Liberation Road

Class Matters – Dear Comrade

Dear Comrade,

Where does the middle strata fit in revolutionary change? In mass work, does it matter whether it is led by working class or middle strata folks? In red work? Is the middle strata/middle class a meaningful concept? How do we navigate contradictions between the two? Where does identity come in?

Multiple comrades I’ve encountered have “identified” as working class even when their class position seems (at least to me) to be more accurately described as middle strata. Distinguishing between class origin, class location and class stand can be helpful but only if there is an agreed upon understanding of what working class is, what middle strata is, what ruling class is, etc.


Eagerly Needing Guidance Especially Locally Soon

Dear E.N.G.E.L.S.,

Ah, the middle class. What is it, who’s in it, and where does its allegiance lie? Such questions have been a source of intense debate for modern-day socialists who seek to follow in the footsteps of your namesake, Engels—in part because Marx, Engels and other early socialists had virtually nothing to say about the middle class at all.

That’s because, In the Western Europe of Marx and Engel’s day, the middle class as such didn’t really exist. The early era of industrial capitalism was a period of intense transition. “Class” itself was a relatively new concept, only gradually replacing an older notion of the three estates: clergy, nobility and commoners.  The principle social struggles of the preceding era had been between this latter category and the former two; only more recently had the common people of the urban centers begun to fissure around divides between waged workers and employers. By far the absolute majority of the population, meanwhile, remained rural peasants.

Surveying this complex landscape, Marx and Engels used their new theory of class struggle to advance a set of related hypotheses: first, they posited that groups like the aristocracy and the peasantry were remnants of an older mode of production, which would disappear with the development of industrial capitalism. Second, they would be absorbed into two (and only two) social classes: an ever-smaller number of increasingly wealthy and powerful capitalists, and an ever-larger number of increasingly impoverished proletarians.

In the mid 19th century, these were bold predictions. And the first of them proved astonishingly accurate: both the aristocracy and the peasantry indeed vanished from Western Europe, though it would take the better part of a century from the writing of the Manifesto before this process was complete.

The second hypothesis, however, fared less well than the first. Far from simplifying class antagonisms, the development of 20th century capitalism led to a proliferation of intermediary class positions unanticipated by Marx and Engels—in particular, the emergence of a salaried middle class which, while still dependent on waged work, occupied a dramatically different position within the relations of production than did the industrial proletariat. (And one equally different from the petite bourgeoisie of small businessowners and shopkeepers, a social class that Marx had theorized, and which is sometimes falsely and confusingly translated into English as “middle class.”)

The unprecedented growth of this white-collar workforce raised thorny questions for socialist theory. Were the new middle classes merely a better-compensated subset of the working class, perhaps akin to the “labor aristocracy” of which Lenin had already written? Or did their class position have more in common with the capitalist class, with whom they often shared a set of social and cultural experiences? Or, as Barbara and John Ehrenreich put it in an influential essay of the 1970s, did this “professional-managerial class” comprise an entirely new social formation, one antagonistic to both bourgeoisie and proletariat?

To make things even more complicated, no sooner had this new middle class won a piece of the capitalist pie than the capitalist class launched a massive counter-attack. Beginning from the mid to late 1970s—in response to the gains of workers and social movements and threatened with a growing crisis of profitability for the capitalist world economy—the ruling class begin to implement policies which systematically beat back the gains of poor, working-class, and eventually many middle-class people. Paradoxically, at the very moment when leftists began to seriously theorize the middle class, the latter began to decline, the victim of a massive transfer of wealth from both the working and middle classes to (progressively) the top 10, 1 and .1%.

So where does that leave the middle class? Liberation Road believes that any truly transformative politics in this country must be grounded in the strategic alliance of two social struggles: those of oppressed nationalities (of all social classes) and the multi-national working class. That means we see middle-class people of color as central to the alliance we must consciously build if we are to develop the power necessary to challenge racial capitalism. Because of their interest in opposing racism, we believe middle-class people of color can be won over to a politics opposing capitalism, with which white supremacy is deeply intertwined.

White middle-class forces, in contrast, are not part of the strategic alliance we seek to develop. But we do believe it is both possible and necessary to win substantial sections of them over to our politics. As our United Front Policy states, our goal should always be to organize the broadest alliance of forces against the narrowest possible enemy. That means identifying the progressive sectors of the white middle strata and winning them over to a politics centered in and led by the strategic alliance of oppressed nationality and working-class forces.

To this I would add that, because capitalism itself is dynamic and contradictory, its class formations are not stable, but constantly shifting. In our era, some of the most encouraging workplace struggles are emerging from sectors of formerly professional workers undergoing a rapid process of proletarianization: nurses, educators, etc. As their wages and work conditions are destabilizing, many of these erstwhile middle-class workers are rapidly radicalizing. And because of their still relatively more stable position within the relations of production, they are more readily able to win concessions from the capitalist class, forming a powerful core from which to begin to organize other, more precarious sectors. (See this article for an analysis of the strategic potential of hospitals, schools and universities as sites of wall-to-wall organizing across class strata).

Finally, it seems like the impetus for your question comes from a concern about the class position of individual leaders in your mass work. Representation matters, and we should always work to elevate the leadership of working-class people, people of color, queer and trans people, and women. But we cannot move so easily from the level of analyzing social forces to that of analyzing individuals. Historically, many individual leaders of the global socialist movement have come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds—once again starting with your namesake, Engels, who was the child of a wealthy industrialist. While our analysis of social forces allows us to identify which groups have the deepest collective interest in the overthrow of racial capitalism, a million factors intervene in and complicate the relation of collective interest to individual identity. (A complicated topic in itself!)

Class background can and does impact how we show up in the work, and if you suspect that your middle-class comrades are exhibiting class-based behaviors that are having a negative impact, you should absolutely talk to them about it. Overall though, I’d be less concerned with the class background of individual leaders in your mass work than with whether they—and you—are working together to develop working-class leadership and unleash the collective political power of the class.

Do you have a question about Liberation Road’s line? Something you’ve always wanted to understand better about socialist theory, praxis, or history? A problem you’re wrestling with in your mass work? Submit your questions, queries and conundrums to “Dear Comrade”!