The Working Class is Us

In the middle nineteen-fifties academics and littérateurs invented the old-time working class. Before that, books about the life of the poor had always been more or less documentary, describing the miseries of unemployment and slum conditions. The new picture presented via “kitchen-sink” drama, novels like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and “deeper” works such as The Uses of Literacy was of a materialistic, hearty, boozy industrial proletariat with a core of sensitivity which made uprisings possible.

This emerged in the ‘fifties as a subsidiary of the myth of “the affluent society”.  After ten years of post-1945 full employment, plus the wartime period, it was felt that the bad old days had gone for ever. Working people owned cars and television sets, the Welfare State was in full swing, and forests of council flats were springing up in former slum areas. At the same time, there was a great deal of talk about “the quality of life”. People said they were unhappy in better living conditions as compared with the communality of the slums, and the young were dissatisfied by their own lack of dissatisfaction; the memorable line in the play Look Back in Anger was “There aren’t any good, brave causes any more”.

As a result, the working-class living standards of the past were looked at (by those who had not experienced them) through rose-tinted spectacles. The current vogue for “labour history”, information and reminiscences about working-class life and struggles, continues this tendency as far as the 20th century is concerned. Labour history is useful, but the grafting-on of present-day motives does a disservice to labour itself. A writer on working-class life has described to the present writer how radical academics encourage him, but also pressed him to lay on thick what they wanted to see: plenty of swear-words and accounts of rough behaviour.

All this thoroughly anti-working-class, from two points of view. First, it is contemptuous, it reiterates the traditional upper-class attitude that the workers are indeed the lower orders. Second, it assumes that “working class” means only those in manual jobs. The writers, and the people presumed to read their books and articles, are in “professions” or non-productive occupations and are therefore held to be “middle-class”. This is a familiar idea, but repetition does not make it any less mistaken or change the way it divides the working class.

Who are the workers? People who go to work, of course: those who have no alternative and must work in order to live. The necessity is created by the constitution of capitalist society. There is an owning class, to whom all the means of producing and distributing wealth belong. This fundamental fact of ownership establishes the pattern of life for the remaining nine-tenths of the population. They have to sell their labour-power for wages, on an exploitative basis: to produce surplus-value—rent, interest and profit—for the owners. Outside the ten per cent. who live by ownership, we are all in the working class, and consequently in the struggle against the capitalist class.

The belief that a lot of workers are not in it because they belong to a “middle” class is a very useful one to capitalism because it is divisive. It was institutionalized in an Act of Parliament in 1864 which commanded the running of workmen’s trains. These continued until the second world war. They were early-morning trains whose passengers paid approximately one-third of the normal day fare. The purpose was to hold down wages in industry and the distributive trades, and there was a long list of unskilled and semi-skilled occupations eligible for workmen’s tickets. Clerical workers were excluded, and the tickets were not issued from stations farther out on the lines. Thus, clerks were separated from “workers” and could go to work later. They could also look down on them because workmen’s trains were slow, crowded and dirty; and could live in outer suburban districts while the labouring sections were held in the inner cities.

Nevertheless, clerks and the “professions” are all in the working class. They are as insecure and as vulnerable to the problems imposed by capitalism as all the others in the non-owning nine-tenths; very often, their respectability is a nastier kind of poverty. To realize the solution to these problems, their first and greatest breakthrough must be to the fact of their class position. We live in a world of Them and Us, but it is necessary to identify Us.


Does this mean that the labouring poor have got to embrace workers who think they are middle-class as their brothers? The unskilled and semi-skilled in general know they are working-class, because they are continually told so; what they need to learn is some implications of it. Principally, it is for the “superior” workers to face up to and act upon. They must grasp that they are not superior, that the middle class is a myth, that all those who work for wages or salaries are in the same boat. When they understand this, they can stop insulting other members of their class — in particular, by romanticizing versions of working-class life which are disguised imputations of inferiority.

The left is guilty on this count. Most of those who pronounce the word “worker” with veneration don’t think they themselves as workers; they are the educated vanguard who choose to get among the workers. If that conception were true, a person would be much more among workers in a football crowd than in a left-wing gathering. But whose doctrine is this? It reasserts the divide-and-rule outlook and the contemptuous stance of capitalism. The capitalist class says the workers are stupid and vicious. He wants this repeated by one section of workers against another; his position depends on it. The reply of class-conscious workers is that they are educated in a sense he never can be, and that their – our – capability will get rid of the wealth-based arrogance of his kind.

Class awareness is the all-important condition for bringing a new world into being. It arises from existence under capitalism; workers become all the time more responsive to their environment, the framework of which is the wages system. The task of socialists is to give precision to those responses. We judge all claimants to working-class support by their attitude to class. Whoever conceals it or distorts its meaning is acting contrary to the interests of the workers. The apparent divisions between social and occupational groups are shadows cast by the real and irreconcilable division between capitalists and all workers. Class rule can and shall be ended, through the understanding of what class is.

Robert Barltrop

Leave a Reply