What's the working class anyway?

A letter exchange in Subversion about the nature of class.

Submitted by Steven. on January 4, 2010

Dear Comrades,

In your review of Class War's 'Unfinished Business' you quite rightly argue for a material definition of class as opposed to Class War's ideological mishmash. However, when examining our strategy as communists - in addressing different groups of the proletariat - surely we shouldn't discount all ideological factors? This 'strategy' means our identifying of which groups of people we should spend our time dishing out propaganda to, or talking to, or working with, etc. - and which groups we should be suspicious of and not waste our time on. Obviously we don't bother with our class enemies: the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. But I'd also say shouldn't bother with the professional army, police, etc., and a lot of 'professionals', who have often been university trained (the University itself is an ideological institution which extends beyond its campuses into our everyday lives, like the Church used to).

We are best talking to those people who have a more immediate experience of their class position, those to whom class struggle is, or often becomes, a daily reality - i.e.. the working class (but not all those who are not the big or small bourgeoisie). Anyway, it is these people who engage in proletarian class struggle - it is not, for example, Managers and Experts (who generally act to defeat the working class, of course).

As you say, it is only through class struggle that class consciousness, and the eventual defeat of class society, will come about. How could the manager of a supermarket come to a communist perspective without abandoning his/her job? How could an architect (who decides on designs for proletarian living areas, for example), a journalist, a priest or a social worker remain in their profession if they became communists? More importantly, given the jobs they do, how are these people going to be involved in class struggle? The same also goes for members of the police or professional army, of course.

In non-revolutionary, and even revolutionary, times hardly any of these types would become communists. Our strategy as communists involves exposing the fact that these people are the enemy of a class conscious proletariat - not by fact of their relation to the means of production (they are proletarian), but by the fact of their ideology and the actual job they do. The same also goes for the unions of course, and the fact that, in the final analysis, a shop steward fulfils a similar function for capitalism as does a foreperson.

Whereas the job of a car park attendant is basically 'neutral', the actual job and day to day existence of a journalist or social worker consists precisely of actively protecting the status quo. They do just the same job as priests used to do (and still do). Nationalism, for example, is a purely ideological enemy of communism and the working class when it exists amongst the class - but a journalist or social worker is a physical enemy in as much as the person embodies the ideology s/he has accepted and made a living out of. In a revolutionary event people like these will be physically swept aside, however, there will be no revolutionary event if the escalating class struggle hasn't squashed the power of the ideology of nationalism.

The problem for us (strategically) is recognising that some sections of the proletariat are irrevocably lost to bourgeois ideology and that they will ultimately to be smashed physically along with the machinery of state and the bourgeoisie itself. (Universities, for example, should be destroyed).

Some professional or 'expert' jobs seem more ambivalent though. University trained engineers, or NHS doctors, for example, may be 'neutral' - but socially and ideologically they would probably feel closer to journalists than to car park attendants.

Perhaps we need new labels for these different sections of the proletariat, so we don't resort to calling than 'middle class'.

You are right to argue that a material definition of class is essential, however, I think defining what the class struggle is, or could be, is at least as important, and part of that involves understanding and pointing out the real ideological divisions in the proletariat and exposing everything that is the enemy of communism.

Having suggested all this I'm not, of course, saying that you don't already know it (or know better, which is more likely!), and I realise that your comments in Subversion 11 were only brief.

Pete Post, Sydney, Australia.

Dear Subversion,

Although having some sympathy with your criticism of Class War, in particular its obsession with 'profile', a few other points I must take issue with. In particular your assertion that Class War in its book 'unfinished business' gets into a muddle over class.

You say Class War is wrong to put squaddies in with the working class when the police are then placed as (reactionary thugs of) the middle class. You consider it more accurate to place everyone in relation to the means of production.

As C.W.'s book correctly states though, mutiny within the army is an historical reality that has little parallel within the police force. Thousands of unemployed workers are cornered into taking up shit lives - bound to long contracts within the armed services. Coppers on the other hand are well-screened, well-paid and well-used to sticking the boot directly into the public.

Subversion, being seemingly unaware of this reality, leaves me wondering. Surely Subversion you are not peddling that naive crap that the police are only workers in uniform? If so don't expect sympathy when in an upsurge of struggle you're gunned down by a police force joyously wielding their Armalite toys. Does working class blood have to be spilt time and time again as testament to the failure of blinkered Marxist analysis?

Or, could it be that, having teachers making up [a large part of] Subversion, it is you yourselves who have the hang-up about class?

Arguing, as Subversion have done at length, how teachers are part of the production process, therefore share a common interest in revolution with the rest of the working class. Let's look at this.

Ignoring teachers relatively high salaries and function to condition and control the next generation of workers, there is some truth in what Subversion says.

But, despite the proletarianisation of the profession, teachers are still professionals and as such enjoy something of a cultural status. This acts as a link to middle class identification in a way not accessible to the majority of the working class.

I have no problem seeing teachers as middle class. This does not mean I declare them first up against the wall. Indeed I welcome thoughtful, committed members of such middle class professions who contribute constructively to the creation of international Communism.

Now if a copper was on fire I wouldn't piss on him. Class War is trying to put this reality into political terms. Not trying to bend reality to fit political theories.

In Solidarity

Harry Roberts junior, Class War supporter.

Subversion Reply

Of these two letters, the one from the Class War supporter is completely off the beam, whereas the second one makes some good points which we partly agree with. To answer all the relevant points we need to have a more precise analysis of "class" than the formula "relationship to the means of production".

The first point to consider is how we decide that one class rather than others has the potential to be revolutionary. Why does the communist strategy for revolution base itself on the (existing) economic struggles of the working class? After all, lots of other people suffer from the present system (Capitalism), such as poor peasants, street vendors etc.

The answer is that when workers need to defend their living standards, their immediate response is to struggle, together with their workmates, against the capitalists who employ them. The immediate response of, say, a street vendor would be to either raise their prices (creating a conflict with their customers, including workers), or alternatively to lower them and undercut the other vendors.

What is distinctive about the workers therefore is that they have an inbuilt and immediate tendency both to conflict with the capitalists and to collective action with other workers (at least in the same factory or same industry - but the potential is there for it to spread). We believe that this already existing conflict (which can never be got rid of by capitalism) is the seed out of which a revolutionary movement can grow. Naturally, this "seed" will have to grow immensely, but there's no other "seed" to rival it.

The key point here is the conflicts that are built in to various social relationships. This is not simply a matter of whether someone earns a wage or not, because certain types of job contain other conflicts in the job itself. So to take the most obvious example, being a cop means having a fundamental conflict with workers who engage in struggle - the fact that cops receive wages is just a "sociological" fact of little significance. To answer the Class War supporter, no, coppers are NOT workers in uniform! The distinction that this comrade makes between them and squaddies however is tenuous, as the army has always been (and always will be) used against serious manifestations of class struggle. There is indeed a history of mutiny in the army but we're talking here about draftees, which is a different matter.

There are other groups of wage earners who, in a less stark way, have conflicts with the working class at large built in to their jobs: teachers, with their role of social control and indoctrination of young workers; lower level bureaucrats whose job involves giving orders to others; people whose job involves taking money from workers, e.g. till operators, bar staff, bus drivers - try getting on a bus and saying you refuse to pay (a conflict between you and the owners of the bus company) and see whose side the driver will take. That doesn't mean that all these sections are our enemies, but rather that they are, to varying degrees, in a contradictory position (unlike cops who ARE our enemies pure and simple). We may not put much effort into talking to the more "dubious" sections (like teachers) but we don't write them off and we recognise that under the right conditions many of them will join in the struggle. This is not a question of "ideology" but of the position of these groups in society, in relation to other groups or classes.

All of this brings us on to the second point to consider - the distinction between the present-day working class, whose day-to-day existence is largely passive (acquiescent towards capitalism) and the revolutionary force that can overthrow capitalism. This latter will grow out of the former, but is not identical to it. The former (which can be called the "class-in-itself") is just a "sociological" category whereas the latter (the class-FOR-itself) is a revolutionary category.

When workers engage in struggle their "nature" changes in that they reject their normal passivity and begin to become a class-for-itself. It is this "class-BECOMING-for-itself" that we support.

Referring to the "Working Class" is vague because there are really several "working classes" - the passive, sociological working class, the conscious communist working class of the future that is overthrowing capitalism and the struggling working class ("becoming-for-itself") - this last category is the most important one and shouldn't be confused with the first one (it may be argued that it's the same people but this is wrong because, apart from the fact that it's SOME of the same people not ALL of them, the key point is that it's not a thing that we're talking about but an action, or rather a thing in action - sociology deals in "things" but the "class-in-action" is a revolutionary concept).

Questions such as "are coppers part of the working class?" are therefore in some sense pointless since they refer to membership of the "sociological" working class. They are certainly not going to become part of the "class-in-action" which is the "class" that WE support.

To come back to the question of "relationship to the means of production" as the formula for defining class, the most important "defining" that we have to do is to define how the "class-in-action" will come into being (a constant, repeated event) and how it will develop. Among the factors which determine this, "relationship to the means" of production" is the foremost, but is insufficient because it implies "relationship to property", i.e. being a wage earner or not, whereas the other factors considered in the first part of this reply can be just as important. The best way to put it is probably "relationship to the developing class struggle" - this being determined by all the factors mentioned above.

Text from www.prole.info



14 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Django on January 4, 2010

There's a lengthy exchange between Subversion and Class war which is definitely worth having up. Unfortunately the online version was lost when Geocities went down. Knightrose and I are going to try and get it up though.


14 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on January 4, 2010

that would be great. Have you checked on reocities to see if it's there?


14 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by saya-jin on January 4, 2010

I can't really agree on the standpoint around the "class definition". There are major problems with it.
1. Who belongs to our class any way? This is a question that has a very obscuring context here. In my understanding classes are existing through their relationship to the production. It is already their in the texts. It is a considerably great mistake to not check on the production itself. Because the worker class all over the world is producing the capital itself. While I'm at my work-pit, I'm building the "brighter" future of the capital. This is an important note that is missing from all of these texts.

2. Once you point out that the work itself that makes the capital functioning, that is strengthening the class oppression, you can't really make a distinction among the position who is "worker" and who is a "scab". Any worker, who goes to work, is a "scab"... Therefore the members of the working class are not revolutionaries at least not because they are workers.

3. The cops are pigs. We already knew that. :) In the moment of insurrection or strikes the policemen acts as a tool of the counter-revolution. But one can say the same about those workers who goes to work despite of a strike, like real scabs. Cops are part of the production since the control over the population is still a matter of production. As the technological madness keep running on, you can realize that the modernization are mostly about the engineering of the production process, the social relations, the commodities, and the security. How can you possibly make a distinction between proles by their job title?

4. The capital itself re-process all existing relations to re-create it in it's own way, based on the logic of the good production. The same applies to every job. There was a transparent part of the jobs which weren't really capitalized during the industrial revolution but since we passed that time, most of these position has been subject of serial-production, such as engineering, teaching, medical doctors etc. Now these positions are similarly close to the heart of the production as any other job. It is pointless to count which is part of the working class and which isn't.

The "formula" doesn't give you comrades, that's for sure. We need to realize that the working class is working class as long as it doesn't define itself as such. Those ones who are acting with the class war in mind, who fight within their limits against the work, even though they are still working and having a job, they are the forming political class, the very end of the working class. No matter what was you job before it shouldn't stamp anything on you.

PS: Third class? Middle-class? Guys, you shouldn't read so much liberal bullshit...

-- Sorry about the bad English


14 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by bootsy on January 5, 2010

The example with bus drivers brings up an important point, many workers nowadays are service workers. As industry becomes more automated I think we'll move closer and closer to a situation where the concept of working class referred to here becomes redundant.

I mean it just seems odd to assert bus drivers do not have revolutionary potential because they're in conflict with other workers when many workers are in conflict with one another simply due to the reality of our present service-based economy (I just made that term up, but I think you get the jist). The above letters don't really seem to address this issue at all and I think its a serious one.




14 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on January 5, 2010

Raskol, the example of bus drivers used by subversion is to demonstrate that having part of your job being imposing aspects of capitalism on other workers doesn't mean that you are not yourself working class - it shows up the ridiculous nature of the class "analysis" of Class War.