What do we mean by "class"?

Discussion between Captain Anthony Ludovici, G. A. Isaacs, and Tom Harrisson.
In the Chair, T. H. Marshall

The Listener 20, 1938, pp. 765–766

- p. 765 -
LUDOVICI:  Class now means barriers and cleavage between the various social grades of the nation. It means that social intercourse between these various grades, if not forbidden, is at least not countenanced. Class, in this sense, amounts to a nation, or many nations, within the nation. This is wrong and must cease. It is a convention created by snobbery and ends only in what Marx thought must culminate in the class struggle.
        Class should mean merely a group which makes its own peculiar contribution to the general welfare. Thus, there is the group of farm-workers, that of the doctors, that of the dustmen, and that of the lawyers. Such groups are merely bodies doing different work in the field of national endeavour. Their differences should be based only on natural endowment and taste. No group, however humble its work, should, therefore, inspire aloofness, any more than do the differences of function between the members of a football team. In this sense, class should not necessarily involve any barriers or cleavage. Conquest may have been the origin of class where cleavage is most rigid. But it is chiefly through function or occupation that caste and class have arisen, and function involves no necessary cleavage.
        Can the industrial magnate do his job efficiently without his charwoman or his fishmonger? If he cannot, his charwoman and his fishmonger are as necessary to the whole as he is. They are all united in a common task and purpose. Does this mean that he should raise his hat to his charwoman and his fishmonger's wife as he does to his vicar's wife? If hat-raising to women is a desirable act of courtesy, it certainly does. If mixing socially with them gives all parties pleasure, why not? These seem small concessions; but bear in mind that they are denied today. This leads to a more or less complete lack of social contact between certain groups in the nation, and is a constant affront, especially to those conscious of any personal worth. But it is an essential feature of our dangerous class cleavage.
        This cleavage has not been created by any instinctive mutual dislike between different groups of workers. It has been created by the refusal of snobs to be mistaken for their supposed inferiors. Those whose false positions of power were secured only through money, found it impossible to command respect by the innate distinction which is recognized at once. They were afraid of mingling with their subordinates lest they should be mistaken for them. They therefore invented insuperable barriers to keep them apart. Unable to depend on quality, they created cleavage. It is this cleavage that society must remove. Its removal, however, will mean re-education on a vast scale.

ISAACS:  Why should there be any distinctions at all among those who render service to the community, whatever that service may be? I can appreciate varying grades of service, but I do not appreciate varying classes of individuals. I see no reason why those who perform the high-grade services should be regarded as better or higher-grade men and women. Honour and comradeship and humanity and sympathy — all these are found in the highest degree among the so-called lower classes. Yet if upper class means anything, it ought to mean people possessed of these qualities. I should designate as of low class — or of no class — all people, whatever their economic position, who are dominated by greed, selfishness, inhumanity and self glorification.
        But, as Ludovici said, that's not the way people actually judge their neighbours today. Instead, there is in all grades of our community a powerful class snobbishness which despises or patronises those presumed to be lower in the social scale while acting with becoming humility to those considered to be higher. I don't see how you can get rid of it by re-education. People are not likely to believe that the charwoman is as necessary to society as the industrial magnate as long as society rewards them so unequally for their services. But there is also a class-consciousness prevalent among the workers of all grades, who are proud of the description "worker". It signifies that they are of the class essential to national welfare, the class which has an international common bond, the class upon whose efforts alone nations can exist.
        It might be said that the kind of division I was talking about just now, and the groups Ludovici referred to as well — his doctors and dustmen and so on — are not classes at all in the true sense of the word. But what the true sense is, it's very hard to say. Obviously a class is a larger group than a single occupation. There are hundreds of different occupations within the working class, for instance. Yet occupation is one of the things that counts most in classing a man. People speak of manual and non-manual labour, as if the manual labourers were a class apart with their own status in society. Even Acts of Parliament use these phrases — in connection with National Health Insurance, for example
        The word "status" is not easy to define, but I think it's a very real thing among working people. It means the kind of work a man does, the kind of house he lives in, and the amount of wages he earns. These, all taken together, measure his standing in society. And I think I should add education to these — the schooling a man got when he was a boy, and the place where he got it. That counts too. But I don't see why it should. If a boy goes to Eton or Harrow, why should that put him in a different class from someone attending an elementary school?
        Then there's another point. These things that fix a man's status sometimes get changed during his lifetime. Does his class change too, or is it fixed once for all at birth. I was born in what would now be called a London slum. Does that put me for ever in a different class from the man born in a large house in the country? Or suppose an elementary schoolboy wins his way by scholarships to the university, does he change his class, or is he still classified according to the social position of his parents? I wonder, too, if someone who has been to a public school and university, and then, by force of circumstances, has been compelled to take a lower-paid job and live in a working-class house — I wonder if that de-classes him, so to speak? After all, perhaps the truth is that it all depends on ability to pay, and that you really buy your class in society just as you buy a first-class ticket or a third-class ticket in a train.

HARRISSON:  I can only talk from my own experience of a couple of years' study in northern England and in a typical area of London. And all I can say is that, from that experience, I can find no support for the view that there is a simple, clear-cut thing called "Class" at all. My observations of our own civilisation convince me that the largest feature of the class struggle which Ludovici seems to feel as a menace in our midst is not so much a struggle between classes as a struggle between individuals to be more class. One of the main ideas of our whole civilisation is the urge to get on, to make good, to be a success. While at the same time every workman has always to strive to be a bit better than the chap next to him, has always to strive to be a bit better than he himself already is, for the very simple reason that whenever there is a depression — and, as we now know, depressions come very regularly — many are sacked, only the best workers keep their jobs. I don't think there is the slightest use Ludovici talking about the way class ought to be conceived, so long as there is this urge for every person to climb the social ladder, to try to be better than anyone else for fear of losing his job. Until you can guarantee every human being a decent job, or even a rotten job so long as it has a decent wage — until you can give people that security, it is trivial and futile to talk of remedying "dangerous class cleavages", and "if necessary taking off your hat to the charlady".

- p. 766 -
        This effort to be better than other chaps is absolutely natural and even essential in the present order of society. So if you ask me to define what is class I am forced to say that I don't know, and that I don't personally think anyone else can know until social relations as a whole have been made the subject of proper scientific study. We can easily simplify it into words, and my own way of simplifying it is this. I would say that there are three main classes, based on education. The people who leave school at fourteen; the people who leave school at eighteen; the people who leave university at about twenty-two. These are more important factors than any others in determining what sort of job you get, what sort of a language you speak, your attitude to other people, and above all how much you know.
        For the great mass of ordinary folk who have to leave school at fourteen, life today offers few large prospects of advancement. But to persons who cannot rise up the scale of success in life, there is one other outlet, at the other end of life. When they are dead they can be more classy. In the great northern town where I live, most people save money each week — however bad times are — to ensure a really posh funeral and a good grave when they die.

ISAACS:  In my view, there are only two real classes. Class number one — the working class. It includes the oft-quoted "middle class", together with artisans, labourers, shopkeepers, housewives and all the professions. All these are workers. The second class includes those who live on the labour of others, of their ancestors, or the labour of those who earn the dividends on the shares they hold, or provide the rents of the lands they possess. These are the people who "toil not neither do they spin", the so-called leisure class. My main point is that class depends, not on what your job is, but on whether you are contributing anything at all to the welfare of society in return for the income you enjoy."

MARSHALL:  But, Isaacs, I don't follow. The view that there are only two real classes is familiar enough. But they are usually described as the propertied and the propertyless, or as the capitalist employers and the wage-earning proletariat. But your definition would put all the bank directors and captains of industry and judges and Harley Street specialists into the working class. In fact, you would have to say that this country always has a working-class government, because whatever you may think of Cabinet Ministers, you can't deny that they work, and very hard too.

ISAACS:  On the test of usefulness the Cabinet Minister would be accepted as a member of the working class even if, when out of office, he had no need to perform any work because he is independent — that is, of course, dependent for his maintenance upon the labour of others; therefore, then performing no useful function. Would those in the self-styled upper classes give similar acceptance to the textile worker or bootmaker who by his mental skill has obtained cabinet rank? Believe me, I know the answer to that question. I stand by my view that all persons who, by their personal skill and service, contribute something to the national welfare in return for the income they receive, are in the class of workers. In other words, the test of class should be "useful" or "useless".

MARSHALL:  Well, I see your point, but I don't think Harrisson will agree with you. And I rather doubt whether you will, Ludovici. What do you think about these two lines of argument that have been put forward by the others?

LUDOVICI:  I can't accept either of them. I disagree with Isaacs' claim that there are only two classes, but I also disagree with Harrisson when he implies that the striving after ascendancy, of which he speaks, leads to class cleavage. I do not deny that the striving he speaks of leads to certain features of the present social order. What I deny is the necessity of cleavage in the social order. Mankind can still discern superiority when they meet it. In spite of the fundamental sameness of human beings, peculiar natural endowments will always make some prefer manual and others intellectual pursuits, make some fit for leadership and others fitter and happier as followers. I admit that men of personal worth and men of no worth are often misplaced today; but that is only part of latter-day muddle. Mankind, however, never objects to power and privilege being granted to obvious superiority, but only to power and privilege accorded where no superiority exists. Only when the powerful in the land are not the best in the land does power provoke ill-feeling. Unfortunately, the fashion under capitalism has been to measure power chiefly by money. This has too often divorced power and privilege from superiority. The result has always been that the powerful in the land have not always been the best. This is a further cause of Marx's "class struggle"
        Harrisson says it is futile to deplore class cleavage as long as people are not secure in jobs which support them. But there is much evidence to show that what most normal people desire is not security in a well-paid job, but security in a job which satisfies their tastes and endowments. Thus, in order to remove class cleavage, we require not only a change of heart in the nation, but also a guarantee that all should find secure occupation suited to their aptitudes and tastes. Only thus can the majority at least find contentment and feel justly treated. Harrisson seems to forget that the struggle to outclass your neighbour is often merely a struggle to escape from an uncongenial task. When these changes are made, the leaders and privileged will cheerfully be granted the respect inspired by the qualities which gave them leadership.
        I admit, of course, the importance of education. But let us guard against the fallacy of equal opportunity. This in the long run too often means sameness of opportunity, at the cost both of the nation and the freedom of the individual. We must try to put ourselves in other people's shoes. Then we shall learn that what looks like a cage is not necessarily a cage if a man has built it with his own hands. We must try to discover what work and civil status each human being is best fitted for and then help him to secure it. Incidentally, it is conceivable that some people may do best in the end by being actually deprived of opportunity. It is one of the tasks of the immediate future to arrive at a deeper knowledge of heredity and of the nature and constitution of the young, and to frame a scale of unequal opportunities accordingly.

MARSHALL:  I think that's the first constructive proposal we have had. What do you think of it, Harrisson?

HARRISSON:  I think it's impracticable. I can't see how Ludovici is going to do any of these things as immediately as he seems to think without a great deal of research work, plus changing the whole structure of society. There has been a lot of talk about class cleavage and class conflict, but it seems to me today that there is very little of that cleavage visible in England. In studying the psychology of strikes, as I've been doing lately, I have been struck by the way in which several recent ones have been sabotaged — though not, of course, deliberately — by the attitude of other workers in allied industries who did not support the strikers, though Isaacs says they all belong to one class.
        I think Ludovici and Isaacs are both deceiving themselves — Ludovici into an over-simple solution of an over-simplified problem, Isaacs into a sentimental simplification which is open to grave doubts on the basis of the all-too-few ascertained facts. But I admit I know far too little to be dogmatic myself. A thing that I keep coming up against, that again seems to cut right across the simplified class distinctions, is the conflict and cleavage between persons who enjoy certain types of pleasure and others who disapprove. For example, smokers and non smokers, people who go in for the football pools and those who don't. Catholic versus atheist, pub-goer versus teetotaller, can easily become fundamental issues in any civilisation of our sort. I feel that the "struggle to be more class" makes many things go wrong with modern life, though at the same time it makes modern life modern. The point is, if you are going to get rid of class, you have got to get rid of the competition — money and showing off.

MARSHALL:  A great many questions have been raised by this debate: it is not for me to say which of the views put forward is correct. Social life is extremely complicated, and its pattern is constantly shifting. So let me repeat Harrisson's warning. Don't allow yourselves to take an over-simple view of an over-simplified problem, but try to keep an open mind until you have heard this enquiry to the end.