The Crisis of the Middle Class

by Lewis Corey
[Covici-Friede, $3.50]
THE thesis of Mr. Corey’s study of the middle class hinges on a distinction between small property owners who are directly dependent on their property for livelihood and salaried employees, for the greater part propertyless, who depend for their living on jobs. The first group, according to this thesis, — roughly the group Marx knew as a middle; class, — has lost in numbers and power until it has become an all but negligible factor in Western nations. The second has grown in size with the spread of modern business methods, and will realize its new power only, the author feels, when it throws in its lot with the workers against the predatory big bourgeoisie to create a social order which can control the expansive forces of a machine economy.
This analysis of what he calls the ‘split personality’ of the middle class is flanked by a running history of its development and by an appeal, made fervent by the increasing urgency of choice, for an alliance between the workers and those groups usually referred to as ‘middle class.’ In his historical chapters, dealing with the part played by the middle class in the English, French, and American revolutions, Mr. Corey makes clear his conviction that, except for a short period after the breakup of feudal society, the middle class has lacked sufficient homogeneity to function except in alliance with other classes. It has sided with the big bourgeoisie against kings, and with survivals of landed aristocracies against the big bourgeoisie. It has passed through alternating phases of revolution and reaction. And during this process the Industrial Revolution completed its final disintegration by sapping the economic basis of small-scale enterprise.
In its American phase, the same development is described as no less severe for having taken place more rapidly. To-day, Mr. Corey points out, the middle class in the United States accounts in all for only 25.6 per cent of those gainfully occupied, while he estimates the number of independent small enterprisers at little over 5 per cent. Both groups, he finds, are fighting a losing battle against the increasing concentration of industry and its destruction of the democratic, egalitarian ideals for which the middle class is still culturally disposed to battle.
Their final destruction, in the fascism with which a strangling capitalist society attempts to delay its ultimate defeat, is the only alternative Mr. Corey offers to an alliance of the middle class with the workers. For its larger section, he insists, the lower salaried employees and professionals, it is not even an alliance that is needed, since these groups have really become workers themselves, but simply a realization that the ruling capitalists are deluding them at present into struggling against their own interests.
The book lacks an index, and, one is tempted to add, a glossary. The notes support an exhaustive documentation, and Mr. Corey is almost too patient with his readers in repeating the central positions of his argument and in cutting no corners in its progression. But the usual difficulties of words which are at the same time slogans are multiplied here by the fact that many are in an idiom unfamiliar to an American audience.
To call Samuel Adams ‘a petty-bourgeois democrat and professional agitator has a certain piquancy. To describe the frontier, the chain-store system, the New Deal, or American farmers in similar language is too often confusing and unreal. The rewriting of American history in terms of its social and economic structure can be done, as Parrington showed, in language which reads less like a translation.