A New Class Theory - Gary Roth

Gary Roth responds to Barbara and John Ehrenreich's proposal for a "Professional-Managerial Class"

Published in issue #5 of Root & Branch, a US Libertarian Socialist journal.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on February 6, 2022

Before the turn of the century, no one predicted the appearance of a distinct and large stratum of professionals and managers. Bourgeois social scientists were quick to see in this new ‘middle class’ a confirmation that social classes would eventually evolve out of existence. The tremendous technological and material progress which accompanied capital accumulation meant an improved living standard for most despite the fits-and-starts of economic cycles and continued inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

Marxists, though, because they saw the persistence of a working class in the industrialized countries and its constant creation in all newly-capitalized areas of the world, were slower to pay attention to the new trends. The growth through the century in size and power of this new group created a debate and crisis for Marxist theoreticians, for it seemed that Marx's theory could only account for a society with a growing division into capitalists and wage-laborers. In the last several decades, one major debate between bourgeois social science and Marxism has been over whether the new stratum represents a ‘new middle class’ or a ‘new working class.’

Barbara and John Ehrenreich follow this debate, and attempt to synthesize the results in a new Marxist theory which accords the professional-managerial stratum a class status alongside the two traditional groupings. The North American New Left, from whose perspective they wish to view the new conditions, had some influence on, but little support from the working class. This, they think, is because the Left shares with the professional-managerial class a common social position and a common view of socialism in which technical efficiency and technological rationality play the role of the future ideal. In turn, this explains the confusion of many leftists about their own class position, since many of them come from professional and upper-class backgrounds. While the Ehrenreichs applaud the Left for its attempt to overcome this position, they remain disturbed because their analysis implies that the Left’s isolation is not merely historical. It is not that the Left has a consciousness which the working class has yet to develop; rather, the divergence in consciousness comes from fundamental social and theoretical differences.

In order to orient the Left towards an alliance with the working class, which they see as essential for a successful revolution, they show that professional-managerial conceptions of socialism are different from and opposed to working class conceptions. Unfortunately, the Ehrenreichs do not describe working class perceptions of socialism except to mention in passing that they are concerned with ‘cultural’ as well as ‘bread and butter‘ issues. To prove their thesis, they have drawn on the appropriate theory and history, all of which is accomplished in two short magazine articles1 .

According to the Ehrenreichs, “a class is characterized by a common relation to the economic foundations of society” which “arise from the place occupied by groups in the broad social division of labor, and from the basic patterns of control over access to the means of production and of appropriation of the social surplus.” (Part I, page 12) Unlike the petty bourgeoisie, which existed at the beginnings of capitalism and then declined in stature due to its uncompetitive position, the professional-managerial class has “taken form in monopoly capitalist society” (I,12); that is, it is a creation of the 20th century. The new class differs from the working class in that its role is “the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations” (I,13) while the working class has been left with the physical task of producing goods. The new class is, furthermore, “predicated on the atomization of working class life and culture and the appropriation of skills once vested in the working class.” (II,19) In other words, the Ehrenreichs supply a theoretical basis to the recognized division of the work force into mental and manual workers, or white-collar and blue-collar employees, only they see the distinction as between reproductive and productive work.

Marx's conceptual use of class already accounted for the Ehrenreich's ideas. Class referred not to a ‘social division of labor,’ but to the division in society between workers and the users of workers. Marx was interested in the conditions which would lead to the creation, the development, and the abolition of the working class. To explain these phenomena, he used the concept of abstract labor because it described the general relationship through which laboring activity is used and directed in capitalist society. The capital/wage-labor relation explained the production of wealth, its necessary uses, and the evolution of the system through prosperity and collapse. Abstract labor had an empirical meaning since the possible exchange of every commodity for every other commodity implied that every type of labor was being equated with all other labor. Only labor produced wealth, and wealth in capitalism had importance for the system solely in the form of exchangable commodities.

Because all labor was equated and also equalized to one standard kind through the market mechanism, and because all laborers had an identical relationship to the means of production, the economic reality of capitalism meant the existence of a unified and homogeneous working class regardless of the more observable differences due to the division of labor. Socialism was to overcome the split between the owners and the creators of the social wealth. For the working class, this meant taking direct control over its own creation.

Marx used the separation of society into capitalists and wage-laborers because it answered many questions about the functioning of capitalism, and because it provided some clues for overcoming working class problems--problems which grew in magnitude and importance as the working class came to include a larger and larger proportion of the population. For Marx, it was the generalization of these problems which concerned him.

The Ehrenreichs have not addressed any of these questions about accumulation and revolution in their proposed theory. Instead, they have focused on a segment of the population to which the capitalists have turned over the day to day management of their firms and social system, and which has grown because of the evermore severe separation of mental from manual work. In summary, Marx examined the overall features which characterized and motivated the capitalist system. Its exact evolution over time, however, could only be estimated. The Ehrenreichs are bothered by the inexactness of his estimations, particularly as they apply to the appearance and growth of the professional/managerial stratum. To overcome what they see as vagueness in Marx's predictions, they have redefined the concept of class.

Marx, of course, was well aware of the technical and social divisions within the working population. Capital is full of references to the “separation of the workers into skilled and unskilled.”2 It also contains sections on some of the special ways in which women and children are used by capital. When Marx wrote the draft of Capital, he simultaneously worked as a newspaper journalist where he wrote on topics such as the American Civil War, describing, for instance, the race prejudice of the Northern population, and the reasons for the confusing results in the 1862 elections. At the beginning of his career, Marx has been encouraged by Engels to study economic theory and the working class. These were studies which Engels had already begun and from which he gained the respect of Marx and his notoriety as a left-wing critic3 . When Marx published Capital twenty-five years later, he still praised Engels for his detailed discussions of working class life.

The Ehrenreichs are correct, though, to say that Marx spent little time analyzing the difference between the managers and the producers of capital. Throughout the 19th century this difference was only one among many which characterized the working population. Marx mentioned this distinction, for instance in the closing pages of Capital where he says that even in the most developed capitalist nation, England, “the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form” as “middle and intermediate strata obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere.”4 But because it did not have the visual and technical importance that it has today, he saw no need to dwell on it at any length. Marx did not expect that capitalism would continue in existence as long as it has, and for many 20th century developments he proved to be no soothsayer. Marx, however, provided a theory of capitalism in which this distinction was not crucial, but was merely a further and specific elaboration of a trend within the system.

Even though the Ehrenreichs acknowledge that the professional-managerial class is “a derivative class” in that it is an outgrowth of the capital/wage-labor relation; nonetheless, they claim that it is a class because it is “specializing in the reproduction of capitalist class relationships.” (I,15) Here too, Marx used the notion of production and reproduction for purposes which make their definitions arbitrary and one-sided. The working class does produce physical goods, but because the product is owned by the capitalists the workers must once again sell their working abilities if they are to survive. The act of production is simultaneously one of reproduction, for when workers produce goods they reproduce themselves as wage-laborers.

It is also misleading for the Ehrenreichs to view managerial and professional work as merely ‘reproductive’ and “essentially nonproductive.” (I,15) Human activity is involved, and this requires work, regardless of whether it contributes to the procreation of profit. Bourgeois standards on the definition of work are no reason to pooh-pooh someone's place in society.

Feminist theory popularized some of the cultural implications of production and reproduction. Their purpose was to show that one need not work directly for capital to perform an essential and necessary part in the social system. By doing so, they corrected a bias which has characterised much of the history of Marxism. The Ehrenreichs have used these popular notions, but have adapted them for different purposes. While feminists criticized the Left’s fixation on the bourgeois conception of work in order to show the importance of women in the social system, the Ehrenreichs accept the bourgeois definition straight-forwardly to defend their ideas on class.

When Marx used the concepts of productive and unproductive labor, they had nothing to do with a person's class position or their political allegiances. Only workers perform labor, and they do so regardless of the ultimate usefulness of their labor to the system. These concepts referred to the production of value and surplus-value, which were the keys to understanding the success of the system as well as its falterings. An exact definition was needed in order to indicate the future possibilities for capitalism, but not to classify the population.

As a corollary to their definition of class, the Ehrenreichs say that “a class is characterized by a coherent social and cultural existence; members of a class share a common life style, educational background, kinship networks, consumption patterns, work habits, beliefs.” (I,12) E.P. Thompson pioneered this approach in his description of the formation of the English working class in the early 1800's. He wrote that “class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”5 Thompson, however, admitted that a homogeneous English working class culture was possible only if the Scotch, Welsh, and Irish workers were “neglected,”6 even though these workers were directly connected to the economic developments in England.
Cultural and national differences continue to this day in Great Britain, for instance, with the nationalist movements in both Ireland and Scotland.

Cultural differences are even more complicated in the United States, which began with almost no indigenous population. There are few cultural similarities between Chicano agricultural workers who have a 6th grade education and white, skilled trade unionists who live in the suburbs of Boston. At the very least, they are unified by an economic interdependence and by a common relation to the means of production; and while this is a form of culture, the similarity need not extend further. If an all-embracing culture defined a class, there would be some thirty or forty social classes in the United States today.

The Ehrenreichs go on to explain the lack of a common working class culture by recognizing that “culture has a memory,” (I,12) and thus may be a holdover from previous social conditions. It is true that with time working class culture becomes more and more alike, as capitalist production generates work disciplines and consumption patterns which are established throughout the system. If, however, a homogeneous culture is the trademark of a class, it can be said that the United States is still without a working class. At best, this cultural definition holds true only for the ruling and the professional-managerial segments of the population.

The Ehrenreichs claim that they can explain phenomena which Marx's ‘two-class model’ never took into account, but with which many leftists are concerned--like the rise in power and size of professionals and managers, the gulf separating the Left from the working class, and the appeal of technocratic conceptions of socialism. In itself, this is not a critique of Marx’s theory, which the Ehrenreichs seem to have little familiarity with except in broad, generalized terms. Marxism was never meant as a replacement for sociological insight and detailed descriptions of people and social movements, a point which the Ehrenreichs confuse. In fact, the European population of the 1800’s already accepted the analysis of capitalists versus workers before the field of sociology was developed as an academic discipline. “It would be more correct to say that ‘sociology’ is a reaction against modern socialism,”7 a means to discuss social problems without the harsh conclusions of a class theory.

Marxism provides the context, the system-wide analysis, within which sociology can help explain the day-to-day realities of working class life, the economic and cultural differences, and many other tangents of social existence. The theory addresses the overall trends and features of the system. For Marx, the capital/wage-labor relation produces the system, a system which evolves along many avenues, destroying some features while creating others, including the difference between mental and manual work.

The Ehrenreichs have taken this particular division of labor to be a class distinction, and have revised Marx's theory in order to draw attention to it. In other words, they have taken the sociological concepts of middle and working class, altered their definitions slightly, and supplied them with a Marxist terminology--an ironic undertaking for Marxists. At the present time, it is difficult to understand what anyone in the United States has to gain, either personally or scientifically, by following suit.

Gary Roth
7 January 1978

  • 1Radical America, Part I, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” March-April 1977; Part II, “The New Left and the Professional-Managerial Class,” May-June 1977.
  • 2Capital, Vol. l, p. 470, Penguin Books Edition, 1976.
  • 3The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels, published in 1845.
  • 4Capital, Vol. III, p. 885, Progress Publishers Edition.
  • 5The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson, p. 9, Vintage Books, 1966.
  • 6Ibid., p. 13.
  • 7Three Essays on Marxism, Karl Korsch, p. 12, Monthly Review Press, 1971.



2 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by adri on February 11, 2022

A useful critique of the Ehrenreichs from Roth, especially this bit dealing with the Ehrenreichs' understanding of reproduction,


Even though the Ehrenreichs acknowledge that the professional-managerial class is “a derivative class” in that it is an outgrowth of the capital/wage-labor relation; nonetheless, they claim that it is a class because it is “specializing in the reproduction of capitalist class relationships.” (I,15) Here too, Marx used the notion of production and reproduction for purposes which make their definitions arbitrary and one-sided. The working class does produce physical goods, but because the product is owned by the capitalists the workers must once again sell their working abilities if they are to survive. The act of production is simultaneously one of reproduction, for when workers produce goods they reproduce themselves as wage-laborers.

The Ehrenreichs' use of "reproduction" is pretty remote from the economic sense Marx used the term, which he himself borrowed from Francois Quesnay's economic system/analysis. Marx's use simply refers to the fact that capitalists don't just produce commodities once, but again and again; capitalist production is a repeated process of reproduction (an end-in-itself where people's needs are by no means the guiding factor, but rather the pursuit of profit for profit's sake). Marx's ideas of simple reproduction (where surplus value is not reinvested) and expanded reproduction are likewise connected to an economic analysis of capitalism as a whole (which everyone contributes to reproducing), and have nothing to do with the Ehrenreichs' invention of some PMC who "single-handedly sustain capitalism."