This article forms part of a series, Class Wars, in which we asked contributors to address an often vexed question: what does class mean to you?
Marx saw class as an economic category: your class was determined by your place in the system of production. But Marx also believed that there is more to class than your economic role. He distinguished the class ‘in itself’ from the class ‘for itself’, and this ‘for itself’ makes its own special addition to the ‘class struggle’. The proletarian who builds identity, culture, politics and relationships around a working-class status becomes an additional, and decisive, danger to the ruling bourgeoisie.
Just such a class-conscious proletarian was my father, who, having been brought up in great hardship in the Manchester slums, never lost his deep attachment to the community into which he had been born. But it was not a community that could include him. He hated his drunken father, who forced him to leave Manchester High School at the minimum age (then 14) lest he get above himself; he lost his one beloved sibling (Jenny, who died from TB aged 16), and he did nothing to sign up to the kind of job that his family expected. He had only one ambition, which was to get out.
He achieved this, aged 16, by joining the RAF, moving south in the war with Bomber Command, and eventually becoming a primary school teacher, having been hastily educated in the post-war teacher shortage. His life illustrated a feature that has characterised English society since the Middle Ages, which is radical social mobility. No sooner had he reached for a life of his own than he had left the working class. Within a few years he was respectably married, with a semi-detached house and a mortgage, and three children at local grammar schools. He had joined the middle class, even if only the lower echelons, a long way from the demonised bourgeoisie of the Marxist narrative.
But that’s not how he saw himself. He retained the class-consciousness into which he had been born. As far as he was concerned, he was working class through and through. He spoke with a Manchester accent, supported Manchester United, was a paid-up member of the Labour Party, and also secretary of his local branch of the National Union of Teachers. In all political conflicts, he was on the side of the Trades Union Congress, whatever it decided.
He believed that his country was ruled by a conspiracy of public school boys, and that there would not be social justice in Britain until the privileges that enabled such undeserving and treacherous characters to advance were finally abolished. He saw in the House of Lords, in the established Church and in the Monarchy, branches of this long-standing conspiracy and he understood all of our history in terms of it – as a never-ending confiscation of England from its rightful owners by a class of privileged usurpers. Normans against Saxons, Anglicans against Puritans, Cavaliers against Roundheads, Factory owners against the industrial working class – all such conflicts, for my father, illustrated the one great truth about England, which is that it has been, is and will always be a society riven by the great division between upper and lower class.
Interestingly, he did not subscribe to the Marxist worldview. Indeed, he was, in his special way, a patriot, who believed (rightly as it happened) that Marxism was nothing but a conspiracy to betray our country to Stalin. For him class was a moral rather than an economic category. It was the ‘class for itself’ that contained the true story of people like himself, who carried the flickering light of the oppressed proletariat in the catacombs to which the upper class had banished them.
And the members of the upper class – although, of course, they owned everything and stole everything – were not, primarily, defined by their economic status. Far more important were accent, dress, manners and sociolect. They said ‘lunch’ when we said ‘dinner’, and ‘dinner’ when we said ‘tea’. They had salaries while we earned wages; they went out to dinner in restaurants, while we stood rounds of drinks in the pub (but only on Friday, after the wage packet). They watched rugby and cricket rather than football, and – most important of all – they voted Conservative, while we voted Labour.
The great divide between them and us showed itself in everything that mattered: taste in art, literature and music, ways of getting about (car versus bus), religion (Church versus Chapel), recreation (hunting and shooting versus picnics and zoos) and of course education (Oxford and Cambridge versus whatever else you could scrape).
This conception of class, as a moral rather than an economic category, has survived the very many changes that have wiped away the England of those days. We still live in a society in which class resentment is a major social and political force, and in which people strive to make sense of all that happens to them in terms of the great ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide.
Tell educated Americans that the question of whether or not to ban hunting with hounds occupied 240 hours of Parliamentary time, while the decision to go to war in Iraq took only 18 hours, and they will be entirely non-plussed – especially when you add that virtually nothing else was discussed by the ruling Labour Party during the two or three years that it devoted to this topic. But when you explain that the aim was not to protect foxes but to punish the upper class, a light will dawn. For they will know, as we all know, that class in this country is not only a matter of moral status, but a matter of highly developed and inexhaustible social drama.
This theatrical side retains its appeal, and its comic possibilities – exploited so brilliantly by Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh – have made an unforgettable contribution to our knowledge of, and I would also say compassion for, the human condition. But it was not the theatrical side of the class war that obsessed my father. For him it was a matter, not of life or death exactly, but of faith versus betrayal.
I longed to breathe some other air than the ‘for itself’ that made such a fug in our living room (not drawing room, note, since that was what they said). I gathered around myself arty friends and exotic drop-outs. My father began to react with intense and vigilant hostility. He had been deeply opposed to grammar school, though I had no choice but to attend it. He strongly suspected (and rightly) that our school wanted to make us all into Etonians. He hoped against hope that I would not get into Cambridge, and was never reconciled to the fact that I did so – though to be honest it was unavoidable at the time. All in all I passed through adolescence bearing the stigmata of a class traitor, even though all I was doing was what my father had done, in escaping from the tyranny of Capel Street, Ancoats, into the meadows of Old England.
Having embarked on this path it is very hard to turn back. Our grammar schools – mine for boys and the one for girls that my sisters attended – imparted a kind of bland, proper, middle England accent which identified us with no specific class. We found ourselves advancing in whatever sphere was open to us, not because we were particularly adept or ambitious but because that is the nature of life: lean against a door and it opens, unless someone is pushing from the other side.
At Cambridge I advanced as far as an ordinary lower-class heterosexual can manage – which in those days was not very far. But, as the years have gone by, I have made up for the social disabilities of those days (though not the one mentioned), and managed to make an independent life in which class plays no significant role. Social mobility, for me, was the escape route from resentment and the way of looking on the world with acceptance and love. And that is how it should be.
But this very social mobility, which ought to undermine the distinctions between classes, as it does in America, is here in Britain dismissed as a fiction. The great us/them divide remains untouched by it, as it was untouched for my father.
Something about class resentment appeals to us – we cling to it, sustain it with fictions and dramas, and allow it to colour our social contacts and our political beliefs. Why is this? Perhaps, in the end, there is a kind of consolation contained in it. Perhaps, by self-identifying as working class, we join the heroic story of the English people, whose rightful inheritance was once stolen, we don’t quite know how, by people from elsewhere. Maybe some vestige of this narrative can be perceived in the drama of our country now.
Click here to read the rest of our series, Class Wars, in which we asked contributors to address what is often a vexed question: what does class mean to you?