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Socialist Review, March 1994

John Parrington


Middle of the road

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

John Charlton (January SR) made some interesting points in his TalkBack article, but I also thought he was in danger of blurring the differences between the groups of ‘professionals’ he mentioned.

Modern capitalism has created both a substantial white collar working class and, at the same time, what he calls the ‘new middle class’. Many white collar ‘professionals’ have been effectively proletarianised since the war with the consequence that the vast majority of teachers and social workers can be counted as members of the working class. This fact has been reflected in their increasing unionisation and militancy from the 1970s onwards. A similar development has taken place more recently among bank workers.

In contrast the ‘new middle class’ (which is not actually a class) can be seen as occupying a contradictory position midway between capital and labour. It can be divided into (1) managers and supervisors and (2) semi-autonomous employees. It is the latter group which is relevant to the present discussion.

Semi-autonomous employees are wage labourers but they are not subject to the continuous surveillance and control that workers have to suffer. They are part of a career structure, so that they can expect to improve their economic and social position as individuals, by rising up a pre-existing hierarchy. Workers, on the other hand, can generally only improve their standard of living through collective organisation and action.

I would argue that at least two of the groups that John mentions, doctors and lawyers, can still be regarded as belonging to this category of semi-autonomous employees, rather than being protoworkers as he at times seems to be suggesting. Many lecturers may be in a much more precarious position.

The working conditions and job security of these groups have been hit hard by the recession and Tory attacks, especially at the lower levels. However, their contradictory class position means that they will be as likely to look to an individual solution as to collective action.

A much more realistic scenario would try to win these individuals from these groups to socialist politics. On the one hand this means getting support from them for workers’ action. The increasing radicalisation of a significant minority of these groups means this can be successful. In building for the NHS march last year, our branch got a good response from doctors as well as other hospital staff for our petition at a local hospital.

On the other hand, it is often the wider political questions which draw people towards socialism. It is not just workers who want to know how to stop the war in Yugoslavia or prevent fascism over here. The Communist Party was able to build a significant anti-fascist movement amongst scientists in the 1930s even though scientists at the time were a much more elite group than they are today, and this allowed them to start to build the first scientists’ union. At the same time they could offer a vision, if a flawed one, of a society where science could realise its true potential.

The greater the scale of the crisis in capitalism, the more will members of the middle class be torn between workers and bosses. The SWP will hopefully start to win over much larger numbers of these people as the struggle intensifies and as we grow, but it will be despite their contradictory class position and will require a party primarily rooted amongst the working class.


John Parrington
North London

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