Reviewed by Gareth Morley
A person could be well into middle age and not remember it, but for most of the 20th century class was the central category of both social theory and practical politics.
From Lenin’s arrival in the Finland Station until some difficult-to-pinpoint moment in the late seventies or early eighties, anyone who purported to be an intellectual had to grapple with Marxism, a doctrine that famously reduced history to the history of class struggles. Grappling with Marxism was by no means restricted to those on the left. Conservative anticommunists such as James Burnham (ex-Trotskyist, mentor of William F. Buckley and therefore grandmentor of Ronald Reagan) and Milovan Djilas (early ally of Tito but ultimately his most devastating critic) developed theories of new bureaucratic classes battling capitalists and oppressing workers. Toward the end of this period, right-wing intellectuals developed the public choice school of political theory that in many ways translated Marxist historical materialism into the language of game theory and neoclassical economics. Moderates considered how democratic institutions could reconcile the competing interests of capital and labour. Even leading existentialists, agonizing over individual choice and meaning in the face of death and seemingly distant from social or political concerns, experienced an inferiority complex in the face of Marxism.
But class was not just an organizing concept for pointy-headed intellectuals. With the interesting exception of Canada, class dominated the day-to-day politics of the Atlantic democracies. Britain’s Labour Party, West Germany’s Social Democratic Party and France and Italy’s Communist parties were working-class in self-conception and sociological reality, and their opponents were clearly the parties of business and middle-class professions. The two major U.S. political parties were free of socialist ideology of any stripe, but in the decades after the New Deal the Democrats saw themselves as the party of labour while the Republicans saw themselves as the party of business. Labour leaders in the decades after World War II unquestionably had a seat at the table. Working-class political power corresponded to an era of growing social programs, relatively equal incomes and constrained managerial discretion in the workplace.
That was then.
To those of us who became politically active in the eighties, the politics of class was already an object of nostalgia. Environmentalism, pacifism and gender, ethnic/racial and sexual identity were far more compelling for youthful activists than class. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marxism had lost its intellectual cachet, and with the collapse of Communism as a real alternative to liberal capitalism, the importance of class as a category of analysis was enormously devalued.
Class also became less central for practical politics. Nixon and then Reagan successfully appealed to southern and northern Catholic working-class people, especially men, while