For socialists, the existence of social classes explains the most important divides in society, rather than the actions of individuals or the essence of human nature itself. At one level, socialists
have used the concept of social class to enhance their understanding of social and political development. This approach has led them to conclude that people with a similar socio-economic position in society share a similar outlook and have common aims. It follows that social classes, rather than individuals or human nature, have been the principal agents of change throughout history. For example, Marxists assert that conflict between ruling and revolutionary classes is the
driving force behind such change in society.
At another level, socialism's focus on social class is based on an ideological commitment to represent the interests of, and improve conditions for, the working class. Indeed, for socialists, the working class provides the means for bringing about a socialist transformation of society and the economy. Having said this, social class is not viewed as either an essential or everlasting feature of society because communist societies aim to eradicate all class distinctions, and other socialist societies seek to diminish class inequalities significantly.
Categorising social classes
Social class provides a way of categorising and analysing society by dividing it into different economic and social groups. In basic terms, a social class consists of a group of people with similar social and economic characteristics. Marxism, in particular, has offered a highly influential class analysis of society and politics. From a communist perspective, a person's class is determined by their position within the economy (such as a landowner, a capitalist or a wage earner) and these economically based class distinctions powerfully shape the nature of society. The crucial Marxist class division is between capital and labour - between the bourgeoisie (who own productive wealth) and the proletariat (who have to sell their labour power in order to survive).
Other definitions of class commonly focus on how occupational groups - such as middle class/white collar/non-manual workers and working class/blue collar/manual workers - differ in terms of income and status.
Marketing organisations have developed a more sophisticated classification scheme that distinguishes between six categories:
A Higher managerial, administrative or professional
B Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional
Cl Skilled - non-manual- supervisory, clerical
C2 Skilled manual worker
D Semi-skilled and unskilled manual worker State pensioner, casual worker and unemployed
The British Election Study (watch the film on this link)which analyses voting behaviour, uses another class scheme. This distinguishes between owners and managers, and between the petite bourgeoisie (small proprietors) and the working class. Most contemporary political commentators maintain that social class now exerts a declining influence on society due to deindustrialisation and dealignment (a trend that sees a social group abandoning its previous partisan loyalty to a particular party, resulting in less predictable voting patterns).
Although clearly central to the ideology, socialists disagree over the importance of social class. Marxists traditionally emphasise the fundamental role of class politics based on the economic division between capital and labour. In this analysis, a person's class position is economically determined by their relationship to the means of production. Marxism maintains that conflict is inevitable between the owners of productive wealth (the capitalists or the bourgeoisie) and those who have to sell their labour to survive (the proletariat or working class). Under the capitalist system, argue Marxists, the state becomes an instrument of class rule, with the bourgeoisie using institutions and agencies (such as the political and legal systems, the bureaucracy and the police) to maintain their dominance.
Nevertheless, this class conflict, according to Marxist theory, grows in intensity and inevitably divides society sharply into two antagonistic groups - the 'haves' and 'have-nots'. Eventually, this process leads to a proletarian revolution that overthrows the capitalist state and the bourgeoisie. For Marxists, the state will only wither away once the workers' gains have been consolidated and social class differences are replaced by a classless, equal society.
By contrast, social democrats define a social class in more fluid terms, emphasising income and status differences between non-manual and manual occupational groups. Social democrats also tend to argue that socialist objectives can be achieved through targeted state intervention to narrow (not remove) class distinctions. The state, according to social democrats, does not represent an instrument of the oppressive class rule but rather provides the welfare and redistribution schemes by which class inequalities can be reduced. Unlike Marxists, who stress class conflict and revolutionary action, social democrats advocate class consensus in society and peaceful social improvement.
Over the last 50 years or so, the connection between socialist ideology and class politics has weakened considerably. The decline in class politics, reflected in the social democrats' more moderate stance, has been an important consequence of significant changes in the economy, notably deindustrialisation and the rise of the service sector. Deindustrialisation has led to the decline of traditional staple industries (such as coal mining and steel making), which had previously supported a culture of working-class solidarity, pro-socialist-worker politics and powerful trade union organisations. The contraction of the staple industries has undermined working-class solidarity and working-class communities and has reduced the size of the manual workforce. Deindustrialisation has created post-industrial societies with service- and information-based economies and expanding middle classes.
As a result, in recent decades, moderate socialist parties have adapted their programmes to appeal to non-manual workers. They have also attempted to redefine their brand of progressive politics in terms of 'classless' concerns, such as green and feminist issues, and have placed less emphasis on the redress of working-class grievances.