Some thoughts on understanding class structure

In this post I want to deal with a section of my book which looks at the thorny issue of changes in class structure and in particular the changing relationship between different classes in society under neoliberalism (Chapter 8). One argument I make in the book is that the revolutions were the result of a revolt against the existing political order by a wide spectrum of society, including sections of the middle class. In contrast to some analysts who confuse the visibility of middle class people being interviewed by the media on protests as a reliable indicator of the overall social composition of a mass movement, I argue that the heart of the popular hirak (mass movement) was in every case the rebellion of the lower classes (workers and the urban and rural poor). Nevertheless, there was a significant phenomenon of some layers of the middle class being drawn into the mass movements and in some cases playing a leadership role in the revolts. Magdi el-Gizouli has written eloquently about this phenomenon in the Sudanese revolution, in his contrasting descriptions of the Resistance Committees in al-Riyadh (a relatively well-to-do neighbourhood in Khartoum) and impoverished Kalakla which is in the same city but a world away in social terms.

The idea that a rebellion of the poor and especially a rebellion of the working class was the heart, but not the head, of the popular revolutionary mobilisations is linked to another set of arguments central to the book: the idea that the working class remains one of the ‘polar classes’ in society and its antagonism with the bourgeoisie is the major structuring feature of most of the societies discussed in this book. Workers do not need to be the absolute majority in a given society for this general proposal to hold true. And it is important to note that this polarisation may not be apparent, unless the working class is engaged in struggle on its own behalf.

And when workers are engaged in struggle in the context of a revolutionary crisis this will entail “the setting into motion of ever-expanding circles of society,” as Hal Draper puts it in Volume II of Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (The Politics of Social Classes) (p37-8). I’ve included Draper’s schematic diagram of the relationship between the working class (with the industrial proletariat at its core) and the bourgeoisie below here.

The circles in the middle of the diagram represent the proletariat, surrounded by other wage-workers and the working petty-bourgeoisie (artisans, small shopkeepers in the towns and small peasant farmers in the countryside). The frame around the diagram starts with the big bourgeoisie (the black line on the outside) followed by the middle and small bourgeoisie. Draper goes on to say: “The “middle classes” (in the residual sense) are suggested by the irregular white area lying vaguely between the working-class circles and the bourgeoisie’s square.”

Is this “irregular white area” part of the square or the circle? Well, one of the points I guess that Draper was trying to make is that people in it could be drawn in either direction and may be pulled by both. Draper’s discussion of the “middle classes” in his book focusses on the “petty-bourgeoisie” in the classic sense (those who “earn their living by dint of their own labour and their own property” (Draper, p289)).

In my book I concentrated on a different segment of the middle classes who have frequently played an important role in the revolutionary mobilisations of the past decade, highly educated “professionals” ((المهنيين بالعربي. The idea of “professionals” playing a collective role in the revolutionary process generated widespread discussion because of the role played by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) in the Sudanese Revolution during 2018 and 2019. The SPA emerged as the major body coordinating mobilisations for major protests and calling for general strikes during a crucial phase of the revolution’s development, despite having been founded only a relatively short time before the revolution.

The term “professional” needs to be used with caution, as it can refer to people who are part of the waged working class (such as classroom teachers in a school, or junior doctors in a public hospital) or who are part of the managerial middle class (such as the headteacher of a school or doctors who manage other people’s labour), or who are more like the classic “petty bourgeoisie,” for example a teacher who runs a small business teaching private lessons or a doctor who runs their own private clinic as a business.  It could even refer to someone who has a professional qualification but is actually part of the bourgeoisie – the director of a major chain of private hospitals for example.

One of the arguments I make in my book is therefore that some of the layers of society labelled as “professionals” should properly be counted as part of the working class, and that moreover, there were common experiences for some of these occupational groups which pushed them to actively identify as workers and adopt working class methods of struggle, especially strikes. This was primarily true in the public services, where revolts over pay, working conditions and austerity in education, health and government services were a vitally important component of the strike waves which erupted in almost every country discussed in the book during the pre-revolutionary period.

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