Class and Class Consciousness Today
By Alan Johnson
This article is based on a talk given to a Workers' Liberty school in February 1997.
The working class is the revolutionary class, able to change the world. That is the bedrock of our world view. However, in the period since World War 2, this has not always been something which it is easy to believe in.
One example. There is a very good novel by Harvey Swados, who was a militant in the Workers’ Party USA, called Standing Fast, the novel of the young people who joined the Workers’ Party of Max Shachtman and Hal Draper in America. There is a scene in it where someone explains why they are no longer willing to be involved: the workers are not interested. The idea is good but the workers don’t want to know.
One example from my mind: standing outside a Socialist Organiser National Committee meeting eight or nine years ago with someone who subsequently got a good career in the BBC. This comrade was about to leave. We were arguing on the steps outside. She said that the people driving by in their cars are not interested. They want to buy nice things, have good holidays. They don’t want to change the world.
It’s a big idea that presses on us: that workers are not interested. That is — really — the “affluent worker” debate. The debate in the 1950s used the words “affluent worker”. The debate in the 1980s used “Essex man”, the C2s and so on. But a lot of the debate is very similar. It is important for Marxists to be able to reply. The context in both the 1950s and 1980s is sustained Labour Party election defeats. In the 1950s the Labour Party lost in 1951, ’55 and ’59. In the more recent period the Labour Party was defeated in 1979, 1983, ’87, 1992.
After the 1987 defeat Ralph Miliband said: “How is the movement responding to this third election defeat?” He said: “These ideas are dominating the debate: that the working class has been transformed out of all recognition; that save for a minority steeped in unemployment and deprivation” — which we now called the “underclass” — the bulk of this transformed working class is basking in affluence and it has decisively rejected collectivism and socialism in favour of individualism and the market, competition and popular capitalism.”
Those ideas have been enormously influential over the British Labour Party in the last ten years or so. Two newspaper headlines from hundreds in July 1987:
• Tom Sawyer, union chief, "tells Labour to aim for the affluent."
• Neil Kinnock offers individual socialism as new-look Labour "to appeal not to members of a class but to individuals."
So these ideas are enormously influential. Briefly, I want to look at the background to this debate — really about the long economic boom — then to look at how that has been handled by Labour Party figures such as Anthony Crosland, when he discussed the future of socialism, but also by influential academics, then to look at Marxist criticisms of these ideas. However, these ideas must not just be dismissed as rubbish. I want to point out some real problems that confront us.
First, we must get a sense of the extent of the changes in living standards which have taken place this century. The inter-war period of the 1920s and ’30s was a period of poverty and mass unemployment. The Labour Party’s big election victory in 1945 was in part on the back of a mood of “never again” to that. One pamphlet famous at the time described the Tory Party as the “guilty men”. The Conservative Party was seen to be guilty for the deprivation of the inter- war years. It was widely believed in the Labour Party and trade unions that the full employment and rising living standards which (for quite a sustained period) came after the Second World War was the work of the Labour Party.
It was thought at the time that if the Tories got back in there would be a return to poverty and mass unemployment. During the 1951 election the Labour Party ran on the slogan “Ask your dad” — they thought it was sufficient to point to the 1930s. But when the Tories won in 1951 and again in 1955 and again in 1959 — 13 years of uninterrupted Tory power; Harold Wilson called it 13 wasted years — it also happened to be the period of the biggest every growth of working class living standards, the biggest growth of economic production Britain had ever seen. This was new.
Real wages rose 25%. Average weekly earnings including overtime go up 130% (1955-1969). “You’ve never had it so good” was the Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's expression: keep on voting for us, we’re the people producing this new affluence. TV sets were very rare in the early 1950s. By 1961 75% of the population had one. Only 8% of people owned a fridge in 1956. By the end of that Tory period, 69% of people owned a fridge.
In order to understand this debate, we have to recognise that there was a real transformation in lifestyles during this period. Nigel Harris, a Marxist economist, says: “Consider the lives of an English couple born in 1900. The moment of heroism inspiring the man’s teens was the task of killing Germans, as the task of killing Englishmen was the task of his peers across the water. “Perhaps he survived intact and was lucky enough to get work in his and the country’s ’20s. He probably lost it again in the 1930s. By 1938 he would take for granted a world dominated by the search for work. “Perhaps they might congratulate themselves on little, modest triumphs like keeping the children fed, a decent change of clothes, maybe a motorcycle, an annual holiday in Blackpool, perhaps keeping a small rented flat. “He would fear for their sons in the Second World War but for such a couple the 1960s would seem a world beyond dreaming. For many, the problem has become to eat less, to close the wardrobe door on all their grandchildren’s clothes, to service the car at the weekend to prepare for a fortnight’s paid holiday in Spain, to keep up the mortgage payments on their own house.”
Neil Kinnock summed this up in a debate with Ron Todd (a former TGWU leader) saying: “come on, Ron. What am I supposed to do? Extend my hand to the docker on £400 a week and say, ‘let me help you out of your misery, brother’?”
Right through this period of the long boom there are regional variations and areas where real poverty remains. But that should not obscure the point: a real transformation had taken place. A book of the 50s by Mark Abrams, Must Labour Lose?, asked the question: if everyone is more affluent why would they want to vote Labour? In the 1980s, "the book" was Can Labour Win? Exactly the same perspective was put forward in both cases.
In 1956 Anthony Crosland — an intellectual from the period when the Labour Party had intellectuals, rather than types like Mandelson and Liddle — wrote a book, The Future of Socialism. Crosland put forward a serious argument, saying: the class struggle is over. We need to register this and the new affluence, and put away the 19th century dreams of revolutionary change. Crosland said:
1. The role of the state was changing. It was now a ‘hand on the tiller’ — a democratic, humanising hand on the free market. We can have a peaceful capitalism, one without wild booms and slumps.
2. The nature of the capitalists was changing — the 19th century image of the capitalist in the pinstriped suit and the big hat. Now, he said, there was a separation between ownership and control. Wide stock and share ownership, pensions funds — ownership is widely distributed throughout society; lots of individuals have a piece. People who run the companies are just managers. As such, they are very open to influence from the left. They do not pursue the profit- orientated goal in the way the old capitalists did.
3. The workers are changing. If we consider the consumption that is taking place, of holidays, televisions, we stand on the edge of a period of mass abundance.
Crosland said: “Private industry is at last becoming humanised.” “Most businessmen are now tinged by more social attitudes and motives.” And: “We stand in Britain on the threshold of mass abundance and soon we will not have to deal with economic questions anymore.”
Where will socialists turn to? “We will turn out attentions to pursuit of personal freedom, happiness, cultural endeavour, the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety and excitement. More open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night. Later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, more murals in public places.” The problems of capitalism are all over and we can look forward to better designed telephone kiosks!
In short, economic growth is assured, this produces new revenue for the state, and the state can use that revenue to humanise capitalism, easing over the 'contradictions" between "classes" that the Marxists used to talk about.
There was a version of this argument within academia as well. Economic change was producing a series of cultural changes: workers become less collectivist, more individualist; there is a more selfish generation produced. Translated into voting: people stop voting Labour because that’s the old, collectivist stuff. There is now a middle-class-like, "embourgeoisified" working class. Therefore, the working class is no longer revolutionary. Two sociologists, Goldthorpe and Lockwood went to the Luton car factories in the early 1960s to test the idea: have the working class become middle class? What they said afterwards has sometimes been misunderstood. They said that the working class is not becoming middle class. What is happening is that the “traditional” working class is changing to become a more “privatised”, or “new” working class.
Essentially this is what Ivor Crewe said in the mid-1980s, when he published a lot of work saying that there had been an important shift which had produced the Thatcher victories.
What were the characteristics of this “new” working class? They had an “instrumental” attitude to work and politics. Not a collectivist, nor an ideological or political attitude, but a self-interested attitude: a “What’s in it for me?” attitude. He said that was not the sort of person who was likely to be radical or fight for social change. Second, that the working class was a “privatised” class. Increasingly, it had retreated into the home. Home life had become much more important: acquiring commodities for the home, spending time there. How would this affect politics? He said it was not that workers are going to leave the trade unions, they would stay in unions, but they would not see those unions as political in any sense. They related only “instrumentally” to the trade unions by saying: “OK, go and get me a better deal from the employer. That’s why I’m interested in the union”. The argument here is: if there is ever a suspicion that the Conservatives, through tax cuts, can deliver you as much as the unions can through some other way, then the workers are ripe for making that change.
These theorists say that’s what’s happened under Thatcher. That workers turned to the Tories in the 1980s because Thatcher was better at giving the workers what they wanted, then their own organisations were. This was what Goldthorpe and Lockwood also said in the 1960s. They’d been going to the factory for two years studying the “privatised” money-orientated working class.
The first thing to say in reply is: so what? Every worker is and should be bothered about pay. Why shouldn’t workers want more, and better? The academics who wrote the affluent worker studies would have considered it penury if they had to live on those wages! The second thing is to look at what actually happended next in the factory Goldthorpe and Lockwood studied.
Two weeks later, as Robin Blackburn reported: “Rarely can a sociological study have been so cruelly put to the test. Scarcely one month after the publication of the findings in October 1966, the Luton car workers broke into open rebellion. “The workers in which Goldthorpe had detected ‘little tendency to interpret worker-employer relations in fundamentally oppositional terms’ were responsible for an outbreak reported like this on the front page of The Times: "There were near riot conditions. Attempts to storm the main office, men singing The Red Flag and calling 'String him up!' whenever a director’s name was mentioned."
“There is reason to believe that Goldthorpe’s study was one of the most thorough and scrupulous ever conducted in a British factory. The reason for the illusory nature of the findings is not mistakes in the technique but the inadequacy of the technique itself to depicting and understanding workers’ consciousness.” The “affluent worker” debate — both in the 1950s and 1980s — measured what was going on in the working class poorly, failing to register that capitalism itself moves in certain cycles, of boom and slump, and that for certain periods of time it does deliver certain higher standards of living to particular groups of workers — but not permanently, not securely. This is not something that Marxists have been unaware of. Engels: “With temporary prosperity the French workers seem to be bourgeoisified, it will take a hard chastisement by crises if they are soon to be capable of anything else.”
So, at one level, these ideas are not particular challenging. What would challenge our socialist perspectives and the place of the working class in that would be a capitalism which could deliver change on a stable basis, for the class as a whole, full stop. If that were true, the socialist game would be up. The truth is, however, that capitalism can’t do this.
We know what happened after the 1950s: the econmic crisis which breaks in world capitalism in the late ’60s and right through the ’70s, producing the rise of a shop stewards’ movement in Britain, the regrowth of the revolutionary left after 1968, and the tremendous class struggle of the 1968-74 period right across Europe.
So, as Marxists, we must say the following. The history of the working class is the history of continual change. A lot of sociological studies do not register this. As capital is accumulated and profits are made, old industries fall and new industries rise. That is the history of every capitalism in the world. For example, when I used to watch Newcastle play football, I would go along the river Tyne on the train. I would pass cranes, mile after mile. It’s all shut now. Swan Hunter is closed. In the meantime, in the M4 corridor, a whole set of new industries are rising up. Workers start to form unions. And "elite" occupations like clerks have generated the mass clerical unions of today.
This pattern of rise and fall is constant. It's a question of seeing the whole picture. The British working class retains essential characteristics which define it: The source of its income is wages. The idea that workers have large amounts of income outside of wages is a myth. People might have a mortgage, but a mortgage has to be serviced by working. Although it’s true that workers might have Personal Equity Plans, or whatever, we should not overestimate their importance. This is not the type of wealth which the top 1% has — wealth in land, and enormous wealth which moves economic processes into motion. It is not wealth which removes the need to sell labour for a wage.
Now, it is true that the divisions inside the working class are very big. Perhaps bigger than ever before. Maybe that’s just capitalism going back to Marx! The differences of income have always been big inside the working class. The period from the 1940s to the 1970s, that people take their references from, was maybe the unusual period — a long boom, growing strength of the unions, bi-partisan consensus on full employment and a welfare state. Together these produced some unusual characteristics in the working class — a tendency towards homogeneity of income levels in society, especially in the working class.
Now we have the recreation of abject poverty, people who are unable to get away from it, side by side with some workers who seem well-off. We can go back to earlier periods and find that pattern as well.
Moreover is it necessarily true that having a decent standard of living de-radicalises you? Sometimes it seems to be true. Other times have seen very radical shop stewards movements that have not been based on lower-paid workers, but on the higher paid workers in stable employment. The engineers in some of the early plants in Britain would draw a chalk circle around themselves on the shop floor and no manager could walk inside it! The engineers were the backbone of some of the most militant shop stewards movements — that of Glasgow for example.
But we can’t simply dismiss the differences in income level within the working class. Martin Thomas did an interesting article in Workers’ Liberty about the return of the labour aristocracy, looking at the Joseph Rowntree figures which show some enormous differences in income levels. Using those figures Martin proved that there about 1% of the super-rich; then something like 20% of people on £30,000 a year; below them the professional or managerial class; in the middle 70% of people in all advanced capitalist countries who earn their living by wages, or are in direct supervision by a boss who’s trying to extract profit and more profit from them, and who are therefore in an antagonistic social relationship with their employers; and at the bottom, 5% of people trapped in permanent poverty.
Marxists see "class" as a social relationship which is antagonistic. We must not have a static approach to the question. If we look at the development of things internationally as soon as they say it’s the end of class struggle, that’s the moment Korea goes up in flames. That has generally been the history: ideas change in struggle. That’s a cliché, but a true cliché. You can see transformations in the consciousness of people as they go through new experiences.
Capitalism forces those new experiences upon people. We can not control that. The new experiences and the conflict and the antagonism will be forced upon working people. At that moment workers can draw a number of political conclusions about their lot: the important role of the socialists is to intervene when the antagonism is at its height, to point out why the struggle is taking place, why the antagonism is being felt, and what the alternative is.
Class is international. The global working class is bigger now than it’s ever been in history. There are more workers now in Korea than there were in the entire world when Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. The global industrial working class is bigger than ever before. It’s a sleeping giant.
But the affluent worker debate also pointed to a cultural shift within the working class. Aren't Marxists vulnerable on this point? The argument goes: the older working class lived in quite tightly defined, residentially stable neighbourhoods. Take the shipbuilders Cammell Lairds. You see old pictures of thousands of workers streaming out of the gates, and they don’t have far to go home. They all live within a small, four or five mile radius, in those dense working class terraced streets around the plant.
In the evening all the men go out to drink in the same social clubs. In the absence of that tight, residential, industrial experience you get a working class which is more individualistic, separated off. First feminists have said that a privatised working class is a good thing: men are spending money on their family, sharing their income rather than spending it in the pub in the evening. Second, we should register that, workers at an ideological level, have fewer safeguards against being penetrated by capitalist ideas. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was a dense network of clubs, organisations which gave the workers their own view on the world. We don’t have that now. So, is the game up?
Well, two things. First, working people are not dupes, enthralled by "dominant ideology". Workers may have less cultural defences against bourgeois ideas today but the bourgeoisie has fewer ideas that have any grip today. The dominating "ideological" influence, by far, is simply the way living in capitalism individualises us and disempowers us. Capitalism rather than any elaborate set of ideas that has been taken to heart by workers sets us against each other as competing nomads.
For sure, most people at present lack confidence in any coherent alternative world view and lack a sense of their own collective identity and purpose. But they have few illusions about the real state of the world. Blair's attempt to paper over the real nature of life in the late 20th century with guff about the need for people from all walks of life to "come together" in "One Nation" is an echo of 19th century conservatism and serves the same purpose then as now.
Second, the dissenting voice that mattered at that time was the emerging trade union movement. The force which humanised that 19th century jungle, which tamed capital by introducing a modicum of social democracy in the shape of the welfare state, was the organised labour movement in politics. The fact that some liberals scribbled out some legislation is irrelevant. It was the unions wot won it, and it is the unions which will have to win it again.
The One Nation politicians of the late 20th century are engaged in throwing it overboard in the interests of " the dynamism of the market and the rigours of competition," singing pious little hymns to community as they rip it up.
Perhaps it will be in this struggle for real and secure social justice for all, that the confidence to act collectively as a class and the collective imagining of a new morality and a new world, will develop.