first uses of class were hierarchical: lower classes, middle classes, upper classes. “Working classes’’ dates from early in the 19th century and seems to have been coined by Robert Owen (who is also responsible for another key word in the socialist vocabulary: socialism itself). At that time the big political struggle in Britain was for the Reform of the House of Commons, i.e., a redistribution of constituencies to give the new industrial areas more representation and an extension of the franchise. In this struggle “the middle classes”, as the capitalist employers called themselves, supported by ‘"the working classes”, saw themselves opposed to “the privileged classes” (i.e., the landed aristocrats, the clergy of the Established Church, those with government sinecures).

The compromise reached between the capitalists and “the privileged classes” in 1832, which left the great bulk of workers without the vote, led groups of workers to perceive the conflict of interest between the working class and "The middle classes” or capitalist or master class (a term used in our declaration of principles in 1904 but which has now dropped out of use) as they came to call them. Pro- working class writers showed how “the middle classes” too should be included among “the privileged classes” since they lived off profits got from the labour of the working class. By the 1860s “capitalist class” and “working class” were in current use.

Marx in Capital (1867) in fact distinguished a third class: the class of landlords who monopolise natural resources and live off rents, not only without haying to work but also without having to invest' any capital either. Nowadays this class, through long ago investing its rents in industry and banking, has merged with the capitalist class arid so virtually disappeared as a distinct class.. Thus we can say that today society is, to all intents and purposes, divided into two classes: the capitalist class and the working class, defined by their different relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class, as a class, monopolise the means of production; they own and control them. The working class are excluded from ownership and control of the means of production and only have access to them on the capitalists’ terms: on condition that the capitalists think they can make a profit by selling what the workers produce. There is thus a fundamental conflict between these two classes which takes the form of a permanent class struggle, ultimately over the ownership and control of the means of production but at the moment only over wages and working conditions.

The phrase working class was, as we saw, originally “working classes”,, but this usage is loose and theoretically wrong since there is only a single working class. But there is another confusion arising out of the phrase’s association with “working man” and “workman” which refer to manual labour, so that it is often assumed that the working class is confined to manual workers, in the factories and mines', on the railways and docks, etc. This mistake is made not only by those who do not want to be considered as members of the working class, but also by manual workers who do not consider civil servants, clerks and other “pen-pushers” as real workers. But it is a mistake and arises from an alternative and inadequate definition of class in terms of social status rather than relationship to the means of production. Thus there is supposed to be an upper class of aristocrats and capitalists enjoying high social status, a middle class of professional people and office workers enjoying a middling social status and a lower, working class of manual workers with no social status; various refinements can be introduced according to taste like lower middle class, upper working class, etc.

But it is clear that, as far a relationship to the means of production is concerned, office workers (including managers) are in precisely the same position as shop floor workers: they are excluded from ownership and control of the means of production and are forced to obtain a living, by selling their mental and physical energies to an employer. This in fact is our definition of working class: all those who are forced to sell their mental and physical energies in order to live. It would have been convenient to use some phrase such as “wage-earning class” in order to make our point of view clear at first sight, but unfortunately not only does a section of the working class call itself the “middle class" but even denies that it is paid wages as workers are and insists on calling them a salary instead. In fact a salary is equally a price for the sale of a person’s mental and physical energies, but this snobbery means that in order to make ourselves absolutely clear who we mean by working class we have to say “those forced to work for a wage or salary” or, less adequately but more simply, “wage and salary earners”.    

Williams detects a third use of class defined not by relationship to the means of production, nor by social status but by political consciousness. It is true that Marx did sometimes, especially in his earlier writings, use class in this sense, saying that the workers or the peasants did not constitute a class until they perceived themselves to be a class with a common interest and organised themselves consciously to pursue that interest. This has been expressed, in philosophical terms, by distinguishing between a “class-in-itself" (defined by relationship to the means of production) and “class-for-itself" (defined by political consciousness). While not denying that this is a useful distinction it is hardly an adequate definition of class; otherwise the working class would be reduced to the tiny minority who at present want Socialism! The distinction is better made by saying that the working class now exists, but is not yet class conscious (defined politically to mean not simply a trade union consciousness but as wanting and understanding Socialism).

Reform, Reformism, Reformist

Reform, as a noun meaning a specific measure, dates from the end of the 18th century and was particularly associated with moves to make elections to the House of Commons more democratic. Thus the 1832 Act of Parliament which redistributed constituencies and extended the franchise was called the Reform Act. A second "Reform Act”, which further extended the franchise, was passed in 1867. But then, as the focus of popular agitation shifted from trying to change political institutions to trying to change society, reform came to mean also a specific measure aimed at improving society, hence “social reform”. But (at least in the way we have always used the word) reform does not refer to all attempts to improve social conditions but only to measures passed by Parliament or implemented by the State; thus, for instance, trade union activity and the work of private charities, whatever may be said for or against them, are not reforms.

Raymond Williams (Key Words, Fontana) detects an ambiguity, dating from the word’s first appearance in English in the 14th century, between reform in the sense of improve and reform in the sense of re-form, restore, rearrange. Thus someone who wants to reform capitalism may justify this as a supposed step towards Socialism or as a means of strengthening capitalism. There is no doubt that Williams is right here as can be seen from how the meaning of the word reformism has changed over the years.

This word is less than a hundred years old and originates from arguments within the French Social Democratic movement towards the end of the last century. One tendency argued that it was possible to gradually reform capitalism into Socialism by a series of reform measures; this view was known as “réformisme” and its supporters called themselves “réformistes”. In Britain a similar doctrine was propagated by the Fabian Society where it was more commonly known as “gradualism” (from the Fabian slogan “the inevitability of gradualness”). The Social Democratic Federation too had a similar position, labelling the reforms they advocated “stepping stones to Socialism”.

Today, however, we use the word reformist to refer to anyone who seeks to reform capitalism for whatever reason and irrespective of whether or not he claims to be a Socialist. This (quite justified) extension of the word reflects the fact that nowadays the leaders of parties such as Labour have no idea of what Socialism is (unlike some early Fabians who were on record as calling for the abolition of the wages system) and so cannot be said to want to transform society, even gradually, into Socialism and the fact that openly pro-capitalist parties, even the Conservative Party, also claim to stand for the improvement of society by means of reforms. Thus when we call someone a reformist today the suggestion is not there, as it once was, that he wants Socialism but has a mistaken view of how to achieve it. A reformist today is simply someone who (Williams', second sense) wants to re-form capitalism in one way or another or for one reason or another.

Adam Buick