George Walford: Who Are "The Working Class?"

Everybody who tries to introduce new ideas has to face the problem of terminology. It is sometimes solved by inventing new words, but to go far in that direction is to isolate oneself. Another method is to use standard words in a specialised sense. Thus “atom,” an established term meaning a body incapable of further division, now carries a very different meaning in nuclear physics. “Psychological moment” means, to the specialist, not a moment in time but a certain force, a momentum, and “salt” in chemistry mean something other than a white crystalline substance which adds savour to food. If confusion is to be avoided it is necessary, when discussing fields of knowledge in which words carry technical meanings, to use them with those meanings.

This appears with the names Marx chose for the classes which dominate his analysis of contemporary society. “Capitalist” has served well enough and we need not comment here. But “bourgeois,” “working class” and “proletariat” have caused, and are still causing, apparently endless confusion. Each of them is used in one sense in general talk about social affairs and in another sense in Marxist theory. By itself this is fair enough; many words carry more than one meaning. But these three are sometimes used, even by professional sociologists, in one field of knowledge with the meanings appropriate to another.

Stuart MacIntyre has published a book entitled: A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933. I have not yet read it, although I intend to do so; what follows is based on there view of it by Ben Pimlott in the Times Literary Supplement of 28 November 1980. I have not always been able to tell with certainly whether the reviewer is speaking in his own voice or reporting what the author says; I may sometimes be blaming one of them for the sins of the other. But it is clear that the reviewer is not opposed to the author on the points to be raised here.

Author and reviewer are discussing Marxism, a field of knowledge in which “bourgeois,” “working class” and “proletariat” carry technical meanings. But they do not use these terms with these specialised meanings. They use “working class” and “proletariat” to mean those without formal education, and they use “bourgeois” to include all who have been trained in a university.

The Marxist meanings have been specified quite clearly by Engels in a footnote to the Communist Manifesto:

By Bourgeois is meant the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of production and employers of wage labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live.

Or, going directly to the fountain-head, this is Marx, also in the Manifesto:

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working-class, developed, a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital.

“Bourgeois” is synonymous with “capitalist”; it refers to the class who own the means of social production. “Proletariat” is synonymous with “working-class” and refers to the class who, because they do not own the means of production, have to sell their labour-power in order to live. Our author and reviewer do not use these senses. They say, for example:

During the 1920s, British Marxism remained in the hands of a working-class leadership […] The decisive change came after 1930 […] when intellectual authority passed, calamitously, into bourgeois hands.

We have heard Engels saying: “By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern Capitalists.” Our author and reviewer are therefore saying that after 1930 authority over British Marxism passed into the hands of the capitalists. If so, it is not surprising that the results should have been “calamitous.” But I do not think it happened; I think that what they have said is not what they meant to say: The destruction of tradition rooted Marxism in Britain and its replacement by an approach to theory that has more to do with seminars and common-rooms than with the experience of the working class.

Marx did not define the working class as those who do not frequent seminars and common-rooms, nor the bourgeois as those who do. The two classes are distinguished, in Marxist theory, by their relation to the means of production. In seminar or factory, in common-room or mine, if those present live by selling their labour-power they belong to the working class.

In this review – and, it seems, also in the book being reviewed – university-trained thinkers are denoted “bourgeois” and distinguished from autodidacts, who are “working-class.” But Marx and Engels were quite clear, in the Communist Manifesto, that the bourgeoisie are not distinguished by their education, or even by their incomes; this term, in their system, is synonymous with “capitalist” and refers to those who own the means of production. Do the people who have been educated at universities satisfy this criterion? Do the professional academics satisfy it? Doubtless some do, but the overwhelming majority do not, they have to work for a living, they have to sell their labour-power because they do not own the means of production. For the purpose of Marxism the difference between wage and salary is not significant. The overwhelming majority of those educated at universities, and of the professional academics, are not, as MacIntyre and Pimlott term them, “bourgeois”; so far as Marxism is concerned they belong to the working class.

It follows that the question, whether Marxism between the wars suffered from the influx of bourgeois thinkers which it underwent, is a non-question. The presumed event did not happen. If, in discussing Marxism, we use its technical terms as Marx and Engels used them, then Marxism in Britain between the wars was influenced by various groups, distinguished by education and income but all (excepting perhaps some few individual persons) belonged solidly within the working class.

When the technical terms of Marxism are used in discussing Marxism then (in the absence of explicit stipulations to the contrary) they should be used with the meaning Marx allocated to them; to use them otherwise is to create confusion. But this is not to say that the Marxist movement is what Marx presented it as being, a movement having its basis in the division between classes. It has its basis in ideological division. The overwhelming majority of its members and supporters do belong to the working class in Marx’s definition of that term, but this is true of every major movement, those of the right as much as those of the left. Marxism is distinguished from other movements by a certain set of general assumptions. These have the result that it places higher value of theory and intellect than do the movements to the right of it, and in that sense it can be said that Marxists are intellectuals. But this is to use “intellectuals” in a sense different from that given it by our author and reviewer. Intellectuals, as that term is used in systematic ideology, are those who seek to regulate their political behaviour in accordance with the results of their own intellectual processes, and this is not a feature especially characteristic of those educated at universities. Nor is it especially linked with the bourgeoisie or with any other economic class or status-group.

from Ideological Commentary 9, February 1981.