1970s >> 1978 >> no-892-december-1978

Socialism and the Working Class

Modern society is split into two classes—the working class and the capitalist class. The working class is exploited by the capitalist class because it produces a surplus of wealth over and above what it gets back in wages. It is this unpaid surplus which creates the vast differences in the ownership of wealth between those who produce but do not own and those who own but do not produce. This simple fact provides the answer as to why seven per cent of the population owns eighty-four per cent of the personal wealth; why some people can spend more on race horses, sex, alcohol in an hour, a day, a week, than some (the vast majority) can earn in a year or a lifetime. It also explains why constant upheavals in industry take place, as men and women struggle over the fruits of production.

These glaring inequalities in the ownership of wealth, these profound economic struggles, can only be solved by the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by socialism, a classless society. Our opponents, however, whether from right or left, would disagree.

Nationalists, for example, would say that class is as irrelevant as it is outmoded, that it is much more realistic to talk of common national origins, such as Scots or Welsh, or whatever. By doing so, the nationalists hope to gloss over the obvious fact that in any nation state—independent or dependent—there exists deep conflicts between different sections of society and no amount of patriotism or flag-waving will overcome them: Scottish employers do not treat their workers any better than, say, Japanese employers would. Employers, no matter their national origins or colour, are only interested in getting as much from their workforce for as little as they can pay: profits come before patriotism.

In much the same vein, the television pundits, the employers, the politicians, both Labour and Conservative, and many trade unionists, often refer to industry in terms of teamwork. They deny the operation of the class struggle by insisting that there is a community of interests between the workers and management with both working towards a common end. (To a certain extent this is true, both are working for a common goal — the enrichment of the shareholders).

What these people fail to understand (or if they do they keep it quiet) is why the team continually falls into opposing parts over such things as wages and conditions. These apologists of capitalism put it down to either bad management or greedy workers led on by militant wreckers. This is not the case and never has been. Strikes and lock-outs happen because there is a struggle between the capitalists and the workers over the fruits of production and not because of the machinations of shady characters or the inherent greed of the workers. For this reason there can be no one team with agreed common goals in industry, but competing teams based on class membership.

Our opponents on the left would agree with us that there is a class struggle. If pressed they might even concede that this struggle is a two class affair, working and capitalist. However, given a few moments reflection, they would probably inform us that we are mistaken, there are actually three classes in society, the third being the ‘middle class’. After another few moments our left-winger turned sociologist may come up with an even more complex array of classes; lower working class, upper working class, lower middle class, petty bourgeoisie, middle class, upper middle class, upper class (this is never sub-divided, the uppers is upper, OK), and so on, to the point where market research takes over from Marxism. But it doesn’t stop here, the left winger will casually inform us, as if we didn’t know, that there are also sub- or under-classes, that is, women, blacks, youth, catholics. This is where the socialist if he or she has not already choked on a handy volume of Capital, loses patience and makes a number of informative comments.


1) What is class?

Class is not defined in terms of social status, that is, whether you attend the badminton club or the darts club, or by the colour of your collar, blue or white, or by the colour of your skin, your age, your sex. Class is determined by your relationship to the means of production, that is, if in order to live you are forced to sell your mental and physical energies for a wage or a salary then you are a member of the working class.

2) “But surely”, asks the left winger, “the salaried worker and the wage earner have a different social standing?”

This may have been true in the nineteenth century in Britain, but it is certainly not the case to-day. In the nineteenth century, the clerk, for example, had a special place in the labour market. He lacked job mobility, he was associated with one employer and one business. Furthermore, the ties between him and his employer were close and personal. By loyal and faithful service, the clerk could look forward to becoming a partner in the firm, and many did. Again, there were no fixed or standard wages and conditions in clerking, just as each office had its own particular working arrangements each clerk had his own price.

Obviously under such widely varying conditions of work trade unionism developed very slowly. Although it is significant that in the larger offices successful attempts were made to organise the workers into trade unions, for instance, the Railway Clerks Association (later TASS) was founded in 1897.

The twentieth century dramatically altered the position of the clerk. The  introduction of the typewriter flooded the offices with cheap female labour, reducing the bargaining power of the clerks. The growth of bureaucracy blocked promotion chances and led to a clear cut division between ‘managerial’ and ‘clerical’.

It also created standard conditions of employment, crowded people together in large offices, made the boss a distant figure, and increased the clerk’s sense of powerlessness in his working environment. unions developed apace with the changing position of the clerk, and in its turn further uniform conditions in terms of wages, hours, and so on. It is changes such as these which have made the white collar section of the trade union movement the fastest growing. It is also a recognition by the clerks that their interest are not those of their employers.

Moving up the salary scale, the picture is the same. Groups of workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, have found their former position of relative privilege eroded and have been forced to take steps to intensify their opposition to their employers through strikes (previously unheard of) and other forms of industrial action.

This is unsurprising given the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few: ninety-three per cent of all adults in 1970 held not even one single share; five out of six families had no invested income.

3) But don’t the brain workers look down on the manual workers? What this really means is that the working class is not united  in its opposition to capitalism. This sad fact has to be admitted; there are divisions within the working class, and the divide is not simply a question of collar. The employed look down on the unemployed; white workers look down upon black workers; male workers attempt to block the hiring of female workers; region fights region, youth fights old. The policy of divide and rule is still profitably employed to split the working class into warring factions.


In the case of the blue and white collar divide, the office staff often enjoy certain benefits denied to their fellow workers on the shop floor, such as better pension and sick pay schemes, longer paid holidays, working in a cleaner and less dangerous environment. This can have the effect of maintaining the loyalty of the office staff in times of dispute, but since in many cases the wages of the office workers are lower that the manual workers, it is really a case of the merry-go-round and the swings.

In spite of this, such seemingly preferential treatment may encourage the white collared salariat to view themselves as superior to manual workers but it does not make them a separate class. There may be differences in wages and conditions but the uniting factor is working for a wage or a salary. It is the prostitution of one’s labour which makes for the common bond between all members of the working class.

4) What then is the task facing socialists?

It is the task of socialists, firstly, to reject the terminology of class as handed down by the apologists of capitalism, the politicians, the media-men, the academics, and not pander to the illusions people may have about themselves; and, secondly, to encourage unbreakable unity of the working class to the extent that it can act as the agent of revolutionary change by making workers aware of their class position and common interests. In fact, to make the working class aware of itself as a class so that it might, paradoxically, end class society.

Bill Knox

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