By Neil Harris
“THERE’S nothing wrong with trying to better yourself”, has been the battle cry of the upwardly mobile for more than a century. From the Victorian era and Samuel Smiles’ self-help movement onwards, it produced a world of mechanics’ institutes, correspondence courses, night schools and even elocutionists. Today a whole industry exists to offer extra tuition to children to get them into the right school or university and all of this just to keep them out of the working class. This desire to be “middle class” was the appeal, if not the real power behind Thatcherism and that mattered because it brought about the destruction of the post-war social-democratic consensus in the 1980’s. It also matters because the middle class is such an important part of the social base of fascism.
This is strange, because for Marxists there should be no such thing as a “middle class”. We avoid the issue – referring to the “middle strata” or the “petit-bourgeoisie”. For us class isn’t a subjective decision – a matter of choice; an economic class is a scientific description, an objective reality.
There are only two economic classes, firstly the exploiters who own the means of production and extract surplus value from working people’s labour. That theft of surplus value is how they reproduce capital and make it grow, they are capitalists. Then there is the working class; people who do not own the means of production and can only live by selling their labour power to the capitalist in return for a wage, which is barely more than subsistence. These are the only two economic classes although there are sub groups like landlords and the lumpen proletariat.
Marx also recognised the existence of the “petit-bourgeoisie”, as a sub group of the ruling class. These were the small scale producers, self-employed craftsmen and artisans who owned their personal means of production. He saw this as a transitional class; while a minority might grow their businesses until they became capitalists themselves, the majority were doomed to sink back down to the proletariat as their businesses failed or their means of production became outdated. They were unable to reproduce capital because they could only exploit themselves or a very small workforce. This doesn’t come close to what we understand as a middle class today, but then in Marx’s day the state had hardly evolved and capitalist enterprises were often no bigger than a single factory. If there was any middle class then, it only amounted to a few thousands of civil servants and railway clerks. Czarist Russia was even more backward with the result that Lenin and Stalin did not analyse a middle “class”; it wasn’t significant.
If we exclude the petit-bourgeoisie, then the middle class are a group of people who still have to work to earn a living – they are forced to sell their labour power like any other worker, in order to live. The loss of their job will inevitably involve the loss of everything that came with it: the car, the holidays, the lifestyle and even the house. They are still workers on a subsistence level, it’s just that they don’t see it that way.
On the contrary, it’s the middle class who are the bedrock of support for conservatism and reaction, from Poujade to Le Pen, from the Northern league to Thatcher. Once known in Britain as “working class Tories”, in times of crisis the middle classes were always the first recruiting ground for fascism. When Hitler was looking for early recruits it was the students and the unemployed officer class that he turned to first. Later when he had the money, he hired the street thugs.
While we alone refuse to accept that a middle class exists, the enemies of the working class have been busy. In the 19th century sociology appeared, a whole social science intended to create a non-Marxist definition of class so that it would be possible to invent a class system free of the class struggle.
In the early 20th century the “Chicago School” of sociologists found they could make a good living selling the idea of class collaboration and in so doing became the ideological flag bearers for America’s businesses. Later, they produced the academic argument for McCarthyism and wrote the text books that explained to generations of students that anti-capitalist consciousness was deviant, abnormal behaviour. The stable, compliant middle class was the “normal” that 1950’s American capitalism dreamed of and promoted to the rest of the world.
Some Marxists have tried to use Marx’s references to a “Labour Aristocracy”, to explain this phenomenon. It referred to a trade union elite that Marx had described in some frustration: skilled working class people given greater job security and higher wages paid for by the super-exploitation of workers in the empire. It was capitalism buying off British workers with the profits of imperialism. While today we all benefit directly or indirectly from the super profits that imperialism makes in the developing world, such an “Aristocracy”, moderate and reactionary, certainly doesn’t exist now.
The tube drivers, electricians and other workers on high earnings gain them due to good, militant union organisation or a skills shortage. Just like computer programmers until recently or the print workers and engineers in the 1970’s, the benefits last only as long as the militancy or the shortage lasts; this is no “middle class”. Neither was the Victorian “labour aristocracy” a middle class as we now understand it; it probably resulted from similar circumstances.
In the 1950’s and 60’s Marxists tried to explain the middle class as a false consciousness: people who have a system of beliefs that have no basis in reality. Religion or quack medicines are good examples of this.
Our problem is that in any modern capitalist country there are many millions of people who define themselves as middle class. While it is fairly easy to show to a non-believer that miracles do not happen or that homeopathy has no medical basis, a mass delusion of the middle classes does not explain why many millions of working class people also recognise that this class exists. For workers, the “middle class” is real and is a term of everyday abuse; they are not suffering from any delusion.
In the same way, opinion pollsters can accurately predict voting behaviour based on an analysis of a class system which includes the middle class. Bourgeois political parties win elections by selecting policies to appeal to the “middle ground”. Marketing experts design goods and services just for them. Newspapers sell by appealing to their prejudices. Advertising executives target them. In short, if so many capitalists can make money from them and if any worker can spot one at 100 yards, then perhaps it is our view of reality that needs to change.
In fact it’s very easy: we just need to play a little game. Get a group of people together and call out jobs, then get everyone to call out “middle class” or “working class”. There won’t be many disagreements, where there are, a short discussion will bring agreement.
For example; doctor, lawyer, teacher, social worker, probation officer and lecturer are all middle class. Labourer, plumber, bricklayer, bus driver, supermarket worker, cleaner, electrician are all working class. So much, so simple. It still doesn’t explain what being middle class actually is and what role it plays in society.
Interestingly it’s not about earnings; you can be middle class and poor, working class and wealthy. A teacher or a social worker earns less than a tube driver or an electrician, because of the strength of working class union militancy or a shortage of skills in the job market.
It’s not about culture, you can love the ballet and the theatre but if you’re a bus driver it’s not going raise you to the middle class. But middle class people do share a culture that separates them from the working class. They share a way of speaking and acting, they shop together and they go to the same schools. Their manner and dress, where they go on holiday all marks them out in subtle ways, as it is designed to do. This is a club and the rules are rigid and complicated.
It’s not really about wealth, property ownership or how expensive your car is either; if you are a worker and you win the lottery it won’t make you middle class. Many workers earn more, with better houses and cars than the middle classes. But if you are middle class you need to live in the right area so you can socialise with the right people and your kids can go to the right school. If you don’t have enough money, you won’t be able to stay in the club for long.
Being middle class isn’t hereditary; it is not a caste, although most middle class people had middle class parents. If you are working class you may, with difficulty, be able to move up. You can certainly get your children up the ladder. Equally, if you are a middle class parent you have a real struggle on your hands to keep your kids in the same class. They must learn to speak and dress right, go to the right school, get the right qualifications and into a suitable university. Then there’s the job to find. Its 25 years of struggle with that constant, nagging fear that your child will drop back down. It’s not just about education, but a good higher education is crucial in obtaining a middle class job.
To understand all this we need to go back to the comparison between jobs and to look at some of the contradictions they reveal. For example, lots of people work at banks or building societies, but they come from different classes. A counter clerk is working class, the manager is middle class. A soldier or a police constable is working class, an officer or a senior police officer is middle class (in the case of the army, the senior officers are usually from the landowning ruling class). A salesman is working class, a senior manager at the firm middle class. While a nurse is a worker, a doctor or a consultant is middle class, and this is the key. A nurse who obtains a degree and a management role is on the way to becoming middle class.
You can’t be a manual worker and be middle class, but not all non-manual workers are middle class. It’s often a managerial role, but not all middle class jobs are managerial. It’s always an intellectual role, hence the importance of a higher education.
While workers have no authority, all middle class jobs have some degree of authority over working people, or the future prospect of obtaining it. Counter clerks at the job centre are working class while civil servants in other equally low paid jobs are middle class because over time seniority will raise them to a level where they have authority over others. The counter clerk will always be a counter clerk.
Middle class jobs have a degree of autonomy – workers have no control over their working lives unless they win it collectively through militant trade union organisation. A bank manager can issue a loan, extend an overdraft or call in a loan within the limits set down by head office. A counter clerk cannot. An officer orders his men within the political limits set down by his masters, a soldier just obeys orders. An NHS doctor can spend state resources within limits, a nurse cannot.
The middle class is not uniform, it falls into two parts, depending whether they work in the state or private sector. Those who work for capitalist firms are direct intermediaries between the capitalists and the workers, even if the capitalists happen to be in London or New York and the workers are in China or India. This is in return for doing the bosses dirty work; the boring everyday routine tasks like administration and management, as well as the unpleasant tasks like firing people. There are privileges too; higher wages and better job security. They are the managers in suits; they don’t own the means of production but they administer them for the ruling class.
Middle class people in the state sector have a different and more abstract relationship to the ruling class: they act as intermediaries between the state (what Marx called the organising committee of the bourgeoisie) and the citizen. It’s the middle classes who are at the frontline of state control: probation officers and social workers making crucial decisions about the lives of working class people every day, based on guidelines set down by the state.
It is a middle class role to distribute scarce state resources: Doctors deciding what treatment their patients should receive are literally deciding who should live and who should die.
The middle class often controls opportunities; teachers pass on to working class children the worldview of the ruling class through the state’s national curriculum. It’s the teacher who explains to those children the limits that will be set on their lives and ambitions; the working class kids who are told that they are only good for sport and manual work while the middle class kids get the extra effort. Lecturers set out the kind of knowledge that their students’ future employers are looking for.
When the police and army use state violence, it’s the middle class who give the orders but they don’t decide what those orders are. What they all have in common is that they act as an intermediary between the ruling class’s state and the working class.
This is all hard work, there is a constant struggle to stay above and separate to the working class. There is a constant fear of falling back down. The superficial fashions, the shops you use, the holidays, the attitudes are all so carefully acquired and are an attempt to mimic the fashions and attitudes of the ruling class.
So, in the 1930’s when being an elocutionist was a lucrative career, it was because it was a time when it was vital to acquire a reasonable copy of an aristocratic accent, rather like the late Queen Mother, or the Queen in1953. You ardently supported either Oxford or Cambridge in the boat race even though you lived in London and neither you nor your kids were ever going to see the inside of a university, let alone row. The bosses, however, had done that and so would their children.
Nowadays, things have changed on the surface. The ruling class have an accent which comes from somewhere between New England and the Cotswolds, with a faint touch of cockney added in for irony. They are more likely to follow F1 Grand Prix than the boat race and as likely to go to Harvard Business School as to Oxbridge. It may just be fashion, but it’s still the fashion of the ruling class and it’s called taste.
It’s a real struggle at times to keep up with those ever changing ruling class fashions but keeping up is essential; it’s to separate you from the working class, to show your employers that you look and think like them and that you can be relied on to carry out their orders. It’s about demonstrating your loyalty. Middle class people don’t own a business (that would make them petit-bourgeois) but in return for doing the boss’s dirty work, they have extra job security and higher wages.
The result of all this is that while the middle class is not an economic class it has an economic role to play; it acts as an intermediary between the ruling class and the working class, a transmission belt. It isn’t part of the ruling class, however much its members would like it to be, it is a sub class of the working class.
It may be subjective – a matter of choice, but it is also a real, existing phenomenon and is therefore objective too. It exists. It is significant. It’s also probably time to recognise that if the rest of the world has been calling them “middle class” for 100 years, then Marxists will reluctantly have to accept the term.
FOR MANY years, the reformist Communist Party of Great Britain had the position that the middle class always had the potential to go fascist and therefore to prevent it, concessions would have to be made to them by the working class. This is not unlike the position of social democracy: that elections can’t be won without winning the middle class, even though this is at the expense of working class interests. In both cases, this is just plain class collaboration.
The middle class may be an objective reality, something that exists, but that does not make it an economic class. Membership is a choice people make, it is subjective. In fact, it is precisely because the middle class have chosen to segregate themselves from the workers that no concessions should be made to them. Although they are part of the working class, they have voluntarily adopted the reactionary positions as well as the superficial mannerisms of the ruling class. This is in order to gain the trust of that class, for their own advantage.
Middle class people are much less likely to be in a union and far more likely to repeat the anti-union attitudes of the reactionary press. In the same way, racism, which is always a ruling class position, a component of imperialism, is adopted by the middle class who then use it to divide the working class against itself. The majority of the middle class are not going to change their views; this is a scab class. We are allowed to make fun of them. There is, however, a minority who do, in rare circumstances, take a different path.
In a revolutionary situation (when the working class can no longer continue to live in the old way and the ruling class cannot continue to rule in the old way) the ruling class temporarily waivers, uncertain how to continue. This uncertainty is transmitted to the middle class. They dither too. The majority will follow the direction the ruling class eventually takes and this will lead them to reaction, counter-revolution or fascism.
In Britain during the 1970s and 80s, when there was an acute class struggle, most of the middle class supported what was to become Thatcherism, while a small minority went fascist; that reflected the mix of views amongst the ruling class. Had the situation spun out of control, the mix would have changed.
By contrast, a minority can also become an auxiliary to the working class, but they follow that class not because of concessions but because they have accepted the hegemony or leadership of that class.
So in the 1970s and 80s, many middle class occupations (like social workers and teachers) were drawn to trades unionism and militancy. Never by any means a majority in those occupations, this progressive minority was acknowledging the hegemony of the working class. As that working class leadership weakened, so did the organisation and militancy of those middle class groups, to be replaced by liberalism. This had been the “1968 generation” of student radicals, who while trainee members of the middle class had been a progressive minority who rebelled against their future.
The position of the middle class is just as crucial after a revolution and during the building of socialism, as in the Soviet Union or today’s Cuba. Following the October Revolution and the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship in Russia, there was a long and harsh period when “he who does not work, does not eat”. More than that, manual workers rations’ were set higher than other groups and workers had votes which outweighed those of other classes. Whether it was university places or housing, workers went straight to the front of the queue. This really was a working class dictatorship. At that time, the old ruling class had been destroyed and had lost its ownership of the means of production (land, factories, machinery). There was nothing recognisable as a middle class, or more accurately in the Soviet context an “intelligentsia”. Everyone wanted to be a worker, everyone wanted to eat.
This changed as the Soviet economy grew, developed and became complex. It needed managers, administrators and civil servants. After the 1936 constitution written by Bukharin created a “state of all the people” in place of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the bias towards the working class started to fall away. This process accelerated during the 1950s.
Before then there had just been the working class and the peasants – a self-employed petit-bourgeoisie, split into poor and rich. The Soviets allied themselves to the poor peasants, crushing the wealthy, exploiting peasantry. Collectivisation transformed the poor peasantry into a rural working class. Farms were combined and became social property, while the land itself was nationalised. This petit-bourgeoisie had ceased to exist as a class, although its former members and their children remained and were a continuing source of capitalist ideas and anti-Soviet sentiment.
However, the “intelligentsia”, which on the surface appeared to be made up of creative people: writers, lecturers, artists, musicians, dancers, architects and journalists, had become a large and increasingly privileged urban group by the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the intelligentsia was a euphemism that also included occupations in the bureaucracy: the managers, administrators, government officials, party officials, lawyers, prosecutors, the security organs, education and health workers.
These functionaries had become intermediaries between the workers’ state and the workers. Instead of acting as the servants of the working class, they acquired interests of their own. Where once party membership was reserved for workers of good standing in the workplace, it was now the goal of this group.
They gave themselves special privileges – better food, better housing, and foreign travel. Better housing in better areas with better schools and pioneer clubs to get their children into the more prized university places, the ones that gave access to the privileged jobs. Socially and politically, they separated themselves from the working class. In effect, they became a middle class similar to what we are used to here in the West. The result was that the workers became alienated from their own state. There was a common Russian saying: ”The shit rises to the top,” which expressed both the reality and the alienation.
All of which has a familiar ring for us in the West and all of which was a departure from Leninist standards. It was Lenin who said in What is to be done? that “all distinctions between workers and intellectuals must be obliterated”, and yet in the Soviet Union of Khrushchev’s time onwards, the intelligentsia were to be elevated above the workers. By the end, the workers had also become alienated from their own party, the Communist Party.
The writings of Gramsci are important here, a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist who remained true to the international of Lenin and Stalin, even when he was dying in a fascist jail. He should not be held responsible for those revisionists and reformists who distorted his writings after his death.
On the subject of intellectuals he wrote famously: “All men are intellectuals one could therefore say, but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”. By which he meant that all human beings are thinking beings. All human beings use their intellect, in everyday life and at work, whatever that work is. The working class are just as capable of organically producing intellectuals as the bourgeoisie, but in a capitalist society it is rare for working class people to be given the social function of an intellectual.
We can take this further: that in increasingly complex capitalist societies, the social function of an intellectual is something that the ruling class reserves for itself and for those who have demonstrated their suitability and above all, their loyalty. It is a role reserved for the middle class. The ruling class maintains a monopoly over intellectual/managerial jobs, what Gramsci called “the social function of an intellectual”, precisely to maintain its control over the means of production and over society as a whole. This is as much a part of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as the police or army using force to crush dissent.
Gramsci saw the function of the party as being to develop and direct the activity of organic working class intellectuals, to create the revolutionary consciousness that the working class needs to defeat capitalism. It is clear that he agreed with Lenin on the need to destroy the division between the intellectuals and the workers.
We should also take this further; it is clear that the revolutionary consciousness of these organic working class intellectuals is the powerhouse both of revolutions and of socialist states. The party must be of the working class if it is to lead that class, in revolution naturally, but also under socialism.
For us, as for Gramsci, the task is to build every member of the party into an intellectual capable of leading the class. Equally, of course, we must never lose sight that making revolution is not just an intellectual activity, there is hard, practical work to be done. The party and the class also need to learn lessons from the bourgeoisie on how their dictatorship operates.
So, while the Soviet Union had a functioning dictatorship of the proletariat and the workers were the ruling class, they produced their own intelligentsia. In this “world turned upside down,” it became necessary for a while, to pretend to be working class to get on. To get to the best university or to apply for an elite career, you had to show your working class roots. Nothing helped more than coming from a mining or engineering family. For those who didn’t have that ”privileged” background, they often tried to make it up. Everyone spoke with a working class accent, they all dressed like workers.
But the middle class, as it grew, had attitudes little different from their counterparts in the West. As the dictatorship was relaxed, they took advantage of that freedom. At some point, long abandoned business suits re-appeared, workers caps were discarded. The jobs that had once gone to the working class as of right started to be diverted to the middle class and with them came new privileges. Instead of being grateful, as the privileges increased so did the demands; for foreign travel, foreign goods, technology, a car, all far beyond the reach of workers and beyond the ability of the Soviet Union to supply fairly. With each advance, they demanded more.
It’s no accident that the West and in particular the CIA, focussed on the Soviet intelligentsia from the late 1940s until the end. Free books and magazines, radio broadcasts, exchange visits, all promoted the western middle class lifestyle. Never worried about working people, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Encounter magazine, the cultural exchanges, were all aimed at what the West saw as a middle class and what the Soviets termed the intelligentsia.
What the CIA realised was that whatever concessions were made, the Soviets could never give this group what they really wanted – the restoration of capitalism. The result was that in the absence of a Russian ruling class that would do what they wanted; the middle class shifted its allegiance from the Soviet working class to the international ruling class, adopting their slogan of “democracy and freedom”. In practise this meant democracy for capitalists and freedom from working class rule.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the alternative analyses were shown to be wrong. Karl Korsch and the council communists were wrong in the 1920’s when they believed that the middle class had captured the Soviet state. If that was right the middle class would have fought to preserve the Soviet state to maintain their privileges, instead of being in the forefront of bringing about its destruction.
Milovan Djilas’s “new class”, a position not far from some Trotskyite positions, was also wrong. He believed that the Soviet bureaucracy was a new ruling class. While they certainly enjoyed privileges at the expense of the working class, the bureaucracy didn’t own anything at all – not the means of production, the land or even their dachas. If they had, they would have fought to save the Soviet Union in order to protect their property.
In fact, the Soviet middle class believed that only the collapse of the Soviet Union would give them what they wanted and they were right. If the means of production belonged to the workers state, the only way of expropriating that property was to destroy the workers state. That is what they worked for. But when the Soviet Union actually fell and the assets were divided up amongst the thieves, it was the unknown Berezovsky’s and Abramovich’s who really prospered, not the nomenklatura who had dominated the state and the party from the Brezhnev era onwards. They had to be content with the left-overs. The “New Russians” never owned or controlled the means of production until they stole them.
That these attitudes existed is sad but not tragic; the tragedy is that the Soviet working class were so alienated from their own state that they did not fight to protect it. That the trades unions were so removed from the workers they represented that they could not lead the fight to save their factories and that the communist party had become so separated from the working class that it could not organise a fight back.
This is the pressure on Cuba today, where workers earn more than doctors and civil servants. Those who see themselves as middle class and above the workers see the privileges their position would win them in America. Some support the revolution and follow the leadership of the working class. Some emigrate. Some of them remain where they are but quietly transfer their allegiance from the Cuban working class, their current ruling class, to the ruling classes of America or Spain, who they see as capable of bringing them the privileges they feel they deserve.
All socialist societies find themselves in this position whether it is the German Democratic Republic facing West Germany, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea facing South Korea or China and Cuba facing America. They all have the same decision to make: whether to strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat and win away those sections of the middle class who will accept working class leadership or to elevate the middle class above the working class. Anything other than strengthening the dictatorship of the proletariat will eventually have only one outcome, the same endgame we saw played out in the Soviet Union. This is why all those years ago, Stalin famously stated that after the abolition of the ruling class and during socialism, the class struggle intensifies.