Socialist Worker

Who is working class?

A debate is raging about the attributes that make us working class to try and understand why some are losing faith in the Labour Party. Isabel Ringrose explores what really defines class.

Issue No. 2755

Fighting back against oppression can unite working class people

Fighting back against oppression can unite working class people (Pic: Guy Smallman)


There is an attempt, even by some on the left, to make out that working class people have fundamentally changed.

There’s a further claim that reactionary ideas such as racism are inescapably ingrained in many working class people.

But what is it that really makes someone working class? Some on the right of the Labour Party think they have the answer.

Deborah Mattinson, newly appointed as Keir Starmer’s director of strategy, wrote in her recent book Beyond the Red Wall that patriotism and nationality are the key things the working class care about.

She claims that these things, along with the prioritising of crime and immigration, could allow Labour to “reconnect with the voters it has lost”.

Mattinson also puts a divide between young ­workers in metropolitan areas who attended university, and those “left behind” in northern towns.

But her strategy is based on a basic misunderstanding of what the working class is.

Mattinson assumes the working class is made up of a singular, narrow demographic. In reality the working class hold many different—often contradictory—ideas.

But class cannot be limited to a set of views. Class is essentially objective, rooted in your position within a capitalist society based on a relationship to the labour process.

A young graduate working in a call centre in London is no less working class than a factory worker in the north of England if both are exploited.

Karl Marx wrote in the Holy Family, “It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim.

“It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.”

So class cannot be defined by a set of characteristics—where you live, what you look or sound like or your interests and beliefs.

Karl Marx explained that class society is made up of the ruling class and the working class. The ruling class is the ­minority at the top that owns the means of production—factories, equipment, machines, buildings.

What do we mean by class?
What do we mean by class?
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The working class is the majority at the bottom who have to sell their labour power to the ruling class in exchange for a wage.

Since Marx’s day a new layer—the middle class—has further developed and sits in-between.

The middle classes assist in the exploitation of workers through disciplinary actions and make decisions over things such as shifts.

They have more control over their own labour and generally earn more.

But like the ­working class, what makes a middle class person is tied to their part in the labour process not whether they shop at Waitrose.

Capitalism is a system that runs on profit. This profit is created by exploitation of workers, whether every worker accepts it’s happening or not. Workers are not paid the full value of their labour, so the excess or “surplus value” they create mostly becomes the bosses’ profit.

Exploits

As much as this exploits ­workers, it also gives them enormous power. If every worker refused to work then the system would grind to a halt.

So working class people have a shared interest in ­overthrowing the system and bosses.

They are brought together in the workplace by their shared exploitation, and can unite to beat the constant drive for profit and competition that bosses are so reliant on.

This is what Marx meant by workers being the “gravediggers of capitalism”.

How much you earn in comparison to another worker doesn’t qualify you for being working class or not.

Where you stand in comparison to members of other classes does.

A person working in a ­warehouse in London may earn more than a shop worker in Durham. But both of their managers and bosses earn more and assist in exploiting them both for profit.

Class is often reduced to subjective features—such as education or wealth—or even the reactionary views that some parts of the working class have.

But these issues are only signifiers of class—not definitions of them. Class affects all aspects of life from health, diet, lifestyle and housing. But these aspects are not what defines what class actually is.

Some working people may have less time and money to put together organic, freshly made meals. But some might do.

Shopping in Waitrose doesn’t mean that you are middle class. If a worker was to shop in Waitrose they wouldn’t switch classes at the checkout.

Likewise someone that attended a comprehensive school or was brought up in a small, rented house could still become a boss.

Some ruling class people don’t wear designer clothes, but this doesn’t mean they have the same class interests as workers.

Circumstances 

Plenty of working class people go to university and plenty from the top don’t.

Working class people may struggle more to fund life at university, and similarly find it harder to find a job afterwards if they’re not in the “right” circles.

Of course it is often easier to identify what class someone is by their material circumstances.

If you attend Eton—the ­training ground for the ruling elite—you’re probably not working class.

The elitism that is ingrained within such institutions is seen in the extortionate costs that many working people simply cannot afford.

Similarly, if you own luxury items such as a yacht it is usually a sign that you were able to amass bumper profits from exploiting workers.

But these are still only symptoms of your standing in society rather than what fundamentally determines it. As Marx explained, it doesn’t matter what the proletariat thinks or does—the economic relations in society are fixed.

Despite exploitation and the material reality the working class find themselves in, many do not automatically see ­themselves as part of the proletariat.

The lack of struggle in recent years has led to a rise in some backwards ideas and damaged the confidence and consciousness of the working class.

And there is nothing ­automatic about working class people suddenly waking up with a revolutionary outlook on society, which is why agitation and resistance are crucial.

But despite what the Labour right say backwards ideas are not ingrained into the minds of working class people.

Progressive 

Workers are actually divided by repressive and bigoted ideas that are pushed down from the top of society.

What many Marxists have described as contradictory consciousness means working people can hold backwards, bigoted views about fellow workers. At the same time they can hold progressive ones about the need for change.

Some working class people might feel a sense of patriotism to Queen and country. But these ideas aren’t rigid. During struggle workers often begin to realise that they have little in common with their rulers.

Through the process of revolution, Marx explained that workers become a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”.

He meant a process where people moved from objectively being a class to having ­self-awareness of their unity, collectivity and power.

They would grasp the ability to bring about a new, socialist society and, through struggle, to rid themselves of “the muck of ages”.

The reality of exploitation pushes workers to resist collectively—and means struggle is built into the system.

But struggle isn’t a magic wand that fixes all the contradictions and produces a class ready to battle its exploiters. Ideas have to be challenged in the here and now.

That’s why every fight ­matters. And as crucial as class is, oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, etc—has to be battled and fought. We stand with the oppressed when they are under attack, regardless of their class background.

But it is true that as Marxists, we see class as vital to ending the system that creates oppression in the first place.

To that end, we fight against prejudice and chauvinism among workers in part because there can be no socialist future while we are divided.

In struggle workers can gain consciousness and confidence.Only a majority of workers coming out against the system has the power to topple the system.

Workers are the only ones with the ability to overthrow capitalism and eliminate the basis for oppression because they can conquer only by organising collectively.

So seeing the working class as a set of people with certain fixed and backward ideas or traits undermines the potential of the working class.

It means to label the working class as just another identity—rather than the ultimate force for change.


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