Reclaiming the Language of Class

Simon Pearson argues that Marxists must revive class-based language and analysis of capitalism's exploitation to connect today's diverse struggles against inequality and build mass working class power.

 

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of class struggle. And yet, unlike when Marx and Engels wrote those famed lines over a century ago, talk of class, exploitation, and proletarian revolution no longer holds the same discursive currency, including within our own spaces. This article argues that with wealth inequality and precarity widening under modern financialized capitalism, socialist and Marxist organisations must consciously reclaim class discourse to connect the dots between diverse struggles, foster mass working-class solidarity, and reorient activism towards an anti-capitalist structural change that transfers ownership and control of production into public hands.

By outlining why class language has declined, reaffirming its contemporary relevance, exploring what regaining it entails, and warning that rhetoric alone is insufficient without organising collective power, this article provides a Marxist framework for understanding oppression today – pointing towards radical democratic control of the economy.

In recent decades, talk of economic inequality, oppression, and the struggle between classes has faded from mainstream politics and activist spaces in the UK. With the decline of traditional industries and mass trade unionism, plus the emergence of new social movements centred around identity, climate, and other issues, class can seem an outdated concept. However, sweeping changes in our economic system like financialization, the growth of AI, and wage stagnation have increased divisions between those who own capital and those forced to sell their labour to survive. Class remains the central axis that structures exploitation under capitalism. As revolutionary Marxists, we need to regain the language of class struggle consciously and intentionally so it becomes the building block in understanding and fighting oppression, allowing different struggles to find a point of commonality in their liberatory goals.

“Class remains the central axis that structures exploitation under capitalism.

It’s not hard to see why the language of class has faded. When coal mining and other nationalised heavy industries collapsed in the 1980s, along with domestic manufacturing, many perceived that old class-based movements like trade unions to be losing their relevance. The rhetoric of a growing “middle class” society also served to paper-over profound economic injustices. With New Labour embracing neoliberalism, materialist analysis declined in the political mainstream.

Class has also faded from activism, with postmodern identity-based movements gaining prominence over old socialist frameworks that centred on industrial relations. This happened in part because of the failure of those frameworks to understand class in such a way that encompassed the demands of the most marginalised workers, making their liberation a core part of the universal liberation entailed by socialism. However, it is still important to stress that traditional working-class industries have not simply disappeared; exploitation has just been redistributed onto more precarious service sector workers and along opaque global supply chains that connect us to, but simultaneously obscure, the international working class.

“However, it is still important to stress that traditional working-class industries have not simply disappeared; exploitation has just been redistributed onto more precarious service sector workers and along opaque global supply chains that connect us to, but simultaneously obscure, the international working class.

Rather than an outdated relic, class remains the central pillar upholding multi-dimensional oppressions today. 14 million people still live below the breadline in this the world’s 5th richest economy, while 10% of households own close to 50% of the wealth, exposing yawning divides between capitalists who need to pay workers only a fraction of the value they create and the rest forced to sell their labour for a pittance to survive. This wealth inequality should concern everyone, as it highlights a significant gap between the richest and poorest segments of our society.

In today’s Tory Britain, around one in three children live in desperate need. Yet the conversation in the chattering class is not about providing free school meals to all children; instead, it’s about the removal of the inheritance tax, a tax that normally nobody pays if the value of their estate is below the £325,000 threshold. In other words, children of the poor working class can go hungry, so the wealth of the property-owning can continue onto the next generation.

As Marxists and socialists, we urgently need to reclaim the foundational terminology of class relations to make sense of modern oppressions. This applies to uberization, the financialization of housing, and new algorithms directing gig work. Health sector workers, university lecturers, Amazon warehouse staff, and tenants facing soaring rents often don’t consciously see themselves as part of a unified working class, facing joined-up struggles. Rekindling class language means analysing our relationships to the means of production, stressing experiences like pay gaps, wage theft, and workplace hierarchies that learn from, combine and transcend group interests or identities.

“As Marxists and socialists, we urgently need to reclaim the foundational terminology of class relations to make sense of modern oppressions.

Foregrounding union recruitment, general strikes, and building cross-sector solidarity fosters recognition of shared stakes. Connecting racial justice, queer/feminist stuggles, and climate issues to economic injustice also highlights how financial elite dominance interlocks with other hierarchies. This will be the century of the eco-revolution, which contains other struggles within its imperative of species survival.

“This will be the century of the eco-revolution, which contains other struggles within its imperative of species survival.

Regaining the language of class struggle will equip a new generation of activists to envision alternatives like bringing banking giants into democratic public ownership, funding a Green New Deal through taxing mega-wealth (as a transitional demand), expanding community-owned cooperative enterprises (such as Insorgiamo in Italy), and introducing universal basic services.

Talk of exploitation, surplus value extraction, and democratic control over production re-centres capitalism as the pole of oppression to be overcome. Class discourse names the capitalist system as the root cause of interconnected injustices and clarifies the need for structural reforms that radically transform production relations to serve social needs, not shareholder profits. Some activists prefer alternative terms like ‘the 99%’ but we should boldly and unapologetically name the agency of organised labour while welcoming broad participation in class struggle.

Class is continually reshaped through struggle, so we must reject dated stereotypes based on male factory workers and their “traditional” trade unionism while retaining theoretical rigor. Renewed working class resistance today includes everything from migrant newspaper sellers resisting immigration raids to Uber drivers striking over pay and riders using bio-breaks to contest algorithmic management. Rehabilitating class language rallies us to the urgent task of organising these emerging fronts of struggle into a cohesive movement aiming to fundamentally transform society.

Although some celebrate postmodern identity politics as liberating, reducing the struggles of the marginalised to only fragmented “cultural” or “institutional” battles can distract from the necessity of building material, organised working-class power capable of leveraging structural change through mass collective action. That is why reclaiming the discourse of class is just the first step to equipping a new vanguard committed to overthrowing capitalist social relations and instituting democratic control of production, whether in the workplace or broader economy.

As Marxists, we have a duty not merely to interpret the world but to change it. Reclaiming the language of class struggle provides renewed clarity about the roots of intersecting oppressions and a compass towards radical democratic control of production. But discourse itself changes nothing without mass struggle. We must move from analysis to action, carrying class consciousness from the ballot box to the picket line and beyond, to a new revolutionary politics the contours of which we must discover in the process of struggle. Educate coworkers on shared campaigns. Support every union recruitment push. Build solidarity across sectors and struggles (such as direct action groups like Palestine Action). Occupy, disrupt, and withdraw labour to inflict economic damage. Vote for members of parliament who pledge to nationalise utilities and expand social ownership.

“Reclaiming the language of class struggle provides renewed clarity about the roots of intersecting oppressions and a compass towards radical democratic control of production.

The working class built the palaces, factories, and cities enjoyed by the ruling elite; we can democratically run them for the public good. But no ruling class voluntarily cedes power, no matter how sharp our rhetoric. We must organise militantly to forcibly transfer ownership through coordinated strikes, protests (even though they want to stop us), boycotts (such as the BDS movement), and civil disobedience (like Just Stop Oil), guided by a vision of collectivised production serving human needs, not private profit. We must eventually find ways to go beyond present and past strategies, and break capital’s domination for good. Employing class language clarifies the task, it is the sine qua non; class power in the streets and workplaces can fulfil our historic undertaking.


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Simon Pearson is on the Editorial Board of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance and is a Midlands-based political activist.

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