Who's Who and What's What in the World of Work and Wages

The People
October 14, 1995
Vol. 105 No. 12


In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels said that one of the distinctive features of capitalist society was that it was "splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat." Or, to use words more familiar to American ears, CAPITALIST CLASS and WORKING CLASS.

But that was almost 150 years ago. Where do things stand today? If capitalism was splitting up into two great and antagonistic classes the process surely must have been completed by now.

For all practical purposes, it has been completed. To demonstrate it, however, it is necessary to understand what Marx and Engels meant by capitalists and workers. Let's start with the working class. What are its distinctive features? There are several, including the following:

Members of the working class (1) own none of the means of social production; (2) they must sell their ability to perform productive labor -- their "labor power" -- which is given the special name of wages, in order to live; (3) they perform all socially useful labor; and (4) they have no voice in the disposition of their product.

This definition includes workers who wear white collars, blue collars, or no collars at all. It includes so-called "professionals," whose wages are usually called "salaries." It includes workers who have been beguiled or coerced into buying stock in their master's company. Capitalist propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, small holdings of stock do not make a worker a capitalist.

In short, the working class includes the overwhelming majority of the population and, except for a few capitalists here and there who, despite their capitalist status, may be occupied in useful work, it includes all the socially useful members of society.

By way of contrast, the distinctive features that define the capitalist class are these:

Its members (1) own all the means of social production; (2) appropriate most of the wealth created by labor; and (3) as owners perform no socially useful function whatsoever.

Just as the definition of the working class included "professionals," the definition of capitalist class includes the so-called small business owner. As for these petty capitalists, whose capital is so insignificant that they often must work alongside their hired workers, Karl Marx wrote: "Of course he can, like his laborer, take to work himself, participate directly in the process of production, but he is then only a hybrid between capitalist and laborer, a 'small master.'" (CAPITAL, Chapter XI.)

Still, many so-called professionals (teachers, nurses, scientists, engineers, etc.) can't get past the idea that they are a cut above the working class. They have been conditioned to believe they are members of a "middle class," hence that they are different from other workers. Yet, if we examine their actual economic status, and their relationship to the employing class, we observe that there are no important differences. Their wage may be called a salary, but whatever it is called it is still the price of the "professional service" they must sell to the employer to earn a living.

All workers, "professional" or otherwise, are employees, economic dependents, persons who in order to live must sell their labor power or ability to perform some service that is useful to the capitalist employer. They are all more or less exposed to the ever-changing conditions on the labor market. Thus, if the company they work for loses a contract, say, and a plant is closed and its work force laid off, the "professional" engineers suffer the same fate as the nonprofessional production workers. Moreover, as more technological advances come along and the supply of workers in the various "professional" categories increases, even the income advantages many "professionals" once had are starting to disappear.

The concept of a "professional" worker is a divisive one. It helps the capitalist class to keep the working class divided. It appeals to the egos of workers in the alleged "professional" classifications and tends to alienate them from the rest of the working class, and even to identify themselves with employers. Such workers, of course, still have to learn the hard lesson that the capitalists, who thus seduce their loyalties, would as readily subject them to humiliation and degradation as they have millions of other nonprofessional workers.

Indeed, as modern technology and "downsizing" cuts wide swaths in "middle management" -- the "professional" executive ranks -- those who were once given the "member-of-the-family" treatment by their corporate employers, are being thrown on the scrap heap as though they were so many obsolete machines.

The SLP is concerned with the future of the whole working class, including so-called professionals. Indeed, in a larger sense, the SLP is concerned with the future of all humanity. Emancipation from capitalist wage slavery, and the indignities it heaps on the working-class majority, will free the entire human race and put an end to classes and class divisions. "Professional" workers also have everything to win, and nothing to lose but their dependent status, by achieving socialism.