Class, Race and Empire: The White Working Class in Historical Perspective

Above illustration: ‘The Great Socialist’ by Anthony Muisyo, 2021.

Duncan Money

In mid-1946, a group of mineworkers defeated in a bitter strike appealed to Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers for help, and the union’s president and general secretary immediately began preparations to travel to assist them in arbitration hearings. Their intended destination was not, however, the coalfields of South Wales or Yorkshire, but a collection of copper mines located several thousand miles away in Zambia (then a British colony named Northern Rhodesia). Here, over two thousand white mineworkers drawn from mining regions across Britain and its empire had struck over wages and in support of a colour bar that restricted well-paying skilled jobs to workers regarded as white.

This episode is an illustration of how the boundaries of class stretched beyond the boundaries of the nation and how they were often shaped by race. Events on the mines of Zambia’s Copperbelt bring into sharp relief how race and class intersected as there was a sharp racial divide in the workforce at these huge industrial enterprises. The large majority of people working on the mines were African men (85% of the total workforce of around 40,000). African men performed manual work and were paid a small fraction of the wages that white mineworkers received. White mineworkers perceived their own interests in racial and class terms and defended their racialised privileges through collective action, directed both against their white bosses and the Africans they worked alongside. This was a self-consciously white working class.

This term has made a curious reappearance in recent years. ‘White working class’ has become a kind of convenient short-hand to explain political developments in Europe and North America. Many scholars have criticised this term as misleading, obfuscatory and meaningless (Bhambra 2017, Roediger 2017, Walley 2017). It was not always meaningless, however, and examining the historical dimensions of this term is one way of showing how conceptually empty it is in the present. What exactly constitutes the ‘class’ content of the contemporary use of ‘white working class’ is hard to see.

‘Paradise for the Proletariat’

Miners are often seen as the archetypal proletarians: male manual workers with powerful unions and long history of collective struggles. In some sense, the Copperbelt’s white mineworkers fit the bill, and most certainly considered themselves to be working class. They formed a powerful trade union that established strong links with trades unions in Britain and other parts of the world as well as a labour party that tried to do the same. Yet their migration to colonial Zambia and the extraordinary privileges they came to enjoy there complicates the picture.

A major boom in the copper industry from the late 1940s and the determination of white mineworkers to enjoy the benefits of that boom turned the Copperbelt into what one British journalist termed a ‘paradise for the proletariat’ (Phimister 2011). White mineworkers were paid very high wages plus a bonus based on the soaring price of copper, and had housing, healthcare and leisure activities provided and subsidised by their employers. ‘There can be few, if any, miners in the world with a higher standard of living,’ concluded the International Labour Organization (ILO 1958, 24). As one Scottish miner boasted, he reckoned he made about 20 times as much as ‘a working man in Glasgow or Edinburgh’ (Munger 1961, 350).

What would they do with all this money? ‘Maybe I’ll buy a new Jaguar every year and hit the bottle with what’s left over – like some of the others,’ one miner told a visiting journalist (Fraenkel 1959, 90). This was the ‘affluent worker’ writ large, a thesis about class in Britain’s post-war economic boom which, as Fiona Devine highlighted on this blog, ‘implied that a now prosperous working class was losing its identity and becoming “socially indistinguishable”’ from people previously regarded as their social superiors.

This was certainly the case on the Copperbelt where white workers could cultivate the tastes and recreational pastimes restricted to social elites elsewhere in the world. One official at the mine made an apt comment about the town’s polo club: ‘it used to be called the “sport of millionaires” but you may now find the captain of the local team to be a plumber’ (Holleman and Biesheuvel 1973, 37). Others sailed yachts or water-skied on the artificial lakes created by water pumped from the mines, or soared above them in planes owned by the local flying club.

Contemporary accounts of Copperbelt life often dwelt on how incongruous all this appeared; the social order familiar in Britain had been upended. As one local resident put it – himself from a family of Lancashire miners – ‘take away the sky and this could be Barnsley or Wigan or South Wales, except that few British colliers have afternoon tea in the garden, waited on by servants’ (Morris 1961, 9).

Locating ‘Class’ in ‘White Working Class’

What does class mean in this context? How seriously should be take the self-definition of the Copperbelt’s white workers to be working class? One memorable response I received to a conference presentation on this topic is that these white workers had been afflicted with an unusual form of false consciousness, in the sense that they thought they were workers, but they were not really.

Class analysis is relevant here in explaining and understanding how the privileges of the Copperbelt’s white workers were achieved and maintained: through collective action that secured material benefits along racial lines for workers who defined themselves as white. Their affluence was rooted in the workplace. White employers certainly did not wish to pay high wages or provide all the benefits described above and complained bitterly about this. Mine managers and company executives spent much of their time trying to find ways to reduce these benefits, and this provoked a series of strikes by white workers in the late 1950s.

The ‘class’ content of the white working class in this context is clear. The white workers who migrated to the Copperbelt formed a collective identity along the lines of both race and class. This was an identity that incorporated some whites while very clearly excluding others, most obviously their employers, but also professionals, businesspeople, and their superiors in the workplace. It equally clearly excluded African workers on the mines.

In contrast, the ‘class’ content of the contemporary white working class is much harder to discern. Its members are regarded as atomised and resentful individuals who have been left behind by economic and cultural changes and who are disregarded by mainstream political parties. The group is defined by the cultural attitudes of its members and, perhaps above all, by opposition to immigration. The concept does not apply to any one particular nation – though it is applied most commonly to Britain and the United States – but its members are geographically rooted in a particular nation-state and closely identify with it. The definition emphasises ‘white’ rather than ‘class’.

Missing from this is any reference to what jobs members of the modern-day white working class perform (though deindustrialisation is occasionally invoked), what their income might be, their position in a structure of economic inequality, what their social relations with others are, in short anything that might distinguish and demarcate members of this group along lines other than race. The boundaries of the present-day white working class do not easily exclude others identified as white – apart from those termed ‘metropolitan elites’ – and, as noted by Kirsteen Paton, can incorporate small business owners and property developers. Instead, the definition groups people together on the basis of race and politics and presents this as social class.

This could not be more different from the historical example of a white working class presented here. The Copperbelt’s white mineworkers in the mid-twentieth century were internationally mobile, collectively organised and militant, and their status as a racialised class was an aggressive self-assertion, not a designation from others. White mineworkers formed racially segregated trade unions, took collective action to win material gains for white workers, and regularly called upon the international labour movement to assist them, assistance they believed they were due by dint of their shared membership of that labour movement. Seen from the standpoint of the 1950s, this contemporary usage of the term ‘white working class’ is unrecognisable.

Duncan Money is a historian of Southern Africa and his research focuses on the mining industry, labour and race. He works as a Researcher at the African Studies Centre Leiden. More information about his work can be found on his website:


Bhambra, G.K. (2017) ‘Brexit, Trump, and ‘methodological whiteness’: On the misrecognition of race and class’, British Journal of Sociology, 68 (S1), 214-232.

Fraenkel, Peter. (1959) Wayaleshi. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Holleman, J.F., and Biesheuvel, S. (1973) White Mine Workers in Northern Rhodesia 1959-60. Leiden: Afrika-Studiecentrum.

International Labour Organisation. (1958) ‘Interracial Wage Structure in Certain Parts of Africa’, International Labour Review, LXXVIII (1), 20-55.

Morris, Colin. (1961) The Hour After Midnight. A Missionary’s Experiences of Racial and Political Struggle in Northern Rhodesia. London: Longmans.

Munger, Edwin S. (1961) African Field Reports, 1952-61. Cape Town: C. Struik.

Roediger, David. ‘Who’s Afraid of the White Working Class?: On Joan C. Williams’s “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America”’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 May 2017.

Phimister, Ian. (2011) ‘Workers in Wonderland? White Miners and the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt, 1946-1962’, South African Historical Journal, 63 (2), 183-233.

Walley, Christine S. (2017) ‘Trump’s election and the “white working class”: What we missed’, American Ethnologist, 44 (2), 231-236.

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