Social Class

Social class

Socialists view class (a way of classifying people according to occupation, income, social status and so on) as the most important social division for understanding politics. They think that the way capitalist society has been divided means that people develop common bonds with people in their own class rather than with society as a whole. They view class in two different ways.

Firstly, people have analysed history and the development of human society in terms of the class system. Socialists have suggested that people act with others in their class for the interests of that class which causes division in society. For example, working class people forming trade unions to try and get higher wages.

Secondly, socialists have focused upon the nature of the working classes and suggested that these are the people that change society. Socialism has often been viewed as the ideology of the working classes and that it is designed to improve or ‘free’ workers from those that claim to own the property or the ‘means of production’ (owners of factories, for instance). Socialists understand capitalist society in terms of class but do not support a class system or the existence of a ‘working class’ as these labels are divisions in society and therefore divide people causing conflict and competition.

Different socialists have different interpretations of the importance of class. Marxism sees class as a division between ‘capital’ (property and wealth) – these people are called the bourgeoisie - and ‘labour’ (the workers who work for the people who have capital) –these people are called the proletariat. Marxist socialists believe that these two classes will always come into conflict as they want two opposite outcomes (more profit and higher wages). Eventually, this conflict will result in a revolution in which the proletariat overthrow the bourgeoisie, leading to the establishment of a classless communist society.

By contrast, social democrats have talked more about the differences in opportunity and wealth between the middle classes and the working classes and have stressed the need to reduce the differences and the wealth gap between the two groups for the good of society.

Socialists have faced a huge problem since the 1970s. The decline in the traditional working-class professions has led to less people feeling as if they are working class. This lack of identification with socialism has resulted in socialist parties having to appeal to the middle classes for electoral support, in many cases moving away from the core principles of socialism. The creation of ‘New Labour’ in the __1990s __in the UK is an example of this.

Worker’s control

This refers to workers owning part or the whole of the business or factory in which they work, or, in a wider sense, worker’s control of the state. Control could refer to decision-making powers of workers, or the creation of trade unions to guarantee basic working conditions and rights. This is justified by socialists as workers are the most important aspect of the means of production, so they should have the right to have some control over it. It is also a way of avoiding alienation (workers feeling detached or isolated from the work they are doing). Critics argue that worker’s control reduces the effectiveness of industry, since workers may be less good at identifying what works best than, for example, investors or risk-takers.

Social Class, figure 1

Socialist views on

  1. Human nature: human nature viewed in a positive light and regards progress and human development as natural. Human nature is shaped by events and experiences so sides with nurture as opposed to nature. Co-operative social life seen as the natural condition of human nature.
  2. State: differing views- revolutionary socialists see the state in a capitalist system as an instrument of oppression supporting the ruling class, but in a post-revolutionary society the state will ‘wither away’. Evolutionary socialists (social democrats and supporters of the Third Way) see the state in a capitalist system as having the potential to intervene in all aspects of life to create a fair and equitable society.
  3. Society: all socialists are believers in social interaction as being normal; that ‘no man is an island entire unto himself’. This leads them to address the needs of the group before the needs of an individual. All socialists see society as currently unfair and unequal towards different classes, with the most exploited group in society being the working class. This inequality leads revolutionary socialists to call for a radical and fundamental shift in how society is run, whereas evolutionary socialists see that society can be changed incrementally.
  4. Economy: a productive economy as a good thing, the problem is how the wealth which is created by the economy is shared. Revolutionary socialists wish for the wealth created by the economy to be equally shared or distributed and owned in common rather than in private hands, so support the abolition of the capitalist economic system. Evolutionary socialists are less hostile towards capitalism, believing it can be reformed and/or harnessed to work for the good of all in society.