By sharp contrast with the conservative belief that society is best understood as an ‘organic whole’, socialists typically embrace a conflict theory of society, in which social class has traditionally been viewed as the deepest and most politically significant of social divisions.
Socialist class politics have been expressed in two ways, however. In the first, social class is an analytical tool. In pre-socialist societies at least, socialists have believed that human beings tend to think and act together with others with whom they share a common economic position or interest. In other words, social classes, rather than individuals, are the principal actors in history and therefore provide the key to understanding social and political change. This is demonstrated most clearly in the Marxist belief that historical change is the product of class conflict.
The second form of socialist class politics focuses specifically on the working class, and is concerned with political struggle and emancipation. Socialism has often been viewed as an expression of the interests of the working class, and the working class has been seen as the vehicle through which socialism will be achieved. Nevertheless, social class has not been accepted as a necessary or permanent feature of society: socialist societies have been seen either as classless or as societies in which class inequalities have been substantially reduced. In emancipating itself from capitalist exploitation, the working class thus also emancipates itself from its own class identity, its members becoming, in the process, fully developed human beings. Socialists have nevertheless been divided about the nature and importance of social class.
In the Marxist tradition, class is linked to economic power, as defined by the individual’s relationship to the means of production. From this perspective, class divisions are divisions between ‘capital’ and ‘labour’; that is, between the owners of productive wealth (the bourgeoisie) and those who live off the sale of their labour power (the proletariat). This Marxist two-class model is characterised by irreconcilable conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, leading, inevitably, to the overthrow of capitalism through a proletarian revolution.
Social democrats, on the other hand, have tended to define social class in terms of income and status differences between ‘white collar’ or non-manual workers (the middle class) and ‘blue collar’ or manual workers (the working class). From this perspective, the advance of socialism is associated with the narrowing of divisions between the middle class and the working class brought about through economic and social intervention. Social democrats have therefore believed in social amelioration and class harmony rather than social polarisation and class war.