Socialist Worker

What do we mean by class?

As the BBC unveils a new system for defining class in Britain, Judith Orr explains what class means for Marxists —and how superficial definitions hide workers’ power

Issue No. 2348

Politicians and media pundits have spent years telling us that class no longer exists. Yet most people feel that they live in a society defined by class. 

And debates around class refuse to go away.

Now a BBC and London School of Economics study has claimed it has discovered seven different classes in Britain. 

This goes from the top 6 percent “elite” class to a “precariat” at the bottom. 

In between are the “established middle class, new affluent workers, the traditional working class and emergent service workers.”

The BBC based its definitions on a survey that asked people whether they liked opera, ate out and used social media.

This reduces class to individual consumer choices. 

But for Marxists class is a dynamic social relationship between people who exploit others and those who are exploited.

The revolutionary Karl Marx explained how one class owns and controls what he called the “means of production”—the factories and businesses. 

This class is the ruling class.

But the ruling class can’t make money simply by owning things. They make profits by employing workers and paying them less than the value their labour produces. 

People who belong to the working class have no other way of living except by selling their ability to labour.

The interests of the ruling class and those of the working class contradict each other. 

The ruling class wants to extract as much value as possible from workers. Workers want to hang onto as much of the value they create as they can.


So struggle and tension are built into the relationship that lies at the heart of class societies. 

That is why Marx said the history of every class society is a history of class struggle. 

This is only rarely expressed by mass strikes. It can also be expressed in more subtle battles about how long you stretch a tea break or browse the internet at work, for example.

But Marx explained how the working class, through struggle, had the potential to overthrow the ruling class and create a new society.

The BBC’s superficial view of class, which focuses on lifestyle choices, robs workers of this potential power. 

But this isn’t a new or radical way to analyse class.

The BBC’s researchers invoke the French sociologist and writer Pierre Bourdieu to explain why they took account of “cultural and social capital”.

Bourdieu asserted that to understand class power you had to take account of the social advantages of the ruling class, such as education.

The BBC researchers defined a person’s “social capital” as their friends. Their survey asked people if their friends included solicitors, doctors or MPs.

Of course access to powerful social networks has an impact. But these are the trappings of class—not its determining features.

Other writers have looked to changes in the working class to dismiss class divisions. 

So, German philosopher Herbert Marcuse claimed in 1965 that changes in lifestyle had changed the working class. 

“Why should the overthrow of the existing order be of vital necessity for people who own, or can hope to own, good clothes, a well-stocked larder, a TV set, a car, a house and so on, all within the existing order?” he asked.

French theorist Andre Gorz wrote a book entitled Farewell to the Working Class in the early 1980s. 

He argued that automation, flexible working hours and job sharing had fundamentally changed the nature of the class divide. 

The BBC researchers declared that they needed an updated analysis because otherwise we were using a “Victorian system”. 

They assert that the “traditional working class” is dying out, and is “a ‘throwback’ to an earlier phase in Britain’s social history.” 

But Marx didn’t argue that nothing ever changed and that classes always looked the same. 

On the contrary, he said the “constant revolutionising of the means of production” had been a feature of capitalism since its birth.

Marx wrote, “All old established industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. 

“They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question.”


So in the early 19th century mills began to be replaced by textile weaving and looms.

These were later replaced by new methods of production. And new industries grew up as old ones declined.

But society still relies upon the exploitation of the majority by the minority. 

And far from the working class disappearing, the system sucks ever more people into this class.

Marx described how this happened. He identified a middle class—including shopkeepers and small manufacturers. 

People in the middle class work but have much more control over production than workers do. They aren’t separate from capitalism’s class divide and can take on features of both its main classes. 

They face contradictory pressures and can be pulled in different directions.

But Marx talked about how capitalism “simplified the class antagonisms” and increasingly split society “into two great camps”—bosses and workers.

He said capitalism “stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured.

“It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers”.

We can see this process today. Jobs such as bank clerks, teachers and lecturers used to be seen as high status, middle class jobs. 

But they have been transformed in recent years.

The working class will continue to change as the system revolutionises production.

But it still has the power to transform the world—and that’s why politicians want to convince us that it is dead.

 All workers have the same interests—whatever their job

The BBC’s seven classes include a “precariat”. This is made up of the poorest people who have little education and work in insecure jobs.

The idea that a separate new class exists with no connections to the older, unionised working class has gained some currency on the left.

It’s true that the economic crisis has affected both people’s actual job security and how secure they feel. 

More people who want full time work are being forced into part time jobs. 

Unemployment for young people has reached almost a million.

But the fact that the working class changes doesn’t mean there is a “precariat”.

The idea that some workers exist on the margins of the organised working class is not new. 

Karl Marx described how bosses used the threat of the existence a “reserve army” of unemployed workers to encourage fear and induce discipline among workers. 

The BBC includes in its “precariat” category postal workers, cashiers, cleaners and care workers.

These occupations are no more “precarious” or peripheral than any other work. 

In fact permanent contracts are still the norm, even for part time work and other jobs like shop work that are perceived as insecure.

Most of Britain’s adult population, 71 percent, are employed. 

Over 29 million people are employed. 

A minority, eight million, are part time.

In a January opinion poll some 57 percent identified themselves as working class.

A part time coffee shop worker doesn’t have different interests to a full time teacher or bus driver. 

Workers have the same interests against their common enemy, the bosses, regardless of their jobs.

The public sector strikes in November 2011 showed the potential for united action across the working class.

Health workers stood shoulder to shoulder with train drivers. 

Manual workers fought alongside office workers and teachers. Post workers refused to cross their picket lines.

The Tories want to divide us. But their attacks on workers offer the opportunity and necessity for unity to resist them. 

Read more

  • The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Frederick Engels show how class drives society forward and creates the potential for working class revolution

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Article information

Tue 9 Apr 2013, 19:00 BST
Issue No. 2348
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