The TUC union federation has called for an end to “class discrimination”. It says that working class people earn less than those from wealthier backgrounds and wants new laws to tackle this inequality.
The TUC said it didn’t want to get bogged down in definitions of class.
But treating class as an oppression like racism or sexism masks what is unique about the working class—its power to change the world.
Class isn’t defined by wealth, attitudes or accents. It is a social relationship based on where you stand in relation to production.
The biggest class in capitalist societies is the working class—made up of people who have to sell their ability to work to get by.
The ruling class, of bosses and the rich, is much smaller. And a middle class, people who have more control over their work than workers, sits in between.
The ruling class controls what the revolutionary Karl Marx called the “means of production”—factories, offices and so on.
Making profit is the driving force of capitalism and bosses exploit workers to do this.
Exploitation means they don’t pay workers the full value of what their labour creates, but instead keep some of it as profit. This class relationship gives workers power, because if workers refuse to work, profits dry up.
Exploitation isn’t the same as oppression, where people suffer systematic discrimination based on traits such as skin colour or sexuality.
Millions of ordinary people rightly resist oppression and fight to win more rights. But suffering sexism or racism doesn’t give the victim power. Being exploited gives workers power because it means they can shut down the system.
It also gives working class people a shared interest in fighting back against the bosses. Other groups don’t have this.
For instance, all women in class societies suffer oppression and sexism. But they don’t all experience it in the same way.
Ruling class women have very different lives to those of women workers.
And women don’t all have the same interests. Ruling class women benefit from capitalism. So in a struggle for a better world they will be a block, not an ally.
Being part of the same class doesn’t mean workers are all the same. Some earn more than others, and some have better working conditions. And workers have lots of different political ideas.
What the working class looks like is constantly changing as different industries grow and decline.
But because all workers are exploited, they all have the power to hit the system of profits. And all would benefit from living in a socialist society, where ordinary people made decisions collectively and organised production to meet need.
Working class people share the same interests regardless of their differences because of their class relationship with the bosses.
Capitalism brings workers together to labour while the competition at the heart of the system drives bosses to constantly attack them.
This pushes workers to resist collectively—and means struggle is built into the system. Workers are the only class with the social weight to make a revolution and create a socialist society. And by getting rid of capitalism they also get rid of the basis for oppression.
Through struggle workers come to see their own power and move from being what Marx called a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”.
There are all kinds of divisions in society. But class is the key one because it points the way to transforming the system.