The language of “class warfare” has come up in the news lately. Does this make any sense?
Antagonism between classes — and sometimes warfare between them — has been prominent in Western civilization from medieval times (and perhaps in all or most other civilizations as well). Before the 19th century the most important classes in the conflict were the aristocratic landlords and the wealthy merchants and craftsmen of the cities. The merchants were the “underdogs.” Both classes were small minorities, coexisting with a majority class of dependent “peasant” farmers. But aside from a few brief and bloody peasant insurrections, the real contest was between the landlords and the merchants.
By 1800 the merchants had won. Sometimes, as in 1651 and 1789, the victory was bloody. Meanwhile the merchants had evolved into industrial employers, and a new class had come into existence, a class dependent for its livelihood on the sale of its labor in return for a wage or a salary. This new class was the working class, and it began its own struggle with the class of employers and proprietors. Marx and Engels supposed that the working class would overthrow the employer class in a violent revolution as the merchants had overthrown the aristocracy, and by 1900 the working class in relatively developed countries was able to defend its interests to some extent. But the 20th century did not realize the expectations of Marx and Engels.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the relatively developed capitalist countries followed two opposite directions. In countries like the United States and Great Britain, the direction was class compromise. Among the terms of the compromise were universal suffrage (in place of a voting franchise limited to property owners); parliamentary or democratic government in which working-class representatives could participate equally; and a variety of programs such as social security, public health service and unemployment insurance, together with predominantly market economies. In other countries such as Italy and Germany, fascist regimes used government terrorism to suppress any power or advocacy for the working class. (This terrorism was also directed at Jews and other scapegoats, as we know.) After the defeat of fascism in 1945, class compromise became increasingly universal in the more developed countries.
Class compromise has worked well for the employer classes in advanced countries. A major reason for this, I believe, is that peace is very much in the interest of the employer classes. And peace, both international and domestic, seems to be very hard to get without class compromise.
But compromise means something is given up — so how much should each side give up? Unavoidably, there are always factions on both sides that feel that too much is given up, and smaller factions that oppose any compromise whatever. In the United States, on the anti-working-class side, this faction is called “conservative.” Those who want to conserve the existing class compromise are called “liberal.” “Liberals” are often supported by the advocates of the working class, but they are financed by a faction of the employer class.
So the answer to the question is, no, what we are seeing is not class warfare. The great divide in our political system is between the two factions in the employing class. But if the “conservatives” succeed in abolishing class compromise, class warfare may become a real possibility.
Roger McCain is a professor of economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.