In Britain, there are only two classes – those who sell their labour power and those who exploit the labour of others, in other words workers and capitalists. Over the course of many centuries, capitalism has simplified class antagonisms. And in this respect, Britain has travelled furthest simply because of its long, thoroughgoing experience of capital – with its first appearance on the land, then in commercial activities, latterly in industry and finance.
As far back as late medieval times following the onset of the Black Death, Britain’s peasantry was abolished and transformed into agricultural wage-labourers. Then in subsequent centuries the march of industrial and financial capital greatly expanded the ranks of the working class. In 1848 Marx and Engels presciently observed in The Communist Manifesto that “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.” Now the vast majority of British people are workers who are selling their labour power, ranged against a tiny minority of capitalists who are exploiting the labour of others. We are many; they are few. And in the world beyond Britain, likewise there has been a massive, rapid growth of the proletariat during the last two hundred and fifty years. Essentially, the world is dividing into the two classes as well, with the peasantry dwindling.
Recognising which class you belong to helps you find your way through life’s problems. You understand your place in society, history and development. On the other hand, rejection of class encourages political confusion and fosters a headlong flight from reality.
Although there are only two classes in Britain, not everyone in the working class admits (or welcomes) their class position. Many cling to illusions and fantasies that they are middle class, or professionals or special individuals somehow outside the working class, though in truth there is scarcely a worker who is more than one wage-packet away from extreme destitution, a fact reinforced starkly by the recent economic depression and public service expenditure cuts. These illusions weaken people’s ability to collectively defend and organise. And why the reticence? Surely being a worker, either making or growing things, or providing services, is better than, say, being a banker (as distinct from a bank worker) producing nothing for the betterment of society.
In modern times, groups (colour, religion, gender etc) that are divisive and exclusive are elevated, whereas class, which is unifying and inclusive, is downgraded.
Class is fundamental to everything. Without clarity on it, we do not know who we are, nor can we easily fathom who are our friends or our enemies. In order to interpret and negotiate life confidently, you need to know who you are.