Elizabeth Olds ‘White collar boys’ (1936)

Centrality of class

Mike Macnair replies to Foppe de Haan and Catherine Liu on the analysis of history and meritocracy

Foppe de Haan has made a useful contribution (‘Appeals of class society’, May 20) in response to my review of Catherine Liu’s Virtue hoarders (‘American “Blue Labour”?’ Weekly Worker April 15). Comrade de Haan’s main focus is on ‘meritocracy’, which he argues is inherent in all class societies. Much more briefly, Catherine Liu responded to my review in a letter (May 27), also emphasising meritocracy:

... the professional managerial class, even as a segment of the classical petty bourgeoisie, has congealed as a class under global capitalism. It is a hegemonic force - refined by American institutions, such as the prestige, economy-based meritocracy.

This meritocracy remade European institutions of higher education under the Marshall Plan and has more recently been embraced by People’s Republic of China elites.

Both comrades thus emphasise the importance of meritocracy; but comrade Liu stresses the relative novelty of the form, where comrade de Haan sees its roots in the remote past.

Here I offer a further contribution to this discussion. It is not a polemic, because at present I do not think that differences on this issue, to the extent that they exist, logically entail any basic disagreement over programme, organisational conceptions or strategic perspectives.


I should nonetheless begin with programme, just to outline a ‘framing position’ of where I am coming from. The first point is from the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier (1880), in whose drafting Karl Marx participated, and which I and other CPGB comrades have quoted repeatedly before now: “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.1 This point expresses an orientation. It does not deny the existence of forms of oppression/subordination which are not class forms. It asserts, however, that the working class as a class in seeking its own emancipation is forced to struggle to overcome these other forms of subordination - because “A people which oppresses another cannot emancipate itself”2 and the same is true of a ‘race’, or gender, etc.

Conversely, however, the emancipation of the subordinated beyond the working class usually, though not invariably, depends on the universal project of the emancipation of the working class. Usually. For a counter-example, “Jews became white folks” in the post-World War II USA and UK, and in particular after Israel became a US ally;3 and, more generally, successive generations of immigrants pass into the status of being ‘natives’ relative to new immigrants. However, this is not an end to racism/chauvinism, but merely a transition of a specific lower-status group to a higher one. The reason for this usually is that the class interests of the upper class members of otherwise oppressed groups usually override their (limited) solidarity with lower class members of the same nation, ‘race’, gender, and so on.

The second point is our discussion in the CPGB’s Draft programme of ‘Classes in the revolution’.4 There, we write:

The working class is the only consistently revolutionary section of society. Without owning any of the means of production of society, it has nothing to lose but its chains. Of course, left to itself, left to spontaneity, it is riven with sectionalism and exists merely as a slave class, capable of being economically militant, even insurrectionary, but not hegemonic. What makes it a hegemonic class is unity around the communist programme.

The working class constitutes a large majority of the population in Britain - as well as in Europe, the US, Japan and other advanced capitalist powers. The working class consists of not only the employed, but the non-employed - pensioners, those on sickness and unemployment benefit, carers looking after young children or aged relatives, students being trained for the labour market, etc.

Traditional distinctions between manual and non-manual work are more and more irrelevant because of social development. Hence besides manual industrial workers the working class also includes workers in the health service, transport, the civil service and local government, as well as non-manual workers in industry, finance and distribution, such as technicians, clerical and sales staff.

If the working class does not elevate itself from being a slave class, it finds its common actions paralysed or limited by opposing competitive interests, which divide every section against every other section.

And a little later, on the middle classes, we say:

The middle class, including the classic petty bourgeoisie - the self-employed, lawyers and other professionals, career criminals - and also middle management, middle-grade civil servants, trade union officials - shades into the bourgeoisie at its upper end and into the working class at the lower. Inevitably it wavers between the two main classes in society. To the extent that it has its own political programme, it is based on reactionary and utopian calls for a return to small, family production and national independence.

As capitalism relentlessly revolutionises the circumstances of production, elements within the middle class find old, privileged positions being dissolved. Such a process gives rise to explosive shifts and political intervention can speed the process of proletarianisation. Economic crises plunge the middle class into turmoil and into political action.

Workers ought to seek, as opportunities present themselves, alliances with the various organisations and manifestations of these intermediate strata. Indeed the working class must represent the middle class against capital in so far as this does not contradict its own interests.

The middle class can under no circumstances be regarded a consistent ally of the working class. That said, success in prising it away from capital deprives our main enemy of a major social prop and adds to the momentum of revolution.

There is nothing particularly innovative about these passages. They are somewhat adapted to 21st century society, on the basis of a general line of approach already indicated in Marx’s and Engels’s writings5 - and reiterated in the discussions of the early Communist International, particularly in the Third and Fourth Congresses.6 The claim essentially being made is that the aspirations of the middle classes are utopian, and hence unachievable. Hence, in turn, the interests of the polar classes - capitalists generally, and proletarians to the extent that the proletariat attains a degree of class-political independence - tend to dominate political dynamics.

The issue posed by comrades de Haan and Liu is how far this analytical judgment of the politics of the middle strata ‘works’. Can the ‘professional-managerial class’ (PMC) be “hegemonic” (Liu)? Or are its aspirations central to “what makes people buy into and defend class society and (Lockean) liberalism” (de Haan)? Or are we concerned here with one form whereby the narrow capitalist ruling class organises its hegemony over the middle strata, which remains in constant competition with other such forms - religion, the nation, patriarchy, liberalism, traditionalism and so on - with which form is ascendant shifting in different historical periods?


Comrade de Haan argues:

... properly understood, all class societies are experiments in establishing meritocracies, with ‘the meritocracy’ - the people who embrace this mentality and its consequences most deeply - simply being the clearest expression of that underlying pattern.

This may seem like an odd formulation, though it has some basis in the ancient Greek idea of “aristocracy” - literally, the rule of the ‘best people’ (beautiful and good), and its later derivatives, some of which comrade de Haan mentions. But is this more than ideology? Comrade de Haan’s underlying point is that

Marxism first and foremost is a political-emancipatory project concerned with establishing control by and autonomy for those currently forced to work for others, rather than being about any and all material benefits that flow from that. The converse goes for institutionalised domination and exploitation (aka class society), which capitalism elaborates on. Its primary aim is to ensure that a small group can control the many.

In effect, the aspiration to control the lives of other people is treated here as constitutive of class and substructural to particular class forms. This enables comrade de Haan to argue that this is explanatory of capital’s use of pre-capitalist social forms (slavery, etc) and that it explains working class men’s sexism as growing out of the aspiration to control women’s lives. The PMC reflects control through bureaucratic regimes in corporations, and so on.

I agree with comrade de Haan that capitalism is to be understood as a species of class society which contains and requires regimes of personal subordination at its core, which it has in common with previous forms of class society, such as the slave-owner urbanism of classical antiquity, and with European and Japanese feudalisms. The Weberian counterposition of ‘modernity’ or ‘industrial society’ to ‘pre-modern societies’ - understood as both radically different from ‘modernity’ and much of a muchness among themselves - is disabling of analysis.

Equally, Marx’s analysis in the first part of Capital Vol 1 is an extended counter-factual, which imagines a capitalism ‘purified’ by the adoption of left-Ricardian or Proudhonist reforms, and hence the elimination of the normal corruption and fraud of the regime, and shows that such a purified capitalism would still be a regime of exploitation. Hence, it does not license us to imagine ‘real existent’ capitalism as a regime of “impersonal domination”, as in the work of Moishe Postone and others: this is to turn Marx into an apologist for the capitalist regime.

This is particularly pertinent to the issue of ‘meritocracy’, because the other side of ‘meritocracy’ is supposed to be ‘social mobility’ and “la carrière ouverte aux talents” (“the career open to talents”).7 But Gregory Clark’s 2014 book The son also rises showed that there was more ‘social mobility’ in ‘pre-modern’ societies than the idea that capitalism produced ‘social mobility’ supposed - and, conversely, that there is a lot more simple inheritance of social class position in capitalism than the ideologues of meritocracy suppose.8

I also agree that the will to power over others is relevant to the story. I have argued before (though not in print) that the aspiration to individual liberty carries with it the will to power over others and is in this aspect deeply linked to class power.9

Division of labour

The problem, however, is that the will to power over others is not deep down enough in the level of the analysis. To quote Marx from the German ideology manuscripts, at regrettably unavoidable length:

This ‘alienation’ (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an ‘intolerable’ power - ie, a power against which men make a revolution - it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’, and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the ‘propertyless’ mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.

Without this, (1) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers - the utterly precarious position of labour - power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life - presupposes the world market through competition.

The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a ‘world-historical’ existence. World-historical existence of individuals means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history.10

The point was radically confirmed by the failure of the Soviet regime. Trotsky, indeed, cited the German ideology text in 1936 in The revolution betrayed11 - a work which with all its weaknesses diagnosed the most fundamental point, confirmed by the fall of the regimes, that the Soviet bureaucratic regime was bound to be short-lived.

In other words, what lies below the will to power in power-structured (meaning, mainly, class) societies is the material social division of labour within the framework of the available productive technology and available natural resources. It is this issue of the substructural division of labour which produces the result that, though aspirations to communism can be seen in episodes in classical antiquity, the middle ages and the early modern period, the real possibility of communism is posed by global capitalism. The same is true of the gender division of labour as lying below the subordination of women to men - which may, in turn, be substructural to class, and is constituted by inherited inequalities or the subordination of some families to others.

The issue is fundamental to that which comrade de Haan presents as the critical problem: why there is mass consent to, or at least mass acquiescence in, the capitalist order. I insist on ‘mass acquiescence in’ for two reasons. The first is that there is a good deal of evidence of subterranean discontent, which at the moment comes out mainly in the form of right-populist nationalism rather than leftism, though there have been several leftist episodes channelled back into the capitalist order by the continued dominance of the ideas of socialism in one country, the people’s front and the suppression of disagreement as required for unity.

The second reason is that back in 1980 Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill and Bryan S Turner argued in The dominant ideology thesis that acquiescence to capitalist rule is largely a matter of the “dull compulsion of everyday life” rather than mass, positive support for particular ideologies.12 Though the book was on publication savagely attacked for its inconsistency both with the Eurocommunist academics’ use of Gramsci, and so on, and with the new left’s sub-Lukácsian use of commodity fetishism (and its own converse fetishism of strikes and anti-electoralism), no-one has ever actually offered satisfactory reasons to reject the Abercrombie-Hill-Turner argument; and the marked instability of ideologies over the last 40 years tends to confirm it.

The analysis of division of labour under material conditions as underlying classes, in fact, allows us to add to the Abercrombie-Hill-Turner argument. The reason is that - for example - the relative success of capitalism vis-à-vis feudalism will provide an additional reason for acquiescence to the capitalist regime: a phenomenon which in the 18th-19th centuries was reflected both in British imperial loyalism/chauvinism, and in a variety of projects imitating the British, both politically and culturally (the revolutionary movements of the late 18th century are an example). Similar phenomena have been visible, considerably more extensively, in relation to the USA since the end of World War II. Conversely, “defeat is an orphan”: revolutions may ‘blow up’ ideologies which looked deep-rooted with astonishing speed, and ideologies associated with defeated regimes are - at least for a time - driven to the margins.

Equally, the pressure of the social division of labour as practical arrangements of work in very many cases overwhelms people who are explicitly hostile to its ideologies: thus couples falling back into the gender division of labour and childcare (and thence other ‘housework’) in spite of explicit feminist political aspirations; thus bureaucratic divisions of labour growing up in leftist groups explicitly opposed to them, but nonetheless practically forced to use them.

Hence, we do not require the aspiration to power over other individuals to explain mass acquiescence to capitalism.

State bureaucracy

What, then, are ideological products of the type of ‘meritocracy’ doing? Actually here we do come back to the “PMC” - or, getting rid of the specific idea of the PMC as defined by the Ehrenreichs, the ‘employed middle classes’, and at their core, the state bureaucracy. In my review of Virtue hoarders I made the point that the Ehrenreichs’ original 1977 definition of the PMC

was already an amalgam, linking plain productive skilled workers (engineers and many scientists, nurses) with the ‘core case’ of managers, and with ‘cultural workers’ … The state and state operations in the early 20th century were subsumed into this amalgam, so that the state as such disappeared.13

The point that the state as such disappeared is fundamental.

At this point I pass from common Marxist and CPGB arguments to my own specific theoretical views.14 States are, I would argue, different from classes, but are also forms of the material social division of labour; and recent states (going back to classical antiquity at the latest) are rendered subordinate to particular classes by the forms of their constitutions.

The underlying reason for this is that classes are institutions of private-choice competition between possessing-class families - whether this competition is to be in cattle-lifting, slave-taking, rent extraction or profit-making. Exploiting classes are in effect managers of collective enterprises (slave-worked estates, manors, firms …) who have their hands in the collective tills. The substructural functional role of exploiting classes in the social division of labour (the reason the society puts up with these thieving managers in the longue durée) is therefore to drive innovation: and this is as true of the urban slaveholders of antiquity or the feudal aristocrats as it is of capitalists. Change in the past looks so gradual as to appear non-existent, merely because we stand a long way up an upwards-trending hyperbola of the development of the forces of production, looking back at its gradual earlier slope, and imagine the latter as flat.

States, in contrast, are public-choice organisations. If exploiting classes are in the division of labour thieving managers, states are protection rackets. They need enough coercive power to be able to extract surplus in the form of tax - and, on the other side of the coin, to provide protection benefits and infrastructure, which the private-choice exploiters depend on. Because the job of states is to provide protection against internal feuding, wars and natural disasters, states are naturally conservative. It is for this reason that rising classes are forced to overthrow existing states and make new states in their own image.

But it also follows that states in class societies are in competition with the exploiting class for a share of the social surplus product (tax versus rent; tax versus profit). And, conversely, individuals who work in the state are prone to divert state assets and income to their own families in order to advance them in the class order. To the extent that this is fully normalised, the state self-dissolves into the ruling class and loses its coercive capacity and ability to provide protection benefits and infrastructure.

The state therefore needs to hold state officials back from looting to the extent that it undermines the state’s general effectiveness. And this need is shared with the ruling class - which also needs state officials to be loyal to forms which render the state dependent on the ruling class.

This dynamic requires state officials - bureaucrats, soldiers, policemen, and so on - to be committed to state ideologies. If they lose their belief in these state ideologies, the state again collapses - into warlordism, as in the late western Roman empire or the late Chinese empire; or into mere kleptocracies subordinate to some external power, as in the fall of the USSR.

The core, therefore, both of ideological production and of what the Ehrenreichs tagged as the “PMC”, is state ideological production and the state bureaucratic apparatus. This is an old social stratum, not a new one. The fact that the name ‘state’ itself is late medieval Italian and spread from there is completely secondary. The institution was called the res publica, the ‘public thing’, back to Roman times, and a ‘polity’ in ancient and medieval Greek. We are concerned at its core with a social group narrower than a class, defined in its relationship to the public authority, which can be found expressing itself and its self-image in endless imperial Chinese bureaucratic memorials, and in a much smaller corpus of analogous late Roman bureaucrats’ writings, as well as in medieval texts like (for merely a single example) Richard FitzNeal’s late-1100s English Dialogue of the exchequer.

‘Meritocracy’ is a particular modern ideology, which, however, developed on the basis of the long-standing Chinese imperial practice of using competitive examinations for public service entry, which was then adopted in Europe and the US under Chinese intellectual influence in the 18th-19th centuries.15 It is obviously connected to Napoleon’s “carrière ouverte aux talents” and similarly is a polemic against the explicit idea of the inheritance of fitness for particular jobs - particularly feudal-landlord fitness for military command, which persisted down to the early 20th century.16 In this character it was an appropriate ideology of US hegemony - as against the US image of old Europe (Britain included) as feudal-aristocratic in character. Thus Catherine Liu is right to say that “meritocracy remade European institutions of higher education under the Marshall Plan” - but it is the US state which has driven this remaking.

In the decline of any class order, the self-ordering capacity of the ruling class declines, while the state picks up the slack. State bureaucracy and its role expand, and we get regimes like the later Roman empire in classical antiquity, and like the Tokugawa regime in Japan or European absolutism. The ‘rise of the PMC’ is a particular form of this trend appropriate to declining capitalism. The limited-liability corporation is both a creature of the state, and a ‘little state’ with its own bureaucracy imitating managerial hierarchy. This development, unlike the US-led ideology of ‘meritocracy’, was not a novelty of post-World War II (here contrary to comrade Liu’s letter). The significance of the employed middle class was already part of Eduard Bernstein’s argument against Marx’s politics of class in the 1890s; Berle’s and Means’ The modern corporation and private property was published in 1932, and described developments which were already in progress in the later 19th century US and Germany, though later emerging in Britain and France.

At this point we return to the beginning. Is the ‘PMC’ and meritocracy “hegemonic”? There is a tendency towards bureaucratisation of capitalism, reflecting its long-term decline. But this remains at its core the regime of capitalist state power. The bureaucrats’ dream in the USSR and similar regimes was as much a utopia as the utopias of the more traditional petty bourgeoisie, and ended in 1989-91 in collapse into dependent forms of capitalist regime. The result was disastrous - and right now, these disasters have led to an ideological transition, now in process, away from liberal anti-discrimination and hence, impliedly, away from ‘equality of opportunity’ - towards right-populist forms of nationalism, traditionalism and authoritarian rule.

The problem is not, I think, one of opposing either the ‘PMC’ amalgam or ‘meritocracy’ as a hidden secret of class rule as such. It is making the positive case for working class rule and socialism - which is a case for radical democracy and the subordination of the labour bureaucracy, and in turn towards demanagerialisation and the restoration of the public power to the public.


  1. “... l’émancipation de la classe productive est celle de tous les êtres humains sans distinction de sexe, ni de race”. The text is at marxists.org/francais/inter_soc/pof/18800700.htm; translation at marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.↩︎

  2. F Engels, ‘A Polish proclamation’ (1874): marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/06/11.htm. Cf also K Marx, ‘Confidential communication on Bakunin’ (1870): “A nation that enslaves another forges its own chains” (marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/03/28.htm).↩︎

  3. Eg, K Brodkin How Jews became white folks and what that says about race in America New Brunswick NJ 1998. Cf also N Finkelstein, ‘How the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 gave birth to a memorial industry’: lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v22/n01/norman-finkelstein/how-the-arab-israeli-war-of-1967-gave-birth-to-a-memorial-industry.↩︎

  4. communistparty.co.uk/draft-programme/4-character-of-the-revolution, section 4.1.↩︎

  5. The issues can be found drawn out on the basis of a full study in H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 2, The politics of social classes New York 1978.↩︎

  6. J Riddell (ed) To the masses: proceedings of the third congress of the Communist International 1921 London 2015 and Toward the united front: proceedings of the fourth congress of the Communist International 1922 Leiden 2012. We cannot make the claim that they are a simple inheritance of the Second International, because Second International writings on the middle classes display significant - if variable - levels of influence from Ferdinand Lassalle’s claim that all the non-proletarian classes were “one reactionary mass”, which was included in the 1875 Gotha programme.↩︎

  7. “... j’eus pour principe de tenir la carrière ouverte aux talents, sans distinction de naissance, ni de fortune” - Napoleon Bonaparte, reported by B O’Meara, Napoleon in exile (1822), quoted in several places.↩︎

  8. Princeton NJ 2014. I do not mean by this to support Clark’s offered explanations of the phenomenon.↩︎

  9. communistuniversity.uk/individual-liberty-and-class-power.↩︎

  10. Quote from marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm. The text in T Carver and D Blank Marx and Engels’s ‘German ideology’ manuscripts (London 2014, pp95-97) makes clear that this is Marx’s amendment to Engels’s earlier draft. “Filthy business” should be “shit”.↩︎

  11. marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch03.htm.↩︎

  12. Sydney 1980. See also the same authors’ edited collection of essays: Dominant ideologies Abingdon 1990.↩︎

  13. ‘American “blue labour”’ Weekly Worker April 15: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1343/american-blue-labour.↩︎

  14. I have outlined some of the argument in ‘Historical blind alleys: Arian kingdoms, Signorie, Stalinism’ in Critique, Vol 39, pp545-61 (2011).↩︎

  15. See, for example, the discussion in S-Y Teng, ‘Chinese influence on the western examination system Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol 7, pp267-312 (1943); D Bodde, ‘Chinese ideas in the west’ (2005): projects.mcah.columbia.edu/nanxuntu/html/state/ideas.pdf.↩︎

  16. AJ Mayer The persistence of the old regime: Europe to the Great War New York 1981. For an earlier attempted transition out of this conception compare M Macnair, ‘Doing war differently’ Weekly Worker May 28 2015: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1060/doing-war-differently.↩︎