‘Middle-class Socialism’: A Warning from History

Clockwise from top left: Jeremy Corbyn, Aaron Bastani, Owen Jones, Paul Mason

171 years ago The Communist Manifesto was published in Bishopsgate, London. Everyone has heard its famous phrases about a ‘spectre’ haunting Europe; about the history of all hitherto existing society being ‘the history of class struggle’; about capitalism being like a ‘sorcerer’ who can no longer control the power called up by his spells; and about proletarians having ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ — and a world to win.

Less well-known, but perhaps more immediately relevant to the politics of the UK today as we approach our third General Election in four years, is Part III, where, under the title of ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois, Socialism’, Marx and Engels pass down this warning to us about that very peculiar section of the middle-classes that claims to speak for something it calls ‘social justice’. In the spirit of the continuing relevance of this text to our understanding of capitalism, I have updated Marx and Engel’s designation of this class from ‘bourgeois’ to ‘middle-class’, and the class it wants to abolish from ‘proletariat’ to ’working class’:

‘A part of the middle classes wants to redress social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of capitalist society.

‘To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the conditions of the working class, organisers of charities, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics and cloak-and-dagger reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.

‘The socialistic middle-class want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting from them. They want the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They want a middle class without a working class. The middle class naturally conceives the world over which it rules to be the best; and middle-class socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the working class to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightaway into the social New Jerusalem, it merely requires that, in reality, the working class should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should discard all its distasteful ideas about the middle classes.

‘A second, more practical but less systematic, form of this socialism sought to disparage every revolutionary movement in the eyes of the working class by arguing that not mere political reform, but only a change in the material conditions of existence — in economic relations — could be of any advantage to it. By changes in the material conditions of existence, however, this form of socialism doesn’t mean abolishing capitalist relations of production — an abolition that can only be brought about by a revolution — but rather administrative reforms based on the continued existence of these relations of production. Such reforms, therefore, in no way affect the relations between capital and labour, but at the most lessen the cost and simplify the administrative work of government by the middle classes.

‘Middle-class socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech. Free trade — for the benefit of the working class! Protective duties — for the benefit of the working class! Prison reform — for the benefit of the working class! This is the final word, and the only seriously meant word, of middle-class socialism, which can be summed up in the following phrase. The middle class is a middle class — for the benefit of the working class!’

This, to my ears, is still the most accurate description of the election promises of Oh Jeremy Corbyn — in which he recently promised, among other things (below):

  • Not to re-nationalise the National Health Service but to make the waiting time on trolleys in privatised Accident & Emergency departments slightly shorter;
  • Not to implement Brexit but to offer a second referendum on remaining in the European Union of neo-liberal states;
  • Not to socialise production but to buy into the Green New Deal lie that through a fourth industrial revolution for capitalism we can reduce carbon emissions;
  • Not to socialise housing provision but to continue Labour’s policy of demolishing council estates and building market sale, shared ownership, rent-to-buy and (un)affordable rent properties for the middle classes subsidised by the state;
  • Not to stop Labour councils designating single mothers as ‘intentionally homeless’ and imposing £100 fines on rough sleepers but to end rough sleeping;
  • Not to ‘secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ — as Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution once read — but to end in-work poverty, food-bank use and tuition fees.

These promises of what the middle-classes understand by ‘social justice’ are not so radically at odds with what the Parliamentary Labour Party might agree to implement should it ever form a Government, unlikely as that appears; but they’re a long way from the socialist rhetoric with which Labour ideologues such as Paul Mason, Owen Jones, Aaron Bastani and Ken Loach seek to hide the ruthlessness, cynicism and contempt for the working class of Labour in power — in our councils, in our city halls, in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords, and in the European Parliament — where the party’s Neo-liberalism is there for anyone with eyes to see.

The question is: do we want to look? Or, 170 years after Marx’s warning, do we want to keep on falling for the capitalist ideology of ‘middle-class socialism’?

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing


6 thoughts on “‘Middle-class Socialism’: A Warning from History

  1. Just brilliant comrade. Bourgeois Socialism nailed. Two characters missing from your gallery are 1) Councillor John and 2) Tsar Nicholas John Healey the II

    Now some details. It is a reverse anthropomorphism of the eugenics of council housing that sees council tenants as sub-human and “rat dwellers.” Here is one example from a leader of a Labour Council who said this about the estate I was married on and reared my children. The blogger is from the 35% campaign and this is what he wrote three years ago about what he calls “this cross-party ‘sink estate’ rhetoric”:

    “Councillor John (Labour leader for Southwark) is a full subscriber to this cross-party ‘sink estate’ rhetoric. He wrote an article (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-pledges-to-transform-sink-estates/ ) in support of David Cameron’s estate demolition proposals in Jan 2016, arguing only that Cameron’s plans weren’t ambitious enough and that more government funding should be allocated to the programme. In the article he describes the Heygate & Aylesbury estates as “symbols of inner- city neglect, with crime, antisocial behaviour, health inequalities and unemployment the only things that flourished there”. He added that “both had become hard to let to council tenants, and reinforced poverty, crime and inequality” and concluded that in any case, “most brutal estates do not make the best use of the land they occupy.” http://35percent.org/2016-01-31-completing-londons-clearances/

    The blogger also lived on, and campaigned to save, the Heygate, where I lived with my young family. He is moderate, but this description seems extreme – it is not.

    Today we have an updated version of the sink estate ideology. On 13th November 2019 Labour’s Housing Tsar Nicholas John Healey II https://twitter.com/Labour4Housing is twittering about social and council homes but leaves out that he, like Southwark’s Councillor John wants more government funding for the new sink estates: higher Council rent on Help to Buy mixed tenure neighbourhoods where private capital dominates, new segregation continues, and the Council tenants are blamed for everything that goes wrong.
    Before the housing crash of 2007-9 the Callcutt review was pushing an aggressive bourgeois housing line demanding mixed use. Free-Trade housing for the benefit of the working class. The whole cross party consensus based on the redevelopment of sink-estate ideology had mixed tenure as its solution right from the start. Healey is an active subscriber and ‘architect’ of the whole nasty business.

    His former reign as Tsar Nicholas John Healey I, dates back to his fleecing council’s on behalf of the Treasury, with massive debt under the so called ’self-financing’ regime as well as his continued backing of the Tory dream of homeownership. This first phase of his reign is a book in itself. He is infamous for having lost the plot in 2010, after suggesting repossession could be the ‘best thing’ for struggling families.”

    Here in Cambridge where a massive middle class majority will see Labour win again, Housing does not feature at all in the election campaign. For all the celebration of Council Housing on Privatised Public land in which Cambridge Council tenants are squeezed into tiny plots to make way for the homeownership dream, it is all blanked from Labour electioneering. Council tenants are being evicted and excluded from the £70,000,000 housing handout from the Tory government to this Labour Council.

    Daniel Zeichner Labour Party MP for Cambridge, John Healey Labour Party Shadow Housing Minister, and Nigel Howlett, Chief Executive Officer of Cambridge Housing Society (CHS) met in October 2018, to whinge and moan about the risks Housing Societies and Councils are dumped with, in order to sustain a bankrupt State Capitalist housing policy. https://cambridge105.co.uk/drive-20-11-2017-2/

    Opposite where this the big three met, just across the Road, is Mill Road Depot on which the Labour Council is celebrating (October 2019) such risk taking. No whinging and moaning there. Why? Because, three acres of the four acres of public land has been sold to private Capital. Instead of using all four acres of land to help the thousands of homeless, and thousands more on the waiting list, the Labour Council, Developers and Bankers have dumped the risk on to all the new residents, desperately trying to pump prime, or rather sub-prime, the sale of 2 bed properties priced at £599,495, to trap young first time buyers in the misery of certain unpayable debt, in which their homes will be repossessed and their lives wrecked. What kind of £100,000 job will last 25 years with monthly payments of £3,000, big maintenance costs, and escalating interest rates that only the bankers and property-merchant dealers will benefit? Mr Howlett wants to do the same at Montreal Square. But the tenants are holding out.

    Colville Road estate not far away has been run down with drains backing up and mould and disrepair everywhere. The tenants want to stay but have been slummed out by the Labour Council. A mother with a disabled relative complained to the Council and was told to go and bid for a temporary home whilst the demolition and redevelopment takes place. This tenant is now forced to rent privately miles away from her community.

    Where will the homeless live? Where will Council Tenants live? Where will evicted Social Rent tenants live? Where will casual workers live? Where will those who have inherited sod all live? Where will the working class live?

    It is Saturday tenants need support on the streets. Middle-Class socialism has to be persistently exposed.

    Victory to working class housing. Down with bourgeois socialism.


  2. I thought that was just a swipe at Proudhon to be honest. It’s worth remembering that a large proportion of what Marx and Engels wrote was simply opportunistic polemics against their political rivals, a tradition perpetuated (and reduced to the absurd) by Lenin.

    Elsewhere they wrote:

    “Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society,assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as,therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so nowa portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of thebourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”

    Also that “the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian

    … and we all know what happened to that. Whilst Marx’s analysis of capitalist accumulation remains a valuable resource, his predictions and prescriptions were utter tripe.

    His opportunist alliances with “progressive” forces listed at the end offered the justification for Stalin’s catastrophic “popular front” policy.


  3. Predicting the future, particularly when it involves the victory of the working class, has never been an easy task, but I think ‘utter trite’ is a little harsh. I hope you’re not suggesting that Bastani’s ‘fully automated communism’, Mason’s ‘educated and connected human being’ bringing about change one click of their mouse at a time, Jones’s censorial, puritan ‘identity politics’, and, of course, Corbyn’s reformed capitalism ‘for the many’ represents a theoretical comprehension of anything outside their Guardian-reading echo chamber.


  4. You are all turkeys voting for Xmas. The fact that you can write and communicate as you do shows that you have the necessary education and intellect and are thus Middle Class by definition. Come the Revolution you would be no lesser victims than those without calloused hands were in the Russian Revolution.


    1. That you conclude that anyone with education or intellect must be middle-class betrays both your contempt for the working-class, whom you implicitly condemn to a lack of education and stupidity, and your misunderstanding of class, which as I’ve argued in the accompanying article, ‘Whatever Happened to the Working Class? The British Ideology’, is an economic relation to the structure of a given society at a particular moment in history, and not measured by the number or thickness of callouses on someone’s hands. Have a read and get back to me before making threats. https://architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk/2018/12/05/whatever-happened-to-the-working-class-the-british-ideology/


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