Who is working class?

Ben Duncan-Duggal
9 min readApr 28, 2020

Class could well be at the heart of everything the Left does, with frequent exaltations of ‘class-based’ or ‘class-struggle’ politics ringing throughout Left discussion, and various MPs’ class understandings (or lack of) used by some to distinguish who is and isn’t ‘genuinely’ left-wing.

Putting all that aside, it’s beyond doubt that class is of some importance to anyone looking to access a vast, vast body of left-wing thought, including Marx, whether that means eventually agreeing with it or not. But first, we need a definition of class. It is impossible to discuss class without understanding what class is and, vitally, given the importance of the working class to left-wing theory (and, we might add, this is rightly so), who is working class.

A Marxist definition and, I would suggest, any useful definition, would involve defining class in relation to the process of production, with classes defined by peoples’ positions in relation to this process. Beyond this, though, we run into trouble. Whereas in Marx’s time and in his writing it’s fairly easy to see the lines between classes — those who owned the means of production (big factory owners, usually) were the bourgeois, and everyone else (who worked for their living, and exploited as such) was the working class - that is no longer the case, arguably (the single exception here is the petty bourgeois). Now, there at least appears to be a significant middle class — think office workers, finance workers, managers, etc.

However, there is a good argument to be made here that in fact Marx’s original definition does not need to be changed much; the creation of this third, ‘middle’ class is in fact an illusion. The fundamental fact of what defines the working class is their relation to the process of production, which is one of working to live, or needing to work to live. The reason this is the fundamental fact of what defines this class is that this, at its lowest root, describes how our economy is structured — two groups of people, those who trade their labour for survival (the vast majority of people), and everyone else. It is a way of relating which is defined by exploitation caused by a need to survive (and, it might be noted here, this revelation provides the key to understanding large parts of Marxism; it is irrational for this group of people to continue being exploited in light of the fact we could have a society not based on exploitation and they make up the numerical majority).

‘To be oppressed means to be deprived of your ability to choose’

bell hooks

Laura Pidcock, writing in Tribune, outlines this illusion (putting aside her focus on where people are from, which doesn’t — to me — seem as important as they are today, beyond ideas about residual wealth which could really be rolled up into where they are today):

My dad had a simple explanation of class, which he passed on to me. When I was first taught theories of class, he used to explain it like this: ‘Laura, do I need to get up tomorrow? Do I have to get up and go to work?’ I would reply with ‘yes’, because I knew that if he didn’t go to work, he would miss important things and the cumulative effect of this would be that, eventually, he would lose his job. He would follow up by saying ‘And what would happen if I lost my job?’ I knew that, owing to having no savings, we would no longer be able to pay the mortgage.

If we weren’t able to pay the mortgage, further down the line, the bank would take the house back, and even though my mum and dad had been making those mortgage payments every month, on time, for years and years, it wouldn’t take the bank long to repossess the house. My dad would conclude, ‘and that, Laura, tells you what class we are: we have no savings, because we cannot save. We own nothing that could allow us not to work and therefore we are working class’.

That’s a simple definition, but it works for me. The overwhelming majority of the people that I represent are working class because they must work to live — and they do not have the luxury of savings, investments, or inheritance to fall back on. Those combination of factors determine most of our existences.

Of course, many people who work to live do not identify as working class. That is not a coincidence. Thatcher’s politics were based on the idea of a meritocracy: that you could work your way out of poverty and reach a ‘middle class’ status, rejecting the solidarity and togetherness of being part of a working-class community in order to aspire for your own progression in a more individualised society. This vision offered the lure of comfort and safety that wealth, even limited wealth, brings.

What that does, however, for many people, is make them think they are safer within this economic system than they really are. It’s a kind of ‘false consciousness’. Higher earners, who have a holiday or two a year, who are able to pay their bills reasonably comfortably, are lulled into a sense of security. They believe that they are shielded permanently from poverty. But most of those who believe they have risen from the working class never truly leave that insecurity behind.

What happens when someone on a comfortable income becomes unwell and can no longer work? Or makes a mistake at work and is fired? Say they are made redundant or happen to have a hostile employer who has taken a dislike to them. Employment rights enforcement is so weak in the UK today, that without being a member of a trade union, that person’s chance of holding onto their job is slim.

When secure employment is becoming a rarity, when decent jobs are so hard to find, when wages are so low for so many, it only takes a few months out of work for most of what passes for our ‘middle class’ to get into serious trouble. And with a diminishing safety net after years of austerity, the slide can come quickly.

What is the difference between this person and someone working as a cleaner on minimum wage? The shock might be absorbed for a little while longer. They may have assets that they can sell, or some savings. Their monthly disposable income may be much higher than their minimum wage colleague. But all it takes is a job loss, or a debt spiral, or even a bad investment, and their status as someone who has ‘escaped’ the working class won’t mean very much for very long.

Writing in International Socialism, Martin Smith differs slightly (he was writing in 2007, although I don’t think this matters too much):

Today the structure of capitalist society is more complicated than simply being divided into two diametrically opposed classes — the ruling class and the working class. There is a substantial ‘middle class’ in Britain. Sociologists claim it represents about 15 to 20 percent of the population — foremen, low grade managers, doctors, head teachers, etc. These people face contradictory pressures. On the one hand, their wealth and social position mean that they buy into the system; on the other hand, because they sell their labour power they too can find themselves in conflict with the system and look to a collective response. The class forces around them shape their reaction to events.

So Smith defines this class by way of its inhabitants' outlook upon the economy and themselves in it, rather than their objective position in it, as Pidcock does.

This duopoly of views touches on an argument which is present heavily in Marxist discussion: that of whether subjective or objective factors primarily define class. On this, our old friend Wikipedia is useful:

Marxism has a rather heavily defined dialectic between objective factors (i.e., material conditions, the social structure) and subjective factors (i.e. the conscious organization of class members). While most forms of Marxism analyses people’s class based on objective factors (class structure), major Marxist trends have made greater use of subjective factors in understanding the history of the working class. E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class is a definitive example of this “subjective” Marxist trend. Thompson analyses the English working class as a group of people with shared material conditions coming to a positive self-consciousness of their social position. This feature of social class is commonly termed class consciousness in Marxism, a concept which became famous with Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (1923). It is seen as the process of a “class in itself” moving in the direction of a “class for itself”, a collective agent that changes history rather than simply being a victim of the historical process. In Lukács’ words, the proletariat was the “subject–object of history”, and the first class which could separate false consciousness (inherent to the bourgeois’s consciousness), which reified economic laws as universal (whereas they are only a consequence of historic capitalism).

There is little useful I can add myself, other than to say that — to me at least — both definitions appear to be ‘true’ in that they are objectively correct on their own terms; they both describe a set of material conditions accurately. In terms of putting one definition before another, the objective definition is closer to mainstream Marxist theory (insofar as this is important) — that is, Marxism as an interpretation of what is. It holds that we and our conditions form our true views, and anything else is ‘false consciousness’— which includes a clear route for the arrival of socialism, whether we like it or not. Defining class in subjective terms risks losing this vital link between the material and semi-inevitable responses to it. In other words, a subjective definition of class risks losing the relation between class and the rest of Marxist theory — if we believe that a subjective definition of class is correct/an objective definition of class is not useful, then we need to look for an at least partially different way of explaining our society’s structure and history, and defining its possible path.

It’s worth pointing out that a subjective view of the working class could still be drawn far more widely than our current view of who is ‘culturally’ working class.

Finally, if we were to hold that conditions inevitably form particular classes, then the two schools practically collapse into one, with the ‘subjective’ approach in fact better being thought of as ‘objective’.

If we were to go with an objective definition — challenges for the movement

But where an objective definition of class really runs into difficulty is when we take this definition and try and see what this would look like if we tried to build a working class movement with working class defined objectively. To understand why this is difficult, it might be worth thinking about who might be in this objective working class, of everyone whose relationship to work is one of true need. Granted, there would of course be those we might think of as working class, such as call center workers, industrial workers, retail workers etc. But given that many other, wealthier workers also relate to work in this way — they could not realistically stop working and hope to survive in the medium to long term (discounting any pittance they might get from the state) — this could also include some junior hedge fund traders, and vast amounts of management consultants and accountants. Now, the problem of forming a movement out of all of these people is twofold. Firstly, they do not even view themselves as sharing a class. Secondly, for the wealthier group of workers we can see the thoughts Smith outlines above about the middle classes gaining sufficiently from the system become relevant; although, as Pidcock correctly points out, middle class security is often something of an illusion, it is an illusion that nonetheless exists and so forms a significant obstacle to the formation of a movement.

Here, the conception of the working class as something that is ‘made’, with culture amongst other things playing a key role, as Thompson outlines, really starts to feel more relevant, the precise mechanisms of how it fits in with the rest of Marxist theory aside.

The choice at this point, I believe, is either to believe in a vast power of ideas and subscribe to the fact that since we can persuade people of anything, that we can persuade not only the call center workers but the management consultants to realise they are exploited, realise they can and should do something about it, and rise up, or to take second best. To understand the working class not as a class made up of people who are, necessarily, objectively exploited but a slightly messy formation, one whose members are substantially more likely to believe they are exploited. It is clear that the former choice is the more optimistic and the more classically Marxist. Beyond that, not much is clear to me.