A class analysis of British society at the start of the 21st century – Part 1


Why do a class analysis at all?

In 1926 Mao Zedong wrote a famous analysis of classes in Chinese society, and gave his reasons for doing so as follows:

Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution. The basic reason why all previous revolutionary struggles in China achieved so little was their failure to unite with real friends in order to attack real enemies. A revolutionary party is the guide of the masses, and no revolution ever succeeds when the revolutionary party leads them astray. To ensure that we will definitely achieve success in our revolution and will not lead the masses astray, we must pay attention to uniting with our real friends in order to attack our real enemies. To distinguish real friends from real enemies, we must make a general analysis of the economic status of the various classes in Chinese society and of their respective attitudes towards the revolution “.

It has to be said, incidentally, that when Mao chose to make his analysis, it was because elements within the Chinese Communist Party were advocating policies which Mao considered would have led to the defeat of the revolution. A right opportunist line in the party was interested only in the proletariat allying with the bourgeoisie, disregarding the peasantry; while a left opportunist line was interested only in mobilising the industrial bourgeoisie, a tiny minority in Chinese society, and again ignoring the overwhelming peasant majority in the party. The main tenor of Mao’s article is to draw attention to the revolutionary potential of major sections of the petty-bourgeoisie whom he considered it was absolutely essential to mobilise for the revolution.

In Britain we can be confident that the petty-bourgeoisie is a minority class, and not the overwhelming majority that it was in China at the time Mao was writing. However, to maximise our effectiveness in building a revolutionary movement in the face of ceaseless efforts by our minority ruling class to divide us against each other, it is important to know who are the working class in fact. Also important in practical work is, having identified the working class, to know where its most revolutionary strata are to be found, so that our efforts at raising class consciousness should in the first instance be mainly directed at the advanced elements among those strata. Thirdly, it is important, to identify and assess the revolutionary potential, of the middle strata, since even a minority class, such as the British petty bourgeoisie) is better as a friend than as an enemy.

Complexity of the work

On the face of it, in a capitalistically highly developed country such as Britain, class analysis should be straightforward. When Mao was writing about China, feudalism had not yet been routed and capitalism was struggling to develop in the midst of a feudal society while at the same time foreign imperialism was intermeddling to shore up the feudal class to promote their interests at the expense of the mass of Chinese people, including the national bourgeoisie. Hence China had not only capitalists and workers, with petty bourgeois in between, but also feudal lords and peasants, and among the latter were some who were able to live well off their work on the land and others who had to supplement it with wage labour if they were to make ends meet, yet still spent much of their lives hungry. Feudalism in Britain, notwithstanding the persistence of a few relics whose main function these days is to entertain tourists, is long gone.


The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” (Communist Manifesto).

As yet, however, the process of splitting up into two great hostile camps is not yet complete in Britain, and intermediate strata do linger on in fairly substantial numbers. Since, however, the process of splitting is ongoing, so that classes are no longer relatively stable entities, a class analysis of Britain at this time is far more complex than would at first sight appear.

Let the words of Lenin be our starting point:

Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy.” – V.I. Lenin, ‘A great beginning’, Collected Works vol. 29, p. 421

On the ‘means of production’ test, the bourgeoisie is the class that controls these (by virtue of their ownership of a critical amount of ‘capital’), the proletariat is the class which has no access to any means of production and is therefore obliged to sell its labour to the bourgeoisie to enable the latter to exploit it and thus enrich themselves. In between there is a petty-bourgeoisie, or ‘middle’ class, of people who own sufficient means of production to enable them to work on their own account, but not enough to embark on mass production or significant levels of exploitation. For them their life is neither exploited nor an exploiter be.

Marx and Engels, writing in The Communist Manifesto (1848) pointed out that under capitalism class boundaries are not remaining static:

The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry

is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”

In short:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. …. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones .”

This constant shifting of people from one class to another, overwhelmingly the downward shift of small capitalists into the petty bourgeoisie, on the one hand, and, more importantly, of the petty-bourgeoisie into the working class (bringing all their class prejudices with them) makes class analysis rather more complex than would at first sight appear.

The task of class analysis is further complicated by theories emanating from bourgeois propagandists who try to deny the whole concept of class, as if by so doing they could sweep class antagonism out of existence and thus perpetuate the rule of the bourgeoisie. As Grant rightly says:

“[The] recognition of a fundamental division between capitalist and working classes has led to such dangerous conclusions that persistent attempts have been made to eliminate if possible the very idea of class.

Who are the working class?

The working class are all those who belong

to the class which, being bereft of

means of production, is forced to sell its labour power (either to capitalists or to the bourgeois state) in order to be able to earn the money to acquire the means of consumption necessary to support life.

This scientific definition militates strongly against what most people understand by ‘class’. In particular, the following points should be noted:

1. A person can be working class even if he is not exploited by his employer.

In fact, Marx specifically mentions in Capital Vol 1: “… the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry … allows of the unproductive employment of a larger and larger part of the working class “. It is clear from this that he did not expel anybody from the working class simply on the ground that they were in unproductive employment.

The most elementary example of this is a domestic servant. Such a person is not exploited, since an exploited worker must be engaged in producing commodities that his employer intends to sell for a profit, thereby increasing the employer’s wealth. The employer who engages a domestic servant decreases his wealth by so doing, he does not increase it.

A mystique exists around whether a worker is ‘productive’ or not, with a great deal of confusion arising around the meaning of the word ‘productive’. In Marxian terminology all workers who produce surplus value that is appropriated by the capitalist are ‘productive’. Their labour adds to the value of, and is incorporated in, the commodity that the capitalist takes to market, be that commodity a concrete object or a service. Marx considered that transport workers added to the value of the commodities they transported by making them available far away from where they were produced. And to the extent that production needs to be organised, those engaged in its organisation – supervisors and managers – are also productive workers. However, he did not consider that those who were engaged in other forms of commodity distribution, such as shop assistants and advertising executives, added anything to the value of the commodities they helped to sell. They amount merely to a cost of distribution.

Non-technical definitions of ‘productive’ include applying the adjective only to workers directly involved in producing tangible commodities (excluding all production of services and all workers other than shop-floor workers). Others include only industrial workers. As British capitalism specialises itself more and more on the provision of financial services and industrial production shrinks to a mere 12% of the economy – and that highly automated and employing ever fewer workers – there are those who consider that Britain’s working class has virtually withered away, making it impossible for Britain to effect an independent proletarian revolution.[Peter Seltman who for the most part followed Marx’s definition of productive workers, was nevertheless so influenced by the idea that only productive workers were properly working class that he tied himself in knots trying to establish that doctors and teachers employed by the state were exploited, i.e., were productive workers insofar as, he claimed, they added value to the commodity labour power, i.e., provided services to the productive section of the working class (e.g. as doctors or teachers) who were themselves productive workers whose surplus value was appropriated by the capitalist class as a whole. He used this argument to chastise the CPGB from whom he had broken by reason of their revisionism. Unfortunately, on this particular point, the CPGB were right and Seltman was wrong. If it were true that doctors and teachers increase the value of labour power, it is the labourer who sells his labour power and appropriates the proceeds of this sale. It would follow that it would be the labourer who would be the exploiter of the doctor or teacher, a conclusion which is obviously absurd.]

This theory conveniently absolves those who uphold it from doing any revolutionary work since there would be no point. Fortunately for the future of humanity, the theory is of no scientific value whatever, and only has any merit as an excuse for elderly communists to retire from the fray.

The truth is to be gleaned from the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin: the working class is made up of all those who, being bereft of the means of production, have no choice but to sell their labour power in order to live – regardless of the use that whoever hires them makes of that labour power. If this is accepted then it is obvious that the British working class is ever expanding

– in accordance with the laws of capitalism – while the ranks of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie are ever narrowing.

Other conclusions follow from this very basic Marxist understanding of what constitutes the working class:

2. A person can be working class even if he is not engaged in industrial production

Obviously the domestic servant discussed above is not engaged in industrial production, yet he is nevertheless working class. But others in various jobs which in many cases pay less well than industrial production are also to be included in the working class, despite various arguments current in the movement that they should not be – these include people doing manual work such as cleaning, as well as those doing work that is not normally classed as manual such as shop assistants, secretaries, clerks, care workers, etc. as well as other people who are not.

Moreover, there would be very little left of the working class in Britain today if only industrial workers were included in the definition since the proportion of jobs in the manufacturing sector in the UK has fallen steadily – from 28.5% in 1978 to a mere 10% in 2009. To suggest that the working class in Britain today constituted no more than 10% of the working population completely negates Marx’s prediction of society dividing into two great opposing classes, the overwhelming majority of the population being working class. However, Marx and Engels made it perfectly clear that the class of ” paid wage labourers” was not confined to industrial workers:

When they wrote in the Communist Manifesto that ” The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers,” they were clearly not envisaging that these people would give up their callings and join factory production lines – no, they were predicting – as has happened – that social functions that had previously been performed by self-employed petty-bourgeois would be taken over by “paid wage labourers“.

3. A person can be working class even if he is not a manual worker

Moreover, “the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science” are turned by capitalism into paid wage labourers even though they are not manual workers. Whether today any specific physician, say, is working class or not depends on whether or not he is exclusively a paid employee, earning whatever is the market wage for his type of labour power. Some doctors are self-employed in general practice, and must be classed as petty-bourgeois. Some consultants are partly employed and partly engaged in private practice. Technically they would be semi-proletarians. It can, however, practically be guaranteed that their outlook on life will be wholly philistine – for reasons to be discussed.

Moreover, there would be very little left of the working class in Britain today if only manual workers were included in the definition! With mechanisation, the demand for manual labour is of necessity constantly reduced.

Grant: ” The character of labour has changed with the development of capitalism to its monopoly stage particularly in a country like Britain, the centre of large colonial possessions. The application of machinery to more and more processes, including clerical and distributive processes, and the intensification of the use of machinery in industry and agriculture, have changed the outward form of labour in many ways. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between one form of labour and another by the use of the terms ‘manual’ and ‘non-manual’. Consequently all definitions of ‘middle class’ or ‘working class which are based on the use of these terms are practically meaningless ” (p.33)

4. A person can be working class even if his work is highly skilled

Traditionally the skilled working class were the backbone of the trade union movement, which was no doubt helped by the fact that skilled workers are not so easily replaceable, in the fight for better wages and conditions. They have frequently been as much concerned to maintain wage differentials as they have been to maintain or improve their own conditions, but nobody would argue that such workers are anything other than working class – nor would we. However, because it is they who are most effectively unionised, there are even those in the movement who consider them to be the most important section of the working class, notwithstanding the backwardness that their relatively privileged conditions entail.

5. A person can be working class even if he is employed primarily for his intellectual skills.

As capitalism has developed the need for workers with intellectual skills to be available on the labour market has increased:

Grant explains this as follows: “British capitalism [with the loss of its trade monopoly] w as forced to take belated steps to try to keep its head above water by increasing its competitive ability in the world market through the expanded use of science, engineering and technology. So that, since 1921, there has been a very rapid growth in the scientific and engineering professions ” (p.51).

Although traditionally intellectual skills had been the preserve of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, this expansion of the professions coincided with the historical process of gradual proletarianisation of the professions, as noted by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.

Already at the time Grant was writing, half a century ago, the overwhelming majority of professionals were already hired labour:

According to the census of 1951, of all professionally qualified people, 3% were employers, 3% managers, 6.3% self employed, 87.7% were employees. The highest incidence of employment among professions were scientists and draughtsmen (99%),social workers (97%), engineers and nurses (96%), clergy (92%), teachers (88%), journalists (76%), Actors and medical auxiliaries (75%). The lowest incidence was among lawyers (42%) and doctors (50%). About a third of lawyers and accountants were employers. A tenth of accountants were self-employed, as were about a fifth of lawyers “.

The process is far more advanced today. In fact there would be very little left of the working class in Britain today if people with developed intellectual skills were excluded:

Some 13m people in Britain can be classified as professionals, meaning they have some form of higher education qualification and work in a regulated sector, such as education or healthcare. The figure includes engineers, nurses, health visitors, school teachers and lecturers.

“The report will point out that 42% of all jobs in Britain currently fall into such categories. Between now and 2020, that figure is expected to account for 80% of new jobs.” (Isabel Oakeshott, ‘Private schools grab more top jobs’, Sunday Times, 27 May 2012).

Having said that, there are many employed intellectuals who, as a sideline, regularly earn a supplementary income in private practice, by their writing or TV appearances, by consultancy, or by running a small business on the side. These would be semi-proletarians.

6. A person can be working class even if he is highly paid, provided his pay does not on average exceed the market rate for a person of his skills and experience.

Since a skilled worker has a higher cost of production than an unskilled worker, his ‘value’ is therefore higher and therefore on average one would expect his wages to be higher. He remains, however, a wage worker, whether his skills are manual, organisational or intellectual.

7.A person can be working class even if he is employed in a supervisory capacity

Within the workplace, there are two kinds of hierarchical superiors – those whose all round knowledge, experience and general competence single them out as good people to employ as organisers of production, on the one hand, and those whose job arises mainly from the antagonism between worker and employer, whose function is to make sure that as much work of as good a quality as possible is wrung out of reluctant workers, on the other hand.

“An industrial army of workmen, under the command of a capitalist, requires, like a real army, officers (managers) and sergeants (foremen, overlookers), who, while the work is being done, command in the name of the capitalist. (K. Marx: Capital, Volume 1; Moscow; 1954; p. 332).

And further:

“The labour of supervision and management, arising as it does out of an antithesis, out of the supremacy of capital over labour, and being therefore common to all modes of production based on class contradictions like the capitalist mode, is directly and inseparably connected with productive functions which all combined social-labour assigns to individuals as their special tasks.” (K. Marx: Capital, Volume 3; Moscow; 1959; p. 379).

The labour of supervision and management. . . . has a double nature. On the one hand, all labour in which many individuals co-operate necessarily, requires a commanding will to coordinate and unify the process. . . . This is, a productive job. . . . On the other hand, . . this supervision work necessarily arises in all modes of production based on the antithesis between the labourer, as the direct producer, and the owner of the means of production. The greater this antagonism, the greater the role played by supervision .” (K. Marx: ibid.)

The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last” [to the tune of the Red Flag] … but all the same, the foreman, whether organiser or enforcer, remains a member of the working class, albeit one who is paid more than the average – the organiser because of his superior skills, the enforcer because of his willingness to sell his soul. Sometimes the two functions are combined.

8. A person can be working class even if employed in the machinery of state repression

Policemen, soldiers, prison officers are all people who sell their labour for want of any other way of making a living and must therefore be categorised as working class, even though the specific purpose of their employment is to maintain the oppression of the working class on behalf of the bourgeoisie.

9. A person can be working class even if he is unemployed, living on benefits, without any prospect of ever getting a job

A person who needs to sell his labour power in order to live remains working class even if, as it happens, he is unable to effect a sale, be it because of a disability or because there are simply no jobs to be had for a person of his skills (or lack of them).

Wacquant(in Crompton, Devine, Savage and Scott: Renewing Class Analysis, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2000 , p.112) writes that ” A significant fraction of the working class has been rendered redundant and composes an ‘absolute surplus population’ that will likely never find work again’. This is particularly true of older industrial workers laid off due to plant shutdowns and relocation “. Although Wacquant seems to think that this a new phenomenon associated with technological advance under capitalism, in fact the reserve army of the unemployed has long been a feature of the working class – and one which depresses the wages of those who do work.

The factors that affect class-consciousness

The association of any form of privilege with higher class

The British bourgeoisie has always been adept at dividing the working class by distributing petty privileges like getting to use the toilet, being ‘staff’ rather than hourly paid, having various petty (or not so petty) ‘entitlements’ that are not available to the mass. Pension rights, holiday entitlement, whether required to clock on and off, promotion prospects, automatic salary increases, etc., etc. These inducements tie to the bourgeoisie not only those workers who have them but also those who aspire to have them. These privileges are highly effective in breaking down working class solidarity, and positively breed opportunism. It is, therefore, specially important that communists do not fall into the trap of accepting the divisions and attributing them to an actual class divide – much less an antagonistic class divide. Obviously, to the extent that any section of the working class allows itself to be bought off, it is harmful to the proletarian cause, but those who receive these privileges must be persuaded that in spite of them they remain members of the working class and ultimately can only defend their long-term interests by standing shoulder to shoulder with less privileged workers.

In any event, Marx, Engels and Lenin did not consider that a proletarian ceased to be a proletarian just because he was better off than others, even when his well-being was facilitated by imperialist super-exploitation of oppressed countries. This is apparent from the following well-known quotations (emphases mine):

Lenin, Imperialism and the split in socialism: ” A privileged upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries lives partly at the expense of the millions of members of uncivilised nations “.

Engels (letter to Marx of 1858) “… The English proletariat is becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all countries is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable “.

In our view both these quotations demonstrate that the proletariat remains a proletariat, even if, as a result of its privileged situation, it acquires a lot of bourgeois prejudices and is unduly amenable to class collaboration with the bourgeoisie. It is one of the most important functions of communists to counter these prejudices and convince backward workers such as these that their real interests lie with the proletariat and not with the bourgeoisie, with socialism and not with imperialism.

In actual fact, imperialism has not only provided a petty-bourgeois standard of life to the labour aristocracy, but has allowed improved standards of living and the provision of a modest level of welfare benefits where necessary to the working class as a whole. GDH Cole, who overlooks the whole issue of imperialist exploitation by Britain of vast tracts of the third world, concludes that Marx was quite wrong in predicting that the working class would become not only more numerous but also more impoverished. According to Cole, Marx had no idea that popular education and extension of the franchise could lead, without social revolution, in the direction of positive reforms that would so far limit capitalist exploitation as to bring about a gigantic redistribution of income between rich and poor … and that this could “prevent the development of a revolutionary will among the general mass of the proletariat“.(Cole, GDH: Studies in class structure, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, p88).

Of course, Marx on this point was writing in the pre-imperialist era, but his thesis holds perfectly true if instead of looking at the British working class in isolation, one looks at the world proletariat and the effects of the imperialist world market. Along with its export of capital, British imperialism managed to export also the worst effects of the impoverishment of the working class, including the worst of unemployment, as well as the utter destitution and misery predicted by Marx. However, even the British proletariat has been unable to escape its relative impoverishment (relative to the bourgeoisie) which continues inexorably notwithstanding the improvements in living standards of workers over the years.

As Bill Bland rightly pointed out: ” From the middle of the 19th century onwards … the standards of living for the main body of the workers rose almost continuously and at the same time the numbers of persons in the intermediate income groups, especially in the professions, rose much faster than the total population and was largely recruited from the class below them “. “In fact,”, however, ” the share, which the average British worker receives of the value he produces is less than it was a hundred years ago. Since 1850 industrial output per head has increased by 357%, real wages by only 235% .” (ECA Mission to the United Kingdom: “Economic Development in the United Kingdom, 1850-1950”).

The association of intellectual attainment with higher class

The development of intellectual skills, i.e., education and training, invariably require taking time off from the day-to-day business of production in order to study. Study was therefore a privilege, and was largely confined to the “leisured” classes, i.e., mainly those who were not required to engage in the day-to-day business of production. Study, at least at a practical level, was also available to sections of the petty-bourgeoisie who could afford to allow their young to postpone starting work until they had acquired a reasonable level of skill. Education, therefore, was available only to people from an exploiting or a petty-bourgeois class, rather than from a common worker background. It followed that educated persons had a very strong tendency to be infused with the class prejudices of the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie, including contempt for, and fear of, the working class, and a belief in their own innate, genetic, superiority. Since these people had intellectual skills as a result of their education of which common workers were deprived, their ‘innate superiority’ appeared to be proved in practice.

As capitalism developed, however, and especially with the technological advances it brought in its train, the demand grew for the workforce to acquire at least some level of education, with reading being particularly important. As a result, education began to be extended to the working class. In the 19th century, charities would make primary education available, and even a certain level of secondary education, while free tertiary education was provided for prospective school teachers so that there would be enough of them to ensure an adequate supply of worker education could be offered. The 1944 Education Act mobilised the state into providing free education at all levels, ensuring that education was offered to each and every member of the working class. Should they wish to do so, and if they had the ability, working class children could go on to university after school without incurring any charge. As a result of all this, education ceased to be a privilege of the well-to-do. However, this did not prevent those people of working-class background who were able to accumulate qualifications as a result of their free education and thus secure a better-paid job with more congenial working conditions from believing that they had “joined the middle class“, because that is what it felt like from their point of view.

As far as remuneration was concerned, the worker whose education has progressed beyond the level compulsory for all, i.e., to further or higher education, had a higher production cost than those who had not, even if his education had been free because he would have spent some years when he might otherwise have been earning engaged in study instead. Therefore the law of value dictates that on average he will still be paid more for his labour power than those who did not go beyond compulsory schooling. His costs of production were however lower than what they traditionally had been for those of petty-bourgeois origins, and as a result, the readily availability on the labour market of hundreds of young intellectuals recruited from the working class, rapidly brought down the average of the wages that needed to be paid for workers with intellectual skills.

Although workers employed for their intellectual skills continue to command higher wages on average than the unskilled, so long as they are dependent on their wages to live, and so long as those wages do not allow for accumulation of capital, these people are working class, even if their exalted salaries made them think otherwise.

Because they are also often employed in positions of authority, Bill Bland would place them in the petty-bourgeoisie for that reason alone, despite their lacking any control over the means of production, but again this is not a scientific approach. As workers, professionals too experience constant downward pressure on their wages and upward pressure on their productivity, especially as British imperialism begins to decline. For example, it is well known that a rigorous shakeup of universities, the latter being among the foremost employers of intellectuals, took place at the turn of this century: ” Nearly all academics were suffering from the expansion of higher education, with limited funds, which had weakened their association with excellence and diminished their incomes relative to other professions. Between 1982 and 2001 their earnings went up by 7 per cent, allowing for inflation, while average earning of all full-time employees in Britain went up 44 per cent. A junior academic, a researcher at a former poly, was paid £11,060 in 2001 …, while a sewage operator with Thames Water was paid £12,031. A lecturer at an established university in London was paid £20,865, while a police constable on appointment at eighteen was paid £22,635 “. (Sampson, A, Who runs this place?, John Murray, London, 1988, p.203).

Over the last decade there has also been a stead erosion of terms and conditions for staff in the universities – with longer working weeks, shorter holidays and curtailed pension rights being imposed, a process which is still continuing.

With regard to those workers who merely do well in compulsory education but do not go on to further or higher education, Grant draws attention to the fact that up to the middle of the 20th century at least, clerical workers and shop assistants were considered to be ‘middle class’ because they were slightly better educated than the average worker. Even as late as the 1960s, McCreery sought to place professional and clerical workers in the ranks of “semi proletarians”, equating them with peasants in China who were obliged to supplement their income by working part time as wage labourers. Even at the time, this was hardly a scientific approach, but nowadays it would be considered wholly inappropriate.

Grant points out that:

Marx made a distinction between clerical and industrial labour, but not so as to exclude those doing clerical work from the proletariat. In fact, he specifically referred in a number of passages to the ‘commercial wage worker’ and the ‘commercial labourer’…

“… ‘He adds to the income of the capitalist, not by creating any direct surplus value, but by helping him to reduce the costs of the realisation of surplus value … The generalisation of public education makes it possible to recruit this line of labourers from classes that had formerly no access to such an education and that were accustomed to a lower standard of living … With a few exceptions, the labour power of this line of labourers is therefore depreciated with the progress of capitalist development. Their wages fall, while their ability increases … ‘ (Capital Vol III)”. (Grant, p.64-5). Yet according to Cole, Marx did not foresee the increase in the educational level of the working class-which he, of course, equates with workers becoming petty-bourgeois, while the working class shrinks – to the contrary of what Marx had predicted!).

The descent into the working class of people of petty-bourgeois origin

This introduces petty-bourgeois thinking into the working-class movement, particularly to those occupations (supervisory, and/or involving intellectual skills) to which the proletarianised petty-bourgeoisie tend to be attached.

The recruitment of working class people into occupations that are rife with petty-bourgeois culture.

As Grant points out: ” It would be foolish to fail to recognise how deeply ingrained in many of the professions are the long traditions of private practice; the idea of ‘setting up in practice on one’s own’, of owning one’s own professional business, tend to cling on, making for political conservatism in these sections long after the economic basis for such ideas has been permanently shattered. Dr Bonham has estimated that, in the three elections between 1945 and 1951, the ‘lower’ professions voted 2 to 1 in favour of the Conservatives in 1945, while in the ‘higher’ professions it was about 4 to 1 in favour of the Conservatives in 1945 and 13 to one in 1951 .” (p.121) [Although both the Conservative and Labour Parties are bourgeois parties, the Labour Party has traditionally fashioned itself to appeal to those who identified with the working class, while the Conservative Party sought to appeal primarily to those who saw themselves as middle class. Although nowadays this distinction has become blurred, at the time Grant was writing voting habits were quite a good indicator of how people thought of themselves. However, as Marx mentions in his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), ” one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself“].

The association of supervisory function/the right to command/social status with higher class

The subjective identification of those who do well under capitalism with the ruling class

Bill Bland considered that this placed those workers who perform supervisory functions ‘objectively’ into the class of the petty-bourgeoisie:

Hence, those employees involved in this role of supervision and management have a dual role, as worker and as slave-driver. This divided allegiance towards the two decisive classes of capitalist society places them objectively in the class of the petty-bourgeoisie, in which this divided allegiance is a basic factor determining its social behaviour .

For the same reasons, the petty-bourgeoisie also includes persons in the middle and lower ranks of the coercive forces of the capitalist state (e.g. Members of the police and armed forces). It also includes the dependents [sic] of these persons.

On the basis of the above definitions, it is possible to calculate from the 1961 Census statistics that the petty-bourgeoisie in modern Britain comprises about 7 million persons out of a total population of 52 millions, i.e., about 14% .”

In saying this, Bill Bland completely lost sight of the basic tenet of Marxism that class is determined by a person’s relationship to the means of production. A person employed in a supervisory or managerial capacity is often just as bereft of means of production as the humblest shop-floor worker. What he does, however, is receive a larger whack of means of consumption as the reward for his labour. This does not change his class position, though it invariably does change his perception of his class position and shifts his subjective class loyalty, if he ever had any, to the exploiters whose handmaiden he has become. He nevertheless remains a wage labourer, his little privileges dependent on his pleasing his master, his fate dependent on his master’s whim, just like any other wage slave. A comparison could be made with the obsequious and treacherous black slave character, Stephen, in the Tarantino film Django unchained, who undoubtedly enjoyed privileges, and exercised both an enforcement and supervisory function in the slave household, and was despicable in the extreme, but for all that remained a slave.

The association of certain types of accent, modes of dress, manners, lifestyle, with higher class

The delegation of certain ruling class powers to paid wage workers (generally under the strictest supervision)

The active intervention of the bourgeoisie in creating divisions among the working class

Because of all these factors, the overwhelming majority of the population belong to the working class – in that they need to sell their labour power in order to live – yet only a very small proportion would actually claim to be working class.

Grant found that “… it has been concluded that the radical division of society into capitalist and working classes is a myth, and that a large and increasing proportion of the population belong – because when asked they consider themselves to belong- to … the ‘middle class’ ” (p.11).

Opportunism in the working-class movement

As has been mentioned above, the small privileges accorded to certain sections of the working class, including privilege born of a worker having a higher cost of production due to the greater than average education and training needed for his particular job and the better wages and conditions of skilled manual workers, have a tendency to breed class collaboration and opportunism and to divide the working class against itself.

Seltman took the view that it was chiefly the proletarianised petty-bourgeoisie who brought class collaboration into the working-class movement. What he failed to face up to, however, was that people with impeccable working-class antecedents and credentials, in particular the labour aristocracy, are also responsible for the spread of opportunism in the working-class movement. Seltman evades the terrible reality that the well-paid skilled workers who make up the backbone of the trade-union movement and the Labour Party are a potent source of opportunism as their comfortable living conditions undermine the sense that it is necessary to overthrow capitalism.

Although Seltman is in other respects a firm anti-imperialist, he rather evades the issue of the extent to which a portion of imperialist superprofits can be, and are, diverted to buy off the working-class movement. It is only because of imperialism that the British working class generally has been able to enjoy a higher standard of living than prevails for the working class in non-imperialist countries. It is only because of imperialism that British capitalism is able to provide higher wages than the world average, as well as welfare benefits, and still remain competitive on the world market. These relatively high standards of living enjoyed by the British working class,, and especially those with high levels of manual and/or intellectual skill, underpin the British proletariat’s willingness to go along with its bought-off leadership in the Labour Party and the trade-union bureaucracy – and it is noteworthy that, as the crisis forces down these living standards, this leadership is losing its purchase on the working class. It is also the superprofits of imperialism that bribe a wide range of proletarian leaders with £100,000+ salaries, opportunities for lucrative self-promotion in the media and conference circles, consultancy contracts and all kinds of perks. These superprofits also finance academics of dubious integrity to sing the praises of capitalism, and open to all these treacherous elements the revolving doors into the corridors of what Scott (Scott, J: Who rules Britain?, Polity Press and Basil Blackwell Inc., Cambridge, 1991) would call the capitalist locations.

The better conditions offered to skilled workers are often the result of hard and self-sacrificing trade-union struggle (unlike the better conditions of wage workers employed in traditionally petty-bourgeois occupations, which derive from the option such workers have of switching back to a petty-bourgeois occupation). However, just because the gains are the result of a magnificent trade-union struggle, it does not follow that the bourgeoisie will not be able to exploit them as a means of splitting the working class – on the contrary!

There are those who draw the conclusion from this that to struggle for higher wages is reactionary because it sets successful militant workers up to becoming patsies of the bourgeois class. Obviously such a conclusion is absurd. Revolutionaries must always support and encourage struggles for reform, since they are committed to seeking better living conditions for all workers. When the working class is strong, inevitably the bourgeoisie will be forced to make concessions. When these concessions are made, it generally buys the bourgeoisie some time and may even enable them to regain the upper hand. It is the role of the revolutionaries to imbue the working class with the idea that the only way of ensuring these reforms are not withdrawn at the earliest opportunity is to get rid of the exploiting class which constantly seeks to reduce the wages and benefits available to the working class as much as is practicable in the given historical situation.

Size of the working class

It is very difficult to use the statistics produced by the bourgeoisie as they are produced for the benefit of the bourgeoisie and for purposes that interest the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie pays the pipers and the bourgeoisie calls the tune. However, some of the statistics published by various authorities, such as the Office of National Statistics (ONS) can be helpful. Consider, for example, the following percentages of the workforce (see Table 1 below) (All figures are percentages of the total).

TABLE 1 2009 Labour Force Survey

Higher managerial & professional

Lower managerial & professional


Self employed and small employers

Lower supervisory and technical

Semi routine


Never worked, unemployed









Of the figures shown on this Table the working class might include:

a) The lower managerial and professional (22% of the workforce)

b) The lower supervisory and technical (8% of the workforce)

c) The workers whose jobs are semi-routine (i.e., require some skill) (12% of the workforce)

d) The workers whose jobs are routine (i.e., manual workers mostly) (9% of the workforce), and

e) Those who have never worked and/or are unemployed (19% of the workforce – this number is much higher than the unemployment figure as it includes students, housewives and those who, while unemployed, do not claim any benefits).

While there must be a few people in categories (a), (b) and (e) who would not for various reasons count as working class, we will assume that these are so few as to be of very marginal effect on the overall picture. On this count, therefore, 70% of the population is working class. With industrial jobs now down to 11% of all jobs, those who consider that only industrial workers count as the working class would indeed be feeling pretty hopeless now. If all people educated beyond the age of 16 were left out of account, the working class would be reduced to 40% nearly half of whom were either unemployed or had never worked! The fact is that we need to take cognisance of the fact that the working class in Britain nowadays overwhelming has manual and/or intellectual skills; that people with such skills do tend to receive higher wages than those who don’t have them, but that nevertheless the gap between the earnings of the skilled and unskilled has lessened considerably over the years; that the sections of the working class who are worst off, and least likely to be influenced by opportunist temptations, are unskilled workers in service industries or the unemployed.

The unskilled are in fact being increasingly marginalised as jobs available for them disappear as a consequence of mechanisation and computerisation. Laïc Wacquant has noted as a worldwide phenomenon in ‘advanced’ countries that:

Post-industrial modernisation translates, on the one hand, into the multiplication of highly skilled and rewarded positions for university-trained professional and technical staff and, on the other, into the deskilling and outright elimination of millions of jobs as well as swelling of casual employment slots for uneducated workers(p.110) .

And further: ” The more the revamped capitalist economy advances, the wider and deeper the reach of the new marginality, and the more plentiful the ranks of those thrown in the throes of misery with little respite or recourse, even as official unemployment drops and income rises in the country. In 1994, the US Census Bureau reported that the American poverty rate had risen to a ten-year high of 15.1% (for a staggering total of 40 million poor persons) despite two years of robust economic expansion. Five years later, the poverty rate in large cities has barely budged in spite of the longest phase of economic growth in national history and the lowest official unemployment rate in three decades. Meanwhile the European Union officially tallies a record 52 million poor, 17 million unemployed, and 3 million homeless – and counting – in the face of renewed economic growth and improved global competitiveness. As major multinational firms such as Renault and Michelin in France turn in unprecedented profits and see their stock value zoom up, they also ‘turn out’ workers by the thousands ” (p.111).

And this was written in 2000, before the outbreak of the present crisis of overproduction which has deepened the misery of the poorest sections of the working class still further! These are the people who have nothing to lose but their chains, yet are often passed over by left wing activists in favour of ‘industrial workers’ or ‘productive workers’ whose conditions are relatively cushioned. Indeed they are often despised and contemptuously bracketed with the lumpen proletariat, simply for the ‘crime’ of living in difficult circumstances on a run-down council estate.

They are of course hard to organise if there is no workplace at which they congregate. When they join the party they may need to overcome educational deprivation in order to learn the science of Marxism, but their reward for doing so is to recover the self-respect and dignity which bourgeois society denies them. They are the people with the keenest interest in overthrowing capitalism. They are the people with the boldest spirit to confront the bourgeois state on the streets, as was the case during the riots that took place in various cities throughout the UK in August 2011. While the communist movement does tend to attract better-off sections of the working class more easily, it is the decent marginalised working class who give it backbone.

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