• theleftberlin

What does it mean to be working class?

by Ralph A Tebbutt

Power house mechanic working on steam pump. Photo: Lewis Hine. Is this what the working class looks like today?

A friend recently posted on Facebook commenting on the number of leading English football teams that had been taken over. His concern was that the supporters of these teams, the fans, were being sidelined. He drew attention to the importance in the lives of these fans of their team and how the results of the games of their teams have quite an affect on the daily lives of these fans. He made the valid point that those who do not follow football fail completely to understand this relationship. I saw very clearly the point he was making. As I write this I am still smarting from the result of my team’s game yesterday, when they lost badly. To add insult to injury, I watched the game on television.


For some time I have been concerned about the way in which political discussion, including on the left, has ignored the question of class. Quite rightly, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the issues around Black Lives Matter, race, slavery and the many related issues, but, unlike earlier discussions around female emancipation, the question of class has been somewhat muted.

In order to understand where I am coming from, it is necessary to relate some of the details of my own personal experience. This is not to suggest that I, or my particular experience is in anyway important or special, it is to provide the context of what I wish to consider. My thoughts go back to my early life. The greatest privilege in my life was to be born into a good working class family. To complete the context I am a straight white man whatever connotations that may bring to the following discussion. I was born prior to World War 11 and my earliest recollection of politics was putting up a poster for the Labour candidate in 1945. I was then aged 8.


Looking back, there were, I believe, apart from my family, three main factors bearing on my early experiences. The first of these was the street where I grew up. I spend most of my early life playing in the street with my many friends. It was a cul de sac and we were only disturbed by the milk man and his horse and cart, and the irate old man outside whose house we played rather noisily. One feature, or possible better called tradition or ceremony, was that every year one day in the holidays, we would all troop off to what was known as The Big Meadow to play football. Where the football came from and who decided we would do this I never knew. We walked the mile and a half to the meadows, divided into teams, played until we were tired and began to argue, and the walked back home again. A ritual that, as far as I remember, happened every year.


The second important influence upon my life was the Methodist Sunday School that I attended regularly. This chapel had originally, before the merger, been a Primitive Methodist Chapel, strangely it had provision for full immersion baptising although I never actually saw this. It is hard, nowadays, for people to understand the importance of Sunday Schools. The highlight of the year was the annual Anniversary. For weeks ahead of this event weekday evenings were spent practising the hymns to be sung. On the Sunday evening the Church, which had a balcony, would be packed full. All the Sunday School scholars sat on boards set out in front of the pulpit. Each Sunday School in the town had its Anniversary and people would go round supporting each of them. Interestingly, it was the one occasion when the Chapel leaders appeared to the scholars. The Sunday School teachers were clearly seen as members of the working class. Somewhere, I still have the certificate I gained for writing an essay on Temperance which I suppose is the equivalent of signing the pledge not to drink alcohol, a practice I continue to abide by. I continued with my Methodist allegiance, now in the actual Church when I went to University.


Two incidents show the attitudes within the Chapel. On my first visit to the chapel in Pitsmoor an area of Sheffield, I sat down in an empty row of seats. An elderly woman came and sat beside me. On my next visit, I again sat in this place, this time the woman told me that she always sat in a certain place and that I should join her there. I always sat by her side throughout my time in Sheffield. On my last visit to the chapel, a man came up to thank me. He had a son who suffered from a mental handicap. The man told me that his son had always been delighted that a University student should speak to him. I had spoken to him as a matter of course, it was the way I had been brought up. The effect of such, to me, a simple act I had never imagined.


The third form of influence was the Working Men’s Club. My granddad was a founder member of the Loughborough club. The working men’s clubs has originally been set up as temperance organisations but had not been successful until alcohol was allowed. At the time I am talking about, my dad and two uncles were members of the Club Committee. I remember the club well. As you walked in you were confronted by the doorman. The first thing you saw was the snooker table. To the right was the bar area where children were not allowed. There was a large concert room. At the weekend there would be a concert, with a singer, or a comedian or some other form of entertainment. In front of the stage were two rows of seats. On these the children sat, occasionally being given a bottle of pop. The adults sat at tables around the concert hall. On the right was the raised table at which the chairman sat controlling the proceedings with his hammer. When you got a bit older you were allowed to sit with your parents; a bit older still and you were allowed to stay at home.


The club was commonly described as ‘the Labour Club’ but my dad was always insistent that it was a working man’s club, and non political, although most members would have voted for the Labour Party. I have heard Working Men’s Clubs and Labour Clubs denigrated as mere drinking clubs but this is to do the Clubs a great injustice. There was much more to the clubs than just drinking. As a young man, I learnt to play cards, solo whist, sat beside my dad as he played his hand. In his youth, my dad was an indoors games champion. He left school to start work at the age of fourteen. As far as his ability was concerned, I believe that, had he had the educational opportunities that I had, he would have been a far better mathematician than I became. When playing cards or dominoes with my dad, he knew more about my hand of cards or dominoes that I did myself, simply because he understood the logic behind the way in which the game developed. The club had whist teams; organised an annual produce show for things grown on members gardens and allotments; I have mentioned the entertainment; every year a trip was organised for the children, the children’s outing. To put this in context, it was after the war before I saw the sea, Loughborough is a hundred miles from the sea, people relied on public transport. The Working Men’s club was the centre of the social life of its members. It is a mistake to say that there is no such thing as working class culture.


I could go on and describe the effect of the Grammar School to which I won a scholarship, it is in fact one of the oldest Grammar schools in the country and was the first challenge to my affinity to the working class. In those days there were many indicators of your class origins. Posh people ate their desserts with a fork as they did when eating cake; I ate my pudding with a spoon and my cake with my fingers. As a boy entering Grammar school I read four comics (word comics not pictures as we know today) and collected fag cards. I soon realised that the Grammar school rejected my culture and so I returned the compliment and rejected theirs. I was always in trouble for not reading the books they recommended, much preferring books I found in the Physics and chemistry labs and the more political books, especially on the history of mine workers, that I found in the local library.


Class has always dominated my thinking and activities. There are two points that I would like to draw out from the above before looking at class from a more structured approach. I have not mentioned the Co-op but my Mam was a strong supporter of the co-op in practice. Both my Mam and Dad were skilled workers, and members of their Unions, my Dad was a coach builder doing most of the glass work associated with coaches. My Mam was a cutter on a hosiery factory, very skilled and even in her late ages still able to do the most difficult work, this despite the fact that she was left handed (ambidextrous in fact). Her stubborn streak being shown by the fact that she had been told as a girl at school she would never make a cutter because she was left handed. Because of their ability as workers they did have some independence at work (I say some because when the firm that my Dad worked for collapsed it was the skilled workers who were first out of work).


The first point I would make is that my background was non-conformist. I grew up in a milieu that was loyal to the class from which we came, but it was not blind loyalty. One had to think things through, to exercise ones ability, and to make conscious choices. The second point that I would make is that in all that I have written so far, including my opening comments about football, the central fact to everything is that everything centres on community. Throughout all of this was a sense of belonging. This sense was not in many ways conscious, it was just something intrinsic. It is hard to explain. I still get a thrill when I hear some of Charles Wesley’s hymns being sung. I no longer have illusions in the theology, but the shared experience of singing together with like minded people reminds me of what fellowship means. For other people, with different backgrounds, such things are experienced in different ways. Hilary, my wife talks about her time as a young girls influenced by members of the communist party, and of going on the Aldermaston marches. We both, in different ways, shared in small part in the great miner’s strike. It is my belief that we too readily dismiss this aspect of working class life. We fail to understand how the daily activity of living affects the response of working people.


A few years back there was an enquiry into the proposal to build a road through a working class are of my present town, Gillingham in Kent. We presented a case against the proposal ‘on behalf of the working class of Gillingham’. I had to argue the case before the barrister working on behalf of the Council. Throughout the enquiry, rather than seek to elucidate the arguments, the aim of the barrister had been to undermine the person making the case. In his cross examination of my argument, he began by asking ‘Who are the working class?’ My response was simply that anyone who relies upon their labour for their livelihood is a member of the working class. His retort was to ask if that implied that he was working class, and of course if he fitted the definition then the answer was - Yes.


Although I am not sure that my definition is the orthodox Marxist definition, it is the one that I will stick with. As far as I am concerned, under capitalism there are two main classes, the capitalist class who own and control the factories and the means by which people can earn a living (the means of production in technical language) and those that have nothing but their ability to work. If they do not work then they starve.


Complications come in when the concept of productive and non-productive labour is considered. This problem was resolved for me when I read Mario Tronti’s “Workers and Capital”. He looked at the problem form two different perspectives. From a capitalist viewpoint, what is important is that the worker should produce a profit (surplus value) for the capitalist. In other words, the capitalist is only interested in productive labour. For the worker, things are different. Workers needs a job. Without a job they have no means whereby to live. It does not matter what type of job provided the worker gets a pay packet. The difference between productive and non-productive work is not a consideration. (Clearly workers want to do jobs that provide them with satisfaction as well as a livelihood but that is a secondary consideration in the terms we are now discussing). Thus for workers, and for socialists, the task is to overcome capitalism and not get bogged down about the nature of the work done by the worker.


By my definition the working class is all containing, whether in work or seeking work, retired or preparing for the future as a young person. The class is united in its task. I do worry when I read in socialist literature references to ‘the middle class’ except when it refers to the rising bourgeoisie in their fight against the aristocracy. Modern usage of the term I find a distraction and as a means of limiting and weakening the action of the working class. What I find even more objectional is when socio-economic categories based on a rigid definition of types of work and wages, are used, often when analysing election results. I believe that it is important to present our arguments in our own language and not fall into the trap of using the hegemonic language of the ruling class and their devotees.


As is my usual practice, I ask my close family to look over my writings to see ‘if it makes sense’. My eldest granddaughter responded

I agree that everyone who works (including a large portion of the "middle class") are part of the working class at a systemic level. However, I think there are also important cultural differences which align with the more common definition of working vs. middle class - these probably originated from the number of resources people had, they have developed into social rules too.
I think that the summer after A-Levels is an example of this. People who are culturally working class will often be working during that time and are less likely to go to uni. People who are culturally middle class will be focussed on experiences before university (e.g. going Inter-railing or travelling somewhere else; going to music festivals; going clubbing). Maybe that distinction could be clearer in your piece?”

My response to her comments was

As far as 'middle class' is concerned, what you write is quite correct. This as far as I can see is the basic problem. There is an important difference between cultural identity and the aspect of class, ie working class or ruling class position. As I noted in my piece there is a difference between my early experience and Grandma's. Many working class people allow their perception of their cultural position to influence their political position. This then reinforces the establishment (ie the ruling class) control and power.
By accepting the current concept of 'middle class' we undermine the actions needed to transform society. The aim of socialists is to create a society that works for everyone, that means a society that takes a communal approach to meeting the needs of that society. This does not mean a regimentation of society, we can only have compete freedom if everyone is free. It is in this that the concept of dialectics becomes important. Community and individuality are two aspects of the same thing.
Too many people in the 'so called middle class' identify the working class as 'those nasty workers, like the miners, the scum of the earth' ( I have heard the term used). Class in the terms in which I want it to be used is not a matter of culture, or religion, or race or ethnicity, it relates to ones position in capitalist society.
One danger is highlighted by the present position with the Labour Party leadership. Jeremy Corbyn attracted a large following because he stands for clear working class principles, of the type I outline. Keir Starmer stands full square in the cultural/social middle class concept with a complete lack of understanding of the working class (my concept) .
The issue that they used to defeat Corbyn was anti-semitism. A complete distortion of Jeremy's position. The issue around the Palestinians is not about religion, race or ethnicity. It is simple a question of working class support for people who are being oppressed. I think it was last week when it was the anniversary of Cable street, when the working class community of London came out in force to support the Jewish community when Moseley's Black Shirts, Fascists, tried to march through a Jewish quarter of London. It was an act of solidarity, the hallmark of the working class.
Working people are united by their position in society, it is the ruling class which will use their control of the means of communication to do their utmost to divide workers. That is why I believe we should avoid terms like middle class which are divisive and stress the factors that unite us.

I could go on for ever but you are intelligent enough to make your own decisions.

Sorry to go on, but old men are allowed to pontificate at times, as long as we recognise that our time has gone and that the future belongs to the youth.”

Much of what I have written can be said to be dated. Particularly young people will find it difficult to relate to the details of what is contained above. However, I do believe that they will understand what may be called the emotional aspects in what I have written. I have noted, amongst young people, the sense of community that I have tried to describe. My experience in the street is not so far different from the experience that young people find on social media. The reaction of young people to popular music is not so different to my own reaction to music, though in a different idiom. The experience of young people in the school strikes and extinction rebellion activities is not so different to the experience of the poll tax demonstrations and the miners strike. The two aspects of community and non-conformism are just as relevant.


What has improved the way I relate to politics and activity has been a greater understanding of capitalism and of the way in which change can come about. My reading and understanding of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky have led me on from the a desire to see the lot of my class improved to an understanding of how that change can be brought about. It is here that I feel we older comrades have something to offer to the young people who are so committed to the changes need to preserve life on earth. However, we have to realise that they will not listen to us, unless we first listen to them. It is through dialogue that we can move forward together. The importance of the concept of non-conformity is that nothing is accepted without first being challenged and tested. Was it Lenin who said ‘trust no leaders’?


As we have always said, ‘We have a world to win’. Our young people fear they have a world to lose unless radical action can bring about a change.