Working Class

views updated May 21 2018


the construction of a class identity
class and solidarity
radical artisans and industrial workers
the left and the right
reformist and revolutionary labor movements
diversity and change

The concept of class became a central organizing myth of nineteenth-century Europe. A narrative was constructed telling of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the working class's challenges to its hegemony. The invention of this terminology in approximately 1830 cannot be explained simply by the structural social changes generated by industrialization. Eighteenth-century Britain already had wage laborers in artisanal trades, protoindustry, agriculture, and new factories. They engaged in strikes, grain and anti-enclosure riots, and machine breaking—struggles underpinned by craft and community solidarity and justified as defense of a moral economy against emerging free-market practices. But the participants in these class conflicts before the emergence of a working class were called, variously, the crowd, the mob, or the people. Crucial changes in vocabulary emerged from the French Revolution. The bourgeoisie denounced "idle, parasitic" aristocrats and proclaimed its own virtues: industry, productivity, rationality, and moderation. British advocates of parliamentary reform eulogized the disenfranchised middle class of expanding industrial towns, claiming for them similar qualities. The rhetoric of liberty, equality, and fraternity and the rights of man was sufficiently inclusive to arouse popular support. However, both the Revolution of 1830 in France and the Reform Act of 1832 in Britain excluded workers from enlarged franchises. Outraged by this betrayal, politicized workers appropriated aspects of bourgeois discourse. They asked whether workers were not the truly productive class. A new terminology was born, generating mobilizing myths that were capable of providing a sense of identity for disparate groups and constructing a sociopolitical constituency. Soon contributions from Lyon silk weavers to a Saint Etienne miners' strike funds included messages of solidarity to "fellow members of the working class (la classe ouvrière)."

the construction of a class identity

Older usages persisted, however. In England, Chartist rhetoric still used the tropes of eighteenth-century radicals' denunciation of aristocratic "Old Corruption." Workers responded to narratives of "the people" promulgated by English Gladstonian liberals or French republicans. Yet workers proved adept at appropriating bourgeois discourses on property, domesticity, and family values for their own (class) purposes. Spitalfields silk weavers defended their threatened jobs by citing their rights to "property in labour" and insisted on male workers' need for a "family wage" to support their wives and children. Hence the concept of the working class emerged as a result of changing self-awareness, marked by a sharp linguistic shift.

Stories told by individuals and groups about themselves nurtured class consciousness. Most of the hundreds of nineteenth-century worker autobiographers used class as the central category for their interpreting life experiences, viewing the world through the prism of class differences. These were not typical workers. Most workers with the literacy and inclination to write were male and skilled and they valued education not because it would bring them social promotion but for the self-emancipation it offered, and for its use in the emancipation of what they considered their class. Their fascination with ideas led some of them to be dismissed as eccentrics by their workmates. Some were scathing about the fecklessness, lack of intellectual curiosity, and brutality of some fellow workers. Although some made contacts with bourgeois liberals, most rejected liberalism. Marginal to their own class, they were acutely aware of nuances of class distinctions. Some were what Antonio Gramsci later called organic intellectuals—still close to their own class yet aware of broad issues and active in constructing a plebeian public sphere. Crucially, the stories they told about themselves shaped a working-class identity by imposing coherent narratives on the flux of complex social realities. These—secular versions of Christian conversion stories—emphasized how early poverty, exploitation, and humiliations were transformed once reading opened their eyes to the system of capitalist exploitation. They metamorphosed from victims into agents. Their duty was to educate their fellow workers who, once aware of their situation, could build a better society. Whereas the United States constructed narratives of individual upward mobility that might be possible for ambitious immigrants, Europe produced narratives of class salvation via collective struggle. These autobiographers also reminded readers of both the history and myths of workers' struggles. One prerequisite for a critical, counterhegemonic view of the world, critical of dominant bourgeois identity, was consciousness of who one was, rooted in a sense of where one had come from.

class and solidarity

By 1914 the working class had become a sociopolitical actor. Karl Marx's goal, "the constitution of the working class into a political party," appeared achievable. Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), with one million members, secured 34 percent of the vote. Trade unions, once confined to craft elites, were becoming centralized, industrial, mass organizations. Britain and Germany each had four million union members by 1914. France regularly experienced over a thousand strikes per year, five times the 1880s average. Strike rituals—street demonstrations, appeals for worker solidarity—became part of everyday experience in industrial Europe. Whereas elites once feared disorder and disease from what they considered to be criminal and dangerous classes, now they devised strategies to counter challenges from organized labor, including electoral concessions, welfare and municipal reforms, and social imperialism.

Widespread structural proletarianization underlay these developments. But one cannot simply assume levels of working-class consciousness or mobilization from the processes of industrialization. Marx had explained the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 by arguing that, outside of Britain and parts of France and Germany, Europe's proletariat remained small and immature. The success of future revolutions required industrialization. Subsequent trends partly confirmed Marx's predictions of a polarization between capital and labor. Some homogenization of labor occurred. Artisanal trades declined and casual and migrant workers were recruited into semiskilled jobs in large mechanized factories, mines, steel works, and on railways. However, no monolithic trend emerged, rather development was combined and uneven. Everywhere, the heavy industry of the Second Industrial Revolution coexisted in symbiotic relationship with dispersed, archaic sectors, and relied on pools of migrant or protoindustrial labor. Despite Germany's spectacular industrial development—coal and heavy engineering, chemicals and railways—28 percent of its labor force remained agricultural in 1900; substantial artisanal and protoindustrial sectors remained (Solingen cutlery; Saxon textiles). France remained 60 percent rural, with peasant proprietors and sharecroppers outnumbering agricultural laborers. Northern coalfields, Lorraine steel, and heavy engineering in Parisian and Lyonnais banlieues (suburbs) coexisted with small, high-quality artisanal production. Two-thirds of Italy's industrial workers were in the Milan/Turin/Genoa triangle. Spain's industries (Asturias coal; Bilbao steel and shipyards; Catalan textiles and engineering) were islands in a rural sea. After the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s, tsarist Russia's state-sponsored industrialization quintupled the industrial workforce, to three million, between 1890 and 1914. But alongside St. Petersburg's large engineering plants, Moscow textile factories, and Donbas coal mines, a huge peasantry remained. The proletariat exceeded 50 percent of the population only in Britain. Yet there, as in France and Germany, many new workers were white-collar employees (bank clerks, shop assistants) whose identification with blue-collar proletarians was problematic.

Such structural developments engendered changes in family patterns and communities. Artisans' children, who once married largely within their craft communities, now chose marriage partners from a wider working-class background. Wage differentials between British skilled and unskilled occupations narrowed steadily. Upward mobility remained rare: 90 percent of British manual workers' sons themselves did manual jobs. Hereditary working-class communities emerged—later idealized for their neighborly values, which contrasted with bourgeois individualism and the crass commercialism of an emerging mass consumer culture. The Paris Commune of 1871 was underpinned by community solidarities of popular faubourgs (suburbs) after Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale urban renewal projects threw together displaced inner-city artisans and recent migrants. But no single, model working-class community existed. Metallurgical workers might live in single-industry company towns, such as the Schneider family's Le Creusot, run by one paternalist employer, or in industrial cities such as Düsseldorf. Large cities provided workers with a range of potential industries and employers, and wider possibilities of relations with other social groups. Yet there was often little contact between the older Parisian faubourgs and the industrial banlieues that emerged around the city's periphery. Lifestyles, cultures, and experiences inevitably differed widely between these and other types of community. Marx assumed that industrial concentration, by drawing workers together and creating shared experiences and grievances, would nurture class consciousness and organization. "Class-in-itself" would emerge naturally from "class-for-itself." However no simple correlation existed between levels of industrialization and worker militancy. Some workers in dispersed sectors proved more militant than others in what Marx considered more advanced sectors. Agricultural laborers, who were widely assumed to be deferential, supported anarchosyndicalist strikes in Apulia and the Po Valley in Italy, Andalusia in Spain, or the lower Languedoc vineyards in France. Half of unionized Italian workers in 1914 were in the Agricultural Workers' Federation (Federterra). The proletarianized peasants of southwest Russia were prominent in the Revolution of 1905. The Captain Swing revolt of rural workers in southern England in the early 1830s suggested that even "Hodge"—the stereotypical deferential, cowed English laborer—might resort to machine breaking and cattle maiming. Protoindustrial textile workers—favored by capitalists as a cheap, dispersed, and quiescent labor force—organized strikes in Dauphiné, France, and northern Italy in the 1890s. Marxists were suspicious of what they considered to be backward rural migrants to the city, whom they stereotyped as prone to drink and violence. Yet in late tsarist Russia, many such immigrants were radicalized by ongoing social conflict in their native villages, where some owned plots of land, and by their capacity to recreate the solidarities of the village commune (mir) in their urban neighborhoods.

Cross-national comparisons bring into question any rigid occupational determinism. Skilled engineering workers provided the backbone of the Marxist Social Democratic Party in Germany as well as key Bolshevik cadres in St. Petersburg, Russia. In Paris in 1900s, they supported syndicalist strikes against "scientific management," which threatened their shop-floor autonomy. Yet the Victorian labor movement's reformism has been ascribed to the moderation of a relatively privileged labor aristocracy—including engineers, whose union proved keen to exclude the unskilled and avoid strikes by bargaining with employers.

Yet occupational groups were strongly marked by the nature of their jobs. Dockers were low-skilled,

low-status workers operating in casual labor markets within tough waterfront cultures (Barcelona, Marseille, Hamburg). Their levels of unionization were erratic, and their strikes marked by violence against strikebreakers. By contrast, printers were natural labor aristocrats—literate, self-taught worker-intellectuals, and among the first to unionize. Even Russian printers were moderates—requesting respect from employers and the state; they were pushed reluctantly toward menshevism only by tsarist brutality. Miners' politics varied widely with location and with the national political culture but the shared dangers of mining created intense workplace solidarity, reinforced by the strong community identities of isolated pit villages.

radical artisans and industrial workers

Radical artisans dominated the early labor movements. Paris was Europe's revolutionary capital. The thousands killed or arrested during the Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx called the first example of the working class in power, were tailors, shoemakers, building craftsmen, and furniture makers—an occupational profile strikingly similar to that of the sans-culotte activists of 1793. In Britain the factory system came earlier than in France. Northern mill workers were active in Chartist agitation and strikes in the 1830s. But skilled workers—handloom weavers, London craftsmen, and Sheffield cutlers—were central to early labor protest. Militancy among France's emerging industrial proletariat was sporadic and unorganized. Many miners and forge workers lived in tightly controlled, isolated, paternalist company towns such as Decazeville. Textile mill workers were often women and children—unskilled, new to industrial work, lacking organizational traditions. The notorious slums of Lille engendered more drunken despair than they did organized protest. France relied on artisanal skills for high-quality goods—silks, porcelain, fashions, and furniture—for niche markets. But the skilled trades faced varied threats. Less skilled, sometimes rural, labor was employed to do simpler, subdivided tasks. Apprenticeship training deteriorated. The chances of journeymen becoming small masters declined. Trades came to be dominated by merchants, who put out raw materials and orders and controlled credit. Nevertheless, artisans possessed the resources to resist. Their skills were still required in up-market sectors. High literacy sustained a radical artisan press. Craft-dominated neighborhoods (the silk weavers' Croix-Rousse in Lyon; Faubourg Saint Antoine in Paris) had community solidarity, mutual aid, and cooperative schemes. Journeymen and small masters, united by their hatred of big merchants, often drank and sang together in cafés or goguettes (popular singing societies). They drew on traditions of artisanal organization, such as that of the compagnonnages, associations that aided "tramping" journeymen, which had roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Where once artisans dreamed of a republic of small, independent producers, the inexorable advance of capitalism pushed them toward collective solutions. In 1848 French artisans hoped that an associationist republic—one sympathetic to their cooperative aspirations—would establish banks offering cheap credit and put out orders to producer cooperatives, which had fifty thousand members in Paris alone.

However, before one accepts that labor movements originated in the work-based culture and grievances of artisans, question need to be raised. Were French artisans militant less because of occupational grievances—which were present in other industrializing societies—than because their political aspirations were raised in the decades after the revolution by contact with neo-Jacobin republicans? Was the craft-proud radical artisan a myth constructed by radical journalists, some of them former artisans—an image designed to counter bourgeois stereotypes about the drunken, brutal dangerous classes? Artisans in relatively secure trades (for example, carpenters) proved less militant than shoemakers and tailors, many of whom wished to escape from trades degraded by the practice of sweating, which forced them to work ever-longer hours performing increasingly subdivided tasks for inexorably declining wages. Were artisans less precursors of later proletarian activists than reactionary radicals, their desperate rearguard actions fueled by awareness that the industrial juggernaut would overwhelm their culture and communities? Factory proletarians, by contrast, could envisage no alternative to the new industrial system on which their jobs depended. They took time to develop the solidarity required for effective class mobilization. Hence the gap in popular protest—in Britain after 1850, in France after 1870—as artisan radicalism faded and before new proletarian militancy surfaced.

Multiple frictions existed within the artisanal world. Pressures on specific trades could lead to conflicts between journeymen and masters, as happened in Germany, where masters' guilds persisted. Generational tensions also existed. In Paris in 1848, older journeymen fought on the barricades but younger workers were recruited into the Garde Mobile (Mobile Guard) to fight for order. Journeymen's compagnonnages had a heritage of internecine, ritualized violence and job competition that could obstruct trade union solidarity. But the major myopia of artisan culture was the issue of gender.


The construction of the working class was always gendered. Although some utopian socialists did support women's rights and employment opportunities, Chartism championed male suffrage. Misogynistic artisanal spokesmen portrayed "cheap and docile" female workers as the primary threat to their jobs and skills. Textile mills, which destroyed the handloom weavers' livelihoods, employed mainly female and child labor. Seamstresses replaced male tailors. Friedrich Engels depicted the "unsexing" of Manchester workers, whose patriarchal power ebbed away when their wives and daughters worked in the mills while the men performed domestic chores. Their status was bound up with the independence derived from what they considered honorable labor and property in skill. British trade unionists campaigned for votes for "heads of families" and for a family wage. Capitalist exploitation of female labor was considered an evil, exposing women to physical degradation and sexual harassment, depriving workers' homes of women's domestic skills. Trade unionists welcomed protective legislation, hoping that restrictions on the hours women could work would disqualify them from key jobs.

Labor movement iconography depicting brawny steelworkers and miners reflected the male domination of key Second Industrial Revolution industries. Yet the ideal of the wife remaining at home was attainable only for skilled workers. Women constituted a high proportion of the labor force—over 35 percent in France, where many married as well as single women worked. Yet women's work was imagined as marginal and supplementary, even for single women. With rare exceptions, as for example in tobacco factories, women's jobs were viewed as unskilled. Many worked in deplorable conditions in the sweated domestic trades, beyond the reach of factory inspectors or unions. Unsurprisingly, women rarely expressed a strong sense of identity with their jobs.

By 1900 the SPD was arguing in principle for women's equality as workers and citizens while denouncing "bourgeois feminism" and insisting that female oppression was a product of capitalism and could be abolished only after the revolution. Marxist textile unions in Germany and northern France recruited female workers, but their male leaders marginalized women's specific demands to focus on men, who were able to vote. Women's proportion of French union membership doubled to 10 percent between 1900 and 1914, but the printers' craft union fought rearguard actions

against admitting them. Yet working-class women were active in protests outside the sphere of organized labor. They had long participated in food riots. Miners' wives policed pit villages during strikes, harassing and shaming strikebreakers. In Italy and southern French vineyards, women on picket lines dared troops to shoot the "weaker sex." Women's networks underpinned neighborhood solidarity, organizing tenant protests against landlords and providing abortion advice. As left-wing parties began to win control of some town councils in Britain, France, and Italy by the 1890s, their municipal socialism aroused women's interest, since it offered the possibility of child care, health clinics, and similar services. Despite this, when women were enfranchised in parts of Europe after 1918 many proved reluctant to vote for workers' parties, which they perceived as male dominated and insensitive to women's concerns.

the left and the right

Labor movements sought to construct a cohesive working class that would act as a class by shaping disorderly social realities into a coherent narrative. But prioritizing the story of certain types of workers risked ignoring or alienating others. Workers—as postmodernists emphasize—had a variety of potential identities. Class, which was constructed in the workplace, was but one. The European right wing's strength in the era of mass politics lay both in its appeal to popular strata—peasants, the petty-bourgeoisie, white-collar workers—who were alienated by the proletarian discourse of socialism and in its appeal to elements of a working class fragmented along lines of religion, nationality, and ethnicity.

There was no necessary incompatibility between being a devout Christian and a class-conscious worker. The Christian socialism of Britain's Independent Labour Party was rooted, like popular liberalism, in the nonconformist chapels of northern England. Images of Christ the carpenter adorned the walls of French producer cooperatives in 1848. However, Catholicism's ties to the right wing meant that the French labor movement was stronger where workers were recruited from anticlerical rural regions—the Limousin, the Centre—than from clerical bastions such as Brittany. Catholic workers were alienated by the Left's militant anticlericalism. In 1871 the Paris Commune executed clerical hostages. Churches were burned during Barcelona's semana trágica, the "tragic week" in 1909 during which a popular insurrection took over the city. Spanish anarchism tapped the fury of a religious people outraged by the clergy's alliance with the rich. Obreros conscientes (self-educated "conscious workers"), spreading the anarchist gospel to wretched landless laborers of Andalusian latifundia, preached of a millennium of social justice once the countryside was purged of taxmen, landowners, the Civil Guard, and priests. Catholic workers in devout regions such as Galicia and New Castile supported the right wing. The gulf between anticlerical male workers and their devout womenfolk was a feature of Latin Europe, fueling the men's suspicions that women's irrational superstition made them unfit for socialism. German socialism recruited among lapsed Protestants. Catholic workers in the Rhineland and Ruhr often supported the Center Party and Catholic unions.

Religious and ethnic tensions overlapped. Flemish migrants in northeastern French textile towns were criticized by French workers for their clericalism as well as for being strikebreakers. The Catholicism of Liverpool's Irish immigrants provoked a Tory vote among native Protestant workers. Ruhr trade union leaders oscillated between criticizing Polish miners for their docility and clericalism and lamenting their propensity for ill-disciplined wildcat strikes. French steel magnates in Lorraine exploited the cheap labor of Italian immigrants—who lacked the vote—while simultaneously playing on the xenophobia of French workers, who monopolized the skilled jobs, received company housing and voted for the radical Right in the 1890s. Jewish artisans in Paris's Marais district or London's East End were the targets of populist anti-Semitism.

In a Europe of economic rivalries and social Darwinism, workers were not immune to the lure of social imperialism. Elites had long exhibited what might be called class racism, viewing workers as a dark, inferior species—criminal and dangerous classes, who were diagnosed in quasi-biological terms and categorized by emerging criminology as pathologically degenerate. Eugenicists debated restricting the breeding of the poor in the East End slums of outcast London. But welfare legislation was introduced to improve the imperial "racial stock" and workers were re-classified as white. Birmingham workers voted for Tory municipal reformer Joseph Chamberlain, who argued that imperial protection guaranteed the export markets on which jobs depended. On the eve of 1914, mass demonstrations denounced South African mine owners for opening skilled jobs to black workers.

reformist and revolutionary labor movements

However, socialist parties were built, and they countered the power of organized capitalism, including cartels and employers' associations. The German model—a mass party affiliated to industrial unions—set the pattern for northern and central Europe, achieving 40 percent electoral support in Finland and 25 percent in Austria, despite growing tensions between German and nationally conscious Czech workers. However, no two societies had identical experiences of class formation and mobilization. The peculiarities of each labor movement reflected historical experiences, culture, the nature of the particular state, employer strategies, and the ideologies available to workers. A plausible—if banal—generalization is that liberal states engendered reformist labor movements and authoritarian regimes engendered radical or revolutionary labor movements.

This latter was clearly true of tsarist autocracy. Unions were illegal in Russia, political protest was clandestine, and troop massacres of workers' demonstrations (Bloody Sunday in 1905; the Lena goldfields shootings in 1912) eroded residual popular loyalty to the tsar. Pragmatic reformism was impossible. While populists placed their hopes in the huge, discontented peasantry, Marxists targeted the small but rapidly growing urban proletariat, particularly St. Petersburg's skilled metalworkers. Yet it is difficult to locate Russian protest in any specific section of the working class, for it involved broad strata of the people. The urban population's ties to village Russia made it difficult to disentangle worker and peasant grievances. Workers' attitudes toward the revolutionary intelligentsia were ambivalent; gratitude was tinged with resentment at their claims that only intellectuals could bring full class consciousness to the workers and channel spontaneous protest into coherent strategies.

The liberal British model was very different. The first industrial nation eliminated its peasantry before 1800. By 1900, it was 80 percent urban. It had a parliamentary tradition. The franchise was gradually extended to broad strata of the working class. The early Industrial Revolution had been a bleak age, marked by appalling slum and factory conditions, periodic mass unemployment, and stagnant real wages. But during the mid-Victorian economic boom, wages rose and employers accepted negotiation with unions, which had been legal since the 1820s. Many trade unionists supported the Liberal Party of Prime Minister William Gladstone, perceived as sympathetic to workers' democratic interests. Popular politics and labor relations became harsher in the Great Depression of 1873–1896. Rising unemployment and employer intransigence challenged illusions of ongoing progress under capitalism. Eventually the Labour Party (1900) emerged because of worker alarm at legal threats to union rights. But the party, which was designed for the pragmatic defense of trade union interests, not to build socialism, attracted only 7 percent of the vote. The British paradox is, thus, that the world's first and largest proletariat produced a small, nonsocialist, workers' party. A dense working-class culture did exist, a distinctive lifestyle identifiable by the 1870s that persisted into the 1950s. This was a world of flat caps, fish and chips, Saturday afternoon soccer, seaside rail excursions, hobbies, and allotment gardens. Its communal and collective values were incarnated in friendly societies (consumer cooperatives with millions of members) and unions. Yet it was an introverted culture, more fatalistic and consolatory than radical, exhibiting little aspiration to challenge bourgeois hegemony. Valuing the liberties guaranteed by the state, including the freedom to bargain collectively, it otherwise wished to be left alone. Monarchy was widely accepted as symbolic of British fair play and a regime that rarely used troops against strikers. Socialism revived after 1880 but found difficulty in penetrating this culture.

In Germany, certain factors encouraged a similar integration of labor into the national political scene. Universal male suffrage came relatively early (1870), as did welfare legislation (the 1880s), which was introduced to woo workers from socialism. Real wages rose gradually. Workers could take patriotic pride in Germany's burgeoning industrial strength, and many were employed in defense industries. However if the labor movement's daily practice was pragmatic, the SPD's official ideology was Marxist. Its revolutionary stance was a response to the more authoritarian face of the Reich. Real power lay with the Junkers, army, and bureaucracy, not with a largely impotent Reichstag. The regime treated labor as enemies of the Reich. Three-tier local suffrage systems kept the left from municipal power. Anti-union laws (1878–1890) and intransigent heavy industrialists hindered the development of collective

bargaining and reformist unionism. Heavy indirect taxation penalized working-class consumers and funded armaments programs. By 1914 labor reformists and radicals were evenly balanced, the latter insisting that hopes of gradual democratization of the Reich were illusory.

Socialism in Germany emerged in the 1870s alongside an emerging working-class culture and before unions were free to organize. It sought to mold working-class life, nurturing an unparalleled alternative culture of libraries, choral and theater groups, and sports clubs. Ninety-five socialist papers sold 1.5 million copies daily. The ideological impact of this remains unclear. Perhaps workers borrowed escapist novels from party libraries rather than Marxist tracts. An emphasis on the classic German musical and literary repertoire may have encouraged bourgeoisification of the tastes of respectable elements of the working class. Fears of jeopardizing this associational infrastructure may have made party officials reluctant to undertake open resistance to the Reich. Meanwhile, millions of workers outside this subculture, including rough elements of the working class, remained vulnerable to the lure of official patriotic propaganda and of an emerging mass commercial culture.

Reformist strands in French working-class culture were encouraged by the democratic Third Republic. Since the Revolution, labor activists had collaborated with radical republican lawyers and doctors who had flirted with associationist socialist rhetoric. Trade unions were belatedly legalized (1884). The republic sought to normalize industrial relations through arbitration procedures, encouraging reformist trends in the miners' unions through state enforcement of pit safety. Republican secular education appealed to working-class anticlericalism and fed their republican patriotism. Workers' autobiographies spoke affectionately of dedicated republican schoolteachers. Yet the republican/revolutionary tradition was deeply ambiguous. Workers felt betrayed by failures to implement the revolution's egalitarian promises by establishing a social republic. It was republicans who suppressed the Paris Commune in 1871 and still used troops to shoot strikers in major incidents (1891, 1900, 1908). Intransigent employers, reluctant to accept collective bargaining, used company paternalism or scientific management to deny unions shop-floor influence. Welfare was introduced later in France than in Germany and was less extensive. A revolutionary legacy of popular direct action inspired syndicalists, who dominated the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) union confederation in the 1900s. Syndicalism's emphasis on worker control appealed to craftsmen and skilled workers, who had once supported producer cooperatives. But it attracted unskilled laborers, dock workers, vineyard laborers, and dissident miners and rail workers critical of their unions' reformism. Bourses du Travail, where workers from various occupations met, coordinated regional strike strategies. The French labor movement was notoriously fragmented. Despite the foundation of a single Socialist Party in 1906, squabbling between reformist, Marxist, and quasi-syndicalist factions persisted. French socialist voting (16 percent) and union membership (10 percent) were below the levels in much of Europe. Yet levels of strike militancy and direct action were high.

After 1900, under Giovanni Giolitti, oligarchic Italian liberalism sought to integrate an emerging working class and woo reformist socialists by extending the franchise (1912) and introducing modest welfare measures and industrial relations reforms. But popular national identity remained weak in a peninsula fragmented by linguistic and regional diversities. Po Valley and Apulian landowners, suspicious of Giolitti's conciliatory strategy, hired gunmen to break strikes. Troops were also used against strikers, although fewer proletarian massacres took place than had happened in the 1890s. Maximalist socialists, who indulged in revolutionary rhetoric, and syndicalists were influential, particularly outside the northern industrial towns, whose workers were the principal beneficiaries of Giolitti's policies. Camera del lavoro, drawing together both skilled and unskilled workers from a variety of occupations, sustained a radical subversive culture (souversismo) that was at odds with the cautious reformism of the Socialist Party and the union confederation leaderships.

diversity and change

The European working class was too diverse to embrace any single strategy or ideology. Many patriotic, religious, deferential, or female workers were beyond the reach of organized labor, although some joined Catholic, company, or other unions. Much worker protest was unorganized. Despite integrationist governmental strategies and rising real wages in western, northern, and central Europe, the scale of labor unrest in the decade before 1914 suggests widespread—although diverse and uncoordinated—frustration and anger. Even Britain experienced quasi-syndicalist strike waves from 1911 through 1914, with miners, rail workers, and dock workers expressing dissatisfaction with union bureaucracies and Labour Party reformism. Syndicalist aspirations for job control, dismissed as archaic by centralized industrial unions, still resonated with craft workers such as the Solingen cutlers in Germany. From Paris to St. Petersburg, skilled workers, faced with the tough work discipline imposed by scientific management, which eroded shop-floor autonomy, responded with small-scale acts of everyday protest—mocking foremen, slowing down their work, sabotaging, and pilfering. In the rapidly expanding Ruhr mining towns of Germany, with low levels of union organization, workers clashed violently with management and police. Labor organizers struggled to contain what they considered the less respectable forms of worker protest. SPD leaders were delighted by a massive Hamburg suffrage reform demonstration in 1905 but blamed lumpen, criminal elements from the docks for subsequent looting and clashes with the police.

The disintegration of labor movement and of working-class communities in late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century Europe has prompted skepticism about working-class agency in earlier periods. Postmodernism's emphasis on multiple, flexible identities questions the primacy of work-based identities. It has become difficult to envisage a world where millions of people proclaimed themselves working class and proud of it and saw themselves as the salt, not the scum, of the earth. It is true that many workers' allegiance to labor movements was conditional, pragmatic, and instrumental. No working class is ever definitively made. Capitalism endlessly undermines communities, establishing new industries in fresh locations where workers struggle to establish new solidarities. Doubtless, workers' grasp of socialist theories was sketchy. Yet many workers did believe that history was on their side. The reports of police spies who listened to Hamburg workers' conversations in bars suggested that many ordinary workers had internalized the SPD's vision of the world.

Outside of the repressive regimes of eastern and southern Europe, labor movements had benefited from the liberal constitutional systems established after the 1860s. But, as European liberalism proved reluctant to adapt to mass politics, it was workers' movements that carried progressive hopes for a future world of social justice. Perhaps the march to war in August 1914 suggests that in the last resort patriotism trumped class identity and internationalist class solidarity. Yet many French workers imagined that they were defending their republican homeland against reactionary Kaiserism, just as German workers believed they were defending their hard-won gains against repressive tsarism.

Many such workers, and their counterparts across Europe, participated in the massive labor unrest of 1917 through 1921, which swept away three empires.

See alsoChartism; Class and Social Relations; Cooperative Movements; Engels, Friedrich; Industrial Revolution, Second; Labor Movements; Marx, Karl; Peasants; Socialism; Syndicalism; Utopian Socialism.


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Roger Magraw

Working Class

views updated Jun 11 2018

Working Class




The capitalist class structure consists of two main classes: the capitalist class, owners of means of production, and the working class, owners of labor power. The relations between these classes are complementary and contradictory. Complementary, because capitalists need workers to produce the wealth they accumulate, and workers economic survival depends on capital investments: Lacking access to means of production, it is only through the sale of their labor power that workers and their families subsist. Their class interests are, however, inherently contradictory: It is in capitalists interest to lower production coststhat is, wages, pensions, health plans, and so onto increase profits and facilitate capital accumulation. It is in workers interest not only to attain good wages and benefits but, eventually, to overthrow capitalism and take over the means of production, thus ending their exploitation by the capitalist class: The working classes are bound to become the capitalists gravediggers (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998).


Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Engels (18201895) wrote in the nineteenth century, when class differences were stark and the large and growing working class was composed of manual, mostly male workers. Since then and up to World War II (19391945), workers lived close to the factories, in dense working-class communities. These conditions facilitated workers awareness of shared experiences and interests, and the formation of trade unions that enhanced workers economic and political power (Marx [1847] 1969, pp. 172173). The concentration of capital and emergence of large-scale industry resulted in the spacial concentration of workers, giving this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle (p. 173).

During the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries there were in the United States and Europe numerous instances of violent class struggles and widespread working-class mobilization and organizing under socialist, Communist, and anarchist banners: social and cultural identities were forged by the categories of class and strata; everyday life, aesthetic expressions, and cognitive mappings articulated with production relations (Aronowitz 1992, p. 23). In 1917 successful revolution in Russia seemed to confirm Marx and Engelss prediction about the revolutionary role of the working class.

After World War II, however, the worlds economic and political conditions changed, partly as a result of the cold war and anticapitalist struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the advanced capitalist countries, the working classes abandoned anticapitalist politics in exchange for steady employment and a good standard of living. Changes in the forces of production altered the economic and the occupational structures, decreasing the proportion of manual, blue-collar workers employed on farms and in the industrial, manufacturing sector. The proportion of workers employed in the service sector and in nonmanual, white-collar clerical, professional, and managerial jobs increased, thus giving rise to theories that conceptualized the top echelons of such jobs as a new class. Typical of such views is the professional managerial class (PMC) thesis put forth by John and Barbara Ehrenreich (1979). The PMC owes its existence to the expropriation of the skills and culture once indigenous to the working class (p. 2) and acts, with some degree of class awareness, in ways detrimental to the working class, leading to, for example, the reorganization of the productive process, the emergence of mass institutions of social control, and the commodity penetration of working class life (p. 18). Although professionals and managers may make decisions adversely affecting the working class, it remains open to debate whether such decisions reflect their own antiworking class intentions, or the objectives of the capitalist employers for whom they work. More important is the contention that the PMC is guilty of expropriating the workers skills and culture and that this expropriation constitutes a sufficient basis for considering them a social class. Historically, the development of capitalist industrialization has entailed the progressive deskilling of the working class and the emergence of a complex division of labor that includes deskilled masses of workers and layers of intermediate workers (foremen, managers, engineers, administrators, etc.), which embodied the power of capital and its ability to deskill and control the organization and pace of the labor process (see Braverman 1974 for a thorough analysis of these processes). The PMC is found not only in factories, of course, but also in all institutions where high-ranking salaried employees are the visible face of capitalist or of institutional power over rank-and-file workers. The view that the PMC is a class for itself, acting autonomously against the working class, overlooks the significance of its intermediate location, as employees who carry out the mandates of their bosses. The PMC can be viewed more appropriately as a strata within the propertyless class, occupying a contradictory class location between the capitalist class and the proletariatthat is, foremen, technocrats, bottom and top managers, and so onand between the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariatthat is, semiautonomous employees such as teachers, professors, scientists, and so on (Wright 1978, p. 84). In other words, the PMC occupies the top layers in the social stratification of the working population; it is not a class but a social strata within the working class, objectively defined as the class of relatively privileged propertyless workers whose power and economic resources depend on their continued employment. Loss of a job can reduce them to poverty or near poverty because, barring individual exceptions, the members of the PMC do not own capital and depend on their salaries for their economic survival (Gimenez 1978).

In the last twenty-five years the rise and widespread use of information technologies and the increasing mobility of capital resulting in deindustrialization, downsizing, and outsourcing have further changed the occupational composition of the working classes, as well as their conditions of employment: Stable, relatively well-paid blue-collar and white-collar employment is becoming scarce, while contingent and temporary employment is increasing among low-skilled and highly skilled professional workers. Long-standing racial, ethnic, and gender conflictswhich have excluded women and nonwhite workers from well-paid, stable jobs and led to disproportionate female and nonwhite povertyeventually in the last decades of the twentieth century spurred social movements for civil rights and equal opportunity for all. The politics of class, particularly in the United States, was replaced by identity politics.


The changing occupational composition of the working class, the decline in workers anticapitalist struggles and union membership, and the dominance of identity politics challenge the validity of the Marxist concept of the working class and its revolutionary potential. If narrowly defined as composed only of productive workers, that is, blue-collar workers producing surplus value (Poulantzas 1973, pp. 3031), it would seem the working class is dwindling away within advanced capitalist countries. Reducing the working class to only skilled, craft workers, André Gorz argues that organizational and technological changes that have practically abolished skilled work have rendered obsolete the working class as a class composed of knowledgeable workers capable of taking over control of the means and the process of production; we must, therefore, bid farewell to the working class (Gorz 1982, p 46). If broadly defined, in terms of political allegiances, the working class could include everyone mobilized in struggles against the state. Rosa Luxemburg (18711919), for example, celebrated the spontaneous rising of the laboring masses composed of factory workers, rural proletarians, policemen, military personnel, and bank employees (Luxemburg [1906] 2004, p. 180). Historian E. P. Thompson (19241993) offered a dialectical understanding of the working class. Emphasizing process and agency, and arguing that class is a historical phenomenon, not a structure or a category, he states that the working class was present at his own making (Thompson 1966, p. 9). It is in the midst of struggles, as people sharing similar experiences become aware of common interests and enemies, that the working class makes itself, that class happens (p. 9). Thompson acknowledges, however, that common experiences, the basis for the emergence of class consciousness, are determined by the productive relations into which men are bornor enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms (pp. 910). As culture (that is, institutions, value systems, beliefs, traditions, and so on) varies historically and cross-culturally, class consciousness, though it reflects an economically determined experience, is itself undetermined in its content; class struggles, it follows, can be fought under a variety of ideological legitimations.

Like Marx, who stressed the need to distinguish between changes at the level of production and the ideological ways in which individuals become conscious of those changes and engage in political struggles (Marx [1859] 1970, p. 21), Thompson differentiates between the determining role of productive relations and the contingent, cultural, or ideological forms that class consciousness might take. In Marx and Engelss Communist Manifesto (1848), however, class consciousnessthat is, workers awareness of their economic and political interests as a class that can succeed only by abolishing all classes, in the struggle to overthrow the economic and political power of the capitalist classseems to flow unproblematically from the experiences of the working class. Capitalists require, in their economic and political struggles, the support of the working class; capitalists educate the proletariat and supply it with the political and economic know-how to fight and defend its interests as a class (pp. 1819). Late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century capitalists, however, through the mass media and the democratization of consumption, seem to have established firm ideological control over workers consciousness, an unsurprising development because the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas (Marx and Engels [184546] 1947, p. 39). The lack of workingclass mobilization and revolutionary upheavals in advanced capitalist social formations, and the successes of globalized capitalism, have undermined, among some academics and most left-leaning activists, the traditional Marxist analysis of the working class as the only revolutionary class, the only class capable of challenging the rule of capital (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998, p. 20).

The working classes of the twenty-first century are far less class conscious (in the sense indicated in the Manifesto ) than they were a century ago. Recent social movements, the effects of racial, ethnic, and gender oppression and exclusion, have centered around inequality rather than exploitation. In their work, African American, Latino, and feminist scholars have examined the connections between class, gender, and race and have expanded the concept of working-class politics to include issues related to racial, ethnic, and gender oppression and discrimination (see, for example, Collins 1993; Davis 1981). In the United States the impact of these social movements on the social sciences and on politics was profound. It led to a bifurcation in political practice and in scholarship between those who give primacy to workingclass politics and class analysis, and those who prioritize identity politics and race, gender, and ethnicity as structures of inequality independent from social class, and as equally determinant of individuals life chances as social class. A new social science perspective emerged in the late 1980s: the race, gender, and class trilogy, popularized by a journal originally called Race, Sex & Class. This perspective is enshrined in countless articles, anthologies, and books (see, for example, Landry 2007). Within this perspective, the role of class, ostensibly given equal visibility, is often minimized, for class is often reduced to income, and/or to another identity.

Another effect of the bifurcation in politics and scholarship mentioned above is the rise of cultural politics and the rejection of class politics and scholarship as forms of economic determinism or class reductionism. The culturalization of politics can be traced in the new academic and political language: policies about diversity, multiculturalism, identity, inclusion of diverse (a euphemism for women and nonwhites) populations in educational institutions and the workplace, the value of multiculturalism and cultural diversity, and so on have replaced, to a large extent, earlier concerns with the economic, racial, and gender discrimination. This discourse obfuscates the class divisions within the diverse populations, and the working-class basis of many of the grievances (for example, low wages, segregated labor markets and employment, exclusion from opportunities for upward mobility and access to higher education, etc.) that fueled the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The grounds for the emergence of political solidarity across gender and racial/ethnic differences remain as overlooked, in the context of cultural politics, as the poverty, powerlessness, and economic insecurity of white male workers. This is why, in the absence of a discourse on class that could contribute to undermine racial and gender antagonisms, many Americans have displaced their resentments resulting from what Sennet and Cobb called the hidden injuries of class, to patriotism nationalism racism and sexism (Aronowitz 1992, p. 67).

The philosopher Charles Taylor explored the potential conflict between universalizing democratic politics, which equalize all citizens under the law, and the political affirmation of gender, racial, and ethnic differences as sources of dignity and claims for recognition, rather than second-class citizenship. A positive, rather than negative, public evaluation of difference is the objective of what Taylor calls the politics of recognition (Taylor 1992). The feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser offers a clear statement of these divisive issues:

Demands for recognition of difference fuel struggles of groups mobilized under the banners of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality group identity supplants class interest as the chief medium of political mobilization. Cultural domination supplants exploitation as the fundamental injustice. And cultural recognition displaces socioeconomic redistributions as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle. (Fraser 1995, p. 64)

Arguing that justice requires both redistribution and recognition, Fraser identifies important problems inherent in the changes necessary to remedy these injustices, whether such remedies support or challenge the status quo. Measures that seek only to redistribute income to different groups require the preservation of group identities, thus provoking negative reactions from the excluded (for example, whites critique of reverse discrimination). Though those groups may strive toward the public affirmation of their identities worth and dignity, changes in the allocation of respect will remain superficial, because of the endemic struggles triggered by redistribution. But, transforming identities through deconstruction of the categories currently used to define difference would be just as problematic, for this would deprive groups of the identities that today mechanisms of redistribution and inclusion use to identify those who benefit from such policies (pp. 8691). Although preserving the cultural and economic status quo is inherently problematic, the scenario that best finesses the redistribution-recognition dilemma is socialism in the economy plus deconstruction in the culture, which to be psychologically and politically feasible requires that people be weaned from their attachments to current cultural constructions of their interests and identities (p. 91). In reality, these struggles are intertwined, as the feminist philosopher Iris Young argues in her critique of Frasers analysis: economic relations presuppose cultural understandings and cultural and political recognitions are a means toward economic and political justice (Young 1997, p. 148). But these struggles so far appear to be remarkably ineffective in mobilizing the U.S. working class as a class, despite its worsening economic situation. As long as workers tend to perceive themselves primarily in terms of group identities rather than common class locationa situation strengthened by the official political discourse, within which any mention of class and class interests is deemed undesirable, almost un-Americanperhaps only mass unemployment and household bankruptcies on a scale not seen since the Great Depression might create the material conditions for the emergence of working-class political leaders, simultaneously with the rise in workers receptiveness to their views.

Class struggles in Latin America, as in China and Vietnam, have included workers and peasants in political mobilizations under socialist and nationalist banners. For Chairman Mao Tse-tung (18931976), national struggles were class struggles; he set in opposition to the ruling classes the masses of enlightened workers, farmers, and intellectuals (Mao 1966, p. 10). Some scholars argue, however, that the proletarianization of the middle strata and peasantries has not happened, and that the working class has no privileged role to play. Anticapitalist struggles, in their view, encompass a variety of conflicts between capitalism and sectors of the population inside and outside the working class (for example, conflicts around war and peace, environmental pollution, land management, and so on) (Laclau and Mouffe 1987, pp. 103104).

Marxist social scientists, however, continue to study the working class and the changes in its size, racial, gender, and occupational composition, giving equal importance to individuals relationships to the means of production, skills and credentials, and location in the authority structure (Wright 1997, pp. 1726). Examining the transformation of the U.S. class structure between 1960 and 1990, Wright concludes that there has been a decline in the proportion of skilled workers (from 13.46% of the labor force in 1960 to 12.77% in 1990) and unskilled workers (from 44.59% to 41.38%). The working class as a whole, skilled and unskilled, declined from 58.05 percent to 54.15 percent (p. 99). In terms of race and gender, by a large margin, the American working class now predominantly consists of women and racial minorities (p. 69). Changes in the racial and gender composition of the working class contribute to the persistence of racial/ethnic and gender conflicts within the U.S. working class and the extent to which issues of racial, ethnic and gender oppression are the most salient and important aspect of workers consciousness in the United States.

The meaning of the decline in the size of the working class in the United States and other advanced capitalist countries remains an unresolved and unresolvable issue in Marxist theory. For some (for example, Gorz 1980; Laclau and Mouffe 1987) it signals a reversal of the proletarianization process and an end to the revolutionary role of the working class. Others, however, point out that the proletarianization process worldwide proceeds unabated, and that as the size of the working class declines in the wealthy countries, proletarianization is intensifying in the rest of the world (Arrighi 1990; Wright 1997, pp. 109110). Another issue subject to conflicting interpretations is the rise in the proportion of propertyless but expert, professional salaried workers, placed in contradictory locations within class relations (Wright 1997, p. 20). Is this an indicator of the future demise of the working class, the rise of a new class (for example, a professional managerial class, according to Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979), or of the rise of a new working class? On the basis of the analysis of the effects of capitalist development upon the characteristics of the labor force that Marx presents in the Grundrisse (Marx [18571868] 1953), Nicolaus (1973) reaches this conclusion: The working class fated to lead the revolution is not the impoverished, unskilled, and pauperized working class but the educated, expert, credentialed working class that develops as capitalists develop the forces of production to such an extent that

the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor-time and on the quantity of labor expended, and more on the power of the instruments which are set in motion during labor-time, and whose powerful effectiveness itself is not related to the labor-time immediately expended in their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and the progress of technology. (Marx [18571868] 1953, cited in Nicolaus 1973, p. 328)

Marx depicts a time in which the development of the forces of production empowers workers, when

the cornerstone of production and wealth is neither the labor which man directly expends, nor the time he spends at work, but rather the appropriation of its own collective productive power. As soon as labor in its direct form has ceased to be the great wellspring of wealth, labor-time ceases and must cease to be its measure. (Marx [18571868] 1953 cited in Nicolaus 1973, p. 329)

Perhaps Nicolauss inferences are correct, for it is possible today to observe a bifurcation in the development of the working class: on the one hand, growth in the exploited, poor, and relatively powerless proletariat whose labor fuels the industrialization of Asian and Latin American countries while being the source, through migration, of cheap manual labor and services in the wealthy countries; and on the other hand, growth in the numbers of the well-fed proletarian, scientifically competent, to whom an eight hour day would presumably appear as a waste of time (Nicolaus 1973, p. 329). These are issues that can be resolved only by the outcome of current and future political struggles, not by theoretical fiat or the exegesis of scholarly texts.

SEE ALSO Bourgeoisie; Capitalism; Employment; Employment, White Collar; Lumpenproletariat; Proletariat; Underemployment; Unemployment


Aronowitz, Stanley. 1992. The Politics of Identity: Class, Culture, Social Movements. New York: Routledge.

Arrighi, Giovanni. 1990. Marxist CenturyAmerican Century: The Making and Remaking of the World Labor Movement. New Left Review 179: 2963.

Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Collins, Patricia H. 1993. Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection. Race, Sex, and Class 1 (1): 2545.

Davis, Angela Y. 1981. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Random House.

Ehrenreich, John, and Barbara Ehrenreich. 1979. The Professional-Managerial Class. In Between Labour and Capital, ed. Pat Walker, 545. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester.

Fraser, Nancy. 1995. From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a Post-Socialist Age. New Left Review 212: 6493.

Gimenez, Martha E. 1978. The Professional/Managerial Class: An Ideological Construct.

Gimenez, Martha E. 1999. Latino PoliticsClass Struggles: Reflections on the Future of Latino Politics. In Latino Social Movements: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives, eds. Rodolfo D. Torres and George Katsiaficas, 163180. New York: Routledge.

Gorz, André. 1980. Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post Industrial Socialism. Boston: South End Press.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. 1987. Post-Marxism Without Apologies. New Left Review 166: 79106.

Landry, Baht. 2007. Race, Gender, and Class: Theory and Methods of Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Luxemburg, Rosa. [1906] 2004. The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions. In The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, eds. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, 168199. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Mao Tse-tung. 1966. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Marx, Karl. [1847] 1969. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [18571868] 1953. Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Okonomie (Rohentwurf ) [Fundamental traits of the critique of political economy (rough copy)]. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. [1859] 1970. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. [18451846] 1947. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. [1848] 1998. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Nicolaus, Martin. 1973. The Unknown Marx. In Ideology in Social Science: Readings in Critical Social Theory, ed. Robin Blackburn, 306333. New York: Vintage Books.

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1973. On Social Classes. New Left Review 78: 2754.

Taylor, Charles. 1992. Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, Edward P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1978. Class, Crisis, and The State. London: Verso.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1997. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Young, Iris. 1995. Unruly Categories: A Critique of Nancy Frasers Dual Systems Theory. New Left Review 222: 147160.

Martha E. Gimenez

Working Class

views updated May 21 2018



Whether the term working class has great value in historical analysis has long been a contentious issue. This has been in large part due to its use in Marxist writing, the worst of which has equated membership of the class with innate revolutionary sympathies. However, for many other historians it has been a description of a social reality—that in industrialized and urban societies there are large numbers of men, women, and children who depend on the paid labor of one or more of the family. Furthermore, many writers have assumed that to be working class involved employment involving manual labor. As a wide range of people, including agrarian laborers, depend on wage labor and they have differing priorities, some have preferred to write of "working classes."


In many industrialized societies there has been a notable decline in the proportion of the labor force in manual employment, and hence much writing on the decline of the working class. In Britain, for instance, in 1951 some 72 percent of the workforce were manual and some 7 percent professional, whereas in 1981 the equivalent percentages were 57 and 15. Table 1 gives some indication of the sizes of the working class in several countries.

There has also been much awareness by historians of fragmentation. If the concerns of white males were once seen as a norm, there has been greater awareness among historians of different work experiences and concerns of female workers and of nonwhite workers. Similarly, there has been less of a tendency to equate the working class with the organized labor movement, with recognition that a notable aspect of fragmentation has been between union and nonunion labor.

Such awareness of fragmentation has moved authors away from simple presumptions that the working class (or classes) usually acted together "in solidarity." While a feature of much twentieth-century European history has been displays of solidarity, such as in the defeat of the right-wing Kapp putsch in Germany in 1920 or support for the coal miners in Britain during the 1926 general strike, historians in recent years have rightly pointed to the limits of solidarity even among such groups as Europe's coal miners.

In much of Europe, especially eastern and southern Europe, until the second half of the twentieth century there remained a substantial agricultural sector. Some of the workforce was wage labor and so can be deemed agricultural working class, but most was farmed by peasants or smallholders. Hence the urban or industrial working class was notably geographically limited in parts of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Table 2, for all the limitations of such statistics (especially given

the changing national territories, underrecording of women's employment, and generally for comparative purposes), provides a good indication of the size of the economically active agrarian population. It clearly shows the diminished significance of the agrarian sector in such relatively early industrialized countries as the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands and its more general erosion during the "golden age" of the international economy (1950–1973).

As a result of the geographical limits on industry, there were deep fissures in many countries between the industrial working classes, often concentrated in large cities and a limited number of other areas, and the seas of peasants that surrounded them. In Russia before World War I much of its industry was in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev, with mining and metallurgical industries in the Ukraine, coal in the Donets Basin, and oil in Baku, Azerbaijan, while some 60 percent of the male workforce was on the land. Similarly, in Austria after World War I, "Red Vienna" was distinct from the agrarian provinces beyond. There were similar patterns elsewhere, such as in Italy, with Milan and Turin; in Hungary, with Budapest; and in Spain with Barcelona, Madrid, and iron and steel centers and mining in the northern Basque provinces and the Asturias. Even in the advanced industrial countries of Europe such as Germany and Britain there was notable rural hostility to the radical urban centers. In Germany in 1914 the urban working class resented the high food prices stemming from tariffs, while the rural beneficiaries resented the urban working class enjoying state social welfare.

The industrialized working class of Europe worked in a variety of different-sized workplaces in 1914 and for the next six decades or more. In many countries there were notable large employers such as the Putilov works in St. Petersburg, the Krupp works in Essen, and Schneider's works in Le Creusot. There were also towns with big factories ringing the residential areas, such as Sesto San Giovanni, a suburb of Milan, with steel, machinery, and electrical equipment, or Loughborough (England), with heavy engineering and textiles around its southern and eastern sides. There also were many urban areas where there was a range of small-scale workshops, as in Birmingham (England).

While higher living standards and relatively cheap public transport enabled people to live farther from their work, there were still many working-class people who lived within walking distance or a short bus or tram ride from their workplace. In a large city such as London until well into the twentieth century, labor markets were localized, with many working people keeping to an area, such as south London, where they both lived and worked.


Many of the basic industrial revolution industries—iron (and later steel), shipbuilding, textiles, and coal mining—generated communities around the workplace. Some of the early-twentieth-century housing was provided by paternalist employers, such as on the Ruhr (Germany), many industrial locations in Derbyshire (England), and at "Schneiderville," Le Creusot (France). Other housing often was built crowded together, in near-uniform terraces. In many towns and cities big factories had a dominating presence, quite literally looming over the houses. This

was so in the case of woolen mills in Bradford, Halifax, and Huddersfield, or a major employer, such as Brush (Switchgear) in Loughborough. In many rural and urban areas mining villages were overlooked by huge spoil tips, with tragic consequences at Aberfan in 1966, when one slipped and engulfed a school and other buildings, killing 144 people, 116 of whom were children. Such stark industrial backdrops became less common across Europe in the last quarter of the twentieth century with the decline of many such industries and greater mobility of many working people.

While much English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish working-class housing was in grim surroundings and, until the 1970s, often had outside toilets and sometimes no bathrooms, there was even worse housing in eastern and southern Europe. Some textile workers in Russia, especially where the factories were in predominantly rural areas, had to live in barrack blocks notable for overcrowding and poor facilities shared by large numbers. In Germany many of the industrial working class continued to live in small towns and areas with a rural character. In many of the big cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, many working-class families lived in small flats in four- or five-story tenements, often having only one bed and able to afford heating in only one room; many families added to their income by taking in a lodger. In Lyon (France) there were some company houses, but until mid-century many workers lived in single-room flats or even lean-to shacks. In Paris there was a range of housing, from private enterprise apartment blocks for the blue- and white-collar working class, to cheap, poorly built housing amid muddy streets around the outskirts of Paris. Other cities, such as Vienna, had tenements, cellar flats, and other very poor quality housing.

After the First World War, there was a great expansion in housing provided by municipalities. In Vienna, between 1919 and 1934, 58,667 apartments and 5,257 one-family houses were built, thereby accommodating roughly 10 percent of the population; but many of the working class still lived in very poor conditions. In Britain between 1918 and 1939 more than 4.5 million houses were built, of which more than a quarter of those in England and Wales and two-thirds in Scotland were built by the local authorities. As a result British cities and towns had large areas of working-class housing, known as council estates. While the quality of the housing and of the upkeep varied, it was mostly of a better standard than much of the working class's rented private accommodation.


In Germany, Austria, and elsewhere the crowded tenement flats encouraged a male working-class culture of leaving wives and children in the home in favor of bars and clubs. As a large part of working-class politics was linked to such environments, it was anything but welcoming for women. This was true of all or most of Europe. Yet in the Germany of 1914 those working class in the socialist party (German Social Democratic Party, SPD) had formed a distinct subculture, much of it involving "respectable" activities, from choral societies to cycling. In Britain the Labour Party as a whole had not such a developed culture, though there was a substantial culture of the cooperative movement, which by the end of the First World War was predominantly Labour rather than Liberal in its sympathies. To a lesser extent, in the north of England, the Independent Labour Party and the Clarion Cycling Clubs shared some of the cultural features of the SPD.

Across Europe there was mass support for football (soccer). In Britain it was well-established in the Midlands and the north of England as well as Scotland by 1914. With more working-class people working a five-and-a-half-day week in the interwar years, there were huge crowds going to football matches across Europe. In the first half of the twentieth century the spectators were predominantly, but not exclusively, male; larger numbers of women attended after World War I. There were sizable crowds for other sports, such as horse racing. Many working men gambled on horses, greyhounds, and (in the form of the "pools") on the outcome of football matches.

Whether or not the husband spent his leisure outside the home or not, the working-class mother organized the home and children. Often she was helped by her mother, especially in the cases of working mothers. In many industrial towns, such as the textile areas of Lancashire, England, many families lived within a few streets of grandparents and other relatives, and these often undertook vital child-care tasks.


In France, Germany, Britain, and other countries working-class sons often followed their fathers in employment. In many mining communities, especially those not close to cities or large towns, it was even expected that they would. This was also so in towns where one or a few big companies dominated, as in Le Creusot, France. In the industrial cities sons and daughters often worked locally, rather than move away from home into apprenticeships or service. Working-class families with many daughters often moved to areas of higher female employment, such as the hosiery towns of the East Midlands in England.

Children very often secured employment through relatives', friends', or neighbors' connections. This was attractive to employers as it gave a likelihood of good character and probably slower labor turnover. Where working-class people traveled afar, they usually went to areas near the main railway route from their home; hence migrants from the southwest of England often lived and worked in the southwest of London. Also migrants went where relatives, friends, or neighbors had gone before. This was also true of immigrant workers, who in the case of former rural workers from southern Europe, Africa, or Asia frequently joined others from their village in a European urban area.

The growth of female employment, both in the interwar years and from the 1960s, contributed to a lessening of male domination of their lives for many. Paid employment gave younger women a greater opportunity to enjoy leisure activities. This had occurred earlier, in such areas as Lancashire, England, where women in the cotton industry had earned relatively high wages. For married women, whose work was unpaid and domestic, their leisure was more often focused on the family and the home. In several countries some young workers' real earnings rose sufficiently to give them some consumer power in the 1930s as well as the 1950s onward, when "teenagers" became a notable group. Nevertheless, for many working-class young people an early start to work remained crucial to their family's budget. This was very frequently the case where the main adult earner was a manual worker or was unemployed. In large families where the mother worked, eldest daughters took on child care and household management roles as if deputies for their mothers.


Many of the unskilled working class in Europe in at least the first few decades of the twentieth century lived close to poverty, or in poverty. Their situation depended not only on the labor market but on their stages in the human life cycle and the size of their family. With large young families they were likely to be close to poverty; poor health and old age also brought very hard times, unless family networks provided support. Bad housing, poorer quality food, and manual labor all contributed to a proneness to worse health and higher mortality patterns. For instance, in the case of infant mortality rates, the average rate per thousand live births for England and Wales in 1928–1932 was 66.2, but in Stockton-on-Tees (in the north of England), where the average was 78.8, in two poor working-class districts the rate was 117.8 and 134.0. There were similar, and even worse, figures for other British industrial cities, as well as for other European cities and towns. Yet, even in the early twentieth century, through thrift clubs and other savings organizations, unskilled working-class families managed to afford day trips to the seaside or longer stays. In factory towns there were annual closures of factories for a week.

The unskilled workers also were most likely to suffer unemployment in bad economic times and to have less savings to fall back on. The European countries, like economies elsewhere that were much involved in the international economy, were badly hit by the recessions of 1921–1922 and 1931–1933. In these years the industrial workforces were hard hit. The old staple industries were suffering serious decline, in some cases because of overcapacity brought about by World War I and the postwar boom, and more generally by increased competition, as other countries had expanded their production (such as the United States and to a lesser extent Japan). There was further heavy unemployment in the 1980s and afterward as many Western European industries, and then former communist manufacturing, collapsed in the face of global competition.

In Britain the 1921–1922 recession had a big impact, with wages falling substantially after prices fell. In 1922 15.2 percent of trade unionists were unemployed there, while in Norway 17.1 percent were. In Belgium and Denmark, where the unemployed figures were for workers covered by insurance, the peak figures were 11.5 and 19.7 percent in 1921. The major exception was Germany, where high inflation delayed unemployment until 1924–1926 (with 18 percent of trade unionists unemployed in 1926). In 1933–1933 Britain suffered, but as its economy had not enjoyed a boom in the 1920s, unlike Germany and the United States, it had less far to fall. Nevertheless, the percentage of the unemployed out of insured workers peaked at 22.5 percent in 1932. In contrast unemployment was more severe in Germany, with the registered unemployed being 30.1 percent of the labor force. The level was even higher, 31.7 percent of insured workers, in Denmark in 1932, 33.4 percent of trade unionists in Norway in 1933 and with the registered unemployed as 32.7 percent of the labor force in the Netherlands in 1936.

In the early 1930s in Germany those unemployed suffered more than in Britain, as provision for the long-term unemployed had broken down more and benefit cuts were greater. The high levels of job losses created tensions between workers trying to retain their positions; for example, older males called for women and younger men to be laid off first. In Germany, unlike Britain, the United States, and Australia, high unemployment was accompanied by rising support for communism and fascism.

The quality of life of skilled workers and their families was better. They lived in better houses and could afford better food. They also were able to afford more than day outings as holidays, with many British, French, and other factory towns losing much of their population for those days. After World War II, holidays with pay in Britain became widespread, with manual workers also gaining them; and by the early 1950s the entitlement was commonly for a fortnight's holiday.


The fragmentation of the working class (or classes) was very apparent in politics across Europe. In Germany, while the SPD polled 4,250,000 votes (34.8 percent) in 1912 and became the largest party in the Reichstag, there remained sizable working-class groups it largely failed to attract. This situation was even more pronounced in France, although the Socialists secured 1.4 million votes. In Britain before World War I the Labour Party was little more than an auxiliary party to the Liberals. Until after the First World War the largest section of the working class supported the Liberals, while the Conservatives also gained substantial working-class votes.

The fragmentation was partly on religious lines. In Germany the SPD was strongest in the Protestant north, and much weaker in the Catholic south. In Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere, Catholic parties gained very substantial working-class support. In Britain there was a strong "Orange" vote, of anti-Catholicism linked to hostility to Irish immigrants in Liverpool, elsewhere in Lancashire and Glasgow, and in Northern Ireland, which was separated from the rest of Ireland in 1922. There were also parties, backed by Protestants, that had working-class support, including in the Netherlands.

There was also fragmentation on ethnic or nationalist lines. For instance in Germany in the 1912 Reichstag elections, 33 candidates were elected who represented Poles, Danes, Guelphs, and Alsatians, polling 706,000 votes. In 1928 these and the regional Bavarian party secured 23 seats and 956,000 votes. In Belgium there were the major divisions between the French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, which was the cause of much rioting and led to three regional parliaments eventually being established in 1982. In Spain there were bitter divisions between the majority and the Basques, a people with their own language, culture, and political party. The Basques' sense of separate identity was strong enough to foster a separatist terrorist organization (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA) in the 1960s. In 1980 the Basques established their own parliament. In Cyprus there were constant divisions between the Greek and Turkish populations, which worsened after independence in 1960, with a civil war in 1963–1964 and a Turkish invasion and then control of a third of the island in 1974 (when the Turkish people feared union with Greece). In Northern Ireland the working class has been divided on religious lines, with the Catholic working class divided since 1970 between the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin and the Protestant working class fragmented between the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and other, often short-lived, Protestant bodies.

In addition there have been divisions linked to minorities of recent or older immigrants. The early part of the twentieth century was marked in many countries by working classes and other classes displaying hostility to Jews. In Britain, in the East End of London, Leeds, Manchester, and elsewhere the Jewish people were often refugees from Russia and were seen as rivals for unskilled jobs and cheap housing. Later in the century there was similar hostility to immigrants from the former British Empire, including from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the West Indies. There was similar hostility to postimperial migrants in France, Spain, and the Netherlands. In post–World War II West Germany, and later the reunited Germany, there were was also much hostility to Turkish "guest workers."

A feature of the "working-class parties" in the twentieth century was their inability to secure 50 percent of the working-class vote. This was true of the SPD even at its height. In Britain the Labour Party failed to repeat its high working-class support of 1945–1951, even though it won large parliamentary majorities in 1966, 1997, 2001, and 2005. The parties were too often attractive to male skilled workers, with female, rural, ethnic group, and religious people far less likely to support them.


An issue concerning the working class (or classes) that has caused much debate, especially among sociologists and political scientists, is whether it has evaporated, leaving the term with little meaning.

Whether or not the working class declined after 1945, there were certainly substantial changes in occupational structure in Western European economies. There was a growth of professional and white-collared jobs and a decline in the proportion of manual jobs. Many of the lower paid manual jobs were increasingly undertaken by workers from the ethnic communities or by women working part-time. Such labor was segregated from other work, still undertaken by the white male labor force. In much of Europe illegal migrant labor formed a source of especially cheap labor, unprotected by employment laws. In Britain this was highlighted in 2004 when twenty-three Chinese cockle collectors drowned in Morecombe Bay. By the very nature of unauthorized labor the numbers of people involved are only estimates. For the United Kingdom in 2001 it has been estimated that there were between 310,000 and 570,000 such workers.

Concern about poverty through low wages has seen statutory minimum wages established across most of Europe, in nearly all cases set at between a third and a half of average wages. In 2005 these operated in most European Union countries. The major exceptions in Europe were Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, and Sweden, countries with high levels of collective bargaining.

By the early 1960s there were suggestions by sociologists and other writers that the traditional proletarian imagery of the working class had weakened. This was believed to be due partly to greater affluence and greater mobility (including moving geographically away from the old working-class areas) and partly due to the decline of the old large-scale industries. In such literature there were claims that a process of embourgeoisement was occurring, by which was meant that affluent workers were adopting the values and lifestyles of the middle-class (or classes). According to such views, this new working class was not interested in class solidarity or community values, nor was it greatly involved in work itself, but was more concerned with personal and family advancement, was uninterested in community solidarity, and saw its work in instrumental terms, as purely providing money.

Such claims led to substantial analysis in Britain and other countries of "the affluent worker." John H. Goldthorpe, David Lockwood, Frank Bechofer, and Jennifer Platt published in three volumes The Affluent Worker (1968–1969), which examines in depth relatively well-paid mass-production manual workers and their families in Luton, an industrial town to the north of London. This and other studies found that the working class was still distinct from the middle class and still loyal to trade unionism and the Labour Party, but it was more instrumental in its attitude to work and more private or family focused in its leisure. However, historians of British labor could suggest that the sociologists unduly idealized the attitudes of industrial workers in the past including in regard to solidarity. Indeed, sociologists often argued that trade unionism was only sectional solidarity and was a notable aspect of working-class fragmentation, with the division between organized labor and nonunion labor.

Writing about the working class by historians and sociologists from the 1950s to the late 1970s paid much attention to identifying the working class not just by occupation but by shared cultural values and practices. With the cultural concerns of postmodernism there has been in more recent years a return to emphasizing the importance of cultural factors, with economic ones given less attention.

However, in much of Europe awareness of social inequalities remained strong and was still a political issue at the end of the twentieth century. In Britain, for instance, Inland Revenue statistics suggested that in 1989 the most wealthy 25 percent owned 75 percent of the marketable wealth, with the working class or classes(or most of them)left with the rest. Also, social surveys in Britain have repeatedly found that more than 90 percent of the population believed that social classes still existed. In the case of British trade unionism, while like other European trade unionism it has declined, it is notable that its membership is no longer dominated by male workers in the old large-scale industries and mining, but is nearer gender equality and even in 1979, at its peak membership, 40 percent of all members were white-collar workers. What constitutes "the working class" has changed over time, but the term continues in popular and academic usage.

See alsoBourgeoisie; Industrial Capitalism; Trade Unions.


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Chris Wrigley

working class

views updated Jun 11 2018

working class. The 18th cent. often talked of the poor, labourers, and artisans as part of its language of ranks and orders. Somewhere in the early years of the 19th cent. such groups were identified by contemporaries and later historians as a working class, or more frequently ‘the working classes’. This identity was seen as a response to their position as wage earners faced with an intensification of capitalist relationships of production, namely relationships which involved private property and production for profit, mediated by cash. The responses and experiences which accumulated to form the relationships of class included opposition to machinery, the dramatic fall in real wages experienced by hand-loom weavers, and the political inspiration of radicalism. In the 1820s and 1830s, trade unions, especially in the textile and mining industries, became a focus of industrial conflict more extensive than anything experienced by the mainly craft associations of the earlier century. The chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s became a focus of many working-class ambitions and gained mass support for a political programme demanding universal manhood suffrage. Many historians see chartism as a product of the economic experiences of the working classes. Others see chartism as a political movement which offered little analysis of economic relationships in terms of capitalist exploitation, but offered a radical attack upon political privilege and corruption as a base for explaining ‘the people's’ poverty. Debate also exists on the meaning of trade union conflicts. Many reflect particular trades and localities with little sense of the relationships of wage labour as a whole.

The 1860s saw the establishment of a more institutionalized trade union movement with legal status and centralized bodies like the Trades Union Congress (1867). This period saw a move from unstable conflict to social peace often identified with the influence of a ‘labour aristocracy’ of skilled workers prepared to co-operate with the owners of capital. The change was more broadly based and related to improvements in working-class living standards, the acceptance of many working people into political life, especially in the Gladstonian Liberal Party, and the development of a more sophisticated employer paternalism. It was a period in which the wage relationship was still partial and imperfect. Subcontracting, payment in kind, and gender and supervisory hierarchies mediated between labour and capital.

By the 1890s, a distinctive working-class culture had emerged, based upon a sense of neighbourhood and mutual support, especially amongst women, upon old and new leisure patterns built around the public house, spectator sports like football and the music-hall, and upon a labour movement consisting of a variety of institutions like the retail Co-operative societies, trade unions, socialist Sunday schools, and the ILP (Independent Labour Party). These values have been called ‘populist’, involving a pride in work and in mutual support in the face of poverty, a delight in having a good time, a derision of privilege, and a regional pride. Such populism could as easily move to a Union-Jack-waving nationalism as to a conflict-orientated sense of class. It represented a sense of cohesion which lasted into the 1950s and was celebrated by Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957).

The working class faced major periods of conflict in the late 19th and early 20th cents. culminating in the General Strike of 1926. This was related to the impact of new technologies, often involving de-skilling, to new management strategies, and to unstable and competitive conditions in world trade. Conflict was firmly related to wages and conditions and there is little evidence of any ambitions for revolutionary change. Socialism in the 1918 constitution of the Labour Party embodied a willingness to use any means including nationalization in the attack on poverty. Major success came with the 1945 Labour government, the welfare state, and the nationalization of key elements of capital.

By the 1950s, the life-style of the bulk of the working class had been transformed by so-called ‘Fordist’ relationships, in which social stability depended upon high productivity, high wages, and the consumption of an increasing variety of goods. A mass culture of film, football, and television began to entail a more private life-style. This was threatened in the 1970s, by de-industrialization, an accelerated shift in the economic structure of Britain away from traditional industries such as coal-mining, textiles, and iron and steel, accompanied by mass unemployment and new forms of poverty.

The problems of writing and understanding working-class history in Britain lie in its political meaning. The initial writings were undertaken by those seeking the origins and inspiration for the Labour Party in a long march of labour history from Tom Paine's Rights of Man, through chartism and the TUC, to the achievements of the 1945 government. Others led by Edward Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class wanted to reposition the Marxist tradition of British history and secure a recognition for the agency and creativity of working-class people, in place of a deterministic view of the impact of economic relationships. Recent writing has reflected the uncertainties and multiple identities of the late 20th and early 21st cents.

See also social history; class.

R. J. Morris

working class

views updated May 29 2018

working class The working class is classically defined as that class which must sell its labour-power in order to survive. This was essentially what Karl Marx meant by the proletariat. However, this is hardly a satisfactory definition for late twentieth-century developed societies. If there is a working class distinct from the rest of society, then there must be distinctive features to its work and market situations, and indeed there are.

First, in terms of market situation, the working class is defined by the fact that it sells its labour-power in discrete amounts of time (paid by the hour or output piecework) in return for a wage. In the case of work situation, the working class comprises those who are in an entirely subordinate role, such that this is a key feature of their labour contract. Hence the working class basically consists of those who work in manual or blue-collar occupations. However, none of this should be taken to mean that there is one amorphous working class, since there are a number of ways in which the class is divided into distinct groups. One of these is in terms of skill. There is an upper working class or aristocracy of labour which consists of skilled workers—occupations such as fitters, electricians, and the like— where incumbents have been apprenticed or learned a trade. These constitute about one-third of the working class. The remainder are in so-called semi-skilled or unskilled occupations. A second division is that between those working in primary rather than secondary labour-markets. Some members of the working class have better paid and more secure jobs (in the primary labour-market) than have others. Most skilled workers belong to this primary labour-market. Many female and ethnic-minority workers are found in the lower-paid, more insecure secondary labour-market, lacking standard labour contracts, pension and illness entitlements, paid vacations, and so forth. It is among this group that both unemployment and under-employment (where people find that they have periods of employment and unemployment interspersed on a frequent and irregular basis) are most frequently found. The other notable feature of the working class in developed capitalist societies is that it is shrinking, largely due to a combination of technological change (notably automation), and the decline of the primary and manufacturing sectors. Only about one-third of the economically active would be working class by the definition given here.

Finally, what is the popular conception of the working class? In Gordon Marshall's et al. Social Class in Modern Britain (1984)
, the authors report that 49 per cent of respondents mentioned being a manual or unskilled worker as the chief characteristic of the working class, and 16 per cent defined the class as those with low incomes. In general (and somewhat unusually), sociological views of the working class were in broad agreement with the popular conception. See also GOLDTHORPE CLASS SCHEME.

working class

views updated May 18 2018

work·ing class • n. [treated as sing. or pl.] the social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, esp. in manual or industrial work: the housing needs of the working classes.• adj. (working-class) of, relating to, or characteristic of people belonging to such a group: a working-class community.

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