Book Review: ‘Middle Class Radicalism’

Middle Class Radicals

Middle Class Radicalism. By F. Parkin, Manchester University Press.

This book is a study of the social bases of support for a political mass movement —CND. It is not CND itself which is of primary interest to the author so much as certain sociological issues which his study might help to illuminate.

Parkin makes the usual assumption made by most sociologists and advertising men when he labels a certain section of society as ‘middle class’ rather than seeing that most members of this category although having certain common characteristics are also members of the working class.

Only if sociological techniques are set firmly within a historical frame—and a Marxist conception of the historical process at that—can they be used to full effect. Indeed the inadequate definition of class and of some of the problems posed derives from the a-historical approach of this type of enquiry. The author, in some measure is aware of this, and in an excellent chapter he provides a commentary on the battles that took place within the Labour movement and CND over unilateralism and the way in which this related to the leadership struggle going on in the Labour Party. The tactical shifts for personal and factional advantage, regardless of previous declamations are tersely documented. A veritable little museum of turncoat butterflies, neatly transfixed for Socialists to display as a warning to the inexperienced new voters who could be deceived by the Labour Party’s more subtle election ploys now promised.

The book is based upon answers received from questionnaires circulated to CND supporters in 1965 and 1966. Even bearing in mind the specific purposes of the study, anyone remotely concerned knows that ‘CND 1958’ was definitely not ‘CND 1965.’ It is true that its social roots might not have changed drastically but the effect of this time-lag should always be kept in mind.

Part of the study assesses the activities of CND supporters in terms of the sociological concepts of ‘expressive—instrumentalist’ action. ‘Expressive’ action being that which obtains ‘. . . satisfactions derived from expressing personal values . . . unrelated to class or material interests . . .’ ‘Instrumentalist’ actions are those ‘. . . geared to the attainment of specific and concrete goals.’

Although Parkin is careful not to ignore the instrumentalist aspect of CND activity he tends to overemphasise its expressive role generally and that which it played as the symbolic rallying point for a variety of ‘anti-Establishment’ positions. This derives, perhaps, from the fact that he is dealing with 1965 not 1958. It should be remembered that one of the techniques employed by ruling groups when policy is being subjected to radical criticism, is to convey the impression via comment in the mass media that their critics are ‘honest well-intentioned, chaps, you know, but who are highly emotional and don’t really have a grasp of the facts.’ Thus while it is true that most CNDers had little grasp of the political or even military realities, an attempt was made to discount their generally accurate knowledge of weapons and radiation which was the factual basis from which the movement grew. Most commentators have fallen for this line of seeing the protesters as primarily highly emotional and —in the jargon, as ‘expressive’ in their actions. Is this not to mistake ruling class propaganda for fact? Most opponents of nuclear weapons in 1957-8 seem to have been people combining knowledge of atomic and nuclear weaponry and its past and present effects, a simple ‘instrumentalist’ anti-test, anti-bomb policy, intense moral indignation and an a-political, anti-political naivety which was swiftly and effectively manipulated by astute pro-Labour elements who saw their opportunity to organise and control the growing dissent as a powerful weapon in the coming election battle in 1959. This was ‘instrumentalism’ indeed!

The cynical Labourites who captured and corrupted the idealism of 1958 are responsible in no small measure for setting in motion the growing anti-parliamentary feeling which exists today. Despair and disillusion arising from the unprincipled actions of nominally ‘anti-nuclear’ Labourites helped to strengthen the call for direct action and the attack on the democratic process. At the time we warned of the dangerous path to which direct action could lead a radical movement, and now, when the call for violent direct action has grown, the danger to democracy from the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ has become clearer for all to see.

The author in a chapter on education, occupation and radicalism brings out a connection between high formal education and radical views which in a period of student unrest (notwithstanding the many other factors operating) is of general interest. He refines the term ‘middle class’ and locates the main support for CND as coming from the ‘educated middle class’ offering an explanation for this.

One final thought for Parkin: what are the implications for social theory if it turns out that the ‘educated middle class’ is primarily a section of the working class? It is about time that the un-Marxist identification of the ‘working class’ with the manual and industrial workers made by Trotskyists and nearly everyone else was abandoned.


Book Review, CND, December 1968, Frank Parkin, Michael Bradley, Middle Class, Protest Movements

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