Hal Draper

Warren’s “Classes”

Prof Describes Society à la Cholly Knickerbocker

(17 October 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 42, 17 October 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Are there classes in America?

It used to be fashionable for respectable sociologists to meet this question with a vigorous denial, accompanied by an equally vigorous denunciation of Marxism for “importing” the concept from Europe to these shores.

In Europe, they told us, there is a class stratification as a hangover from older times. When an English workman tips his hat to a toff and says “Sir” to a clean collar (and that is no doubt getting outdated also), you have evidence of the existence of classes. When an American taxi driver says: “OK, bud, climb in,” to a top hat, you have evidence of the democratic non-class society which blesses these shores.

The denunciation of Marxism is still with us, but the denial of class stratification has shifted from indignant rejection to harmless reinterpretation. The leading American sociologist who, with a group of associates, has been carrying on research on the question of the class structure of American society has recently published, the results of his work over a score of years or so, and Life magazine has given it a spread complete with real-life photos of class specimens. The professor is W. Lloyd Warner, his book is Social Class in America, and his results are – a cutting commentary on bourgeois sociological theory.

The reader would, of course, be perfectly right in assuming that this comment is “prejudiced” – that is, we confess to approaching Warner’s thesis with a previously held view on the subject – but even so, this is not incompatible with some expectation of enlightenment. There is no Marxist principle which says that a group of serious scholars who have spent nearly 20 years on a research project cannot come up with interesting and even valuable contributions just because they do not operate on the basis of the Marxist view. On the contrary; we do not know whether Professor Robert Lynd considers himself a Marxist in any sense, or so considered himself when he produced Middletown, but there can be no doubt that from anyone’s point of view that study of an American community was an exceedingly important contribution to the subject.

To a Trivial Question, Trivial Answers

The reason is of importance for estimating Warner’s work. The Lynds’ book was significant, to Marxists among others, not necessarily because it gave answers palatable to them, but because it asked the relevant questions. Warner apparently began his project with a question which doomed his researches to triviality from the beginning.

His project was to classify strata of society on the basis of their individual behaviour patterns as seen through a number of selected factors such as: What part, of town does the subject live in? what clubs does he belong to? is his home an expensive new one or a family heirloom? are his wife’s dinner parties reported on the first or second page of the local newspaper’s “society” section? etc. Even income is only one factor of many like the above. Source of income is also one of the factors but on a basis best described as “snobbism.” In fact, Warner’s factors can be – every one of them – reduced to a single content: Who can afford to be snobbish to whom, and on what grounds?

On this basis – the order of snobbery – Warner distinguishes six classes. The names of these classes might just as well be: A, B, C, D, E, F, but they are in fact: lower-lower, upper-lower, lower-middle, upper-middle, lower-upper, and upper-upper. It is immediately apparent that, even from Warner’s point of view, the number of classes and their differentiating criteria are purely arbitrary. By shifting the index cards around a bit, a division into four classes, or eight, or – well, pick a number from one to twenty – would be not only equally possible but equally meaningful and equally legitimate to carry Warner’s results.

Warner, then, has not distinguished classes at all; he has merely reported on the existence of the same hierarchical setup which is the subject matter of the “society editor.” It may sound nasty to say that his work is of more interest to Cholly Knickerbocker than to serious students of society, but the sad fact is that it is perfectly accurate.

The hierarchy is certainly there – and has been described by novelists long before Warner, though not as pedantically – but what do you do with it after it is all neatly classified? What does it explain?

What relation does it have to interpreting the dynamics of society? Will a member of the “upper middle” class (who is a skilled tool-and-die worker) and a member of the same “class” who is a grocery owner tend ta have the same attitudes and tend toward the same actions with regard to Taft-Hartley, Truman, free enterprise, racial democracy, or a score of other dynamic problems of the day?

Warner’s original sin is his attempt to view class stratification solely in terms of superficial indices of behavior. The Marxist view takes, as the basis of class differences, the position in the economic structure, the relation to the ownership of the means of production and role in the process of production: the class of those who have to sell their labor power to make a living, and the class of those who live by owning and by exploiting the labor of others; these as the two most fundamental classes of capitalist society, other class groups being distinguishable on the same basis but not of the same fundamental importance.

Marxism and Class Attitudes

A reviewer in the New Republic, Professor Lipset, who takes Warner’s book apart with some ease, takes care, however, to sideswipe Marxism also. His criticism of Warner, he writes –

“does not indicate that a theory of ‘objective’ class structure based solely on position in the economic structure will suffice by itself. Marxist sociology, which assumes an eventual clear-cut relationship between economic class position and behavior, has not proved adequate. The social status of many wage-workers, notably the white-collar workers and technicians, leads many of them to acquire attitudes similar to those of the controlling economic groups.”

It is always amazing to us – perhaps because of remnants of naiveté – how sincere and undoubtedly otherwise conscientious scholars permit themselves to toss off dicta on Marxism, on the basis of what is evidently a nodding acquaintance. As long as the dictum is unfavorable, there is, it seems, little chance that one’s professional reputation may be hurt by a display of sheer ignorance ...

Marxism “assumes” no “eventual clear-cut relationship between economic class position and behavior,” if, as Lipset’s further remark indicates, this means a one-to-one correspondence between class position and attitudes. Its proposition is merely this: that of the many factors determining attitudes at any particular time, the most weighty and the decisive one is class position – over the development of a period of time and for the mass of people in the given class. It is not a means of predicting a given individual’s reaction but of describing the motive force for social trends. It is not a means, taken by itself, of accounting for all aspects of the thinking of a class group at any stage in its development but of accounting for the direction of development to be expected.

As such, even in America where class-consciousness has been long retarded by counteracting forces often analyzed by Marxists, the direction of developing class attitudes has been so clear that little to-do need be made about it here.

Lipset’s concrete evidence for the “inadequacy” of Marxism is also based on a second confession of ignorance. According to Marxism, the class position of the “white-collar workers and technicians” is not the same as that of the industrial production worker – precisely his class position in the most “objective” and scientific sense. If the remark could be made without seeming too offensive, we would say that Professor Lipset is really not acquainted with the ABC of the view he criticizes in passing.

Last updated on 28 August 2021