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Cooking the Books: The Death of the Middle Class

In an article in the Daily Mail (23 August) lamenting ‘the death of the middle classes’ Dominic Sandbrook wrote:

‘One day, predicted Karl Marx, ‘the lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants’, would begin to sink down the social ladder, crushed by the cruel economic logic of modern life. Society, he thought, would inexorably be divided into haves and have-nots, and tension would turn inevitably to violent revolution. Marx gloried in his own prediction. As the founding father of Communism, he looked forward to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, when the middle classes would be extinguished and capitalism would be torn down.’

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels did write something like this, but not exactly. Discussing the origin of the ‘proletariat’, or working class, defined by Engels in a footnote to the English edition of 1888 as ‘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’, Marx and Engels wrote:

‘The lower strata of the middle class the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.’

Earlier in the Manifesto Marx and Engels had pointed out:

‘The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.’

Which has gone on ever since, despite the rise of the so-called ‘new middle class’ of salaried employees; these have not even been ‘reduced’ to ‘selling their labour power in order to live’ as they never were independent owners of their own business.

Sandbrook in fact takes it for granted that his ‘middle classes’ have to work for an employer when he writes ‘middle-class men and women once expected to have a job for life.’

Society is already divided into two classes: those who, not owning means of production, are forced to sell their labour power, whether for a wage or a salary, to live and those Engels in his footnote called ‘the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of production and employers of wage labour.’

It is true that the ‘tension’ between the two classers did not turn into ‘violent revolution’ as Marx and Engels had expected in 1848. Later they envisaged the possible conversion of universal suffrage into ‘an agent of emancipation’, not that this has happened either.

It is true, too, that Marx occasionally used the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but what he meant was the exercise of political power by the majority class of wage and salary workers, which he considered should be done democratically.

To tear capitalism down? Yes, by converting the means of production from the property of a tiny minority into the common ownership of the whole of society, so allowing production to be geared to meeting people’s needs instead of for sale on a market with a view to profit.

To extinguish the middle class? Yes, in fact of all classes. Together with the rest of the wider working class, today’s so-called middle class will commit suicide by abolishing itself.