I recently encountered a political article that contrasted the classes against the masses. At first I assumed there was a word missing—maybe the writer meant upper classes? But a bit of research revealed to me that the word classes by itself has long been used to refer to the upper class, especially in contrast to the masses.
The earliest instance I can find of this usage is a Gladstone quote from 1886:
…all the world over, I will back the masses against the classes.
But I’m not entirely sure that that is the same usage, because the full sentence says:
I will venture to say that upon the one great class of subjects, the largest and the most weighty of them all, where the leading and determining considerations that ought to lead to a conclusion are truth, justice and humanity—upon these, gentlemen, all the world over, I will back the masses against the classes.
So I’m not quite certain whether classes in that sentence refers to the “class of subjects” or to the upper class (though I suspect the latter), and I can’t find the full Gladstone speech to get more context.
(I also found another 1886 document that, in its title, contrasts the classes and the masses—but that one turned out to be blaming all social classes for a particular social ill, not just the upper class.)
Still, even if that Gladstone speech isn’t an instance of this usage, classes does appear to have been used to refer to the upper class for a long time. I’m now surprised that I haven’t run into it before.