Editorial from the December 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
The working class comprises all those who have to work in order to live. Those by contrast, who own sufficient wealth, not to need to go to work each day, make up the capitalist class. It follows, then, that the majority of the population is the working class. In Britain about one per cent of the population own forty per cent of the wealth and about five per cent own seventy five per cent. The political case for socialism turns on this idea.
The capitalist class exploits the working class, by extracting surplus value from each of us every day. To work for eight hours a day, is to be paid, in the form of wages, only a fraction of the value of that time. So, it is in the interest of every member of the working class to get rid of the system of society which causes such exploitation.
There is another view on the subject of class. According to this conception, there is indeed a working class, but it is not made up exclusively of those who have to sell their labour power in order to live. There are at least two variations on this viewpoint. One says: ‘only those people who are “productive” workers, are in the working class.’ A “productive” worker is one who contributes, directly, to the production of surplus value. This is more or less the picture according to which only those who dirty their hands—“vast impersonal forces”—are fit to count as members of the working class. So, teachers, civil servants, those who work in banks, insurance companies and those who work in clean offices with clean typewriters are outside the working class. A number of organisations purporting to have socialism as their aim hold this view —some of the Trotskyist groups, and sometimes the Communist Party (though not in the British Road to Socialism). It leads them to behave oddly—a member of the Socialist Workers Party who is a teacher will imitate a Cockney or a Geordie accent, sit in the ‘public’ bar and generally imitate our fellow ‘horny handed men of toil’. But this is not just a laughing matter. The ‘horny handed men of toil’ conception of the working class has odd political consequences. Those who opt for it believe that only those who dirty their hands are exploited. Instead of the abolition of capitalism being in the interest of the majority of the population, it is in the interest only of a small minority of it. The view, anyway, is not Marx’s. He held that the working class is exploited as a class, so even if an individual member is not contributing directly to the production of surplus value, he or she is contributing as a member of a class.
The other view of this kind is that offering a purely economic criterion of membership of the working class is too simple. There are further influences at work which play their part. For instance, ‘ideology’ plays a role. If someone has control of a group of people— if he or she is a foreman for example, then, when acting out that role, he or she is not in the working class.
But this is to make things far too complicated. It has the absurd consequence that someone may be in the working class when not acting out his or her role as foreman and not in the working class, at least by that criterion, when acting that part. Of course culture and ‘ideology’ influence the working class—indeed one of the problems is to overcome the all-pervasive “capitalist” thinking—but they do not determine who is in the working class. Whether or not someone watches BBC 1 or BBC 2 does not determine their class membership. They are in the working class because they have to work each day for a wage.
Class membership is determined by the ownership or non-ownership of the means for producing wealth. Those who own sufficient not to need to work make up the capitalist class. The working class is made up of all those—most of us—who have to work each day for a wage. It is in most of our interest, therefore, to get rid of the cause of this state of affairs—capitalism.