Chris Harman


Drawing the class line

(July 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 34, 13 July–13 September 1981: 7, pp. 41–42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Between Labour and Capital
Pat Walker (ed.)
Harvester Press £4.95

‘Why was the left, especially the white left which emerged in the 60s, so overwhelmingly middle class in composition? ... Probably the most common pattern within the organised left was for the working class membership to drift away, repelled by the college seminar style which the left clung to ... A man who had spent the day unloading freight with constant harassment from a supervisor and a man who had spent the day lecturing to admiring students were supposed, at the end of the day, to engage in political work together on a basis of comradeship and trust’

The quotes, from an essay in this book by John and Barbara Ehrenreich, refer to the problems of the American left. But they do point to problems which have arisen – and continue in part to arise in Britain too. Much of the new generation of socialists that arose after 1968 came from the ranks of students and ex-students. And although the wave of industrial struggles that took place in the 1970s supplemented these with large numbers of industrial workers, there are still large chunks of the left that live in a Posy Simmons world where a degree and habitat furniture are as much taken for granted as are opposition to sexism and racism.

Often in the history of the revolutionary movement, practice has come before theory. This was certainly the case with our organisation – then called the International Socialists – in dealing with this phenomenon back in the early 1970s. We began by insisting on the classical Marxist maxim that what matters is where power lies, with workers in the factory, docks and mines. And accordingly we insisted, again and again, that revolutionaries thrown up by the upheaval in the student world had to break with that world and turn their attention to the workplaces.

If they did not, we insisted, they would end up like previous generations of once-radical students, drifting around in a vacuum and eventually opting for a comfortable middle class life and the politics which goes with it. The last 13 years have proved us right – except, it seems, in one respect: the mid-1970s saw a flourishing of struggles in new sorts of workplaces, in the town halls, the schools, the civil service. We made an adjustment in practice – building Rank and File Teacher, NALGO Action, Redder Tape, and insisting in all those cases that the key was the lowest grades of workers. But we never paid a great deal of attention theoretically to what was involved: we did not feel the need to.

Others did try to develop the ‘theory’. And what a mess they got into.

Two apparently opposed positions emerged. On the one hand there were the theorists of ‘the new working class’. These claimed a layer made up of technicians and university graduates constituted a new vanguard for the class as a whole. It was easy in 1967 and 1968 for some radicalised students to identify themselves as this vanguard. The theory has continued to provide comfort to remnants of that generation as they settle into comfortable careers as senior lecturers, local government administrators, social work advisors or the like.

The other popular view was that systematised by the rather obscure reformist ‘Marxist’, Nicos Poulantzas. His contention was that white collar workers and government workers could not be working class because they did not take part in the direct production of surplus value and therefore, in the strict Marxist sense, were not ‘productive’. All employees in commerce, the banks and the civil service are therefore, according to him, ‘the new petty bourgeoisie’.

The sheer absurdity of the thesis – it would end up designating dustmen, bank messengers, janitors in government buildings and copy typists as ‘new petty bourgeoisie’ since none of them are in his terms ‘productive’ – has served to reinforce adherents of the new working class thesis in their position. When told that they are not actually proletarians, they reply, ‘then half the working class under modern capitalism are not’.

The merit of the main essay in this book, by the Ehrenreichs, is that it is opposed to both these positions. They distinguish within white collar work between the lowest grades, which they see clearly as part of the working class, and the middle and upper grades which they designate as ‘the professional and managerial class’.

They see this as a privileged class within capitalism, concerned with ‘the reproduction of capitalist social relations’. It has interests different to, and opposed to, those of capital; but it is also given authority over the working class and cannot identify with it either. It therefore tends to develop a collectivist ideology of its own, which sees a rational organisation of society as being possible if it can take over from capital the task of running society and ordering the working class about.

Given the size of this grouping – they estimate it makes up 20 to 25 per cent of the US population, some 50 million people – its ideology is of immense social importance. In one form it lay behind the ‘progressive’ trend in US politics in the first part of this century; in another behind the ‘new left’ of the 1960s. They conclude that a mass socialist movement can only be built by an alliance between this class and the working class, in which each takes account of the problems of the other.

There are two problems with the Ehrenreichs analysis.

The one thing on which Poulantzas was right (and no-one can be wrong all the time) was to point out that an account of the working class within capitalism has to begin with the process of exploitation. Productive workers were exploited, Marx said, by being forced to accept wages which merely served to reproduce their (and their children’s) ability to work (their ‘labour power’) while labouring to produce goods of much greater value than that. It was this which drove them into class opposition to those who exploited them, whether they liked it or not.

But, unlike Poulantzas, Marx extended the argument to non-productive workers. He pointed out that the lowest grades of workers in commerce, sales promotion and financial institutions – and, for that matter, the lowest ranks of soliders and police – received a wage which was determined by the general conditions of the labour market. They got the pay they would have received if they were productive workers, and that was just sufficient for them to recoup their productive powers.

However, Marx did not say that all employees of capital fell into this category. He also pointed to people who he called ‘the hangers-on of the capitalist class’ – people who were given a share in the spoils of exploitation in return for helping the ruling class retain its position (in Marx’s day, priests, lawyers, generals, police chiefs). These received from the ruling class much more value than their labour could possibly have produced in any sphere of productive employment.

Under modern capitalism, both the ‘non-productive’ workers and ‘hangers-on’ of capitalism tend to be organised into the same bureaucratic hierarchies – in the large firms, local government, the state.

At the top the incomes of generals, top civil servants, nationalised industry bosses, are determined by direct comparison with what they would receive were they running capitalist concerns in their own right. At the bottom, the filing clerk, typist or primary school teacher is expected to get along on something less than the average industrial wage.

What is particularly interesting for the present discussion however, is what happens in the middle. Whether people in these rungs of the bureaucratic hierarchy are directly ‘productive’ or not, those at the top like to pay them more than is absolutely necessary. That binds them to the system, so that they can be used against those at the bottom. So ‘career structures’ are established, where in return for pro-management behaviour people can hope to look forward to incomes far in excess of what is needed to recoup their ability to work and, in a minority of cases, in excess of the total value they could produce under any conceivable circumstances.

The majority of the middle bureaucratic layers are still ‘exploited’. They do not get the full fruits of their labour, even if they are less exploited than the average worker. They may be the labour aristocrats of white collar work, but their struggles over wages and conditions remain struggles against exploitation. It is the privileged minority who would seem to fit into the Ehrenreichs’ ‘professional and managerial class’. They are not exploited. They do not ‘live merely in order to work’. They positively benefit from the capitalist system, in so far as they get a cut of what capitalism takes off the working class. However, it is not helpful to describe them as the Ehrenreichs do.

This is because they are not a group with clearly defined interests and a corresponding world view of their own. Nor are they in any clear way cut off from those above and below them. When the system is expanding some of them can hope to rise still higher. When it enters crisis and contracts, however, its attempts to preserve profit rates means that their privileges begin to disappear and they are threatened with a downward plunge into the ranks of the exploited (witness the effect of the government’s wage norms on middle ranking civil servants and local government employees at the moment) – or even into the abyss of ‘executive unemployment’.

Moreover, they exercise a general ideological influence on the white collar ‘labour aristocrats’ below them, who can hope in ‘good times’ to rise into their ranks. Hence the rapidly shifting attitudes of almost all those in the middle white collar ranks to trade unionism; at one moment adopting the most reactionary attitudes and identifying with the government and the employers against those below; then reacting to wage controls by joining the lower ranks in wage struggles, even affiliating to the TUC; then trying to: separate themselves off again by pushing for salary scales that recognise ‘responsibility’ and ‘seniority’.

Because of this vacillating, middle position between labour and capital, it seems much better to me to follow Trotsky and before him Karl Kautsky in calling this layer ‘the new middle class’ or ‘the new petty bourgeoisie’ than the ‘professional and managerial class’. Under aging capitalism, the ruling class is not just made up of private entrepreneurs and shareholders: but managers in private corporations and state industries are also part of the bourgeoisie, of the class which is driven into unrelenting opposition to the working class by the drive to accumulate surplus value. Similarly, the small scale exploiters of the working class, the petty bourgeoisie, are no longer just shop keepers and petty traders, they are also middle managers and administrators, the higher grades in local government, the most privileged groups of college lecturers.

Does it all matter? Yes, if we go back to the quote we started with. Many of those involved in left politics today belong to the new middle class or the white collar ‘labour aristocracy’ which tends to merge into it and shares most of its attitudes. Such people play a dominating role in many Labour Party constituencies, they make up much of the Euro-communist wing of the CP, in London they are to be found among the officers of many trades councils, they play the leading role in what remains of the women’s movement.

They themselves represent very little in terms of social power: those they work with are disinclined to rock the capitalist boat because of their privileges and their hopes of further promotion. Yet the very language they talk and the lifestyles they cultivate cut them off from those who could represent a real power – the massed ranks of dockers and typists, of miners and filing clerks, of car workers and telephone engineers. In practice only the very small minority who join a revolutionary party are likely to make such connections.

This book is useful because the essays in it raise all these issues, even if they are a long way from solving them.

Last updated on 5 October 2019