A writer in the “Daily Chronicle” calling himself Collum has an article entitled “Strikes and the Middle Classes,” in which he attempts to show that the people he calls the “Middle Classes” are long-suffering and enduring under the tyranny of rulers on the one hand, and extortionate Trade Unionists on the other, but in reality are the most powerful section of the community. “It will be a bad day,” he says, “for the working class when its extremist delegates succeed in driving the middle class to reprisals, because in a struggle for survival the middle class is bound to win.”From this extract we see on which side of the hedge his “middle class” takes its stand. Its interests are evidently opposed to the interests of the workers. What the threat of reprisals is worth we need not trouble to consider; our chief interest is to discover who are the people that make up this class, which is at the same time the most powerful and yet the most downtrodden, and why they permit any other section of society to dominate them, Collum’s description of this mythical class is quoted in full:
It is a queer mixture, this heterogeneous mass of citizens calling itself the Middle Class. The younger sons of the old landowning aristocracy slip down into it, and find there before them a solid phalanx of descendants of many generations of younger sons, and of the landed gentry that has long since lost or been taxed off its land, and has been earning its daily bread in one or other of the liberal professions or in business.
Ambitious young men and maidens of the yeoman class who have benefited by technical education, and have “got on in the world,” climb up into it, only to discover that the children of countless generations of peasant pioneers have done the same thing before them, and having become managers or even owners of little businesses, or shareholders in big ones, are now thoroughly identified in their interests with this great central stratum of the population that has come to include all who do not live by sub-letting part of their land to farmers on the one hand, and all who are ineligible for the working men’s trade unions on the other.
Now this is a genuine attempt to mark off the kind of people who make up the so-called middle class. Most writers are content to use the term loosely, leaving their readers to imagine a section of society that cannot be described as capitalists or as workers, or that partakes equally of the characteristics of both and, therefore, cannot be said to belong to either, but falls into a separate class by itself.
Although a genuine attempt, however, it is a complete failure for two reasons. First because the standard by which we are to judge who belong to this class is absurd, and secondly because, no sound reasons being given for separating those named into a class by themselves, he fails to establish the existence of a third class as a scientific fact. The absurdity of the standard he sets up is at once apparent when we remember that it is possible for a capitalist to possess enormous wealth and yet never to have been a landowner at all. Moreover, many shareholders in commercial concerns own land, and many landowners are also shareholders in industrial concerns.
There is no purpose in classes at all unless such classes divide society into upper and lower, rulers and ruled. And there is no purpose in ruling unless it is to obtain, without toil, the largest possible share of the wealth produced by the class that is ruled. The “queer mixture” which Collum calls the middle class, according to him does not rule, because governments ignore their interests and generally treat them with contempt. He says “Governments in all lands have usually taken its patriotism for granted and unhesitatingly sacrificed its interests when threatened by aristocracies in the past or by privileged corporations of industrialist workmen in our day.”
So much for their boasted power—a class that can be sacrificed by one class to satisfy the demands of another is obviously of little account in the struggle of classes, and should find its proper place with the class that is ruled. Moreover, if we examine the “queer mixture” sketched out by Collum, we shall find that they really belong to that class.
The “younger sons of the old land-owning aristocracy who have slipped down” are obviously on the same plane as the “ambitious young men and maidens of the yeoman class.” Both are faced with the necessity of earning a living. They compete with each other for jobs. This is the common ground on which they meet; but the first named, before they slipped down, were not under this necessity. They lived without being compelled to sell their energy, consequently they have changed their class. This is not the case with the second named. These have merely changed their jobs. They have to work still, but the work is more agreeable and possibly better paid. They have not stepped from one class to another. They have risen to the upper layers of their class, but not out of it. They still must bring to the labour market a form of energy that is saleable.
The name they give to the remuneration they are able to exact does not classify them out of their class. They may draw salaries, fees, or even have dividend-bearing shares allotted to them as part payment—all these are merely the price of their labour-power. Nor does the nature of the work performed remove a man from one class to another. If he works because he must in order to live, he belongs to the working class. Brains and muscles are both necessary to the worker before his labour-power—which is in all cases a combination of these two, can be sold as a commodity on the labour market.
The one thing that matters to every man and woman in capitalist society is whether or not they have to sell their labour-power in order to live. The difference is that between freedom and slavery. To live on rent, interest, or profit without toil, or to sell the only thing they possess—their energy—and work at the bidding of another. A division which means so much to every member of human society must obviously be the most important to society as a whole. But the fact of such a division does not become general knowledge until many years after its discovery, because the spread of such knowledge conflicts with the interests of the ruling-class, who recognise in the general acceptance of scientific classifications of their system, the first step towards its disintegration.
In the main capitalist society is made up of those who work for wages and those who, sharing in the ownership of the means of life, can live without work on rent, interests, or profits. All the people mentioned by Collum come under one of these two heads. It is the only important division of a general character. The first is the working class and the second the capitalist or master class. Every politician and dabbler in social subjects refers to the one and the other in those terms. Those who work under capitalism —with very few exceptions—are those who are compelled to do so in order to live and, broadly speaking, make up the working class. Those who are not compelled to work for wages, but, by virtue of the fact that they own some portion of the land or other means of wealth production, belong to the capitalist class. This is as much a scientific generalisation as the statement that the organic world is divided into the two great classes, animal and vegetable. In both cases, however, there is an insignificant fringe, or borderland, between the two broad divisions, made up of species in the one case, and individuals in the other, which it is somewhat difficult to classify; but generally speaking, men and women fail into one class or the other when we discover whether their income is derived mainly from exploitation or from the sale of their labour-power in one form or another.
Everybody knows that there are a number of well-paid and at the same time easy jobs scattered about among the great bulk of arduous and ill-paid ones, but they are few compared with the latter, even in the occupations and professions in which they exist. The majority of those engaged in any profession are constantly struggling to maintain themselves and secure recognition. The competition between them continually grows keener in direct proportion as the ordinary conditions of the vast majority become more strenuous and ill paid. The “younger sons of the land-owning aristocracy” and the ”ambitious young men and maidens of the yeoman class” a class which, by the way, disappeared with the feudal system—all meet in this competitive arena, competing for a living by the sale of their energy or services. They belong to the class that lives by the sale of its labour-power.
It is for those who talk glibly about the middle class to show on what grounds that class can be separated from the two main divisions mentioned above. In capitalist society the broad distinction is between capitalists and workers—between the class that owns the means of wealth-production and lives by exploitation, without labour, and the class that lives on wages, which is the price of labour-power, in one form or another. This latter class is correctly termed the working class, even by capitalists, to distinguish it from the class that does not work—a distinction which is a necessary result of our classification and proves its essential character. It divides human society into workers and drones. It is thus elementary, fundamental, and of the utmost importance, because without work human needs cannot be satisfied and human society cannot exist.