Britain classless society essay

Social Class And Social Work Essay

They were inert, inanimate social aggregations; they did not do, feel, or achieve anything collectively; they were not locked in perpetual struggle with other classes; and so they neither made history nor changed its course. As such, these classes anticipated and resembled the groups into which all individuals are placed in a national census, which are used to provide a comprehensive picture of society based on income, wealth, and occupation.

They also lie behind the work of successive generations of sociologists, who continue to refine and debate the number and nature of such classes to be found in modern Britain. Pace John Major, these classes will always be with us, as long as there remain inequalities in income, differences in occupation, and variations in wealth that can be objectively observed and precisely measured.

But Marx, and most social historians who have followed him with varying degrees of faithfulness and fidelity, was less interested in class as objective social description "in itself" , than in class as subjective social formation "for itself". By what processes, on what occasions, and with what results, did these inert statistical aggregates become transformed into historical actors, alive and aware of themselves as a class, with a shared identity, collective history, group trajectory, and common objectives?

For Marx, the answer lay in the perpetual struggle among landowners, capitalists, and laborers for rent, profit, and wages.


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Sooner or later, he believed, this inevitable economic conflict over the spoils of production was bound to give rise to social conflict, which would in turn lead to political conflict. Thus regarded, these struggles were both caused by, and helped to consolidate, that active, adversarial sense of collective identity known as class "for itself" or, better still, as class consciousness.

Class formation, or the making of a class, was the shorthand term regularly employed for describing this shared process of self-discovery and self-realization. Transformed and energized in this way, classes were not lifeless sociological categories; over time, they came into being, battled with each other for the historical initiative, scored victories and suffered defeats, and so became either the makers or the victims of the historical process. It was, Marx believed, these deeply rooted and momentous struggles among class-conscious classes, arising directly and inevitably out of the conflicts inherent in the productive activities of the economy, that gave history its basic dynamic, hence his famous dictum, already quoted.

And the climax of these class conflicts was political revolution, when the balance of power shifted decisively and irrevocably between one defeated class on the way down and another triumphant class on the way up. According to this interpretation, the modern world had come into being when a succession of bourgeois revolutions led to the overthrow of the traditional, feudal aristocracy: in Britain in the s, in the United States after , and in France after The result was the creation of that nineteenth-century, middle-class civilization of which Marx himself was both product and pundit, citizen and critic.

Yet he was equally certain that this was no more than another temporary stopping place on Clio's class-based progress toward the millennium. There would, he felt sure, be more revolutions. But in future they would be proletarian, with the industrial workers overthrowing the bourgeoisie just as the middle class had earlier overthrown the aristocracy. This, he was no less certain, would lead to the socialist utopia, in which both the state and class would wither away. It is an intriguing irony that, long before John Major made the phrase fashionable during the s, Marx had predicted that a "classless society" would one day come into being.


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Drawing with varying degrees of conviction and plausibility on Marx's ideas and insights, the class-based account of modern British history begins with the social origins of the bourgeois revolution of the mid-seventeenth century--otherwise known as the Civil War or the Great Rebellion--that witnessed the transition from feudalism to capitalism and thus from late medieval to early modern times. The victims and beneficiaries of these changes were, respectively, the declining aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie or, in other versions, the rising gentry , and it was during the Civil War that these two classes, set on very different historical trajectories, first clashed directly.

But although in the short term the bourgeoisie vanquished the monarchy, the peerage, and the established church, its revolutionary movement was curiously incomplete.

Social class

By the late seventeenth century, after the Restoration and the "Glorious Revolution," the traditional forces of authority were back in control, and for much of the eighteenth century the aristocracy, by now transformed into a quasi-bourgeois elite of agrarian capitalists, reasserted themselves. The stable, oligarchic world of early Georgian politics gave little opportunity for the middle class to improve its position in what remained a preeminently patrician society.

It was only as the industrial revolution gathered momentum in the s and s that Britain's social and political structure was more drastically and more permanently transformed. As new nonlanded wealth was created in unprecedented abundance, the aristocracy began to enter a second and much longer era of decline, which this time was indeed terminal. The middle class, by contrast, became more vigorous, more numerous, and more ambitious, largely thanks to the advent of a new breed of heroic entrepreneur, part creator and part beneficiary of the economic developments that were rapidly changing Britain into the first industrial nation and the workshop of the world.

And in turn, the growth of manufacturing meant that the first industrial proletariat also came into being: an exploited working class, crowded in cities and slums, subjected to stern factory discipline, and often degraded, disoriented, and discontented as a result. Inevitably, the workers and their employers were locked in conflict that was bitter and violent, and the factory owners almost invariably won.

The United States Is A Classless Society - Words | Cram

Moreover, the passing of the Great Reform Act of confirmed that the middle classes had superseded the aristocracy as the chief power in the state, dominating the economy, politics, and ideology of the nineteenth century as surely and securely as the landowners had previously dominated the eighteenth. Here at last was a triumphant bourgeoisie, vanquishing the aristocracy, subduing the workers, and entering into the inheritance it had been denied in the mid-seventeenth century: the age of capital, of machinery, of railways, and of Marx was at hand.

But as with the Civil War, the passing of the Great Reform Act turned out to be another incomplete revolution. For the working class, whose vigorous collaborative agitation had been essential in forcing the measure through a reluctant but intimidated Parliament, was denied its just deserts: the proletarian revolution, which Marx had foretold would follow inevitably in the wake of the bourgeois revolution, did not materialize.

The world-historical role that he had wished on the workers and predicted for them was one that they proved unwilling and unable to play, as their class "in itself" disappointingly refused to become a class "for itself. But they eventually fell almost farcically flat, and it was decades before the working classes recovered any collective sense of identity and political will. By contrast, the entrepreneurial middle classes enjoyed a second great triumph, as they compelled the patrician Parliament to repeal the Corn Laws in , thereby both demonstrating and consolidating their grip on Victorian Britain.

For some social historians, the failure of the working class to carry through a successful proletarian revolution during the early part of the nineteenth century was not only a source of deep regret: it also obliged them to explain why something that Marx had said should happen and would happen had not happened.

They offered several ingenious reasons for the lamented nonevent. They argued that on many occasions from the s to the s, Britain did come close to revolution and that it was only bad luck, or bad weather, or the coercive power of the state, that prevented it from occurring.

World War II and Social Class in Great Britain

They suggested that the unprecedented prosperity of the , s, and s, the so-called mid-Victorian boom, blunted the revolutionary ardor of the working class. And they claimed that the most prosperous proletarians, the "labor aristocracy," who should have provided the revolutionary leadership during the mid-Victorian era, lost sight of their own true class interests, succumbed to "false consciousness," submitted to the "social control" of their betters, and so traitorously acquiesced in the liberal bourgeois compromise of the "age of equipoise.

It was, so this interpretation continued, only during the late nineteenth century that the pace of social change began to pick up again, bringing with it a renewal of class consciousness and class conflict. The rising bourgeoisie and the declining aristocracy fused together into a composite capitalist ruling class, hence the era of Tory dominance, high imperialism, Joseph Chamberlain, and the Boer War. The unprecedented growth of big business and the scale of production meant that the working class developed into a new and self-conscious force: it was remade, not, this time, as the would-be revolutionary movement of the earlier nineteenth century but as a more reformist body, which found two interconnected institutional expressions.

The first was the trade unions, whose membership exploded during the s and s, again on the eve of the First World War, and yet again both during and immediately after it and which gave a powerful collective voice to the organized workingman. The second was the creation of the Labour Party, which in pledged itself, in clause four of its constitution, to bring about "the common ownership of the means of production" in the name of ordinary men and women.

With the demise of the Liberals after , the way was open for renewed class conflict, as the party of industrial capital the Conservatives confronted the party of organized workers Labour. This was the basis of the economic, social, and political conflicts of the twentieth century, culminating in such bitter, class-ridden confrontations as the General Strike of and the miners' strikes of and For the best part of a generation--the welfare state generation of this interpretation of Britain's past carried almost everything before it.

Whether Marxist, Marxisant, Whig, or liberal, there was among social historians and sociologists a shared presumption that economic change was the key to social change, that social change was concerned with the rise and fall of classes and the conflicts between them, and that it was the outcome of such battles that determined both the changing structure and the developing issues of politics.

The conflict between the classes was the direct, inevitable consequence of the conflict between those who were differently related to the means of production, and it was this struggle that in the end determined the nature and working of the political structure.

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Even if the dictatorship of the proletariat had not yet arrived, as Marx had predicted it should have done, his insights still seemed to offer the best way of understanding the broad contours of the economic, social, and political development of modern Britain, insights to which, it bears repeating, class formation, class identity, class consciousness, and class conflict were central.

This approach to the British past not only seemed intrinsically appealing: it was rendered additionally attractive because it was neither parochial nor insular. During the s and s, the era of decolonization, the Vietnam War, and student protest, such concepts as class formation, class conflict, and political revolution became essential features of many national histories and historiographies. In France, the events of were presented as the paradigmatic bourgeois revolution, the momentous outcome of a long-term battle between the rising middle classes and the declining aristocracy that changed the world forever and for the better.

In Mexico, the revolution of was depicted in essentially Marxist terms, as a popular, progressive, anticlerical, class-based movement successfully directed against a repressive and reactionary old regime. And, in Russia, a similar social-historical interpretation was eventually advanced about the upheavals of , which, it was argued, witnessed the first-ever triumph of a self-consciously revolutionary proletariat, thanks to Lenin's inspired leadership as he gave history a helping hand in a Marxist direction.

In this broader perspective of national history writing, the class-based interpretation of the British past was merely part of a general, widespread postwar pattern. Class Dismissed Even in the late s, this remained very much the prevailing orthodoxy.

A history of class demonisation

Yet today there is almost no one among a younger generation of British historians who would unquestioningly endorse this once-paramount interpretation. Why has it ceased to carry conviction? Part of the explanation lies in the massive amount of detailed empirical research that has progressively undermined these earlier, confident, but often highly speculative generalizations. For it is now clear that the pattern of economic development that provided the materialist motor for the Marxist model was neither as neat nor as simple as was once claimed.

The development of capitalism in the seventeenth century, the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the rise of new technologies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the growth of consumer-oriented industries during the interwar years, and the decline of the great Victorian staples since all these phases of economic change turn out, on closer inspection, to have been extremely complex, varied, and gradual developments.

In turn, this meant that changes in the economy were never so momentous, so straightforward, or so pervasive as to make possible or bring about the creation of those homogeneous, self-conscious classes of landowners, capitalists, and laborers locked in perpetual conflict with each other that Marx and his later followers among British historians hoped and claimed to discern. On closer inspection, the best that could be said of Marx's three class-conscious classes was that they were ideal types, historical abstractions that grossly oversimplified the way in which the social structure of modern Britain had actually evolved and developed.

One difficulty was that the shared class characteristics and clear-cut class boundaries that Marx and his followers had posited had rarely if ever existed in fact. Landowners did not only enjoy agricultural rents: they also drew profits from their mines, docks, urban estates, and industrial investments. In the same way, successful middle-class businessmen often set themselves up as broad-acted gentlemen, thereby straddling the supposedly deep and unbridgeable divide between the country house and the countinghouse.

Another problem was that within Marx's three supposedly inclusive class categories, there were many internal divisions: between aristocrats and landed gentry, between bankers and businessmen, between industrialists competing for the same markets, and between the many different gradations of skilled and unskilled labor. Yet a third qualification was that during and since Marx's time, old occupational groups have expanded, and new occupational groups have come into being that do not easily fit into his three-level model: rentiers, managers, professionals, domestic servants, and the whole of the lower middle classes.

Thus described, the social structure of modern Britain was more elaborate, and also more integrated, than Marx had allowed. But this was not the only way in which it turned out that he had been a heroic and misleading oversimplifier. For as particular episodes were more fully examined, it soon emerged that the grand, linear narrative--of class formation, class conflict, and political revolution--failed to sustain its credibility across the centuries, instead collapsing amid a welter of short-term, internal contradictions.

How could the aristocracy have been in apparently terminal crisis by the s yet still be the dominant class in the country on the eve of the passing of the Great Reform Act one hundred and eighty years later? If the working class had been so successfully "made" by the s, then why and how was it necessary for them to be "remade" during the last quarter of the nineteenth century? As for the ever-rising middle class, how was it possible for them to have gained so much in power and self-consciousness in every century, to have pioneered a bourgeois revolution in the seventeenth century, to have been "made" during the early eighteenth century and then "made" again a hundred years later, and yet to have achieved so little?

In the shortrun, self-enclosed historiographies of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, these problems could largely be ignored. But the longer-run national narrative, built around rising and falling classes that persistently failed to rise and fall and centering on political revolutions that were invariably incomplete, was shot through with both logical and chronological inconsistencies. The class interpretation was also in error in placing so much stress on the unifying experience of laboring activity in the creation of class consciousness. As soon as historians began to study work, it turned out, like so much else, to be a more complex subject than the Marxists had appreciated.

The growing range and number of occupations made people's circumstances more differentiated rather than more alike; many men frequently changed jobs and were often unemployed; and many women did not work at all. Pace E. Thompson, it was thus not clear that class "eventuates," as he had claimed it did, as "men and women live their productive relations. Historians of leisure, of domesticity, and of consumption have discovered social groupings and social relationships that were often significantly different from those found by historians of work and those of "social control.

The physical shapes on the ground, like the social shapes in society, were more varied than Marx recognized. It was never possible, moreover, as the interpretation built around the making of class consciousness crucially required, to collapse social categories into political groupings, to elide class into party, in any convincing, coherent, and credible way.

As detailed research soon began to show, the Civil War was neither caused by nor fought out between rising bourgeois roundheads on the one side and declining aristocratic cavaliers on the other. In eighteenth-century Britain, it was impossible to read off Whig or Tory political affiliations from their different positions in the economic and social structure. In nineteenth-century Britain, which had supposedly witnessed the final triumph of the bourgeoisie, politics remained a largely patrician pursuit, and there was never a hegemonic middle-class political party.

And in twentieth-century Britain, many workers have voted Conservative how else, indeed, could the Tories have won elections so frequently on a full adult franchise? Now, as in earlier times, political parties are not dominated, as Marx had too readily assumed, by the exclusive interests of a single class, and politics is never merely the direct, unmediated expression of class identities and class conflicts.

But the class-based interpretation of modern British history has not been undermined only by the detailed empirical research that it has stimulated and provoked. During the last two decades, a second and no less serious challenge has been mounted by women's historians and devotees of the new literary theory.

Feminist scholars rightly observe that very few women appeared in the canonical texts of social history written in a Marxist mode.

How odd it seems to them that books ostensibly about a whole class were only concerned with one half of it.