George Walford: Are There Classes?

Myths will doubtless always be with us, but the influence of the one which bulks so large in Marxism, presenting class as the fundamental determinant of political affiliation, weakens almost by the day. Reviewing the Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950, David Cannadine notes that through the 1950s and 60s it flourished among the intellectuals, notably with E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), Eric Hobsbawm’s Labouring Men (1964) John Foster’s Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution (1974) and Harold Perkins’ The Origins of Modern English Society (1969). Relying on Marx’s theory-based assertions rather than on the results of any more objective investigation, these writers assumed the small part of the working class whose experience and responses complied at all with their theories to be representative of the whole. The resulting debates have grown increasingly sterile, repetitive and introverted, and the recent re-evaluation of the Industrial Revolution as more gradual and more localized than had been thought has loosened the roots of the old certainties about classes. It is coming to be accepted that any making or remaking of the working class during the 19th Century was linked rather with conservative culture than with radical politics. As Geoffrey Best once phrased it, the Marxists had ignored the “flag-saluting, peer-respecting, foreigner-hating” part of proletarian behaviour. As an organising or explanatory principle “class” is being rapidly discredited. (TLS 7 Sept)

At the recent Conservative Party Conference Mrs. Thatcher spoke of the conservative preference for a “classless, open society.” She did not, of course, mean an egalitarian society. That “open” refers to a society in which people would be free to follow their own preferences in economic affairs, competing (if they choose to do so) as autonomous individuals, not bound by that community of interest with others in similar circumstances implied by the concept of class.

Towards the other end of the range the concept of class comes to dominate political thinking. It is inseparable from communism and closely linked with anarchist theories of the state, the (A-)SPGB, for example, holding monopolisation of ownership by one class to be the fundamental feature of society. According to the revolutionaries, individual people can most effectively further their personal economic interests by acting jointly with other members of their class. And since (according to them) ideas, beliefs and political attachments are fundamentally determined by material interests, it follows that the party giving voice to the economic interests of the working class, which is to say the great majority, can expect to receive their support.

So which side is right? Are there classes or not? The question is not a valid one, for examination of the thinking even of the enthusiasts for class shows it to be less a fact of direct experience than a convenient assumption. People and groups accept the concept or not, give it prominence in their thinking or not, as they expect it to help or hinder them in attaining their ends. Those, rich and poor alike, who seek to perpetuate the existing social structure tend to reject or at least to minimise it; those seeking revolution emphasise its importance as a source of the division and opposition they believe to provide the motive power of their movement. The division of society into classes is an act of intellectual analysis, a consequence rather than a cause of ideology, and those ideologically disposed towards accepting it form a small minority. The presence of great states claiming to operate in accordance with Marxist theory has provided a weight of apparent evidence tending to overwhelm the opposition; class theory has come to be almost universally accepted. As those states return towards openly non-Marxist methods of operation, showing the evidence they apparently provided to be spurious, we have to expect this to change, with class theory becoming once more the preserve of a few revolutionary intellectuals without significant practical influence.

from Ideological Commentary 49, January 1991.