Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lecture June 2011 - The Intellectuals and the Working Class.

The working class forms a majority group in society and is defined in Marxian terms as a class who do not own the means of production and who are, as a consequence, forced to sell their ability to work for a wage and salary. However, one section of the working class should be singled out for critical examination; and that is the producers of capitalism’s ideas or “intellectuals”, as they are called.

Intellectuals are said to “shape” public opinion; they have access to the television, the radio, newspapers and politicians and dominate political discussion. By and large they live-off salaries either as journalists or as academics working in the media, policy institutes and the universities. They are members of the working class, although they would be the last to describe themselves as such.

Throughout the 20th century the impact of intellectuals on the development of the working class has been wholly negative. Intellectuals have supported dictatorships, violence and terrorism, mis-used the word “Socialism”, and attached themselves to political programmes and policies injurious to the interests of trade unions and workers generally. They have also created a vast “Marx industry” to give their own lame thinking some intellectual crutch.

With regards the production of Socialist theory, starting from Kautsky and Lenin at the beginning of the 20th century to the leaders of the various Trotskyist political parties of today, intellectuals deny the ability of workers to formulate Socialist ideas, act without leaders and politically think for themselves. Workers are written off by intellectuals as “the masses”, a conservative body easily led and manipulated by political leaders.

The leading theoretician of the German Socialist Democratic Party, Karl Kautsky, writing in NEUE ZEIT (1901) believed, for example, that Socialist theory could only be injected into the class struggle “from the outside” by political theorists like himself and even then only into the minds of a few advanced workers (See Franz Jakubowski, IDEOLOGY AND SUPERSTRUCTURE IN HISTORICAL MATERIALISM p. 118 Pluto, 1990).

The Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin thought workers were only capable of achieving “trade union consciousness” (WHAT IS TO BE DONE? 1902). Lenin believed that the “spontaneous” thinking of the workers could only lead to “bourgeois ideology” and only a revolutionary political force outside the working class could give it the necessary political class consciousness (for a interesting overview of Lenin’s anti-Marxism see BOLSHEVISM, Rudolf Sprenger, International Review no date ch. 5 The Leninist theory of Class Consciousness, pp. 29 – 40).

The doctrine of intellectuals being the only group capable of understanding the case for Socialism or producing Socialist theory repudiates Marx’s central political principle that Socialism had to be the work of the working class itself. However, this elitist position confronts a serious political problem with the activity of workers who actually have reached necessary political class consciousness without the need of leaders in general and intellectuals in particular; the founder members of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SPGB’s 1904 OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES contained the following fifth clause:

That this (the emancipation of the working class) must be the work of the working class itself.

The political principle adhered to by members of the SPGB both in 1904 and today, was written down just one year after Lenin wrote his book “WHAT IS TO BE DONE?” repudiating Marx’s insistence that the Socialist revolution had to be the work of the working class itself. So much for the anti-Socialist claim by Lenin that workers, through their own efforts, could only reach trade union consciousness.

By the 1960’s intellectuals had largely abandoned their misleading image of the working class as “heroic labourers” and instead gave their support to rebellious students, black and gay rights and nationalist movements (see for example, Herbert Marcuse ESSAY ON LIBERATION, 1968).

By the beginning of the 21st century intellectuals were claiming that the working class did not exist anymore and that we were all “middle class” except for an “underclass” who were fair game for derision. Today the stereotypical image of the working class is projected by newspaper articles as “low-life chavs” and exploited as “proleporn” in freaks shows such as SHAMELESS, LITTLE BRITAIN and characters like the “The Slobs” in “HARRY ENFIELD AND CHUMS”.

Intellectuals and the Soviet Union

And Intellectuals have placed a particular impediment on the political development of the working class, retarding their development in taking conscious and political action in their own interests. Remember the legions of intellectuals during the 1930’s who said the Soviet Union could do no wrong, proclaiming that the show trials were examples of exemplary justice and the gulags, the starvation and the removal of millions from the living “a lie” put out by enemies of “progress”?

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was attacked by intellectuals at the time for the SPGB’s consistent and correct criticism of the anti-socialist policies of the Soviet Union, with the consequence that members of the Party were either physically assaulted or denounced as “social fascists” by members of The Communist Party of Great Britain and its supporters (for a detailed account of the support for the Soviet Union by intellectuals during the 1930’s see SOCIALIST STUDIES No 54, The Left and Islamic Capitalism Part II, Summer 2006

The misleading image of the worker at the end of the 19th century was of someone who was characteristically male, working in heavy industry and living in slums adjacent to where they worked. This selective image of the working class became ossified in the cartoon caricature of the working class found in Soviet Russian art and propaganda posters after the coup d’etat in 1917.

Misleading images of heroic male workers with hammers and female agricultural workers with scythes were drawn by artists like Nilolai Kogout and then exported out into Western capitalism (see, for example, the homo-erotic painting The International by the German artist, Otto Griebel whose hand is seen on the shoulder of a miner standing in the foreground of a group of exclusively male manual workers singing Pottier’s hymn of the same name in THE WEIMER YEARS: A CULTURE CUT SHORT, John Willett, page 148-149, 1984).

Ironically, a series of photographs were taken of workers by the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, between 1930 and 1931, constructing the new Siberian city of Magnitogorsk. Magnitogorsk is a mining and industrial centre by the Ural River in Chelyabinsk Oblast, and is one of the largest iron and steel works in Russia. The city lies in the eastern side of the southern part of the Ural Mountains, once Stalin’s jewel in his first five year plan to outstrip United State capitalism in production; it is now a polluted hell-hole.

The steel plant at Magnitogorsk started operations before emission controls and plant security were even considered. The city plan was designed by Ernst May and his “Bauhaus brigade”- an allusion to the International Brigade which went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Architects and architectural students from Western Europe, notably Germany, went to Russia to realize Stalin’s new civilization. May, a German architect had studied Arts and Crafts architecture and the Garden City Movement in England under Raymond Unwin, the architect of Letchworth Garden City. May intended to transplant the ideas he learnt under Unwin and which he had applied in Dusseldorf urban planning to the layout of the city of Magnitogorsk.

However, May’s vision was compromised by Soviet bureaucracy, corruption and incompetence. The housing eventually constructed for the steel workers and their families was situated downwind from the plant, subjecting the town’s residents and workers unnecessarily to air pollution. Bronchitis, asthma, lung cancers and other debilitating ailments followed, as well as an entry into the “Dirty Thirty” – one of the world’s most polluted cities (

Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of construction workers in Magnitogorsk are not the heroic workers depicted in Soviet propaganda. Instead, her photographs are of workers toiling in appalling working conditions, many of whom were children, enlisted on the building sites and forced to work long hours for a pittance (NEW WORLDS: RUSSIAN ART AND SOCIETY 1900 – 1937, David Elliot, p. 133 1986).

So much for the Soviet Union as a “New Civilisation”; a utopia uncritically lauded by the Webb’s in their book SOVIET COMMUNISM: A NEW CIVILISATION? (1935) where, in over more than a thousand pages, the Webbs noticed every last detail about Stalin’s Soviet Union except for the terror, famine and murder of 20 million people. And they remained apologetic for the rest of their lives dropping the question mark to the title of their book when it was republished in 1942.

Beatrice Webb, in 1886 wrote one of the first critiques of Marx’s CAPITAL, having read the Deville French translation claiming that it had taken her ten days to read “ending in a cold in bed” (THE DIARY OF BEATRICE WEBB VOLUME ONE One 1873 – 1891, ed. J. & M. MacKenzie p. 187 1982). The article was never published having been “Squashed” by Professor Beesly, a supporter of Comte, who had chaired the first Working Man’s Association in London in 1864. She once said “I am the cleverest member of the cleverest family of the cleverest class of the cleverest race in the world” (quoted in TREASON OF THE HEART David Pryce-Jones 2011). In reality she and her husband were just “useful idiots” for the Soviet Union

The Changing Composition of the Working Class

The negative effect caused by intellectuals on the development of the working class has a long history. The cultural historian, Professor John Carey has made a detailed study of the appearance of clerical workers in the late 19th century. In his insightful book “THE INTELLECTUALS AND THE MASSES: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AMONG THE LITERARY INTELLIGENSIA, 1880-1939”, (ch 3. The Suburbs and the Clerks, Faber, 1992, pp. 46 – 69) he traces the marked increase of workers found in commerce, banking, insurance and property development in England, By 1911, clerical workers, misleadingly referred to by Carey as “Middle Class” or “Lower Middle Class”, (including some 124, 000 women), was a rapidly expanding section of the working class (p. 58).

And it was the growth in numbers of the office clerk at the turn of the 20th century which caused intellectuals the most anguish. Professor Carey records the horror of writers like the conservative poet T. W. H. Crosland (see his book THE SUBURBS, published in 1905) as he surveyed the growth of a literate and numerate working class emerging from the suburbs at the beginning of the 20th century). And in a fit of class hatred he and other like-minded writers used their novels and poetry as vehicles to heap ridicule, vitriol and spite on the despised office clerk, described in T. S. Eliot’s poem, THE WASTE LAND (1922), as “one of the low”.

And the eugenicist and anti-Socialist, H. G. Wells, a Fabian supporter who repudiated Marx’s belief in the ability of workers to establish Socialism without the need of leaders (see WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES 1899), took great delight in using fictional aliens from Mars to destroy the working class in his novel “WAR OF THE WORLDS” (1898).

In his autobiography, Wells recounts how he cycled around the Woking area noting down the people and places to be destroyed. In Chobham Road the working class are depicted as little more than vermin to be eradicated by death rays; a scorched earth policy to return the land from bricks and mortar to the grass, hedgerow and country lanes leading on to the civilised world of Sandgate, in Kent where Wells lived in some degree of comfort; the only members of the working class blocking his view of the countryside being the servants.

And this vitriol, ridicule and spite is used to powerful effect in E. M. Forster’s novel HOWARDS END (1910) where the office clerk Leonard Bast, who aspires to learning and self-improvement, is violently attacked by the businessman, Henry Wilcox. Bast symbolically grabs at a bookcase for support, and it falls over on top of him, so that he dies of a heart attack.

The house in Howards End, is situated in the countryside; a symbol of culture and refinement yet threatened by the encroachment of the suburbs and its despised clerks; a symbol of culture and refinement not for the likes of Leonard Bast. Here, at Howards End with the death of a worker “thinking above his station” is the lesson given by intellectuals to the working class; “Keep your place; otherwise what you wish for will destroy you”.

In 1938 the ruling class used the Green Belt (London and Home Counties Act) to prevent the spread of the suburbs and stop the construction of working class housing into the countryside. From the mid-19th century, England’s “green and pleasant land” had become the domain of the new wealthy industrialists escaping from the pollution of the city and they wanted to keep it that way.

Armed with the latest copy of COUNTRY LIFE, the rich could live their comfortable and privileged lives in grand Yeoman-styled houses designed by fashionable architects like Richard Norman Shaw and Sir Edwin Lutyens. As Carey correctly notes, although “the masses” is an imaginary construction its use as a term of abuse by intellectuals against one particular group of workers highlights the very real fear of a working class having the potential to politically think and act for itself. For the literati there was going to be no revolution in the backyard of the rural bourgeoisie.

The changing composition in the early years of the 20th century of the working class would not have been a surprise to Marx and Engels. In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO they wrote:

The Bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them, the whole relations of society.

The change from just an essentially manual working class to a class that was largely educated, technically proficient and mobile, in the sense of being able to leave the city through newly constructed transport systems like the railways and the road (a doctorate awaits someone prepared to look at the use of the bicycle to spread Socialist ideas at the beginning of the 20th century), created a cultural reaction among bourgeois intellectuals and their readership.

For Socialists, the image of the working class as just constituting factory and agricultural workers is wrong. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, formed in 1904, is unique in stressing that the working class is composed of males and females, that workers form a majority class within capitalism and includes anyone living or a wage or a salary or is dependent on someone who earns a living in this way. For socialists, the composition of the working class includes workers in heavy and light industry, transport, government, agriculture, office workers, teachers, scientists, the self-employed and so on. The composition of the world’s exploited working class is also made up of over 158 million working children between the age of 5 and 14 (UNICEF 23rd February 2011).

To support the argument for the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s definition of the working class, both in number and variety, there is a very useful web site called “Image of the working class” ( which gives a comprehensive modern record of the composition of the working class in all its diversity; images of workers which include laboratory technicians, university lecturers, teachers, medical workers, maids, mechanics, warehouse workers, steel-workers, hair stylists, nurses, architects and so on.

What is apparent from looking at the variety of work undertaken by workers in these images is that the working class runs capitalism from top to bottom, albeit in the interest of the employers. It is the working class and produces all the social wealth in the world, a large portion of which goes in the form of unearned income of rent, interest and profit to the capitalist class.

While it is true that in within commodity production and exchange for profit only one group of workers actually produces surplus value; the source of the capitalist’s unearned income, another group of workers is required to realise this surplus value. What unites all these workers as a class is their exclusion from the ownership of the means of production and distribution and its transformation into capital.

In any case, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has never courted “intellectuals” to do our thinking for us. Principle and policy has always been produced, agreed and democratically accepted by the membership as a whole. Socialists do not employ academics to produce political programmes and Manifestos for a leadership who then tell the followers “this is the way we think and act now”. Socialists do not have leaders. Instead we have workers who have agreed with and are prepared to defend the SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES. The Party has a membership capable of thinking for themselves and standing on their own two feet as equals to make democratic decision in the struggle for Socialism.

Socialists do not even have “leading members”. Leadership is a capitalist political principle utterly alien to the socialist revolutionary process. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has no leadership, no secret meetings and is open and democratic. Written material published in SOCIALIST STUDIES is not signed by individuals because it is written on behalf of the SPGB as a whole. Party speakers or writers carry no more weight than other members, who set out the chairs before meetings, serve on committees or who distribute Party literature. We do not turn particular members into a cult. As a coda to this lecture, a Summer School lecture which celebrates 20 years of the reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain, we would like to make reference to the late Comrade Hardy, who contributed so much to the propaganda work of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Hardy (Edgar Hardcastle), used to refer to himself as an “under labourer” an expression he had picked up from reading John Locke who had used the phrase in his ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING (Epistle to the Reader 1689) to denote the clearing away of rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge. . Of course the knowledge Hardy had in mind was “Socialist knowledge” necessary in the struggle to establish Socialism.

Hardy saw himself as someone who was nothing special within the Socialist Party of Great Britain but he did clear away anti-Socialist rubbish that lay in the way of sound Socialist knowledge. And he did so within the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of the SPGB. If he were alive he would have been disgusted at being associated with the anti-Marxist theoreticians on the Trotskyist web site and being lauded by the Clapham based Socialist Party as one of its “leading members” when they had previously expelled him, along with other sound Socialists, for carrying on political propaganda in the full name of the Party.

[Lecture given at the Summer School of The Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain June 2011]

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