CLASS, CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS,
AND AMERICAN WORKERS
Harold L. Wilensky
For centuries, social critics and social scientists have given us the images with which we construct our picture of the world. Among the concepts that have done the most to mislead us in our search for an understanding of social reality are "class" and "class consciousness." European students of labor—théoricien et militant alike—take for granted the utility of such ideas. In America, academic journals and the press are filled with references to the "middle class" or "working class"; discussions of the affluent worker becoming "middle class" are commonplace. And the constitutions of many American unions only yesterday contained the ringing slogans of class warfare.
This rhetoric—whether it is tolerated by nostalgic exsocialists who head a few modern labor unions or whether it is taken more seriously, as in popular discussions of the affluent worker—obscures more than it reveals of the shape of American society. I should like to ask "Where do the ideas of class and class consciousness fit the situation of American labor well, and where do such ideas fit badly?" I shall argue that, in the United States and in other rich countries, class consciousness among manual workers is a transitional phenomenon—characterizing workers not yet accustomed to the modem metropolis and the modem work place; that a clearly defined working class no longer exists, if it ever did; that much behavior and many attitudes said to be rooted in class are instead a matter of race, religion, ethnic origin, education, age, and stage in the family life cycle. Indeed, almost any of these traditional groupings of the population display more