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New Left Review I/98, July-August 1976

Erik Olin Wright

Class Boundaries in Advanced Capitalist Societies

All Marxists agree that manual workers directly engaged in the production of physical commodities for private capital fall into the working class. While there may be disagreement about the political and ideological significance of such workers in advanced capitalism, everyone acknowledges that they are in fact workers. There is no such agreement about any other category of wage-earners. Some Marxists have argued that only productive manual workers should be considered part of the proletariat. [1] I would like to express my thanks to David Gold, John Mollenkopf, Alan Wolfe, Roger Friedland, Jim O'Connor and other members of the San Francisco Bay Area Kapitalistate Collective for their helpful criticisms of this paper, and to Claus Offe, Maurice Zeitlin, Michael Reich, Barbara Heyns, Michael Burawoy, Al Szymanski, Wini Brienes, Nicos Poulantzas, Rebecca Kharkov, Margaret Levy and Marcia Kahn Wright for their written comments on an earlier draft.For example, Nicos Poulantzas in ‘On Social Classes’, nlr 78, and in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, nlb, London and Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1975. Others have argued that the working class includes low-level, routinized white-collar employees as well. [2] For example, Al Szymanski, ‘Trends in the American Working Class’, Socialist Revolution No. 10. Still others have argued that virtually all wage-labourers should be considered part of the working class. [3] For example, Francesca Freedman, ‘The Internal Structure of the Proletariat’, Socialist Revolution No. 26. If this disagreement were just a question of esoteric academic debates over how best to pigeon-hole different social positions, then it would matter little how these issues were eventually resolved. But classes are not merely analytical abstractions in Marxist theory; they are real social forces and they have real consequences. It matters a great deal for our understanding of class struggle and social change exactly how classes are conceptualized and which categories of social positions are placed in which classes. Above all, it matters for developing a viable socialist politics how narrow or broad the working class is seen to be and how its relationship to other classes is understood.

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