1920s >> 1925 >> no-245-january-1925

Socialism and the so-called “middle class”


The present writer wears a stiff collar as a boot-maker wears a leather apron, or as a lamplighter carries a pole—it is the sign and badge of his profession. He is a bank clerk. Not having been blessed with that rare quality reserved for some members of the capitalist class alone—business ability— and lacking foresight, he was foolish enough to choose two proletarians for his parents, although there were millionaires available. He is now reaping the reward of his pre-natal folly in an office. He is a “brain worker,” selling his labour-power for wages, but not by the week, mark you, not by the week, but by the month !

Ignoring outward signs of superiority, the brain worker can be distinguished from the mere plebian by the following characteristics. He uses a machine to do his writing, another machine to do his calculations, is very respectable and deferentially reverent towards those set in authority over him. Moreover, he, as he is only too fond of saying, is the backbone of the Empire, the defender of the constitution, and at the same time the crushed worm between the millstones of organised Labour and Capital. To the first he pays its wages, the other he pays its profits, and in short he thinks that he occupies a very special position in the community, a position which needs and deserves to be defended from the wicked Socialists. A Socialist bank clerk is, therefore, somewhat of an enigma to those among whom he works. He is frequently asked what he hopes to get out of being a Socialist, what he stands to gain by the overthrow of Capitalism, what there is in his present condition to cause him dissatisfaction.

It is the purpose of this article to answer briefly as many of these questions as space will allow. It is hoped to prove that Socialism is the only political theory of any use to all workers, and in so doing to show that there is no “middle class,” that in Capitalist society, as we know it to-day, there are but two classes, and that anyone, whether he be a navvy or a bank manager, who is compelled to sell his labour power for wages, and who can only exist at a given standard of comfort by such a sale, is a member of the working class, is a proletarian, and, as such, is a slave in society, whose interests demands that he should help to abolish Capitalism.


Now a proletarian is one who possesses nothing but the power to labour and who, in order to live, sells that power to those who own and control the means of production and distribution, that is to the Capitalists. As his power to labour is bound up in, and cannot exist apart from, his physical being, he sells himself by the day, the week, month or whatever period is arranged. In the form of wages (called by some income) he receives just sufficient to maintain himself at the standard of life common to his group. Competition for jobs ensures that he shall not be able to demand more except for a limited period. The wage he receives includes not only his own cost of living but also the cost of rearing a family, of providing children to replace him in the mine, the workshop or office after he has gone, for to-day the family is still the unit of society generally, and calculations of maintenance costs are made with reference to it, not to the individual. If a worker remains single, or limits his family, he may make slight improvements in his own condition but, as will be shown later, these are of small account and in any event their value can only be estimated after setting: off against them the sacrifices involved.

This is the position of economic dependence in which the working class finds itself, but while the people who fancy they are the “middle class” would probably admit this as a correct description of the position of the other workers they do not recognise its application to themselves. But wherein does their position differ? Consider the shop-keeper. He regards himself as independent, yet he is usually as much bound as any employee. If he is a confectioner, for instance, he is, in effect, the employee of the producers, Cadburys, Rowntrees, etc., just as much as if he were a labourer in one of their factories. He sells their products at their prices, and is dependent on their continuing to supply him with goods and on working himself in the selling of them for his living. He is merely a kind of commercial traveller, and, like him, is immediately affected by any worsening of working class life through unemployment, lowered wages, etc. The publican, whose independence is even more illusory, is particularly dependent on the brewery company on the one hand and the condition of the labour market on the other. Lower wages mean less business.

It is true that there are some workers who also enjoy dividends from relatively small investments, but this does not alter their position in society, although it may colour their outlook on social questions. The fundamental question is whether the individual is or is not compelled to sell his labour power in order to live. If he is compelled to sell his services, then his position is that of the worker who must work or suffer privation, not that of the Capitalist who is able to please himself, and who may, in order to escape the boredom of doing nothing, add to his income by taking employment.

The fact that money wages vary does not relieve the better paid worker from the same compulsion that presses on the lower paid. Use makes it just as urgent a problem for him to maintain the standard he has been in the habit of enjoying, although there may be a wide margin between it and the bare physical minimum which will keep him alive and well. In passing, it may be mentioned that the tendency is for the variations between the different grades of workers to become less with increasing competition for employment. The simplification of labour processes, consequent on the introduction of improved machines and their standardisation, makes it easier for labour to be trained for any kind of employment, and this levels out wages.

The members of the so-called “middle class,” to the degree that they are really better off than other workers, therefore have just the same interest in destroying the evils consequent upon the wages system.

As for the suggestion that the “middle class” are distinguished from the workers in being owners of property, statistics will show how much exaggerated the claim is.


According to the 64th Report of the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, the total number of incomes exceeding £500 per annum was only 563,000 in the year 1919-1920, the last year for which figures are available. When it is remembered that there are more than 20 million persons in this country entitled to vote, and that this excludes males under 21 and females under 30, it will be seen how small a proportion of the population is in receipt of such an income, even after allowing for those who are dependents. Obviously, in view of this, the opportunity to accumulate property is limited to but a small part of society. The following figures taken from the report of the Coal Industry Commission (Vol. 3, Appendix 66) afford some idea of the wages actually paid to those who fancy themselves in a superior position. The figures relate to 57% of the collieries in this country, and as the return was not compulsory, the probability is that only the better paying companies gave any information.

Salary (including bonus and value of house and coal) No. of Managers 1913 No. of Managers 1919
£100 or less per annum 4 2
£101-£200 134 2
£201-300 280 29
£301-400 161 251
£401-500 321 231
£501-600 57 146
£601 and over 50 152

Prices had, of course, risen in 1919 nearly 200% over the 1913 level.

Again, only 27 persons out of every 1,000 pay Death Duties. In other words, only 2.7% of the population leaves over £300 : while at a recent dinner given to the Chilian Minister the guests who numbered a mere 150 were worth between them £200 million (Daily Sketch). The property of the “middle class” and their ability to save, are, like those of the rest of the wage-earners, largely mythical. In 1922 there were 11,733,564 depositors in the Post Office Savings Bank, their total deposits being £268,143,235 or an average of £22 16s. Id. each. The average for 6,298,376 of them was the grand sum of 1/10. (Statistical Abstract for United Kingdom, 1908—1922).

And in any event these savings are for the most part the provision made for the education and upbringing of children, for sickness, accident and old age, and therefore do not represent a surplus at all. They are merely part of the cost of maintenance of the worker. The low standard wage earner does not have to make provision for all these things, or else he does it in some other way. It is interesting to notice the opinion recently expressed by Lord Dawson of Penn on the “need for extended sickness insurance” for the “middle class” who, he said, were excluded from the Medical Insurance Act which provided for the manual workers, and who were to be distinguished from the rich, “who could provide for themselves” (Daily Herald, 18th November). The manual workers are provided by the State or by some other public body with education for his children sufficient to fit them for the work they are expected to perform; with hospital treatment ; old age pensions and the dole. Above a certain level of income allowance is made in the wages paid for the satisfaction of these needs, which below that level are publicly provided.

(To be continued.)


(Socialist Standard, January 1925)

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