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Equality: The Meaning of Class

“Violent contrasts of wealth and power [are] a mark…of barbarism, like the gold rings in the noses of savage monarchs, or the…chains on their slaves.”


By R. H. Tawney. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1952 (Originally printed: 1931), 49-55, 75-90 (Excerpts).

Chapter Two: Inequality and Social Structure

So to criticize inequality and to desire equality is not, as is sometimes suggested, to cherish the romantic illusion that men are equal in character and intelligence.  It is to hold that, while their natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilized society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organization, and that individual differences, which are a source of social energy, are more likely to ripen and find expression if social inequalities are, as far as practicable, diminished.  And the obstacle to the progress of equality is something simpler and more potent than finds expression in the familiar truism that men vary in their mental and moral, as well as in their physical, characteristics, important and valuable though that truism is as a reminder that different individuals require different types of provision.  It is the habit of mind which thinks it, not regrettable, but natural and desirable, that different sections of a community should be distinguished from each other by sharp differences of economic status, of environment, of education and culture and habit of life.  It is the temper which regards with approval the social institutions and economic arrangements by which such differences are emphasized and enhanced, and feels distrust and apprehension at all attempts to diminish them.

The institutions and policies in which that temper has found expression are infinite in number.  At one time it has coloured the relations between the sexes; at another, those between religions; at a third, those between members of different races.  But in communities no longer divided by religion or race, and in which men and women are treated as political and economic equals, the divisions which remain are, nevertheless, not insignificant.  The practical form which they most commonly assume—the most conspicuous external symptom of difference of economic status and social position—is, of course, a graduated system of social classes, and it is by softening or obliterating, not individual differences, but class gradations, that the historical movements directed towards diminishing inequality have attempted to attain their objective.  It is, therefore, by considering the class system that light upon the problem of inequality is, in the first place at least, to be sought, and it is by their attitude to the relations between classes that the equalitarian temper and philosophy are distinguished from their opposite.

A society which values equality will attach a high degree of significance to differences of character and intelligence between different individuals, and a low degree of significance to economic and social differences between different groups.  It will endeavour, in shaping its policy and organization, to encourage the former and to neutralize and suppress the latter, and will regard it was vulgar and childish to emphasize them when, unfortunately, they still exist.  A society which is in love with inequality will take such differences seriously, and will allow them to overflow from the regions, such as economic life, where they have their origin, and from which it is difficult wholly to expel them, till they become a kind of morbid obsession, colouring the whole world of social relations.

The Meaning of Class

The idea of “class,” most candid observers will admit, is among the most powerful of social categories.  Its significance is sometimes denied on the ground that, as Professor Carr-Saunders and Mr. Caradog Jones remark in their valuable book, a group described as a class may “upon many an issue be divided against itself.”  But this is to confuse the fact of class with the consciousness of class, which is a different phenomenon.  The fact creates the consciousness, not the consciousness of the fact.  The former may exist without the latter, and a group may be marked by common characteristics, and occupy a distinctive position vis-à-vis other groups, without, except at moments of exceptional tension, being aware that it does so.

While, however, class is a powerful category, it is also an ambiguous one, and it is not surprising that there should be wide differences in the interpretations placed upon it both by sociologists and by laymen.  War, the institution of private property, biological characteristics, the division of labour, have all been adduced to explain the facts of class formation and class differentiation.  The diversity of doctrines is natural, since the facts themselves are diverse.  Clearly, there are societies in which the position and relations of the groups composing them have been determined ultimately by the effect of conquest.  Clearly, the rules under which property is held and transmitted have played a large part in fixing the conditions by which different groups are distinguished from each other.  Clearly, there are circumstances in which the biological characteristics of different groups are a relevant consideration.  Clearly, the emergence of new social groups is a natural accompaniment of the differentiation of economic functions—of the breaking up, for example, of a relatively simple and undifferentiated society into a multitude of specialized crafts and professions, each with its different economic melier, its different training and outlook and habit of life, which has been the most obvious consequence of the transition of large parts of Europe from the predominantly agricultural civilization of two centuries ago to the predominantly industrial civilization of to-day.

These different factors have, however, varying degrees of importance in different ages, different communities, and different connections.  In western Europe, for example, the imposition of one race upon another by military force was of great importance during some earlier periods of its history, but in recent centuries has played but little part in modifying its social structure.  Certain groups are marked, it seems, by different biological characteristics.  Such characteristics requires, however, the lapse of considerable periods to produce their result, the lapse of considerable periods to produce their result, while marked alterations in social structure may take place in the course of a single lifetime.  It is difficult to suppose that the broad changes in social classification which have occurred in the immediate past—the profound modification of class relations, for example, which was the result of the French Revolution, or the rise of new types of class system and the obliteration of the old, which has everywhere accompanied the development of the great industry, or the more recent growth of a nouvelle couche sociale of technicians, managers, scientific experts, professional administrators, and public servants—are most appropriately interpreted as a biological phenomenon.

Nor, important though economic forces have been, can the gradations of classes be explained, as is sometimes suggested, purely as a case of economic specialization.  It may be true, indeed, that the most useful conception of a class is that which regards it as a social group with a strong tinge of community of economic interest.  But, while classes are social groups, not all social groups, even when they have common economic interests, can be described as classes.  “Classes,” observed Lord Bryce, in writing of the United States of a generation ago, “are in America by no means the same thing as in the greater nations of Europe.  One must not, for political purposes, divide them as upper and lower, richer and poorer, but rather according to the occupations they respectively follow.”  His distinction between occupational and social divisions still retains its significance.  Stockbrokers, barristers and doctors, miners, railwaymen and cotton-spinners represent half a dozen professions; but they are not normally regarded as constituting half a dozen classes.  Postmen, bricklayers and engineers pursue sharply contrasted occupations, and often have divergent economic interests; but they are not distinguished from each other by the differences of economic status, environment, education, and opportunity, which are associated in common opinion with differences between classes.  A community which is marked by a low degree of economic differentiation may yet possess a class system of which the lines are sharply drawn and rigidly defined, as was the case, for example, in many parts of the agricultural Europe of the eighteenth century.  It may be marked by a high degree of economic differentiation, and yet appear, when judged by English standards, to be comparatively classless, as is the case, for example, with some British Dominions.

The conception of class is, therefore, at once more fundamental and more elusive than that of the division between different types of occupation.  It is elusive because it is comprehensive.  It relates, not to this or that specific characteristic of a group, but to a totality of conditions by which several sides of life are affected.  The classification will vary, no doubt, with the purpose for which it is made, and with the points which accordingly are selected for emphasis.  Conventional usage, which is concerned, not with the details of the social structure, but with its broad outlines and salient features, makes a rough division of individuals according to their resources and manner of life, the amount of their income and the source from which it is derived, their ownership of property or their connection with those who own it, the security or insecurity of their economic position, the degree to which they belong by tradition, education and association to social strata which are accustomed, even on a humble scale, to exercise direction, or, on the other hand, to those whose normal lot is to be directed by others.  It draws its class lines, in short, with reference partly to consumption, partly to production; partly by standards of expenditure, partly by the position which different individuals occupy in the economic system.  Though its criteria change from generation to generation, and are obviously changing to-day with surprising rapidity, its general tendency is clear.  It sets at one end of the scale those who can spend much, or who have what is called an independent income, because they are dependent for it on persons other than themselves, and at the other end those who can spend little and live by manual labour.  It places at a point between the two those who can spend more than the second but less than the first, and who owns a little property or stand near to those who own it.

Thus conventional usage has ignored, in its rough way, the details, and has emphasized the hinges, the nodal points, the main watersheds.  And in so doing, it has come nearer, with all its crudity, to grasping certain significant sides of the reality than have those who would see in the idea of class merely the social expression of the division of labour between groups engaged in different types of economic activity.  For, though differences of class and differences of occupation may often have sprung from a common source, they acquire, once established, a vitality and momentum of their own, and often flow in distinct, or even divergent, channels.  The essence of the latter is difference of economic function: they are an organ of co-operation through the division of labour.  The essence of the former is difference of status and power: they have normally been, in some measure at least, the expression of varying degrees of authority and subordination.  Class systems, in fact, in the historical forms which they most commonly have assumed, have usually been associated—hence, indeed, the invidious suggestion which the word sometimes conveys—with differences, not merely of economic métier, but of social position, so that different groups have ben distinguished from each other, not only, like different professions, by the nature of the service they render, but in status, in influence, and sometimes in consideration and respect.  Even to-day, indeed, though somewhat less regularly than in the past, class tends to determine occupation rather than occupation class.

Public opinion has in all ages been struck by this feature in social organization, and has used terms of varying degrees of appropriateness to distinguish the upper strata from the lower, describing them sometimes as the beautiful and good, sometimes as the fat men, sometimes as the twiceborn, or the sons of gods and heroes, sometimes merely, in nations attached to virtue rather than beauty, as the best people.  Such expressions are not terms of precision, but they indicate a phenomenon which has attracted attention, and which has certainly deserved it.  The note of most societies has been, in short, not merely vertical differentiation, as between partners with varying tasks in a common enterprise, but also what, for want of a better term, may be called horizontal stratification, as between those who occupy a position of special advantage and those who do not.

The degree to which such horizontal divisions obtain varies widely in the same community at different times, and in different communities at the same time.  They are more marked in most parts of Europe than in America and the British in most parts of Europe than in America and the British Dominions, in the east of America than in the west, in England than in France; and they were obviously more marked in the England of half a century ago than they are in that of to-day.  Being in constant motion, they are not easily photographed, and they are hardly described before the description is out of date.  But such divisions exist to some extent, it will be agreed, in most societies, and, wherever they exist to a considerable extent, they are liable, it will also be agreed, to be a focus of irritation.  Accepted in the past with placid indifference, they resemble, under modern political and economic conditions, a sensitive nerve which vibrates when touched, a tooth which, once it has started aching, must be soothed or extracted before it can be forgotten, and attention paid to the serious business of life.  It is possible that they possess certain advantages; it is certain that they possess also certain grave disadvantages.  The advantages—if such there are—are most likely to be enjoyed, and the disadvantages removed, if their main features, at any rate, are, in the first place, neither denounced, nor applauded, but understood…

Equality and Culture

Since life is a swallow, and theory a snail, it is not surprising that varieties of class organization should be but inadequately represented in the terminology of political science.  But the absence of a word to describe the type of society which combines the forms of political democracy with sharp economic and social divisions is, none the less, unfortunate, since it obscures the practical realities which it is essential to grasp.  The conventional classification of communities by the character of their constitutional arrangements had its utility in an age when the principal objective of effort and speculation was the extension of political rights.  It is economic and social forces, however, which are most influential in determining the practical operation of political institutions, and it is economic and social relations that create the most urgent of the internal problems confronting industrial communities.  The most significant differences distinguishing different societies from each other are, in short, not different forms of constitutions and government, but different types of economic and social structure.

Of such distinctions the most fundamental is that which divides communities where economic initiative is widely diffused, and class differences small in dimensions and trivial in their effects, from those where the conditions obtaining are the opposite—where the mass of mankind exercise little influence on the direction of economic enterprise, and where economic and cultural gradations descend precipitately from one stratum of the population to another.  Both types may possess representative institutions, a wide franchise, and responsible government; and both, therefore, may properly be described as democracies.  But to regard them as, on that account, resembling each other—to ignore the profound differences of spirit and quality between a democracy in which class divisions play a comparatively unimportant part in the life of society, and a democracy where the influence of such differences is all-pervasive—is to do violence to realities.  It is like supposing that all mammals have the same anatomical structure, or that the scenery of England resembles that of Switzerland because both countries lie in the temperate zone.  Such varieties should be treated by political scientists as separate species, and should be given distinctive names.  The former contain large elements, not merely of political, but of social, democracy.  The latter are political democracies, but social oligarchies.

Social oligarchies have existed under widely divergent material circumstances, and in the most sharply contrasted conditions of economic civilization.  In the past they were specially associated with the feudal organization of agricultural societies, so that, in the infancy of the modern economic world, the expansion of commerce and manufacture was hailed, by some with delight, by others with apprehension, as the acid which would dissolve them.  To-day, since in most parts of Europe the peasant farmer has come to his own, it is highly industrialized communities that are their favourite stronghold.  Though it is in countries such as England and Germany, where the great industry flowed into the moulds prepared by an aristocratic tradition, that they attain their full efflorescence, they do not only conform to an old tradition of aristocracy, they also themselves create a new tradition.  They appear to be the form of social organization which, in the absence of counteracting measures, the great industry itself tends spontaneously to produce, when its first outburst of juvenile energy is over, when its individualistic, levelling and destructive phase has given place to that of system and organization.

The most instructive illustration of that tendency is given by the history of industrial America, because it is in America that its operation has been at once swiftest and least anticipated.  The United States started on its dazzling career as nearly in a state of innocence as a society can.  It had no medieval past to bury.  It was free from the complicated iniquities of feudal land-law and the European class system.  It began, at least in the north, as a society of small farmers, merchants, and master-craftsmen, without either a large wage-earning proletariat or the remnants of serfdom which lingered in Europe till a century ago.  It believed that all men have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The confident hope that it would be unsullied by the disparities of power and wealth which corrupted Europe was the inspiration of those who, like Jefferson, saw in the Revolution, not merely the birth of a new state, but the dawn of a happier society. 

It is the general, if partial, realization of that hope, in certain parts, at least, of America, which has made it for a century the magnet of Europe, and which still gives to American life much of its charm.  It is marked, indeed, by much economic inequality; but it is also marked by much social equality, which is the legacy from an earlier phase of its economic civilization—though how long it will survive in the conditions of to-day is a different question, on which Americans themselves sometimes speak with apprehension.  But evidently it is not in the America of which Englishmen hear most, but in that of which they hear least, not in the America of Wall Street and Pittsburg and the United States Steel Corporation and Mr. Morgan and Mr. Ford, but in the America of the farmer and the country town and the Middle West, that this charm is to-day most likely to be found.  And evidently the equality of manners and freedom from certain conventional restraints, to which, partly at least, it is due, exist, not because of the industrial expansion of America, but in spite of it.

Nearly a century ago, De Tocqueville, who wrote on the first page of his De la Democratie en Amerique that the general equality of conditions in America was the fundamental fact from which all others seemed to be derived, gave to one of his later chapters the significant title, “How aristocracy may be engendered by manufactures.”  “If ever,” he wrote, “a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.”  Americans have led the world in the frequency and fullness of their official inquiries into economic organization, and, if the results of such inquiries may be trusted, that prophecy, as far as industrial America is concerned, is to-day not far from fulfilment.  And what is true of the great industry in the United States is not less true of other industrial communities.  Their natural tendency, it seems, except in so far as it is qualified and held in check by other forces, is to produce the concentration of economic power, and the inequalities of circumstance and condition, which De Tocqueville noted as the mark of an aristocratic social order.

A right to the pursuit of happiness is not identical with the right to attain it, and to state the fact is not to pronounce a judgment upon it. To see in economic concentration and social stratification the mystery of iniquity and the mark of the beast, to regard as the result of a deliberate and sinister conspiracy qualities which are the result partly of a failure to control impersonal forces, partly, not of a subtle and unscrupulous intelligence, but of its opposite—of a crude appetite for money and power among the few, and a reverence for success in obtaining them among the many—would, no doubt, be naïve.  Yes, but how irrational also to suppose, as in England it is much commoner to suppose, that such characteristics are anything but a misfortune which an intelligent community will do all in its power to remove!  How absurd to regard them as inevitable and admirable, to invest them with a halo of respectful admiration, and to deplore, whenever their economic foundations are threatened, the crumbling of civilization and the Goth at the gate!  A nation is not civilized because a handful of its members are successful in acquiring large sums of money and in persuading their fellows that a catastrophe will occur if they do not acquire it, any more than Dahomey was civilized because its king had a golden stool and an army of slaves, or Judea because Solomon possessed a thousand wives and imported apes and peacocks, and surrounded the worship of Moloch and Ashtaroth with an impressive ritual.

What matters to a society is less what it owns than what it is and how it uses its possessions.  It is civilized in so far as its conduct is guided by a just appreciation of spiritual ends, in so far as it uses its material resources to promote the dignity and refinement of the individual human beings who compose it.  Violent contrasts of wealth and power, and an indiscriminating devotion to institutions by which such contrasts are maintained and heightened, do not promote the attainment of such ends, but thwart it.  They are, therefore, a mark, not of civilization, but of barbarism, like the gold rings in the noses of savage monarchs, or the diamonds on their wives and the chains on their slaves.  Since it is obviously such contrasts which determine the grounds upon which social struggles take place, and marshal the combatants who engage in them, they are a malady to be cured and a problem which demands solution…

A class system which is marked by sharp horizontal divisions between different social strata is neither, as is sometimes suggested, an indispensable condition of civilization nor an edifying feature of it.  It may, as some hold, be inevitable, like other misfortunes to which mankind is heir, but it is not lovable or admirable.  It is the raw material out of which civilization has to be made, by bringing blind economic forces under rational control and sifting the gold of past history from its sand and sediment.  The task of the spirit, whatever the name most appropriate to describe it, which seeks to permeate, not merely this fragment of society or that, but the whole community, with reason and mutual understanding, is not to flatter the natural impulses which have their origin in the fact of class, but to purify and educate them.  It is to foster the growth of a classless society by speaking frankly of the perversions to which the class system gives rise and of the dangers which accompany them.

The forms which such perversions assume are, of course, innumerable, but the most fundamental of them are two.  They are privilege and tyranny.  The first is the insistence by certain groups on the enjoyment of special advantages which are convenient to themselves, but injurious to their neighbours.  The second is the exercise of power, not for the common benefit, but in order that these special advantages may be strengthened and consolidated.

It is the nature of privilege and tyranny to be unconscious of themselves, and to protest, when challenged, that their horns and hooves are not dangerous, as in the past, but useful and handsome decorations, which no self-respecting society would dream of dispensing with.  But they are the enemies, nevertheless, both of individual culture and of social amenity.  They create a spirit of domination and servility, which produces callousness in those who profit by them, and resentment in those who do not, and suspicion and contention in both.  A civilized community will endeavour to exorcize that spirit by removing its causes.  It will insist that one condition, at least, of its deserving the name is that its members shall treat each other, not as means, but as ends, and that institutions which stunt the faculties of some among them for the advantage of others shall be generally recognized to be barbarous and odious.  It will aim at making power, not arbitrary, but responsible, and, when it finds an element of privilege in social institutions, it will seek to purge it.

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