This article constitutes a re-reading of and an attempt to rehabilitate Basil Bernstein, both of which are important in light of the interpretation of Bernstein as a proponent of the verbal deficit view, and the general discrediting of his work on social class differences in the British educational system, as related to what he later called ‘codes’, by scholars like Jensen (Social class and verbal learning, Holt, 1968) and Labov (The logic of non-standard English, Georgetown University Press, 1970), in particular. Exploring whether the international criticism of Bernstein was justified entails both an analysis of articles written by Jensen (Social class and verbal learning, Holt, 1968) and Labov (The logic of non-standard English, Georgetown University Press, 1970) and by Bernstein, notably ‘Language and social class’ and ‘A critique of the concept of compensatory education’, both published in the first volume of Class, codes and control (Bernstein, Class, codes and control, Volume 1. Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language, Schocken Books, 1971). The article argues for the importance of contextualising Bernstein's thoughts on language and society within the socio-political climate framing his scholarship and the development of his ideas as a whole. We show that much of the interpretation of Bernstein is, in fact, a misinterpretation, for which Bernstein was only partly at fault. By rehabilitating some of Bernstein's ideas, it is possible to argue for their relevance today, especially with reference to salient connections between socio-cultural background and performance at school. Furthermore, Labov and Bernstein may not have been so far apart in their thinking as has previously been assumed.