26/01/22 | By John Medhurst, Mr


A Class Half Full

Re-examining the books I have written for Zero and Repeater – one on Britain in the 1970s, the other on the Russian Revolution – it struck me that their underlying theme was an engagement with issues of class, specifically issues of working class identity and working class politics. As those issues are front and centre in my next book, I Could Be So Good For You: A Portrait of the North London Working Class 1950-2008, it seemed a good moment to clarify, for myself and anyone else interested, where I stood on the subject of class and class politics.

Not too long ago Ronan Burtenshaw argued in the new Tribune that engaging in a “culture war” on Brexit would be a huge mistake for the left because it would entail “the end of class politics”. While it was unclear what in this context he meant by a “culture war” the underlying assumption of his position was that “class politics”, or at least what he understood by the term, is inherently more politically progressive than something called “cultural politics”. But is that so? And if it once was, is it now?

For a term so frequently used in political discourse the exact meaning of “working class” remains opaque. Marx never analyses class as a concept at all and his definition of the working class, i.e the Proletariat, as those who do not own the Means of Production and are therefore compelled to sell their labour power to survive, is simplistic and unsatisfactory. Clearly, if taken literally, it would include most of the middle class as well, as Marx belatedly acknowledged in the unfinished Volume III of Capital. Considering the classes of modern-day England, the most advanced capitalist society of his time, he concluded “Middle and in intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere”. And yet when Eduard Bernstein said much the same thing in similar language at the end of the 19th century, pointing out the great variety of social strata and economic formations in advanced capitalist societies, and that socialist parties might like to take account of this in formulating their policies, he was excoriated for heresy.

Lacking a firm economic definition of the working class, most people fall back on “common sense” cultural definitions of class, based around living conditions, lifestyle and occupation, and the myriad forms of culture that arise from them. These are fine as far as they go, but they beg other questions about when, if and how a working class man or woman might “leave“ the class and become middle-class, perhaps by dint of a higher income - although that leaves unanswered further questions about the weight of political and cultural values as against simple monetary income, and if one outweighs the other in determining if a person remains “working class”.

Attempts to update or redefine what the working class is today can be embarrassing. In November 2021 the American left-wing magazine Jacobin suggested that the working class were people without college degrees. The definition was qualified but it remained highly problematic. But it did point to a basic error made by many on the left, who often obscure and misperceive the complex reality of working class lives, ignoring or minimising economic, ethnic, craft, cultural and gender differences within the class in favour of a simplistic and sentimentalised mass identity. The error arises from the prioritisation of a particular and distinct portion of working class life and history, i.e working in a factory or a large centre of industry and living near that centre in a close-knit community of people who do the same, even though this long ago ceased to be the defining reality of the modern, urban working class.

That said, I think I know what Burtenshaw and Jacobin mean by “class politics” and the class consciousness that supports it. Sadly, though, “class consciousness” in the traditional sense, i.e that of an innate collective politics intrinsic to working class communities and work places and expressed in mass-based trade unions and political labour parties, arose from the heavily concentrated industrial capitalism of the 1880s-1950s, in which it reached its zenith, and has demonstrably waned since then. It certainly plays little role in the era of Trump, Bolsanaro and Brexit, except to divide and confuse. In 2019 class politics, at least as conventionally understood by most who casually use the term, can be outdated, crude and inflexibly economistic, a blunt instrument that often hits the wrong target and leads to alliances with the populist far-right.

Look at the divide on Brexit. The entire problem is that it is not defined by economic and occupational categories – “class” – but by social and cultural values. These values are not uniform and exclusive, i.e one set of values is held by the middle-class and one by the working class. In the UK those supporting Brexit, on right and left, like to claim the working class for themselves, on the basis of an angry minority vote in economically excluded towns and communities, and dismiss entirely the bigger and more diverse working class of London and the UK’s other big cities. As someone who grew up on a council estate in North London I find this offensive, a denigration of a vibrant, socially diverse and essentially tolerant working class who never voted BNP or UKIP but worked with, learnt from and intermarried with migrants and immigrants, whether Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Greek Cypriot or Turkish.

Contrary to the dull stereotypes peddled by Paul Embery and Jon Crudass, many of this working class do not particularly want to be “rooted” all their life in the place they were born. They want to uproot and explore, and if they cannot do it then they hope their children will. This is the working class of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff that voted Remain, the working class of Grenfell Tower and those who defended it.

Striking building workers raise their fists in salute during a rally in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris, on June 13, 1936. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Class has always been about culture. E.P Thompson, who knew a thing or two about the subject, considered that “Classes do not exist as separate entities”, that class is a relationship, a process, a mutual inter-action in specific social circumstances. In that sense, he believed, “Class eventuates as men and women live their productive relations, and as they handle these experiences in cultural ways”. It was simply that in the first, savage and unregulated stage of industrial capitalism the working class had much less means of democratic expression, less cultural diversity, less space for social experiment, less personal freedom. So life choices and life views came down solely to money and workplace. Class and the capitalist societies that produce classes are far more complex these days, as Brexit and Trump have demonstrated by shattering the last remnants of working class unity that left parties used to rely on.

Left and socialist political parties absolutely must have strong, radical policies on wealth redistribution, public ownership and climate change if they are to have any kind of purpose and to offer any kind of meaningful challenge to neo-liberal capitalism, but these policies do not depend on “class politics” in the traditional use of the term. They depend on understanding how power and wealth operate and having the skill and determination to confront it, but that’s always been true. To effectively challenge concentrated power and wealth, the democratic left needs a vibrant cross-class political alliance. There is no point fencing that alliance off and demanding it fit in a box labelled “working class”.

Of course radical progressive politics should appeal to and bring the majority of working class people with it. But it has to do so by virtue of its universal values, its inspiring vision, its wider call for social and economic justice. Waiting for all of the working class, prioritising them and the expense of a wider, more heterogeneous social base, is often to dilute radical politics, sometimes to abandon it entirely. But there is simply no point in “class politics” if it excludes, with one great guillotine, millions of potential supporters who do not self-identify as working class. And if it doesn’t exclude in this manner, if a political party or group is not fighting solely and only for the traditional working class but for universal values of social justice and equality, then it is not advocating class politics and it should stop pretending that it is.

John Medhurst was born in London in 1962 and graduated in History and Politics from Queen Mary College, University of London. He is now a full-time officer for the UK’s largest civil service trade union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). He has written for Novara Media, Morning Star, Red Pepper, Green Left and the Journal of Contemporary European Research. He is the author of the highly regarded No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left.


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